Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Review of Southeast Asia Quartet

I'm featuring another book review by Pat Browning today. Hope you enjoy it.

Kindle E-book 2012
Picture this: A dinner party at the residence of the American Deputy Chief of Mission in Singapore . Guests are Robbie Cutler, fresh from the basic diplomatic course at the Foreign Service Institute in Arlington , Virginia ; James McLarty, Third Secretary from the British High Commission; French Vice Consul Etienne Marigot and his wife, Suzanne; Russian trade attaché Basil Kamirkoff; and Emily Brook, a teacher at the American International School .
When talk turns to Singapore ’s wealth of material for writers and storytellers, Basil says: “After all, we are Russian, French, British (don’t quibble McLarty!), and American. That covers the greats of short story writing ... Chekhov, Maupassant, Maugham and O.Henry. I propose we start a story club, here and now."
That’s the setup for four intriguing stories that may be partly imaginary but are rooted in truth.
Robbie spins a tale of a love triangle and a murderous rage fueled by the fruit of the durian tree, a popular but ugly, foul-smelling fruit said to be a great aphrodisiac.
McLarty and Emily share the story of a climbing expedition up Mount Kinabulu in Borneo, and of exploring Kinabalu National Park . The park is home to the tree-dwelling great ape, the Orang Utan, "an animal that shares 97% of homo sapiens' DNA." The heart of McLarty’s story is his dream of an encounter with a family of Orang Utans.
Marigot’s story takes us back to 1954 and the fall of Dien Bien Phu, which sounds the death knell for French colonialism. Years later, when Marigot is about 10 years old, a T’ai woman shows up at his grandparents’ house with personal items left by Marigot’s grandfather when he escaped from VietNam. The family welcomes her. Grandfather Marigot’s poignant story, which his family hears for the first time, reveals the utter madness of war.
Basil tells the legendary story of Jim Thompson, the “Thai silk king.” Thompson was an OSS officer in World War II, later a CIA agent and finally a Bangkok businessman. In 1967 he went on holiday with friends to the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia . One afternoon he walked into the jungle to look for rare orchids and was never heard from again.
Basil takes the story that far, and leaves it up to the other storytellers to offer their opinions on what really happened to Jim Thompson. That’s a real-life guessing game that still continues.
Jim Thompson’s house is a national museum, and two YouTube videos portray his life and legacy. There are gorgeous photos of his house and a dinner party/reception, scenes of silk weavers at work in the Thai Silk Company and tourists shopping for silk.
YouTube URLs:
Jim Thompson - The Man and the Legend Part 1
Jim Thompson – The Man and the Legend Part 2
Review by Pat Browning


Saturday, July 14, 2012

American Idol for Writers

This week I had the opportunity to observe the American Idol auditions in Chicago. Approximately 10,000 people showed up at the auditions. Of those 10,000, half were registered contestants and the other half were guests of the contestants. Lines starting forming at 4 AM outside the stadium where the auditions were held. By 9 AM when the doors opened, the huge crowd was more than ready to have the auditions begin. It appeared as if the average time afforded each contestant was two minutes, and sometimes less. Friends of mine who were also there remarked on the quality of the competition. There were many fine voices in the crowd, many good musicians. But as expected, most of the competitors were turned away. I don't know how many people were given the chance to go on to a second audition, but I'm betting it was less than a hundred.

While waiting for my ride afterwards, I struck up a conversation with an older gentleman who worked at the stadium. I remarked on the number of contestants who showed up that day, and he said, "They're all following their dream. If I was 30 years younger, I'd have been right there with them."

His remark got me to thinking. How many of us really have the courage to follow our dreams? What excuses do we give for not doing what we really want to do? I recently got an email from an old friend who quit her job and moved to North Carolina to pursue her love of art. What caused her to make the move was a recent cancer scare. After years of working full time as a nurse while painting in every free moment she could find, she decided to give herself the chance to succeed in the field she loved most. I applaud her courage in making a change for the better. I know she'll be happier now and that's what really matters in life.

When I first started writing, I never dreamed I'd be published. I wrote A Deadly Little Christmas (now published as A Merry Little Murder) more as a cathartic exercise than anything else. It was my way of purging the demons that arose with the death of my dad and continued through my mother's and sister's illnesses. It was only after some friends of mine read the manuscript and liked it that I took a chance and sent it off to an editor and then to several agents. I jumped through all the hoops put in place by the publishing establishment and waited, and waited, and waited for good news to arrive. Eventually it did, and the book was published, but not by a major publisher. Still, it received some kind reviews, so I wrote a second book with the same characters. Eventually I had four books in what would become the "Rhodes to Murder" series.

The first two books in the series are still available in print and e-book format from Echelon Press. But the last two books have been out of print for years. My dream was to see them back on the shelves and available to readers. The revolution in publishing has now made that possible. Ten days ago I submitted a revised edition of the third book, To Kill A King, to Amazon for publication as an e-book through their Kindle Direct Publishing program. And tonight I submitted the same book to Barnes & Noble for their Pubit! program for Nook-capable e-books. My next move will be to see it back in a print format for readers who enjoy books they can hold in their hands.

It wasn't all that long ago that writers who self-published their books were frowned upon by the establishment. Today, everybody's doing it, including authors previously, or even still, published by one of the Big Six publishers. More writers are having the courage to follow their dreams, resurrecting back lists and publishing earlier manuscripts that at one time didn't quite fit a publisher's needs. It's all been made easier, thanks to digital publishing companies like KDP and Pubit!

It's a brave new world for the book industry. Smart writers are jumping on the self-publishing bandwagon in ever increasing numbers and often earning a better percentage of royalties than what they got from traditional publishers.

I'm following my dream as a writer. Are you following your dream?



Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Unexpected Friendships

This is a picture of my friend Ellen from New Jersey. If asked to describe herself, Ellen would say she's a wife, mother, genealogy addict, and mystery addict. It was that last obsession that brought us together in 1999.

At the time, Ellen was working in a bookstore in Morris County.   A dedicated reader of murder and mayhem, she'd signed up to attend Malice Domestic, a Washington, D.C. convention for fans of traditional mysteries as typified by the novels of Agatha Christie (no explicit sex or excessive gore or violence). I had also registered for the con, and had driven to Washington with my husband, who planned to do the tourist thing while I was hobnobbing with other mystery fans at Malice.

Mary Higgins Clark was the guest of honor that year at Malice. While the other attending authors gathered as a group to sign books bought by their fans, Ms. Clark's fame was so great that she was accorded her own time and room in which to sign, that room being the grand ballroom. When it came her time to sign books, her fan line wound serpentine-like through the ballroom, and extended out the doorway and down the hall almost to the hotel lobby. As you can guess, it took forever to get a book signed that afternoon.

But I couldn't complain, because Ellen was the person in front of me in that line, and during the course of our slow stroll down the corridor and through the ballroom, we went from strangers to friends, with much in common both mystery-wise and life-wise. Later that evening, Fred and I joined Ellen and her husband Kevin at dinner. The two men hit it off immediately. Pretty soon we were making plans to see each other again at Deadly Ink, a mystery con held in Parsippany, New Jersey.

Thirteen years have passed since we first met, and in that time Ellen and I have become good friends, exchanging news of our families in emails and visiting each other in New Jersey and the Chicago area several times. I was thrilled when Ellen recently emailed to say she and Kev were coming to town for a wedding. We arranged to meet during their visit, and this past Saturday we did exactly that. 

We last saw each other six years ago, but as Ellen remarked while we hugged hello, it seems like it was only a few short months ago. We easily fell into the kind of conversation you only have with intimate friends. Ellen and Kev regaled us with a hilarious story of their trip to Costa Rica for their son Kyle's wedding. Fred and I then told them about our son Matt's fantastic wedding weekend at Cumberland Falls, Kentucky. Afterwards, while the men talked politics and business, Ellen and I oohed and aahed over our two sons' wedding photos, caught up on our other kids' doings, and of course talked books.

And when it came to books, we discovered we have more than we knew in common. Ellen was checking out the books in my bedroom bookcase and pointed to the top shelf where I have several Miss Read novels. She laughed and said, "I have that one, too. And that one, and..." It turned out she owned most if not all of the Miss Read novels after buying them at a library sale. If you don't know Miss Read, let me just say her books are comfort reads about two towns in England and the people who call those places home. I turn to the author's Thrush Green series in times of high stress, and always close a book feeling more at peace with myself. Then Ellen pointed to another series I own, an old set of baseball mysteries by Crabbe Evers. It turns out she owns those books, too.

Baseball and Thrush Green. You can't get farther apart than that when it comes to books. But both of us love those novels, and to me, it only shows how much the two of us think alike. I consider myself lucky to know Ellen. She has a gentle heart, a loving attitude, and a ready smile. What more could anyone want in a friend?

Ours was an unexpected friendship that began with a chance meeting in a signing line. How about you? Have you ever had the good fortune to make a new friend in a totally unexpected way? If so, I'd love to hear your story. You can relate it here, or comment on my timeline on Facebook.

And oh, yes, I have to say, Mary Higgins Clark has no idea how much I appreciate having had to wait all that time for her to sign my book. :)


Monday, July 2, 2012

Today I welcome author and book reviewer Pat Browning to Cicero's Children. Pat's latest novel is ABSINTHE OF MALICE.

Here's how the book is described on Amazon:

'Old crimes come back to haunt a small California town in this intriguing urban cozy. ABSINTHE OF MALICE introduces Penny Mackenzie, Lifestyle reporter for The Pearl Outrider, and a cast of unforgettable characters who find their lives turned upside down when old secrets and new secrets all come to light after a chance discovery of a skeleton in a cotton field leads to murder...and romance.'

Pat has been reviewing books for several years and enjoys sharing those reviews with readers around the world. She has graciously consented to post several of her reviews here on Cicero's Children. This first  review is of an upcoming title scheduled for release later this month.

THE FEAR ARTIST by Timothy Hallinan
ISBN-10: 1616951125
ISBN-13: 978-1616951122
Publication Date: July 17, 2012
Available for Pre-order

The setting is Bangkok during the worst monsoon season in 60 years. All Poke Rafferty plans to do is paint the apartment while his wife, Rose, and daughter, Miaow, are away visiting Rose’s family. But as he backs out of the paint store he’s hit from behind and knocked down by a mortally wounded man. The man gasps three words-- “Helen. Eckersley. Cheyenne .” He thrusts a laundry tag into Poke’s pocket and dies.
Thus purely by accident, Poke is caught in an assassination scenario against a backdrop of  Washington D.C. 's fear that the Muslim uprising in Thailand could open a new Islamic terror front. Cops converge on the scene, whisk the dead man out of sight and haul Poke down to the station for interrogation. Who was the man? What did he say to Poke? Were they partners in some nefarious scheme?
Finally released, Poke goes to the Expat Bar to settle his nerves. When he gets home he’s ambushed by two men in uniform and hauled before an icy character named Major Shen. After a contentious grilling by Shen, Poke finds that his apartment has been searched. It’s the beginning of systematic harassment and surveillance.
Poke heads to the No Name Bar, where spooks gather, and latches onto Vladimir , a melancholy Russian who “looks the way a Gypsy violin sounds.” Vladimir and his tablemates sell information. They identify “the fear artist” as a killing machine named Murphy, a veteran of the Phoenix Program, a counterinsurgency program run by the CIA during the Vietnam War.

One of the things I've always liked about Timothy Hallinan's novels is that he gives his villains a trace of humanity. So it is with Murphy. He’s brutal beyond belief. His specialty is cutting; he’s an expert at long, very shallow cuts that reduce his victim to jelly. Ugly though he is, I feel a glimmer of sympathy for him. He’s getting older, he’s tired, and he wants out of the game. He could easily disappear into a simpler life, but he won’t abandon his daughter, Treasure, one of the oddest characters to show up in fiction.
A more sympathetic character is Arthit, Poke’s recently widowed cop friend. He advises Poke to stay under the radar and lead a normal life. In one of the funniest episodes in this otherwise grim situation, Poke hides in plain sight.
He takes advantage of his mother’s Asian genes to disguise himself as a Thai. He cuts his hair and borrows dark makeup from Miaow’s drama teacher. He enlists the help of a doctor friend who keeps uniformed doctors and nurses in moving cars at all times, switching back and forth to outsmart Bangkok’s traffic. Poke becomes “Just another dark-skinned guy idling along in the back of a car.”
Desperate for money but afraid to use banks or ATM machines, Poke gets word to his father, an old spook, that he needs help. The money is delivered by Ming Li, Poke’s teenaged half-sister. She’s ready for action and even Poke is impressed. Their father has trained her as an “asset,” and she turns out to be exactly that.
The murder of the man at the paint store has global implications, with Poke’s investigation uncovering gruesome details of events in Vietnam and the United States , always leading back to Asia . Just when I think Hallinan has taken the story as far as it can go, he slips in another sinister character and pulls it all together in a surprise ending.
The rain never stops throughout this novel. In a note from Hallinan, he says: “I tried throughout for a symbiotic relationship between the torrential rain and the rising flood waters, on one hand, and the shadowy, largely secret conflict on the other. They both kill a lot of innocent people, and with no intentional malice. Of course, the lack of malice is small comfort to the survivors of the dead.”
THE FEAR ARTIST is written in present tense, which I usually don’t like. In this case, however, it ramps up the suspense and I got into the rhythm of it with no problem. THE FEAR ARTIST will surely pick up some major awards when the 2013 award season rolls around.

Reviewed by Pat Browning, author of ABSINTHE OF MALICE