Saturday, July 9, 2016

My Hope for James Patterson's BookShots

On Thursday, I reviewed Cross Kill, the new Alex Cross novel by James Patterson. This book is the lead-off entry for Patterson’s BookShots initiative. Patterson had the idea of writing shorter books, making them fast paced, and charging readers only $5. I like the idea of creating smaller, faster reads for folks who may not have read a book since high school. That’s certainly not me, but I have come along for the ride.

Now, granted, novellas are—because, let’s be honest, that’s what BookShots are—nothing new for us readers and writers. My first published book is, basically, a novella. I’m currently writing a western novella. They are a good length. Long enough to get a decent story, short enough to get through in an few hours or an evening. Plus, depending on your reading speed, spending $5 for a BookShots book is cheaper than a movie ticket and could last longer. Nothing wrong with that.

The variety of titles being published and scheduled so far is another nice thing. Patterson’s major characters are getting a BookShots entry. Romance is heavily represented with the newer trio. I bought Little Black Dress mainly because I wanted to read a romance title that Patterson considered good enough to be the lead romance title for BookShots. You what happened there? I, a reader, decided to sample a genre I don’t normally read. Ain’t nothing wrong with that.

That’s what I hope BookShots does for the public: Provide a good selection of titles and genres and let people try them out. I had never read a Patterson book, but I’m certainly going to read more because Cross Kill propelled me forward as a reader. Patterson’s a veteran in this business and it shows.

But what I’d really like to see are BookShots book stands in Starbucks. At the checkout line at grocery stores and drug stores. At Wal-Mart or Target. The days of the spinner rack of paperbacks (or comics) at the corner convenience store are gone. Maybe BookShots can be a step to get them back. That might be pie in the sky thinking, but I’d bet money that a thought like that ran through Patterson’s mind when he conceived of BookShots. Works for me.

What I really hope happens with BookShots is for people who haven’t read a book for pleasure in a long time to spend $5 and pick up a book and read it. Enjoy it. Then realize a missing component in their lives. More readers lifts all readers and writers. 

Friday, July 8, 2016

What is there to say?

Last week I wanted to write about the most famous crimes to happen on Independence Day weekend, like I did with Easter not too long ago, but when I did the research, I couldn't go through with it. Unlike Easter, where the crimes varied, the Fourth of July is a brutal and bloody holiday, and rounding up shooting after shooting didn't feel like a good way to spend my time.

This week, nothing really feels like a good way to spend my time. I've defended crime fiction (and will again) because I feel it serves a greater purpose than glorifying "bang, bang, money, drugs, knife wound" and that hasn't changed. I can't focus on the fiction side of things when the reality is so horrific.

I can't focus on the real crime happening around us because I'm speechless. My interest in true crime has never gone as far as being interested in police brutality that ends lives with  children in the car. It's never included snipers on buildings firing into crowds. I don't find any of this entertaining and I am at a loss for even how to comment on it from the perspective of a citizen who feels raw, hurt, and afraid - and knows that there are people among us who feel those emotions ten times stronger because they identify with the people killed over the last few days.

I don't know what to say. I don't know if there is anything I can say.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters

By Steve Weddle

Perhaps missed in the controversy regarding Ben H. Winters's new book, Underground Airlines, is the fact that the man has written a damn good book.

This alternate-history book tells the story of Victor, a former slave who now works for the US Marshals Service tracking down runaway slaves.

The War of Northern Aggression was averted by a compromise that created the "Hard Four" -- four states that still allow slavery while the rest of the country does not. Victor has located more than 200 runaway slaves from the Hard Four and turned over their locations to the Marshals who, for reasons political and practical, use men such as Victor to track down the runaways. All Victor has to do is call in the location of the runaway and the Marshals take care of the recapturing. More than 200 times Victor has done this. But, because this is the story worth telling, this time it's different.

Winters was lauded by one newspaper for being a white man daring to write from the perspective of a black man addressing slavery.

Unlike the new Captain America movie in which White Captain America and White Iron Man are the stars and each character has a Black partner, Winters tells the story from the point of view of the former slave, the man of color.

That brought about quite a discussion online -- and in the real world, I'd imagine -- about white folks writing about minorities, about the media praising white authors doing what authors of color have been doing for years, about whether "daring" was the right word to use, and so forth. Many of those conversations are exactly the sort that we should be having. This is not the post for that discussion, and I am not the guy for the job. My job is to tell you how good Underground Airlines is as a story.

And it is. Damn good. When I would set the book down and head out to the real world, there was always a second or two of adjustment because of how immersed I was in the story. Not because I was tired. Not because my psychiatrists were adjusting my meds again. No. The story felt real. It feld grounded.

Kirkus called the book "Smart and well paced" and that's a pretty good assessment.

Victor is moving towards his prey, and the story develops as normal detective story, for the most part. We get to see the trunk of gadgets Victor uses. We listen in as Victor and his boss talk about "the plan" and so forth. We see Victor getting close and get scared when he nearly gets caught in lies or doing things he shouldn't. See, Victor works for the Marshals Service, but he still has a chip in his neck. He is, effectively, owned by them. As an escapaed slave himself, he was caught and forced into the service of catching other runaways. This is just one of many conflicts within Victor, who is as fully formed a character as I've seen in years.

Victor's original mission ends pretty early on in the novel. And then things really start to pick up. There's a secret out there that only Victor can expose. The book goes from detective novel to crime fiction to thriller to psychological drama and the reader is never the wiser -- because everything feels authentic to the story.

Near the end of the book, Victor is trapped without any way out. And here's where you can really appreciate what Winters is up to. See, the other Winters book I read was The Last Detective, which Fountain Bookstore in Richmond handsold me a couple years back. That showed me what a good writer Winters is. But in Underground Airlines, when Victor is trapped without an escape plan, he runs through a couple. After some thought, he settles on one. Risky, yes. But, he imagines, it could work. Could it? Would it? It's the sort of plan you and I have seen in action movies. Sure it could work. Victor thinks: And maybe it would have worked. We'll never know because a completely bonkers thing happens and the story takes a big turn I didn't see coming. Winters, the man at the desk writing the draft of the story, seems to be saying something like, "Yeah. I could have done that. I could have written that escape. But this is better."

And he's right. And I think he's right about telling the story from Victor's point of view.

On his website, Winters addressed the concerns he knew people would have:
“I approach the possibility of concern with great respect and humility,” Winters tells me, “and with an understanding that there has been a history of white artists appropriating black voices and black works for their own ends. All I can do is stand behind the work.” For Winters, Underground Airlines comes from a place of empathy rather than exploitation. “I hope people will see that my intentions are good,” Winters says. Then he pauses. “Also,” he adds, “intentions aren’t necessarily enough.

It is clear that the discussion of how -- and whether -- we write from different points of view is worth having. I remember posting a few years back about someone who decided to take up a yearly challenge of reading one author from each country on the globe. We've talked at this blog about non-mainstream authors of color who have written amazing books. Gizmodo had a great post about various alternative history novels you might not know.

The world is full of many, many wonderful books from many different voices. Underground Airlines is one of those books.

Underground Airlines
Author: Ben H. Winters
Hardcover, 336 pages
Published July 5, 2016 by Mulholland Books
ISBN0316261246 (ISBN13: 9780316261241)
Edition Language: English
Photo of Ben H. Winters. Photo credit: Nicola Goode

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Think I'll Buy that Book: Eleven Prague Corpses

by Scott Adlerberg

The bookstore experience remains supreme.  There's still nothing like going to a book shop to buy a particular novel, pausing to browse a little, and coming across another novel you never heard of but find intriguing.  This happened to me a week ago, when I went to one of my favorite indie bookstores in Manhattan and saw, in the Russian lit section, a title that caught my eye - Eleven Prague Corpses.  

Crime fiction by any chance?

A detective novel, set in Prague, about someone who kills eleven people?

The author was someone named Kirill Kobrin, the publisher Dalkey Archive Press. Year of publication: 2016.  Prague's a city I've visited twice and loved, and I enjoy reading fiction set there, whether it's something from the past or contemporary.

So I took the book off the shelf and read the back cover copy:

"Using the classic murder mystery form dating back to Sherlock Holmes stories, Kirill Kobrin constructs mysteries that go beyond who is killed and who the killer is. With settings in Prague ranging from an art exhibit and a cafe to a clothes store and a museum, the stories feature a Russian narrator telling how he solved each of the crimes. But we are never sure whether this is the same narrator from story to story; what we do know is that the Russian does not like Prague, and that he possesses an uncannily rational mind that allows him to discover an inventive analytical solution for each crime."

The information about the author said that he writes fiction and non-fiction, co-edits a Moscow magazine, and is the author of fifteen books in Russian, one of them being a tribute to Flann O'Brien. Plus, critics have hailed him as the "Russian Borges".

Good copy, people. 


When I'm reading fiction, nothing excites me as much as reading a novel or story that opens up possibilities in my mind for what I can do when writing stories myself.  This is especially true for crime and mystery fiction, where, in a crowded field with a rich past, it's so hard to be surprising.  Eleven Prague Corpses was a pleasure to read precisely because it provided ideas for how to play around with the mystery form while still writing legitimate mysteries. The book comprises ten interconnected stories, all taking place in contemporary Prague, and in each one there is indeed a corpse. The narrator is a grouchy, amusing guy who, in ways that are plausible (he's a journalist who write obituaries, at least for some of the stories), keeps encountering dead bodies.  A British food critic apparently dies from acute pancreatitis; a school principle disappears and the corpse resembling him that's found belongs to a homeless person; at an art installation, the body of a guy who once committed a high school shooting massacre in the States turns up; there is a very creepy story involving department store security cameras, a pool of blood in a fitting room, and what the department store allows its most privileged customers to do for their private pleasure. Through each story, we follow a narrator who, though he is quite analytical, as promised, may not be all that reliable. Some solutions he comes up with must be the truth; other solutions, well, we can't be so sure.   As mysteries are solved, aspects of the narrator's history and identity become a bit hazy. Clues abound.  And Prague itself is like a character through the stories; the city, with its mixture of old and crassly modern, high culture and bad beer, seems to exercise its influence over everything.  The narrator's dislike for the city, a place so often portrayed as beautiful and magical, becomes hilarious, and it's fascinating to read a book from the perspective of a post-Soviet Empire Russian stuck in, as he sees it, a backwater.  At least in Prague, he has consistent work, something he might not be able to get in his miserable homeland.

Ten stories, eleven corpses, an author with an obvious love and knowledge of mystery fiction but who likes to twist and reshape the form and mess around with readers' heads.  I found Eleven Prague Corpses to be a lot of fun, but it's also a book I'll be thinking about for how the author does what he does.  

That Kobrin's the Russian Borges claim wasn't such a stretch.  Really glad I found this book when I went to the bookstore last week.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Happy 4th of July

It's a day for family, fun and celebration in the US. For Canadians it's back to work after their three-day weekend celebrating Canada Day. Americans will be grabbing burgers today. Canadians will be backed up at Tims for a double-double.
Whether you have something to celebrate today or not, happy Monday. See you next week.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Branson vs. Taney

One of the most difficult decisions I had to make when writing my novel was what to call the location where it takes place. Much of the action happens in Branson, which is a real city in Ozark Mountains that’s well known for its country music shows and other tourism attractions. It is a fantastic mix of large and small – it gets more than eight million visitors a year, but has a population of under 12,000.

As in many novels, I added some streets and businesses to the city that don’t really exist. I’ve done the same with areas in Taney County, which is the real county where Branson is located.

But my main character is the county sheriff and in my book, he leads a department that has some problems. Corruption, lazy deputies, things like that. Things that are fiction. Things that I don’t want people thinking apply to the real sheriff’s department.

So after a lot of thought, I decided to change the real Taney County to the fictional Branson County. That makes my protagonist the Branson County sheriff. And it keeps all the problems in his fictitious department completely separate from the real world of Taney County.

So if you know your Southern Missouri geography, rest assured that I do, too. And I hope you’ll like my Branson County as much as all those tourists liked the real thing.

Claire’s debut novel, The Branson Beauty, comes out July 19.