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

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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…

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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.