Colorado Calling

I believe Colorado crime fiction is having a moment.

The writers?

That’s not what I mean.

I’m talking about the dramatic setting.

I mean, right now.

In August, it was the release of Erik Storey’s Nothing Short of Dying.

This month, it’s Kevin Wolf’s The Homeplace. (Today as a matter of fact; Sept. 6 is the official publication date.)

In October, it’s Barbara Nickless’ Blood on the Tracks.

What else is unusual?

All three are debuts.

And I mean, these three books make for a fascinating triple header.

And they take major advantage of the Colorado landscape. Storey’s is all Western Slope—Grand Junction to Steamboat to Leadville and back to G.J.

Nickless is all Front Range—Denver, Fort Collins and a splash of the eastern plains (get ready for your close-up, Wiggins).

And then Wolf is all farm country, way out east in a fictional town in a fictional county but just as “real” as they come. Dry and windy, too.

I’ll go west to east to give you a flavor.


Nothing Short of DyingNothing Short of Dying is big. It’s rough. It’s tough. It’s a full-throttle thriller led by a guy named Clyde Barr, who has his own moral code. He’s a loner. He’s a fighter. Yes, we hear the echoes of Jack Reacher (I’m dying to know if Storey is tired of hearing the comparisons between Barr and Reacher) but Barr’s motivations, to me, are built on a stronger foundation.

The plot is less cartoony, too, than Lee Child’s stuff (as addictive as those cartoons might be). Clyde Barr is a man who keeps his promises and he’s made one to his sister, Jen. When she needs help, Barr goes looking for her. He teams up with a woman he meets along the way and calls on old friends including one guy named Zeke, a pal from his days in a Mexican prison.

Barr is not all bad boy. He’s got his weapons, sure, but he’s also got paperbacks by Friedrich Nietzsche and H. Rider Haggard. He can be sensitive when the time is right, but you do not want to piss him off.

The backdrop for all this action is pure Colorado. “Sandy escarpments rose up on the left and forested mesas hugged the right until we dropped off a hill and headed into the Rifle valley. The river was wider here, with waves shimmering in the sun. What were once hay fields in the flat floodplains were now natural gas pads, pipe yards, compressor stations, and gas plants. One of the latter spewed a flame sixty feet in to the air. Closer to town, the cattle pastured I’d known as a kid were buried forever under asphalt and pavement, with house and apartment complexes built on top.”

Hey, Colorado ain’t all beautiful.

(I already reviewed Storey’s book on my book review blog, here. This includes an interview with Storey.)


Blood on the TracksBlood on the Tracks is just as tough and wild as Nothing Short of Dying.

I am really taken with this ambitious story, which starts out as a thriller, morphs into a mystery, and turns back again into a movie-ready action-packed finish.

Railroad Police Special Agent Sydney Rose Parnell is one complex and interesting character. She sees dead people, for one thing. But don’t think paranormal. Uh, hardly. These are “skills” she doesn’t necessarily want. She’s haunted for many reasons, including the fact that she worked in corpse retrieval during the war in Iraq. She was also involved in a situation covering up atrocities. The past is chasing her down. (A common theme in all three of these books.)

The plot here involves the murder of young woman who was known for her kindness to hobos and drifters. She is murdered in vicious fashion. The killer scrawls bloody hobo symbols nearby so Sydney and her K9 partner Clyde (yes, again, Clyde) are pulled into the investigation. Clyde is a great character, too. He’s got his own darkness. Something is broken inside him, too. Clyde is absolutely one of the best-developed dog characters I’ve ever met in a book. But he doesn't overshadow Sydney Rose.

After a big scene where they stop and search a freight train, they think they’ve got their man—or do they? The guy in custody seems like the obvious culprit but based on the number of pages left to read we know there are some problems coming and they start rushing at Sydney in waves. The hunt leads to big-picture conspiracies and into the deadly lair of white supremacists and ultimately into a terrifying confrontation with a predator during a snowstorm in, yes, Wiggins. In the end, there is blood on the tracks and many other places, too.

Cue the movie for this one. And don’t just take my word for it, check the great advance blurbs from Vikki Pettersson, Jeffery Deaver, and Hank Philippi Ryan, among others.

Blood on the Tracks is already reaching readers ahead of its launch next month; check the reviews already rolling in from a Kindle promotion for early readers.


The HomeplaceAt the end of Blood on the Tracks, when Sydney Rose comes into Wiggins, Nickless writes:

“Barns and ranch houses gave over to businesses as I drove into town. A single traffic light swayed forlornly above the empty street. I drove past a dry goods store, a saddle shop and a single-marquee theater, all with Closed Please Come Again signs in the windows. Near the end of the block, red neon blinked through the snow. A grinning cowboy became visible, holding aloft a flashing beer stein.”

That small-town flavor connects right over to The Homeplace.

Of the three books here, this is the quietest, the most serene. But it does not lack for suspense.

The Homeplace won the Tony Hillerman Prize in the fall of 2015 (the prize goes to an unpublished writer of a mystery that captures the southwest flavor of Hillerman’s work).

What’s hard to believe is that The Homeplace is the work of someone from the unpublished ranks.  But those of us who have been around Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers know that’s true—and also know that Kevin has long turned out beautiful stories with clear-eyed prose.

The Homeplace features Chase Ford, who is coming home to Comanche County, where there’s “forty miles of dirt for every mile of blacktop.” He’s a former basketball star and he’s also the first of four generations of Ford men to put Comanche County in the rearview mirror. At least, that is, until now. Ford is as deeply troubled as Clyde Barr and Sydney Rose Parnell. And all three of these folks share a strong streak of stoicism, too.

In addition to Ford, there’s a full small-town ensemble cast. Wolf jumps easily from perspective to perspective. There’s Birdie Hawkins, a game warden for the Department of Wildlife. There’s Mercy Saylor, who works in the café in Brandon, and deputy sheriff Paco Martinez. There’s also Ray-Ray Jackson, who lives on the edges of society.

The sky is big and the wind blows, but life in the small town has a trapped, closed-in feeling. Complexities abound. And Wolf’s writing is uniformly calm and unsentimental, as when Chase and Mercy reconnect in the café for the first time since he disappeared over the horizon to play big-league basketball. “Quiet slipped into the room and took the empty chair at their table. Pans and pots clanged in the kitchen. Dishes loaded with eggs and bacon slid over the front counter, and the cash register drawer opened and shut. They both stared out the window, content in that minute to say nothing.”

The Homeplace is billed a mystery—dead body in the first few pages and all of that. There is a “who done it?” But with its weight and depth, The Homeplace could easily be read as straight novel, characters and setting first.

“As the first spikes of orange painted the gray morning, Chase spotted a deer at the edge of the field. No chance it would scent him. Through the binoculars, Chase could tell it was a big deer. The broken tine on the buck’s wide antlers and its graying muzzle meant it was an old bachelor, most likely run off from the herd by the younger bucks to live out what years it had left on its own.”

Yes, this is Colorado, too—way out on the windblown plains where the inimitable Kent Haruf (Plainsong, Eventide, Benediction) set his novels.

I wish Haruf was still alive to read The Homeplace. He would recognize the setting.

This is also Gregory Hill country—East of Denver and the Lonesome Trials of Johnny Riles.

Congrats to Storey, Nickless and Wolf for putting some terrific new characters in motion against one of the best backdrops going—good old Colorado.


On Reviews

An author friend recently thanked me for posting an Amazon review for her latest book. “How do you always know when I’ve reviewed your books?” I asked. “Because I read my reviews,” she answered. “All of them?” “Yes.”

I’m the opposite. I seldom read my reviews. I might occasionally check my star rating and the number of reviews I’ve received. Or even glance at the first few when my book comes out. But after that, I avoid them.

I’ve put some thought into why my friend and I have such different approaches to reviews. Maybe it’s because my friend is a very non-controversial writer. She writes inspirational romances, and her books are what are called “gentle reads”. They’re never going to offend anyone, or provoke strong reactions. I can be a very polarizing writer. For example, when I entered my latest historical romance in the RITA, I got scores back of 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5. Readers' responses to my books tend to be all over the place.

Since the beginning of my career, my books have gotten mixed reviews, and I’ve come to accept there are aspects of my world view and creative vision that are a bit different from that of most romance writers. I also have a very distinctive voice, which draws some readers in, while turning others off. I can’t change either of those things. And so I seldom read reviews, because a lot of the time it’s my voice or my story vision that the reviewers are reacting to, and their opinion, good or bad, isn’t going to be helpful.

In contrast, my friend reads her reviews to discover what readers like and don’t like in her books. The idea is to figure out how to write a better, more compelling book next time. It’s great when a reviewer gives you something specific that you can process and use in the future. But a lot of the time, that’s not what happens. Many readers don’t analyze what they didn’t like. They simply express their emotional reaction to the book.

Professional reviews are another matter. I read a lot of them in my job ordering fiction for a library. Professional reviewers tend to discuss both the good and bad aspects of a book. When they are critical, they tend to criticize specific things. They will mention slow pacing or tired tropes, clichéd characters or awkward prose, things like that. They also tend to balance negative things with a disclaimer, like “Despite the over-the-top action and lack of character depth, urban fantasy readers will be pleased”. Or, “Her (the writer’s) fans will find what they’re looking for.”

In those cases, the reviewer is recognizing that even though they didn’t like the book, there is still going to be demand for it. For someone like me, who is purchasing books for a library, that’s very helpful. I can’t simply buy the books that get the best reviews. I have to buy the books that the patrons at the library where I work want to read. And trust me, those aren’t always the ones that get the best professional reviews.

Despite my resistance to reading reviews of my books, I have to admit reviews have influenced my writing. I’m currently rewriting a book that was published almost fifteen years ago. As I rewrite, I’m conscious of the fact a fair number of the reviews of the original version found my heroine unsympathetic and cold. This time around I’m trying to make her more appealing. I’ve not only tried to get inside her head more and better reveal her psychological state, I’ve actually changed the plot so her actions aren’t so frustrating to the reader. I’m trying to make her less flawed and more “heroic”.

Bear in mind, it’s taken me fifteen years to get to the point where I can do something positive with those negative reviews. And that’s the thing you have to be careful about. Bad reviews can be devastating. They can demoralize you to the point that you feel like giving up writing. Or, they can push you to make changes that don’t play to your strengths as a writer. You have to remember that for every reader who dislikes a certain aspect of a book, there may be another one who loves that very thing. There are books I find plodding and dull, while other readers see them as beautifully crafted and complex. There are books that bore me because the characters seem shallow and uninteresting. But other readers don’t care because they’re focused on the action and suspense.

Over and over we’re told that a review is only one person’s opinion. And that truly is something to keep in mind. If that opinion helps you write a better book next time, then maybe it’s a good review, even if it is critical of your work. But if it does nothing except ruin your day, then it really is a bad review.

How about you? Do you regularly read your reviews? Do they influence your writing?

Got Plot? Got cover? Get reviews!

By Janet Lane

E-books need public shows of affection

You’ve written the perfect story, and you’ve led your book through a series of hoops – careful revisions, professional editing, a web site, a blog, and a beautiful new cover, complete with book descriptions for the on-line retailers.

Now it’s time to get really brave, and get reviews. Ah, reviews. We love ‘em when they’re good, and hate ‘em when they’re bad, but to effectively market your literary e-babies, they’re as vital as an enticing book description.

So in what rivers can you fish for reviews? I started collecting my reviews by asking my critique partners if they would help me out by reviewing my books when they were first released by Five Star Publishing. Later, my publisher cancelled its Expressions Medieval line, under which my novels were published. Overnight I became an orphan author, and suddenly these early reviews became critical to my new role as epublisher. Even if one publishes traditionally, nothing is certain, and those early reviews of your traditionally published book can (unless you substantially change your novel), carry over to your ebook.

Perhaps you’ve heard some horror stories about Amazon yanking reviews. It can happen. Some authors have visited their Kindle pages, only to learn that some or all of their great reviews are gone. Little can be substantiated, but stories abound that Amazon may pull reviews from published authors . In another incident, a review was pulled from an author’s page because Amazon discovered that there was a close relationship between the author and the reviewer. When pressed for an explanation, it was noted that the reviewer had placed an order with Amazon for products other than books, and the order delivered to the author’s address. This, it was explained, would affect the objectivity of the review.

Other denied review stories include writing a review without a verified purchase, or submitting more than one review from more than one reviewer on the same computer.

Amazon is not the bad guy here. All these stories are examples of Amazon’s attempts to retain the integrity of the book reviews. Simply put, they don’t want your mom – along with any other relatives she can recruit – clogging up their pages with biased reviews.

So here are my suggestions on how to get the dozens of reviews your book will need to get noticed:

1. Ask for reviews in your ebook, in the back matter.

2. Don’t ask for five-star reviews, or ask readers to give you a good review, even if they don’t like the book.

3. Don’t pester your critique partners! If they haven’t responded to your request that they review your book, it could mean they don’t like your book enough to publicly lie about it. Or they might not have the time. Or maybe YOU didn’t respond to THEIR request for a review. Or, even if you have written a strong review for their book, they still might not reciprocate. Don’t strain a great friendship with this issue.

4. Look into review services. I used Choosy Bookworms, and their review process is excellent. I’ve heard horror stories about some review services, so be sure to post a question about a potential review service on RMFW’s yahoogroups site to learn more before you commit.

5. Once you have solicited a review, be civilized. If a review doesn’t materialize and get posted, accept it. (See #3). If the review is negative, wait three days before reacting in ANY way, especially in writing. And if it’s negative, still send a note of thanks to the reviewer, and milk the review for all it can be worth. Are there valid points made among the criticisms? If it’s scathing and deliberately hurtful, lick your wounds and turn to your critique partners for support, so you heal more swiftly. After all, even negative reviews stir interest in a book. And remember, even Stephen King gets negative reviews.

Why all the fuss for reviews? They can become a strong marketing tool. With a hefty collection of reviews, your book has a good chance of being accepted on the bargain-book offerings of such valuable outlets as Book Bub, E-Reader News Today and Book Sends.

Good luck! May you never receive a 1- or 2-star review, and may you enjoy great book sales!

Coming to Terms with Book Reviews

Sexy Games by Jeffe KennedyBy Jeffe Kennedy

This is the cover for the Italian translation of my erotic romance, Going Under. I love it so hard.

A girl never forgets her first translation. 🙂

A little known fact about me (I think) is that I spent many years studying martial arts - primarily Chinese internal styles. I still practice some of the arts on my own, but no longer study with a school. It was a valuable experience on many levels and most recently fun to play with as I created a martial system for my warrior heroine, Ursula, in my upcoming release (May 26), The Talon of the Hawk. The Talon of the Hawk by Jeffe KennedyWith Ursula on my mind - particularly as I'm starting the fourth book in that series - I've mulling over the metaphor of knife-throwing.

Yes, I learned how to throw knives as part of the training I did, including a shuriken, which I confess I keep on my desk and have a tendency to toy with on annoying conference calls. One thing my teacher said about knife-throwing is that it's important to learn to enjoy the moments you DON'T stick the knife in the target as much as the moments you DO.

Counter-intuitive, yes?

Now, my teacher got any number of things warped and wrong (don't get me started), but I think he had something there. A lesson I've yet to fully internalize. See, it's very easy to get focused on success. Learning to throw knives can be an exercise in frustration - all those times the knives miss the target, barely stick and fall away or, the worst, bang loudly and ignominiously flat before bouncing off. When you manage to get it right and *really* stick the point deep in the wood, it's... satisfying. Even thrilling.

But my teacher's point is along the lines of the journey being the valuable lesson, not the destination. Viewed that way, it's irrelevant whether the knife sticks, because it's the process of throwing that's important.

I think about this - especially lately - when one of my books gets a less than five-star review. And yes, I confess I'm one of THOSE people who see anything less than five-stars as not-quite-good enough. It's the grade that's not an A. It's the room for improvement. It's the knife that kinda sticks but then falls away.

A five-star review, in contrast, feels as thrilling as the perfect throw with the point buried solidly deep. Every time.

And yet... I *know* I shouldn't feel this way. In my heart I know that the reviews and ratings are just part of the destination, that it's the writing, the journey that truly matters. Most of the time this works for me - diverting myself back into the work, focusing on the writing and what it means to me, where it takes me. In fact, that this is on my mind at all right now is likely a product of having been between books for too long. I need to get Book 4 of The Twelve Kingdoms started. In a big way.

At any rate, I suppose this is my particular room for improvement. One of the many ways I need to grow and learn. I understand in my head that not everyone will LOVE my books, but I have a ways to travel to embrace the miss in my heart as much as the hit.

Time to throw some more knives.

Critical Questions with Sandra Dallas

Sandra DallasIt's no great secret that next to advances and royalty checks, book reviews are an author's best friend. But getting reviews are hard to come by, and no guarantee of success. Just ask Sandra Dallas, current columnist and book critic for fifty years with the Denver Post, and who is also a successful author.

"I don't know how many books are published a year. Isn't the figure around 400,000?" she said in a recent interview. "It's a huge volume. You may run two to four reviews a week. What then are the chances of getting a book reviewed? It's very discouraging for authors."

And from the reviewer's perspective life isn't any easier. "Reviewing is a sideline," said Sandra. "The Post stopped paying last year, and they never paid much anyway. It's not keeping bread on the table. National reviewers are paid more, but local papers don't."


On the bright side, Sandra said that the Post has a new editor for it's book section; one reason Denver authors should consider themselves lucky. Many papers have done away with this section entirely. And the new editor has hinted at more articles about authors.

Also, with more blogs on the Internet focusing on book reviews there may be opportunities for writing reviews of your own to build a great reputation and add another plank to your author platform.

If you do want to write reviews for public consumption, here are some thoughts Sandra shared about the process:


"When I started out, I was told by Stanton Peckham (the Post's book editor at the time), 'If a book isn't very good, don't review it,'" said Sandra. "'Why give space to a book that isn't very good, when there are so many good books out there?' You review only the books you think are worthwhile. And keep your reader in mind. Your loyalty is not to the author. Your loyalty is to the reader."

Sandra spoke about new critics and their biggest challenges. "You can tell a novice reviewer by a couple of things. Number one, they love to point out errors. They will take a date that's a year off and make a big deal out of it. And then they love to be clever and to be critical. And they love to write negative reviews. You see a lot of this in blogs. I think usually they're trying to be clever at the author's expense."

She said that one time a book review blogger just creamed one of Sandra's books, and then closed by saying that she would review War and Peace in next week's blog. There was a chuckle to go with this thought.


First, you should love reading. Really love it. As Sandra's sister says, "Hell for us (readers) is being someplace without a book."

Then, when Sandra does a review, she says she usually keeps a paper or the book's press release in the book and jots down notes and page numbers as she goes. This is because she rarely keeps a book she's been given to review, so she doesn't like to mark them up before giving them away. Occasionally, with an ARC, she'll underline texts she wants to use.

"I look for interesting things—for catchy phrases—for summations of the book," said Sandra. "But your job is not to please the author or to promote the book. Your job is to tell readers about the book." She noted with another light laugh that some authors who practically beg to have their book reviewed will often focus in on the one negative she might point out at the end of a review and give her a hard time for that, forgetting that having a generally positive review is rare and valuable.


Sandra didn't start life as a book critic or author. From journalism school at the University of Denver, she joined the staff of Business Week Magazine, a true thought leader in its heyday, and still a strong voice in business as a member of the Bloomberg Press conglomerate of business news sources. She became the first woman bureau chief and covered the Rocky Mountain Region on a wide variety of subjects, "not just business, but about issues that business people needed to know."

Then, about 25 years ago, she turned to fiction. "It was kind of a fluke," she said. "I had never intended to write fiction. I didn't even read fiction. And I just sort of fell into it, and I love writing it. You know that old line about someone asking you 'do you like writing?" And the answer is 'no, but I like having written.' Well, I actually like sitting down and the writing process of seeing what happens with fiction. I really enjoy it."

Today, Sandra Dallas has thirteen novels and ten non-fiction books published.


This fall she has two new books coming out. The first is targeted toward children readers between ages ten and twelve. Red Berries, White Clouds, Blue Sky comes out in September, and A Quilt For Christmas, and adult novel will appear shortly after.

"My last novel was called Fallen Woman, which was about the murder of a prostitute in Denver in 1885," said Sandra. "I originally called it Holiday Street, because that was Market Street's original name, and this was the red light district. So my agent said, 'You have to change the title because your readers are going to think this is a Christmas book.' And then she said, 'Why don't you write a Christmas book? Why don't you write a Christmas quilt book?' And so that was the origin of this book.

So now it's your turn. Do you have favorite book critics you like to read? How do you think their review process works? Are  you a reviewer? Please add to the conversation and let us know how you judge a book.