Friday, June 29, 2007

Dream Dancing



Dream Dancing by J. J. Lair
(iUniverse / 0-595-41208-4 / February 2007 / 220 pages / $15.95)

Who cares about a doughnut deliveryman? He can arrive with the milkman and we can all have breakfast! You will begin to care more and more as this steamy little potboiler unrolls its sweet little story of blue-collar romance with a serial killer backbeat thundering through the strip club. Never-married, thirty-something, doughnut dealing Mark Winston dreads the lengthy phone calls from his mom. She revels in constantly reminding him of the successes of his brother, while questioning Mark's lifestyle choices. After arising long before dawn each day to see that his customers receive their daily sugar fix, his only consolation prize to himself seems to be the lazy evenings he spends in front of the exotic dancers at the local strip club. He has even attempted to date a few of these denizens of disrobe, but his success rate has never even surpassed his satisfaction with his delivery truck. Abby Broughton has fled her abusive, sleazebucket boyfriend in Las Vegas to enter the nonstop action of a small New Jersey town. Stir in a serial killer on the loose and let the working class romance begin.

J. J. Lair has apparently released previous works in a similar romance genre. A 1999 book shows up at Amazon and the back-cover blurb from Dream Dancing mentions a 2004 play. This is his first iUniverse book, and I hope it is not his last. Like Mark Winston, the author seems to be the type of working man who relentlessly pushes himself toward his goal. He is a man who is comfortable in his lifestyle, a man who knows where he is going and how he is going to get there. The average number of typos for an iU book are present. The cover is nothing special, and the marketing blurb may not produce much inspiration for the potential buyer, but the story within is first-class. Dream Dancing is a slowly simmering potboiler. The characters of an obviously trashy profession and lifestyle develop three-dimensional depth as the plot unfolds. You begin to root for these down-on-their-luck or misguided personalities who spend much of their time at two bars the local citizens would just as soon go elsewhere. It becomes very easy to picture in your mind exactly how these people wound up in such a downward spiral as you come to realize how much you care that they succeed at bettering their lives.

Dream Dancing is a well-designed, quiet little morality play. The mystery element added by the presence of an unidentified serial killer of exotic dancers helps keep the storyline from reading like a snooze, but ultimately, it is the development of the characters that floats Dream Dancing to the top. J. J. Laird has been working at his craft for a while, and it shows.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Interview with the Author



Ian Healy

Author of The Milkman and numerous online short stories, Ian Healy resides with his family and a ’71 Chevelle (that is older than he is) in the Denver, Colorado area.

Tabitha: What inspired you to write The Milkman? Why not a garbage man or an ice cream man?

Ian Healy: The character of the milkman with a samurai sword sprang from a role-playing game long ago where I created such a character for a throwaway horror game. He, like the titular character in the novel, was named Blake. Blake is, of course, a singular name like Cher. I originally planned something entirely different for my first outing with National Novel Writing Month, but then late on Halloween night scrapped that idea in favor of the sword-swinging milkman in a fit of madness.

Tabitha: Is there a particular, actual person or persons who inspired your lead characters?

Ian Healy: I’d like to think I have similar qualities to Blake – a certain acerbic wit, eccentricity, and, of course, the dashing good looks. Liza is an amalgam of my high school girlfriends. The Quiet Sons motorcycle gang was inspired by a local cycle gang called the Sons of Silence, but as to whether or not they have their own Big Al I can’t say.

Tabitha: When I read The Milkman, images of a science fiction spoof such as The Ice Pirates rummaged through my head. Have you envisioned what a movie version would look like?

Ian Healy: I have, and Robert Rodriguez (of Desperado and From Dusk Till Dawn) would definitely direct it. It would be a fast-paced, exciting and funny adventure that would have all the qualities of a summer blockbuster. What’s the word the critics like to use? A romp.

Tabitha: The characters in your book come to life in my mind as I read their conversations. Have you envisioned certain actors playing the lead parts?

Ian Healy: Ideally, Blake would have been played by Bruce Campbell fifteen years ago. Blake is very similar in a lot of ways to his character Ash from Army of Darkness. As a tribute, I’d like him to do Bunky’s voice. After seeing their chemistry together in Down With Love, I could see Blake and Liza played by Ewan MacGregor and Renee Zelleweger. Big Al would have to be played by John Goodman. I’d have a bit part as one of the bikers.

Tabitha: There are no cover credits listed for the book. Tell us about the three people pictured on the cover of The Milkman. Are these people you know? How was the cover created?

Ian Healy: I first created a clip-art concept of the cover – three figures posing in front of the snowplow, then sent that idea off to iUniverse. They in turn took my idea and composed a cover based on that. I don’t know who the people on the cover are. The actual cover design went through a few iterations before we arrived at the final image.

Tabitha: Did you consider other publishers before you selected iUniverse?

Ian Healy: I did my homework. I researched several of the self-publishing houses, focusing especially on how they were rated by people who’d used them. iUniverse seemed like the best overall choice given the amount of pre- and post-publishing support they make available.

Tabitha: How satisfying has your experience with iUniverse been?

Ian Healy: Overall I am pleased with my experience.

Tabitha: What is the most significant thing you have learned as a POD author? Do you have any advice to offer to new or prospective POD authors?

Ian Healy: Edit, edit, edit. And have other people edit your work too. As an author you’re often too close to your own work to realize what needs to be excised and what needs to be expanded. The published version of The Milkman is a fifth draft, more or less. With POD, it’s all too easy to gloss over the dirty work because you’re so excited to hold a copy of your book in your hands, but you have to do your copy and line editing just like would be done by a conventional publisher. It’s a question of vanity versus professionalism, and even though I’m a writer and therefore in love with myself, I still try to take the high road and make my book as professional as possible in every way.

Tabitha: You have links to many short stories and other short novel projects on your website. Pardon the pun, but you seem to have a novel approach to the marketing of your work. Would you like to elaborate on this concept for us?

Ian Healy: My ultimate goal is, of course, to get an agent to sell one of my longer works (and subsequent projects) to a mainstream publisher. Choosing to self-publish The Milkman is a way of helping to build a base of readership and interest in my work. I use my blog (http://ianthealy.blogspot.com/) for much the same reason – to attract a fan base, a following, before I’m published. I’m not just marketing my book or my stories or my webcomic, I’m marketing myself as the product. I want people to associate me with solid, entertaining writing so that when they see my name on something, they will be interested in it (and, of course, buy several copies for themselves and their friends and family).

Tabitha: Who are some of your favorite authors and books? What genres do you like to read?

Ian Healy: I’m a long-time comic book reader. I have a deep love for the DC Universe. Alan Moore’s Watchmen made me want to be a writer. George R. R. Martin’s Wild Cards series of novels made me believe I could write about superheroes. I also am a big fan of Alan Dean Foster and Mike Resnick. I’m also a fan of the Star Wars universe, and enjoy a lot of the authors who have worked on it. If anyone from LucasBooks is reading this, I’d love to write a SW novel…

Tabitha: What have you been reading lately?

Ian Healy: I’m trying to branch out to read a wider variety of books than my preferred science fiction (currently rereading Neil Stephenson’s Snow Crash). I just read a wonderful book by William Kotzwinkle called The Bear Went Over The Mountain. I’m working through a Tony Hillerman mystery, and I have read some non-fiction recently – specifically Stephen King’s On Writing and Neal Peart’s Ghost Rider.

Tabitha: What sort of educational experience do you have, and is it relevant to your writing or the subject matter you have chosen?

Ian Healy: I have a liberal arts degree, which means I don’t know enough about anything to get a real job but know enough about everything to tick off my friends. Now that I’ve got all the liberal arts majors screaming for my head, I’ll say that if I did go back to school I’d probably get another liberal arts degree, either in English or History.

Tabitha: What about your work career? Has your choice of profession influenced your writing?

Ian Healy: Well, right now I drive a forklift. *laughs* I suppose it influenced me enough to write Propane Jockeys as my 2005 NaNoWriMo entry – a book about forklift rodeo racing, which I though I’d made up in my head until I Googled it and discovered there really is such a thing. For the most part, I consider writing my profession. Everything else is paying the bills until the writing income is sufficient.

Tabitha: What’s next for Ian Healy, the writer?

Ian Healy: I’m shopping my completed manuscript Deep Six: A Just Cause Novel around to literary agencies, and it has generated some interest. It’s about what happens when a brilliant psychopath engineers a breakout from a prison for people with superpowers and only two ordinary guards can do anything to stop it. I’m working on my next book, The Greatest Generation: A Just Cause Novel, about American super-powered commandos in World War II. And of course, NaNoWriMo 2007 is only a few months away, so I’m starting to think of ideas for what my next 30-day insanity will be.

Tabitha: What pithy, insightful thought would you like to leave with your readers?

Ian Healy: You ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Oh, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t beg them to please go read my webcomic – it needs more readers! (The Adventures of the S-Teamhttp://ianthealy.comicgen.com/)

Friday, June 22, 2007

The Milkman




The Milkman by Ian Healy
(iUniverse / 0-595-43366-9 / May 2007 / 144 pages / $11.95)

This is a silly little book with a tacky plot and sleazy characters that hang out at a biker bar and a diner that could not pass a health inspection at a roach motel! The black-and-white cover is nothing special: the lead characters and their snow plow are featured, but their gremlin-sized alien pal from the dark side of the moon is missing. The third-person, past-tense viewpoint of this short novel is a bit boring, but the rest of it isn't.

Why can't more new authors display the fresh spunk and talent Ian Healy splatters all over this story of gaseous aliens and anal probes? The story is fraught with unusual characters who either want to save the world or just survive the night. Sometimes the reader, nor the character, is really sure which goal he or she would prefer to attain, and that's what makes this little book so likable. Once you get into the midst of the storyline, you realize that the characters and setting had to be as they are. These characters would feel right at home in a Frank Zappa song: their actions are appropriate to their unconventional lifestyles. Mr. Healy has obviously put a lot of thought and effort into the book. The editing is taut, the proofing errors are at an acceptable level, and most of all, you will root for and remember these lovable-outlaw characters!

To quote Cleavon Little in Blazing Saddles, pardon me while I whip this out. I composed my first book, Plastic Ozone Daydream, over a fourteen-year period, utilizing stylistic similes in much the same manner as Ian Healy does so well in The Milkman. He claims The Milkman was written in 28 days, but by looking at the dates printed on the book, you can see that the book was written in 2004, but released in '07. I strongly suspect that Mr. Healy spent a lot of time polishing The Milkman before submitting it for publication. The lead characters speak with each other much in the same manner as those legendary scamps in Star Wars, where most every comment is a double entendre. The Milkman also displays similarity to The A-Team, the movie The Ice Pirates, and Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle. The blurb on the back of my first book mentions Vonnegut's inspiration to my writing, and the manner of that inspiration is reflected back to me like a blast from the past when I read The Milkman. The point is that although I am not much of a science fiction reader, I enjoyed The Milkman quite a lot. There is a thread of similarity connecting Cat's Cradle with The Milkman. Stealing a line from another movie, The Tempest, this is what I call show me the magic.

See also: Tabitha's B&N review
Interview with Ian Healy

Friday, June 15, 2007

The Last Reunion


by E. Daniel Nusbaum, M.D.
& Mary Ann C. Nusbaum, Ph.D.
(iUniverse / 0-595-39614-3 / October 2006 / 280 pages / $17.95)

Can Doogie Howser whip Damien's butt? The morality play begins on the doorstep of an Indiana orphanage on a frozen Christmas morning. A newborn baby is discovered as blue as the ice covering the ground, but he miraculously survives. The Last Reunion is the biography of the mythical, mystical Jim Hoeven, whose destiny is prophesied with Bible quotations at the end of every chapter. Like Doogie Howser, the television character of the early Nineties, Hoeven has been born with an IQ level that allows him to finish high school four years early and retain a respected position in the governor's office at the Indiana state capitol at the same age. The devil has been waiting for a long time to enter into a final battle with his nemesis. The office of the modern equivalent of the evildoer is in New Orleans, from where he repeatedly commands a council of his henchmen to dispatch with the nuisance Mr. Hoeven as the hero moves from a frozen cradle to the U.S. Senate. The whole plotline is basically the flip side of The Omen. The reader is easily reminded of Superman as a boy, as Jim Hoeven discovers and utilizes his exceptional strength, charm and good looks for, dare I say it, good. The satanic forces of evil battle their way to the end of the story, hoping to win control of the world once and for all.

The Last Reunion will most surely please fans of the current religious fervor that has swept across America like a Reagan Presidency. Fans of a more challenging bent will see the cracks in the armor. I don't think much of the cover. The text is too block-like and the red background and image collage leave me a little blah. The cover's okay, but it would never encourage me to buy the book. I understand the author's pointed obsession with the Bible verses, but their inclusion at the end of every one of the thirty-two chapters slows down the pace of the plotline. I realize this is a fiction novel pitched to the faithful among us, but, as a critic, I had hoped for more.

The story promises in the beginning to give The Omen a real run for its money. The authors know how to really tug those heartstrings with sympathy for orphan kids, and they understand the conversational, show-don't-tell style equally as well. One of the authors is a Doctor of Psychology with a theological background and the other is a surgeon. These professional experiences are developed and displayed quite effectively in the religious context of the plot and the hospital scenes described in detail. Where the book falls short is in the credibility of the elements of the story outside the medical and religious arenas. Werewolf-like shapeshifters attack in several scenes, but a nosy CSI team never appears to question the incredibility of the deaths. Miracles have been surrounding Jim Hoeven ever since birth, yet no detective on the local police force questions the miraculous events. You could just walk up to the Governor of Indiana's front door and knock, or call him on the phone and he would answer. He has no personal secretary or house servants outside the one who always seems to be working undercover for the devil and getting cleanly away with it. The good guys know she works for Satan, but never seem to find a reason to fire her! When miraculous events save the day, the lead characters just matter-of-factly state that everything's just fine because Jim prayed for it. The media behaves as if it was still The Fifties. In summation, I think The Nusbaums were so enamored with the Biblical context of the story that they short-shifted the opportunity to write a modern fable fraught with mystery and imagination. As I read through the book, the excitement waned a little as the predictabilty grew.

Dr. & Dr. Nusbaum are to be commended for a fine first effort. The story was originally conceived back in The Seventies and the final manuscript was not released until the next millennium. The long gestation period shows. The book is maturely crafted and edited. The error count, although not minimal, is entirely excusable due to the fact that the errors are of the least obtrusive variety. Please do not be put off by my criticisms, particularly if you are a fan of The Da Vinci Code or other religious-based fictions of recent years. I found the writing quality to easily match that of The Da Vinci Code. My main criticism is that Reunion could use a little more of Da Vinci's mystery with its sermonizing. I give it four crucifixes for evangelicals or three bloody fangs for the wolf pack.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Bitternest


Bitternest by Alan Draven
(iUniverse / 0-595-43204-2 / April 2007 / 354 pages / $19.95)

Most of the cities of America have been devastated by the avian flu epidemic, but one city seems to be surviving better than most. The City of Bitternest, Louisiana, has always enjoyed a reputation for having more than its share of crime, corruption, and sin, much like another place we all know and love, one that has been decimated by a hurricane and a "let them eat cake" administration. Canadian horror author Alan Draven has built a supernatural storyline from a couple of contemporary, and some would say, well-founded, American fears. What if a pandemic wiped out much of the law-abiding population, and what sort of organized criminal element would then take over?

Bitternest is a story much like one of my old favorites in the horror genre, Whitley Strieber's Wolfen. I can easily envision a good B-movie of Bitternest. An experienced police detective whom most everybody likes has lost his wife to the bird flu, leaving his dedication to his job and the others he cares for as his leading reason for living. He discovers that vampires have been quietly existing in Bitternest since forever, and now the bloodsuckers are offering something he needs, the key to the cure for the avian flu. The more he learns about the ancient underworld of Bitternest, the less surprised he becomes by his new discoveries. The vampires are not the only critters haunting the city. Organized crime bosses are planning the takeover of the city with the help of their own brand of creatures of the night.

Alan Draven's first novel offers a lot of promise. The book has been professionally edited, and it shows, although it is not error free. The complex plot is shoved through the reader's mind with adequate pacing and energy. The breakneck pace of the action owes a little too much to the movie Van Helsing instead of to the slower character development of Wolfen, and this fact is probably the story's weakest link. As a horror novel, you could say that Bitternest is the opposite of The Shining. This book will probably be most popular with readers who enjoyed the movie Underworld better than they did Interview with the Vampire. The plotline has been well crafted, but that doesn't change the incredibility of a plethora of monsters coming at you. I would think the story would offer a more menacing punch without such a varied cadre of villains clogging up the plot. Other than this single factor, I enjoyed the book quite a lot, and I realize that this is just my opinion. Others may like the monster barrage. I have read quite a number of vampire and other monster books, and Bitternest is better than average, at the very least. Considering that it is the author's first book, I have to tip my fangs to him.

Friday, June 08, 2007

A Quality Product

I am a lifelong student of American pop culture. I have watched intently as the Baby Boomer generation evolved into the consumer powerhouse that it has become. Products have developmental and marketing patterns that can be plotted on a chart. Each product category has its own chart. Some categories, and therefore their charts, have been greatly affected by the psychosocial influences of their respective markets. For example, are modern teenaged girls morons because they seek to emulate Paris Hilton; or is the Paris Hilton phenomenon prevalent because modern teenaged girls are morons? Is it the chicken or the egg? Is it the chickadee or the airhead? I think the truth evolves from some of both.

If you reduce every component within a product category down to a simple dollars-and-cents equation, the result will look just like America's consumer culture in 2007. The race to the bottom eventually benefits no one except the last CEO still standing. The pursuit of art and quality will be the first chicken on the chopping block.

This brings us to the POD market phenomenon. Anyone who cannot see clearly that a modern American new author has less chance every day of succeeding in the traditional publishing market is obviously writing blindly to the oblivion. iUniverse offers a dim, distant beacon through the oblivion for any who choose to rise to the light.

If you choose to move toward the light, I want to be one who helps you achieve your goals and reach an appreciative audience. Quality and professionalism are the leading attributes I seek to achieve, and these are the same things I look for most in an iUniverse book I have selected for review. The composition of the subject matter is your job. The production of the product is the job of iUniverse. Unlike your image of what you have always perceived tradtional publishers to be like, iU works more like your computer than it does Random House. By that I mean garbage in, garbage out. The people at iUniverse just produce the Word document you give them. The only person who can change this is you. It's up to you to produce the product that any reader will be proud to own. It's bad enough that iU charges for your book by the pound, but they don't much care one way or the other about the quality of the product. The elevator is out of order and you have to carry your own bags up the stairs.

The more you can write a book as if you had to read it, the more likely someone else will like to read it, too. In nearly all cases, the time and effort you put into the project will become obvious to the reader. The reverse is also true. When I am examining a book for review, I always look first for evidence of true quality. The subject matter, genre, and plotline are secondary issues as far as I am concerned. I want deserving authors to succeed. It matters very little to me that the book's audience is large or small. Of course the more competitve the territorial genre is, the more critical the plotlines become. If you write about a subject with very little competition within the subject field, there is somewhat less reason to be concerned with compeitive choices offered by other authors or publishers.

Paris Hilton disturbs me a million times more than the details of your plotline. If I was boss of the world, such media explosions of triviality would never exist. You would not be able to hog all the shelf space at B&N just because your face has been on TV a lot and you could afford to hire a good ghost writer. If I was boss, we would make all our consumer entertainment purchases on the basis of quality. Television media, subject matter obsessors, and slap-fighters would have no say-so in the matter. Every book sold would be purely because it was the best quality product the author and publisher could produce.

There are three reasons why I accept only printed iUniverse books for review. Here they are in descending order of importance. (1) I spend all my computer time doing research; not reading books. I have a lot of opportunity outside my computer time to read books, and that's when I read books. (2) It keeps the riff-raff out. The iUniverse marketing plan places a little higher bar on the authors than does Lulu. All the other POD companies are either overpriced or underfunded. As an iU author myself, I am fully aware of the details of the company's product. I understand what the company does well and what it does not. I could start a big slap fight at this point right now, but I try not to do that on this site. Some of you think the pathway to success is to publish your book without a known POD company name on it. I see your point, but I do not agree with it. I think writers should expend their energies in other ways, such as taking the time to proofread their works more effectively. (3) If you have to pay for, box up, and take a copy of your book to the post office to send it to me for a review, then you have invested at least a little time, money, and effort. You care enough to obtain the best for your baby. I offer a lot of personal service in the deal. Only those who have put forth more effort should receive more in return. As I said in reason #2, it keeps the riff-raff out.

This is the home of the honest, legitimate reviews for iUniverse books, so don't expect flowery praise for every element of your book. Yes, I am still the official, anti-corporate cheerleader for iUniverse authors. I still may present you with kinder reviews than some others might offer. You have to read between the lines. If you're not any good at that, what are you doing trying to be an author?

Friday, June 01, 2007

In the Wake of Ashes


My Brother's Keeper: Book II
by Lorrieann Russell
(iUniverse / 0-595-22355-9 / April 2002 / 564 pages / $27.95)

The short version of the 1000-page, two-book story is that if you liked Lorrieann Russell's My Brother's Keeper, you'll enjoy the sequel just about as much. The first thing you will notice is the distinctive cover design by the author, who is also known as an accomplished graphic artist. The long saga of William Fylbrigge's short life picks up where the first book ended, with William on a ship bound for America from Scotland in 1612. Ms. Russell began with a bit of research into her personal family tree to discover a brief notation concerning a Scottish ancestor who lived in the early 1600's. The author has created a fictional story around this unknown, real-life character. This is the second of three books written about William Fylbrigge. The first, My Brother's Keeper, begins with William's wedding at Stonehaven Castle and mostly concerns his false accusal and trial as a witch. He is then imprisoned and tortured for several days before being rescued by his compatriots and sneaked onto a ship bound for America. He begins his journey practically in a coma, and he does not fully awaken until the ship has neared its destination. This book, In the Wake of Ashes, covers the remainder of Fylbrigge's life. The third in the series is a prequel to My Brother's Keeper, and it is scheduled for release later this year by a traditional publisher.

The strongest element of Ms. Russell's books is that she understands very well the concept of "show, don't tell" that more authors should take to heart. Her characters come to life in your hands with their natural conversational style. The story is told without a lot of unnecessary, third-person description to bog it down. The reader feels as if he is present in the room with the conversing characters. My guess is that this is one of the leading elements of what many readers would call a real "page turner".

The weakest element of In the Wake of Ashes is its lack of proper proofreading. I hesitate to say this, but in this case, it stands out like lipstick on a pig. I am acutely aware that Lorrieann rushed this book to press for an honorable reason, but surely in retrospect, she must regret that momentous decision. It is more than a little likely that In the Wake of Ashes will be re-released at some date in the future in a more perfectly edited version. That publisher could be iUniverse, the one currently planning the release of the prequel, or yet a third publisher. Whichever the case, this book deserves a better proofreading because the story and composition are first-rate. Now back to the story....

In the Wake of Ashes holds up to the original book quite well. Some other reviewers have said they liked it better than My Brother's Keeper. I do not feel strongly either way. Keeper seemed a bit more action-packed and Ashes seemed to unroll a little more like a quieter drama. I think any rating of Ashes that lessens its impact from that of Keeper must concern the higher error count in Ashes, not its story content. I like to think of Keeper as being more like The Crucible and Ashes as more like The Last of the Mohicans. I am referring, of course, to the mood and storylines of these legendary works, not their compositional style. I recently viewed the latest movie versions of these two classics, and I enjoyed Lorrieann's two books better than both of the legends!

If you are new to Lorrieann Russell's books, I highly recommend that you read the first book first. You will then get much more out of William's story in Ashes. Although the author has done a credible job of filling in the first part of the story for first-time readers in Ashes, there is no adequate substitute for the reading of My Brother's Keeper first to capture all the impact and nuance of the story. As in all my reviews, I say what I would want to read about the book beforehand as a reader. If you want to preview plotlines or quotes from the reviewed work, you must look elsewhere. Most of In the Wake of Ashes takes place in and around a small settlement named Port Edin in The New World in a time when we were still friends with many of the Indian tribes. William Fylbrigge learns to adapt to his new life as a cripple in the wilderness of young America. He has brought his family and a few friends with him, and he makes a bunch of new friends. He has a few exciting adventures and his friends surprise him a lot with their actions. Watch out for the many bumps in the road because what has passed is past. Lorrieann Russell knows how to write. Go read the book.