Book Review: The Garden of Dead Dreams

Etta Lawrence has staked everything on a year at a prestigious writing academy in the rainy Oregon woods. But truth be told, she’s an indifferent writer. She’s also distracted by her roommate’s distraught behavior and has a crush on the academy’s cook, a Texan named Carl.

In THE GARDEN OF DEAD DREAMS, Quillen’s prose drips with atmosphere, quirky characters, and a deep sense of foreboding. The academy’s founder, the late great novelist Vincent Buchanan (a Herman Wouk-type figure on literary steroids) is still revered by students and administrators alike, almost to the point of demagoguery. His impact, via fiction, on the outcome of WWII is a central and continuing argument for everyone at the lodge.  But as Etta’s roommate goes off the rails and personal relationships at the academy begin to fray, Etta grows uncomfortable with the tension-filled atmosphere and certain that bad things are happening behind the scenes.

When the roommate, after a major literary success, disappears, Etta finds some improbable clues that implicate both a visiting professor and the late Buchanan. With the help of an old manuscript, Etta begins to piece together a dark secret. But before she truly knows what is going on, the academy administrators show that they’ll use all the many means at their disposal to ensure her silence. Yet, exactly what is the secret they are hiding and why will they kill to keep it?

The strength of DEAD DREAMS is the powerful prose. Descriptions are excellent, whether of people, places, or the quivering tension in the air. Etta retreats into the woods surrounding the academy more than once and Quillen makes you feel the crunch of leaves underfoot and the tang of pine in the air. Later in the book, when Etta tracks the secret to a Japanese mom-and-pop store, the reader is right there amid the paper lanterns and dusty boxes.

The prose keeps the reader hooked, even when the mystery is slow to develop or the plotting gets wobbly. For example, a key clue to Etta’s place at the academy isn’t revealed until the 40% point, a friend suddenly becomes a horticultural specialist when one is needed, and after establishing that the lodge is a closed zone impossible to get in or out, Etta suddenly is able to come and go undetected.

At the end, the loop doesn’t quite close on all the drama, leaving some questions. A couple of relationships are blurry and Carl disappears. But Quillen is a writer to watch. Perhaps the biggest question is when is her next book?

The Right Fork

A number of years ago, when my children were younger and we were living in Mexico, my family was invited to the residence of a NATO ambassador and his family for a New Year’s Eve dinner.  Our children were all the same age and the wife and I were close friends, both of us dealing with the challenges of setting up house in a new country, helping our children adjust, and learning a new language.

I’d been told that dinner would be casual but it was in the formal dining room with a table that could easily seat 30. Placesettings were as elaborate as if this was a diplomatic affair, with enough sterling silver on the table to make a small battleship and rows of wineglasses above each fine china plate. The meal was served in courses, starting with an array of caviar and smoked fish on a tray passed around by the butler.

My son, then eight, was seated next to me and watched the butler’s progression with alarm. “What fork do I use?” he whispered urgently.

There were four forks at each place: salad fork, dinner fork, fish fork, dessert fork. I silently thanked the fact I’d been brought up near the Oneida Silver factory store where Oneida silverplate was the mandatory gift for every occasion. “Start at the outside and work your way in,” I replied out of the side of my mouth.

The next course came. “Which fork this time?” my son asked.

“The next one over,” I told him.

“There’s a fork on top,” he said worriedly. “Dessert,” I hissed.

“What if dessert is flan?” His whispering was beginning to sound like a bad off-Broadway ad lib as our host’s mouth twitched with suppressed laughter.

“Use the spoon.”

“Which one?”

And so the long night wore on.

When we got home, I realized that my children needed to learn a few more skills in order to be prepared to go anywhere and participate in the world in any way they chose. I wanted them to be able to learn from and ultimately be enriched by the culture around them no matter where they went.

In an increasingly mobile world, we can travel anywhere, talk to anyone anywhere around the world, all at the push of a button. Citizens of the world. But what does that mean?

Here’s what I came up with:

  1.  Manners:  A World Citizen is aware of the local cultural norms and social etiquette wherever they go. They know what is polite and what is regarded as rude. They actively try not to offend.
  2. Desire for Information: A World Citizen has an open mind and is ready to put in the effort to learn about other cultures, the history that has shaped them, and why that culture is what it is.
  3. Connected:  A World Citizen uses technology to seek out information and connect with others.
  4. Tolerance: A World Citizen accepts that others will have a different belief system, or none at all, and does not judge (at least not in public.)
  5. Environmental Awareness:  A World Citizen realizes that we aren’t getting any more real estate on this planet and doesn’t trash up their part of it or anyone else’s. They respect efforts to renew and reuse and understand the need for basics like water and sanitation.

I’ll be sharing more here on what it means to be a World Citizen and asking you for your own ideas and experiences. Connecting across cultures isn’t a new concept but reading the news on any given day suggests we haven’t gotten very good at it.  So let’s start a new dialogue and see where it goes.

Maybe if we know what to do with all the forks, we won’t need so many knives.

What Happens When All the People Are Mexican

“But the novel is set in Mexico,” she said. “All the characters are Mexican.”

“That’s right,” I replied. “Lives of the people fighting the drug cartels. And Mexico’s class structure.”

A fateful phone call

This was about 5 years ago. I was speaking on the phone to a well-known American author about potential agents and publishers for  THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY. She was enthusiastic about the quality of my writing but we kept circling around an undefined problem.

“New York will never touch it,” she said finally. “And a New York agent is the only kind worth having. New York agents are looking for the next Sex and the City. Glossy. High heels. New York.”

“This is a political thriller,” I countered. “Makes the real Mexico accessible to the American audience the way Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko series did for Russia.”

Her sniff was audible.

The advice I couldn’t swallow

New York won’t buy a book with all Mexican characters. And your main character is a maid.” The well-known author was firm. “At least couldn’t you make her American? You know, a college girl from Pittsburgh named Susan or Tess who goes to Mexico on a cultural exchange program to work as a maid for a semester.”

I could have tossed off a barbed remark about how it would cost an American in Pittsburgh more to get to Mexico than they would earn as a maid in three months, but I was too busy being appalled.

This was a book about Mexico’s drug war, the people fighting it, and their chances of survival. It was also a Cinderella story taking on Mexico’s unspoken caste system.

But she was right

Most of the New York agents I queried never replied. The few that did were only taking on a few select projects. One agency well known for representing fiction and thrillers said they didn’t take on my specific “genre.”

Ahem, I was pitching a political thriller.

The question became unavoidable. Was this the classic snub of a new author by the New York cognoscenti? Or a mainstream publishing industry bias against Hispanic-themed popular fiction?

Take the case of the 14th Annual International Latino Book Awards, held 5 June 2012. No winners (first place, second place or honorable mention) in either the Best Popular Fiction-English or Best Novel-Adventure/Drama in English were published by a major US publishing house. The website of Publishers Weekly, generally considered the most authoritative source on the state of US publishing, did not carry the story of the Latino Book Awards at all that week. As of 11 June its Awards section listed recipients of the 2012 Benjamin Franklin Awards announced 4 June.

Related post: The Unsung Influence of Mystery Author Leighton Gage

Publishing trend runs counter to buying power

If this is a trend, then it is a trend that runs counter to both population demographics and marketing statistics. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, Hispanics made up 16% of the US population in 2010 and that rate is projected to rise to 29% in 2050. This group has significant buying power.

The Latino buying power will be $1.5 trillion and steadily increasing by 2015, as asserted by The Nielsen Company in its early 2012 report “State of the Hispanic Consumer.” Meanwhile, ever alert to trends, Amazon introduced a bilingual English-Spanish Kindle e-reader.

But it’s not just Hispanics who might be interested in Hispanic-themed popular fiction. Fiction of all sorts is on the rise as evidenced by USA Today’s January report that 78% of the titles in its weekly top 150 were fiction, up from 67% in 2007.

Drug violence on America’s border is constantly in the news and the US national debate over immigration is acute.  Fiction can help to socialize these issues and give them an understanding, a face, and an immediacy that often the news cannot.

As an aside, one of the issues in THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY is that of children being brought over the US-Mexican border by coyote guides.  If this issue has escaped your attention, check out CNN’s report on the issue as discussed by President Obama and his Mexican counterpart.

So is there a takeaway? Already beset by its own inability to change its business model in order to compete with e-readers and the growing earning power of independent authors, can the traditional publishing industry afford to ignore the “genre” of Hispanic-themed popular fiction?

Related post: Bookstores of the Future: 5 Lessons About Survival of the Fittest

2014 Update

Since writing this post two years ago, the #WeNeedDiverseBooks Campaign has helped raise awareness of the need for mainstream books, notably for children, to reflect diversity. Through a massive Twitter campaign, in which I participated, as well as Facebook and Tumblr site, the word is getting out.

Meanwhile, THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY, with all of its Mexican characters, is available on Amazon in print and ebook formats. It is rated 4.8 out of 5 stars with comments like:

It’s a perfect blend of action, suspense and romance. The action keeps you turning the pages as the author portrays the gritty reality of the city. Amato captures the complexity of life in one of the world’s largest cities, expertly depicting the sleazy politicians, the drug lords, their violent lieutenants and the common Mexicans who are victimized by them. Her characters are sharply drawn and totally believable.”

Read the book and you will learn something about the drug wars cost and the people who are determined to end the corruption. You’ll learn about the class system that divides the Mexican culture. Amato fills the pages with three-dimensional characters that you care about. You will be thrilled with the way Amato shares the dinner between Eduardo and Luz. I wanted to read that whole scene out loud to my wife.”

The most viewed page on this website is the dreamcast of Latino actors who I think should star in any movie adaptation.

My sniff is audible.

Reshaping the Acapulco Skyline

Acapulco has alot to offer: beautiful beaches, water sports, cliff divers, iconic skyscrapers, swimming with the dolphins. Get off the beaten path and you can add gun violence, murder, cops, and drug seizures. All that’s missing is a skycraper that looks like a corkscrew.

Ahem. Let me clarify.

DIABLO NIGHTS_moon_final_120In DIABLO NIGHTS, the third Emilia Cruz novel, Acapulco itself is as mch of a character as Emilia, her partner Franco Silvio, or her lover, Kurt Rucker. The action moves from Kurt’s hotel on Punta Diamante on the city’s far eastern edge, to the cruise ship docks near the old fort of Fuerte San Diego on the west side of the bay. Connecting those two sides of the horse-shaped bay is the wide boulevard named Costera Miguel Aleman. La Costera borders the ocean and is the major artery pumping cars, locals, and tourists around the waterfront.

DIABLO NIGHTS Reshaping the Acapulco skyline

The F&F Tower, downtown Panama City, Panama

All of the picture postcard shots of Acapulco’s downtown area show this road and the tall white skyscrapers that soar along it. In DIABLO NIGHTS, there is one more skyscraper, the fictional Torre Metropolitano. It’s a work in progress and the construction is pivotal.

  “The site of the half-built Torre Metropolitano loomed ahead as the road curved into the eastern side of the bay. When finished, the tower would be another one of Acapulco’s iconic skyscrapers rising from azure ocean, defiant and modern against a backdrop of iron mountains. Its innovative spiral design had been hotly debated in the news last year. Some said it would become Acapulco’s most famous landmark, others argued that the design was inherently unstable. But a consortium of investors had pushed it through.

“The building would be 25 stories when done and about half had been erected. Steel and glass cladding rose into the sky, topped by a mammoth yellow crane. The whole structure was partially hidden by temporary construction barriers of corrugated steel. A picture of the Building’s final state was repeated on the barriers, as if miniature Torre Metropolitanos were strolling down the street, interrupted by the royal palms along the avenue.” — DIABLO NIGHTS

The Torre Metropolitano is modeled after the F&F Tower in Panama City, one of the coolest–and scariest–buildings I’ve ever seen. Why this particular building? Well, you’ll have to read DIABLO NIGHTS to find out!

The Kindle version is out now, with paperback release in August. Happy reading but if you are afraid of heights, well, don’t say you weren’t warned.

DIABLO NIGHTS Cover Reveal and Kindle Release

The third installment of the Emilia Cruz mystery series, featuring the first and only female police detective in Acapulco, is out on Kindle!  The paperback version will be available in August.

And finally–the Cover Reveal! The final cover, shown here, is a slight variation of the winning cover which was one of four offered in a reader poll three weeks ago.

DIABLO NIGHTS is more of a psychological thriller than the previous two Emilia Cruz mysteries, CLIFF DIVER and HAT DANCE. Emilia’s is pulling threads and following leads and reacting to the news she gets at every turn. The emotional toll on her is high, but it leads to a new understanding of the resources available to her.

Here’s the Amazon description.

A religious relic lures Emilia Cruz, Acapulco’s first and only female police detective, into a labyrinth of drug cartel smuggling and revenge killings in DIABLO NIGHTS, the third novel in the explosive Emilia Cruz Mexico mystery series.

The relic, from Mexico’s Cristero War, also surfaces a long-hidden personal secret that Emilia cannot share with the man in her life, hotel manager Kurt Rucker.

The relic’s authenticity is in doubt, however, as Emilia and her partner, senior detective Franco Silvio, find a murder victim aboard a cruise ship. The victim’s pockets are lined with Ora Ciega, a rare heroin strain from Colombia that promises more drug war violence for Acapulco’s already bloody streets.

The Ora Ciega trail leads Emilia to a second body; that of Yolanda Lata, the mother of a girl for whom Emilia has been searching; as well as to a dead Customs official who had valuable information about the cruise ship murder. When stalkers shadow Emilia, the only conclusion is that she’s getting close to the Ora Ciega smugglers. Meanwhile, she’s assigned to train a rookie detective with friends in high places.

The destinies of Ora Ciega, the religious relic, the rookie, and the missing girl merge into a fateful trip into the hills above Mexico’s Costa Chica coast south of Acapulco. In a lonely place where vigilante groups have replaced civil authority and the crash of surf competes with gunshots, Emilia will face the biggest challenge of her police detective career. But it’s nothing compared to the shocking climax waiting for her back in Acapulco.

THANK YOU

I’ve gotten so many emails asking when the next Emilia Cruz novel was coming out adn can finally say “Here it is!” Thank you to all the readers who have enjoyed the series so far. I appreciate all the mail and the generous Amazon reviews, too!