One Woman’s Island – Fan mail and reviews! (3)

From my main blog, a couple of reviews and some fan mail!

Books: Publishing, Reading, Writing

And definitely not from some flounder!

But this is what I can call a message I really like!

Not all readers like to write reviews and post them online, and I get that! So I will never ask anyone to review my books or post their thoughts if they don’t wish to do so.

However, I do know many readers, especially friends, like to tell me their thoughts and impressions about my books after they’ve read something I’ve written. They quite often write to me privately in an email, or they tell me in person when I meet up with them. So I then ask if I may post their comments to my blog, and will do so anonymously, if that’s what they wish.

Here are comments from two friends who had previously read Island in the Clouds and have now told me what they think of One Woman’s Island

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Reorganizing things …

Wow! Did this summer get away from me or what? I can’t believe I’m already packing up the trailer to leave Canada for the winter months as I head back to Bequia in less than two weeks. Where has the time gone?

Salvadore Dali's The Melting Watch

Salvadore Dali’s The Melting Watch

But really, what scares me most about this quicker-than-usual passage of time, is that I didn’t get even half done of what I’d planned to accomplish this summer. I did manage to read a huge number of books, mostly borrowed from the library. But I did not get my novel published (yet) and didn’t do a lot of other things I had hoped to accomplish with my own writing and that of others.

But mainly I fell short on publicizing other authors I’d promised to promote on my blogs, and for that I feel terribly guilty. And I’d like to take this opportunity to apologize to all of you, because I won’t be able to get any of this done before I’m settled back on Bequia. I do hope that by the end of Oct. I’ll have managed to get somewhat caught up with those promotions that were promised first earlier in the summer. I’m sorry, but that’s the best I can offer right now. After tomorrow I’ll be travelling to visit friends and don’t know where I will have time or access to internet connections to be able to accomplish much of anything.

So, to those of you who have been patiently waiting to see your promo on Reading Recommendations or this blog, I ask that you be patient a little longer. I’ll get to all of those I have already queued as soon as I can.

The Piano Teacher – a review

Today is Eugene Stickland‘s Birthday! So in honour of the special occasion I’m posting the link to this review of The Piano Teacher from Hubert O’Hearn.
And Congratuations! go out to Eugene as well on being awarded
The City of Calgary W.O. Mitchell Book Prize!

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The Piano Teacher
by Eugene Stickland
Published by BHouse Publications 2015, Trade Paperback, 251 pages
Purchase copies here

As a general rule (named for one of our country’s finest military leaders) I like to ignore the author’s biographical details when reviewing a piece of imaginative fiction. Knowing where a writer went to school, who he had lunch with in 1974, or the circumstances behind the sort of divorce that sells extra copies of The Daily Mail adds nothing but trivia to a reader’s experience with the work itself. If it adds depth, well then he should have bloody well included it in the first place. I have enough trouble remembering where I left the keys to the lock on the garden gate without having to go searching about for clues to a novel’s intent.

There are however exceptions to the general rule (as he found when his troops mutinied after the disastrous Battle of Bar Coasters) and The Piano Teacher presents one of them. Eugene Stickland is best-known as a Canadian playwright and a teaching writer-in-residence. Those experiences are funneled through his imagination in the creation of this occasionally spiky yet generally sentimentally loving first novel.

The book is in three sections, each corresponding to the entries made in three notebooks given to the unnamed narrator by his equally unnamed niece. As Stickland has not chosen to name the narrator I’m going to do it for him as it will seem rather Victorian to spend the next few hundred words writing about ‘our main character’ like Our Mutual Friend or Our Miss Brooks. I’m going to call him Bob. So there.

Bob has never written anything like a diary or a journal before and so he decides to do just that with these notebooks, addressing the entries to his niece. She is a student of creative writing which in turn makes Bob feel more than a bit self-conscious and apologetic regarding his word choice and over-reliance on parenthetical comments (something I know absolutely nothing about).

Although we are told nothing else about the niece other than what is mentioned above, her existence as unseen audience was a cunning choice by Stickland. You see, Bob is one of those all too familiar artists – in this case an aging concert pianist and occasional composer – who is fantastically expressive within his chosen medium yet emotionally stunted, almost mute, when it comes to emotional engagement with other people in real life situations. In other words, Bob is a romantic trapped inside a bachelor. Because he is writing about himself to a real person, one who might someday read his words, Bob pulls back slightly from a full revelation of his feelings. Were his diary addressed solely to himself or to God (two of the three conventional ‘audiences’ to whom an actor can choose to deliver a Shakespearean soliloquy; the third is the present audience) there would be no need for the filter. Bob would just blurt it all out, refrain from any secrecy, and we readers would lose the gentle unwrapping of his character that gives The Piano Teacher structure and emotional narrative.

Because Stickland is a playwright whose best-known work is probably Queen Lear (described as ‘two-hand with cello’) he has a phenomenally excellent ear for dialogue and pace. That is vital. When one is going to spend 250 pages or so internally listening to one voice talk, that voice itself had better well be a pleasant one. While Bob may be a bit of a priss and a borderline snob, he also mixes in his withering comments with self-deprecation and melancholy, like a Jake Arrieta or before him Greg Maddux working three pitches to keep the hitter guessing.

That baseball metaphor wasn’t chosen on whim. When Bob was a boy, baseball was to him what Rosebud was to Charles Foster Kane. Bob wanted to be a baseball player, but when his talent at the piano was recognized and encouraged by his teacher and mentor Alfred, well so much for balls, bats and the seventh-inning stretch.

Bob too becomes a teacher, out of sympathy for his building manager and her daughter. The manager is undergoing cancer treatment as is Olga Lipinski, a piano teacher herself who came closest to breaking Bob out of his emotional turtle shell. So he takes on the seven year-old as his first and only pupil which allows Stickland to write quite beautifully about the confusion, the frustration, and the little victories all teachers know so well.

Alfred was probably the only one who could have endured my tempestuous nature as a boy and guided my playing (and me) to the very highest level. There’s no real template for a good teacher, is there, dear niece? We find, somehow, if we are lucky, the people we are meant to learn from and the others just drift past us. Some may become friends and even lovers, but very few will ever earn the right to be known as our teacher. It’s true, in his fashion, in his time, Alfred touched my life in a profound way. Olga Lipinski has clearly touched the lives of many. I wonder if I’ll ever be able to say the same about myself.

The Piano Teacher could easily have been a play. Indeed it might have been a memorable one with several musical interludes built-in; rather as if the one-man show about Truman Capote, Tru was played by the late Victor Borge. However, we should be glad that it is instead a novel. The confined space of three little notebooks and action that is nearly ninety percent set within Bob’s condominium open up the shyness, the ego, that oil and water forced into the same jar, that is the life of an artist. The Piano Teacher is a fine and funny book. Humour written in a minor key.

Be seeing you.

Hubert O’Hearn
(This review is reposted here with permission and appeared here previously.)

Both Eugene Stickland and Hubert O’Hearn have been featured previously on Reading Recommendations.

The Boy – a review (2)

Betty Jane Hegerat’s latest novel, Odd One Out, will be published by Oolichan Books in early May. In anticipation of that publication, here is part of an interview posted by Carin Makuz on her blog, Matilda Magtree, talking with Betty Jane about her most recent book, The Boy.

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The Boy
by Betty Jane Hegerat

Purchase copies here

(at) eleven with betty jane hegerat: the boy

I was introduced to Betty Jane Hegerat’s work through a mutual friend, Susan Toy, who I met through a Humber writing program some years ago. A small group of us have kept in touch and Susan regularly fills us in on what’s new and brilliant, book-wise, in the western half of the country. Over the years I’ve come to value her judgment. Hegerat’s The Boy was no exception to her exceptional taste.

The story, based on real events—the murder of a family in 1959 rural Alberta—is told in three interconnected parts: i) fiction (Louise’s story; she’s stepmother to Danny, a difficult and troublesome boy), ii) creative non-fiction (this is Daisy’s story, the real-life mother of five, whose stepson, Bobby Cook, ‘the boy’ of the title, was convicted of murdering his family and became the last person to have been hanged in Alberta, though there remains much doubt about his guilt…), and iii) a memoir of the author’s journey through the research and writing of the book, during which time she develops a relationship with the fictional character, Louise, who makes regular appearances throughout, prompting Hegerat to storylines and directions she’s reluctant to pursue. The reader is privy to all these ‘conversations’.

It sounds complicated. It isn’t. At least not for the reader. As a piece of writing, it’s quite a feat; Hegerat’s use of structure alone is inspirational. (I challenge anyone to suggest a better way of telling this story.) The three perspectives (as well as comments by fictional Louise—this is such a mad and wonderful component!) eventually merge and, seen as a whole, we realize that it’s not just about the boy, but about everyone else, about the way we judge, the roles we play, the things we protect and why. The subject is disturbing, yes, not the least for its setting in the most ordinary of lives, but at the end of the day, the story is less about murder and more about compassion, small-mindedness, fear, what it is to be a woman, a mother, a friend, a neighbour. We all have an influence on each other’s lives and no matter our circumstances, we really aren’t that different— which, if you think about it, is both comforting and frightening.

The (At) Eleven series was begun as a way of chatting about books written by people whose paths have crossed mine in some small way or other. And because I feel that any discussion of words and stories goes best with a little something to eat—and because it’s hard to share a meal online—I make a suggestion at the end of the Q&A as to what meal the book has inspired. (In case anyone would like to do a little book club food pairing.)

“Eating is our earliest metaphor, preceding our consciousness of gender difference, race, nationality, and language. We eat before we talk.” ~Margaret Atwood from The Can Lit Food Book

(For the rest of this interview, please go to Matilda Magtree.)

Carin Makuz

Betty Jane Hegerat has been previously featured on Reading Recommendations here and here. Carin Makuz, while never having been directly promoted as an author on Reading Recommendations, is a great pal of this site. Carin maintains two blogs: Matilda Magtree and The Litter I See Project, which has featured the work of a number of RR-promoted authors (including Betty Jane Hegerat!) and was promoted on the blog in Nov. 2015.

No More Mulberries – a review

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No More Mulberries
by Mary Smith

Purchase copies here
(Currently available on an Amazon Kindle Countdown Deal)

*The author provided Colleen Chesebro with a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review which follows*

It all begins in Scotland –

While in college studying midwifery in her native Scotland, Margaret meets the dashing and mysterious Jawad, an Afghan engineering student. There is an immediate connection between the two and Margaret follows her heart falling head over heels in love with Jawad. They visit Afghanistan together and Margaret fearing she will lose Jawad to his homeland, proposes to him knowing the cultural roadblocks that lay ahead for the two of them. Jawad’s parents do not approve of the marriage. They finally agree that if the two can be separated for one year and still feel the same about each other they will give their permission for the couple to marry.

Meanwhile, back in Scotland, Margaret changes her name to Miriam and converts to Islam. For Miriam, this is a decision that immerses her into the Muslim culture of her future husband. After a year, Miriam and Jawad are reunited and married. Eventually, Jawad and Miriam have a son together named, Farid. Life is challenging for Miriam as she struggles to learn the language and customs of her new homeland but her love for Jawad is unwavering.

And ends far from home…

When Miriam’s father becomes ill, she takes Farid and heads back to Scotland so her father can meet his grandson. Upon her return, traveling through Pakistan on her way back to Afghanistan, Jawad’s brother informs her that Jawad has been killed. Miriam knows none of the details of Jawad’s death. All she knows is that the love of her life and her son’s father is gone. Broken by the news, Miriam knows she can’t go back to the home that Jawad and she shared as a single woman with a child. Cultural norms won’t allow it.

It is during this time in Pakistan that Miriam meets Iqbal, a doctor who is in need of a wife in order to go back to his home in Afghanistan. Culturally, it is imperative that men of Iqbal’s age be married, especially since he is a doctor/paramedic. The two enter into an arranged marriage of sorts, although they share a deep love for Afghanistan and its people. Miriam longs to stay in Afghanistan to raise Farid in his native land and marrying Iqbal seems to be the logical way to stay in the county.

What transpires is a love story steeped in the cultural differences of strict Islamic traditions, customs, and beliefs which lead Miriam and Iqbal on a mission of self-discovery to find themselves and their own true love and happiness.

Recommendation:

I was excited to read this book because I have a close friend serving overseas in Afghanistan. Culturally, I knew nothing of the country or the traditions. I only had a fundamental knowledge of Islam so I knew this was going to be a book like no other I had ever read. My assumptions were correct and I was immediately immersed into Miriam’s world. I cried with her, laughed with her, and at times tasted the grit of blowing sand feeling as if I was walking in her footsteps.

As I began reading this novel, I realized that I had to set aside my own belief system and embrace those of the people of Afghanistan. Many of the characters struggled with this same dilemma. When Miriam attended a school to brush up on medical training she met a female German doctor who was amazed at the way the Afghani women were treated by their husbands and even their own families. It was a hard lesson to learn that some things are so deeply rooted in tradition they cannot be changed. After traveling the world a bit myself; I realized that we all have cultural differences so it was not a stretch for me to embrace the people of Afghanistan.

This novel is written from the unique perspective of the author, Mary Smith, using her own observations and experiences while living and working in Afghanistan in the 1990’s. The sights and sounds of the bazaars came alive for me through powerful descriptions that made me feel like I was right there bartering for goods beside Miriam. I longed to try some of the foods and would have loved to have experienced the rich tea that was served several times a day.

The book is written from the perspective of Miriam and then of Iqbal in alternating chapters. I believe this gives the reader a chance to delve into the personalities of the pair as separate people who are also a couple. It is a deep character study of the choices people make in life and the consequences of their choices. I found that I could relate to Miriam’s and Iqbal’s experiences in many ways in my own life.

For those of you who follow my reviews, you know how emotionally vested I get in characters who come across as real individuals. These characters leaped from the pages of the book into my heart. Remember, deep down this is the story of renewal and of finding true love, which just goes to show you that true love has no cultural boundaries.

Colleen Chesebro
(This review has appeared on Lit World Interviews and Silver Threading.)

Mary Smith has been previously featured on Reading Recommendations. Colleen Chesebro is a writer of cross-genre fiction, poetry, and imaginative nonfiction and reviews books on her blog, Silver Threading.

Lost and Found – a review

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Lost and Found
by Maria Savva

Purchase copies here

Maria Savva’s new collection of short stories is a pleasure to read. She really has the knack of describing people in a way that makes you care and sympathize, even when the people are sometimes rather troubled and find themselves in complicated circumstances. There are glimpses of many characters and many lives in this collection: a horrible boss getting his comeuppance, a man trying to get out of stale relationship…and changing his mind…kind of, an innocent man in court, and many others. Each person and each tale coming to life in Maria Savva’s gentle, but perceptive storyteller’s eye.

My favourite short story in the collection was ‘Boomerang’. This one really got under my skin with its single mother, pushed by exhaustion and regret to the point of doing something terrible. It’s a tragic story, with a twist that kept twisting the knife just a little deeper as I read it. Another favourite is ‘Left Unsaid’, which takes a hard, and piercing look at several intertwining relationships between four characters. Recommended!

Maria Haskins
(This review has appeared on Goodreads.)

Maria Savva is currently running a Goodreads Giveaway for 3 print copies of Lost and Found. Click here to enter!

Maria Savva has been previously promoted on Reading Recommendatons and recommended the writing of Maria Haskins on the blog, as well.

Dolls Behaving Badly – a review (2)

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Dolls Behaving Badly
by Cinthia Ritchie

Purchase copies here

Marie of 1WriteWay introduced me to the writer of another book with the word DOLL in the title.

When I started reading Cinthia Ritchie’s novel Dolls Behaving Badly I immediately thought, “Oh, my son’s fiancée will love this book.” Then I thought, “Mom will want to read this book.”

It starts off like fun chick lit. A single mom of a genius 8-year-old son needs to figure out how to pay her bills on her waitress salary and find love and happiness from a trailer in Alaska.

Luckily for me, before I sent a link to them, the dolls entered the book. Just in time, I stayed my hand (I know the phrase doesn’t belong outside the Bible or historical romances, but this is where it gets a little “Biblical”). The protagonist, Carla Richards, is not just a server, but also an artist, and retired Barbie and Ken dolls serve her art. She hacks and appends to them, all for a very “upscale” erotic website.

Although I didn’t send out the link, I kept reading because the last thing this book is is porn. It’s a well-crafted story of how Carla and the “family” she builds around her grow and change with dignity.

Ritchie khows to tell a story that is both accessible and thought-provoking. Sometimes the book stuns me with a lyrical phrase or brilliant notion. She uses some contemporary stylistic experiments quite well. For instance, Carla is writing her diary in tandem with reading the philosophies of an inspirational speaker known as The Oprah Giant. She’s haunted by the ghost of her dead Polish grandmother and is still friends with her ex, a chef. The recipes of both these characters are translated by Carla and the recipes supplied for the reader.

If it were a movie, the book would be called a comedy, maybe even a romantic comedy, but as written word it is much more than that. The book probes and examines our hopes and fears without letting us know that’s what it’s doing. Dolls Behaving Badly is not lightweight or superficial. It accesses the hidden areas of the mind and of the heart.

I still think my mother and future daughter-in-law would love this book, but I can hear the comments (“My mom gave you a book with WHAT kind of dolls?”). Maybe I could send it to them anonymously?

Luanne Castle
(This review was originally published on Luanne’s blog.)

Cinthia Ritchie has been previously featured on Reading Recommendations. Luanne Castle publishes the blog, Writer Site, and is the author of the award-winning poetry collection, Doll God.

Island in the Clouds – a conversation

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Island in the Clouds
by Susan M. Toy

Purchase copies here

(at) eleven with susan toy: island in the clouds
(For complete interview, click on Carin’s site, Matilda Magtree)

When I met Susan Toy through the Humber School for Writers online program some years ago, the first thing I learned about her was that she was obsessed with food and books. I’ve since learned that cats and coffee are a close third. [They may well be first…]

The other quality that made her stand out was a need/desire/talent for sharing information. I used to call her our ‘clipping service’. [For readers of a younger vintage, I’ll clarify: clipping service = google alerts with scissors and newsprint.]

We connected for all of the above reasons but also because she lived on an island in the Caribbean. And so had I for a short while. We traded some ex-pat joys and commiserations in between commiserations about our works in progress.

Her WIP eventually became Island in the Clouds, a murder mystery set on the island of Bequia, which Susan has called home for close to twenty years. It begins as all island mysteries should: with a dead body in the pool playing havoc with the pH balance. Toy writes with tongue-firmly-in-cheek, a pull no punches style that shows island life from an ex-pat perspective not afraid to laugh at itself while wringing its hands at the tribulations of island bureaucracy, customs and general shenanigans. The sounds, scents and sights of island life are always just there, not too far in the background. Ice-clinking is big here…

Her protagonist, like so many ex-pats, is running away from a bad deal back home, but no one asks questions on Bequia; this is part of its charm. Days are made up of food and drink and gossip and oh yeah! the need to make a living. But don’t be fooled by the palm trees and laissez faire vibe, there’s also a lot of nastiness going on and duplicitous friendships and, like any small town, everyone knows everyone else’s business, even if they don’t always talk about it. A lot of smiling through one’s teeth. Add island politics—and this is no small thing—and the result: when a murder is committed, the question is not so much who did it but who’s willing to admit who did it. Everyone’s scratching someone else’s back.

If you’ve ever lived on an island, you’ll smile and nod your way through the familiar. If you haven’t, but think you’d like to, it’s a good eye-opener. And if you read it while on an island, even better. The mystery element is but a bonus in my view. For me, it’s all about the place.

As always, in my (at) eleven series, the Q&A is followed by a menu chosen by me of a meal the book most inspires. Or, put another way, the perfect nosh while reading, because food and books just go together…

“Eating is our earliest metaphor, preceding our consciousness of gender difference, race, nationality, and language. We eat before we talk.” ~Margaret Atwood from The Can Lit Food Book

And now, may I introduce… Susan Toy, island reporter, on-line pal and oh-so-generous clipping service…

1. What literary character did you most identify with as a child, or want to become?
ST—It’s a toss-up between Harry the Dirty Dog and Curious George.

2. At age fifteen, what were you reading?
ST—Everything I could get my hands on from the library about Down Syndrome, because the daughter of a family friend who played with my younger sister and me when they came to visit had me intrigued. I thought I might like to work with Down Syndrome children when I grew up. Then, that summer at the cottage, I read through an enormous stack of Harlequin romances with a babysitter the same age as me who had been hired to look after the neighbour’s children. I know … weird. I didn’t really discover real literature until after that year.

3. Do you find there are recurring themes in your work, generally, that surprise you?
ST—The main issue that comes up, and this is mainly in my short stories, is of being trapped in a situation and not being able to get out of it. Reconciliation is another.

4. What is a favourite passage from any book, and why?
ST—Finally! Someone has asked me this question, and now I can tell everyone about this wonderful passage from Ivan Doig’s Dancing at the Rascal Fair:

“There in the gap, Herbert whoaed the horses.

What had halted him, and us, was a change of earth as abrupt as waking in the snow had been.

Ahead was where the planet greatened.

To the west now, the entire horizon was a sky-marching procession of mountains, suddenly much nearer and clearer than they were before we entered our morning’s maze of tilted hills. Peaks, cliffs, canyons, cite anything high or mighty and there it was up on that rough west brink of the world. Mountains with snow summits, mountains with jagged blue-grey faces. Mountains that were free-standing and separate as blades from the hundred crags around them; mountains that went among other mountains as flat palisades of stone miles long, like guardian reefs amid wild waves. The Rocky Mountains, simply and rightly named. Their double magnitude here startled and stunned a person, at least this one—how deep into the sky their motionless tumult reached, how far these Rockies columned across the earth.”

This is one of the best descriptive passages I’ve ever read, because Doig put the exact words to my feelings the very first time I saw the Rocky Mountains, when I moved to Calgary in 1978. This passage still causes goosebumps.

5. What is the writer’s role in society?
ST—I attended a seminar led by Aritha van Herk in which she said that the writer translates or interprets for the reader. That’s the way I think of writers—we are translators and interpreters of experience.

6. Island in the Clouds begins with a wonderfully candid description of, and introduction to, the ‘character’ of contemporary Bequia via the book’s narrator. In this way, we meet the island before we meet our protagonist. How important was ‘place’ to you in writing this story? And the accuracy of place… versus a fictitious island, for example.
ST—Place was the most important aspect of this novel. It was suggested by early readers that the setting be fictitious, because I was perhaps a little too accurate—and honest—about the island. But I knew the greatest appeal of this story was that it was about Bequia, so I never considered telling the story any other way.

7. Some elements of island life, especially local politics, are not always shown in the best light. Islands are small places… how was the book received by locals?
ST—I’ve received mixed reviews, but mainly positive comments, mostly from foreign tourists and ex-pats who say that I’ve nailed the place and what goes on here. I believe I portrayed the general local population in a generally favourable light. I know a few (very few) local people have read the book, but no one has criticized me for what I’ve written. I was told that one foreigner thought I had been too harsh in my depiction of the police – until she was robbed and had to deal with them herself. Then she said I had not been harsh enough. (I gave a signed copy to one of the gardeners who works for Dennis, and he said, “Sue, I will cherish this for the rest of my life!” That choked me up!)

8. What brought you to Bequia?
ST—We first came to Bequia as tourists in 1989 after a customer at the Calgary bookstore where I was working suggested it as a possibly vacation spot. We were hooked from that very first time, kept coming back every year, and before we knew it we bought land, built a house, and moved here permanently in 1996.

9. Any challenges/differences writing a male protagonist?
ST—No. Geoff’s was the first voice that came to me when I began writing this novel and that seemed quite natural for the story I wanted to tell. The second novel in the series is about a woman, and I really don’t notice that much difference writing in her voice from writing in the voice of a man in the first novel.

(rest of the interview …)

Carin Makuz

Carin Makuz, while never having been directly promoted as an author on Reading Recommendations, is a great pal of this site. Carin maintains two blogs: Matilda Magtree and The Litter I See Project, which has featured the work of a number of RR-promoted authors (including me!) and was promoted on the blog in Nov. 2015.

The Gift: Awakening – a review

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The Gift: Awakening
by J.P. McLean

Purchase copies here

From the book:
The Gift: Awakening follows the heroic journey of a young woman in her quest to overcome the burden of an extraordinary legacy and find her unique place in the world. Emelynn Taylor’s new gift, bestowed unceremoniously and unasked for, thrust her into a vortex of mystery, wonder and intrigue that promise to change her—and her world—forever.

The review:
I don’t give 5 stars easily, but I gave them to J. P. McLean’s Awakening with no hesitation. It has everything you’re looking for in a contemporary fantasy: masterfully crafted characters, exciting plot, believable magic. I love the pace. I love the setting. I love the narrative voice… I read it in two days; I couldn’t put it down.

Awakening is a deeply moving book and it will stay with you forever.

It’s refreshingly free of cliches. It’s gentle and lyric, and it’s dark and hard. It’s an intelligent novel, generously sprinkled with beautiful, subtle humor, and written by a natural storyteller. A rare treat!

J.F. Kaufmann
(This review has appeared on Goodreads.)

Both J.P. McLean and J.F. Kaufmann have been previously featured on Reading Recommendations.

Castles in the Air – a review

I’m posting this “beta read” rather than a usual review-after-publication, because I thought readers might like to see part of the process most books go through before they are published. And it was the original post by roughseasinthemed that brought Castles in the Air to my attention, making the book sound so interesting in the reviewer’s evaluation that I asked Alison Ripley Cubitt to promote the book on
Reading Recommendations.

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Castles in the Air
by Alison Ripley Cubitt

Purchase copies here

To beta read or not?

For those of you who don’t know, beta readers are people who read a pre-publication draft of a manuscript and suggest changes. They aren’t editors, and normally they don’t pick up on grammar and typos, although some do.

The main role is to provide feedback on how the book hangs together from the reader’s perspective.

Sometimes readers get an edited version, but often, it’s a version that’s not been through a professional editor, because an author isn’t going to want to pay for one round of editing to have to go back, rewrite and pay for extra editing.

Usually, it’s done for free, for example authors reading the books of other authors.

Not everyone uses betas, or, an editor may fulfill the role of a beta.

What are the sort of things beta readers look for?

The obvious ones are: characters and their development throughout the book, pacing, dialogue, flaws, inconsistencies and plot holes, structure e.g. is the order and emphasis right? more of this and less of that? what worked, what didn’t, and the big one – did the reader like the book?

People reply differently with their feedback. Some provide detailed comments via track changes (I can’t bear all the annotations, gives me vertigo), others make general comments, others look at specific aspects in detail. An author may ask readers to look at certain sections they feel are weak, or they may give betas a list of areas they want feedback on. It’s very flexible.

In one of the professional book review groups I’m in, one author asked for beta readers. So … I ended up reading Alison’s terrific book, Castles in the Air.

It’s a family memoir of her mother’s life, based on diaries, letters, and Alison’s observations as a child and young woman.

I was intrigued for so many reasons: Royal Naval connections, travelling and ex-patting from England to south-east Asia, to South Africa, back to England, then Malaysia, and then Australasia. With a few more trips thrown in.

Molly, the main character in the book, was born in the 20s, and her family travels to Hong Kong in the 30s shortly before the outbreak of WW2.

We read about the four or five week voyage out there, life on board ship, and the amazing life young Molly had in, firstly Hong Kong, then Singapore, and later at school in the Cameron Highlands. But as the war becomes more intense in south-east Asia, Molly and her mum are shipped out, although they have no idea where they will end up.

It’s a world in the past but Alison recreates it beautifully. An added bonus in the book is a selection of photos from this long-past era.

I loved the detailed reference to on-board ship menus in the 30s, so much so that I got hugely distracted hunting down more of them.

I can understand why Molly recalled the food on board ship, as they were served what, in that time of austerity, would have been elaborate meals. Family meals at home would have been simpler: one course, perhaps two at weekends or on special occasions. It must have seemed as though they were going out to dinner every night. A typical adult Tourist Class lunch menu from the sister ship of the Corfu, the Strathmore, in 1936 consisted of soup or Welsh rarebit to start, followed by veal cutlets with bacon, potatoes served three ways and bringals (aubergine). On the cold sideboard was potted meat and fish, Leicester (pork) pie, roast rib of beef and ox tongue. There was a choice of four salads, including beetroot and American. On the sweets menu was fruit roll pudding and a blackcurrant water ice. The cheese course offered four types of cheese, including gorgonzola, accompanied by a selection of bread rolls.

Get that! And people think food has improved?

As Molly grows up, we watch her start work, take pride in the career she chooses, and then she becomes engaged. Molly travelled out to Singapore again in the early 50s. Hm. Menu not as good.

After her marriage, we follow her new life and read about her starting her own family, and the inevitable challenges of leading an ex-pat life in yet more countries.

I don’t want to retell Molly’s story, so suffice to say it is surprising, poignant, heartfelt and very moving. With an unexpected ending.

It’s hard to say ‘great book’ when there is sadness and tragedy involved, but this is a well-crafted and well-written story that I enjoyed from start to finish.

And, reading the beta version and the later one, was fascinating. Not only had Alison generously mentioned her two beta readers in the acknowledgements, she’d made a number of changes that I’d suggested.

There is no obligation on an author to do this, but, as a beta reader, it’s interesting to see suggestions that are taken up. It feels like time that hasn’t been wasted. I’ve still got a few editorial gripes, but I usually do.

Whatever, it’s a great story, and I totally recommend it to people who are interested in memoirs generally, and specifically, twentieth century history, difficulties of being expats, living abroad, nursing, drugs, depression, family relationships, and … close unspecified relationships. Throughout the book, Molly’s relationship with her family friend Steve, hovers, even after his death.

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(For more images from the book, see the original review on roughseasinthemed.)

Alison Ripley Cubitt has been previously featured on Reading Recommendations. roughseasinthemed is a professional editor, writer and journalist who writes and publishes the blog, roughseasinthemed.