James. R. Benn’s successful Billy Boyle mystery series has captivated readers with its historical accuracy and intriguing plots. Now, Billy returns for his 10th outing in The White Ghost. Get to know James, his research and writing habits, his past as a librarian (including a connection to BCPL!) and enjoy a sneak peek at where Billy’s headed next.
Between the Covers: The Billy Boyle series is set during World War II. Was this a historical time period that always interested you? What is it about this war that remains a historical touchstone for so many? Do you hear from veterans and/or their families?
James R. Benn: When I was growing up, nearly every kid in the neighborhood had a dad who was in the war. It was part of the fabric of life. My father served in the China-India-Burma Theater and I was mesmerized by his stories and the souvenirs he brought home. When I finally started writing, the choice was based somewhat on that history, but also on a study of the historical mystery genre. I discovered it was the fastest growing fiction genre, and noted that the Second World War was not well represented. It was then a natural choice.
World War II was a turning point for America; we went into it a somewhat isolated, disparate nation. It was this war that truly created the famous melting pot of America. Men and women from all walks of life and regions were thrown together and sent all over the world. Nothing like that had ever happened, and I think there’s a yearning for that kind of commonality. And clear-cut power, as well.
I frequently hear from the families of veterans. I have interviewed several vets at the invitation of family members, who say that their father, uncle or grandfather has never talked about the war. It often begins with reluctance, and then a stream of stories, mostly about their buddies. Finally, they may talk about combat. Once, a D-Day veteran signaled me to come close as his family chatted on the far side of the room. “They always ask me if I killed anyone,” he whispered. “I tell ’em no. But I did.”
BTC: Billy was a secondary character in your first book. Why did that character stay with you and compel you to flesh him out more fully? As the war progresses, it becomes more complex and morally murky. How have these complications and sometimes harsh realities changed Billy?
JRB: He just plain wouldn’t go away. I liked his attitude, and thought there might be something to his Eisenhower connection which would allow me to visit a wide variety of situations. After completing research for the first book, I sat down to begin writing. I’d planned on using the third person, being somewhat intimidated by first-person narratives. Then I typed the first line:
I wanted to die.
That stunned me, but I stayed with it. I guess Billy lives somewhere in my subconscious.
After the first book, I understood that the war had to take an emotional toll for Billy. I received terrific advice from the novelist Rachel Basch, who told me “remember, the story has to move down as well as forward.” Billy is constantly confronted by terrible choices, navigating the lesser of multiple evils in a horribly evil war. It is taking a toll.
BTC: In The White Ghost, Billy goes back in time to the Pacific where he gets involved with the Kennedy family. Why was it important to you to set Billy in the Pacific? How critical was it that you share the story of John F. Kennedy and PT-109?
JRB: I was surprised at how many readers asked for a book set in the Pacific; perhaps a lot of them had family who served there. I was stumped at how to do that in a way that made sense. Then I thought the Boston Irish connection with Jack Kennedy would be interesting. But, in the timeline of Billy’s world, it was May 1944. By then, JFK was back in the States and out of the service for medical reasons.
In a flash of unplanned genius, I noticed a gap between the third and fourth books; several months which fit exactly into the events surrounding the sinking of PT-109. So…now, the story can be told.
As a baby boomer, I grew up in awe of JFK. I had no idea what a very strange family he came from. The Kennedy children were brought up in a highly competitive and emotionally traumatizing environment. The war was the best thing that ever happened to Jack Kennedy; it got him out from under the thumb of his overbearing father and showed him what regular folks were like. He really had no idea.
BTC: Billy has travelled all over, beginning in England and including Norway, the Mediterranean and Ireland. Is travelling to these locations part of your research? What is your most memorable trip?
JRB: Yes; my wife and I have traveled to England, Sicily, Italy and Ireland for research. Sicily was quite special; we approached a farmer about looking at some bunkers on his land where a battle took place. It turned out to be Easter Monday, which is a big family gathering day in Sicily. We were taken in and treated as honored guests among the 30 or so family members. No one spoke English and we didn’t speak Italian. With the aid of a pocket dictionary and the German I and one of the men spoke, we talked all day. And ate and drank. We left that night loaded with flowers and fruit. It was a wonderful experience, and a perfect example of Sicilian hospitality. They’ve survived centuries of conquest by absorbing newcomers.
BTC: Other than travelling, do you have any research or writing routines?
JRB: My research is built around reading widely about the subject and geographical area I want to explore. I try to immerse myself in the time and place, through contemporary fiction and nonfiction. My goal is not to simply understand the facts of what happened, but how people in the 1940s would have perceived what was happening to them.
BTC: You pay homage to Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie in two of the books. Who are your biggest influences as a mystery writer?
JRB: The Sherlock Holmes stories were the first mysteries I ever read, so it was hard to resist a ride down Baker Street. While I also enjoy Agatha Christie, it was the proximity of her home (used as a naval headquarters) to the Slapton Sands tragedy that led me to give her a walk-on in The Rest Is Silence.
BTC: You had a long career as a librarian! Did that influence your writing in any way? What is the thing you miss most about working in a library?
JRB: My first job at age 14 was as a library page. I became a librarian out of an unabashed old-school love of books and reading. I wandered around the library field quite a bit, even getting to know Charlie Robinson at BCPL when I worked for a library automation company. That career wanderlust was probably due to the fact I knew there was something else I wanted to do with my life. It was my wife who steered me in the right direction on my 50th birthday, but that’s another story. Right now what I like best about libraries is inter-library loan, the mainstay of my research!
BTC: Do you have a finite number of books planned for the series? Can you give us a preview of Billy’s next adventure?
JRB: Billy and I have not grown tired of each other yet. I’m about to turn in the manuscript for the 2016 release, The Blue Madonna. That book will bring us to D-Day, with Billy and Kaz behind enemy lines in a strange chateau with ghosts, mysterious tunnels, downed airmen and a certain SOE operative who Billy knows very well. And oh yes, murders.
I also have a vague idea for a book involving USO entertainers at some point. Billy needs to see a good show, don’t you think?
In The Fateful Lightning: A Novel of the Civil War, author Jeff Shaara recounts the events beginning in late 1864 that led to the annihilation of the Confederate Army by General Sherman’s infamous march through Georgia. Told from multiple perspectives, Shaara allows the reader to get a sense of just how desperate both sides were to end the war and how frustrated everyone felt that the conflict had dragged out for so long.
While Shaara switches focus from Union to Confederate, his most compelling narrators are General William T. Sherman and Franklin, a slave on a Georgian plantation. Sherman is portrayed as a determined leader who has to make many difficult decisions in order to secure a Union victory. Shaara carefully crafts Sherman as a man torn between moral rights versus military might. This portrait of Sherman makes him a three-dimensional human being which is very different from many previous incarnations of Sherman, where he is usually either a superhuman hero or the devil incarnate.
Franklin’s character is based on some of the slaves who were liberated as Sherman’s army marched through the South. Having spent his entire life as a slave on the governor of Georgia’s plantation, Franklin’s liberation is an event he has always dreamed of but cannot quite grasp when it occurs. Fortunately, Franklin is literate and becomes a valuable resource to Sherman’s army. As he marches with the Union soldiers, Franklin’s world changes forever, and he bears witness to the double-edged sword that freedom turns out to be.
The final installment in Shaara’s Civil War Western Theater series, The Fateful Lightning stands on its merit. Whether or not you have read any of the other books in this series, this novel is an engrossing recounting of the final brutal months that decided the Union victory over the Confederacy.
What would have happened if novelist Henry James had met detective Sherlock Holmes? Granted, Holmes is a fictional character, but in The Fifth Heart by Dan Simmons, the premise of this unlikely meeting is central to the story. Simmons, who is known primarily for sci-fi, fantasy and horror, combines elements of these genres in this narrative with historical events interwoven into his fictitious plot.
The story opens with Holmes saving James’ life by preventing him from jumping into the Seine one night. From that point on, the pair form an odd partnership that is at times akin to that of Holmes and Watson. However, James never fully believes that Holmes is really who he claims to be. Is this man who sometimes goes by the name of Jan Sigerson really THE Sherlock Holmes or is it all an elaborate ruse? What about the supposed suicide of James’ friend Clover Adams? Will Holmes be able to unravel the connection between Clover and the mysterious Irene Adler? For those familiar with the stories by Arthur Conan Doyle, there are references galore to many of the characters and plots of these detective tales.
In addition to Henry James, there are other historical figures making appearances including Samuel Clemens, Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Adams and Vice President Adlai Stevenson, to name a few. Simmons enjoys going into great detail about various events (e.g. the crushing of someone’s skull or James’ criticism of Doyle’s stories) which can either add to or sideline the central mystery of the story. For those who either enjoy a complicated mystery full of plot twists or the idea of famous historical figures interacting with famous fictitious ones, The Fifth Heart definitely has plenty of both to offer.
Who recognizes this story? A young orphan lives with relatives who make her feel like a burden. To escape, she takes a job as a nanny to a little girl and falls in love with the child’s father. She flees that relationship to find herself in a second romantic entanglement but can’t forget about her first love. Yes, debut author Patricia Park freely admits that Re Jane was inspired by the Jane Eyre, but Park’s version is freshly minted and modern and anything but redundant.
Park’s Jane has a Korean mother and an American father, both of whom died when Jane was an infant. Jane has been raised in America by her traditional Korean uncle and his family, and works in his grocery in Queens. After a promising job offer in the financial sector falls through, Jane starts working as a live-in sitter for Devon, the adopted Chinese daughter of Beth and Bill Farley-Mazer. Gentrified Mazer family life opens a sophisticated new world for Jane, far from her familiar working class neighborhood of immigrants, and passion blooms between Jane and Bill. Just like the original heroine, Jane Re takes a trip to relieve her tap-tap-hai (an overwhelming discomfort), but her journey takes her to Korea to reconnect with extended family and explore her roots.
Park says the title Re Jane refers not only to her readaptation of the Bronte classic, but to Jane’s mixed heritage; Re is an Americanized version of the common Korean surname Ee, often pronounced in the United States as Lee. The cultural concept of nunchi, which Park describes as an expected social conduct combining anticipation and foresight, influences Jane as she struggles to find her footing as a Korean, an American, an adult and a woman. Sharply observant as well as endearing, readers will be pleased with this contemporary Jane.
Sylvie and Cassandra graduate from the palace of privilege known as Bennington College in 2003 and set out to make their marks on the world in Bennington Girls are Easy by Charlotte Silver. Bennington is a unique institution, rumored to have been founded in 1932 as an option for wayward daughters of prosperous families. Free thinking is encouraged and, while the students — which now includes boys — aren’t all heirs to pastry fortunes and diamond mines, each embraces an attitude of entitlement. But these graduates soon discover that this magnified sense of self-worth is often at odds with the workings of the real world.
Sylvie heads to New York first with Cassandra visiting frequently before settling there permanently after her romantic sure-thing falls apart. The two are convinced that their friendship will last through anything and they'll enjoy their 20s in New York, exploring the city and their sexuality all while trying to figure out what to do with their lives. Each is flawed in her own way, but Sylvie is incapable of recognizing her defects. Cassandra grows increasingly tired of Sylvie using her for her money, and the friction between these besties intensifies.
This coming-of-age novel is an honest look at two young, immature and flawed women struggling to find themselves in their post-college years. A revolving cast of quirky characters, many of whom are friends from Bennington, provide added insight into the rarefied world Cassandra and Sylvie inhabit — a world of art, money and sex. While often unlikeable, the characters are intriguing, and the depiction of life after college is authentic. Silver, a Bennington grad herself, infuses an irreverent humor throughout the novel which balances the deeper messages of failed friendship and emotional maturation.
Make Something Up: Stories You Can't Unread collects shock-fiction author Chuck Palahniuk’s stories written from the conception of his first book Fight Club up through his latest novel Beautiful You. With a sequel to Fight Club making its run as a monthly comic book right now, it’s the perfect time for these stories to bubble to the surface and explode in a mess of bilious, sticky grossness that you will never be able to bleach from your conscience.
Palahniuk claims to have lost count after making over 200 audience members faint during live readings of his story “Guts,” and the tales in Make Something Up have been let from the same vein. “The Toad Prince” deserves immediate mention — a young man becomes fascinated with STDs so he decides to collect them by tracking down prostitutes and swabbing their unmentionables. He cultures the samples in petri dishes in his room, and what he does with those samples... let’s just say the growth is unexpectedly potent. There’s a trio of stories in which personified animals work menial jobs and disappoint their lovers while their offspring huff glue on recess playgrounds; Aesop would weep. A pony-loving farm girl tricks her father into purchasing a horse she and her friends found in a viral video in “Red Sultan’s Big Boy.” Fight Club hero Tyler Durden turns up in “Expedition” to shepherd a man in denial down the dark path through his subconscious to a place we do not talk about.
The longer stories in Make Something Up feel like condensed versions of Palanhiuk’s earlier novels, with unforgettable plots and enough gory detail to turn you shades of green. Reading his shorter stories is like taking a rib-breaking Epinephrine shot straight to the heart and feeling the surge race through your veins to your vital organs, working them double-time. Readers who have enjoyed any of Palanhiuk’s books should definitely check out Make Something Up.
The days of summer are dwindling down, and all of the blockbuster movies we were waiting to see have long been released. What’s a cinephile to do when there’s not much left worth seeing in the month of August? Here are three entertaining novels that fall into typical movie genres to help you get through the rest of summer.
Looking for an edgy intergenerational dramedy? Pick up Mat Johnson’s Loving Day. Warren Duffy has returned to the Philadelphia ghetto to claim the dilapidated roofless “mansion” left to him by his recently deceased Irish American father, his black mother having died years before. Warren’s life can’t possibly get any worse, or so he thinks. He’s a not very good, not very successful comic book artist. He identifies as a black man although he’s so light complexioned he consciously overcompensates in an attempt to fit in. His marriage is over and the comic book shop his wife bankrolled for him has gone belly-up. He owes her some serious money and his only hopes of making some quick cash is drawing for hire at a comic book convention. Imagine Warren’s surprise when one of the convention attendees turns out to be the teenage daughter he never knew he had. Tal is more than surprised to learn about her racial identity, having been raised by her Jewish grandfather. She chalks up her hair and features to imagined Israeli roots. Johnson’s down-and-out protagonist retains his ironic sense of humor as he is forced to man up and become a father while exploring his own racial identity and helping his daughter to do the same. Potential love interests for both father and daughter make things interesting, especially since they stem from a special charter school at The Mélange Center, dedicated to helping biracial persons “find the sacred balance” between their black and white perspectives. Broadly comic and insightful as it comments on race issues today, Loving Day explores the dynamics of relationships of all kinds.
If suspenseful thrillers are your thing, look no further Michael Koryta’s latest. Last Words follows Florida investigator Mark Novak, a man whose wife and colleague at their pro bono legal firm is killed under mysterious circumstances. A year and a half later, a distracted and still distraught Novak is sent by his boss to a snow-covered Indiana small town to look into the unsolved murder of a 17-year-old girl, Sarah Martin. Although the case has been cold for nearly 10 years, it’s still very much on the minds of the residents of Garrison. It seems the main suspect, the eccentric outcast Ridley Barnes, wrote the firm to specifically request Novak’s services. Barnes raison d’etre is the continued exploration of the supercave beneath the town, a cave he believes is almost a living being. Barnes was the one who emerged from that cave with Sara Martin’s body after a search team failed to locate her. But Novak soon finds out that the caver isn’t the only potential suspect, and that the citizens of Garrison are not very happy to see the case revisited. Novak makes a crucial mistake heading into the case — he fails to do any research before he arrives, a decision he regrets almost immediately. Tightly plotted with interesting, well-developed characters and plenty of suspenseful action, both in the past and present, Last Words would make an excellent screen adaptation. Koryta has chosen an interesting backdrop for the potential crime, and he uses the cave and the exploration of its dark, cold, claustrophobic, labyrinthine network to suspenseful potential.
For the thrill of a satisfying psychological horror film, it’s hard to top Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts. As the book begins, 20-something Merry is returning to her family’s former Massachusetts home (now fallen to ruin and up for sale) to meet with a bestselling author. Merry has a fascinating story to tell, one that continues to permeate all aspects of her life. Fifteen years earlier, the Barretts were struggling. Their father had been out of work for some time, and they were in danger of losing their house. Teen Marjorie had begun acting strangely. The stories she has always told 8-year-old Merry have taken on a sinister tone, and she delights in upsetting her. Strange things start to happen. Is it mental illness or something supernatural? While their stressed mother takes Marjorie to a therapist, their father opts for visits with a Catholic priest with ties to the media. Soon, the cash-strapped Barretts foolishly agree to allow their situation to become a reality television show, The Possession, as a way to pay the mortgage. Tremblay builds suspense and tension by telling the story through present day Merry, 8-year-old Merry and a snarky horror blogger named Karen who is deconstructing The Possession 15 years later. A Head Full of Ghosts is funny, clever and thoroughly chilling. Tremblay brings in plot elements from many famous horror movies, even as he pays homage to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s famous short story of madness “The Yellow Wallpaper” and Shirley Jackson’s classic gothic chiller We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Could Marjorie have been faking the whole thing, or was she possessed a la The Exorcist?
Amelia Tate lands the role of a lifetime when she, a relative unknown, is cast to play Princess Ann in a remake of the classic film Roman Holiday. That’s the role that catapulted Audrey Hepburn to fame, and Amelia is over the moon with excitement in Rome in Love by Anita Hughes. Her life couldn’t be more perfect with this dream job, a handsome boyfriend and two months of living and working in the picturesque capital of Italy.
Once settled in Rome, Amelia’s reality doesn’t live up to the fantasy. She struggles with the part, her fear of failure and the director’s intense expectations. She also learns that distance doesn’t always make the heart grow fonder when her boyfriend presents her with an ultimatum of him or her career. While dealing with the breakup she must also cope with the ever-present paparazzi and longs for anonymity. On one of her escapes she meets handsome journalist Philip, who believes she is a hotel maid. As their relationship develops and attraction deepens, the guilt she harbors about concealing her identity intensifies. Little does she know that she’s not the only one hiding the truth.
Staying in the same suite Hepburn did during her filming helps bring Amelia closer to her idol, especially when she finds a stash of letters Audrey wrote during her filming. She also befriends a young woman named Sophie, a princess enjoying one last hurrah until an arranged marriage will force her to settle down. Together the two take every opportunity to discover the bountiful riches throughout Rome, and along the way find love that could jeopardize both of their worlds. This enjoyable read will entrance readers with fairy-tale romance, transporting them to modern Rome with sumptuous descriptions of food, drink and fashion.
The lush setting of Barbados — its rich history and tenacious people — is the backdrop of Naomi Jackson’s elegantly-written debut novel, The Star Side of Bird Hill.
Sixteen-year-old Dionne and her 10-year-old sister Phaedra are shipped to live with their tough grandmother Hyacinth in Barbados to lessen the burden on their ill mother. The culture shock of living in a world apart from their beloved Brooklyn and navigating the tumultuous waters of adolescence in a place foreign to them is starting to wear on their own sense of self and their relationship with each other.
Dionne’s desire to be a true American teenager — with parties, dates and taking risks — contrasts sharply with the Bird Hill neighborhood of close-knit women. Whispers of her own mother’s difficult teenage years follow her around, and she wants desperately to be both similar to and separate from that legacy.
Phaedra observes how the entire community leans on her grandmother for support, both in this world and beyond. Hyacinth’s practice of obeah, an ancient mysticism of the West Indies, lures Phaedra into learning as much as she can from her grandmother. As the festival time of Kadooment Day draws near, Dionne and Phaedra will have to reconcile their past selves with their new lives, and make a difficult decision about where they want to be.
Richly constructed and heartbreakingly honest, this beautiful novel should be at the top of the summer reading list for fans of Zadie Smith and Alice McDermott. Those looking for a new, bold literary voice will find one in Naomi Jackson.
The novel In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware is a gripping page-turner guaranteed to become a must-read for the summer. Ten years ago, Leonora stopped going by Lee and became Nora. She left her past behind her, moved to a new location and became a successful and reclusive novelist. Nora soon receives a dubious email inviting her to a bachelorette party somewhere in the English Countryside to celebrate the nuptials of her old college friend, Clare. When the weekend is over, Nora wakes up in a hospital bed, severely bruised, having survived an apparent car crash. Scanning her recent memory, she can’t recall the events that lead her there, and with the arrival of the police, she realizes that something is very wrong. Someone at the party is dead, and Nora cannot be sure that she is not the murderer.
In a Dark, Dark Wood is a psychological thriller at its best. Ware keeps the reader as much in the dark as the menacing woods surrounding the house where the action takes place. The atmosphere is tense, taught and slightly disturbing, and the reader will feel an impending sense of dread right along with Nora. As each piece of the story is slowly revealed, the reader will be glued to the pages until the final outcome — great for readers who enjoy domestic suspense. Readers who enjoy this title may also want to try The Pocket Wife by Susan Crawford, Keep Your Friends Close by Paula Daly or Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty.