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Kirkus Reviews gives thumbs-up to Human Game

In books on September 3, 2012 at 8:43 am

Happy to report Kirkus Reviews has given Human Game a good write-up. The review, which I’ve included below, will appear on the Kirkus website September 3; it will run in the Kirkus print edition September 12. I consider the following review a nice complement, considering the slogan for Kirkus Reviews is “The World’s Toughest Book Critics Since 1933.”

Human Game: The True Story of the ‘Great Escape’ Murders and the Hunt for the Gestapo Gunmen

The truth about the murders of 50 airmen who escaped from a top-security World War II prison camp and how the Third Reich’s killers were brought to justice.

Read (War of Words: A True Tale of Newsprint and Murder, 2009, etc.) draws heavily on the British Royal Air Force Special Investigation Bureau (SIB) case files to put together the story of what happened after the events portrayed in the 1963 movie The Great Escape. Supposedly escape-proof in design and construction, Stalag Luft III became the holding pen for a multinational contingent of repeat escapees. Six hundred were involved in organizing the plot intended to free 250 from confinement. Read shows how the escape shocked Hitler and the Nazi security services high command, resulting in a nationwide manhunt for the escapees. The men were summarily executed upon capture and cremated anonymously. The SIB detailed a task force of 21 investigators and 16 translators to track down the killers. They identified 72 members of the Gestapo, SS and Kripo chains of command who played an active part in the murders; of them, 21 were sentenced to death by hanging, 17 to prison terms. (Others had died during the war or committed suicide.) The guilty included fanatics like Wilhelm Scharpwinkel, head of the Breslau Gestapo, and Johannes Post, the deputy Gestapo chief and executioner in Kiel.

Read provides an admirable record of the meticulous police work involved in accumulating proof sufficient for prosecution and conviction. The RAF detail started from scratch and had to use many different methods to reconstruct personnel and their units and to identify the 72 found responsible. A fast-paced, clearly written account of how justice was served in a difficult wartime case.

Writing and dark magic

In Writing on August 23, 2012 at 11:08 am

As the publication date for Human Game approaches, I’m keeping my mind distracted by working on my next project. I’m roughly 20,000 words in and hoping to hit the 30,000-word mark by the end of September. I don’t write as fast as I used to. With a 17-month-old son, it’s also harder for me to stay at my computer for long periods of time. He’s at the age where he enjoys being chased around the house, which is a lot of fun for me—and helps me burn a few calories in the process.

I told myself going into this current project that I wasn’t going to be a stickler with the writing schedule. Thus far, writing only when I feel like it has made the process all the more enjoyable. I don’t feel obligated to produce and don’t feel disappointed if I have an unproductive day. On days when the words are flowing, I limit myself to a 500-word maximum. It’s always better to finish a day’s writing when you know what you want to put down on the page the next day.

There’s another reason for my more relaxed approach. I enjoy knowing that I have a project to work on. Whenever I finish a book, there is—naturally—a great sense of relief, but that soon gives way to fear that no new ideas will materialize. By taking my time, I can draw out the writing process and delay the inevitable panic that will set in when I’m done. All that said, this current book is proving a joy to write. It entails some strange research on my part. Among the books I’ve had to consult thus far are:

    The Devil’s Dominion: The Complete Story of Hell and Satanism in the Modern World

    Man, Myth, and Magic: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Supernatural: Volumes 1 and 2

    At the Heart of Darkness: Witchcraft, Black Magic and Satanism Today

    The Occult: A History.

Anyone who walks into my home office and sees such reading material spread about might think I’m trying to master the dark arts. My interest in such a subject is purely professional—but if I learn how to put curses on those who annoy me, then I’ll consider that an added benefit!

In the meantime, I was recently contacted by a fact checker at Wired for the write up they’re doing on Human Game in the October issue. I have no idea the length of the article, but judging from the number of questions I was asked and the depth of detail they wanted, I’m hoping the article is rather substantial—and kind towards the book! I’m very thankful for the publicity!

Hope and Nerves: ‘Human Game’ publication date fast approaching

In books, publishing, Writing on August 16, 2012 at 9:24 am

There’s about six weeks to go before Human Game is thrust upon the reading public—whether said public takes notice is now the issue at hand. My publicist at Penguin has started pitching long-lead publications (primarily magazines), hoping to score hits in issues that come out near the time of the book’s October 2 release. Wired Magazine, which is doing an escaped-theme issue in October, has already confirmed they’ll include a write-up on the book. I’m hoping other publications take the bait. Near the time of the book’s release, newspapers will be pitched. Scoring book reviews in papers like the New York Times and Los Angeles Times is no easy task. To date, the San Francisco Chronicle is the largest publication to feature a review of one of my books. Fortunately, it was a positive piece!

This, to me, is one of the real nail-biting phases of the publication process. You can spend three years researching and writing a book, anguishing over every sentence—but that effort doesn’t guarantee you an audience. It’s been seven years since the publication of my first book. With subsequent books, I always wondered, “Will this be the one?” With Human Game, however, I’ve taken a more grounded approach. I’m incredibly proud of the book; I think it’s an important book—but I’m not approaching the publication date with overblown hopes that it will suddenly takeoff and score massive sales. I learned with my last work, which my publisher at the time said was going to be huge, that fostering such hope can bring you crashing painfully down to earth. That’s not to say one shouldn’t dream of success; it’s just important to hold firm to a healthy dose of realism.

I walked into a Barnes and Noble in the Bay Area last week and took a look at the “New Releases” table(s). It’s almost overwhelming when one considers how many new books are released on a weekly basis. Then, of course, there are e-books and the countless self-published works one can find on Amazon these days. The market is utterly swamped. It makes you wonder how any book can rise above the din and distinguish itself in the crowd.

As Human Game’s publication date draws ever closer, I do find myself falling off the wagon and surrendering to an old addiction: Sales Rank Checking. This is a syndrome defined by the chronic checking of one’s sales rank on Amazon. At the time of this writing, Human Game is hovering around the 300,000 mark. The highest I’ve ever had a book reach is 1,000. The Amazon sales rank is an albatross around many an author’s neck, for it’s the one real indication we have—albeit, a vague one—of how a book is doing. While maintaining realistic hopes about the book’s success, I’d love it if it cracked Amazon’s top 100.

I can only wait and see what happens. In the meantime, here’s the jacket copy to Human Game.

In March and April of 1944, Gestapo gunmen killed fifty POWs—a brutal act in defiance of international law and the Geneva Convention.

This is the true story of the men who hunted them down.

The mass breakout of seventy-six Allied airmen from the infamous Stalag Luft III became one of the greatest tales of World War II, immortalized in the film “The Great Escape.” But where Hollywood’s depiction fades to black, another incredible story begins . . .

Not long after the escape, fifty of the recaptured airmen were taken to desolate killing fields throughout Germany and shot on the direct orders of Hitler. When the nature of these killings came to light, Churchill’s government swore to pursue justice at any cost. A revolving team of military police, led by squadron leader Francis P. McKenna, was dispatched to Germany seventeen months after the killings to pick up a trail long gone cold.

Amid the chaos of postwar Germany, divided between American, British, French, and Russian occupiers, McKenna and his men brought twenty-one Gestapo killers to justice in a hunt that spanned three years and took them into the darkest realms of Nazi fanaticism.

In Human Game, Simon Read tells this harrowing story as never before. Beginning inside Stalag Luft III and the Nazi High Command, through the grueling three-year manhunt, and into the final close of the case more than two decades later, Read delivers a clear-eyed and meticulously researched account of this often-overlooked saga of hard-won justice.

Ghost stories

In writers, Writing on August 1, 2012 at 9:32 am

I’m currently reading the annotated ghost stories of M.R. James (1862-1936), an English antiquary, mediaeval scholar, and provost of King’s College, Cambridge, and later of Eton, best remembered for his haunting tales. Penguin has published his work in two great volumes: Count Magnus and Other Ghost Stories and The Haunted Dollhouse and Other Ghost Stories. Reading them makes one realize that great horror literature is more about atmosphere than gore and violence. The stories, many written before the First World War, provide a wonderful look at an England that doesn’t really exist anymore.

I’ve always been fascinated by ghost stories, as I think—in terms of writing—they’re one of the hardest things to do well. James had his own formula for what made a good ghost story:

To be sure, I have my ideas as to how a ghost story ought to be laid out if it is to be effective. I think that, as a rule, the setting should be fairly familiar with the majority of the characters and their talk such as you may meet or hear any day. A ghost story of which the scene is laid in the twelfth or thirteenth century may succeed in being romantic or poetical: it will never put the reader into the position of saying to himself, “If I’m not very careful, something of this kind may happen to me!” Another requisite, in my opinion, is that the ghost should be malevolent or odious: amiable and helpful apparitions are all very well in fairy tales or in local legends, but I have no use for them in a fictitious ghost story.

So, if you enjoy a tale of a good haunting and have not yet done so, I highly suggest you check out M.R. James. All that said, here’s a strange little episode from my own family history. This, mind you, is not an attempt at a fictitious ghost story. Believe it, or not.

Many years ago, my Great Uncle Monty worked as a reporter for London’s Evening Standard and wrote an article on Borley Rectory, once considered the most haunted house in Britain. Everything from phantom carriages to ghostly nuns were said to loiter about the place. In 1946, he visited the site where the house once stood (it burned down in 1939) and took a piece of charred wood as a souvenir.

He was staying with his married sister in London at the time. He returned to her house and put the piece of wood in his bedroom, thinking nothing of it. It was not long before strange things started happening. The occurrences were typical ghostly fair: footsteps upstairs when no one was on the upper floor, doors opening and closing on their own, and the sensation that one was being watched when alone in a room. On evening, his sister—my aunt—was heard screaming upstairs. When asked what all the fuss was about, she claimed to have seen a figure dressed in black standing in my uncle’s room.

From there, things took a more ominous turn. Monty’s brother, my grandfather, came to spend a night at the house. He says he got undressed that evening, put his clothes over a chair in the bedroom, and got into bed. No sooner had he turned off the light than someone threw the clothes on the bed. He was at an utter loss to explain what had happened and was in no hurry to spend the night after that. When my uncle went to stay at his fiancé’s house in Surrey, he took the piece wood with him. Again, it seemed the ghostly phenomena followed him. The ghost made itself known several more times. On one occasion, Monty’s fiancé opened the closet in her bedroom, only to find a transparent nun standing there.

It was enough to convince Monty to get rid of the wood. He told the story in passing to his dentist, who asked if he could take possession of the grim souvenir. Monty turned it over to the dentist, who had a passion for collecting cuckoo clocks. The first night the wood was at the dentist’s home, every clock in the place supposedly went crazy. The dentist, after that, was quick to get rid of his recent acquisition. What happened to the wood, I don’t know . . .

Monty eventually wrote his experiences up in a newspaper article. The story has since been reprinted in at least one book on Borley Rectory. Somewhere, buried in box, I have a copy of the story. I’ll have to dig it up one of these days.

Review: ‘The Grievers’ by Marc Schuster

In books on July 20, 2012 at 7:25 am

To simply call The Grievers by Marc Schuster a comic novel is to dismiss the book’s emotional depth. At its core, the story is a touching—and somewhat dark—meditation on friendship, death, and missed opportunities. Charley Schwartz is a mess. The promise of his younger years has fizzled out, leaving him with an incomplete dissertation moldering in his desk drawer and a humiliating job prancing around in a large dollar sign costume (complete with green tights and large Mickey Mouse-type gloves) outside the local bank. His off-kilter existence is thrown more askew when he learns an old childhood friend, Billy Chin, has leapt to his death off Philadelphia’s Henry Avenue Bridge.

For Charley, Billy’s suicide is a brutal wake-up call, forcing him to take stock of who he is and what his life has become. Why has he failed to live up to his potential? Was he really as good a friend to Billy as he should have been? And is it ever too late to steer your life back on its intended course? In Billy’s death, Charley sees an opportunity to not only prove his worth as a human being by organizing a memorial service for his friend, but also a way to acknowledge what he has long tried to ignore: He’s an adult.

In an interview with Life Magazine shortly before his death, Ian Fleming said he had gone through life with one foot “never wanting to leave the cradle.” It made, he said, “a rather painful split of one’s life.” Charley has spent his adult life clinging desperately to the carefree attitudes of childhood. His failure to take anything seriously is a constant annoyance to his best friend, Neil, a Marx Brothers fanatic who wants Charley to join him in the grown-up world of responsibilities. The yearning to turn back the clock is a theme that runs through The Grievers and is something almost everyone can relate to. In Charley’s case, it’s a defense mechanism to ward off the sense of failure that attaches itself to nearly everything he does. Fortunately, he has a pretty amazing wife who still believes in his inner potential.

Needless to say, Charley’s attempt to organize Billy’s memorial service turns into a fiasco when his alma mater—a slowly decaying boy’s academy—seizes the event as a fund-raising opportunity. For Charley, it’s an opportunity to abandon his sense of worthlessness and finally do something right.

In writing The Grievers, Schuster has done everything right, giving us a story that–at its conclusion–delivers a hefty, emotional punch.

‘Midnight Men’: My novel in perpetual progress

In Writing on July 19, 2012 at 8:40 am

Going through some old files the other night, I stumbled across the opening of a thriller set in WW2 London I began about two years ago but never finished. I still have a good idea where the story could go. Who knows? I may give it another try in the not-too-distant future. This is rough, unedited copy. You’ll see the word “BLANK” appears in some sentences . . . this is because I wasn’t sure what to place there!

The working title for this was “Midnight Men.” Like I said, I may give it another go. Without further ado . . .

“If you ask me,” Detective Inspector Michael Bishop said, “it’ll take a bloody miracle to win this war.”

“Don’t let Winston hear you say that,” joked his detective-sergeant, a stout, bullish man named William Terrence—“Terry” to everyone.

The two men sat in a Coventry Street pub, enjoying their regularly scheduled drink. The unpredictable nature of police work meant both men found comfort in their set routines.

“How many years have you been on the job?” Bishop asked over the rim of his glass.

“More than I care to remember.”

“I’ve been doing it for twenty two years—twelve of them staring at bodies,” Bishop said. “We both deal in cold facts and assemble them one by one into concrete certainties. That is what policemen do, Terence, and the facts as they relate to our, England’s, current predicament speak for themselves. I’m not a pessimist; I simply resign myself to life’s harsh realities.”

“Lower your voice,” Terence said with good humor. “Talk like that might get you shot.”

“So be it,” Bishop roared. “I admire decisive action.”

Bishop downed the contents of his glass, ordered two more at the bar and cursed silently when the air raid sirens began. He imagined the bombers taking off from captured airfields in BLANK and BLANK, flying over the English Channel, crossing the southern coast at Dover and following the moonlit ribbon of the Thames to London. In the early days of summer, before the first bombs fell, his wife and two young sons had left the city for a distant corner of Lincolnshire where his in-laws owned a small country pub. He traveled to see them when he could and often heard British bombers taking off from the nearby RAF airfield, roaring over the village in the twilight of evening, young men winging their way toward an unknown fate. Some nights, he lay awake in bed and listened for their return, his vigil surrendering to a silent dawn. Other times, he heard the approach of sputtering engines and the painful grinding of flak-damaged machinery cough its way across the sky.

“This is a damn foolish business on both sides,” he said, returning to the table and placing a full glass in front of Terence. The younger man reached for the coat draped over the back of his chair and appeared ready to leave.

“Don’t be in such a rush,” Bishop said, sitting down. “They’ll no doubt hit the East End again.”

The Luftwaffe had bombed St. Katherine’s Dock three nights running. By day, thick plumes of black smoke clawed the leaden sky; at night, the burning warehouses, supply depots and docks served as a homing beacon for the bombers above.

Bishop took another sip of drink and looked about the room. The barman carried on business as usual, wiping the beer taps with a wet rag. At the nondescript wooden tables, and in the old leather booths, most customers appeared content to stick it out with their wine and beer.

“To fine English stock,” Bishop raised his glass.

Terence shot a glance over Bishop’s shoulder. The detective turned in his chair and saw a couple, their drinks abandoned, scurry from the pub to no doubt find shelter.

“That saddens me, Terence,” Bishop said, his mood somber again. “Have you spent a night in the Underground? The air from the tunnels, a thousand bodies sweating in close proximity—it smells God-awful down there. That bloody Hitler has us living like troglodytes.”

Terence stared into his beer and made a mental note to look up troglodyte.

“At the Dorchester,” he said, “they’ve built a gas-proof shelter in the basement for government ministers and important guests. It has waiters and a fully stocked bar.”

“Must be nice,” said Bishop. “London burns, and our betters are no doubt sipping expensive brandy.”

Terence looked quizzically at the two pints on the table between them

“This is different,” Bishop said and reached for his glass. “Beer’s the drink of the working class.”

Terence shrugged and raised his glass. Having transferred to Scotland Yard’s CID from T Division (Hammersmith) six months prior, he was growing accustomed to Bishop’s self-serving logic.

“Whatever gets you through the night.”

Outside The Fox, the street was nearly deserted, save the odd shadowy figure milling about. Many Londoners rushed after work to catch the homebound bus or train. Meals were devoured quickly and a few meager possessions packed for a night in the shelter. Lighting a cigarette, Bishop thought not for the first time that life had become equal parts comforting routine and apocalyptic horror—but even the nightly raids and the destruction they wrought were slowly becoming part of the norm. Above the black outlines of buildings, sweeping columns of blue and white light canvassed the sky. The sirens continued to howl.

“The Devil always gives warning,” Bishop said.

“I suppose,” Terence replied, “the bloody Germans say the same thing about us.”

“Indeed,” Bishop sighed.

Writing again

In publishing, Writing on July 11, 2012 at 9:31 am

As I stated in my previous post, I’ve started work on my next book project. It’s a non-fiction story set in rural England, 1945. Part mystery, part history, and part thriller, it may also have elements of a ghost story—although I’m not entirely sure about that just yet. The book is going to be something of a mish-mash. The trick, of course, is not to make it read like one.

A good amount of the research has been done. The source material for the story in question is stored at the British National Archives. Seeing as a trip to the UK won’t be possible until Christmas—when I head over there for two weeks to visit family—I ordered a bulk of documents about two months ago. They arrived on my doorstep a couple of weeks ago. I’m currently working my way through them, trying to put them in some chronological order.

As a rule, I prefer using primary—as opposed to secondary—sources. For this project, however, I’ll be relying heavily on some previously published material, including the memoirs of one of the story participants. Memoirs are a great resource for an author, as they’re the next best thing to actually being able to sit down and interview the person in question. In this case, the person died many years ago. Fortunately, said individual was a great writer and left two volumes of excellent autobiography.

Although I still have a bit of research left to do, I’ve started the writing. With past projects, I’d set a daily quota for myself—usually between 500 and 1,000 words. I’m taking a different approach with this book and have adopted a hit-and-run approach. I don’t force myself to write something every day. I simply put something down on paper when it comes to me. If a sentence—or fragment—hits me, I write it down. If something doesn’t come to me for several days, I stay clear of the keyboard. It’s a nice change of pace and a refreshing way to work. I don’t feel the overwhelming desire to produce.

How long I stick with this method remains to be seen. The contract for the book is still being ironed out, and I’m not yet sure of the deadline. Once an actual end-date is decided upon, I may have to put myself on a more regimented schedule.

I doubt I’ll be discussing the writing process too much on this blog. Generally, I don’t like revealing a lot about a work in progress out of fear I’ll jinx something or throw my momentum off track. Once I’m done with a book, I’m more than happy to discuss how it was put together.

In other news, Penguin emailed me the typeset pages for Human Game! They look great. My editor wants me to go through them and get any final corrections back to her by Monday. That doesn’t leave a lot of time! This will be, I believe, the fifth time I’ve read the manuscript. I think I know the whole thing word-for-word.

Well, I guess I better get reading. Until next time . . .

Getting back into the swing of it

In Writing on July 10, 2012 at 9:28 am

My blogging recently has been sporadic at best—but it’s not due to any lackadaisical attitude on my part! Over the past few weeks, I’ve been busy completing the film treatment for Human Game. I finished it about two weeks ago and shipped it off to my film agent, who then began pitching it to studios and producers. While I obviously hope someone takes the bait, I know not to get carried away. The odds of securing a film deal are astronomical at best.

The biggest challenge in putting the treatment together was distilling a nearly 400-page manuscript down to a 20-page narrative. The task would have been even more difficult if not for my wonderful wife. She once read scripts and treatments at Miramax. When I showed her my initial draft, she took her red pen to the pages. After a lot of cutting and rearranging, the end product is something I’m most pleased with. Thanks, honey.

The pages for Human Game are currently being typeset. Penguin should have the galleys ready in about three weeks. This is always an exciting, but nerve-wracking, part of the publication process. You hope all typos and errors have been purged from the manuscript.

It remains to be seen what, if anything, the publisher does in terms of publicity. In the past, the bulk of the marketing work has fallen on my shoulders, which probably explains why I’ve never had a bestseller. It’s always struck me as odd that major league authors—think Stephen King, John Grisham, James Patterson, and the like—benefit from major marketing campaigns, while low- and mid-level authors—the very ones who need publicity—don’t receive much of it at all. Such is the business.

I’ve used the time away from the blog to try and catch up on some of my reading. I finished Marc Schuster’s wonderful book The Grievers. I highly recommend it. It’s simultaneously dark, funny, and moving. The guy has a phenomenal ear for dialogue, which is a great talent unto itself. That said, he’s simply a fantastic writer—period. Not a single word is wasted.

I’ve also started on my next book project, the contract for which is being ironed out. I don’t like to give too much away about works in progress out of fear I might jinx something. I will say, however, it’s another non-fiction book. The setting is 1945 England.

So, that’s it for now. I plan to start making regular posts again . . . I just have to get back into the swing of it!

Reviewing the red ink . . .

In Writing on June 5, 2012 at 8:55 am

Yesterday, my editor at Penguin sent me the copy edited manuscript to Human Game. I’m happy to say they saw few reasons to wield the dreaded red pen. Actually, I’ve been lucky in that I’ve never had to deal with a heavy handed copy editor. My experiences, thus far, have always been positive. If anything, I admire the eagle-eyed quality of those individuals tasked with combing manuscripts for discrepancies, typos, and other snafus.

In the past, the publisher would send me a hardcopy of the edits. With Human Game, however, they’ve simply sent me a Word document with Track Changes on. While I prefer reviewing changes on actual paper, dealing with an electronic version means printing and shipping costs are not an issue.

One thing that has always struck me about the editing process is how short the deadlines are. With previous books, once the publisher had made their various edits, I had one to two weeks to review the changes and address any questions they may have had. This time it’s no different. I received the manuscript on Monday, June 4, and have to send it back by Monday, June 11.

Things are pretty busy right now. I’m hoping to have my film treatment for Human Game done by the end of the week and off to my film agent. Obviously, I have the aforementioned edits to review—and I’m hashing out some ideas on how I’m going to approach my next book.

In the meantime, I received from Amazon my copy of The Grievers by Marc Schuster, a fellow author I met here on WordPress. I started reading the book last Friday and am happy to report that I’m enjoying it immensely. I highly recommend you check out Marc’s blog and, of course, his book!

Until next time . . .

Early praise for ‘Human Game’

In books on June 1, 2012 at 9:06 am

Here’s some advance praise of Human Game: The True Story of the ‘Great Escape’ Murders and the Hunt for the Gestapo Gunmen. Penguin will release the book in the U.S. on October 2.

Examining the issues of retribution, morality, and justice in wartime, Simon Read’s Human Game manages to show that even in the darkest times, mankind clings stubbornly to a sense of right and wrong.

In the summer of 1945, British investigator Francis McKenna and his team began a trek across post-war Europe to pursue the men who murdered British POWs in cold blood following the famous “Great Escape” from Stalag Luft III in March 1944. Simon Read details the hunt in a book that is one part detective story and one part morality play, striking themes that will resonate in the present day. Remarkably, many of the Germans who witnessed or were tangentially involved in the atrocity retained an active sense of guilt and helped the investigators, even when it put them at risk for retribution from both sides.

Simon Read has done an impressive job stitching together a highly readable and informative story from various sources, and making it live again.

–Jim DeFelice, New York Times bestselling author of American Sniper.

A gut-wrenching account of World War II’s Great Escape and its brutal aftermath. Simon Read’s riveting tale of the Royal Air Force’s manhunt for the Gestapo perpetrators of the cold-blooded murder of fifty unarmed Allied escapees will touch your soul and increase your admiration for the “Greatest Generation.” Whether justice ultimately triumphed over evil can be found in Read’s engrossing narrative.

–Cole Kingseed, New York Times bestselling author of Beyond Band of Brothers.

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