I WOULD LIKE YOUR OPINION

I’ve been kicking around a few different titles for my latest, and as yet unpublished, book, and I’m looking for your input. So you can give a somewhat informed opinion, let me first give you a very brief outline of the story.

This plot summary may not make a lot of sense if you haven’t read EINSTEIN’s TRUNK, but here it is: Steenberg, Yohaba’s CERN-director grandfather, wants to save the world from 182 ELSA – an asteroid discovered by Einstein that is speeding towards earth and due to make impact on April 13, 2029. Steenberg tries to enlist support from governments and corporations to develop the technology to destroy ELSA before it hits. Needless to say, he is rebuffed, but then proceeds by other means. Rulon and Yohaba, along with a new character nicknamed Brother-in-law (an ex-Navy SEAL) and an assorted motley crew of ex-military, including Yohaba’s brother Alex get involved. Havoc, destruction, intrigue, and noble sacrifices ensue. The action takes place mostly in Idaho and Switzerland, but with assorted interludes in Beijing and Silicon Valley.

Here are the questions: Which title below sounds cooler for a thriller? Which title would make you more likely to buy the book if you saw it in a bookstore?

Proposed titles:
a. Redfish
b. Mars Road
c. No Bystanders
d. Sawtooth

Note:
a. The title REDFISH refers to a local Idaho lake and Rulon’s name for the mission they are on.
b. MARS ROAD refers to the access road that extends from the Rulon Hurt ranch outside of Twin Falls, Idaho, to the main road that goes past the ranch.
c. NO BYSTANDERS refers to the fact that everyone in the family as well an entire assortment of characters is pulled into the mission.
d. SAWTOOTH refers to the mountain range that surrounds Redfish Lake up in the Sawtooth recreation area. If this turns out to be the preferred title, then I’ll have Rulon name the mission SAWTOOTH instead of REDFISH.

All opinions welcome.

Mit freundlichen Grüssen (with friendly greetings)

Jim

The Backspace Key and Selling Books

I’ve maintained for years that the greatest invention of the last forty years is not the internet but, rather, the backspace key. The backspace key is what enables tens-of-thousands of writers like me to churn out thousands of books every year that no one has ever heard of. All it takes to write a book now is perseverance and a dogged stubbornness in the beauty of the wonderful words you are typing.

Imagine what it was like to write a book before the invention of the backspace key and the ‘save’ button. There was white-out for typing mistakes and carbon paper for making duplicate pages on the typewriter. Oh, the horror! So far, in just these first two paragraphs, I have used the backspace key 17 times. I read once that in Jack London’s original manuscript for his amazing semi-autobiography ‘Martin Eden’ – hundreds of pages long – there were only a few cross-outs. He wrote the entire book with hardly a backward glance. He is my hero.

In any case, I’ve decided to throw my efforts into beefing up the sales of my existing books, i.e., EINSTEIN’S TRUNK and A THOUSAND SUNS. To that end, I will be spending more time on social media – this website and my Facebook page. I’m also soliciting ideas from any-and-all on how to market my book. My two books have been published by Cedar Fort, a very good publisher out of Utah, but due to the changing dynamics of the book market, authors must now do a lot of their own marketing.

Best regards,

Jim
Zurich

The Origins of Brother-in-law

There is a character in my new book ‘Redfish’ called “Brother-in-law.” ‘His real name is Orin Blackmon, but nobody calls him that. To everyone he is simply ‘Brother-in-law.’ The backstory in the book is that he picked up the name while serving in the Navy SEALS.

The real backstory is that I came across a Vietnam vet nicknamed ‘Brother-in-law’ back in 1978, when living in North Carolina while on a mission for my Church. Brother-in-law was living in the town of Henderson, North Carolina and going to college near there on the GI Bill. He was kind of a hillbilly and saw some serious action in Vietnam. He was the point man for his platoon, which as you can imagine, was a very dangerous position to have. In Vietnam, most American casualties came from booby traps and mines, and the point man was usually the one to set them off.

He told me that when he was in Vietnam, his senses hightened to an unbelievable level. For example, one day as he was guiding his platoon through the jungle, his eyes picked up a gossamer thin trip wire out of all the foliage, vines, and vegetation that surrounded him. His fellow soldiers were incredulous. How on earth did he see that, they asked him! Afterwards, they wouldn’t go out on partrol unless Brother-in-law was their point man.

The character in my book is not as gregarious as the real Brother-in-law. He was a happy guy when I knew him: long hair down to his shoulders, a willingness to talk, and a care-free attitude towards life despite all that he’d seen. A remarkable person all-in-all.

Just Finished ‘Redfish’

I just finished writing the third book in the Rulon Hurt series. It’s titled ‘Redfish’. For those not familiar with Idaho, Redfish Lake is in the Sawtooth mountains of Idaho. It is incredibly beautiful. Surrounded by jagged mountain peaks. An hour or so from Sun Valley. In the book ‘Redfish’, Rulon has an argument with Yohaba and insists on giving the codename ‘Redfish’ to the mission they are on. Naturally, I can’t say anymore without giving away the plot.

I actually kicked around another title for the book – ‘Rulon’s Ilk’. I thought that sounded very ‘John Le Carre-ish’, and seemed to fit the book, but ‘Redfish’ sounds more traditional, and, perhaps, therefore more acceptable to agents and publishers.

So now begins the work of finding an agent and a publisher for the book. It begins with crafting a Query letter and hoping to inflame the curiosity of some lucky agent. Wish me luck.

Best regards,

Jim

John le Carre’s “The Constant Gardener”

Yes, I’m on a bit of a John le Carre’ kick lately. And again, I found another one of his books that astounds me with its excellent writing and the power of the story. The constant gardener is Justin Quayle, a British diplomat in Kenya whose wife is murdered when she threatens to expose a pharmaceutical company’s lethal drug testing among poor Africans. Justin then embarks on a quest to find the truth. Yes, it is sad. Yes, it is based on a true story – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Medical_experimentation_in_Africa#Meningitis_testing_in_Kano.2C_Nigeria In fact, Mr. le Carre had this to say about whether his book was based on fact: “As my journey through the pharmaceutical jungle progressed, I came to realize that, by comparison with the reality, my story was as tame as a holiday postcard.”

Yes, I like John le Carre’s books. Yes, I think he’s a literary giant. There was a scene towards the end of the book that is a prelude to a key character meeting up with another key character (as you can see, I’m trying hard not to spoil the book for anyone intending to read it). So first, ask yourself: if you were writing a book and the plot called for two key characters to meet, how would you do it? Well, there are a number of ways, but most writers would simply have a note arrive in the mail with a time and a place for a rendezvous. Because obviously, the way the message is delivered and the circumstances and setting behind its delivery are of far less importance than the actual meeting itself. But in Mr. le Carre’s world this is not the case. The setting and circumstances are both extremely important because they reveal character.

And this is why he is a genius. Le Carre’ is not a great writer because his grammar and sentences are more beautiful, or because he works harder at his craft – though all that may be true. Le Carre’ is great because he sees the world through different eyes than the average writer. His people and scenes are truly three dimenional, and you just know deep down in your gut that what he is writing about is true even if you’ve never been a spy or a diplomat yourself. His writing is so rich in meaningful detail and the authentic thoughts of his characters that you are left with the impression that no one could have made this up.

Ernest Hemingway once said words to the effect that when he goes to describe a room, he first describes everything about it. Then when he edits, he removes all the details except the few salient ones that by themselves capture all the other points. Le Carre’s strikes me the same way. His descriptions are not just obligatory literary bus stops until he can get on with the real meat of the story, but the descriptions are as important as the action. They tell something important. And he does the same for his characters. Life is complex and profound and certainly not trivial to the people on life’s stage. Le Carre captures that. Further, you can tell how hard he must work at his craft. Some of his scenes are like a Da Vinci painting with layers and layers of color and detail that perhaps can only be admired by the very astute. Ha! Now in saying this, don’t think I consider myself to be one of the astute ones. But I am grateful that I can appreciate great writing when I see it.

If you want to know the story or the book’s background simply do a google search on the book title and steer your way to the book and movie’s Wikipedia sites.

Best regards,

Jim
Zurich

I’d Rather be Swallowed by a Whale – My Review of Moby Dick

Normally, when someone tells me they didn’t appreciate a classic book or a classic work of art, I tell them: “The book (or painting) is an established work of genius that has survived the test of time. The book is not on trial here, but you are. The very soul of our culture is reaching out to you and asking: Are you a deep and thoughtful person, or are you a brainless dodo?” However, when it comes to Melville’s 1851 ‘classic’ Moby Dick, I may have to revise my response. Gads, I didn’t like that book!

I started reading Moby Dick when I was twenty-five. I am now sixty-two and just finished it. And still I found it a tough slog! At twenty-five I whipped and beat myself into an intellectual Bataan Death March to within thirty pages of the end and then let the open book simply fall through my fingers to the floor. I simply couldn’t take it anymore even though the book was supposedly reaching its climax – the revenge of the great white whale, the death of Ahab, and the destruction of the Pequod. But, I eventually persevered on and finished the book on my Kindle just last night.

For those who don’t know, Moby Dick was based on two actual events: the sinking by a whale of the Nantucket whaling ship Essex in 1820 off the coast of South America, and a very angry albino sperm whale called Mocha Dick that was killed in the late 1830s. Apparently, the whale had twenty harpoons stuck in him and attacked many ships in his day. Here is what Wikipedia has to say:

“This renowned monster, who had come off victorious in a hundred fights with his pursuers, was an old bull whale, of prodigious size and strength. From the effect of age, or more probably from a freak of nature… a singular consequence had resulted – he was white as wool![8]”

I like the way Wikipedia described it. Why couldn’t Melville write that way? Instead, this is how he writes:

“And yet, I’ve sometimes thought my brain was very calm – frozen calm, this old skull cracks so, like a glass in which the contents turn to ice, and shiver it. And still this hair is growing now; this moment growing, and heat must breed it; but no, it’s like that sort of common grass that will grow anywhere between the earthy clefts of Greenland ice or in Vesuvius lava.”

I rest my case.

Now, for those of you who who care, here are a few Moby Dick facts you probably didn’t know:
1. Ahab didn’t lose his leg from Moby Dick. He pretends he did, but he really didn’t. Starbuck, his chief mate, knows this, and buried deep, deep in the book is a little exchange between the two that goes like this: “Captain Ahab, I have heard of Moby Dick—but it was not Moby Dick that took off thy leg?” Captain Ahab replies, “Who told thee that?”
2. Unlike the Gregory Peck movie, it was not Captain Ahab that got dangled in the harpoon lines around Moby Dick and was carried away to appear later lashed to the great white whale, it was Fedallah, one of the harpooners.
3. And finally, yes, Khan was quoting Ahab in Star Trek Two when he said, “…to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee…”

Okay, those last were good lines, but not good enough to make me like the book. Still, in fairness, maybe I’m a dodo.

John le Carre’s “A Delicate Truth”

I just finished reading John le Carre’s latest book A Delicate Truth. What a treat! Le Carre is 81 years old, and he’s not only written his best book in years, but in the process has fanned the coals of hope for my own flickering writing career. I have always admired Mr. le Carre’s writing style. Even in his books that I haven’t particularly enjoyed, the sheer quality of his writing always kept me reading on – intelligent, literary, and as deliciously multi-layered as a Strasbourg ice cream cone, i.e., from the little ice cream parlor on the left side of the street in front of the cathedral in Strasbourg, France.

But truth be told, I haven’t especially enjoyed the plot lines of his latest books, namely, Absolute Friends, The Mission Song, A Most Wanted Man, and Our Kind of Traitor. There were a variety of reasons: too depressing, too hopeless, too cynical, and in one of his books, Our Kind of Traitor, about the Russian Mafia, too much bad language, And sadly, at times even the writing seemed a little uneven – a little too obtuse. I had reached the conclusion that le Carre was past his prime, still more of a craftsman than all but a few of the current crop of thriller writers, but, dang it all, the man was getting old. And then comes along A Delicate Truth. Okay, le Carre does seem to have lately discovered one of our culture’s more popular swear words – which is annoying – but, I assume he feels this is how his characters would realistically speak – if so, I’d rather have the introspective, cultured, intellectual, well-read George Smiley back. But, oh well, these are the characters he chose to put in his book, and as the author he gets to decide what they say. I will add in his defense though: while the language jarred me in places, at least le Carre was writing an end-to-end realistic book. The authors that really irk me are the ones that have the bad language, thinking this makes the book realistic, while otherwise having the characters say and do the most unrealistic things in defiance of all the laws of man and nature. Le Carre is gritty, real, and authentic from first page to last. Even if you’ve never been set-up and warned-off by a member of the British foreign service, you can read the exchange between Kit and his two deceptively bland bureaucratic interrogators at the end of A Delicate Truth and know Yep, this is how it would be done.

Perhaps one reason the book was so good was that le Carre was back on firm ground again dealing with intrigue and machinations in the corridors of British power as the gears of government grind the innocent to dust. He even said in an interview that the two main characters, Trevor and Kit, were somewhat autobiographical. One interesting point I’ve noticed before is that le Carre despises how the Americans are conducting the war on terror. While I fully sympathize with his frustrations, and there is much to criticize, I wonder what he thinks the alternative is. What would the European heads of state have done? Most likely dithered. Or the Chinese? Think Tibet. Or the Russians? Think Checknya.

After I finished A Delicate Truth, I immediately downloaded le Carre’s The Constant Gardener about drug testing in Africa by global pharmaceuticals. But my wife warned me that it was very sad, so I’m putting off reading it for a while until I recharge emotionally. Instead I picked up a thriller by another very successful NYT best-selling writer. Wow! After reading le Carre it was like going back to ‘See Spot run. See Jane run with Spot.”

A Tale of Two Cities

The old classics. Are they still worth reading? As an author and a reader, I consider myself a fairly well-read person, but came to the sad realization some months ago that I have neglected many of the classics. Further, a lot of my recent reading has been devoted to thrillers written by NYT bestselling authors that turned out to be very badly written. So, hungry for good writing after having been disappointed by a succession of bland and trite thrillers, I downloaded Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. What a treat! – though in the case of Dickens, a hard-earned one.

Published in 1859, A Tale of Two Cities is set in London and Paris during the time of the French Revolution. It is the story about the brutality and injustice of life in those days – the brutality of the rich and aristocratic towards the poor and disadvantaged, and, in the case of Paris, how the ignorant downtrodden rose up with the guillotine and the smug fervor of Maoist peasants against their former royalist masters.

I’ll be honest: for the first two thirds of the book, I struggled. The archaic language and intricate sentence structure was too hard a nut to crack for my brain used to the pabulum I’d been reading lately. At one point, I even set the book down. But eventually I came back to it and found the reading much easier. And that is when I began to appreciate what a great writer Dickens was. The writing was ingenious. The sentiments sublime. The insights into those terrible times completely convincing. What a wonderful experience to read a book by a truly great writer. Here it is, 154 years since its first publication as 31 weekly installments in Dickens’s own literary periodical called All the Year Round, and I am still gripped by the nobleness of Charles Darnay and the Christ-like sacrifice of Sydney Carton. Further, the book appealed to my nobler instincts. I felt a better person for having read it.

Just for kicks, I went to Amazon and Goodreads to see how A Tale of Two Cities was rated by my fellow readers. On Amazon it was rated 4.2 and on Goodreads, the ratings for the various editions generally hovered below 4.0. I am embarrassed to note that my book, A Thousand Suns, was rated higher on both websites. Ha! Clearly, thriller writers are judged by a different standard. So, let me state this loud and clear: Thank you everyone who loved my book and rated it so highly, but please read A Tale of Two Cities. You won’t be disappointed.

Jim
Zurich – June 21, 2013

Review of ‘Lair of the Serpent’

a Lair of the Serpent blog tour bannerLair of the Serpent is the third book in a young adult series by Terri Lynn Adams that Life of Pi co-producer Kevin Buxbaum said is ‘destined to become Hollywood’s next major motion picture trilogy.” And these were no idle words. He backed up his opinion by buying the motion picture rights! This is a series that has a real shot at greatness.

I hadn’t read the previous chapters – Tombs of Terror and The Lost Curse – but I still found it easy to pick up the backstory in Lair of the Serpent. The characters’ background and references to past events were interwoven clearly into the current plot without slowing the story down. Lair of the Serpent is the story of three teenage friends from different cultures: Jonathan, a seventeen year old American; Severino, a former member of the Peruvian rebel group Shining Path, and his sister Delia, a beautiful and intrepid young woman for whom Jonathan carries a brightly burning torch.

The story begins in Cambodia where altruistic youths Severino and Delia are serving as medical volunteers in a remote village called Preak Torl. There, Delia is kidnapped, and this immediately plunges the story into the dark and sinister world of human trafficking. Jonathan had previously arranged to fly into Phnom Penh to meet his friends, but instead of a happy reunion and a holiday, he and Severino set out on a quest to rescue Delia.

What happens next is a desperate search through the back alleys and backwashes of the seamier side of Cambodian life. The two boys find adventure, danger, misadventures, and an assortment of surprising allies and devious enemies. Through it all their friendship is tested and tried but never wavers. Friends to the last, through a combination of luck, courage, ingenuity, and sheer perseverance, they edge ever closer to the truth of what happened to Delia and what role she has to play in the Cambodian legend of the serpent and the Naga Mani.

Lair of the Serpent is targeted towards young adults, i.e., teenagers of about seventeen, the age of the story’s protagonists. For this audience, I believe the story hits a bulls-eye. Adams does a marvelous job of getting inside her characters’ psyche. Too many YA TV shows, books, and movies are written by adults who have forgotten what it was like to be a teenager. Teenagers are generally not more intelligent, more sophisticated, more confident, and more sexually experienced than the adults around them. They are generally highly emotional and struggling to find their place in an adult world, but capable of loyalty, love, and friendship that burns very brightly though it may not be particularly profound in its expression. Adams knows this and throughout the story, her characters stay true to who they are. They win the day while continuing to be teenagers. They sometimes have to rely on adults. They sometimes have to trust their instincts. They sometimes have no one to rely on but each other.

Another strong point is that the book does not condescend to its young audience. It tackles head-on the scourge of human trafficking. The loss of a loved one, taken, gone, disappeared forever, looms over the entire story. And while the reader is left to imagine all sorts of horrors, those horrors are never explicit. Adams handles it masterfully. It’s clear she’s done her homework on the subject. It’s never sordid and never steps over the line, but the premise is thought provoking and gut wrenching.

It’s an exciting story, not only in the search for Delia, but also in the real-life and well-researched Cambodian legends Adams brings to life that make the story more than an adventure, but also a mystery – and an educational one at that.

But in the end, Lair of the Serpent is about friendship. It’s about good kids making moral decisions motivated by friendship and love to do their duty to each other no matter what the risk. There was something noble, touching, and poignantly simple in their interactions. In many ways it was an inspirational read.