Posts Tagged ‘great characters’

Rocktober3This review was originally posted at West of Mars. It is being posted here, at its new permanent home.

When author RJ McDonnell dropped me a note, I was more than thrilled to hear from him. I’d seen his name around in certain circles and since he writes about a dude who used to be in band, and since his first mystery, Rock and Roll Homicide.

Not the sexiest title out there, but I love the cover shot of a Fender Strat that’s been splattered with blood. Even though the dead guy dies in the preface, and I doubt any residue would make such a lovely pattern on a white strat, it doesn’t matter. And if it did, there’s so much good stuff going on here.

I’m not sure where to start, really, other than to say I loved this tale. I loved the main character, Jason Duffy. I loved his quirky cast of mentally disabled people and helpmeets. I loved Duffy’s narrative voice; it has total character. I loved his dad and the veteran, grizzled cop and the computer geek dude who never wants to use his names.

Maybe we should back up. Our intrepid hero, Jason Duffy, hasn’t been in business very long when he gets a visit from the very wealthy Chelsea Tucker. It turns out it’s her husband’s brains that have been spattered across the aforementioned guitar — among other things. It seems her husband is the famous — but contentious — Terry Tucker, frontman and business genius behind Doberman’s Stub, a band rocketing to the top — and currently recording their third album. This is the one that’s going to push them up to that coveted peak. Everyone knows it.

That’s why Terry was killed, it turns out. He put on a pair of headphones (conveniently given to him by his wife. What a loving woman.) and … kablooey!

The wife needs Jason’s help to clear her name. And Jason dives right in, encountering the Russian Mafia, the Irish Mafia, Orangemen, half-naked women, photographers with Tourette’s Syndrome, and a whole laundry list of surprises and twists and turns that even a experienced knitter couldn’t unravel.

Needless to say, McDonnell pulls it off. Neatly, I might add. And with no small dose of humor — particularly the scene where Jason goes sneaking around a shower. Trust me. It’s the best scene in a good book.

Now, you know I can’t write a review without talking about the downers, and there were some, of course. I’ve yet to read a book without them.

In Rock and Roll Homicide, there are two big ones. First is that the cast of characters is huge. Quirky and well-drawn, sure. But it’s big. Big casts can get confusing, and alliteration never helps. Oh, I’m not talking about the way in which half the characters have Russian names. See above about the Russian mafia.
Rather, there are an awful lot of women whose names start with the letter J. A lot of people with the first initial of C.

It’s a shame, really. These characters are all given such delicious quirks and characters, and then to confuse us with the similar names… talk about torture.

The other issue is bigger. Like an increasing number of books of late, the editing could have been better. Not just punctuation, which I’m a stickler for after spending so many years as a copy editor. Sentences could have been tightened or rewritten for maximum reader impact. Frankly, I’d love to get my hands on future books from McDonnell and have a go at it. He’s got so many elements right. He’s got a great hero, with a great voice. And his rock? It rolls, baby. This guy knows his stuff, all right.

I’ve got McDonnell’s second book here, waiting for me to read it, too. Rock & Roll Rip-Off, it’s called. All I gotta say is that it’ll be a ripoff if there’s no third book in the works.

This review was originally posted at West of Mars. It is being posted here, at its new permanent home.

Renee and Dylan. He’s the reluctant musician. She’s the woman who supports him, loves him, and finds her way to peace in Rachel K. Burke’s cute novel.

Renee has, in a huff, moved back home to Boston after finding her best friend in bed with her man. Her reaction seems a bit extreme since she says she knows she didn’t love the guy, but the hurt she suffers is terribly real. This is a horrible way to end a friendship, folks. Don’t be a Justine.

Living upstairs from Renee’s new digs is the ultra cool Dylan. By night, he picks up a guitar and strums the music of the one musician who can break through Renee’s fun: Jeff Buckley. It turns out this is only one of the things they have in common, including a mutual attraction.

Dylan’s got some issues: he’s caught up in a parade of bimbos, and he’s also got the world’s worst stage fright. It’s up to Renee to fix it all – and, of course, it doesn’t go well. This is a romance, after all, which means there have be obstacles, misunderstandings, break-ups, and reconciliations.

Burke moves us around, lets us share in Dylan’s success – okay, maybe his comfort in front of a crowd happens too fast and too easily, but again, this is a fun read. It’s not meant to be a meditation on stage fright – and most definitely lets us see Renee, warts and all. She’s not perfect, which is exactly what makes her worth spending the time with. The secondary characters are all very real, as well, and well-drawn.

The book’s biggest flaw is that there’s too much telling – something often hard to avoid in a first-person novel – and the backstory could have been incorporated into the tale a bit more masterfully.

I’m going to remind you again, though: this is about fun, and that is something Burke delivers in spades. She knows music and she knows the world of it, two qualities that need to be present in the best Rock Fiction.

For those looking for a quick, light beach read, Sound Bites delivers.

Rachel was kind enough to contact me and provide a review copy. As always, I’m being brutally honest in how I felt about the book. Check out the quote on page 41 about music people if you think there’s even an INKLING that I’m not being honest.

This review was originally posted at West of Mars. It is being posted here, at its new permanent home.

You’ll hear this refrain a lot from me: I let this book languish on my TBR mountain range for too long.

The book in question is 2004′s Misdemeanor Man, written by Dylan Schaffer. It’s the story of a public defender by day and the singer in a Barry Manilow cover (and interpretation) band by night. Everything’s on track for Barry X and the Mandys to play a show that will be attended by Mr. Manilow himself — until a case lands on Gordon’s desk. A guy’s exposed himself to an eight-year-old girl. All hell breaks loose.

All hell does break loose because this isn’t a simple case of Look What I’ve Got. There’s more going on here. A lot is at stake, and that’s putting it mildly. A city’s development. Real estate prices. And a charity that pulls people out of the gutter.

There’s a ton to like in this book. The Mandys are a colorful bunch, supporting Gordon off-stage as well as on. Gordon’s got a family unlike any other I’ve encountered in fiction, and yep, they’re equally as colorful. Of course Gordon has issues of his own, and they color everything he does. Including the Mandys.
The mystery is interesting, too. It unfolds well and makes sense. One problem, though: too many characters. It took me about a week to read this and I lost track of a few people. Who they were, what they did, what their role in things is.

One other quibble: the trial. Ugh. SO unneccessary. Oh, parts of it are totally necessary — like the video. But the rest? Skip it, folks! I understand that author Schaffer is a lawyer and there’s always this need for the play-by-play, to establish your credibility or whatnot. The story, however, is what needs to reign supreme, not the author. The micro-details of the trial bog the story down. We’re here because we, first and foremost, want to know what happens when Gordon and company play for the man himself.

This is fun stuff. We haven’t seen such deliciously quirky characters in a long time, not to mention the whole Barry Manilow angle. I lost the last bit of affection I had for the guy when I read his concert rider at The Smoking Gun.

You know what, though? I can sorta maybe see the magic of Barry, at least through Gordon’s eyes.

That makes this rockin’ book a keeper.

This review was first posted at West of Mars. It’s being reposted here, at its new permanent home.

It’s sad to see a trilogy come to a close, even when the series has been an uneven one. Such is the case with David Hiltbrand’s series featuring recovering addict Jim McNamara.

Dying to be Famous is the third in the series, and I continue to think the main character and his addiction is the selling point. I’ve read other addicted detectives before, of course—who hasn’t?—but I don’t think I’ve read any that have given me such a clear glimpse into what it’s like to live life with an addiction.

In this adventure, Jim travels to LA, where he’s been hired, after much wooing, to find out who killed the leading contender on a show that’s suspiciously like American Idol. And that’s putting it mildly.

It’s a great plot, centered around a world that Rock Fiction was overdue to explore. (Mind you, Dying to be Famous is copyright 2007, which goes to show how far behind the eight ball your favorite expert here is.) And this book certainly takes us behind the scenes and lets us see the grimy underside of TV. I have no qualms about the authenticity of Jim’s surroundings, as has been the case in the other books in the series. This man knows the music business (as well he should. Go read his bio, if you haven’t yet).

The problem with the book is that it takes too long to get going. By the time I felt like Hiltbrand was done setting up the scenario and the suspects, I had hit the three-quarters mark. Which means that all the fun I’d been having up to that point—and it was fun, don’t get me wrong—wound up being rushed to an ending that didn’t do this book justice.

It’s a good read, but the best in the series, far and away, remains Deader than Disco, the second book. If you’re only going to read one, that’s my pick.

Not quite a West of Mars Recommended Read, but not one to ignore, either.

This review was originally posted at West of Mars. It is being posted here, at its new permanent home.

It’s been so long now that I can’t even remember how I came to pick up a copy of Joseph Garraty’s Voice. I can see that I got it at Smashwords, where it was listed as free as of the night I finished the book and sat down to write this rave.

And rave I must. I simply adored this story of a man who sells … well, maybe not his soul and maybe not to the devil, but that’s only the first of many riffs on the classic cliché. John does go down to the crossroads, but the trade he makes is great, unexpected fun that gives a clever nod to current—okay, maybe by this point, a bit passé—trends in literature. Saying more would spoil the read, and I have no intentions of spoiling anything. This is a book to share, not ruin.

As John’s bargain pays off both in a set of golden pipes and a decline as a man, his guitar player, the harsh, abrasive Case, is molting her own skin—in the opposite direction. Case learns how to be a friend, to take a chance, to allow herself to care. As John loses his humanity, Case finds hers.

While some may point to John and his alter ego Johnny as the heartbeat of the story, for me it was Case. I related to her.

Don’t forget, though, the other two members of the band: Quentin and Danny. Quentin’s the conscience around here, and, of course, whenever evil’s afoot, the conscience must pay. The way in which this happens is a bit … unorthodox, shall we say. Danny, though, flirts with the dark side. There’s betrayal, and a steep price for him, also. Too bad; Danny and Quentin both are likeable.

So, too, is Erin, Case’s friend who becomes the band’s one-woman PR maestro. She’s maybe too good to be true, but she’s also smart enough to make the hard but brave decisions.

As Ragman puts all these elements together—John’s new voice, the small hurricane that is Case on guitars, and Erin packing the clubs—and success follows, each of the five must figure out what price they are willing to pay for it all. They’re paying all right, and it’s a bill that comes due long before many of the clichéd Rock Fiction works would have you believe: not when they are headliners, but when they are paying their dues on the way up.

That’s how it usually works, after all, and Garraty shows it to us. Maybe it’s a bit exaggerated. But then again, is it?

A definite West of Mars Recommended Read.

This review was originally posted at West of Mars. It is being posted here, at its new permanent home.

The biggest problem with great books is that you never get around to reading them fast enough. That’s the case with Olivia Cunning’s Backstage Passes, the first in her Sinners on Tour series.

It’s the story of a woman we know as Myrna, a psychologist who happens to specialize in human sexuality. She’s also had a very private thing for sexy guitarist Brian Sinclair, a thing she never expects to come anywhere near fulfilling – until she runs into the band. She’s staying in the hotel for a conference. The band, sans security, is on tour. Myrna likes Brian. Brian, even in his drunken state, likes Myrna. He’s not too drunk, so off they go, embarking on a torrid affair that is really this book’s strength.

Now, I’ve read plenty of erotica. I have plenty of friends who write it. None handle the merge of sex scenes and storyline as adeptly as Ms. Cunning. The action doesn’t grind to a halt while Myrna and Brian to get it on, for pages at a time. It makes sense within the story, and even though it does last for pages – hey, he’s a rocker. What do we expect, if not longevity? – it’s inventive, hot, and just tawdry enough to let us see that Myrna’s not merely living out her fantasies featuring Brian Sinclair, she’s living out every fantasy every woman has ever had about a rock star.

Best of all, Cunning lets Myrna experiment with sex in a safe setting – and is brave enough to let her not like certain elements, at least on the first go-round. Brian is also evolved enough to accept her comfort level. Is it too idealistic? You read and decide.

For all the good, there are some issues. Brian’s parents are a bit too good to be true, and the good psychologist finds a solution to the estrangement from his father that doesn’t take any particular skill to work out. Myrna herself seems awfully unaware of sex, its ramifications, and other mental issues that you’d expect of an expert in human sexuality. Not that she should walk around spouting off sexual facts or commenting on what it means when Eric gets involved in an encounter with Brian without it turning into a threesome, but she should have more awareness of what’s at play here. And finally, the situation with her ex comes into play too late, almost as if it’s an afterthought, a spot where conflict via a subplot was called for, so something materialized out of thin air. While many romances would have Myrna more aware of the threat Jeremy posed to the point where it gets to be too much, some middle ground in the form of an inkling earlier on would have been better.

And then there’s the rock and roll details. The band drives its own tour bus? Roadies are enlisted to drive Myrna’s car? The bus seems more like a Winnebago, which is fine if you’re on the Warped Tour, but The Sinners aren’t doing Warped. They’re represented as being on a bus. Also, when you’re on a guest list, you need to show ID, which means you can’t have a cutsie last name given to you by an impertinent band member. There are other details that suggest this isn’t Ms. Cunning’s area of strength, but she redeems herself by creating a band full of characters who live and breathe. They aren’t cliché in the least.

Still, this is an erotic romance, and it’s there that Ms. Cunning shines. She’s smart enough to let her rockers have warts, and she lets Myrna not only see them, but accept them. The exception would be the conflict with his father, where it’s Myrna to the rescue so she can prove her love for her man.

I don’t know many people who read erotic romance for the storyline or the authenticity of the rock and roll lifestyle details. Not as their first desire, anyway. It’s about the sex, and I’ve read enough of the erotic stuff that I’ve got no issue saying that she’s one of the best out there—although I will apologize to my many friends who write erotic romance. This is by no means a cut to you guys. Rather, it’s high praise for Ms. Cunning, whose sex is inventive and creative. It fits the story – and best of all, as the relationship progresses, the sex scenes become mentions, nothing more. It’s a mirror for how a real-life relationship plays out: all hot at first, then tapering off into something comfortable and right. And while the loss of these wildly fun scenes is noted, the storyline is strong enough, despite its flaws, to keep our interest. And those characters? You just want to spend days more with them.

I can’t wait to pick up the second book in the series. It’s sitting on my shelf, waiting for me.

Like I said, you can never get to the great ones soon enough.

This review was originally posted at West of Mars. It is being posted here, at its new permanent home.

t was a pleasant surprise to see Lex Valentine drop into my inbox. Lex and I had fallen out of touch, but she’s a special lady in my world. Her presence in my inbox is always welcome.

Best of all, this time, she came with presents! Well, okay, only one. But one is better than none, especially when that one is Lex’s first Ellora’s Cave Release, Rock My World.

Yep, Lex was kind enough to send me a copy. So I thought I’d return the favor by posting some reviews of the book. After all, the only thing an author likes better than having someone love their work is when that reader loves their work publically, so others can see and agree. (Or not. Such is the nature of opinion.)

First off, let me say that Lex is known for explicit, hot sex. If that’s not your thing, walk away now. Even if you, like me, love books about rockers, if you’re not into watching Gia and Sin have all sorts of sex in all sorts of positions, places, and involving toys and various body parts, this isn’t the book for you. Lex almost rivals my friend Colette Gale, who promises at least one orgasm every chapter.

So, yeah. Let me say up front that Lex can write a sex scene. I’ve known that about her from before her days as a published writer, so it’s nice to see others getting to experience her skills.

I hate to say it, but in her quest to bring us such great sex, she sacrifices some character development. And that’s my biggest (and only) quibble with Rock My World.

The story is about rocker Gia Santora. She’s at the top of her game, surrounded by body guards, and badly scarred by an event with a stalker. She’s also tired of the rock star one-night stand life. And did I mention she’s in lust with the frontman of her opening act, Sinclair Carstens? Sin’s young enough to have grown up with posters of Gia on his walls and more fantasies than a guy can remember. But the ones he does remember…

He gets to act them out, and then some, when Gia and he crash into each other in the wings. Their first meeting, as they’d been studiously avoiding each other, is properly rushed, but not so fast that the sparks can’t begin flying. These two have chemistry, all right. They’re also in a position where they’re willing and able to commit to each other.

I love this part of the story. These two are at opposite ends of the spectrum — Gia’s on top and has been there awhile. She gets this world she lives in. It’s jaded her a bit, but not so bad that she has to give it up. Nope. She’s a rocker, all right. It’s in her blood.

Sin, on the other hand, is a youngster — not just in age, but experience. Opening for Gia is his band’s big break. When Gia allows him into her rarefied air, he learns much.

Or, he should. This is where the shallow character development comes in. I’d have liked to see more of the impact on Sin. Through his relationship with Gia, he’s experiencing the difference between being an opening act and a headliner. He takes it in stride — but then, he seems to take everything but Gia in stride. She runs off, trying to protect him from her stalker? Okay, fine. He’ll roll with that, too.

It’s kind of frustrating. I want to see his passion for more than her. For his music. For the commitment he’s making to her. I want to see him struggle with how different their worlds are, how difficult the age barrier can be. He mentions Gia’s got a more mature body than she did when she was younger, but we don’t get to see him really process that too much. This was a missed opportunity for some real older-woman appreciation here. Let him lick a hipbone that’s not bony like a twenty-some chick’s hipbone would be. Let him realize how much better that is.

Gia, too, could have used more depth, especially where her stalker’s scars are so evident. This guy terrorized her; I’d have loved to see her be truly vulnerable. To struggle with her memories and her fears. We see a bit of her with her fear of flying, but I want more. I want to connect with her, understand her, empathize with her. I want to feel as though I can change places with her and be her for the length of this book.

Ahh, and there’s the problem. It’s not that Lex can’t develop a good, deep character who transcends the page and comes alive. I’ve read some of her unpublished stuff. I know darn well she can do this.

Rather, the issue is that an Ellora’s Cave book can only be so long. And when you’re busy packing all that delicious sex into it, something’s got to be sacrificed. It can’t be plot; if it is, we wind up in the areas where people talk in terms of soft-core and hard-core. So… it’s a bit of characterization that suffers.

Too bad, because this book could have been one of my top reads of the year. I wish it was, and not just because Lex is a friend. I like the concept.

Good news for me — and for you guys, too. Lex is working on a follow-up, featuring one of the characters from Rock My World, James the guitarist. I’ll be on the lookout for it. Once you read this one, I suspect you will be, too.

This review was originally posted at West of Mars. It is being posted here, at its new permanent home.

When DJ Butler sent me the description of Hellhound on my Trail, the first in a pulpy Rock Fiction series, I sent him back an e-mail with three words: SEND REVIEW COPY.

Start to finish, this was a great read. Suicidal Mike stands in with a band he’s never heard of before. They need a bass player. He’s putting off the inevitable. It’s a good fit.

Except… in the middle of the set, a Hellhound rushes in, setting off a chase that lasts the length of the book. Mike’s suddenly fighting for his life even as he’s haunted by his dead brother. At times, he wonders if he would have been better off if he’d kept to his plan and offed himself, but this ragtag band he’s fallen in with most certainly needs him in order to stay alive, themselves.

What else is there to say? The story’s tight, the writing’s snappy, the creepy stuff is delicious, and there’s a ton of cleverness going on in here, as well. There are dead rabbis, tasers, archangels, weird metal-like fly-things, and a piece of Satan’s hoof. This short book, just over 100 pages, is closer to a novella – and it’s the perfect length. Any longer and it would run the risk of getting tedious. Any shorter, and it wouldn’t be nearly so complete.

No matter what comes next, it’s got quite a predecessor to live up to.

Note from Susan: as you see, DJ was kind enough to send me a review copy. It didn’t affect my thoughts of it. It’s THAT good.

Out of the blue, Kevin R Doyle dropped into my inbox, asking if I’d review his short piece, One Helluva Gig. I was right on the tip of launching The Rock of Pages, but he was willing to wait for me to switch things over.

What a treat, to have something brand new to review – and in a timely fashion, too! – for my brand-new home of Rock Fiction.

I hope this is a sign of things to come because I absolutely adored One Helluva Gig. Kevin sent it over and, knowing I’d have time to kill while I waited for my kids, I loaded it onto my e-reader and devoured it in less than an hour, including interruptions. Jett never stood a chance with this one!

In other words: this isn’t a long read (I want to say it’s 14,000 words), but man, is it a good one.

In a nutshell, it’s the story of Frank Peters, a reporter whose career takes off when he writes a review of a band playing his college campus. The band is fronted by a charismatic guy named Rob Jeffers.

It takes a couple of years, but the two cross paths again. Again, Frank writes a review. Again, it gets noticed and he moves up the journalistic ladder, finally hitting his peak at the LA Times.

While he’s doing that, Jeffers is also climbing the ranks.

This is no fairy tale, with Jeffers riding high and Frank just so magically happening to do the same. Jeffers loses his hair and resorts to a comb-over. His waist expands beyond a middle-age spread. In a sense, there’s a feel of Elvis about his destruction, which Frank acknowledges. But there’s more, and it’s this more that sets this novella apart from so many other works of Rock Fiction.

It’s the contrast between Jeffers’ public and private personas. Author Doyle has succeeded in creating a very real private person, one who is vastly different from the person we’d like him to be. Yes, we’ve seen this person before; the scene with Frank and Jeffers during Jeffers’ birthday party isn’t new. It’s what Doyle does with it, the kinship between the two men and their acceptance of their lives that is this story’s selling point.

These two understand each other on an intuitive level. They’re men who have realized their dream, only discover it’s different from what they’d hoped for. And while that sounds depressing and pathetic, in Doyle’s hands, it’s not. It’s real, and it’s touching, and it’s the sort of thing that lingers with a girl long after she puts the e-reader down and steps back into her life, a life that somehow seems rosier and yet diminished, all at the same time.


A West of Mars Recommended Read that brings to mind Adrian in Jessica Topper’s Louder than Love, Merle in Michael Neil Smith’s The Drummer, and Darrell in Dan Schell’s The Road to Fluffer – and all for different reasons. Check it out.


One final note: Doyle says this is a departure from his regular fiction. So don’t pick up his other titles expecting more Rock Fiction. But you can — and should — expect more of the great writing and character building.

This review was originally posted at West of Mars. It is being posted here, at its new permanent home.

Everyone, it seemed, was talking about Jessica Topper’s Louder Than Love coming into Rocktober 2013. There were a lot of raves about it—along with some criticisms, as well. Those balanced reviews made it totally irresistible, and when author Topper got in touch with me, I was over the moon.

That was before I started reading, even, and I’m pleased to say the book lives up to the hype. I loved Louder than Love. Yes, the beginning is slowed by too much backstory—which I told Jessica I’d have beaten out of her if we’d worked together before she sent it to her editor (and you should have seen my face when I realized who the acquiring editor at her publisher is, too. Let’s just say she’s someone who edits some of my other friends and acquaintances, and I hold her in very high esteem).

The story is that of Katrina Lewis, a widow who’s been grieving for her husband for long, it’s become a part of her. Pete died years ago, but she’s still trying to put her life together when we meet her. She’s got a young daughter, and it’s in her quest to put together a program for this daughter—and the other kids at the library Tree volunteers with—that she meets obscure singer Adrian Graves.

Blond, tattooed, and sexy as anything, he’s also drunk when he shows up for the kiddie program, and Tree’s not really sure what she’s gotten herself into.

All’s not what it seems, and that’s the jist of the story. Adrian and Tree—Kat, he calls her—navigate her friends, his past … and finally, they reach the point where Kat has to acknowledge her past and make the overdue commitment to move forward to a new life, one without her precious Pete. Can she, or can’t she? That’s what the book ultimately hinges on.

At its heart, Louder than Love is a romance, so right there, you know how it’ll end. But what is worth mentioning—and what makes the book so darn good—is that beyond the slow, backstory-filled start, this is a fabulously crafted book. I can’t tell you how many times I set it down and thought about the structure, the pacing, the clever building of the characters.

Now, you can counter by saying Adrian’s past is hardly a shocker. Or that the only unexpected twist to the storyline is that he doesn’t relapse into heroin use. Yeah, I’d agree with both those statements.

But I’ll also argue that some of the best books work the formula in such a way that you don’t really realize you’re reading formula until you think back over what you’ve read. That’s the mark of a good writer, one who sweeps you along in the story, who creates characters who you wish were real, who makes you turn off your critical thinking skills and instead react emotionally.

I can’t wait to see more from Topper. And I have to confess that I hope her invite for me to join her at a Buffalo RWA meeting holds true. That would be one heck of a fun day, and I suspect I’d learn just as much as the people I’ve been casually asked to present to.