Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Titanic Tragedy with Melanie Dent; and Cheryl Shireman's Dreams on the lake

In this blog, as regular readers know, I write, turn and turn about, about authors I've known and loved for years; and about my new discoveries. This time round it's the turn of the new writers. Meeting as I do (on the internet) a good many writers, I'm privileged to come across a great many fascinating books. This time I want to draw your attention to two whom I've found very recently, and who, in fact, are very different from each other; Cheryl Shireman who writes the Grace Adams series, Life is But a Dream, and Melanie Dent, who writes the Lynchcliffe series featuring Lewis Franklin. 

First, Cheryl Shireman, and in particular her book Life is But a Dream: On the Lake.
The word which stays with me when I think about this book is ‘powerful.’
Right from the first page, when Cheryl Shireman takes us into Grace’s thoughts, dreams, and dream-memories, she grips. Using a poetic, literary style, she plunges us right into Grace’s psyche, just in the same way that Grace plunges into the swimming pool. And throughout the book she takes time to bring us into the head and soul of each of her major characters as we meet them – Nick, Tony, Bert, Paul.

It’s Cheryl Shireman’s amazing way with words more than anything else that makes her people so alive.  The reader knows so many deep things about each of them in such a short time after she meets them:
the child Grace’s thoughts as she moves slowly nearer and nearer to the pool, unobserved by her mother: ‘She does not see. She does not. See me. See. Me.’;
Nick’s pain as her mother fails to return. ‘When he found her she would ask him, “Quanto tempo ti amo?” And he would pull out the picture and say, “Ti amero sempre.”’ Words repeated with immense emotional effect towards the end of the book;
Grace’s experiences with God, and her feelings; 
and Paul and his child, and his final experience… ‘a little girl was waiting. A beautiful little brown-eyed girl named Julie whose arms stretched toward her Daddy. And Paul had smiled.’

It is these moments and many more like them which make this book so special.

For the first few chapters, I thought I was reading a gentle, moving, literary romance with great characters, a story which focused mainly on the people, their backgrounds, and their interaction.  Halfway through, I woke up and realized that this book is also a thriller full of action, excitement and a terrific climax which seizes us and hurls us along breathlessly. And yet the focus on the characters is basic to the book, too. It’s because Cheryl Shireman has taken the time to build her characters and to allow us to feel for them that the impact of the action is so strong. As Grace rows across the lake our hearts are in our mouths with her. And the dreadful discovery in the cabin closet hits us as surely as it does her, as a further horror almost beyond believing and yet something which has really happened.

The ending is beautifully handled. We really want Grace to be happy. There have been so many possibilities for her, all of them abortive. The final resolution is everything we want for her; and yet it does not seem contrived, or only there to tie up the story nicely. Instead, it seems inevitable, something which couldn’t have worked out in any other way.

The murder plot is deft and agile. There are a satisfactory number of suspects, and enough twists and turns to keep us guessing, but the final solution arises straightforwardly from what we already know about the characters. And when Grace, at the last, turns away from approaching rescue and goes back into the cabin, the little scene, and the repetition of the words ‘Ti amero sempre’ is immensely moving. It is so right that Grace should go back in.

The spiritual element of this book is one other thing, and one of great importance, which makes it different and powerful. Introduced through Irene and Harold, God takes His place as a major character in the story from then on. Grace says at one point that she finds the whole idea of God too confusing. But as things begin to happen, she turns more and more to prayer as a natural response to the need for help, both for herself and for others. The beautiful picture of the sunset and her delight in it is a key point in Grace’s development.

The sun slowly slides from the sky, from another day in my life. It meets the water with a languid and silent splash, pulling a riotous mane of color behind. A wild shock of orange and pink is tangled amid tousled blue and purple tresses. Such beauty is overwhelming. Suddenly, it does not matter that I am divorced. It does not matter that Laney is not with me. At that second, that glorious second, all is right with the world.’

And later she and Tony sit quietly watching the wild geese and feeling at peace.

Like me, you will probably find that this book is not what you expected. But you will find it striking, moving, exciting, powerful and very, very readable. Don’t miss out!

You can buy it at these links.
And if you're very quick, it's on free offer today, 28 March.
The second book in Cheryl's series Life is But a Dream: In the Mountains can be bought here:

This is the hundredth year anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, April 1912, a big deal for my native city Belfast where the ship was built and launched, so it's particularly appropriate that I should be writing about Melanie Dent's books at this time. Melanie has now written four books in her Lynchcliffe Series. So far I've read two of them, but that's enough to make me want to read the rest. The
 books are set in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and the sinking of the Titanic plays a major role in both the books I've read, The Lynchcliffe Cuckoo and Eye of the Storm. In the first book, Lewis Franklin, Dent's brave, upright working class hero, loses his dear nephew and meets the love of his life, and both these things happen because of this tragedy. Set before the first world war with the sinking of the Titanic as a focal plot point, the story moves quickly and grippingly through the socially unacceptable relationship between the 'lady' Margaret Trevelyan and the chauffeur, Lewis Franklin. Starting with the death of Margaret's mother and her adoption by Lord and Lady Trevelyan, the plot takes us by way of Margaret's first meeting with Franklin through the murder of her adopted uncle to the very satisfying ending. The characters are real and likeable where they are meant to be, and the plot is gripping enough to keep any reader turning the pages. Lewis Franklin is a hero whom most women will love, with his Yorkshire accent, his strong and attractive appearance, and his kind, gentle nature. The period setting is a major plus point. It's natural to think of  Downton Abbey. Fans of this very popular series will enjoy The Lynchcliffe Cuckoo, with its full cast of intertwined characters, its setting in a great house, and its timing in the 1912 era. The Eye of the Storm takes us back to Lewis Franklin's earlier life, climaxing in his meeting with Margaret.

 These books are full of action and atmospheric episodes such as Sarah's attempt to support the suffragettes; but above all they are love stories, full of romance (which, by the way, Dent handles with adult detail. These books are not intended for children.)

 Since The Eye of the Storm is a prequel, most readers will approach it already knowing how things work out for Lewis Franklin. And that's just as well, for Lewis goes through some very bad times, including a beating up by an early 'protection gang.' There are some beautiful descriptive passages, such as, 'death had accentuated her frailty,' said of Lewis's little sister at her funeral at the beginning of The Eye of the Storm.

Unlike Cheryl Shireman's heroine, Melanie Dent's hero rages at God for the things which happen to him. As a believer myself (something which everyone who's read anything I've written must know), I find this difference fascinating. It will be interesting to see if Lewis works his way through this problem as the books continue.
And as it happens two of the books, Divided Loyalties: Lady Lynchcliffe's Story and The Enemy Within are on free offer this weekend (31 March and 1 April) so here are three free books you heard about here – how's that for service?

And of course my own book, Danger Danger is also free today, 28 March. Second time around. The first was amazingly successful. I'll be interested for future reference to see if a second go works or not.  This is a complete learning curve for most of us! 

 And as I write (type) Belfast Girls is heading at top speed for the 100 bestsellers ranking on AmazonUK – hard to believe! Currently #147 – interesting to see if it moves on up or not. No promos here, just a year and a bit of being around.
Buy my books ( ah, go on, go on!) here; ebook/dp/B006WVI37S

And don't forget Old Seamus!

See you soon!

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Robert B. Parker and the Mean Streets.

The Man Himself – Robert B.Parker

Sorry this blog has been so long in coming. I've been having quite an exciting time recently. As most of you probably noticed, my second book, Danger Danger (a romantic thriller on the lines of my first, Belfast Girls) was on free promo on Kindle on 1 and 2 March.

Nearly 20,000 people downloaded the free copy, and then when it stopped being free after two days, people started buying it, also in thousands. I was certain I was dreaming and would soon wake up!

The book shot up to #1 overall in Kindle UK Free and #16 overall in Kindle USA Free. And now it's sitting comfortably in the top 100 UK paid, and the top 1000 USA paid, with #1 rankings in its genres! Is this really happening, guys?

The knock on effect is that lots more people than usual have been buying Belfast Girls too, and also my short story collection, The Seanachie. The Seanachie will be on free promo on 15 and 16 March, just before St Patrick's day – be interesting to see if the same sort of thing happens to it!

Meanwhile, my husband Raymond's very interesting non fiction book, which examines prophecies relating to modern day America and the Middle East, will be free on 12 and 13 March. A very different type of book, but on a subject which many find fascinating. Interesting, again, to compare results. Are all Kindle free downloaders looking for thrillers  or romance? Surely not?

So, as the man said, 'I've talked long enough about myself. So, changing the subject, what do you think of me?'  Moving on, then.

Whenever one of my favourite writers dies, I'm always sad. Not just because there'll be no more of their books to read, but because I feel as if I'd lost a friend. I can remember the shock back in 1975 when three of my favourites, PG Wodehouse, Agatha Christie and Georgette Heyer all died in the same year.

Recently there's been another spate of deaths of good writers whom I love. Not all in the same year, but close enough, we've lost Michael Gilbert, Gavin Lyall, and just over a year ago, Robert B. Parker.

Parker is someone I came across as an adult, in fact when I was already married (although there isn't much difference between those two identifiers, time-wise). My sister (as often happens) first introduced me to him by lending me his first book,The Godwulf Manuscript.

I enjoyed the book very much. But my first reaction was to say, 'This is a bit of a copy of Raymond Chandler writing about Philip Marlowe.'  And undoubtedly, as Parker himself was the first to admit, there is a strong Chandler influence, especially in the first books. Spenser is a witty, sophisticated, moral (in his own individual way), highly intelligent man, already mature in The Godwulf Manuscript – very like Marlowe. However, as I continued to read the books with ever increasing pleasure, I found to my delight that Parker's detective Spenser was rapidly developing as a character in his own right. All but the faint influence of Chandler was left behind, and as the relationship between Spenser and Susan became more complex and interesting, the books became one of my chief reading enjoyments.

On the back cover of some of the books is a quote from a New York Times reviewer which seems to me to sum up the early Spenser (up until A Catskill Eagle, which marks a turning point).

'Tough, wisecracking, unafraid, lonely, unexpectedly literate – in many respects the very exemplar of the species.' 

You can see why I love him.

Chandler said of Marlowe that he dealt with crime in the mean inner city streets. 'Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean.' The attraction of Marlowe, and later Spenser, is that although he's no angel, especially in his relationships with women, he cares passionately about fighting evil in the shape of the crimes he comes up against, and makes us care too. This moral stance is basic to Marlowe's character.  Spenser also has a firm moral stance (except with women) but as the books go on, starting in fact as early as Mortal Stakes, he needs to define and perhaps change his ideas of right and wrong in the particular circumstances which he finds himself in.

The character of Hawk, first introduced in Promised Land and developed in The Judas Goat, is important to the books. He is, in a sense, Spenser's mirror image -– tough, strong, individual, unhampered by rules which he doesn't accept – but without Spenser's moral viewpoint. Hawk several times points out that Spenser could solve a problem by killing or even torturing the baddie. This is unacceptable to Spenser and, I suppose, to most readers, certainly to me.

Spenser is very clear about what he finds acceptable. Parker is clever enough to retain our affection for Hawk by never showing him actually going to these extremes – well, not torture, anyway. Spenser (with the author's help, of course) is intelligent enough to solve his problems without sacrificing his own moral stance, except when occasionally he needs to argue it out with himself and, later, Susan, and decide that he has to go for the lesser of two evils.

It's this sort of thing which makes the books fascinating; although the fast moving plots full of action and twists and turns certainly make a major contribution to their readability.

Since I started reading the books, I've found several times that a mention of Spenser to someone who already knows and likes the books is enough to start up a lifetime friendship. Most recently, talking to a well known crime writer, I commented on the Christian name he'd given his character as not being what I would have thought the most appropriate, and was told, 'Oh, that was my editor's idea. Originally, he didn't have a first name.'

'Just like Spenser,' I said. 'Oh, I'm sure you won't have heard of him – hardly anyone I mention him to has. An American detective series I love.'

And got the answer, 'Spenser! I love him! I read him all through my teens! It was because of reading him that I didn't give my character a Christian name, at first!'

Instant relationship.

And apparently someone else fell in love with me from the moment I mentioned Spenser at a friend's party, and we spent the rest of  the evening on a sofa discussing the books. We both thought Early Autumn was one of his best.

The earlier Spensers are still my favourites. When he reached A Catskill Eagle, Parker  introduced an element of unreality which wasn't, I think, just so successful. However, having said that, there are still some stunning books written after that, such as Small Vices. Everyone who reads Parker will have their own favourites. There isn't one which isn't readable. My personal gauge for an author's books is, 'If I read this before I'd read any other books by this writer and had nothing to compare it to, would I want to read their other books?' With Parker, the answer would always be a resounding, 'Yes!'

With Spenser well established (a TV series which you may or may not have seen to his name – a dreadful Susan, a not very good Spenser, too young looking, and a not too bad Hawk) Parker moved on to a female central character, Sonny Randall, similar to VI , Kinsey, and others but none the worse for that; and a third person protagonist, Jesse Stone, a recovering alcoholic with an on/off relationship with his ex-wife. Sonny and Jesse each have their own series.  I'm not saying these aren't good books. They are. My husband likes Jesse Stone much more than I do.

But to me, Spenser remains Parker's main achievement.

If you haven't read him yet, you've been missing some great books.

If you have read him, I'd love to hear your comments – which ones do you like best, etc?

And in closing, you can buy my three books for Kindle (there are also paperbacks of Belfast Girls and Danger Danger) at the links below:

Please don't hesitate!

Be back soon!