Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Author Spotlight: Toby Neal, author of Blood Orchid

Joining us in the Author Spotlight this week is author and mental health counselor, Toby Neal.  Her new book, Blood Orchid, is about a double homicide and a murderer on the loose in beautiful Hawaii.  

Welcome, Toby!  Congrats on your debut novel - tell us about it!

Toby: I’m from Hawaii and I’ve always wanted to read a really good suspense/romance set here, that showcases the unique setting, culture, multiethnic people and dialects, and yet keeps your attention via riveting story alone. I’ve never found one that really did that—Hawaii novels are often written by outsiders, or are too “niche” to appeal to a mainstream audience. I finally decided to write the kind of book(s) I wanted to read! Blood Orchids is the first of a series of crime/suspense/romance novels starring Leilani Texeira, a flawed but courageous young police officer who’s overcome her past and deals out justice to those who need it.

You have been a mental health therapist for more than 15 years, was it difficult transitioning into fiction writing?

Toby: I truly love my work as a therapist. . . but I was a writer first and always. It’s my curiosity about people, and fascination with their stories—curiosity and true interest—that have made me a good therapist. And it’s a desire to explore human behavior and universal themes that informs my writing. My psychology background has helped greatly with developing the pathologies of my villains, and portraying what drives Lei to solve crimes.

How long did it take you to write it and what was hard/fun about writing your first fiction book?

Toby: Blood Orchids started as a short story. I’d tried to write novels before and always lost interest, but this time I started a story about a policewoman who’d been abused as a child… a woman with scars and flaws, but whose passion drove her to rectify things for others. I put it on my blog. Then I added chapters. And lo and behold, about 60 pages in, I realized I had a character I wanted to see grow and develop, a budding love story, and some great psychopaths to spice it all up. I was going to finish the book, and my blog followers were rooting for every installment! I’ll never forget the excitement I felt, realizing I’d found a character I could write about forever.

You’ll notice I said “found” a character. In Jungian psychology, there’s an explanation of these discoveries as existing in the “collective unconscious” of humanity—a deep sea where universal themes, symbols, heroines and villains appear across every culture. To me Lei is a representation of one of these universal characters—the wounded hero(ine) who fights for justice.

The first book took 18 months to complete a first draft, and since then I’ve built my confidence and “writing muscles” and can write a first draft in 6 months, even with my full-time work schedule. You just have to love the story and the characters, and then it’s easy. I’m on my fourth Lei Crime Novel now!

What inspired you to write the story?

Toby: Blood Orchids was sparked as an idea by a tragedy that happened in my community—two teen girls were drowned. I was a grief counselor in the crisis team that went to the high school to work with the students in the aftermath. At first we were told they were victims of foul play, though later it turned out to have been accidental. For months after, perhaps because it was so traumatic to hear they’d been murdered, I thought about it, and wondered what it would be like to try and solve such a crime in a small Hawaii community.

What is your favorite book that was made into a movie?

Toby: Out of Africa by Isaak Dinessen. The book is meditative and sublime, meant to be mulled over and savored. The movie has much the same feeling. I also loved and cried over Sophie’s Choice, and the French Lieutenant’s Woman. Meryl Streep is just beyond amazing. More recently, Eat Pray Love was enjoyable though I didn’t think Julia Roberts captured the author’s quirky, endearing neuroticism quite well enough, and I loved that book.

If your book(s) were made into a movie or TV, who would you pick for the main characters?

Toby: I love this question because I’d love to see the Lei Crime Novels become either a movie or TV show! I could see Grace Park or Lucy Liu as Lei—though their appearance would have to be altered a bit. Lei is ¼ Hawaiian, ¼ Portuguese, and half Japanese. She has Asian features with freckles, a wide, full mouth that gets her in trouble, and curly hair (from her Hawaiian/Portuguese side) Her appearance is unique and reflects the many cultures of our Islands.

How do you think social media sites like Facebook and Twitter have changed your world as an author?

Toby: I may be one of the few authors who loves social media, I don’t know! But if I wasn’t blogging, I might never have finished Blood Orchids, so for me social media is an integral part of writing. Facebook is about nurturing online friendships with people you may know from the past or be acquainted with in some way “IRL” (in real life) but Twitter is about reaching the world. I love both, and use them differently. 

What are you working on now?

Toby: I’m working on the fourth in my Lei Crime Novel series. Blood Orchids kicks it off, Torch Ginger is second, third is Black Jasmine… and this one is not titled yet. One of the fun things I’m doing with these books is that each one is set on a different of the Hawaiian Islands, so you can get a feel for each island’s unique character and geography by reading them. Lei has the same love interest through the different books, so we get to follow her growth, healing and the progress of her relationship through the different islands and the cases she solves. 

What is your advice for other writers?

Toby: Find a character you really love, you can write about forever, and then the rest is easy. Write every day if you can. Believe in yourself, and tell the stories that are in you to tell. 

Who are the authors that inspire you?

Toby: I don’t have just a few favorites. I’m a voracious reader and read literally everything in the kids’ side of the Kapa`a Library on Kaua`i when I was growing up! I will even read a cereal box if that’s all there is to read, so it’s hard to name just a few. Writers whose influence have colored my writing include Kurt Vonnegut (deep thinking irony), Diana Gabaldon (her lush, epic Voyager series that follows one great love story influenced my development of Lei and her love) Michael Connelly (his spare style of crime novel has influenced me in this genre) Patricia Cornwell, Greg Iles and Lisa Gardner for dark, fearless ventures into the underbelly of human behavior and awesome twisty plots. Anne Rivers Siddons for rich regional writing (which I hope mine can be called someday) and Pat Conroy for great family and friends stories. Oh dang, there are just so many! 

Describe your writing habits – where do you write? 

Toby: I have a cramped little corner of the bedroom with a cluttered desk that I write at. It’s not glamorous and I won’t be featuring it in Better Homes and Gardens anytime soon. It actually doesn’t matter to me, when I’m immersed in a story all I need is to be comfortable and for my hands to be supported. I have carpal tunnel, so I love my poky corner because it has all I need: a big monitor, an ergonomic keyboard, and a comfy chair. 

What is the secret life of Toby Neal?

Toby: Many of the situations my characters face are based on personal experience or those of my clients (though not the guns. I’ve never even handled one!) There really is a darker side to paradise, and there really are people overcoming it. I am one of them.

How can readers check out your book?

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Review: ‘Love Story’ by Jennifer Echols

For Erin Blackwell, majoring in creative writing at the New York City college of her dreams is more than a chance to fulfill her ambitions—it’s her ticket away from the tragic memories that shadow her family’s racehorse farm in Kentucky. But when she refuses to major in business and take over the farm herself someday, her grandmother gives Erin’s college tuition and promised inheritance to their maddeningly handsome stable boy, Hunter Allen. Now Erin has to win an internship and work late nights at a local coffee shop to make her own dreams a reality. She should despise Hunter . . . so why does he sneak into her thoughts as the hero of her latest writing assignment?

Then, on the day she’s sharing that assignment with her class, Hunter walks in. He’s joining her class. And after he reads about himself in her story, her private fantasies about him must be painfully clear. She only hopes to persuade him not to reveal her secret to everyone else. But Hunter devises his own creative revenge, writing sexy stories that drive the whole class wild with curiosity and fill Erin’s heart with longing. Now she’s not just imagining what might have been. She’s writing a whole new ending for her romance with Hunter . . . except this story could come true.
(Amazon product description)

Love Story

I wanted to write this review immediately after I finished closing the book...only I didn’t know what I wanted to say.  This book was very different from what I was expecting.  I mean that in a good way.  I thought this would be just another fluffy teen romance with a happy ending.  What I didn’t expect was such interesting and well developed characters.  Both Erin and Hunter are flawed and deeply scarred by their pasts, yet neither is moody or brooding as is so common in characters.  I like how Erin never really knows where she stands with Hunter, even up to the end. 

I also loved the unique way the book was constructed.  No simple linear plotline here.  Instead the story is threaded with flashbacks and short stories written by the characters during their English class.  Rather than distracting from the plot, these stories add a depth to the writing and the characters.  It adds a literary quality in a genre where this is seldom found. 

The ending left me somewhat on the fence though, which is why I had trouble writing this review.  I both loved it and hated it.  It has left me with questions that keep me thinking after the book is closed.  I guess that is a sign of a good book, right?  I think in the end, if you like teen romance, this is one book you don’t want to miss.

Overall, I give Love Story...

Plot - 4 1/2 bookmarks
Character Development - 5 bookmarks
Romance - 4 1/2 bookmarks
Dream Cast (otherwise known as who I pictured while reading) - Renee Olstead (Erin), Lucas Till (Hunter)

Friday, February 17, 2012

Review: ‘The Adventure of English’ by Melvyn Bragg

Here is the riveting story of the English language, from its humble beginnings as a regional dialect to its current preeminence as the one global language, spoken by more than two billion people worldwide. In this groundbreaking book, Melvyn Bragg shows how English conquered the world. It is a magnificent adventure, full of jealousy, intrigue, and war—against a hoard of invaders, all armed with their own conquering languages, which bit by bit, the speakers of English absorbed and made their own.

Along the way, its colorful story takes in a host of remarkable people, places, and events: the Norman invasion of England in 1066; the arrival of The Canterbury Tales and a “coarse” playwright named William Shakespeare, who added 2,000 words to the language; the songs of slaves; the words of Davy Crockett; and the Lewis and Clark expedition, which led to hundreds of new words as the explorers discovered unknown flora and fauna. The Adventure of English is an enthralling story not only of power, religion, and trade, but also of a people and how they changed the world.
(Amazon product description)

The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language

I have been recommending this book to everyone I talk to.  I don’t read a lot of non-fiction, but this book was fascinating.  It tells the story of how our language evolved from ancient Sanskrit up through the centuries into what we speak today.  I know that sounds boring, but if you like history, you will love this book. 

One of the reasons I loved this book is because I actually listened to it on the audio version.  If you have never heard Old English spoken, it is both familiar and foreign at the same time.  Very strange.  Even the English of a few centuries ago would be hard for us to understand completely if we were to go back in time.  (Claire from Outlander would have never been able to understand Jamie...)  This is one that I think was better as an audio book.

The history in the book was really interesting.  I think my favorite part was leaning just how big of a role French played in the formation of our language.  I’m descended from the Normans on both sides of my family.  During the Norman invasion of England, French very easily could have taken over completely, causing English to die out in the way Cornish and Gaelic did.  Instead, English persevered by taking on many French words and making them part of the total lexicon. 

Anyway, whether you are a word nerd or a history buff, The Adventure of English is definitely worth the read...or listen. 

Overall I give The Adventure of English...

Plot - 4 bookmarks (Normally, I wouldn’t think of a non-fic as having a plot, but this was interesting, fast paced and made you feel as if you were journeying through time.  I call that plot.)
History - 5 bookmarks (Along the way, the book explains how historic people and events shaped the language. Shakespeare, Chaucer, bible translators, Native Americans, etc.)
Research - 5 bookmarks (It amazed me some of the stuff the author came up with.)
Narrator - 5 bookmarks (I strongly recommend this as an audio book.)

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Review: ‘The Winter Sea’ by Susanna Kearsley

History has all but forgotten...In the spring of 1708, an invading Jacobite fleet of French and Scottish soldiers nearly succeeded in landing the exiled James Stewart in Scotland to reclaim his crown.

Now, Carrie McClelland hopes to turn that story into her next bestselling novel. Settling herself in the shadow of Slains Castle, she creates a heroine named for one of her own ancestors and starts to write.

But when she discovers her novel is more fact than fiction, Carrie wonders if she might be dealing with ancestral memory, making her the only living person who knows the truth-the ultimate betrayal-that happened all those years ago, and that knowledge comes very close to destroying her...
(Amazon product description)

The Winter Sea 

I really don’t like the Amazon description on this book.  I don’t get the whole reference to “...that knowledge comes very close to destroying her...”  I didn’t pick up on anything that dramatic in the book.  That being said, this book was well written and had a fascinating plot.  Many writers claim to hear the voices of their characters in their heads, but in Carrie’s case, her character is telling the truth, giving her a view into actual events from history.  I don’t know any writer who would not want that to happen to them.  She is skeptical at first, thinking she must have read these details somewhere before, but one coincidence after another finally leads her to understand what is happening to her...she is channeling the memories of her ancestor. 

My favorite part of this book was the history.  Part of me longs to live in a damp castle on top of a cliff in Scotland.  The author did a great job explaining the context of the Jacobite cause without making it sound like a giant info dump.  Even though the main characters in the historical part of the book are not major players in the Jacobite cause, you get to see how so many regular people worked behind the scenes in effort to bring King James Stuart back to the throne. 

The plot of the book goes back and forth between the past and the present, but still, the plot moves together in a linear motion. Not confusing at all.  In fact, each scene compliments the other, building the story. 

There are two love story plots in the book; Carrie and Graham in the present, and Sophia and John in the past.  Both were understated and grew naturally.  But of the two, I was more interested in the romance between Sofia and John, particularly since we know from the beginning that Sophia ended up marrying someone else only three years later.  I couldn’t figure out how Sophia could possibly get her happy ending, so the twist at the end was a pleasant surprise. 

Overall, I give The Winter Sea...
Plot - 4 bookmarks
Character development - 4 1/2 bookmarks
History - 4 bookmarks
Romance - 3 1/2 for Carrie & Graham & 4 1/2 for Sophia & John
Dream cast (otherwise known as who I pictured while reading) - Amy Adams (Carrie), Ewan McGregor (Graham), Tom Hardy (John), April Pearson (Sophia)

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Review: ‘Bloom’ by Elizabeth Scott

Lauren has a good life: decent grades, great friends, and a boyfriend every girl lusts after. So why is she so unhappy?

It takes the arrival of Evan Kirkland for Lauren to figure out the answer: She's been holding back. She's been denying herself a bunch of things (like sex) because staying with her loyal and gorgeous boyfriend, Dave, is the "right" thing to do. After all, who would give up the perfect boyfriend?

But as Dave starts talking more and more about their life together, planning a future Lauren simply can't see herself in -- and as Lauren's craving for Evan, and moreover, who she is with Evan becomes all the more fierce -- Lauren realizes she needs to make a choice...before one is made for her.
(Amazon product description)


Lauren’s life is perfect, but she’s not happy.  Wah, wah, wah...my heart bleeds for her.  

This book is one long story of indecision, which if you know me at all, you know I hate people (and characters) who are indecisive!  She’s got this really cute boyfriend who is kind, and comes from a good family, but she feels like she has to fake being a different person when she is with him.  Hey, that happens sometimes.  Just because a guy is cute, doesn’t mean you are going to have chemistry together.  I can see going along with it for a while to see if something develops, but when it doesn’t, move on. 

Instead, Lauren mopes around about how miserable she is.  When Evan, a boy from her past, moves back to town the chemistry between them heats up.  But rather than break up with her boyfriend and go for it with Evan, Lauren sneaks around and cheats on him, making me dislike her even more.  Her reason for staying with him (so she wouldn’t be like her mother) was lame and the logic of it never really connected with me.  At least Evan has a conscience about his role in the cheating.  Lauren just mopes along hoping not to get caught. 

It also bothered me that Lauren treated her “best friend” Katie like crap.  Katie was going through a lot in her life, but Lauren was too busy moping to notice.  (Seriously, Lauren makes Bella Swan seem like the most carefree, happy girl in literature.)  I found myself more interested in what was going on with Katie at home, but the author never really develops that story line.  A real missed opportunity in my opinion. 

Another way this story might have been improved is if the author had spent more time developing the back story of Lauren and Evan.  As children, Evan’s mother and Lauren’s dad dated moved in together for a while.  There could have been a really cool storyline developed from that, but instead, it just sort of gets dropped.  There could have been some reason why the two had to rely on each other because of problems at home or something.  Or there might have been some dramatic break when Evan and his mother moved away.  Unfortunately, her dad was just a jerk of a boyfriend...end of story.

Overall, I give Bloom...

Plot - 2 1/2 bookmarks
Character development - 2 bookmarks (and the only reason I’m being that generous is because I liked Evan.)
Love story - 1 bookmark (Evan should have hooked up with Katie instead.)
Dream cast (otherwise known as who I pictured while reading) - Sarah Hyland (Lauren), Cassie Scerbo (Katie), Kendall Schmidt (Evan), Hunter Parrish (Dave)

Thursday, February 2, 2012



10 Free Kindle Fires, 75 free ebooks, a $500 library donation. Entries for 10 free Kindle Fires are already underway at http://bigkindleboogie.blogspot.com. On Feb. 1-2, bestselling thriller authors J.A. Konrath, Blake Crouch, Scott Nicholson, Lee Goldberg, and Scott Nicholson are making 75 Kindle books free on Amazon. They are also making a $500 donation to the local library of one Kindle Fire winner. Contest is international, no purchase necessary. You can also join the Facebook party at http://www.facebook.com/BigKindleBoogie.

Three easy ways to enter:
Good Luck!