I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Jette Harris since my early Twitter authoring days, and the good fortune to be one of her beta readers for her gut-wrenching thriller series “My Name Is Not Heather Stokes”. In between its first installment, Colossus, and the upcoming Two Guns, she began work on “Phoenix Rising”, a series of novellas which follows the sinister serial killer known as The Phoenix along the path which leads him to the man we see in Colossus. It begins in his youth, and is projected to follow him right up to the events of “My Name Is Not Heather Stokes”. Here is my unsolicited, unbiased, unvarnished review of the two existing novellas.
I must begin by saying that ALL of Harris’ novels contain unbridled scenes of abuse, both emotional and physical. If you cannot read such things, for any reason, I recommend that you steer clear. If you’re still with me, let’s begin.
Phoenix Rising, Book 1: Flint Ranch
We begin in rural Colorado, with young Thaddeus “Thatch” Adams. He and his mother live on Flint Ranch, a small horse farm, with his uncle, Jed. It is clear from page one that their surrogate home is anything but safe. Under Jed’s crooked, cruel rule of the household, nothing is allowed to remain innocent. Flint Ranch becomes a place where angels fear to tread, as the few allies Thatch and his mother have abandon them. When a pack of wolves menaces the farm, uncle and nephew are both pushed to their breaking point.
It is suggested that Jed’s business dealings are as crooked as his morals, and that backed himself into a corner with his dealings: one reason why he may be taking his anger out on his family. He is never fully fleshed out, which is for the best: it makes it easier for the reader to demonize him in the same way that Thatch does. The solace he finds in the horses is simply written, but poignant: they become his second family in scenes which are a perfect counterpoint to Jed’s abuse.
Thatch’s abuse is rough to watch, because Harris holds no punches. Her prose is raw and unapologetic, and there were times when I felt my throat and stomach tighten - particularly during one brutal scene in the barn. But Thatch’s first acts of rebellion are the seeds which will help him survive … and grow into the man who becomes Avery Rhodes.
The prose is quick, rough, and jerks from phrase to phrase, mimicking the anxiety and tension so perfectly that it’s hard not to empathize with Thatch, especially as he enters his teenage years and begins to fully comprehend what has been going on around him. Flint Ranch’s ending is abrupt, but it feels right: cut off with a final line as sharp as a gunshot. Even though the novella clocks in at under 100 pages, it carries an impact that lingers.
Phoenix Rising, Book 2: Salvage
Not long after the events of Flint Ranch, Thatch is sent to Colorado Springs. There, he enters the care of his father Wren Chares, a Greek mechanic. In the course of adjusting to his new home and school, Thatch begins to slowly recover from the abuse he suffered at Jed’s hands. But pieces of Wren’s history still haunt him, and they will come back to affect Thatch, too…
I was just as anxious as Thatch to meet Wren Chares. I, too, feared that he might be another abusive figure, but I was quickly proven wrong, and grew to love him as a character. His quiet demeanor and gentle insistence upon manners and sophistication, despite his lower-class stature, are a refreshing polar opposite to the horrors of Flint Ranch. Harris’ writing reflects this, losing a great deal of the brusque pacing and tension she strung through the previous novella.
Thatch’s post-traumatic state of mind is treated with a deft hand, showing us the lingering after-effects of abuse, both physical and emotional. One scene in particular, when Thatch is shown to his new room, is heart-breakingly beautiful, and his responses to what were considered “normal” locker room antics in the 1970s are revelatory.
Wren’s moonlighting job is handled with equal mastery, as Thatch begins to sort out his own opinions on the nature of the world, what he might want to do with the rest of his life, and his own attractions.
doctor as his father tells him stories of his own compassion and resilience, and learns first-hand by accompanying him on house calls to the brothel, where he begins to sort out his own attractions. I dare not give anything away, but the climactic scene of the novella is the birth of Thatch’s purpose, and brings joy mixed with tragedy. Where Flint Ranch was the record of Thatch’s pain, Salvage lays down the first, tentative steps toward his recovery… and ends on a note even more abrupt.
To wrap things up, I must stress that despite the graphic scenes which scar Thatch, there is far more to these novellas than shock value - if anything, it is not what happens to characters which is of note, but how they handle themselves in the aftermath. Thatch’s progression from victim to tentative survivor is what has me waiting on the edge of my comfy reading chair for the next novella.
You can find all of Jette's published works on her Amazon author page, here. Please also take a moment to follow her on Twitter and Facebook, and visit her Wordpress blog, where she frequently shares excerpts from her work in progress, and shorter pieces.
With that, I am going to tuck this blog in for a NaNoWriMo nap, and I will see you all in December! Thanks to all of you for your continued support - I wouldn’t be here without you!
Until next time,
Hello, everyone! Welcome back Between The Lines... I hope you're all ready for a thrill ride, this week, because I've got a fantastic one lined up for you! Before we start talking about the most breakneck-paced book I've read this year, I feel obligated to remind you that this is an unsolicited, unbiased review: I was not approached or compensated by the publisher or author in any way. Now that the legalese is out of the way, climb on in, stow your belongings in the mesh compartment in the seat in front of you, pull the bar down 'til it clicks, and get ready to follow me on a wild ride through Cori Lynn Arnold's novel Thin Luck!
Robyn Hughes was a successful TV reporter in Connecticut (a little ways from Aviario, perhaps?) before a terrible accident got her arrested. Now, after serving her prison term, she returns home, wanting nothing more than to reacquaint herself with her husband Nick and their infant son, Kyle. But Nick never comes to pick her up, and by the time she's able to get home, he and Kyle are both gone. With most of her resources stripped down, and no one willing to trust her, Robyn has to rely on her own street smarts and her investigative reporter's instinct to track Nick across the country so that she can get Kyle back. As the title implies, however, luck is not on her side, and a string of unfortunate mishaps begin to amass until Robyn is wanted once more, this time with her own criminal nickname: "The Bonnie Without A Clyde". When Detective Turner is assigned to track Robyn down, he must put together the pieces and bring her in ... but he discovers something else in her past which might change how things work out for everyone involved.
From page one, I wanted to know what was going on: who Robyn was, why she'd been in prison. Cori Lynn Arnold has a deft hand for suspense, stringing it taut between chapters like a violin. Robyn's cross-country quest to find Nick and Kyle is reminiscent of The Fugitive. I would say that it would make for an amazing mini-series adaptation, but it doesn't need one: Arnold's descriptions are at once rich and succinct, putting you in the scene without slowing down the story. Readers careen along with Robyn from one chance encounter to the next, and every stranger she meets is as richly detailed as our heroine. Things connect and branch off each other in unexpected, delightful ways, and culminate in a California showdown which left me holding my breath with every page turn.
My only thing which took me a little out of the read was the fact that Arnold switches from Robyn's first-person voice to third-person during the scenes with Detective Turner ... but it grew on me as the novel progressed. Hearing Robyn's tale in her voice not only makes it easier to see inside her mind, but helps wrap the reader up in it all and forget that outside of everything that Robyn is dealing with, life rolls on. When Detective Turner comes on the scene, only then do we catch glimpses of the ripples the plot is making in the "real" world, and asked to decide if we really do want to root for Robyn.
The little details really help this book shine: each chapter begins with Robyn's location, and the codes for whatever law she breaks in that location, leaving us to guess how it's actually going to happen. All in all, this was a fantastic novel: I read it in a little over a day, and after skimming through it to find the high points for this review, found myself wanting to read it again. Those who prefer e-books will find Chapter 18 worth the price, alone, but I expect that I'll be purchasing a printed copy for my shelf at some point in the future.
You can get your own copy of Thin Luck here on Amazon, or through Smashwords. Cori Lynn does not have a blog, but you can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, or Goodreads!
Thank you for joining me for another indie book review! Please remember that reviews are what help independent authors like Cori and me sell books ... if you read something, review something! I hope you'll join me next week for another review - this one's a double-shot: two novellas by Jette Harris!
Until then, as always, I remain your hostess,
A short while ago, I was approached by Moran Press with an exciting opportunity: to conduct an interview with author L.M. Bryski for the event of her debut novel, Book of Birds. I was also offered a review copy ... so the review you are about to read was solicited, but is still completely unbiased.
Book of Birds tells the story of Elly and Dot, orphaned sisters sent to live with their maternal grandparents in post-war Canada, during the 1940s. Sharp-witted and sharp-tongued, Elly's keen observational skills have taught her how to survive the wilds of the pre-pubescent schoolyard, but she still finds herself somewhat of an outcast. She befriends fellow outlier Stanni, nicknamed "Stammer" for his speech impediment, but their friendship is tested to its limits when Dot disappears during a visit to a traveling circus. All involved, even Elly's grandparents, have a little growing up to do as the investigation unfolds.
The first thing that struck me about Book of Birds was its narrator's voice. Elly takes the reader by the hand and pulls them, without apology, down the path of those few turbulent months in her life. She speaks with the clear, no-nonsense tone of a young girl, calling the shots as she sees them and making the sort of observations most adults either forget or miss. L.M. Bryski seats herself so confidently in Elly's mind that we forget that Elly, herself, did not write it down for us. As children often do, Ellie makes remarks that are equal parts harsh and humorous, and the humor serves to carry the reader through darker scenes with a perfect balance. Those dark scenes are not written to shock or to disgust, they are simply told plain-faced, presented as they are, because Elly will not shirk from the truth of the telling.
Elly is not the only remarkable character in the novel, by far: there was not a single character who I felt was one-dimensional or flat. Every single person has a purpose in the story, and that purpose is woven in with traits and events that give them depth: from the school groundskeeper to the strange, outcast old lady who Elly meets outside after church one Sunday morning. While I was able to predict the "who-done-it" aspect of the story, it did not detract from how much I enjoyed reading it, or the tension which the author strung taut through the entire novel. This is a debut which I would happily read again and again: it deserves a place on the shelf with coming-of-age classics such as Where The Red Fern Grows and The Giver.
Thank you, Angela, for giving me this opportunity to talk about Book of Birds. It’s been a great experience from very first plot thought to word drop on the page to publication date. It’s my debut novel, and, as the ole saying goes, you never forget your first.
You say in your author bio that the inspiration for this came in part from a Marx Brothers movie. Can you tell me a little about how that grew into Book of Birds?
I tend to look at stories as person, place, and inciting event. I had already toyed with the idea of Elly, a newly orphaned teenager, in my head. As well, the environment of a post-war prairie town is dear to my heart, being a backdrop for my own family’s history. I was missing the third leg of the stool, though, to kick-start Book of Birds into action. It wasn’t until I’d come across the Marx Brothers and specifically, Lydia the Tattoo Lady (coincidentally encountered in different conversations), that the story started to live. While happily humming the Lydia song after a fun conversation, I came across a vintage photograph of a priest blessing a travelling circus train. Bingo. I had my incident that stirred the story pot. A travelling circus comes to town. How would each character react within this new environment and its possibilities? What consequences would come of it? I started writing. And Book of Birds flowed out, in order, chapter by chapter, until it was done.
The book is a fantastic vehicle for metaphor… I enjoyed the way Elly kept such a careful mental ledger of different types of people and their behaviors, as though it were its own type of bird-watching. Where did the idea of the titular field guide come from?
I love books. Always have. And photographs and drawings. Love a mix of words and pictures that explain facts. Growing up, I had several favourite books to look through: Encyclopedia Britannica to pick out what pedigree cat, dog, horse or dinosaur I would some day own, encyclopedia volumes on Pompeii and the Arctic, Disney volumes on the history of Walt’s cartoon empire, and a field guide to Eastern North American birds. When thinking of Elly, the vastness of an empty, lonely prairie field kept popping to mind. But was the field really empty? Birds were always in the field, if you just knew how to look for them. A field guide to looking for birds became a field guide for Elly to help her look at life.
There are a lot of difficult scenes in this book. How did you prepare for writing them, both practically and emotionally?
I didn’t prepare for the emotional scenes. I just let my fingers go and typed them out. It was mostly not a problem as I was able to float above it. There was one notable exception. Just as I was writing the scene when Elly gets in a fight with Connie and hauls Connie out of a hotly contested school seat, I got into a tiff with a friend. It was a new friendship, and the first time we’d had a difference of opinion. I was surprised at the parallel emotion of anger in myself and in the character I was writing about. That taught me to be aware of what state of being was coming to life on my pages and to keep an eye that it didn’t bleed into my own life if it was a negative emotion. Doesn’t always work. Sometimes, I still have to catch myself.
I enjoyed the fact that Book of Birds takes place in the past … but how much different do you think it would be, had it been set in the present?
Communication tools would have been quite different. The mix of face-to-face interaction with texting would have given a different flare to how Elly integrated with her school environment and peers. Underneath it, the emotions would have remained the same. The feeling of isolation, of not being accepted, may have been amplified with the obvious exclusion from the cyber-friendships around her. As well, Elly’s access to books to read would have been very different, having a greater choice, with competing interests of television and internet. The town would be vastly different: either larger, with more integration with the world around it or a ghost town with abandoned buildings and weed-choked roads. The circus, itself, would likely have skipped the town, focusing instead on the big cities. It would have been a very different book.
Are any characters inspired by people you know?
Each character is his or her own creature. There isn’t a template for any one of them. Characters come to life in my head as individuals. In retrospect, I can say this or that quality comes from so-and-so, but there is no close match with others that I know.
You do an amazing job with Elly’s narrative voice. So many of her observations about being her age ring true, especially the passage about kids hearing more than adults think, and only wanting to understand. Is there anything in particular you had to do to keep yourself in the mindset of a young girl?
I love thinking of stories like plays. I love having conversations in my head between different characters, and I love acting as a different character in the soft and safe ‘sit-and-think’ parts of my life. It was easy to get into the mindset of each character, including Elly, as my mind is an ongoing stage for them each to walk across and have their moment speaking.
What is your favorite YA book?
There’s a mix. Narnia comes immediately to mind, followed by both Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy and other books in her series. Anne of Green Gables is another series that I avidly read, then had the pleasure of watching in later years. For wonderful weirdness, the Wizard of Oz series by L. Frank Baum, written in the early 1900s, has always captured my imagination. To round it out, Beatrix Potter. Bunnies. Always bunnies.
Any idea what’s next for you? Or are you just going to enjoy a little downtime after all this hard work?
No down time. Never for a writer. If you’re not actually writing, you’re either reading or thinking of something to write. Or you’re editing. The dreaded yet oh-so-necessary editing. I’m currently editing my uncle’s memoirs. I just finished a story that I did as a fun, self-imposed writing exercise. It’s not up to my usual standards so I might chop it up and salvage bits and pieces as short stories for another time. As well, Blood Chill, another of my manuscripts is coming back to me from development editing. I expect there will be a lot of work to do on that book. Another story is coming to the forefront in my brain. It’s set in a fantasy world and revolves around the making of a pocket watch similar to the famous supercomplication watch. There is a magical twist, however. I’m still fleshing the plot out. As always, I keep on with the day job.
I encourage you to check out L.M. Bryski.com, as well as follow her on Twitter and/or Facebook. Book of Birds is available through Moran Press. Please join me next week, when I'll have another review in store!
Until next Wednesday, friends & fellow readers!
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