‘Woman with a Blue Pencil’ – Characters in a mystery novel that is being rewritten find themselves in conflict in a world that keeps changing – #bookreview

 

 

 

Woman with a Blue Pencil

Gordon McAlpine

Seventh Street Books – paperback, Kindle

 

What if the characters in a mystery novel are alive in some other universe, and their world keeps changing, because their book, unknown to them, is being edited and rewritten?

And what if one of those characters is trying to solve a murder, but almost everything he knows or remembers, in his version of 1941 Los Angeles, keeps changing or vanishing? What if the people to whom he has been close suddenly cease to exist or no longer know who he is?

Woman with a Blue Pencil is well-written and cleverly structured. It can make you laugh with pleasure when you realize how the story will unfold along two tracks. And you can get engrossed in the actions and motivations of both main characters as their separate tracks begin to merge, and they come into conflict.

This is an intelligent murder mystery with a heart, a message and a poignant, surprise ending. It is set just before and after the Pearl Harbor attack and its aftermath, including the now roundly condemned, racism-driven mass roundup and internment of Japanese-American citizens living on the U.S. West Coast.

Behind the two tracks of story in this tale is an ambitious young Nisei (first-generation Japanese-American) writer who has been trying to get his first novel published. Now, suddenly, he has been relocated to one of the internment camps. And the woman with the blue pencil is his book editor in New York. She keeps trying to help him come up with a new plot that replaces his now-unsalable Japanese protagonist with a Korean-American one, plus create a strong, Western-sounding pseudonym that the author can hide behind once his book goes to market in World War II America.

One word sums up this novel-within-novel: Brilliant.

Si Dunn

 

 

 

 

Idyll Threats: In 1997, a small-town police chief must solve a murder that can expose his deepest secret – #bookreview

 

Idyll Threats

Stephanie Gayle

Seventh Street Bookspaperback, Kindle

Recent and seemingly rapid changes in American society may make some potential readers of this book wonder why it is a big deal that a police chief would try to hide being gay.

However, America was a much different world in 1997, when this series-debut novel is set. And society today is still not so open and accepting in many of the nation’s smaller towns, as recent news events have shown.

Police Chief Thomas Lynch loves his new job, but after leaving the New York Police Department following the death of his partner, he is having to adjust to being in a town where serious crime almost never happens. When a murder suddenly happens and Chief Lynch discovers he recognizes the victim, he knows he is now caught up in a very difficult situation for his career.

If he reveals how and where he saw her just hours before she was killed, he will have a lot to explain, and his sexual orientation immediately will be revealed. So he must try to solve the case mostly on his own, amid increasing pressure from the mayor and rising suspicions among some of the police officers he oversees.

Author Stephanie Gayle writes clear, concise, short sentences that flow smoothly and create detailed pictures in the reader’s mind. And, by setting the series opener in 1997, she has left herself plenty of room to develop her complex main character as American society, at least in some areas, gradually becomes more open and accepting in the background.

Si Dunn

 

 

 

THE RELUCTANT MATADOR: Can you have too many good things in one novel? – #mystery #bookreview

 

The Reluctant Matador

A Hugo Marston Mystery

Mark Pryor

Seventh Street Books – paperback, Kindle

I have been a steady Hugo Marston fan since the debut novel for the series, The Bookseller, appeared in 2012. But I will be honest about this fifth book. As much as I like and admire Mark Pryor’s mystery fiction, I am a bit reluctant to recommend The Reluctant Matador as your first encounter with his excellent investigator, Hugo Marston, head of security at the U.S. embassy in Paris. The Reluctant Matador moves at a slower pace and with more subplot distractions than I prefer in stories where the good guy supposedly is racing against the clock as he (or she) chases down the bad guys.

If you are looking for a new investigator series to take up, I heartily endorse Mark Pryor’s Hugo Marston. Thus, get The Reluctant Matador and keep it handy. But start reading earlier in the series first. The Bookseller and The Button Man remain my two Hugo Marston favorites. And there is plenty to like in The Crypt Thief and The Blood Promise, as well. (Actually, “start at the beginning” often is a good approach for taking up any mystery series).

It is always possible, of course, to have too much of a good thing. And this is what I think slows The Reluctant Matador down a bit, at least for me: Too many interesting characters and too much interesting detail within a very interesting and apparently very laid-back city: Barcelona. (And why, really, are we in Spain now? Isn’t Hugo supposed to be helping keep our Paris embassy secure?)

In The Reluctant Matador, the 19-year-old daughter of an old friend has gone missing in Paris, so Hugo Marston agrees to try to help find her. The sparse clues left behind soon lead him to Barcelona and the realization that the young woman’s life definitely is in danger and the clock is ticking. But there also is a murder and other terrifying issues to complicate the plot and the urgent quest. And the young woman’s father, meanwhile, has taken things into his own hands and gotten himself jailed in Spain. And the Barcelona police and underworld have some interesting characters. And Hugo Marston’s investigator buddy, Tom Green, an ex-CIA agent, is supposedly helping out but also being a bit of a drunken, obnoxious lout. And several women want to sleep with Hugo. And…

And, inexplicably, I began thinking about The Canterbury Tales and The Pilgrim’s Progress about two-thirds of the way through The Reluctant Matador. We keep ambling forward in our quest, picking up more and more characters and their stories as we go.

Many readers, of course, likely will be charmed by Mark Pryor’s mini-portraits of Barcelona. It  does comes across as a very appealing locale. But, is there really time for some sightseeing and a siesta and some bantering with the locals when the hours and minutes rapidly are running out on a life held in deadly captivity?

If you are already a Mark Pryor fan, definitely read The Reluctant Matador. There is much to like in this book, and the writer clearly has put plenty of effort, creativity, research and talent into producing it. On the other hand, if you are new to Hugo Marston and want a fast-paced mystery thriller, you might think this one moves too slowly and decide to ignore the four other books in Pryor’s series. Don’t do that. Read the others and read this one. But read at least one of his earlier works first.

Si Dunn

 

STONE COLD DEAD: In this third Ellie Stone mystery, the ‘girl reporter’ digs deeply into a dark case – #mystery #bookreview

 

Stone Cold Dead

An Ellie Stone Mystery

James W. Ziskin 

Seventh Street Books – paperback, Kindle

 

Ellie Stone is a skilled investigator at a time when women are still expected to mainly stay home and take care of their families. The year is 1961, and local citizens call Ellie as “that girl reporter.”She works for a small newspaper in a mill town in Upstate New York.

When someone is murdered or disappears, Ellie often is sought out by relatives of the dead or missing, especially when they think the local police may not be giving their loved one’s case enough attention.

Indeed, in the first two novels of the Ellie Stone series, the “girl reporter” has been gaining a reputation as a good investigative reporter and crime reporter, as well as amateur detective. That story line continues in Stone Cold Dead, James W. Ziskin’s well-written third Ellie Stone mystery.

Despite her local fame, however, Ellie remains a clear victim of gender discrimination in the news room. Her editors keep trying to assign her to stories involving bake sales, society happenings, Scout meetings, weddings and other “women’s news” events. And Ellie keeps pushing back against the long-traditional male dominance of “hard news” reporting. Sometimes she resists to the point that her job is put in jeopardy.

Of course, job attitudes hardly matter at all when you have asked one too many questions and suddenly talked your way into a life-threating situation. Ellie is good at this. Her curiosity, her probing and her desire to keep showing she can compete with the guys sometimes gets her too far out in front of safety and common sense.

James W. Ziskin is an excellent storyteller who offers up more detail and dialogue than many other mystery writers provide. He also lets his “I” character have more time for introspection and internal debate than is common in investigator stories. This lets us see more deeply into process of how Ellie solves a case.

Ziskin also writes convincingly about what life was like in the newsroom of a 1960s newspaper and out on the small-town streets. I worked as a young reporter for several small-town newspapers in the mid-1960s. And there was a very clear gender divide. Women covered “women’s news,” while guys got to cover the “cop shop” and sheriff’s department, prominent murder trials, fatal car wrecks, plane crashes, shootings, fires, and other “big”news events.

Stone Cold Dead spans 313 pages in paperback. A 15-year-old girl slips out of her junior-high school bus while it is stopped and disappears. Clues left behind point to the likelihood she has run away to be with a young lover. But as Ellie keeps questioning people and piecing together a trail, she realizes that several darker outcomes are becoming possible. And her own life is in danger, too.

Si Dunn

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A new mystery from Terry Shames: ‘A Deadly Affair at Bobtail Ridge’ – #bookreview #mystery

A Deadly Affair at Bobtail Ridge

Terry Shames

(Seventh Street – paperback, Kindle)

The title may be a bit too folksy and over the top for a few hard-core mystery lovers. But the Samuel Craddock investigative series by Terry Shames does an excellent job of capturing the sights, sounds, speech patterns, customs, mannerisms and values of many people in contemporary East Texas, an area of the state that identifies more closely with the Deep South than with the Wild West. And her central character, Samuel Craddock, is both a retired small-town police chief and someone people still quickly turn to for help when there’s trouble.

Even in bucolic East Texas, trouble is always brewing somewhere nearby. And, despite his age and a bad knee, Samuel Craddock can be counted on to try to help, whether it’s defusing bad-blood tensions between two people or two families or, central to each book, tracking down a killer. He knows many people and knows something of their histories. But he is frequently surprised by what happens within the undercurrents that flow through seemingly tranquil small towns and their surrounding countryside.

A Deadly Affair at Bobtail Ridge is the fourth novel in Ms. Shames’s fast-expanding series. Her previous Samuel Craddock mystery,  Dead Broke in Jarrett Creek, was published just six months ago (October, 2014). And it saw Craddock coming out of retirement to take over again, temporarily, as Jarrett Creek’s police chief.

In Deadly Affair, Craddock is still on the job from which he previously retired. And now he is having to go out of his jurisdiction to investigate a complicated case involving a death and a very close friend who isn’t telling him the whole truth about her background.

Terry Shames grew up in East Texas and knows how to make her fictionalized settings and characters come alive.  If you are looking for a new, different and engrossing investigator to follow, slow down, relax a bit and mosey along with Samuel Craddock as he sets out to solve yet another mysterious death.

Si Dunn

 

Little Nation and Other Stories: A noteworthy collection with focuses on key Chicano themes – #fiction #bookreview

Little Nation

 Little Nation and Other Stories

Alejandro Morales

Translated from the Spanish by Adam Spires

Arte Público Press – paperback

At least four key themes infuse the well-written short stories in this important collection: identity, injustice, marginalization, and the Chicano community’s seemingly endless search for space it can comfortably call “home.” The stories’ author, Alejandro Morales, has penned several novels, including River of Angels, and is a professor at the University of California at Irvine.

In an excellent essay that precedes the collection, translator Adam Spires explores both the long writing career of Morales and Morales’s strong focus on economic inequality, borders and “the lifeblood of two worlds merging to form a third country–a border culture….”

Spires writes that “nowhere is the economic imbalance more ruthless than at the border itself, where multi-nationals set up their interim maquiladoras to exploit a disadvantaged Mexican workforce. Arguably,” Spires contends, “the only thing worse than poverty is poverty surrounded by abundant wealth: high-tech wealth, drug cartel wealth and the alluring Gringo wealth on the other side. The social costs at the margins of the global economy are staggering, and it is here that Morales fixes his gaze and takes up his pen, chronicling the extremes of injustice in a body of work distinguished by its poignant portrayal of spatial dynamics and social disparities.”

Morales also is a master at portraying everyday people and situations within a Chicano community in Los Angeles County. Some of his stories are warm and gentle, such as “Mama Concha,” in which a young boy enjoys what his grandmother is teaching him about loving the land and the fruits and vegetable it can produce. Other stories in the collection deal with troubling situations. And some deal head-on with shocking violence.

Overall, however, Little Nation and Other Stories is infused with currents of hope for the future of Chicano communities and appreciation for the people who live there.

Si Dunn

Bendición: The complete (and excellent) poems of a Manhattan Puerto Rican poet – #poetry #bookreview

Bendicion Covers qx_5.5

Bendición

The Complete Poetry of Tato Laviera

Arte Público Presspaperback

Before his death in 2013 at age 54, Manhattan poet Tato Laviera achieved fame both for his excellent performance poetry and for his strong advocacy of Puerto Rico as an important part of American life and culture.

Laviera was born in Puerto Rico and had some of his early schooling there. But he spent much of his life living and working in New York City. He had several books published, including Enclave, winner of the American Book Award. And a number of his plays were produced in New York City and Chicago.

Bendición is an excellent tribute to Laviera’s writing skills and style. His poems often are in English, but sometimes in Spanish, and sometimes in delightful mixtures of English and Spanish.

Laviera believed that being positive has important powers, even as he stood up strongly and vocally for those in racial and economic minorities in America.

“If there is anyone conspicuously absent from Tato’s cosmology,” writes Nicholás Kanellos in his preface to Bendición, “it is those New Yorkers who reign in board rooms and penthouses, the ‘one-percenters’ who ignore or disdain the lives that command Tato’s and our attention and compassion. Tato focuses fifty stories below to his fellow street-level survivors, hailing from all parts of the world and struggling to eke out a living in cramped sweatshops, dank factories, steamy kitchens or in the cacophony and miasma of the streets.”

But Laviera also was “a poet of love” and a very good one, indeed, Kanellos emphasizes.

Along with being a “complete” collection of published works, Bendición contains a number of Tato Laviera’s previously unpublished poems.

If you like poetry and American poets, this book can be a real eye-opener. How did you previously miss Tato Laviera’s fine, clear voice that is edged with very some mixed roots: Puerto Rico and its American possessor, plus Africa and Europe?

Si Dunn

The Valley – Estampas del valle: Now in bilingual paperback for the first time – #bookreview

The-Valley-350x550

The Valley / Estampas del valle

Rolando Hinojosa

(Arte Público Press – paperback)

The long-turbulent Texas-Mexico border is in the news once again. So this is a timely moment to introduce or reintroduce readers to the famed Klail City Death Trip Series, fifteen books written by Rolando Hinojosa. The series is in a mythical Texas county on America’s southern frontier, in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

The first book in that series, The Valley, introduces readers to life in Belken County, where Anglo Texans and Mexican Texans live side by side, and people die, or encounter death, on nearly every page. Their stories of everyday events, including love, weddings, births, friendships, affairs, discrimination and dying, are told mostly in short, well-written vignettes that cover the time period generally from World War I to 1970.

Arte Público Press recently has published the first bilingual, English-Spanish edition of The Valley, which initially appeared as Estampas del Valle in the early 1970s. And this is a noteworthy literary event for fans of both Hispanic literature and American literature in general.

Rolando Hinojosa’s fictional Belken County has been compared very favorably with William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County and with Gabriel García Márquez’s fictional city, Macondo, in One Hundred Years of Solitude. Klail City is just one of several fictional towns in that appear as settings in Hinojosa’s imaginary county.

Hinojosa has spent his entire–lengthy–writing career bringing new characters, situations and locations to the Death Trip Series. And his books have won numerous prestigious writing awards, including The National Book Critics Circle Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award and, in 1976, the most prestigious prize in Latin American Fiction, Casa de las Américanas, for the best  Spanish American novel. He is now a professor of creative writing at the University of Texas in Austin.

Si Dunn

 

Go APE (Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur) with Guy Kawasaki & Shawn Welch – #bookreview #amwriting

APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur—How to Publish a Book
Guy Kawasaki and Shawn Welch
(Nononina Press,
Kindle)

Okay, confession time. I know a bit about the book business—what used to be the book business.

Years ago, I was a freelance developmental book editor for a trio of well-known publishing houses; I’ve had a couple of book agents; books I wrote have been put into print by not-so-major publishers (and later dropped out of print); I’ve written hundreds of book reviews; and I’ve self-published a few books and ebooks: nonfiction, fiction and poetry.

To misquote the late actor-comedian W.C. Fields, on the whole, I’d rather be in self-publishing now.  There isn’t much of an alternative.

And not just basic self-publishing but artisanal self-publishing, which Guy Kawasaki and Shawn Welch define, in their well-written and well-designed new book, as “a new, cool form of publishing…authors lovingly crafting their books with total control over the process.”

Many writers, of course, already are trying to do that, often with abysmal results, because it’s not enough to commit a book to print (or its digital equivalent) and then wait for the world to recognize your genius and surge forward to buy it on Amazon.

To succeed in self-publishing, you really do have to be, as Kawasaki and Welch contend, an APE: an author, a publisher, and an entrepreneur. 

With APE, Kawasaki and Welch aim to “help people take control of their writing careers by publishing their books. The thesis of APE is simple but powerful: When a self-publisher successfully fills three roles—author, publisher and entrepreneur—the potential benefits are greater than with traditional publishing.”

There’s plenty of truth in that. Three publishers turned down my Vietnam War memoir Dark Signals, even after it received a prestigious award. And several other publishers did not bother to respond to my queries. So I published it myself as a CreateSpace paperback and Kindle ebook, both available through Amazon.

It has not been a runaway best-seller; I knew from the outset that I was writing for a limited audience: readers of military memoirs. Yet several hundred copies have been ordered thus far. And a book that I really needed to push out of my soul finally is out there for posterity, with five-star reviews.

No doubt I could have sold more copies at the outset if I had had APE in hand. Knowing the traditional book business is one thing. Knowing the new ways of book creation and marketing are quite another.   

Filling the three roles — author, publisher and entrepreneur — is “challenging, but they are not impossible—especially if people who have done it before explain it to you.” That’s the key premise behind APE. Kawasaki, a successful author, has become a successful self-publisher with help from Shawn Welch, and together, they are now offering up their hard-earned secrets in a 300-page book that many authors will want to read, repeatedly.

Indeed, many of us likely will value APE as a Chicago Manual of Style for self-publishing that also has entertaining writing and dozens of how-to tips thrown in for added value. APE is comprehensive. And it’s very realistic about what it takes to succeed as a self-published author.

Three points in particular stand out for me.

  1. Yes, I have been a professional editor and proofreader of books. But I still should never do the final edits and proofreading of my own text. (Neither should you.) “The self-edited author is as foolish as the self-medicated patient,” Guy Kawasaki points out. Indeed, I have had to create new editions of at least two of my ebooks, because I found glaring typos that I had completely overlooked while doing my “final” edits. As Kawasaki notes: “The going rate for copyediting is $35 per hour, and copyeditors can work their magic at the rate of roughly ten pages per hour (although this can vary depending on the complexity of the material), so you’ll pay approximately $1,000–$1,500 for a three-hundred-page manuscript. This is one of the dumbest places to try to save money, because poor copyediting destroys the quality of your book.” (Unfortunately, you will have to sell a lot of ebooks to cover that cost.)
  2. At least two of my CreateSpace books have boring covers. I am not a graphic artist, and I should not attempt to save money in the future by “designing” my own book covers or settling for one of the available “standard” covers. As Kawasaki notes: “Not to get too metaphysical, but a cover is a window into the soul of your book. In one quick glance, it needs to tell the story of your book and attract people to want to read it. Unless you’re a professional, hire a professional to create a great cover because, in spite of how the old saying goes, you can judge a book by its cover. Or at very least, people will judge a book by its cover.”
  3. While I have dabbled at business for many years, I am not much of an entrepreneur. And I don’t have the soul of a self-promoting guerilla marketer. I grew up believing modesty is a virtue. (Or, perhaps I merely had that notion spanked into my britches when I was an Eisenhower-era kid.) In any case, when my first books were published, others hired by the publishers did the editing, bragging, selling and distribution. Sometimes I talked to small groups of people and signed a few autographs. But mostly, I just stayed home, started a new project, and waited for the (small) checks to arrive. Now, in APE’s chapter on “How to Build an Enchanting Personal Brand,” Kawasaki states: “Call me idealistic, but your platform is only as good as your reality. If you suck as a person, your platform will suck too.” Cool. Memo to self: Improve personal enchantment platform immediately. (By the way, Guy and Shawn, I would add a comma between “suck” and “too.” You’re welcome.) Seriously, if we self-publish books, we have to sell ourselves to readers, right along with, and often ahead of, our books. And the eight chapters of APE’s “Entrepreneur” section provide excellent guidelines on how to do that.

Even if you already know a lot about self-publishing and self-marketing books, if you’ll go APE, you can learn some profitable new tricks from Guy Kawasaki and Shawn Welch.

Si Dunn

Microsoft Manual of Style (4th Ed.) – Improve your technical communications – #bookreview

Microsoft Manual of Style
Microsoft Corp.
(Microsoft Press, paperback, list price $29.99; Kindle edition, list price $23.99)

Good writers know they need more help than they can find in a dictionary and a thesaurus. So they often have collections of reference books that include such works as the Chicago Manual of Style, the MLA Handbook and the Associated Press Stylebook.

Consider adding one more specialized stylebook to your collection, particularly if you: (1) you write about, or teach, computer technology; (2) if you are a technical writer assigned to create product manuals for software or hardware; or (3) if you work as an editor of technical articles and technical books.

Microsoft Press recently has released the 4th edition of its Microsoft Manual of Style. This updated edition “includes guidelines for wired and global audience, cloud computing, publication on devices, social media, search engine optimization (SEO), and the natural user interface (NUI).”

The Microsoft Manual of Style is a well-structured and useful guide that can help you improve the clarity, accuracy and style consistency of your technology writing and editing.

The book also offers useful guidelines for global English syntax and machine translation syntax. And its glossary defines more than one thousand terms and acronyms.

These are, of course, times of very rapid change for technology and its terminology. So this latest printed edition of the style manual is, “by necessity, a snapshot” and “by nature a work in progress,” its editors concede.

They emphasize how examples in the book “are labeled as ‘Microsoft Style’ and ‘Not Microsoft Style’ rather than as ‘Correct’ and ‘Incorrect.’ We don’t want to presume to say that the Microsoft way is the only correct way. It’s simply the guidance that we follow in our workplace. In sharing it with others, we hope that the decisions we have made for our content professionals will help you in your own efforts to promote consistency, clarity, and accuracy.”

They have tried to include “as many relevant neologisms as possible” – new words and phrases or new meanings for old terms, recently pushed to the fore by new technology. For example, “[g]esture guidelines for the natural user interface (NUI) introduce what have been non-technical words such as flick, pinch, and tap into the realm of technical documentation.”

A minor ding: the book’s index and usage guides both seem slightly incomplete. For example, in the Introduction, the editors state: “In the world of cloud computing, we now include terabyte (TB), petabyte (PB), and on up to yottabyte (YB), or 1024.” Yet, only terabyte and TB show up in the index and usage guide. PB and YB seem to be missing in action in both areas.

Also, the book spends two pages (16 and 17) explaining (beneath a “Parallelism” heading) how parallelism is used in Microsoft instructional manuals. “Parallelism is ensuring that elements of sentences that are similar in purpose are also similar in structure.” Yet, “parallelism” is not in the index. The term “parallel structure” appears in its place, instead.

These small glitches are not deal breakers. They simply highlight what was stated earlier, that a stylebook is a work always in progress. (Perhaps the fixes will be added in edition five?)

This 4th edition of the Microsoft Manual of Style is rich with information, examples, guidance and definitions. If you write or edit computer-related technology materials, you need it on your reference shelf.

Si Dunn‘s latest book is a detective novel, Erwin’s Law. His other published works include Jump, a novella, and a book of poetry, plus several short stories, including The 7th Mars Cavalry, all available on Kindle. He is a screenwriter, a freelance book reviewer and a former technical writer and software/hardware QA test specialist.