Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Author Spotlight: Todd Moss

Today’s guest on the Gazalaplooza Author Spotlight is Todd Moss, who has brought along with him his brand new international political thriller, The Golden Hour. We could rattle on and on about what a gripping novel Moss’ new book is, but then we’d just be following in the treads of scores of rave reviews preceding our own recommendation. We might instead impress upon you our guest’s extraordinary resumé, brimming with global treks and experiences (i.e., gigs at a Washington D.C. think tank, the U.S. State Department, the World Bank, Georgetown University, and the London School of Economics) that imbue The Golden Hour with the hearty flavors only someone who’s “been there, and done that” can whip up for your appreciative literary palate. Read The Golden Hour, and you’ll soon see how 100 desperately dangerous hours in Mali will rivet you in ways you’ll remember long after you’ve finished devouring this book.

Given Moss’ quarter century of professional and educational adventures in Africa, you might be excused for thinking of the Spotlight’s infamous klieg light army will have unremarkable effects on our guest. Perhaps, but we all know there’s only one way to find out for sure. Moss is sitting comfortably in our hard wooden chair, seemingly unperturbed by the blinding blaze. Let’s get this Spotlight underway.

Gazala:    In my omnipotence, I've sentenced you to be stranded alone on a desert island for offenses best left unnamed. In my beneficence, I've decided to allow you a limited amount of reading material to make your stay a little less bleak than it would otherwise be. I'll spot you your religious text of preference, and the collected works of William Shakespeare. In addition to those, name the one fiction book, and the one nonfiction book, you'd choose to take with you, and tell why you choose them.

Moss:    For fiction, I’d probably pick Michael Chabon’s Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. It’s an epic, funny, and intimately human story that I could read again and again. Nonfiction is tougher. I’d probably choose Henry Kissinger’s tome Diplomacy, a window into political history and the role of persuasion and raw power. And can I trade Shakespeare for the collected works of J.D. Salinger? (Ed.—Sure, we’re fairly laissez-faire about reading lists with Salinger on them.)

Gazala:    Your new book is an excellent and gripping international political thriller titled The Golden Hour. The novel tells how Judd Ryker, chief of the State Department’s new experimental Crisis Reaction Unit, rises to the formidable challenges of restoring the unjustly deposed president of Mali, rescuing an American senator's kidnapped daughter, and protecting the American embassy in Timbuktu from a terrorist attack, and doing it all in less than 100 hours. I've read it. I enjoyed it immensely, and recommend it highly. Shockingly enough, however, from time to time my bare recommendation doesn't always motivate a book's potential reader to become a book's actual reader. Tell us something about The Golden Hour, and why its potential reader should make the leap and become its actual reader.

Moss:    Thanks, Richard. The Golden Hour is supposed to be a fun thriller. I read thrillers on the beach to relax and get away, so that was my main goal. However, I also wanted to share a more serious experience: We seem to read every day in the newspapers about some crisis around the world (tyranny in Syria, Ebola in West Africa, terrorism in Yemen) where the U.S. Government is expected to respond.  I lived this first hand as a senior State Department official working for Secretary Condoleezza Rice.  In the novel, I wanted to take readers right inside the White House Situation Room or into the sealed classified rooms in the corners of U.S. Embassies to hear the conversations about what our government should do. I wanted to give people some insight into how and why decisions are made that so often seem wrong or misguided. That’s going on every single day.

Gazala:    What are books for?

Moss:    Above all, pleasure.

Gazala:    W. Somerset Maugham said, "There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are." Do you agree, or disagree, and why?

Moss:     When I wrote my first novel, I had no idea what I was doing.  I wrote the second one using a wholly different process. I’m now working on the third, and still not sure which approach is best. The only rule I think that applies to all novels:  you have to sit in the chair and just do it.

Gazala:    You'll pardon me -- I've a sudden and unforeseen crisis requiring my immediate reaction. Ask yourself a question, and answer it.

Moss:    Why’d I set a modern thriller in a place few people know?  The plot was original inspired by a real coup in Mauritania, but I set The Golden Hour in Mali because I thought everyone has heard of Timbuktu. (Yes, it’s a real city in northern Mali!)  I also wanted to share some of my love for Africa, a place I’ve worked on professionally for 25 years. I caught the “Africa Bug” as a college student in Zimbabwe and haven’t looked back.

I hoped setting my story about American foreign policy in a country like Mali might help make that part of the world a bit more accessible to readers, and also highlight how Americans and Africans are being drawn closer together than ever before. Our economies are increasingly tied as Africa becomes an important growth market for American companies. Many people don’t yet realize that Africa is booming. And our own national security is intimately linked as terrorism and international crime become greater threats. That’s why our military is more and more involved in places like Somalia or the Sahara Desert. The continent seems far away for many people, but this is changing quickly.

The old cliché from countless songs, poems and books is Timbuktu’s mysterious glimmer is always half a world away from wherever you happen to be, as in, “Darling, I’d follow you all the way to Timbuktu if you asked me to.” Not so right now, friends. The Golden Hour’s mysterious glimmer is as close as a mere Amazon click. So much for never taking you anywhere fun, right?

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Book Review: Ghost Stories of Old New Orleans, by Jean deLavigne

First published in 1946, Jeanne deLavigne's excellent "Ghost Stories of Old New Orleans" fell out of print for a long while. In 2013, the Louisiana State University Press remedied that with a new edition, including a foreword by folklorist and LSU Professor Emeritus of English Frank de Caro. As de Caro accurately says of the 40 stories collected in this book, deLavigne "...gave her legends a literary twist, and the tales in [the book] read like literary stories." All of these genuinely eerie (and allegedly true) ghost stories brim with fully developed characters, intricate plots, intimate settings, and great attention to historical detail. The world is full of books of ghost stories, but very few of them are well-written enough to qualify as literature. This one does. (Note: Like all art, this book is a product of its place and time -- readers offended by occasional racial or ethnic slurs might not enjoy this collection.)

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Book Review: Edgar Allan Poe: The Fever Called Living, by Paul Collins

For those interested in a brief and well-written biography of the man, author Paul Collins' "Edgar Allan Poe: The Fever Called Living" is a perfect place to start. At less than 120 pages (including a few pages of Notes and recommendations for additional reading), the book's five engaging chapters fly by quickly. By his own admission, this book adds little "unusual or even unique" material to the subject of Poe's often calamitous life, and his strange death, but that's no discredit to Collins -- as one of America's most beloved authors and the widely-acknowledged inventor of the modern detective story, there's already a voluminous trove of scholarly information available about Poe and his work. However, any reader keener to wade rather than drown in Poe's murky pool will be glad for Collins' book.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Book Review: The Supernatural Enhancements, by Edgar Cantero

Edgar Cantero's thriller "The Supernatural Enhancements" is the latest entry in the centuries-old narrative device that is the epistolary novel. The device, where a story is told via a montage of variably trustworthy letters, journal entries, newspaper clippings, etc., been used by many authors to better effect. (Stoker's "Dracula," Shelley's "Frankenstein," and Collins' "The Moonstone" are a just a few classics that leap immediately to mind.) Cantero's effort to tread in those well-worn footprints is not an abject failure, but readers are justified wondering why the author elected to tell the story this way. The plot and setting, and the characters that populate them, are all sufficiently intriguing to hold interest on their own merits without resort to gratuitous epistolary gymnastics. Cantero's choice of narrative technique detracts, often materially, from what could otherwise be a solidly gripping paranormal mystery.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Book Review: The Slype, by Russell Thorndike

Russell Thorndike's 1927 novel teems with murder, blackmail, serial kidnappings of man and beast, a secret book pointing the way to a long-lost treasure, an ancient cathedral rifled with hidden tunnels and clandestine doors, all tied to a haunted passageway called the Slype (which gives this book its title). Toiling with and against each other in this droll mayhem set in the English riverside town of Dullchester are a cast of variously eccentric characters who can't help calling to mind the singular personalities in some of Charles Dickens' classic fiction, a literary canon that clearly inspired and informed Thorndike's writing. Thorndike revels in taking his time to spin his engaging tale through a labyrinth of puzzles, not unlike a pleasant stroll in what is nowadays known as a "cozy mystery." Kudos to Valancourt Books for publishing this high-quality reprint of a novel sure to please fans of Dickens and Agatha Christie alike.

Book Review: The Rule of Nobody, by Philip K. Howard

"This town needs an enema." So said Jack Nicholson's "Joker" about the dysfunctionality of Gotham City in Tim Burton's 1989 movie, "Batman." In "The Rule of Nobody," author Philip K. Howard embraces Joker's sentiments exactly, save that Howard's disgust is aimed squarely at Washington D.C. Regardless of one's political stripe, the list of what's badly broken in national politics far exceeds the tally of what's working well. In this book, Howard illustrates the vast and litigious space separating common sense from bureaucratic inertia in modern America. Surely many ailments explain the malady, and just as surely one of the more prominent among them is bureaucratic malaise brought about by countless aged and conflicting rules and regulations as immortal as they are useless, if not downright dangerous. Thus the enema -- Howard's prescription to set things right in part is to vigorously seek and eliminate outdated federal bureaucratic regulations and regulators whose evolution has rendered them poisonous to the health of our national body politic. Howard's diagnosis, prognosis and suggested course of treatment all ring true. There's no politician alive who wouldn't benefit himself and his constituents by reading this book. You should read it, too.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Author Spotlight: Christopher J. Yates

Today’s guest at the Gazalapalooza Author Spotlight is Christopher J. Yates, a writer who the New York Post recently declared might very well be "…a new Stephen King, albeit with a British accent." That’s an impressive accolade for any storyteller.

Yates’ debut novel is a highly acclaimed thriller titled, Black Chalk. It’s an intricate, pleasingly complex, and deeply engaging tale about a twisted version of the classic "Truth or Dare" game waged among a close-knit group of college friends that goes darkly awry across years and continents. It’s no spoiler to reveal here that not everyone who starts playing this game survives to witness aghast its startling end.

Yates is remarkably well-suited to craft such a truly ingenious book. He’s not only versed in the labyrinthine twists and turns of the law via the degree he earned in his native Britain, but he followed up his schooling with a successful career in puzzle magazines before embarking on the literary journey that ultimately birthed Black Chalk.

One might assume an established puzzle-master like our esteemed Mr. Yates would fare exceedingly well under the renown rigors of the Author Spotlight. But there’s only one way to find out if that’s the truth. So let’s tie him tightly to our sturdy wooden chair, crank up those unforgiving klieg lights, and dare Yates to emerge unscathed at this interview’s conclusion.

Gazala:    In my omnipotence, I've sentenced you to be stranded alone on a desert island for offenses best left unnamed. In my beneficence, I've decided to allow you a limited amount of reading material to make your stay a little less bleak than it would otherwise be. I'll spot you your religious text of preference, and the collected works of William Shakespeare. In addition to those, name the one fiction book, and the one nonfiction book, you'd choose to take with you, and tell why you choose them.

Yates:    For my religious text can I please take the Book of Mormon. I'm an atheist who was brought up Church of England (I was in the choir, no less), so I've heard a lot of Bible and I'd like something to read for pure entertainment value.

For my non-fiction book, I'm going to be very unoriginal, but honest, and plump for a dictionary. But no ordinary dictionary, The Chambers Dictionary, a British dictionary (I'm from England and moved to the States seven years ago). I have a much-loved copy, an 18th birthday present from my mother, that is now falling apart. It's quite an eccentric dictionary both in its word choices and definitions. For example, "Kazoo — a would-be musical instrument," and, "Mullet — a hairstyle that is short at the front, long at the back, and ridiculous all round."

And for fiction, I'd like Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire, an extraordinary puzzle of a book that was one of the strongest inspirations for my own novel, Black Chalk. Pale Fire is a thoroughly entertaining novel that reads like the equivalent of a chess problem or Chinese puzzle box. The whole story teases the reader with questions of the narrator's identity and intent. I think it might take me a decade to even begin to glimpse some of its delicious secrets, so it's a book that would certainly keep me occupied.

Gazala:    Your new book is an excellent and gripping psychological thriller titled Black Chalk, set in New York and at Oxford University, in which a group of six students play an elaborate game of dares and consequences with tragic results. I've read it. I enjoyed it immensely, and recommend it highly. Shockingly enough, however, from time to time my bare recommendation doesn't always motivate a book's potential reader to become a book's actual reader. Tell us something about Black Chalk, and why its potential reader should make the leap and become its actual reader.

Yates:    Firstly, thank you so much for the praise and recommendation. I feel strongly that you are a man of exquisite taste and utterly impeccable judgement and your followers should listen to everything you say. However, if they're foolish enough to need more information, then I would first tell a potential reader the tagline for Black Chalk — "One Game. Six Students. Five Survivors." Then I would reveal that I used to work full time as a puzzle editor and then a puzzle compiler and that The Times of London described my book as "an inventive and intricate psychological puzzle thriller". And to conclude I would seal the deal with the words "Oh go on, pleeeease. It's really good. Honest."

Gazala:    What are books for?

Yates:    Books are for many things — forming colorful browse-worthy rows; painting beautiful word pictures; high-speed thrill rides through fascinating plots; pressing flowers; education (even fiction can be educational, but in a subtle and alluring and sometimes even dangerous way); hiding treasure (metaphorically — and literally if you cut hiding spots into the pages); empathy training; attracting the opposite sex (ask my wife how I wooed her — the answer beyond "nervously and badly," is, "with books"); and finally, for balancing on one's head to learn proper deportment. This is a complete list.

Gazala:    W. Somerset Maugham said, "There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are." Do you agree, or disagree, and why?

Yates:    Anyone who's ever read an article in which various writers present their rules cannot fail to agree with Maugham. But I don't think most writers consider themselves in sole possession of a set of hard-and-fast rules that form The Grand Secret To Writing. But I think the media have to package things to make them grab the reader's attention. And who's going to read an article entitled "Ten Writers Share With Us Their Personal Guidelines, Which They Don't Think Are Universally Applicable, But The Reader Might Find Useful Notwithstanding the Fact That Writers Sometimes Ignore Their Own So-Called Rules"?

Gazala:   An old college friend just dared me to do something I'm going to do despite my better judgment. This may take a while. Ask yourself a question, and answer it.

Yates:    Don't go through with the dare, Richard, I implore you — you've read Black Chalk and you know things are going to go very badly indeed. But while you struggle with your dilemma, I will ask the following question of myself: The main narrator in Black Chalk is a hermit living in New York; on your Twitter profile, you describe yourself as a part-time hermit living in New York; are you obsessed with hermits?

Good question, Christopher. The truth is, I have something of a hermit fantasy. What I really want most in my writing life is an isolated log cabin in which to work. However, my wife is a journalist in New York and isolated log cabins are fairly hard to come by in Manhattan. (I've heard there's even a shortage of them in Brooklyn, which is a huge concern for the greater-bearded urban woodsmen population.) In fact, I recently came across my personal Dream Writer's Log Cabin, here, which is sneakily classed as an RV, so you can just plonk it down on any piece of land you own without zoning issues. I have thought about very little else in life ever since I saw this. But until I can find a surreptitious way to get my wife fired from her job, I have to create my own isolated log cabin. For example, every morning I lock my phone and the Internet in a safe with a timer (OK, admittedly not the WHOLE Internet, my wireless router). Hey presto — isolation. Also, I work next to a school yard. There you go — wildlife. Plus, my building has a gym in the basement that is almost always entirely empty — and so down I go to 'hike' and 'chop wood'. Is any of this fooling anyone apart from myself? And on that note, I think it's time for me to leave you. I have to go and build an imaginary fire from a virtual log pile.

An imaginary fire built from non-dimensional logs by a pseudo-hermit who resides in Manhattan? Puzzling, indeed, putting aside for the moment the power to distance one's self quite vibrantly from banal workaday realities as circumstances warrant. You can dare yourself a peek inside Black Chalk by clicking here. Better yet, you can forgo the toe-dipping and take the mighty Black Chalk plunge at by gathering a slow, deep breath, and clicking here. After all, who among you doesn’t relish a formidable puzzle?