Sunday, October 23, 2011

A Cold Day in Paradise

Steve Hamilton's debut novel won both the Edgar and Shamus awards for first novel, and it is indeed very good. The writing is crisp, the voice fresh, the first-person main character, Alex McKnight, is well-drawn, able but flawed and mostly sympathetic.

And it is certainly a page-turner. After about the first third, you will want to finish the book at a single sitting because the author paces the suspense well.

But it is a first novel and not perfect. There are some big holes in the plot. The most gaping in my eyes, without giving too much away, is that when one of the characters who is a possible target of a serial killer goes missing, our able hero searches for him instead of immediately calling the police, who are already aware of the danger and taking precautions.

It is virtually impossible, given all the mystery and detective stories out there, to come up with an original back story for a new hero. Alex McKnight, however, checks a few too many of the usual boxes -- ex-cop turned PI, wounded in action, partner killed, retreats to rural setting, etc. It's not a bad formula, but it is a formula.

The other characters are not fleshed out that well, with the exception of Chief Maven of the local police department, who is an intriguing character though perhaps a bit too much like Rod Steiger in "In the Heat of the Night." Some characters seem to be belabored -- like Alex's love interest, Sylvia -- while others come up short, such as Alex's friend Edwin or his lawyer employer, Lane Uttley.

This is my first book in the 50-state mystery challenge. Its setting in Michigan's Upper Peninsula is very appealing to me, and shares a lot with the bleak landscapes of the Nordic mysteries. Particularly the brooding presence of Lake Superior adds a dimension to the novel. The wind whipping around, the biting rain, the whitecaps on a stormy lake -- great atmosphere!

Funny that Hamilton would set his mystery in a Michigan town named Paradise in the same way Robert S. Parker picks Paradise, Massachusetts for Jesse Stone's refuge. The difference is that there really is a town of that name in the Upper Peninsula, whereas Parker's fictional Paradise is reportedly based on a town called Marblehead. In both cases, though, the authors certainly enjoy getting Paradise into the title.

Friday, October 21, 2011


Here's the start of my list for the 50 States Mystery challenge (see my post on Goodreads challenges):
California (CA) Done for a Dime
Colorado (CO) The Bookman's Wake
District of Columbia (DC) Hell to Pay 

Florida (FL) Gumbo Limbo
Maryland (MD) Baltimore Blues 

Michigan (MI) Cold Day in Paradise
New Jersey (NJ) Bury the Bishop
New Mexico (NM) Tularosa
New York (NY) The First Deadly Sin
Oregon (OR) The Defense
Pennsylvania (PA) Moment of Truth 


Here's the list for the Around the World in 52 Books challenge (see my post on Goodreads challenges):
Afghanistan: Bookseller of Kabul
Angola: Book of Chameleons
Arctic: Voyage of the Narwhal
Austria: Death in Vienna
Azerbaijan: Ali and Nino
Bosnia: Bridge on the Drina
Botswana: Tears of the Giraffe
Bulgaria: Night Soldiers
Chile: Easter Island
China: A Floating Life
Dominican Republic: Farming the Bones
Egypt: Serpent and Scorpion
England: Mistress of the Art of Death
France: The Forger
Germany: Effi Briest
India: Between Assassinations
Indonesia: The Earth of Mankind
Israel: The Attack
Italy: Stone Virgin
Jamaica: Wide Sargasso Sea
Kenya: Weep Not
Japan: Kafka on the Shore
Mexico: Savage Detectives
Morocco: Tenth Gift
New Zealand: Bone People
Nigeria: Arrows of the Rain
North Korea: Corpse in the Koryo
Persian Gulf: Cities of Salt
Portugal: Last Kabbalist of Lisbon
Romania: The Passport
Russia: The White Russian
Rwanda: A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali
Saudi Arabia: Eight Months on Ghazzah Street
South Africa: Bitter Fruit
South America: Bel Canto
Spain: Winter in Madrid
Sudan: Act of Faith
Sweden: Frozen Tracks
Trinidad: Bruised Hibiscus
Turkey: Black Book
Vietnam: Paradise of the Blind
Zimbabwe: Butterfly Burning

Goodreads challenges

A while ago I asked rhetorically whether or when somebody would set up a virtual book club online. And of course there are several and Goodreads seems to be one of the most robust. I've joined a couple of groups, Historical Fictionistas and Mysteries, Crime & Thrillers, which coincidentally happen to be the main categories of my own book, but I've refrained from any blatant self-promotion so far.

It is kind of fun to see so many people totally engaged with books and reading. There seems to be a tolerance for various speeds. Some people read all the time and have scads of books, but others seem to be more normal people who read as much as they can along with work and other life things.

One of the more interesting features are the "challenges," designed to set goals and so provide incentives to read certain kinds of books. I've never stayed in a book club too long because I didn't like the idea of reading a book someone else picked when there were so many unread books on my own shelf that I picked at one point because I was interested in them. In a challenge, however, you pick the books, as long as they fit the parameter of the challenge, and the discussion is more of an exchange of views about different books.

One challenge for instance is Around the World in 52 Books -- i.e. one book a week during 2012, each from or set in a different country. Just for the heck of it, I went through my shelves and listed unread books set in different countries, then went to Andrea's shelf and listed some more of hers. Embarrassingly, I came up with 42 books, each set in a different country, that I have on my shelf and haven't read. I'm sure I could get to 52 without any trouble. Now I don't think I can read a book a week from this list. Some of them are long, and I'll want to read other things, too. But I can start now, and no one says I have to stop at the end of 2012. I can just keep checking off this list until I'm done.

Another challenge, in Mysteries, Crime & Thrillers, is the 50-state mystery challenge, which is to read a mystery set in each one of the 50 states (51, since obviously I will add DC). I actually embarked on a similar project some years ago when Darras and I first contemplated collaborating on a police procedural set in Kansas. I even picked up several books at the time set in various states. It turns out there's a great site, Stop, You're Killing Me, that indexes mysteries according to location, so you can see any number of books set in each state. So I put up a list of dozen books in that challenge to get started. Since Darras and I now want to get back to this idea, this is kind of like research for that project.

The links above are to my first posting of each list on Goodreads. I'll keep the updated lists on this blog under the Lists label, and will review each book as I read it and label it according to the challenge, 52World or 50Mystery. Not sure how long I can keep up either one, but it should help me to spend more time reading and less time in front of the TV.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Devil's Lair

David Wisehart's epic fantasy is a stunning tour de force -- David Mitchell meets Umberto Eco. The author tells his story of a group of pilgrims in the 14th century who retrace Dante's descent into the Inferno with verve and a truly astonishing command of language.

It's not only that he explores the vast reaches of the English vocabulary but that every description or action is conveyed in a highly disciplined prose and laser-precise diction. Wisehart loves words and the reader revels in the language that compels one to follow William of Ockham, Giovanni Boccaccio, Nadja and Marco da Roma, the last Knight Templar into the bowels of Hell and the fate that awaits them there. The history -- Ockham, Boccaccio, Petrarch are all real historical figures along with assorted churchmen who appear -- and the fantasy are rendered with equal authority.

Wisehart finds words you had no idea existed. His writing is well-suited to e-books because you can highlight a word and find its definition if you so desire (a word of warning, the dictionary function does not have many of the words in this book and you need to use the Google or Wikipedia functions to track them down). Or you can save yourself the trouble and simply enjoy the novelty. You may never have encountered the word "costrel" before but when the character unplugs its stopper and takes a drink from it, you can easily conclude it is a pouch for carrying liquids.

In the first half of the book, as the pilgrims set out on their quest, the surreal horror of the Black Death becomes nauseatingly real, as the bubonic plague drives whole towns to despair and sends Ockham and his band into Hell to recover the Holy Grail and thus rescue the world from this calamity. The plague is almost by definition allegorical, and these early chapters resemble Andrzej Szczypiorski's Mass for Arras in their portrayal of a world gone mad.

Then in the second half, the fantastical visions of Dante's nine circles of the Inferno are recreated in compressed prose. The creatures, the damned, the devil himself parade by in dizzying succession as the pilgrims make their way to their goal. They see the famous, including some surprising residents of Hell thought to be in heaven, and friends and relatives from their own pasts. They cope with dangers and vicissitudes as they pursue their goal. Here Wisehart matches Tolkien and the darker Rowling in the boldness of his images.

If anything, you find yourself wishing the prose was a little less compressed and intense, that the suspense and sense of menace were somewhat more drawn out. But the quick succession of events and phantasmagorical images immerse you in what truly becomes an epic.

In the midst of all this, Wisehart's little band of characters keeps the reader's sympathy as much as Frodo or Harry Potter. Ockham is the excommunicated logician who can attain salvation through faith. Boccaccio is the worldly poet who gives up everything to follow his friends. Nadja is prone to epileptic seizures that bring on heavenly visions -- or are they demonic temptations, or just delusions? And Marco finds qualities of heroism he had no idea he possessed.

Wisehart has written verse plays -- something of a lost art -- and it's not by accident that poets are major figures in this epic. There is some verse, but much of the prose, too, is darkly lyrical. This is an accomplished work that demonstrates conclusively, if anyone still doubted it, that independent authors can produce literature on a par with the best that mainstream publishers put out and propel to bestsellerdom.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Thrillers set in prewar period

I've tried setting up versions of this list on Amazon and Goodreads and not gotten much traction with it. But I don't think it's because there's no interest in this sub-genre.

For me, the 20th century prior to the outbreak of World War II is already an exotic period. It is recognizably our modern world, but in some ways a more civilized version of it. It is in any case a time when real adventure -- not our leisure-time adventure excursions -- was still possible. The world was knit together but still had lots of open spaces. These are thrillers set in that period. They are not in any rank order. I'm just including one work per author, though generally many of their other works also fit into this category.

Obviously I want to include my own historical thriller in this list. I think it helps to provide a context for potential readers. If you like any of the books on this list, you will like The Grand Mirage.

I'll update with further additions. Please comment if you have a title to add, or any other comment.

1. Stamboul Train by Graham Greene
The master's take on the Orient Express.

2. The Grand Mirage by Darrell Delamaide
Adventure and intrigue on a caravan to Baghdad.

3. A Coffin for Dimitrios by Eric Ambler
A pioneer in the political thriller.

4. Night Soldiers by Alan Furst
Period atmosphere at its best.

5. Zoo Station by David Downing
Berlin between the wars.

6. Berlin Noir by Philip Kerr
Even grittier Berlin between the wars.

7. River of Darkness by Rennie Airth
A damaged World War I veteran investigates a gruesome murder.

8. Greenmantle by John Buchan
Date classic in the genre.

9. Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers
Still spellbinding tale of espionage in the North Sea tidal basin.

10. Pascali's Island by Barry Unsworth
Searing tale of one of the sultan's spies.

11. Imperial 109 by Richard Doyle
A whole book on the Pan Am clipper.

12. Ashenden, or The British Agent by W. Somerset Maugham
Spy story based on writer's own experience.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011


The New York Times had a story last week about how Julia Child's pathbreaking Mastering the Art of French Cooking was now available, finally, as an e-book. The article discussed the particular challenges of putting a cookbook onto an e-reader, from the often complicated layout and color photos to the concern about splattering grease onto your Kindle or iPad.

Now apparently technology has advanced enough to have column formats in e-books, and new readers like iPad and Kindle Fire have all sorts of color. As for the grease, I have experimented with downloading a Kindle single by Mark Bittman on grilling and using it. I usually keep the recipe across the kitchen on the table anyway, so the real danger, especially with a touch screen, is having dirty or greasy fingers when I want to consult it.

What would really be cool and would get me to take the plunge immediately is if somehow your entire cookbook collection would be searchable (or even your entire Kindle library because the search terms would be specific enough). The big plus of Epicurious, of course, is that you can search by ingredient or technique. This is virtually impossible to do with the hard copies, because you pick a likely book, check the index, are invariably disappointed, check another index, and so on, and usually end up at Epicurious anyway.

The only way I can navigate my print cookbooks is to pick one arbitrarily at random and leaf through it looking for likely prospects that use seasonal agreements. It would be more satisfying to go to the store or market and simply pick what looks good, then come home and easily find the right recipe.

Nonetheless, I may experiment. Paula Wolfert has a new cookbook out, The Food of Morocco, and it will be available in a Kindle edition on Nov. 15. I love Paula Wolfert's books and we have been on a real Morocco kick, so I will get one edition or the other. The hardcover print edition is just $27 on Amazon, and the Kindle edition, at the insistence of the publisher, will be $20, so it's hardly competitive given the uncertain performance of a cookbook on an e-reader. We'll see what people say.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Illumination

This thriller by Jill Gregory and Karen Tintori has two Americans attempting to safeguard a relic of the primordial light of creation, keeping it out of the hands of various malefactors and delivering it to the Israeli Antiquities Authority. The authors keep a fast pace as diverse villains -- an Iranian fanatic with the evil eye, a Florida cult leader with ambitions to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem, a super-secret government agency, and an arch-conservative Jewish terrorist organization -- all seek to get the powerful relic for their own ends.

Museum curator Natalie Landau, aided by a new-found ally in the person of a former television journalist and occasional CIA asset, is the one trying to keep the object out of their hands. After some narrow escapes in New York, she and her ally, D'Amato, experience some more narrow escapes in Rome and jet to Jerusalem for the climactic action.

Natalie is a sympathetic and self-reliant protagonist, displaying a phenomenal ability to fend off brutish male attackers through her mastery of martial arts. In fairness, though, accepting Natalie's feats requires no more suspension of disbelief than for your typical male protagonist in action thrillers.

The authors are quite good at unveiling and developing the esoteric secret of the Eye of Dawn and linking it to the widespread belief in the evil eye. In fact, you have a much better idea of the prevalence of this belief in the Middle East after reading this than you do after finishing Jason Goodwin's most recent thriller, An Evil Eye.

Most of the other characters lack any real dimension and at times seem derivative from The Da Vinci Code and other thrillers in this genre. But the pace is good, the writing is crisp and the sense of urgency is maintained through the end.

My road to self-publishing

When I sold my first novel to E.P. Dutton in 1988 for a substantial advance, I thought I had it made as a writer. Richard Marek, the editor who bought it and also the chief executive of Dutton, had been Robert Ludlum’s first editor and the one question he had for me before he made the offer was whether I’d be willing to write other similar novels.

Uh, sure. It had been my ambition from age 10 to be a writer and I went into journalism to further that goal. When I first signed up with my agent, June Hall, in London, she suggested pitching a nonfiction book first, since they are so much easier to sell, even though my goal all along had been to write fiction.

So in 1982 she got me in to see Lord Weidenfeld in his home on the Embankment and he bought UK rights (he wanted global but June wanted to make separate sales) to my nonfiction book on the debt crisis on the basis of a 10-minute pitch, without a word being written and not even an outline. We subsequently sold U.S. rights to Doubleday (Phil Pochoda) and Canadian rights to Lester & Orpen, Dennys (Louise Dennys).
The dream continued and Debt Shock, as it became, got a full-page review in the New York Times Book Review when it was published in 1984.

Those were the days. Dick Marek bought my novel, a financial thriller entitled Gold, on the basis of five chapters and a synopsis. He worked on it himself and had a number of very helpful suggestions on plot, characters, writing – a great editor. However, virtually the day in 1989 my novel was published, Penguin shut down Dutton, firing all the editors, including Marek, and keeping it only as an imprint. My book was orphaned without any support.

Working full time as a journalist, it turned out, was not necessarily conducive to writing books, so my next proposal came in 1992 for an ambitious labor of love – a book about post-Communist Europe based on Joel Garreau’s Nine Nations of North America. This book became The New Superregions of Europe and Dutton, which had the option to buy my next book, exercised the option and published it in 1994.

A number of things kept me from writing another book for a while – changing jobs, a move back to the U.S. after 20 years in Europe, divorce, parents’ illness and death. Then came 9/11, which prompted me to abandon a political thriller I had been working that included a terrorist attack on Washington. Just didn’t have the stomach for it (though Vince Flynn and a number of other thriller writers have had great success with that plot).

I returned to an idea then that had caught my attention in the years I spent covering Deutsche Bank – the building of the Baghdad Railway in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Deutsche Bank played a major role in financing the railroad from Constantinople to Baghdad because the Kaiser was very interested in completing a land link to the Indian Ocean (in Germany the project was generally referred to as the Berlin-Baghdad Railway). The British, concerned about a threat to their overseas empire in the subcontinent, were not keen on the project and it became a pawn in the Great Power maneuvering over the ailing Ottoman Empire.

Great stuff for an historical thriller, I thought, and I worked on it for years, making a British peer who was an accomplished Orientalist and a sometime agent for the British Foreign Office the protagonist of what I hoped would become a series set in the Middle East just prior to and during World War I.

I thought it would be a great field for adventure, intrigue and a chance to revisit a Middle East that has vanished but is the stuff of legend that lies deeply embedded in the subconscious of us Westerners. When I finished the novel, I found an agent, Mel Parker, who was equally enthusiastic about it. Mel had been a longtime editor in chief of the Book of the Month Club and was used to having his finger on the pulse of what people would buy. He was confident he could sell the book.

Alas, it was not to be. A publishing market rocked by evolving technologies and then the financial crisis was floundering and making it particularly difficult to sell fiction. The consolidation of the industry, the focus on the bottom line, the disappearance of midlist authors had transformed a cottage industry into a manufacturer and franchiser of bestsellers. Editors no longer edited, they acquired, and they acquired books that were similar to books that had just been successful, until by some fluke a Da Vinci Code comes along and changes the paradigm for what is considered successful.

Mel worked hard at it but we eventually had to accept there was not a market for the book in the New York publishing world.

In the meantime, technology continued to evolve. The Internet, social networking, smart phones destroyed the role of gatekeepers in media, hitting newspapers, magazines and eventually book publishing. For books, print on demand became an initial liberator, transforming the tainted world of vanity publishing into something more credible. POD became possible because Amazon brought the corner bookstore into everybody’s home.

It is, however, the ascendancy of the e-book in the past couple of years that is truly transforming the world of books. Amazon’s Kindle was revolutionary, and then the iPad definitively tipped the balance, not only because of its own massive sales but because it increased the acceptability of other e-readers. Now, it is said, sales of e-books exceed sales of print books.

Friends and colleagues of mine were reporting new success in finding an audience for their unpublished books. Whereas even a few years ago, the paradigm for self-publishing was to order up a hundred POD copies of your book and pack them in your trunk to make the rounds of bookstores for signings, the new paradigm now is to sell your book in digital format for $3 and promote it through Facebook, Amazon and other powerful social networking tools.

Publishing houses may continue to have a role in manufacturing bestsellers. Increasingly, they will seek their new acquisitions among the growing stream of self-published books.

It has taken me some time to accept all this. I was spoiled by earlier successes into thinking that my road was what I continued to think of as the “high road.” But traditional publishing is about to be blown away. There is no high road or low road, just a broad digital highway that allows readers to find the books they are interested in and writers to find their audience. I found a great packager to design my POD and e-book and my historical thriller about the building of the Baghdad Railway, The Grand Mirage, has just been published, under my imprint of Barnaby Woods Books.