Tuesday, July 10, 2012

A chat with veteran book critic, Alan Caruba

Today we chat with Alan Caruba, who has been reviewing books for more than forty years. I submitted my novel, Greco's Game, for Alan's consideration only to hear back that he was unable to accept because of time constraints.
So it made me want to know more about Alan. I mean, there are two sides to this complex dance between author and critic. Mine as the author is that I've worked for a year on this one project. In other words: I've had tunnel vision while toiling to profile, outline, create, and edit, edit, edit the manuscript into a finished product that I hope impresses not only my publisher, but the Alan Carubas of this world, who in turn will publish a review that makes people who don't know me from a stump want to order my book (as well as reinforce the loyalty shown me by those friends and fans who do know me from a stump).

Then there is Alan's side of the story as he gets hit by an avalanche of requests from authors like me.

So I asked Alan what it was like being, well, Alan Caruba. And Alan was gracious enough to share a window peek into his life.

1) Okay, seriously, Alan: how can one person do so much? Not only have you provided editorial services to think tanks, public relations and public affairs agencies around the nation, but you’re a published journalist and novelist who’s been profiled numerous times as the nation’s expert on boredom and its impact on individuals and society. You also founded The National Anxiety Center as a clearinghouse for information about scare campaigns designed to influence public policy and opinion on a wide variety of issues. You write a daily column, “Warning Signs” (http://factsnotfantasy.blogspot.com/), that’s disseminated around the world. You’re a frequent guest on radio shows throughout the United States, Canada, and Great Britain. You’re a daily contributor to Canada Free Press (http://canadafreepress.com/), an influential news and opinion website, where you regularly examine issues such as national security, politics, education, immigration, Islamic fundamentalism, and popular culture. You’re also a founding member of the National Book Critics Circle, and you maintain a monthly book review site, “Bookviews” (http://bookviewsbyalancaruba.blogspot.com.au/), which examines the best in new fiction and non-fiction. What is a typical day for you, and are copious amounts of coffee required?

The short answer is that I am 74 years of age and what you describe are aspects of a long life spent putting my interests and talents to work on things that interest, amuse, or evoke serious concern on my part. I write a commentary of about 1,000 words or so every day because I am a polymath, interested in a broad range of topics from politics to science, environmentalism to education, Islam to history, and much more. I do so with considerable ease insofar as I began as a reporter in the early 1960s and one acquires the necessary skill to research topics rapidly and write about them against deadlines.

(2) The fact that you have reviewed books for over forty years presupposes a love of reading. How did it begin for you? Was there someone in your life who was instrumental in fostering that love of reading?

I grew up in a home where books filled the rooms. Both my parents were avid readers, and my Mother wrote three books as an international expert on haute cuisine and wines. They also read the newspaper daily. Reading for me has always been pure pleasure. I read at a rapid pace and retain much of what I read. 

(3) The fact that you’re a veteran writer enables you to bring an experienced eye to the review process. Focusing for the moment on fiction, what do you look for in a novel? 

Oddly enough, I have never been a big reader of fiction. What I want, frankly, is a story that grabs me from the first page and never lets go. I want well-formed characters and a story that tells me something about people and cultures I have not otherwise encountered. Lots of people write novels these days. Few have the God-given talent to do it well. 

(4) I know time constraints require you to refuse many review requests. How long does it take to review a book? 

I read the books in the My Picks of the Month section of my monthly report, Bookviews.com, though some are included because they are entertaining or unique and get a brief perusal. The books on history and serious topics get read cover to cover. Since my reviews are brief, it doesn't take long. The rest of the report is based on experience and a perusal of the book to determine that it is well organized, offers useful information, and can prove helpful to the reader. 

As a reviewer, the growth of self-published books has put a strain on many in my trade, largely because many are quite poorly written. That said, there are a lot of books from publishers, large and small, that make me wonder why they bothered. The switch to digital books is one I will not make for reasons of age and preference to hold a book in my hands. In addition to history and science, I have a fondness for coffee table books that are big, full of art and photography, and delight the mind and senses. 

(5) Have the demands of reviewing books diminished your simple love of reading?

No, reading for me is far more fun that mindlessly watching TV. I do watch, but it's usually something educational or news. I like to watch boxing as a sport and diversion, but not other sports. I will ignore the Olympics for the most part.

(6) Do you ever read just to relax, and if so, what kind of books do you read?

For me, reading is not about relaxing. It's about learning. The world is a very complex place and I am forever trying to understand it and the history of nations, cultures, etc. That said, I find reading very relaxing.

(7) You’re a charter member of the National Book Critics Circle, which was founded in New York in 1974 with the purpose of honoring outstanding writing and fostering a national conversation about reading, criticism and literature. Is there a particularly rewarding moment in your association with the NBCC that allowed you see the impact you’re having?

I have been a member of the NBCC since its founding, but have never taken an active part in it. I keep up with what it does, the books it awards prizes to, etc., but much of what passes for reviewing is a self-congratulatory exercise in demonstrating one's intellect and often one's biases. That part of reviewing doesn't interest me. Sharing news of interesting new books does.

(8) Who serves the best pizza and what is your favorite topping?

I am from New Jersey where they take great pride in making pizzas. I like a slice on occasion, but it's not a food of choice for me so I really don't have a favorite topping. 

(9) What is one item on your “bucket list”?

Having traveled extensively throughout the U.S. in the 1980s, I have visited all its major cities, but I have never been overseas. If I had the money, I would like to visit other nations. It won't happen. I live in a beautiful upscale apartment complex just minutes from the home in which I've lived for 62 years. It was and is a good life, a comfortable routine, and one via the Internet that allows me to interact with people from all over the world. 


Colonel Aleksandr Talanov -- the “ice man” -- is married to a woman he wishes he could love. But he can’t, and it's an ugly consequence of his training with the KGB. Even so, no one should have to experience what Talanov experiences: the brutal murder of his wife in front of his eyes.

Wracked with guilt and suspected of plotting her death, Talanov spirals downward on a path of self-destruction. He should have been killed, not her.  He was the one whose violent past would not leave them alone. Months tick by and Talanov hits rock bottom on the mean streets of Los Angeles, where he meets a hooker named Larisa, who drugs and robs him.

But in the seedy world of prostitution and human trafficking ruled by the Russian mafia, this hooker made the big mistake of stealing the ice man’s wallet. In it was Talanov’s sole possession of value: his wedding photo. Talanov tracks Larisa down to get that photo because it reminds him of everything that should have been but never was, and never would be because an assassin’s bullet had mistakenly killed his wife.

Or was it a mistake?

The answer lies in Greco’s Game, a chess match played in 1619 that is famous for its Queen sacrifice and checkmate in only eight moves. In an unusual alliance, Talanov and Larisa team up to begin unraveling the mystery of what Talanov’s old KGB chess instructor regarded as the most brilliant example of how to trap and kill an opponent.

The question is: who was the target?

More information, along with sneak peeks and the entire first chapter, can be found in the Books section of James Houston Turner's website (
www.jameshoustonturner.com). More information can be found on the official Greco's Game Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/GrecosGame). James and his wife, Wendy, live in Adelaide, South Australia.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Happy sounds. Life is full of them. And where would we be without them? Children laughing. . .a babbling brook. . .a tornado named Wendy. . .

Which is precisely what I heard this morning at dark-thirty with the thump-whump-whump of the food processor shredding cabbage. Yes, cabbage. This was WAY before breakfast or coffee, mind you, as my wife leaped from bed because she wanted to make FERMENTED cabbage. Sauerkraut. Kim chi.

The Infrared Highway. The blog of author James Houston Turner

I was lying there in the darkness listening to all this noise and had to smile at how good I have it. So I got up and there she was, all alone in our little lighted kitchen, with the rest of the house dark, singing away, happy as the proverbial lark, shredding and banging and mashing cabbage in this huge bowl with the speed of an F-22 Raptor. Naturally, she finished her task long before the coffee had brewed. And I am now blessed with the magnificent, joyful, happy, happy sound of sauerkraut. It's a memory I'll never forget.

Yes, I absolutely LOVE the happy sounds of life. Are you listening to yours?

Indeed, what would life be without them?

Friday, May 11, 2012

The Hunter Becomes the Hunted

Okay, so maybe I dramatized the title of this post just a wee bit. After all book reviewer Daniel Cann is not exactly a skin-clad, bull-necked Neanderthal pursuing his next meal, only to discover the sabre tooth tiger he's been tracking is actually tracking him for exactly the same reason. At least I hope that's not how he viewed this interviewee's request to interview the interviewer. (Did I just over "view" that?) Besides, my cuspids are not nearly that big.

I decided to interview Daniel because Daniel just posted his review of my latest Aleksandr Talanov thriller, Greco's Game, and what better way to get back at him! Seriously, after reading his review, I began to wonder what made Daniel click. What motivated him to become a reviewer? I mean, think about it: reviewers, bloggers and critics read huge amounts of material and then write equally huge amounts of articles about that material, which in Daniel's case includes reviews of books, film, travel, and his favorite sport of boxing. As you can tell, he's a typical underachiever! Hence, it seemed only natural -- and fun -- to turn the tables and let you catch a glimpse of the real Daniel Cann.

This blog will be divided into two parts. Part One is my interview with Daniel. Part Two are Daniel's additional remarks about Greco's Game and what led him to make the comments he did about my book. To set the stage, you can read his review of Greco's Game here -- 
http://bit.ly/INWKBG -- and his interview of me, the author of Greco's Game, by clicking here: http://bit.ly/JDPl6L.


JHT: You're a prolific writer. You review books, film, boxing, and travel destinations. How do you do it? Dangerous amounts of caffeine? Guarana? Tequila??? Seriously, how do you manage to produce so much witty, informative, incisive material and still have a life beyond the borders of your Daniel Cann Independent Review site? What's your daily routine?

C: Thank you very much Jim! My website is an eclectic collection of things from my past and present. So the travel section documents places I have visited a few years ago in all their quirky and entertaining glory. I want to share my experiences with my readership so they can have an idea how I felt to see a sunrise at Uluru (Ayer’s Rock), a sunset at the Grand Canyon, or what it was like to swim at the Great Barrier Reef. There were so many great memories from my travel diaries that I had to serialise them: Surfing and White Water Rafting in Australia, jet boating, glacier climbing and whale spotting in New Zealand, exploring the ruins of Mexico and trying to capture the majesty of Niagara Falls and what it felt to go right up to the Falls in the “Maid of the Mist.” Travelling broadens your outlook and makes you realise how small and insignificant you are next to the awe-inspiring and beautiful planet we live on.

Travel writers like Pete McCarthy of “McCarthy’s Bar” and “The Road To McCarthy” and Bill Bryson both had a huge influence on me in the way I wish to capture my experiences. What I like about that duo is they are clearly very intelligent, curious and enthusiastic but also self-deprecating and witty. This style ensures repeat reading and over the years I have lost count of the times I have re-read their books.
And yes, I have to admit it. I am a compulsive reader. As soon as I can remember I have had a book in my hand. My parents told me that when I was a toddler I once held a book and pretended to be reading it!

I grew up on Robert Louis Stephenson, Walter Scott and Mark Twain: Lots of books about adventure and exploration, rites-of passage stories that all had a big impact on my imagination and personality. My Grandpa would tell me stories about his days as a soldier serving in India, Burma (he was awarded the Burma Star) and Egypt. He then spent most of the 1950s working at the mines in Africa and his stories of his exploits, the places, the people he met and the cultures that were introduced to him fascinated and captivated me, so from an early age I always wanted to try to emulate him or at least try to see as much of the world as possible. It also helped that he told me about pirates, smugglers and miners in Cornwall (where he lived) so when the family took a holiday and we visited our grandparents it was not long before my young imagination was fired up!

As for boxing? I have always had a passion for it. My father took me to a few amateur shows as a boy and in the 1980s when I was growing up Barry McGuigan’s fights were being beamed into every living room in the United Kingdom and Ireland and the night he won the world title was unforgettable. Needless to say the whole Cann household were on their collective feet that night cheering him on!
I like to keep up to date with the sport, but I am also fascinated by its history and have read countless autobiographies and books of fighters from the past. Many of them have been reviewed by me on my website in the “Books” section. I will continue to follow boxing and my thirst for information on its practitioners and characters involved in it will never be fully satisfied.

I have always been a film buff. My Dad took me to see a Star Wars double bill as a boy and I found myself totally immersed in the escapism, the sweeping music score, the special effects and the sheer spectacle of it all. From that moment on I have been totally hooked by films. Obviously your tastes evolve as you get older but I enjoy films from all genres and eras. For an emotional punch and powerful life journey I found “The Hurricane” to be a fascinating and moving biopic. But I also enjoy feel good comedies and am equally at home with the likes of “When Harry Met Sally” or “Groundhog Day.” I still find myself angered and appalled by the downbeat ending of “Easy Rider” and also enjoy the oldies from the 1940s and the bleaker films of the 1970s. Once you start to delve into things a little more there is a treasure trove of styles, themes and ideas to explore. So don’t just watch the Summer Blockbusters people! 
So films and books are a way to express so many things – you cannot watch a film or read a book passively, and I hope my reviews bring out my honest and heartfelt thoughts on them.

I must admit I don’t really have a daily routine as such. I can be laid back at times then burst into frenetic activity. Before my website
www.danielcann.com existed I had boxes of unfinished projects and reviews that may have never seen the light of day had it not been for the World Wide Web! So you can blame my current and continuing work output on the internet!

JHT: What inspired you to become a critic?

I see myself as more of a “reviewer” than “critic” as I don’t gleefully take things apart like a lot of “critics” tend to do. One of my pet dislikes is people who delight in rubbishing someone’s hard work, casually dismissing it with no thought of what actually went into it. I like to be as fair as possible and even if I don’t like what I am reading or watching, I at least try to see what the writer or film director was attempting to communicate, then I will add constructive thoughts on how it could have been better (in my humble opinion). 
I remember writing a few reviews for my University magazine after some encouragement from a few friends. There was a gap of a few years until recently I launched my review website and here I am finally doing what I really love.

When I studied law, one of the tenets of natural justice was to "hear the other side" and I believe that this is the job of a reviewer. Try to think who the piece is aimed at? Who would like to read this book or see this film? What would appeal to them?

What do you do to relax?

I enjoy walking a lot as that usually clears my head as well as giving the body a good workout, so sometimes I walk in the surrounding countryside near my home other times I like to explore Dartmoor. I enjoy watching rugby, particularly the Exeter Chiefs so I go to as many games each season as I can. I am also a fan of boxing, especially its history so I watch and read up a lot on that. If I really need to unwind I listen to music and try to go somewhere else in my head. Otherwise I just enjoy catching up with friends and family.

Do you have any quirks or peculiar habits?

None that I am aware of but maybe my friends and family have noticed some?!! I can be a very compulsive person really getting into one subject or project. I have been told at times like these I am like a dog with a bone! I can be very laid back and then spring into action, an all or nothing person really.
I am always up for a laugh and don’t need much persuading to try new things. Going to Newquay with a football team all dressed as Morrismen and going to Ireland to watch a goat crowned King are two spontaneous events from my life that I enjoyed and are typical of me (both episodes can be found in the “Travel” section of my site.
Ultimately I have a light outlook and approach to life and believe that nowadays people put too much pressure and expectation on themselves to achieve and become “the next big thing” and forget to relax and step back and enjoy the more quirky, fun aspects of life. In this celebrity obsessed era a lot of people really beat themselves up if they are not seen to be achieving something. I don’t understand that. Life is to be celebrated and enjoyed and if you are not the best then you can still live vicariously through sports, film or music. Have your own goals pertinent to who you are and remember to have fun!

What is one “yet-to-do” item on your bucket list?

To write a novel or travel book of my own, and I still want to see more of the world. There will always be another project to do and another place to explore.


Now, to Greco’s Game. You describe the book as “emotional” and “gritty”. What scene(s) in particular struck you personally in that regard?

ight from the start the book pulls the rug from right under your feet when you discover Andrea, Aleksandr Talanov’s wife, anchor and love of his life is dead and he has hit rock bottom.

Lots of things hit home, Talanov is in a very bad place emotionally and physically but the prostitute he befriends through circumstance resonates well. Her story is such a painfully familiar one these days of someone who has nothing and is being manipulated by lies and false promises then drawn into a terrible situation.

“Greco’s Game” may be a suspense thriller but it is not a typical one, rather it highlights a very real contemporary problem: the plight of the many innocent and unwitting women who fall victim to human trafficking across the globe.

All I can say is when people read this they should expect their jaws to clench [and] their knuckles to go white. . .

There are many scenes in the novel that jar and hit you in the stomach. I don’t want to spoil it for other readers but let’s just say that by the time Talanov is aware of Larisa’s plight and decides to “get involved” you are willing him on to do as much damage to the network of criminals who are ruining so many lives as possible. He really is like a modern day knight who is going to do all he can to save and avenge the oppressed.

He is also dealing with grief, guilt and self-loathing. The novel is very raw in that respect and you can feel his fury and rage pulsing from the page. That made it more exciting for me as this is not a case of a cool, calm operative going about his job, but rather an angry and vulnerable man who wants answers and is willing to risk all to bring the wrongdoers to task. All I can say is when people read this they should expect their jaws to clench, their knuckles to go white and above all to think “Go get them!”

What was a favorite scene of yours from the book?

I enjoyed the exchanges between Talanov and his old friend Bill Wilcox. It is clear they have a friendship going back some years and it is one ray of sunshine that the otherwise pretty dark novel needed. James Bond had Felix Leiter, Sherlock Holmes had John Watson and Aleksandr Talanov has Bill Wilcox as his trusted friend and ally.
There is a lot going on here, Talanov can be contemplative and analytical and he can also be like a force of nature as he tears into the opposition, but there are some tender moments with Larisa and I think it is a case of two damaged souls coming together and helping each other which truly appeals.

Talanov can be contemplative and analytical, and he can also be like a force of nature as he tears into the opposition.

There is one scene in particular that is a favourite and it may surprise you Jim as it is not a frenetic action scene with your trademark chaos ensuing. I loved the scene where Talanov is stood with his arms folded across his chest, his hand thoughtfully stroking his chin whilst all around him are running around in total disarray unsure of what to do next. The US authorities mistrust him and are clearly reluctant to work with him and yet here he is standing in the middle of all that pressure and madness, the eye of the hurricane and yet he remains stoic and calm. The perfect example of why he was known as the “Ice Man” back in the day.

Sherlock Holmes had “deductive reasoning” and Talanov has “inverse logic” and any scene that illustrates his brain power is every bit as thrilling as the ones packed with action.

What do you like best about Aleksandr Talanov?

e is one of us. He does not belong to any organisation and is independent of any paymasters. He is not the establishment; rather he is a well-placed civilian who, thanks to his KGB background and training as well as his unrelenting physical fitness regime is an asset to whoever needs him. Although he is from the Cold War era and from a regime that did not celebrate the individual, he has very strong independent traits and personal beliefs. He is clearly for the “little guy” and despite being nicknamed “Ice Man” I don’t think he is as cold as we are sometimes led to believe!

What is interesting in the Talanov series is his interaction with others. You introduce so many colourful characters and I really enjoy how they bounce off him. They often provide the lighter flourishes that the novels have for some much needed humanity.

He is clearly for the “little guy”.  He is one of us.

I also find the idea of a hero in his fifties far more interesting and compelling than a superhuman, indestructible, twenty-something, programmed agent. Clearly Talanov is not your typical fifty-something as he has the conditioning of someone much younger, but it is his brainpower and experience as much as his physical ruggedness that makes him so effective. I prefer reading about fallible, vulnerable and more importantly believable characters and he is definitely one of them.

ny final comments about Greco’s Game?

As a child of the 1980s I can remember the last years of the Cold War and what it was like to live slap bang in the middle of two superpowers with vastly different ideologies as well as a frightening stockpile of weapons of mass destruction (we simply called them “nukes” in those days!) So to read about a hero (or anti-hero) that is not only from that era, but also an ex KGB agent now living in the West is fascinating.

I really enjoy reading James Bond and Jason Bourne novels but Talanov is not another clone, being Russian, albeit with Western tastes and ideology, he is perfectly placed to strike a balance between both cultures and provide added perspective. He has a very clinical and very Russian way of analysing and solving problems too which makes him very interesting and compelling.

. . . my jaw hit my chest.

If you enjoyed “Department Thirteen” and “The Identity Factor” you will really enjoy this one. I honestly did not see the scenario Talanov finds himself thrust in coming at all. I thought (and please don’t take offence at this Jim) that we would get another hectic espionage story where Talanov and his wife were having again to stay one step ahead of his past. So when I read that Andrea had been killed off right at the start my jaw hit my chest. A very bold and unexpected move!

I get the feeling that there are plenty more Talanov adventures to come with the surprises and unexpected turns coming thick and fast. Finally I believe one day we will say “that novel was “Turneresque”” rather than “Ludlumesque.”

Greco's Game is available NOW for pre-order!!! Just click the link below.
Official Greco's Game launch date: September 1st, 2012.
Amazon USA
Barnes and Noble USA
Amazon UK
Amazon Japan
Angus and Robertson Australia

Follow Greco's Game on Facebook.
For more information, visit James Houston Turner's website: www.jameshoustonturner.com.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Paul Franco Award

Paul Franco is one of my Facebook friends...a Los Angeles-based photographer who recently told me he was traveling across Europe by train when he saw a young woman reading one of my novels. He approached her with his usual flair and swagger and said, "I know the author." Paul never made it clear whether he approached the woman because she was tall and gorgeous or because she was reading my book. Nevertheless, I decided to create an award dedicated to that moment.

Unlike the mind of its namesake, The Paul Franco Award is simple: I will give an autographed copy of my next thriller to the very first random person I meet in public who is reading one of my novels. Plane, train, rickshaw, bicycle, hover craft, skateboard -- it doesn't matter. To win a free copy of my next book, all I need to do is see you reading one of my other novels. Yes, digital eBooks count. (Please, no reading while driving your car or big-rig, although passengers are certainly encouraged to partake!)

Which brings up an important point.

With the proliferation of high-speed hand-held internet devices today, if you see me coming, you can quickly go to Amazon and order a copy of Department Thirteen clicking HERE or The Identity Factor by clicking HERE, or if you're a Nook fan, go to Barnes & Noble and purchase a copy of Department Thirteen by clicking HERE, or The Identity Factor by clicking HERE, and that simple strategic purchase could win you FREE autographed copy of my next book! Easy!

What are you in for if you do? Well, Department Thirteen chronicles a week in the life of former KGB informant Aleksandr Talanov, who discovers he has broken the first rule of survival by unwittingly falling in love with the woman he must now fall out of love with if he is to save her from a mysterious group of assassins from his past. Released in 2011 by Comfort Publishing and set in Los Angeles, Australia, Vanuatu, and Switzerland, the novel was inspired by my years as a smuggler behind the old Iron Curtain, where it was recently awarded the Best Thriller of 2011 by USA Book News. You can read the official press release by clicking HERE, or watch the two-minute trailer by clicking HERE.

The Identity Factor is a completely different story altogether. Also published by Comfort Publishing and set in Austin, Cairo, Jerusalem, Washington DC, and San Francisco, The Identity Factor is attraction versus antagonism when a headstrong, mouthy rookie profiler with the CIA competes with a charming Texas journalist to identify a phantom terrorist. The book scooped finalist awards in four US book competitions, including the National Best Books Awards and the Eric Hoffer Award.

And what is my next book, you ask? I can't tell you that right now other than to say it is the second in my Talanov thriller series. "Book X," as I am presently calling it, will be announced officially by its actual title in June at the giant Book Expo America convention in New York. Naturally, some quotes and teasers will be leaked before that time, but if you like the likes of Aleksandr Talanov, you're in for a real treat.

So, in conclusion, I wish you happy reading, and on behalf of The Paul Franco Award, I hope to see one of you soon!

Friday, August 5, 2011

Department Thirteen

Moscow: 1983. Colonel Aleksandr Talanov of the KGB was trained to keep other people safe. It was his job. He was good at it. Unfortunately, the people he was protecting tonight were not the targets. He was. And not in a way he could ever have imagined. ~Department Thirteen. Opening lines.

James Houston Turner's latest novel, Department Thirteen, is a modern-day thriller about retired KGB informant Aleksandr Talanov, who is happily married to a woman he does not love. But when a mysterious group of assassins from his past narrowly miss killing him and his wife, Talanov discovers he has broken the first rule of survival by unwittingly falling in love with the woman he must now fall out of love with if he is to save her.

Want a taste of the adventure? View the exciting new Department Thirteen book trailer by clicking HERE.

Want to order a copy?

Go to Barnes & Noble by clicking HERE.
Go to Amazon.com by clicking HERE.

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