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Some thoughts on James Patterson’s “BookShots”

I bought a thriller novella in the grocery store checkout line today.

Well, I’d call it a novella. James Patterson and his publisher call them “BookShots.”

Now that I’ve finally had a chance to actually read one of these, I have some thoughts.

To start, I was among those chuckling under their breath when Patterson’s BookShots were first released.

I thought, Why is he renaming novellas? This is just a marketing shtick. Call it what it is.

Well, that’s true. I mean, look at the first line of his introduction, which is on the first page after you turn the cover:

Dear Reader,

You’re about to experience a revolution in reading—BookShots.

BookShots are a whole new kind of book — 100 percent story-driven, no fluff, always under $5.

I snorted a little. A revolution? Really?

You see, as an author familiar with book marketing, this is a little transparent to me. He literally just renamed novellas!

Also, a lot of authors are offering “100 percent story-driven, no fluff, always under $5” on the Kindle these days (though rarely in paper, even they have to admit).

None of this stopped me from buying the book, though. (Helped that it was 20% off) Call it professional curiosity. And the back cover copy was interesting.

This book is called Manhunt. The back cover reads…

MICHAEL BENNETT,
BE GRATEFUL YOU’RE ALIVE.

Someone attacked the Thanksgiving Day parade directly in front of Michael Bennett and his family.
The television news called it “holiday terror”; Michael Bennett calls it personal. The hunt is on…

Followed by pull quotes from Lee Child and Michael Connelly (thriller authors of the same type as Patterson, in case you didn’t know).

I finally opened the book, and what I found was a sparse, plot-driven terrorism thriller with good hooks and an emotional punch.

Part of me is still a little irritated that Patterson is coopting short novels and renaming them as this gimmicky “BookShots” bullshit, but the other part is impressed because the story has done its job and drawn me in.

The writing is solid and fast paced, but not without depth. One sentence paragraphs are common. There’s a very clear character voice and setting.

The chapters are short, often no more than two pages. If I had to guess, 500-750 words per chapter.

But the story moves. Hook after hook after hook. It’s very plot driven (what Patterson calls story-driven, I suppose), but as I said the depth is still there. We’re deep inside Michael Bennett’s head, whether he’s worrying about his large brood of adopted children or chasing a terrorist through the street.

I’m halfway through this book so I can’t say whether I was satisfied with the ending. But I’m gonna finish it.

In spite of the transparency of the marketing ploy, I’d happily read another one of these books. At the least, I’d pick it up and read the back cover.

I hate the name “BookShots,” but they seem to be entertaining stories, if you’re into the type of thrillers James Patterson is known for. Look past the silly branding and expect to be entertained.

And, to be clear, it’s not that you couldn’t get more out of an indie book, and probably for less, especially if you buy on Kindle or Kobo.

But I don’t know many authors who can do in 2 pages what Patterson seems capable of. To move a story at the pace he does takes skill.

First Pages: The Word For World Is Forest

The Word For World Is Forest

Apropos of nothing, here’s a photo of the really excellent opening page of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Hugo and Nebula Award-winning novel, The Word for World Is Forest, which I happen to have on my bookshelf.

I’ve become obsessed with studying the openings of novels I love due to a writing course I just finished, and this one truly stands out in my mind. So I went back to find it an decided you ought to check it out, too.

The reader gets a complete picture of who Captain Davidson is and what he’s all about from the first line.

“Two pieces of yesterday were in Captain Davidson’s mind when he woke, and he lay looking at them in the darkness for a while.”

Controlled, cold, but perceptive. Military, obviously in charge of…something. What?

A few lines later and most readers have realized this captain a total ass. Captain Davidson is not remotely likeable. From halfway down the page I want to punch him in his smug face, the picture is that vivid. Yet he’s irresistibly engaging, too.

And then there’s that lovely line of setting amid his ugliness…

“…thinning the mud to a red broth that ran down rocks into the rainbeaten sea.”

If that doesn’t let you know how this man feels about the planet on which he’s been stationed, I can’t help you.

A great opening. Deep into the character so quickly. Really makes me think. And want to reread the book, but this time I might start at the beginning of the series instead.

 

The Word For World Is Forest

Reading: Half a King

Why on Earth did it take me so long to crack open a Joe Abercrombie novel?

I burned through Half a King in two days, reeling and obsessed.

A “fast-paced tale of betrayal and revenge,” as George R.R. Martin puts it on the cover, this fantasy novel is swift, dark, subtle, cunning, and brutal.

Half a King tells the story of Yarvi, second son of the king of Gettland, who was born with a crippled left hand. With half a hand and the scorn of his family, he feels like half a man, and is stunned when the murder of his father and older brother shift him unexpectedly onto the throne.

If half a man can’t even stand up to his peers or hold his own in a fight, how can he expect to rule a kingdom?

Yarvi resents the position his kin’s untimely death has put him in. No one around him seems to think him remotely capable of doing the job, least of all himself. But that’s just the start of his journey. When a quest for vengeance takes an unexpected turn, Yarvi must first prove himself worthy before he can claim his birthright.

I highly recommend this one if you like medieval fantasy, or stories of vikings, or reading about ruthless cultures steeped in war. Read this one if you’re a student of human nature, because the characterization is spectacular.

I don’t know why it took me so long to read a Joe Abercrombie novel, but I’ll definitely be returning to his world soon.


Like my reading recommendations? Buy Half a King on Amazon and support this blog and Joe’s books at the same time (through Amazon’s affiliate program).

Reading: The Traveler

I picked up this high tech thriller a few weeks ago. Started reading tonight.

The Traveler by John Twelve Hawks. Published 2005 by Vintage Books.

Good solid opening chapter, a training scene combined with a betrayal. Our hero, Maya, reminds me of the skateboarder in Neal Stephenson’s Snowcrash, a fearless young woman. Danger obviously lurks around the corner. And it’s exceptional, because Maya has been prepared for it in a perfectly believable way.

The voice is stark and cyberpunky and occasionally sarcastic. I’m into it. This is what the talking heads said (from the back cover):

“A cyber 1984…page-turningly swift, with a cliff-hanger ending.” —The New York Times

“A fearless, brilliant action heroine; a secret history of the world; a tale of brother against brother… and nonstop action as the forces of good and evil battle it out.” —The Times-Pocayune

Those are good blurbs.

*takes notes*

Anyway, reading is always a relaxing way to end a night. Are you reading anything good tonight?

What I’m Reading, Oct. 2017

What have I been reading lately? I’m glad you asked. Here’s a list of all the good science fiction/fantasy books and stories I’ve read over the last few months.

Originally, I had it set in my mind that I would be doing blog posts for each book, but I’ve come to realize that this is an unrealistic expectation. Plus, I read a lot of short stories because I love the format. So I’m going to experiment with this roundup format instead—the focus, as ever with me, is science fiction and fantasy books and short stories.

(Psst, links to books are affiliate links, which means I get a few cents if you end up buying one or two. Thanks for the tip!)

October Recommended Reading

Legionnaire by Jason Anspach and Nick Cole

A military science fiction tale fashioned after the Star Wars universe. The book has been described as “stormtroopers in Afghanistan,” which is not an inaccurate description—the story follows a company of Legionnaire’s (as they’re called in this world) who are incomparable shots with a blaster rifle and wear smart battle suits that protect them while they battle rebels on behalf of the (often incompetent) Empire.

But to just describe the book as Star Wars-inspired doesn’t do this particular story justice. Seeing what these men go through, living through their particular experience of combat, manages to be both emotional and endearing. It had me alternately laughing and choked up as they face death with a sense of humor.

Cole and Anspach have since released three more books in this series, so If you’re a fan of Star Wars, you’re bound to love it. Subtle (and some not-so-subtle) nods at the history of the original SW trilogy will have long-time fans chuckling and cheering them along.

Nomad by Matthew Mather

I originally thought of this one as a purely scientific apocalypse story. What’s most incredible is all the legwork Mather did to set up a very realistic hard science apocalypse using real-life astronomy. The story is good, too. Our main character is a climber and adrenaline junky (easy for yours truly to relate, let me tell you), who is on a vacation in Rome with her mother when the world turns upside down.

Or maybe upside down is the wrong expression. When the world explodes might be better. I don’t want to ruin it, but if you like hard sci-fi, books like The Martian, or Thrillers with a sci-fi bent, then check this one out.

“The Key” by Isaac Asimov

I found this sci-fi mystery short story in a paper copy of The Best From Fantasy and Science Fiction: 16th Series. I love Asimov’s short stories, and a large chunk of what he wrote uses the mystery structure with his typical science fiction slant. The best part was when the detectives found a secret code, and they interpreted it as corresponding to the names of the moon’s craters, which, it turns out, were named after a lot of ancient astronomers who believed the Earth was the center of the universe.

It was a fun mystery that held up well though more than 50 years has passed since it was written. No buy link for this one because I can’t find an ebook on Amazon that has it. Wikipedia tells me you can find it in The Best Mysteries of Isaac Asimov, a collection of his stories.

“Passerby” by Larry Niven

Another great sci-fi short stories from the 1960s, I read this in the Galaxy from September 1969. I’ll admit here that this is the first Larry Niven story I’ve read, and I was definitely not disappointed. The story is built around a metaphor, and a frame story to boot, so the writer in me was absolutely delighted. A peoplewatcher in a park meets a “rammer” (a space man) who has returned to Earth from a journey through the stars where he encountered a mysterious golden celestial being who walks among the stars. It’s one of those stories that makes you stop to reflect.

There’s an audible version for less than $2 here and or in a collection called All The Myriad Ways  (audio and mass market paperback only).

Why they don’t print these things as individual ebooks is beyond me.

The next few days I’ll be on vacation, so the blog will probably revert to short posts—hopefully with photos! New England is beautiful in the autumn.

How two vintage pulp sci-fi books landed in my lap

Spent the last 24 hours visiting with a good friend, Jacen, who was in town from Colorado Springs for a work thing. He only had a little time to hang out before heading back home, but even so I think it’s safe to say we did Austin right: we started with whisky tastings and eventually made our way into the wine bar last night, and then had breakfast tacos to sober us back up this morning. Thanks for visiting, Jacen!

As luck would have it, we found ourselves with some extra time to kill before his flight took off, so we stopped by an art gallery on the east side called the Recspec Gallery. It’s in a converted warehouse along with three or four other small galleries and it was great fun to see all the cool art they had. The Austin Book Arts Center also has a workshop in there (they do book binding classes and book restoration work).

Recspec also happened to have a very small display of science fiction magazines and anthologies from the 1960s. Now, that’s just up my alley. Imagine my delight to find the September 1969 issue of Galaxy Magazine with Dr. Menzel’s martians on the cover. Apparently he sent these doodles out to friends and the originals are “highly prized.” Fun to have a book cover featuring those same sketches.

And The Best From Fantasy and Science Fiction: 16th Series, first published in 1965.

Both books are in beautiful condition, with only a little normal wear from reading and time. The vanilla old book smell is strong, and the art is beautiful. You see those details in the eyeballs of the anthology? Maybe I’ll do a giveaway to pass these two treasured volumes on…or maybe I’ll hang onto them. I love the art, and it’s fun to have original stories from Philip K. Dick, Isaac Asimov, Roger Zelazny, Dr. Menzel, and Larry Niven. I’m gonna start by reading a few today.

Reading: The Prometheus Project

The Prometheus Project by Steve White (Science fiction, 2005)

I loved the cover, so I bought it. More proof that good covers sell books. Never heard of Steve White before, just exploring sci-fi based on artwork and concepts that appeal to me.

The Prometheus Project opens with a scene where the newly elected president meets the sitting president to discuss the transfer of power. There’s a lot of smoldering enmity. After the banter, the sitting president says, there’s something you need to know…we’ve already made contact. Aliens exist. And now you must safeguard this secret.

I couldn’t help but laugh. I read this right after Trump’s uncanny inauguration, so of course it was top of mind for me — but the roles are reversed here. The democrat in this book is the newly elected president, the opposite of the most recent US election, but the roles could easily have been reversed. It gave me some perspective. Two parties are like two sides of the same coin in American politics. I couldn’t help but imagine Obama telling Trump about the aliens.

Just picture the look on his face.

Anyway, from there, the story hops back to 1963. Private security agent Bob Devaney was escorting a mysterious woman named Novak to the White House when they were ambushed by gunmen. When Novak uses an invisibility cloak to make an impossible escape, she gets ready to terminate Devaney for knowing too much—until her boss orders her to bring him into the fold instead.

Devaney is then recruited for The Prometheus Project—the white-labeled men in black. What follows is a rollicking adventure woven into a star-traversing journey. The man is valuable for his action hero abilities (so he thinks), but he’s there on the request of the mysterious and infrequently seen Mr. Inconnu.

You can tell this book was inspired by mid-century sci-fi classics, but it’s written in a modern voice I found compelling. A familiar story, but the character relationships kept it interesting and new for me. I always love to see authors invent new societies and cultures, and then put confused humans there to see how they’ll cope. My kind of fiction.

The Prometheus Project is worth the read if you like aliens and action in your sci-fi. What happens to the President-Elect at the end will make you laugh.

Reading: The City and The Stars

The City and The Stars by Arthur C. Clarke. Science fiction, 1956.

I’m still on a kick to catch up on the mid-century masters of science fiction—stuff that, by choice or by chance, I’ve never been exposed to. When I saw this one in Half Price Books with the awesome cover I had to have it.

Appropriately aged, don’t you think? 

It took me a while to read this book, and even longer to write about it. It’s good. I just needed time to let it all sink in. 

Here’s the thing. It starts slow. A billion years has passed and Clarke is painstakingly laying out for you reader how society has changed in all that time—a time your brain can hardly quantify.

It takes some getting used to. But there’s a pace shift about a quarter of the way through that will absolutely blow your mind.

Once exposed, the sheer scale of the concept that powers this book is impressive. This is a high concept novel. Relatively short in length, but on a massive scale.

What’s most astonishing is how well the story has aged. Technology has advanced considerably since Clarke wrote this and his vision of the far-future society remains perfectly plausible if we look at it from today—again, that scale.

It almost feels like the story is more relevant today than it was when he wrote it. Some of the language is very mid-century, but if you can get past that, I think you might like this science fiction epic, The City and The Stars.