I have read hundreds of books.  I didn’t review all of them, but I read enough to know which authors show promise.
And then there are those books that just blew me away. The ones that months after I have read them, I can’t stop singing their praises.  They knocked me out and no matter how hard I try to stand up, it keeps knocking me down by the words and style. These are those books:

TOP PICK:

The First Excellence: Fa-ling’s Map by Donna Carrick

I must admit I fell in love with this book from the first two paragraphs. It grabs your attention and doesn’t let go until well after you finish the book. The

The First Excellence by Donna Carrick

story manages to horrify, sadden, uplift, and inspire you in such a manner that you feel as if you need to step into the book.

This book is everything a book should be. You end up caring about every single character, whether it’s good or bad, and they quickly become friends.

What I liked most about this book, is that even though it dealt with some controversial topics (being only allowed one child in China, the sex trade, and child kidnapping) it did it realistically. There was no fluff in this story to make it outrageous or pathetic. This book was written as if someone told the author their story. It was written with respect to the culture (even while dealing with the less than savory aspects. By doing this, Donna has created a book that will not only entertain us, but make us think about what others have to deal with.

Donna Carrick has what should be, and hopefully WILL become a best-seller. Everyone will love this book.

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GET TO KNOW THE AUTHOR…

1- Where are you from?

DC: I was born in Chatham , NB , on Canada ’s beautiful east coast, but I actually grew up all over the North Country .  Dad was an Air Force man, so we moved a lot.  Having been raised in multiple environments allows me to understand a variety of points of view, something that is invaluable for a writer.

2- What inspired you to write your first book?

DC: I’ve been a writer for as long as I can remember.  My first “unpublished” books were a series of gritty crime novels featuring a female crown attorney with a flawed character.  They were good stories, but had a lot of technical problems.  I may re-visit them one day, but for the time being they’ll remain unpublished.  They taught me a lot about the art of writing.

I was inspired to tackle novel-writing by that great red devil, TIME.  In small town Saskatchewan with only CBC on television, I’d often plough through reading 2 novels in a long prairie evening.  When I realised Time was getting away from me, I sat down at my keyboard with a novel idea and I’ve never looked back.

My latest 3 novels, all published, are a tremendous source of joy for me.  I’m living the life I always wanted.

3- Do you have a specific writing style?

DC: If I had to choose one style that I would call my own, I would say my stories are “theme and character based”.  My genre is Crime Fiction, but within that genre there is a lot of wiggle room in the modern literary world.  In the old days, a crime novelist wrote either cozies or thrillers or political intrigues – you get the gist. A writer of crime fiction had to choose a category.  These days there’s a lot of cross-over between genres and sub-genres, which is liberating for someone like me.  I don’t like ‘boxes’.

I love multiple story lines and detailed plot turns.  I believe I’m good at creating those.  But ‘characters’ are what really drives my stories.  They each have their own demons to expel, their own hopes and desires that cannot be extinguished.  So, even though I enjoy crafting my plots, my characters are what get me out of bed in the morning.

4- How did you come up with the title?

DC: This is a great question!  As a matter of fact, titles are very important to me.  Before she died, my older sister and I had a game we used to play: Who can come up with the best title?  All of my titles are meaningful; that’s a rule of mine.

The First Excellence was originally going to be a short story titled Fa-ling’s Map, about a young woman who returns to the land of her birth hoping to connect with her lost heritage.  When I realised it was not a short story after all, but a novel, I knew it would need a larger theme.

My research into Chinese culture gave me the premise: Confucius taught that a ‘man’ (read ‘person’ in modern language) should cultivate 5 distinct “excellences” within the course of his lifetime.  These excellences will define him.  Any less than five will indicate the man is lazy and his life will remain unfulfilled.  Any more than 5 will mean that he is scattered, and cannot claim ‘mastery’ over any calling.

But what, asks Fa-ling, should a person’s “first excellence” be?  What is the one thing that gives life meaning and purpose?

A lofty theme, perhaps, but one we struggle with daily in our North American society.

5- Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?

DC:  Yes, definitely.  All of my protagonists are flawed.  They are all the products of suffering.  And yet, deep in their makeup there is something – a core of hope that will not allow them to lie down.  They must carry on – must discover the best within themselves, despite having looked ‘evil’ squarely in the eyes.

6- Are experiences based on someone you know, or events in your own life?

DC: Many of my characters are survivors of childhood trauma.  It’s fair to say this springs from my personal experience.  The Noon God looks at the aftermath of family suicide.  Having lost my beloved sister and best friend to suicide, I’m able to understand the profound sense of loss and confusion that ensues.

In Gold And Fishes we see Ayla Harris, the Canadian aid worker who suffered extreme sexual abuse along with her twin sister, then witnessed her mother’s brutal murder.  For Ayla, life has meaning only when she can do meaningful work.  Her ‘work’ takes her to tsunami-battered Banda Aceh in December 2004.

Finally, my latest novel The First Excellence is based on a trip my husband Alex and I made to China in 2003 to adopt our youngest child.  In the story, Fa-ling is the older of 2 sisters who were abandoned in rural Guangxi Zhuang.  For several years the girls suffered malnutrition and loneliness in an orphanage before being adopted.

Fa-ling’s fierce determination to protect her younger sister from the harsh realities of that life is what defines her as a ‘hero’.

7- If you had to choose, which writer would you consider a mentor?

DC: Books and their authors have been so important in my life; I wouldn’t even know where to begin to explain their influence.  They were my parents and my mentors when life could easily have led me down a darker path.

If I could choose only one author, I’d have to say Charles Dickens.  By all accounts, he didn’t always live very well.  He was the product of childhood strife, having grown up in poverty and despair.  And yet, when we glimpse his soul within his work we can’t deny there is something grand there, something heroic that rises above the pain he must have felt.  He brings hope to each new generation.

Modern fans may not be aware of his life story, but they know his work.  They understand and accept his message of enlightenment.

8- What book are you reading now?

DC:  I’m reading Canadian author Linwood Barclay’s Never Look Away.  I’ve just started it, but I’ve read Linwood’s work before, so I know it’ll be great.  Linwood is a person of tremendous wit and intelligence – a real gem!

I enjoy reading most genres, not just crime.  Also, I’ll read authors from anywhere in the world, and from both traditional and independent backgrounds.  At the moment I’m catching up on a few of my fellow-Canadian authors, hence Linwood and Catherine Astolfo and Giles Blunt have all been on my list.

9- Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest?

DC:  You mean other than my husband, Alex Carrick?  (heh heh) Yes, there are a number of new writers out there who’ve grabbed my attention.  I don’t usually read from the “absurd/horror” genre, but there’s a young man by the name of Jeremy C. Shipp who’s making a big splash in that literary scene.  I was curious, so I purchased “Cursed”.  I have to say, it was a delight to read.

Another fellow who is just now emerging in the short story genre is Simon C. Larter.  He had a piece in Short Story America recently that I just loved.

Finally, I have to give my respects to an up-and-coming Indie author Gint Aras.  His book Finding The Moon In Sugar was a fantastic read.

10- Name one entity that you feel supported you outside of family members.

DC:  Oh, I can name several.  For starters, @IndiePride on Twitter has been a tremendous source of support for all of us independent writers in the “community”.  Many people may not know this, but Social Media is becoming a virtual “writers’ retreat” for authors of every background.  With a variety of chat groups available throughout the week, there’s no reason to toil in isolation these days.

I’ve been fortunate to enjoy the support of a number of influential “literary people” within the community.  Firstly, @IndiePride and Foozago Books have given my work one of its first platforms.  I’m deeply grateful to The Sunday Book Review for this exposure.  Carolyn Burns Bass aka @LitChat featured The First Excellence during its early days, helping establish its credibility as a crime/literary work.  Also, Julie Isaac aka @writingspirit #writechat has lent her guidance and support throughout this process.

Alex and I are so grateful for these new friends and for so many others.  Let me not forget, though, to thank my old friends and colleagues at Crime Writers of Canada (CWC), who’ve been with me from the beginning of this journey.

11- Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?

DC: I’d have to say what I’ve learned from writing my books, even the early unpublished ones, was how to accept myself.  When we are are exposed to childhood traumas, self-doubts and anxieties can easily overwhelm us.  My characters have taught me that I’m ‘ok’.  Their struggles are my struggles; their resolutions are rooted within my own understanding of the world.

I’ve learned it’s all right to share what life has given me, both the good and the not-so-good experiences.  There are readers out there who will connect with my characters through my stories.

For a writer, that is the greatest gift of all!

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RUNNER-UP

Is Harvey Dunne? by K.L. Romo

This book is written from the point of view of Harvey Dunne. A man who tries so hard to live life as a heterosexual even though his heart isn’t in it.

Is Harvey Dunne? by K.L.Romo

“Is Harvey Dunne?” takes a reader through an honest, realistic, poignant journey as to how homosexuals were treated in the early nineties. (And let’s be honest, are still being treated like this today) Even though Harvey is the story teller, as a reader you will learn how everyone he knows is affected by his actions and feelings. The only reason this book works is because it’s real, everyone can relate to the characters and nothing is forced.

This book made me laugh, smile, scream and cry in just the right spots. Again, the only way that was possible was because this book was written in a realistic and documentary style. You could feel the helplessness and frustration of each character and were walked though it which gave the feelings that much more substance.

This book blew me away and should be featured in every book store in my opinion. Every single one. Front and center. With huge spotlights shining down on it. That’s how much I back this book.

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GET TO KNOW THE AUTHOR….

Other than feeling compelled to write, because that’s just who I am, I write for a reason. I try to reach people. If they’re going through an experience similar to the one I’m writing about, I want them to know that they’re not alone.  And if they’re not going through a similar experience, I hope that reading my book or story will let them walk in someone else’s shoes for a little while.

Is Harvey Dunne? was my attempt to give people insight into what it might be like to be a gay person in America, and especially what a gay youth might suffer through in his struggle to be himself.

I am currently working on a cross between a self-help book and a memoir.  I was a teen bride who had children early and never made it to college.  But I’ve been married for thirty years, have successfully raised three children, and am working to raise two more, and have a successful career.  The book gives some insight into the struggles my family has been through over the years, including issues such as gang involvement, mental illness and depression, teen pregnancy, and the loss of a child.  I’d like for others to see that there is light at the end of the tunnel, you just have to keep pressing forward.

I am still raising my youngest two children, am very involved with my grandchildren, have a full time job, do volunteer work for abused kids on the side, and am trying to learn Spanish.  With all these things battling for my attention, the biggest challenge in my writing career is time.  Finding time to write is the hardest part of the job for me.

Several personal things you might not know about me are:

  • I’m trying to teach myself to knit
  • I love candy
  • I’m a Santa freak
  • I love snow
  • One of my pet peaves is someone pushing the “close” button on the elevator repeatedly.
  • I don’t like the phrase “no problem”

Hopefully you’ll do me the honor of reading my next book , which I should be finished writing sometime in 2012.

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