The horrors of U.S. slavery will never be forgotten, but can reviving them in modern times truly right past wrongs?
In Dwayne Alexander Smith’s debut novel Forty Acres: A Thriller, up-and-coming lawyer Martin Grey faces more than sudden fame when he lands a high-profile case against legal superstar Damon Darrell. Martin is willingly lured into Damon’s exclusive circle of successful African-American men who then invite him on a weekend getaway. However, this seemingly innocent trip turns into a dangerous moral journey when Martin finds himself on a secret plantation staffed entirely by white slaves, where he is now master.
Between the Covers: How did the idea of the reversed plantation develop? Did it evolve over time or hit you all at once?
Dwayne Alexander Smith: Forty Acres started out as a time travel story, believe it or not. An African-American astronaut has an accident in space, which causes his ship to crash back to earth. Somehow he has gone back in time and finds himself in the Antebellum South. Unable to speak because of an injury, he is captured by slavers and put to work on a plantation. I loved this idea but I couldn’t sell my people on it as a screenplay. I really wanted to write a story about American slavery, so I kept toying with the idea. After several other versions of the story, it struck me that a story about blacks keeping white slaves would be very powerful, if I could make it believable. I worked hard to figure out how such a conspiracy would be pulled off if it were real.
BTC: This book is exceptional not only for the controversial concept behind the Forty Acres plantation but for its page-turning suspense as well. What about the thriller genre made you choose it to tell this unique story?
DAS: I don’t think there’s any other way to tell this story. The core concept, because it’s centered around a conspiracy, just lends itself to the thriller genre. I’ve seen a few reviews where the reader wished that the story wasn’t couched in a thriller. I guess they would prefer a more straightforward approach. They feel the themes tackled in the story should be taken more seriously. I get it but I feel that the plot is too fantastic to be delivered straight. Working it into a thriller gives the reader more license to suspend disbelief and just go with it.
BTC: There are various representations of African-American masculinity portrayed in this book. How did you go about developing such diverse personalities and their differing views on race and history?
DAS: My approach to character is very calculated. I start out with very basic questions. What are his dreams? What is he afraid of? How would he react if a gun was pointed at him? I have a whole list of question. Another thing I do is create a detailed past. I figure out all the major events in a character’s life from birth to starting point of the story. Where did he grow up? How many brothers and sisters? How did he do in school? What major injuries did he suffer as a kid? These details never make it into the story but they inform the character’s behavior. A black man who grew up in a Bronx ghetto is going to have a different attitude toward the world than a black man who grew up in an upper middle class household.
BTC: How challenging was it for you to reveal humanity at its worst and best through your characters? Did any parts of the creation process keep you up at night?
DAS: There are some pretty disturbing scenes in Forty Acres that were not easy to write. I was constantly tempted to soften those moments but I had to keep reminding myself that everything that occurs in my story is a reflection of what actually took place on plantations during the slavery era in the United States. Ultimately, I felt it was important that these scenes be impactful to establish the past horrors that motivate my story’s antagonists and also to establish very high stakes for my protagonist. Martin puts everything on the line at the end of the story, the reason for his sacrifice has to be believable.
BTC: What research went into recreating the horrific realities of American slavery in modern times?
DAS: I tried to make Forty Acres as real as possible. I tried to figure out how a conspiracy like Forty Acres would be perpetrated if it were real. A lot of research went into where to locate the compound. There are not many places in the United States where you can hide a secret slave compound. There’s also the problem of hiding the slaves. You can’t have them picking cotton, so I had to come up with an alternative that still reflected what went on hundreds of years ago. I think that the type of slave labor I decided to use is not only historically accurate but also enlightening to the reader. I don’t want to say what it is, to avoid spoilers, but I’ve found that a lot of people are unaware that slaves were used for this sort of labor in the United States.
BTC: Since Forty Acres: A Thriller is receiving great praise from readers and critics alike, can we anticipate more books?
DAS: Yes. I’m working on another thriller called White Widow that involves a very unique serial killer. I also have a plot ready to go for a sequel to Forty Acres, if the book takes off.
BTC: If you were stranded on an island with an immortal DVD player, what one film would you want? What single book?
DAS: That is a tough question. Approaching it practically, I’d want a movie that is very re-watchable, not just a great movie. I can watch musicals over and over. My favorite musical is West Side Story, so I’d have to go with that. Same approach to what book I would choose. My choice might be surprising, but I never get tired of reading The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. I can crack that book open on any page and find a laugh. Just the type of book you would need if stranded on an island.
It’s way past midnight on Christmas Eve and the streets of Philadelphia are littered with the lonely, the unlucky, the unloved. They’re all departing from their sacred mecca hidden amongst the Fishtown warehouses: A run-down jazz club called The Cat’s Pajamas, where the tumultuous house band keeps things hopping, even when they aren’t on stage. Amongst the waylaid wanderers are Madeline, a bright and plucky nine-year-old who refuses to let the world win; Sarina and Ben, who are together conflicted as they pick up where they left off after an estranged high school prom years ago; and club owner Jack Lorca, whose prodigal teenage son, Alex, is instrumental in the night’s electric excitement.
Marie-Helene Bertino’s debut novel 2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas recounts the 24 hours prior, affectionately referred to as “Christmas Eve eve” by Madeline. Readers are treated to intertwining stories of determination in the events leading up to the most memorable night at The Cat’s Pajamas since the house drum kit was set on fire during the band’s performance. By its lonesome, the club is just a sad, dilapidated building, but on nights when the Cubanistas are playing and the city’s detritus flocks through the doors, The Cat’s Pajamas is resurrected to its former glories of jazz’s heyday—it’s part symbiotic relationship, part yuletide miracle.
2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas features stories in which the hostilities of city life are conquered by the solidarity of people who have been destroyed by the very place they inhabit. Stories in which good-natured, wounded people stay afloat by looking out for one another, rather than wallowing and commiserating. It’s a great read for those who enjoy literary fiction or heartening stories of blossom.
With lyrical text and a moving storyline, Nomi Eve takes the reader along on a journey of a young Jewish girl and her extended family in her upcoming novel Henna House. Eve’s story is that of the Jewish community in Yemen in the early 20th century. Continuing through the far-reaching horrors of the Holocaust and to the birth of the State of Israel, it is a tale as rich and exotic as the warm and beautiful henna that adorn the characters.
Imam Yahya has renewed the statute known as the Orphan’s Decree. If the father of an unbetrothed Jewish child dies, that child would be taken from their family, converted and adopted into a Muslim family. The health of 5-year-old Adela Demari’s father is failing. Her parents are desperate to find Adela a future husband and have the marriage contract written in the hopes that it would protect her from the watchful eye of the Collector. Finding that future husband proves to be a difficult task. It is not until Uncle Zecharia, a spice and perfume merchant, arrives from a distant land bringing with him Adela’s cousin, Asaf, that her luck seems to change. With the betrothal in place and the children contracted to become married once they become of age, it seems Adela’s worries of being confiscated are behind her. But when Asaf and his father leave, young Adela feels abandoned and is only comforted by the arrival of her aunt, a henna artist, and her cousin, Hani.
Follow Adela and her extended family as she grows up and discovers the depth of female companionship, gains a deeper understanding of the world, feels the joy of love, the pain of loss and betrayal, and the power of forgiveness. Henna House is an excellent choice for someone who enjoyed Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent and anyone who enjoys historical fiction, family sagas and coming-of-age stories.
Readers will know on page one that something terrible has happened to James and Marilyn's teenage daughter, Lydia. It will be the catalyst that splinters the family to its core and one of several throbbing undercurrents in Celeste Ng's emotionally complex first novel Everything I Never Told You. A Chinese-American family, the Lees stand out for the wrong reasons in their small town of Middlewood, Ohio; there just aren't many biracial families in the 1970s Midwest. With Lydia gone, the family now must reconcile the past with a present that threatens their tenuous ties to each other and to the life they thought they had built.
When James and Marilyn got married they made a pact to let the past drift away. A first-generation Chinese-American, James was used to being the Asian who never fit in. When he meets Marilyn, a pretty white pre-med student, while teaching as a graduate assistant, she represents the acceptance he's been seeking. They marry despite her mother's glaring disapproval. For Marilyn, her dream of attending medical school vanishes when she becomes pregnant. Now, the cultural divide they thought blended away has returned with their daughter's mysterious death. Middle child Lydia was the favorite, the one who would accomplish what they did not: be popular (dad) and grow up to be a doctor (mom). It's a heavy burden, perhaps too much so, not just for Lydia but for the other two Lee children who witness their parents' favoritism. The author, herself a first-generation Asian-American Midwesterner, deftly positions the youngest child Hannah as the astute observer to the family's unraveling and the mystery of her sister's death.
With confident, smooth prose, the Pushcart Prize-winning Ng (pronounced "ing") shifts readers back and forth over time to capture the sympathetic and sometimes frustrating portrait of a family betrayed by cultural expectations and personal loss. Ng's thoughtfully detailed writing and spot-on characterizations carry this literary mystery beyond the solving of a death to what it means to be a family of strangers, hoping to rediscover each other. Jhumpa Lahiri fans will find threads of familiarity in Ng's strong debut.
White chauffer; black NBA star; white girlfriend; black posse; white antagonist; black disposition. There’s a theme present in Chris Leslie-Hynan’s intelligent, unsettling and highly entertaining debut novel Ride Around Shining. Leslie-Hynan complicates things between his main characters to the point where each regretted action will have readers rubbernecking as etherealized commentaries on class, race, and modern-day social hierarchy veil the wreckage. Readers who enjoy literary fiction or complex relationships between main characters should definitely check this one out.
Ride Around Shining follows Jess; a youngish, over-educated, middle-middle class white guy; who revels unknowingly in the twisted gratification of subservience; so much so, that he makes a living delivering carryout in his adopted hometown of Portland, Oregon, where he frequently transports Thai food to budding Trail Blazers small forward and regular customer Calyph West. With his ongoing display of pragmatic indifference and a couple of lies behind his driving chops, Jess manages to establish himself as Calyph’s personal driver.
Initially, Jess is content with the mask of aloofness he dons whenever he is summoned to get the baller and his girlfriend Antonia to their various destinations, but as he spends his days shuttling the mixed-race couple around the city, he begins behaving erratically in a subconscious bid for their attention. At a house party celebrating Calyph’s contract extension, Jess aids the machinations of fate and inflicts his employer with a knee injury that benches him for the entire upcoming season. Motivated by a discomforting mixture of guilt and manic desire, Jess vies to stick with Calyph during his recovery, though it becomes apparent to everyone that Jess has a lot more going on under the hood than Calyph’s car does.
Local award-winning author and BCPL card holder Dan Fesperman has come out with a new thriller available on August 12, and gave Between the Covers the inside scoop. In his latest psychological military thriller Unmanned, Fesperman explores the domain of drone warfare.
Darwin Cole served his country as an accomplished pilot until he was sequestered to operate drones. As a pilot Cole found himself slightly removed from the tangible repercussions of war and was surprised to learn that the opposite is true with manning a drone. It’s this aspect that tears him apart when a crucial mission goes amiss and innocent people die, but who can be blamed for the error when the truth is camouflaged? Cole teams up with unlikely allies to find out what actually happened on that infamous day.
Read on to find out more about Dan Fesperman and his latest novel.
Between the Covers: Drone technology plays a major role in Unmanned. I imagine you did a lot of research on the subject. How much of what is in the book is the military actually using? What is your personal opinion about how drones are used by the military?
Dan Fesperman: Well, all of the military drones I mention – Predator, Reaper, Global Hawk – they’re out there and flying. As for the experimental drones that pop up later in the book – the ones the size of insects, flying in swarms; the ultra-fast models; the ones with huge wingspans – I do know that drones like those have been tested by the military. If anything, I’ve probably underestimated their capabilities, if only because the technology is advancing at such a dizzying rate. I don’t object, per se, to the use of drones in warfare. Hey, in some cases they actually reduce the likelihood of civilian casualties, and there’s no doubt that their reconnaissance capabilities have saved plenty of soldiers’ lives. But it does make me a little queasy to think that we might be embracing certain applications of drone technology without fully thinking them through, which is always a dangerous proposition. Also, the more that you turn combat into a remote-control exercise, the more you tend to dehumanize it, for both predator and prey.
BTC: There is a large focus on the military and government agencies; did you work with any military personnel for authenticity?
DF: I interviewed several Air Force pilots, sensors and other officers associated with drone squadrons out at Creech Air Force Base, near Las Vegas. One pilot-sensor team was particularly helpful, especially in describing what an eerie job it could be, peering down at a small village for hours and even days on end, and then, possibly, having to target one of the houses. They established a degree of intimacy and familiarity with these places which soldiers almost never do. It personalized their potential targets even as the technological nature of the relationship – they were 7,000 miles and nine time zones apart! – made the relationship oddly impersonal. As for the intelligence side, I’ve talked with plenty of ex-CIA people in the course of my research for other projects, so I already had a feel for the way those jobs work.
BTC: Cole and Barbara are struggling with some of the things they saw while working in war-torn countries. Did your own travels in similar situations prompt you to include this aspect in the novel?
DF: Yes. Those kinds of places – Afghanistan, the Balkans, the Middle East – always leave you with vivid and sometimes haunting memories. They pop up later in your dreams, and at unexpected moments. And while I’ve never experienced anything quite as traumatic as what Barb endured, I got enough of a taste of it, as did many of my colleagues, to be able to write about it with some authenticity.
BTC: You picked Maryland as the setting for a large portion of the book. Is this because you reside in Maryland or because of its proximity to D.C.?
DF: Both, really. And it was fun, for a change, to write from a few settings on my home turf. In writing and researching my other books, I’d often worked hard to establish enough comfort with a foreign setting to be able to write about it with any authority. In the Baltimore and Maryland scenes, that came easier.
BTC: Was it a difficult transition to go from journalist to novelist?
DF: Not really. The hardest part was getting used to the idea that you’re in command of this world you’ve created, instead of being chained to the “facts” gleaned from interviews and observations. You have to grow accustomed to the idea of that, instead of checking and double-checking your notebook. You can control even the smallest of details. If you’re setting your book in an actual time and place you still want to be true to the spirit of that time and place, but the characters belong to you. In journalism it never works that way.
BTC: Several of your books are award winners in the area of crime writing and thrillers. Have you ever considered writing in a different genre?
DF: The bounds of those genres have been stretched so far and wide by now that I’ve never felt the least bit restricted or confined. You can pretty much write about any era, in any location, with any assortment of characters. And when you get right down to it, genre or non-genre, any fiction is going to concern itself mostly with conflict and personality, identity and betrayal. My only rule of thumb is to try and write the kind of book that I’d like to read.
BTC: What book would you recommend to a reader who just finished Unmanned and loved it?
DF: Odd as it might sound, the first work of a kindred spirit that comes to mind is a wonderful German film from 2006, The Lives of Others. Essentially it’s a spy film about an extended and careful surveillance of a single suspect, but what it’s really about is how that sort of invasive and prying work affects those who do it for a living. It’s beautifully and artfully crafted, with some brilliant writing. Of my own books, I’d recommend The Warlord’s Son, mostly because its setting in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region gives you a much more intimate look at the insular little worlds that all those drone pilots can only watch from afar.
On August 9, 1974, President Richard Nixon resigned his office following a speech to the nation the previous evening. The exposure of White House involvement in the cover-up of the Watergate scandal was at the root of his resignation, and three new books take readers back to this tumultuous time in American history and examine the events, the people and the lasting impact.
Douglas Brinkley and Luke Nichter’s The Nixon Tapes: 1971-1972 carefully examines the final tapes which were released last August. Nichter and Brinkley share the information gleaned in a readable narrative offering readers a better understanding of one of the most controversial presidencies in history. From the burgeoning relationship with China, to the SALT I agreement with Russia along with glimpses of the encroaching shadow of Watergate, Nixon’s complex portrait as a political genius marred by hubris and paranoia is well-drawn.
Former White House Counsel John Dean was in the middle of these events, and in The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It he uses personal transcripts from meetings and conversations along with documents from the National Archives and the Nixon Library to track the extent of Nixon’s knowledge and the timeline. Dean provides portraits of key players and highlights critical mistakes which led to the scandal. Dean’s first-person insight is compelling, and he also answers questions surrounding those 18 ½ minutes of missing tape.
Rick Perlstein sheds light on the lasting impact of the Nixon White House in The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan. The United States was in the midst of turbulent political, economic and social upheaval during the 1970s and, following Nixon’s resignation, appeared on a path toward a more centrist global view. But when Ronald Reagan almost snared the Republican nomination for president from incumbent Gerald Ford in 1976, pundits were stunned. Perlstein’s carefully researched and impeccably written account is an engaging chronicle of the times and their political aftermath.
Check out BCPL’s Tumblr for the Richard Nixon Library’s playlist of online Watergate tapes, videos, photos and documents relating to the resignation.
Mexico City author Adi Alsaid ties together the stories of five distinct young people in Let’s Get Lost, his much-buzzed about, captivating road trip novel. Using an unconventional but ultimately wholly satisfying structure, the author first introduces us to Hudson, a young man in Vicksburg, Mississippi, who seems to have his life planned out. But then a carefree, plainspoken 17-year-old named Leila appears in her red car (with red interior) at the repair shop his father owns. Everything in Hudson’s life changes after spending a few short hours with Leila.
And this is ultimately Leila’s story, which the reader is told in bits and pieces as she meanders toward her ultimate destination of seeing the Northern Lights in Alaska. In Kansas City, she encounters Bree, a shoplifting runaway with a dark backstory; later in the Twin Cities, Leila saves Elliot from what could have been a life-ending decision on his prom night that didn’t go as he’d planned. On the way northwest to Alaska, Sonia needs Leila’s help after circumstances set into motion an international comedy of errors involving wedding rings, Mounties and Tim Horton’s donuts. Finally, Leila reaches Alaska, and the reasons for her bittersweet need to see the Northern Lights become as brilliantly clear as the Aurora Borealis itself.
Let's Get Lost brims with young people on the cusp of discovering their potentials, which makes it a great read for teens looking for inspiration in their own lives. It will also appeal to adults with a sense of longing for open-ended days free of responsibility, when life’s options seemed limitless.
What is WondLa? When Eva Nine left home in the first book of the WondLa trilogy by Tony DiTerlizzi, all she had was her robotic Muthr and a picture of a place called WondLa, a land that seemed to offer everything she ever wanted out of life. A lot has changed since then. She's made friends, she's made a few enemies and she's discovered that the world has changed from what she was trained to face. The entire Earth had gone dormant until a life generator tried to make the planet livable again for alien colonists. Eva Nine has discovered that she's not the last human in the world, but what's left of humanity is being pushed into a war that doesn't need to be fought. The time has come for The Battle for WondLa.
This is a great series to grow up with. There's action, adventure, even a little romance, but there's also some pretty hefty philosophical concepts so the book is not age-locked. Alien — and not-so-alien but still bizarre — beasts live and die and figure out what they stand for. Tony DiTerlizzi was also one of the writers and illustrators for the Spiderwick Chronicles, and just as he did with those books, the WondLa trilogy overflows with inventive and monochrome character-filled illustrations. It's possible to get a sense of who the characters are and what they'll do just by looking at them.
This might not be an appropriate read for very young children. Violence abounds and terrifying situations are common, but that's part of growing up. Scary story elements are right next to affirmations of friendship, fascinating world building and the essential idea that all people see things differently. This may be a children's book, but readers of any age should be able to enjoy this one.
Ask any fan of author Diana Gabaldon how they feel this summer, and the answer will almost certainly echo the Clan Fraser motto, “Je suis prest,” which means “I am ready.” Starz is bringing Gabaldon’s internationally bestselling Outlander novels to life with a new television series premiering August 9, and this sneak peak proves that it was worth the wait.
Outlander, the first book in the series, opens in 1946 as Claire is traveling with her husband Frank in the Scottish highlands. When she walks through a stone circle, she inexplicably finds herself transported to 1743. In a world completely unlike her own, Claire finds herself dealing with intrigue and political maneuvering that she barely understands, and the stakes are high. To avoid being turned over to English soldiers as a presumed spy, she marries Scottish outlaw Jamie Fraser and is soon torn between her love for Frank and her blossoming love for Jamie.
Although Jamie is widely regarded as one of the most swoon-worthy heroes in historical romance, this genre-bending series isn’t just for romance readers. With time travel, detailed history, adventure and intrigue, these rich novels will appeal to a wide variety of readers. Outlander is a complex series that weaves back and forth through time, so reading the books in order is a must. If you’re new to the series, start reading now! These books are quite long, but they are impossible to put down. The audiobooks, narrated by Davina Porter, are also an excellent way to enjoy this not-to-be-missed series.
Written in My Own Heart’s Blood, the long-awaited eighth book in the series, was just published, and Gabaldon recently discussed the new book, the future of the series and her excitement about the upcoming TV show in this Goodreads interview.