Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Spy Books They Didn't Want You to Read (from guest blogger Dee Mason)

Today, I'm honored to welcome guest blogger Dee Mason to the pages of Somebody Dies with some insight on a few books that some governments tried to have quashed. It seems quite appropriate since this is the American Library Association's annual observance of Banned Books Week.

The Spy Books They Didn’t Want You to Read

Over the years there haven’t been many better ways to promote your book than by getting it banned. It just seems that anything that a government decides people shouldn’t see suddenly becomes the only thing they want to see. In the case of books, because they contain so much info and have such power to inform, there have been countless cases of their being simply too risky or packed with "sensitive" info.

Spy books are a prime example here; more specifically, the books that have been written by spies that divulge specific information about the world of spying and the upper levels of government. There have been quite a few examples of governments' deeming a spy-related book to be too sensitive or deciding that it gives away too much. Thankfully for you as the reader, a lot of them made their way to the public. So, without further ado, let’s get moving on our examples of spy books they didn’t want you to read.

Spycatcher by Peter Wright (1985)

This book’s full title is Spycatcher: The Candid Autobiography of a Senior Intelligence Officer, and it’s a prime example of what happens when a government tries to ban a book. The autobiography was written by Peter Wright in 1985; he was the Assistant Director of MI5, the British intelligence agency.

The book chronicles Wright’s attempts to track down a Soviet mole within the MI5, and goes into a great amount of detail about what he did and how he did it. He also discusses, in detail, the goings-on at the intelligence agency on a day-to-day basis. Because he was the Assistant Director, he had an unprecedented level of access to the MI5’s infrastructure: something the government quickly decided was a danger.

The book remains banned in Great Britain but has been published in Australia and the USA — giving Brits easy access, if they want it (which, of course, they do).

Operation Dark Heart by Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer (2010)

Operation Dark Heart is the memoir of U.S Army intelligence officer Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer and gives an incredibly detailed account of his five months spent in Afghanistan. This book is notably more controversial at time of writing because the conflict in the Middle East is still ongoing, meaning the U.S government is always trying to protect its image and the pictures painted of this conflict.

The book was technically published twice: the first was approved with minor changes by the U.S Army and a limited number were made available. Following this, other departments in the U.S government decided that there were certain passages in the book which were too sensitive for general release. They then censored the book even more and re-published it. The problem was that the original had become a collectors' item, and the public had a thirst for the unaltered edition. This led to its being released on multiple websites in its entirety, and prompted an official statement on the matter from the U.S Army.

The Big Breach by Richard Tomlinson (2001)

Richard Tomlinson was an MI6 officer who was put into prison in 1997 for breaking the Official Secrets Act when he provided an Australian publisher the outline of a book he wanted to write. The book, which would eventually become known as The Big Breach, was a detailed account of Tomlinson’s experience within the British secret service, and as such contained a lot of sensitive information.

The fact that he was actually imprisoned for simply providing a synopsis of the content is a testament to how volatile the content was, especially in the late 1990s. During his imprisonment, Tomlinson actually completed the book and eventually published it in Russia. It became a sought after item, especially in the UK, and in the end MI6 allowed the book to be published in England, but withdrew all of Tomlinson’s rights to the profits.

This didn’t stop the book from selling, though. Finally, after so many years of strife, MI6 agreed to release the funds back to him and stated that they "overreacted." To this day, The Big Breach remains one of the most popular "whistleblowing" spy books of all time.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Cheaters by Orrie Hitt (Stark House Press, paired with Dial "M" for Man)

The first of the two novels in this "sleaze classics" release from Stark House Press, The Cheaters, is also the one many followers of author Orrie Hitt consider to be his best.

Clint and Ann are a couple of kids from adjacent Beaverkill farms who started dating when he was 20 and she was 16. (Their families are apparently close, as Ann's father got one of Clint's sisters pregnant.) Now Ann is pregnant and they had to leave the Catskills due to lack of work, so the couple need money.

On their second day in Wilton, opportunity knocks for Clint in the person of Charlie Fletcher, owner of a dive in The Dells that also operates as a cover of sorts for a group of prostitutes. As he puts it, "I wanted a job tending bar about as much as I wanted three legs in my pants but when you've got ten bucks in your pocket and a girl waiting for you in a rented room you don't argue with anything that comes your way."

Especially when it pays seventy-five dollars a week. But little does Clint know what a monkey wrench this particular bartending job is going to throw into his life, such as it is. Fletcher is looking to get out of the business, and his wife Debbie is looking to get away from Fletcher. Meanwhile, crooked cop Red Brandon lets it all go on as long as he gets his cut... until he takes a particular dislike to Clint because Clint has something he wants.

Given Hitt's reputation as the "Shabby Shakespeare of Sleaze" (as the afterword by Hitt fan and pastiche artist Michael Hemmingson calls him), I was expecting a prurient read of little to no real quality. The pure novelistic skill Hitt displays in The Cheaters was a very pleasant surprise.

Not only does the story move, rarely pausing to let the characters take a breath, but I also actually cared about Clint's success. Even though I didn't exactly like him, I wanted him to do well, just because he seemed to be up against so many obstacles.

Hitt throws so many potential pathways in front of him that the book could have ended in any of a dozen ways, and the one chosen is just as good as any of the others... if not better, given the general tendency toward darkness in the crime genre. I'm excited to have discovered a new author and subgenre to pursue. Once again, a Stark House Press is more than just entertainment; it's an education.

The second novel in this collection is Dial "M" for Man, and the book also contains an introduction from Hitt's three daughters, a profile by Brian Ritt, and an afterword and bibliography by Michael Hemmingson.

Ritt's profile was originally published on James Reasoner's blog, Rough Edges, and revised for this appearance. In it Ritt shows that Hitt, despite the "heroes" of his work, was a loving man who was devoted to his wife and children and was merely supporting them in the best way available to him. The intro from Hitt's daughters loving supports Ritt's profile.

The afterword by Hemmingson contains a bibliography and some insight into the publishing practices of the day and genre. Due to the questionable marketing, even scholars have found it difficult to say clear on Hitt's output. Queer Pulp author Susan Stryker thought Hitt's pseudonym "Kay Addams" was a real lesbian who sometimes wrote under the name Orrie Hitt.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Quarry's Ex by Max Allan Collins (Hard Case Crime)

Her upper lip curled at little. "You know what your problem is, Jack? You don't know whether you want to fuck me or kill me."

"Is there an all-of-the-above?" I asked her.

Before he was a hired killer, the man later known as Quarry — back then, he was Jack — was killing for the Marines in Vietnam. On arriving home a day earlier than expected, he found his wife with another man. Later, he went looking for the guy and killed him, but the District Attorney recognized Jack's war record, and the possibly accidental nature of the death, and decided not to prosecute.

That still left Jack on his own, with no marketable skills except one. Enter the Broker, who saw emerging talent in "Quarry" and hired him for contract killings for years (see The First Quarry), until he betrayed Quarry and had to be gotten rid of. But not before Quarry found the Broker's list and decided to go into business for himself (see Quarry in the Middle).

Now he uses the list to locate the Broker's former employers, follow them around to identify their targets, then offer his own services to the target to eliminate the threat. It's entrepreneurship at its finest: find a need and fill it.

This time, the killer is Nick Varnos, a specialist in "accidental" death, and the intended victim is film director Arthur Stockwell, shooting the sequel to his surprise hit (in the burgeoning home-video market) Hard Wheels. A pretty straightforward job, it seems, until Quarry meets Mrs. Stockwell, who just happens to be the former Mrs. Quarry....

Quarry's Ex feels as if it were written in 2 or 3 fevered sessions. That's how fast it moves. Author Max Allan Collins seems to save his tightest prose for this series, and this is no exception. The character also allows Collins to let loose with some of his darkest, crudest, and funniest one-liners.

And this time, Collins also gets to use his experience writing and directing independent films like Eliot Ness: An Untouchable Life to give the novel detailed atmosphere. Posing as Jack Reynolds, unit publicist, Quarry gets unfettered access to the film set, cast, and crew — including full access to some.

Collins sets up the time period with flair, peppering references to the Reagan/Carter election and the growing video industry, as well as dropping the names of current films like The Empire Strikes Back and The Shining. But mostly readers will be glad to see Quarry once again up to his old tricks — this time with an emotional twist — in Quarry's Ex.

As an aside, I want to mention that I noticed something in particular about Quarry for the first time. He takes in a showing of The Long Riders. He spends some time in the john with Elmore Leonard's Valdez Is Coming. And he is just about to watch a Randolph Scott film when he is interrupted. Who knew Quarry liked Westerns?

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Re-Kindling Interest: Sineater by Elizabeth Massie

This is one of a series of reviews focusing on out-of-print novels that have become available again via a variety of e-book formats.

Author Elizabeth Massie's debut novel is like nothing I've ever read, and yet it is familiar enough to not be too challenging to the average genre reader. Winner of the Bram Stoker Award for first novel, Sineater utilizes the popular Southern gothic style to expound on a little-known legend in a highly imaginative manner.

When residents of the small town of Ellison die, their friends and family place small meals on the chests of the deceased. Joel Barker's father, Avery, then comes out of the woods -- where he has been relegated to live during the day -- and eats the food, symbolically devouring the sins of the deceased and allowing their souls to ascend to heaven.

Legend has it that peering into the eyes of the "sineater" -- even via a photograph -- will cause the looker to view all of the sin that has been eaten, and subsequently either go crazy or simply die from the shock. Therefore, due to their connection with one who is perceived unclean, all of the Barkers are ostracized from the rest of the town, especially by Ellison's resident spiritual mother: Missy Campbell.

But all this is merely background to understand the core story of Sineater: Joel's coming of age. Joel is an outcast trying to fight his way in, while everyone else, including the other members of his family, are doing their best to keep him out. And someone is invested enough in the Barkers' outcast status to begin a regimen of "punishments."

Luckily for Joel, there are a few townspeople who are brave and caring enough to ignore the rules, but when the punishments become personal, Joel's support system crumbles and causes him to take action. Along the way, he gains insight into some previously unanswered questions and learns a lot about his family and himself in the process. (It is a coming-of-age novel, after all.)

At least a hundred pages too long for the story to support, Sineater keeps the reader involved through the use of present tense. Most often utilized for its sense of immediacy, writing in the present tense is difficult to execute successfully. However, Massie pulls off its use in this novel beautifully and invisibly. I was halfway through the book before I even realized it, which just goes to show how well-suited it is to this author and story.

That, in addition to the fact that the climax is a pulse-pounder that could even make me forget that I was riding the commuter train on my way to work, makes sure that all is forgiven and that Sineater comes highly recommended.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Guest Blogger: Kelley Armstrong, author of Spellbound (Savannah Levine/Otherworld series)

Today I have the honor of once again welcoming author Kelley Armstrong to the pages of Somebody Dies. (Regular readers may remember her interview with author Marjorie M. Liu back in July 2010.) Armstrong's latest book in her Otherworld series is Spell Bound, the second to feature Savannah Levine as narrator. This time, Kelley comes to us to talk about something close to the hearts of all writers: getting published.

Luck, Talent & Timing

Last month I did my annual stint teaching dark-fantasy writing at the University of Toronto. Now I’m in Melbourne, getting ready to speak to aspiring writers at the Romance Writers of Australia conference. And despite the fact that I’m halfway around the globe, there is one question that will remain the same, one question I cannot answer. “Why am I not getting published?”

If it’s a new writer, there’s an easy response: Just give it time. Writing is like any other craft. It takes practice, and you can’t expect success on your first book.

But often the question isn’t coming from new writers. It’s from people who have been practicing—for years, writing book after book, getting feedback, doing everything they can to improve. They win contests. They get positive rejection from agents and editors (yes, there is such a thing as a positive rejection!). They are so close. And yet the offers—of representation or, better yet, publication—elude them. Family and friends, once encouraging and supportive, begin to quietly suggest they take up a new hobby. Their dreams teeter on the cliff, one small nudge from falling and shattering. And all they want is for someone—an agent, an editor, an author—to tell them what they’re doing wrong. Just tell them, and they’ll fix it.

If only it was that easy.

I’ve been there. I’ve teetered on that edge. I’ve raged that my writing is horrible and I’ll never be published and I should just stop trying. I’ve even thrown a manuscript into a fireplace…a grand gesture somewhat weakened by having backups on my computer. So how did I finally get published? Did I practice until I wrote the perfect book that agents and editors just couldn’t refuse? No. I broke in the way most writers do—by keeping at it until I floundered onto the perfect intersection of luck, talent and timing.

For me, talent equals craft. Craft, as I said, is about practice. Write, write, write some more, and eventually it doesn’t suck. My luck came when an instructor offered to recommend my work to an agent who turned out to be a perfect match for it. As for timing, that was also luck—I wrote a book that I thought was unmarketable, and the market just happened to be ready for it, primed by a resurging interest in paranormal fiction.

If asked how I got published, I’ll say, “I just got lucky.” But that’s a lie. I didn’t just happen to sit down and write a book and sell it. I had a lifelong dream, and I gave it everything I had. I wrote as often as I could. I joined writing groups. I took courses. I read voraciously. I experimented with genre and form. And you can bet I wouldn’t have thrown that manuscript in the fire if I didn’t know I had backups. So how did I get published? The same way I’m trying to stay published: perseverance.

If you’re trying to get published, keep trying. Keep writing. And keep trying to get published—it’s the only way you’re going to hit the luck and timing parts of the equation.

If you know someone who’s trying to get published, this blog is for you, too. Support them. Encourage them. Understand that it’s not all about talent. If they’re in for the long haul, be there for them. They’ll need it.

Thanks to Kelley Armstrong for sharing her experience and knowledge. Spell Bound is out now and is available in hardcover and for the Kindle.
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