Independent book review: Still Life with Memories series



By Uvi Poznansky

I have recently discovered the books of Uvi Poznansky, and she has written a remarkable series of books. Together, they tell one unified story, but from multiple points of view. The author does a remarkable job of capturing each individual voice

Still Life with Memories is about Lenny and Natasha Kaminsky, and about the way Natasha’s illness affects the whole family over a long time.

Natasha is a concert pianist and composer, hailed as a genius, and Lenny a soldier and intelligence operative.

They meet and fall in love, and Lenny says he cannot believe his luck when Natasha accepts his proposal of marriage. After the war, they return to the States and settle in Santa Monica, California. Natasha tries to re-start her music career, but shelves it when she becomes pregnant.

She becomes a piano teacher while Lenny pursues his own career, and Natasha’s enormous white piano fills up most of the living room in their small apartment.

But before many years pass, Lenny starts to notice something is wrong with Natasha. She has increasing memory lapses, which also affect her playing. Gradually, she loses the ability to play the piano. Lenny becomes despondent over the gaps Natasha’s memory and the damage it inflicts on their relationship. Lenny begins recording interviews with Natasha, then transcribing them in an effort to write a book about their life together.

Then he meets Anita, a teenaged girl who looks astonishingly like a young Natasha. Anita sets her sights on him as her best chance for a better life than her mother could give, and Lenny falls for her. Natasha, as fragile as she is, leaves Lenny, but seems to come back more than once.

 

But when Lenny makes Anita pregnant, the marriage is over. Not only does Natasha leave Lenny for good, so does their son, Ben, who is one year older than Anita.

The most remarkable thing about Poznansky’s series is that she tells it from different points of view.

Anita, who first appears in Lenny’s life as a teacher, is the narrator of book 1, My Own Voice. In Book 2, The White Piano, Ben, Lenny’s son is the PoV character. Lenny then takes over the narrating for the rest of the series, and we get to put the pieces together of Natasha’s real story.

Natasha is the most interesting character in the series. She’s a highly talented artist and, it turns out, was resourceful and effective during the war. The way that the author slowly reveals her story is sometimes anguishing, sometimes teasing, but always fascinating.

And the author perfectly captures each PoV character’s voice as she does this: the calculating other woman, the angry son, the guilt-ridden husband.

Still Life with Memories also reveals the ephemera quality of memory, through the differences in details that each character remembers about their interactions.

Battered by fate

Poznansky shows how each of us tries to be master of our own fate, but we are at the same time victims of an often cruel universe, dealing with things that we could never have seen coming. In book 4, Marriage Before Death, Lenny wonders how it is that some of the soldiers on the battlefield die, while other survive, and whether his time is up. And in other volumes, he tries to make a new life for himself and his family, but suffers setback after setback. When Anita finds him, he seems powerless to turn  her away, even though he tries.

Anita is more skilled or talented at surfing the maelstrom of life. She rises from an impoverished single-parent household, without much education, and catches a successful man—one who can give her things she could only dream of as a girl.

Ben recoils when he learns of his father’s affair with a girl younger than himself, drops out of school and leaves for Rome. When he returns, he also finds attracted drawn against his will to Anita, the woman who replaced his mother in many ways.

A couple of flaws

I find myself equally unable to resist Poznansky’s storytelling style. While she perfectly captures each character’s individuality, at the same time she writes in a style that seems at once fresh and old-fashioned. She has, I think, also captured a prewar literary voice that is refreshingly distinct from the mass-produced style you can find in today’s commercial bestsellers.

But the books are not quite perfect. There are a couple of flaws.

First, Lenny seems to be an incompetent intelligence operative. In Marriage Before Death, he wanders behind enemy lines with ease with little purpose or mission, and gets caught almost immediately.

Also, the timing seems a little off. If Lenny is in his 20s during the war—and it seems he is—then I’m having trouble working out the timing for when he meets Anita in Santa Monica. She describes Lenny as being in his 40s, so that would take us to the mid-sixties or at best early 70s. However, Anita plays a song from “the sixties” as if it were really old. Somehow, the timing just seems a little off there.

Overall

This is a wonderful series, a richly colourful portrait of the intersecting, overlapping and mutually supportive and destructive lives. It portrays the intricate relationships of family, of the ways we intentionally and unintentionally hurt the people we love, and how what we do to each other ultimately creates the people they, and we are. It’s not quite perfect, but then neither are we.

Well done, Ms. Poznansky

4*

Find Uvi Poznansky’s work on

Visit her website.

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

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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.

Interviewing the book reviewers



BrookeTramFor the third time, we’re turning the tables on book critics and reviewers, asking them what makes them tick and why they review books the way they do. This week, it’s good friend and fellow iAi member Frederick Lee Brooke, who in addition to being an author of six books himself, is also a prolific reviewer on Amazon and Goodreads.

What genres do you review?

I review most of the books I read, because I think we do a service to other readers when we summarize our impressions of a book. So asking which genres I review is the same as asking which ones I read: mysteries, thrillers, psychological thrillers, biographies, literary novels, some science fiction.

Why do you prefer those genres? What do you get out of them?

I like reading mysteries and thrillers because there’s a set structure, whether it’s a story about a serial killer or a kidnapping or whatever. There’s something satisfying about revisiting that structure over and over again. I also like spending time again and again with detectives I’ve come to know, whether it’s Karin Slaughter’s Faith or Gae-Lynn Woods’s Cass Elliot. In any book I read, I expect to meet characters who are tested by their circumstances, and I expect them to read true.

What do you look for in a book that you review?

I look for characters who ring true, who develop into interesting full-blooded people before my eyes. I look for surprises in every chapter. I look for good writing that makes me sit up, including dialogue that sounds real, and interior stuff that makes me ponder. I look for a story and a conflict that matters, that has some weight to it.

What is the worst mistake that an author can make in a book?

I keep reading books by big name authors that are full of clichés, and I’m surprised to encounter them. Clichés in the language used, or in descriptions of characters. Another thing I hate is when a narrator has gaps in their story due to their own drunken blackouts, as in Girl on the Train. I feel ripped off.

What is the worst mistake in your opinion that an author can make when trying to promote a book?

It’s very off-putting when authors basically go on Facebook or Twitter with twenty-six versions of “Please buy my latest book”. I think authors need to put their books out there, and put themselves out there, and trust the reading public to find them. I wouldn’t buy a pair of jeans from a guy blocking my way in the street, pointing to a rack of jeans for sale; I would be sure to give him a wide berth. But when I need a new pair of jeans, I go where I know I can find jeans, and pick out a pair I like.

Which is more important to you: the plot/story, characters, or the writer’s style?

If the characters aren’t fleshed out and real, I won’t read the book. If the characters are totally unique and unforgettable, like Harry Potter and his friends, just to name one well-known example, the story and the style both fade in importance. However, poor writing (style) can sink a story with well-drawn characters as well.

Name a classic book in the genre you favour most that you think today’s writers should aspire to equal.

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In the realm of psychological thrillers I greatly admire Gillian Flynn, and her books Gone Girl, Sharp Objects and Dark Places. But I also find the less well-known Cody McFadyen fascinating. I think these two authors are exploring the grungier side of human nature in absolutely spellbinding detail.

Desert island question: name three record albums you would take with you if you were stranded on the island from Lost (where they had vinyl records and diamond-stylus record players).

Prince’s Purple Rain would be in my bag, and Linkin Park’s Minutes to Midnight, and then maybe a Motown Mix with some Temptations, Marvin Gaye and other classics.

Thank you very much, Fred!

Frederick Lee Brooke recently completed his dystopian science-fiction Drone Wars trilogy with The Drone Wars, which was preceded by Saving Raine in 2013 and Inferno in 2014.

DroneWars3a3319-inferno_ebookcover1c103-saving_raine_cover_final_600px_72ppiHe launched the Annie Ogden Mystery Series in 2011 with Doing Max Vinyl and followed with Zombie Candy in 2012, a book that is neither about zombies nor sweets. The third mystery in the series, Collateral Damage, appeared in 2013.

A resident of Switzerland, Fred has worked as a teacher, language school manager and school owner. He has three boys and two cats and recently had to learn how to operate both washing machine and dryer. He makes frequent trips back to his native Chicago.

When not writing or doing the washing, Fred can be found walking along the banks of the Rhine River, sitting in a local cafe, or visiting all the local pubs in search of his lost umbrella.
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Stories from the War: Friends of my Enemy, Book 1



StoriesFromWarBy Autumn Birt

An independent book review

I was a little nervous as I read the first chapter in Stories from the War. I like Autumn Birt’s writing and I enjoyed her fantasy series, Rise of the Fifth Order. So I was intrigued by her shift from epic fantasy to dystopian military thriller with Friends of My Enemy.

Hopes high, I was a little put off by the opening of the first Story from the War, First Meeting. It’s a lunch meeting between two main characters: Arinna Prescott, a military attaché from the USA and an EU diplomat who happens to be a baron. I thought, “Oh, no. She’s trying to evoke some kind of Regency romance here, but set it in the future.”

I was also a little afraid that Stories from the War would follow the worn path of the military dystopian future, where an ex-soldier’s military training and discipline is the only thing that ensures the survival of a small group while civilization deteriorates into rival warlord territories.

But while this book starts with the U.S. under military law and Europe renews aristocratic ranks and privileges. As I read on, I felt myself drawn deeper and deeper into Autumn Birt’s universe. I really could not put it down.

Stories from the War is not a novel.

It’s a set of 11 stories about a small group of realistic characters. First are Lieutenant Arinna Prescot, who meets a diplomat, Baron Bryan Vasquez, in Spain. Their conversation, which opens the story, skillfully sets the stage of the whole series. We learn that by 2055, the United States is under military law, beset by famine and riots. Climate change has brought storms that even the Americans could not recover from. Arinna’s and her husband, Air Force Captain Michael Prescott, have been sent to Europe in order to help rebuild the diplomatic relationship between the “New States” and the united Europe.

The characters are the best element of this very strong book. Sure, some of them are pretentious blowhards, some are conceited jerks, and some are hopeless romantics. But we all know some people like that. I don’t like all the characters, but I believe in all of them.

The stories are episodes in the lives of these characters, and each episode develops their relationships. These relationships drive the plot, or rather, its exposition. We see this new war that develops and how it affects each individual.

One of the few weakness is that the “enemy” is never clearly identified.

The U.S. was destroyed by repeated storms and famine, but soon after the Prescots’ arrival in Europe, a mysterious organization called the Freedom Liberation Front strikes the U.S. and completes its destruction. The Prescots calculate their chances and join the EU, rising in NATO’s military as the FLF turns on Europe.

Throughout the book, the FLF remains distant and shadowy. It’s not until probably four-fifths of the way through the book that the POV characters come face-to-face with the enemy, and even then they’re not that close. It helps to make the enemy that much more sinister, but it is frustrating not to know what they really want.

Overall, I enjoyed reading this book.

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Author Autumn Birt

The characters, particularly Arinna, who becomes known as “The Lady Grey” are strong and very well drawn. The reader sees through their eyes, feels what they feel. The descriptions are so vivid I can practically smell the smoke and feel the heft of weapons in my hands.

Congratulations to Autumn Birt on creating another vivid fictional world to explore.

4*

Get Stories from the War on

Find out more about the author

And follow her on Twitter @weifarer.

 

What to do when the Internet goes down



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Written Words interview the reviewers: Sue Devers and Amina Giraldez



CatReadingThis week, Written Words turns the tables on book reviewers by asking them few questions about what they’re looking for in the books they review.

Today, we have two avid readers whose have carved out a broad platform on Amazon and Goodreads: Sue Alexander Devers and Anima Giraldez.

What genres do you review?

Sue Devers: Almost anything that isn’t Romance, Western, or Zombie.

Anima Giraldez: Anything and everything.  I prefer a suspenseful mystery or crime novel with a hint of romance.

Why do you prefer those genres?

Sue Devers: They are exciting and they are good at helping me escape my boring everyday life.

Anima Giraldez: The idea of trying to solve the mystery or figure out the plot is the most intriguing.  As a stay-at-home mom with a LEO for a husband I just don’t have that much excitement in my world.  I get to visualize a beautiful country I’ll never visit, learn something new or experience danger I would never get to otherwise.

What do you get out of them?

Sue Devers: I get to visit different places–real or not–some of which I would love to go to myself!!!  LOL  Also meeting new friends and enemies.

Anima Giraldez: The idea of trying to solve the mystery or figure out the plot is the most intriguing.  As a stay at home mom with a LEO for a husband I just don’t have that much excitement in my world.  I get to visualize a beautiful country I’ll never visit, learn something new or experience danger I would never get to otherwise.

What do you look for in a book that you review?

Sue Devers: Continuity, a good story and well-rounded characters.

Anima Giraldez: I look for that thrill that keeps me reading past bedtime, while my kids are playing so I can ignore them or keep me on the elliptical longer while I forget I’m exercising.  I look for a book that can put some zing between the sheets without making it raunchy or too frequent that I lose interest.  I also need to have at least two weeks to adjust for others on my calendar or having to read others in a series first.

What is the worst mistake that an author can make in a book?

Sue Devers: Something that pulls me from the story, sends me back to the “real” world.

Anima Giraldez: Timelines are tricky.  When dates are splashing about and ages are mentioned I have a nasty habit of trying to make it sure lines up right, when it doesn’t I’m the first to call it out.  Guess that’s my OCD coming out.

What is the worst mistake in your opinion that an author can make when trying to promote a book?

Sue Devers: Not describing the book accurately in the blurb.  I hate picking up books thinking they are one style and they are something totally different.

Anima Giraldez: Sending a book out to reviewers far too early, which can get forgotten. Sending it out not early enough, which means a speed read or it’s not read in time for release. Promoting is tricky enough but I would think a few solid reviews could really help a release.

Which is more important to you: the plot/story, characters, or the writer’s style? 

Sue Devers: The plot/story—unless it is labeled fantasy, then make it at least mostly believable.

Anima Giraldez: Man, that’s tough. Characters that are memorable in some way is important to me.  The banter they flirt or tease with will either have me laughing in stitches or cringing with distaste. Chemistry is important in romance or murder mystery, in the normal world we have to get along and normal feel good vibes are important.  I feel like the plot could be anything as long as the characters are people I could hang with and actually have some intelligence.

Name a classic book in the genre you favour most that you think today’s writers should aspire to equal. 

Sue Devers: Well, Lord of the Rings by Tolkien; The Godfather by Puzo; Laurell K Hamilton for vampires, shifters, zombies, and such.

Anima Giraldez: I can’t say that I’ve read a classic book in ages, probably since my AP English classes 20 years ago and they weren’t in my fave genre.

Desert island question: name three record albums you would take with you if you were stranded on the island from Lost (where they had vinyl records and diamond-stylus record players). 

Sue Devers: The Eagles—best of 75 thru 79; any of the a cappella group Home Free’s albums; and I don’t know for a third—maybe Enya.

Anima Giraldez: Anything by Dean Martin, Van Halen (if a record was available) and Billy Joel. 

Thank you, book reviewers!

meSue Alexander Devers has lived in St. Joseph, MO most of her life. She’s been an avid reader since a very young age, and drove a school bus for 10 years, then a semi for about a year. She’s also been a truck driver, then dispatcher and supervisor until she became disabled. Now, reading and reviewing books take up much of her time.

 

 

10151396874681448Amina Giraldez lives in Salinas, CA about 15 minutes from Monterey and beautiful Carmel with her husband, a 20-year law-enforcement officer, and two young children. Her full name, Anima-Christi, is a Catholic prayer that means “spirit of Christ.”

“My parents felt the creative bug, I guess,” she says.  

“I became an avid reader after reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and followed it up with the 50 Shades series, then I grabbed whatever I could.  When my husband works the midnight shift, I have plenty of quite time in the evenings to devour books.  After making some contacts with favorite authors on Facebook I began getting early releases for free and realized how important reviews are to the author.  I pride myself on getting reviews posted on release day and supporting the author through my ratings.”  

https://www.goodreads.com/user/show/7011603-anima.

 

 

 

 

Independent book review: My Last Romance and Other Passions



A cliché-busting collection of romances by Kathleen Valentine

As an independent author, I find it important to write an independent book review from time to time — my own, unasked-for review of a book from a fellow indie. Here is my review of one such.

Kathleen Valentine is a literary leader. As a writer, she follows her own path and creates original, beautiful stories with characters readers can recognize because they’re taken from reality. 

I’m not normally a fan of romances. But I have to say that I was turned on, in many ways, by the collection of romantic short stories for grown-ups by Kathleen Valentine called My Last Romance and Other Passions.

Most “romance” novels I have encountered seem to be aimed at women who never emotionally got past high school. (To be fair, most action/adventure novels I have read seem written for men who never matured past Grade 8). They tend to follow one of two or three models:

  • the nice, middle class girl fixes the tortured billionaire—50 Shades of Crap was far from the first of this cliché
  • the two young lovers with damaged childhoods find safe havens in each other
  • the nice girl is drawn to the bad boy, and either
    • decides on the nice boy next door, or
    • fixes the bad boy.

There’s a lot of fixing in romance, and almost always by the female protagonist.

These are the tropes no matter the “hotness” level. There are these plots in sexy, steamy romances; in hot romances about Highlanders, cowboys, firemen and pirates; and in the “clean” romances — which means romances without sex.

The clean romance is the genre I hate the most. What are these writers saying — sex is dirty?

When Valentine breaks the rules

I guess it was inevitable that a writer named Valentine would write romantic stories. I’m just so glad she didn’t fall into the Hallmark Card type of romance trap. I found the stories in My Last Romance and Other Passions to be insightful, believable and entertaining — in other words, real literature.

Most romances, whether independent or commercially published, also feature characters with British, Celtic or otherwise very Western European names. Kathleen Valentine is one of the few writers in any genre I have read who’s willing to be inclusive and realistic in reflecting the diversity of Western culture today, and her characters have names like “Silvio” and “Asa.” And they’re not all middle-class suburbanites or billionaires or expatriate European nobility. They come from isolated towns in the Appalachians or fishing villages in Massachusetts or from poor farms in Texas. They’re people we know exist, but they rarely feature in literature or genre fiction.

Kathleen Valentine is breaking down the rules that have accreted over romance like so much mould, and revitalized it.

Grown ups do grown-up things

Another thing I really appreciate about these romances — the last and otherwise — is that they’re about adults, and they do adult things. Okay, I admit I have a bias at my age, identifying more with people who’ve lived longer and had more experiences.

But Valentine’s characters have businesses and hold down jobs, and it’s clear that the author understands everything this entails. They’re musicians who never sold a million albums but know how to rock the house down. They’re artists who capture beauty and truth but never get known beyond their home town. They have children and marriages, and occasionally — no, more than occasionally — they fail at their obligations, they stray and they cheat and they enjoy it.

The independent book review

9a285-kathleenvalentine1948_sx200_Kathleen Valentine is an accomplished, professional writer with a lot of successful titles on her Author page. This collection is an excellent introduction to her work, and should stand as a model for would-be romance authors.

5*

You can find My Last Romance and Other Passions either on Amazon, but I got my copy as an even better value, as part of the BestSelling Reads Valentine Bundle, featuring full length books from nine professional, independent authors. For more great values, don’t forget to check them out.

And of course, you should visit Kathleen’s own website and blog for thoughts and ideas from a real, talented designer and author.