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One Man’s Castle

This is an interview with J. Michael Major, author of the unique crime novel One Man’s Castle.  Joseph Arellano

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In One Man’s Castle, you wrote a novel based upon a fascinating premise: A man kills people, but only criminals who break into his home.  How did you come up with this idea for the plotline?

It was a short story first.  Like most of my ideas, it was a combination of something I read or saw on the news combined with a “What if?” twist.  What could be another reason bodies are buried in a crawlspace?  And what is something personal that would make a person do this instead of calling the police? The characters stayed in my head even after the story was published, and several writer-friends encouraged me to expand it into a novel.

As I read Castle, I was sure that I knew exactly where the story was going.  I believed the story was going to conclude with an O.J. Simpson style trial.  But that’s not where the story went.  Did you have the ending planned out all along, or did the story just happen to take the path it did?

I’m glad I surprised you!  Yes, it was all pre-planned.  I am an outliner, even for short stories, and the core was already there.  After years of cut-cut for stories, the hard part was learning how to expand the idea without making it feel padded.  The novel gave me the freedom to show how Riehle and Capparelli initially met, get to know the backstory on Walter’s wife so the reader would care more, and explore Walter’s conflict in wanting justice for his wife’s murder without having to pay more of a price himself.

I describe the novel as “Death Wish meets The Fugitive,” and I had to figure out how to structure Castle to keep the tension and conflict while the reader was (hopefully) rooting for both Walter to get away and the police to catch him.  So, yes, I had to know where the story was going at all times.

Speaking of the end of the novel, I was reminded of Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow and Defending Jacob by William Landy.  Were these legal novels influences on you?

Absolutely!  In fact, Presumed Innocent is one of my favorite novels of all time, so I am incredibly flattered that my novel reminded you of it.  Thanks!

Most criminal justice system related novels are written by lawyers.  How did you, as a dentist, decide to tackle a legal novel?

I saw it more as a crime novel with legal issues, which allowed me to focus on the definition of the crime and its consequences, rather than having to follow strict legal structure.  But mostly, it was just the story that I wanted to tell.  “Write what you want to read” rather than “Write what you know.”

What steps did you take to research the criminal justice system to ensure that your novel was reasonably accurate and representative of the justice system?

In addition to friends, relatives and patients who were police officers, I also talked with a couple of lawyers in the State’s Attorney’s Office and Attorney General’s office.  They not only answered my questions, but read early drafts of the novel and made helpful suggestions and corrections.  I am very grateful for their time and patience with me.

J. Michael Major

If you could press the reset button on your life is there something you would change?

Who wouldn’t want to go back and un-say/un-do some things, or do something you later regretted that you hadn’t?  But the truth is, I love my wife of 25+ years and I am so proud of the wonderful people that my son and daughter are, that I would not want to go back and jeopardize losing what I have with them.  Still, if I had to change anything, I would go back to when my children were younger and find a way to spend more time with them.  Though I was an involved father, they grew up so fast!  Where did the time go?

As with many legal novels, One Man’s Castle is in some sense a critique of the existing criminal justice system.  If you were made King of the Courts, is there something you would change about the system?

I would get rid of, or greatly reduce, the continued victimization of the victims.  While I understand the need for someone to be able to defend himself/herself against false accusations, the victims and their family and friends should not have to suffer through the torture and shaming they must endure during trials.  This seems like common sense and decency, but common sense and the law seem to follow non-intersecting paths these days.

Will your next novel be in the same vein?  Would you give us a preview of it in two or three sentences?

Sadly, when my publishing company decided that it was not going to publish mystery novels anymore, I had to scrap plans for sequels to Castle using the same detectives.  I wrote many short stories for a while, the most recent having been published in Weirdbook #34, until I got an idea for something different.  I just started writing the story of a rookie cop who descends into a hardened, shadowy vigilante over the course of three books.  I’m very excited about this project!

One final point, Carolyn Parkhurst stated, “The ending of a novel should feel inevitable.  You, the reader, shouldn’t be able to see what’s coming.”  I did not see the ending of One Man’s Castle coming, thus it passed her test.  Great job.  I certainly highly recommend the book.  Do you have any final comments?

First, thank you for this terrific interview.  Great questions!  I am thrilled that you enjoyed the book and greatly appreciate your recommending it.  Second, to all beginning writers, HANG IN THERE!  Life throws you curve balls, but as long as you keep writing and submitting your stories, you will persevere.  And read the screenwriting book Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder, because it will help you with structure and inspire you.  Good luck!

This interview was originally posted on the Blogcritics site:

http://blogcritics.org/interview-j-michael-major-author-of-one-mans-castle/

It was also used by the Seattle Post Intelligencer:

http://www.seattlepi.com/lifestyle/blogcritics/article/Interview-J-Michael-Major-Author-of-One-Man-s-11229481.php

 

 

 

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Highway to Hell

Road to Paradise: A Novel by Paullina Simons (William Morrow Paperbacks, $16.99, 544 pages)

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“The highway is for gamblers, better use your sense…”  Bob Dylan

In Paullina Simon’s Road to Paradise, Shelby Sloane takes off for the West Coast in a yellow Mustang in search of her mother.  She embarks on this journey following her high school graduation with the expectation that she will return to the East Coast to attend college in the fall.  Fallacy number one: This girl could not possibly be accepted into college.

Her friend, Gina, accompanies her to help defray the costs and meet up with her boyfriend, and they pick up a hitchhiker by the name of…  Candy Cane (AKA, Grace Rio).  The journey begins with a detour to deliver dogs to a relative.  They meet Candy, whose purpose for the trip is revealed about two-thirds of the way through the novel.  So, they are all on a quest of some kind or another.  [Fascinating!  -Ed.]  In the meantime we learn that Candy is famous on I-80 for engaging in the oldest profession in the book.

Simmons’ narrative jumps around in the beginning as she attempts to be overly clever.  This creates challenges for the reader.  Quite frankly, by the time the reader is 100 pages in – where some clarity finally rears its head, it is impossible to care.  The book mercifully and thankfully ends after 530 pages.  Is there an editor in the house?

The main action of the story takes place in 1981, so throughout the book there are references to late 70s songs that are playing on the radio for no apparent reason.

There is mindless and aimless philosophical, historical and religious conversation among the three traveling characters.  In addition to prostitution, we get porn, a visit to a monastery, an individual who develops a sudden and inexplicable gambling addiction, a “somewhat pseudo-lesbian”  incident, and contrived loyalty.  There’s also a patched-on happy ending as Shelby arrives in Mendocino, California and miraculously meets the man she will marry.  Right, just like in real life.

If all this sounds interesting to you, be my guest.  It’s quite doubtful that I will be reading the next release from Ms. Simons.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Dave Moyer is a public school administrator and is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

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Against All Odds

The Odds of You and Me: A Novel by Cecilia Galante (William Morrow, $14.99, 384 pages)

odds of you and me amazon

Cecilia Galante’s The Odds of You and Me combines multiple themes – the underdog, youth, love and forgiveness – into one very solid novel.  Without providing a spoiler, if the reader is hoping that tough odds will be overcome and a Hollywood-style ending is in store, forget it.  This is not a Hallmark or Disney movie.  Nevertheless, this story may appeal to readers who are open to a unique display of what happiness, life, grit, and perseverance mean in the real world.

In Odds, Bernadette “Bird” Sincavage bears a child at a young age under less than ideal circumstances.  She is close to being released from probation when she happens to cross the path of James – a former co-worker, a bad boy that she found to be fascinating.  James is being hunted by the police and Bird is unintentionally drawn back into the complicated orbit of his life.

As the story’s details begin to come together, there are “gray” decisions to be made.  Mrs. Ross, a probation officer, and Jane and Mr. Herron – two of the individuals whose homes Bird cleans, recognize her basic goodness and become advocates for her.

James, destined to be an ill-fated match for Bird, is the ultimate hero/villain.  It’s up to the reader to make up his or her mind in terms of what’s right and wrong; which is precisely why this is a very good, challenging novel.

Bird’s mother sees things in simple black and white, and Catholic priest Father Delaney (a representative of a church that has seen much controversy and turmoil in modern times) attempts to provide a measure of moral conscience.  But there are no easy answers; matters remain quite complicated.

The Odds of You and Me works at many levels, and should appeal to many readers including a potentially significant number of young adults.

Well recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

The Odds of You and Me is (a novel) in the vein of Meg Donohue and Sarah Jio.”  Amazon

Dave Moyer is a public school superintendent in Illinois, and he is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

 

 

 

 

 

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The Losing End

Forever is the Worst Long Time: A Novel by Camille Pagan (Lake Union, $24.95, 276 pages)

“It’s so hard to make love pay/ When you’re on the losing end/ And I feel that way again…”  Neil Young

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Synopsis:

When struggling novelist James Hernandez meets poet Louisa “Lou” Bell, he’s sure he’s just found the love of his life.  There’s just one problem: she’s engaged to his best and oldest friend, Rob.  So James becomes Rob’s Best Man, toasting the union of Rob and Lou and hiding his desire for The Perfect Woman.

Review:

With this setup, one can pretty much guess what’s coming in this third novel from author Pagan (Life and Other Near-Death Experiences, The Art of Forgetting).  And one’s guess would be right about half of the time.  Pagan adds some unexpected twists and turns that help to keep the story somewhat interesting.  The plot line is not the problem.

The tone of the story, the narrator’s voice, is where difficulties arise.  It’s sometimes problematic when a male author adopts a female voice, and vice versa.  It is an issue here.  This book is written in the form of a journal – a document to be read by James’ daughter in order to learn about her past.  (Novels in the form of journals seem to be the latest craze.)  The journal reads in a flat tone; in fact, it begins to drone on like a car on the freeway stuck in second gear.  Yes, early on Pagan shifts from first to second, but the reader mourns the absence of third, fourth, and overdrive in this journey of almost 300 pages.

And then there’s the issue of humor.  It was absent in this work which felt overly dramatic.  One of the strengths of bestselling authors like Elizabeth Berg and Jennifer Weiner – writers who similarly deal with love, loss and redemption – is that they enliven their stories with stress-relieving humor.  (This enables the reader to relax and avoid the feeling of reading a one note soap opera.)

“This story ends with loss,” said your mother.  “I’m only on the first chapter, but I can tell.”

Basically, this novel proves the truth of the notion that you can’t always get what you want, but sometimes you get what you need.  I hope that in her future works Pagan adds more life to her tales and spirit and volume.  Reading this book, for me, was like trying to listen to music being played in a far-off room.  The experience was muffled.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

This book was released on February 7, 2017.

On the writing of Elizabeth Berg and Jennifer Weiner:

Home Safe (by Berg) is written with humor and elegance.”  – Chicago Tribune

Home Safe explores, with insight and humor, what it’s like to lose everything and to emerge from the other side.”  – St. Petersburg Times

“Hilarious, heartbreaking, and insightful, Weiner shows she can write with exquisite tenderness as well as humor.”  – The Miami Herald

 

 

 

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A Six Pack of Mystery Novels

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A Death at the Yoga Cafe: A Mystery by Michelle Kelly (Minotaur Books, $27.99, 261 pages)

What could be more wholesome than a yoga studio/vegetarian cafe in a small English village?  Everyone knows everyone else; Keeley Carpenter, the proprietor of said studio/cafe, is dating Ben Taylor, the local detective.  The bucolic atmosphere in town abruptly shifts when a prominent citizen is found murdered.  Of course Keeley, who is a curious and bold young woman, jumps right in and does some detecting of her own.  It’s a recipe for danger!  This book has a bonus feature.  Scattered among the chapters are instructions on yoga poses.  The most appropriate entry is corpse pose, which is located at the end of the chapter in which the murder is discovered.  Death at the Yoga Cafe is the second book in a series featuring Keeley Carpenter.

Well recommended.

teetotaled

Teetotaled: A Mystery by Maia Chance (Minotaur Books, $24.99, 291 pages) 

The era is the 1920s and the action takes place in and around New York City.  Widowed socialite Lola Woodby and her former cook Berta Lundgren have teamed up to form a business, the Discrete Retrieval Agency.  Lola’s husband died leaving her penniless after years of enjoying the high life.  Their cases have mostly focused on finding lost pets for well-to-do clients.  A high stakes case finds its way to their office/apartment.  A diary belonging to the daughter of Lola’s mother’s best friend must be purloined.  The revelation of corruption, war crimes, envy, greed and determination uncovered by the lady detectives are timeless, yet author Chance makes them fun to read about when mixed with her wry, droll humor.

Highly recommended.

The Champagne Conspiracy: A Wine Country Mystery by Ellen Crosby (Minotaur Books, $25.99, 360 pages)

champagne-conspiracy

This book, the seventh in the Wine Country Mystery series, is heavy on detail regarding grape growing, wine production and family dynasties in present day Virginia and California as well as both locales during American Prohibition.  The lives of many of the characters are interwoven both in the past and the present.  Lucie Montgomery inherited the family estate vineyard in Virginia and she is determined to produce a high quality product.  Her comrade in wine making is Quinn Santori, a fellow with a closely guarded past.  Together they face some rather harrowing scrapes with death while planning the bottling of a sparkling wine, a new addition to their carefully crafted line.  Readers new to Crosby would doubtless appreciate a bit more character introduction.

Recommended.

Buried in the Country: A Cornish Mystery by Carola Dunn (Minotaur Books, $25.99, 324 pages)

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The charming fourth installment of the Cornish Mystery series set in the 1970s is an escape to a bucolic area of the United Kingdom where the pursuit of criminals requires the navigational skills of local fixture, Eleanor Trewynn.  Ms. Trewynn is a retired executive of an international nonprofit agency who now gathers donations for a local thrift shop.  Her skills at cross-border negotiation are what lead to involvement in a secret conference regarding apartheid held by a friend in the Commonwealth Relations Department.  Ms. Trewynn’s niece, Detective Sargent Megan Pencarrow, is to provide security at a hotel on the coast.  There are evil spies who want to derail the event.  One crime leads to another and the reader is brought along for a wild ride through the Cornish countryside while the bad guys bumble along back lanes and impassible roads just ahead of the police.

Highly recommended.

The Reek of Red Herrings: A Dandy Gilver Mystery by Catriona McPherson (Minotaur Books, $26.99, 295 pages)

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This 1930s British murder mystery from Catriona McPherson featuing Dandy Gilver and her partner in detecting Alec Osborne will delight readers.  Dandy and Alec have been working together for eight years; however, the outlandish predicaments these two willingly take on here are by far the best of the series.  Christmas time or not, the two accept a job from Mr. H. Birchfield, an importer and distributor of fish, herring to be precise.  The partial remains of a human have sullied a barrel of his product.  Birchfield wants Dandy and Alec to travel to Banffshire coast and solve the “who” and “why” of this creepy occurrence.  Never mind that Christmas is but a few days away and Dandy will miss celebrating with her husband and sons.  The treacherous cliffs along the seacoast, rain, wind and seriously inbred inhabitants make for ideal subjects of this the fifth in author McPherson’s series.  Be prepared for laughs and groans as she fills the pages with puns and outlandish characters!

Highly recommended.

Murder at the 42nd Street Library: A Mystery by Con Lehane (Minotaur Books, $25.99, 320 pages)

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Con Lehane presents the first mystery of his new series featuring Raymond Ambler, a mild mannered librarian at the world famous 42nd Street research library located at 476 Fifth Avenue in New York City.  Ray, as his coworkers refer to him, is the curator of the crime fiction collection.  While the collection is a figment of Author Lehane’s imagination as is Ray’s boss’s office, the rest of the library is accurately depicted in stunning detail.  Who knew that a cold blooded murder could take place within the hallowed halls of the glorious Beau Arts building that is guarded by two fierce lion statues?  The lives of several famous and infamous mystery writers are tangled into a confounding web of murders and past evil deeds.  This is no breezy read because the details matter and not all the clues lead to a convenient solution.

Well recommended.  

Ruta Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publisher.

 

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Songs in the Key of Life

small-admissions

Small Admissions: A Novel by Amy Poeppel (Emily Bestler Books/Atria, $26.00, 358 pages)

I was anticipating this book to be a downsized version of The Admissions, an earlier-released novel by Meg Mitchell Moore about the pressures of getting a high school senior daughter – one living in Danville, California, into an elite college.  The Admissions was a funny and entertaining book, but it was also loaded with valuable information for real-life parents on how to attack the knotty college admissions process.

Small Admissions focuses on parents attempting to get their children admitted into a highly competitive pre-school/elementary school in New York City.  While it’s also humorous, I found it to be overly light – both in the manner in which it’s written and in the lack of substantive, useful information.  I expected more of the latter since the author previously “worked in the admissions office of a prestigious private school” in NYC.

On the plus side, this is a relaxing read – like watching a family comedy on network TV, or a film on Lifetime – and Poeppel occasionally gets off a good line: “Happiness is not a zero-sum game.  It’s the only case in which the resources are limitless.”  You may get better mileage and satisfaction than I did.  (Perhaps.)

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I Liked My Life: A Novel by Abby Fabiaschi (St. Martin’s Press, $25.99, 272 pages)

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, this is an honest-to-goodness ghost story.  Madeline (Maddy) Starling is a happy housewife and mother.  She has a successful husband, Brady, and a great teenage daughter, Eve.  And then, suddenly, Maddy is gone – by suicide.  This might be the end of the story, but it’s just the beginning as Maddy sticks around as a ghost; one who can observe what goes on with Brady, Eve, and other formerly-important figures in her life.  She also has the power to implant thoughts in their heads – such as the notion that Brady needs to find a new spouse to take care of him and Eve.

Author Fabiaschi, in this debut novel, makes good use of the notion that people tend to feel the presence of a deceased person after his or her passing.  Yes, there’s a touch of the plot used in the 1990 film “Ghost,” but the overlap is minimal.  And she writes well in a ghostly voice:

“Everything in our house looked perfect, which was awesome when I thought everything was perfect, but disturbing now that I know the truth.  It’s like we lived on a stage.”

And:

“Perhaps we all offer what we can, until we can’t, and then our loved ones step up or have others step in.  Perhaps death exists to challenge the people left behind.”

In her ghostly existence, Maddy finds that she’s on a timetable.  There’s only so much time to complete what she needs to get done – via earthly creatures, before her powers erode and she heads for her final destination.

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Surprisingly, Fabiaschi sets up an ending that we can see coming from hundreds of pages away.  Except that the book does not end that way.  Well played!

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publishers.

Small Admissions was published on December 27, 2016.

I Liked My Life was released on January 21, 2017.

early-decision

Note: Another novel that deals in a semi-factual way (“Based on a true frenzy!”) with the college admissions process is Early Decision by Lacy Crawford.

 

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The Book Of My Life

our-short-history

Our Short History: A Novel by Lauren Grodstein (Algonquin, $26.95, 352 pages)

It’s admittedly early in 2017, but I suspect that this may well wind up as one of the best novels of the year.

Grodstein’s novel is about Karen Neulander, a powerful and successful political consultant in New York City.  Karen has fought a tough battle with ovarian cancer.  As we meet her, her cancer is in remission but is likely to return.  Karen’s doctors have been doing all they can to extend her life but can offer her, at best, no more than an additional 48 to 60 months.  (They cannot promise her that she will have the best quality of life in the time that remains.)

Karen relies on her younger sister Allie – a wife and mother and Seattle resident, to take care of both her and her six-year-old son Jake.  Jake represents absolutely everything that matters to Karen.  She will willingly surrender her career, her health, her life if it means that Jake will be alright.

“The truth is that even more than I want to be healthy, I want you to be okay.  Even more than I want to live forever, I want you to live forever…  Thank you, baby boy.  For as long as I’ve known you, you have given me the strength I need to keep on living.  I look at you and I feel strong.  Every day you help me feel strong.”  

Karen comes to realize that Allie can take her place and serve as a replacement mother to Jake once she dies.  But then the best laid plans evaporate as Jake decides that he wants to meet his father, Dave.  Dave never wanted children.  When he and Karen were together, Dave pressured her to abort the child she was carrying.  This led Karen to walk out on the relationship and to sever all contact with Dave.

Karen must now decide whether to connect Jake with the man who literally wished his son had never been born – a man she still loves but detests, or to refuse Jake’s request in order to protect herself.  Either way the outcome is likely to be unpleasant.  As part of her personal care, Karen decides to write a history of her life with Jake; that personal journal – full of good times, but also hard truths, blemishes and defeats, is this novel.  (It’s meant to be read by Jake decades after Karen’s passing.)

This is Grodstein’s sixth novel but it reads like a debut work.  It has the voice of a writer attacking a story while narrating it with a quiet confidence.  In that, it calls to mind Audrey Niffenegger’s brilliant Her Fearful Symmetry.    

Grodstein permits the reader to live, for a period, the life of a terminal cancer patient.  It is hardly a pleasant experience, nor is it meant to be.  She allows us to see that even in human pain and suffering, existence has a purpose.  Karen has found her purpose; in this, she is a lucky person.

In the words of author Celeste Ng, “This novel will leave you appreciating both the messiness of life and the immense depths of love.”  Well said.

The reader who makes it to the final pages of Our Short History will have paid a price – in smiles, laughter, heartbreak, fear and tears.  It’s a price well worth paying as Grodstein’s story is a nearly perfect representation of the notion that everything in life – painful and pleasing, has relevance.  One’s life is lived not in days or weeks, but over years and decades.

This is a literally breathtaking, life affirming work.  It’s not a ghost story like Her Fearful Symmetry, but it’s written from the perspective of a woman who knows that her time on earth is limited.  (After she’s gone, the “short history” – the personal story she’s recorded – will communicate with her son in a ghostly fashion.)  Our Short History is beautifully, finely written and haunting in its own way.  Look for it in March.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

 

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