Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

The infectious prediction of thrillers

Friday, October 17th, 2014
The infectious prediction of thrillers

Some writers land in the right place at the right time. Others anticipate, showing us what life might look like in a few years if things go horribly wrong. Many of the near-futurists build their plots on epidemics. Bob Reiss (Black Monday) did it with oil. Patricia Gussin (Weapon of Choice) does it with biologics.

In Gussin’s novel, published in 2012 but set in 1985, thoracic surgeon Dr. Laura Nelson gets caught in a medical and bureaucratic firestorm when a fast-moving staph infection spreads through her hospital at the same time the facility receives its first AIDS patient. Aside from delivering a decent thriller, the author shows what happens when antibiotic-resistant infections spread, and how hospitals and agencies such as the CDC must work quickly to contain the disease.

Weapon-of-Choice-3DSince Gussin is not only a physician but the former vice president of consumer pharmaceuticals at healthcare giant Johnson & Johnson, she writes with great detail . . . and frightening authority. Frightening because people can use these microbes as weapons.

All of which leads us to the latest crisis in healthcare, the threat of an Ebola pandemic. People worry about travel and transmission. Writers evoke images of the plague. Institutions scramble to contain, treat and reassure.

In Gussin’s book, she details CDC protocols for isolation and decontamination. Have they improved since 1985? Do they work as well in airports as they do in books?

When you look into the near future, what do you see?

The secret life of writers

Tuesday, October 14th, 2014
The secret life of writers

For many authors, the secret to the thriller is a secret.

In Karin Slaughter’s novel Fractured, Will Trent tells no one except two confidants about his dyslexia. The special agent for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation strives to prevent people from using his disability to compromise his career. He suffers. The writing doesn’t.

In Harlen Coben’s The Woods, prosecutor Paul Copeland tries to keep secret his connection to the crime he’s compelled to investigate. As with Trent, backstory becomes backlash. His adversaries use that secret as a weapon. Coben treats it as an accelerant.

Both authors use that creative tension to drive their characters, and their stories.

How far would you go to hid something from your past?

Keeping the novel above stall speed

Wednesday, September 24th, 2014
Keeping the novel above stall speed

A novel is a little like a small prop plane. Fly too fast and the scenery blurs. Fly too slow and the plane stalls.

Take the pop fiction of the ‘70s and ‘80s by authors like Sidney Sheldon and Danielle Steele. Some of those books streaked through plot as if it were aerial combat. Then there are writers like Martha Grimes, who tie down the wings for the night to give the reader insight into the life of a dog and two cats on the village green.

Others, like Robert B. Parker, Margaret Coel and J.A. Jance, alternate between action and reflection in short bursts designed to add depth while holding course.

I got to thinking about pace in mystery and suspense fiction after reading novels by Julia Keller and Iris Johansen. Keller’s A Killing in the Hills crackles with excitement while providing detailed portraits of her characters and their small town in West Virginia. At the other end of the pop-fiction spectrum, Johansen’s On the Run races through character and description to focus on the physical aspects of criminal and romantic pursuit. (Johansen does slow the pace in the middle of the book to create backstory, motivation and a simmering feud between the two romantic leads.) Both novels soar, just at different rates.

I generally give a book 60 pages. If the story hasn’t taken off by then, I’ll pull the ripcord. But that benchmark varies by author, genre and style.

When it comes to reading and writing, what’s your speed?

Scene of the crime: the character of place

Wednesday, September 3rd, 2014
Scene of the crime: the character of place

Location, location, location. The mantra isn’t just for real estate agents. Writers have long known that a place works better as character than background. NPR does, too, which makes the radio program “Crime in the City” a delight for tourists of murder and mayhem.

The long-running summer series features well-known authors and their beats—George Pelecanos’ Washington, D.C., Walter Mosley’s L.A.—as well as writers exploring smaller cities and towns—Archer Mayor and Brattleboro, Vt., Julia Keller’s fictional town in West Virginia.

“Crime in the City” also gives armchair detectives a travelogue of international cities—Mary Lou Longworth in Aix-en-Provence, Ann Cleeves in the Shetland Islands, Richard Crompton in Nairobi, Paco Ignacio Taibo II in Mexico City.

Big or small, noisy or quiet, home or abroad, these locales illuminate both the authors and their characters in unexpected ways.

NPR’s correspondents intersperse the ambient sound of streets and cafes with the voices of police, shopkeepers and the writers themselves. As summer draws to an end in North America, the spots serve as a sweet treat for readers who like to investigate their favorite novelists. (In addition to the live broadcasts, the programs are available on the NPR website as downloadable MP3 files.)

As a reader or writer, what role do you think place can play in crime fiction?

Chris Grabenstein, a sure voice at the shore

Monday, August 25th, 2014
Chris Grabenstein, a sure voice at the shore

What makes Chris Grabenstein’s Down the Shore novels so entertaining? I think it’s the voice he chooses to tell the stories.

Iraq war veteran John Ceepak is a police officer in the town of Sea Haven, New Jersey. With a code of ethics as strong as a gun barrel, he’s clearly the hero. But Grabenstein chooses to filter the fluff and drama of beach life through the eyes of 24-year-old Danny Boyle. A part-time police officer who likes to impress his friends, Doyle plays the role of the post-adolescent, alternating between irreverent and respectful, hopeless and hip.

With a quick eye for contrast, Danny becomes the perfect filter for all that is crass and criminal during summer at the Jersey Shore. He’s Watson, Hastings and Natalie Teeger rolled into one. Ceepak forms the strong moral core of the books, but it is Danny’s voice that resonates long after the saltwater taffy is gone.

What do you think? Is the hero the best narrator for mystery and suspense novels or the sidekick?

For Margaret Coel, the perfect view

Monday, August 18th, 2014
For Margaret Coel, the perfect view

I don’t usually appreciate head-hopping in novels. The author gains a global perspective but sometimes sacrifices intimacy and suspense—when we see everything in real time, the heroine’s discoveries don’t always land with the same impact.

Unless the author is Margaret Coel. In The Perfect Suspect, the author makes a good case for the technique, employing it to craft a book with perfect pace. Using duel points of view, that of the killer and the investigator, she lights the candle at both ends . . . and we’re happy to watch it burn.

The plot involves the murder of a candidate for governor in Colorado. The point of view shifts from the killer, a female police detective by the name of Ryan Beckman, to a journalist, Catherine McLeod, as each races to track the other. By alternating POV, Coel not only illuminates their motives but sets the two on a course that can’t help but result in a collision. It’s a heady rush to a satisfying end.

What do you think? When you read or write fiction, are two heads better than one?

V is for verb

Monday, June 23rd, 2014
V is for verb

The leader declared war on passive verbs.

Noreen Wald, aka Nora Charles, author of the Ghostwriter and Kate Kennedy series, vowed to stamp out all forms of the verb to be. Her fervor had inspired the Wednesday Critique Group, an offshoot of Noreen’s class in writing fiction, to the point that its members adopted a vigilance Paul Revere would envy. As we read our work aloud, we’d slash and burn to invigorate our prose.

Now an obsession with active verbs can deliver a crisp manuscript, or drive a writer nuts. Active verbs speed the story but call attention to the writing, and sometimes pull the reader out of the scene. Passive verbs put those readers to sleep. With all due respect to our instructor, what we need is balance.

It’s not always possible to find alternatives to the word is. Sometimes sentences sound less pretentious with passive verbs, and sometimes they have a better flow. The question is (and I use that word advisedly), when do we permit passive verbs and when do we pop for active language?

Does the answer require a mechanistic approach—as a former president once said, does it depend on what the definition of is is?—or does the choice grow from the writer’s intent, which changes from sentence to genre to type?

In P is for Peril, Sue Grafton’s character Kinsey Millhone hears a woman calling to a dog. “She emitted a piercing whistle, and a young German shepherd came bounding over the hill, heading in my direction at full speed. I waited, bracing myself for the force of muddy feet, but at the last possible second, the whistle came again and the dog sprinted off.”

The passage ripples with tension as Grafton propels the prose with active verbs.

In Edwin of the Iron Shoes, Marcia Muller tackles a less straightforward task. She needs to convey supposition as well as continuing action. Leaving the scene of a murder, Muller’s character Sharon McCone wants to rejoin her employer. “The ambulance had pulled away and the crowd was dispersing. Across the street, a light burned in the front windows of Junk Emporium. Hank was probably waiting for me. . . .”

And we burn to read more of the story.

In Laura Lippman’s Baltimore Blues, Tess Monaghan writes the equivalent of her New Year’s resolutions in a student composition book. Keeping those resolutions has proven a challenge, so Lippman conveys the character’s frustration and resignation through a mix of active and passive language: “Tess slapped the notebook closed, filed it on a shelf with twenty-two others—all blank except for the first page—set her alarm, and was asleep in five minutes.”

Like Grafton and Muller, she uses language that embodies emotion as well as information. Had she stuck with passive verbs, we’d have nodded off in ten.

One more example and I’ll let you go. In To Darkness and to Death, Julia Spencer-Fleming conveys both action and reflection as one of her characters, the Rev. Clare Fergusson, searches for a missing woman: “Clare forced herself to keep her steps even, her head moving methodically as she climbed up the increasingly steep slope. She was, she had to admit, too impatient to be a naturally good searcher.”

As we are, too often, with passive construction.

So, do we need an iron rule about banishing passive verbs forever? Or can we allow the function and emotion of the scene to drive the choice?

Survey gets a read on e-readers

Thursday, April 5th, 2012
Survey gets a read on e-readers

A fifth of American adults say they have read an e-book in the past year. They read more frequently than their print-loving counterparts and they’re more likely than others to have bought rather than borrowed their most recent book.

Those are some of the findings of the Pew Research Center Internet & American Life Reading Habits Survey, which was released this week. As with most research from the Pew Center, the report goes into some detail. Here are the highlights:

  • A fifth of American adults have read an e-book in the past year and the number of e-book readers grew after a major increase in ownership of e-book reading devices and tablet computers during the holiday gift-giving season.
  • The average reader of e-books says she has read 24 books (the mean number) in the past 12 months, compared with an average of 15 books by a non-e-book consumer.
  • Some 30% of those who read e-content say they now spend more time reading, and owners of tablets and e-book readers particularly stand out as reading more now.
  • The prevalence of e-book reading is markedly growing, but printed books still dominate the world of book readers.
  • E-book reading happens across an array of devices, including smartphones.
  • In a head-to-head competition, people prefer e-books to printed books when they want speedy access and portability, but print wins out when people are reading to children and sharing books with others.
  • The availability of e-content is an issue to some.
  • The majority of book readers prefer to buy rather than borrow.
  • Those who read e-books are more likely to be under age 50, have some college education, and live in households earning more than $50,000.

Most of the findings in the Pew report come from a survey of 2,986 Americans ages 16 and older, conducted on November 16-December 21, 2011, that focused on people’s e-reading habits and preferences.

Holidays a gift for tablet, e-book reader market

Wednesday, February 15th, 2012
Holidays a gift for tablet, e-book reader market

The share of adults in the United States who own tablet computers nearly doubled over the holiday selling season, according to a new survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

Ownership of tablet computers increased from 10% to 19% between mid-December and early January. The same surge in growth applied to e-book readers, which also jumped from 10% to 19% over the same time period.

The number of Americans owning at least one of these digital reading devices jumped from 18% in December to 29% in January.

The Pew Center says the findings are striking “because they come after a period from mid-2011 into the autumn in which there was not much change in the ownership of tablets and e-book readers. However, as the holiday gift-giving season approached, the marketplace for both devices dramatically shifted.”

Pew attributes some of that adoption to the introduction of relatively cheaper versions of Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes and Noble’s Nook Tablet. In the e-book reader world some versions of the Kindle and Nook and other readers fell below $100.

The results come from ongoing surveys by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project aimed at tracking growth in the ownership of both devices. A pre-holiday survey was conducted among 2,986 people age 16 and older between November 16 and December 21, 2011 and has a margin of error of +/- two percentage points.

The post-holiday data come from the combined results of two surveys – one conducted January 5-8 among 1,000 adults age 18 and older and another conducted January 12-15 of 1,008 adults. The combined surveys have a margin of error of +/- 2.4 percentage points.

Six degrees of reading

Thursday, February 2nd, 2012
Six degrees of reading

Want to see books similar to the ones you’re reading? Head over to Yasiv, a site that uses Amazon data to create a flowchart of recommendations. Created by Andrei Kashcha, the site serves up a web of book covers that, when clicked, lead to information about those titles. There’s also a box on the left that lists the volumes by title.

Kashcha describes Yasiv as “a visual recommendation service that helps people to choose the right product from Amazon’s catalog.” In addition to books Yasiv can web other products carried by Amazon including video games, music and movies, although a search for broad clothing categories such as skirts and pants yields only a single image. Good for Grand Theft Auto. Not so good for Vera Bradley.

Yasiv recommendation web for 'House of Silk' by Anthony Horowitz