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August 2012

Season of the Witch: A Q&A with Arni Thorarinsson

ArniIcelandic author Arni Thorarinsson has written numerous screenplays and crime novels, including Blue Moon, The Seventh Son, and Angel of the Morning. His novel Season of the Witch, released in English this week, was nominated for the Icelandic Literature Prize.

Question: What inspired you to write Season of the Witch?

Arni Thorarinsson: I was getting worried! Season of the Witch was written during the economic and social boom years in Iceland, which collapsed in 2008. So what inspired me was an increasing sense of unease about my country. I felt we were quickly losing our traditional values and way of life to a new kind of value system. Of course, it wasn't new at all—it just hadn't taken our small country over before. I'm talking about egotism, greed, and the lack of respect for things that can't be bought and sold. It's the philosophy of "I do it because I can."

When I decided that this was what I wanted to write about, I thought of the old Icelandic play Loftur the Sorcerer, based on a legend which in turn is based on the Faustian theme of a man selling his soul to the devil. For me, the play became a perfect illustration of this predicament of the nation. Donovan's classic rock song "Season of the Witch" quickly entered the picture, and a murder mystery plot started to emerge.

Q: Why did you make your protagonist, Einar, a newspaper reporter?

AT: My hero couldn't be a private detective because there are no private detectives in Iceland; or a police detective because I don't have firsthand knowledge of that work. But I do know a lot about journalists. They have some of the same opportunities to enter other people's lives as police officers do, to ask questions and uncover information.

Q: How did you get your start as a crime writer?

AT: I started out as a journalist when I was 20. I loved my profession and had no intention of doing any other kind of writing—crime writing really happened by accident. I was on vacation reading a book by one of my favorites, Ross Macdonald. I was so immersed in the book that I didn't notice rain was pouring down. The book and I got drenched. While it was drying out, I killed time by contemplating possibilities—clearly inspired by Macdonald—of setting a crime novel in Iceland. Four years later, Einar was born. We have been inseparable ever since.

Q: Northern European crime novels have become popular worldwide. What's the appeal?

AT: Some Nordic crime authors write violent, fast-paced action thrillers; others, like myself, write social crime novels; and many fall somewhere in between. Maybe readers find it interesting that crime can fester in small countries famous for their welfare systems, higher education, and liberal humanistic ideologies--the "trouble in paradise" syndrome. We are all very different, but I think we have one thing in common: At the core of our fiction is a strong sense of the social roots of crime, how even people in societies that pride themselves on respect for law and order get alienated from each other. This feeling gives Nordic crime novels their conscience, heart, and sense of justice.

Meet Some of Our Friends: The People Who Create a Great Customer Experience

Harley Manning founded Forrester’s customer experience research practice, and today he leads a team of analysts that cover enterprise-level customer experience topics. Kerry Bodine leads Forrester’s research on experience design. Kerry’s analysis and opinions appear frequently on sites like Harvard Business Review, Forbes, and Advertising Age.

Outside-InThink about the last time you had a bad customer experience. Maybe you bought something that didn’t work as promised. Maybe you struggled to get help over the phone (“Thank you for calling Clueless, Inc. Press 1 to get frustrated!”). Or maybe a sales associate, bank officer, or service technician treated you like an idiot.

How did that make you feel? Disappointed? Angry? Like you’d rather eat nails than do business with that company ever again?

For the last 14 years we’ve been doing research into the causes of poor customer experience, and how delivering a poor experience hurts a company’s bottom line. We’ve also studied organizations that deliver a superior customer experience to find out why and how they do it. 

What do companies that focus on customer experience get out of it? Fidelity found that clients who said they'd had a good experience put four and a half times more cash into their accounts. Sprint saves $1.7 billion per year by systematically finding and fixing customer experience problems.

It’s those results that make us so excited to create a book about the things we’ve learned.

Outside In is a series of stories about people who improved customer experience at their organizations. People like Kevin Peters, the president of Office Depot North America. He visited dozens of his own stores around the country –- in disguise, no less –- to find out what was really going on, all because he didn’t trust the "mystery shopping" scores he was getting. Then there’s Dr. Jim Merlino, the chief experience officer at Cleveland Clinic. The experience his father had as a patient when he was being treated for cancer changed the way Jim practices medicine, and set him on a mission to transform the way other people practice medicine, as well.

Many of these stories are inspirational – and some of them are also fun. Take the Mohawk-sporting phone service agent at U.S. Cellular who shaved his head to show solidarity with a customer. (Believe it or not, there’s an important lesson in that case study.) Or consider the three-time Olympic athlete, former sports commentator, and commercial pilot who created the customer experience measurement program at JetBlue.

Getting to know these people through our research was an honor, and sharing their stories with our readers is a privilege.

The Foreworld Saga Begins

Guest post by Mark Teppo author of Sinner and co-author of The Mongoliad: Book One

SinnerAndreas was a walk-on.

He is mentioned, in passing, during an early scene in The Mongoliad: Book One when the knights are assembling the hunting party that is to go east and face the Mongolian Khan of Khans. Someone says: "But do you suppose we ought to wait a few days until some of our other Brothers can arrive? Brother Andreas, for example. His spear would be a fine companion on a Khan-hunting journey. Plus he knows how to cook and he doesn't snore like Brother Eleázar."

It's the sort of off-handed texturing writers throw in to give their world depth. Look, there are other characters than these; they had lives before they showed up on the first page. Andreas was, at that time, just a guy who could cook, didn't snore, and was good with a spear. When he showed up again, nearly four hundred pages later, he was simply one of the guys at the camp. Nothing more; nothing less.

But then Andreas decided that role wasn't sufficient. Authors talk of their characters taking over books, and with seven authors and nearly three times as many characters, you would think that it would be hard for a character to thrust himself to the forefront and announce that the story should actually go THIS way. But that is exactly what Andreas did, and his strong personality caused a ripple throughout the story line about the men who stayed behind and fought in the Circus of Swords. We started to ask ourselves: where had this man come from? What was his background? 

Then, the SideQuests project was conceived: several dozen short stories set in Foreworld, some of which were specifically set aside to be stories of these characters before the events of 1241. Sinner is the first of SideQuests and a place where we could find out where Andreas had come from, and what motivated him to take such a stand in The Mongoliad. Also, freed of the narrative structure of The Mongoliad, we could pair Andreas up with one of the Shield-Brethren from the hunting party: Raphael. They are both loners, men more accustomed to finding their own way in the world than fitting in with a group. Both think more than they should, and one has a better control of his tongue than the other. They are members of the Ordo Militum Vindicis Intactae--the Shield-Brethren--and they take their vows seriously. It was clear to we authors that these two should find each other, and that they come together over a collision between the modern church (the Inquisition) and the old pagan ways is representative of the very crisis the Shield-Brethren face themselves.

Sinner allowed us to introduce one of our favorite characters of the Foreworld Saga in a way that would be satisfying to both new readers and those already familiar with The Mongoliad: Book One.

The Inside Scoop on "Angelfall" by Susan Ee

Former lawyer turned science-fiction and fantasy author, Susan Ee answers fans and reviewer questions about her hit novel, Angelfall which has received more than 450 5-star reviews on In Angelfall, angels of the apocalypse descend to demolish the modern world. When warrior angels fly away with a helpless little girl, her seventeen-year-old sister Penryn will do anything to get her back including making a deal with Raffe, an injured enemy angel.

SusanEeQuestion: Why angels?

Susan Ee: I’ve known for a long time I wanted to write a novel about angels. They’re so fascinating. Classic angels are associated with destroying entire cities and turning people into pillars of salt. In Revelations, they are the harbingers, and quite likely the executioners of doom. And yet they’re portrayed as cute little cherubs or beings who bend over backwards to make us happy. Like unicorns and vampires, they must have an amazing public relations department.

So, what if the PR fog cleared? What if angels were unleashed on the modern world? Would there be nothing but death and destruction? Or would there still be some room for dark adventure and romance? What would happen if one of these battle-hardened warriors had to partner up with an extraordinary victim of their apocalypse? I just had to find out.

Q: When and where did you get the idea to write Angelfall?

51KkPm9xihLSE: I suspect that Angelfall has been germinating and coming together for about 10 years. Back then, one of my earliest short stories was called Angel Slayer. It never went beyond my writing group, but I could never completely let it go.

Q: Did your characters turn out the way you thought they would when your first started writing them? Or were there times that they surprised you?

SE: My characters always surprise me. I don't get to tell them to do or feel anything. They tell me what's going on and what they're doing. My process is very much like learning to get to know someone as you hang out with them. In the meantime, the story unfolds.

Q: What type of research did you do for Angelfall

SE: I dove into the Book of Enoch, which was one of the discoveries of the Dead Sea Scrolls. It talks about the Watchers and their nephilim. Fascinating stuff. I also did some research into fighting techniques through women's' self defense classes, jujitsu books, and consulted with a black belt martial artist. Then, I spent an evening with a weapons collector to figure out what kind of angel sword a petite girl could carry, as well as what types of guns the Resistance would carry. We decided a gladius would be the best sword for Penryn. I got to swing one around and felt the heft and balance of a gladius. It was fun.

Q: If Penryn was to write a Christmas list, what would be on it?

SE: Chocolate for Paige. Pills to soothe Mom. Snowy wings for Raffe. A hidden stash of food, enough for her whole family. Really comfy hiking socks. A long, hot shower. A moment of peace with Raffe.

Angelfall is available on Kindle and in paperback.

Ten Reasons to Set a Spy Thriller in Azerbaijan

Guest post by debut author Dan Mayland whose title, The Colonel’s Mistake, is the first of a globetrotting new thriller series that takes readers on an unforgettable ride into the shadows of the world’s most volatile region, where the good, the bad, and the brutal play a deadly chess game of global espionage.

TheColonelsMistakeIn Baku, Azerbaijan, CIA operations officer Daria Buckingham is arrested for a heinous crime. Her former boss, retired CIA station chief Mark Sava, is sure she’s innocent and tries to help her out—landing him in the middle of the new Great Game, an espionage war over oil that has China, Iran, and the United States clawing at each other’s throats. The first half of The Colonel’s Mistake is set in Azerbaijan. Here’s why:
  1. Oil. Azerbaijan’s got gobs of it. The capital city of Baku stinks of it. There are oil derricks in the city, and vast nightmarish oilfields—many in use since the late 1800s—on the outskirts.
  2. The Caspian Sea. Azerbaijan’s 450-mile coast looks east over the Caspian, which makes for stunning sunrises marred only by all the massive offshore oil rigs that dot the horizon.
  3. The New Great Game. That’s what people are calling the fight over oil in the Caspian region, where Russia, China, Iran, the US, and Europe are all clawing at each other’s throats over oil. Tiny Azerbaijan is sandwiched between Iran and Russia, so it’s right in the middle of the fight.
  4. Fire. In addition to oil, Azerbaijan has lots of natural gas—some of which leaks naturally out of the ground. Throw a guy with a match into the mix, and before you know it you’ve got a fire that never goes out. One hill north of Baku has been burning since the 1950s.
  5. Corruption. On the World Corruption Index, Azerbaijan clocks in at a dismal 143, between Pakistan and Zimbabwe.
  6. Mud volcanoes. They’re like real volcanoes, only smaller, and they spew mud instead of lava. Sometimes they explode. There’s a whole bunch of them in Azerbaijan, right next to this political prison.
  7. Porous Border with Iran. Much of what used to be Azerbaijan is now part of Iran. Azeris on both sides of the border like to visit each other. That makes for a border that’s easy to sneak across.
  8. The KGB. Azerbaijan was a Soviet state until 1991. The new Azeri version of the KGB works out of the same building the Soviet version did. There’s a reason for that.
  9. The BTC. That’s the name of a huge oil pipeline that transports Azeri oil from the Caspian to the Mediterranean Sea.
  10. Stilt roads. The Soviets built strange wood-stilt roads that snake as far as the eye can see out into the shallow waters of the Caspian. Thirty miles off the coast, there’s a spider-web tangle of nearly two hundred miles of these roads, now rotting, all clustered around a wretched Soviet oil camp.

All of the above play a role in The Colonel’s Mistake now available on Kindle and in paperback.

Hard-boiled 101


Guest post by Otto Penzler, award-winning editor of mystery fiction and owner of The Mysterious Bookshop in New York City.

 James M. Cain, the quintessential hard-boiled writer, claimed he didn’t know what the term meant, and he wasn’t alone. So what is it?

Hard-boiled stories mostly involve private investigators as the hero; though Sherlock Holmes was a private eye and the stories aren’t hard-boiled, and Cain never wrote a detective novel.

They are realistic, in the sense that people with a private investigator license are hired to solve crimes, which is more than the village vicar or the head of the gardening club can say. PIs need to be tough, since they are dealing with killers, so in the books about them, they act tough and talk that way, too.

They are usually American loners, much like the old gunslingers of the Wild West. They have a code of honor and justice that may not be strictly legal, but it is moral. They may be threatened or beaten, but they won’t give up a case or betray a client.

They are individuals who often face a corrupt political or criminal organization, but they prevail because they are true to themselves and their code.

And they are smart-alecks. To paraphrase Raymond Chandler: someone says, “I don’t like your attitude;” the PI responds, “I’ve had a lot of complaints about it. It keeps me awake at night worrying about it.”

Here are five hallmarks of the genre backed by some great novels that epitomize each one:

Realistic: Death Wish by Brian Garfield

Death WishThis novel begins in the heart of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, when Paul’s family is brutally attacked for a handful of money. The hero pursues justice, slowly spiraling into the gritty corners of New York City. 



Solitary Hero: Blue Eyes by Jerome Charyn

Blue EyesIsaac Sidel is a NYPD captain whose tough approach means he is often left to handle cases alone.  



Tightly Paced Action: Body Guard by Rex Burns

Body GuardOverworked PI Devlin Kirk adeptly handles multiple cases to pay the bills.




Strong Moral Code: Smuggler's Notch by Joseph Koenig

Smugglers NotchOut to solve the crime of a murdered girl, Germaine will sacrifice anything to get to justice. 




Private Investigator: Act of Fear by Dan Fortune

Act of FearYou don't get more hard-boiled than crook-turned-PI Dan Fortune. 

Deep Dark Secrets and Little White Lies

Guest post by Melinda Leigh author of She Can Run and Midnight Exposure.

Midnight-exposureWhether something is a deep, dark secret or a little white lie is often a matter of perspective, but both create vulnerability. When is it acceptable to harbor a secret? At what point in a relationship are the skeletons in the closets revealed? 

In my new book, Midnight Exposure, Jayne Sullivan is a tabloid photographer who’s told a few of what she considers to be little white lies. People hate paparazzi, and Jayne has learned that being totally honest about her profession doesn’t yield information. So when she heads to Maine on an anonymous tip to find the hottest—and most reclusive—wood sculptor in the art world, she tells the locals she’s a photographer, but she fails to mention the tabloid part. After all, nobody would help her if they knew the truth.

Deep dark secret or little white lie? 

Reed Kimball is a former homicide cop turned artist who was once accused of murdering his wife, something he failed to mention when he moved eight hundred miles north to avoid the news media that publically harassed him. Reed was never formerly charged, but if he told the residents of his new town, what would be the point of relocating? Reed harbors a great deal of guilt over his omission. What would the residents of his new town think if they knew his whole story?  Would they ever trust him again?

Deep dark secret or little white lie?

The problem with both secrets and lies and that the impact of their exposure tends to grow over time. The longer a secret is kept, the deeper and darker it can seem.

A bizarre murder and a missing student bring Jayne and Reed together. Pursuing a desperate killer, they develop a tenuous relationship. But people with secrets don’t trust easily, and when they do, what was once a little white lie quickly becomes the ultimate betrayal. Jayne is abducted, and Reed is determined to find her. But what will he do when he learns Jayne is the one thing that can destroy him?  Only one thing is certain. Exposure won’t be an issue if the murderer gets his way.

How the Series "Twin Peaks" Inspired "Pines" by Blake Crouch

Guest post by thriller author Blake Crouch whose new novel Pines released on August 21, 2012.

PinesOn April 8, 1990, the pilot episode of Mark Frost and David Lynch's iconic television series, Twin Peaks, aired on ABC, and for a moment, the mystery of Who Killed Laura Palmer? held America transfixed. I was twelve at the time, and I will never forget the feeling that took hold of me as I watched this quirky show about a creepy town with damn fine coffee and brilliant cherry pie, where nothing was as it seemed.

Twin Peaks was ultimately cancelled, the director and actors went on to do other things, but the undeniable magic present in those early episodes still haunts me two decades later.

They say all art—whether books, music, or visual—is a reaction to other art, and I believe that to be true. As good as Twin Peaks was, the nature of the show, in particular how abruptly and prematurely it ended, left me massively unsatisfied. Pines is the culmination of my efforts, now spanning twenty years, to create something that makes me feel the way Twin Peaks did. It's the story of Secret Service agent Ethan Burke, who comes to the scenic town of Wayward Pines, Idaho to locate and recover two federal agents who went missing one month earlier. But within minutes of his arrival, Ethan is involved in a violent accident. He wakes in a hospital, with no ID, no cell phone, and no briefcase. He soon begins to suspect that nothing in Wayward Pines is what it seems, and that he may not get out alive. With Pines, I tried to write the kind of what-the-hell-is-happening, paranoid thriller that I love to read, with an ending that will blow your socks off.

In no way am I suggesting that Pines is as good as Lynch's masterpiece, or even something that is likely to take you back to the feeling of that series. The show was so utterly its own thing that any attempt to recreate its aura would be inherently doomed to fail. But I feel the need to express how much Pines is inspired by Lynch's creation of a small town in the middle of nowhere—beautiful on the outside, but with a pitch-black underbelly.

Pines would never have come about, and I may never have become a writer, if my parents hadn't let me stay up late on Thursday nights, that spring of 1990, to watch a show the likes of which we will never see again.

So thanks, Mom and Dad. Thanks, Mr. Lynch and Mr. Frost. And, of course, the inimitable Agent Dale Cooper.

I hope you enjoyed my show.

Pines is now available on Kindle and in paperback.

Last Days of Summer: Kindle Book Deals for Kids & Teens


 Before you send the kids back to school, stock up on great deals for children and teens during our Last Days of Summer promotion, now through August 31.  Each day, we're releasing a deal on one or more popular children's books, lasting for 24 hours.  Check back daily to see what's next.

One Big Deal for a Limited Time


The Big Deal is back. More than 500 Kindle books are now available for as low as $0.99, including literature, nonfiction, thrillers, romance, cookbooks, books for kids and teens, and more. Shop for yourself, or give Kindle books--delivered when you want--to anyone with an e-mail address. (No Kindle required. Books can be read on Kindle or one of our free reading apps.) But hurry--these deals expire on August 23.

The Big Deal's diverse range of categories includes:

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