Friday, September 27, 2013

Cephalopod Coffeehouse: London Boulevard by Ken Bruen

"After I showered, I cracked a brewski and got dressed. Kept it casual. Sweatshirt and jeans. My nose was still aching, but I could live with it. Gant was hovering on the outskirts of my mind. The mental threads one makes are tenuous and treacherous. I dredged up a line. 
It's not about hatred, it's about absolute devastation." (London Boulevard, Page 164)
Welcome back everyone to September's round of the Cephalopod Coffeehouse. If you're here for the first time, the Sisterhood is glad to have you along, and feel free to visit any of the other reviews in the links below.

My choice this week is a novel I received as a freebie from my local writers' group. They have a raffle at the end of each meeting and give away about twenty books. By the time my number was called, the pickings were pretty slim, so I ended up with Ken Bruen's crime thriller London Boulevard. If you hop over to The Random Book Review you'll see I chose a denser, more literary novel with The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, so it's good that I ended up with Bruen's book to review here. You'll see why in a second.

To lay a little groundwork, I'll start with the blurb on the front flap. If you don't like to know a little backstory right up front, then you can skip over this part.
When Mitchell is released from prison after serving three years for a vicious attack he doesn't even remember, Billy Norton is there to pick him up. But Norton works for Tommy Logan, a ruthless loan shark lowlife with plans Mitchell wants nothing to do with. Attempting to stay out of Logan's way, he finds work at the Holland Park mansion of faded movie actress Lillian Palmer, where he has to deal with her mysterious butler, Jordan. It isn't long before Mitchell's violent past catches up with him and people start getting hurt. When his disturbed sister Briony is threatened, Mitchell is forced to act.
Hmm...where to start. After reading the blurb again, I don't even remember who Tommy Logan is from the story (and I just finished this book a few days ago). The man Mitchell has a "hard-on" for (as it's put in the book) is a man by the name of Gant. This isn't good if I'm already getting lost when it comes to the characters in the story.

Overall, I'd say I had two annoying issues with this book. Grant it, the book is fast-paced, definitely filled with crime, sex, and bad guys (and now I'm wondering why there weren't really any good guys...), and gives you a sucker punch with how ruthless the main character seems to be. And that's problem number one for me. In the beginning of the story, Mitchell is released from a three year stint in prison for aggravated assault. The first person to say he'll become a repeat offender is the warden, and right away I wanted to root for him, thinking that he'll beat the odds.


Mitchell leaves prison and commits about twenty other crimes (maybe even more, but I lost count) before the story comes to an end. One right away in the first chapter when he breaks a window washer's arm. I figured there had to be some redeeming quality to this character. Maybe he's not into drugs? No. Okay, maybe he's not into illegal firearms? Wrong again. How about not using those illegal firearms to plug a kid in the knees with four bullets? Again, no. Let's see...he's not a womanizer? Considering the fact that he proposes to one woman while he's still going at it with another on the side, I'd have to disagree on this one as well. There was absolutely nothing I liked about Mitchell's character and that was extremely disappointing for me. I stopped rooting for him about a third of the way through the novel, knowing he was on a downward spiral. But here's the thing: He finds out he didn't commit the crime that sent him to prison in the first place, and yet he still continues to live like some sadistic criminal. I just didn't get it.

The second issue I had with this book was the overall storyline and ending. Some critics have said that it's a stolen plot from Sunset Boulevard, but I don't know that story very well, so I can't agree or disagree. Just an FYI, the story stops abruptly. There are loose threads dangling there at the end, but heck if I know if they ever get resolved! The storyline is thin, with not much more than pointless crimes taking place. I guess that's where the struggle with understanding Mitchell's character came into play. He is always looking for trouble and that is what develops as the storyline. Not the kind of path I would take with my writing, but hey, I don't write crime either.

To put it bluntly, I don't think Ken Bruen is "one of the great crime writers of our time" as the front flap proclaims. At best, this is a half-baked story that just stops when it could probably be getting better. I've read better and I'm sure you have too. This book's a no-brainer to read and is quick to get through. The only upside to that is that I still had to finish my other novel for this week's reviews and so I had plenty of time after finishing London Boulevard.

On a final note, some musers on Amazon believe that Bruen only wrote this so it would be turned into a film. That wouldn't surprise me, considering the fact that it came out a couple of years ago on the big screen.

Um...just so you know, if Mitchell
didn't want to be a criminal, then
maybe he shouldn't knowingly
do half the stupid things he does.

Make sure to check out the other reviews in the Cephalopod Coffeehouse this month:

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Nerd Love

Hi. I'm Stephanie, and I'm a nerd.

If you were born before 1970, you probably read that as a sort of whispered confession. If you were born after 1980, you probably read it as a boast. (In between? Depends on how tapped into pop culture you are.)

To be a nerd is no longer something to be ashamed of. Nerds are out, loud, and proud. We recognize fellow nerds immediately, not by the pocket protectors but by the Firefly t-shirts and Star Wars stick-figure family decals on our cars. Nerd culture is a phenomenon that coalesced over the last decade, and it has less to do with social awkwardness and über-braininess than with shared interests. Nerds love the same things, and we love them passionately. Most of those things revolve around media: the TV shows, films, comic books, video games, and novels we consume.

Is your dog an AT-AT? Because mine definitely is.

And that's where you come in, dear writer: nerds tend to love the certain stories, and build our culture around that shared love. If you drop a Doctor Who reference into a crowded room, you can spot the nerds as the ones who respond automatically and joyfully to the reference. Start singing "The Hero of Canton" and any proper nerd will be compelled to sing along with you. Anything that comes up routinely in The Big Bang Theory results in an almost Pavlovian response from nerds.

If you get this reference, you are a nerd.

To get into the Nerd Canon, you'd probably have to write speculative fiction, which of course narrows things down considerably. But spec-fic isn't just sci-fi: Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings, both longstanding staples of nerddom, are fantasy. Firefly is space fiction, not science fiction. Comic books are huge for many nerds (if you want to find the single biggest concentration of nerds in one place, attend a ComicCon), and are arguably speculative fiction. But much of nerd culture does center around sci-fi: Star Trek and its associated rabid fandom was really the progenitor of nerd culture as a cohesive thing.

ComicCon cosplay
When a few of my nerd friends came across John Scalzi's Redshirts, it became almost a requirement that the rest of us read it. Same for Ernest Cline's Ready Player One. I discovered Hugh Howey's Wool series earlier this year, recommended it, and within weeks it seemed all my nerd peeps had acquired and read at least the first book. Robin Sloane's Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore only has the barest hint of speculative fiction, but is about nerds—and became widely read by that demographic.

From a marketing perspective, the best thing about nerds is that we are both obsessive and we often have resources to devote to those obsessions. Whether you are a consumer of nerd content or a creator of that content, you're part of a powerful (and growing) economic and cultural force. Chances are, even if you don't self-identify as a nerd, your entertainment is being shaped increasingly by those who do cheerfully consider themselves part of this influential culture.

How about you? Do you self-identify as a nerd? Do you see nerddom as changing the face of popular culture?

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Interview with Author Jessica Dotta

by Sister Lorena

It’s always inspiring to witness the success of a fellow writer. We are pleased to introduce author Jessica Dotta and her newly released historical novel, Born of Persuasion. Jessica has agreed to answer some questions and share her publishing experience with us.

Hi Jessica, congratulations on your book release and welcome to The Writing Sisterhood! 

Thank you so much for having me!

Q: Please tell us what your publication process has been like. How did your find your agent and how long did it take you to find him/her?

A: I had a lucky break when it came to finding my agent. Chip MacGregor found me.

One of his authors sent him a sample of my work, and he sent me an e-mail, asking if I'd be willing to send him more. At that time, however, I wasn't ready to pitch out my novel because I wasn't happy with that version. I also had things happening in my personal life that needed attention and didn't want to add the stress of launching a book into the mix.

Chip understood and checked on me every six months, to see where I was at. That really impressed me.

Q: How long did it take your agent to sell your novel? What advice do you give to other writers who are struggling to get their work out?

A: Within a month of my signing with my agent, he called to let me know Tyndale House (my publisher) wanted to make an offer.

Even though that seems quick, five years prior I had another agent who tried unsuccessfully to sell the novels. The market just wasn't right at that time. Publishers weren't looking for British Historical or novels with a gothic overtones.

Timing is crucial in publishing. Write what you're supposed to write and eventually the market will shift. Artists are usually ahead of the curve, anyway.

During the ten year I worked toward publication, I was told that historicals weren't selling, novels set in Britain weren't selling, and that first person novels weren't well-received . . but as it always does, the market eventually swung again.

Q: How long did you work with your first agent and why did you part ways?

A: We worked together for about nine months to a year. At a writer's conference, in one of his classes he said that if he can't sell a book in nine months, then it's not going to sell. Your agent's philosophy on how long they'll work with a book is good to know. So because of that class, I knew going in that I was getting one of those rare shots into the industry. (My critique group calls these silver arrows.)

This agent sent the novel to approximately twelve houses that were appropriate for the book. The feedback was that they were interested and the book even went to pub board once. I wanted to know if he'd pitch my book outside his industry, as my book is a crossover (appropriate for both markets) and there were more houses we could approach. His business, however, was solidly within the Christian publishing industry and he said he feared he'd do me more harm than good. That if I were to head that direction, I needed an agent solidly connected there.  My choices were twofold. I could set these books aside and write another story and see if my agent would agree that that story needed to be pitched, or we could part ways and continue searching.

It was an agonizing choice. Those who seek publication know what a long shot it is to obtain an agent. What finally decided me was this advice, a friend said, "Those who are great, are not afraid to do what needs to be done. If you really believe in this series, and you believe it is your breakout novel, then don't make your decision based on fear, make it based on faith."

It was scary letting go, but in my heart of hearts, I knew this series was capable of becoming a breakout.

But  I wondered if I'd have another silver arrow again.

Q: Where were you when you received “the call”? How did you celebrate your book contract?

A: There's a line in an Alanis Morrissette song that says, "The moment I let go of it, was the moment I got more than I could handle."

By the time I received "the call," I pretty much had ceased investing a lot of emotion into whether or not I would publish. I never felt that I needed publication as a validation for my writing. Also my life had turned upside and I was trying to figure out how start over again.

I did get together with my best friends, however, and celebrate. They insisted, and I'm glad they did. As one friend put it, outside of getting married or having a baby, this is huge moment in your life.

Q: What is your novel about? Is this a stand-alone book?

A: Born of Persuasion is the first novel in the Price of Privilege trilogy.

They're set in Victorian England and are narrated by the protagonist, Julia Elliston, who after a lifetime of silence is finally setting the record straight about the scandal that shocked England during her teens.

Born of Persuasion begins when Julia is in her seventeenth year. She's recently orphaned and living on the charity of an anonymous guardian who intends to establish her as a servant in far-off Scotland.

With two months to devise a better plan, Julia's first choice to marry her childhood sweetheart is denied. But when a titled dowager offers to introduce Julia into society, a realm of possibilities opens. However, treachery and deception are as much a part of Victorian society as titles and decorum, and Julia quickly discovers her present is deeply entangled with her mother’s mysterious past. With no laws to protect her, she must unravel the secrets on her own.

Q: The cover of your book is beautiful. How much input did you have on it? 

A: I was holding my breath up until the moment I finally saw them. It was surreal seeing years of hard work instantly unveiled.

Tyndale House was amazing. For the most part we discussed tone of the books, the mood, and what the costumes would have looked in each story. We also touched on what I dislike in book covers (such as seeing the full face.)

Tyndale also surveys their authors. When I saw the covers for the first time, I was stunned! I absolutely loved them. It was surreal seeing years of hard work instantly unveiled. When I went back and checked the survey, I could see Tyndale really considered my thoughts!

Q: How do you research for your novels? Any tips for other historical novelists?

A: I use books, the Internet and movies for research.

Thankfully, the kind of books I need often turn up in second hand bookstores. Not many people need Victorian specific book on their shelves, so many of the books I use are out of print.

I can also use anything written in that era – letters, books, guides or newspapers are invaluable to me. I might pick up a word I never used before, or gain a small insight into their daily lives.

I watch those extra DVD's on how they made the movie (when it’s a historical movie.) Often, they interview a historian or set designer that provide interesting bits of information.

I also watch those movies carefully. The actors –because they are in full costume and (hopefully) in a accurate set-- give little clues. For example, I might note that one of the gentlemen keep swallowing or tilting up his chin. I might through further observation see that he's wearing two cravats and needs to lift his head to keep it from brushing their chin. Well, from a writer's point of view, I'd take that little nuance of life and expand it. I'll give him a valet that annoys him by dressing him up too much, but he won't get rid of that servant. Those types of observations really help fiction pop.

Q:  Can you share your writing habits with us. Do you write every day? Do you use an outline? 

A: I need to write continuously to produce my best work.

I divide my time into my necessary work or chores, so that I can clear my schedule in order to write non-stop for 2 to 4 days in a row.

Most of the time I don't use an outline. I make up the story as I go. I'm on the last book now, which means I pretty much know what happens in the story, so I am outlining Book Three and researching it, planning my scenes before hand.

Q:  Do you have beta readers or a critique group? Do you meet regularly?

A: This novel has been through my critique partners (as has the majority of Book Two.) For Book Three, I'm probably going to get feedback from a few close friends as I write.

Q: How similar or different are you from your protagonist?

A: I think all writers pull part of the characters from themselves (perception, fears, dreams or the need to explore an issue.) And they pull part of the characters from people watching, wanting to try on a new personality, or they see their character as an alter ego.

In this case, if you were to blend Julia Elliston, Edward Auburn and Isaac Dalry together you could get a sense of who I am.

Q: Do you only write historical fiction? Is there a genre that you would never write?

A: Yes, at the moment, the only novels I'm interested in writing are historical. I rarely read contemporary—and I don't think I'd like writing it, but never say never.

Q: Who is your favorite author? And what is your favorite novel?

A: Jane Eyre is my favorite novel and usually I say Charlotte Bronte is my favorite author—but for a living author it's Arthur Golden and Geraldine Brooks.

Q: Is your book for sell yet?

A: Yes, its scheduled release date was 9/1/2013, and it's already temporarily out of stock on Amazon in Canada. On Facebook the Downton Abbey Fan Club Page featured it twice, and the US Downton Abbey Fan Club Page offered it as a giveaway—so it's been a hit with the DA group.

Thank you, Jessica, and good luck with your book!

Thank you so much!

Click here to read an excerpt of Born of Persuasion.

For more information about Jessica, please visit her website:

On a side note: this month is the third anniversary of the Writing Sisterhood! To celebrate, we decided to redesign our blog. We hope you like it!

Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Beauty of a Good Documentary

When I was in high school, um...once upon a time, my senior class was forced to sit through Ken Burns' take on the Civil War during our history class. I say forced, because I think a majority of the students sat through that documentary with a glassy stare, hardly any of them processing anything from the many episodes we sat through.

Except for one student!

And, yes, that was me. Every day I waited in anticipation for our teacher to fire up that VHS tape in order to watch that day's installment of the nine episode documentary. When I voiced how much I loved watching The Civil War, my friends stared at me as if I was a deranged monkey with two heads. None of them understood why I didn't use the hour to get in a good nap.

Thinking back now, I can name two things that highly influenced my love of history and eventually instilling in me the need to write historical fiction. One was Ken Burns' documentary and the other was John Jakes with his North and South series. Needless to say, I fell in love with the Civil War and every battle that was fought, every soldier that went off to the front, and every wife, mother, father, child who waited to read that day's deaths in the newspaper to see if his/her loved one was one of the many who perished. I believe a good documentary can do that to a writer, especially a writer of historical fiction. With documentaries aplenty I'm never at a loss for material. And I'll tell you straight up that Ken Burns is probably my favorite to watch, whether it be learning about The National Parks: America's Best Idea or learning a thing or two from Prohibition (which is one of my favorite eras and topics).

But, of course, I do indulge in other types of documentaries. I'm a sucker for a good National Geographic or History Channel presentation. Most recently I watched Serving Life, an OWN presentation about inmates serving life sentences in a Louisiana penitentiary. It deals with the hospice care of men who basically die in prison from old age and terminal illnesses since they have no chance of ever being paroled. Even though these men are hardened criminals, it's heartwrenching to watch the final stages of their lives and the volunteer inmates who take care of them. Then there's Wild Horse Wild Ride, a documentary about captured wild mustangs that are then given to 100 individuals who have 100 days to break and train the horses, which then compete and are put up for auction to good homes. Amazing how some of the individuals know how to work with wild mustangs! This documentary brings out that compassionate level of connection humans can have with animals. I even find material in older pseudo-documentaries, like On the Bowery, an early time in this genre of filmmaking when the idea of filming real life was just forming. In this film, post-WWII veterans find solace in cheap rent and even cheaper drinks, but not much of a future. Through watching this documentary, I learned the rudimentary science of making Squeeze, a very toxic drink made from Sterno, something I was able to use in one of my novels. (But, shhh, don't tell anyone because then the secret will be out!)

Since I tend to be more of a visual learner, I strongly believe there are many things a writer can learn by watching a good documentary:
  • A sense of time:  I know for me that when I sit through the stories that create a time period I begin to feel a connection. Since time machines don't exist, our best way to explore the past is through the eyes of those who have either been there and experienced such horrendous events as the D-Day invasion or the disappearance of the Lindbergh baby, or we listen to those who have taken extensive time to study the lives of historical figures like John Muir and Abraham Lincoln. When we are able to connect with the past and marvel at how Edison was so patient when it came to producing the lightbulb or how sickening places like Auschwitz were allowed in the first place, then we begin to tap into that human well of feelings inside all of us. And viewing the world through a different time period can strangely put things into perspective as to how we got to where we are today.
    John Muir (1838-1914)
    One of the earliest advocates
    of the national park idea.
  • A sense of place:  While I watched The National Parks: America's Best Idea, I couldn't help but think how badly I wanted to visit some of those places like Yosemite and Mesa Verde if only to walk in the footsteps and beauty that others have already experienced. I wanted to take that raft trip down the Colorado and look up at the cathedral walls of the Grand Canyon. The same goes for the BBC's Auschwitz: The Nazis and 'The Final Solution' documentary. Walking with the cameraman through the gates of such an infamous concentration camp is both eerie and chilling, especially when you learn how things really worked in this camp of unimaginable horrors. Everything from the disease-infested barracks to the ovens to the actual photos showing the long lines -- one going to the barracks, the other directly to the gas chambers  -- brings to life the terror in this part of history.

Entrance to Auschwitz
Notice it's by train only, meaning once
a prisoner arrived, he/she never left.

  • A sense of characters:  Not so long ago I finished up Ken Burns' documentary The War, which details World War II through the eyes of men and women from four different towns in America. There were many times I found I just wanted to have a good cry. Most of The War is told through survivors and veterans' memories of what they faced. Every survivor is fascinating to listen to, but two stories that follow the course of most of The War really struck me:  that of a color blinded pilot named Quentin Aanenson form Luverne, Minnesota and that of Glenn Frazier of Mobile, Alabama, who endured the Bataan Death March and subsequent years in prisoner of war camps. Every tale told is filled with a wealth of understanding and character building for any writer. But that's what makes documentaries of any sort so fascinating and helpful -- there's so much to glean by just listening to history and seeing it through the eyes of those who've experienced it.

Katharine Phillips with her younger brother Sidney,
who enlisted in the Marines at the age of 17 in 1941.

In all, as a writer of historical fiction, I highly encourage watching a few good documentaries. If you're struggling to mold a character, if you can't quite seem to imagine the setting you're wanting to use, or if you fail to make a connection with the time period, then, by all means, grab a good documentary on the subject!

Do you enjoy documentaries? Are there any that you would recommend?