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Mousetrapped, by Catherine Ryan Howard

February 16, 2012 13 comments

Three big dreams, two mouse ears and one J-1 visa. What could possibly go wrong in the happiest place on earth?

When Catherine Ryan Howard decides to swap the grey cloud of Ireland for the clear skies of the Sunshine State, she thinks all of her dreams – working in Walt Disney World, living in the United States, seeing a Space Shuttle launch – are about to come true…

Ahead of her she sees weekends at the beach, mornings by the pool and an inexplicably skinnier version of herself skipping around the Magic Kingdom. But not long into her first day on Disney soil – and not long after a breakfast of Mickey-shaped pancakes – Catherine’s Disney bubble bursts and soon it seems that among Orlando’s baked highways, monotonous mall clusters and world famous theme parks, pixie dust is hard to find and hair is downright impossible to straighten.

The only memoir about working in Walt Disney World, Space Shuttle launches, the town that Disney built, religious theme parks, Bruce Willis, humidity-challenged hair and the Ebola virus, MOUSETRAPPED: A Year and A Bit in Orlando, Florida is the hilarious story of what happened when one Irish girl went searching for happiness in the happiest place on Earth.

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This is one of those reviews which is very difficult for me to write. There’s a lot to praise in Mousetrapped: A Year and A Bit in Orlando, Florida; but there’s also a lot to criticise and knowing Catherine Ryan Howard as I do, I am as certain as I can be that she’d rather hear all of my reservations than be fobbed off with a few kind words. So brace yourself, Catherine: this is going to be tough.

Catherine Ryan Howard has an engaging, friendly tone and the story trips along at a reasonable pace. Everything she writes is infused with a lively humour and she has a natural storytelling ability which I’m sure many writers would envy. This already earned her a recommendation for me (so you can stop worrying now, Catherine). She has the basics right: her spelling and grammar are fine, although the punctuation is flawed and inconsistent. But these problems are few, and are nowhere near bad enough to interrupt the flow of her narrative, or to put off a determined agent.

However, there is an indication of problems to come in the back cover copy, which feels a little repetitive and over-long; to then come across phrases from the back cover copy repeated in the first few pages of the book feels a little wrong: I would expect the back cover copy to be its own entity and not a close copy of some of the passages from the book. The opening of this book is not up to scratch: the pages before she reaches Disneyland are too long, too rambling and once more repetitive.

This doesn’t mean that I disliked the book: but I can see how easily (!) the opening could be tightened up and made significantly more absorbing, and how its lack of focus and clarity might well put browsing readers off.

To continue with my criticisms, the humour is at times rather forced; Catherine Ryan Howard’s bleak first few weeks in Orlando made me feel very uncomfortable and unhappy for her despite the jokes she kept right on cracking; and I found her stories rather episodic, as if this were a collection of short stories or articles rather than a continuing memoir. I would have preferred more variation in tone, and more integration of the book’s various strands: I don’t think either is beyond Ms Ryan Howard as she is clearly a confident, intelligent writer. If these points were addressed (a more concise opening, more variation in tone and a better narrative flow) then this book would be very much improved

Where I struggled was with Ms Ryan Howard’s actions. She seemed to crash off on each new venture with little thought or preparation, which at times made me wonder if she was purposely sabotaging herself. It could just be the natural foolhardiness of the young which caused her to believe behave in this way; but I found it infuriating and anxiety-provoking, and that directly affected my enjoyment of this book. I’ll admit that I am an obsessive researcher, and make thorough preparations before I even brush my teeth: so this could be my natural caution showing through.

On the whole, then, an enjoyable read from a humorous and talented writer, which could be much improved with a more stringent edit to improve the pace, tone and flow, but which nevertheless earns a recommendation from me. Well done, Catherine!

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Note: I received this book aeons ago and its review should have appeared much sooner than this. My apologies to Ms Ryan Howard for the delay.

Dreaming of Deliverance: R E Chambliss

August 17, 2011 7 comments

Five years ago when Lindsay Paulson, a naive college student and talented distance runner, was 18, she was convicted of drug smuggling. Now, halfway through a 10-year prison sentence, she begins having what seem to be dreams, in which she leaves her cell in the night and visits another reality called Trae. Dreaming of Deliverance tells of Lindsay’s experiences both in Trae, where she finds herself among people enslaved by terrifying creatures, and in prison where she tries to make sense of what’s happening in her sleep: Is she actually escaping from prison somehow or is she losing her mind?

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When I review books for this blog I don’t often set my notes aside and read the book purely for enjoyment: but that’s what I did with Dreaming of Deliverance, and I’m very pleased that I did.

Ms Chambliss has a very fluid, readable style; I read all five hundred and fifty-four pages of this book in one day, and thoroughly enjoyed it. The typos I found were so minor that they didn’t intrude upon my enjoyment of the story; and I was genuinely sad when I reached the end and had to say goodbye to all of the characters I had come to know.

However (you knew there’d be a “however”, right?), despite my general enthusiasm I do have criticisms: and they mostly focus on the book’s plot and structure.

First off, it’s much too long. It could easily be cut by 20 to 30% without losing any of the plot, and that would improve the already-good pace no end.

There are too many instances where an important issue is mentioned just before it becomes necessary to the plot: for example, the news that Parl had gold deposits, and that Joel could disable the Loche (the terrifying creatures mentioned in the book’s back cover copy above) if he needed to. These things (there were several others) should have been built more firmly into the plot so that the reader could better appreciate the costs involved when such skills had to be used. The reader wasn’t let into the world of the Loche enough, so it was difficult to empathise with them and so understand more fully why they did what they did; and no explanation was ever given for how Lindsay ended up in Trae in the first place, or why she returned to her own world each time she slept.

The storyline involving the prison was unsatisfying: the prison was little more than a box to keep Lindsay and when she wasn’t visiting Trae and a lot more could have been done with this part of the book: I wanted to see some real resolution here, some more tension; and for events on each side of the story to directly affect the other.

In all, then, the good, enjoyable read which could have been even better had the writer improved the plot, made full use of the situations she created, edited far more ruthlessly and thought more carefully about pace and tension. I believe this is a first novel (I might be wrong): if it is then Ms Chambliss has done remarkably well and I look forward to watching her work improve over the years.

Pins: Christine Todd

June 23, 2011 11 comments

“Witty, insightful, and often poetic, Pins is a highly original story about becoming. It grabbed me from the start and stayed with me long after I finished.”
Pamela Stanton, Screentrade Magazine

“I love the story and the humour. I totally empathize with Molly, and find her a great role model.”
Sally Zigmond, Hope against Hope

Molly Makepeace Jamison never expects to dabble in Voodoo. But when she discovers that her husband Bob has been stealing away her advertising agency while cavorting with his mistress of many years, she has good reason to adorn his effigy with a few sharp pins. After all, venting a little righteous anger can’t hurt anyone.

But Molly inadvertently taps into something deep and mysterious, and it produces shocking results. When Detective Jonathan Wilson lands on her doorstep with a list of pointed questions, Molly envisions the inside of a prison cell and the bed-lined wards of mental institutions.

She knows she has to save herself. Yet as her new choices produce more highs and lows than Chicago’s weather, she worries that her Voodoo dalliance has taken on a life of its own….

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I have to start this review with an apology: Ms Todd sent me this book to review a very long time ago but I misfiled it and it’s only just surfaced again. I do hope she’ll forgive me.

Pins is a cracking read. It trots along at a good pace, it’s funny and kind and warm and it has lovely happy endings for almost all of its good characters and satisfyingly nasty endings for the less likeable ones. The story is great, the characters are very well-rounded and believable, and Ms Todd’s writing is clear and simple and easy to read: I loved it.

I do have a few reservations. I found a small number of minor typos (a couple of extra commas, and some dialogue which was missing a final punctuation mark before its quotation-marks closed) but I was enjoying the book so much when I found them that I didn’t bother to record them; and the writer does have a tendency to use this construction:

  • “Struggling to keep myself together, I follow…”
  • “Stopping the car in front of a small shop window in the center of a row, I think…”
  • “Standing in the central arched doorway of the Passages room, I survey…”

I never like this passive, impersonal construction: it’s clumsy, and it distances me from the character very slightly which is never a good thing. These seemed to appear more frequently towards the end of the text, which made me wonder if Ms Todd had become a little punch-drunk while revising her work. This isn’t such a big problem but it was enough to jar me out of the narrative each time I came across another example of it and this book would be so much better if the use of this phrasing could be reduced or even eliminated. It was the only writerly tic that I noticed, though, which is pretty good going; and despite my finding quite a few examples, it wasn’t enough to stop me reading this already-good book.

I felt that some of the characters weren’t strictly necessary; and that the endings could have been tighter for a few of them; I would have liked a bit more voodoo involved in the story, perhaps involving more than just the main character; and a little more uncertainty and tension about whether or not Molly’s use of voodoo really did have any effect on the people around her. But these are very small points: the book is good just as it is, but could be even better with a bit more of a polish. I can easily imagine a good publisher wanting to take this book on if that’s Ms Todd’s goal; and I will go out of my way to buy anything else this writer has published. I strongly recommend Pins, and am only sorry I took so long to get around to reading this delightful, absorbing book.

The Principle Of Ultimate Indivisibility: Brent Robison

April 28, 2011 16 comments

Fiction/LiteraryTHE PRINCIPLE OF ULTIMATE INDIVISIBILITY is a collection of thirteen linked stories, in which people as recognizable as your neighbors stumble through tiny everyday epiphanies, on their way from confusion and loss toward redemption.

Brent Robison’s fiction has appeared in various literary journals and has won awards that paid actual cash… long since spent. He lives among the same mountains where Rip Van Winkle awoke from his long sleep.

Subtlety ought to be on an endangered literary species list, but Brent Robison brilliantly makes the case for its essentiality in this exquisite collection of webbed stories. These stories argue that everything is a facet of the same jewel and we touch each other’s lives in unfathomable ways. To read them is to heighten one’s bond with strangers.

—Djelloul Marbrook, Far From Algiers (2007 Wick Poetry Prize)

Rich, layered images take us deep inside the lives of Robison’s characters, their stories weaving together a tapestry as textured as it is beautiful. Brent Robison’s stories are reminiscent of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio — stories of ordinary people caught in the crosshairs of circumstance, sometimes of their own making, sometimes not. All of them heroic in their honest struggle to find meaning and ultimately love…. A gorgeous timeless collection about longing.

—Susan Richards, Chosen by a Horse (NY Times bestseller)


The Principle of Ultimate Indivisibility is a collection of linked short stories, and each one of them is a delight: a sparsely-written, surprising delight which illuminates unexpected corners of its characters’ lives and in so doing, reveals their obsessions, loves and longings with ruthless clarity.

Robison is a skilled writer with a remarkable gift for tone and nuance. The only thing I didn’t like about this book is its title, which seems far too pompous for this lovely collection. But that single wrong note is a minor one, and I will forgive Mr. Robison for it. Just so long as he continues to write and publish, so that I can read more of his work.

Highly recommended.

Be a Sex-Writing Strumpet: Stacia Kane

January 13, 2011 1 comment

From now on I’m going to copy all the reviews I write for this blog over to my original, bigger blog, How Publishing Really Works. Comments here will remain open as usual; comments on my reviews over at HPRW will be closed, so that discussions about the books are kept to one site. This should mean that we’ll get a bigger audience for the books which are featured here, and I hope a wider-reaching discussion for each of my reviews.

We’re talking about writing sex scenes here, guys. This is not for children. Despite my best efforts there is no way I can do this and not stray into adults-only territory. — SK

Stacia Kane writes novels filled with “… flaming hot sex…” (Romantic Times), “… sizzling romance that heats up every page…” (Darque Reviews), and “… spicy sex scenes beautiful enough to make you cry and hot enough to steam windows at the same time…” (Michele Lee). She has published more than a dozen romances and urban fantasies, with publishers like Ellora’s Cave, Pocket, Del Rey, and HarperVoyager. Now she opens her bag of tricks to show you how you too can write the scenes that readers crave.

From setting the scene to consummating the union, Stacia takes you all the way. She reveals the tricks of the professional author, step by step (using examples taken from her own and others’’ writing), giving practical exercises to try in your own books.

When sex is done right, the scene illuminates the most private acts of your characters, demonstrates their connection, their trust, the depth of their feelings, their desire for each other, the moment their relationship deepens and changes beyond anything they’ve been through before; it’s the scene that strengthens the story, increases tension, and adds complications, and at the same time gives the readers what they’ve been waiting for.

From the bare outline to the fully-fledged ready-to-publish novel, Stacia shows you how to avoid common errors, which details to use and which to avoid, what to do when the sex scene isn’t working, how to heat up the action, how to switch point-of-view, how to take the readers along with you to the finish.

Be a Sex-Writing Strumpet is like a masterclass in erotic fiction.

“A sex scene should be fun to write, and it should be fun to read.” Stacia Kane


I’ll start this review off with two disclaimers: this is the first book I’ve featured here which wasn’t submitted to me for review. I paid my own money for it, and after I’d read it I asked its author if she was okay with me reviewing it here: luckily for me, she was. Which brings me onto my second disclaimer: Stacia Kane, the writer of this book, is a friend of mine. If I hadn’t know her well and read her other books I doubt I’d have even known about this book, let alone bought it.

It’s a cracking little read. It’s engaging, absorbing and full of life; and it’s a perfect book for self-publishing: it has an easily-defined niche market, and Stacia already has an established fan-base thanks to her excellent novels. Stacia writes with a very forthright, entertaining voice; her personality infuses every line; she doesn’t shrink away from the more potentially challenging aspects of sex-writing; and the advice and information she gives is absolutely clear, on-the-button and hugely useful. She’s a fabulous fiction writer and an inspiring non-fiction writer, and I wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in, or considering, writing any sort of sex scene.

And yes, for the record I did find a couple of problems. There is a punctuation error in the back cover copy; I don’t much like the jacket design for the print edition, which is muddy and dull; and I found a missing full stop or two between the covers. But I became so absorbed by the text that I forgot to look for such problems, and I read the entire book in one sitting. Such is the power of strong writing: and that’s why wanted to review this book here.

You can buy the Kindle edition here, or the print edition from Lulu.com; and it’s on Scribd too. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did; and that you go on to read some of Stacia’s novels, especially her Downside series, which is just amazingly good.

Red Poppies: S. P. Miskowski

July 8, 2010 Comments off

Five stories revealing the chilling reality behind the roles women play every day. A sense of dread pervades the atmosphere in these wickedly funny, dark tales of female desperation.

Red Poppies
A house cleaner becomes the muse to a crazy trophy wife and then finds her status threatened by a newcomer.

A Personal Recommendation
A bright student will do whatever it takes to pay for her education.

You Never Know
The eccentric subjects of a documentary offer more strange behaviour than the filmmakers expected.

Next to Nothing
A bitter catering company employee reaches the breaking point during a party at a wealthy client’s house.

Idiot Boy
Some siblings live large and others are born to clean up the mess. (Idiot Boy was originally published by Identity Theory.)

First, the bad news. The back cover copy for this book tells me nothing about the book or its author and needs to be substantially reworked; the layout of the front matter needs addressing; and the image on the jacket is muddy and dull, and could be vastly improved (it would help, too, if the title were easier to read). All these things do affect sales, and with self-published books being so difficult to sell it seems foolish to me that so many writers shoot themselves so firmly in the foot by producing covers and layouts which are below par.

And now, on to the writing. The short story is a very difficult form to master. There’s no room for even a single mistake: every word has to earn its keep, and in an anthology every short story has to work alone and in conjunction with the others that it shares space with.

In Red Poppies there are a few glitches in punctuation which I mostly ignored, because I found the writer’s voice so clear and compelling; some of the plots felt a little trite; the writer has a tendency to exposition which on occasion chopped into the flow of text. However, if she continues to refine and improve her work, and reads widely in the genre, I suspect we’ll see more from Ms Miskowski in the future. This a good collection, which could do with a little more polishing and a few more stories: but which nevertheless carries with it echoes of Grace Paley and Aimee Bender. I read it all, and recommend it.

Songs From The Other Side Of The Wall: Dan Holloway

May 20, 2010 3 comments

The day the Berlin Wall came down, Jennifer returned to England, leaving her week-old daughter, Szandi, to grow up on a Hungarian vineyard with 300 years of history. Now 18, Szandi is part of Budapest’s cosmopolitan art scene, sharing a flat and a bohemian lifestyle with her lover and fellow sculptress, Yang. She has finally found a place in the world. Then a letter arrives that threatens everything, and forces her to choose once and for all: between the past and the present; between East and West; between her family and her lover.

Quirky, contemporary, and ultra-cool; sensuous, seductive, and heartbreaking: Songs from the Other Side of the Wall is a coming of age story that inhabits anti-capitalists chatrooms and ancient wine cellars, seedy bars and dreaming spires; and takes us on a remarkable journey across Europe and cyberspace in the company of rock stars and dropouts, diaries that appear from nowhere, a telepathic fashion mogul, and the talking statue of a bull.

I found a few things to criticise in the production of this book: its cover image is far too low-resolution to work well; its front-matter and end-matter are jumbled and unfocused and so fail to do their jobs properly; but the typesetting of the main text is elegant and spacious and very readable, which immediately set it apart from most of the books I have looked at for this blog. Some of the characters used in the italic fonts were overly heavy and so distracting, and really should be corrected; but that’s a tiny thing which I hope will be resolved in subsequent editions of this book.

And now onto the really important stuff.

Dan Holloway writes with a wistful, writerly tone which he handles with great skill. However, he hasn’t edited this book rigorously enough and so at times his writing is overly complex or descriptive (or both), which drags down his pacing. He risks losing his readers’ attention because of this which would be a shame: but it could be easily fixed if he could force himself to be a more ruthless editor. I would also like to see more variation in tone: while wistful is good it can get rather wearying if it’s not lightened occasionally with joy or laughter of some kind, and I wonder if this is something that Dan might find more difficult to fix.

Please don’t think that I’m dismissing Songs From The Other Side Of The Wall: I’m not. Despite my criticisms I think that this is a lovely book written in that rare thing: beautiful, lyrical prose. Dan Holloway is a writer of talent and great potential who we should hear more from. I read it all and recommend it.