The Dubious Art of Book Reviewing

I don’t write reviews often; it takes time and effort to come up with a meaningful retrospection. When I do write them, I have different rules for different types of books, and this customized approach is most apparent within two major publishing categories–indie books and traditionally published books.

Photo by Susan Q Yin on Unsplash

Sometimes I’m so moved with a book that I feel inspired to put down my impressions. It usually happens when I really like it and want to share my excitement (or recommend it) or, less frequently, when I’m frustrated or disappointed. The second scenario–a pissed-off review–usually occurs with a work of fiction unjustifiably praised, in my opinion, for qualities it doesn’t possess.

There are no consequences for the author as I don’t have any influence outside my limited blog space. Even if I did, such authors are fair game: they’ve been paid for their books, marketed, publicized, and promoted by their publishers. They can take some heat.

You can find both examples in my old posts: the first being the Temeraire series by Naomi Novik and Adelle by Leila Slimani the latest.

Independently published authors are a different story. Here I follow Thumper’s advice: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.”

This is what I think: If someone writes a book, invests (most of the time irrevocably) a bunch of money into editing, proofreading, cover design, formatting, promotion… the last thing they need is someone like me pointing out the flaws in their story; inevitable errors, plot holes and the subjective characters’ shortcomings.

To self-publish a book is a huge undertaking, and whenever I can, I like to acknowledge and celebrate it. Do I like every book I review? No, of course not. It might not be my cup of tea–the style or the characters or the story might not correspond with my inner reader–but it doesn’t mean I wouldn’t give it a good review and plenty of stars. I try not to emphasize my personal preferences unless they measure up against some literary values. In other words, I like to believe that, having some knowledge about literature (I studied it) and being an avid reader for many decades, I’m able to go beyond what I like and dislike in stories and dig out substantial qualities.

(Not always, of course. These days, thanks to self-publishing opportunities, anyone can be an author. There are numerous written products–I deliberately avoid calling them books–that are simply below any professional standards and are therefore not worth suffering through and reviewing them.)

What kind of reviews do I not care about? After what I’d mentioned above, I don’t think it’s difficult to guess: I dislike reviews that are based solely on personal taste, without any contextual explanation. They mean nothing–if they’re positive, there is no harm done (“I really liked this book.”); if they are not, they can be damaging and hurtful (“This is the worst book ever written.”) But in both cases, they don’t help. If someone says that a story is great and lovely, or boring and dull without explaining why, they are just expressing their personal tastes or reading preferences which nobody asked for or cares about.

The other type of reviews I often frown upon are those long, detailed, and often hard-to-understand tractates about books, full of long and verbose sentences. I like a well-written analysis, but it seems that sometimes reviewers don’t know the difference between the two, especially when it comes to length.

I wrote a series of reviews in December, as a sort of thank you to my fellow bloggers and authors. They illustrate my reviewing “philosophy” well. If I didn’t know the authors, I likely wouldn’t have come across their books. I don’t read a lot of romance fiction although I absolutely adore some romance authors. This is my genre as a writer, after all. Generally speaking, I don’t like dystopian fiction, particularly the novels about totalitarian societies. Such stories can never have happy endings, and I’m a sucker for happy endings. I’m obsessed with Ancient Egypt, but I do not fanatically read everything about it. I like gritty, urban noir fantasies with kick-ass female leads, but there are so many of them, and some are quite good, written by well-known novelists. I could say that my encounter with JP McLean’s novel wouldn’t have naturally happened if I didn’t know the author.

Yet, I truly enjoy the festive, warm and romantic atmosphere of Christmas in Silver Creek. I was in awe of the dark, consuming, and breathtaking force of one of my most challenging reads ever, Dog Meat. I was sucked into the ancient/modern Egypt vortex created in She Who Returns that I could only admire the author’s ability to recreate such a vivid and believable world; I was beating my nails and rooting for the protagonists in Ghost Mark.

In the end, I believe I found what was the best in these books and brought it to light. I think that was all I needed to write those reviews. If I couldn’t find it, I would say nothing at all.

Do you like writing reviews? What are your criteria when it comes to book reviewing? Do you think it’s helpful that everybody can write a review, regardless their knowledge, understanding, insights? Do you agree that, sometimes, reviews could do more harm than good?

P.S. I stopped receiving any notifications about the blogs I follow. I might try to unfollow you all and then follow you again, to see if this going to do the trick. (Thanks, Priscilla, for the tip!)

Posted in Home | Tagged , , | 18 Comments

Christmas Review No. 4: Ghost Mark by JP McLean

I’ll conclude this miniseries of minireviews with one of my favourite authors of urban fantasy/supernatural fiction, JP McLean.

I’ve been following her for years. I reviewed all of her books and it’s never been a difficult task: you only need to have a lots of compliments and that’s it. She is that good.

I devoured Ghost Mark a couple of months ago. Like her other novels, it was a nail-biting and addictive read, with a clever plot, finely built tension, and a heart-pounding finale. In short, this novel has everything a suspense novel should have.

The characters are thoughtfully shaped. Some are strong and tough, but brave enough to show their vulnerability. Some are seemingly mean and we don’t like them, just for them to prove us wrong at the end. Some are clever and some not so much, but their their actions and reactions are always logical and justified.

Although JP Mclean’s books have supernatural elements, her narrative is original, credible, and convincing. I always said that I wouldn’t be overly surprised to meet some of her characters in person. To make the supernatural believable is one of the greatest strengths and secrets of JP McLean’s writing.

I like the chemistry between the two protagonists, Jane and Ethan. They are both complex personalities, coming with their own sets of hurts, aches, and traumas. However, they’re fighters, they’re resilient, and they have a strong moral compass. The supporting roles are also well chosen. The most pleasant surprise was Sadie, Jane’s friend. I loved how she matured and changed from the previous book.

Being from the same series, Dark Dreams, Ghost Mark is tightly connected to its predecessor, Blood Mark. I read Blood Mark more than a year ago, and some plot details had faded from my memory. That gap didn’t ruin my experience with Ghost Mark–JP McLean is able to remind her readers of the key facts of her previous novel in a sensible, natural way. The type of ending she’s chosen for her novel is among my favourites. This story has its firm conclusion, but there is a small, delicious crack through which you can see that more is coming. Wonderful!

The Ghost Mark reviewers covered many other aspects of this sophisticated thriller with nice layers of romance and humor, so I won’t touch them in much detail. Just a few things to mention. The setting is awesome. It feels authentic: it’s ragged, it’s rough, and it’s gritty. The narrative has its rhythm and logic, and the balance of exposition, description, and dialogue is perfect. No extra words and no unnecessary idling. It’s a tightly written, exciting, and memorable novel.

Five starts from me, JP! Merry Christmas!

Posted in A closer look, Home, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , | 15 Comments

Free on Smashwords

Just a quick announcement that I will Be Waiting for You… is free on Smashwords until January 1st.

Here is Chapter 1, so if you like it, go ahead and download the full book.

Also, my last Christmas review is coming up on Sunday, Dec. 18th.

Chapter 1

I knew it was going to be a complicated day; I just didn’t expect it to involve an unconscious man bleeding on the light marble floor in the hallway.

The anticipated difficulty was more of an emotional sort and involved Jamie Breckenridge, my daughter’s father. It was Sunday, half past eleven in the morning; later that afternoon Jamie would bring Lyra back home, after a weekend spent with him and his parents in Denver.

He’d asked if he could stay to talk. I’d agreed. It was time for us to sit down and have an honest conversation.

And now, just hours before Jamie and Lyra’s arrival, I had to figure out how to move the dead weight of a six-foot-three man prostrated beside the door and where to hide him, providing he wasn’t injured badly enough to die on me.

God, what was I going to do?

My unexpected visitor wasn’t a stranger to me, and that was why I didn’t run out of the house screaming: Ty Prince was my late husband’s closest friend and teammate. We’d met on my wedding day, years ago. I recognized him as soon as he came out of his car and took a few shaky steps, then zig-zagged the length of the pathway leading to the house. I caught a glimpse of his expression—he seemed baffled by his lack of balance as if he hadn’t realized something was wrong with him.

My late husband—Frank Altman was his name—and Ty had been military intelligence officers involved in missions so secret I didn’t know almost anything about them.

I hadn’t seen Ty since my wedding day. He didn’t have any trouble finding me, however, even though the small town of Bonnybrook was my quite recent and temporary residence.

It didn’t surprise me, it only made me pissed off. Which wasn’t a bad thing; it kept my shock and confusion at bay.

Ty was in some kind of trouble, and he needed help.

I knew better than to call the police or the ambulance unless necessary, or without Ty’s permission. I moved his legs enough to close the door, then crouched down and pressed two fingers to the side of his neck. I let out a sigh of relief—his pulse, although somewhat weak, was steady.

A quick assessment revealed a blood-soaked shirt from a chest wound right below his right collar bone, not expertly dressed and not fresh, a gun tucked in the waistband of his pants—Glock, I’d say—and a mean-looking knife in a leather sheath. The car keys were still clenched in his fist, and his phone was in the breast pocket of his shirt.

I placed the weapons and the keys on the entryway table and dashed to the kitchen. I grabbed a glass and the coffee pot, filled them with water, and snatched a clean kitchen towel.

Kneeling beside Ty’s motionless body, I damped the cloth and gently touched his face. His light brown skin was shiny with sweat and had an ashen undertone.

Ty’s eyes fluttered open. His gaze was blank for a moment before his vision cleared.

“Hey, Harper,” he whispered. “Hope you don’t mind I stopped by. I was in the neighborhood.”

“Hey, Ty,” I said as calmly as I mustered. “Long time no see.”

He gave me a faint smile. At the same time, his fingers closed around my wrist with great speed and strength. “Are you all by yourself here? Where is everybody else?”

“Away till the end of the week,” I said.

He exhaled and closed his eyes. “Thank god for small mercies.”

I didn’t bother to mention that Jamie and Lyra were about to show up soon; it was clear to me that I had to stop them from coming at all costs.

I squeezed Ty’s hand in reassurance, although I needed it as much as he did, and his grip released. “Here, have a sip of water.”

I brought the glass to Ty’s lips, helping him lift his head with my other hand.

“The ranch hands?” Ty asked, after taking a few gulps.

“Some on vacation, some have the day off, a few are outside on the ranch, a good few miles from here. They won’t show up unless there is an emergency, or I call them.”

“Better if nobody knows I’m here.”

“Can’t argue with that. We have to get you to the living room. Can you walk?”

He didn’t answer. He breathed in and out several times, and some blood returned to his cheeks. “I didn’t expect I would faint. I felt fine. Damn, I could’ve fucked up everything… Give me a minute.” He pulled himself into a sitting position with great effort, leaning his powerful frame against the wall. “You probably realized this isn’t just a social visit.”

“I’ve figured that much out. Why are you here?”

He looked at me. “Harper, before Frank died, did he leave anything with you? An envelope with some documents, or a USB drive, something like that?”

During our short marriage, my husband had gone on three missions. Before his last one, he had indeed given me a blue, plain-looking USB flash drive.

I said that to Ty. “Frank asked me to keep it safe until he returned, or to give it to you if you ever come for it.”

Frank never came back, Ty didn’t show up to claim it, and the flash drive stayed in my safe and at the back of my mind. A small mystery I’d never expected to be solved.

“Did anyone ever ask about it? His superiors? Someone from his unit?” Ty asked.

My legs hurt from prolonged kneeling, so I sat on the floor, facing Ty. “No. They came to take his computer and documentation, but I never mentioned the drive to anyone.”

“Have you opened it?” he asked, eyeing me.

I denied with a quick shake of my head. I knew better than to stick my nose where it wasn’t wanted.

“Good,” Ty said. “You can now give it to me.”

I gladly would if I could. “How did you know I had it?” I asked, instead.

“A hunch,” was all Ty said, which explained nothing, and probably wasn’t the truth, but I wouldn’t press him for more. Not now.

“Did Frank die because of what was on there?” I asked. The official report was that Frank died when his helicopter got hit somewhere above the Persian Gulf. His body had never been recovered.

Ty closed his eyes and I thought he might’ve lost consciousness for a brief moment. Either that or he’d done it to avoid answering me.

But when I placed my hand on his upper arm, he whispered, “No, he didn’t.”

“But now someone’s after you because of it?”

Ty’s voice was low but confident, and this time I believed him when he said, “Those who are after me don’t have anything to do with the flash drive.” He managed a soft chuckle. “You may also say I’m after them, depending on your viewpoint.”

“Glad your sense of humor hasn’t leaked out with all that blood you’ve lost,” I said, a trifle less tense. Ty’s explanation sounded reasonable. Frank would’ve never deliberately put me—and ultimately—his son, in danger.

“It’s just a scratch,” Ty tried to assure me. So typical. “Listen, I’m working on a case—”

“What case?”

“A case I can’t tell you anything about.”

No kidding. “But if someone’s followed you here—”

Ty shook his head. “No one’s followed me here, but it doesn’t mean they aren’t going to try to find me. I don’t have lots of time anyway. I have to send the content of that drive to… er, well… to whomever I need to send it, by Thursday.”

So, we have a couple of days to sort out this mess, I thought, unsure if I should be relieved or even more worried.

On the one hand, I was grateful that I was home alone. The rest of my household, as I’d said to Ty, was away: my cousin Simon Archer and his wife Daria, who happened to be Jamie’s sister, were on their honeymoon; my six-year-old son Mathew was on winter break and my grandfather Hugh took him to Denver to spend a couple of days with our relatives. No one would return before the end of next week. If Simon, Daria and Grandpa were home, there would be too many questions: who, how, when, why. Not to mention Mathew’s curiosity.

On the other hand, Simon and Grandpa would know exactly what to do without compromising Ty’s safety, knowing his line of work, especially since Ty was still unaware of the crucial fact—the USB drive’s current whereabouts.

I was on my own, however, and it had to stay like that. I had to convince Jamie to keep Lyra until my inconvenient guest recovered enough to leave. In the meantime, I had to bring Ty the drive, praying that we would all emerge from this strange adventure alive and well.

I would help Ty, of course. Frank had been an honorable man; whatever was on that device was important, and neither Frank nor Ty would get themselves involved in anything wrongful. Slightly illegal, yes, but not unethical.

No, I wasn’t too concerned about the content of the drive. The “case” Ty was working on was a horse of a different color, though.

Two unrelated stories had gotten tangled up, with me in the middle. I could feel another wave of panic stirring inside me and pushed it back.

As if he could hear my thoughts or smell my fear, Ty said, “Just give me the stick, and I’ll be out of here.”

I took a deep breath. “I don’t have it with me. And you wouldn’t get very far with that hole in your chest. We have to patch you up first.”

Ty groaned in frustration. “Where is it, then?”

“In my personal safe in my parents’ house in Calgary.”

He cursed under his breath.

“If you’d only phoned me before you decided to come,” I said, “I would have had it ready.”

“This isn’t something I had time to plan. Your parents are still in Calgary, right? Can one of them bring it here?”

I shook my head. “Impossible. The safe has fingerprint sensors. Only I can open it.” It was pointless to explain that, in fact, my parents could do it, but that the process would require a few legal steps which we didn’t have time for.

“Then you have to go,” Ty said. “How quick can you get it here?”

I shrugged. “Two days?”

Ty lifted his good arm and rubbed his hand over his face. “That should be enough.”

“It has to be.” I jumped up to my feet, took Ty’s hand and gave it a gentle tug. “Come, you can’t stay here in the hallway.”

Despite his condition, Ty was a man of formidable physical strength and, some laborious minutes later, he slumped down on the sitting room sofa. He didn’t faint again, which I took as a good sign.

“You okay, Ty?”

“I’ll live,” he said and attempted to smile at me.

“Let me check your wound.”

He gave me a stern look. “You should be calling the airport for the first flight to Calgary.”

I glared back at him. “My daughter and her dad will be here in a few hours,” I said. “Even if I could get rid of him, what am I supposed to do with Lyra? Are you going to babysit her while I’m away?”

He let out a frustrated sigh but didn’t ask me anything, which told me he knew about Lyra’s and Jamie’s existence. “You said you were alone.”

I shrugged. “Well, I am, am I not?”

“Can’t you ask him to keep her a day or two longer?”

“That’s exactly what I’m going to do. I just need to come up with a believable explanation.”

“I guess you can’t tell him you have a hot date with a handsome new guy,” Ty said with a grin that instantly transformed his face.

He had a gorgeous smile, bright and friendly. I remembered him as a laid-back, well-educated and highly intelligent man. Well over six feet tall, handsome as sin and good-humored, at first glance he looked like a fashion model; his appearance and friendly demeanor didn’t fit the archetype of a tough-looking military intelligence operative at all. But under that polished and charming exterior, a careful observer would soon discover a core of steel: a man of great integrity, courage and strong moral compass. A capable and dangerous man at that.

I snorted, imagining Jamie’s reaction. “I think not.”

Ty rubbed his face, and the smile vanished. “You must bring me the drive, Harper,” he said quietly.

“I know, but I can’t go just like that. We need a plan.”

“Here is the plan: you tell Jamie to keep Lyra for two more days. Tell him you’re sick or something. Or that you have a bad period, a migraine, whatever. You go to Calgary, pick up the drive and come back. Couldn’t be simpler.”

Not only did he know about Jamie’s existence, he knew his name as well. A wave of anger washed over me; I pushed it down. No time for that. “And you’ll stay here?”

“I’m not going to throw a party in your absence.”

I shook my head. “How do you imagine I should explain my sudden appearance to my parents? ‘Hi Mom, Dad. I just need to grab something from the safe, and I’m leaving. Don’t pay attention.’ It’s not going to work this way. Besides, what if your wound takes a turn for the worse? Or some of the ranch people come looking for me? What if you—” I stopped right there.

Ty smiled. “I won’t die, I promise.”

“Stick to that, Ty Prince,” I said, as a skeleton of a plan for how to get out of this mess started taking shape in my mind. “It’s crucial that Jamie keeps Lyra for a few more days.” I had no idea how to ask him that without making him suspicious, but I’d do my best. “Then, I’m going to call my grandmother in Calgary. Bridget; you probably remember her from my wedding. She’ll need to keep my parents away from the house until I grab the drive.”

Ty immediately started to protest, of course, but he was not a match for me; after a decade of negotiating six-figure contracts for McCain Drilling, our family company, I knew how to hold my ground.

I raised my finger to stop him. “There is no other way. I’m not going to break into my home and risk getting shot by my own father.” This was a comic exaggeration; Dad didn’t possess any firearm, just a good alarm system, but to Ty, given his occupation and experience, my little lie might ring true. “Bridget can’t pose any risk to you. Now let me fix your shoulder.”

Ty sighed in surrender. “My duffle bag is in the trunk. You’ll find everything you need there.”

Posted in Excerpts, Home | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Review No. 3: Dog Meat by Priscilla Bettis

Priscilla Bettis’s novella is a fascinating journey into the blackness of totalitarian regime—a literary sublimation and a paradigm that we have seen before, from Romania between 1945 and 1989 and Stalin’s gulags to the crazy, murderous dictatorship of Pol Pot in Cambodia and the constant blasting of tenets from the public speakers on the streets of Pyongyang.

In other words, I don’t see Dog Meat as a fictional representation of any particular totalitarianism: Mao’s China, or Stalin’s Soviet Union, or Enver Hoxha’s Albania or Ceausescu’s Romania, or Hitler’s Germany or the Borg Collective… (I failed to mention quite a few other “stellar” examples, but you get the idea.) It is the essence of authoritarianism, the idea of complete state control. What we have been witnessing throughout history (and today) were the factual realizations of that idea. The same yellow plastic sandals for every citizen (except for the privileged few, of course), eating in the communal cantinas, applying for permission to get pregnant and having jobs as dog slaughterers or bus packers are only powerful metaphors. Somewhere else, the sandals are green, or the only shoes available for citizens are rubber boots; the only approved clothes for women are burkas; couples don’t need to apply for permission to get pregnant but young girls are married off at a preteen age; spying on your family and friends is a legitimate job.

I haven’t read anything so disturbing since Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales, decades ago. I don’t read such literature often, but I don’t mind discomforting books as long as causing discomfort isn’t their sole purpose. Dog Meat is far from that: the structure is impeccable; I admire the way the author spun her story, and most of all the idea the novella conveys. Priscilla Bettis’s language is tight and concise and her descriptions heartwrenching and breathtaking. She masterfully delves into the characters’ psychology. Dog Meat is not just a precise dissection of a totalitarian society; it’s a study of its victims–the men, women and children that such a society creates. Even when such states collapse — and they all do, sooner or later — it takes several generations to change people’s mentality and that’s a whole new level of human tragedy.

To make her story even more chilling, Priscilla Bettis throws in certain terminology associated with totalitarian states such as “chairman” and “Politburo”. All authoritarian regimes share a tendency to eradicate or at least change history (“history starts with us!”). This proclivity is often manifested in their need to rename toponyms. The author effectively uses this fact in her story so we have “Victory City”, “Prosperity Street”, “People’s Street” and so on. The choice of Esperanto for the chapter titles and some familiar, intimate words (father, mother) is absolutely brilliant. What other language would correspond with such a dehumanizing society better than this linguistic monstrosity with no roots, no tradition, no written records, and no connections to any specific culture?

Dog Meat is not for everyone and is certainly not a Christmas read. That’s why I’m posting it just as Review No. 3. But, it’s an outstanding piece of fiction written by a tremendously talented writer.

I’m giving this novella five stars, but I cannot recommend it to the general readership. If you, however, like dark and unsettling tales, you’re in for a real treat.

The final Christmas review is scheduled for Dec. 18 and it’s my take on the newest book of an author whose work I enjoy very much.

Posted in A closer look, Home, Reviews | Tagged , , , | 12 Comments

Christmas Review No. 2: She Who Returns by Audrey Driscoll

The next in my series of Christmas reviews is the closing book of Audrey Driscoll’s Herbert West series, She Who Returns. I’ve read and reviewed the previous installment, She Who Comes Forth and I want to touch on this one, too.

The final book in the series is a well-plotted and fast-paced story full of thrilling twists and turns. Audrey Driscoll’s writing is quite elegant, smooth and atmospheric. I absolutely love the supernatural elements coiled within the story and I can’t help but notice the thorough research in Ancient Egypt mythology, language and history she must have done. Although not unexpected (where else would you find them if not in Egypt?) the paranormal components are original and intelligent.

What is really impressive in this novel is the setting, both in terms of time and location — Egypt in the early 1960s.

I can’t personally vouch for the time period, but it does feel genuine to me. This level of authenticity isn’t always easy to achieve. Audrey Driscoll skillfully uses different ways and various tools to get us there, from clothing, certain vocabulary and pop-culture references of that time, to the mentality of the characters and their social interactions. The1960s were tumultuous and revolutionary in many ways and she is able to bring forth the first tremors of those upcoming changes.

For the place, I can testify. I visited Egypt the early 1990s, some thirty years after the events taking place in She Who Returns. I doubt, however, that there have been lots of changes around the Pyramids of Giza, in Sakkara or in Luxor between the1960s and the 1990s, or even today, for that matter. Not in the essence. Time flies here, but in other parts of the world, it has its own pace. When I was reading this book, I had a feeling I was there. Not unlike its prequel, She Who Returns, brought up my most cherished memories of Egypt: the scents of dust and sand, the colours, the sounds, the tastes, and my hard-to-explain but meaningful connection with that magical corner of the world.

I haven’t read the earlier books in the series, but I know that the novels span over half of a century. I was occasionally lost in the complex family ties and connections, but the author was able to take me out of there with her clever and strategically placed pointers for key characters, places, and important past events. I found the heroine of the book, France Leighton, thoughtfully envisioned, well-situated in her time and her age, and for all that, believable.

Knowing when to finish your series is one of the greatest skills. It seems that Audrey Driscoll found the perfect moment.

Five stars! I’ll tweak this review a little bit and post it on Smash and Amazon.

Merry Christmas, Audrey!

The third part, scheduled for Dec. 15, isn’t going to be a Christmas review, just a review. It’s about quite a different book – dark, disturbing and beautifully written.

Posted in A closer look, Home, Reviews | Tagged , , , , | 18 Comments

Christmas Review No. 1: Christmas in Silver Creek by Katie O’Connor

I’ll start off my mini-series of Christmas reviews with Katie O’Connor’s Christmas novel.

The fact that Katie and I are friends has nothing with the fact that I like her books. I know the real reason for that: the feeling that I personally know her characters.

Hailey and Jesse are just like that: believable, real people. Their problems are similar to ours, their experiences are our experiences, and they do what we may do to solve them. It’s easy to like them and relate to them.

Katie is never shy to tackle serious issues in her stories, and this Christmas novel is no exception: there are wrongful assumptions, prejudices, betrayals, disappointments, guilt, family members with their struggles and their inner demons. She also knows how to deal with them in the best manner of romance writing, entwined with tenderness and a good measure of humor. Christmas in Silver Creek is a heartwarming romance that keeps you engaged.

I won’t say more–I don’t want to spoil the plot–but I’ll just tell you that the novel’s tagline sounds totally appropriate: Christmas chaos or Holiday miracle?

I love Christmas romances; even more when they are cast in a rural (and this time local, albeit fictional) setting. Nothing is cozier than such a book on a snowy day around the Christmas holidays.

Katie, five stars from me! I’ll modify this review a bit and post it where it should go.

Thanks for the book and Merry Christmas to you and your family!

The second review is scheduled for Sunday, December 11. The book is set in a faraway place that I love so much.

Posted in A closer look, Home, Reviews | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Yesss!

The novella update: Despite recovering from oral surgery, I was able to format and upload I Will be Waiting for You at the End of the Story on three platforms: Smashwords, Amazon Kindle and Draft2Digital. Or maybe it was because of it–I was on painkillers, at home with some unexpected free time, so I grabbed this opportunity to do the last step in self-publishing.

Once again, it was maddening at times to create a proper Word document for Smashoword, but I was successful in my first attempt to upload the book. I like Smash, the final product looks sleek and elegant. Amazon KDP was easy up until the very end, when Kindle Create wouldn’t let me export the manuscript. I spent several hours looking for the solution, but I found it. D2D – well, a piece of cake at first glance, a pain in the rear immediately after that. The templates are so unappealing that I could only pick between tasteless and horrendous 🤪. I chose kitschy. On the other hand, their software does many things for you and D2D provide wide distribution, so I don’t mind having my books on their platform.

After some deliberation (or perhaps at some point I waited too long for the next round of painkillers and I was a bit edgy), I decided not to put up this book for free on Smash. I set it for US $1.99, and I can always send free copies to my friends. Smashwords will soon have their annual Christmas sale; it makes sense to wait until then to offer them free of charge.

Now that I used my lovely cover for my last post, I don’t have anything new and I have to use it again. On the other hand, I baked a lot the last week, so I’m including the image of a loaf bread I did on Saturday, to make this post a bit more visually interesting. It could be the best bread I’ve ever made.

From me to (some of) you – a Christmas gift: On a very different note, I have small presents for some of you who follow my blog – a review of your books. It’s going to be four posts in total, involving three bloggers and a friend of mine. I read three of those four books and the reviews are ready. I wrote them all in one day. (I’m still on sick leave and on painkillers). I have one more book to read and review but it’s a novella, and it wouldn’t take long.

I would’ve written those reviews anyway, but it’s a holiday season and this seems fitting. I have very few followers and this my way to thank them for sticking with me, for encouraging me, for reading my posts and leaving comments.

The first Christmas review is scheduled for Thursday, December 8th. Stay tuned!

I’ll wrap it up with a few of my photos from the last Christmas.

Posted in Home | Tagged , , , | 8 Comments

I’ve been waiting…

A happy announcement: It’s been a while since I finished the first draft of my recent novella, I Will Be Waiting for You at the End of the Story. It took me no more than three weeks to write it but more than two years to put everything together. I could’ve done it faster, but I don’t want to scold myself–we’ve all lived through challenging times with the pandemic and other changes we had so little time to adjust to. I’m simply happy to come so close to publishing it.

Cover design Meera Thakore

The book’s “passport”: I Will Be Waiting for You… has 120 pages (about 25,000 words). My previous book had started with the cover; this entire journey began with this long, inconvenient title I liked so much.

I’ve hinted at the storyline and the characters in one of my earlier posts, but if you haven’t read Best Friends and Other Lovers (and by no means are you obliged to do it), these little clues wouldn’t mean anything to you. But, I believe you could forgive me for a little bit of bragging–I’m truly delighted about my newest release.

This book continues a year after the conclusion of the previous story. A contemporary romance with a fresh set of primary characters and a plot spiced up with a pinch of suspense, it’s set in the fictional town of Bonnybrook, in the Colorado mountains. (Why Colorado? I don’t know, but all my stories are located there.) Since this is a novella, the time span is short–a couple of days–with the exception of the last chapter, a sort of epilogue, that takes place a year and a half after the main event.

The characters: With all her imperfections, Harper McCain, the heroine of I Will Be Waiting for You, might just be my favourite so far. She’s prone to assumptions; she’s not always sure about her decisions but not ashamed to admit it; she’s stubborn but not unbendable; she has “a problem for every solution”; she’s vulnerable but brave enough to show it. She’s feisty and courageous; a fighter and a survivor; a woman capable of deep, unconditional love. She has strength to forgive and move forward. At least this is how I envision her; readers may see different character traits.

The story is told in first person, from Harper’s point of view. I can just hope that I succeeded in building Jamie’s character as well because we know him only from her perspective and their interactions. I like him, too. Jamie and Harper have superficial differences, which I think makes their relationship more interesting, but they are similar in fundamental ways, which makes their love strong and resilient.

Cover design Meera Thakore

The names: One of the quirkiest aspects of writing, at least to me, is naming the characters. I don’t remember how I came up with the name for Harper. She’s pretty rather than beautiful, very feminine, with a heart-shaped face, red hair, blue eyes and freckles and, for some reason, her name suits her perfectly. Jamie was named after Jamie Fraser, who was, up until book five of six of the Outlander series, one of my most beloved fictional heroes. Lyra was my nephew’s ex-girlfriend and, regretfully, never-to-be daughter-in-law to my sister. Ty Prince was surnamed after my husband’s friend, Guy Prince. Not unlike my fictional character, the real Haya is an astoundingly beautiful woman, but I can tell you right away that she is not a nurse and she definitely doesn’t live in Colorado or on this continent.

Bonnybrook is a community in Calgary. I’ve always liked the sound of its name and I decided to use it as a fictional setting for this story.

Trivia: This story has some traces of real events, changed and modified though my fictional prism. Some of the characters featured in my previous stories: Harper, Jamie, Harper’s son Mathew and her larger-than-life grandmother Bridget appeared in Best Friends (the story); Haya had a cameo role in Once Upon a Night. My trademark character, Dr. Gerd Falkenstein pops up here as well, connecting the two of my imaginary realms.

The invisible support: Meet my editor/proofreader Kristin Muraki and my book cover designer Meera Thakore. Kristin has been smoothing and polishing my stories from the beginning. Meera designed the cover for Best Friends and I loved it so much that I asked her to do this one as well. The fact that we work together makes things easier. I’m more comfortable dealing with people I know and trust than with some strangers. Kristin and Meera did amazing jobs again and I would like to take this opportunity to thank them once more.

Formatting: Now that I have all the prep work done, the next step is formatting. A (very) small part of me is techy, and I’m looking forward to it. It might take me a couple of days or weeks, but my goal is to put the novella up first on Smashwords, along with my other books, Best Friends and Other Lovers, The Two-blood Legacy and Guardian of the Realm, all available for free downloading, and then on Amazon (for no apparent reason except to make my life more complicated).

And finally, a question for you: If you found my post interesting, would you mind sharing how you choose the names for your characters?

Posted in Home | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Dream a Little Dream

What is your dream?

This question was originally posted on Writers Support Writersa blog that I visit every now and then — and reposted on another blog that I follow. Everyone was invited to share their dreams.

I didn’t. I’m shy when it comes to exchanging thoughts and comments with other bloggers. Sometimes I can overcome my diffidence; other times I can’t. It’s never easy. As with small talk, this kind of communication doesn’t come spontaneously to me. (This explains why I so often don’t do more than give you a “like” and I’ll be grateful if you understand that.

But like everyone else, I do have dreams, and I am comfortable talking about them here in my own space.

Long before I became a writer, I was a dreamer. It all started with reading as a child. I believe I mentioned in one of my earlier posts that, when I was about five, my aunt bought me a collection of fairy tales illustrated with lavish, flamboyant, baroque-style images. Once I learned to appreciate the art of book illustration, I starter seeing other breathtaking examples. However, none of them had the magic that was pouring from the pages of my first picture books. (Although… Recently I came across an illustrator that seems to be practicing similar “alchemy”. His name is Vladislav Yerko and here are his illustrations of Snow Queen and The Little Prince.)

Those picture books set my imagination on fire. I told and retold the stories in my head, adding places, events and characters, inventing their family members, relatives, friends and foes. In each of these tales, there was a role for me as well. The “happily ever after” wasn’t the end, but a new beginning. Children would be born and grow, Snow White and her prince would visit Princess Aurora and her family, the evil stepmother would turn up again and cause trouble. The seven dwarves would move into a house in the forest near Snow White and the Price’s castle, and in the same forest lived a bewitched dragon who would become a man again when his true love broke the spell… And who else who would do that better than Snow White’s best friend—me.

In short, it wasn’t happily ever after until I said so.

Naturally, my reading needs grew as I grew, but I never lost the ability to insert myself into stories that I felt connected to. I would fall in love with male characters. I would modify the storyline and when I wasn’t happy with the end, I would re-write it in my head.

Oddly enough, I never wanted to become a writer; my entire life I’ve dreamed of being an Egyptologist. I was a passionate reader, though, and I devoured everything that would catch my attention. I read nonfiction and popular fiction. I was a big fan of comic books and graphic novels, but the primary reading materials of my youth and adolescence were classical and classic books. I also read a lot of modern contemporary literary fiction. Being a writer would mean to create such literature and I knew I simply wasn’t good enough. Not then and not now.

When I came to Canada and learned English, my reading inclinations shifted toward pleasure and escapism. Better still, that kind of fiction was even more suitable for my imaginative meddling with stories. Somewhere there, between the countless fantasies, romances, mysteries, thrillers, science fiction, contemporary, historical, normal and paranormal novels, great, good and not so good reads, I realized I want and probably could write a book.

What followed was like a mild madness, a grip of passion, an unimaginable pleasure of making my own world. That creative fever produced two full-sized novels in two years. Later, I would add to my opus a collection of love stories and a novella. Recognition and financial gain didn’t follow, but disheartening as it was, it didn’t surprise me. Perhaps it was because I knew from the beginning that I was writing for myself more than for others. It was my dream — to write, to create my own imaginary realm that I could visit  whenever I wanted, to hold printed copies in my hands, as physical proof that I did it. Somehow readers found my books (most of the time they’re free on Smashwords); quite a few really liked them and several of them became my friends.

Some of that imaginative fire — or my dreams, if you want — eventually burned out. The reasons were numerous; internal and external. Some I could control and some others I couldn’t, like having a full time job and tons of other duties and obligations. I always wanted more time to write, but ironically, when I got it, during the pandemic, I couldn’t write. I’m getting older and my energy level is lower. I have some serious issues with my eyes…

Anyhow, I still feel privileged. Knowing how to make fictional characters real is an extraordinary beautiful ability. There is a  werewolf or a vampire or a dragon called Temeraire, and they’re more real to you than your co-worker. I did that, too. My friend Judy told me she had a crush on one of my characters. This is one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever received. The same goes with the ability to live, in a sense, in the universe I conceived.

These days I need more time to flesh my characters out, more effort to conjure my world. Some authors are able to write from the “outside” of their stories. I can’t. I need to be in: I have to be in love with my heroes, fragments of me have to be in my heroines, I have to offer a tiny bit of myself to every person in my book, even to villains. I need to live out their pains and aches, joys and triumphs, anger and disappointments, fears and traumas. Whatever they do, feel and think has to be filtered through me. I don’t know any other ways to write.

And that’s my dream now. To never lose this magic.

Posted in Home | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

Snow

After my recollections of September, my former magazine delighted me by publishing my memories of snow in their latest issue. I translated it in English, fascinated with the process once more. The two texts are similar; they both have the same trunk, yet all the little branches coming out of it are different, giving each text a distinct meaning, atmosphere, and focus. Another piece of evidence for me that writing in two languages involves two “persons” or better yet, two personalities, as my inner writer/writers relays/relay on specific knowledge, mentality, and tradition connected to the language used at that moment.

Here is the English version.

Every time I said I liked snow, people would give me a strange look.

The snow of my childhood was deep and heavy. The sled pulled by one of the adult family members would bounce off the frozen bumps, while my four-year-old self, bundled up in thick blankets, would shriek in delight and try to catch snowflakes with my tongue.  A quick note: part of the country where I was born lies on the bottom of the ancient Pannonian Sea that existed up until a million years ago. Now it’s as flat as Saskatchewan so sledding has always required three elements: the sled, its child passenger, and someone who would drag it. 

Photo by Mihai Surdu on Unsplash

I still can hear the sound of wooden shovels in the early morning and the muffled clanging of the old streetcar. I can recollect the narrow path on the sidewalk framed with the walls of snow so high that it would obscure smaller kids. Only the pompoms on their caps would be visible and moving. The city was wrapped in a soft, white cloak, sleepy and slow. The air was slightly bitter from chimney smoke, and our kitchen smelled of burning wood, black tea, and apple fritters.

When I was seven, my family moved to the mountain region of my country. From my typical Central European birthplace with strong Catholic roots, we settled in a village near a big city, where my parents, both teachers, had gotten their jobs. In many ways, the new city was shockingly exciting and exotic. Its predominantly Islamic heritage was a result of 500 years of Ottoman rule. At the same time, it preserved a significant Orthodox Christian tradition and developed a specific and cautious yet enduring brand of Catholicism, encouraged in the 19th century by the new sovereign, the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This incredible and—then—harmonious amalgam would soon ignite my curiosity and deep appreciation for Islamic and Eastern Orthodox cultures.

Everything else was different: the climate, the dialect, the food, the mentality, the architecture… The sounds and smells, the landscape. No more endless plains where your sight couldn’t rest. Whenever you turned, there were hills, cliffs, pikes, ridges, slopes. The air was sharp and cool. The rivers, unlike the mighty, slow, and murky Danube and Drava, were clear, noisy, and rushing. The forests were not the hectares upon hectares of centuries-old oaks but the dark green expanses of spruce, pine, and beech. It was love at first sight; this corner of the world became my spiritual homeland and I couldn’t love it more.

Photo by Emily Toycen on Unsplash

During winter, there were blankets of snow. That snow had almost a transcendental quality: it was whiter and it shimmered; it was pristine and sweet. (I can vouch for that for I kept eating it). It was so pliable that it could be effortlessly molded into anything our imagination conjured.

Sledding became a completely new experience. The sled used here was a small, bullet-fast one-seater. From the top of one of the countless elevations, we would zoom down head first to the bottom. More often than not, we would end up half-buried in the snow.

Later, when we moved to the city, like little Heidi I would mourn the loss of my rural idyll, including the magnificent winter months. Everything had changed once more and the snow was no exception. There was less and less of it, and when it would snow, it stayed unspoiled only for a short time. Traffic, smog (which the city was infamous for), and hurried steps of countless pedestrians would quickly cover it with a grayish patina or melt it into slush.

I do remember one particular winter and the biggest snow of the decade. I was fifteen or sixteen, the time when children start their journey to adulthood. Snow, like a special gift from heaven, had started falling just around Christmas and hadn’t stopped for several days. Its slow, unwavering descent filled me with some soft sorrow wrought with even softer joy, as a premonition of all my future quests and wanderings, and temporary discoveries of joy and relief.

This strange melange of melancholy and delight would stay with me forever.

Fast forward many years ahead… For a long time, snow here in my adopted homeland was unlike what I remembered from my childhood. Powdery, dispersed in tiny dry and angry flakes, it would barely sprinkle the ground, leaving depressingly yellow-grey grass and brown trees uncovered. I was disheartened – I came to Canada believing there was plenty of snow (almost) everywhere. Yet, year after year, the only proper dump would happen in April or May.

That has changed, though. More abundant and less dry, it’s now more like what I think snow should be to be properly enjoyed.

When it’s snowing, I like to stay home, open the blinds and peek outside every now and then, just to make sure it’s still falling. And I wait for my old friend to come and sit with me—that feeling of subdued joy and hushed ache I know all too well. I don’t need to wait for long; it never disappoints.

Then I like to make a cup of black tea and grab a book from one of my beloved Russians that really knew how to write about winter.

And when I say, with a smile, that I love snow, people give me a strange look.

They have no idea…

Posted in Home | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments