Book Review: Savior

Savior by Martha Kennedy

A B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree

savior-2-edition-coverSavior is Martha Kennedy’s poignant tale of Rudolf and his brother Conrad, inhabitants of thirteenth-century Zürich and a society immersed in religion and warfare. Rudolf suffers from depression, a condition he is counseled comes from Satan and can be eradicated in a fight to save the world from such sin. A local priest explains that with Jerusalem once more in the hands of the infidel, who “wasted no time in desecrating the holy sites and persecuting Christians living within its walls,” fighting these invaders would help to expiate sin and contribute to his salvation.

Kennedy opens Savior with a quote from St. Augustine that reflects Rudolf’s state of mind—“I bore a shattered and bleeding soul,” it reads in part—and a downpour reflecting the emotion, as if nature herself was as anguished. No amount of service to travelers escaping the downpour, or joy in his fiancée, Gretchen, eases Rudolf’s internal torture.

Conrad, on the other hand, is restless and though negative about Gretchen or some content of the minnesingers’ songs, sees a bright future elsewhere, such as under the tutelage of a knight, who could teach him the rules of chivalry. He longs to see the reality behind the travelers’ wonderful stories, so filled with the strange and faraway, the wild and brave. One could easily imagine Conrad delighting in The Travels of Sir John Mandeville had he known of even the outlandish within the travelogue, yet to be published.

Thus begins Rudolf’s aim to join the latest Crusade, following his own examination on the roots of his torment, and Conrad’s in his quest for adventure and something beyond the confines of the Longfields’ estate and his father’s goal for him, to serve his brother as a stable hand.

Image from first edition cover: Herzog von Anhalt from Codex Manesse (Wikimedia Commons)

As the boys prepare to leave, Kennedy alternates between Rudolf and Conrad and their conversations with those who seek to dissuade them. Through expressive, sometimes heartbreaking, dialogue readers are given an internal view to the opposing motivations of each to make the dangerous journey, the same their father had made in his own youth, and which had driven their mother close to the brink: Rudolf, to rid himself of feeling suffocated by the presence of evil, Conrad to “be[come] the hero of his own romance.”

One of the first features I noticed in Savior was the manner in which Kennedy brings to life not only her characters, but also the emotion swirling through so many scenes, while simultaneously managing its effect and keeping it out of the realm of the overwhelming. Readers feel each mood as it hovers, and the author consummately provides the history that we need to know behind each person’s perception.

Despite their opposing motivation both Rudolf and Conrad search for self, and the dialogue, whether between the brothers or one of them and a supporting character, reflects this intuitively. It is as if Kennedy overheard and recorded real conversations rather than created ones that sought to speak from distinct perspectives.

Character growth in Savior is depicted beautifully, largely utilizing the author’s dialogue expertise but also the internal discourse of several characters, including that which plagues and then begins to inform Rudolf as he faces the terrible reality of war, and the now-porous walls of his depressive prison. While his understanding is not exactly as he thought it might be, there is a greater openness to his examination that questions circumstances while retaining the devotion he had always known.

Kennedy wisely allows Rudolf to be the thirteenth-century man he is rather than forcing on him either genuine modern sensibilities or political correctness, while truthfully opening his understanding to the political machinations that had made their way into bonafide belief. The changes wrought by invasion and crusading alters his individual world and eventually society as a whole, and the pain of that transition is felt in Rudolf’s experiences.

Through the current trendiness of Christianity bashing in our own time, it would be easy to label Savior as an indictment of the religion given its early misdirection. While Kennedy does not pull her punches in illuminating the misdeeds of those who abused power and manipulated religiosity, she does also address human failure to recognize the beauty Rudolf’s God desires for him, and how ignorance is the main driver behind misinformation treated as the nature of God.

“Brother Youhanna, did those priests lie when they said my sins would be forgiven if I came to fight the infidel?”

 “Lying? No, yet I doubt they spoke the truth. They spoke from their beliefs, in the limits of their understanding, but Truth is not carried on the edge of a sword.

 “But if the Holy Father in Rome told them, would it not be the truth?”

 Youhanna shrugged.

 Rudolf never imagined the Holy Father could speak anything other than the truth. “What then?”

 “Confusion. Desire. Blindness. Anger. No one is free.”

As historical fiction the novel is top notch. Kennedy brings readers to the brutal Battle of La Forbie where injections of stark prose match what lay out in front of the arriving fighters: too few of them—the Hospitaller leader looks at them “thinking only that they had come to die”—horrendous confidence-destroying heat—shedding layers of protection one at a time, eventually succumbing grievously to, “Who cared if a sniper’s arrow picked them off? They were in Hell now. Death would bring Heaven”—and locals trying to “redeem themselves for the crime of survival.”

From their position on the coast to de Brienne’s impatient and premature strike from a disadvantageous terrain, Kennedy remains true to historic events, smoothly writing in both Conrad and Rudolf’s places in and before the battle. Rudolf experiences a watershed moment, flawlessly written into a scene leading to the moments both he and the fighters have been waiting for. A bridge in the novel, it is filled with an array of memories, sensations, activities and song of the minnesinger, and displays an achingly beautiful passage of time both ghastly and poetic, a combination not often seen done, even less often done as well as it is here.

While Savior is a work of historical fiction set in a time when religion was a way of life and not just part of it, it also is a coming-of-age story, though related within a cultural milieu so different to many of the same stories of today. This is not a Vietnam, or a coming to grips with gruesome urban events, and though it retains the spiritual with its mood and prodigal son angle, it opens itself to readers in its search for truth, an age-old quest, even while appearing in some ways so foreign to what many readers will know, such as medieval attitudes toward mental illness. It is also a book audiences will want to read again and again, it being easily recognizable as one with layers that often reveal themselves upon subsequent visitations, which I highly recommend.

Monk beating Satan (Wikimedia Commons)
Monk beating Satan (Wikimedia Commons)

About the author…

Martha Kennedy has published three works of historical fiction. Her first novel, Martin of Gfenn, which tells the story of a young fresco painter living in 13th-century Zürich, was awarded the Editor’s Choice by the Historical Novel Society Indie Review and the BRAG Medallion from IndieBRAG in 2015.

Her second novel, Savior, also an BRAG Medallion Honoree (2016), tells the story of a young man in the 13th century who fights depression — and discovers himself — by going on Crusade.

Martha KennedyHer third novel, published in July 2016, The Brothers Path, a loose sequel to Savior, looks at the same families met in Savior three hundred years later as they find their way through the Protestant Reformation.

Kennedy has traveled intensively in Switzerland, journeys that have at once inspired and informed her writing. She has also published many short-stories and articles in a variety of publications from the Denver Post to the Business Communications Quarterly.

Kennedy was born in Denver, Colorado and earned her undergraduate degree in American Literature from University of Colorado, Boulder, and her graduate degree in American Literature from the University of Denver. She has taught college and university writing at all levels, business communication, literature and English as a Second Language. For many years she lived in the San Diego area,but has recently returned to Colorado to live in Monte Vista in the San Luis Valley.

All of Martha Kennedy’s novels are available in both paperback and ebook formats from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes and other online booksellers. You can also contact the author!

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Follow Martha Kennedy to learn more about the author and her books at her websiteFacebookAmazonGoodreads, Twitter, or her Savior blog  and Facebook pages.

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The blogger was furnished with a free copy of Savior in exchange for an honest review.

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Photos courtesy of and provided by the author.

Book Review: The Prize (Tales From a Revolution: Vermont)

Tales From a Revolution: Vermont

The Prize

by Lars D.H. Hedbor

prizeOne thing I like best in the world is the ordinary. While fascinated with history and, indeed, some of the figures who played pivotal roles in certain events, I know too there were others whose parts, even when as witness alone, are precious in the memory of our nation. Imagine if others whose lives we know little about had somehow been able to record (or have recorded) events as they saw and lived them—imagine the greater understanding we would have of their time, how much closer we could be to those who came before.

Lars D.H. Hedbor captures the possibility of these moments in his Tales From a Revolution series, the first of which, The Prize, is set in Vermont and told from the point of view of Caleb, a boy on the cusp of manhood at a time when his colony is about to engage in open warfare against the British as the American Revolution is accelerating.

Though young, Caleb is savvy enough to understand the politics of events in his time, and the author presents American grievances succinctly as the book opens with the young man musing on current events and what led to them. Hedbor also layers the plot with familial conflict and distrust of a particular neighbor whose history we learn in bits over time, and why it matters to his neighbors and the revolution itself. These layers are threaded together so seamlessly that the effects in terms of relationships and lateral consequences play out smoothly and effectively as the narrative progresses.

Curiously, many today have forgotten or never knew that not all colonists were in total agreement with the shift away from British control. In fact, the rebels were in the minority and in some cases households divided. Hedbor illustrates this in part when Polly, Caleb’s mother, rows with her husband over his service with Ethan Allen’s Green Mountain Boys. Her family history haunts her, but her husband refuses to back down, citing the cost that always arises following submissive retreat.

“I’ll take no foolish chances, Polly. But I do not think it meet to stand idly by while my sons can manage the farm, and my service is needed […] I know this is hard … war always is. But peace purchased at the cost of capitulation is harder still.”

At just 187 pages, The Prize is a brief read, but Hedbor packs into it a fleet of detail about those living during the birth of a modern-day local Vermont legend of attempted trickery against the British, swiftly utilizing every sentence to provide historical and background information, simultaneously keeping the narrative on track. As in the dialogue quoted above, the author inserts period vocabulary to bring authenticity to characters’ speech, though sparingly enough to avoid affectation.

He also manages to bring readers into the story not only with his magnificently descriptive passages—

“There was the sour-sweet smell of rum and applejack, as well as the leathery aroma of tobacco smoke. The sharp reek of hard-working men competed with the more pleasant odor of a rich mutton stew, dark bread and sharp cheese set out before one patron at a nearby table.”

—but also those denoting real-world experience and understanding regarding the mechanics of action characters engage in.

“Once on the water, he reveled in the speed he could build up in the dugout. The air smelled of the rich soil and the fresh green leaves on the trees. Reaching forward with long strokes, he concentrated on pulling the water past him with his paddle, first on one side and then on the other, correcting his course as necessary with a twist of its blade as he drew it out for the next great pull.”

In this way Hedbor grants us the experience as close to Caleb might have lived it as we could get. His descriptions bring to life these elements, but also so much more as they trigger in our imaginations the feel of walking through a colonial restaurant pub, breathing in the smoke as we delight in the possibilities inherent in words such as applejack, hear the sound of leather and shifting chairs, contemplating what these people think and feel as to the revolution at their shores while they engage in ordinary pursuits such as a mutton stew. Their distance fades and they become individual personas with opinions, anxieties—perhaps even excitement.

With this Hedbor brings us to contemplate, more importantly, how did ordinary people perceive and move through the amazing changes taking place in their society, particularly when so much remained in question? We might consider the possibility that it was an exciting time in which to live, but did they?

“Mark this moment well, lad, for you shall never see another so filled with import as this, so long as you live. I know that I have not, in my many years.”

The author thus addresses the contemplation without losing sight of the ordinary that continues, as it must, to occur. A love story weaves through the novel as historical events keep on keeping on, with all having to face the accompanying realities: a relentless royal campaign to beat down the colonists, Hessian mercenaries, food and materials appropriated by British soldiers, loyalists, the distractions of war and necessary preparations removing people from earning a living, loss of friends and family.

As events move forward, Caleb keeping a close eye on them, he grows in his understanding and abilities to carry out his responsibilities to his family and community. This brings the greater weight of knowledge as he faces new alliances as well as unthinkable possibilities. Hedbor masterfully transitions his narrative through all this, mirroring the further reality that while Caleb unknowingly rubs elbows with some fascinating figures in the birth of a nation, we witness the same, bringing to bear the idea of the conventional cradling the extraordinary.

As Caleb’s mundane begins to heat up and helps to shape what will be the unparalleled, a nation governed as no other in history has ever been, we witness success and failure, love and loss; uncertainty leads many days. Hedbor presents the tale in a style appealing to grown-ups and young adults alike. The language is accessible and appealing, the book engaging and difficult to put down.

As readers close in on answers to mysteries and questions that arise through the book, though with some that will be left unanswered, there is a satisfying sense of connection upon reading certain familiar names, e.g. Benedict Arnold—despite what we know of how his days play out. But a deeper bond also emerges when we are witness to such events as depicted in The Prize taking place in Vermont, in an area close to update New York, that we don’t typically hear much about in common discourse, including our own school lessons. It lends such broad appeal that students of the Revolution and casual reader alike—American or not, child or adult—will revel in the great pleasure of reading such a captivating story of a mesmerizing time in American and world history, involving even the most ordinary of us all.

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About the author…

LHedbor-HeadshotWhat made the American Colonists turn their back on their King, and fight for independence? How were they different from us–and how were their hopes and fears familiar to our own hearts?

These are the sorts of questions that I think are important to ask in examining the American Revolution, and in the pages of my novels, I suggest some possible answers.

My first novel, The Prize, was published in 2011, followed by The Light in 2013, and The Smoke, The Declaration, and The Break in 2014; The Wind was published in 2015. I’ve also written extensively about this era for the Journal of the American Revolution, and have appeared as a featured guest on an Emmy-nominated Discovery Network program, The American Revolution, which premiered nationally on the American Heroes Channel in late 2014.

I am an amateur historian, linguist, brewer, fiddler, astronomer and baker. Professionally, I am a technologist, marketer, writer and father. My love of history drives me to share the excitement of understanding the events of long ago, and how those events touch us still today.

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You can follow and learn more about Lars D.H. Hedbor and his books at his website and blog, Twitter and Facebook. The Prize may be purchased in paperback (signed copies available upon request), as Kindle, Nook, iBook or Kobo.

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Photos courtesy Lars D.H. Hedbor

A free copy of The Prize was furnished to the blogger in exchange for an honest review

 

Image of the Week: Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians

On this Friday evening I’m pleased to announce a new feature to the blog: “Image of the Week.” I do confess this is inspired by a book I recently read (more on that in an upcoming post), though ideas for future images might spring from a variety of sources.

I’ve got two motives in mind, one being my desire to immerse myself more in photography, even if at this point it’s on a seriously amateur level. While today’s image is not a photograph from my own hand, it is intriguing in its appearance as well as subject. Also, the reading experiences I have enjoyed with small and independently published authors have been so rewarding because they’ve brought me to far more worlds than I believe I might ever have visited had I not discovered (or been led to) and pursued these novels, and I’d really like to share them and the personages within.

Since we all know this is a great big world and anything at all might capture one’s imagination, it will be inspiring to see what might pop up during any given week.

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Today we have a look at this image of Æthelflæd, daughter of Alfred the Great and later to be known as Lady of the Mercians. Born (c. 870) to the West Saxon King Alfred and a Mercian mother at the height of the Viking raids against England, Æthelflæd spent her childhood on the run from the invaders’ long reach.

Æthelflæd_as_depicted_in_the_cartulary_of_Abingdon_AbbeyMarried by her father to Æthelred of Mercia, she left her native Wessex for her new court. Upon her husband’s death in 911 she led her adopted land to freedom from years of Danish onslaught. Together with her brother, known to history as Edward the Elder, Æthelflæd understood that defense of England required unifying the land rather than fighting the enemy with smaller armies without cohesive organization. Her plans to defeat the Vikings were cunning and even the Danes recognized her value as a military strategist. Her death was mourned by friend and foe alike.

While I learned a bit about Alfred the Great at school, this era later had the same effect on me as did 1066: I was intimidated by the immense detail and perhaps also the amazing import of it upon later times, including our own.

Having now been persuaded out of my “historical comfort zone,” I began recently to read of Æthelflæd and was absolutely captivated. I’ve always understood that love of freedom and a willingness to fight to the death for it isn’t a modern phenomenon, and earlier instances of it solidifies our fight for it today. It isn’t a fly-by-night concept; we fight for something humans have demanded through history, and won even when far less equipped as we are today. There is admiration, even pride, for what was achieved against the odds.

There also is an innate human desire, nay, need, to know from where we come. This is why societies make record of what happens in their time, who they want those to come to know about. Images, engravings, coins, these and more are created and develop, and individuals continue to make new and different works of art, but also consistently return to the previous, for study as well as expansion. What do we see in these images? What was the artist thinking or how do his techniques mirror the times?

This portrait of Æthelflæd, from The Cartulary and Customs of Abingdon Abbey, c. 1220, obviously dates from much later than her lifetime, but a few details might tell us a bit about her status even so many years later. An image found at the British Library’s Online Gallery is accompanied by a caption informing readers that most cartularies have minimal or even no decoration. That this one does makes a statement, and though characterized by its medieval style lacking depth, it nevertheless translates high regard by placing Æthelflæd on a throne and showing her positioned as if issuing directive. Straight backed and regally attired, she is a figure of force even to the modern eye, which on occasion tends to perceive such images as less than serious. There are certainly many more details to be interpreted by eyes more well-versed in art than mine, though my hope is that even this small amount of discussion will spur interest in others about these figures who really are people so like us, and though they lived in such a distant time, they are ours, and we are theirs.

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Sources:

Æthelflæd: Her World: Warring Kingdoms and Viking Raids.” History’s Heroes? East of England Broadband Network, n.d. Web. 22 July 2016.

Johnson, Ben. “Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians.” Historic UK. n.p., n.d. Web. 22 July 2016.

Queens Æthelswitha and Æthelflæd, in the Cartulary and Customs Of Abingdon Abbey.” British Library Online Gallery. The British Library Board, 26 March 2009. Web. 22 July 2016.

 

Update: Book Reviews on Deck

It’s been a pretty crazy year with lots of ups and downs, time-sucking workload and changes that screamed the expression, “Want to make God laugh? Tell Him your plans!”

Having said that, it might be a tad risky to lay out more of them-plans, that is-so I’m going to call it an update. Wink! Wink!

As some of you know, I’ve had some difficulty this year with writing and typing, given some wrist orneriness, and so some things had to slow down. While I wasn’t typing a lot, I tried to make up for it on the reading side, the result being a pile of books on my desk for reviews. It’s kind of exciting!

I thought it might be fun to show you ahead of time some of the books I’ll be reviewing in coming days and weeks. And not to worry, I’m also working on a bunch of other reads, so I have plenty more to come!

I would like also to offer a great big thank you to the authors, who have been waiting a tad bit longer than usual for their reviews, and they have been absolutely grand about it.

Check it out ….

The Wind by Lars H.D. Hedbor

51CdSVYj+3L._SX369_BO1,204,203,200_The American Revolution Reaches the Gulf Coast

Gabriel is a simple sailor, doing the bidding of his captain and king, when he is swept up in a storm that changes his life in ways that he could never have anticipated.

Carlotta yearns for her lost home, and is searching for her lost husband, but both remain elusive in a world that has been turned upside-down by forces far outside of her control.

When the storm that is Governor Bernardo de Gálvez breaks over them both, neither will ever be the same — and nor will their world.

Savior by Martha Kennedy

savior-cover-kindle-jpeg-largeImagine living in a world where depression is not regarded as a disease, but as Satan trying to steal your soul. Imagine turning to your priest. He counsels you to take the Cross and travel thousands of miles to the Holy Land to kill people so you can be free of Satan forever. Imagine you believe this so fervently that none of the rational arguments offered by your parents, your friends or your beloved persuade you otherwise. The journey costs everything except the one thing you hoped to lose — your life. This is that story. Set in the world of the thirteenth century with its music, constant warfare and always-present God, fate takes Rudolf and his adventure-seeking brother, Conrad, from their home in the Albis Mountains near Zürich, to one of the final battles of the Crusades – the Battle of La Forbie.
Kennedy’s newest novel, The Brothers Path, is a loose sequel to Savior. It relates the experiences of the same family three hundred years later.

Hysterical Love by Lorraine Devon Wilke

51iJdo3uZWL._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_Dan McDowell, a thirty-three-year-old portrait photographer happily set to marry his beloved Jane, is stunned when a slip of the tongue about an “ex-girlfriend overlap” of years earlier throws their pending marriage into doubt and him onto the street. Or at least into the second bedroom of their next-door neighbor, Bob, where Dan is sure it won’t be long. It’s long.

His sister, Lucy, further confuses matters with her “soul mate theory” and its suggestion that Jane might not be his… soul mate, that is. But the tipping point comes when his father is struck ill, sparking a chain of events in which Dan discovers a story written by this man he doesn’t readily understand, but who, it seems, has long harbored an unrequited love from decades earlier.

Incapable of fixing his own romantic dilemma, Dan becomes fixated on finding this woman of his father’s dreams and sets off for Oakland, California, on a mission fraught with detours and semi-hilarious peril. Along the way he meets the beautiful Fiona, herbalist and flower child, who assists in his quest while quietly and erotically shaking up his world. When, against all odds, he finds the elusive woman from the past, the ultimate discovery of how she truly fit into his father’s life leaves him staggered, as does the reality of what’s been stirred up with Fiona. But it’s when he returns home to yet another set of unexpected truths that he’s shaken to the core, ultimately forced to face who he is and just whom he might be able to love.

Far from the Spaceports by Richard Abbott

51riqSA9DJL._SX373_BO1,204,203,200_Quick wits and loyalty confront high-tech crime in space.

Welcome to the Scilly Isles, a handful of asteroids bunched together in space, well beyond the orbit of Mars. This remote and isolated habitat is home to a diverse group of human settlers, and a whole flock of parakeets. But earth-based financial regulator ECRB suspects that it’s also home to serious large scale fraud, and the reputation of the islands comes under threat.

Enter Mitnash Thakur and his virtual partner Slate, sent out from Earth to investigate. Their ECRB colleagues are several weeks away at their ship’s best speed, and even message signals take an hour for the round trip. Slate and Mitnash are on their own, until they can work out who on Scilly to trust. How will they cope when the threat gets personal?

Gang Warfare: As War Clouds Tower, Sweets Turn Sour by Peter St. John

51KGHhagZBL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_Gang Warfare is a novel for all readers from nine to ninety-nine.
An orphan, evacuated from the World War II bombing of London, comes to live with his pious aunt in an English village, and a bag of liquorice allsorts is knocked out of his hand in the school playground. This trivial incident ignites a series of events leading to a breakdown of relations in the local community.
The newcomer is accused of assault, threatened with an appearance before the School Board, and is arrested for theft. He acquires a black eye, is blackmailed, and cheated of money.
The villagers take sides and become increasingly quarrelsome. An air-raid destroys part of the village. What eventually happens to them is another story.

How to Destroy the New Girl’s Killer Robot Army  by Mick Bogerman

51604MJd05L._SX319_BO1,204,203,200_Don’t antagonize the new girl at school.

She might just create robot soldiers to enact her revenge and terrorize your friends and family. Well don’t let their sharp teeth and quick speed intimidate you. Just follow my simple steps for How to Destroy the New Girl’s Killer Robot Army.

Wimps should put this book down and hide under the bed instead. I hope you last out the night. But if you’re brave enough, come join me in thwarting booby traps, disarming deadly weapons, and dodging flesh-searing lasers as we set out to destroy a lot of nasty metal minions.

When the Jungle is Silent by James Boschert

51QzNqqYHTL._SX348_BO1,204,203,200_Set in Borneo during a little known war called “The Confrontation,” this story tells of the British soldiers who fought in one of the densest jungles in the world. Jason, a young soldier of the Light Infantry, is stationed in Penang, an idyllic island off the coast of Malaysia. He is living aimlessly in paradise when he meets Megan, a bright young American from the Peace Corps who challenges his complacent existence. Their romance is interrupted when his regiment is sent to Borneo. Ill prepared for the grim horror of a war in the jungle, he finds himself “up country,” close to local populations of Iban headhunters, and in the path of a determined Indonesian offensive. Fighting erupts along the border of Sarawak and Jason has to learn to survive in a world gone mad. He is forced to wake up to the cruel harshness of real soldiering while he endeavors to stay one step ahead of the Indonesians, who are combing the jungle. The jungle itself, although neutral, is deadly enough.

The Prize by Lars D. H. Hedbor

514XYyxwfpL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_Caleb’s father is serving with Ethan Allen’s Green Mountain Boys as the long-anticipated open war against the British rages up and down the length of Lake Champlain. Between his duties on the family farm and constant worry about his father’s safety, the young man’s attentions are already fully occupied when a fateful encounter with an unlikely neighbor changes everything. Pulled into new intrigues and new friendships, Caleb finds himself on a path that changes his life – and which will affect the outcome of the whole war.

Book Review: The Fantasmagorical Forest

The Fantasmagorical Forest, Book One: Two Stones by S.L. Dwyer

Winner of the indieBRAG Medallion

Is it unfair to say that most, or at least many, teenage girls have a tendency toward self-absorption and hyperbole? In that context, what is the worst thing that could happen in their world? Loss of phone privileges? No trips to the mall? A summer filled with boredom and loathing? “This is going to be the worst summer I ever spent in my whole life.”

forestFifteen-year-old Katelin is a typical teenager who, like many others, has had to face some extra reality during these tough years, in coping with the death of her father. As the one-year anniversary approaches, she retreats into her familiar zone, reacting strongly and negatively to whatever does not match her coping mechanism. Unfortunately, this is pretty much everything, given that her mother is setting Katelin and her younger brother up for some summer with their great grandmother in the Appalachian valley.

Far removed from friends, malls, pool parties and anything else teenager-friendly that would keep her days filled and memories at bay, Katelin is in no mood to hear her mother’s hint about the surrounding forest when she repeats the adage about looks being deceiving. “’Sure,’ Katelin thought. ‘It looks just like it should—a place in the middle of nowhere, miles and miles from anything. Nothing deceiving about that.’”

Author S.L. Dwyer gives readers a view to what Katelin takes in—or sees and rejects—as they approach the isolated home. In a “cozy cup of lush forests,” a “blanket of buttercups” leads to a comfortable-looking home with wraparound porch and filled with country décor and appetizing food. Nana, as their mother calls the grandmother she herself spent time every summer with as a child, gives Katelin space to be as eleven-year-old Simon introduces himself to the older woman and eagerly opens up to their new circumstances.

While periodically readers will find themselves almost comforted by lush descriptive terms, this isn’t Dwyer’s only strength. She has an ear for teen and pre-teen verbiage and uses it effectively to satisfy young adult as well as adult readers. Phrases such as “Jeez, Katelin, why the baditude?” and Katelin’s overuse of “like” will be familiar to and fit in the ears of the younger set, while increasingly sophisticated verbiage draws them into narrative patterns also satisfying to an adult audience.

Katelin, however, isn’t quite there yet, and though she eventually allows Simon to lead her out of the house, she attempts to be unwilling as each step leads the pair closer to the fantastic within the forest. A morning blueberry-picking excursion that ends late at night as the pair desperately seek the correct path home—following the instructions of a fairy they’d encountered—increases Simon’s sense of adventure, acting as persuasive agent to Katelin’s reticence.

Her instincts seem proven correct when she is forced to enlist Nana’s aid to find Simon, who disappears into a tear between two worlds. While Katelin’s interest is secretly aroused, and her curiosity piqued regarding what other secrets the forest keeps, her brother’s rescue also debilitates and angers her. This is confirmed when their frightened Nana warns them from the forest and shortly after vanishes. The children embark on a quest to find her, requiring Katelin to take a stand and move forward to rescue the only person responsible for their well-being.

Dywer solidly handles this back and forth with Katelin, whose behavior realistically vacillates between conceding Simon’s point (“What else are you gonna do all day, sit here staring at the trees?”) and maintaining face by sustaining her anger and the wall she has built to keep it close to her. Fear at times holds her back as her anger slowly fades and her willingness to explore opens up. Her battles with herself and external forces overlap and Dwyer portrays Katelin’s growth process so genuinely that it is easy to forget there actually exist transitions between stubborn retention and moving forward. What occurs to Katelin and her realizations regarding the role she plays in her own misfortunes don’t come in one fell swoop, and even when she has an aha moment, Dwyer wisely makes no attempt to magically transform Katelin into a new person. Growth comes in fits and starts, and I found this pacing of Katelin’s to be one of The Fantasmagorical Forest’s greatest strengths.

Pieced in with all this puzzling is a history the children slowly come to realize, a history of the forest that involves their family, details also revealed at a pace that Dwyer successfully utilizes often for suspense, but also contemplation. When they come upon a precious stone—one of the two in the title—they also learn of a second. What happens when the stones are re-united, however, is unknown, and Katelin will be required to face the consequences if and when it is determined to bring them together at all, and the consequences if they do not.

This and other unknowns are faced and decisions will be made as Simon and Katelin meet and either ally or do battle with a variety of strange and fascinating creatures with an assortment of powers and limitations. The worlds and encounters the children pass through are both charming and alarming, linking back to what their mother had said about appearances, though there are no solid rules for determining which way any creature or entity might lean, or how best to assess who might be a great strength or supporting persona. It is up to Katelin and Simon to learn and adapt to their environment as they seek to ultimately rescue their Nana.

The Fantasmagorical Forest is a fabulous young adult novel suitable for adults, and all audiences will appreciate it as a coming-of-age story. While it contains some familiar elements, it is definitely its own tale. It also leaves open some questions, such as the stones and how they fit into the history, and I look forward to learning more about this mysterious and fantastic valley.

 

From the author’s website

Born in Connecticut, raised in Florida, and lived all over the country. My residences almost match my careers. I began as a nurse and went back to school for an engineering degree. Then on to finance and technology. Diverse, yes. Satisfying, no. My real love was writing.

bus_cardI am just your average person filling up my own personal space in today’s exciting world. I have always immersed myself in books from a very young age. Traveled to exotic locales and fought for the good side in the land of words written by those who crafted a story that enthralled and entertained.

I don’t write in any particular genre. When I discover a story tumbling around in my head, whatever the genre, I write it. The greatest enjoyment in writing is when the characters begin to steer the story in their own direction. It is truly exciting to find yourself cruising along with your central character, discovering new areas of the book coming not from my own conceptions, but riding the story that evolved through my characters. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else besides writing – books are magic. The world of fiction is so much more exciting than anything you could imagine in everyday life.

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Learn more about and follow S.L. Dwyer at her website, and check out her other books, including Dirt, also a winner of the B.R.A.G. Medallion. 

 

Book Review: Snake Face

Snake Face (Book III in the Mae Martin Mystery series)

Mae Martin is moving into the next phase of her life, what she’d been planning when last we saw her in Amber Foxx’s second psychic mystery, Shaman’s Blues. College in New Mexico has started and she cautiously enters a new relationship with Stamos, a fellow student with whom she later plans a road trip, given their destinations not far from each other.

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Snake Face, B.R.A.G. Medallion honoree

Very soon after the novel’s opening, Foxx utilizes a blend of dialogue and omniscient narration to bring readers up to speed on where Mae has been until now, and it works like a charm. The passages also introduce the above-mentioned Stamos Tsitouris as he and Mae get to know each other and work out an agreement for cross-country travel. Stamos provides background regarding his former wife and Mae recalls Jamie Ellerbe—known professionally as the musician Jangarrai—as she still tries to come to grips with the experience of having to reject a friend.

Previous Mae Martin Mystery readers will remember Jamie from Shaman’s Blues as well-meaning but clingy, and even Mae found herself frustrated by his constant presence and overwhelming energy. Mae, by now on her first date with Stamos, reflects on the differences.

“They were comfortable enough not to talk constantly, and Mae found it refreshing and peaceful, an ideal first date.

Jamie had never shut up. He’d been funny, or distressing, depending which way his random mind bounced, but even when he was entertaining he’d been exhausting. Stamos was relaxing to be around and yet sexy enough to give a little edge to his presence.”

 From this solid opening, Foxx moves forward in her tale, demonstrating her strength as we read a story written more tightly than its predecessor. Mae herself seems to be sturdier as well, having previously had to manage Jamie’s challenging personality, inner demons and raw inexperience with regard to navigating through life’s ups and downs. Though it takes some time in the book to measure Jamie’s success following the events of Shaman’s Blues, we see that he, too, has gained some confidence and competence, though the question of whether it will be enough is present throughout most of the story.

When Mae and Stamos inadvertently meet up with Jamie, who is attending to his own road trip—a music tour—there is discomfort on both sides while simultaneously bonding begins to occur amongst characters and readers alike. This installment’s Jamie is much easier to like, his eccentricities not so weighty, awareness more fine-tuned. He begins to pick up some of his own slack and this allows readers to focus more on enjoying his company. He attempts to explain it to Mae with a reference to the club’s name: Snake Face.

As part of the décor, “a crudely carved wild-eyed little man” catches Mae’s attention and she sees that “[o]ne side of his face was hot pink, the other livid green. His snaggle-toothed mouth gaped…at a spotted yellow snake crawling down his nose.” Recognizing the symbolism within himself, Jamie tells her, “Great Mexican nightmare art…Fighting ‘em off as best he can.” Not long after he repeats the last line, this time substituting the first-person pronoun to bring the reference to bear on himself.

One of the elements I enjoyed most in this installment is how Foxx alternates Jamie and Mae’s viewpoints, utilizing tension and cliffhangers to keep the pages turning. Apart from this however, it is satisfying to travel with all parties as they encounter their respective events and the theme of personal growth apparent throughout the book. This isn’t to say things wrap up easily; Foxx knows all too well life simply doesn’t pan out this way.

Starting with theft from his elderly and ailing van, Jamie encounters a series of events that not only plague a road trip already encumbered by depression, but also threaten to shut it down entirely. He knows this is a make-or-break season and readers can’t help but cheer him on as his pushback communicates to his tormenter that he will not easily be brought down. Drawing on his wits and a savvy in its toddlerhood, Jamie himself alternates between the two colors of the snake face’s emotions: pink of the fury beneath the surface and green of the envy he harbors that others seem to be able to deal with life’s plagues so much more efficiently than he. As he begins to connect the pieces, drawing from memory and clues left behind meant to tantalize his mind, he is required even to fight his own inclinations as he counsels himself to “fight them off” as best he can.

We see Mae continuing to get to know Stamos, a relationship Foxx skillfully keeps real, with tiffs and larger disagreements often brought on by misunderstandings and sometimes resolved if both recognize another theme rolling through the book, that of communication in various forms. Mae becomes aware of the drama playing out in Jamie’s life and connects to his surroundings visa her psychic abilities. Worried and stressed, she participates in a cat and mouse game leading to and from the culprit who, she comes to realize, has no qualms about moving into dangerous, even deadly, territory. Moreover, the links she begins to piece together create a picture in which Stamos plays a role and his reticence causes her to worry about its source.

It’s difficult to overstate how much I enjoyed reading Snake Face. Though previously Jamie had been more challenging to get close to, following his emotional growth and the detective-like path he and Mae both follow becomes more thrilling as the tale pushes forward and the sense of “this is not a game anymore” becomes more pronounced. Foxx also explores how depression takes shape as well as the ramifications of perception.

There is also a wider cast of characters, which makes sense, given the drive across a continent, and Foxx works them into the story seamlessly, Moreover, it isn’t all serious business: humor maintains a rightful place in Snake Face, including within the critical, such as animals playing a therapeutic role. Jamie’s humor shows itself intact when he names his adopted, and very flatulent, cat Gasser. In one of the most touching realities about relationships Foxx portrays for us, we see that this once unwanted cat needs Jamie as much as he needs Gasser.

I found this installment even easier and smoother than number two, and would perhaps go as far as to say it is better, though this could be unfair given how different it is to Shaman’s Blues, which doesn’t have quite as fast a pace. Its mood is also noticeably more somber, whereas number three is more of a nail biter. I do recommend reading number two, though not because Snake Face cannot be read as a standalone—it certainly can. However, having read Shaman’s Blues, somehow I find knowing the precise history Mae and Jamie share lends a deeper richness to Snake Face. What the two books do have in common is the B.R.A.G. Medallion, showing off Amber Foxx’s style, themes, plots and characters to be winners in the imaginations of readers, who keep coming back for more.

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The blogger received a free copy of Snake Face in exchange for an honest review.

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The Calling e-book, first in Amber Foxx’s Mae Martin Mystery series, is on sale for $1.99 until June 13th. Click here to get your copy today!

About the author…

AmberAmber Foxx has worked professionally in theater, dance, fitness, and academia. Her training and academic studies in various fields of complementary and alternative medicine, including energy healing, bring authenticity to her work. She has researched psi phenomena through the scientific literature and by talking with seers and healers. A college professor and yoga teacher, she divides her time between the Southeast and the Southwest, living in Truth or Consequences during her New Mexico months.

The fifth book in the Mae Martin series, set in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico and the Mescalero Apache reservation, is well underway and should be out later in 2016.

You can learn more about and follow Amber Foxx at her website. Shaman’s Blues and other books are available for purchase at a variety of outlets and can be accessed here.

Images courtesy Amber Foxx

Book Review: The Hour of Parade

The Hour of Parade by Alan Bray

paradeIn late winter 1806, Alexi Ruzhensky journeys to Munich with intent to avenge his brother’s death by killing Lieutenant Louis Valsin, the French cavalry officer who’d recently cut young Mischa down in a duel. Very soon after The Hour of Parade’s opening Ruzhensky meets up with the concept of a small world when he runs into two soldiers from Valsin’s regiment, necessitating his rapid entry into the scenario he has fabricated as cover: that his father had business dealings in Austria and he means to straighten out his family’s financial affairs.

In these moments author Alan Bray creates a palpable tension for the Russian officer as well as readers, who can sense his apprehension as “the dead and the unknown living” both seem so near to his current moment, the vivid imagery erupts into scenes that overcome his awareness.

“A silence, not at all empty, occupied him. His feet pushed against the floor, the muscles around his knees tense and hard, as if he were gripping a saddle instead of a chair. Outside, on the street, a horse whinnied, and then, like bubbles breaking loose from the bottom of a red-hot iron cauldron, the sound of gunfire began to pour through the windows of the coffeehouse. The shutters opened, the walls dissolved, and—his senses worn and beginning to fray—he was once again astride his mare Pyerits, leading a charge over a snow-covered field. Above her tossing mane, riders in green surged forward—French cavalry, shouting, shaking their swords. He pressed down against the stirrups and heard a wild cry.”

Bray’s prose masterfully transitions us from a fleeting reflection into a scene easily imagined as live action, jarring the viewer into chaos from calm, then back into a quiet coffeehouse, the frequency of change and uproar reflecting, as the novel carries on, Ruzhensky’s inner turmoil with each letter he receives from his father, asking if his son’s killer is yet dead.

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First edition title page of Rousseau’s Julie: or the New Heloise (Wikimedia Commons)

Ruzhensky confides the contents of his father’s letters to Marianne, his live-in lover who supports the mission and his pre-occupation with Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s epistolary novel Julie, a quote from which appears at the start of each chapter and illustrates small and large pieces of events as they play out. Ruzhensky himself seems to grapple with a concept Bray introduces in his epigraph: “The source of happiness isn’t entirely in the desired object or in the heart that possesses it but in the relation of the one to the other.” As he meets and gets to know Valsin, he struggles with the idea of carrying out the act he feels he must.

Bray writes in the style of the time his characters inhabit; that is to say he constructs his prose with a feel as if we are in the nineteenth century, there in the rooms with each person, sensing the mood of the time and seeing up close the relationships as they interact. Ruzhensky with his Marianne, whose acute instinct gives an impression of clinginess; with Valsin when he gets to know him; with Anne-Marie and even Marianne’s interaction with Yevgeny as the two carry out an unacknowledged rivalry—all are written in a manner thoughtful enough that they present to the reader as they truthfully are, though upon closer examination we see there is very much more.

One of the elements that drew me in most was Bray’s vivid and imaginative use of imagery, utilizing the canvas as a board from which to illustrate his portraits painted with words. The visual depictions are very strong throughout the novel and paired with Bray’s talent for layering, we can fairly envision the waves of heat emanating upward as they slither into “serpentine ribbons of heat,” or easily imagine the age of autumn and its “toasted, orange-colored leaves.”

While this imagery is breathtaking in of itself, it also is suggested by the impressionist-style painting on the novel’s cover. The abstractly painted man’s face lends a moody, tense feel with its short, thick strokes, side-by-side vivid colors and emphasis on light to display his facial features. This draws the eye to the painting as a whole, with subsequent analysis on the individual parts. In the same manner, Bray consistently provides a view through the novel as he then shifts to draw us nearer to details that characterize and more closely examine what is occurring. This feat he performs with individual scenes and the novel as a whole as readers both come closer to see finer details and seem to move backward to receive a broader view.

If this seems contradictory, Bray’s prose drawn out in broad brushstrokes, not unlike those on the cover image, blur the sharper edges of reality to reveal the nuances that populate Ruzhensky’s inner unrest. The man on the cover is painted in unreal color schemes, yet clearly there is a darker presence in his environment. In this manner Ruzhensky presents, caught in a labyrinth as he attempts to reconcile his growing mixed feelings about two worlds colliding and his role within each.

“After they departed, he’d remain, entangled by the different stories he inhabited. He was not the person they took him to be; however, it would also be untrue to claim the identity of the person the woman had killed. In fact, he’d begun to think that person had been killed and that he himself was someone embryonic. Someone developing a new identity, transforming in Munich’s womb. It was wonderful; it was unbearable.”

 As a behavioral study, The Hour of Parade is a fascinating glimpse into a world we ourselves both are removed from as well as inhabit. On various levels duplicity spars with authenticity, autonomy with duty and the need for redemption presents itself in multiple fashions, individuals tasked with choosing which is most suitable. Historical fiction, it portrays not only a period within the Napoleonic wars, but also the roles of men and women with the attendant vulnerabilities of each, and the complexities of relationships—between the sexes, parents and children, civilian and military, classes and nationalities. It reveals an author with a keen eye for human behavior and ability to work within various layers to relate a story, and carries an ongoing theme of movement between different worlds. While not an exhaustive sketch of the book, it is quite a lot for an author to juggle, and Bray does it with style.

Lovely, passionate, haunting, explosive, plush and vibrant, The Hour of Parade is a tale and a study to be seen as well as read, to drink in with the senses and to re-visit with the richest of classics.

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The blogger received a free copy of The Hour of Parade in exchange for an honest review.

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About the author…

Alan Bray Author Photo4

Alan Bray was born in 1954 in Detroit, Michigan, the only son of a sales representative for a railroad and a schoolteacher. He grew up reading books, which at that time meant adult books, as there was limited availability of children’s books. He read a lot he didn’t understand, but it gave him a love of literature.

He began writing fiction in his forties after careers as a professional musician and psychotherapist. He has a son and a daughter, and a wonderful wife.

You can follow and learn more about the author and his work at his website, Facebook and his author page. The Hour of Parade is available for purchase here.

Photos courtesy Alan Bray unless otherwise indicated. 

Book Review: Jake for Mayor (Brand Spanking New Release)

Jake for Mayor by Lou Aguilar

When Ken Miller, campaign manager to Bob Morris, witnesses his boss’s political crash via hot mike, his personal life also takes a dive. Taking to the road alone, he ends up in Erie, Colorado, a small town awaiting a make-or-break mayoral election involving only one candidate. Becoming entangled in a series of events with a homeless beagle called Jake, Miller ends up in jail. Released conditionally until trial, he must stay in town and take responsibility for the pooch. Drawn to a local waitress and into the town’s political shenanigans, he brainstorms an idea that will challenge the mayor and pump some life back into his own political career: Run Jake as a protest candidate and rise back to the top.

jakeI was pretty certain I was going to enjoy Lou Aguilar’s Jake for Mayor—the offbeat plot promised adventure of a different stripe and I was so curious as to what an author could do with this story. If I had any reluctance going in, it would have been a wariness of slapstick type humor, a brand that is funny enough at the start but dries up pretty quickly. But Jake’s very opening sentence—“The children were my best props ever”—spoke to greater substance and I relished even more this peek into the game of politics and the players it employs. My lone reservation was for naught: Jake for Mayor will have you busting at the seams and the only thing you won’t want to do is put it down.

Aguilar does a great job of informing readers that Ken Miller actually has intuition and ability to read situations, using body language, sensory integration and dialogue as one set of tools. Just as disaster is about to spill all over Morris’s career, Miller senses, soldier-like, the “not right” feel of his surroundings and realizes the lack of child noise has cast an eerie pall over the park.

Narrated in first person, Jake for Mayor gives readers a likable protagonist in Miller, cleverly avoiding the pitfall of conceit while also revealing his near lack of self-awareness as he casually palms basketball tickets into a reporter’s hands or pumps up dollar amounts on official paperwork. But he does understand the level of his duplicity, his own internal monologue or reactions to self corresponding to the gravity of his individual actions. He is honest with himself and readers, sometimes brutally so regarding the deficiencies of himself and others: “The pioneer spirit had built a hardy nation in record time, so that my generation could be so infantile.”

The timely nature of this novel is also difficult to resist—in addition to sly acknowledgement of contemporary social phenomena such as “safe spaces” and a mentality that imagines much is owed as opposed to worked for, Aguilar taps into the current real-life campaign season playing out in our country and before the world, with events that seem almost surreal as well as required. As in real life where both major parties have contributed to the setback of a great nation and created the situation they claim to abhor, Erie, Colorado has offered nothing for itself except to keep electing someone seemingly willing to destroy them so long as he imagines himself ahead. When a campaign manager—and an out of towner as well—offers up an option so bizarre as to be unreal, Miller hopes they will recognize it as their own creation and make the leap to save their town.

Indeed, Miller does begin to invest a real sense of caring into the town as he recognizes his affection for Jake has begun to replace seeing him as a tool, and he falls for Jenny, a waitress he meets in one of his first encounters in Erie. We see poignancy in Aguilar’s writing, reflecting Miller’s own façade, revealing deeper feelings shrouded by humor. The author hints at it early on when Miller watches as “[s]ilent lightning speared the barren land,” itself a possible portend of what may lie ahead.

One of Aguilar’s greatest skills in this debut novel is his effective management of shifts between humor and more serious content, as well as his mixing of the two. When it is relayed to a foreigner that a dog is running for mayor, the astounded Australian quips, “Crikey. No wonder your country’s going down the tubes.” While a serious concern for United States citizens in real-world society and politics, it also mirrors quintessential American humor in which the negative is embraced, mocked and defiantly turned into a target for change rather than a source for sinking into despair. Aguilar continues a long tradition of Americans making mockery directed at them their own, owning it as they see fit and turning it around on the original source, a habit that goes at least as far back as Yankee Doodle.

Released just today, Jake for Mayor is a hilarious look at the resiliency of a man who sets out to re-make himself and what he discovers along the way as he passes through the absurd as well as potentially deadly. A fantastic tale as well as a record of our time, this is a book for the keeper shelf. Moreover, if this is what Aguilar gifts us in his freshman (as they say in politics) work, I shall be on guard for what he has in store.

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The blogger received an advance review copy (ARC) of Jake for Mayor in exchange for an honest review.

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Lou Aguilar is a new Penmore Press author whose bio can be found here. Stay tuned to this page as well as the author’s for updates and further information. Jake for Mayor can be purchased in e-book form at Amazon immediately; paperback form is upcoming.

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Guest Post: Virginia King, Rocking with Rocks (Plus Giveaway)

Rocking with Rocks by Virginia King

Author of B.R.A.G. Medallion award-winning The First Lie

See below for giveaway and free download details!

The symbolism of objects has always fascinated me. My love of folklore means there’s always a mythical twist to my modern mysteries and ‘magic objects’ with fairy tale credentials often link up to form a matrix of clues. Such as rocks.

In Selkie Moon’s second mystery The Second Path the symbolism of rocks came to me, setting up a chain reaction of events in the story. It’s a good example of how an idea implants itself in the subconscious and multiplies into a theme.

 

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Rocks as Gifts

When my husband got to sail on an ocean-going canoe with the Polynesian Voyaging Society, he experienced the custom of rocks being exchanged from one island to another as a form of gift. This custom was in the back of my mind in The First Lie, when my main character Selkie Moon ran away from Sydney to start a new life in Hawaii.

Rocks Carry a Curse

When I wanted Selkie to carry a rock as a gift, I researched the custom and discovered some alarming stories – from Hawaii and Australia.

It’s illegal in Hawaii to souvenir a lava rock from a national park, but people still do it and lots of lava rocks are mailed back by visitors who claim the theft has cursed them with bad luck. Many such stories abound and perpetuate the belief in the curse.

Sorry Rock LetterThe rangers at Uluru (Ayers Rock) in central Australia are said to receive one parcel a day from hapless visitors returning ‘sorry rocks’ because the pilfered pebble has rained nothing but bad luck down on them.

In spite of these stories, I didn’t want to let my rock-as-greeting idea go, so Selkie doesn’t touch any lava rocks or go to Uluru.

What if?

With Selkie travelling abroad with a rock in her suitcase, my subconscious started playing with ideas. How could a rock play a part in the evolving mystery? What if …

  • she takes a rock through customs at the airport and declares it?
  • she’s carrying a rock in her hands ready to present it as a gift, but she gets caught holding it on a security camera, then later a window is found broken?
  • she’s got a rock in her suitcase and the bag splits open? Might the rock carry other things with it when it falls out? What things? What does she lose?

Rocks have Cracks

When Selkie gives her rock as a gift, the recipient rubs his hands over it and feels a crack. His reaction surprised both Selkie and me:

“I like this crack,” he says. “Cracks signify wonderful things.”

“Imperfection?”

He laughs. “Openings, secrets, doorways to hidden places, chinks in our defences, entrances to inner caves. Don’t get me started on cracks …”

This conversation is the beginning of another theme. The rock arrived in the story from just a simple idea but it grew into a series of symbols that weave and interconnect throughout the book.

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About the author…

When a voice wakes you up in the middle of the night and tells you to write a mystery series what’s a writer to do? That’s how Virginia King came to create Selkie Moon, after a massage from a strange woman with gifted hands was followed by this nocturnal message. Virginia sat down at the keyboard until Selkie Moon turned up. All she had to do was jump, the first sentence said. Soon Virginia was hooked, exploring far-flung places full of secrets where Selkie delves into psychological clues tangled up in the local mythology.

Before Selkie Moon invaded her life, Virginia had been a teacher, an unemployed ex-teacher, the author of over 50 children’s books, an audio-book producer, a workshop presenter and a prize-winning publisher. These days she lives in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney with her husband, where she disappears each day into Selkie Moon’s latest mystery. Bliss.

You can learn more about and follow author Virginia King at her website, blog, Facebook, Twitter or Amazon author page.

A Free Ghost Story

Get a taste for the Selkie Moon mystery series with Laying Ghosts, a modern 24-page haunted house story inspired by a Russian folktale and tangled up in a murder ballad dating back to the 1700s. It’s a standalone story but also a prequel to the series and explains the chilling reason for Selkie Moon leaving Sydney to start a new life in Hawaii. Download your free copy here.

Laying Ghosts
Click the image to get your free download!

Giveaway of The First Lie

You could be one of ten lucky winners who will choose either a signed paperback or an audio book of The First Lie plus a $15 Amazon gift code. One grand prize winner will receive a $100 Amazon gift code.

Enter here.

Or, if you simply can’t wait to own your own edition of The First Lie, hop on over to the author’s website and grab your copy!

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Click here to see my review of The First Lie, the thrilling first in the Selkie Moon Mystery series.

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Images courtesy Virginia King. 

Book Review: The First Lie (Plus Giveaway)

The First Lie (Book I in the Selkie Moon Mystery Series) by Virginia King

B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree

See below for details as to how you could win a signed copy or audio book of

The First Lie

and an Amazon gift card!

Plus: Download a free ghost story below!

Though I am a huge ghost story fan, over the years I’ve come to avoid various books classified as “paranormal” because so many involve blood-drinking and other creatures who fail to excite my imagination—and even disgust me a little. Let’s face it: it’s a wide continuum and though understandable why these and others might be placed on it, there are nevertheless huge gulfs. For a while there I found most of my ghostly reading came from the time when séances were all the rage.

First Lie coverSo it was with pleasure that I came across Virginia King’s The First Lie, a modern paranormal mystery steeped in Celtic and Hawaiian mythology that promised to draw me into an international chase between two worlds—and draw me in it did.

One of the first elements I admired was the likability of King’s protagonist and supporting characters. These are individuals who talk to each other in ways that genuinely reflect the way people really act and converse. Even the baddies are credible, their behaviors and consequences developing as a result of realistic foibles.

Australian Selkie Moon escapes an emotionally abusive marriage—itself entered with the hope of providing refuge from a cold and calculating stepmother—by re-locating to Hawaii, where she sets up a business venture. She begins to experience visitations by a woman warning that someone is trying to kill her. Selkie’s art-student roommate Wanda, knowledgeable in the supernatural, counsels her, but even her native understanding is limited by her experiences. Following her decision to fully investigate this and other goings-on, Selkie garners her information from a variety of sources, themselves linked within true-to-life degrees of separation and in possession of knowledge that makes sense relative to who they are—a wise direction for King to take and cleverly mapped out.

Selkie’s co-worker Derek and his partner, Nigel, gift her a dress custom made by an Irish girl, whose later link to Selkie weaves the story through a project at work, which in turn affects the business relationship between herself and a client who subsequently plays a large role in bringing her closer to understanding the events playing out in her life. Real life tends to operate this way, so it makes sense for the author to reflect this in her work, and she does it in a way so sleek and engaging I found myself moving through transitions I’d wanted to use as a good stopping point, but didn’t because I was so involved I had to keep following.

This ho’ohihi, interconnectedness, is also addressed within the tale in the context of the roles people play not only in their own lives and personal pasts, but also their ancestral histories and how that affects the paths they travel. The selkie mythology—sea creatures resembling seals who can take human form on land—is explained in a dialogue that unwraps yet another layer to the story and mirrors some of Selkie’s own memory and experiences, beginning with the name her mother loved so much, and into the present-day ghostly stalking. “Around here,” Roger tells her, “the interface between the living and the dead … wavers.”

At dinner the night before a proposed outing, Selkie asks for details. The exchange about photography encompasses a picture of the relationship between Selkie and Roger, expands upon the “interface” the latter had spoken of and becomes a conduit, a road for Selkie to make her way toward her next supernatural experience, developing a foundational event in her story.

“A competition. For serious photographers. Called … Life and Death.”

A topic that might be haunting me. “Isn’t a cemetery a bit … obvious?”

“Only to an amateur. It’s the artist’s job to accentuate drama. Transmute the ambience into something … palpable. A solitary gravestone against the horizon … signifying the folly of man’s struggle against nature. That kind of thing.”

“Right.” Roger could be a tad pretentious. “So why do you want me along?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” he mimics. “I need someone pretty to carry my bags. And waggle her excellent buttocks occasionally.”

“I want to take photos too.”

He laughs. “You know sweet FA about photography.”

King even enables the reader to interconnect with the tale, not only in its captivating nature and how she draws readers in, but also by a small addition at the novel’s opening, a list of Hawaiian words. She does this by keeping the list limited—removing the potential overload and overwhelming nature of too much new information—and her word choices render us familiar with but also visitors to this world: we are new, yet still connected, much like events and characters in the story. Kahuna, a wise person or sorcerer and menehune, legendary little people, link with the familiar: Pele, a volcano goddess, Mai Tai, lei and muumuu.

As the tale moves on and Selkie begins to find answers—often raising more questions—explanations are called for, and King provides in a way that encourages absorption rather than confusion. Her style is spare but not sharp. She deftly renders the potentially complicated into a succinct exchange or passage of a fascinating topic against the backdrop of Selkie’s story and intriguing hints at her ancestry. I remain rather impressed at how well she handles as many layers as the novel contains, all while still drawing in and keeping us mesmerized. For just a small taste at what that means, consider the variety of genres and styles The First Lie overlaps: psychological thriller, drama, betrayal, paranormal, mystery, magic, mythology, self-discovery and romance, to name but a few. Selkie’s real life experiences blend beautifully with her visions and King brings us to emotional depths, and with such expertise, often unexplored in modern literature.

The First Lie is simultaneously what I’d hoped yet nothing I expected: thrilling all the way through with new twists at every turn, written in a grand style in a modern setting, and opening the door to further exploration. What will Selkie’s future hold? What other questions will arise as a result of what she finds here? Will she in time be able to accept all she has learned? Does she want to know more?

These and other questions will arise in the series’ next installment, The Second Path, and I look forward to seeing where the tale will take me as well.

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About the author…

Virginia KingWhen a voice wakes you up in the middle of the night and tells you to write a mystery series what’s a writer to do? That’s how Virginia King came to create Selkie Moon, after a massage from a strange woman with gifted hands was followed by this nocturnal message. Virginia sat down at the keyboard until Selkie Moon turned up. All she had to do was jump, the first sentence said. Soon Virginia was hooked, exploring far-flung places full of secrets where Selkie delves into psychological clues tangled up in the local mythology.

Before Selkie Moon invaded her life, Virginia had been a teacher, an unemployed ex-teacher, the author of over 50 children’s books, an audio-book producer, a workshop presenter and a prize-winning publisher. These days she lives in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney with her husband, where she disappears each day into Selkie Moon’s latest mystery. Bliss.

You can learn more about and follow author Virginia King at her website, blog, FacebookTwitter or Amazon author page.

A Free Ghost Story

Get a taste for the Selkie Moon mystery series with Laying Ghosts, a modern 24-page haunted house story inspired by a Russian folktale and tangled up in a murder ballad dating back to the 1700s. It’s a standalone story but also a prequel to the series and explains the chilling reason for Selkie Moon leaving Sydney to start a new life in Hawaii. Download your free copy here.

Laying Ghosts
Click image to get to download page!

Giveaway of The First Lie

You could be one of ten lucky winners who will choose either a signed paperback or an audio book of The First Lie plus a $15 Amazon gift code. One grand prize winner will receive a $100 Amazon gift code.

Enter here.

Or, if you simply can’t wait to own your own edition of The First Lie, hop on over to the author’s website and grab your copy!

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Click here for Virginia King’s captivating guest post about souvenir and sorry rocks!

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Images courtesy Virginia King. A free copy of The First Lie was furnished to the blogger in exchange for an honest review. 

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This post was updated to include a link to the author’s subsequent guest post.