Book Review: The Infinite Blacktop, by Sara Gran

Claire DeWitt, the world's greatest detective, is Nancy Drew if Nancy grew up to be an angry loner with a drug problem.

The Infinite Highway

Atria Books, 2018, 290 pages

Claire DeWitt, the hard-living and tough-talking private investigator, has always been something of a detective. As a young girl growing up in Brooklyn, Claire and her two best friends, Tracy and Kelly, fell under the spell of the book Detection by legendary French detective Jacques Silette. The three solved many cases together and were inseparable - until the day Tracy vanished without a trace. That is still the only case Claire ever failed to solve.

Later, in her 20s, Claire is in Los Angeles trying to get her PI license by taking on a cold case that has stumped the LAPD. She hunts for the real story behind the death of a washed-up painter 10 years earlier, whose successful and widely admired artist girlfriend had died a few months before him.

Today, Claire is on her way to Las Vegas from San Francisco when she’s almost killed by a homicidal driver. In a haze of drugs and injuries, she struggles off the scene, determined to find her would-be killer’s identity - but the list of people who would be happy to see her dead is not a short one.

As these three narratives converge, some mysteries are solved and others continue to haunt. But Claire, battered and bruised, continues her search for the answer to the biggest mystery of all: what is the purpose of our lives, and how can anyone survive in a world so clearly designed to break our hearts again and again?

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Also by Sara Gran: My reviews of Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead and Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway.

My complete list of book reviews.

Book Review: John Adams, by David McCullough

The second U.S. President was no George Washington, but Lin-Manuel Miranda did him dirty.

John Adams

Simon & Schuster, 2001, 752 pages

The enthralling, often surprising story of John Adams, one of the most important and fascinating Americans who ever lived.

In this powerful, epic biography, David McCullough unfolds the adventurous life-journey of John Adams, the brilliant, fiercely independent, often irascible, always honest Yankee patriot -- "the colossus of independence," as Thomas Jefferson called him -- who spared nothing in his zeal for the American Revolution; who rose to become the second President of the United States and saved the country from blundering into an unnecessary war; who was learned beyond all but a few and regarded by some as "out of his senses"; and whose marriage to the wise and valiant Abigail Adams is one of the moving love stories in American history.

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My complete list of book reviews.

Wow, I have really been writing AQ for 13 years now

Just a thought that struck me as I went through old notes. Like, if teenagers still read Harry Potter fan fiction when I finish AQATWW, then I will probably pick up a few new readers who weren't even born when I wrote AQATTC.

Okay, now I feel old.

Working through a plot problem that is blocking me has always been my bane, and the cause of many of my long writing pauses. I will get stuck on something, and then stop writing while I mentally try to puzzle through it (but really, sort of wait for inspiration to strike).

AQATWW is better outlined than any of my previous books, but there are still events I haven't been able to properly arrange yet in a smooth, linear fashion, and questions that need to be answered (mostly of the "Why don't they....?" and "How does she get away with...?" variety). I tucked away the AQATWW manuscript for a little bit to work on another stab at an original novel, but now I am sort of dividing my time between them.

I've tried many methods to work my way through plot holes and story outlines. I've tried mind maps, corkboards, various software, little moleskin notebooks with nice fountain pens to make the tactile experience of writing by hand more pleasant, but I always end up with a scramble of ideas, some of which eventually get pulled into the narrative and some of which get discarded. Or literally forgotten. More than once, I have browsed one of my old notebooks and thought "Really? I don't even remember that I was going to do that, that would have been... different."

As I've said before, I'm sort of a cross between a pantser and a plotter. So I will probably never be able to get everything nicely outlined in advance. Sometimes it's when I just sit down and start typing out words that I make progress, even if the story abruptly veers in an unplanned direction. And sometimes that direction doesn't make sense and I have to cut it, which is frustrating.

To be clear, I do not believe that stories "take on a life of their own" or that characters "tell you what they're going to do." That has always struck me as a pretentious writer affection, that your creations are "alive" and exist independently of you. Alexandra is near and dear to me, and as beloved a fictional character as any I've ever read, and I do actually feel sad when I make bad things happen to her. But I don't have conversations with her, she doesn't decide what she's going to do and surprise me with what happens on the page. She does what I've decided she's going to do. When writers say that their characters are "alive," what they really mean is that they start writing and they aren't really sure what they're going to write next, but they write some dialog, and then have the character respond, and think up something that makes sense in response to that, and maybe a new idea strikes them and they start writing that, and by the end of the writing session, you may have written a new chapter that bears no resemblance to anything you had planned and surprises you at the new direction you have taken. But that wasn't your characters doing that. It wasn't a muse suddenly controlling your fingers. It was you, making a whole bunch of spontaneous decisions one after another. It's all on you to guide and control this process, or at least, to edit it afterwards into something that makes sense.

Sometimes this process is productive for me, more productive than sweating over an outline in a notebook and deciding what happens next before I write it. And sometimes it makes a mess.

Anyway, over the last two weeks I've only managed one more chapter, for 22 out of 43 outlined, and a total of 121K words.

Alexandra Quick and the Thorn Circle print manuscript

In the meantime, I have been wrangling with Affinity Publisher some more. I decided that I needed to increase the margins, and it turns out that reflowing text when you have multiple master templates (to handle recto and verso pages) doesn't just happen automatically, so I pretty much have had to remaster entire chapters multiple times.

The latest PDF preview file is still here. A few people have asked how they actually go about turning this into a print copy for themselves, so I will point to a post I made on the AQ subreddit: Please help me print the book.

And speaking of print copies, here's a preview of the color cover. Which I will still need to turn into an actual cover with my meager Photoshop skills to try to duplicate the AQ logo in the same way I duplicated the interior format of the HP books.

Alexandra Quick and the Thorn Circle

And speaking of AQ art, ankhes did two more lovely pieces of fan art, of Julia and her mother.

Julia King

Thalia King

Finally, JackBeThimble has begun posting an AQ fanfic. It's a fanfic of a fanfic, and to make it even more meta, it's a sequel to my other fanfic, Hogwarts Houses Divided as well. Alexandra Quick and the Order of the Phoenix is an AU book five, where Alexandra goes to Hogwarts. I have given no input on this story, and was not a beta, but so far three chapters are posted and I'm enjoying it, even if I have to remind myself that this is not my Alexandra, it's Jack's.

Book Review: American by Day, by Derek Miller

A Norwegian cop discovers Black Lives Matter.

American by Day

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt , 2018, 352 pages

A gripping and timely novel that follows Sigrid - the dry-witted detective from Derek B. Miller's best-selling debut Norwegian by Night - from Oslo to the United States on a quest to find her missing brother.

She knew it was a weird place.

She'd heard the stories, seen the movies, read the books. But now police Chief Inspector Sigrid Ødegård has to leave her native Norway and actually go there - to that land across the Atlantic where her missing brother is implicated in the mysterious death of a prominent African-American academic. America. Sigrid is plunged into a United States where race and identity, politics and promise, reverberate in every aspect of daily life. Working with - or, if necessary, against - the police, she must negotiate the local political minefields and navigate the backwoods of the Adirondacks to uncover the truth before events escalate further.

Refreshingly funny, slyly perceptive, American by Day secures Derek B. Miller's place as one of our most imaginative and entertaining novelists.

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Also by Derek Miller: My reviews of Norwegian by Night and The Girl in Green.

My complete list of book reviews.

Book Review: SpecOps , by Craig Alanson

The second book starring Starship Captain Colonel Bishop and his Amazing Super-Advanced Ancient Alien Beer Can, Skippy


Podium Publishing, 2016, 480 pages

Colonel Joe Bishop made a promise, and he's going to keep it: taking the captured alien starship Flying Dutchman back out. He doesn't agree when the UN decides to send almost 70 elite Special Operations troops, hotshot pilots, and scientists with him; the mission is a fool's errand he doesn't expect to ever return from. At least this time, the Earth is safe, right?

Not so much.

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Also by Craig Alanson: My review of Columbus Day.

My complete list of book reviews.

Book Review: Police at the Station and They Don't Look Friendly, by Adrian McKinty

The sixth Detective Sean Duffy novel starts with a gun to the head.

Police at the Station and They Don't Look Friendly

Seventh Street Books, 2017, 319 pages

Another thrilling mystery featuring Detective Sean Duffy and his most dangerous investigation yet.

Belfast, 1988. A man is found dead, killed with a bolt from a crossbow in front of his house. This is no hunting accident. But uncovering who is responsible for the murder will take Detective Sean Duffy down his most dangerous road yet, a road that leads to a lonely clearing on a high bog where three masked gunmen will force Duffy to dig his own grave.

Hunted by forces unknown, threatened by Internal Affairs, and with his relationship on the rocks, Duffy will need all his wits to get out of this investigation in one piece.

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Also by Adrian McKinty: My reviews of The Cold Cold Ground, I Hear the Sirens in the Street, In the Morning I'll Be Gone, Gun Street Girl, Rain Dogs, and Hidden River.

My complete list of book reviews.

Thorn Circle print copies, and The Mess that is AQATWW

OMG. I want one.

Alex and Charlie doll

Alexandra Quick and the Thorn Circle print copies

Remember I said I was going to stick with my Word layout? Well, I thought my layout was pretty slick, an almost professional-looking imitation of the Harry Potter books, and then I went further down the rabbit-hole of book design and layout, and found out about things like optical alignment and leading and lining vs. oldstyle and bleed and everything else I was doing wrong.

There are lots of book designers out there with free advice (usually ending with "You should hire me to do this for you") but I am a DIY kind of guy, and I persevered with Affinity Publisher. I am now a first-level Publisher ninja, and I ended up spending most of two days importing my Word layout and massaging it into a print-ready PDF.

There are a few things that aren't quite perfect (actual professionals do manual spot adjustments on kerning and justification spacing and line grouping and stuff, and I simply don't have the expertise for that), but I think it's pretty damn close.

However. Publisher is still in "active development" (they don't want to say "beta," but in my opinion, it's still beta software), and I've found it does... unexpected things sometimes. Like, after I update the Table of Contents, I would keep finding that pages in some later chapter had inexplicably been flowed on top of each other, and I'd have to manually redo the text flow. So every time I change the structure, I have to look at the entire manuscript again to see if there is a new gotcha.

Now, people have asked if I would share the print-ready file. And I have decided... yes. Kind of.

Here's the deal. Right now, it's print-ready minus a cover. Anyone can submit this file to a POD service and get a print copy.

Those of you who helped me by proofreading the first layout, and a select few others who know who they are, are going to get actual print copies, once I get my cover and order my own print run.

For everyone else... I am going to crowd-source the final proofreading. The link below is the semi-final print-ready PDF. Submit it to the POD service of your choice and you can have your own print copy. However, you will have to supply your own cover file.

AQATTC print-ready PDF

Now, here's a preview of the exclusive reward for anyone who finds an error or helps me make other corrections in the above file:

AQATTC cover sketch

That's a black and white sketch of the cover I am commissioning. When I get the (full-color) final, anyone who contributed a correction will get an exclusive link to the final final file, including the cover.

Note that the above file is formatted for a 6" x 9" trade paperback. The Scholastic U.S. paperback editions of the Harry Potter books are actually closer to 5.5" x 7.625". Most POD services don't handle non-standard sizes, and at 6" x 9", AQATTC is already 568 pages. I am still experimenting with layouts and might try to produce something closer to the "official" HP book form, but I suspect that I won't even be able to fit a longer book like AQATSA into one volume with a standard POD printing.

So what kind of gotchas do I need help catching? Consider these two pages:



Notice the difference? The first paragraph following a section break should not have a first-line indent. I think I got them all, but it's the sort of thing that's easy to miss when importing hundreds of pages and then manually adjusting the style formatting page by page. Also any obvious things, like a blank page or a missing header or footer, or a block of text or illustration that somehow wandered off the center line, or one of those damn reflowed pages with text flowed on top of itself. I can look and look again and triple-check every page one more time, and I know there is still going to be something I miss.

AQATWW: The Mess

I am now sort of out of The Grind and into The Mess. Which means, I am writing more pages, but I have this grinding feeling that I'm writing entire chapters that will have to be cut, because I now have all the scenes and more or less their sequential order laid out, but there are so many plot holes and "how do I get there from here?" and other questions that are not resolving themselves. It would sure be nice if I could just say "Poof, suddenly Alexandra is in the next chapter, never mind that highway battle with manticores, we'll figure out how that ended later." Actually, sometimes I do leave plot holes behind, knowing I will have to go back and fix them. This is actually somewhat more productive than spending days gnawing on a problem and not writing until I figure out a way around it, but then I know I have a bigger mess to clean up later.

Besides plot holes and loose threads, there are issues of characterization and tone. Like, how far AU is AQ going to go in book six? Because the Wizard War is definitely attracting the attention of Muggles. Now, the Harry Potter tone would be what we saw in Rowling's books, and to a lesser extent in mine up until the last book: the U.S. government is kind of aware of the wizarding world, but doesn't really do much about it because they live in parallel worlds that try to avoid each other.

In a realistic setting, of course, this would not be at all plausible. Fucking wizards with magic powers, and elves and goblins and monsters, hundreds of thousands of them around the world? The U.S. government (all governments, really) would be all over that, trying to recruit Muggle-born wizards and infiltrate the wizarding world, while the Confederation would have plans for casting Imperius on the President and Congress, and the DoD and intelligence agencies would have top secret plans anticipating that, and... you get the idea. We wind up with a "gritty" realistic urban fantasy series that might be interesting, but would no longer feel like it was at all the same world. I know some fanfic authors have taken that idea and run with it, but it's not exactly the direction I intended to go.

On the other hand, I hate handwaving away all pretense at verisimilitude because "It doesn't fit the setting." So we're probably going a little bit in that direction, but I don't want this to be Alexandra Quick and the Men In Black.

(If you do like that kind of gritty, rational take on what it would look like if a magical world got dumped into the mundane real world, I recommend Bill Willingham's Fables. And no, please do not recommend fucking HPMOR to me.)

So, I am still muddling my way through, and there will be a hella mess to clean up and probably a lot of harsh comments from my betas, and I worry it's all going to fall apart and this will be the book where I reach the end of my rope and everyone realizes I don't know wtf I'm doing. (I feel like that with every book, at some point.)

Right now, I have 43 chapters of AQATWW outlined, with 21 chapters and 115K words actually written. I have 15 chapters of book seven roughly outlined.

Book Review: The Core, by Peter Brett

The end of the series goes full grimdark and is resolved with a big boss battle.

The Core

Del Rey, 2017, 781 pages

For time out of mind, bloodthirsty demons have stalked the night, culling the human race to scattered remnants dependent on half-forgotten magics to protect them. Then two heroes arose - men as close as brothers, yet divided by bitter betrayal.

Arlen Bales became known as the Warded Man, tattooed head to toe with powerful magic symbols that enable him to fight demons in hand-to-hand combat-and emerge victorious. Jardir, armed with magically warded weapons, called himself the Deliverer, a figure prophesied to unite humanity and lead them to triumph in Sharak Ka - the final war against demonkind.

But in their efforts to bring the war to the demons, Arlen and Jardir have set something in motion that may prove the end of everything they hold dear - a Swarm. Now the war is at hand and humanity cannot hope to win it unless Arlen and Jardir, with the help of Arlen's wife, Renna, can bend a captured demon prince to their will and force the devious creature to lead them to the Core, where the Mother of Demons breeds an inexhaustible army.

Trusting their closest confidantes, Leesha, Inevera, Ragen, and Elissa, to rally the fractious people of the Free Cities and lead them against the Swarm, Arlen, Renna, and Jardir set out on a desperate quest into the darkest depths of evil - from which none of them expects to return alive.

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Also by Peter Brett: My reviews of The Warded Man, The Desert Spear, The Daylight War, and The Skull Throne.

My complete list of book reviews.

Book Review: The Skull Throne, by Peter Brett

The fourth book in a gourmand, overstuffed post-apocalyptic epic fantasy.

The Skull Throne

Del Rey, 2015, 681 pages

The Skull Throne of Krasia stands empty. Built from the skulls of fallen generals and demon princes, it is a seat of honor and ancient, powerful magic, keeping the demon corelings at bay. From atop the throne, Ahmann Jardir was meant to conquer the known world, forging its isolated peoples into a unified army to rise up and end the demon war once and for all. But Arlen Bales, the Warded Man, stood against this course, challenging Jardir to a duel he could not in honor refuse. Rather than risk defeat, Arlen cast them both from a precipice, leaving the world without a savior and opening a struggle for succession that threatens to tear the Free Cities of Thesa apart.

In the south, Inevera, Jardir's first wife, must find a way to keep their sons from killing each other and plunging their people into civil war as they strive for glory enough to make a claim on the throne. In the north, Leesha Paper and Rojer Inn struggle to forge an alliance between the duchies of Angiers and Miln against the Krasians before it is too late. Caught in the crossfire is the duchy of Lakton - rich and unprotected, ripe for conquest. All the while, the corelings have been growing stronger, and without Arlen and Jardir there may be none strong enough to stop them. Only Renna Bales may know more about the fate of the missing men, but she, too, has disappeared....

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Also by Peter Brett: My reviews of The Warded Man, The Desert Spear, and The Daylight War.

My complete list of book reviews.

Book Review: A Matter of Will, by Adam Mitzner

b>A legal and financial thriller about deals with devils.</b>

A Matter of Will

Thomas & Mercer, 2019, 304 pages

Will Matthews came to Wall Street with hopes and dreams of hitting it big. But things have not been going as expected. He’s on the verge of being fired when he meets the devilishly mysterious and fabulously wealthy Sam Abaddon.

Winning Sam’s business answers Will’s prayers, catapulting the young stockbroker into the privileged world of money and luxury. Not only that, but Will also has met his dream girl, ambitious attorney Gwen Lipton.

All at once, it seems as if Will’s life couldn’t get any better.

And it doesn’t.

When Will witnesses a shocking act of violence, his charmed new existence is revealed to be a waking nightmare as the truth about his benefactor - and his own complicity in criminal conduct - becomes devastatingly clear. As the noose draws tighter, Will faces an impossible choice: feast upon the poisonous fruit of his bloody business or defy his patron and face dire consequences.

Then again, maybe there’s a third option....

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Also by Adam Mitzner: My reviews of A Conflict of Interest and Dead Certain.

My complete list of book reviews.