Sunday, January 25, 2015

Book Review: Ready to Hang: Seven Famous New Orleans Murders, by Robert Tallant

There are as many ways to learn a city as there are people interested in learning it. Surely there's no substitute for learning a place than being there. But if circumstances conspire to prevent being there, the next best thing is reading about it, and a great way to learn about a grand old city is to steep yourself in a fascinating collection exploring some of the most (in)famous murders ever to darken its stormy history. Robert Tallant's "Ready to Hang" is just such a collection. Each of the seven well-written stories in this book reveals no less about how New Orleans has evolved from past to present than it does about the victims and victimizers it chronicles. Perhaps the most widely known of the sinister killers in Tallant's book is the person (or persons?) known as the Axman, whose enduring macabre allure lead to his recent resurrection in a pivotal role on the hit television series "American Horror Story: Coven." Notwithstanding the Axman's considerable legend in the annals of unsolved serial murder, not even his gruesome story outshines the other half-dozen true tales in this book. Did you know the Mafia first sharpened its American hooks in New Orleans? You will, and you'll learn why the practice of "decorating the lamp posts" did much to drive the Mafia out of New Orleans into friendlier digs in New York. Tallant's skill with words and phrases, combined with his meticulous research and attention to detail, makes "Ready to Hang" an absorbing and worthwhile read that is nothing less than a bloodstained love letter to the city where he lived his entire life.


Saturday, January 3, 2015

Author Spotlight: Brett J. Talley



We at Gazalapalooza rightly pride ourselves on the long roster of fantastic authors from all over the world who have kindly passed through our notorious turnstile to submit themselves to the merciless glare of the Author Spotlight. Yes, we’ve had authors who are attorneys. (Your humble correspondent is indeed one himself.) Yes, we’ve featured authors who are professional political speechwriters. Yet today’s edition positions us to present our dear readers something even in our estimable history unprecedented – an author who habituated long-abandoned mansions and misty midnight graveyards gigging as a paranormal investigator before taking his lawyerly talents to Washington, D.C. to infuse Capitol Hill’s hallowed hallways with a whiff of literary terrors distinctly apolitical. That writer is Brett J.Talley.

Not merely the subject of a recent profile in The Washington Post, Talley is the Bram Stoker Award-Nominated scribe of suspenseful horror fiction That Which Should Not Be, and The Void. His is also the pen documenting matters spectral in the nonfiction tomes Haunted Alabama Black Belt, and Haunted Tuscaloosa. If this isn’t pedigree sufficient to raise hairs on the back of your neck, dare to spend time alone with our guest’s array of short stories, every one as expertly crafted and widely acclaimed as his books, and each finely honed to drive a jagged wedge between a sound night’s sleep and you.

The story Talley brought along for our discussion today is his latest work, a novella titled The Reborn. After treading about in spooky cemeteries and shunned premises (much less in Congressional corridors renown for their otherworldly disharmony), it’s not altogether unsurprising Talley appears fairly comfortable strapped to a hard wooden chair under the blistering blast of our klieg light array. Let’s proceed.

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.

Talley:    The fiction answer is actually pretty easy for me, though the answer might be surprising to some of my readers—The Great Gatsby. I’ve always been a reader, but I didn’t love reading until I read that book for the first time. It’s one of a handful of books I’ve read more than once, and perhaps the only book I’ve read more than twice. It is, in many ways, a perfect book. Not a word is out of place, the story is timeless, the characters all too human. And it accomplishes all that despite clocking in at only a little over 40,000 words. Remarkable, really.

As for non-fiction book, while How To Survive on a Desert Island is tempting, I’m going to cheat a little and go with the Encyclopedia Britannica. I’m one of those people who can look something up on Wikipedia and, three hours and fifteen articles later, realize I let the day get away from me. Since I assume I can’t have a laptop, I’ll go with the dead-tree version.

Gazala:    Your newest book is an excellent and gripping post-apocalyptic reincarnation thriller titled The Reborn. The novella reveals how authorities capable of scrutinizing DNA to identify murderers, rapists, and other criminals in utero are obliged to eliminate these miscreants while they're still womb-bound. Except all is never what it pretends to be, and Marcus Ryder, the soldier who killed Genghis Khan reborn, finds himself and his compatriots battered by brutal moral ambiguities in a very savage world. 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 Reborn, and why its potential reader should make the leap and become its actual reader.

Talley:    Whether you want a book that makes you think or you want a thrill ride from the first page, The Reborn is for you. I know that’s probably what every author says about their books, but I’m serious about it here. And that was my goal. I wanted to write a book that challenged the readers’ beliefs about morality and justice, no matter what those beliefs might be. But I also wanted to write a book that kicks ass. You’ve got firefights, chases, nuclear strikes, world wars, gun battles, artillery barrages, pretty much everything you could imagine. And even better, it’s short! Just a little bit shorter than The Great Gatsby, as a matter of fact.

Gazala:    What are books for?

Talley:    Books are like people; they have limitless possibility for good or ill. They are for entertainment, for learning, for edification, for spreading a message. They can rally people to do the right thing or rally the mob to do evil. A human life is fleeting, but words can be eternal. Every person has a story to tell, and every book is a window into its author’s soul.

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?

Talley:    I agree completely. I occasionally read those “10 Rules for Writing” blog posts just for laughs. A blank page is not something to be feared, but to be relished. It is the author’s playground, his universe. In that world, we are all gods, and we can create or destroy whatever we see fit. Why would we cabin ourselves, place false limits on ourselves? Now, are there rules for getting published? Of course, and the bigger the house you are looking to land the more rules there will be. And yet, running throughout all those rules will be “originality.” How can we be truly original if we are constantly afraid we are going to violate someone else’s rules? If I had one piece of advice I could give to new writers it would be this—be fearless.

Gazala:    You'll pardon me -- somebody who's the spitting image of Idi Amin Dada is beating on my front door. Ask yourself question, and answer it.

Talley:    Question: Ha. Well played. I’ll go with, “What scares you?” Answer: H.P. Lovecraft once said that “the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” I think Lovecraft is absolutely right, but I would also add that horror is not always about fear, as strange as that may seem. It is also about unsettling the reader, about opening them to ideas that are foreign to them and making them see things they would rather not.

Take Poe for instance. Some might claim (not this writer) that Poe is tame by today’s standards. Whether or not that is true, the horror contained in Poe was absolutely shocking for its time. Poe talked about things that polite society preferred not to discuss. I think that’s why in today’s horror you see so much overt and what might be termed “socially deviant” sexuality in many popular works. The authors are trying to break through societal norms and horrify their audience in a fundamental way.

Personally, I prefer the other kind of horror. I want my readers to peer into the unknown. I want them to see what lurks in the shadows or perhaps to discover that, indeed, the shadow itself is a lurking thing.


The shadow itself is a lurking thing. Very well said, Mr. Talley. And like a bedeviled matryoshka doll, there slinks inside the lurking shadow itself yet another skulking thing, waiting, watching, wanting… But you needn’t wait to feed your fevered head The Reborn. All you need do is draw a deep breath, steady your shuddering nerves, and click here to snatch a copy right now from Amazon.




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.