Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Girl in The Maze: A Novel Review

The Girl in the MazeThe Girl in the Maze by R.K. Jackson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Thank you to NetGalley and Random House for providing a free copy of THE GIRL IN THE MAZE in exchange for my honest review.

THE GIRL IN THE MAZE started off as a promising debut novel, but fell apart during the rush flash forward ending.

*SPOILER ALERT* Martha, who had been wanted for Lydia’s murder, who was reeling from her mental illness, ended up composed, healthy, and off the hook with an unsatisfying explanation that felt like an afterthought.

The salacious story of Shell Heap’s slavery roots did not seem nearly shocking enough for people to die to protect the secret of Amberleen, not in 2015. Had this story been written decades ago, maybe. Even then…

The author did a great job setting up a complex landscape steeped with culture, did a reasonable job making Martha a character that readers could root for, and then sidetracked with Vince who felt like a device for dropping psychotherapy knowledge on the reader.

Vince’s initial connection to Martha felt genuine, like he was her lifeline, but her reaction witnessing his murder felt weak, glanced over.

Jarrell’s initial role in exposing the Shell Heap takeover made me wonder how he factored in. Since he seems to have been there to help Martha when she fled from Lydia’s I wonder why there wasn’t more about his background. And the fisherman Martha ran away from? That whole scene was pointless. We could have seen her drawing protective figures elsewhere.

I really feel like this plot needed another pass.

So much time was spent on tipping the Shell Heap deal on its ear that I can’t help feeling frustrated that in the end, it just vanished. Shell Heap will be preserved. Why? And why isn’t Martha on trial? It’s stated that her mental condition protected her from some court proceedings, but the court hearings themselves happen off-page during the flash forward. Also, I’m confused by how Jarrell returned. His falling six stories off a lighthouse and surviving the landing during an enormous flood/storm seemed unlikely at best. And Morris? Why isn’t there more about the aftermath of his being swept away?

The author wrote some beautiful descriptions. In fact, he described everything in rich detail. It made it hard to tell when something was truly important.

What started off as a compelling story took a turn for the worst somewhere after Jarrell and Martha’s split when Morris targeted Jarrell. I get Morris’s role in facilitating the land deal, in making it look like Shell Heap had an unsavory criminal element, but I don’t understand how he went from a greedy lawman to a cold-blooded murderer.

From that point forward, there were a lot of poorly tied up ends. There were a lot of unlikely happenings—including Vince being let into an evacuated area because there was a nearby exit. One minute he has MapQuest directions, the next he has GPS, and yet another he has a map. He gets the information on Martha as the mysterious caller traced by his answering service? Doubtful. They’re not the police. They’re hired secretaries, and in the event of a psychotherapist taking an administrative leave, his patients would be routed to a covering therapist, not be forced to leave him a message. How Vince found Martha during an evacuation crisis when an entire police force couldn’t to that point is beyond me.

Was THE GIRL IN THE MAZE well written? Yes. The author clearly has a talent for descriptive prose, but where he fell flat was plotting, pacing, and attention to detail. A lot of time was spent on unimportant details while critical ones were barely touched upon. For that, I rate THE GIRL IN THE MAZE three stars.

View all my reviews

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Horror Hop Short: BITTER

Snow blanketed the windshield of the '83 Cadillac, packing the wipers and cutting visibility by half.
The clock said five AM, though with the winter sun rising, Amy knew it had to be later. She shifted in the passenger’s seat, listening to Leonard Skynard on the radio and trying not to think too hard about the last several skids.
The desolate roads weren’t fit travel, the plows barely able to make a dent in the storm.
Passersby were few and far between.
If they wrecked, she was as good as dead.
Jackson smeared his hand across his grimy sweatshirt and pushed in the lighter. A filterless cigarette dangled from his lip, resting against his unkempt beard.
Those hands will never be clean, Amy thought, trying to bring her surroundings into focus.
Brown melted into white melted into gray.
Alone in a vast, rural nothingness.
Amy pulled her seat belt tight across her chest.
“You’re going to love the new place,” Jackson said.
The last three had been terrible, her days spent in captivity countless, yet innumerable. Time didn't exist in Amy's world, not since her abduction. She didn’t acknowledge Jackson, listening instead to the half-full gas can sloshing behind her seat, the fumes of which were making her sick.
“Did you hear me?” Jackson said, his whisky-soaked breath hot in her face.
"Watch the road," Amy said, shying away from the stench.
Their last home had only a bathtub, one Jackson had rarely used. He smiled, his cracked front tooth hanging at an odd angle, ready to fall out.
"I'm fine." He pulled so far back into his lane that he crossed the yellow line, headed straight for a full size diesel truck.
Look out!       
Amy was too terrified to form the words. She reached across Jackson and jerked the wheel, over-correcting.
The tires skidded, catching in the snow dam lining the country road's shoulder.
Jackson fought to bring the car back around, but it was too late. Ice topped with snow topped with ice made it impossible to stop the slide.
Amy braced for impact.
Jackson’s hand hit her chest hard, holding her tight to the seat as the car went end over end down the steep embankment.
Amy's stomach lurched, releasing a pungent, bilious stream.
“Jackson!” Bitter vomit punctuated her scream.
The car rolled to a stop, with her pinned and Jackson's body limp in the driver’s seat.
With no cell phone and no way to signal for help, Amy’s only hope at escaping with her life appeared dead. Her body ached, her muscles tensed, and her bones were wrecked from the impact.
“Jackson, please. Wake up. I need help.”
The shattered window let in a stream of sobering air that froze her gasoline-soaked sleeve. She drew a deep breath and forced herself to move. Her right leg was numb, pinned beneath the pile of junk that had been thrown forward by the crash. Dizzy and nauseated, it took all of her strength to pull her foot free. When she did, she was sure her leg was broken. There was a palpable separation midway between her knee and ankle. She braced herself, biting on her shirt as she forced the pieces back into position, wrapped her leg, and dragged herself in a military crawl away from the car.

* * * * *

“Do you want her bones or her body?”
Dr. Alaine White carefully folded the brittle note and slid it into her lab coat pocket.
“Everything okay?” Jean, a middle-aged ICU nurse with gray-brown hair and a reassuring smile, appeared in the doorway of the empty inpatient room.
“I’m fine, thank you.” Alaine wiped her swollen eyes with the back of her hand. “I just need a few minutes alone.”
Jean nodded and closed the door. Having known each other almost fifteen years, Jean was one of the few people Alaine didn’t need to explain herself to.
Fourteen, Alaine thought.
Her daughter, Amy, would be fourteen in May. She had been so small, so easy to lose in the crowd.
Alaine lifted the blinds and stared through bleary eyes at the increasingly heavy snowfall. Time stopped as she relived that afternoon in fine detail. Seconds turned to minutes, drawing her into the past until duty called.
“I’m sorry to interrupt,” Jean said, “but—”
The overhead speaker sprang to life, the female voice strong and loud. “Trauma team to the emergency room. Repeat, trauma team to the emergency room.”
It was time to save a life.
“I was coming to tell you.”
Alaine dried her tears and hurried into the hall. Her white lab coat flapped behind her and the stethoscope around her neck bounced against her chest as she ran toward triage.
Jean struggled to keep up.
“What’s the call?” Alaine said, the beginnings of an adrenaline high setting in. The sad memory of her lost daughter faded into the background, leaving her on life-saving autopilot—a coping mechanism that had, at one point, been her only reason to live.
“MVA, male, severe burns.”
MVA, motor vehicle accident.
Alaine expected to see her share given the storm. “Age?” she said.
“Paramedics couldn’t say.”
The brisk winter air licked Alaine’s face raw as she stood in the glow of the white ambulance back-up lights, waiting for her patient.
The unmistakable, rancid smell of melting flesh clung to everything as the rear doors opened. The young paramedic gagged as he slid the gurney and its lifeless passenger into the cold.
“I have a John Doe,” he said. “His pants pockets are intact, considering, but there’s no wallet and no ID.” Alaine lifted the blanket to see the man’s clothing melded with the charred skin beneath it.
He wasn’t physically on fire, but his skin was still burning, she knew that.
Burns eat until they’re finished.
Until they’re full.
The man’s face and hair were reduced to a raw, black and blood mash and his fingers were eaten past their tips.
“Bay 2,” she said, openly mouthing a stick of mint gum to offset the smell.
Two uniformed officers, Matt and Roger Princeton, followed closely behind her.
“Alaine,” Roger, the father, called out to her. “We need to talk.”
“Not now, Roger. I’m a little busy.”
Small town emergency rooms didn’t run like those in the city.
Everyone knew one another.
John Doe’s heart monitor squealed. He was in v-fib.
Cardiac arrest.
“No you don’t,” Alaine said. “No one dies on me. Get them out of here.” She called over her shoulder, asking to have the father and son team removed. Jean coaxed the officers aside. “Clear!” Alaine set the pads and charged the defibrillator. Nothing. She silenced the alarm. “Clear!” Come on, Come on. A thin electronic line announced the victim’s retrieval. “Not on my watch,” she said, looking smugly upward. “Get me a room in ICU.”

* * * * *

The soothing whir of the life support machines contrasted the late night quiet. Alaine checked John’s IV bags and changed out the empty antibiotic. He was marginally stable and heavily sedated, but alive … and she needed him to live.
She needed them all to live.
“My name’s Alaine,” she whispered into John Doe’s ear, having gotten used to the burnt flesh smell. “I’m going to do everything I can to get you walking out of here, but you need to stay strong.”
“How is he?” Blond-haired, blue-eyed Matt entered the room, his nose and mouth covered. At twenty-three-years-old and an only child he was too young and too over-protected for his line of work.
Alaine had known the Princeton family for years and knew well that these were the exact kind of situations Matt’s mother wanted him protected from.
Roger walked in behind Matt, wearing the same stern look on his wrinkled face as he had the day of Amy, her daughter’s, disappearance. A blue uniform cap hung from his fingertips, the line of which had been imprinted on his silver hair.
“He’s here,” Alaine said, “That’s more than I expected. Any luck with the ID?”
Roger shot Matt a look of silent warning.
“Nothing yet,” Matt said.
“What about the car? Can’t you run the plates?”
Matt shook his head. “Dead end. The car was reported stolen six months ago.”
“We’re here to collect prints and clothing,” Roger said.
Alaine looked at the thick bandages covering John Doe’s hands and shook her head. Allowing them to touch him risked him contracting a life-threatening infection. “No contact. I’m sorry.”
“We’re going to have to compromise on this one, Lanie. It’s important.”
She hated when Roger called her that.
“Wash your hands,” she said, handing him a pair of rubber gloves. “His clothes are over there in that bag, but his prints are gone. Fingers will be too when he’s stable enough for surgery.”
Jean knocked on the door, bundled in full winter gear. “Bob’s on his way with the truck, Alaine. Can we give you a lift?”
“No, thank you,” she said. “I’m going to stay here tonight in case anything goes wrong.”
“Are you sure?”
“Maybe you should go with her,” Roger said. “Get some rest.”
“I don’t need rest, Roger. I’m sure,” Alaine said to Jean. “Thank you for the offer. Drive safely.”

* * * * *

Roger used the brush end of a scraper to clear the snow from the cruiser.
Alaine wouldn’t budge and he didn’t have the heart to tell her the truth about the life she was attempting to save.
“You almost blew it in there,” he said to Matt who was brushing off the windows. “Alaine’s not stupid. She can tell when something’s wrong.”
“What about you telling her she should get some rest? You don’t think she knew you were trying to get rid of her?”
Roger climbed into the driver’s seat and fastened his seatbelt, depositing the snow-covered tool on the passenger’s side floor and rolling down the window. “You coming?”
Matt stared up at the ICU, the passenger seat covered with snow. “I don’t feel right not telling her. She has a right to know.”
We don’t even know. We have two unidentified bodies.”
“One of which is a corpse.” Matt got into the passenger’s seat, his body heat melting the snow beneath him. “What if the body in the morgue is Amy? What if that man Alaine is taking care of is Jackson Hobbs.”
“Don’t you go starting trouble, Matt. I’m warning you.”

* * * * *

The morning sun shone over a fresh foot of snow, the light bright through the inpatient room windows.
Alaine was awakened by the fierce alarm of another in a line of cardiac arrests.
Not again.
“Code Blue room 415. Repeat, Code Blue room 415.” The overhead page called the crash team, announcing “Code Blue”, the term for a patient in cardiac arrest.
Alaine sprang from the bedside chair and retrieved the crash cart.
“Clear,” she said, out of habit, manning the defibrillator. She applied one pad to John’s chest and the other to his ribcage, administering the shock.
John twitched, his bandaged hands rising and falling with the whole body spasm.
The second charge brought back the critical line on the monitor.
John was back by the time the crash team arrived.
“Dr. White, I’m sorry it took so long,” said Jamie, the team’s thirty-something leader. Brown haired and brown eyed, Jamie stood six-two and rail thin. “We had another code on the second floor.”
“It’s all right,” Alaine said. “He came back easy this time.”
“This time?”
“John and I have been at this all night.”
“No offense Dr. White, but it looks like it.”
Alaine caught sight of her reflection in the mirror. Her bob-length hair stood on end where it had been pressed against the back of the chair. Her mascara bled into the fine lines around her eyes, magnifying the bags surrounding them.
“I’ll stay with him if you want to take a break,” Jamie said. “Go grab some coffee and a shower. John’s not going anywhere.”
“I don’t know,” she said. “What if … ?”
“His vitals are stable.”
Alaine checked the monitor and seeing Jamie was right, reluctantly agreed. “I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
“Take as long as you need.” Jamie settled into her chair.
Alaine nearly tripped over Matt in the hallway.
“I was looking for you. We need to talk,” he said.
“Where’s your father? Is he all right?”
“He’s fine. Please, before he shows up. He doesn’t know I’m here.”
Alaine unlocked the call room door down the hall and closed the door behind them.
“What’s the matter?” she said.
“You might want to sit down.”
“For what?”
“Alaine, please.”
She took a seat on the wooden bench, facing him. The suspense was killing her.
“There’s no easy way to say this. I promised I wouldn’t … I …”
“What is it, Matt?”
“It’s about John Doe, your burn victim. Last night when we came to ID him you asked me if I ran his plates.” Matt drew in a deep breath and wrung his hands. He was stalling. “There’s a right and a wrong way to handle this, agreed?”
“Handle what?” Alaine snapped, tired and impatient.
“The car was registered to Roberta Hobbs.”
“Jackson Hobbs’ wife?”
Police had found Roberta’s body with the letter the day after Amy went missing.
Do you want her bones or her body?
“You can’t mean that … it’s him?” Alaine’s voice trailed off to tears.
“I don’t know,” Matt said.    
“You’re telling me that man I’ve been saving all night is the same piece of shit who took my daughter?” She was overcome with equal parts sadness and rage. “Did you see her? Did you find Amy?”
Matt’s expression morphed into some likeness of the one she remembered from when he told her they had closed the missing persons case. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t apologize!” She pounded his sturdy chest with her fists. “Not for this. Please tell me Amy’s alive.”
Matt subdued her attack and pulled her close. “I’m so sorry.”
Alaine drew herself into the fetal position and sobbed. “I need to see my daughter, Matt. I need Jackson Hobbs punished!”
“We’re going to make this right,” Matt said. “I promise.”

* * * * *

The siren blared as Roger sped down the interstate, the ambulance closing the gap behind him.
“Come on, Matt. Pick up the phone.”
Voice mail.
He had already left several messages.
Roger slammed the phone shut and looked for mile marker 262.
She has to be here.
He spotted the bend in the guardrail and waved Josh, the paramedic, over to the shoulder. Fresh snow blanketed the crash site.
“What makes you think she’s down there?” Josh gathered the requisite supplies and a gurney.
“Blood on John Doe’s shirt matched the body we pulled from the trunk. The body’s not Amy’s, and the cause of death wasn’t fire. It was stabbing. Coroner called me himself.” Roger sank knee deep in the embankment. “Blood on the dash is Amy’s and it couldn’t have gotten there unless she was in the front seat.”
The sun reflected off the untouched snow.
Josh strapped the supplies to the gurney and hoisted it like a sled over the rail, following Roger’s lead. “There aren’t any tracks.”
“Snowed like hell last night and with everyone down here, maybe we didn’t see them.” His foot stuck beneath the icy crust and he near tugged off his boot.
“How could she have survived the cold?”
Roger scanned the landscape. “She would have needed shelter.”

* * * * *

Alaine took a vial of potassium chloride from her lab coat pocket and rolled it between her hands. She had gone from devastated to vengeful in a matter of minutes, planning John’s death as soon as the shock wore off. “His heart’s been touch and go all night, Matt. No one would think anything of it.”
One untraceable dose and he’ll get what he deserves.
“Don’t even say things like that,” Matt said, wiping his sweating palms on his pants. “Maybe my father was right.”
“Roger knows me well enough,” she said. “You probably should have listened.”
“I thought you should know who the man might be.”
“And now that I know, what did you expect me to do? You tell me you found Amy and that she’s...” Dead. The word caught in her throat. “I can’t let him get away with that.”
“I said no such thing. The body we found might not even be Amy’s. You need to give us time. Let us get a positive ID. Trust us to handle this.”
“How long?”
“Until what?”
“Until you know for sure?”
“We might know something already. Let me call and see if my father’s heard anything from the lab. He put a rush on everything.” Matt reached for the cell phone holster usually on his belt. “Shit. I left my phone in the car. I have to go get it. Tell me you won’t do anything stupid, Alaine.” She didn’t answer. He lifted her chin with his finger. “Promise me,” he said. “Or you’ll ruin both of us.”
“I promise,” she said, though she wasn’t sure she meant it.
“Wait here for me. I’ll see if there’s any news.”

* * * * *

Roger trudged through the foot of snow toward a hill a few hundred feet from the road. The crash site had been cleared, but the charred trees and crime scene tape told of the accident less than twenty-four hours old.
Fire and police had worked through the night, but had come up empty. A fresh coat of powder erased almost all signs of them having been there.
“Anything?” Josh called from the far end of the tree line.
Roger shook his head. “Amy,” he shouted. “Amy White!”
“Look, Roger! Over there.” Josh raced through the pines and fell to his knees, doggie paddling with his gloved hands.
Roger ran as fast as he could toward something red in the snow.
The tip of a bright red scarf hung from a dead tree branch that had broken under the weight of the storm. In the cold dark, with no reason to believe anyone was out there, it could have been easily missed.
Smart girl.
“She’s here.” The scarf marked the opening of a narrow cave, concealed behind pine boughs packed with snow. “Oh my God, Roger. I can’t believe it.”
Roger helped Josh clear a path to the lifeless body below.
She looked enough like her mother for Roger to recognize her.
Amy lay in a partial fetal position, one knee curled toward her chest under a down jacket. Her other leg bent at an improbable angle. Blood dotted the snowy ground, but not enough to be fatal. Amy’s face was half-covered by the fur-lined hood. Her lips had turned blue.
Josh slipped his hands under the coat and pressed his two fingers to her neck. “She has a pulse. It’s weak, but she has a pulse.” He unpacked the bag on his back, unloading heating blankets and hot water bottles.
“We have to pull her out,” Roger said.
“We have to warm her and ease her out,” Josh argued. “If we move her too quickly, she’ll develop an arrhythmia. She’ll die.” He put the hot water bottles between her clothes and her skin. “Amy, can you hear me?” She was non-responsive. “Amy, blink if you can hear me.” Her teeth chattered, a good sign all things considered.
“We’re wasting time. We need to get her to the hospital.” A decade of doubt, of Roger wondering what he could have done differently to save the girl culminated in a single perfect moment. He thought of Alaine, of how she reacted when Amy’s case had been closed, and couldn’t believe his luck.
Only when they gave up did they find her.
Josh positioned a Reeves flexible stretcher as close to Amy as he could get. “Be careful, her leg looks broken. On the count of three.”
Roger looked for a hold that didn’t come near her injury, settling on supporting both legs with his arms underneath.
“One … two … three.”
Roger lifted the frail girl, limp in his arms.
“Easy, Rog. Easy.”
“I’m being as easy as I can be.”
Josh tucked the blanket around Amy and checked her pulse. “There were too many calls this morning for the station to send me with a partner, Roger. I need to be in the back of the ambulance with her. You’re going to have to drive.”

* * * * *

Alaine dismissed Jamie, who had been watching John Doe in her absence, and closed herself into his room. She tried waiting for Matt, but something had willed her to move, to act on the pain tearing her apart inside. She had waited over ten long years for the opportunity to right the biggest wrong in her life.
She wasn’t about to let him take that away from her.
John Doe lay silent, save for the gasping sound of the respirator filling his smoke-damaged lungs.
“Jackson,” she whispered. “I know who you are and I hate you for what you did to me.” Her heart pounded, aching with each blip of the vitals monitor. She reached over and turned off the alarms on the machine, glancing briefly out the window at the emergency bay below.
Matt’s car was visible in the parking lot, the motion through the windshield telling her he was inside.
She knew she didn’t have a lot of time.
She took the potassium chloride from her pocket and a syringe from the supply cart drawer, drawing up more than enough to irritate John Doe’s already fragile heart.
“This is for Amy,” she whispered, injected his IV and waiting.
John’s heart rhythm changed and then silently flat lined.
Tears rolled down Alaine’s cheek, the terror of being found out as a murderer mixing with the sheer relief of administered justice. She looked down at the man’s lifeless body, thinking about how she’d tried to save him, and only regretting that his final hours hadn’t been filled with more pain.
The overhead speaker crackled to life, the familiar call alerting her to something else wrong. “Trauma team to the emergency room. Repeat, trauma team to the emergency room.”
A call.
It was the perfect distraction.
She hurried out of Jackson’s room, leaving the now deceased body to remain undiscovered, and worked out a story as to why the alarms might have been off. Given John Doe’s lack of identity and his fragile condition, it would be easy enough for anyone to believe he had died of natural causes.
Adrenaline kicked in as she forced her way to the front of a pack of staff crowing the ER.
“What’s going on?” she asked. “Does anyone know what the call is?”
The nurse nearest to her just shook her head.
The ambulance backed in to unload.
“Alaine! Alaine, wait!” Matt rushed toward her, red eyed.
“Matt, what’s going on?”
A smile spread across his face. “You’re not going to believe this.”
Roger emerged, snow-covered, from the driver’s side and limped toward them. “Did you tell her?”
“Tell me what?” Alaine said. “What’s going on?”
Josh opened the rear door of the ambulance and in the swirling light she saw the familiar face of her motionless daughter.
“Amy’s alive,” Roger said. “The body we found wasn’t hers.”
Alaine dropped to her knees and stared in disbelief.
Matt bent down beside her. “I just got the call,” he said. “The body we found belonged to Jackson’s girlfriend. Amy must have gotten away before the fire broke out.”
“But John Doe is definitely Jackson Hobbs?” She needed reassurance to quell her guilt.
“That doesn’t matter now,” Roger said.
“Tell me it was him,” Alaine cried. “I need to know it was him.”
“Alaine, what did you do?” Matt said.
Alaine closed her eyes, weeping into her hands. She didn’t care who was watching. “I—”
“Alaine? What did you do?”
The overhead speaker crackled to life. “Code Blue room 415. Repeat, Code Blue room 415.” 
It was Jackson’s room.
Someone had found his body.

Copyright ©2011 by Belinda Frisch
All Rights Reserved

Friday, October 2, 2015

Annual Hop Tradition: Horror Movie Screenshot Trivia

It's that time again, folks. Time to prove you're a horror superfan. Guess the movie from the screenshot, leave your answers in comments and be entered to win a set of Strandville audiobooks from Audible (Cure and Afterbirth). One random person who gets all five correct wins!






Thursday, October 1, 2015

Horror Blogging: zOctober and October Frights Horror Hop

Welcome to my absolute FAVORITE time of year, fall. Bring on the cider doughnuts, the pumpkin carving, and the horror movie marathons. Costumes, candy, and genre blog hops, too!

This year I'm participating in both the October Frights Horror Hop hosted by fellow horror gal Clarissa Johal and the zOctober event hosted by Toni Lesatz, blogger extraordinaire and master of the totally awesome book review blog My Book Addiction .

The Horror Hop runs 10/1-10 and features almost fifty horror authors, all hosting giveaways. The list of participating authors appears in my sidebar. Click any link to start hopping. The link list should appear on every page, directing you where to go next.

zOctober runs the entire month and features some of the most talented voices in zombie fiction, many of which will be guest posting on Toni's blog. There are tons of giveaways and an interactive Facebook event that offers the opportunity to live chat with each of us.

Join me live on October tenth. I'll be discussing... whatever you want me to. Ask questions or chat all things zombie. For example, what's your take on Fear the Walking Dead? I'm re-watching last week's episode as I prep this introductory post because my husband fell asleep on it. What do you think of Nick? Or of drug addicts as sympathetic main characters in general? How do you think the show is doing as an outbreak tale? What would you do differently? What would I  do differently? If you stop by on the tenth, I'll tell you.

Also, I'll be talking about DEPARTURE, my next installment in the Strandville Zombie Series, and taking recommendations for my reading list. I have Phillip Tomasso's VACCINATION up as my next zombie novel and I'd like to pick up something by Jonathan Maberry. Come tell me which zombie novels you love and why.

Throughout the month of October, I'll be doing giveaways here and will do my best to uphold the tradition of fun horror-themed games. I am going to try to nab an author interview or two and we'll see how good everyone is at "guess the horror screen shot." How well do you know your horror movies? Test your skill. There might just be a prize in it for you.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Learning from Experience: Five Novels and Still Finding Ways to Improve My Process

It dawned on me after receiving a message from an old friend that I have had such a pendulum shift in acquaintances over the past few years I take for granted that everyone I know knows what goes into writing a novel. I'd say ninety percent of the people I chat with online are other authors. We commiserate about our toiling, about editing and marketing, and we compare notes on what is and isn't working for us. Rarely do we talk about our process as it's different for everyone.

I thought I'd sketch out how I write a novel so my readers know why it takes a year to get my next book, and to maybe start a conversations on what my author friends do differently.

The first thing I do when I sit down to write any new novel is evaluate everything in my idea bank. 

The idea bank is a collection of rough thoughts written on anything and everything: in notebooks for other novels, on sticky paper, on index cards, and on random scraps of paper. I hate to think how many of these are lost somewhere or have unintentionally been thrown in the trash. 

Sometimes after picking an idea from the bank, I realize it just doesn't work, often on a substantial enough level that I have to throw the idea out completely. Sometimes that realization comes too late. There is no bigger disappointment than trying to pull together a novel that you realize after fifty thousand words isn't coming out as intended.

Vetting novel ideas takes days, sometimes weeks as I try to mentally work out how to get from point A to B. Not every idea is going to run novel-length. Not every idea is original. Some are going to be easier to write than others. Some are going to be easier to sell. Being a successful novelist is as easy and as hard as writing a book everyone talks about. I'm searching for that sweet spot (aren't we all?).
Five novels later, I'm still deciding what genre I am most comfortable in. The next few books, with the exception of Departure, are mysteries or thrillers. I think I may have found a home there.

Once I settle on an idea, I start outlining.

Make no mistake, I'm a plotter-pantser hybrid. When I say I "outline," I mean I jot down as many rough ideas about the overall story as I have at the time. This is an ongoing process that starts with index cards and ends with a notebook when I'm sure there is enough to the idea to pull off eighty thousand or so words. Often this notebook is filled with scribbles, ideas that just didn't make the cut. Once I start writing, new ideas form--better ideas--and I run with them when they do. I strive to make my characters' lives more interesting and difficult. No one wants to read a story about a bunch of imaginary people who have it easy. Nobody.

Then I start writing.

I'm a full-time author, and beginning to wonder if I shouldn't change that title to part-time author and full-time editor. My sixth novel, Fatal Intention, will be the last before a major process change. I can't believe it took me six novels to realize that I'm editing too close to the completion of a final draft. I finish writing a novel and go back to the beginning within a day or two.

I've read in about every writing magazine or how-to book that you need to let a novel cool off before reworking it. I don't know why I ignored that bit of advice for so long. Don't get me wrong, you don't have to wait, but you'll make many more subsequent passes and by the time a book is actually complete it will feel like that old piece of bubblegum you've chewed tasteless. It's painful, unproductive, and frustrating.

Revising takes longer than writing.

I can put out a rough draft in three months if I push myself. What I can't do is self-edit in that time. I am hoping that giving more breathing time between initial completion and revision remedies that. After some tough love from my beta, I'm approaching what I think is the final revision of Fatal Intention. He's a saint for reading it again, and I hope he loves the changes.

Then comes the hard part.

After I've written, revised, listened to my beta, revised again, and self-edited, comes the big decision: indie publish or submit to a publisher. As a new hybrid, there are a few more doors open to me than three years ago. Submitting comes only after substantial soul-searching. I do what feels best for each book. 

Fatal Intention will be submitted to Thomas & Mercer as part of the Anneliese Ashmore series. Also, I do expect that in time there will be a book three. I have some ideas, but have wrapped up the mystery in book two so that I'm not leaving anyone hanging while I work on other things. I've spent a couple of years with these characters, grown attached, I guess, and don't feel their stories are done yet.

Departure will be self-published, though I don't have a tentative date and don't want to commit to a deadline I might not meet. It's coming, that's all I can promise at this point other than when it does, it'll be my most righteous Strandville  novel yet. Don't forget to check in on October 10th during the zOctober live chat if you have questions about where Departure is headed.

Did I say that was the hard part?

I might have misspoken. There's another facet to being an emerging author that new authors might not consider when they decide to enter the shark-filled waters: Sales.

Perhaps the most elusive part of this business is what makes a book sell. What gets people talking? How many people does it take to make a book successful? What amplifies audience reach? 

I don't know. I don't think anyone does. I write the story asking to be told, I put it out there, and I hope it resonates. I am thankful for every reader I get, but have not yet reached the point in my career where my books sell themselves. I strongly believe that if I persist, I will get there. Three years is a drop in the publishing bucket. Writing is a long game, a labor of love, and each author will have a unique experience. Regardless of sales, of success, of reviews, I'm doing what I have always wanted to do, every day, and for that I am grateful.

It would be awesome if some of my author readers would link back with response posts. How do you write a novel? What do you do differently? What have you learned over time? Readers, is there more or less to novel writing than you thought? Weigh in in comments.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

The Good Neighbor: A Novel Review

The Good NeighborThe Good Neighbor by A.J. Banner
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Good Neighbor starts off with a gripping scene of two people heading down rushing waters, one of them possibly drowning while the other struggles to save her.

Flashback to some time before this and the author delivers a convoluted backstory about a fire that destroyed the lives of several neighbors who felt a little too conveniently connected.

Sarah, the main character, is immediately likable as she rushes to the aid of a child, Mia, trapped in the burning building next door. The girl’s parents perish in the blaze, Sarah’s home is destroyed, and secrets are revealed about a series of extramarital affairs (or at least innuendo about affairs) that divert the reader’s attention from the arsonist’s identity.

I won’t say I saw the ending coming, though I knew something was up. The distraction is effective in that I didn’t guess the arson plot, but I could tell the villain wasn’t who I was being led to believe. Is that a deal breaker? No. The story was well written and captivating, for about half. The last half of the book felt rushed. The chapters became shorter, the details less thought out, and the ending lacked the tension that made the first part of this novel gripping, making The Good Neighbor hard to rate.

The book caught my attention, and for the most part, held it. Sarah was a great character. Dr. Johnny, who the author spends so much time casting doubt on, didn’t come out of this disaster as clean as I think he was supposed to. I felt Sarah deserved better, making the ending just okay for me. The author wrote some thrilling scenes, even if there were too few of them. She handled a large, diverse cast in a way that gave everyone an individual identity. I didn’t feel lost at any point. So why don’t I love this book? I don’t know, but I can see why the overall rating tends toward three. A good story, fairly well executed, but lacking in something I can’t put my finger on. A solid three and a half stars.

View all my reviews

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Does it Feel Right, is it Finished, or Are You Just Fed Up?

Oh, my. Bad news. Well, mixed news, but when your beta sends you 9:1 critical:complimentary words, you have to either a) reconsider your friendship or b) realize that you're way too close to the work and mull over what exactly might be the problem.

FYI, I always recommend the latter. A beta should be someone who doesn't work to please you, who is close enough to you not to be a raging douche, but far enough removed that if you stop talking to them for a week no one walks away angry. Matt Schiariti is a talented author and a dear online friend that has been the first reader on my last three books. He pulls no punches. I yell at him, and then thank him for delivering the bad news.

Writing is a personal work. Maybe the most personal work, and it's hard to take criticism no matter how many times it happens, how gently it's given, and who gives it. My goal at the end of every novel is to write a book that reaches my readers emotionally and entertains them. I want you to love my characters, my settings, and even my sometimes open endings.

I write, revise, edit, and rewrite until the story feels finished, perfectly wrapped up. When I reach that point, I will normally defend my creative choices to the death. I hadn't quite gotten there when I sent Matt Fatal Intention, but I was close enough that I felt with some minor tweaking it was ready to go.

On some level, it is. On another, there are a few misses that require some seam ripping and patchwork. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, and as I discussed my ideas for fixes with  him, he feels they're enough to make this one work, but it still hurts to think that despite the fact I thought I was, I'm  not finished.

Writing a book is tedious work, commensurately tedious, I'd say, with how complicated a story is. I write complex novels. This puts me in the position of having to step back and think about the intricate details. The little things make a big difference. The problem comes when you realize you're just fed up.

A big perk of independent publishing is total control over your timelines. See, I owe my publisher a look at Fatal Intention, but since it isn't under contract, when that look happens is completely up to me. I could push myself to crack this novel out in a couple of days and move on, but I think the story will feel like I pushed the final edits out in a couple of days and moved on. I don't want that, and my readers deserve better. I'm spent. Emotionally banged up and nursing a bruised ego.

The best fix I know for that is chasing the shiny new idea. I'm going to do some multitasking to encourage further distance from Fatal Intention before making those last sweeping changes. Time and distance are an author's best friend. If you rush, your readers will notice.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Free, In Progress, and What the Author's Reading

First up, what I'm reading. Book two in the Huntress series, Blood Moon picks up where Huntress Moon left off.

Twenty-five years have passed since a savage killer terrorized California, massacring three ordinary families before disappearing without a trace.

The haunted child who was the only surviving victim of his rampage is now wanted by the FBI for brutal crimes of her own, and Special Agent Matthew Roarke is on an interstate manhunt for her, despite his conflicted sympathies for her history and motives.

But when his search for her unearths evidence of new family slayings, the dangerous woman Roarke seeks - and wants - may be his only hope of preventing another bloodbath.

It is highly recommended that you read Book 1 of the series, Huntress Moon, first.

I started reading this series because it was Thomas & Mercer published and available on Netgalley. When I signed with T&M I was curious about other books they were releasing. I have been overall impressed. No Strings by Mark SaFranko is one of my favorite reads this year and the Huntress books are pretty good, too. Some stories hook me more than others and this one has me lagging between reading sessions. I don't know why. It's good, but it's just not as addicting as say How to Successfully Kidnap Strangers by Max Booth III. That book was a riot! I read it in well under a week (record breaking for me). I spend so much time reading my own work that it's sometimes hard to get motivated to read others.

I have The Dinner, Girl on a Train, and The Good Neighbor coming up next on my TBR.

I'm down to the last fifty pages of my final draft of Fatal Intention before it goes to the talented Matt Schiariti for a beta read. He has been my first reader for the past several novels and while we're good buds and he tries to be gentle with me, it never gets easier waiting for feedback. I'm dying to hear what he thinks. If you're a fan of medical thrillers with a dash of romance, Fatal Reaction is available from Thomas & Mercer as an Amazon exclusive. Fatal Intention release details will be forthcoming. 

In other news, I've set my novel Cure, Strandville Book One permafree for anyone who loves medical-inspired horror and viral walking dead. Departure, Book Three, is in progress and I thought making Cure free would be a great way to introduce new readers to the series. I have been thinking about Amelie and the post-apocalyptic adventures since Afterbirth. A little known fact about Afterbirth is that the impetus to write the novel came from Cure  being optioned for film. Having no idea what may come from that deal, I wanted to make sure that the sequel was finished in a timely manner. It has been one of my most well-received novels to date.

After Departure is completed or while it's being worked on, I will be working on outlining a new thriller that is unlike anything I've done before. The idea came to me a while back and has been mentally reworked--the most recent breakthrough being the most feasible jumping off point. I think I'm ready to commit this kidnapping tale to paper. After that comes another thriller that had me researching New York's largest potter's field. An island with over one million dead buried, and the biggest secrets belong to the living.

That will keep me busy through 2016.

What'll you be reading in the meantime? I'd love to hear your favorite reads in the mystery, horror, and thriller genres. Recommendations welcome in comments.

Monday, August 3, 2015

The Double-Edged Sword of Bookstores: Amazon v. Brick and Mortar from an Amazon Published Author

Bookstore books are expensive. I feel awful about saying this but they can't compete with Amazon's pricing so I find myself visiting these place I love and not buying much from them.

We've witnessed the decline of the brick and mortar coming on the heels of e-reading and Amazon's lowest price guarantee. This saddens me. One of my favorite pastimes is wandering through a bookstore and checking out all those fabulous covers and blurbs. Sadly, even if I find a book I like, I compare prices with Amazon to see if it's worth the impulse buy. If we were talking a dollar or two, I'd have no problem paying a  little more for the store bought version, but I'm talking half price in some cases--including on new releases and bestsellers in hardcover.

We're all on a budget and while I could make the case that books are a necessity, we know better. I recently joined Prime because there are things I can get on Amazon that I can't get elsewhere. It's not only about their prices, it's about stock and availability. I save a lot of money on everything from boutique dog items to pens in bulk. Faced with paying $26.00+ or $13.00 for the same book with two-day shipping, $13.00 wins almost every time. Don't get me wrong, I buy from my favorite bookstore, but out of guilt, and I cringe at the signage everywhere that says, "I didn't get this book from Amazon."

Yes, booksellers are firing back.

Worse, since I'm published by an Amazon imprint I feel torn about supporting the sentiment. If I buy a book from this store because I enjoy the time I spend there and don't want to see the doors closed, am I supporting someone who is outright shunning me as an Amazon published author? I've given them one of T&M's sexy paperbacks of Fatal Reaction in the hopes that they'll be willing to carry it, but they've not responded. They do have copies of the Strandville novels I've self-published on the shelf. Coincidence? Maybe.

I feel the bookstore's pain. Not only do they have to compete with bottom line pricing, there are stock issues. Even if I wanted to buy from them, most of the time they tell me the book I want would have to be ordered (as if I couldn't do this myself and have it conveniently shipped home). Bookstores are filling up with gifts, coffee shops, and non-book merchandise to offset costs. It's a wonder there are any left. I wonder how long those that are will stick around.

Everyone has to do the best they can with what they have. I buy a LOT of books. If I can pay half price or even two-thirds, I'm going to--even if that means giving up visiting the places I love. How about you? Where do you get your books and why?

Wednesday, July 29, 2015


I firmly believe that authors have to play to their strengths and even though How to Successfully Kidnap Strangers might be a niche novel, it showcases the author's uncanny ability to spin a ridiculous, engaging yarn about the inner workings and struggles of small press publishing.

FIVE STARS because this novel is like nothing I've ever read.

HOW TO SUCCESSFULLY KIDNAP STRANGERS is an irreverent, hilarious joyride into the bowels of small press hell. I’m not small press published but as someone who mostly self-publishes, I face many of the same problems including douche reviewers like Harlan Anderson (a once rejected, scorned wanna-be author who writes scathing reviews for all of BILF Publishing’s titles).

Coincidentally, Harlan lands in the hands of the BILF Publishing crew when Billy—a not-so-talented drug-addicted writer—ends up kidnapping him due to a lapse in judgment. Unsure what to do next, Billy head’s to Nick’s (BILF’s editor-in-chief) apartment for help. Not only has Billy kidnapped Harlan, but also a man who ended up in the fray when Billy and Harlan were beating the crap out of each other before the abduction. Who is this guy? Lewis *spoiler alert*, the serial killer. What are the chances? The day goes from bad to worse as the small press people try to hatch an escape plan that includes their star author, Sergio, the brains behind The Cumming of Christ. Only in this world can religious porn seem like a thing.

If you’re sensitive about religion, easily offended, or have issues with vulgarity, you’re going to want to take a hard pass on this one. If you’re a fan of dark humor ala EULOGY and VERY BAD THINGS, you’re in for a treat. Max Booth does a great job handling the story from multiple points of view--eventually. I considered giving the book four stars because there are minor timeline shifts, a big cast that is initially tough to keep track of, and a few editorial grammatical misses but really, I loved this book and I don’t want to end up in anyone’s trunk thank you very much. I’m not sure that anyone who isn’t on the inside, in writing or publishing, will quite get how hilarious this book is, but fellow authors are sure to find at least something in here that ring too true. The chapter titles alone are worth the cost of the book. What did I learn? Well, if times get tough and book sales are down (and let’s face it, they’re always down), I could always lug a crate of books to the street corner and flash people. Thanks, Max, for writing such a fun book.