Liz Andra Shaw

Journey into the Creative Mind of a Writing Reader

Book Review: The Blue Hallelujah by Andy Straka

February 16th, 2014
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TheBlueHallelujahbyAndyStraka
Andy Straka presents us with layers of plot in The Blue Hallelujah. The protagonist, Jerry Strickland, is a retired detective who is dying. When his granddaughter is kidnapped, he cancels the medical appointments and becomes involved in the case.

His love for his granddaughter is only one of the reasons he’s so driven to use the last of his fading energies to solve this case. Jerry’s wife, Rebecca, had been his right hand during his years as a detective. She had an intuitive sense about criminals, and it led her into trouble. After a killer escaped justice, she gunned him down in cold blood and spent the rest of her life in prison atoning for it. Jerry believes that by solving this case, he can not only save his granddaughter but also redeem his wife’s reputation.

Jerry is one of the most interesting protagonists I’ve met recently. He isn’t just wrestling with worldly issues, like life and death, but also with spiritual issues of evil, redemption, and justice in ways that normal cops and detectives see only superficially.

Although the ending has been foreshadowed, it will still grip you. If you don’t shed a tear or three for Jerry and his choice, you may not have a heart. Straka doesn’t achieve this with cheap, sentimental manipulation. His writing is honest and compelling.

Jerry is very different from Frank Pavlicek, the protagonist of Cold Quarry by Andy Straka. Frank is more hard-boiled. I suspect that Jerry was in his prime as well, but now he has more eternal priorities. I highly recommend both books to any reader who enjoys mysteries.

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A Personal Update

February 1st, 2014
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It’s been forever since I made a personal post. 2013 was a difficult year for me. I chose the word “Peace” as my theme, but I didn’t have much of that. Things still feel very unsettled to me, but I chose the theme “Rebirth” for this year as a way of putting 2013 into perspective.

I got stuck last year, not just in my personal life, but also in my creative work. I didn’t write much of anything. Some months I didn’t write anything but Writing Reader prompts.

As a way of jump starting my creative process, I started doing mixed media art again. I may share an occasional photo here, but I do the art for myself as a form of play. If you feel so inspired, you can check in on my Flickr photostream. I’m just warning you, it’s quite a mishmash.

She's got the Power

 

This Gelli print is one of my favorites. I made it as a response to a prompt in the Journal52 project. The prompt was “Up, up, and away!”

Journal52 is a free class for art journaling. People are doing everything from sketching and photography to mixed media and scrapbooking.  You don’t need a special journal to do this in. They recommend using a simple 3-ring binder.

If you’re looking for something fun to do this year, check it out at Journal52.com.


I’m also doing a daily journaling exercise called No Excuses journaling. It’s really challenged me to pick up my watercolor pencils and sketch something. You’re supposed to use a moleskin or other planner, but I set it up in a wire-bound card stock book I picked up on sale at Michaels. I’m having a lot of fun with it so far. It gives me permission to do some things for myself that I normally wouldn’t do. And no guilt, because I’m doing a class!

Because that is all clearly not enough, I am also doing the Documented Life Project in the No Excuses journal. They seem to tie together very nicely. The Documented Life Project is also a free class. Find out more here.

It hasn’t been at all difficult to integrate these projects into my life, even with a scorpion sting, the flu, and a visit from the parental units also tucked into this month.

The best part: I’m writing again. Flash fiction mostly. It’s dark, but I think it’s good. We’ll see what editors think.

Oh, and that scorpion sting? There’s a whole blog post coming with that story, and if it doesn’t give you nightmares, then I don’t know what will.

 

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Book Review: Nailed by Joseph Flynn

January 19th, 2014
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This is the first book by Joseph Flynn that I have read, and it won’t be the last. From the gruesome discovery of the murdered minister at the beginning of the book to the surprising revelation of the murderer at the end, it is a beautifully executed mystery. There are no shortage of suspects, and they are all guilty of something, just not the murder that Ron Ketchum is out to solve. Add a killer cougar into the mix, and you’ve got a story that grabs you from the first page and never lets go.

The protagonist, Ron Ketchum, is a retired LAPD officer who is now police chief is a small town where the worst thing that normally happens is jaywalking. He’s put into the eye of the perfect storm in this book such that his own complicated past becomes part of the national media circus surrounding a very high profile, very unusual murder. I really enjoyed Ron as a character and will be reading the next book in the series to see what happens to him next.

Read Nailed by Joseph Flynn if you love mysteries!

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Book Review: The Weight of Glass by Stuart Heatherington

November 3rd, 2013
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theweightofglass

 

My review at Amazon.com:

Child abuse is epidemic in our country. This book tells the story of three siblings left orphaned by their mother with an abusive step-father. The author calls this a novel of suspense, but I would classify it more as horror. I deal with children who are fighting to recover from the evils of child abuse, and I still couldn’t read this book in the evening for fear of having nightmares. Even so, it’s a book that I couldn’t put down. The story is compelling. It’s told with chapters that alternate from a present day reunion between brother and sister to flashbacks of their childhood. Each chapter pulls you inexorably into the next. If you’re interested in a dark, psychological read, this will not disappoint you. Just be warned: it’s not for the faint at heart.

I agree with the reviewers who suggest that the book needed a professional copy editor. There are problems, particularly with homonyms, In the copy I received, there were issues with the Kindle formatting as well, sometimes making it very difficult to tell who was speaking. If the premise of the book interests you, though, don’t let these problems stop you.

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Book Review: Bleedover by Curtis Hox

October 26th, 2013
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bleedover

Bleedover by Curtis Hox is based on a whopper of an idea. An idea so big that it may have gotten away from the author. Here’s my review from Amazon.com:

I really love the idea behind this book. Realities from fiction can bleedover into our reality, and by use of a portal, we can enter those realities. The protagonist, Dr. Harriet Sterling, harnesses this phenomenon using what she calls science, however it’s really spellcasting. Even her students are put off by this aspect of it. The villain of the story, Corbin Lyell, harnesses the phenomenon by immersing naive people in pulp horror films and enhancing the experience with a drug cocktail. In the denouement, his monster is released during a symposium with tragic consequences. This book definitely kept me turning the pages, despite some of my issues with the book. The bleedover phenomenon and how it works was poorly developed, making it difficult to suspend belief and buy into it. A college professor calling what is essentially medieval spellcasting a scientific study is a bit much. (To the author’s credit, her students felt the same way.)

My biggest problem, however, is with the constant use of the acronym NPB for New Phenomenon of Bleedover. If this was the New Phenomenon of Bleedover, then what was the old phenomenon of bleedover? And how long is something new? Imagine Volta or Faraday dubbing their discovery the New Phenomenon of Electricity. Do you think we’d still be calling that NPE? Of course not. I know this is a really nitpicky point, but it irritated me every time the acronym was used.

If you’re not a picky reader, there’s an exciting story in this book that you will enjoy. If, however, you tend toward pickiness, you may want to keep looking.

I received a free copy of this book in exchange for this review.

So now you know my secret (in case you hadn’t already guessed): I am a picky reader. Not so picky that an occasional typo will perturb me, but I will argue with strange acronyms every time. Besides, everyone knows that NPB really stands for “no problem, bud.”

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Flash Fiction: Faerie Dance

September 28th, 2013
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This is a response to Prompt #794 Faerie Dance at The Writing Reader.

Come, faeries, take me out of this dull house!
Let me have all the freedom I have lost;
Work when I will and idle when I will!
Faeries, come take me out of this dull world,
For I would ride with you upon the wind,
Run on the top of the disheveled tide,
And dance upon the mountains like a flame.
-William Butler Yeats, The Land of Heart’s Desire

Faerie

Marina sighed as she shifted from her left to her right cheek. The tweet stream was at top speed for the day now, over 1200 tweets per minute. EnvironTek paid her per interaction with their tweet stream. Her fingers danced as she retweeted, replied, and sent direct messages to the twits in the stream. Most days she found it invigorating, a worthy challenge. Definitely better than her best friend’s job as a receptionist or her sister’s job as a full-time parent. Today, however, she was tired of it.

That didn’t matter. The rent was due. She squared her shoulders and allowed the flow of the stream to carry her away.

She hit a small eddy a few minutes later. A tweet from a user calling herself @Titania declared, “Come dance with me.” Marina stopped for a moment, then laughed. If the Queen of the Faeries was real, she certainly wouldn’t be wasting her time on Twitter. Sometimes twits were just that – twits. She dove back into the stream and redoubled her efforts.

It came again, this time as an RT from a user calling himself @Oberon. “TY for the invite @Titania! RT Come dance with me.” Without thinking, she replied, “TY @Oberon, I wish I could.”

As soon as she sent it, she knew she was in trouble. She wasn’t tweeting as Marina, but as her employing corporation. It only took one mistake like this to create a newsworthy scandal for a company like EnvironTek. The multinational conglomerate had its talons into everything that environmentalists considered evil – from fracking in New Jersey to tar sands in Canada and rain forest logging in Brazil. It was her job to create good PR for them on Twitter, not to get caught up in a silly scheme promoted by a couple of twits pretending to be King and Queen of the Faeries. She could only pray that no one would notice her reply.

Marina dug in and sent out a couple of tweets about EnvironTek’s donations to educational foundations benefiting children with special needs. Then she opened hashtag.org and began to read the stream for #specialed, following users, direct messaging new contacts about the EnvironTek programs, and retweeting their tweets like a mad woman. She hadn’t received a DM from HR yet, so maybe no one had noticed.

Suddenly, “Come dance with us @Environtek #specialed” came from Oberon and Titania at the same time. How had they found her here in this smaller, protected stream? She closed the tab instinctively and pressed her hands over her eyes. Who were these people?

An alert sounded. She’d received a DM. She opened her eyes, praying that it wasn’t from HR.

“Come dance with us @EnvironTek” began to fill her stream. Tweet after tweet after tweet scrolled across her screen, crowding out the other tweets until that was all that she could see. The alerts were coming so quickly that they sounded like a fireworks display.

Marina shoved her chair away from the desk and stalked into her kitchen. She pulled an ice pack out of the freezer and held it to her forehead in the hopes of staving off the headache that was gathering behind her eyes.

She jumped when the phone rang. She hit the button on her Bluetooth ear bud, sure that it would be Connie in HR telling her that she was fired. Well, Connie, she thought. You can have this job. It sucks.

“Hello?”

“Come dance with me,” a sultry female voice demanded.

Before she could answer, the music flowed through her, a more powerful stream than Twitter had ever been. She stumbled into the living room, sagged into the couch, and allowed Titania to pull her mind into the dance.

 


Thanks to JayVeeAre for the lovely faerie picture.

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Book Review: America’s Bravest by Kathryn Shay

August 24th, 2013
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I don’t read romance. <– Notice the tense of that sentence. Present tense. I don’t read romance. Once upon a time, however, I did.

Back when I was attending college, I worked the overnight shift at University of Michigan Hospital. I sat with patients that couldn’t be left alone. The first night I worked, I took my textbooks. They put me to sleep quickly. Clearly, I needed a different type of reading.

The next night, I took the book I was reading for enjoyment. Let’s just say that The Gulag Archipelago put me to sleep even faster than my anatomy text had.

The third night, one of my room mates took mercy on me and handed me a book with a most embarrassing cover. Sweet Savage Love screamed to everyone in a 50 mile radius that I was about to start blushing uncontrollably. Which I did. All night long. But I was awake! And that’s all that really counted.

I read my room mate’s entire stash of books with embarrassing covers that year. They saved my job. You’d think I would be more grateful to the genre, but I’m not. I still blush when I read them, and that’s not OK with me. I haven’t read a romance novel in years, so imagine how shocked I was to find one in my Inbox. Apparently I said I’d review one through BookRooster. (I suspect that I clicked on a link in an email describing a completely different book. One that wouldn’t make me blush. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.) Regardless of my typical reading habits, I felt I had a commitment to read and review it, despite all the blushing it would cause.

americas-bravest-by-kathryn-shayHere is my review of America’s Bravest by Kathryn Shay from Amazon.com:

I got a free copy of this book in exchange for this review. I think I actually requested a different book and got this one by mistake – I don’t generally read romance, and there’s a lot of romance in these six novellas. Some are about single people falling in love, but my favorite was El Bombero, which is about a married couple that is struggling. The male fire fighter wants to work on the front lines, but his wife is terrified by the danger that he’s in every time he is called out to a fire. She’s resistant to getting counseling, so he ends up moving into a training position where he’s miserable. How they get back together is the best romance in these novellas, at least for this non-romance reader.

The main appeal of these novellas for me was the information on fire fighting techniques and training. Shay’s research really shines whenever the crews go out on a call.

Just a couple quibbles. First, there is some jargon used in the book without any explanation. For instance, she refers to several types of truck without defining them. Finally, in the last novella, she tells us what a “quint” is. Yes, I could have gotten out of bed and looked it up on Wikipedia, but I didn’t want to. I wanted to stay comfy and keep reading the story. If she defined quint in novella 6, why not the first time she used the term?

Second, I felt that the identity of the arsonist as well as the leak in the department (threads that tie all 6 novellas together) were fairly obvious very early on. Yes, she threw in a red herring, which as it turns out was more pink than red, but it was still predictable. I prefer a story where the mystery is more difficult to figure out, even when all the clues are right in front of you.

If you’re a fan of romance, you’ll love this book. If you’re not, you may learn some things from this book, but be aware that it’s quite heavy on the romance.

It’s no Sweet Savage Love, but I did blush. You may, too, if you decide to read America’s Bravest by Kathryn Shay.

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Book Review: Buried by Debt by Cathryn Grant

July 20th, 2013
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buried by debt

 

Buried by Debt by Cathryn Grant is a thriller based in upscale Silicon Valley.

The protagonists are Jenna and Devon, and they are the biggest problem in this book. They are shallow and codependent. The only thing they care about is each other.

Devon, a Stanford graduate, is on the fast track in his business career, but he spent all the money from an anticipated promotion in advance. When the promotion doesn’t come through, Devon and Jenna are plunged into financial catastrophe. Neither have a plan for the future, and the cuts they make in their spending are just band aids on a gaping wound. Something is going to have to give.

The second problem with this book is that nothing that you would associate with a thriller really happens until fully one third of the way into the story. Then when that something happens, Devon and Jenna dither about what to do for nearly the entire rest of the book.

In my opinion, for a thriller to be successful, it needs two things:

  1. a protagonist you care about and want to cheer on
  2. action

This book has neither of those things. I wish I could give this book a better review. Cathryn Grant has had impressive success with short stories and flash fiction. She has a number of novels out as well. Based on this novel, I would recommend sticking with her shorter works.

 

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Book Review: The Darkening Dream by Andy Gavin

June 9th, 2013
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DarkeningDream

Andy Gavin’s The Darkening Dream begins with a gruesome killing, then drags the reader into the world of vampires, demons, warlocks, and Egyptian gods.

The protagonist, Sarah, and her friends are all teenagers. They witness a newly made vampire feeding, and they kill it. Then they discover that there are lots of missing people in their town (Salem, Massachussets, no less), and they begin to track the vampire at the source of the evil.

Despite the age of the protagonists and naive romance between Sarah and Alexander, this is no Buffy the Vampire Slayer. No one is who or what they seem in this book. There are twists upon twists that keep the reader off balance and turning the pages long after bed time. The final twist, which happens after you think the evil is vanquished and the problem is resolved, leads to the story’s shocking conclusion.

If you are a fan of dark paranormal fantasy, you will love this book. Just don’t expect to sleep well when you finally turn out the lights for the night. You’ll be having your own darkening dreams.

 

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What are your reading habits?

May 25th, 2013
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Learning

What are your reading habits? More specifically, how long do you stick with a book that you’re not enjoying?

I used to read the whole book, even if I wasn’t enjoying it. As I’ve gotten older, however, I’ve begun to put a higher value on my time. There are a lot of great books out there that are calling my name. I should be spending my time with them!

But what if I’ve agreed to review the book? Am I obligated to finish it? If you approach me about a review, my page is clear on my standards:

I promise to read at least 50 to 75 pages of the book. If I’m not enjoying it at that point, I’ll stop and let you know that I’m not going to review it.

But some books I review, I get through BookRooster. They have no policy about whether a reviewer must finish a book they receive through their service.

There was one book that I got through them that was a terrible mess. I didn’t finish it, and I did post a review stating why I didn’t finish it.

There have been several books I got through BookRoster that I didn’t enjoy at first, but I finished them anyway. I’m glad that I did finish the, because they turned out to be well-written books. Not my cup of tea, sure, but worth reading to study the writing, the characters, etc. I would even say that I enjoyed them by the end, and I’m glad I didn’t stop reading them.

The book I have been reading for BookRooster is not a terrible mess, and it is a genre I typically enjoy. I just don’t want to finish it.

[Oh, by the way, I took it off my side bar before I started writing this post, so don't look over there at the book that's listed. That's not the one I'm talking about. ]

The book I’m reading has so many plot lines going on all at once that it’s confusing. Somehow it also manages to be boring. The characters are one dimensional. There is occasionally something just a little “off” about how words are used. The writing style is florid. There is more description than dialogue or action. In the amount of time that I could typically finish a book of this length, I’ve managed to read only 13% of this book. I’ll do anything to avoid reading this book, even housecleaning.

So today I did what I always do whenever I’m weighing a difficult decision – I went out for Mexican food. It always helps. Here is what I decided over chicken enchiladas with green sauce.

I have a big backlog of books that I’ve promised to review. It’s unfair to make those authors wait just so that I can finish reading this book to give it the bad review I think it probably deserves.

So I’m moving on down the review list to the next book. I’ll let BookRooster know that I won’t be reviewing this book.

What about you? Do you quit or keep on reading? Does it matter if you said that you’d review it? Take the poll in the sidebar and leave a comment.

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Liz Andra Shaw

Journey into the Creative Mind of a Writing Reader