Saturday, April 12, 2014

The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz

(I'm traveling on a trip to hunt for fossils so I didn't have time to work up something new. My dad and I were recently talking about this book so I thought I'd post a review I wrote back in 2011.)

If I had to sum up my thoughts and feelings about Anthony Horowitz’s Sherlock Holmes novel, The House of Silk, it would be this: if you close your eyes and just listen to the audio book, you would think you were listening to a story written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself. That, and a little A. A. Milne thrown in for good measure.

The spirit of Doyle is alive and well in this new Holmes novel, as well it should. In the decades since Doyle died, this is the first officially commissioned and recognized by the late author’s estate. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say that The House of Silk is now the 61st story in the canon.

And with whom did the descendants entrust Holmes and Watson? The man behind the Alex Rider young adult series and one of my all-time favorite TV series, “Foyle’s War,” was an excellent choice to write this book. Horowitz is a professed amateur Sherlockian himself, and his prose stylings are just as if John Watson himself wrote the novel.

When tasked with the job of writing this book, I imagine one of Horowitz’s favorite jobs was to make The List. What list is that you say? This would be the list of all the things that he would want to have in a Sherlock Holmes story. Think about: 56 short stories and four novels from which to draw all your favorite characters, scenes, and events to put into your own book with your own spin. Sherlockian’s everywhere will smile and nod as they see Horowitz’s grace notes as he writes this compelling novel. Lestrade is here, as are the Baker Street Irregulars, Mrs. Hudson, Mycroft, other little nuggets for you to find, and a certain unnamed character who, in fact, needs no name for the reader to know exactly who his is. In fact, it’s almost like Sherlock Holmes’s Greatest Hits.

Edmund Carstairs calls upon Holmes and Watson with a typical story: a man in a flat cap is stalking Mr. Carstairs, an art dealer. This flat cap chap is, presumably, a member of an Irish gang out to take revenge on Carstairs for a botched train robbery. For the next few chapters, Horowitz basically delivers a nice Holmes novella. It is only at the end of this little sub-section where things take a more drastic and sinister turn. A brutal murder—intended as a message to any who might tread on this case—move this case from mere dread to one of a more dire nature. It is here where the modern storyteller Horowitz turns up the heat on our Victorian heroes and leads them to place that Doyle would never have gone.

The pacing is good through the novel. An avid Sherlockian myself, I was never bored and often raced back to my iPod to listen to the next chapter. By the way, if you are an audio fan, the book is narrated by none other than Derek Jacobi, and I highly recommend this recording. The events had a modern way of piling on our heroes, so much so that, even though you knew certain things would happen, you just didn’t know how.

Horowitz just plain had fun writing this story. If you know the original canon well, you will note the nice little echoes and homages thrown in. For example, at one point, Watson is conveyed by carriage to a secret place. The windows of the carriage are draped—almost exactly like another carriage ride in “The Greek Interpreter” short story by Doyle—so as to prevent Watson from knowing where he’s going. Another point has Watson hunting down a clue and ends up asking a rather out-of-left field question to another person. When asked how the question pertains to the case, Watson, tongue firmly in cheek, gets to reply “I have my methods.”

If you know your other Holmes stories written by a myriad of other authors, you know all the places Holmes has traveled and the people he’s met. One rather famous example are the stories written by Laurie King, which has the old detective still alive and well during World War I. This story, now being officially canon, jettisons those other stories as non-canon. It’s as if George Lucas decided to make new Star Wars movies set after Return of the Jedi. As soon as that celluloid hits the screen, all the Extended Universe stories are moot. Thus, when Watson—ostensibly writing during 1911—comments that Holmes has already died, it didn’t jive with the other stories’ timelines. I kept having to adjust.

Now, you may be wondering why I namedropped A. A. Milne at the first of this review. It’s simple: Milne and Horowitz nailed the melancholic wistfulness of days past. Remember the ending of the original Winnie the Pooh movie and the part where Christopher Robin and Pooh are talking. Christopher knows that he has to go off to school and learn things. He also knows that everything is going to change and that he’ll never again be that carefree little boy. He longs for his past and promises Pooh to always be there for him. That’s how Watson is portrayed in this novel. Watson aches for his friendship with Holmes and the good doctor clearly knows his days are numbered. More than once, he comments that, by his writing of this last case, he has been in the presence of his good friend again. It’s a remarkable book that can both excite the senses and, yet, bring on the longing to such an extent that one might get that lump in your throat. That’s what this book did for me. I absolutely loved this book and hope Horowitz gets the invitation to write another. If not, the next author has some tall shoes to fill.

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Mother of All Books...

By Russel D McLean

It's a strange feeling to see something you've worked on for so long finally take on physical form. Technically speaking, this is around the 8th time (counting various editions) that I've held a book of mine in my hands, and every time it feels oddly unreal. The same panic sets in, that there's something in those pages I overlooked or that I'll suddenly be found out as a fraud of some kind.

But at the same time, there's a magical moment. One where I realise what all the hard work was about. There's a moment where - and those who know me will know how rare this is - I actually get an ego trip.

Looking at the book, I remember when there was no book, just a gem of an idea. Something itching to find release. I remember when I thought I would never finish. The moments where I thought that maybe this time I'd truly messed up, that I'd never be able to create something coherent. But it happened. I know this not just because there's a book in my hand but because the guts of that book - the words, the pages - passed through so many others before this thing was created. It passed editors, copy editors, agents. It became something that talked to other people. Even in a small way.

Mothers of the Disappeared is, I hope, my best book yet. I sincerely hope so because it was a book I'd been wanting to write for a long time. The gem of the book was generated back when I was writing shorts about Sam Bryson for AHMM. I always wanted Bryson to try and prove the innocence of someone no one else would ever believe was not guilty. I wanted him to have to face his own prejudices in dealing with someone who appeared absolutely guilty and repellant. And with Mothers of the Disappeared, I took this idea and ran with it. The book became bigger than that, of course, and while that basic seed is still there, it has become a very different beast. But I'm proud of it. Very proud. As I am of all my books, even the ones I think have flaws.

The book is offically released in the UK on April 30. I'll be launching it at Blackfriars in Glasgow on the 28th (advance copies will be there for purchase!) at 7pm. I look forward to seeing people read the book, to talking to them about it, to being able to finally see the fourth McNee novel out there in the wild. It was - for many thematic reasons - a tough book to write. But I'm proud of it. And all I can hope is that you will enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Under Review

So, I was making my Internet Book Rounds last week. You know what I mean, right? Every new-ish author does. It’s when you visit certain sites to see how The Book is doing. Places like Goodreads, Amazon, B&N, Google Alerts, etc. You check your rankings, how many people have added the book and, well, you read the reviews.

I was on Silent City’s Amazon page and noticed that a few of my friends had rated the book. Cool. Until I saw one friend, a buddy I’d met in my day job, had given it one star.

Panic set in. Insecurities flared. I boarded the emotional rollercoaster: Anger, sadness, fear. Rinse, repeat.

Did I shrug and move on, vowing not to read any reviews from this moment? No. I emailed my pal and in a pretty passive way said I was sorry he didn’t dig the book.

This is a mistake and you should never do it. It doesn’t help anything and only makes you look bad - specifically, overly sensitive and whiny. And, in this case, it’s true – I happened upon the review, had an emotional reaction and tried to fix it. But most of the time, these things can’t be fixed or reversed.

On the bright side, it turns out he actually liked the book and didn’t even realize he’d rated it. But still. It shouldn’t matter. 

Why am I telling you this story? Well, because I’ve saved the toughest topic for last. We’ve covered hunting for an agent and gathering blurbs. But what do you do when your book is out there, naked, for the entire world to read and form opinions about? It’s freakin’ scary! Your baby is in the middle of a busy intersection with no one to protect it.

Keep in mind I pass these suggestions on because I’ve been through the first novel shuffle and I’ve probably made all of these mistakes at least once – maybe twice.

Ready? Ok. Strap in and welcome to the wild, unfettered land of reviews.

Don’t read reviews. “Are you nuts?” Nope. “I have to read them!” You really don’t. “But, how else will I know if my book is good?” It got published, right? People you trust/know/value said it was good, right?

The best piece of advice I’ve ever gotten about reviews came from a writer friend a few months before Silent City came out. I asked her – how do you deal with bad reviews? “I don’t read them,” she said. “Good or bad.” I thought this was amazing. Mostly because I couldn’t imagine anyone giving her a bad review, but also because on some level it felt really liberating – here was a way to just excise all the anxiety, fear and anger that comes with any kind of commentary on the work. It’s perfect!

But let’s be real – we’re probably gonna read our reviews. Even after this conversation and after realizing how great this advice is, I still read every review. That’s OK, as long as you’re prepared to deal with the consequences…

You’re going to get bad reviews. No matter what. It’s going to happen. Someone out there is not going to like your work. You have to be ready for that. So, what happens when you get a bad review? Move on. Maybe the reviewer made some thoughtful comments – about plot, character, setting, whatever. Take it as it comes. If you got something useful out of the review, all the better. If it was mean-spirited and not useful, then Move. The. Hell. On. There’s no upside to rehashing or wallowing in a negative review. A friend of mine who works in Marketing gave me my second favorite bit of advice in terms of reviews: “Feel bad for yourself for 10 minutes. After that, get to work on your next book.” It’s true. There’s nothing you can do to change the review – someone felt this way. Maybe they were having a bad day? Who knows/cares. All you can do is continue to get better. And hey, you have a book published that people you respect like a lot. That’s something. There’s always next time.

Do not engage when you get a bad review. Remember the story I told up top? Don’t do that. Don’t comment on bad reviews, don’t email reviewers and don’t respond via your channels. (I’ll get into social media in a sec.)

Why not? Well, it makes you look needy, thin-skinned and defensive. Even if all you do say is something like “Sorry you didn’t enjoy the book,” which in and of itself is fairly harmless – wouldn’t you rather be above the fray? OK, you got a bad review. It happens. Next.

Be thankful when you get a good review. Let’s assume that, like me, you aren’t as tough as my author friend. You’re reading your reviews. OK. You’re ignoring the bad reviews. Great. But you just got an awesome review – what do you do? If you know the writer, shoot them a brief thank you note. Drop a quick thank you comment. It’s OK. It shows you’re appreciative of the time they put into writing about your book. A lot of times, these exchanges can turn into publicity opportunities. If a blogger liked your book, they might be interested in interviewing you or doing a giveaway. It’s OK, especially as a new author trying to build a name for yourself, to network with people that like your work.

Plus, many reviewers are great – they’re smart, thoughtful, engaged and are fans of your genre. They read these books and analyze them for a living. Or, they love the genre so much that they give up their free time to talk about books. You want to connect with these people because knowing them might make you a better writer. Get on their radar. Find out what they’re reading. Pick their brains. They’re probably nice people that like the same things you do. You may end up making a new friend.

Spread the good news, do not harp on the bad. Got a bad review? Move on, remember? Don’t be passive-aggressive about it via social media or your channels. Bad reviews happen. But, when you get some good news, feel free to share it. It’s the kind of thing - like blurbs – that might grab a new fan’s attention and entice them to buy your book. I had the huge honor of having my debut novel reviewed in both major South Florida newspapers the day before a bookstore event in Miami. It helped! More people came to the event, online sale went up and so on. I think part of it was that I spread the word about the reviews (as did my publisher) once they hit. Everyone wants to read a good book. If you have people saying your book is good, share that.

Have a sense of humor about it. I’ve seen a lot of viral videos that feature authors reading negative reviews and having a laugh at how crazy some of them can be. Some authors post quotes that are just so batsh*t, you have to laugh. I am not the kind of author that can do that. But if you are – and you can do it in a way that is genuinely about being funny and not about swiping at someone for not liking your work, go for it.

Know yourself. This one’s a little new age-y, but it fits. Don’t beat yourself up if you break any of the above suggestions. They’re not hard and fast rules. Everyone is in a unique situation. So you sent a nasty note to the guy who ripped on your book on Goodreads? Not ideal. Don’t do it again. I get it, though. We’ve slaved over these books for months, maybe years. They mean a lot to us. They’re a part of us. It really stings when someone tears it down, sometime not thoughtfully. But this is the risk we run being authors. We put our work out there, for all to see and asked for feedback. They have a right to share their opinion. So, be forgiving if you can’t adhere to these suggestions 100 percent. Hell, I couldn’t. But you live and learn.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Full Circle (ish)

by Holly West

Last month, I attended Left Coast Crime in Monterey, California--my first conference as a published author.

Truthfully, I didn't give this much thought prior to arriving. I've been attending mystery conferences since 2009, when I went to Bouchercon in Indianapolis. I've moderated panels at subsequent Bouchercons and elsewhere, and overall, I never felt like being unpublished held me back. I'd made enough friends in the crime fiction world (and continue to do so) that it didn't seem to matter whether I was published or not.

I learned, however, that being published changed, ever so slightly, the way I was treated (for lack of a better phrase) at this conference. For the first time, I was on a panel as a panelist and not a moderator. People who'd read my book introduced themselves and told me how much they'd liked it. I was able to participate in the New Authors Breakfast, along with many other fellow first timers I have great respect for (special shout out to Terry Shames, Terri Nolan, and Matt Coyle).

And for the first time, I got to sit at the signing table.

I didn't expect this last one to be of any great significance because Mistress of Fortune is an eBook. What was I going to sign? Nevertheless, several attendees asked me to sign their conference programs, and darned if it didn't make me feel pretty good.

But there was another unexpected reason why sitting at that signing table meant something special to me.

Back in 2009, when I attended that first Bouchercon in Indianapolis, I met one of my favorite authors (and certainly one of the reasons I write crime fiction in the first place), Sue Grafton. A friend, Ali Karim, introduced us at the PWA Shamus Awards and she graciously spent about fifteen minutes talking with me about my project, writing in general, and her own writing process. I've met Sue a few times since then and she always pretends to remember me, which I greatly appreciate.

Holly West & Sue Grafton (or as I like to call her, my BFF)

After my Left Coast Crime panel, I dutifully went downstairs with the other authors to sit at the signing tables. The first thing I saw when I got there was that Sue Grafton, who'd had a panel during the same time I did, was at one end of the table and I was at the other end. We were "bookends," if you will. This moment was not lost on me. In all the fantasies I'd ever had about being a published author, this had not been one of them--it had never even occurred to me. I was thrilled.

I waited until Sue's long line of fans had dissipated and took the opportunity to tell her just what it meant to me. My first conference as a published author and here I was sitting at the signing table with my idol. Always a gracious one, she gave me a big hug and congratulated me.

I spend a lot of time complaining about how hard writing is but let me tell you--there are a lot of great moments along the path to publishing. This was one of mine.

Now it's your turn. Tell me about one of the great moments you've had as a writer. Big or small, they all help to keep us going in this journey that sometimes feels like a fool's errand.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014



According to the app I downloaded there are 23 days until the official launch of Black Rock.









Not that I’m counting the days or anything.

And today I discovered that the publisher, ECW, has put an excerpt online. It’s the first 30 pages of the novel.

Another ECW crime novel coming out this month is Ride the Lightning, a debut novel from Dietrich Kalteis. I’ve read it, it’s really good. Here’s the description from the publisher:

Bounty Hunter Karl Morgen goes after Miro Knotts on a skipped bond, finding the dope dealer wrapped around an underaged girl at a rave in Seattle. D9781770411500ragging Miro in the hard way gets Karl's licence revoked, while Miro gets off with a suspended sentence. Karl then finds work as a process server in Vancouver, thinking it's the kind of place where people settle things with middle fingers instead of guns. 

But the city is teeming with two-bit criminals, drug dealers, and gangsters, and Miro seizes an opportunity to settle his score with Karl while working a major drug deal. What follows is a ride through Vancouver's underbelly with a cast of characters whose ambition exceeds their criminal acumen. With dialogue that crackles on the page, Ride the Lightning introduces a new voice in crime fiction featuring grit, realism, and a comedic touch.

And there’s an excerpt available from Ride the Lightning as well.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Quick notes: Sociopaths in Love, Get Katja

Two quick book notes this morning.

Sociopaths in Love by Anderson Prunty

I first heard of this book from Gabino Iglesias. The title kind of says it all, huh? This isn't a book for everyone but those that like their fiction dark will want to check this out. Unlike many dark works of fiction this one goes there, and then some. Interesting characters, depraved situations, at times surreal and absurd, at other times grounded in the everyday and mundane. If you want to take a chance on something dark and unlike anything else try SiL. All others stay away.


Get Katja by Simon Logan

This is the sequel to 2010's Katja From the Punk Band but it isn't necessary to have read it. It follows the same form as its predecessor. Multiple point of views will overlap and weave a chase story through a dystopian type setting. Odd characters, a fast pace and lots of conflict propel the story.


Sunday, April 6, 2014

Finding Beauty in Tragedy

I like to believe that I write crime fiction for the same reasons I’m a newspaper crime reporter — no other stories have the depth and breadth of life, the joys, the sorrows, or the bittersweet poignancy that crime stories do.

Sometimes, if we do our jobs right, we are able to unearth the beautiful in the tragic.

For instance, last weekend at the newspaper was a rough one. I pissed someone off — someone who was grieving the death of a friend. When I came in to work the night shift I was handed a story about some college-age kids whose home had burned down. One kid was in critical condition at the hospital.

Shortly after I got to work, we got the news — he didn’t make it.

All his friends were talking about it on Facebook. I left a message on one page saying I was sorry for their loss and that if anyone wanted to talk to me about their friend, here was my number. I thought it was unobtrusive, but it made one girl very angry.

She asked why I didn’t wait longer before I left my message.

I couldn’t tell her the truth, which was that if we waited a day or two, at that point, a new tragedy would have captured reader’s interest. It’s awful, but true. I couldn’t tell her I had a limited amount of time and a limited amount of space to let people know a few details about this young man, to tell them something that would make him seem real to readers, so he was more than just a faceless victim. That is my job.

It isn’t always easy, but I feel a great responsibility to do this, so that when someone dies they are more than just a name in the paper.

So I just told this girl that I was very sorry for her loss and wished her well.

I also couldn’t tell her the story that makes me reach out to grieving friends and family, even when I don’t want to do so:

Years ago, I was at the Monterey (Calif.) Herald newspaper when I noticed a husband and wife had died within 24 hours of one another and decided to write a story about it.

I reached the couple’s daughter-in-law who told me what had happened: the wife had a stroke and died instantly. When the husband saw her body being taken away, he had a heart attack and died a few hours later.

This woman, Diane, told me about the love her in-laws had shared for the past 50 years. How they came over from Mexico and had worked in the fields picking lettuce since they were 18. How they raised six children and sent four of them to medical school this way.  I was immediately captured by this love story — this couple’s life story, really.

Diane invited me to come to the wake the next day so I could talk to the couple’s other children.
When I arrived, I was told Diane was on her way and to wait inside. The house was packed with mourners. I stood in the corner feeling about as awkward and out of place as I ever have in my life.

Finally Diane arrived and herded all the siblings and me into a bedroom to talk. I explained that I wanted to write about their parent’s great love story.

One of the couple’s daughters glared at me and said, “I’m not talking to you. I got nothing to say to you!”

Saying she was hostile is an understatement.

However, before long everyone was sharing stories with me and laughing and crying — everyone except the one daughter who continued glaring at me.

I went back to the office and wrote my story, adding in some quotes from doctors who said they truly believed someone could die of a broken heart.

About a month later, I got a little envelope in the mail. Inside was a thank you card:

“Thank you so much for writing about my parents. I was the one who didn’t want to talk to you. But I’m so glad you were there. Your article is now a treasured keepsake in our family. Thank you so much.”

And so that, that right there, is why I make those painful calls and visits to grieving family and friends. It’s about finding the beauty, the hope, the love, and the basic goodness of people in a tragedy. And if I don’t care enough to make that call, then who will?

My question for you writer and reader friends:

What speaks to you about crime fiction? Why do you pick up these types of books over and over or — if you are a writer — continue to pen these types of novels?