Memorial Day Weekend we had the pleasure of attending the Austin Author's Affair. While there we collected some awesome items to giveaway and met some fantastic new authors. Two of those talented authors, Emily Claire and Kirsten Osbourne, happened to be friends and both write romance novels with a Christian basis. While both authors are very different, as are their stories, we thought it would be a great idea to review their books together and offer a Christian Romance Giveaway with some of the items they provided at the Austin event, which we are very much grateful.
Will has just come back from the Napoleonic wars to England, having become an assistant to the brilliant but poor Surgeon Alec Comrie. They are starting a practice in the slums of Cripplegate, and have some familiarity with the Doomsday Men; the body-snatchers who provide corpses for surgeons. They are also known the rich and equally brilliant Surgeon Dionysus Atherton.
The plot of this tale is rollicking yet layered, so I am loathe to tell you much more, but after a botched grave-robbery, and some mob justice, a grieving prostitute is accused of murder, and Will Starling, with one foot in the street and one foot in the world of science and medicine, begins to see a conspiracy of diabolical cleverness that may involve Atherton, and may also just ensnare anyone who gets caught up in it.
Like the medical science of the time, the world portrayed by Mr. Weir is bloody and short. This is an historical novel that is full of sharp detail, but it’s not about hoop skirts and fox hunts. There is a loaf of anger in this story and most of it is righteous and well-deserved. Most of the characters in Will Starling have the deck stacked against them, but they push on, with a perseverance and an elan that makes a grim book a pleasure to read. Not to say that things are all sunshine and roses; there is plenty of misery to go around. Unrequited love, injustice, poverty, betrayal, arrogance, hubris, it’s all here in spades.
The bravery of common people, and the dignity of the downtrodden, and Mr. Weir’s care for these characters makes it all work. Will, the narrator is the star, but all of the rest of the characters, not matter how small, are brought to life. Meg Nancarrow will haunt me for years. She’s the kind of character that could carry her own book with ease.
When the story starts to race towards the end I got the feeling that I often get with the best of books; that the outcome is both surprising and inevitable, and that as much as I wanted to find out what happened, I dreaded the book coming to end. The question Ms. Shelley asked so many years ago is still relevant, and in Will Starling Mr. Weir shows that the answer may never be known; but posing that question, and doing it with daring and originality, is important enough.
Interview with Alexandra Sokoloff author of The Huntress Series:
The Bookend Family (BEF): It appears that you have been writing for a considerable amount of time, as I can first remember coming across your name a few years back on Goodreads.com. Can you tell me a bit about how you got started as a writer?
Alexandra Sokoloff (AS): I’ve actually been writing professionally for most of my adult life. I started out writing and performing plays as a kid (when I was ten we were putting on shows in a neighbor’s garage!). I did theater throughout school and university, and joined forces with a group of actor/writer/director friends to form an ensemble theater group right after graduating from Berkeley. That group eventually sort of – imploded, I guess is the word (although we’re all still best friends!) and that’s when I moved to Los Angeles to pursue screenwriting. Because I’d had all that theater training and experience, my first screenplay sold pretty much immediately (in a bidding war!) and then I worked as a screenwriter for ten years - I sold quite a few original scripts and was hired to do novel adaptations for various Hollywood studios before I snapped and wrote my first novel, The Harrowing. And luckily that book sold right away, too, so it was a smooth transition!
(BEF): I always love to know who writers are reading. Can you tell us what writers have influenced your work in the past and if there is anyone new that you've come to appreciate?
(AS): As a child, I was completely obsessed with A Wrinkle in Time, a brilliant and groundbreaking young adult thriller that’s also deeply spiritual. It taught me that you can be moral and political in the context of a wildly exciting adventure of a book, and how a genre story can have a tremendous emotional and galvanizing impact on readers. It’s still one of my favorite books! My dad was a huge mystery/horror/sci fi fan, so I grew up on the classics: Christie, James, Asimov, Bradbury, Lovecraft, King. Early on I honed in to how great women authors like Shirley Jackson, Daphne DuMaurier, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote horror and psychological suspense from a specifically feminine point of view, and I knew that’s what I wanted to do. Not surprisingly, these days I am a rabid fan of Tana French, Mo Hayder, Denise Mina, and Val McDermid. Again, I love the way these authors deal with crime from a feminine perspective, and how they cross police procedure with an almost supernatural sense of evil.
(BEF): You have written many screenplays. What's the biggest differences between writing novels and screenplays, and do you have a preference over original ideas or adaptations?
(AS): Everyone asks me this and honestly, there’s not much difference in the construction of characters and a story. Writing books is a LOT more work, though, because in film and TV you have hundreds, sometimes thousands of artists doing all the specific jobs of writing, directing, acting, designing, lighting, location scouting, scoring, costuming, props… while as an author you have to do every job yourself - plus you have to create a narrative voice that holds it all together. (That narrative voice would be the biggest difference between the two media).
But I feel my job as an author is to put a movie into the reader’s head. And of course all of that theater and film work has helped me to be able to do that.
I absolutely would rather write originals than adaptations, even though originals are ten million times harder. But doing adaptations has made me a far better writer than I would be if I’d only written originals.
(BEF): Going all the way back to The Unseen I see a strong foundation of research interwoven throughout your novels. How important is research to you and do you follow a specific process when doing research?
(AS): It’s my favorite part of writing by far! And it’s hugely important to my style of writing. When I write supernatural thrillers, I like to walk the line between reality and unreality – keeping the reader guessing about what’s really happening, so I am constantly creating story situations in which there are multiple plausible explanations for the weird stuff that’s going on, including mental illness, drug-induced hallucinations, and outright fraud. The way I achieve that suspension – and terror – is to dig into the specifics of what supernatural experiences actually feel like to people who have experienced them in real life, so I can create that experience for the reader. I want people to feel like the story could really happen. The Unseen was an opportunity to explore the real-life parapsychology studies of the Rhine lab at Duke University, which have always fascinated me. Who isn’t fascinated by poltergeists?
And with my crime thrillers, I want to know enough about the specific police procedure of the state and department I’m writing about to make it all feel real.
The process… well, of course I spend weeks and months on Google, Google Maps, YouTube – all that random Internet surfing. But I also very early on go to the places I’m writing about. I think it’s my job as a thriller writer to give my readers a sensory experience, and I want to be very specific about what a location looks like, sounds like, smells like, and feels like.
There’s also ongoing genre research that I’ve been doing for years. I go to citizen’s police academies and Lee Lofland’s great Writers Police Academy, which is a weekend of hands-on classes in various aspects of law enforcement specifically tailored to writers. I go to forensics and firearms training workshops. There’s all the random reading on mental disorders. You have to be constantly studying your genre!
(BEF): If we can talk a bit about The Huntress series, which your publisher has so graciously offered to award some of our readers in a giveaway following this interview. It appears to have been a very ambitious project. Can you tell me how the concepts and characters first came to you?
(AS): Thank you, and you’re very right - it’s a series that was a long time coming. It grew out of the research I’ve done into the psychology of serial killers, starting with some screen projects I was hired to do, I’d been studying all that, including doing interviews with FBI profilers, for a good ten years before I came up with the idea for the series. I could never have written those books just by doing a month of two of internet reading! I’ve always wanted to explore the subject in a way that might illuminate something about the nature of crime and evil and the justice system - from a feminine point of view. In the context of a really gripping suspense read, of course!
Because what I learned about serial killers from those years of research is that they’re men. Women kill, and they sometimes kill in numbers, but the psychology of female killers is completely different from the men who commit what the FBI calls “sexual homicide.” But the media and fictional portrayals never delve into that fact. So that’s what I’m doing in the series.
The inspiration for the series actually goes back even further than that. When I was working on my first screenplay, I was also working in the Los Angeles County prison system, teaching juveniles, mostly teenage gang kids, and very young girls who had been arrested, mostly for prostitution. Yes, they arrested the girls instead of the men who were trafficking and abusing them. My absolute horror and anger at that injustice – and the police procedure I learned during that period of my life - has been cooking for a long, long time.
So those two things, my research into serial killers and my experience in the juvenile court system, finally coalesced when I hit on the premise of a male FBI agent on the hunt for what he thinks may be a female serial killer – which he knows arguably doesn’t exist in real life. What the Huntress really is becomes part of the mystery, and it forces my agent/detective and the reader to challenge their own ideas about evil and justice and the gender differences in crime.
(BEF): The Huntress is such an original powerful character. Was it tricky to create other characters that could hold their own with her?
(AS): That is a great question, and again, you’ve gone straight to the heart of the matter. The Huntress has been in my head for a long time now (her back story is based on elements of a real crime that occurred in California, and it’s haunted me ever since I heard it.). With Agent Roarke, I had to create a man who would be capable of understanding what she does and why - both as a top-notch investigator and as a deeply moral human being. And I had to create an erotic polarity between them that would drive the series. So when I was working on the plot, I developed the two of them concurrently, as almost the masculine and feminine sides of the same soul. They are in pursuit of the same thing, with vastly different methods.
The other characters on Roarke’s team are fun to write. I really wanted a wide range of races to reflect the real population of California. And I wanted to layer in different cultural backgrounds so that other characters, like Agents Singh and Lam, would have a different spiritual perspective on evil that adds to our understanding of the crimes being committed. Special Agent Epps was always a given – he was inspired by one of the gang kids I worked with when I taught in in the LA County prison system. And as I mentioned, I also worked with girls like Jade who had been trafficked at a horrendously young age (not that trafficking isn’t an abomination at any age). I have a strong motivation to do those characters justice.
(BEF): I loved the overlapping plots. At times there were three or four characters all hunting other characters. Was that difficult to maneuver as a writer or was it fun to have that complexity occurring?
(AS): It’s agonizing! I make things so hard on myself with all of those subplots. But that’s what I personally love to read, so I don’t really have any choice but to write that way. Luckily I teach story structure, and I’ve written a couple of workbooks on the subject, so as long as I can remember to take my own advice, I manage to pull it off. It’s worth all the pain when I hear someone like you say that you’re enjoying it.
(BEF): One of the unique things about this series is the way you handle the concept of evil. In the first two novels it seems to be centralized in the character of The Reaper, an inside evil. In Cold Moon the evil is an even greater almost abstract force from the outside. That is not really a question but could you comment on that?
(AS): You’re just covering all the bases with these core questions, aren’t you!
I always wanted the books to explore many facets of evil. Evil as it presents in an individual like a serial killer or a child molester (and I include johns or “mongers” in that group). Evil as it presents in organizations, like gangs who traffic children because it’s less risky and more profitable than selling guns or drugs. The evil of a society which turns a blind eye to atrocities like sex trafficking or locks up the children who are being abused rather than prosecuting the abusers.
I agree that the evil in Book 2, Blood Moon, is more centralized on the Reaper, and that the idea of an abstract evil is stronger in Cold Moon. But in Huntress Moon, I would say that the evil exists in a series of men and women that Roarke and the Huntress come in contact with over the course of the story. And because of the trauma she’s experienced, the Huntress sees that all that as one evil that she calls It.
(BEF): When the evil changes The Huntress does, too, becoming an almost archetypal mythological force. Was it always your intention in this series to transition the focus of evil from the one individual in the first two books to a societal evil that is present in the third book?
(AS): From the beginning, I’ve layered in the idea of Roarke feeling at moments that evil is an almost abstract force. And in a key scene in the first book, even supremely balanced Epps admits he sometimes feels that way, too. Over the course of the books, that feeling becomes more and more overwhelming to Roarke, until it reaches a crisis point in Cold Moon.
I've always seen the Huntress partly as a (very dark) avenging angel. Readers certainly see her that way! But in Cold Moon that idea becomes bigger, too, as she seems to draw down an archetypal force that is much larger than she is – and in a more real-life way, actually goes viral. And that surprises and frightens her. By the end of Book 3, she and Roarke are both way out of their depth, and they both know it.
The viral part of it was a surprise to me, too! But by the time I got to writing Cold Moon, I realized that in our internet society that is exactly what would have to happen, logically, given the circumstances.
Which goes to show that even for an extensive plotter like me, once a story gets going, something else always takes hold. We don’t do this thing called writing all on our own.
Needless to say things begin to speed up after this. One of the real strengths of this book is that even though this books is meant for younger readers you never get the feeling that Ms. Hoffman is talking down her prose or dumbing down her ideas. There are plenty of sub-plots in Nightbirds; Twig’s mysterious absentee father, a parliament of hidden, endangered owls and their secret benefactor, a rash of petty thieveries, a special school play, etc. As busy as the story is it’s never confusing, as Ms. Hoffman gracefully leads us through. Like Bradbury, whom I mentioned earlier, the town of Sidwell is a magical place. There is enough conflict in the story to make it interesting, but nobody comes off like a serious villain. There is a kind of Sepia glow to this book that I found very charming, but it never got sweet or smarmy.
In the end almost everything comes together beautifully, in such a way that is both surprising and inevitable, which isn’t nearly as easy as it sounds, and it works beautifully because of Ms. Hoffman’s smooth and assured touch. She made me want to move to Sidwell.
Who wouldn’t want to live in a town that has its own monster?
Review by: Mark Palm
This review is a first for me. I am going to review two books, but I decided to review them together, at the suggestion of my wife, Stacy, who came up with the idea. I am blessed by that fact that she is not only my wife, but someone canny enough to see that putting these two books together gives me a rare opportunity; this review can not only inform you about these books, but can also tell you a bit about the artists who inspired them. So, here are two books, as different as night and day, about artists as different as night and day. Rock-n-roll fans, I give you a dream concert: Elvis Costello and David Bowie.
Mr. Crouse obviously loved the time, the music, and the people who made it. He understands what made Elvis so special is that he had the angst and anger of other bands, but he also had a rare sense of melody and craft, along with smart lyrics. He does an exceptional job of showing how Elvis’ sensibilities were formed, and how he, and others like Nick Lowe and Ian Drury helped make an exciting new twist on a very old form.
Mr. Crouse makes the details come alive, with stories about the size of the stories and the size of the performer’s egos. All in all it’s an intimate and scrappy love-note about how and when an artist found his voice and started his career. Elvis Is King makes the case that My Aim Is True was a truly rare phenomenon, and an album that was absolutely the right sound at the right time. This book is not that, but it’s pretty darn close.
Like most of the books I review The Fair Fight is an ARC, and I am not allowed to quote from it, and in this instance I am truly sorry. If I could give you just a taste of Ms. Freeman’s prose you would see what an exceptional novel this is. She writes with such passion, wit and power that I wish I could grab you, dear reader, and point at a page and say “read this!”
The Fair Fight is the story of Ruth, born in a brothel and fated to a life of drudgery until she discovers her love of bare-knuckled boxing. We also follow the story of Charlotte, born an aristocrat but scarred by smallpox, trapped by the twisted whims of her drunken brother, and later in a loveless marriage with a man, Granville, who cares only for gambling. He manages, or exploits, first Ruth, and later her husband Tom, whom he believes can be the Champion. Eventually Ruth meets Charlotte, and begins to teach her how to box, setting them both on a journey that will change both of their lives.
The narration is shared between Ruth, and Charlotte, and George, another sporting gentleman who is Granville’s friend and confidante. All of their voices are different, distinct, and beautifully realized. Although I was practically cheering by the end of this book it is not all flowers and rainbows. Like boxing its beauty is bound up with violence, and blood. Fighting is at the heart of this book, and no one in it fights harder than the two women at the story’s center. They have a lot to fight about, as well; the class system, poverty, and the absolutely crappy way in which women were treated in the early nineteenth century.
Their bravery in facing a world in which most of the deck is stacked against them is truly inspiring, and although this book is full of hard knocks, Ms. Freeman has such style and tells her tale with so much heart and caring that I almost found myself jumping up and down at the end. I came to care for these character so much that I literally dreaded the end, even as a rushed toward it, propelled by the sheer force of Ms. Freeman’s story.
To return to my earlier metaphors, Anna is the Champ.
May 18th kicks off a week long celebration for those of us who have discovered the joys of reading YA (young adult) books. I personally have always enjoyed YA books, and have never felt any shame in reading these fantastic novels by some of the most creative writers out there. YA is by no means any less of a genre than any other "adult" genre on the market. I would actually argue that some of the most talented writers can be found producing amazing books in the YA market.
So what are we reading this week to help celebrate? Our reviewers have listed the books they have chosen to read for the week.
Stacy's YA Reading List:
Mark's YA Reading List:
Brennan's YA Reading List:
Avalon's YA Reading List:
That is what we are reading, don't forget to leave a comment and let us know what books you are reading to celebrate YA Week!
This book is still the story of the Huntress, Cara, and FBI Agent Roarke, and his team. What makes me believe that this series will just get better and better is that the story expands, and Ms. Sokoloff brings great depth and complexity to a tale that was already very good. Singh and Epps have more time in this book, along with social worker Rachel, and Cara’s cousin, Erin. With their expanding rolls the extra characters enrich the novel.
Plot-wise The Reaper is dead, and Cara is in custody, but there is precious little evidence, and only one witness, the mercurial and unstable runaway Jade, who is also an exceptionally well-drawn character with an expanded role. Cara’s crimes, though unproven have taken on a life of their own, and her story goes viral. She has become a folk hero of sorts, and several times she is linked with La Santisima Muerte, a female folk Saint venerated in Mexico and the Southwestern United States. A group of hackers helps boost the story and Cara begins to morph into an iconic archetypical character, an Avenging Angel.
The story grows in depth, and we follow more characters even as Cara and Roarke continue their deadly pas de deux. Ms. Sokoloff hits all the right notes in the way she deals with the story slipping out into the wide world. Her grasp of the societal and sociological aspects of this story is assured, and most importantly, never boring or staid.
What makes this so gripping is that even as they are caught up in these grand events both Cara and Roarke are still people, and watching them try to maintain control of their lives, their identities, and their fates, is compelling. Ms. Sokoloff should get extra credit for her skill here. These characters struggle, and take their lumps, but I never got the feeling that they would give up. Both Cara and Roarke have reached the point where they feel like real people, and that is rare.
What makes this book so good is that these two solid believable characters are caught up in a story that is quickly getting out of their hands, yet both of them seem to want to just stop. The relationship between the two, always good, just got a bunch better in this book. There’s a real poignancy in their scenes together, and the contrast is only made stronger by a plot that’s as fast as a Cheetah with a rocket strapped to its ass.
As far as it goes, you could read Cold Moon as a stand-alone novel, but I would say that you are cheating yourself out of a hell of an experience. So read the first two books, then read Cold Moon. The only problem now is that I have to wait for the next one.
Heinrich “Hades “Archer is a criminal fixer, who owns a garbage dump that he occasionally allows people to use to dispose of bodies. A group of brutal but bumbling would-be kidnappers show up looking to dispose of the corpses of two children, the only family left after a botched job. Hades kills the criminal, and discovers that the children, a brother and sister, Eric and Eden, are still alive. Not knowing what else to do, he takes them in and raises them as his own. The ordeal that they suffered however scars them, and they show signs of becoming serial killers themselves. Hades trains them in all of the things that they need to know, insists that they limit their crimes to the guilty, and gets them jobs with the police.
Years later Detective Frank Bennett starts working with Eden after the death of her former partner. Their first case is tracking down a serial killer who harvests organs, and not only for the money. From there the book turns into a series of parallel investigations, as Frank finds himself investigating Eric and Eden, the death of her former partner, and finding himself in a surprising relationship with Martina, a gutsy witness who managed to escape from the killer. By the time the tale really starts to take off Frank has so many many plates spinning at once that I got dizzy.
Ms. Fox provides all the twists and turns you could possibly want, and she does it with great style. All of the characters are unique and finely drawn, if often unpleasant. Martina will break your heart, and Eden is just phenomenal. This is a twisted story, dark, bloody and original. It’s strong stuff, and Ms. Cox does a bravura job of pulling it off. The tension grows and grows, and Ms. Cox doesn’t flinch for a second. Not once does she take her foot off of the stories throat, and by the last few chapters I found myself having to hold back to savor the details instead of just flying to the end. All in all, Hades is a startling, compelling, and very dark ride.
Advance Praise for Spelled
“A cute adventure with romance set in a world full of fairy-tale mash-ups. Readers will love Dorthea’s evolution from spoiled princess to strong, confident heroine… For Oz fans, this work is a great clean-read alternative to Danielle Paige’s Dorothy Must Die.” -School Library Journal
“This wickedly funny, fast-paced adventure has it all: brains, courage, and heart. (Plus a kickin’ pair of heels.) .” --Jen Calonita, author of The Secrets of My Hollywood Life and Fairy Tale Reform School series
“Fairy tale survival rule #1, do NOT read this book late at night. You will wake up your entire family with loud laughter. Fairy tale survival rule #2, if you love the Wizard of Oz, clever fairy tale mash-ups, and enough twists and turns to keep you guessing what will happen until the very end, you MUST read Spelled.” --J Scott Savage, award winning author of Farworld, Case File 13, and theMysteries of Cove series.
“A hilarious and snarky reimagining of the world of Oz, along with many other fairy tales injected throughout, "Spelled" is one fabulous read…Kick off those silver slippers and tuck in with this wonderful tale!” —Senator Sipes, Lil Book Bug (Palmdale, CA)
Talk about unhappily ever after. Dorthea is completely princed out. Sure being the crown princess of Emerald has its perks—like Glenda Original ball gowns and Hans Christian Louboutin heels. But a forced marriage to the not-so-charming prince Kato is so not what Dorthea had in mind for her enchanted future.
Trying to fix her prince problem by wishing on a (cursed) star royally backfires, leaving Dorthea with hair made up of emerald flames and the kingdom in chaos. Her parents and everyone she loves are stuck in some place called “Kansas.” Now it’s up to Dorthea and her pixed-off prince to find the mysterious Wizard of Oz and undo the curse…before it releases the wickedest witch of all and spellsThe End for the world of Story.
Betsy Schow is the author of the memoir Finished Being Fat, and has been featured on The Today Show and in The Wall Street Journal. She lives in Utah, but travels the country with Color Me Rad 5k, and partners with nonprofits to teach kids creative thinking and how to reach their goals.
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Excerpt from Spelled:
Most of the crowd had dispersed. The final few stragglers looked at me with the alltoo-common look of fear mixed with trepidation. Pix ’em. They were just servants. It wasn’t like their opinion mattered.
Only one remained, watching me with open curiosity. He looked to be in his late teens or was magically enhanced to appear so. He could have been a hundred for all I knew. I’d never seen him before in my life. He was handsome enough, for a commoner, even in his worn leather pants and cracked work boots. A foreigner, his hair was unruly and dark auburn, which complemented his tanned but dirt-smudged complexion, though the tall, dark stranger vibe was ruined by his piercing pale blue eyes.
Well, I’d had enough of being a sideshow for the day. “If you’re the new gardener, the hedges are overgrown and in need of a trim.” I pointed in the direction of my father. “While you’re there, you can help the king with the wisps.”
The young man’s expression clouded over, but he didn’t move.
I stamped my foot and pointed more forcefully. “Off with you. Courtyard’s that way. Be sure to clean those awful boots before coming back in.”
“Someone told me I’d find a princess of great worth here. One with the strength to be the hero this realm needs.” He stared at me with those unsettling blue eyes. They were cold, like ice water—made me shiver from head to toe. Then his gaze seemed to search even deeper. Finally, he looked through me, like I was nothing.
In brisk steps, he strode across the marble to the courtyard. But before crossing the threshold, he turned back to glare at me with his lip curled ever so slightly. “It seems she was mistaken.”
Just like that, I had been sifted, weighed, and found wanting.
I felt my own lip curl in response. How rude! Who the Grimm was this peasant to judge me? I was wearing a Glenda original. Original! Not some fairy-godmother knockoff worn by those servant girls turned royal. I was a crown princess, for the love of fairy, and no one dismissed me.
Before I could put the boy in his place—down in the dirt, where he belonged—a clatter came from behind, making me nearly jump out of my shoes. I checked and was relieved that Sterling had simply dropped his sword. By the time I looked back, the gardener was gone.
After stowing his blade, Sterling held up his shield, not in defense of the entrance but so he could look at his reflection. “Clearly he’s blind and doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”
I didn’t ask for Sterling’s opinion, but it made me feel better.
Until he opened his mouth again.
“Worth, pffft. I mean, look around at all the jewels. Your palace has everything you could ever want. Honestly, I don’t know what you’re fussing about. Why would anyone want to leave?”
Because a cage is still a cage, no matter how big or glittering the bars are.
And I would find a way free, no matter the cost.