July Book Reviews

Another month of Awesome Reads!

Thanks so much for stopping by to browse some wonderful books by indie authors!

July book reviews include my 4 and 5 star reads of historical fiction, poetry, a cozy mystery, western romance, family romance, two episodes of a fantasy serial, a sci-fi adventure, and prehistoric fiction. Phew! Something for everyone! I hope you enjoy the reads.

Click on the covers for Amazon global links.

*****

The Art of War by Angela Panayotopulos

This is an exquisitely written book with beautiful imagery, a vivid sense of place and culture, and rich characters. It’s one of those stories that sneaks up on you, and before you realize it, you’re holding your breath.

The first quarter of the omniscient narrative introduces twins Kallypso and Gavril from age ten through twenty, before WWII comes to their island home in Greece. At first, I wondered about the purpose of this tour through their innocent and mischievous childhoods, but I realized by the time the war stealthily encroaches on their lives that I was fully invested in these characters and their community. The tension was palpable, the sense of doom throttling.

War comes, and like any war, it savages the characters caught up in the struggle as well as those on the periphery. Gabe, a fisherman, joins the freedom fighters and heads to the mainland. Kalli, an artist who paints religious scenes on the church walls, is left in the village with the women, children, and old men. First the Italians occupy the island. Then the Nazis.

The lives of both characters are decimated. Dreams are lost. Innocence is replaced with horror, starvation, and death. The omniscient pov allows some storytelling distance or the brutality would be almost too hard to take. The tragedies are heart-breaking partly because they’re so senseless.

But there’s also kindness and love, courage and conscience, loyalty and resilience. It doesn’t show up for a while, but there’s hope too.

Did I mention that this is an exquisitely written book? The quality of the prose and storytelling swept me away. It’s one of the best novels I’ve read this year. Highly recommended for fans of war stories, love stories, and literary fiction that grips you by the throat and doesn’t let go.

*****

Slivers: Chiseled Poetry by Balroop Singh

Singh’s poetry becomes more beautiful to me with every publication. This generous collection of micro-poetry was inspired by the Japanese syllabic forms haiku and tanka, as well as acrostic poetry where the first letter of each line, when read vertically, spells a word. Each poem is an exquisite glimpse into the author’s reflections on nature, emotions, and life. Photographs complement a number of the poems from each section.

The haiku is grouped by the source of Singh’s inspiration. Below is a lovely example from Clouds:

soft waves whisper
a thousand secrets of clouds
solemn soliloquy

An example of Singh’s tanka:

When the stream freezes
all sounds sink in the snow.
Trees stand bare and mute
gaping at the periwinkle sky
As he meets the morning sun.

An example of Singh’s acrostic entitled Dusk:

Dwindling hues of orange light
Usher in the stars
Shadows recede into darkness
Kissing the waning light

This lovely collection deserves to be read in quiet moments, contemplated, and savored, and I suspect that I’ll return to it in the days to come. Highly recommended to readers of haiku, tanka, and short poetry in general.

*****

Myth and Magic by Mae Clair

A wonderful romance/cozy mystery mash-up by one of my go-to authors. Veronica is the manager of the Stone Willow Lodge, owned by the wealthy Breckwood family. Ghost-sightings and other more gruesome events are disturbing the guests and making hay for the local newspaper whose goal seems to be driving the inn out of business. To find out what’s going on, the Breckwoods hire a private investigator who happens to be the black sheep of the family.

Caith unwillingly returns to his childhood town, pressured by his young son who wants to see his cousins and grandfather. Caith brings along a ton of psychological baggage based on old trauma that he’s unable to deal with. He and Veronica have their own issues to clear, but the attraction is as strong as ever (when she isn’t furious with him).

The romance part of the story is stormy and satisfying. The mystery part is much more… well, mysterious. The tension amps up as gruesome events at the lodge escalate and Caith runs into family resistance. The author slowly reveals Caith’s past, and I couldn’t help but worry that the tragedy of his history would repeat itself. There are red herrings and lots of potential suspects.

The plot is well done, with appropriate foreshadowing, and I didn’t know who the culprits were until the reveal. I have to say though that Caith and his three brothers stole the show. The relationships were complicated, but there were moments of pure joy too. A highly recommended standalone read for fans of deftly entwined romances and cozy mysteries.

*****

Keeper Tyree by Sandra Cox

Keeper is a bounty hunter and hired gun, past his prime and suffering from arthritis. The widow Cathleen O’Donnell hires him to kill the bandit that shot her son. He agrees, never expecting that Cathleen will show up at his campfire in trousers, determined to go along.

They don’t get far before they run into (and aid) a stuck wagon full of ladies of the night, and a crushed wagon carrying a fledgling attorney and his young son. Tyree and Cathleen see them all to their destination, and despite Tyree’s determination not to get involved with women, Cathleen’s smile is having an impact. Clearly there’s a romance in the making.

The hunt for the killer Pardee takes them into the Badlands. More characters enter the story (including a few “characters”) and the action continues to build with no shortage of face-offs and gunfire. I liked Cathleen’s determination to take down her son’s killer and Keeper’s attempts to ignore his feelings. A fun and adventurous story I highly recommend to fans who enjoy fast-paced westerns and an engaging romance.

*****

A Dream of Family by Jill Weatherholt

Weatherholt delivers another sweet romance of second chances and family. Molly owns her dream bookstore, but it’s going under as a new chain store gobbles up her customers. She has her heart set on adopting a little girl Grace, but if she’s struggling financially, she may lose that dream as well.

Enter Derek, handsome and successful with the business savvy she needs. If he can help her bookstore turn a profit, it helps him with some future business plans of his own. But Molly blames Derek for warning off her fiancé on her wedding day, an experience that magnified childhood insecurities from foster care. And Derek has some old family baggage of his own.

Despite the conflicts and misunderstandings, the tone of the book is genial and heartwarming with a strong emphasis on kindness, forgiveness, and family. The read is tagged as a Christian romance and faith in God plays a role in the characters’ healing. But it comes with a light touch, focusing on values that most humans can relate to regardless of faith. The characters are wholesome and likeable. Who can resist a six-year-old kid and a goofy puppy named Duke?

As a bonus, the book has lots of ideas for setting up a successful bookstore (or really any kind of customer-friendly business). That aspect added a lot of credibility to Derek’s character and it was fun to see the transformation of Molly’s shop as her life also transforms.

A sweet read for anyone who enjoys gentle romances and stories of family

*****

Dead of Winter, Journey 6: The Fluting Fell by Teagan Geneviene

Another installment of the epic adventure, this one starts off with one frightening dream! Emlyn’s dreams are vivid and convey a lot of information, but this one isn’t hers. She dreams a nightmare from Boabhan’s past as if it happened to her. The villain Arawn and the danger he presents becomes a lot clearer.

In the second half of this journey, Emlyn’s ability to see the dead comes to the forefront when the group of Deae Matras stop at an abandoned mansion. Her encounters with the dead, including the pale man and the white wolf, continue to be my favorite scenes. I think I know who he is… and look forward to Journey 7.

*****

Dead of Winter, Journey 7: Revenant Pass by Teagan Geneviene

After seven installments I’m becoming used to the modest pace and omniscient feel of the narrative. The backstory repeats now and then, likely catching readers up who are exploring the epic world at a casual pace. As always, the level of detail in the world-building is meticulous.

Like many of the journeys in this story, this episode has two “parts.” Journey 7 begins with Emlyn and her party of Deae Matres stuck beyond the veil in the Realm of the Dead without a clue as to how to get back. The setting is creepy and the resolution full of danger. In the second half of the journey, they search for the Lost Library, which appears to be nothing but ruins… only it isn’t. As is the case with several of the episodes, it ends on a cliffhanger. Dead of Winter continues to be an engaging read for fans of epic fantasy.

*****

Templum Veneris by Jeremy L. Jones

It’s not often that a second book in a series outshines the first, but I think it did in this case. This was a great sci-fi read full of action, intrigue, and engaging characters. I enjoyed meeting up with the team members from the first book as they embarked on another mission to reconnect with human colonies lost in the solar system – this time on the planet Venus.

What they encounter is a strong ruler and militaristic society of loyal subjects. Citizens are divided into warriors and workers, and all seems to function well, despite the feeling among the team that something is very off. This uneasiness adds a lot of tension as little by little the ugly underbelly of the Venusian culture is revealed.

The action is great and the pace zooms along. I read the story in two sittings, though it’s not a short book. What I enjoyed most of all was the characters. Each member of the team is well-rounded and highly distinct in their personalities and quirks. Motivations are clear and choices are logical and made complete sense to me. Where the first book in the series seemed more plot driven, in this one the characters shine, and I definitely was drawn in. Once again Viekko was my favorite.

This worked well as a standalone, but I recommend starting with the first book, Saturnius Mons. A great read for sci-fi fans who enjoy a rollicking adventure and great characters.

*****

Laws of Nature (Dawn of Humanity Book 2) by Jacqui Murray

I read the first book in this series a while ago, and it was great to travel back in time again (1.8 million years to be exact). I couldn’t wait to catch up with Lucy and her group of primitive humans. This book starts where the last left off, so I’d recommend beginning the series with book one, Born in a Treacherous Time, which blew me away, btw.

(Click here for the rest of the “book blast” review.)

*****

Happy Reading!

Author Interview – Steven Baird

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This is a selfish interview on my part. I’ve been wanting to pick Steven Baird’s writer-brain since I began following his blog a couple years ago. I love his writing, his fresh, lush imagery, his exquisite word choice. I picked up his book Ordinary Handsome and then his book A Very Tall Summer. I became a groupie. My review of Ordinary Handsome is here.

So, I convinced him to answer all my questions under the pretense of a blog interview. I hope you enjoy!

1. Welcome, Steven. Thanks so much for letting me satisfy my curiosity about you and your writing. You state in your bio that you started writing at age 10. But you didn’t publish until 2015. What took you so long?

ordinaryhandsomeiiThat’s a good question. I have written a lot over the years, submitted some manuscripts, did some editing work, but nothing clicked. So I focused on improving the writing, experimenting with different genres, shifting pov’s, playing with the language. I wanted to see what I could do. It took some time because I am so self-critical. I had a lot of uncertainty and self-doubt, and that can be crippling. What did I have to offer, and was it worth the reader’s time? And now, yes, I think I do have something to offer.

When I started as a kid, I was cribbing off writers I admired, unconsciously mimicking their styles, and it was a terrible hybrid. The first attempt at a novel was after I read ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. Man, I dug into that… the story, the cadence, the narration, everything. And then Hemingway’s ‘The Old Man and the Sea’. And then Faulkner’s ‘The Sound & the Fury’. My writing was awful, as you can imagine, but I was so excited! It was a melange of enthusiasm and bad writing! But it was a learning experience. I was putting things down on paper! In those days, that meant typing on a portable Brother typewriter… reams of paper and gallons of White-Out, and carbon copies of everything. It took a long time to physically prepare a submittable manuscript.

Back then, I sent out almost everything to publishing houses and magazines, and collected piles of ‘unfortunately, your work doesn’t meet our criteria’ rejection slips. Stories to Reader’s Digest, Field and Stream, and, yes, even Playboy. I kept at it. They should have sent me Christmas cards, I was that persistent. I published a couple of short stories in regional magazines, and poetry and weird little vignettes. I wrote a weekly humor column for the newspaper I was working for, and that lasted ten years until I gave it up… humor is a hard gig! Eventually, I found the whole ordeal of writing-and-rejection discouraging, and stopped writing anything substantial for about five years. My confidence was shot. And then I started again, working on a novel called ‘The Penitent Thief’. It was abrasive, violent, vulgar, and I fell back into it with gusto.

Self-confidence has always been an issue with me, and I couldn’t quite come up with a tone I was happy with. I have at least a dozen or more trunk novels stored away, and probably twice that number of unfinished pieces. I was learning.

I wrote a novel called ‘Cronic’ shortly after I was married. It’s available on Amazon, and it’s an unusual, violent story of a kidnapping. Creatively, it’s a transitional novel. I really played around with the dialogue and settings, and discovered a more confident, rollicking voice. And then I wrote – after a few false starts – ‘Ordinary Handsome’. That was the one. I decided to completely rework the core concept of ‘The Penitent Thief’. My voice was calmer, and the only similarities between the two are the main character – Jimmy Wheat – and the consequences of a tragic getaway, how they spread into other people’s lives. I couldn’t have written Handsome as a younger man. I didn’t have the experience or maturity.

2. I remember the old typewriters and correction tape. I don’t think I would have had your persistence without the advent of personal computers. I’m thrilled that you kept with it. What do you enjoy most about writing? What do you dislike?

I love those moments when it all clicks… when all the elements come together. I like how it still surprises me. How those big ‘what if’ ideas take shape and add texture and dimension. Honestly, I don’t know where the ideas come from, but sometimes they’re like bursts of fireworks, real ‘wow!’ moments. I didn’t know for certain how to end Handsome until I was closing in on the ending. Then it hit me, and I wrote the last couple of thousand words in a single sitting. It’s a huge rush when it works.

What I dislike is my own uncertainty. Can this work, is there enough of a story to sustain it, do I have the chops? Beginning a new book is hard because you’re still high from the last one. You have to invest so much of yourself: time, energy, and heart. It’s sort of like trying to fall in love again, and with this stranger who smiles and then shrugs. Sometimes it works, sometimes not.

3. One of the things that impressed me about your prose is your precise word choices and rich sensory imagery. Does that come naturally or do you have to work on it? Any tips on writing prose that you’d be willing to share? 

verytallnewtrucover2Well, I really don’t like cliches. Everything’s been said that’s going to be said, so why not find an interesting way to say it? I’m selective and patient. Does it come naturally? At this point, I think so, yes, but after years of practice. The words are the ingredients in the stew, and I want that stew to have the right flavor. I play around with a lot of flash fiction pieces. Snapshots of characters and conversations. It’s a great exercise… there’s that freedom of not having to plot or finesse. And they’re great for coming up with larger, more substantial ideas.

4. I agree completely on the freedom of flash fiction – it’s all the fun without the labor. You describe yourself as a slow writer. Tell me about your process. Do you use a particular structure? Pantser or outliner?

I guess a little of both. Before I start, I let the idea grow in my head. Think about the characters, the setting, the overall story… map it out until it gels into something workable. Sometimes it’s a particular image: A woman standing alone in a cornfield; a boy dying at the side of a road. They capture my attention and I want to see more. I don’t write outlines, but I do develop the story in my head. Sometimes it pans out, sometimes not. I make cheat sheets on the characters, phrases, the geography of the landscape. I don’t have specific endings in mind, because I want it to be natural and not tacked-on or forced. I follow my instincts, and I trust my characters to take me to there.

When I write, I edit what I’m doing after the chapter is done. Immediately. Strip it down, tighten the bolts. I don’t like to open the document the next day and see messy, rambling copy. I cut a lot of the extraneous stuff, and there is a lot. I’m merciless.

5. Another thing I enjoy about your writing is that you write with an incredibly tight point of view. The result is almost no narrative backstory. Instead, the story percolates up through the characters’ (often unreliable) memories and perceptions. Tell me about this choice and how you balance the tight pov with your readers’ need for cohesion.

Well, thank you, Diana. It’s just the way that fits me, I guess. I know the characters very well, and I like to focus on what they’re seeing and feeling. Their past is a catalyst to how they react, and it feels more fluid if it’s revealed along the way. I want the reader to share the characters’ journey, involve them in the intimacy of the story rather than handing it out in large blocks.

I’m not really a complicated writer, but I try to weave the story so everything stitches together in the end. Sometimes a little reading patience is necessary, but if the reader is engaged, I think it’s worth the trip. So I have to make it engaging… through the characters, the mood, the flow of the story. Create empathy and believability. I think I do that.

6. That reader patience definitely pays off! I noticed a common theme in character and setting in Ordinary Handsome and A Very Tall Summer. Both have characters struggling with poverty in rural settings. Tell me about this choice and how it’s meaningful to you.

I’m familiar with poverty, or at least living paycheck-to-paycheck. I grew up with it and still struggle. I’m a working-class guy. I know these people; I played with them as a kid, I’ve worked with them, I’ve gone hungry with them. It’s real stuff. There’s no pretension: this is who I am, this is what I do, this is how I survive. Those are stories I’m interested in. There’s no abstraction in being poor. There’s grit, but there are also huge dreams, huge courage.

7. The grit, dreams, and courage comes through and gripped me as a reader. Both books I’ve read have a ghostly quality or “thin grasp on reality.” This gives your books a paranormal feel, but they’re more than that. How would you characterize your books? What kind of reader would enjoy them?

coveramazonI’d like to say I write literary fiction, but that sounds so fancy-pants. It’s not really supernatural or paranormal, but I’ve used those elements. I do like the concept of employing a dream-like reality, where these people have a fragile understanding of what’s going on, how they’re looking for the core of what it means. I think there’s a deep romanticism in the characters – and in me… a yearning for something better, something with a solid foundation. Literary fiction, I guess, is probably the broadest category to describe it. I hope any readers would come away with something that will stay with them for awhile, that it will be something relatable.

8. Your books do stick with a reader. I’m proof of that. Any advice for aspiring writers?

Read tons. Write tons. Believe in what you’re writing. Write what interests you, not just what’s popular or current. Learn the fundamentals: grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Don’t be afraid to fail… the more you write, the better you’ll become. Be daring!

9. What are you working on now?

It’s a fairly ambitious project titled ‘The Stone Age’. It’s set in the ’70’s, about three children growing up in Upstate New York. The title refers to a terrifying incident that happens to them that sets their childhood in stone and establishes who they become as adults. There’s love, betrayal, and a very human monster who shapes their lives. I’ve wanted to write something about childhood for a long time, about all its frailties and innocence, and how it fades into adulthood but never completely leaves. I can’t say more than that, but I think it’s going to be pretty substantial book.

10. Give us a teaser for one of your books.

This one comes from “Ordinary Handsome”. It’s a few quiet moments between the main character Jimmy and his dying wife. His confidence is badly shaken after a botched getaway, and his heart is breaking.

I kissed Arlene goodnight. The room was shrouded with blankets and black curtains. A dull 40-watt light bulb constantly shone on her night table, displaying a cluster of pill bottles and cups of stale water. Her forehead was warm, and her hair dull and fine. Her breathing was steady but shallow. The skin on her face looked too tight. And her hair smelled like black tea. I don’t remember if that was its natural smell or if it’s just a never-ending memory, a smell concocted from the drugs and the sweat of dying. I think her hair always had that smell, and it was something always uniquely Arlene. I don’t remember a time when she wasn’t dying.

I can’t tell you how much my heart broke with every goodnight kiss. I sat beside her for a few minutes each night and stroked her hair. I don’t know if she knew I was there, or even sensed it, but it calmed me. I would cup the side of her face and, though it was always damp and somehow greasy, I could feel the soft underneath-skin, the skin I caressed and kissed and marveled over. Minutes would turn to more minutes until I was afraid to leave her, afraid to stay. I don’t know that I had the courage to see her – feel her – die in my presence. I think that kind of courage was beyond me. But I would. I wanted her last physical perception to be my hand stroking her hair, with a kindness that let her know I was still amazed that she chose to be with me at all.”

newauthorpicblSteven Baird – Short Bio 

Steven Baird is an author, amateur photographer, and 36-year newspaper compositor. He does not like speaking of himself in the first person. He has published three novels, including his latest, A Very Tall Summer, and has been writing since the age of 10. He is a slow writer.

Steven is a native Canadian living in southwest Virginia with his wife Angela, a horse, dog, cat, and a Neurotic Band of Chickens (their official stage name). He does not take himself as seriously as his portrait would suggest.

Link to Steven’s Amazon Page:  Here

Steven’s Blog: Ordinary Handsome

Twitter: @SMBairdOrd