Christmas Eve in the world of “Dover Beach”

In this excerpt from my novel Dover Beach, the bookish would-be private eye Walter Sands spends Christmas Eve alone in a grim London hotel room, where he is haunted by memories of Christmases past.  Things have not always gone well for him in the bleak post-apocalyptic world he inhabits.

The e-book of Dover Beach is still free on Amazon, for some reason.  Which is a pretty good deal, when you come to think of it.  It is ranked #21 among technothrillers, for some reason.  It is not a technothriller; technothrillers don’t quote Dickens, at least not this liberally:

I took a bath. I reread the newspaper. I reread the Gideon Bible. I stared out the frosted window of my dreary room and gazed at the ruddy faces passing by in the dark, alien world. And I waited for a visitor.

It was the Ghost of Christmas Past. I knew he would come. He always came, so why should he make an exception now that I was in London, in his hometown?

“Rise, and walk with me!”

There was no refusing him, of course. Some nights, perhaps, but not on Christmas Eve.

Through the window, across the frigid London sky, over the fierce, churning ocean—to the awful abode of memories, still alive, still waiting to claim me…

“Why, it’s old Fezziwig!”

Not likely. It was a solemn, gaunt man—too gaunt, far too DOVER-BEACH-COVER1Lsolemn—his bony hand resting on my shoulder, light as a leaf. I was warm—the wood stove was kept well filled. But I was hungry. Always hungry. The man’s eyes glittered, reflecting the oil lamp’s flickering flame. “Tomorrow is Christmas,” the man said. “Least, Mrs. Simpkins says so. I’ve kinda lost track myself. Thing is, well, there’s nuthin’ to give you. I’ve tried—you’ve seen how I’ve tried, haven’t you? But everything’s gone. The entire world is gone. Oh, I’m so sorry.”

The man’s glittering eyes turned liquid and overflowed, wetting his leathery skin, his gray beard. His hand moved down onto my back and pulled me toward him. He held me against his chest, and I heard the ka-thump ka-thump of his heart beneath the frayed flannel shirt. The intensity of the sound scared me. The sudden strength of the hand scared me. I stayed there, listening, and eventually the hand loosened its grip, and I stepped back. The man looked at me—looking (I know now) for forgiveness, and if not forgiveness, at least some sort of understanding. But he was looking for something I was far too young to offer.

“Daddy,” I said, “what’s Christmas?”

“These are but shadows of things that have been,” said the Ghost.

“That’s swell,” I said. “That’s really swell.”

The Spirit pulled me along.

And I was chopping wood outside a familiar, broken-down barn. I was sweating, despite the cold, and my arms ached. A woman came out of the barn, carrying a scrawny chicken she had just killed. Her face was lined and wind-burned, her body shapeless under a heavy coat. She stopped and looked at me, and I kept on chopping. “Walter,” she said, “things is tough.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I said. I kept on chopping.

“Mr. Simpkins says we’ll have to leave here pretty soon if things don’t get better. I don’t know what we’ll do if we leave, where we’ll go, but there’s got to be someplace better.”

“I expect,” I said. I put another log on the block.

“But we’ll take care of you, Walter. We made a promise, and no matter how hard things get, we keep our promises. You understand?”

“Yes, ma’am. Thank you, ma’am.”

The woman nodded, satisfied. “Christmas is coming, but I’m afraid there won’t be any gifts. We can have a tree, though. You like them old ornaments, right? We can make the place real festive. Won’t that be nice?”

I split the log neatly. “Very nice,” I said. “Much obliged.”

The woman nodded some more. Chicken blood dripped onto the snow. “It’s the spirit that counts, that’s what I always say. We don’t have much in the way of things anymore, but we still have the spirit, don’t we, Walter?”

“Yes, ma’am. We still have the spirit.”

The woman smiled and went inside. I picked up another log and put it on the block.

“Spirit,” I said, “show me no more! Conduct me home. Why do you delight to torture me?”

“One shadow more!” exclaimed the Ghost.

“No more!” I cried. “No more. I don’t wish to see it. Show me no more!”

But the relentless Ghost pinioned me in both his arms, and forced me to observe what happened next.

The three of us were sitting in the parlor that first year together, and Stretch was expounding. “If we’re going to preserve our civilization, we have to preserve its rituals. Rituals are what bind us together. They shelter us from the terror of loneliness and death. They give life meaning and shape.”

“Christmas sucks,” I said.

Gwen smiled.

“It isn’t Christmas that sucks,” Stretch explained earnestly, “it’s your experience of Christmas. That’s why it’s so important to create our own experiences—to overcome those other experiences, to connect with the best of the old civilization, to keep us alive. Don’t you see?”

Yeah, I saw.

And then it was Christmas Eve. The pine boughs had been strewn, the popcorn strung, the fire roared wastefully; and at midnight we all kissed and exchanged presents that we couldn’t afford.

I gave Gwen a typewriter I had bought at the Salvage Market.

Gwen gave me a book from Art’s special stock. It was called The Maltese Falcon.

“See?” Stretch said. “Isn’t this good? Isn’t this the way life should be lived?”

And then later, lying upstairs in each other’s arms. “What do you think of Christmas?” I asked Gwen. “Is Stretch right?”

“I think,” she said, “that I have never been happier in my life.”

“Spirit,” I said, in a broken voice, “remove me from this place.”

“I told you these were shadows of the things that have been,” said the Ghost. “That they are what they are, do not blame me!”

“Remove me!” I exclaimed. “I cannot bear it!”

He let me go finally—back to my bleak hotel room, back to my guilt, back to this present that I had so longed for all my life—while he went off, presumably, to torture some other undeserving soul. No other ghosts came to call—I didn’t expect any—and eventually I drifted off to a tense and restless sleep.

When I awoke it was Christmas Day.

Temporary Monsters

Now that you have dutifully purchased Dover Beach at its amazingly low price of $0.99, you will want to also purchase my friend Craig Shaw Gardner’s new funny fantasy novel Temporary Monsters.  If you are wondering whether this novel is worth the $4.27 that Penguin Group (USA) LLC is charging for it, I have just three words for you: Bob the Horse.  Bob the Horse is perhaps the most irritatingly comic character ever invented.

Here is the clever cover:


Would you sign up for an e-book subscription service?

The concept is a Netflix for ebooks–for a fixed price per month, you get to read as many ebooks from the vendor’s catalog as you want.  Oyster came out with a product earlier this month.  Now Scribd has announced a competing product.  The prices are about the same: $9 per month for Scribd, $10 per month for Oyster.

Scribd has a deal with HarperCollins that gives them access to most of that publisher’s backlist, and this appears to be a differentiator.  Assuming that both companies get the technology right, the key would seem to be who can offer more of the books people want to read.  (Oyster only works on smartphones, not tablets, and that seems nuts to me; presumably they can change course if it turns out that most people agree with me.)

As a reader, I’m not especially interested — I just don’t have enough reading time, and my tastes are too eclectic, to make the products worth it.  Also, I’m perfectly happy to read a hardcopy book from the library.  I suppose the concept might make sense for other people, but I’m a bit dubious.  Unless you can sign up all the major publishers, the selection is bound to be limited in ways that readers will find frustrating.

Having said that, I have plenty of listening time on my endless commute, and I have recently joined Audible, the big audio book company (now owned, along with most everything else, by Amazon).  Its model is to make you buy credits, either one per month or a bunch up front (I bought a bunch up front).  This gets you a substantial discount over their prices for non-members.  The cost comes out to be about $12 per title, which doesn’t seem too bad.  And they have a huge catalog, including lots of my friend Jeff Carver’s novels.  So far it seems like a good deal from my perspective; your mileage may vary.

Is Jeff Bezos the antichrist? Or maybe just one of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse?

Jonathan Franzen isn’t sure.

In an article for Guardian Review before the publication of his new book, The Kraus Project, he writes: “In my own little corner of the world, which is to say American fiction, Jeff Bezos of Amazon may not be the antichrist, but he surely looks like one of the four horsemen. Amazon wants a world in which books are either self-published or published by Amazon itself, with readers dependent on Amazon reviews in choosing books, and with authors responsible for their own promotion.”

He goes on to say:

“As fewer and fewer readers are able to find their way, amid all the noise and disappointing books and phony reviews, to the work produced by the new generation of this kind of writer, Amazon is well on its way to making writers into the kind of prospectless workers whom its contractors employ in its warehouses, labouring harder for less and less, with no job security, because the warehouses are situated in places where they’re the only business hiring.”

This is the dystopian vision of Scott Turow and the Author’s Guild, where every move that Amazon makes is greeted as the next step towards the end of literature as we know it.  And I just don’t get it.  Amazon, and the e-book revolution, have certainly made publication more democratic.  It’s now open to anyone, which of course means there will be more junk available.  But do these folks really believe that there will be no way for readers to distinguish the good writers from the bad?    My novel Senator has a bunch of reviews on Amazon, and the review deemed most helpful by readers also happens to be (in my opinion) the best of the bunch.  Read that review, and you’ll get as good a sense of the novel as any newspaper review.

Further, do they really think that, even if Amazon controlled the entire publishing industry, it wouldn’t have an incentive to find and publish great books? And do they really think that Amazon can control the entire publishing industry?  Jonathan Franzen is a world-class writer with a large following.  If he wanted to bypass Amazon and self-publish on, he could do it.  Or, he could start his own publishing house, giving his imprimatur to the kind of fiction he thinks the world wants; no one is going to stop him, and the barriers to entry are minimal.

I’m also a little baffled by this view that Amazon is destroying the financial prospects of good writers.  Writers have no financial prospects!  They have never had any financial prospects!  If anything, Amazon has opened the doors to a whole class of writers who were shunned by the traditional publishing industry but now at least have a chance at reaching an audience, thanks to the Internet.

Finally, I just want to say that the Red Sox are back in the playoffs thanks to a complete-game victory by John Lackey.  And that’s one of those sentences I never thought I’d write.

Still looking for reviews of “The Portal”

I’ve gotten three very nice ones so far, but I could use some more.

In case you’ve forgotten, here’s the outline and first chapter.   And here’s the cover, which helpfully informs you that it’s an alternative history novel:



And, apropos of nothing, here’s a photo of my little town’s charming harbor on a late summer’s day:

2013-09-15 17.18.13

Thoughts on sales ranking; also, a bad review and a good sunflower

After getting as high as about #46 on the Nook bestseller list, Senator is starting to fade like the Tampa Bay Rays.  Its sudden rise in the rankings got me thinking about how they are calculated. A brief tour of the Internet convinced me that this is a rat-hole from which one may never return.  The algorithms are proprietary and probably change periodically, so it’s all guesswork.

Since I’m dealing with a publisher rather than publishing my books myself, I don’t see the daily sales figures on Amazon and B&N, so there is no easy way for me to see how the ranking tracks these sales numbers.  But lots of self-published writers apparently have nothing better to do, and they are more than happy to opine about who the rankings are calculated.

The consensus, if you care, is that the ranking represents something like a 30-day moving average, with more recent sales weighted more heavily than sales earlier in the cycle. There is probably some residual effect from sales prior to the 30-day period, so a book that sells five copies a year will have a higher ranking than a book that sells one copy. I have no idea if this is anything like the truth, but it seems plausible to me.  And how many sales does a particular ranking represent?  This looks like a reasonable guess.  Of course, that’s for Amazon.  Barnes & Noble would presumably be something like 20% of that.

Anyway, the sales on Barnes & Noble have started to get Senator some reviews there.  Here is a remarkably bad one that I enjoyed (sort of).  It’s by our friend Anonymous and is titled “Awful”:

Was there a good guy anywhere in this mess? However samples at end were even worse and can now avoid all in future mom

What’s impressive about this is that the writer feels obliged to trash the samples as well as the novel.  Also, what’s up with the word “mom” at the end?  Is the writer trying to insinuate that “Anonymous” is actually my mother?  That’s harsh.

To make myself feel better, here’s a photo of some sunflowers from my garden:



Also, the Red Sox just beat the Yankees for the third time in a row, so there’s that.

“Senator” promo at Ereader News Today

Hey, do me a favor and go over to this Facebook site and Like the “More Kindle Deals for 9-3-13” topic.  Getting lots of likes makes Ereader News Today happy.  Or you can go straight to the site, where Senator is one of their Kindle deals of the day.  Buying a copy would make them even happier.  It would make me happy, too.  At $0.99, how can you go wrong?

Senator final cover

The Senator promotion at Barnes & Noble is certainly doing what it’s supposed to do.  The book is now #56 on the Nook bestseller list, which puts it ahead of Volumes 2 and 3 of the Fifty Shades trilogy, among other interesting and no doubt worthy books.

Finally, I’ve gotten a couple of nice reviews of The Portal on Amazon but could use a lot more, if you’re interested in helping out.  I’m told that the Nook edition will appear any day now.

Let’s all join Craig Shaw Gardner in the Netherhells

Craig Shaw Gardner has finally released the first three books in his hilarious Ebenezum series as e-books.  Let the rejoicing begin!  Here’s the classic cover for A Malady of Magicks:

Also out are A Night in the Netherhells and A Multitude of Monsters.

I heard Craig read the short story that turned into A Malady of Magicks back in the Harding administration sometime, and I couldn’t believe that anyone could write a story that funny.

Mr. Gardner has also relaunched his blog, this time in our familiar WordPress world. Let’s get him to start adding content!

Senator currently one of “101 Nook Books Under $2.99” at Barnes & Noble

Senator is currently on sale at Barnes & Noble for the ridiculously low price of $0.99.  (Yes, friends, you heard right!)  So now would be a good time to pick it up if you’ve got a Nook.

I don’t know how this sort of thing works, but my publisher got the novel a spot on B&N’s “101 Nook Books Under $2.99” promotion.  It’s currently on the third page, but the book moves up the pages as its sales rank improves. This promotion is having an effect.  A couple of days ago Senator‘s sales rank was somewhere north of 300,000 on B&N, meaning (I suppose) that no one had bought it recently.  Currently its sales rank is 460.  Maybe someone will finally review it!

Here’s what the cover looks like, in case you’ve forgotten: