Category Archives: Reviews

Tracy Lawson launches new book

On Tuesday, August 5th, novelist Tracy Lawson launches her new novel Counteract. Check out this blog for an interview with Tracy about her writing process and the importance of her new novel.

TracyLawson

 

As prelude, here’s a quick bio:

Tracy Lawson knew she wanted to be a writer from the time she could read. While working toward her Bachelor’s degree in Communication at Ohio University, she studied creative writing with Daniel Keyes, author of Flowers for Algernon. After short stints as a media buyer and an investigative analyst, she settled into a 20-year career in the performing arts, teaching tap in Columbus, Ohio, and choreographing musicals. Though her creative energies were focused on dance, she never lost her desire to write, and has two non-fiction books to her credit: Fips, Bots, Doggeries, and More, winner of the 2012 Ohio Professional Writers Association’s Best Non-fiction History Award (McDonald & Woodward), and Given Moments (Fathers Press). Tracy’s love for writing new adult fiction is sparked by all wonderful teens in her life, including her daughter Keri, a college freshman. Counteract is Tracy’s first novel.

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The Craftsmanship of “Counting Backwards”

Laura Lascarso‘s debut novel, Counting Backwards, is the kind of book that reminds you that lots of writing talent is sitting off in the wings, waiting to be discovered. Lascarso’s prose is suitably succinct for a young adult novel, the dialogue is real, and the plot unfolds smoothly and seamlessly as Lascarso guides Taylor, the lead character, toward an emotional climax that is all but predictable. While some teens might not like the way her story ends, the reflective ones will be provoked, and parents will likely nod their heads at the truth of Taylor’s journey.

Taylor is an admirably complex character, estranged from her father, who simply doesn’t know how to communicate with his headstrong daughter. Her mother is a drug addict and alcoholic, spending days on binges and leaving her daughter to pick up the pieces. And Taylor picks them up, putting the puzzle back to together all too many times. Taylor is naturally frustrated with her mother’s irresponsibility, and her emotional confusion of love with dependence inevitably leads to acting out and the adoption of  false sense of emotional strength. 
Her final act is stealing a car, landing her in Sunny Meadows, a detention facility for chronic juvenile offenders that will ensure Taylor gets the psychiatric help she needs. Thus, she’s thrown in with a bunch of “crazies,” many of whom aren’t really that crazy. Indeed, the entire world in which Taylor is thrown is eminently rational, even if misunderstood by the adults. Actually, their world is not so much misunderstood, as a practical recognition that adults have limited influence over the choices these teens make. The facility, its rules, regulations, and staff, are mainly there to contain the worst behavior, hoping the kids under their nominal control will eventually mature to the point they will become open to the help the adults can provide (or at least recognize adapting to the adult world’s structure is crucial to their survival).
Lascarso’s book does an excellent job of integrating plot, setting, and character to develop a quick, smooth read. The setting of a psychiatric juvenile prison creates just the right tension between the ordered world adults expect their children to live within and the chaotic, dynamic emotional roller coaster world teenagers in fact navigate. Taylor’s drive to escape–both physically and emotionally–provides the energy that keeps the story moving, believably setting up plot point after plot point. Her journey from rebellious hope to emotional despair to a newly gained sense of mature, if tentative hope is believable and all too real for many teenage girls. Taylor’s relationships with friends, allies, and enemies are well developed, and the shifting nature of teenage allegiances gives Lascarso the whole clothe she needs to give major and minor characters complexity and their own arcs. But it’s the combination of all three–setting, plot, and character–that give Taylor’s story its breadth, layers and satisfaction for readers.
All-in-all, Laura Lascarso weaves a smoothly written, well drawn portrait of a young woman sorting through her own identity with a cast of characters that will keep readers engaged and turning pages well past dinner or their own time for lights out. This debut novel is a great entrance for a talented writer in the young adult genre.
For additional thoughts on how Lascarso effectively portrays bullying and violence, see my analysis over at blog.defensivewarrior.com. 
A review by young adult author M.R. Street for the Tallahassee Democrat can be found here.
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Why Sci Fi Films Don’t Measure Up to the Classic Sci Fi Books

I have a few thoughts on why contemporary science fiction films like Star Trek: Into Darkness don’t measure up to the class works by greats such as Isaac Asimov, Frank Herbert and Robert Heinlein.

 I’ve discussed this elsewhere, but I think great books grapple with important social issues. Science fiction has an illustrious history of taking on big ideas and making them come alive with captivating characters, action oriented plots, and direct challenges to contemporary values and culture. Many of the recent movies don’t, and this is what I discuss in greater detail in this blog post over at The Beacon.
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Putting the “Great” in the Great Gatsby

I recently was reminded how much movie actors can change characters and meanings in books while watching the 2013 film version of The Great Gatsby. In the F. Scott Fitzgerald classic, Jay Gatsby is a lovelorn, romantic who devotes his entire life and being to finding and winning over Daisy. Daisy is married to a well-heeled American aristocrat Tom Buchanan, and Gatsby sets out to match his wealth dollar for dollar as a way of proving his worth. 

In the book, I found Gatsby to be aloof and distant, an enigma with remarkably little dimension. In fact, I found most of the characters in the book flat with little arc to their characters. I found the story a fairly existential experience, with none of the characters really breaking through, or even testing, their own personal limits. Of course, as a writer of books with strong characters and plots that require heroic acts, I guess I should not have been surprised at this reaction.
But, that’s probably why I found the film version more satisfying even though this version was remarkably faithful to the book. Leonardo DiCaprio (as well as Carey Mulligan, both under the direction of Buz Luhrmann) takes minimalist material and adds dimension and layers to Gatsby’s character. In fact, as I’ve written elsewhere, I think DiCaprio’s interpretation of the Gatsby humanizes him in an unusual way by giving him heroic characteristics befitting of Fitzgerald’s romantic inclinations. It’s an excellent case of where an arc is given to a character because DiCaprio gives Gatsby emotions and reactions that are difficult, if not impossible, to replicate effectively with the written word. Fortunately, Fitzgerald’s minimalist text and story gives DiCaprio (and Luhrman) space to interpret the character. As a result, Gatsby, in my opinion, has more dimension in the film than in the book, and the result is a story more appropriate for the big screen.
This is an interesting case where the movie version interprets the text in way that is both different and interesting, without sacrificing the fundamentals of the original novel. 
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“Land Without Mirrors” engages, challenges readers

My review of Land Without Mirrors by Marina Brown has appeared on the Tallahassee Democrat’s blog and in its print edition (May 5, 2013). Brown’s book is a captivating and engaging read written in a classic literary style. She has drawn rich, complex characters woven within an intricate plot of love, romance, intrigue, betrayal and revenge. Set in the 1930s Caribbean, Brown’s tale follows the fall from innocence among three teens on a leper colony off the coast of Trinidad in the 1930s. I write: 

About fifty pages into reading Land Without Mirrors this book began screaming “Book Club!” Complex characters, layered story lines, timeliness, ethical dilemmas, romance, intrigue, betrayal permeate this story told in a classic literary style. Marina Brown has woven a historical tale with a controversial contemporary twist that will keep readers engaged and intrigued.
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Review of The Mother Teresa of Tallahassee’s autobiography

My review of Rev. Bernyce Clausell’s autobiography No Time to Die appears in the Tallahassee Democrat’s TLH Magazine on 7 April 2013. Clausell is called the “Mother Teresa of Tallahassee” for good reason. I write in part,


“But Clausell’s story is so much more than an autobiography; it’s a ground-level window into nearly a century of turbulence, tragedy and triumph. While Clausell’s mark has been indelibly engraved into Tallahassee’s contemporary history, her journey from her birth in Thomson, Georgia, to the Florida panhandle, where she raised her family and built a community, reveals a cultural tapestry that would justify this book as required reading in every middle school in the country.”
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Fiction and Storytelling as a Way of Visualizing Success

Authors are often surprised by the reactions of readers who seem to find things in our stories or arguments that we didn’t even see ourselves. I’m no exception. In fact, the way readers peel back the layers of my stories and characters energizes me as a writer as well as me personally.

I recently experienced this as I read reviews of A Warrior’s Soul, my middle-grade novel that traces the lead character’s evolution from a self-doubting and fearful victim to a leader willing to use his martial-arts skills to confront his middle school’s bullies. The martial arts could easily be seen as a plot device for ensuring the good guy, in this case Luke, wins, much like James Bond’s gadgets and high-tech weapons allow him to get out of impossible situations. I didn’t see Luke’s story that way, but I could see where some readers (and critics) might.
However, most readers, kids and parents alike, have recognized a more complicated plot line. A Warrior’s Soul is a story about a kid who needs to believe in himself more than anything else. His martial-arts skills, in fact, are useless because he doesn’t believe in himself. It’s only when he develops his own self-confidence that he begins to use the martial-arts skills for what they are: tools for solving a problem. Readers in the real world, it turned out, see in Luke’s story (and his best friend Lucy’s) a path toward resolving a seemingly intractable problem. In other words, my fictional story provided a way to visualize a real world solution.
I didn’t quite think of my story in this way until I read Tori Eldridge‘s excellent book Empowered Living: A Guide to Physical and Emotional Protection (a book I highly recommend). Tori’s book is a slim volume but chock-full of insight, common sense, and hard-earned practical wisdom. Among the nuggets that starting churning through my brain was something I knew from years of public speaking and participating in rigorous sports: Visualization is a critical component of success, even if the visualization is imaginary. As Tori says (p. 31), “The imagination is a powerful tool…. Studies have proven that repetitive visualization of a task results in the same, if not greater improvement than physically practicing the task.” 
And this is what A Warrior’s Soul (and probably Renegade) does for kids experiencing bullying. Luke’s path becomes a way for kids to visualize a way out of a nasty situation, even if they aren’t martial artists. Luke’s courage becomes their courage. Luke’s discovered faith in his own self worth and ability to stand up against violence becomes a way for real kids to think about how they can follow in similar foot steps. When a eighth grade teacher in Florida asked one of her students what he liked most about A Warrior’s Soul, his response was that it just seemed “really real.” He could see himself as Luke.
And adults respond similarly. For example, 
  • Becca Bryant writes at amazon.com: “With bullying being such a huge problem in today’s society I think this book really opens the door to teach not only young boys that they have a voice but also girls.
  • Pamela Wilson writes: “I would recommend this book to any pre-teen/teen boy or girl. It shows them what bullied children are going through, and positive ways to resolve the situation.
  • Adrian Moore writes: “I think this book will help teach kids to take charge of their problems, when adults can’t help them.
Honestly, I was taken aback at first by these comments (which are small parts of their larger reviews) because I didn’t intend for the book to be a “how to” guide on dealing with bullies. In fact, I include a disclaimer at the beginning so that it wouldn’t. This was supposed to be a good story with good characters, albeit grounded in a contemporary public school setting. 
What I’ve come to realize, however, is that fiction serves a very important role in the real world by allowing readers, whether young or old, to visualize, and perhaps even take, different paths toward solving problems in their everyday lives. That’s a very powerful, and humbling, insight into the power of our medium. 
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While I’ve Been Gone…..

Apologies to my readers for my neglect of my blog for the past few months. I’ve been busy getting my latest book, Renegade, into press and launched. Fortunately, I have good news to report!
 
Renegade was successfully launched on October 19, 2012 as part of a web-based broadcast during national bullying week at the Quest Center for Study of Martial Arts in Dayton, Ohio. The following weekend, I launched the Renegade in Florida with a book signing at the Bookshelf at Midtown in Tallahassee, Florida. Most recently, we found out that Renegade won 2nd place in the nationally competitive Seven Hills Literary Contest!

We’ve also started getting a few excellent reviews; check them out at amazon.com.

So, I’ve been out and about even though I haven’t been blogging. Now that Renegade is out, I plan to get back to regular posts right here.

Thanks for everyone that has helped make Renegade a reality in 2012! 

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“Renegade” Wins 2nd Place in National Competition


“Renegade” Wins 2nd Place in National Literary Competition


Middle Grade Novel Explores Bullying, Urban Gangs and Self Defense


Tallahassee, Florida, November 26, 2012—The Tallahassee Writer’s Association (TWA) has announced that Renegade, a middle grade novel about urban violence, bullying, and self-defense by SR Staley, won second place in the Children’s Chapter Book division of the 2012 Seven Hills Literary Contest (www.twaonline.org). The first and third place winners in the chapter book division included authors from Maryland and California. All winners from all divisions are featured in Volume 18 of the Seven Hills Review, now available on amazon.com.


Renegade tells the story of Maria, a seventh grader in an urban middle school, whose world is turned upside down when she is targeted by her school’s most powerful gang. Faced with escalating threats and violence, she has to choose between new ways to defend herself or sticking with familiar streetwise skills.


Eighth graders one Minnesota middle school to their teacher, Charlene Irvin-Brown, “that all teachers and staff…should be required to read Renegade” because they felt that “Renegade explains a lot about why kids behave the way they do.”  Donna Meredith, a former high-school English teacher and author of The Color of Lies, writes: “The pacing of Renegade makes it an entertaining novel for all young people and an especially fine choice to engage reluctant readers. The action is relentless.”


 “I believe that this book should be in every 6th grade program across the country,” writes anotherreader at amazon.com. “It reminded me so much of when I was a young and misunderstood teenage girl. The choices she makes when faced with her day to day problems are heartwarming. It also made me take a second look at how I react with my own children.”


Renegade is the second book in the Path of the Warrior series by SR Staley (www.srstaley.com) and his third young adult novel. The series examines contemporary violence, bullying and self- using a modern martial arts perspective. The first book in the series, A Warrior’s Soul, follows the story of Luke and Lucy as they face down bullies in their suburban middle school. SR Staley’s first young-adult novel, The Pirate of Panther Bay, tells the tale of Isabella, an escaped slave who finds herself captaining a pirate ship in the violent and tempestuous 18th century Caribbean Sea.


DISCLOSURE: SR Staley is a professional member of the TWA, but all entries in the Seven Hills Literary Contest are blind reviewed anonymously by experts in their respective genres.

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The Social Importance of Literature

In reading Death Spiral, a new science fiction novel by CL Gregoire, I was struck by the political nad social commentary embedded in the story, action and characters. On the one hand, this shouldn’t have surprised me. Social commentary has been an important element of science fiction for a long time. I don’t always think of social commentary when I’m reading other forms of fiction, however, but I should. Good stories involve conflict, and conflict almost always involves a moral dilemma of some kind that must be resolved. The nature of this resolution is implicit commentary on a society or community’s values and ethics.

Sometimes, this commentary is is subtle, like in the story of 13-year old Andy Broome in M.R. Street’s award winning book Blue Rock Rescue. Andy must navigate the complexities of adolescence while redefining his relationship with his father after his mother dies a terrible death. The way Andy confronts the demons that haunt him from his mother’s death is a form of social commentary focused on acceptance, forgiveness, fear, and ultimately bravery. The story ends up being a quintessential coming of age story for Andy, and it’s thoroughly American in context and point of view. Andy resolves his problem, not the town or his father. Andy’s individualist journey is an American one and imbeds a form of social commentary through his character’s ethical behavior.

My novels tends to be more self conscious. Isabella in the Pirate of Panther Bay struggles quite explicitly with her individual identity as an escaped slave commanding a rogue pirate ship. The moral and ethical dilemmas she faces over the value of life and her choice of profession are fundamental to the conflicts the drive the story and its ultimate climax in the heat of a bloody high-seas battle. Similarly, Luke and Lucy must grapple with fundamental questions of right and wrong while confronting physical violence in A Warrior’s Soul. How far one should go in using violence, even for self-defense, reflects choices and values made by individuals and communities more generally.

But this really isn’t new. Social commentary has been imbedded in fiction of all kinds, including the pulp fiction of Horatio Alger, Jr. and Jules Verne in the 19th century and Zane Grey, Louis L’Amour, and Edgar Rice Boroughs in the 20th century.

I discuss these issues more extensively in a longer post over at Blogging Authors for those interested in reading more.

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