The Counselor, the Cleric, and the Crook by Hank Shrier and Laurence Becker

Title: The Counselor, the Cleric, and the Crook
Author/publisher: Hank Shrier and Laurence Becker/GBN Publishing
Date: 2011

The co-author, Hank Shrier, did his due process by submitting a review request and an e-copy of his book to Split Seed Review, but primarily I know Hank as moderator of two helpful LinkedIn groups for independent publishers. The Counselor, the Cleric, and the Crook is the elaborate story of the life and death of Rabbi Baruch Teller, his estranged family, the several opportunists attempting to swindle the rabbi (and his heirs) out of his substantial estate, and the good-intentioned lawyer trying to help the family manage the morass of deceit and dysfunction. Little did they know there were forces at work larger than all of them.

Admittedly, this book is long, told from an “objective observer” perspective that struck me much like a lawyer carefully recording every detail so as to leave no stone unturned. Don’t expect a fast-paced novel, but a plodding account of how one family in Israel served as a connecting point for revenge, murder, and intrigue that had their beginning decades earlier and in various continents. (That’s all I can say about the story without risking spoilage.) About halfway through, I had to really use my willpower to keep reading, precisely because the style was so thorough that I thought I knew exactly where this story was headed and became impatient with the author’s need to record every detail. But now that I’ve read to the end, rest assured that all these details are there for a reason. There’s no way I ever could have predicted that ending.

The story takes place in modern-day Israel – this was the closest I’ve ever made to a visit there, and the authors were hospitable hosts. Whenever I travel (as sadly infrequent as that is these days), I’m the kind of traveler who does my best to blend in, to visit the places the locals frequent, and avoid looking like a tourist at all costs. This might mean I miss the big, famous sites (and the traffic), but it yields a longer, deeper impression of the real character of the city or country – what it might be like to live here, what kind of people choose to live here, where I seem to fit, and where I might want to visit again next time. What was unexpectedly delightful about this book was that the authors gave me just this kind of tour of Israel and the Jewish life, a context largely unfamiliar to me. I got the clear impression that this book didn’t intend to be “about Israel,” in an exotic sense, but just happened to take place in Israel, a perhaps-subconscious approach that revealed quotidian, subtle, but deeper details that made me feel like a local right away. Easy references to lesser-known details of Jewish life (to non-Jews, at least), the Mediterranean landscape, and the different character of various districts in no way distracted from the storyline.

Design notes: I read the pdf version on a Kindle (horizontally orientation greatly improves readability, which I figured out how to do half the book and one aching head too late), and it appeared generally well edited and designed. Any minor issues didn’t distract from me from the story. Would have loved an e-book version, and I hear it’s in the works. Based on an online picture I saw, the cover is well done and styled as a thriller novel – yet I wonder if a subtler, photograph-based cover might not capture the intended audience better.

This story may be a fictionalized version of a true story, but it certainly caused me to wonder anew at the simultaneous human capacities of depravity, resilience, and family loyalty.

The Counselor, the Cleric, and the Crook is available at http://www.gbnpublishing.com/.

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Inaugural review: Dead Line by Richard Sanders

Title: Dead Line

Author/publisher: Richard Sanders

Publication year: 2011

Review copy: Kindle edition

“In recovery,” Richard Sanders writes in his prologue to Dead Line, “they tell you to get addicted to something that won’t kill you.” Thanks to a mandatory screenwriting course in film school, Sanders got hooked on writing, even in the midst of full-blown drug addiction. But when the two addictions went head-to-head, as he realized the drugs consistently worked against his writing, the writing high won. “Once I made that choice,” he writes, “I never used drugs again.”

One might cringe at the thought of an author beginning his self-published novel in such a confessional way (Did an editor approve this? Are we safe here?). But Sanders is also an experienced media professional, having worked at Entertainment Weekly and People, and he reports the facts, even about his own motivations, in a direct yet unassuming way. This quality very quickly establishes him as a trustworthy storyteller, which for me made his novel – dare I say it? – an intoxicating read.

The story begins with a graphic description of a very odd murder, and the drama only builds from there. The sister of the victim, fifteen-year-old Trish Fenellosa, was found on the scene, yet was so stunningly cavalier about the death of her sister that a jury convicts her of murder. Seven years later, she’s released early from her 25-years-to-life sentence, and she begins her new life in San Francisco as the founding editor of an over-the-top, tell-it-like-it-is women’s magazine. When she’s acquired by a New York media group, her status as eccentric but wildly rich media queen is secured. But after Trish is involved in a mysterious car accident, she becomes obsessed with Indira Gandhi, and the media group sends Quinn McShane, an ex-detective-turned-journalist (who has also spent time in jail for manslaughter), to San Francisco to figure out what’s going on. When it becomes clear that it’s not just Trish’s sanity but her life that’s in danger, Quinn reluctantly dusts off his detective skills. And we discover that the circumstances regarding Trish’s sister’s murder are a lot more complicated than we thought.

In terms of your standard high-action, high-titillation mystery, all the usual suspects are here – sex, violence, vulgarity, plot twists, colorful characters, and drug & alcohol references. (No hint of noir here – this is a relentlessly funny book.) So how did this literary fiction aficionado not only stick with the story, but even laugh at jokes I’d have to walk away from in real life? Sanders somehow manages to be direct without being offensive. Again, he writes about these events just like he wrote the prologue: as an observer who takes a closer look when most people turn their heads.

So this isn’t your standard thriller. For one thing, this wasn’t just another hopeful screenplay disguised as a novel, like Dan Brown’s latest. (Well, in his case, it’s not hopeful, it’s inevitable.) It was entertaining precisely because I had the distinct sense it wasn’t written merely to entertain. The story is a tightly woven, mind-spinning tapestry of opulence, relentlessly crude quips, chase scenes, and strange characters – yet I still got the sense this was rooted in real-life experience, however far this experience might be from my own. Here’s a typical scene, which is Quinn’s first glimpse of Trish’s compound upon arriving in the San Francisco area:

“The grounds were ruled by two main buildings, one large, one small, that looked like a cross between Persian towers and magic mushrooms. They’d been designed by the Barcelona architect/madman Gaudi, and he must’ve been in high rheumatic fever during this period. Each Persian mushroom was styled with Italianate Victorian touches – decorative cornices, balustrade balconies, bay windows with Tiffany stained glass” (Kindle location 676ff).

Most of the material is frankly unquotable if this blog is to keep its “PG” web rating. And the parade of oddity is so incessant I did often feel as if I was witnessing a hallucination. But the protagonist’s unassuming perspective kept me grounded. (The constant levity kept me from being too grounded.) As crazy as this world was, you got the sense it was crazy enough to be true. And that there was even a safe way out, eventually, if you just stuck with Quinn.

But the lasting value in this story is revealed by reading the novel through the lens of the prologue. Dead Line’s main point is that everyone has addictions, but some are more socially acceptable than others. Sanders has been honest about his addictions, but most Americans still haven’t acknowledged theirs: many of us are addicted to gratuitous entertainment because we’ve all forgotten what our life story is. The typical stories we’re exposed to don’t help: the business model of most media empires forces them to prioritize the blockbusters and celebrity authors. But we readers don’t need more gratuitous entertainment or wannabe blockbusters – we need stories that help us find our true story.

As Sanders has discovered, the surprising truth is that our life story might actually be more dramatic and exciting than any made-up story. This book, which capably describes the worst of life precisely because it knows there’s a way out, provides a valuable guidepost on the path towards that truth.

Design notes: Minor distractions, such as several typos and multiple lines of greater-than/end-tag symbols separating front matter sections and chapters, indicate a proofread of the final Kindle edition was needed. A table of contents was conspicuously absent. But the e-book format seemed appropriate to the content – I don’t think a print version would add anything crucial. (In fact, a quick review of a sample of the print-on-demand version available at Amazon revealed a desperate need for a skilled interior designer.) I wanted a transparent medium that would allow me to focus on the story, and I got that, by and large, with the Kindle edition.

The most desperate need was a professionally designed cover. The lopsided montage was likely meant to represent typical fare in TrishDish, but a skilled cover designer could do much, much better for this book.

How I found it: Lucky for me I never saw the cover or the POD version. Online buying and the e-book format worked to the author’s advantage, at least for this crossover reader.

First, social networking, not a bookstore nor even the Amazon “storefront,” sold me this book. I had found the author’s comments helpful in a shared LinkedIn group, I clicked on a link he had posted to an online interview with him featuring Dead Line, and I was intrigued enough to buy it. Because I bought the e-book through my mobile Kindle app, the cover was far too tiny to play much of a role. This is going to be an increasingly common scenario, with social networking filling in the quality-control gap that traditional publishing typically provides. Readers connect with individuals through social networking, they appreciate their insights, they discover they’ve written a book, they check it out in their spare time on their phone, and they click “buy.” Had this book been published by a trade publisher and displayed in a bookstore, I likely wouldn’t have picked it up, because even a professional cover would have been designed to appeal to its niche audience (likely not me, who tends to read literary fiction).

Second, the e-book format allowed me to dive into the story without preconceptions. Even if I decided to pick up that print version in the bookstore, just one flip through its pages would reveal far more vulgar references than I usually tolerate, and I would have gingerly put it back and moved on. But you can’t “flip through” a Kindle e-book, so I couldn’t decide not to buy it based on surface assumptions of what I like and don’t like. I had no choice but read page by page. Once I realized this was a little over-the-top for me, it was almost too late – I had already read the author’s story in the prologue, which interested me, and I had already sensed there was more to this story than just entertainment. So I stuck with it, despite my well-honed likes and dislikes. Which, of course, flies in the face of conventional marketing assumptions: sometimes the customer doesn’t know what she wants. And in this day and age of targeted marketing, serendipity is a pleasant surprise indeed.

Dead Line, by Richard Sanders, is available at smashwords.com and amazon.com.