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?
Game Warden Mike Bowditch returns to the service with a new-found maturity and a very challenging assignment in The Precipice by Paul Doiron. Deep in the Maine forest lies a part of the Appalachian Trail so remote that signs are posted to warn even seasoned hikers there is no assistance or supplies for the next hundred miles. Two young women, recent college graduates from Pentecost University, venture into this treacherous region and disappear without a trace.
Mike leaves a romantic getaway with his girlfriend Stacy Stevens to join the hunt. Mike, with the additional challenge of keeping up with his partner, is teamed with Bob Nissan, who set the record for fastest hike of the trail. Mike quickly determines the hikers “point last seen” and narrows the search. An all-out manhunt ensues. Multiple jurisdictions coordinate their efforts against time and the elements. The hikers could be lost, hurt or crime victims. Stacy, a wildlife biologist, joins Mike on the trail. Then, a new horror emerges — coyotes ranging the area might be guilty of an act too horrible to imagine. A passionate defender of the animals, Stacy is willing to risk everything to uncover the truth.
Paul Doiron is a Registered Maine Guide and the editor emeritus of Down East, The Magazine of Maine. His first novel The Poacher’s Son won the Barry Award and was a finalist for the Edgar and Anthony awards. He draws on his vast knowledge of the region to create a backdrop for characters carved straight out of the Maine woods. He is a master craftsman at devising plots that are not only suspenseful, but original. Mike’s progressed from impulsive novice to experienced professional through five previous works. While this book can read individually, I highly recommend you follow the path through the woods with Mike and discover the five previous books.
Fans of C. J. Box, Dana Stabenow and Nevada Barr are sure to be pleased.
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.
Lisa Scottoline and Francesca Serritella once again tickle our funny bones with light-hearted humor and everyday situations in Does This Beach Make Me Look Fat? In a series of essays alternating between mother and daughter, Lisa and Francesca tackle college reunions, remote controls, city living, country dwelling, pet perils and TV religion. They also discuss bad breakups, last goodbyes, new beginnings and growing old.
Sharing their confessions, heartaches, love lives and just ordinary living, the authors remind us not to sweat the small stuff. While the mass media spends millions trying to convince us that we must be thin, smart, sexy, modern, well-read, and perfect in word and deed, Lisa and Francesca give us permission to eat on the beach and enjoy. To love yourself as your parents loved you. To recapture those blissful moments as children when we were free of guilt. To live life as it was meant to be lived — joyfully.
Lisa Scottoline is The New York Times bestselling author of the legal mystery series Rosato and Associates and numerous standalone titles. She is a past president of Mystery Writers of America and is an Edgar Allan Poe Award winner. Lisa co-authors a weekly column for The Philadelphia Inquirer with her daughter, Francesca Serritella, entitled “Chick Wit.” Other humorous collections by these authors include Meet Me at Emotional Baggage Claim, Best Friends, Occasional Enemies and My Nest Isn’t Empty, It Just Has More Closet Space.
Don’t miss out on this book — it’s a gem!
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.
Retired New York City police officer Steve Osborne has a swell of stories to tell, and his debut The Job: True Tales from the Life of a New York City Cop collects his written and oral tales featured in the popular NPR live program “The Moth.” After standing in at a show that was missing an act, Osborne’s penchant for chronicling his adventures on the beat in New York City’s ninth precinct landed him a nationwide storytelling tour and convinced him to keep writing in his spare time.
The Job contains heartfelt, easy-to-read stories with a great balance of action, humor and drama. In “Hot Dog,” Osborne recalls running into a repeat drug offender a few years after the man was released from Riker’s Island. “Midnights” details some of the worst possible calls a cop working the graveyard shift could receive — all of which flood Osborne’s precinct in one night. A woman reports a rape case and Osborne’s unit confronts the oddball assailant before he skips town in “Stockbroker.” Osborne reflects on the first time he had to face a mother and inform her of the death of her child in “Growing Pains.”
After taking in the stories collected in The Job, readers will get a great sense of the kind of cop Osborne was and the kind of guy he is now. His no-nonsense sincerity shines throughout his recollections, and he never shies away from portraying himself, his police allies or their suspects honestly. Osborne’s world views have been shaped by the survival tactics he had to employ every shift he worked, and the stories he shares are evident of the toll he has paid.
John Sununu, former Chief of Staff in the first Bush Administration, offers an inside portrait of the one-term presidency in The Quiet Man: The Indispensable Presidency of George H. W. Bush. The 41st president is most remembered for the First Gulf War, fought to liberate Kuwait after it was invaded by Iraq. It was one of the largest and most successful military campaigns in history. However, we seldom consider Bush’s domestic accomplishments in the face of an overwhelming opposition majority.
Sununu argues that Bush was also an effective engineer of domestic legislation. His legislative accomplishments included bolstering civil rights, creating the Americans with Disabilities Act and passing comprehensive clean air and water protections after they languished for 12 years in Congress. He identified the savings and loan crisis as a major threat to a healthy economy, overhauling the banking system and paving the way for the strong economic recovery of the 1990s.
With rare exceptions, don’t look for honest criticism in this work. It is clearly both a vigorous defense of the first Bush Administration and a homage to the man who held the office. It's still a fascinating behind-the-scenes view of the inner workings of the White House as it negotiates the tumultuous events at the end of the 20th century. We have a front-row seat to diplomatic machinations both domestic and foreign. Sununu observes that the consequences of 41’s presidency reverberate today like the "Thousand Points of Light" he lit across the nation.
Agree or disagree with his policies, this President Bush is aptly quoted, “I am a quiet man. But I hear the quiet people others don’t.”
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.