Monday, February 28, 2011

The Dirty Parts of the Bible / Sam Torode

Genre: Historical/Humor

Approximate word count: 50-55,000

Availability Kindle: YES    Nook: YES     DTB: YES

Author:

Sam Torode is an artist, writer and book designer. In addition to this novel he’s written a non-fiction book on the Song of Songs (the last book of the Old Testament) and The School of the Pathetic, a collection of comic strips he made in college. Torode has two websites, one for his book design company 
and another for this book.

Description:

Nineteen-year-old Tobias Henry is trapped in Remus, Michigan. It’s too cold. Nothing ever happens. His Baptist preacher father makes his real interest, girls, difficult to pursue. Then his dad makes a few missteps that leave him blind and unemployed. Sent to retrieve some money his father had hid in Texas years ago, Tobias finds the adventure of a lifetime. This book was a semifinalist for the 2010 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award.

Appraisal:

It’s no wonder Tobias feels bored, depressed, and confused. He’s stuck under his overbearing preacher father’s thumb. Nothing in the way of job prospects since the country is still in the depression - not to mention his father’s attitudes about girls. He wants to do what’s right, but in too many instances, his father’s bible interpretations don’t agree with what Tobias thinks the scripture really means.

The title might be off-putting to some, expecting something racier than it is. (Others might be disappointed it isn’t racier.) The reality is the sexual content is trivial – no more or less than any adult (or even young adult) book would have. What it does have is a coming-of-age story set during the depression leavened with humor compared by some to that of Mark Twain. A book that almost anyone should find an entertaining and enjoyable read.

Format/Typo Issues:

No significant issues.

Rating: ***** Five Stars

Friday, February 25, 2011

Wrecker / Dave Conifer

Genre: Thriller/Suspense

Approximate word count: 80-85,000 words

Availability Kindle: YES         Nook: YES        DTB: NO

Author:

A forty-something computer programmer and father of three teenagers, Dave Conifer lives with his family in New Jersey. Heavily involved with his kid’s sports and scout activities as well as a self-described fitness fanatic, Conifer still finds time to write. His five previous books are multiple genres including two sports related YA books.  For more see the author's blog.

Description:

Jane Havelock is stuck in a bad marriage. Her husband Steve is too self-absorbed to help with the care of their daughter or anything around the house. Finally, he hires Rob Manteo, a handyman, who will do the home remodel and repair projects Steve has been dodging – and do them cheap. A huge, muscular and backward type that Steve calls “The Caveman” behind his back, Jane finds Manteo spooky. Yes, over time, Jane’s curiosity and fascination with Manteo turns into a kind of friendship and almost an obsession to understand what drives him. As the Havelock’s marriage deteriorates and Steve’s career goes into a downward spiral, Jane discovers more than she bargained for.

Appraisal:

My favorite fiction genre is the thriller so this book was a perfect fit for my tastes. It has all the elements you look for in a thriller - conflict, mystery, and an intense thrilling conclusion, hence the name.

The character of Jane was someone I immediately connected with and liked. Her husband Steve was irritating and unlikeable in the beginning and got worse as the story progressed, becoming a full-fledged … I’m not sure I should use the word I want here … suffice it to say I disliked him more and more. The character of Rob Manteo was mysterious and strange, yet along with Jane, I found myself sympathizing and liking him. The pacing and the storyline were both good with a few twists at the end that I wouldn’t have predicted, yet were consistent with everything that happened before.

Although an excellent read, I do have a couple reservations. First, the ending, while satisfying in many ways, also left me feeling conflicted. Part of me says it was the right ending and another part feels setup. My other reservation isn’t about the book’s contents, but the cover. The cover is an excellent depiction of what Rob Manteo might look like. However, the message it sent me as a potential reader was to expect something in the horror genre, not a thriller. All too often readers do judge a book by its cover. I suspect Conifer might be losing potential readers who don’t make it as far as the book description.

Format/Typo Issues:

I spotted a small number of typos and proofing errors.

Rating: **** Four Stars

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Book Giveaway / Three Sisters

Helen Smith has graciously volunteered to giveaway an eBook copy of her novelette, Three Sisters, to a reader of BigAl’s Books and Pals. (Kindle version only.) If you missed the review of this book, scroll down or click here.

The winner will be selected in a drawing on 2/28. In order to enter leave a comment on the review of Three Sisters. Feel free to comment on the book or review, but saying as little as “enter me in the drawing” is enough. Those who post anonymously will need to leave a name in order to uniquely identify them.

Have you heard the expression that people in Chicago “vote early and vote often”? That may or may not be true, but you can do the equivalent of stuffing the ballot box by following BooksAndPals on twitter, Facebook, or Google Friend Connect. (See the convenient buttons on the right for each.) Each new follower on any of these will receive an bonus additional entry. If you have an account on all three that’s good for three bonus entries if you follow on all three.

Entries will be accepted until 10:00 AM Eastern time on Monday, February 28 2011. The winner will be notified via a blog post the following day, March 1, with instructions for claiming the prize.

No Lady and Her Tramp / Kristie Leigh Maguire and Mark Haeuser

Genre: Adult Satire

Approximate word count: 70-75,000

Availability Kindle: YES      Nook: YES        DTB: NO

Author:

Romance author Kristie Leigh Maguire prides herself on doing it her way. This includes writing her own books when she found English reading material too hard to find while living overseas. Although a product of the Southern US, Maguire has lived all over the world in places such as Thailand, Aruba, Saudi Arabia, and Japan. For more see Kristie Leigh Maguire's web site.

Co-writer Mark Haeuser grew up in South Western Wisconsin along the Mississippi River. His other books are in the fantasy, western, and action/adventure genres. For more see Mark Haeuser's web site.

Description:

There are strange goings-on inside the trailers at President Park in Grapevine, KY. This satirical look at small town life is really two intertwined stories. The main story is the gossip, backbiting, and general misbehaving going on in this lowbrow, redneck Peyton Place. The other is the story of Grapevine's soon-to-be bestselling author as she writes the story of the world's greatest lover. The last spices the story up while the entire book tickles your funny bone.

Appraisal:

This book is satire. It's supposed to be slightly over the top like a caricature. It isn't the book for those who think anything beyond a kiss is too much sex or that sex is too serious to laugh at. It's not for someone from a small town who feels they're inferior because of it. But for those with the ability to recognize their own foibles and still laugh. For those who can see the humor in the human condition with all its warts exposed. This is the book for you.

FYI:

If you’re easily offended by sex in a book this is not for you. It doesn’t reach the level of erotica – it’s more comparable to some of the more explicit bestselling authors.

Format/Typo Issues:

No Significant issues

Rating: **** Four Stars

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Venom of Vipers / K.C. May

Genre: Sci-Fi/Thriller

Approximate word count: 90-95,000

Availability Kindle: YES     Nook: YES        DTB: YES

Author:

A software developer, technical writer, and now full time novelist, K.C. May has lived a nomadic life, living in Hawaii, Taiwan, and Arizona among other places. She has one other novel, The Kinshield Legacy, called “a rousing hard-hitting fantasy adventure” by Piers Anthony.  For more visit
the author's website.



Description:

A virus is killing off the population. The best hopes for survival of the human race are saphers, a genetically engineered human subspecies that are immune. A team of scientists is searching for a cure by trying to isolate what makes saphers resistant to the virus. Not all those outside of the research compound want the team to succeed.

Appraisal:

If you’ve read my page talking about submission of books for review you’d have noticed I discourage submission of science fiction and fantasy. This is largely a matter of taste. I prefer books that are at least close to reality. Too often, either genre is too far removed from the world I live in to relate. Add to that a tendency for me to feel the world the author has created too often overshadows the characters and it’s a recipe for me to dislike a book, regardless of its quality. Those prejudices of mine were not an issue when reading The Venom of Vipers.

The primary characters, Katie (a doctor/researcher) and Ryder (one of the saphers) were likeable. Although Ryder had many faults, his temper being one, this just made him seem more human. The fictional science was a big part of the premise and overall story, but not so far out as to be unbelievable – it seemed very conceivable by extrapolating current scientific knowledge out just a few years. Most important, the story revolved around the characters rather than the science. As with any well-told story, I found myself pulling for the characters I liked and against those I didn’t, regardless of if they were Homo sapiens or the sapher sub-species.

The latter portion of the book turns into to a thriller. This part gets very intense, as you’d hope for a thriller. However, this is also the only part of the book where I had any quibbles. Specifically the head of security was a character that became less and less believable. His motivations and goals were clear; however, his actions seemed less than credible at times. Despite this I found Venom of Vipers an enjoyable and entertaining read.

Format/Typo Issues:

I spotted no issues in this area.

Rating: **** Four Stars

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Quantum (Portal Chronicles Book Three) / Imogen Rose

Genre: YA / Paranormal

Approximate word count:  70-75,000 words

Availability Kindle: YES     Nook: YES     DTB: YES

Author:

Globetrotter Imogen Rose is Swedish by birth, went to college in London where she received a PhD in immunology, and is now a Jersey girl. After her eight-year-old daughter insisted she write down her stories Rose wrote the first of the Portal Chronicles and decided to let it out into the world. The response was so positive that she’s continued. This is the third book in the series with more to come. Rose will be releasing Faustine, the first book in a separate, but possibly interconnected, series called The Bonfire Chronicles in the spring of 2011 with Momentum (Portal Chronicles Book Four) to follow.  For more visit the author's web site.

Description:

In Portal (Portal Chronicles Book One) teenager Arizona Stevens wakes up in a car to discover her life has changed. Her last name is Darley, she has an older brother she’d never met, a different father, and has transformed from a hockey-playing jockette into a blonde-Barbie cheerleader. As information comes out in this book and Equilibrium (Portal Chronicles Book Two) Arizona slowly learns that she was transported through both time and space via a “portal” by her scientist mother. Due to technical issues with the portal she is trapped in this new dimension for at least a year.

A year has passed. As Arizona Darley contemplates traveling back through the portal to see her dad life takes some unexpected twists.

Appraisal:

This is easily the best book of the Portal Chronicles series so far. Quantum starts out with a significant revelation in the prologue and continues with lots of plot twists you'd have never guessed, but that make perfect sense when they happen. As you learn more about the history of the characters in the series and how they relate to each you gain a deeper understanding of them and care more and more about what is going to happen next. When you finish, just as with the prior two books, you're left with the satisfaction of a good story well told, yet are eager for the next in the series. With each book in the series Rose adds new layers to the ongoing story to continually jack up the stakes and the complexity of the story to hold the reader’s interest.

FYI:

While I think it would be possible for someone just starting this series to begin with Equilibrium (Portal Chronicles Book Two) if they hadn't already read Portal (Portal Chronicles Book One) I would not advise starting with Quantum. This is because with each new volume Rose is expanding our knowledge of the world she has created. This volume, at least IMO, hits the point where knowledge of everyone's back story is needed to understand the full import of the continuing saga of Arizona and her family.

Format/Typo Issues:

Review is based on a pre-release copy. Unable to evaluate Kindle formatting.

Rating: ***** 5 Stars

Monday, February 21, 2011

Model Agent / Sean Sweeney

Genre: Thriller

Approximate word count: 90-95,000

Availability Kindle: YES         Nook: YES          DTB: YES

Author:

Sean Sweeney lives in a small city west and north of Boston. He splits his working time between sports writing for the local newspaper and working on his novels. In his spare time Sweeney follows sports (the Red Sox and football played with a round ball are his favorites) reads, and naps.

Description:

A terrorist act during a free concert at Boston’s City Hall Plaza leaves many people dead and sets authorities scrambling. Enter Jaclyn Johnson, a specially trained government agent with a troubled past and tools to get the job done.

Appraisal:

The tongue-in-cheek cover tagline says, “If Bond had boobs.” In four words this gives the high-level view of Jaclyn Johnson. She’s got Bond’s good looks, enough to model as a cover, hiding her true career. She has the technology of Bond with a plethora of gadgets, a few she invented herself and some that (over) compensate for a rare eye condition that leaves her almost blind without an assist. Topping it off is a car that anyone would envy plus the brains behind the beauty to get the job done. In Jaclyn Johnson, Sweeney has a great new character I hope to see in many sequels.

Without giving away too much of the plot I’ll say that it is also fitting of a Bond tale with an amoral megalomaniac pulling the strings in an evil and far reaching plot. The majority of the book takes place in the Greater Boston area. When a book is happening in a real location those who have some familiarity with the area can often picture the location in their mind’s eye and this adds to the story. Although I’ve only visited once, I was still able to picture many of the landmarks of Boston as I was reading. This and other specific location color about the city and its history helped “put me there.”

The last notable quality I found in Model Agent is something I wouldn’t have expected in this genre, especially from a male author. Not only does it have a strong female as the lead character, but also two of the main secondary characters, the President of the US and the director of the CIA, are strong women in powerful positions. As a father and grandfather, this is something I like. Positive female role models, even fictional, are something I like to know are out there for my daughter and granddaughters to see.

Format/Typo Issues:

As a beta reader, I read a pre-release copy and am unable to evaluate. However, I notified the author of all typos I found and believe they were corrected prior to release.

Rating: ***** Five stars

Friday, February 18, 2011

Three Sisters / Helen Smith

Genre: Mystery

Approximate word count: 16,500-17,000 words

Availability Kindle: YES        Nook: NO       DTB: NO


Author:

Recipient of an Arts Council of England Award, Helen Smith is another author who started out traditionally published and is now choosing to release her books as an indie. She’s written novels, children’s books, poetry, and plays. In the works are a play she was commissioned to write and a pilot for a TV series in development. In addition to this book, Smith has three other novels available for your Kindle.  For more visit the author's blog.

Description:

It’s Bonfire Night in London. Along with most of her neighbors, Emily attends the party down the street. What she finds is murder.

This novelette is the first in the Emily Castles mystery series.

Appraisal:

Imagine one of the murder mystery dinner shows that are popular many places, only make the murder real with only one person actively trying to solve the crime. In essence, that describes at a very high level the plot of Three Sisters. You have a cast of characters with strange quirks and uncertain allegiances. A murder even the police aren’t convinced happened. A house and yard full of potential suspects. Someone has to figure out what really happened. As a short mystery, it all works quite well.

However, as I’ve found with other books of Smith’s, the big picture – the actual plot or storyline – is a relatively small part of the pleasure I got from reading Three Sisters. Instead, it’s the way she has of describing people and places. A subtle wit. Generally, just an evocative and clever way she has with words that those who appreciate language will love for its own sake as much as the story.

FYI:

You’ll find a few extra U’s in some words and other UK style spelling. In addition, you may see some Brit expressions you haven’t heard before. Context is usually enough to work them out.

For those, like me, who are clueless about Bonfire Night (also known as Guy Fawkes Day) a good start is the Wikipedia entry to find out more.  
In short, it’s a night of get-togethers around a bonfire, often with fireworks, commemorating the failure of a plot to assassinate King James I of England in the 1600s.

For those offended by adult language or sexual content, you’re safe with this book.

Format/Typo Issues:

No issues.

Rating: **** 4 Stars

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Jimmy Stone’s Ghost Town / Scott Neumyer

Genre: Middle Grades/Spooky

Approximate word count: 35-40,000 words

Availability Kindle: YES            Nook: YES                 DTB: NO

Author:
A writer, publicist, and photographer from New Jersey, this is Scott Neumyer’s first novel. He has previously had short stories published in several magazines, both print and online.  For more visit the author's web site.


Description:

Jimmy Stone’s life has been rough. His Mom dies, his Dad ignores him on good days and makes life miserable others. He’s dodging the school bullies. Then he meets a new friend who changes everything.

Appraisal:

In many ways this book feels like two half books. If only the two parts could be reunited with their matching halves you'd end up with a great book and a good book. As it is, you're left with one book that is just okay.

Overall Neumyer's writing is very good with appropriate word choice for what I perceive as his target audience ("middle grades" 8-12 years old with more appeal to boys than girls). The first half of the book sets up the life of Jimmy Stone and does an excellent job of it. If there were such a thing as a "grade schooler coming of age" story, the first half of this book would be a great start. Several conflicts are established and bringing them to a resolution in the second half would have been excellent. Of course, if you chose this book anticipating a scary ghost story you'd be disappointed.

Finally, in the second half the ghost story begins. However, this half doesn't seem related to the first half other than Jimmy and his friend David being in both halves. The second half does nothing to resolve any of the conflicts established in the first half. Instead, it sets up an additional conflict, getting home, with the way to do this being to accomplish a task in each of seven "realms," the first realm being a world inhabited by ghosts. The only payoff for accomplishing the first goal is being able to move on to the next realm. The payoff here seems way too slim.

My assumption is the intent is for this to be the first of a seven book series since only the first of the seven tasks is completed here. Possibly some of the conflicts established in the first half will be resolved by the end of the series, but with very little hint or promise of that a reader might not bother to find out.

Format/Typo Issues:
No Significant issues.

Rating: *** 3 Stars

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A Touch of Charlotte / Robyn Bradley

Genre: Short Story

Approximate word count: 3,000 words

Availability Kindle: YES     Nook: YES         DTB: NO

Author:

Although Robyn Bradley knew she wanted to be a writer as far back as Mrs. Shea’s fourth grade class, she claims her writing skills were honed while working in radio. Her Masters of Fine Arts in creative writing might have also helped. When not writing fiction she runs her own copywriting business and obsessively dreams about George Clooney.  For more visit the author's web site.

Description:

Convinced that her dead twin daughter, Charlotte, is reaching out from the great beyond, Anne will do anything to make her happy. But how far will she go? What is real and what isn’t?

Appraisal:

There was a time I avoided reading short stories. Maybe it was because I read so fast it felt as if I was done almost before I started. It was at least partially because I didn’t feel a short story could be as engrossing as a novel. Recently I’ve changed my mind. A few very good short story collections have convinced me otherwise. Done right, with a very tight focus, a short story can serve up emotions that are more concentrated. I feel like an analogy belongs here, but all those I’m coming up with are drug references. I guess the high of a novel lasts longer, but isn’t as intense. This story is one of those done right.

Reviewing a short story without accidentally slipping in a spoiler is tough. You have a teaser in the description. The FYI section below talks a bit about Vanishing Twin Syndrome, which figures prominently in the story. All that’s left without re-telling the story or giving a spoiler is to describe how it made me feel.

As a man, I’m not sure I can truly imagine myself in the place of Anne, the mother and main character in A Touch of Charlotte. However, as a father and grandfather I can get part of the way there and that’s plenty close for me. Although never explicitly stated, Anne suffers from post partum depression. The story takes you on an emotional roller coaster as Anne cycles through emotional highs and lows, elation, terror, and disorientation, bringing you along for the ride. It’s a ride you’d never want to take in real life, but may well help better understand others who have.

FYI:

The premise of this story revolves around Vanishing Twin Syndrome (VTS). It was something new to me and sent me off on a quest to find out more. What happens in VTS is during the early stages of a pregnancy multiple fetuses start to form. While still early in the pregnancy one of the fetuses “disappears” being absorbed into the other fetus, the placenta, or the mother.

Although first recognized in 1945 it has only been during the last twenty to thirty years as ultrasound use during pregnancy has become more common that medical practitioners have realized how frequent this happens. Studies have shown that in roughly one out of eight pregnancies where multiple fetuses were detected early in the pregnancy via ultrasound that VTS occurs. A few online sources if you’re interested in more are Wikipedia
and the American Pregnancy Association.

Format/Typo Issues:
No issues.

Rating: ***** 5 Stars

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Summoner / Layton Green

Genre: Mystery/Thriller

Approximate word count: 95-100,00 words

Availability Kindle: YES              Nook: YES             DTB: NO

Author:

Layton Green has worked at a variety of odd jobs, from bartender, to teaching English as a second language in Central America, to the oddest of them all, an attorney. He says he’s visited more than fifty countries and lived in several of them. Somehow, amongst all of that, he found the time to write his first novel, get married, and produce a son. The family of three currently lives in Miami.  For more visit author's web site.


Description:

A former US diplomat disappears in front of hundreds of people in an isolated area of Zimbabwe. Dominic Grey, a special agent for Diplomatic Security, spearheads the search for him. Strange religious cults, corrupt government officials, and a local barkeep all seem to muddy the waters and get in Grey’s way.

Appraisal:
The Sommoner is the first in a series-to-be featuring Dominic Grey. A troubled childhood and a series of jobs including short stints in the military, the CIA, and now Diplomatic Security have given Grey a unique set of skills. His life experience has given him a distinctive outlook on life that is the opposite of what might be expected. He operates based on facts and his moral compass, the last of these being the cause of his history of short job tenure. Yet for someone so morally grounded Grey’s attitude toward religion is skeptical, at best. Not only does faith in a deity conflict with Grey’s preference for facts, but also his childhood experiences turned him against religion. Grey is a unique character. I’m looking forward to the next book in the series.

The setting of Zimbabwe gives this book a different feel as we learn about the country - its culture, politics, and religion. The story keeps you in suspense as Grey attempts to sort out who his allies are and find what happened to the former diplomat whose disappearance he’s investigating. It delivers on the suspense and thrills through every plot twist.

Author Green also has a writing style I found engaging and for the most part polished beyond what I would expect from a first novel. However, there is one exception. Green has a tendency to overuse obscure, archaic, or “hundred dollar” words. In some instances, these are spouted by an academic and may be justified for characterization reasons. However, they are often not justified, seemingly used because he can rather than because it’s needed. Regardless of how well developed your vocabulary, you’ll find at least a handful of occasions to be thankful for your Kindle or Nook’s built-in dictionary.

Format/Typo Issues:

I found no formatting issues, typos, or proofreading slipups.

Rating: **** Four Stars

Monday, February 14, 2011

March into Hell / Mary McDonald

Genre: Thriller              


Approximate word count: 85-90,000 words


Availability Kindle: YES  Nook: YES  DTB: NO


Author:


A mother of three and a respiratory therapist, Mary McDonald has been an avid reader her entire life. As the fifth of eight children, hiding in the corner with a book may have been Mary’s only way to get a moment of peace. She has been married for twenty-five years despite it being a mixed marriage – Mary is a Bears fan and her hubby roots for the Packers.  Find out more on Mary's blog.


Description:
McDonald’s first book, No Good Deed, introduced the world of Chicago photographer Mark Taylor. A camera Taylor purchased in an Afghanistan bazaar has magical powers, producing photos of catastrophic events before they happen. If Taylor acts quickly enough he can prevent the catastrophe.


In March into Hell, Taylor attracts media attention when a reporter finds out about his proclivity for rescuing people. Although filled with self-doubt and unhappy being in the spotlight he is unable to ignore what he feels is his duty. Then he saves the wrong person making him the target of a cult leader.


Appraisal:


As a book series progresses you’ll ideally get to know the main characters a little better; hopefully watch them grow and learn. During No Good Deed, Mark was mostly on his own. His powers were secret from most and not totally believed by the few who were aware. In March into Hell, Mark gets a needed support team (whether he realizes he needs it or even wants it). However, he struggles with his inclination to do what he believes is right while being uncomfortable with the attention he receives. Mark starts to give serious thought as to who or what is behind the power he’s been given. In the process, he grows as a person and becomes better equipped to deal with his situation.


In No Good Deed Taylor was under almost constant stress, both physical and emotional. Without giving spoilers, I can’t say how, but think you’ll find his experiences in March into Hell are almost as intense. McDonald does very well putting you inside Mark’s head in a way that jacks up the intensity. Luckily for you she doesn’t make you actually feel it.


The only quality those who read No Good Deed won’t find in this latest installment of Mark Taylor’s adventures is the political angle. (For first timer’s Mark was imprisoned as a post-9/11 “enemy combatant” in that book.) Because of this, the good guys and bad guys are much easier to determine. The real life questions provoked by the politics of Mark’s situation aren’t there. Instead, for those who want more than just a good thriller, McDonald gives you plenty of opportunity to consider questions of heroism and hero worship. What makes a hero? Does being a hero commit a person to additional obligations? Is it reasonable to consider a hero a public figure with the loss of privacy that implies?


FYI:


Although this is the second book in the series, the needed back-story is reviewed enough that having read the first book, No Good Deed, should not be a prerequisite to understanding and enjoying March into Hell.


Format/Typo Issues:


As a beta reader, I evaluated a pre-release version of the book in a non-Kindle format. The author was notified of those typos I found.


Rating: **** Four stars

Friday, February 11, 2011

Romantically Challenged / Beth Orsoff

Genre: Chick-lit / Romantic Comedy

Approximate word count: 90-95,000

Availability Kindle: YES             Nook: YES            DTB: NO

Author:

By day Beth Orsoff is an LA based entertainment lawyer (she claims it’s not glamorous and she is not part of the “Hollywood Elite”). She also claims Julie Burns, the main character in this book, isn’t a very thinly disguised version of her – of course, everyone believes that. Lizzie Mancini (the protagonist in Orsoff’s second book, Honeymoon for One) and Sydney Green (the leading female in her most recent, How I Learned to Love the Walrus) are both someone else for sure.

A former serial dater (just like Julie Burns) Orsoff is now married and lives with her husband who is on the verge of publishing his first book. For more visit her website.


Description:

When a woman reaches a certain age (32 in the case of Julie Burns) their parents, especially the stereotypical Jewish mother in this case, start applying pressure to marry and start a family. The statistics regarding a woman’s chances to find a spouse become lower at her age. (Thanks, “friends,” for letting Julie know that.) Maybe the answer is more statistics. Date as many men as she can – that has to increase her odds of finding the needle in a haystack – the man of her dreams.

Romantically Challenged was traditionally published and has since been reissued in an eBook version.

Appraisal:

Julie Burns is under pressure from her mother, friends, and the constant clicking of the clock to find Mr. Right and start a family. As the description says, it’s all a numbers game.

Yes, this is chick lit and it is good. It has a simple concept ripe for humorous situations. If Julie is dating as many men as she can she can provide us with laughs every night. Everyone should enjoy the humor of Romantically Challenged. Orsoff finds a stream of funny, yet realistic ways for Julie to get dates and an equal number of reasons for her to reject the men – some reasonable, others, maybe not so much. Many women should recognize and relate to at least some of Julie’s experiences.

That's part of the story, but not all. I think there is a bonus for men here too. Men can learn two things. First, look at the reasons Julie eliminates each man. If you never see yourself in any of the rejects, you aren't looking hard enough. Some of these reasons might contain a lesson you can use. Second, Julie will confirm what you've always suspected. "I'll never understand women."

Format/Typo Issues:

No significant issues.

Rating: ***** 5 Stars

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Voice / William L.K.

Genre: Sci-Fi /Horror/Suspense

Approximate word count:

The Voice (Novelette) 7,500-8000 words.

Two bonus short stories are 900 and 2,200 words.

Availability Kindle: YES            Nook: NO              DTB: NO

Author:

During the week, William L.K. writes science fiction and fantasy. On the weekend, he works as a professional musician where, among other things, you could find him working a piano bar. Just don’t ask him to play a Duran Duran song. He doesn’t know any. He’s written and produced several successful plays and musicals. In addition to this novelette, he has two novels, The Eye of the Storm and Barok’s Exodus, the first books in his Stritonoly Chronicles series available for your Kindle. None of his books are currently available for the Nook. William L. K. lives with his wife and two children in the suburbs of New York City.

Description:

A man finds himself floating offshore looking back at a destroyed city. How did he get here and who is he?

Note: The Voice is a novelette. A new, special edition containing two bonus short stories is now being sold in the Amazon store. (For the curious, Wikipedia defines a novelette as between 7,500 and 17,499 words with a novella being 17,500-40,000 words. This definition is the one used by The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America for classification in awarding their Nebula awards. Some definitions vary.)

Appraisal:

The Voice sets the scene in the prologue with, as the description says, a man floating offshore with his mind a blank. The main portion of the book takes us back three days to the events leading up to the prologue and continues with what happens afterward. As we see events through the eyes of the narrator, what happens and what it means are gradually revealed to both him and us. The story is fast moving, yet satisfying in that it keeps you in suspense and guessing, trying to unravel what has happened. Saying much more will only turn this review into a spoiler. A short, yet still very satisfying read.

The bonus short stories are horror rather than sci-fi. The first, Shotgun, is short, but with a wicked twist. Both are fun reads.

Format/Typo Issues:

No significant issues.

Rating: **** 4 Stars

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Two Bits Four Bits / Mark Cotton

Genre: Mystery

Approximate net words: 55-60,000 words

Availability Kindle:  YES      Nook: YES           DTB: YES

Author:

Mark Cotton was born in Texas and has lived most of his life in South Eastern New Mexico. This area of New Mexico and the area of West Texas around Midland and Odessa make up the oil-rich Permian Basin. Two Bits Four Bits, Cotton’s first novel, takes place in this same area of Texas. (For fans of the movie and TV show Friday Night Lights, this is where the book, a true story, these are based on took place as well.)

Description:

When Buddy Griffin visits his fictional West Texas hometown of Elmore, TX, he's planning a short stay. Just long enough to attend his high school reunion and get the estate of his recently deceased parents in order. Hopefully the recently retired homicide detective will have a chance to reflect on what he wants in the next phase of his life. Then the president of the local bank and husband of his high school sweetheart is murdered and his plans change. Maybe he's found his next vocation and the world's newest private detective series is being born.

Appraisal:

It could be said that Two Bits Four Bits fits a formula for this type novel. We have the typical, some might say clich├ęd, characters. The potential love interest. The ex-hooker. The asshole cop who's also working the case. Both you and Buddy will have a decent idea of whodunit and why well before the end. But formula doesn't always mean bad. Some formulas become that way because they're what works. If the characters are well drawn and the story is good the book will be too. That's the case here.



Several things help this book rise above the pack. Buddy is likable. You want to see him succeed. His relationship with best friend Ray, always trash talking and messing with each other, is one most guys will understand and appreciate. His portrayal of the oil-patch towns of West Texas is well done and, at least for someone who hasn't been there, seems accurate. The story is compelling and despite knowing where it's going you keep reading because you care about the details.

FYI:

Fans of Texas music will also have fun catching the references to their favorite musicians. I'll give Mark Cotton bonus points if he mentions Kelly Willis or anyone with the last name Robison in the follow up.

Ranking: ****4 Stars

Shaken / J.A. Konrath

Genre: Thriller/Police Procedural

Approximate net words:

55-60,000 words for (Original Version)

55-60,000 words for (Linear Version – available only with bonus eBook)

Availability Kindle: YES Nook: NO  DTB: YES (To be released on 2/22/2011)

Author:

Joe Konrath writing as both J.A. Konrath (generally thrillers, primarily the Jack Daniels series) and Joe Kilborn (horror) is one of the success stories among Kindle authors. Those who are interested in the publishing world and how it is changing would be remiss if they didn’t follow Konrath’s blog, A Newbies Guide to Publishing.  Konrath is both a standard bearer for the new guard and a bit of a whipping horse for the traditional publishing establishment. Reading the comments to his blog entries are a great way to gain an understanding of both perspectives.  For more see Konrath's website.


Description:

The eighth novel in Konrath’s Jack Daniels series pits Chicago police detective Jacqueline “Jack” Daniels against “Mr. K,” a serial killer who has haunted Jack over her entire twenty plus year career. Shaken combines three different encounters with Mr. K, jumping back and forth between the three. In the present Jack has been kidnapped and is being held by Mr. K. Based on the experience of his other victims torture and death are likely to follow. The past encounters include Jack’s first time tangling with Mr. K while still only a rookie and a recent encounter where he was almost caught.

The bonus content eBook edition contains an alternative version where the events are arranged chronologically rather than the three story lines being Shaken together.

Appraisal:

Konrath has a style all his own, mixing humor with horror and all the elements of a good suspense or thriller novel into a police procedural. The horror (just as with his Joe Kilborn pen name) isn’t in-your-face. It’s subtle, often implied leaving a lot to your imagination, yet no less horrific. If you’ve read and liked any of the previous books in the Jack Daniels series you’ll like Shaken.

One of the things I especially liked was seeing Jack, Herb (her current partner) and Harry (her first partner) change over time. Much of the earliest story line gives a glimpse into the how and why for many of the qualities the characters had for the majority of the series.

FYI:

A Konrath newcomer could read Shaken and be thoroughly entertained. However some of the humor might sneak past those not familiar with the recurring characters and their history.

Format/Typo Issues:

No significant typos, editing, or formatting issues.

Ranking: ***** 5 Stars

Sunday, February 6, 2011

24 Hour Lottery Ticket / Gayle Tiller

Genre: Suspense / Legal Thriller

Approximate word count: 45-50,000

Availability Kindle: YES           Nook: YES            DTB: YES

Author:

Tiller is a community activist, public relations professional, and former lawyer for senior citizens who lives in San Jose. She has also written two short stories, 24 Hour Nightmare and Santa Gets Outsourced, available for your Kindle or Nook.

Description:

Emma Watkins, a disgraced judge has the winning ticket for the big prize in the lottery, but doesn't want her win made public for personal reasons. She approaches the book's protagonist, struggling attorney Dianne Canton, for help. The twist is the deadline to redeem the ticket is only 24 hours away.

Appraisal:

While the basic premise has potential and the character of Dianne is both likeable and well developed, the story suffers from several flaws. The most significant of these is one of creditability. Would a former judge actually put something like this off until the last minute? Possibly, but I didn't believe it.

I'm no lawyer and the author is. I don't expect a legal thriller to be 100% accurate in regards to actual laws, the working of the courts, and such. However, at times the author seemed to be using her "literary license" to stretch reality a bit too much.

Last, the character of Emma was too unlikeable. While this quality is integral to the story, it was overdone. She started out as an obnoxious ass and was the same at the end. If there is such a word as "over-characterization,” it would apply here. By the end of the book, I was hoping they wouldn't be successful in redeeming the ticket while keeping the winner a secret. My hate for Emma outweighed my wish for Dianne to succeed.

Rating: ** 2 stars

Friday, February 4, 2011

In Decline / Michael Crane

Genre: Short Stories / Literary Fiction

Approximate word count: 25-30,000

Availability Kindle: YES      Nook: YES          DTB: NO

Author:

Michael Crane wrote his first novel in high school. Then his second (still while in high school). He’ll be the first to tell you not to read them if you stumble upon them. A few years honing his craft including a stint earning a degree in Fiction Writing from Columbia College Chicago prepared him for prime time. In addition to In Decline, he has several short stories available from Amazon. He also has two collections of “drabbles” (flash fiction of exactly 100 words each) from Amazon or Barnes and Noble for you Kindle or Nook.  For more check out the author's blog.


Description: 

Nine short stories of people getting by the best way they know how.

Appraisal:

In Decline is a short story collection "about people who are trying to get by the best way they can." Life can be hard - regardless of what your life has been like, charmed or barely scraping by, chances are you'll see yourself or people you know in some of these stores. What boy hasn't struggled to figure out how to relate to girls and had friends only make it worse as happens in The Roller Rink? Who hasn't watched a couple marry, knowing it wasn't going to have a happy ending, like Uncle Lenny?

Crane has a talent very few writers have. He can find the humor in a dire situation or find a way to sympathize with the most dismal characters. Some say that to read fiction requires the reader to “suspend disbelief.” That’s not the case here. These stories ooze truth.

Format/Typo Issues:

No Significant issues.

Rating: ***** 5 Stars

Crime Beat / Scott Nicholson


Genre: Suspense/Mystery

Approximate word count:

20-25,000 for Novella.

2-3,000 for bonus short story (“Do You Know Me Yet?”)

Availability  Kindle: YES  Nook: YES  DTB: NO

Author:
Scott Nicholson is a former newspaper reporter, former musician, and even a former paranormal investigator. Now he’s a successful author. He’s written a bunch of books available for your Kindle (20, including co-writes, if I counted correctly).  For more visit the author's website.

Description:

When John Moretz starts his new job as crime beat reporter in a small Blue Ridge Mountain town a crime spree erupts. Circulation for the small tri-weekly Sycamore Shade Picayune builds as a serial killer runs amok.

Appraisal:

This was an excellent story with the suspense and mystery building throughout. The main character, Moretz’s editor who narrates the story, is well drawn. He’s cynical yet has a great sense of humor. Other major characters including Moretz remain just enough of an enigma to keep you guessing. Nicholson’s writing is excellent blending dialogue, action, and narrative in the right proportions to keep the story moving and the reader engaged.

Some of the minor characters, especially the police chief, lean toward being caricatures. This in itself is not necessarily that bad, but it leaves very few viable suspects. Despite this I was still kept wondering whodunit.

Format/Typo Issues:

Has excellent formatting including a fully functional table of contents. No significant typos or editing issues. If every Kindle book was this well done there would be no point in having this section.

Rating: **** 4 Stars

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

New Coastal Times / Donna Callea

Genre: Post-Apocalyptic / Literary Fiction

Approximate net words:

65-70,000 words

Availability
Kindle: YES   Nook: YES    DTB: NO

Author:

Donna Callea grew up in upstate New York and later moved to Florida. A former newspaper reporter, you’ll notice Callea has a few similarities to the narrator of New Coastal Times. She has one other book, The Haircut:A New Year’s Tale, available for your Kindle or Nook.  See the author's web site for more.

Description:
The worst hurricane ever recorded, Hurricane Walter, has hit the eastern coast of Florida, toppling buildings and leaving the area almost inhabitable. Twenty-something Mia Gionfreddo Fine, a budding newspaper reporter, and her doctor husband Aaron are among the survivors. Walter is just the beginning as additional natural disasters spurred by global warming disrupt both coasts of the US and elsewhere around the world. Follow Mia, Aaron, and a group of eccentric friends as they try to rebuild their lives in a world that will never be the same.

Appraisal:

In the beginning it isn’t clear what has happened although from the conditions the narrator, Mia, finds herself in, we could guess it’s the aftermath of a hurricane. When the book takes place is also vague, I believe purposely. Although it has to be in the future, we can easily surmise it isn’t by much. The world Callea describes is credible given the underlying assumption of the string of natural disasters and the repercussions that would stem from them.

Mia is likeable and sympathetic. The other major characters are believable with a realistic mix of good qualities and human foibles. How Mia and everyone she meets have adapted to the new world is the crux of the book. Some become better people despite the hardships they endure while it brings out the worst in others. The development of the characters - how they change over time, is where New Coastal Times shines.

Through much of the book it isn’t clear where the story is going - what is Mia’s ultimate goal? Compare this to a typical mystery, thriller, or romance where that goal is obvious early in the book. With New Coastal Times you’re guessing as Mia aims at a series of intermediate goals. Initially it is to survive and reunite with her husband. As each goal is met Mia aims for something a little bit better. In retrospect, the logical story arc takes Mia to a point at which she settles in a life as comfortable as she can find given the circumstances of the vastly changed world. In the beginning, what that is or will be is a mystery to Mia, just as it will be to the reader. We have to discover what that is along with her.

Format/Typo Issues:

The Kindle version has an average number of typo and proofreading issues.

Ranking: ****4 Stars

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Mountain Laurel / Donna Clayton

Genre: Romance

Approximate word count: 45-50,000

Availability Kindle: YES Nook: YES   DTB: YES 

Author:

Donna Clayton is the pen name for Donna Fasano. She has written over thirty novels under her own name and the Donna Clayton pen name. The most recent is The Merry-Go-Round, as Donna Fasano. Mountain Laurel is the first of several books in Fasano/Clayton’s backlist that have gone out of print, which she is updating and re-releasing as eBooks. The mother of two grown sons, Donna lives with her husband and two dogs, Jake and Roo.  For more visit the authors website.

Description:

If Laurel Morgan has a fault it’s that she’s too responsible. Taking care of the family business and acting as an extra parent to her younger sister Ginny has left Laurel feeling trapped. She regrets not having the chance to attend college and hasn’t had a date since her Senior Prom. Now her rebellious sister appears headed down the wrong path. Laurel hopes a mountain vacation will be the chance to reconnect with her sister and change the direction Ginny’s life is taking.

Appraisal:

The story takes place almost entirely in a remote mountain area with one small town nearby. Clayton does an excellent job in depicting the differences between small town and city life as well as the culture shock a city dweller might experience visiting such a place.

The main characters, Laurel, Ginny, and Michael are all likeable with very different and distinct personalities. Laurel’s seriousness is continually getting her in trouble as she misinterprets the intentions of others and provides plenty of laughs while doing so. Ginny’s happy-go-lucky attitude provides an excellent counterpoint to Laurel. Michael, the local forest ranger, knows he’s attracted to Laurel, but feels like everything he does to demonstrate this backfires. You’ll vicariously experience a wide range of emotions from the sorrow of dealing with family tragedies to the joy of new love as these three attempt to work through their differences.

FYI:

This book was first released on Silhouette Romance (a Harlequin imprint) twenty years ago. The author updated it slightly so it would feel contemporary and modified the language to insure it was appropriate for younger readers (15 and up) for this eBook only re-release.

Format/Typo Issues:

The version I read was a pre-release copy formatted for the Kindle. It was still being verified and edited for typos introduced in the conversion and updating process. Despite this there were very few issues I saw, all of which the author was aware of and should have fixed prior to the release.

Rating: **** 4 Stars