Independent author successfully juggles A Case of Sour Grapes



Independent book review

A Case of Sour Grapes by Gae-Lynn Woods

I know that I am SO not the target audience for this book, but I have to say I enjoyed every page, every sentence, every word—even words that I had never encountered before, like “Blahniks.” A Case of Sour Grapes made me laugh while it kept me flipping pages—or more accurately, swiping my iPad’s screen—right to the end.

A Case of Sour Grapes is a “companion novel” to Gae-Lynn Woods’ Cass Elliot Crime Series, which so far comprises The Devil of Light and Avengers of Blood.

Like the other two books, A Case of Sour Grapes is set in the fictional Forney County in East Texas—a setting fairly boiling over with tension, secret cults, hidden domestic violence, child abuse, sexual violence and just about every dark vice there is.

Cass Elliot is a tough, smart detective on the Forney County police department whose intelligence, courage and very supportive family get her through dangerous situations—but cannot protect her against a sexist, close-minded and defensive boss, the County Sheriff, nor against getting raped and scarred at some point before the books’ opening. Author Gae-Lynn Woods is just as tough and honest as her character, daring to go into some of the darkest corners of the human soul.

And then there’s the protagonist and narrator of the book at hand, Maxine Leverman.

Maxine is brave. Or at least impulsive. And she’s smart enough to notice clues, find connections in databases and solve a mystery. But while she’s Cass Elliot’s best friend, she is definitely no Cass Elliot.

(Yes, the author does know about, and refers to, the sixties and seventies singer of the same name.)

Maxine is a thoroughly 21st century woman, who knows her shoe and dress designers, grape varieties and when it’s time for scotch. She makes no pretenses about sex or the men she’s attracted to, and is ready to proposition them when she wants to. She’s also learning the Texas criminal code, the regulations governing private investigators, and how to aim a handgun. Safely.

The story of A Case of Sour Grapes begins on Maxine’s first day working at the Lost and Found Detective Agency, owned by her aunts Kay and Babby. While Maxine is studying for her investigator’s license, she’s supposed to be doing administrative work at the office. Of course, when everyone else is out at lunch, Maxine answers a phone call from a new client, Blue Ivey, owner of the Cedar Bend Winery. Mrs. Ivey has lost her husband. She knows he’s not dead, because he keeps spending money on her credit cards, but she has not seen him in weeks.

The case gets progressively more strange, dark and funny at the same time. Maxine’s talents as a sleuth become apparent as she finds the missing husband’s multiple identities—and wives.

It’s not all fun and games, though. There are multiple murders, a long-lost child, and let’s not forget Poison Ivy and the Dismembered Bunnies. Okay, that part made me laugh out loud.

Author Gae-Lynn Woods

Woods is a skilled literary juggler to keep all these flaming torches aloft at the same time. She pulls off a story that is thoroughly engaging and satisfying on all levels: plot, characters, setting, humour, tension and action.

Bravo, Ms. Woods! Let’s get another title on the electronic shelves, shall we?

Friday Nights Don’t Last Forever: Independent book review



fndlfcoverCaleb Pirtle III has proven that he’s an original writer. His books do not follow the usual tropes and stereotypical genre tales, whether he’s writing mysteries, sports stories or anything else. He’s not a genre writer — he’s writing modern American literature disguised as genre books.

Friday Nights Don’t Last Forever, his latest release, is an excellent tale, told in the author’s trademark  staccato, declarative and lucid style that brings the reader not just into the scene, but behind the character’s eyes.

An original plot

Set in the mid-1980s, the story of Friday Nights starts where the typical high school sports story ends: at the state championship game.

The high school in the small town of Avalon, Alabama, has had an underdog football team for decades. But this year, the team has been blessed with the golden arm of Casey Clinton, and the almost magical abilities of wide receiver Lucas Calhoun. In game after game, play after play, Casey has managed to find Lucas, who has caught every pass.

The state championship game attracts scouts from college football programs who want to see whether Casey is for real. But the night of the big game, it rains. In the final minute, with Avalon needing just one more touchdown to win, as Casey winds up for the forward pass, his foot slips in the wet mud. He falls, his pass goes wide, Lucas cannot reach it and Avalon loses.

It’s all over. There will be no more Friday night glory for Avalon, for Casey, Lucas, coach “Balls” Baldwin, nor anyone else in Avalon.

But it’s not over. It’s only early December, and the school year stretches ahead. The story continues through December by juxtaposing the experiences of Casey and Lucas.

For Casey, December is a season of continual phone calls from scouts from high-profile college football scouts, including the legendary Frank Hatchett, longtime head of the football program at the University of Alabama.

Casey feels the pressure of not just competing coaches who tempt him with scholarships, cars and sex, but also from his family, who want him to bring glory to them as well as the town; town leaders with competing interests; his wide receiver but never friend, Lucas Calhoun; and of course his teasing, virginal girlfriend, the cheerleader Chelsea Sinclair.

Lucas, meanwhile, the other half of the magical team that brought so many touchdowns and so much glory to the Avalon high school, is completely ignored. No scouts call him. The coach doesn’t talk to him, the rest of the football team shuns him. Chelsea, the “Virginal Queen” of Avalon, actively scorns and bullies him because he’s “trash.”

The contrast becomes starkest when the Alabama football program invites Casey to come see the Cotton Bowl in Texas, where they’re playing for the holy grail of college football. Lucas, in the meantime, begs Casey, whom he despises, for a scholarship, too, if he accepts a scholarship from a competing college.

Characters

calebpirtle

Caleb Pirtle III, author of Friday Nights Don’t Last Forever.

Pirtle’s lean style drives the reader through the story, where we meet many three-dimensional supporting characters like Brother Bailey Proctor, the sex-hating Baptist preacher; his frustrated, sexy wife, Karen; “Crazy Legs” Epperson, who was once a football star but whose scholarship hopes were destroyed by an injury; “Balls” Baldwin, the football coach, who allowed himself to hope for a state championship before he retired, but sank back into defeat; and Lucas’ alcoholic, father, Charlie. Readers quickly come to hate Charlie, for good reason.

A drunk who abandoned the family when Lucas was small, Charlie began to pay attention to Lucas during the final football season to try to get some reflected glory on himself. But after the team loses the championship game, Charlie is mostly out of the picture again until a murder in the second half of the book. The author’s skill allows him to achieve not redemption, but a little sympathy by the end.

Of course, as quarterback and captain of the football team, Casey’s girlfriend is the head cheerleader, Chelsea Sinclair. But Pirtle does not let stereotypes lie quiet. Chelsea is a clever little bitch with an agenda, simultaneously promising and withholding sex to keep her boyfriend on a short leash.

Bottom line

I read an advance copy in return for an honest review. As such, I found a number of minor typographical errors in the version that I read. But the story and the writing style rise far above those issues. This is an excellent read by a polished, professional author who knows his subject and his characters intimately.

Buy and read this book. You won’t be disappointed.

5*

Find it on Amazon.

Seamless weaving of romance, mythology and psychology: A Prayer Heeded



An independent novel review

A_Prayer_Heeded-682x1024A Prayer Heeded is the follow-up to Samreen Ahsan’s multi-award winning A Silent Prayer, the book that brought Ahsan international acclaim.

A Silent Prayer has won six international book awards, including Best Romance at the 214 Paris Book Festival.

But A Prayer Heeded is not really a sequel, because the two books together tell a single story. The premise to Fifty Shades of Gray, but written by a talented writer who lives in the real world.

The premise

Adam Gibson is a very wealthy Toronto real estate developer with a troubled past. He has been estranged from his mother, who, he believes, abandoned him as a child. He became a billionaire in a real industry, as a real estate developer in Toronto. It’s a plausible premise.

Adam is an atheist with a strong social conscience who supports several charities. He pays all the costs of a women’s shelter, called Hope.

Rania is a graphic designer, professional, strong, independent and devout with a troubled past of her own. She is estranged from her father, but not through choice.

These bookend characters meet more or less accidentally, through work, and are instantly attracted. Yes, it’s love at first sight, but this is a romance, after all.

Of course, there are a lot of obstacles to their relationship. There’s Rania’s past as an abused wife, which dissuades her from getting involved in another romance. There’s Adam’s past, his estrangement from his mother, which leads him to a string of loveless couplings with women.

And there’s their religious difference. Rania is a faithful Muslim, and Adam a convinced atheist. Gently, with kindness and examples, aided by some mystical experiences on both their parts, Adam comes to believe in divinity.

By the end of A Silent Prayer, Rania has accepted Adam’s love, but then his jealous outburst sends her away. And that’s where A Prayer Heeded begins, with Adam searching for Rania again.

When he finds her, Rania tells him their relationship can never work because Adam’s jealous outburst not only humiliated her, it showed her that he cannot offer what she needs.

But really, she’s running from Adam because she is literally cursed. A jinni loves her, or a woman who looked like her thousands of years ago. For millennia, this jinni has pursued women who look like Rania and prevented them from having normal relationships with human men.

SamreenNew

Samreen Ahsan, author of A Silent Prayer and A Prayer Heeded

That’s where the book takes a sharp left turn and delves into the confluence of mythology and contemporary paranormal fiction. But at the same time, like the best in the paranormal or fantasy tradition, the fantastic elements can be interpreted as metaphors for the traumas in the lives of the main characters.

It’s obvious that the author, Samreen Ahsan, is very devout, like her protagonist. Over the course of the book, she weaves aspects of religion with psychology and romance, carrying the readers along like a shuttle.

Strengths

Ahsan’s characters are well developed, believable, and sympathetic characters. Like people we all know, they can be strong one moment, vulnerable the next. But even when they’re not at their best, they’re likeable.

Gibson is a believable billionaire, largely because he’s smart and the author takes care to show him working at his job. Rania is a modern, professional woman who knows what she wants, but hides a terrible secret from everyone she loves.

Weakness

The only thing that detracted from my enjoyment of both A Prayer Heeded and its predecessor, A Silent Prayer, is the pacing. They really make up one book, together. That would be a long book, but that’s my point — it takes too long to get to the core of this story, which is the possession, the magic and the ultimate villain of the piece.

On the other hand, the long story does allow Ahsan to fully describe the development of Rania’s and Adam’s love story. So, I’ll just hold back a half-star for that.

4.5*

 

It Takes Two – A Jet Kindle World novella: independent review



By Emily Kimelman

ItTakesTwoI have read a number of the Jet Kindle World series, and Emily Kimelman’s It Takes Two, which combines her Sydney Rye series with Russell Blake’s Jet series, is one of the best.

Kindle Worlds is an Amazon initiative that allows writers to publish new stories within another author’s established, best-selling series, similar to fan fiction, except that there are some minimum standards when it comes to quality, and the original series author also gets royalties on the sales of all the related books in the Kindle World.

The program gives readers more books to read about the characters and situations they love, and it helps new authors get discovered, as well.

Not that Emily Kimelman is an undiscovered author. She’s a bestseller in her own right. Her Sydney Rye series now contains eight books, plus this entry in the Jet series.

It took two

With two protagonists, the plot of It Takes Two takes some surprising turns. Kimelman sets the two up in opposition: Sydney Rye and her dog, Blue are assigned to protect a rich man and his family on an adventure/wilderness vacation. Jet, meanwhile, has been assigned to kill him. Sydney manages to save the target, at least temporarily. In the encounter, both Jet and Sydney have each other in their gunsights, but for some reason they cannot define, decline to pull the trigger.

Back in civilization, they recognize each other as kindred spirits and team up to take down a particularly noxious villain, an American businessman and politician.

What’s good

EJ Kimelman, author of the Sydney Rye series and the Jet Kindle World novella, It Takes Two

I like Kimelman’s writing style. It’s clear, simple, straightforward and just descriptive enough to bring me right into the story. And she knows how to write a page-turner.

Fitting the genre, there’s lots of action. Of course, this being a Jet story, it requires a certain suspension of disbelief. Jet is a woman who never makes a mistake, and Sydney Rye, with the help of her gigantic dog, is unstoppable. It’s essentially an unbelievable concept — two unbeatable women assassins who take on groups of opponents without breaking a sweat. But we readers suspend our disbelief because Kimelman knows how to write a story that pulls you along.

Kimelman has created a fascinating and believable cast of characters in Sydney Rye and her boss, Mulberry. What’s more, she has not only captured and accurately portrayed Russel Blake’s Jet character, but added more depth to her in a way that is completely consistent with Blake’s series.

It’s well-named: It Takes Two features two strong, yet vulnerable women (plus an awesome dog) who know how to defeat anyone who makes the fatal mistake of threatening them.

5*

Find it on Amazon (available in the US only)

Visit Emily Kimelman’s website and blog, and follow her on Twitter @EJKimelman.

 

Jet – Rescue: An independent book review



By Kim Cano

JET-rescueCoverKim Cano’s Jet – Rescue, her entry in the Jet Kindle World, is an excellent novella—which is more than I can say for some of the other entries in this oeuvre.

Cano rewrote a troubling episode from Blake’s second book in the series, Jet – Betrayal. It’s troubling because it’s about forced child prostitution in Bangkok’s notorious red-light district. Former Mossad agent Maya, code-named Jet, is chasing a quarry hiding in the jungles of Myanmar, or Burma. She begins by infiltrating a sex club in Bangkok, Thailand, where some of the favourite selections are children, including a 10-year-old girl named Lawan.

It’s a heartbreaking part of the action-adventure series, and Kim Cano has taken it and scored a touchdown. She presents the whole episode through the eyes of 10-year-old Lawan, and manages to craft a believable story. She presents Jet and her partner in this story through Lawan’s eyes, as well as the sex club and its owner and manager. She keeps the style simple and honest and clear.

Cano is a talented and professional writer. She knows what she’s doing, and her Jet – Rescue is a worthy addition to the genre.

5*****

Find it on Amazon.

At Road’s End: A perfectly woven, rich tapestry



AtRoadsEndCoverZoe Saadia is clearly a very good writer. She has succeeded in a difficult task for a writer — I know, because it’s very similar to what I tried in my own writing.

In At Road’s End, Zoe Saadia presents a historical story set in a time, place and culture that are, as far as I know, unique in fiction: the Anasazi cliff-dwellers of what’s now the south-western USA and northern Mexico. Without needing a prologue or foreword, Saadia brings the people, their environment, culture and even some of their history to life.

And most important, she tells a story that you just can’t put down.

The story centres on Tecpatl, an elite-trained warrior from the Azcapotzalco culture, who live, according to the story, on the shore of Lake Texcoco (site of the later Aztec capital). He is escorting a trading mission across the desert to a city of cliff dwellers, called Great Houses.

Readers quickly learn that Tecpatl’s mission is punishment for a mistake he made, the full nature of which is revealed where it has maximum impact in the novel.

On the way, the group encounters a village that’s been raided and pillaged. There’s only one survivor, a woman with a command for languages. She helps guide the trading partner and its warrior-escort to Great Houses, her origin.

Saadia skilfully presents the complexities that people in this situation faced: great differences in language, culture and assumptions. One of the main drivers of the dramatic tension in the story, in fact, is the main character’s frustration in understanding the speech as well as the behaviour of the Anasazi he encounters.

A well-woven story

Presenting this complexity as an integral part of the plot requires great skill as a writer as well as a lot of research. Saadia has learned a great deal about the technology, economy, sociology and cultures of the people in her story, and all this adds to the realism. It’s actually entertaining to read about the characters’ attempts to navigate the chasms between them. Tecpatl’s most frequent refrain seems to be “I will never understand you.”

Equally believable are the relationships among all the characters. The social gap between Tecpatl, the elite warrior, and the merchants he’s escorting is even wider than the linguistic and cultural gap between Tecpatl and the Anasazi girl he rescues, Sakuna.

And the romantic relationship that develops between Tecpatl and Sakuna is equally skillfully done. There’s nothing cloying or Hollywood about this relationship, nothing coy or phoney. These are two adults who are eventually attracted to each other despite their differences. While that sounds like a cliché, in Saadia’s hands (or under her fingertips, anyway) the developing relationship rings absolutely true.

For example, we learn that Sakuna is the daughter of a prominent and wealthy man in Great Houses. He marries her off to a man in an outlying village—the one that is sacked at the beginning of the story. While the marriage is not Sakuna’s choice, and she’s clearly not in love with her husband, she accepts the marriage. But that’s couched in the realism of the character and the author. After her rescue, Sakuna becomes much more assertive. It’s completely believable. She sides with her rescuer, eventually, and the way she comes around to his side of things is also realistic.

Her father is presented just as believably. In fact, I’m sure I’ve met him. He’s self-assured and arrogant to the point of endangering himself and his whole community.

I won’t belabour the typographical and minor grammatical errors. There were only a few, and they did not detract from the enjoyment of this story at all. One more good edit would have fixed them, I’m sure.

zoe.profile-250xSaadia has woven together many threads: exposing this era of pre-Columbian North America; cultural gaps; the struggle to assert oneself; redemption and so much more, and (minor grammatical and typographical mistakes notwithstanding) without a flaw.

If you want a really good read that brings a really exotic time and place to full-colour life, pick up At Road’s End.

And visit Zoe Saadia’s website to learn more about pre-Columbian America, and to see all of her books.

Independent book review: Red Mojo Mama, by Kathy Lynn Hall



RMMcoverI have to admit that I probably do not fit into the target audience for Red Mojo Mama. But after I finished it, the more I thought about it, the more I came to like it.

The story is about Lydia, known as “Red,”a woman in her late 30s who loses her husband and a beloved maiden aunt at about the same time. Her aunt leaves her a trailer park in California, in the midst of the 1848 gold-rush territory. Her husband doesn’t really leave her – sure, she has all his stuff in boxes, but his ghost shows up right at the beginning of the novel and makes appearances at key moments.

Don’t worry, this is not neo-occult like Stephanie Myer does it. You can choose to interpret the ghost scenes as completely internal to the main character, or a way her mind chooses to deal with grief and the way she has internalized much of her late husband’s personality.

Red moves to Nuggetville to take over the trailer park. She begins a completely new life, with new neighbours and a new job as a reporter for the local newspaper.

Kathy Lynn Hall has a gift for bringing characters to life. I could actually hear some of their voices as I read the dialogue, and I swear I’ve seen some of the residents of the trailer park before. Hall knows how to capture real people’s dialogue without seeming condescending.

Red, the main character, is appealing on many levels. Another gift Hall shows is an ability to handle a steamy sex scene. (Excuse me while I have a drink of water.)

What didn’t I like? Well, Red is a little too strong, sometimes. Much of it is bravado, which is completely believable. But things fall into place for her a little too well. While I like mysteries that answer all the questions, I generally don’t like stories that tie up too neatly at the end. Life, as I have found it, is messy.

Not that Hall’s characters’ lives are neat and ordered – far from it! And now that I think about it, Hall did expound on her main character’s inner turmoil. I just think that she should have thought more about it. Without giving too much away for you readers, I guess I would have preferred that Red make a different decision at the end.

But that’s saying too much. I cannot fault Hall for not writing the story the way I would have. And she didn’t write it for me, either. This book is written for a female audience. Men, there’s a lot for us to take from this, some real insight into that most baffling of questions, “how do women think?” And yes, that shower scene.

Congrats, Kathy Lynn Hall, you’ve changed my mind.Kathy

I recommend this e-book as a good read. If you like romances about strong women, mysteries with a lot of character depth, or if you’re an action fan who wants to get out of that rut, check this one out.

And if you’re an independent writer, Hall’s success is a good model to follow. Don’t miss her advice for writers, Blog and Tweet, full of good advice on using social media to promote your books.

Find Red Mojo Mama on Amazon.

Kathy Lynn Hall’s other titles include the sequel to Red Mojo Mama, Red is an Attitude, as well as shorter works Tell Them You’re Fabulous and The Great Twitter Adventure, the short story collection Her Heart, and the guidebook Blog & Tweet—How to Make a Splash Online.

Visit her blog to find out more about Kathy Lynn Hall.