Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Pretty Paper: A Christmas Story by Willie Nelson with (Guest Post by Tarren Young)

(The following is a guest post by author Tarren Young.)

Pretty Paper: A Christmas Tale
Willie Nelson with David Ritz

I have nothing against Willie Nelson, personally, but to say that I would read a book by him? Who even knew he had written any? But this book found me.
I believe books have an uncanny ability to find us at just the right time in our lives for one reason or another. Even if we have picked up the same book a thousand times before, if it’s not the right time, the story will not want to be read.
I was actually looking to read Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love for our December theme of inspirational reading. I had several people offer to let me borrow their own copies, but I knew that it would be a book that I’d want to have for my own - to highlight, take notes in, and (gasp!) dog ear my favorite pages.
I was proceeding to the checkout, with yet a different book completely (I had a Frederick Backman book in my hand titled My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry) when this one stopped me with the title alone - Pretty Paper. Immediately the song popped into my head—Willie’s version, not the Roy Orbison version. I couldn’t help but open the front cover.
I read to page five.
I always have to read at least the first paragraph before I buy a book. If it keeps my interest longer than the first paragraph and past page one, two, even page three, the author usually has a chance with me. So I read.
I read about Willie running into a guy down on his luck at Christmas time.
Of course, we’ve all read about that. Who hasn’t? And who hasn’t been there? What was so different about this guy that made Willie want to tell his tale?
I managed to read the book, a three-hundred and four page book that would normally take me close to a month to read (I’m a slow reader and have children) in three days! It was surreal how fast I finished this book. Willie doesn’t write high literature but maybe it was the ease of his writing that actually pulled me into the story.
Or was it something else entirely?
I like a wonderful story with such imaginative description that I feel I am right there in that scene—behind the wheel of a car careening out of control or hearing the lonesome blues of a honky-tonk. Normally, I would never have picked up a book with such simple writing, and again, no offense to Willie.
But something grabbed my soul. It downright gave me the chills, and it all happened on page five.
See, we all see down and out, hard times in our lives. Times when the world doesn’t seem fair, and that’s just the way it is for Vernon Clay, who Willie writes about, and who ultimately becomes the inspiration for the hit song Pretty Paper.
Willie first meets Vernon outside a department store called Leonards in Texas in the 1960’s, hawking simple things like ribbons, wrapping paper and pencils for the holiday season. Vernon is a double amputee, and doesn’t even have a real wheelchair—just a homemade one. Willie is drawn to the man from a distance and doesn’t understand why, it’s certainly not pity (well, maybe it is at first) but when Willie hears the man singing out his song to sell his items, he knows the man is a singer at heart. And, at the bottom of his heart and the tune he sings, is not only a tale of heartbreak, but one of blues. Like one character we meet, Skeeter Jarvis, we learn that the blues are the bottom line of all music. “Scrape off the fancy dressing, cut out the fat and what do you got? You got the crux of true-life music, and that’s the blues.”
In Vernon’s diary, Skeeter Jarvis mentions how Lightnin’ Hopkins once told him ‘”You play the blues to lose the blues.”
Was that it? Was that the reason, right from page five, when Willie writes, “He sang like he meant it. In fact, he sang like a singer. He sang in tune. Sadly, he also seemed to be singing in vain. I didn’t see a single person stop to buy his wares. And yet that didn’t stop his singing. I sensed that he sang to lift his spirits and stay warm.”
And yet that didn’t stop his singing.” That was it! Those words grabbed me and shook me to the core. Those chills, that little glimmer of hope when I was not only feeling sick with a sinus infection, an asthma flare up and depressed over our circumstances in not having a real tree this year, and feeling anger, even bitterness, at how skinny our white fake tree looked. In one short, simple sentence, my whole Christmas outlook changed this year.
I certainly didn’t set out to read a Christmas story. I was just looking for an inspirational story and had my heart set on two other books, but the universe said no. This was the one I was meant to read because the book found me. There were many other life nuggets I took to heart from this book, such as Vernon interpreting Skeeter after having both a heart attack and a stroke as saying, “...that  you can live with anything long as you can write about it.”

To a writer who typically loves Christmas, and was starting to trudge down the curmudgeon path this year, these passages were refreshing water. I was a bruised and thirsty soul coming out of the NaNoWriMo battle a physical winner, but a now seemingly purposeless soul in the writing arena. I can’t thank the universe enough for this book landing in my life.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Orchid Beach by Stuart Woods

Orchid Beach (Holly Barker Series Book 1)
by Stuart Woods

Holly Barker has decided to leave the Army after twenty years and take a civilian police position. Her father, Ham, has an old Army buddy who is looking for someone with her experience to be his Deputy Chief but when she arrives a month later to take up the position, the Chief has been shot and is in a coma.

Holly already has a contract and her first goals are clear - take down the Chief’s assailant and clear out the corruption the Chief had been investigating in his own force. When she arrives, Holly finds there has been no announcement about her coming to take up the Deputy Chief position and now she is the acting Chief.

This is a very straightforward police procedural that moves quickly on dialogue and clean action with minimal description. It’s not deep but it is intriguing. I would call it a fun summer read and I’ll probably read another.

It’s got a simple cast. There’s Holly, twenty years in the Army as an MP, working her way up to a command, but now moving into civilian life as a cop. There’s her father Ham, about ready to retire from the Army himself. (Holly’s mom died some time ago.) There’s the police chief, Chet, who appears only briefly. Wallace Hurd expected is the acting Chief for a few hours, until Holly arrives, but he seems to take it all in stride. He does not let his emotions show at all, which makes Holly wonder. Bob Hurst is the detective sergeant and main homicide investigator. Jane was the Chief’s secretary and he apparently confided in her regularly.

Hank Doherty, a friend of Holly’s dad and the Chief is also found dead. Holly adopts Hank’s Doberman Pinscher, Daisy. Daisy is very well trained and becomes instrumental in a lot of action.

They make an arrest quickly, a young couple who whose van was seen in the vicinity and are found to have the Chief’s gun. He claims to have had a punctured tire and found the gun. They prosecute but the public defender, Jackson Oxenhandler, is able to show more than reasonable doubt. He and Holly take a shine to each other and quickly become an item. Then her father arrives, and Holly becomes interested in the goings on at a local high end housing development, gated community. Things develop in an unexpected direction from there.

I can genuinely say I did not see who the mole on the police force was until the end, and there were actually two. This book kept me guessing.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier

Jamaica Inn
By Daphne du Maurier

It is Cornwall in the 1820s. Mary Yellan’s mother dies after a particularly hard year on their farm in Helford but, before she does, she makes Mary promise to go to her Aunt Patience, whose husband owns the Jamaica Inn. It has been some time since they have seen her, but Mary remembers her Aunt Patience as a bright and cheerful person. She isn’t anymore. Under the brutal hand of her husband, Joss Merlyn, Patience constantly trembles and wrings her hands.

“The lovely giggling Aunt Patience is now a gaunt, shaky wreck, her spirit destroyed by abuse, and her husband, Joss Merlyn, is a monster: physically overwhelming, lumbering, violent and drunk.”

The first night she is there, Mary thinks she must leave but stays on because of her aunt, thinking she can help her or get her away from Joss Merlyn. It isn’t long before Mary suspects she overhears a murder but cannot be sure. There is no evidence of it except a rope left hanging from a beam.

Mary meets the local vicar when she gets lost following Joss one day and he is kind to her so she thinks she can confide in him. “There was always Francis Davey and his promise; there would be peace and shelter for her at the house in Altarnun.”

I can’t help thinking that this is the wrong direction. Where does the minister get his money for the horses and his fine clothes?

It isn’t until a while later that Mary finds out what her stepfather really is, as he confesses when he is drunk.

“… I have dreams, nightmares; I see things that never scare me when I’m sober. Damn it, Mary, I’ve killed men with my own hands, trampled them under water, beaten them with rocks and stones; and I’ve never thought no more about it; I’ve slept in my bed like a child. But when I’m drunk I see them in my dreams…”

Mary is properly horrified and thinks Joss’s brother Jem, who she has become somewhat enamored of, must be in on it too. She had known he was somewhat of a rogue and a horse thief but didn’t know this.

“No, Mary had no illusions about romance. Falling in love was a pretty name for it, that was all. Jem Merlyn was a man, and she was a woman, and whether it was his hands or his skin or his smile she did not know, but something inside her responded to him, and the very thought of him was an irritant and a stimulant at the same time. It nagged at her and would not let her be. She knew she would have to see him again.”

I watched the Alfred Hitchcock adaptation of the book into a movie recently and found some very large departures as well as some troubling inconsistencies.

In the movie, there is a point where the squire is kidnapping Mary, which never happens in the book. As directed by Hitchcock, Mary, played by Maureen O’Hara struggles very weakly, all but tickling the guy’s fingers while he ties her up.
Contrast that with this passage in the book –

“He nodded at her, reassuring her, smiling still, smirking and sly, and she felt his furtive hand fasten itself upon her. She moved swiftly, lashing out at him, and her fist caught him underneath the chin, shutting his mouth like a trap, with his tongue caught between his teeth . . . she jabbed at him swiftly with the full force of her knee, at the same time thrusting her fingers in his eyes. He doubled up at once, rolling onto his side in agony, and in a second she had struggled from under him and pulled herself to her feet, kicking at him once more as he rocked defenseless, his hands clasped to his belly. 
She grabbed in the ditch for a stone to fling at him, finding nothing but loose earth and sand, and she dug handfuls of this, scattering it in his face and in his eyes, so that he was blinded momentarily and could make no return.”

No, Mary is no delicate lady, but a strong farm woman who will take action to deal with the events and situations she finds herself embroiled in.

The book itself is very atmospheric. There are long passages of description interspersed with action. It can be a bit difficult to set down and pick up if time is limited, but an interesting read and worth the time.

Daphne du Maurier (1907 – 1989) published Jamaica Inn in 1936, when she was just 29. I’ll probably read another of her books in the future but they are definitely time intensive and I wouldn’t call them fast reads.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Beyond The Cliffs of Kerry by Amanda Hughes

Beyond the Cliffs of Kerry
By Amanda Hughes
Reviewed by Tarren Young

The writing of this book does not flow smoothly like any of the three main rivers of Ireland mentioned in the story, it is harsh and choppy. Perhaps this is done because of the environment Darcy McBride, the main character, lives in – and has had to live in since she was a young child, facing and surviving a famine in Ireland in the 1740’s. If Ms. Hughes chose to use choppy sentence structure for the time periods purpose, I could potentially understand, but I still feel that it doesn’t work and makes for a more difficult and less enjoyable read.

There are a few plot twists that I didn’t expect, which is cool, and I was getting into the romance part toward the end. (Literally, like page 320 or something.) Despite how uneven, sometimes awkward and clumsy the romance writing is, I do not appreciate how long it took me to get into the romance.

As a reader, I also don’t appreciate wasting my time on reading something that doesn’t draw me in right from the beginning. The story starts in Ireland but, other than a beating by her brother, there is no real action taking place until two years later – about 120 pages into the story. As a writer of mainly historical romance myself, I stuck with it to see what I could learn about the time period and the general character roles/thoughts/actions of the time.

I am also very disappointed with this story because it is written in third person and, although I typically don’t have a problem with third person, the author gives us what every character says and thinks. For example, in one paragraph we have Darcy’s point of view, then Nathan’s, then Jean-Michel, then another character. Sometimes it is within very short paragraphs in succession, so that we never really get to know the characters. We just have surface driven ambitions. This, to me as a reader, is very distracting and there are very little transitions at all in the story.

As both a reader and a writer, I understand that, considering the time frame of Darcy’s story, (it spans roughly five years of her life) and the scenarios she is thrown into, there is a need for a lot of characters. Darcy and her brother, her friends and family in Ireland, her best friend and her husband and all of their children, the Catholic Father they smuggle in, and the British military that is stationed there for a while (we learn all the top men’s names.) We hear of names from towns one or two over, we learn names from the ship she is on while being transported to the colonies and, of course, the people she meets in the colonies. Having to keep track of all the characters was a bit maddening. I honestly felt there were too many characters in this story and, if we heard ninety-percent of it from Darcy’s view only, then we wouldn’t have had the need for so many characters. She could have just called them the British guards or British Generals.

I am rating this story as 1.5 stars because this story could have been told in 150 pages instead of 390, and the writing feels more like a first draft than a final draft.

Friday, October 30, 2015

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

The Bone Clocks
By David Mitchell

The latest novel from the author of Cloud Atlas, The Bone Clocks is divided into six sections with very different voices. It covers the period 1984 to 2043, and blends genres beautifully, with a little bit of horror and science fiction, into a literary masterpiece.

It is 1984 and Holly Sykes is a typical fifteen-year-old British teenager, positive she is wildly in love with her boyfriend, Vinny, who is twenty-four. “I fling open my bedroom curtains, and there’s the thirsty sky and the wide river full of ships and boats and stuff, but I’m already thinking of Vinny’s chocolaty eyes, shampoo down Vinny’s back, beads of sweat on Vinny’s shoulders, and Vinny’s sly laugh, and by now my heart’s going mental and, God, I wish I was waking up at Vinny’s place in Peacock Street and not in my own stupid bedroom.”

Her mother finds out about it and goes ballistic. Holly decides to leave home and go live with Vinny but ends up looking for an abandoned building where she can camp out for a bit. She’s about to find more adventure than she bargains for because there’s one particular thing that is different about Holly, she used to hear voices. She called them “Radio People,” which she means she has a gift that some very nasty people, called Anchorites, would like to use her for.

The second part comes from the perspective of a young man at Kings College, Hugo Lamb. Hugo seems to be rather amoral, or even psychopathic. It is somewhat surprising the lengths he’ll go to in accumulating a hefty bank account, most of them not legal, and definitely detrimental to those around him. Eventually, he crosses paths with a slightly older Holly Sykes in 1991 and things get even more interesting.

The next section is told from the perspective of Ed Brubeck in 2004, now a journalist who reports mainly from war torn Iraq and is home visiting Holly and their daughter Aoife. Could he be addicted to the action? There’s definitely something he isn’t telling Holly, and they’re about to deal with one of a parent’s worst fears.

In 2015, best-selling author Crispin Hershey is not so best-selling anymore when he meets Holly, who is now a best-selling author. Their paths converge and then diverge again for a while before coming back together. They become fast friends and support each other through some difficult times.

Through the first four books runs the vein of a sort of Time Lord, called the Horologists, and their fight against the predatory Anchorites. In 2025, we finally meet an Horologist from their view point, one who has lived many, many lives – the name is Marinus. The Horologists have a plan to defeat the anchorites. It’s a long term plan. It may also be something of a long shot. It also involves Holly Sykes.

Finally, we return to the viewpoint of a much older Holly Sykes, in 2043 on Sheep’s Head in Ireland during a time period referred to as the Endarkenment, after the environment is beyond broken and society has broken down too, and it’s only getting worse. Is there any hope to be had?

I enjoyed this book tremendously. It is a long journey and well worth taking. The people who gave it voice in audio did a fantastic job. I highly recommend it.

Friday, October 23, 2015

The Unleashing by Shelly Laurenston

The Unleashing
By Shelly Laurenston

Kera is a former marine working as a waitress. She strikes up a friendship with a customer she refers to as “four bear claws and a black coffee” because that is about all he says. She feels a kinship because she assumes he is a vet, like her, with PTSD, possibly a brain injury, not to mention homeless. Then she is killed trying to save a girl from her crazy boyfriend in the back alley and her patron reveals who he really is.

Vig Rundstom is a viking from the Raven clan and the armorer for all the Clans. He appeals to the Norse goddess Skuld to resurrect Kera as she literally breathes for the last time.

When Kera is offered life by Skuld in exchange for her service, Kera says she won’t go unless she can take her dog, Brodie Hawaii, a pit bull she saved from a dog fighting ring.

“You do know,” the woman asked Kera, “that you’re standing in front of me with a knife sticking out of your chest? Right? I send you back now, like this, and it’s over. No second life. No feasting at Valhalla. No Ragnarok. You do understand that, right?”

Kera doesn’t care, she isn’t going anywhere without Brodie. Brodie is resurrected, in a body made whole again.

The other Crows are a motley crew of L.A. women from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds and with a varied assortment of professions, from accountant to actress to tattoo artist. They actually have wings that retract into their backs, and their purpose is to kill, to mete out punishment. The Crows are one of the most feared clans because they come straight from their death, generally filled with rage, hatred and loyal only to each other and Skuld.

 “Unlike the other Nordic clans representing different gods, the Crows weren’t born into this life. They weren’t raised in the Old Way or the New Way. They didn’t worship the well-known gods like Odin or Thor or Freyja. None of them has last names like Magnusson or Bergstrom. Most Crows came to this life knowing so little about Vikings that they thought what they saw in movies was accurate. That Vikings wore those horned helmets and did nothing more than pillage the British.”

This creates a bit of a separation between the Crow Clan and the other eight Clans. The Crows become the obvious suspects when objects of power begin disappearing from the Clan strongholds. The danger is much more unexpected and far closer than they imagine. It will take the Crows and the Ravens, working together, to stop it.

This is an excellent urban fantasy filled with humor and romance. With some rather bloody battles, it is definitely not for the squeamish though.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Hubble Bubble by Jane Lovering

Hubble Bubble
By Jane Lovering

Last month our thematic book club read books set outside the U.S.A. and while I was looking for something a bit more exotic than Yorkshire, I found myself looking for something light to read one week and this filled both requirements. I am so glad I went with it! Hubble Bubble is listed as comedy in our Digital Catalog but I’d definitely term it romantic comedy. Holly is a thoroughly modern Milly and has it all together, she doesn’t want or need a man other than for the occasional session to relieve stress, ahem.

The story opens as Holly stops by to save her friend, Megan, from a refrigerator that has clearly gone kaput, due to a decaying burger. Megan had saved the remains of the last meal she shared with her cheating ex-boyfriend. “The fridge had definitely exploded. The small squat box, now minus a corner, leaned slightly forward into a green patch of ooze, sides bulging and its front flapping from one impotent hinge. It looked like R2-D2 after a really hard night on the Crème de Menthe.”

A debate ensues about the merits of being in a relationship. “I’ve got my own house, a great job – why the hell would I want a man hanging around wanting meals and laundry and doing botched DIY?” Holly questions.

Megan shows Holly an advertisement in a newspaper and tries to convince Holly to go with her. “What would you wish for?” it says. “Women interested in forming a group to practice a new branch of the magic arts, get in touch. No experience necessary, just a broad mind and the desire to make wishes come true.”

Holly thinks it’s crazy and tries to rein in Megan’s runaway imagination but to no avail. “Megan was about as grounded as dandelion fluff on a good day. Today, with the winds of romantic disappointment whistling through her life, she’d probably left Planet Sensible for geostationary orbit.”

Holly is busy, between her job scouting locations for production companies and taking care of her brother, Nicholas. Nicholas introduces her to a Welsh journalist named Kai, thinking they might hit it off. Holly is cool to the idea but Kai still offers his cottage as a possible gothic site for a film and when one of her regular clients calls, looking for just such a location, Holly jumps at the chance to call Kai.

Megan manages to convince Holly to join the wishing group and the women, led by Viviene, put together a spell to wish for something. Each of the women ask for something different but, as they say, be careful what you wish for!

Vivienne’s husband has left her, saying that he is questioning his place in life. “My wish . . . is that his life becomes full of real questions. None of this poncing about with the where is my life going? Midlife crisis rubbish, all that I have to look into my soul and find the eternal answer. Proper questions. And when he’s been called upon to find those answers, I want him put out of his misery.”

Holly announces, “I’ve thought of something. I’d wish for some excitement in my life.” She’s about to get much more than she could have imagined, between Kai, her brother disappearing and poachers chasing off the women as they meet in the woods.

Megan wants to be worshipped like a goddess. Perhaps she should have been more specific about that.

Isobel’s wish, “is to be someone’s whole world,” and she soon will be.

Eve says, “I want to meet the man of my dreams,” but she doesn’t mean that in the typical sense.

A nice feature of this book is that you get both Holly and Kai’s perspectives. Most of the action is written from Holly’s perspective but there are letters that Kai writes about his life to the mother who abandoned him, quite literally, as a newborn.

Even her brother Nicholas throws in a wish for someone via Holly.

There are several more books in the series, I went through all of them in one week on vacation. Quick, fun, reads but not too light and fluffy. There’s substance too. Oh, okay, the humor is still the best part.

“Kai stopped the jeep and peered out at the darkness. ‘Who the hell are you meeting, the three bears?’”