Saturday, February 25, 2012

Past Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

Continuing on a sporadically unintentional King-centric itinerary started last year, I arrived last Monday in Savannah, Georgia, hot on the heels of Stephen King's appearance the day before wrapping up the fifth annual Savannah Book Festival. Last April I spent some time in Estes Park, Colorado, at The Stanley Hotel, the place that inspired King to write The Shining. Last September in Fairfax, Virginia, I exchanged a few comments with King about The Stanley and The Shining. Just a few days ago our travels intersected again in Savannah, a stunningly beautiful town. It's often called "A City Built On Its Dead," and is allegedly so thoroughly haunted that King joked he should move there.

Of course, it's not any of King's books that revived Savannah's well-deserved touristic allure in the 1990's. That honor belongs to John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, the "non-fiction novel" (known to locals simply as "The Book") that lived in The New York Times bestseller list for 216 consecutive weeks following its publication in 1994. Three years later Clint Eastwood produced and directed a movie bearing the same title, starring Kevin Spacey and John Cusack. Between them, the book and movie electrified Savannah's tourism coffers with a jolt that continues to this day.

As an author, it's astounding to wander through Savannah and see that there's virtually nowhere to go without directly or indirectly encountering Berendt's book. I've been fortunate enough to have seen a lot of the world, but excepting Vatican City I can't think of any place where a single book's presence is so abundantly pervasive as Berendt's is in Savannah. There's even a store on Calhoun Square called "The Book" Gift Shop, owned and operated by a lovely dark-haired belle named Deborah, that sells nothing but Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and wares connected to or derived from it. The shop has thrived ever since it opened in 1996, and unsurprisingly, is reputed to share its quarters with a ghost.

Berendt says he happened upon Savannah one day in 1982 when he took a spontaneous road trip south from Charleston, South Carolina. Enchanted by the city's Southern Gothic charms, nefarious history, and quirky personalities, he returned three years later to research and write his book. Initially, he planned to spend only a few weeks at a time in Savannah while working on the book, but after a short while he found the city such a great place to write that he moved there in earnest in 1985 and remained for years until the book was done.

Having just spent the best part of a week in Savannah, I have to agree with Berendt -- Savannah struck me hard as a fantastic place to write. In addition to the qualities that drew Berendt there, since his book's release enrollment at the Savannah College of Art and Design has skyrocketed from 500 to well over 10,000 students, reflecting the city's deep appreciation and unwavering support for all of the creative arts. One of the very few things I noticed in Savannah that were nearly as ubiquitous as Berendt's book, were the omnipresent influences on daily life throughout the city of SCAD and its students and graduates.

(And the chandeliers. I've never seen so many chandeliers. Antique or modern. In public buildings and private homes and businesses. In foyers and living rooms and dining rooms and bedrooms and bathrooms. On verandas and porches. In real estate offices and galleries and classrooms and restaurants. Lit by electricity or gas or candle. Indoors and out. Everywhere. It seems there's something about a chandelier nearly irresistible to Savannahians.)

So take a writer's walk with me through Savannah's historic district. Let's see what you might encounter.

Deciding a little reluctantly to forgo the Psychotronic Film Society's Don Knotts revival at the Sentient Bean after watching an angry hippie slap an unyielding car with a plastic "Stop for Pedestrians" sign, I ventured between the monuments and fountains and SCAD girls playing rugby in Forsyth Park, past the dreadlocked man in the wheelchair wearing a cartoon Batman mask and weaving cool rhythms on a set of African bongos, to stand in the room where Jim Williams shot and killed Danny Hansford with a German Luger at the Mercer House, thus triggering Berendt to write The Book. After wandering further south and grabbing a bite at the Moon River Brewing Company, a bar so infested with spirits that it drew the rapt attention of the Ghost Adventures Crew, I climbed into a hearse for a drive-by tour of some of Savannah's most haunted places. Along the way I traded greetings with a very large man reading tarot cards outside a Starbucks on the corner of Bull and Broughton Streets. I discovered he's the cousin of the notorious Dr. Buzzard, the dead shaman whose magic Jim Williams desperately called upon to secure an acquittal in each of the last two of his four murder trials; it wasn't till the fourth trial that the magic seemingly worked. While on the tour, my guide "Lunatic Laura" taught me how the phrases "dead ringer," "saved by the bell," and "graveyard shift" originated. After disembarking the hearse, I strolled beside the Savannah River on River Street, serenaded by live blues played by a man on his battered acoustic guitar to the accompaniment of his buddy working some steel drums, before visiting the rooftop bar of the Grand Bohemian Hotel to watch immense freighters lumber up and down the river with their lights and marine horns blaring. Meandering north on cobblestone streets and brick walkways under gaslit arches of huge, ancient live oaks dripping with Spanish moss, I found myself beckoned to explore the Sorrel-Weed House, from whose roof the opening scene of Tom Hanks' movie Forrest Gump was filmed. The current owner of this grand old house is too scared of it to live in it. He tried paying various people to live in and care for the house, but in each case only a few nights passed before they fled, too afraid to return to pick up their belongings. While I was there, I heard something utterly eerie, a sound I couldn't identify as coming from this mortal realm. I have it recorded, and a hundred listenings later I still can't make other than "paranormal" sense of it. The sound made me recall immediately the advice a sweet African-American woman named Angel had given me hours earlier when I told her I was going to take Laura's tour -- "You don't want to be doing that. You want to be like me. I'm only riding in a hearse once." Exhausted, I climbed into a taxi driven by a woman named Big Mike, who told me as we drove past dozens of gently lit antique stores and art galleries that the key to understanding her city is to know that Savannahians consider the curtains between past and present extremely thin and rarely closed, especially every night between three and four a.m. "Between those times, that's when it's really midnight here," she said. "That's the real witching hour in Savannah."

All of that's only an hors d'oeuvre. I was there less than a week, and I'd have had to try very hard not to find fascinating people, places and things in Savannah that my muse wouldn't adore. I ambled through that town with plots, characters and dialogues ceaselessly spinning in my head all the time.

Maybe I'll room with King.

"The past is never dead. It's not even past."
~~William Faulkner~~

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Spotting Fake Online Book Reviews

There's a whole lot of e-books out there. And more get released every day, in every genre, in almost every language, all over the world. Just last summer, the World eBook Fair made available more than 6,500,000 e-books during its annual fair. To put that number in some perspective, in 2008 the fair touted about 650,000 e-books, and the 2009 fair included about twice 2008's offering.

I'm not complaining. I think it's great that the "traditional" publishing model's stranglehold on what books folks can choose to read is loosening. The issue becomes, how to select which books to read. If you live to be 80 years old, and from your 20th birthday to your last you read two books weekly, you'll only have time to read 6,240 books in your lifetime. That's .00096 percent of the e-books featured at last summer's fair, and certainly a lesser percentage of the e-books out now, and a virtually infinitesimal fraction of the ones that will be published before your 80th birthday. No avid reader wants to waste her precious time reading bad books.

On the flip side, how do authors attract attention to their books in an environment of geometrically, if not exponentially, growing competition for readers' time and money? Thanks to the on-going revolutionary democratization in book publishing, this is a matter of concern for all but the tiny sliver of very famous authors whose names have risen to the level of a brand.

I posted a few weeks ago (Tear Down the Walls) that the only "superpower" traditional publishers have left any longer over independently published books is the traditionals' preferential access to esteemed literary critics at premium book review sources like The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, and the like. As matters of practice and/or policy, those sources rarely dedicate review space to independently published books.

Shut out from the premium review sources as vehicles to promote their work widely, independently published authors must rely heavily on word-of-mouth, and ever more importantly, on customer reviews at online retail destinations like,,, and dozens of similar sites. Legitimate customer reviews are invaluable aids in helping a book's potential reader decide whether to take a leap with a new book by a new author.

But it's not the legitimate online customer reviews that this post is about. With all those e-books out there multiplying daily like super-rabbits crazed on genetically enhanced Spanish fly, the simple act of drawing enough attention to get potential readers to notice, buy, read and review a new book by a new author can be a daunting task.

Now, not every unknown author longing for reader attention is unscrupulous, and not every unscrupulous author is desperate. That said, from time to time temptations to pad the online customer review roster might be difficult to tame. For example, I remember reading what I know is the worst book I've ever read in my life a few years ago. It was an absolutely putrid independently published excuse for a thriller, typed by a doctor from somewhere around Los Angeles. To make sure I wasn't mistaken in the book's loathsome foulness, I read long portions of it aloud to unfortunate friends and strangers. Consensus came quickly -- the book was truly terrible.

You'd not know that if you went to Amazon and read the book's purported customer reviews, though. I checked. There were more than forty of them. None of them were less than four-star, and the vast majority were screaming five-star raves. If you had relied on this book's posted "customer reviews," you'd have bought the novel with the smug confidence of knowing you were about to indulge yourself in the work of a writer whose immeasurable authorial talent could result from nothing less than his being the gifted offspring of a union between Nobel and Pulitzer, with Shakespeare as his Godfather.

Relying on those seemingly forthright reviews, you might eagerly buy the book and delve into it. If you did, your disappointment would be boundless, not only in the book itself, but also in the "reviewers" who duped you.

So as a valuable public service, this post is a primer on spotting fake online book reviews. Hopefully, it will help you steer clear of rank books whose glowing "customer reviews" are nothing but scams orchestrated by alleged authors who are in truth nothing more than inept self-published typists with profoundly unfounded delusions of literary prowess and way too much idle time on their hands.

After a lifetime dedicated to becoming the finest marsupial whisperer in all of Gulpin Gulch, Arkansas, Cletus Skweezweezle capped this laudable achievement by partially overcoming functional illiteracy to self-publish his magnum opus, Sh*t My 'Possum Says. While surfing Amazon looking for something new to read, you stumble upon Skweezweezle's masterpiece, attractively priced at $7.99. Perhaps the cover caught your eye, or there's a soft spot in your heart for 'possums. Still, justifiably cautious before adding the work to your electric shopping cart, you wisely choose to consider the 417 customer reviews unanimously praising the book since its release 20 minutes ago.

Does it strike you as odd that the vast majority of Skweezweezle's reviewers don't post their critiques under names one might find in a telephone directory on earth? What level of trust is due a review consisting entirely of the word "awsome" posted by someone named Is it comforting that 356 of the book's reviews are five misspelled words or less long, and shockingly enough also come from uncommonly monikered posters at What can you determine upon discovering 409 of Skweezweezle's reviewers have posted only about Sh*t My 'Possum Says, and no other thing in all of Amazon's vast array of saleable goods and services? Do your eyebrows raise when it appears, to the extent you can tell, that more reviews are posted by people from Gulpin Gulch than recent U.S. Census data indicate live in the greater Gulpin Gulch metropolitan statistical area? Against this backdrop, what can you make of that one pseudonymous review over 900 words long that begins, "In all my years as a tenured professor holding the Charles John Huffam Dickens Chair in the English department at Harvard University, never have I dared allow myself to dream for even the fleetest of nanoseconds that one day before death gently lifts my soul from this mortal coil would I be blessed with the inexpressible bliss of encountering a work of such monumentally towering yet utterly sublime merit as the relentlessly dazzling tour de force that is Cletus Skweezweezle's Sh*t My 'Possum Says"?

Are we learning yet?

In bookstores and all over the Internet, terrific books by very talented independently published authors are eager to entertain, educate, amaze and enthrall you. They deserve your attention. Diverging from the well-trodden path of reading only books written by famous authors is a good adventure. Now that you've reached the end of this post, you're better positioned to distinguish thoughtful and reliable online book reviews from drivel cloaking itself behind a cluster of self-serving rubbish that's sole goal is to hoodwink you into wasting your valuable resources. Happy reading.

"Half the work that is done in this world is to make things appear what they are not."
~~E.R. Beadle~~

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Author Spotlight: J. Gregory Smith

J. Gregory Smith has made a leap lots of self-published authors would love to emulate. His first novel, a mystery titled Final Price, won the 2010 first prize for fiction in the Delaware Press Association's Communication Contest. Under the limelight of that achievement, and based on positive customer feedback and sales information from Amazon's sites, Greg's book came to's attention. Amazon picked up the book and released it under the flagship AmazonEncore imprint, which was created to "unearth exceptional books and emerging authors for more readers to enjoy." Greg's second book, a thriller called A Noble Cause, continued to impress Amazon enough so that it was published three weeks ago under Amazon's mystery and thriller genre imprint, Thomas & Mercer. Thanks to his quality writing and adept marketing, Greg has made the transition from a self-published author to one with the support of a surging book publishing powerhouse behind him.

For those of you who've not yet read A Noble Cause, here's my brief plot synopsis: In the aftermath of his girlfriend's Antiguan disappearance and the murders of his parents in Pennsylvania, Mark Noble battles to uncover the reasons and people behind the mysterious kidnapping and deaths. The plot rushes along a track centered around clandestine mind control experiments conducted on unwitting subjects via pharmaceutically-enhanced hypnosis. Now go out and read it.

Well, not right now. First, read the latest installment in the Gazalapalooza Author Spotlight, featuring none other than Mr. J. Gregory Smith himself. Kudos to Greg for agreeing without even the slightest flinch or hesitation to make this appearance for us under the searing blaze that is the Author Spotlight. Without further ado, let's get the Klieg light fired up and see if Smith breaks a sweat.

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 why you choose them.

Smith:   For fiction I’d pick the first edition copy of The Hobbit that my dad read to me as a child.  He received it as a boy when it first came out.  Interesting side note, the original version of the Riddles in the Dark chapter where Bilbo first finds the great ring differs slightly than in later versions after the Lord of the Rings trilogy was written.  In the original, Gollum accepts the loss of the ring and even leads Bilbo back to the passage through the mountain.  Later versions have Gollum crazier and trying to kill Bilbo. For Nonfiction, The U.S. Army Survival Manual.  Robinson Crusoe I ain’t!

Gazala:   Your latest novel is an excellent and gripping thriller titled A Noble Cause. 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 A Noble Cause, and why its potential reader should make the leap and become its actual reader.

Smith:   Hypnosis has always fascinated me, though I've never tried it myself.  I've always heard the subjects really can't be made to do anything they really wouldn't do normally--but I couldn't let it go at that, so I came up with a sort of superhypnosis combined with a mysterious concoction that allows access to the deepest reaches of a subject's subconscious. Now we're talking power. Our hero, Mark, is caught in the middle of a struggle for what such power could offer.

Gazala:   What are books for?

Smith:   Done right, I see books as a partnership between reader and writer where the writer sets the scene and story and readers step up with their own imaginations to complete the picture and make it perfect. It is hard to do but when it works, magic happens. There’s a reason so many people will prefer a book to the movie version. They had a hand in making the story just right for them, and it can be jarring when a director substitutes his interpretation.

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?

Smith:   I would tend to agree but even when I think I know what they are it doesn’t seem to make it any easier.  For me I’d say they were 1) come up with a great idea, 2) write it down, 3) make it better (and repeat #3 as needed.)

Gazala:   My car alarm is going off again. Ask yourself a question, and answer it. 

Smith:   Question -- Since you are a writer and not a “wrote”, what is next for you? Answer --  The sequel to my first novel Final Price, is coming out in March and is called Legacy of the Dragon. Right now I’m nearly finished with the draft of the third Detective Chang thriller tentatively titled Send in the Clowns.  (After it rests a bit I'll get to work on step #3.)

Now that you've indulged in Smith's Author Spotlight, you can go get your copy of A Noble Cause. A quick and easy way to order your copy is by clicking here.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

How (Il)literate Is Your City?

How literate is your city?

Just like a ball team, every author has a home-field advantage. After all, where an author lives is likely where most of his family, friends, and colleagues live, and theirs in turn. I live just outside of Washington, D.C., and I'm fortunate to have a network of very supportive people in my area who enthusiastically buy, read, and help me promote my books and stories, locally and everywhere else. These gracious, book-loving people invite me to speak about my writing at their homes, businesses, clubs and libraries, giving my work a huge boost in visibility. It's kind of like getting an invaluable head start in a literary marathon where the finish line's always over the next hill, never quite in sight.

In that sense, the more "literate" an author's home town, the bigger a head start she can get when she's looking for traction for her work. So Central Connecticut State University president Jack Miller's annual survey of "America's Most Literate Cities" is something every author (and publisher, for that matter) should take a look at, both as an exercise in assessing her home town's enthusiasm for books and reading, and to help her design a promotional plan in cities other than her own where people devour books.

Before you rush to the survey and get disgruntled because your burg didn't place anywhere on the list, a caveat's in order. The study is limited to cities with populations of at least 250,000 as of the 2010 U.S. Census. While that might seem arbitrary, it's reasonable when you consider that according to the last Census there were 275 American cities with over 100,000 residents, and the National League of Cities counts more than 19,000 distinct U.S. cities, towns and villages in its membership. With the 250,000 resident cut-off, Miller's literacy survey ranks only the country's 75 largest cities.

In determining a city's passion for the lettered arts, the study looks at six criteria: daily and Sunday newspaper circulation; "Internet data" (which includes visits to newspaper/TV websites, Internet book purchases, and e-reader ownership); magazine and journal purchases/subscriptions; the number of retail, rare and used book stores a city supports; educational attainment data per city; and libraries, librarians, volumes, and circulation rates each city has per capita. Again, this is arguably an imperfect set of measures by which to rank one city more "literate" than another. Still, as with the population metric, you've got to start and end somewhere, and whatever flaws the study may have doesn't strip all meaning from its results.

So what does the survey say? For those of you who bash New Jersey as a Snooki-centric bastion of goonish illiteracy (be fair -- Snooki did write a book, kind of), Newark has the most book stores per capita. Folks who poke fun at the Lone Star state's education system may be surprised to learn Plano, Texas, has the country's highest per capita educational attainment levels. Cleveland, Ohio trumps all the other municipal contestants in library supremacy. And my town, Washington, D.C., defeats all comers in newspaper and periodical consumption, and using the Internet for buying and reading books.

Who knew?

Well, now, you do.

Let's put aside the granularity and look at the bigger picture. Sure to stir the delicious discord and choice controversy we love so much here at Gazalapalooza, here's the list of the Top 20 most literate cities in America in 2011:

1.     Washington, D.C.
2.     Seattle, WA
3.     Minneapolis, MN
4.     Atlanta, GA
5.     Boston, MA
6.     Pittsburgh, PA
7.     Cincinnati, OH
8.     St. Louis, MO
9.     San Francisco, CA
10.   Denver, CO
11.   Portland, OR
12.   St. Paul, MN
13.   Cleveland, OH
14.   Kansas City, MO
15.   Oakland, CA
16.   Raleigh, NC
17.   New Orleans, LA
18.   Baltimore, MD
19.   Honolulu, HI
20.   Virginia Beach, VA

What about those self-proclaimed major metropolitan cultural centers you'd expect to finish at least in the hallowed Top 20? At least higher than Virginia Beach? Where are Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Houston, for example? Respectively, they're at 29, 31, 59, and 60. And perhaps most interestingly, what of New York, the gatekeeper and shining citadel of American commercial literary publishing?  The Big Apple tied with Austin, Texas, at 22.5; both were edged out by Tulsa, Oklahoma, and they barely eclipsed Lexington, Kentucky. New York's love for literature outflanked by Virginia Beach's and Tulsa's? I, for one, didn't see that coming.

It's all well and good to applaud America's Top 20 most bookish cities. But it's also fun to see which of our nation's biggest towns dwell on the list's bottom, too, right? It's a guilty pleasure, like rubbernecking at literary train wrecks.

71.   Fresno, CA
72.   Stockton, CA
73.   El Paso, TX
74.   Corpus Christi, TX
75.   Bakersfield, CA

Hey, Bakersfield -- buy a book, why don't you?

Stereotypes are a bitch, aren't they?

"[Arthur Miller] wouldn't have married me if I had been nothing but a dumb blonde."
~~Marilyn Monroe~~