Review: Gray Lady a unique, warm story of family, friends, life

Home is where stories happen. Where lives, young and old, come together. Where lives are celebrated, changed forever, mourned, and remembered. Where birthdays are observed, Christmas presents opened, children conceived, marriages endured or shattered. Where the events of the day are witnessed, recapped, debated, and put in perspective. Where laughs and cries are shared.

If walls could talk, oh, the stories they could tell.

That’s the premise behind author Maura Satchell’s new novel, The Gray Lady of Long Branch, (coming Aug. 25 from Four Pillars Media, $14).

IMG_20150730_151821939 (625x1024)In this case, Satchell’s novel focuses on the lives of those coming and going at a grand Victorian beach house in New Jersey. Built in the 1910s, the house serves as the unique setting and narrator (yes, narrator!) of more than a dozen vignettes within its walls, taking readers on an emotional journey through time. The stories relive milestones in the lives of the DiStefano family who owns the house, friends, and visitors who rent the house for weekend getaways or vacations.

The stories are often warm and uplifting, and sometimes sad. Satchell excels at drawing readers into the lives of her characters and making you care about them. The characters, and their experiences, are all easily relatable to our own stories, our own personal triumphs, challenges, and tragedies.

“I was staying at the beach home of a prestigious songwriter, a little jewel of a place on the Florida Panhandle, she’d escape to and compose music and lyrics. I was there, along with my husband, my laptop and some serious rain and red tide that kept us more housebound than we’d planned,” Satchell says. “It hit me that that wonderful little place must have some stories, and maybe a soul.”

Even after a hard drive crash in which she lost everything she’d written, the beach house and its stories called to Satchell.

“I thought that was the end of it, but after five years, the characters kept beckoning and reminding me of their existence,” she says, and thus her newest novel was written again.

Satchell goes on to note that “a message emerged organically from this and I only discovered it near the very end of the writing, and that is the empowerment of women in the past several decades. It came out unbidden, but I’m very pleased how it’s revealed.”

And in case you can’t suspend your disbelief that a house can act as a narrator, stick with it. All will be made clear in the end.

“The other thing I hope readers take away from this is the possibility there is more to life and to this world than what can be seen by the naked eye,” Satchell says.

Satchell has always had a knack for telling stories in a compassionate way and for letting the passions of her characters define them, and that skill is evident here. Prior to crafting fictional stories as a novelist, she chronicled real-life stories as a reporter for The Tennessean in Nashville and other area newspapers. She holds a bachelor’s degree in mass communications from Middle Tennessee State University.

The author is also a talented artist; one of her paintings graces the cover of the book.

The Gray Lady of Long Branch is due to be released Aug. 25 and will be available at the publisher’s website – www.fourpillarsmediagroup.com – in both paperback and digital formats. It will also be available via Amazon, Barnes & Noble, ITunes and other online retailers, and by request at bookstores and libraries everywhere.  Four Pillars is offering a 30 percent advance discount for books purchased before the release date at their website using the code GL30Advance. Pre-purchased books will ship before Aug. 25.

Note to readers: Maura and I were co-workers in our other lives as newspaper journalists for several years. I’ve tried to be objective in my review of her book. It’s not my usual genre, but stories well-told transcend artificial boundaries. This is one of those.

Get to know author Maura Satchell: 

Reading and Writing Around the Web for 7/20

I tried to keep the distractions to a minimum today and limit my time online so that I could do a little bit of writing. Couple of things did catch my eye and they are listed below for those interested in a bit of writerly advice or an interesting read:

First up is a thoughtful article about the psychology of flow in storytelling. There’s a fine line between keeping a reader’s attention and losing it altogether, and this article explores how writers can strive to keep that reader turning the pages.

One of Geoff Dyer’s top 10 tips for writers is to keep a private diary or journal. I started a daily journal back in December and kept forgetting about it. I’d add a few thoughts every couple weeks or so and try to recall all that had transpired in between. I haven’t touched it since April. On the other hand, I have at least been posting from time to time in this blog, so there’s that.

If you’re struggling with what to write next, actor Brett Wean recently shared how improvisation can provide your story the spark it needs.  The article addresses screenplays, but obviously can be put to work for your novel in progress as well.

In case you missed it, July 17 marked the 60th anniversary of Disneyland, “the eighth wonder of the world!” The Hollywood Reporter celebrated the occasion by reprinting an article published the day after the Southern California park opened on July 18, 1955. Admission, by the way, just $1 for adults and 50 cents for children.

Sticking with the theme of anniversaries, today marks the anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s moon landing.

And finally, author and NASA engineer Homer Hickam (of October Sky fame), shares his writing advice on his website at Homer Hickam online.

If you see something worth sharing, please do in the comments section!

Review: Action heroine peels back secrets, kicks ass in The Mask

Taylor Stevens has created a tough, intelligent action hero in the character of Vanessa Michael Munroe, one in whom many readers will want to spend time with. Munroe’s sharp wit, keen mind, and physical abilities are all evident in Stevens’ new novel, The Mask ($24, Crown Publishers). All of Munroe’s skills come into play as she is thrust into the role of investigator and savior of her lover, Miles Bradford, who is accused of murder while acting as a security consultant for a Japanese firm. With Bradford locked up and awaiting indictment, Munroe is his only hope of getting out of jail. But to find the truth, she must go deep undercover – disguising herself as a man to infiltrate the corporate, male-dominated Japanese society. (Hey, if Bruce Jenner can run around pretending to be a girl named Caitlyn, why not?)

The MaskIt’s an intriguing premise and Stevens does a good job of weaving elements of the Japanese culture into the narrative. Munroe goes from dogged investigator – digging through video surveillance and documents – to all-out action hero as she engages Japanese thugs sent to silence her. The climax sees her taking on more than a half dozen goons on her way to exacting her own brand of justice on the real perpetrator of the crime, making that last twenty pages an exciting payoff for sticking with the book until its end. You don’t want to take on Munroe alone, or at all, for that matter, if you know what’s good for you.

All of that said, the overall experience from reading this book is, it could have been better. The Mask is the fifth book to feature Munroe, although the publishers promise you don’t have to read the others to enjoy it. For the most part that’s true. The case at hand isn’t related to anything that has gone on before; the situation and the villain of the piece are both new to Munroe. But, it’s Munroe herself that seems devoid of personality. First-time readers really get no sense of who she is, how she came to possess the skills she has, what her own personal goals or motivations are. We aren’t privy to how Bradford and Munroe became a couple, why they have such loyalty to each other, or what they may have gone through to reach the state they are in, in this novel.

Backstory usually reads as boring stuff in an action/thriller, but no backstory or deep characterization results in a disconnect for most readers. That was the case here. Of course, readers interested in such things could scurry out to get the first four books in the series (The Informationist, The Innocent, The Doll and The Catch), and maybe that’s by design. I’m sure Stevens and publishers wouldn’t mind that at all. But that sort of defeats the claim that this is a standalone book, then, doesn’t it?

And while the final twenty pages were exciting, along with Munroe’s other encounters with the goons sent to silence her, the in-between bits were decidedly not. Too often I found myself skimming over the pages, looking for more action. Munroe spends far too much time buzzing across town on her motorbike to parking garages, apartments, the airport, coffee shops, and board rooms, supposedly while on the trail of the truth. At other times, Stevens spends page after page with Munroe in deep study of documents or videos in search of clues. The reader, meanwhile, just has to take her word for it as all of this unfolds in a dry, tell-tale format.

Note: I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

Today’s Best Writing & Reading on the Web

Every day I scour my Facebook feed for interesting articles and tips related to writing. I usually find a dozen or so articles that I open in separate tabs or bookmark to be read as I find time. Some of these articles are one-time only reads, meaning I’ll read the article and then close it and move on to something else. Sometimes I will bookmark the articles for future reference, particularly if they contain valuable writing advice or tips to markets.

As a writer and an avid reader, some of these articles are too good to keep to myself. So, starting today, I’m going to pass along links to some of the best reads I’ve come across.

The first item is from a panel discussion at this past weekend’s annual ThrillerFest in New York, about how the medical thriller has been more or less replaced by the medical drama:

Is the medical thriller in need of life support?

The next item explores the lifelong story of the original author of the Nancy Drew detective series:

The original ghost writer behind Nancy Drew set standard for YA fiction

I’ve been waiting for this one: the new online issue of Killer Nashville magazine. Always some interesting reading about writing, authors, books and more:

Killer Nashville Magazine – June/July

These next two are useful articles on the craft of writing:

How to create tension in your writing – from NowNovel.com

How to pace a crime novel – from NowNovel.com

For all the screenwriters out there, be sure to listen to the newest episode from John August. In this episode he uses examples from existing scripts to show how to write effective descriptions:

Everything but the dialogue

And lastly, here’s a helpful article for your writer’s toolbox on describing your character’s hair:

53 Adjectives to Describe Your Character’s Hair  – from The Writer’s Circle

Feel free to add your best writing and reading-related finds in the comments below.

Book review: Sci-fi premise of The Fold fizzles into horror movie mayhem

I don’t read a lot of sci-fi, but The Fold by Peter Clines looked like an interesting read, and it was – though not in the way I expected.

The FoldThe novel details a unique program in which scientists have created a new mode of transportation, dubbed the Albuquerque Door, in which people can cover long distances by simply stepping through the doorway. Unlike a transporter on Star Trek in which a person is disassembled down to the very molecules that make them up and then reassembled on the other end, the door simply folds great distances together, like points on a piece of paper. You step through one door and come out the other, miles away.

Mike Erikson, a teacher with an annoying eidetic memory, is recruited to report on the project’s viability in the face of pending budget cuts. He’s immediately regarded as an outsider and a spy by the scientists working closest to the project and, as a result, begins to suspect they are hiding some big secret about its inner workings. Of course, as the story progresses, he’s proven right.

None of the scientists can actually pinpoint how or why the fold works, they’re just elated that it does. There’s some mumbo-jumbo about how the idea was fueled by some nonsensical equations in an old 1880s text written by a man named Aleksander Koturovic. The scientists were all drunk at the time, but they didn’t let that stop them from running the numbers anyway. Then they turned on the device and, voila, it worked.

“And to this day we don’t know how,” one of the scientists boasts.

So much for a solid sci-fi story. Instead, the reader is suddenly thrust into a realm of pure fantasy make-believe bullshit. And, sadly, the plausibility of the story just goes downhill from there.

To his credit, Clines slowly builds the mystery and intrigue surrounding the doorway. There is a palpable sense of awe and wonder about the ramifications of such a machine could mean, as well as its unintended consequences.

Unfortunately, Clines is unable to sustain the scientific part of the novel, casting away intriguing scientific theory in exchange for big guns, C4 explosives, creepy crab people and Cthulhu’s multi-tentacled flying cousin. It’s an unexpected turn of events, and one that will keep you reading, but it’s an unsatisfying freefall from the scientific possibilities the story first mines.

As a horror fan, I loved the chaotic conclusion, but sci-fi fans will justly groan about the lost opportunities.

Note: I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review.

REVIEW: Flamboyant characters drive story of The Marauders

Bleak doesn’t begin to describe life in the bayou in the pages of The Marauders, by Tom Cooper. The novel follows the journey of several individuals who are trying to eke out their place in the world in the aftermath of the BP oil spill off the Gulf Coast. Even with the promise of easy money from BP–looking to settle claims before they become even heftier in cost–most of the characters have little to look forward to other than days of drudgery on shrimp boats or doing menial hard labor.

The Marauders-largeCooper, himself a native of New Orleans, paints a realistic portrait of the hardships his characters endure, easily putting the reader into the scene. It’s not a place anyone in their sane mind would want to embrace and, fortunately for the reader, it’s one that can be left by just closing the pages of the book. For his characters, such an escape is unattainable.

It’s Cooper’s characters, however, who keep readers wanting to turn the page.

Readers are introduced to a one-armed shrimper turned treasure-hunter, a teen wanting to forge his own way apart from the drudgery of life his father offers him, a pair of common criminals looking for an easy way out, and a pair of marijuana growers. It takes a while for their paths to cross, and for the story to really get going, but when they do the suspense is palpable, and sometimes humorous. (SPOILER: There’s one scene where the pot growers lock an alligator in the room with our one-armed shrimper.)

The Wall Street Journal describes the tale as “Sad, grotesque, hilarious, breathtaking”. I’m not sure about the latter description, but the novel is certainly intriguing and entertaining. It’s not a crime thriller per se, with shoot ‘em ups and car chases, but rather a story about characters and the choices they make, both criminal and otherwise.

The novel is Cooper’s first, though he has numerous credits in literary magazines like the Oxford American, Mid-American Review and others. He has been nominated for times for the Pushcart Prize.

NOTE: I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review.

The Martian is smart, often tedious, tale of survival

by G. Robert Frazier

The Martian by Andy Weir isn’t lacking for quality reviews on the Internet, so it was a little surprising to find the book was available for a free read in exchange for an honest review on Blogging for Books. Already a New York Times Bestseller, the book really doesn’t need my two cents worth, but I’m happy to oblige.

The MartianThe book follows the plight of astronaut Mark Watney who is left for dead on Mars by the rest of his crew following an emergency liftoff in the midst of a dust storm. Watney makes clear throughout that his fellow astronauts had no choice but to abandon him or perish themselves. Still, that leaves Watney to fend for himself or die.

Why Matt Damon really wanted to do The Martian

Watney, who is The Martian in this case, is a botanist by occupation and he uses his skills to good measure. He quickly learns to become a potato farmer, converting parts of his lander into a garden to grow calorie-rich spuds that will last him until a rescue mission can be made. He also ingeniously devises methods in which to generate oxygen and water that will last him for the duration, although with a few mishaps along the way.

Our hero recounts each challenge and its scientific solutions in exceeding detail. While it is fascinating to see Watney’s mind at work, to see his ingenuity and resourcefulness overcome every obstacle, the straightforward how-to methodology of each problem and solution can be tedious reading. Page after page is devoted to mathematical reasoning. That obviously lends a real authenticity to the dilemma at hand, but it can make for boring reading after a few pages of such jargon.

Honestly, who knew all those word problems in math class would ever come in handy like this?

As Watney is alone, there is no one to argue with or bounce ideas off other than himself. He does so through a series of journal-like log entries. Thankfully, each entry is short and sweet, so the book reads at a fairly fast pace despite the scientific mumbo jumbo.

Many reviewers have pointed out that first-time novelist Weir fails to incorporate much in the way of a human element or characterization to Watney. He doesn’t dwell on family or friends, hopes, dreams or aspirations. Rather, the reader is supposed to be satisfied that his goal is survival and little else. That makes for a less engaging read for those looking for an escapist sort of story, but apparently it’s perfect fodder for a blockbuster movie.

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Note: I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

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Other articles of interest:

Nitpicking: How the movie and novel versions differ

The Martian brings a nerd thriller into the mainstream

How a self-published e-book became a Hollywood blockbuster

Trailer: The Martian

Review: Sleepy Hollow novel fills void until new season starts

Besides The Walking Dead, there’s one show I’m looking forward to more this season than any other: Fox’s Sleepy Hollow.

The first season, in which Colonial soldier Ichabod Crane finds himself thrust into the present to do battle with the Headless Horseman and other no-goodniks, was both smartly written and refreshingly fun entertainment.

Sleepy Hollow coverSo, I was more than excited to recently receive a copy of Keith R.A. DeCandido’s new paperback original set in the Sleepy Hollow universe, Children of the Revolution. The novel was the perfect thing to tide me over while waiting out the summer doldrums and the start of the new tv season next week.

Fortunately, DeCandido does a great job of capturing the essence of Crane’s character and his cast of supporting characters, while weaving an exciting tale about a coven of witches seeking to resurrect their long dead leader, Serilda. I won’t say much more about the plot to keep from spoiling the story, but suffice to say there is plenty of action, gore, scares, and humor that comes from being a soldier out of time while fighting supernatural bad guys.

As with the tv show, the book blends historical fact and fiction to perfection. The afterword includes a fascinating historian’s note about all the facts and not-so-facts that make up the adventure.

Capturing the essence of a tv show in a novel isn’t easy, but readers of many a TV tie-in have come to expect no less from the author. DeCandido, according to the book’s author page, has made a living by scribing adventures in others’ universes, from Firefly to Star trek, from Stargate to Leverage, and more. He was even awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award by the International Association of Media Tie-in Writers (who even knew there was such a thing?).

Children of the Revolution fits seamlessly between the first-season Sleepy Hollow episodes “The Golem” and “The Vessel.” The 283-page novel unfolds at a breakneck pace and I could easily envision it unfolding on the tv screen like any other episode.

Of course, the inherent drawback to writing in anyone else’s universe is that you know gong in not much is going to change for the characters. The author can only take these characters so far, lest he infringe on what’s unfolding on the screen. Even so, DeCandido makes it a fun read in any case.

Note: I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

Picking up where I left off…

Earlier this year I began work on a mystery/thriller novel. I created character sketches and bios. I filled up a corkboard with sticky notes describing key scenes and character arcs. I invested in Scrivener and learned enough about it to actually start using it. I wrote about 18,000 words.

Then, the unthinkable happened.

Mom got sick. Real sick.

And the writing just didn’t matter anymore. Nothing mattered. Nothing but helping mom.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOver two months, mom went from a fully functional, independent woman in her 70s to a hospital bed, to a rehab program, to a short-term rehab center, to a nursing home. She never made it to a hospice program because for some reason hospice said she didn’t qualify, even when the doctors only gave her two weeks to live.

My brothers and I were by her bedside almost constantly. When we weren’t by her side, we were taking care of the house, her dog, her bills, etc. We dealt with doctors, nurses, therapists, and a pushy social worker who kept reminding us that she was about to go on vacation so could we hurry up and get mom’s paperwork signed.

We immersed ourselves in online crash courses in Medicare, cancer, brain tumors, hospice, rehab facilities, nursing homes, radiation, chemo, oncologists, powers of attorney, living wills, and last wills and testaments. We took turns caring for her dog, who was more confused and alone than almost any of us.

On Aug. 17, Mom closed her eyes one last time.

We’re still grieving. We’re still dealing, each of us in our own ways.

But we all know we must soldier on. We all must pick up where we left off.

There’s work and there are bills.

There’s that thing called life.

Only, it’s not that easy.  

In my case, I have to wonder: How do you return to a cast of characters and a storyline you left two months ago like nothing happened?

The story I started earlier this year seems so distant now, so pale in comparison to all that has transpired. The story seems only vaguely familiar, yet oddly unfamiliar after all this time. The characters seem like old friends, yet strangers at the same time.

Are they worth revisiting? Are they worth getting to know all over again?

Is the story worth finishing?

And if so, how do I begin to reacquaint myself with them? How do I pick up the pace, the flow of things, so that it feels fresh, yet natural? Like I’d never left them? Do I start over? Or do I pick up where I left off and just hope for the best?

I ask, but I already know the answer to my questions. I think I just had to write it here and make it official. To reaffirm my answer to myself, if nothing else.

I will carry on. I will write on. I will pick up where I left off. I will finish what I started.

It’s what Mom always taught me: Never give up.

I love you, Mom.

Review: Author makes good on promise in Peter Pan Must Die

At the end of chapter 2 of Peter Pan Must Die, the new Novel by John Verdon, one of the characters makes a bold statement as he tries to convince his friend, former NYPD Detective Dave Gurney, to take on one more investigation:

“The Spalter case has everything — horror, gangsters, politics, big money, big lies, and maybe even a little bit of incest. You’re gonna fuckin’ love it.”

Peter Pan-large

As a reader, my first thought was: Wow, what a promise. And my second thought: Would Verdon live up to the promise?

After reading the last fifty pages today, I can answer that with a definitive yes!

The 440-page novel from Crown Publishers (Random House) is the fourth in Verdon’s series of books following Detective Gurney, but you don’t have to read the other three to jump on. Verdon does a good job establishing Gurney’s world and backstory without making the reader seem like he has missed something. Before long, the reader is comfortably following Detective Gurney’s investigation of a seemingly impossible murder – impossible in the sense that the deadly shooting seems unlikely to have happened the way prosecutors say it went down. Further investigation uncovers more oddities, including a possible cover-up of obvious evidence to the contrary.

Gurney questions everything – and I mean everything. He reviews his list of questions several times with his cohorts, sometimes annoyingly so, saving up the answers for the end. Readers, in that regard, will have to be patient. But, in truth, the answers to everything are not as far away as you may think. In fact, if you put your mind to it, Verdon allows the reader to know everything Gurney knows every step of the way. It’s just a matter of piecing it all together in the end, reminiscent of those old Ellery Queen TV episodes.

Despite a lull in the middle, where not a whole lot happens other than more annoying pondering by Gurney, Verdon sprinkles in enough mystery and intrigue to keep the pages turning. More important, perhaps, he delivers a high-octane finish with plenty of action, drama and bloodshed at the scene of a county fair.

If there is a major complaint it is that the antagonist, uber assassin Petros Panikos, aka Peter Pan, seems to come to a rather easy (albeit grisly) defeat. For a professional killer that’s baffled international police for decade, one would expect him to put up more of a fight (although he certainly does go out with a bang).

Overall,  Verdon comes through on the promise he made in chapter 2 with an action-filled ending, making this read more than worthwhile.

Note: I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.