What I've Been Reading
What I've been reading lately.
THE HOUSE OF HADES by Rick Riordan
Another stellar outing from Rick with his various demigods teamed up to defeat the titan Gaea from returning. I found the parts with Percy and Annabeth trudging across Tartarus to be the most effective, especially the part when they came upon some, uh, witches, I suppose is the easiest description. Whenever they killed one of the witches, a curse that had been aimed at Percy or Annabeth by monsters they had killed over the years, befell them. So at one point Annabeth killed one of the witches and she was blinded and convinced that Percy had abandoned her alone in Tartarus. Really a terrific book.
STORM FRONT by John Sanford
A Virgil Flowers and what a fun one. A professor of archaeology who is also a minister is working an archaeological dig in Israel, and he apparently steals and smuggles a relic out of the country back to Minnesota. Virgil is supposed to team up with an Israeli agent with the Israeli government, but things spin wildly out of control. The minister, who is dying of cancer, intends to auction off the relic, which has the potential to be, at the very least, a propaganda tool for anti-Israel people, and has the potential at some level to totally undermine Israel's claim to the Holy Lands. So the potential buyers include Hezbollah and some Turkish mobsters, as well as some questionable Israelis.
MUSE OF FIRE by John Scalzi
A short story about a physicist who is either nuts or has discovered Haestia living in the flames. Rather creepy and dark, but good.
BLOOD BROTHERS by James Rollins and Rebecca Cantrell
Also a short story, this revolves around the Sanguinistas, or whatever they're called, the vampire cult of the Catholic Church. It's a setup for their upcoming novel, the second one in the series. I loved the first novel and am looking forward to the second. This was an interesting short story, although the narrative structure was a little weird.
THE COLONEL'S MISTAKE by Dan Maryland
An espionage novel taking place primarily in Azerbaijian. The main character is a former CIA Station Chief, Mark Sava, who is now a college professor. But when a former agent of his is arrested and he is called to help, he gets dragged into a very complicated plot against the US involving a possible nuclear warhead and oil, oil, and more oil. It's the first book in the series and I'll definitely read the second one. Some of the transitions between chapters left me with a raised eyebrow and a, "How did they get there so easily ?" response, but a terrific debut.
ENDER'S GAME by Orson Scott Card
The movie looked interesting and despite Card's abhorrent politics, I decided to read the book and make up my own mind. It's good. Probably not as great as everyone makes it out to be, but I thought it was fairly involving, at least up until the end. I didn't like the epilogue much and the big surprise wasn't much of a surprise, but from talking to people about the book it seems to have enough in it and written in such a way that people bring their own issues to a discussion of its themes. Some people claim it's an anti-war novel (I don't think so); some people claim it's a good psychological portrait of an abused child (I can see that); some people claim it's all about technology, etc.
HARDCORE by Larry A. Winters
I'd heard about this book on JA Konrath's blog and thought it sounded interesting. Basically the main character is a former porn starlet. She left the business a couple years before. Her sister was still in the business and apparently commits suicide. Returning to California for the funeral, she begins to question the suicide story, thinking someone murdered her sister, and since she can't get the police to cooperate, she investigates. I liked this quite a bit, actually. The view on the porn industry was interesting and very matter-of-fact, the mystery is actually pretty good, and the main character was pretty convincing. However, apparently Winters plans it to be a series, with the character teaming up with an FBI agent (one of my issues with this book, actually), and I'm fairly skeptical about that setup. But as a one-shot (so to speak), it was quite good.
MURDER AS A FINE ART by David Morrell
Okay. Wow. I've long been a Morrell fan, although I haven't read any of his stuff in a couple years. So when I heard the guy who typically wrote espionage-type thrillers had written an historical thriller/mystery taking place in 19th century London, I was intrigued. David's a big researcher, so it's a good fit. He uses a lot of different narrative devices here, including epistolary style as well as an occasional omniscient narrator that gives the book a decidedly different feel. It's very layered and atmospheric and I enjoyed the hell out of it. Learned a lot, too. Highly recommended. [He's just finished a sequel and I'll be on it like a pike on a minnow when it comes out].
HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCEROR'S STONE by JK Rowling
Yeah, I know. You might have heard of this one.
CATCHING FIRE by Suzanne Collins
Being somewhat ambivalent about THE HUNGER GAMES, both the book and the movie, I had put off reading this. But my wife recommended I did, so I did, and I liked it, possibly more than the first book. So I'll read the third book. It's an odd book, though. Much less detailed than the first book, probably because she's setting up the bigger picture for the third book, MOCKINGJAY. Which I'll read fairly soon, I would imagine.
DICK FRANCIS' REFUSAL by Felix Francis
I must confess, when Felix was writing books with his late father, Dick Francis, I thought the books were generally pretty good. Then Felix's last book that he wrote by himself (the first he wrote by himself), I really didn't like, especially the ending. So I wasn't sure I was going to read this. But I sampled the first chapter, found it compelling, so I bought it. And I read it. And it's good. It revisits one of the few characters Dick Francis wrote about more than once, Sid Halley, and I find that Felix does an excellent job of writing in a style and voice very similar to his father's. I also admit, he really nailed the "don't make life easy for your main character" thing. It occurred to me that I really had no idea how he was going to unravel the story at the end, and I was pleased with how he did it. Recommended.
Some Writing Advice
Today marks 9 years as a full-time freelance writer.
So I suppose I should give some writing advice.
My nephew, Dylan, recently graduated with a degree in creative writing. My son, Ian, is midway through his sophomore year at MSU in the Professional Writing program. As far as I can tell, both of them want to have careers writing books and TV and film. But they're willing to write whatever will pay the bills, I think.
So with them in mind, and anyone else who wants to make a living as a writer, freelance or otherwise, I considered all the advice I could give. There's tons of it. Typically, when asked the best advice I've ever gotten as a writer, I cite: Think more, write less.
This nugget was provided to me by one of my former agents. I still find it very good advice.
Then, walking Frodo, I hit upon what I think is excellent advice for writers. It goes way, way back to a friend's father, who was in international sales for a humungous pharmaceutical company. He told me once, "I can sell shit wrapped in tinfoil."
After laughing, I thought, Why would you want to?
And the question has stuck with me for 26 or 27 years.
So perhaps the best writing advice I can give you is: Don't sell shit wrapped in tinfoil.
I'll let you decide whether that's good advice or not. While mulling this over on my walk, though, it did occur to me that in our culture, a lot of people seem to get really wealthy doing exactly that: selling shit wrapped in tinfoil. And for whatever reason, people keep coming back. A few examples came to mind, and keep in mind it's just my opinion, but: Keeping Up With the Kardashians
and Jersey Shore
struck me as two.
But hell, what do I know? Still, I try very hard not to sell shit wrapped in something shiny. I want my clients and readers and publishers to come back for more. So far it seems to be working.
What I've Been Reading
Here are the last 10 books/stories I've read.
Son of Sobek by Rick Riordan
A short story featuring Percy Jackson and Carter Kane. Percy is a Greek demigod and Carter is more or less (it's complicated) an Egyptian demigod. And they meet a giant crocodile in Brooklyn. 'nuff said.
Marina and Lee by Priscilla Johnson McMillan
A biography of Marina and Lee Harvey Oswald (Marina was his wife). They put the fun in dysfunctional. McMillan was fairly uniquely placed for this book. She actually knew JFK from working in his senate office, she was a Russian correspondent during the period when Lee Harvey Oswald lived in Russia and actually met him and interviewed him, and then she basically moved in with Marina for months to pick her brain. It was published in 1977 and as a result (I think) focuses on some Freudian and sexual issues that were big at the time and that I'm not so wild about now, but it's a pretty remarkable book that tells us a lot (probably more than most people want to know) about Lee Harvey Oswald.
A Storm of Swords by George RR Martin
The third in the series. Very long. The more I read of his stuff the more blown away I am, though. His ambition, if nothing else, is amazing. Somewhere along the line you realize he's writing a history of an alternate world.
Downfall by Jeff Abbott
I liked this one. There's a fairly strong disconnect (for me anyway) in this one on what gets the main character involved in the plot. Sam Capra is a former CIA agent who now is involved with some secret society that rights wrongs (or something like that). His front is a chain of bars around the world. He's working the bar in San Francisco when a woman comes in pleading for help, gets chased down by a man and woman. Sam gets involved, everything goes to hell, and we find out that the bad guys in this case are a strange network of assassins who rearrange people's lives, a sort of spin of "social networking" I guess you'd say. The plot is so ridiculous you just have to sort of ride with it and action-wise, for which I'm quite tolerant, he sort of lost me with a crazy escape from a luxury hotel in Vegas, but it was fun and the pace was fast.
High Treason by John Gilstrap
I really, really like the John "Digger" Graves books by Gilstrap and this one is a lot of fun, too. But, similarly to Downfall above, I think the overall plot involving the first lady and her kidnapping and her backstory and the kidnapping of her son and grandson is, um, well ... don't think too much about it, okay? But I enjoyed it, despite going, "Okay, I've got to just go along with this, don't I?"
Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex by Mary Roach
I'd been meaning to read something by Mary Roach, who puts a very humorous spin on science topics. I also saw a TED talk she gave on this book and it was hilarious. And yes, the book is hilarious. It is also deeply uncomfortable at times, although not because it's about sex, necessarily, but because it goes fairly in depth into urological and gynecological subjects. In that respect, not for the squeamish, unless you're interested in detailed stories about clitoral and penis surgery. But, overall, a terrific book about something we're all interested in.
W is for Wasted by Sue Grafton
Here's a confession. The first part of this book frustrated me so much I almost stopped reading. It's like the first quarter or third of the book is a story in search of a plot. PI Kinsey Millhone's name and phone number is found in the pocket of a dead homeless guy. She doesn't know why and, Kinsey being Kinsey, pokes around into it. Then she spent about a 100 pages or so talking about her landlord, her landlord's brother, a cat, etc. Then the plot gets complicated. An old boyfriend appears (which I liked, although she frustrated me again at the end of the book). I liked it overall, although with reservations. The plot was interesting, but I felt that the villain, at the end, was probably overly dramatic.
Codex Born by Jim Hines
Jim's a friend of mine. We've worked out together with Sanchin-Ryu and he's a terrific writer. This is the second book in a series that's built on an astonishingly great idea—that there's a type of magic, libriomancy, that is based on books. The libriomancer can physical reach into a book and pull out any object within the story. So, if you're reading a Star Wars book, you could reach in and pull out a light saber or blaster. This results in some problems. For instance, some people have mistakenly reached into, say, the Twilight books and gotten their hand bit by a vampire, making them vampires. And in what elevates Jim's book significantly is the character of Lena, who is a dryad, i.e., somebody reached into a fantasy novel, pulled out an acorn, said, "Huh," and tossed it by the roadside. It took root and a tree grew and out came a dryad. But in the book she came from she's depicted as a sort of sexual slave who takes on whatever characteristics her lover(s) find desirable. And in this case, that's the main character, libriomancer Isaac Vainio, who is a nice guy. And his former psychiatrist, who is also Lena's lover. Anyway, the plot revolves around the deaths of some windigos in Michigan's Northern Peninsula and Isaac is sent to investigate and everything goes to hell. Highly, highly recommended. I felt the ending wasn't quite as satisfying as I hoped it would be, primarily I suspect because he was setting up the plot for the third book, also, I suspect, because he wanted us to care as much about the town of Tamarak as the character does (we don't). Still, really a terrific fantasy novel.
Winner Take All by Barry Eisler
Barry has re-released all his John Rain novels under new titles. I think this one was formerly Rain Storm. Anyway, it revolves around Japanese-American assassin John Rain, who is hired by the CIA to kill an arms trafficker in Macau and make it look like natural causes, Rain's specialty. Only there's another assassin there as well, and the mysterious Delilah, who if you've read any of the books that come after this one, you realize is a MOSSAD agent. For me, personally, the Rain books got significantly better when they brought in the characters of Delilah and Dox. Since they're both in this book, I found it to be a really terrific, enjoyable read, with plenty of action, nice plot twists and some fairly thought-provoking things to say about the government, intelligence, and, uh, martial arts.
The House of Hades by Rick Riordan
The 4th book in Rick's latest series, The Heroes of Olympus. There are 7 main characters and the POV shifts between them (deftly). Percy and Annabeth, in the last book's cliffhanger (sort of literally), plunged into a pit and fell into Tartarus. So there we have them, trying to cross Tartarus and stay both alive and sane. The rest of the gang, on their magical flying ship, The Argo II, are trying to get to the House of Hades to hold open The Doors of Death and rescue Percy and Annabeth, while also hoping to close the Doors of Death, because the Titan Gaea is reawakening with the intention of unleashing all the monsters and destroying Olympus and, well, life as we know it. The book ranges from very funny to deeply moving (in unexpected ways). I was very much caught by one of Percy and Annabeth's battles in Tartarus, where they were attacked by monster/vampires. If they killed one of them, the vampires would rebound any curse that had ever been sworn against them. And since Percy and Annabeth have killed lots and lots of monsters over the years who cursed them with their last breath, things don't go well. And spoiler alert: it's almost heartbreaking, because the curse that rebounds on Annabeth not only causes her to go blind, but to become convinced that Percy has abandoned her alone in Tartarus. A remarkable book and Rick hits all the right notes.
Hard Versus Soft
When and/or if you try out indie publishing, it's really useful to keep in mind the differences between a hard launch and a soft launch. For your peace of mind, if nothing else.
In the traditional publishing world, a book has approximately 6 weeks to make an impact before the brick-and-mortar booksellers return your books to the publisher to make room on the shelf. It used to be longer (and there used to be a chain store called Borders, too), but changes to the tax code 20 or so years ago treated books the same way it treated screwdrivers and wrenches and changed the taxation on warehoused retail products. This incentivized bookstores and publishers to churn books rather than keep them in a warehouse or on shelves.
The result of this is that from the day your book is launched (traditionally a Tuesday), the writer needs to hustle and sell in order to move as many books as possible for a 4-6 week period from launch. That's why review copies needed to be to newspapers and review outlets 4 or 5 months ahead of launch and why your book signings etc were all so dramatically tied into the launch date. You were trying not just to make a big splash, but to convince booksellers that you were worth stocking, and as a result, your publisher (who was already probably making decisions on your next book based on pre-orders anyway).
This is more or less true of ebooks by traditional publishers although it's probably much fuzzier, because of the simple nature of ebooks, i.e., they don't go out of print and there's no particular storage issue at warehouses.
Which is where a "soft launch" with ebooks comes in. I'd be delighted if I published a book and it sold thousands of copies on the first day (or ever, for that matter), but I do understand (intellectually, if not always emotionally) that ebooks just keep selling. I might sell a few dozen of the new book the first couple weeks, but unlike with traditional publishing where those numbers might peter out, ebooks SEEM to continue selling steadily month after month with occasional peaks and valleys tied into whatever promotion I'm doing or the phases of the moon or the launch of another book or another change in the phantom logarithms created by Amazon's computer wizards.
Whether things will change remains to be seen. I recently applied to BookBub for a promotion slot and was turned down, so I will continue doing my drip-drip-drip Chinese Water Torture thing—I tend to link my free and sales promotions to the launch of a new book, but we'll see, I'm a number of months from a new book.
I guess the point is to be aware that in the marketplace, ebook sales BEHAVE differently than traditional paper book sales. There are a lot of reasons for it. I'm sure one is simply that if I see a new book come out on ebook that is by someone I don't know but looks interesting, I will download a free sample to remind me at a later date to check it out, rather than the oh-that-looks-cool-gotta-buy-it-now thing.
China Fire - excerpts
I told myself I'd blog on Thursdays and yesterday I got swamped with work. Today, here I am. The latest novel of mine out is CHINA FIRE.
I thought I'd share a couple excerpts for your reading pleasure.
Monaco stood beneath her umbrella outside The Forbidden City, what
had once been the Emperor’s Palace. It was an astonishing complex with 9,999 rooms—or
so went the legend—architectural jewels in the middle of Beijing. The rain had
decreased to an unpleasant drizzle, but it had not kept the tourists from
visiting The Forbidden City. There were hundreds of people wandering around,
mostly leaving because the facility closed at 4:30.
studied Jingshan Park, the Pavilion of Everlasting Spring towering above her,
what had once been the highest point in Beijing. Apparently the hill it stood
on had been built from the earth removed to dig the moat around the city. She
felt slightly exposed, but what she hoped an observer would see was a tourist
looking at landmarks. And she did like the Pavilion of Everlasting Spring. It
red Mercedes taxi pulled up and the back door opened. Right at 4:00. She
slipped into the seat, folding her umbrella in after her. The Mercedes pulled
out into traffic.
man in the rear seat was younger than she expected. He smiled. “Ron Estrada,”
he said. “You’re—“
Wu,” she interrupted.
finger-combed his dark hair back off his forehead. Clean-shaven, Monaco guessed
he was maybe in his forties but looked younger. He gestured to the driver.
“He’s one of us. Don’t worry.”
Sure. Anyway, here’s the deal. Peter Lee was a NOC, a non-official cover—“
course you do. Look, we’re jumpy about this. Lee’s cover was as a
representative of AmerAsian Energy Consultants. It allowed him to be in and out
of just about anywhere he wanted to go in the country and regularly visit
China’s three oil companies.”
“As his NOC. At the oil companies and
all throughout the government agencies that deal with oil. Oil is a big deal
here. There are 1.3 billion people in this country and a lot of them are starting
to buy cars.”
“The last we heard from Lee
was a fairly cryptic message indicating he was hunting down something referred
to as China Fire. He didn’t know what it was, but he referenced what he
believed was an unidentified . . . cabal . . . consortium maybe is a better
word, between the China National Offshore Oil Corporation, Sinopec and China
National Petroleum Corporation. He called the members of this group the Three
Bats, but we have no idea why and we don’t know who they are.”
paused as their driver took them by what Monaco
recognized as the Beijing
Normal University. “Last we knew, he was going to dig a little deeper into China
Fire and this consortium—he suggested he knew there was a meeting between the
players—and that’s the last we heard of him.”
* * *
When they were fifteen feet away the
driver’s-side window of the cab rolled down. Monaco saw it was the same Chinese
driver from earlier in the day. Something was wrong. Her instincts were good
and she trusted them. She was already on the move.
driver raised a gun and fired. The gun barked twice and Estrada crumpled to the
had a hand on Richter and shoved him. The professor stumbled as another shot
sliced the air where he had stood moments before.
Monaco pulled the QSX-92 and returned fire. The driver’s gun spat again and she
felt something tug at her left bicep.
was struggling to his feet. “Stay down!” Monaco hissed. Taking careful aim, she
fired again, but the taxi driver had stomped his foot on the gas. The Mercedes
roared forward. Monaco sprinted at an angle, firing as she ran.
Mercedes was bearing down on Richter and there wasn’t a damned thing Monaco
could do about it.
a cry, Richter lunged to his feet and dived away. The Mercedes clipped his hip
and he spun and sprawled onto the pavement.
* * *
The rumbling sound had grown louder and
more distinct as they moved deeper into the tunnel. Monaco just shook her head.
thirty more yards they found out.
tunnel abruptly ended. In the glow of her flashlight Monaco saw a curtain of
water dropping past the tunnel. She thought it was some sort of water runoff
from the sewer systems. All the rain hitting the city had to go somewhere.
Beijing was dotted with lakes—Kunming, Yuyan, Lianhua, to name a few—as well as
the Jinhe River and irrigation canals. She didn’t know if this waterfall was intentional
or part of a broken sewer or waterline.
didn’t matter. They were trapped.
Cantonese, a guttural voice behind them shouted, “Hands on your heads.”
the roar of the water Monaco heard the unexpected sound of Richter’s laughter.
She stared at him. He shook his head. “Fuckin’ China. I hate this country.” He
looked at her and smiled. “’The Fugitive’ or “Butch Cassidy’?”
gripped her arm with sudden strength and launched them both out into the