How to look at two of many new local books
by Rob Neufeld
The number of books published by small, independent, and regional presses is increasing; and the number of reviewers, decreasing.
Readers are forced to trust blogs, tweets, online comments, and flyleafs in order to make reading choices that are not ratified by best-seller lists.
Hence the need for another book selection method—sampling.
Hook, look, and book
Let’s take the thriller “The Moroni Deception,” written by local author Jack Brody, and just published in e-book format.
The hook: A reporter discovers that two ritual murders relate to a coveted Mormon relic and the rise of a Mormon presidential candidate.
Does the hook interest you? If so, you’ll want to get answers to questions that arise from the teaser.
Is the novel going to be like “The Da Vinci Code,” and be as much fun?
Given the hook and the title (Moroni is the angel who’d directed Joseph Smith to the golden plates), is the book going to delve into Mormon history in satisfying ways?
Sit for a spell
Read the first 30 to 50 pages to get a feel for the book’s style.
This is what I found in “The Moroni Deception”:
Stock character types, featuring Michael Chenault, a rumpled, handsome journalist, keen on solving puzzles and flip in the face of danger. If you’re interested in more ambiguity in characters, stop here. If fun is what you crave, continue.
Snappy suspense. Chapters are short; the action jumps around between a few parallel plot lines; and there’s never a dull moment.
A good amount of smooth writing. When police detectives want to know why Chenault had been the last person that a relic-seeking man had called before being murdered, Chenault admits to having penned a tongue-in-cheek story for a tabloid newspaper early in his career.
“A certain segment of his readership,” Brody notes, “had taken his story a bit too literally about a half-man, half-insect, rumored to be living and breeding with several of the local women in rural southeastern Pennsylvania,” and Chenault became the fringe element’s favorite point man.
The righteous brothers
One-sixth through “The Moroni Deception,” it’s clear that we’re dealing with an expose of a Mormon plot. Two sociopathic Mormon brothers (I saw a Mexican cartel version of them in “Breaking Bad” on TV) are admitted by “the Prophet” into the secret Danite society of assassins, and informed of their divine mission.
“Since the United States, which had been once a great nation, was not only in great moral decline,” the assassins learn, “but on the brink of a massive financial collapse, it first had to be saved…Now, with one of their (the Mormons’) own running for…President, the time had finally arrived for the plan to be set in motion.”
This is where I stop reading, though I realize that fiction best-seller lists are dominated by books that wed contemporary fears to ticking time bomb plots. It’s just that, when it comes to political facts, I’m a teetotaler—no stimulants.
Those of you all who can loosen up for such rides might still have questions. For instance, does the plot deliver? Are there some revelations you might want to hold onto and perhaps investigate? Might you want to make the book a cause célèbre, pro or con?
To aid the sampling method of book selection, the best thing for me to do, I think, is put this review on the website, “The Read on WNC,” and get reader and author comments.
Meet the family
The title’s not exactly right. “Southern fried” connotes a humorous treatment. Although there is humor, the main mood is a sense of peril within periods of safety.
The cover art is excellent—striking and artistic, promising more than genre writing.
So that leads us to the hook. Snowden has chosen to place a four-page prologue before the first chapter. The prologue is a glimpse of the plot four-fifths through the book, and establishes the voice of the narrator, 13-year-old Sarah Claiborne, whom we come to love for her combination of naiveté about the world and courageous engagement with her narrow circle.
Chapter 1 begins: “My best friend, Wendy, referred to our house on Valley View Road as the Atlanta Museum.” We learn about Mrs. Claiborne’s mania for manners and neatness, the father’s laissez faire attitude, and the four children’s ways of rebelling—and then receive the first clear note that the Claiborne’s fussiness is underlaid by craziness.
“It seemed like the dinner hour at the Claibornes’ had two main characters: Mother and Ben,” Sarah relates. “The rest of us were there just to watch the play.”
In short order, some disturbing things begin to happen. An uncle and aunt make a surprise visit on the way to Sarah’s grandma’s beach house, to which Sarah’s family hadn’t been invited. The visitors catch Sarah’s mom in an unguarded disheveled moment. Sarah fears being blamed for letting them in the house, and rides off on her bike.
When she returns, she eavesdrops on Mother slamming things and screaming at Dad.
“I’m sick of all this, Edward,” she shrieks. “Sick, sick, sick. Sick of pretending everything’s just fine…when it’s falling apart (thump) like a house of cards.”
The beauty of Snowden’s novel is the orchestration between the driving plot—how dangerous is Mrs. Claiborne going to get, and what’s going to happen with Ben and Sarah?—and the incidental progress of Sarah’s first year of young womanhood.
“Southern Fried Lies” delivers because it is not solely tied to the thriller element; and the thriller element is as murky and swampy as a Tennessee Williams play.
The Moroni Deception by Jack Brody (Visigoth Press, sold by Amazon Digital Services, July 31, 2012, 242 pages, $8.99).
Southern Fried Lies by Susan Snowden (Archer Hill Publishing, Columbia SC, trade paper, Aug. 2012, 266 pages, $16.95).
Visit “The Read on WNC: at TheReadonWNC.ning.com for comments.
Hey Rob, Thanks for the kind review, although I would remind you with regards to the latter portion, that in a conspiracy thriller, things (and characters) aren't always the the way and who they seem. Below I've included a short "inside jacket" synopsis and I would remind any interested readers they can read the first 13 chapters for free on the website at http://www.themoronideception.com/ (There's a link on there for my blog as well.)
Michael Chenault, award-winning investigative journalist with the New York Times, is rousted in the middle of the night by NYPD detectives and accused of the bizarre murder of a complete stranger. After clearing himself, Chenault finds that Martin Koplanski, the retired history professor he’d been accused of murdering, was likely killed for a mysterious Mormon relic long thought to be just a myth. Twenty-four hours later, Chenault receives an email with a photo of the recently murdered wife of Presidential candidate, Brockston Ratchford. She too appears to have been ritually killed in the exact manner as Koplanski, right down to having the same cryptic character scrawled in blood across her forehead. With way more than just a hunch to now go on, Chenault heads out to Salt Lake City, the site of the Ratchford murder investigation, to find out what, if any, connection there is between the murders.
With the help of a beautiful young reporter he meets along the way, Chenault comes to learn the dark family secrets of a rising political star, along with the rather strange but true history of the Mormon church. As he pieces the story together of what appears to be an ever-growing conspiracy, Chenault is pursued by The Brothers, two murderous zealots who will stop at nothing to retrieve the Mormon relic Chenault is also trying to find. What Chenault eventually discovers is that what he’s uncovered may not only affect the outcome of the next Presidential election, but decide the fate of an entire religion–if he can manage to stay alive.