The Birthday Girl by Stephen Leather: Not Just an Arms Race

My local library has gotten a whole load of Stephen Leather and Jo Nesbo books in at the moment so I’m having to “switch hit” as it were between the two. So it looks like a Leather and Nesbo winter read by the metaphorical fireplace.

I had hoped to read some more of Leather’s more vintage material, to get a feeling of how each story matured in the way of content and presentation. After reading The Birthday Girl though, which is still fairly early in his writing career being published in 1995, I think that plan has been circumvented by the fact that all Leather’s stories thus far have been rich in detail.

The book starts with Tony Freeman who works for an arms development company. He is outside of the Sarajevo Holiday Inn when he is kidnapped by Bosnian rebels and held for ransom. While in captivity he meets the leader of the rebels and his 13-year-old sister Merisha.

Back home, Tony’s partner Maury Anderson has made a deal with a Russian Mobster and his psychopathic brother to pay the ransom and to get some mercenaries to free Tony. As the mercenaries attack the rebels and start to kill Merisha, Tony throws himself over the young girl and is shot in the legs as a result.

While he is recovering, he demands to see Merisha (he had built up a rapport with the girl while he was being held for ransom). When he sees that she has been put in with male adult prisoners and is being mistreated, he demands her release and states that he will adopt the girl and that he and his wife will raise her.

In one of the less believable plot twists of the book, the authorities agree to this proposition and allow Katherine and Tony Freeman to adopt the little rebel.

Fast forward four years and it is Merisha’s 16th birthday. Besides the traditional celebrations all Maury Anderson’s “chickens” have come home to roost. His Russian buddies now want the entire arms company and he has a cocaine habit the size of an elephant riding on his back.

Katherine, we find out, is a bit of a nymphomaniac and is busily shagging anything with a snake in their trousers. Merisha is seeing a ‘shrink’ for therapy and Katherine is seeing him for other reasons. When Merisha finds out that Katherine is shagging the good doctor, she decides to pay him a visit and demand that he stop. She adores her father and will do anything to make sure he is happy.

It is another thriller and it is the usual fast paced, action packed read. I did enjoy the book, but, I spent a lot of time “skip reading” it. I found that I literally hated Katherine and Maury and really could not get behind their characters at all. So when a sentence would start with Katherine getting ready to have another extramarital shag or Maury begging the Russian gangsters for a little more leniency, I read one or two sentences and then would “skip” to the Tony/Merisha part of the story.

But to be truthful, I did not really like Tony that much either. He is a staunch Scotsman who sticks by his principles, but damn it, the man is as bland as Melba toast. Apart from standing up to Katherine’s bullying father so he could marry her and “saving” Merisha, he is devoid of any real personality.

The only character I had any interest in was Merisha. Leather’s description of her healing process after being taken away from the Bosnian/Serbia war was interesting and fairly truthful, I felt. I have had dealings with a teen Bosnian refugee from that horrible time.

He has seen his immediate family murdered and watched his mother and sisters being repeatedly raped. This young man was anything but normal. He had, not unsurprisingly, started off a life of crime and violence. His extended family (distant relatives who had taken him in) could not control or understand this tortured young man.

So Leather’s story of Merisha’s childhood and the horrible atrocities against her family and the other Bosnian families had a solid ring of truth. It is this fact alone that made the book worth reading. I have read other books that made reference to the ethnic cleansing that the Serb‘s were involved in, but they have been from a military or mercenary point of view.

It was very interesting to see it from a surviving victim’s point of view, despite the fact that I felt the initial opening of the adoption was a bit hard to digest.

I wouldn’t recommend that you rush out to read this book, but it is well worth a look. It is standard Leather reading but without the usual characters that you can really root for. You will have to suspend your disbelief quite a lot for this one, but I’d still give it three and a half stars out of five for entertainment value.

Stephen Leather.

Sock Puppets…Trolls With a Hand Up Their Butt?

Photo courtesy of Read it again, Mom at blogspot.com

While I was writing my latest book review, Fair Game by Stephen Leather I was cruising the net for images to put on my article. I came across a picture of Stephen that stated that he liked sock puppets. I glanced at the image and chuckled. I then found an image I liked and moved on.

I then moved off the Google page of images and the engine coughed up an article about the practise of Sock Puppetry. I was curious about this “new” thing that was going on in the world of literature.

Essentially, sock puppets is another term for trolling. Okay, the article did not call it that, nor did the other multitude of  articles dealing with this practise. The explanation of sock puppetry is as follows:

” pseudonymous handles to post positive Amazon reviews of [sic] an author’s own books and one-star reviews of others.” *courtesy of the LA Times* Basically, “certain” authors are giving their published works 5 star reviews on Amazon (and presumably sites like Goodreads) and slating the competition.

It certainly sounds like trolling to me. Slating something someone else has done (usually on YouTube) and hiding behind a fake identity. The main difference of course is it that the sock puppet version of trolling is being done by someone with a vested interest is “cutting back” the competition.

Whether we like it or not, writing is a business. One that has become increasingly reliant on author participation directly related to sales. New authors (and even “established” ones) are having to resort to touting their wares beyond the “old-fashioned” route of book signings and interviews on  local and national media stations.

New authors are having to go the ‘self publishing’ route or are striving to make a name for themselves in the ever-increasing tide of eBooks that are the “bread and butter” of the kindle world. The old-fashioned publishing world exists, of course it does, with its huge slush pile of rejected manuscripts and agents on the look out for a “new” published author.

Cover of "Kindle Wireless Reading Device,...
Cover via Amazon

As the eBook industry  is gearing up, book reviews in newspapers and magazines are getting sparse. You can still find them of course, Reader’s Digest still has a monthly one, but, these are mostly for established writers well-known to the reading public. New authors do get a mention, sometimes.

So you are a writer and you’ve finished your book and , dammit, it’s good. You’ve got a ton of reject slips telling you so, it’s just that it’s not what the publisher needs right now. So you go the eBook route and self publish. It’s done more than you would think.

Now your book is published and out there for the world to read. It is unfortunately under-priced and the revenue coming in isn’t enough to buy a pint of bitter down the local pub. It needs some attention and a lot more positive notices so that readers want to try it out.

Now the under-pricing is impacting the sales of books in that they are driving the value of books down. As a consumer I applaud this, as a writer I am appalled. How can you make a living out of selling books that go for 99 pence a copy? I might have to work at MacDonald’s while I write in my spare time for the rest of my life.

But price matters aside (we won’t mention the “free” books) how do you drive readers to your works apart from relying on the medium that is selling your book?

Reviews.

Amazon has a section for reviews and has had for a long time. This system, set up for readers to say what they thought of their reading experience has always been open to “fake” reviews. It is part and parcel of a business that relies on “written word of mouth” to sell your stories.

The Pulitzer Prize gold medal award 한국어: 퓰리처상 ...
The Pulitzer Prize gold medal award 한국어: 퓰리처상 공공 보도 부문 상인 금메달 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Pulitzer Prize winner Edna Buchanan wrote in one of her autobiographical books that when she worked on a small newspaper in Florida she and a co-worker wrote “fake” inflammatory letters to the editor to get a reaction and drive their readership up. On a lesser note, editors use to also write to their own Playboy magazine with “sexual exploit” letters for a similar reason.

So  could we accuse the award-winning Ms Buchanan of early sock puppetry? I don’t think so. Because no matter how we go about it, business is business. Sure it’s not the same as the old saying, ” In love and war…” There are laws and apart from a lot of authors all squealing because they got a poor review on Amazon from a fictitious fan, trolling is not illegal.

Unethical? Probably. Maybe.

Either way, it is the way business is being done in an environment that requires so much more author input into the sales of their books.

On a final note, who really pays attention to book reviews? I read them (always have) but most are written by book critics who have their own agendas. Just like internet sites like IGN  and  G4 are thinly disguised marketing tools, so are book critics. I do pay a bit of attention to fan reviews but they are opinion based and not a hard and fast picture of how good a book really is.

I can sympathise with the aggrieved authors who feel (quite rightly, I suppose) that they are being unfairly picked on, but…

I know that at least one author who has clawed his way up through electronic publishing to become a successful “traditionally” published writer has bucket loads of talent and writes one helluva good book. I think that if you are on the other side of the fence and are trying to become successful in your field you will do whatever you have to.

Success isn’t just a state of mind, it’s having the dedication to take advantage of any legal doors open to you.  This war is going to go on for sometime to come. Just because a few authors have been caught with their fingers caught in the proverbial cookie jar doesn’t mean that the practise will stop.

Oops.

 

Fifty Shades of Boring

Fifty Shades of Grey
Fifty Shades of Grey (Photo credit: ellebnere)

Okay, so I read in today’s internet news that a Chav (that’s UK English for poor white trash) has published her own version of Fifty Shades of Grey. The article goes on to helpfully point out that the book is available for purchase from Amazon.

Am I surprised? Uh, that would be a no, I think.

Ever since Stephanie Meyer helped open the door for semi-literate writers everywhere by getting the mediocre and laughably bad Twilight series published, other writers have been rushing to get their sophomoric  scratchings published.

I remember the big hoopla surrounding E L James’ book when it first hit electronic book stands. At best it sounded mildly pornographic, but oddly it was accepted as ‘mainstream’ fiction presumably because it was written by a woman. I never bothered to read the book or excerpts from it. I relied on word of mouth, or more accurately word of reviewer to gauge my reaction to it.

I also remember the publicity for the book stating that Fifty Shades of Grey was a middle aged woman’s sexual fantasies put in print.

Wow.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that I would not want to read the middle aged  sexual fantasies of anyone, male or female. And before you rush to label me a prude or a repressed old man, I’ll say quite loudly and clearly that I like sex, I just don’t want to read about it, especially when written by a mid-life crisis wrinkly.

I just read the other day that this ‘best selling’ book was in fact intended as fan fiction for the series Twilight.

Brilliant.

How you can take a series that is about as sexy as a dead trout and then write fan fiction that is, apparently, very hedonistic and not a little rooted in S & M somehow escapes me. But the very fact that both authors exhibit a middle school writing style explains a lot.

Okay, that’s enough rambling about the merits of Meyer and James. I’ll now return to the reason for this blog post. The article about the UK version of Fifty Shades (which was originally titled Fifty Shades of Chav) came about because the author (another middle aged budding author) got 6000 likes on her facebook page dedicated to her book.

So okay, sales of 6000 smutty poorly written books at .99 pence per book does yield a nice little profit. But what if the UK version does as well as the US version. Will there be charges of plagiarism? Will this success lead to countries throughout the world coughing up middle aged sex fantasies for their own topical Fifty Shades?

More importantly will this new trend of ‘older’ fan fiction continue to be top of the bestseller list? Hopefully not. I remember reading about the furore caused when Lady Chatterley’s Lover was first published. Written by D.H. Lawrence and published in 1928 the book was the scandal of the day.

It featured a plot that crossed class boundaries and described the sex act quite explicitly. Not to mention the use of the ‘F’ word.  An uncensored version of the book was not available within English shores till 1960. Yet this book was a runaway best seller.

These days I don’t think the book would have raised a single eyebrow. Yet Fifty Shades of Grey, a middle aged soft porn bit of fan fiction, has lept to the top of the bestseller list. I’m not sure what that says of today’s reading audience.

Have our reading levels been so reduced that we find nothing wrong with substandard writing? Have we all forgotten the rules as laid out by William Strunk Jr so brilliantly in The Elements of Style?

I can sort of understand the pushing of Meyer’s work in schools. It is difficult enough to get youngsters to read now-a-days. I can see the parent, teacher board saying, “Well, at least they’re reading.” But at what price? More importantly, what cost?

I can see a entire generation of substandard readers flocking to buy and read the latest electronic dross and ignoring the good authors. The writers who really know how to practise their craft. Experts who can not only tell a story, but tell it well.

I would dearly love to see something I’ve written become published. A lot of potential authors want to be published as well. I don’t know about anyone else, but I refuse to ‘dumb down’ my writing to appeal to the masses who apparently can’t get enough of vampire stories that aren’t and middle aged pornography.

I rather keep learning my craft slowly, surely and painfully. One day when I really know what I’m doing, I’ll get published.

Or not.

Cover of "The Elements of Style, Fourth E...
Cover of The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition

Nightmare by Stephen Leather – A Nightingale Sings

I have to start by saying that I came late to this party. The book Nightmare is the third in what is apparently going to be a long and enjoyable series. Nightmare begins after book two Midnight has ended.

(God, I am so clever…not)

Nightmare opens with Jack Nightingale, ex-cop, private eye and inheritor of his biological satanic worshipping father’s house and it’s occult book collection being woken up and arrested at an obscenely early time in the morning. *How’s that for summing up the main character in a single sentence.*

Nightingale is accused of shooting a black gang member in the back of the head in Brixton. Their evidence is the clinically brain dead victim saying Nightingale’s name while he is in a coma. And so begins Jack Nightingale’s third adventure in a world inhabited by bad people, demons and ‘experts’ in the occult.

The beauty of this book was that I could pick it up and read it without having read the other two books in the series. The action moves quickly and snappily. I immediately got connected with all the main characters and found myself cheering Jack on.

Stephen Leather is one of those unique authors that has that all important ear for dialogue. I would go so far as to put him in the same category as Elmore Leonard, who is a master  at dialogue. Leather’s characters talk like real people. And more importantly, since most of them live and work in London, sound like they belong there.

English: Elmore Leonard, Miami Book Fair Inter...
English: Elmore Leonard, Miami Book Fair International, 1989 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

He also has gotten the ‘gangster speak’ down pat. At one point in the book Jack has to deal with a drugs gang and the lingo is spot on.

The book is busy. Not only does Jack have the police trying to pin a murder on him he also has a drugs gang who want him dead. He has two demons who want his soul and want him to make him pay up for a deal made in book two Midnight.

I felt that Jack Nightingale could be a real as you or me. He drinks, he smokes and he loves Chinese food. He is also smart and resourceful. But above and beyond all that, he carries on with his life and job despite having more crap dumped on top of him than most people could endure.

Unfortunately the ending, which was nail biting up to a point, yanked me right out of the moment. It was a device I had seen used in the films Bedazzled and Constantine .  Okay, it worked for the story, but, if I’ve seen it before it takes a little bit out of the punch.

Still it was not enough to put me off the story, it just took a little out of the ending. It definitely did not put me off enough to not want to read the first two books in the series and want another new one to read. Preferably sooner rather than later.

So If I used a star system (I don’t), this book would have still gotten a good four and a half stars out of five. But since I don’t use a star system, I’ll just say it’s a flipping good read and one that I would recommend to anyone.