Posts filed under: writing

Mississippi John Hurt: A Book Review

Published as part of the American Made Music series by the University Press of Mississippi, Mississippi John Hurt is a well written biography of  legendary blues musician John Hurt by Philip R. Ratcliffe.  Tracing Hurt’s family back to slavery days, Ratcliffe gives us the background which must be a part of any study of blues music.  It also gives us a view of music in the middle of the last century.  The music industry today is based on music copyrights establishing  authorship so that royalties can be paid.  But, Hurt and the other musicians first recorded in the 1920’s bent familiar melodies and changed words to fit their own styles and moods.  For example, Hurt’s recording of the familiar song “Frankie and Johnny,” is about Frankie and Albert.

John Hurt was a small, quiet, unassuming man from Avalon, Mississippi, which is just at the edge of the Mississippi delta.  He was discovered in 1926 and made several records in Memphis and New York before the depression claimed all the recording companies.  He went back to farming and was re-discovered in 1963 during the folk music revival.  He went on tour at age 70 and died in 1966.

John Hurt played the guitar by running a constant bass beat on the top three strings with his thumb, index, and middle fingers while playing a melody on the bottom three strings with his ring and little finger, sometimes plucking the frets above with his left hand.  It’s light and airy with none of the harsh, string stretching improvisation that came with electric guitars in the 1950’s.  His music would be categorized as Old Blues, i.e., part folk music, part blues, part African rhythm and style.  He sounds more like Jimmie Rogers, the father of Country Music also recorded in 1926, than Muddy Waters or John Lee Hooker.

Ratcliffe has given us a window into the society of Mississippi during the Jim Crow years, and it’s nuanced.  The Ku Klux Klan was an ever present threat to blacks who violated the strict segregation rules of the time, yet Hurt’s family and friends describe a friendly rural area where the races lived together and cooperated in farming and logging.  Their social lives revolved around their churches, segregated by race, and the local store, where the races mixed.  Black and white people enjoyed John Hurt’s singing and playing.

I bought this book as research for my next book, Sliding Delta.  A quest to find Mississippi John Hurt and learn to pick the Delta Blues takes a Chicago college boy south of Memphis in the summer of 1965.  It’s a coming of age historical novel about the delta, the blues, and The South.

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Civilian Warriors by Erik Prince: A Book Review

Read this book to understand how our government works.  Politicians will say one thing on television and then do just the opposite in private, and sometimes that’s a good thing.  If we made it easy to go to war we’d be doing it all the time.  Nobody wants that, so our elected officials cut the military budget, debate hotly any movement of our boys overseas, and then when something absolutely positively has to be done they hire a contractor.  That’s Blackwater.

The whole title of Prince’s book is Civilian Warriors:  The Inside Story of Blackwater and the Unsung Heroes of the War on Terror.  Prince is the founder and former CEO of the security contractor Blackwater that protected American diplomats and performed many other duties in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.  After doing exactly what they’d been paid to do Blackwater and Erik Prince were later vilified in the media and congressional hearings by the same people who hired them.  Forced by contractual obligations to be silent about Blackwater’s activities, Prince is now opening up with both barrels, and he’s dishing some dirt.

I write international thriller fiction based on reality, and books like Civilian Warriors supplement my own experience in creating stories.  I’m working on a geopolitical thriller now, The  Fourth Domain, and there is a civilian contractor deeply involved.

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That Bookstore in Blytheville Hosts Ed Baldwin

Squeezed between Amazon and Walmart, mistreated by distributers, and taken for granted by the big multinational publishers, there remain some real independent bookstores where patrons can browse, ask a knowledgeable proprietor about recent releases, sit in a comfortable chair and read part of a book before making a decision to buy.  Such a place is That Bookstore in Blytheville.  An unlikely place, Blytheville, Arkansas.  It’s a small town in the Mississippi delta 65 miles north of Memphis, but there is one of the best bookstores in America there.

Started by MaryGay Shipley in 1977 That Bookstore in Blytheville helped launch the career of such luminaries as John Grisham, and Ed Baldwin.  John is from Jonesboro, AR, and I’m from Kennett, MO, just over the state line from Blytheville.  I signed copies of my first book, Bookman at That Bookstore in Blytheville in 1990.  Grisham has had a bit more success than I, but we both started there.

That Bookstore in Blytheville is owned by Chris Crawley now, and the tradition of service continues.  I’ll be signing copies of my latest book, The Mingrelian there on Saturday, June 28th in the afternoon.  Come on by.

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Amazon Versus Hachette over Agency Pricing

The big players in the publishing world are slugging it out over something called “agency pricing,” but the war is lost.  Agency pricing is another word for price fixing, and it is flagrantly illegal.

Amazon achieved a dominant position in the book market in the 1990’s  by aggressively cutting prices.  I owned a bookstore then and when a Tom Clancy book was released they would cut the price by 40%.  I paid more than that for a bestselling hardcover.  Walmart offered the same discount.  It took the profit out of the small bookstores, and they’ve gone out of business.  We can weep for the demise of the small bookstore, but I can search Amazon’s (or Barnes and Noble, or KOBO) web site and find just the type of book I want faster than any bookstore.  When I owned the bookstore I took special orders, and I used Amazon’s web site rather than Ingram’s (the distributor) because it was much better.  It was a revolution in publishing.

Ebooks unleashed thousands of independent publishers and authors.  No longer restricted by the arbitrary selection process of agents and editors, anyone is now free to publish their book.  Amazon jumped on this trend by letting independents upload electronic books and showcasing them alongside the products from major publishers.  Consumers like unlimited, cheap, fresh content to browse, and they  buy it.  Some of the best selling authors are now independent of any traditional publisher.

As profit margins got thinner the publishers began buying each other out, the strong consuming the weak.  It has come down to 5 major publishers, and all are international conglomerates.  Hachette, a French company, is the largest.

Enter Apple.  When Apple got into selling books through their Itunes store, they cut a deal with the publishers to allow publishers to set the retail price for electronic books, and they set them high to keep the price up for their hardcovers.  Apple was attempting to leverage the popularity of its hardware to keep its customers within the Apple world and charge them higher prices.  The Justice Department sued and won in federal court.  The judge saw agency pricing as price fixing and has ordered fines.

Now Amazon is further discounting electronic books and forcing the publishers into their pricing model.  It isn’t illegal to cut prices.  Amazon’s pricing model is generous, allowing the publisher/author up to 70% of the price of an electronic book.  Hachette wants more and is resisting, so Amazon is slowing down distribution of their paper books.  Hachette’s media blitz message is that this hurts authors, but that’s bullshit.  A few of the most famous names benefit when the rest of us are excluded by the old publishing model.

The bottom line is clear.  There isn’t going to be enough profit margin in publishing for a giant publishing company to sustain their infrastructure.  Anyone can publish really good books from a computer.  The big publishers will shrink accordingly.  Competitors to Amazon are springing up all over.  The distributor Ingram is now enabling independents to publish electronic and print on demand paper books and get them distributed to every bookstore in the world.  Amazon can’t do that.  Alternatives to Amazon, with their clever search capability and fast delivery are springing up daily.   Some of these actually sell on Amazon’s web site at a discount to Amazon’s already cheap price!  That’s competition.

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Book Review: “The Center Cannot Hold,” a story of schizophrenia by Elyn Saks

If you have a schizophrenic family member, or one with bipolar illness, read this book.  Your first impression will be, “yeah, they’re like that.”  Then you’ll be fascinated as Elyn and her illness grapple.  Elyn Saks is a successful law school professor who tells the story of her schizophrenia from her first hallucinations as a teenager through her education, multiple hospitalizations and eventual academic career.    But, she’s also a stubborn narcissist who insists on having things her way, and some of her tribulations were her own fault.  Pharmaceuticals for schizophrenia improved since she was first medicated, but she fought them all the way.  Finally, near the end of the book she admits that only with medication can a schizophrenic control their illness.  We physicians have known that since the 1950’s, but Elyn had to learn it for herself.  Elyn, like most schizophrenics, doesn’t feel herself when she’s on medications, yet the hallucinations and paranoia off of meds makes her life miserable; so, her story is of life on and off meds.

We now know that an excess of the neurotransmitter dopamine is what causes all that unwanted brain activity.  I’ve heard schizophrenics talk about “looking through that window” at another world; the schizophrenic’s world.  Elyn gives us a glimpse through the window.  It’s fascinating.

As a physician who treats schizophrenics, and a novelist looking for characters, I wondered if a genius schizophrenic could solve a highly complex problem.  I brought the subject up at a psychiatric conference and the consensus was no, their organization skills are too impaired.  Elyn Saks answered it in the affirmative, and demonstrated that a schizophrenic can organize and deal with highly complex problems.

There are flaws.  Elyn comes from a wealthy family and was allowed to change physicians until she found one who wouldn’t put her on medication.  Her favorite was a French psychoanalyst who just let Elyn talk and took no action.  Psychoanalysis doesn’t work for schizophrenia, and it didn’t work for Elyn, yet she gives the impression that doctor shopping is beneficial for the mentally ill.  It isn’t.  Most of her psychiatric breakdowns were because she was off her meds.  Still, it’s the only book of its kind and I recommend it.  

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The Book Cover



This is the draft of the cover art for my next novel, The Mingrelian.  Steve Meosky of Austin Texas created this design.  He is the designer of The Other Pilot and The Devil on Chardonnay covers as well.

He’s dapper, confident, mysterious, and he’s looking over his shoulder.  Well he should, because he’s been laundering Iranian oil money through the Republic of Georgia, and passing secrets about Iran’s nuclear weapons program to the Americans; triple agent espionage.  But, there’s the promise of action in this picture too.  What is that C-130 doing behind him, and which mountains are those?  Oh, this is going to be fun.

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The Mingrelian: Is this the man?



Dapper, sophisticated, mysterious; this is the statue of Lado Gudashvili, an artist and anti-Soviet activist from the Republic of Georgia.  I was in Tbilisi gathering material for my next novel and scoured the National Art Museum, the National Museum, several art galleries and a large street flea market looking for an image for the cover of the book; nothing.  Then, on my last day before driving to Zugdidi and the Dadiani Palace (see last post) I found this statue behind the art museum.  Though Lado Gudashvili was not known to be a Mingrelian, he could have been.  Mingrelia is to  Georgia what Texas is to America; part of the fabric of the culture.

Look at that wide brim fedora; the face in partial shadow, the nonchalant way he stands there with his elbow on the pedestal.  You know this guy is up to something.  That’s what the character in the novel is like; sophisticated, mysterious, and up to no good.  He’ll be born in the spring.

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The Mingrelian: Boyd Chailland’s next adventure

IMG_0264This is the Dadiani Palace, home to the last reigning Prince of Mingrelia, who abdicated to the Russian Czar in the late 19th century and moved to St. Petersburg while the Czar took the remaining western portion of Georgia and the warm water port of Batumi on the Black Sea.  The snow capped mountains in the background are the Caucasus, with Abkhazia in the foreground and Sochi, Russia just beyond.  That’s where the 2014 Winter Olympics will be held.

We left Tbilisi, Georgia last weekend and drove 160 miles west to the Black Sea.  The Caucasus Mountains, 20,000 feet tall and snowcapped year round are on both sides of the valley.  The Dadiani Palace is in Zugdidi, just 25 miles from the Black Sea, so the climate is sub-tropical; they’re selling oranges, lemons, and gigantic persimmons all along the road.  Batumi is a destination resort long prized by the Russians and now popular with many from the Middle East because it’s warm in the summer, but not hot.  We stayed at the Radisson Blue in Batumi; 19 floors tall right on the Black Sea.  The highway from Tbilisi is lined by modest houses of people engaged in subsistence agriculture on small plots of land given them when the Soviet Union dissolved and Georgia became independent.  Though the land is fertile and water plentiful, there is no sign of modern large scale farming.

It’s from this background that The Mingrelian will emerge; Boyd Chailland’s next adventure.  Stay tuned for more.

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Writing and The Day Job

TheDevilCharSliderAll writers need day jobs.  We have to write what we know, and if we’ve never had a job we don’t know anything.   So, policemen and reporters write crime stories, lawyers write legal thrillers, soldiers write war stories, and everyone tries to write political drama.  What about Tom Clancy?  He was an insurance salesman with a passion for all things naval, but no first hand experience.  He read naval documents and studies meant for career naval officers.  He took that dull factual knowledge and created a genre; the techno-thriller.   Clancy dominated that market for twenty years.

Research becomes the day job.  Graham Greene started writing about his experiences in Africa during World War II, but after he told that story he traveled to Haiti and lived in that corrupt society to write The Comedians.  It was written in the fifties, and it’s amazing how true it remains today.  That’s a real writer doing his job.

Bookman arose from my days selling books in college.  The Other Pilot is a thriller that began with my Air National Guard fascination with all things flying, while The Devil on Chardonnay draws from my Pentagon job as an action officer creating the Global Emerging Infections Surveillance and Response System, and the two years I spent in the Azores.  Next week I’ll
travel to Tbilisi, Republic of Georgia by way of Istanbul, Turkey to research The Mingrelian.  That thriller began with a military exchange trip to Central Asia in 1998, and my tour at Strategic Command in Omaha writing nuclear war plans 2000-2003.  Like Tom Clancy and Graham Greene, I’m getting better at writing.   I’ll have this one finished before the end of the year (I hope).

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Best Selling Author!

The Devil on Chardonnay, the second thriller in the Boyd Chailland series has been in the top 25 on Amazon’s bestseller list for Kindle eBooks for the past month in the Thriller/Financial category, and in the top 100 in Thriller/Political and Thriller/Conspiracy, and Thriller/Medical categories. The Other Pilot, the first story in that series has followed along in those same categories (except Medical). For a few hours the first week in September they were #2 and #3.

So, am I getting rich? Hardly; at $0.99 for an eBook, I make about 30 cents. It’s not about the money, anyway. My sister tells me I’m a celebrity in my home town, and the Chailland family thinks I’m pretty special. Reviewers not related to me by blood or marriage have been mostly enthusiastic about my work. Some of those reviewers have done hundreds of Amazon reviews, and they like my stuff. That’s a good feeling.

How long did it take to become a best selling author? I came up with the premise for The Other Pilot in 1972, started writing it in 1990, and it was published in 2012. I started The Devil on Chardonnay in 1993 and it was published in 2013. It takes awhile to write a book. I may be catching on, though, because the next one in the Boyd Chailland series, The Mingrelian, is 90 pages into the first draft.

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