I discovered Timothy Hallinan’s in the bargain bin at my local Barnes & Noble (sorry, Tim). The cover caught my eye, and the title–A Nail Through the Heart–piqued my interest. Then I saw the author’s name.
I’d just read a post on the DorothyL newslist by a guy named Timothy Hallinan. It was articulate and insightful, and I remembered thinking at the time, I like the way way this guy thinks. So I picked it up and read the first page and fell in love with Poke Rafferty, the “rough travel writer” who came to Bangkok and discovered he had what the Asians call “a yellow heart.” From the very beginning, he was home.
Poke is a bundle of contradictions–a gentle man who is ruthless when he has to be; a smart, thoughtful man with a foolhardy, impulsive streak; a man with a wounded heart who helps heal the hearts of others. He’s interesting, complex, and very very real. I followed Poke and his cobbled-together family for five more books, each time thinking This is it. No way he can top this one. But somehow he always did. And in his latest, Poke Rafferty number seven, he’s topped himself again.
The Hot Countries is a literary thriller and one of the richest and most touching novels it’s been my pleasure to read. More than once, I found myself wiping tears from my eyes. From the sensitivity with which he handles an aging ex-pat with dementia to his compassionate portrayal of traumatized street children, every note is pitch-perfect. You can read my review of the book here, but suffice it to say that nobody writes about redemption and grace like Hallinan.
The things is, everything this guy writes is terrific. His first series, featuring PI Simeon Grist, proves he burst straight out of the box writing like a pro. His Junior Bender series makes me laugh out loud. Once, he gave himself a challenge to write a blog post every day for a year, and darned if they weren’t brilliant too. (This one, about a handpainted sombrero his mother made for a school play, still makes me laugh when I think about it.)
The only consolation, when I look at guys like Timothy Hallinan and William Kent Krueger and think I’ll never in a million years be that good, is that they seem to feel the same way about themselves. For you all you aspiring writers out there, take some comfort in this blog post Hallinan wrote way back in 2014.
I realize I’ve been pretty effusive. Maybe I should tone it down a notch. On the other hand, maybe not. If you can’t rave about an author you love on a blog about authors you love, what’s the point? So here’s the takeaway. If you’ve read any of Timothy Hallinan’s work, please take a minute to share your thoughts in the comments. And if you haven’t read him, do yourself a favor and start now.
I don’t remember when I first read William Kent Krueger‘s debut mystery, Iron Lake, (published in 1999 and followed by an Edgar award for Best First Novel), but I do remember being captivated from the first page. The language is beautiful, even poetic, but it never pulls the reader out of the story. The descriptions of the Minnesota winter are so vivid, you can feel the chill even in the heart of a simmering Tennessee summer.
The first of Krueger’s Corcoran (Cork) O’Connor series, it’s also one of the first books I recommend to friends. The rest of the series holds up well, following Cork through personal growth and family crises. While each book in the series stands alone, Iron Lake sets the tone and lays the foundation for the others. You can pick up the series anywhere, but I recommend starting at the beginning, where we meet Cork as the former sheriff of a small Minnesota town. Half Ojibwe and half Irish, Cork is a complex character who seems flesh-and-blood real, a nice guy who is sometimes plagued by self-doubt, is often stubborn, is torn between two cultures and sometimes feels he belongs to neither, and whose fiercely protective love for his family is tempered by wisdom and tenderness. In Iron Lake, Krueger weaves Native American culture and spirituality seamlessly into a rich and complex story about loss, guilt, and the reclamation of self. As a reader, I loved it. As a writer, I closed the cover torn between the urge to analyze Krueger’s techniques, the desire to simply savor the language, and a sense of utter despair of ever writing anything this good.
His latest work, Ordinary Grace, is a departure from the series. There’s a mystery in it, but don’t go into it expecting a whodunnit puzzle or thriller. At its heart, this is a literary coming-of-age novel in which the (slight but necessary) mystery provides the backdrop for the real story, which is the effect of the novel’s events on 13-year-old Frank Drum and his family. It’s a rich, beautiful novel about hope, despair, unrealized dreams, faith, and yes, grace. It haunted me for days.
No matter how blessed we are, if we live long enough, we all experience tragedy and disappointment. Some of us stoically move forward and ignore the pain in our hearts and the cracks in our facades. Some of us find solace in faith or in the support of friends. Some of us shut out the world and succumb to bitterness. Some of us rail against God, or simply turn our backs on Him. Some of us do all of the above at different times. I read once that that tragedy doesn’t change us; it reveals us. This book explores that idea and the choices we make in the face of despair. At one point, following a devastating loss, Frank’s father, the local pastor, gives a sermon. I started to share part of it with you because it’s one of the most profound and moving things I’ve ever read, but then I thought it might do Kent–and you–a disservice. It’s a powerful quote all on its own, but it might be best discovered for the first time within the context of the story.
If you like thought-provoking novels with rich language and complex themes, look no further than William Kent Krueger’s Ordinary Grace.
If you’ve read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts about it in the comments. (No spoilers, please.)
I met Carolyn Haines at an MWA-University in Atlanta, Georgia, and was immediately charmed by her humor, her down-to-earth attitude, and her huge heart. She runs an animal rescue and, when she’s not writing and teaching university classes, spends most of her time (and money) caring for needy dogs, cats, and horses. And she’s a heck of a writing instructor.
I’d read several of her Mississippi Delta Mystery novels, a series of cozy mysteries featuring Sarah Booth Delaney. Cozies are often too light for my taste, but I enjoyed these very much. (Ham Bone was one of my favorites, probably because of my own experiences with community theatre.) The series is charming and witty, with engaging characters and a sassy, charismatic ghost named Jitty who counsels Sara Booth. I’ve seen many authors use this device unsuccessfully (the ghost seems to know everything except when the author needs them not to, so they end up giving vague clues that just make them seem to be playing games with the other characters’ lives), but Carolyn manages to avoid this pitfall. Jitty is intuitive but not omniscient, and her advice helps Sara Booth use her own strengths to find solutions. It never feels like Jitty knows who the killer is but refuses to tell because of some plot-convenient, other-worldly rules.
For those who like to read a series from the very beginning, it starts with Them Bones, in which Sarah Booth is “flat broke and about to lose the family plantation.” You can see the whole list on the Bookshelf tab on Carolyn’s website.
There’s even a cookbook based on the series. Bone-a-Fied Delicious contains more than 700 recipes compiled by 13 cookbook “directors,” each of whom assumes the voice of a character in the series to comment on recipes, life, relationships, sex, and each other. According to the catalog copy, “The comments range from serious, to humorous, to ribald—and the recipes cover the gamut of fabulous to so-sinful-and-delicious-you-will-die-happy.” I ordered this today and can’t wait to dive into it.
Carolyn has a darker muse as well and has written several horror novels and short stories under the pseudonym R.B. Chesterton. As you might imagine, the tone is notably different in these stories–heavier, more somber–but the writing is as skilled and polished. Her short story, “The Hanged Man,” begins with a couple at odds about returning to New Orleans, where their 9-year-old daughter disappeared. The wife wants to go back, saying she needs to heal. The narrator, the husband, is appalled and infuriated by the idea. It’s a tender, terrifying story.
Apparently, Carolyn channels her dark side into her horror writing, because in real life, she’s a fun-loving prankster. When she first began teaching writing at the university level, she gave her freshmen a long, serious spiel about the importance of literature as a gateway to truth. Each day, before class began, they would have to strike their chest twice with a closed fist and then extend the right arm and say, “Truth and valor.” It took them most of the semester to realize that their genre-writing professor’s tongue was tucked firmly in her cheek.
I asked her about the best prank she’d ever played. After a thoughtful moment, she said, “One dark and foggy night, I was telling ghost stories to my niece, Jennifer, and her friend, Heidi. They were about 12. For a bit of atmosphere, I drove them to Magnolia Cemetery, a huge old cemetery in Mobile with a lot of wonderful gravestones. We were riding in the thick fog and I told them a suitably creepy cemetery ghost story. I stopped the car and said, ‘Oh, no, I think I have a flat. Would you girls check it for me?’ The got out to look and I drove off. But I didn’t go far. I would let them almost catch me and then spurt ahead a little. They were so mad and I was so tickled. Trust me, Jennifer got me back a number of times.”
In many ways, Carolyn Haines seems bigger than life. She’s generous, not only with her animal rescue and her mentoring of other writers, but with her readers, giving every book her best.
According to his website bio, Chris Knopf has been “writing himself out of trouble since he talked a teacher into accepting a short story in lieu of an essay, and an essay in lieu of a multiple choice exam.” Even then, he must have had an old-school charm, which shines through in his public appearances and on the pages of his mysteries, which remind me of two of his favorites–Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Knopf has three mystery series now: the Sam Acquillo series, featuring a crusty detective who loves to sail and has a personable mutt named Eddie; the Jackie Swaitkowski series, a spinoff of the Sam Acquillo series featuring Sam’s quirky, outside-the-box attorney; and the Arthur Cathcart series, featuring a market researcher who, after his wife’s murder and his own near-fatal head wound (in fact, he’s believed to be dead) leaves him living off the grid and grappling to recover his old skills and memories from his badly injured brain.
Chris is remarkably versatile. Each of these characters has a unique and authentic voice. Swaitkowski is believably female, Cathcart believably wounded. Sam is an experienced sailor, and Chris portrays the sailing life so authentically that even this landlubber can appreciate and understand it. Like Sam Acquillo, he’s a dog-loving sailor himself, sailing the Little Peconic Bay in Southampton, NY.
Asked about the most memorable thing that’s ever happened to him, he said, “When I was in graduate school in London, I was recruited to help one of my professors publish a book of poetry written by poets imprisoned in the Soviet Union. The work had been smuggled out of the country by a group of other writers and publishers, though a chain of custody that began with a Nobel Prize winner. During this effort, we had one of the principal conspirators hiding in our flat, and were warned that foreign intelligence agents might be watching. I wrote a thriller inspired by this, which didn’t go anywhere, but it helped connect me with the agent who eventually placed my first book.”
He was kind enough to answer a few more questions for this blog. So, thanks, Chris–and welcome to a Killer Conversation.
Let’s start with your latest release. What was the inspiration for your new book?
The underlying inspiration was promising that I’d make this series at least a trilogy. The first book, Dead Anyway, was intended to be a standalone. Then we thought maybe there could be a second (Cries of the Lost), and now here were are with A Billion Ways to Die.
Can you tell us a little about it?
Arthur Cathcart and Natsumi Fitzgerald, his girlfriend/partner in crime, have been hanging out on a sailboat in the Caribbean, assuming they’re still safely off the grid and below the radar of the various gangsters, terrorists and government officials who could be chasing them. Unfortunately, this was a false sense of security, proven by the midnight arrival of guys in combat gear and night vision. It goes downhill from there.
At its heart, it’s an international thriller with a focus on cybercrime, greed and corruption, and the legal netherworld caused by ambiguous rules of engagement by governments and private interests alike.
What was the most challenging thing about writing it?
Arthur and Natsumi have a very complicated challenge – avoid the notice of law enforcement, maintain false identities, chase down and defeat the bad guys, through means both physical and virtual, since that’s the world we now live in. None of that stuff is easy to do, and thus, very difficult to write.
Especially if you want to be reasonably accurate and true to the possible with all the technology Without losing non-technical readers.
What do you hope readers will take away from it?
I just hope they like the story, and maybe gain an appreciation for how much the digital revolution has changed the world, in particular, the world of crime and punishment.
Any words of wisdom for aspiring writers?
That first book was published when I was 53 years old, and now I have twelve in print. The best advice, I believe, is to keep writing, never give up and never get discouraged.
What do you wish someone would ask you about, but which no one ever has?
One of my books riffs on the basic structure of western aesthetic tradition and is full of literary references, puns and jokes. No one got any of it. Though they did like the mystery, so what the heck.
Which book was this? I bet a bunch of people are going to want to go back and read it now to see what they missed!
I’m off to buy a copy. Thanks for the interview, Chris!
Read any of Chris’s books? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments. (No spoilers, please.)
<UPDATED: JANUARY 2015>
I was surfing the Internet looking for ideas for my third book when I came across this sentence: “There are more slaves in the world today than at any other time in human history.” It was followed by a number: thirty million.
The number was an estimate, for obvious reasons. Modern-day slavery takes place in the shadows, with many of its victims unaccounted for in any census. But other experts and law enforcement agencies reported similar numbers, with more than ten million slaves in Asia alone. A UN report released in 2004 showed 700,000 children forced into domestic labor in Indonesia, more than half a million in Brazil and more than a quarter of a million in Haiti and in Pakistan. This sobering infographic from the Huffington Post shows the scope of the issue: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/01/22/human-trafficking-graphic_n_4645227.html
But human trafficking is not only a third-world problem. Victims of both sexual and domestic servitude have been discovered throughout the United States, with high-profile cases in Florida, California, New York, and even sleepy New England. A report released by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation revealed that trafficking cases have been identified in almost every county in the state. Nashville, with its convergence of three major interstates, is a hub for all manner of trafficking—drugs, guns, and humans. It’s ranked #2 in human trafficking, right behind Atlanta, GA.
It’s easy to look at numbers and see an impossible problem. But each of those numbers is a person, and each of those people has a story. Every victim has a face, and those faces are how we can put a stop to modern-day slavery. Because when we see people instead of numbers, we can see how to save them, one person at a time.
Think about that, and then ask yourself this question: If there were an easy, inexpensive way to give someone the gift of freedom, would you do it?
After reading that third book, River of Glass, my publishers, Martin and Judith Shepard of The Permanent Press, decided that, for each copy sold, they would make a donation to NOT FOR SALE, a nonprofit organization dedicated to putting an end to modern-day slavery. You can read about the organization and their work here: http://www.notforsalecampaign.org.
At first I wasn’t sure if I should publicize that. What if it seemed sleazy or exploitative? But then I realized that was a foolish way to think. If I sell 30 copies, we give a tiny donation. If we sell more, we can do more. The more people who know about it, the more we can all help. So to help raise awareness of the issue and allow for a larger donation, I’ve started the Million Books for Freedom project: I’ll donate at least 50% of my net royalties (including the print and audio formates) to NOT FOR SALE. If we sell a million digital copies by midnight of December 31, I’ll write a check to NOT FOR SALE for a million dollars (or 50% of my net royalties, including the print and audio formats, whichever is greater).
Because my royalties are variable depending on where the sales come from, my tax guy says 50% is the percentage I can safely promise without running the risk of owing the IRS more than I make. Either way, whether we make it to a million or whether we don’t, everybody wins.
Whatever happens, I’ll be making out a check. I’d love to be able to make it out for a million dollars, but I can’t do it alone. I need your help.
What can you do?
- Tweet to your Twitter network. Here’s a Tweet you can share:
- Share on Facebook, Google +, and other social media. Here’s a post you can adapt or share:
Jaden Terrell has started a project called A Million Books for Freedom to benefit NOT FOR SALE, an organization that fights human trafficking. If you’d like to help, please go to https://killerconversation.wordpress.com/2014/12/02/the-million-books-for-freedom-project/
- Email friends and family. If you have an email list of newsletter, share it there.
- Ask your library to order a copy. (Only e-books count toward the million copies, but print and audio editions also generate donations from the publisher and make my contribution of 50% net royalties higher.)
- Recommend River of Glass to your friends and to your book club, if you have one.
- If you have a podcast, radio show, newspaper column, or magazine column, do a story about the Million Books for Freedom project.
- If you read the book and liked it, post a review on Amazon and/or Barnes & Noble.
- Buy a copy of the book for yourself or someone else.
If you’ve already bought a copy of the book, thank you. Those copies will be included in the count for the calendar year in which you bought it. If you haven’t, and if you normally read mysteries or thrillers on the medium-to-hardboiled edge of the spectrum, please check out River of Glass.
Some frequently asked questions:
Why did you pick a million copies?
Because it’s a big number, big enough to generate excitement, maybe big enough to generate some media attention, which would be a big help in meeting the goal. And because A Million Books for Freedom sounds a lot better than A Few Books for Freedom.
That’s a lot of books. What if you fail?
The worst thing that happens is I sell only a few more books than I otherwise would have. Then we give a little bit more than we could have if we hadn’t tried. I don’t consider that failure.
Besides, the main goal is just to give as large a donation to the organization as possible.
Because my royalties on print books are too low for me to break anywhere close to even. If my math is correct, after taxes and the literary agency’s percentage, I would be in deep financial trouble. But I will include e- copies of the first two Jared McKean books, Racing the Devil and A Cup Full of Midnight, in the count, as long as they were sold in 2014. (There will still be a donation from the publisher on the print and audio editions of River of Glass.)
I will include my print and audio royalties in the 50% net royalties, just not in the “million books = a million dollars” equation.
Why December 31?
I only get royalties once a year, in January, for the previous calendar year.
Since the book came out late in 2014 and I didn’t have the idea until early December, I had a choice of trying it for a month or waiting until January and starting it for the whole of 2015. I thought it would be very difficult to sustain excitement for a full year; the temptation to say, “Oh well, I’ll do it later” would be too great. On the other hand, one big, month-long push–a nationwide or even worldwide project–is short enough to keep people engaged. Or so I hoped. I figured if it turned out I was wrong–and that was likely, since this was the first time I’d done anything like this–I could always re-set it in January and try it the other way.
As it turned out, I needed a lot longer than a month to get the word out. This year, I’ll try the slow burn and hope we can make an even larger donation.
What about your 2014 sales?
I’ll donate 50% of my net royalties for 2014 and then start fresh in January for 2015.
Why attach the donation to book sales? Why don’t you just donate a million dollars?
That one’s easy. I don’t have a million dollars. Not even close. The only way I can afford to give that kind of donation is by selling that many books.
Can a million dollars really help with such a vast problem?
I realize that amount, as huge as it seems to me, is still only a drop in the bucket of what needs to be done. Still, if we can pull this off, it will be a step toward raising awareness of this issue and helping to bring it to an end.
So why do you need us?
I can’t do this by myself. I’m a small press author with modest sales. I’m unremarkable. But I know people with vast readerships, thousands of social media fans and followers, extensive email lists, and friends in high places. I bet you know some folks like that too–or maybe you are one. Together, we have an incredibly vast network, and when you start adding in their networks…is there really any limit to what we might be able to do?
Remember that old question: would you rather have a million dollars today or a penny today with the value doubling every day for a month? The smart money is on the penny. That’s the power of multiplication.
They say that by the time someone is an adult, he or she knows 2000 people. Maybe not well enough to invite over for dinner, but well enough to call by name and exchange pleasantries with. How many Facebook friends do you have? How many on Twitter and Pinterest? How many people at your church? Your school? Your place of employment? The gym? The hiking club? The dance studio?
That’s a lot of people. How many people do you think each of them knows? If we each spend a few days spreading the word to everyone we know, and at least a portion of them do the same, by midnight of Dec. 31, do you think we could have sold a million books?
I think we can.
But…is the book any good?
I’m not exactly objective, but I think so. It’s gotten good reviews, both from readers and from reviewers.Here are a few examples:
[P]leasingly spiky prose which positively bristles with the darker side of wit. This is strongly recommended. – The San Francisco Book Review
In Terrell’s solid third Jared McKean mystery (after 2012’s A Cup Full of Midnight), the Nashville PI takes on a case with an unexpected family connection…In addition to the story’s emotional rewards, Terrell offers insights into the mechanics of domination and submission. -Publishers Weekly
Shamus Award finalist Jaden Terrell’s third novel continues to build the portrait of a good man trying to solve a case that cuts close to the bone. -Kirkus
This third Jared McKean mystery is a worthy successor to Racing the Devil and A Cup Full of Midnight, both 2012, with a tough yet sympathetic protagonist who goes to all ends for friends and family. Solid plotting and well-drawn characters make this a series to add to any hardboiled-mystery reader’s list. — Michele Leber, Booklist
Even at close to 300 pages, this book was one of those rare novels that are fast-paced and moved so smoothly I read it in one sitting. The reader is pulled into the story from the first page, and the author keeps you spellbound to the last exciting page. I loved it. Highly recommended. —Tom Johnson, Detective Mystery Stories
One of my favorite quotes comes from Sheila Deeth, who, in a review for Cafe Libre, called the series “the perfect combination of noir and human hope.“
I think readers who like mysteries or thrillers on the medium-to-hard-boiled end of the spectrum will enjoy it. (Think James Patterson, Harlan Coben, Robert Crais, Jonathan Kellerman, Lawrence Block–Scudder not Rhodenbarr.)
Any last thoughts?
Just this: If we all tell everyone we know, we can do this. (If you hear it multiple times, please don’t be annoyed. Our circles overlap, and hearing it from multiple sources means the word is getting out.)
For more information, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Today, the spotlight is on Jochem Vandersteen, creator of the Sons of Spade review blog, founder of the Hardboiled Collective, and author of the Noah Milano and Mike Dalmas stories. His first full-length novel, a Noah Milano mystery called White Knight Syndrome, is available in print and e-books. Since then, he’s written a number of novels, novelettes, and short stories, which you can find here.
Vandersteen is an aficionado of crime fiction in general, but his first love is private detective fiction. He has a broad definition of the genre, which he divides into “official” and “unofficial” PIs. The “unofficial” PI may come disguised as a reporter, vigilante, or other lone hero, but the spirit of independence and justice make them all brothers (and sisters) under the skin. In 2007, Vandersteen created the Sons of Spade site to spotlight the fictional PI. He’s been reviewing and promoting private eye fiction ever since.
Here’s what he has to say about hardboiled detective fiction: “To me, one of the main attractions to hardboiled fiction to me is the writing style. Sure, I love the tough guys walking around and the plots involving murder, crooks and femme fatales but if there’s one genre that is generally written in a style I enjoy, it’s the hardboiled one. Hardboiled prose is sparse, direct, tough. This style was born from the working class readership of the first pulp magazines like Black Mask and Dime Detective that offered these stories. Also, an important element was the fact the writers of these stories got paid by the word. If they didn’t want the content of their stories butchered by editors they had to tell those stories in as few words as possible . . . Elmore Leonard had as one of his writing rules ‘Leave out the parts people skip.’ Together with [Robert B. Parker, he is a master at this.” Read more of this interview on Murderous Musings.
Speaking of hardboiled fiction, another of Vandersteen’s brain children is the Hardboiled Collective, a group of hardboiled authors who like and respect each others’ work in the detective genre and are working to spread the word.
Vandersteen says he’s been writing all his life and writing hardboiled stories for more than a decade. His primary influences include classic writers like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler as well as more modern authors like Harlan Coben and Robert B. Parker. He’s also a fan of alternative rock and comic books, which manifests in the number of pop culture references that find their way into his stories.
He has several series going. The Noah Milano books feature “a Los Angeles private eye/security specialist with more than a few ‘family’ problems. Because, in his case, his family is ‘the family.’ ” Yes, Noah is the estranged son of a mobster. This creates a great deal of tension and more than a few problems. In the author’s words, “Fiercely independent, and determined to sever all ties with his past, Noah has to adjust from being a spoiled mobster son to being an independent operator with little money. Fortunately he’s learned a great deal about security from his years as his dad’s personal bodyguard. Perhaps in penance, he now uses these skills to earn an honest (well, relatively) living.”
The second series features Mike Dalmas: “Husband, father, vigilante… Mike Dalmas left Special Forces to become a dedicated family man, but when his daughter gets molested he had his revenge, killing the pervert who committed the crime. Now the Bay City cops keep him out of jail if he takes care of their dirty work. The things their badges won’t allow them to do but for which Dalmas has the right skill set.”
Milano and Dalmas are both intriguing, complex characters. The stories are dark and sometimes brutal, but always with an eye toward justice. Definitely guys you’d want on your side if you were in the kind of trouble that wears brass knuckles and carries a sawed-off shotgun.
Vandersteen’s latest work is a novella, Out to Get You, the first of a series featuring true crime writer Vance Custer. Custer is less gritty than Dalmas or Milano, but more charming. Like the others, he’s someone you’d want on your side. Unlike them, you’d also feel comfortable inviting him home for a cup of coffee after the fight. I look forward to reading more about him.
Vandersteen clearly loves the detective genre and does a good job of capturing the appropriate style and tone. English is not his first language, and this sometimes shows in the syntax. However, you’ll also find some vivid, fresh imagery. (I laughed out loud at the description of a carpet–in the home of a dangerous mobster–that looked like someone had made a rug out of Elmo.)
If you like hardboiled detective fiction, check out Jochem Vandersteen’s work, along with the Sons of Spade and the Hardboiled Collective blogs.
Want to read more about him? Check out the following interviews and reviews:
There’s a tendency for people to think of romantic suspense as a “slight” genre–entertaining but not very deep. In truth, the best of the genre, like the best of all genres, is anything but slight. Nancy Sartor’s debut novel, Bones Along the Hill, is a perfect example. Yes, there’s a love story–the relationship between Neva and Davis is both touching and complex–but there is much more to it than that. Set in modern-day Nashville, the novel explores love, friendship, loyalty, grief, homelessness, human trafficking, and both the worst and the best of humankind.
“[A] novel should enlarge understanding, raise awareness, plead for the less fortunate, define a better way of life, and provide a personal story so poignant it brings tears to every eye, contributing something of substance to the reader.”
The opening of the book sets the tone. It’s a sensitively written description of the protagonist, who works at a funeral home, using putty to reconstruct the face of an infant killed during a savage attack on his mother. Sartor writes beautifully, approaching the subject matter with compassion and drawing the reader deeply into Neva’s story.
Neva is still mourning the loss of her first love, high school sweetheart Gray Ledbetter, whose suicide has haunted Neva for a decade. Her current paramour, Davis, is good man equally haunted by his past–the unsolved disappearance of his younger brother Stephen. When Neva and her best friends, Moya and Zan, run afoul of human traffickers, Neva and Davis are drawn into an ever-tightening web of danger and destruction.
According to her website, the Nashville-born Sartor is “an enthusiastic graduate of Donald Maass’s Breakout Novel Intensive Workshop, Maass’s Micro Tension Workshop, and the Writer’s Police Academy.” Clearly, Sartor has taken Maass’s mantra, “Tension on every page!” to heart. The pacing of the book is excellent, and the author’s attention to her craft is evident.
But her bio only hints at the long path to publication and the formidable perseverance Sartor showed along the way. On her blog, Horrors and Hurrahs, her post on “the weird world of writers” explains the blend of soul-crushing disappointment and indomitable hope that come with this odd career we’ve chosen. There are some who would say Sartor should have given up on the book, or perhaps published it herself once it was “good enough,” but having read the final version, I’m grateful that Sartor never settled for good enough.
Read the book? I’d love to hear your thoughts about it in the comments. (No spoilers, please.)