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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.

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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.

Faith: JoAnn Welsh

January 20, 2011 1 comment

This review will also appear on my bigger blog, How Publishing Really Works; but you can only comment on it here.

How do you believe in a system that kills your best friend?

Thriller writer Robert Grant confronts challenges to his faith in his country, family and friends as he investigates the bombing of a hotel near Penn State University. Bobby’s old friend Dan Trevaine is scheduled to be executed for the crime, tried in the wake of September 11th and the war on terror. When Bobby dig deeper into the evidence, one witness dies and another disappears—is it the work of terrorists or the government agencies charged with combating them?

The truth shakes the foundation of Bobby’s beliefs about right and wrong—and lands his family in the hands of the terrorists. Will they let him live long enough to reveal what he knows, or will Bobby himself choose to suppress the surprising facts behind the crime?

When your faith is challenged in ways you never imagined, how do you know the right thing to do?

JoAnn Welsh is a writer and linguist living in Rochester, NY. She holds degrees from the University of Virginia and Penn State.

Joanne Welsh writes believable characters, and has a knack for poignant detail that many writers would envy.

Faith trembles with promise but, as is so often the case with the books I’ve reviewed here, it is badly in need of revision, and a thorough copy edit wouldn’t go amiss either. There are some overwritten scenes, quite a bit too much description, a tendency to repeat and confuse: and yet despite all that, I like this book.

I found my fifteenth problem on page thirty-four but read on to the end of the chapter; I’ll be adding this book to my “to read” pile and hope that it lives up to the promise I’ve seen in the portion I’ve already read.

I’m happy to give Faith an ever-so-slightly reserved recommendation, and hope that this isn’t the last I see of Miss Welsh’s writing—so long as she works hard at getting her text just a little more sparse and clear before she publishes her next book.

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.

The Turning: Paul J Newell

August 12, 2010 5 comments

The world is Turning. He can sense it. Now he has to stop it.

People are disappearing.

When Lleyton Quinn is arrested in connection with a missing woman, he insists he knows nothing about it. He’s wrong. Soon he comes to realise that he is intimately entwined in the whole mystery. And when the female detective who arrested him pleads for his help, he is dragged to the centre of a phenomenon that could change everything. This is more than just missing people. The very fabric of society is being slowly unstitched by an unknown seamstress, and Lleyton has been chosen to pick up the threads. Before it’s too late. Before he disappears too…

This book is an intriguing blend of crime-thriller and science-fiction. Comic, dark and surreal in places, the story is based in the near future, in a world not too dissimilar from our own. Rich in thought-provoking concepts, this novel touches on all aspects of humanity, culminating in an evocative new theory about the nature of our world. This is fiction… that promises to teach you something.

The Turning is the sort of book that would might well accrue a stack of personalised rejections and offers to consider the writer’s next book when sent out on submission to mainstream publishers and agents. It is so very nearly excellent: but because of the author’s inexperience in both writing and editing it doesn’t quite reach the mark.

I can sympathise with Mr. Newell, because he makes the same sorts of mistakes that I make in my first drafts: we both over-write, we both use cliché, and we both like to hammer our points home and then some. The difference is that I then try to edit all those mistakes out, whereas Mr Newell seems content to leave them standing.

Overall, then, an impressive attempt which is let down by a lack of skilled editing. It’s a shame, as beneath all the extraneous stuff Newell’s writing is bright and pacey and engaging, with a light humour which reminds me a little of Harlan Coben’s Myron Bolitar novels. Newell shows real talent and potential, and if he pays much more careful attention to his editing skills in future projects he might well go far. I read sixty-six pages out of two hundred forty-two to find my fifteen mistakes: however, I will almost certainly read this book right to the end and so I recommend it, despite its faults.