Saturday, February 23, 2013

Author Spotlight: Marvin H. McIntyre Returns

There are several reasons Gazalapalooza is pleased to welcome today to the Author Spotlight Marvin McIntyre, who graciously has agreed to submit to our interrogation in connection with the release of his new thriller, Inside Out. He’s a graduate of The Citadel, and a Vietnam veteran. In certain circles, he’s earned the nickname "Financial Wizard," and it’s always awesome to be some sort of a wizard. He has been a steady friend of our blog since its inception. He spins compelling, intelligent and timely fiction, like Inside Out and its predecessor, Insiders. He’s a very interesting and worldly man, blessed with a twisted sense of humor.

And way back in October, 2011, McIntyre was the very first author to bite the bullet, damn the torpedoes, throw caution to the wind, warn us against stringing together too many clich├ęs in our blog, and venture boldly into the Gazalapalooza Author Spotlight’s glare.

So please join us in welcoming back to our Spotlight the valiant Mr. McIntyre. We’ve been extremely fortunate to bring our readers the thoughts of many fantastic authors since we kicked off our Spotlight feature two and a half years ago. That said, nothing great ever happens until someone goes first, and in our case, it was McIntyre. For that we were, and remain, appreciative.

But that doesn’t mean we have to be nice to him. Accordingly and without further ado, we’ll get our guest seated on our unforgiving wooden chair beneath our even less forgiving battery of blazing klieg lights, and kick off this edition of the Author Spotlight.

Gazala:    What is the most surprising occupational hazard to being a novelist?

McIntyre:    When you donate all of the profits to charity, you soon realize that publishing a novel can be hazardous to your wealth. Even though my clients in my "real job" are well aware of my charitable intent with my books, I still get asked to send out free autographed copies.

Gazala:    Your latest book is an excellent and gripping thriller titled Inside Out. It's the second entry in your "Mac McGregor" series, where we find McGregor's brutal nemesis Jeremy Lyons hacking a path of murder, betrayal and corruption toward snatching a Florida senatorial seat. I've read Inside Out, 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 Inside Out, and why its potential reader should make the leap and become its actual reader.

McIntyre:    I have yet to meet a person who is happy with “politics as usual.”  Sprinkled throughout what I hope is an interesting meal for readers and possible indigestion for the squeamish, are perhaps a few tasty tidbits about the sadly novel idea that a politician should think first about the health of our country. For dessert eaters, I have even offered a few humble thoughts on actual change that would help the public.

Gazala:    Have you ever killed off one of your characters only to greatly regret the death later? If so, whose death do you regret, and why?

McIntyre:    In my first book, Insiders, my friend David Baldacci said that the character Max leaped off the page. I was very flattered, but the town was not big enough for Max and the malevolent Jeremy Lyons.

Gazala:    If you could take credit for writing any one book not your own, which would it be, and why?

McIntyre:    I assume that I am not allowed to use Blood of the Moon. This is a great question and begs the real question—who thought of it? I guess it would be Pat Conroy’s Lords of Discipline. A fellow Citadel graduate, his story vividly brought back a rather traumatic time for me, and his descriptions are breathtaking.

Gazala:    If you had to empower one person unrelated to you by blood or marriage to read your thoughts for a day, who would you choose, and why?

McIntyre:    Someone who does not understand English. An overload of depravity can damage a weaker mind.

Luckily, we at Gazalapalooza have strong minds. If yours is too, there's no need to turn yourself inside out (do you see what we did there?) to get your own copy of Inside Out. All you have to do to order your copy from Amazon is click here.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Author Spotlight: Mark Alpert

If you assumed something called "Supreme Harmony" would be a thing benign, if not delightful, no one would fault you for thinking so. A rose by any other name, right?

Not so fast. In the skilled hands of thriller author Mark Alpert, our guest for this edition of the Gazalapalooza Author Spotlight, Supreme Harmony is a terrifying misnomer. You want a second opinion? Fair enough. Supreme Harmony plays a major role in Alpert's new book, Extinction: A Thriller. And none other than Author Spotlight alumnus James Rollins says of Extinction, "As intelligent as it is frightening, a riveting journey to the next stage of evolution." For good measure, Rollins also throws in, "A chilling punch to the gut."

Clearly, Alpert's book is not your mother's notion of anything remotely like Supreme Harmony.

Instead, Extinction tells the story of a hybrid life form wrenched from a hellish brain-machine interface by military scientists who lose control of their creation when its artificial intelligence power evolves into self-awareness. That's scary in itself. What's scarier is that the technologies underlying Alpert's book is as much a product of current science fact as theoretical science fiction. So it's understandable that Douglas Preston anoints our guest as, "Truly the heir to Michael Crichton."

Alpert has the chops to write such a thriller as Extinction. Alpert majored in astrophysics at Princeton University. His undergraduate thesis applying the theory of relativity to a two-dimensional universe was published in The Journal of General Relativity and Gravitation, and has been cited in over 100 scholarly articles. In you need additional bona fides, Alpert not only writes for Scientific American, but also serves on the magazine's board of editors.

At this point you might be conceding he has his science chops down, but can the man write engaging fiction? Yes, he can. After Princeton, Alpert earned an M.F.A. in poetry from Columbia University. He's been a journalist for The Clarement (N.H.) Times and The Montgomery (AL.) Advertiser, he's written for Fortune magazine, and his debut novel, Final Theory, was acclaimed as one of the best novels of 2008 by Booklist, Borders, and the American Booksellers Association.

So yeah, the man can write.

Can Alpert withstand the heat of the Author Spotlight? That's another question entirely, the answer for which isn't revealed by his impressive curriculum vitae. The only way we're going to figure that out is to train the blazing white glare from our army of klieg lights in Alpert's face, and 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 why you choose them.

Alpert:    Okay, I have to be strategic here. I want as much reading material as possible, so they have to be relatively long books. I love The Great Gatsby, but I don’t want to read it another forty-three times. So for fiction, I’m going with Ulysses. It’s long, it’s funny, it has some damn good parts. And I’ll finally have enough leisure time to figure out the parts I never understood. For nonfiction, my choice is another long, good book, Shelby Foote’s The Civil War. It’s the best work of history ever. Did you know that Jefferson Davis eloped with Zachary Taylor’s daughter? Or that Robert E. Lee lost the Battle of Gettysburg because Jeb Stuart was having too much fun pillaging the countryside? It’s all in Foote’s book.

Gazala:    Your latest book is an excellent and gripping novel titled Extinction: A Thriller, featuring American soldier-cum-scientist Jim Pierce confronting Chinese anti-terrorism software with highly sophisticated quasi-human artificial intelligence that starts thinking for itself. 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 Extinction, and why its potential reader should make the leap and become its actual reader.

Alpert:    Every English-speaking Earthling should read Extinction because it’s a ton of fun. The novel focuses on a secret Chinese government project called Supreme Harmony, a surveillance system that uses swarms of cyborg insects -- ordinary houseflies equipped with minuscule cameras and radio controls -- to spy on dissident groups. (Real-life scientists are developing this technology for military reconnaissance.) To analyze the glut of video collected by the swarms, Chinese researchers lobotomize a group of condemned prisoners and insert electronic implants into their brains, turning them into a network of zombie-like "Modules" who are wirelessly linked to one another and to the swarms. But the project goes disastrously awry when the Supreme Harmony network develops its own intelligence, a collective consciousness that takes control of the Modules and sets out to exterminate its creators.

You have to admit, it’s a pretty fun premise. But that’s not all! The novel also features bionic arms, artificial eyes, a gun battle on the Great Wall, a helicopter dogfight above the mountains near Burma, and an apocalyptic war between China and America. As Stefon of "Saturday Night Live" fame might say, "This book has everything!"

Gazala:    What are books for?

Alpert:    Besides providing me with countless hours of entertainment, books have taught me a lot of useful things. When I was working as a newspaper reporter in the Eighties, I learned about journalism and politics by reading Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men. When I was traveling across South America, I got a view of the cultural landscape by reading A Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera. And when I was navigating the channels and shoals of marriage, I got some guidance from reading the collected works of John Updike. Now that I have kids, I see the effects that reading books has on them. After an hour of watching TV or playing on the computer, the kids are hyper and agitated and sometimes impossible to deal with. But reading calms them and stimulates their minds at the same time. They want to talk about the books they’ve just read.

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?

Alpert:   I get the same feeling sometimes, that I know how to write a novel but can’t describe exactly how to do it. I’ve written seven novels so far, three published, four unpublished. I usually start with a cool idea -- say, a secret discovery made by Albert Einstein (that was the premise of my first published book, Final Theory) -- and then try to imagine the characters who will be involved in the story. Then I try to map out a plot -- for thrillers, the basic structure is usually a chase or a hunt -- but the outline is very rough. I don’t want to predetermine everything because I like to be surprised while I’m writing the book. For me, the whole effort is a leap of faith. While I’m writing the novel I have no idea whether the book will actually come together. I was three-quarters finished with the first draft of Extinction before I figured out how the novel would end.

Gazala:    There's a fly buzzing round my desk begging for a big hit from my can of Raid. Ask yourself a question, and answer it.

Alpert:    Q: Mark, do you have to know a lot of science to enjoy your science thriller Extinction? A: I’m so glad you asked that question. No, you don’t have to know any science at all. The novel is self-explanatory. As you ride the rollercoaster of the plot you’ll pick up everything you need to know. Many people shy away from science because they had a bad physics or chemistry teacher in high school. I see it as my job to fight those bad impressions and encourage people to love science. It’s an endless source of entertainment and awe. 

Perhaps we need harsher klieg lights, since Alpert has emerged a little overheated but otherwise fairly unscathed. Will you emerge so splendidly from your reading Extinction? The best way to find out is to snatch a copy of Alpert's new thriller and start reading. We'll make it easy -- all you have to do to get your copy of Extinction from Amazon is click here. Have fun, and read safely.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Barnes & Nowhere

Numbers are crunchy. They're good for you, too, like broccoli for your brain. For those craving numerical nutrition while watching Barnes & Noble's current shuttering of many of its stores across the country and abroad, there are all kinds of fresh, delicious numbers out for you to digest. Scads of publications are rushing to analyze Barnes & Noble's poor sales performance during the last holiday shopping season. The company's same store sales were down pretty much across the board, and stats for selling Nooks and e-books in the fourth quarter of 2012 were largely unimpressive.

The fallout from those disappointing numbers, and the bad numbers that preceded them earlier in 2012 and in recent years past, isn't hard to see. From the vantage point of the Gazalapalooza nerve center near our nation's capital, we're watching B&N mothball stores in Washington, D.C., and northern Virginia as we type these words. When they're asked to comment on the store closures, mouthpieces for B&N's executive suite in Manhattan quickly cite numbers. They use all kinds of numbers to to explain, justify and soft-pedal B&N's inexorable death march down the well-trodden path beaten by Borders not so long ago. Incidentally, in a tasty karmic twist of fate, it's also the same path that in the last two decades of the 20th century the company forced countless local independent bookstores all over the country to tread as the Riggio brothers expanded B&N into every retail nook and cranny they could find, both via B&N stores and through B&N's acquisition of the (now defunct) mall-based B. Dalton Bookseller chain.

Shall we examine the numbers? Well, Bob Dylan said you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. Similarly, you don't need an accountant to see where B&N's heading, and why. All you need is your eyes, and a passing familiarity with certain recently demised icons of American retail.

The "why" is straightforward, and it has been beaten to death in innumerable reports for the past 20 years. The Internet is why. We needn't spend valuable time on that. If you need a refresher, think back to how you and your family, friends and colleagues conducted much, if not most, of your holiday shopping a couple of months ago.

It's more interesting to put aside the numbers for a bit, and think about what you see when you venture into a Barnes & Noble store. For present purposes, forget the ubiquitous coffee shop. Think instead about what else you see.

Whether you realize it or not, you see ghosts. You see the ghosts of retail past. You see the ghost of B&N's imminent future.

Remember all the Blockbuster stores? At its peak, Blockbuster had many thousands of stores. Today they number in mere hundreds, and disappear by the month. Blockbusters were everywhere. Blockbuster tried to keep up with changing times, switching from VHS tapes to DVDs when the market evolved. Nonetheless, like the VHS home rental model that spawned them, Blockbuster is pretty much nowhere now.

You can buy DVDs at Barnes & Noble. They have a section for that.

That's where you'll find Blockbuster's ghost at B&N.

Most folks order physical DVDs online, from Amazon. The ones that don't stream their video entertainment from Netflix.

Remember all the Tower Records stores? At its peak some years prior to its second and final bankruptcy filing in 2006, it wasn't too hard to find a Tower Records store in almost any American city. Tower was everywhere. Tower is nowhere now.

You can buy CDs at Barnes & Noble. They have a section for that.

That's where you'll find Tower's ghost at B&N.

Most folks download their music purchases online, from Apple's iTunes store, or from Amazon. The ones that don't stream music over the Internet from services like Pandora.

Remember e-readers? That should be an easy one to recall even for you whippersnappers. Kindles and Nooks, right? Well, old-school single-purpose Kindles and Nooks inevitably will share the same technological fate as 8-track and cassette tapes. Tablet computers do anything e-readers can do, and do it just as well with a lot more additional functionalities, in a small package. Those single-purpose Kindles and Nooks used to be everywhere. Very soon they'll be consigned to the same nowhere that Polaroid cameras hang out.

You can buy Nooks at Barnes & Noble. They have a big section for that.

The Nooks are in their death throes, though. It won't be long till they're ghosts, too. B&N is no technology wizard, and no Nook will ever be a great tablet or smartphone. Tablets and smartphones will dance on the Nook's grave as surely as digitally downloaded tunes now waltz among the dusty tombstones of 8-track tapes.

What's left? Oh yeah, books. You can buy books at Barnes & Noble. That's the ghost of Borders, not to mention the spectral residue of B&N's own bygone B. Daltons subsidiary and its growing roster of closed and soon-to-be-closed stores.

More than anything else, Barnes & Noble is a haunted house of retail. Strive as it may to stay open and relevant in an Internet world, its struggles will prove for naught. In this Internet era, the book selling world B&N conquered no longer exists, and so too will B&N cease to exist in any iteration like its present one.

That's not to say we're sounding the death knell for physical books. There will always be people who want physical books, people for whom e-books simply won't do. We hear from them every day. And when those people want actual books, they'll order them online, most likely from Amazon for the foreseeable future.

But, if they're fortunate, they might also have a good local independent bookstore to visit where they can buy those physical books. There are still some independent stores around, battle-scarred though they may be, and after B&N's demise we think might well be more of them. Not that those small shops will have acres of shelves teeming with tens of thousands of books -- the economics of independent book retailing won't permit it. The stores will stock only a few hundred books at a time, likely current and perennial bestsellers. But what economics will permit over the next few years is small bookshops to have Espresso Book Machines, like the one nicknamed "OPUS" at the independent Politics & Prose Bookstore in Washington, D.C. EBMs, which can print, collate, cover and bind almost any book in (or out of) print in just a few minutes, are relatively new technology, and accordingly large and expensive. So were computers, printers, facsimile machines and cell phones not that long ago. Nevertheless, as recently as last summer there were more than 50 EBMs in libraries, universities and bookstores around the world, with more on the way. Like other new technologies, EBMs will become ever smaller and cheaper as time flies. And when EBMS become sufficiently so, your local independent bookstore will have one ready, willing and able to whip up a high-quality copy of nearly any book that has ever been in existence, at your demand. This is the future of local independent bookshops in a post Barnes & Noble world, and it's a good one.

Barnes & Noble never bothered to mourn the beloved independent community bookstores it vanquished during its remorseless rise to power. Nor will the resurgent independent bookstores waste breath praising B&N when they join with Amazon to bury it next to Borders, in the shadows thrown from the battered stones marking Blockbuster's and Tower Records' unlamented graves.

"Le roi est mort, vive les princes."
~~Lise-Marie Jaillant~~