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April 2013

Q&A with Authors Brett Battles and Robert Gregory Browne

Recently, Brett Battles and Robert Gregory Browne, two popular thriller writers, released their first collaboration, Poe, a first-in-series action adventure about a woman who infiltrates a prison as part of a deal to learn more about her father, who disappeared years earlier and is accused of treason.

But she encounters an assassin in prison, someone there to kill the very woman Poe is sent to break out, and Poe may not even survive her mission, much less see her father again.

The authors, who have been friends for years, found a way to write together without killing each other. After they developed an outline based on Rob’s idea, Brett wrote the first draft, Rob did a major rewrite, then Brett did another revision before sending it to the copyeditor (me!), and handling additional revisions after copyedits. The two will swap duties on the next book in the series. (Rob designed cover.)

Their styles fuse well on the page, and they’re funny people, which is why I’m delighted to have them here today to answer some questions, and to let you know that the Kindle version of Poe is FREE today, April 30, until end of Thursday, May 2. Get it now!

Pop Culture Nerd: Alexandra Poe doesn’t come across like she was created by two men. Which one of you is more responsible for her female qualities? Who was girlier?

Robert Gregory Browne: Well, Brett’s definitely girlier, but I think we both tend to think of women as, you know, human beings, and tend to write solid women characters into all of our fiction. I don’t know about Brett, but when I was in high school, most of my friends were girls, and when I worked in day jobs in the past, I tended to hang around with my female coworkers quite a bit, so I’m sure I picked up a lot purely by osmosis.

Brett Battles: Rob’s right. It’s probably me.

PCN: So, was there a conscious decision to write a female protag, or did that arise out of the story you wanted to tell? How would it have been different if Poe were male?

RGB: The character was one I dreamed up several years ago as a movie idea, back when I was screenwriting. I came up with the idea of a woman whose mother had been killed in a terrorist attack and a father who had disappeared and she was hired by an international fugitive retrieval organization to infiltrate a prison in hopes of retrieving information about her missing father, who was wanted by the US government. It was a script I never got around to writing that later evolved into an idea for a novel that I never got around to writing.

There was a time when I considered turning Poe into a male, but I felt the father/daughter connection was more compelling and decided to stay true to the original storyline. When I told Brett about the idea, he thought it was terrific and when we decided to write a book together, it was his suggestion that we take the Alexandra Poe idea and run with it.

BB: My idea to run with it, but Rob’s idea [originally]. As far as writing female protags go, the main women in my solo books are, for the most part, strong, smart, and independent. Transitioning to writing one as a main character was a no-brainer and something I always knew I’d eventually take on.

PCN: Most of this book takes place in a women’s prison. In Ukraine. How did you do research?

RGB: In my original pitch, the prison was in the Middle East, but we both felt that had been done to death. So it was Brett’s idea to put the prison in Ukraine. Since neither of us has ever spent time in a Ukrainian prison (at least I don’t think Brett has, but you never know), the research was largely online. Thank God for the Internet.

BB: I’d rather not talk about my prison years. Did I say prison years? I’ve, um, uh, never been in…look, an airplane!

PCN: I still sleep with a shank under my pillow.

BB: The research was a combination of books and the Internet (travel blogs, videos on YouTube, images, and all sorts of different resources.) I would have liked to have taken a trip there but that wasn’t in the cards this time.

PCN: Why make her a descendant of Edgar Allen? Will that feature more into future stories?

RGB: Poe is not necessarily a descendant of Edgar Allen Poe, although she does live in Baltimore. We haven’t decided if Edgar will be worked into the stories in any way.

Rob, wondering how he’d live without Facebook

PCN: You both agreed to check your egos at the door before you started down this path. In case one of yours did get too big, though, what was the agreed-upon punishment? A punch in the kidney? No Facebook for a month?

RGB: Ha. We actually didn’t really discuss it beyond that, and fortunately it never became an issue. Besides, no Facebook for a month might be doing us a favor…

BB: I’ll just say it involved red-hot irons and potential loss of manhood. That seemed to be enough to keep us in line.

PCN: Yow! What, if anything, did you learn from each other about writing that you hadn’t known before?

RGB: I learned that Brett’s diva behavior is not an act. He’s impossible to be around. Everything is him, him, him.

Brett, reacting to red-hot irons aimed at his…um, at him

BB: Diva? Well, I think Mr. Browne (as he insisted I call him throughout the process) is confusing me with him. I’m not the one who demanded a cup of freshly roasted coffee before I even deemed to discuss anything every morning. And don’t get me started on his manicure schedule!

PCN: Oh, man, at first I read that as “pedicure,” and pictured toenail clippings on his desk.

BB: In truth, we’re both pretty familiar with each other’s work, and have acted as one another’s soundboards over the years, so there wasn’t a lot new left to be learned. I guess a small thing would be that we both have certain phrases/words we each use consistently. So there were a few times we had to find a balance. Nothing big, though. It was an amazingly smooth process.

PCN: You both have large groups of loyal readers, and with Poe, you’re potentially picking up each other’s fan base. What would you like fans of the other to know about you and your body of work?

RGB: All I really care about is writing good books and exposing them to as wide an audience as possible. Writing Poe helps each of us expand our audience, but our main concern was to write a good, exciting story. And that’s all readers need to know, I think, about both of us. That we write books that are fun, exciting, and will take them somewhere else for a while. 

BB: Exactly. When you pick up one of our books, expect an exciting adventure that’ll keep you on your toes to the very end. Those are the kind of books Rob and I write, because those are the kind of books we both like to read. 


Book Review: ICE COLD KILL by Dana Haynes

This review originally appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers, and is reprinted here with permission.

Daria Gibron, the formidable ex-agent for Shin Bet (Israeli Secret Service) from Dana Haynes’s Crashers and Breaking Point, gets to be front and center in the author’s Ice Cold Kill. Now working mostly as an interpreter in the US, Daria receives an urgent e-mail from an old acquaintance that lures her to New York City, where she narrowly but cleverly escapes the trap set for her.

Placed on the wanted list by American and international government agencies, she has no choice but to join forces with a well-known terrorist. The two go on the run in different European cities, while trying to shut down a horrific conspiracy. The world may consider her a threat, but she may be the only one who can save it.

Daria is an adrenaline junkie who has incredible physical assets, both in looks and skills. Sometimes protagonists who are good at everything are boring and unbelievable, but Daria is someone to root for, and her hardscrabble background as an orphan justifies her toughness and survival skills. Her relationships with both her temporary ally and the man she’s pursuing are complicated, resulting in surprising revelations.

Haynes sometimes shifts the point of view abruptly and without chapter breaks, which might cause some disorientation, but it’s not difficult to get back on track as the explosive action and cinematic language propel the plot forward. It’s easy to “see” many scenes as if they’re on a screen, like watching a Hollywood summer blockbuster that’s happening all in your mind.

Nerd verdict: Propulsive Kill

Buy it now from Amazon | Buy it from an indie bookstore


Creepy Covers

Several weeks ago, while on Twitter, I saw Jon Jordan of Crimespree Magazine mention that a book he was reading had a really creepy cover. He had a picture link so of course I clicked on it. And then screamed. This was the book.

There is no way I could have that cover staring at me from my nightstand while I sleep! The book could be the most brilliant one in years and I wouldn’t be able to read it unless the cover changes.

This made me start thinking about other covers I’ve come across recently that freaked me out too much for me to read it. Here’s one:

Ahhhhh! I might’ve thrown this across the room when I first pulled it out of the package it came in. I had to get it out of the house immediately. Another one that made my skin crawl:

While I can see how clever this design is, incorporating the stethoscope into the snake, I am deathly afraid of snakes so I couldn’t even touch this one.

This next one I really wanted to read because of the author’s interesting backstory, but the decapitated doll’s head did me in.

I’m not proud of the fact covers can scare me so easily, but that’s the way it is. I often read late into the night and just can’t deal with creepy images bleeding into my dreams. Removing the dust jacket doesn’t work because I still have to put it somewhere, and I prefer not to have a snake or Bloody Face Man hiding in a drawer and jumping out at me when I reach in for a paper clip.

Any recent book covers scare you away from reading them?


Everything I Needed to Know I Learned While Paddleboarding

My birthday was last week, and every year, I do something that scares me a little. I figure if I get through that, I’d be able to handle whatever else comes my way the rest of the year.

So last week, I went down to Marina del Rey to try paddleboarding. I’m scared of drowning because I almost drowned twice as a child, once before learning to swim, and once after. Despite lessons with the Red Cross, and my following instructions exactly, I never became a strong swimmer, and can’t tread water at all. There’s something about my bony body that just wants to sink. My swimming instructors were confounded, too.

Even though I fully expected to go in the water while paddleboarding, I put on a long-sleeved shirt and yoga pants. Mr. PCN, in a surf tee and swim trunks, asked me in the car, “You’re wearing a bathing suit underneath, right?”


“You brought a change of clothes?”


“Are we renting wetsuits?”

“Nah.” After he gave me a strange look, I added, “Maybe this will make me try harder to stay on the board. I don’t want to give myself permission to fall because I’m wearing something water-friendly.”

Mr. PCN shrugged.

When we got to the marina, the paddleboard rental guy also looked at my street clothes as if thinking, “Okaayyy, crazy lady.”

“Do first-timers go in the water often?” I asked.

“Oh, yeah,” he said, no hesitation.

The winds were strong that day, causing choppy waters. For the first ten minutes, I paddled while on my knees because my board never felt steady enough for me to stand up. But then we moved away from the main channel and toward where boats were docked, where the water was calmer.

I got up in steps. First I stuck my butt up, then I was in chair position, then finally I was standing straight up. And I stayed standing! The wind was blowing through my hair, the sun was shining, the view was better from up there—what in the world had I been afraid of?

I paddled along like that for a while, feeling the stress of the day and my fears draining from me. I was top of the world, or at least queen of the harbor.

Then this motorboat came up from behind, too close. Its wake rocked my board hard. As I wobbled like a gymnast who’d just landed badly on the balance beam, I was sure I’d go in the water, but I fell to my knees and managed to hang on. I breathed a sigh of relief when the boat moved farther away.

But I found myself unable to get up again. That close call robbed me of all my confidence. It was scarier to stand up again than it was originally when I didn’t know anything about paddleboarding. Part of my brain said, “Next time, you may not be so lucky. Play it safe and stay on your knees. You can still make it back to the dock in dry clothes.”

I did that—paddle while on my knees—for the next few minutes. Until another part of my brain said, “Are you kidding me?! If you fall, you’re supposed to get back up again. You didn’t even fall in the water, and you’re gonna stay on your knees? You’ll just let that man in the boat ruin your day?”

While my brain fought with itself, I started paddling harder and faster. Mr. PCN, alongside me on his own board, said, “Uh-oh, I’ve seen that look before. She’s getting mad. ”

And I realized I was mad. I was doing so well! Now look at me, all small and scared. Without further internal debate, I stood up.

Other boats zipped by, kicking up big waves. I hung on. We were going against the wind, and my arms were screaming in protest. I kept paddling.

As we approached the dock, the rental guy tried to hide his surprise that I wasn’t soaking wet. When we got close, he told us to stop paddling and let him guide us in with a really long paddle.

“We do it this way because people come in too fast, crash the board against the dock, and knock themselves off,” he explained.

I started to relax, exhausted but exhilarated that I’d had a good day. Then I noticed the guy was pulling me in too fast. He was going to crash my board and throw me off! Seriously??

I’d already handed over my paddle so I couldn’t stop my forward trajectory. There was only one thing to do: wait for the crash to throw me off, but use the momentum to launch myself at the dock. I dangled there briefly until the rental guy reached down and helped me up, apologizing profusely.

“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “You’re not the first person who tried to knock me off my feet today. But I’m fine.”

I thought about all this when the news these past several days made me want to cry and hide and not go outside again for a while. But I remember what it felt like after that first boat tried to capsize me, and I tell myself:

Stand up and keep paddling.


Book Review: THE HOUSE AT THE END OF HOPE STREET by Menna van Praag

Yesterday’s horrific events left me desolate, so I thought it’d be appropriate to republish—with permission—this review of mine, which ran in last week’s Shelf Awareness for Readers. The three lead characters in this novel have experienced a traumatic event, lost their faith, and come to this house to find it again. 

The titular residence in Menna van Praag’s The House at the End of Hope Street appears only to those who need it, women who have experienced something devastating they can’t seem to move beyond. Alba Ashby finds herself at its door after “the worst event” of her life, and is welcomed in by Peggy, who runs the place. Peggy tells Alba she can stay for ninety-nine nights, “long enough to help you turn your life around but short enough so you can’t put it off forever.”

Alba receives advice from talking portraits of the house’s former residents, including Dorothy Parker, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, and Elizabeth Taylor. She also meets two other women seeking sanctuary: Greer, an actress approaching forty who’s at a crossroads in her life and career; and Carmen, who has buried something in the yard that seems to terrify her. Each woman’s actions start affecting the others’, driving them to face what they’re running away from, until they discover they’re not hopeless after all.

On the surface, the book may sound precious, with the aforementioned chatty portraits, a ghost cat, magical closet, breathing walls, and Alba’s synesthetic ability to see emotions as colors. The story stays grounded, though, because there is nothing cute about the events that send the women to the house. They’ve all gone through something that would derail most people. Their secrets unravel slowly, so there’s a sense of mystery, and some of the revelations are surprising. Everything wraps up a bit too neatly in the end, but whatever happiness the characters find feels well earned by then.

Nerd verdict: Magical story about rediscovering Hope

Buy it now from Amazon| Buy it from an indie bookstore


Nerdy Special List April 2013

Spring has arrived, as has a deluge of new releases. The number of March and April titles I received increased dramatically from what came in for the first two months this year.

So let’s jump right to the April reads my book blogger pals and I found outstanding:

From Jen at Jen’s Book Thoughts:

The Anatomy of Violence: The Biological Roots of Crime by Adrian Raine (Pantheon Books, April 30)

This nonfiction account highlights Raine’s investigation into the biological connections in violent behaviors. Through a multitude of studies, both his own and those of other scientists, Raine looks at the genetic connections, brain activity, and other biological elements that consistently differ in criminals such as murders, rapists, and physical abusers.

While readers, like me, may start to feel a sense of hopelessness in regards to violent crime, Raine does emphasize that biology is not destiny, and later sections of the book go into how to treat these issues. The author makes it clear that the biological aspects of crime are not yet fully understood, but links have been made, which is a significant advancement.

The Anatomy of Violence includes scientific jargon, but not to the point that the average reader will be overwhelmed. The examples Raine cites are both fascinating and horrifying. Crime readers who appreciate the nonfiction background of their stories will be engrossed, and crime writers will find fodder for fictional stories in these pages.

Buy it from AmazonFrom an indie bookstore

From Jenn at The Picky Girl:

Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris (Little, Brown, April 23)

Get ready for a leaner, tamer David Sedaris in his latest collection of essays, but don’t doubt the humor. For example, he describes airline travel wear: “It’s as if the person next to you had been washing shoe polish off a pig, then suddenly threw down his sponge saying, ‘Fuck this. I’m going to Los Angeles!’” Yet even with these laugh-out-loud moments, Sedaris manages to still land well-arced essays with a bit more wisdom than his last two books. Interspersed with short, ironic monologues from different perspectives, Let’s Explore Diabetes is the bold, funny, and mildly offensive return to the Sedaris for which most have long waited.

Buy it from AmazonFrom an indie bookstore

From Julie at Girls Just Reading:

The Best of Us by Sarah Pekkanen (Washington Square Press, April 9)

Any of Sarah Pekkanen’s books is a must-read, but if you’ve never heard of her, then The Best of Us is wonderful place to start. You can’t really go wrong when the setting is a private villa in Jamaica.

Each character dealing with a crisis or issue will be like your best friend or sister. You will see a little bit of yourself in all of them, and at one time or another you will want to slap them silly. What makes Ms. Pekkanen one of my favorite writers is that all her situations and characters are identifiable. The Best of Us deals with real-life issues, and while a quick read, it isn’t always an easy read.

Buy it from AmazonFrom an indie bookstore

From Rory at Fourth Street Review:

The Fever Tree by Jennifer McVeigh (Amy Einhorn/Putnam, April 4)

This story of London-born Frances’s immigration to South Africa explores the topics of love, redemption, African colonialism, and Victorian society. It’s epic in both geographic and emotional scope, and doesn’t break new ground in historical fiction, but is an enjoyable, well-researched addition to the genre. The storytelling is very fine, the prose is elegant, and the novel’s captivating. I highly recommend this debut. (See Rory’s full review here.)

Buy it from Amazon |From an indie bookstore

PCN’s recommendation:

Point & Shoot by Duane Swierczynski (Mulholland Books, April 30)

Duane Swierczynski fans eager for the finale to the Charlie Hardie trilogy can now learn what happens to “Unkillable Chuck” without having to threaten to steal the author’s laptop during mystery conventions. The relentlessly paced Point & Shoot is a wild and unpredictable conclusion, taking place in space and the Pacific Ocean and locations in between, as Charlie settles his score with the previously named Accident People (they now call themselves the Cabal). I didn’t want to see these outrageous adventures end…and maybe I won’t have to.

Buy it from Amazon | From an indie bookstore

Any of these look good to you? Which April titles are you looking forward to?