Category Archives: book reviews

A nice little surprise from BigAl’s Books and Pals…

Lately, I’ve found the more I avoid the Interwebs, the more I get done. And trust me, I’ve been busy, which explains why my appearances online, either in posts, FB, or anywhere else for that matter, have been brief, not to mention few and far between. Here in presently gloomy, blustery NJ, winds are whipping rain sideways — just the sort of weather I find delightfully motivating, and I’ve been hard at work at my own usual plotting, scheming, and mayhem. But around this time of the afternoon I usually pause for some tea and a quick glance on the web, and I was pleasantly surprised to find a very nice review for Last Exit  from BigAl’s Books and Pals pop up in my Google alert. While I may quietly chuckle at some of the scathing remarks Last Exit has gathered on Amazon, I’ll admit, I much prefer reading an intelligent, well-written review from a reader who seemed to appreciate that the story didn’t follow typical genre conventions and formulas.

Thanks, BigAl. I’m glad you enjoyed my book.

Genre Stereotypes and Gender Double-Standards

I’ll preface this post by stating that I’m well aware, as with everything else in life, there are exceptions to what I’m about to discuss, and those exceptions are a good thing. But a stereotype, by definition, is a widely held but fixed and oversimplified concept of a particular type of person or thing. And when that thing is a book, when it comes to reading, a majority of readers will make choices based upon some basic, commonly accepted conventions of plot and formula for a specific genre. For example, whether tame or steamy, romances revolve primarily around two people who initially can’t see eye-to-eye but ultimately discover their romantic love for one another, and the story will end on a happy, optimistic note. Fantasy novels usually occur somewhere imaginary, and while they often include subplots ranging from mysterious to romantic, magic of some sort or another is a key element. Readers turn to erotica primarily to be turned on. They pick up cozies, expecting a light, even humorous mystery with bloodless, off-screen murders, minimal sex and violence, featuring an amateur, often female sleuth in a small-town setting where she can turn to family, friends and authorities, though often she’s dismissed as being ‘nosy and meddlesome.’ Hobbies such as knitting, baking, and scrapbooking are popular themes. Thrillers, memoirs, science fiction – the list goes on and each of these genres carries with it certain accepted guidelines.

And then there’s hard-boiled. Lean, unsentimental, gritty. A genre where the protagonist goes head-to-head with the ugly realities of a dangerous world, and they frequently go it alone. Faced with a darker side of life and forced to survive, they fight violence with violence, often far from the assistance or the eyes of the authorities. It’s a bloody, vicious world of “be tough or be killed.” And for decades, this world has been the domain of the American tough guy. Donald Westlake’s Parker and John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee are superb characters and perfect examples: physically and emotionally scarred, square-jawed, hard-hitting, hard-drinking and hard-loving men of action, cynical, calculating, and capable. The “shoot first, ask later” types who operate outside the law and follow their own moral compasses. And in these tales, the majority of the female characters fall into certain specific roles. They’re either a love interest, a victim in need of rescue and/or avenging, a femme fatale, or all of the above.  And often, they have a low survival rate.

Again, I know exceptions exist, but what I’m discussing here is the stereotype of the traditional hard-boiled mystery. The stereotype that leads some readers to see the word ‘Hardboiled’ in a description and go into a book with certain gender-specific expectations. And conversely, for readers who see the protagonist’s age and gender, then expect a cozier story.  The first lines of the description should make it clear that isn’t the case. Nice young ladies really shouldn’t be dumping bodies at sea. Then again, that isn’t stopping Hazel Moran, and she can’t figure where anyone got the idea she was nice to begin with.

Despite the fact that she’s faced with a threat, even as she has been left no choice and it’s a case of kill or be killed, even as Hazel does whatever it takes to survive, protect herself and her family, refusing to be a victim, some readers have stated both in reviews and letters to me that they were shocked by the violence from this “young girl.” It seems ironic that within the setting of a more traditional hard-boiled with a more traditional (male) protagonist, these same actions wouldn’t so much as raise an eyebrow. In fact, they’d be expected and approved. Apparently, stepping outside the traditional, more accepted genre and gender formulas established generations earlier makes some readers uncomfortable, and double standards continue, even to this day.

Mayhem and balls!

Andrew Donaldson of The Times in Johannesburg, South Africa, had something concise and very nice to say about Last Exit:

IF YOU READ ONE BOOK THIS WEEK. . .

‘Last Exit in New Jersey’, by CE Grundler (Thomas & Mercer), R175

BRASH and antisocial, you’re going to love 20-year-old Hazel Moran, the heroine of Grundler’s debut. She drives trucks and sails boats but needs help with the people skills – especially when bad guys come looking for a relative about a missing trailer. Offbeat, darkly humorous fare with mayhem and balls.

Fire Away!

In less than a year over 16,000 people have purchased Last Exit In New Jersey. It was slow in the beginning — most of these readers have come along within the last few months. Occasionally, people who love my book are kind enough to take the time to write me personally. I can’t begin to tell you how wonderful it is as I sit here alone working away on the next book, to hear just how much someone enjoyed the last one and how they can’t wait to read the sequel. Fan letters like those are even better than caffeine for keeping me up and working late into the night! Overall I’ve been thrilled by how well my quirky tale has been received, though it doesn’t surprise me that on occasion a reader has left a less than glowing review on Amazon.

There’s no such thing as a book every reader will enjoy. Unfavorable reviews go with the territory and as authors we should expect and accept all feedback, not just the positive. Every review has its validity; it is that reader’s honest opinion and among them have been some constructive points. I’ll admit good reviews make my day, but fair, critical reviews help me to see what I can work on for the next book. The only reviews that truly bother me are ones that reveal spoilers.

So, for those who have already posted reviews, I would like to say thank you. For everyone who has told a friend how much you enjoyed my story, you have my sincere gratitude. And to those of you who have read my book but haven’t posted a review on Amazon, why not let other readers know what you think. Did you find my book absolutely awful, meh, or enjoyable? What did you like or hate, and why? And please, feel free to speak up: what one reader can’t stand might be what others prefer. Many readers chose books based upon the opinions of others, and as an author I value hearing your impressions of my writing. So fire away! I’m from Jersey… I can take it!

Surface Tension by Christine Kling – Book Review

For the last few weeks I’ve been doing battle with seemingly endless rounds of snow, freezing rain, and a reoccurring bout of bronchitis that have all left me under the weather in one manner or another. Between sore muscles and a sore throat I’ve spent more time than usual wrapped in blankets and resting, thought there is one positive to it all. Unable to do much else beside recuperate, (it seems these cold meds are playing havoc with the ‘writing’ portion of my brain) I’ve had plenty of time to catch up on  my reading. My TBR list had grown quite sizable and it’s been enjoyable to escape into the pages of a good story such as Surface TensionChristine Kling’s books had been on my reading list long before Write On The Water ever found me; I’d heard from several friends that her Seychelle Sullivan series would appeal to me. Here’s the description from Publisher’s Weekly:

In this strong suspense debut, Seychelle Sullivan owns a salvage tug near Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and makes a precarious living piloting luxury yachts and sportfishing boats in the Florida waters. When her radio picks up a distress call from the Top Ten, she hurries to the scene, hoping to net a windfall. The luxurious yacht is skippered by her former lover, Neal, who seems to have abandoned ship and left a dead body behind. Who is the dead girl, where is Neal, why do the police suspect Seychelle, and how much can she hope to recover for salvaging the yacht? When she finds her modest cottage has been searched and her stash of emergency money is missing, she figures Neal must be alive, hiding from the police or from the girl’s killer. The Top Ten’s representative offers a paltry sum to settle the salvage claim, so Seychelle decides to find out who the real owner is and go to arbitration. As the tension and suspense build, Seychelle’s existence becomes increasingly precarious. Kling vividly portrays a characteristic dichotomy of the Sunshine State-native Floridians trying to earn an honest living in an atmosphere where anything and anyone can be tainted by loan sharks, drug money or worse. As a female tugboat captain, Seychelle is one of the genre’s more unusual amateur sleuths, and Kling makes her one of its more endearing ones as well.

Hmmm.  A smart, tough, believable female protagonist, a tugboat captain running a salvage business in Fort Lauderdale, that sounds like my kind character. The story wasted no time diving right into the action and I was immediately hooked. Seychelle comes to life on the pages as both capable and likable, intelligent and take-charge, and Kling does a superb job of presenting scenes in vivid detail, both visually and emotionally, without slowing the story for one second. Without question, Kling knows her territory, both regionally and with boats, and this knowledge made this story all the more enjoyable.  Her writing flows in a smooth, un-distracting way that draws the reader right in there with her characters, which is perfect as this is a highly-character driven story. The characters themselves, from Seychelle to her friends, foes and beyond, are all well-fleshed out and multi-dimensional. The dialog is natural and believable, with a subtle range that distinguishes each of the various characters quite nicely. The plot is well paced; it unfolds in layers that weave together in a way that kept me guessing, and though I had my suspicions there were a few surprises that did a nice job of sneaking up on me. And the end wraps everything up in a very satisfying way – there’s no question I’ll be reading more from Christine Kling!

The Red Album of Abury Park (Remixed) – Review

The Red Album of Asbury Park (remix)

Not long ago, I posted a review of Alex Austin’s book on Goodreads, though as the weeks pass since I finished the The Red Album of Abury Park (Remixed) I find myself comparing it to books I’m currently reading and my own writing as well. There are stories that are read and just as quickly forgotten and there others that seem to resonate over time, books that bear reading again and again over the years. The Red Album is written in a way that draws the reader in, the words weave through the pages creating mood and atmosphere that goes beyond simple story-telling. This is a memorable book I know without question I’ll revisit again.

The writing and imagery throughout this book is amazing. There is a certain lyrical bitter-sweetness to the story and you feel for the characters as their lives unfold. The dialog is flawless, and though I read mention of it in other reviews I didn’t see cause for offense by any of the language used. It all feels genuine and natural, completely convincing. The story progresses in a gradual, subtle way, slowly enveloping the reader, and though at first I had no idea where things were headed I was compelled to keep reading. I enjoy stories where the author reveals details in a natural progression rather than throwing an info-dump on page 1. The writing is smooth and fluid, drawing you in as it pulls you along. For example:

The marsh spread uniformly pale green, except where patches of snow packed tightly against the reeds, fixed there by the bay wind that now whistled through the cracks in the wraparound rear windshield. Along the creek banks, thin sheets of ice melted into winding olive streams where gulls foraged for soldier crabs and edible garbage, a hundred gliding now under a dull winter sky. To the east, past a string of sand-swept houses, the bay spread towards the Amboys, gray and wind-blown like wrinkled aluminum foil.

Though the story occurred in the late 1960’s, certain elements are timeless. I’m familiar with the locations, many of which remain to this day and that added a personal element of enjoyment to the story. I have no musical background and though music is vital to much of the protagonist’s character I had no difficulty relating, perhaps because dreams and ambitions, no matter their form, are universal The mystery weaves through the plot and through the lives it affects and all comes together with a satisfying conclusion. What resonated with me most days after I finished reading was the author’s voice and the moods he creates. This is a gripping and complex story that will linger in your mind long after you put it down and one I highly recommend.

Book Review – Talented Horsewoman by L.C. Evans

I don’t normally read mysteries that fall on the cozier side of the spectrum, but I’d come across Talented Horsewoman by L.C. Evans in the forums, heard some good things, and decided to give it a read.

Talented Horsewoman introduces you to the world of Leigh McRae, a single mother trying to live a comfortable small town life with her young daughter. Both mother and daughter share a passion for horses and riding, something her controlling, demanding ex-husband refuses to understand or accept. The book draws you in immediately as Leigh stops by her friend Rita’s ranch, only to find Rita dead from what seems a terrible accident. As events unfold, Leigh begins to question whether Rita’s death was truly what it seemed or something more sinister. The story keeps you hooked from the first pages and only builds as Leigh delves further into her late friend’s life and past, uncovering some surprising secrets along the way.

In this equine who-dun-it, L.C. Evans deftly pulls the reader in with vivid imagery that flows seamlessly as she paints the picture of south Florida with its oppressive humidity and relentless sun. Her writing is smooth and fluid, and she presents horses, as well as their care and keeping, in a way that even someone with no horse experience such as myself can appreciate and understand. The main character, Leigh, is very believable and likable, and I found it easy to relate to her strengths and weaknesses, especially when it came to her daughter and her family. Her sister plays a strong roll in her life and the closeness they share comes across beautifully.

The deeper you get into the story, the more you’ll be guessing as new characters with motives come to light. This is not as hard-boiled as I usually read, but it was a fun book with plenty of plot twists that kept me guessing until the very end. If you’re looking for an enjoyable read, Talented Horsewoman blends murder, relationships and horses into one exciting mystery.

L.C. Evans has a number of other fun books as well.  You can learn more about her at her website: http://lcevans.com/L.C._Evans_Author/Home.html
and blog: http://lcevansauthor.blogspot.com/