Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Tuesday Morning Book Review: The Riviera Contract by Arthur Kerns.

I have been reading thrillers for years, ever since my mom's friend Betty Gralton gave me an old copy of Alistair Mac Lean's Fear is the Key. In the subsequent 40 years I have read hundreds and hundreds, in every sub-genre from historical to Eco, political to medical, religious to international. In the process, one picks up a few things about the genre: the plots, the settings, the dialogue, and, especially, the main characters. Fleming's Bond and LeCarre's Smiley have been oft referenced--guilty--and so I will leave then out, but the usual MC is often very predictable, a talented (plug-in ex-Navy Seal, NSA agent, Federal Marshal etc.) forced out of service because of a (plug-in alcohol problem, bad relationship, horrific experience) is forced back into service to save the life of his (plug-in red-headed, blonde, brunette) ex-wife, who he (wait for it) still loves. You've read that one too?

But it's a formula that works: the previous career gives the MC a plausible reason to be involved in the plot, without being just yet another faceless agent in a clandestine service. The flaw provides  a reason why the MC left his career in the first place, as well as a source of internal conflict he must overcome. And the saving of the red-headed ex-wife allows the reader to develop the all-important visceral empathy that keeps the reader and MC connected for a long time. (Consider A Time to Kill, by--the real--John Grisham: I read that book twenty years ago and I still remember Carl Lee Hailey, the father of the 10-year-old black girl raped by two white boys who takes justice into his own hands. That's the kind of visceral empathy I am talking about.)

The problem is that formulas which work get used a lot--especially in the crowded thriller market--and many of them start blending together like so many westerns and romances. Enter Hayden Stone, Art Kern's former FBI agent scooped out of retirement by the CIA to fill a vacancy in the glamorous French Riviera. Stone is divorced from his wife not because of his infidelity, but rather his wife's boredom, and your first clue about Kerns' twist on the tried and true is apparent: the entire book is heavily steeped in reality. No suspension of disbelief here. Which is not say that Hayden Stone is boring or mundane: Stone is anything but boring, but the point remains valid--The Riviera Contract is the genuine article, written by a industry insider. Kerns' long tenure in the FBI not only flavors Stone as am MC, but the dialogue between characters and the pacing as well. The reader gets a real sense of how operatives actually speak to one another, as opposed to the sexier but less realistic witty repartees that Bond was famous for. And the pacing is realistic as well, moving at the logic of an actual investigation, as opposed to from one violent scene to the--somewhat connected--next. The winner here is authenticity--and I think you will find it a refreshing change. 

Kerns' experience sinks into the writing as well; the prose is direct and not over-written, and the plot might well have been--and probably was--taken from Kerns' long career in counter-terrorism. Add to this the perfect setting for a spy thriller, a French Riviera that is painted by Kerns with subtle and reserved brush strokes, and you have a debut thriller leaving you wanting a sequel in short order. 

Speaking of that, Kerns' next book, The African Contract, is due out soon, also on Diversion Books. Diversion Books is mainly an e-publisher, but does have a print-on-demand option for those of you who still like the feel of a book in your hand. I bought my copy of The Riviera Contract through Kindle, but it is available with any e-reader. 

And don't worry--the brunette ex is in there, and she's just as shapely and exotic as any Bond girl.

Thanks again for tuning in to the inaugural post of The Tuesday Morning Book Review on PeterHogenkampWrites. I will end by posting a direct link to DiversionBooks for those of you whose interest I piqued.  The Riviera Contract

If you are in a mood for book reviews (and since I am in a mood for shameless self-promotion) here are links to several other books I have reviewed: Saving Laura, by Jim Satterfield 
An American Spy, by Olen Steinhauer

Sunday, March 9, 2014

3 reasons why the novel is more imortant than ever, On the Saturday Evening blogPost, edition #17

The novel is not the exclusive domain of good writing; I have seen well-written words on tweets, blog posts, pins, bathroom walls, carved into the bark of beech trees, and scrawled on bits of used envelopes. But there is something about the novel--something we are losing. Consider this quote from English teacher extraordinaire and novelist Conrad Tuerk:

...as a high school English teacher, I have seen firsthand (social media's) insidious effects on today's youth.  Not only are their language skills poor, but they lack the attention spans to sit quietly with a novel and ponder its depths.  The same point you make about the novel can be made for long form journalism.  It gives substance to short news bytes and allows for critical investigation.

Depth, substance, richness: These are just three of the attributes of the novel. I suspect you will be able to build that list from your own experience as a novel reader; allow me to add from mine. Consider the following three novels: To Kill a Mockingbird, The Lord of the Rings, The Power and the Glory.

If you have not read The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene, pick up your Kindle, grab your Nook, type Amazon into your browser, or--best yet--go to your local library or book store. In his iconic work, Greene portrays a man's journey to sainthood, a journey which leads him through neither joy nor self-satisfaction, but rather through self-loathing and despair. It would be quite impossible to construct such a tale in any form other than the novel. You can do a lot with 140 characters--but even Greene needed 222 pages (in the Penguin Classics edition) to get the job done.

The Lord of the Rings has been called everything from an extended allegory of Jesus Christ to the best motion picture in the history of film. I call it the best novel of all time, in that it has everything a novel should have: memorable characters, a riveting story, good prose and dialogue, and meaning. I will add that it is neither concise nor simplistic. Consider this: Tolkien created at least 18 different languages, complete with vocabulary and rules of grammar, including the 12 different tongues spoken by Men in three ages, and the languages of Elves, Dwarves, Ents and Mordor, called the Black Speech, which shall not be uttered here. Think of the complexity and labor involved in writing a work which involved making up 18 different languages--and please don't think this process was only incidental to the writing. Tolkien himself, in one of his many letters, wrote: 'The invention of languages is the foundation. The ‘stories’ were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse.' Try making up 18 different languages in 140 characters.

What more can a reviewer say about To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee's classic tale of race relations in the Deep South; ranked above the Bible by the Association of British Librarians as the book to read before you die. (And those British Librarians know their stuff.) Somewhere around my fortieth year, my wife discovered I had never read Mockingbird and so she gave it to me as a birthday gift. And so I read the book and found out what all the British Librarian buzz was about. Much has been said about the book and I won't simply re-write it (plus, it's a blue-sky day and Maria and I need to go skiing). But I will add something: Attitcus Finch--who is not a real person--made me want to be a better person. To Kill a Mockingbird inspired generations of Americans--not to mention scores of British Librarians--to be more just, more open-minded and more courageous. I don't know of many #tweets that have done that.

Thanks again for your patience and stamina--please note I did not fall when I got off my soapbox. For fans of The Intern, Chapter 4, A Walk in the Park, is published and ready to read. Please don't be put off by #Wattpad, it takes only a minute to join. If you like the story, please follow me so you can get the updates automatically, and don't forget to cast your vote--Democracy depends on it. And Thanks again to the Association of British Librarians.

For those of you who haven't seen my website recently, check it out:
Peter Hogenkamp

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Why the novel has never been more important: The Saturday Evening Blog Post, Edition #16.

We live in a day and age where the evolution of language and words is driven more by social media than books and novels. As both a social media user and a lover of literature old and new, I have mixed feelings about this trend. There is something about the speed of social media which alarms me. Consider this: Edgar Poe, who created the thriller, died broke and without any acclaim, and yet his works are now considered to be masterpieces. Contrast this to the blitzkrieg world of social media where someone who uploads a cat video can become an icon in a single day--or less.

Good or bad? Probably both, but allow me to point out the latter. Poe had substance. Sometimes it takes time for substance to be appreciated. In Poe's case, a hundred years. It takes deep substance to endure a 100 years. Do you think a glitzy cat video has that kind of staying power? Or do you--like me--think it will be forgotten in ten minutes, to be replaced by a meme featuring an aardvark?

The point I am trying to make is that there is a danger here: A very real danger. Please don't get the idea that I am one of those people, you know the kind that think Facebook and Twitter are the ruination of the world. Because I am not, and I believe that Facebook/Twitter/Social Media have many upsides and are, in general, wonderful tools of expression, language, and connectivity. But like anything else, they have a dark side as well, a dark side which has been well-documented. Missing from this list of cons, however--at least that I have seen--is the effect of Social Media on language.

There is a stress to Social Media, an urgency, that seeps into the language. I mean, when you r racing to be the first person to post or tweet something, you keep it short and simple. And because you are doing this again and again, you start using the same abbreviations again and again and eventually u use the abbreviation all the time and evolution has occurred. And yes--as I have stated before--the 140 character limit teaches us to be concise and to the point, but there is still plenty of occasion: to be detailed; to expound; to have layers of meaning; to be rich and complex.

And that, my friends, is why we need the novel more than ever. Social media is not going away--nor should it--but it needs a counterbalance. Twitter hits quick and hard, the novel is slow and insidious(Can you hear Liz, my literary agent yelling; Not that slow, Peter! Speed it up, Peter!) Facebook is over-the-top, Facebook is sensational. The novel is under-the-surface, the novel is meaningful and lasting. Pinterest is visual. the novel is literary. SnapChat is transient (by design) the novel is permanent.

The problem, of course, is that it's a lot easier to whip off a quick tweet about #theoscars (Stop using so many adverbs! Outstandingly talented? Liz would have fits editing these speeches.) than it is to construct a 500,000 character work that is deep and rich and complex and permanent.

But it has never been more important.