Book Review: “The President Is Missing”

So, I haven’t posted a book review on this blog in a while–been meaning to–but today I’m doing just that with Bill Clinton and James Patterson’s novel, The President is Missing. At the same time, I’m debuting a new feature for Drinking Cafe Latte at 1pm that probably should’ve been introduced a long time ago: a recommended latte at 1pm! Or, just coffee, really. Or, some other lunch or beverage item to enjoy while reading this blog. Depends on the day. Let me know if you like this feature in the comments below. Hope you’re hungry.

Today’s 1pm Food and Drink Item:

Roast turkey on panini (grilled bread), with a slice of provolone (cheese), some lettuce, black olives, mayonnaise, mustard, and oregano, served with a dill pickle. Enjoy with a hot medium (or Grande) cup of chai tea latte. Let me know if this works for you.

Today’s 1pm Book Review:

Title: The President Is Missing

Authors: Bill Clinton and James Patterson

Publisher: Little, Brown and Company and Knopf; First Edition (June 4, 2018)

Pages: 528

Review: (5 out of 5 stars, with caveats)

Note: This review is cross-posted from Goodreads.

Okay, I’m a little embarrassed to admit this, but here it goes: In spite of my enjoying a good, page-turning thriller by a popular novelist, and in spite of James Patterson owning about five percent of the real estate in every American bookstore, I still haven’t read any of his novels. Sure, I’ve had opportunities to get some of them, including one set in my hometown, and I’ve even seen a couple of movies based on his work. Heck, if that’s not ridiculous enough, I have at least one friend who doesn’t read fiction who has read a James Patterson novel. But, not me. Maybe I’ve rebelled. Maybe I believe in giving the little guy a chance. The fact is, I just never got around to sitting down and reading his books for myself. Until now…

Or did I?

So, as it turns out, The President is Missing is actually President Bill Clinton’s first novel, with James Patterson taking co-author credit (I’ve read somewhere that he usually takes over pacing and editing duties when he co-authors with someone, in effect leaving the main story in the other author’s hands, which I’m sure is the case here), so comparing this to other James Patterson novels is a nonstarter for me. I don’t know how much of his hand has touched how much of this book, or how this final version compares to his other novels. What I do know is that our former president has a decent command of the traditional political thriller while infusing potential real-world scenarios and potentially threatening situations into a terrifying warning about what could happen if we don’t guard our every door.

Before I go any further, I want to alert readers to potential spoilers ahead. They’ll be minor and hopefully not that spoiled, but you may want to duck out in a moment if you want to be completely surprised by the story. If you don’t want to risk figuring out the story ahead of time, then I don’t want you to find out that the butler did it in the ballroom with the candlestick here.

Oops. Sorry.

Okay, if you’re still reading, then you don’t mind a couple of possible spoilers. (They won’t be too bad.) So, I’d expect a novel like this, written from the voice of a former president, to speak a truth to the crisis situation he presents. Because the story’s plot focuses on an issue that I’ve personally worried about for years (again, this story comes from the mind of a former president), I find it especially unsettling how realistic the crisis presented as the obstacle could be. Sure, the event this focuses on is probably not going to happen. But, it could, and that’s what makes the novel frightening. Again, coming from the source, it makes me wonder if there was ever a time in reality when we were close to experiencing the catastrophe-in-the-making presented in this novel. I kind of doubt it, but still, I think it adds to the suspense not knowing if the threat was ever real. Coming from an authentic voice, the specter of speculation is constantly hovering over the reader’s mind.

This authenticity, of course, has a negative side effect. It’s hard to separate the main character (POTUS, Jonathan Duncan) from the author (POTUS, Bill Clinton) enough to disbelieve that the two are uniquely separate. This is especially true when you consider that Duncan refers to former presidents, like Kennedy, Carter, and Reagan (but not Clinton, I’ve noticed–I was waiting for that one). So, the story follows a weird parallel universe situation where basically Duncan is elected instead of Trump, but for some reason has to deal with almost all of the same real-life issues (read the book to discover just how timely it is), not unlike the world-building in the televised thriller 24, starring Kiefer Sutherland (who I suspect would play Duncan in the movie, if a movie ever happens because why not?). Duncan is his own person, though, complete with his own unique backstory (here’s where the separation between Duncan and Clinton are evident–they definitely do not share personal histories), so we still get a story here and not just a political football in novel form. This president, it seems, has some problems. So, there’s that.

Yet, there’s this underlying perfection happening in our hero that makes me wonder whether the president is ever truly flawed. Yes, he has external issues that plague him and his presidency, independent of the crisis at hand. But, internally, he seems to have it all together. Well, no, not internally in the emotional sense–he’s a wreck there–but internally in the intellectual sense. He’s ahead of everybody else, which makes the reader wonder if he really needs anybody in his corner. Like Sherlock Holmes or Scooby Doo, he seems to know what’s going on through his own cunning before even his best people know. Either that, or the narrator’s hand is so sleight that we aren’t given the chance to see his cunning in action until after he explains why he’s cunning. So, yeah, if there’s anything about the book I don’t like, and keep in mind the five-star rating (a begrudging five stars), it’s that the president, while justly knowing a lot, seems to out-think everyone at every turn, and at some point I no longer want to buy his character (again, considering the source). There’s something of an uber-righteousness to him that we want him to have, yet we have a difficult time believing is infallible, as his politics are too perfect, and nobody’s politics are perfect. It’s almost as if this character embodies every positive talking point from both the right and the left to form this political savior who may be a grade above the majority of leaders we elect. I appreciate the idealism coming out, but it turns a tense thriller into something kind of hokey. Also, the villain’s motivation is weak. Like I said, I give this book five stars begrudgingly. It’s entertaining, but there are also those drawn-out moments where I feel like the politician is trying to sell me on his politics. I think the story could’ve ended 30 or 40 pages sooner, and I’d be more satisfied with it. The truth is, as compelling as President Duncan’s speech at the end may be, I still prefer President Bill Pullman’s speech from Independence Day over it (which was delivered in 1996, during President Bill Clinton’s first term).

So, yes, in spite of a few lame character issues, and in spite of what amounts to a mostly predictable outline of events (save for a few instances where plots are foiled at weird times), The President is Missing is a good read, and even an important read, as it presents a crisis that could happen, and outlines the consequences we would face if it ever did happen. It’s scary, but also informative. So, even though it’s cheesy at times, it’s still a valuable addition to the reader’s library, and one that serves a valuable reminder that we shouldn’t put all of our eggs in a single basket. Good job, Mr. President. Your first novel lands on both feet. I expect the next, hopefully less diplomatically-filtered novel, to be just as important to read.

(End Review)

Let me know if you want to read more reviews like this one. I have a few cued up already. I read books from a variety of publishing dates, so some books may have been out for a while, but I think a late review is better than no review.

How’s the sandwich and chai?

Cover Image: Pixabay

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Quality Products and Ethical Practices

Every so often I like to visit The Book Designer to find out what’s new in the world of indie publishing because trends change, people change, yet books are forever, except for when they’re banned, and it’s important to keep up with it all. It is through this channel that I discover not only ways to maximize my social media outreach, but also how to avoid or address problems like predator publishers, “Cockygate,” or anything that convinces me that no one is looking out for my best interest.

Yesterday, I read an article through The Book Designer’s weekly wrap-up about Amazon’s new terms on content-stuffing, or the practice of packing e-books with “bonus materials” that equate to having multiple books in one in an effort to game Kindle Unlimited’s system that pays according to pages read, a practice which may ultimately result in “authors” directing readers to click to the end of the digital brick for some kind of bonus item (and force Amazon to pay the author as much as $15 for the click1, per the policies on pages read, or credited as read, and subsequent payment), and it left me with some opinions. In short, it’s a smart system for lazy people, and one can hardly fault the scammers who figured that out, but it’s also a harmful system for those who are actually trying to make a living on their art. The end result is that Amazon has finally banned this practice, after numerous complaints2, as it is unfair to other, more legitimate authors who want to make an honest buck.

Of course, I doubt fairness is the real reason they banned the practice. At best, responding in fairness may be counted as a positive side effect to the solution to a greater business problem. No, we’re talking about Amazon here. Prevention of bad practices, it seems, stems first from a loss, and losing authors is not the sort of thing Amazon would ever need to worry about. I have a feeling the change in Amazon’s Terms of Service for Kindle products is related more to money than to author servicing, and, in this case, authors are there to make them money (while trying to also make themselves money, which is admittedly harder to do). How well authors make Amazon money is the topic of another discussion, and, well, money in general is the topic of another discussion. What I do want to talk about, however, is service, and, in this case, the product is the service.

When we buy a book, we usually buy it to read it. Sometimes we’ll buy a paperback because we need something for the bus or the beach, and sometimes we’ll buy a hardcover because we need something to keep the door open. But, we buy electronic books, or e-books, because we need something to occupy our time without taking up much of our space. And, Kindle Unlimited, Amazon’s exclusive subscription site for indie authors and readers, is a purveyor of electronic books large and small (more large than small) that readers can consume quickly and cheaply without any bookshelf clutter whatsoever, and it provides these books on an exclusive basis, exclusive in the sense that these books are available only on the Kindle platform. For readers who don’t mind reading books by unknowns for a monthly fee (so, not exactly free but close to it), Kindle Unlimited is a great platform. For authors whom these readers read, Kindle Unlimited is an okay platform (if they don’t mind getting paid by the page read, which can be very, very little3).

I understand why someone would want to game a pay-by-pages-read system. It changes the value of the book from a standard cost of purchase regardless of quality to cost of purchase or borrow (and worth) based on quality. Not everyone will have that book that everyone will want to read until the end, as much as we may want to believe the opposite. For me, I’m the type of reader who will generally read a bad book to the end to find out if it gets any better, and because I paid for it, I’m gonna finish what I paid for, dangit. But, if I’m not paying anything but a monthly service, then I’m much more likely to abandon a bad book in favor of searching for a better book, and if I get a bad book for free, well, I’m not reading that one, either. So, if I’ve written a bad book, it doesn’t change the fact that I’ve spent precious time writing that bad book, and I’d still want to get paid for it. Gaming the system to get something for that book is certainly tempting.

But, it’s not ethical, especially if the money is coming out of a pool4 set aside for all authors enrolled in the KU program, especially if those authors are writing good books that deserve to be read and deserve adequate compensation for each page read. If we were to consider the proverb, “Do unto others as we’d do onto ourselves,” then we shouldn’t even be tempted by this practice of tricking readers to click to the end of the overstuffed book, especially if the book is larger than The Lord of the Rings Trilogy because it includes content that can also be bought separately from the tome in question. But, apparently some fake authors haven’t gotten that memo.

My argument goes beyond the ethical issue, however. In fact, I shouldn’t have to explain why this behavior is unethical, or justify any time spent discussing it. The facts speak for themselves. Cheating legitimate authors out of fair compensation by tricking readers to click on a link that takes them to something else lame is just bad all around. No, my issue is with these fake authors’ unwillingness to present a quality book, both in appearance and in content. That’s the real crime. Well, it’s kind of a crime. The fraudulent practice of gaming a system for money is still the worst. But a bad book…that’s nothing to slouch at.

As a consumer of literature, both fiction and nonfiction alike, I want to enjoy the experience of reading as much as I want to enjoy the story itself. This means I want to appreciate the feel of the book in my hands (so, no crappy paper textures, please). I want to find the textual layout pleasing to the eye. Even the typography should leave me with a positive feeling. I’m a fan of the Garamond font, just as I’m a fan of matte covers and embossed titles. I like chapter headings that punctuate the story. I even like chapters that add something extra, like famous quotes, illustrations, or even in the case of The Impossible Fortress, lines of computer code that not only combine to make a functional game but also summarize the plot points of the chapter for a truly complex approach to storytelling. As a reader, I want to like the book I’m reading. As a writer, this means I want to deliver a positive customer experience, too.

When I wrote The Computer Nerd three years ago, I had what I thought were three great ideas: A homemade cover featuring my real-life desk and coffee cup, a computer-based font for the title and chapter headings, and a “post-credits scene” to give voracious readers a special surprise for reading the entire book. As it turned out, my cover was too dark for print and a bit out of standard for a thriller, and the font was way out of standard for a thriller. And that last scene? I never did get feedback on it, which makes me wonder if anyone ever saw it. My first review, most likely from a reader looking for a book on programming, not a marital thriller, came back with a single star. It was nearly the reason why I rethought the story’s entire premise and every “wise” decision I thought I had made about it. The stuff I learned afterward is what convinced me to rewrite the book under the title Gone from the Happy Place. I thought it was time to brand it as a new product. I even want to change the publishing elements to match the professionals closer. I care about my books. I care about my products. I want readers to like them as much as I do, and I want to like them, too. I rushed The Computer Nerd out the door, and the quality, while not awful, still kinda shows. I definitely would’ve done things differently in retrospect. It’s the reason that Gone from the Happy Place is even in-production.

Personally, I think these book-stuffers and Kindle-gamers are hacks. These are not the kinds of people who care about products. They’re driven by the money, but they don’t realize that the money is only as good as the customers’ tastes, and a bad product will lose the customer. It’s too bad that e-books don’t come with return policies, especially in Kindle Unlimited, because return policies force proper customer targeting and the creation of competitive products. This isn’t to say that I like return policies for my products, and I certainly don’t love the idea of including one, but I still think they’re necessary for all content producers, as return policies keep us accountable to our work. If enough people return my books, I’d know there’s a problem with them. Either that, or readers think a store is a library and are basically jerks, too. But, I wouldn’t expect that from my readers. My readers are good people, wink wink.

To get notifications on more articles like this one, please hit the blue “follow” button at the bottom of this page. I try to post a new article at least once a year. Maybe twice in a leap year, if there’s also a full moon.

Cover Image: Pixabay

Footnotes:

1. Nate Hoffelder. “Amazon Updates KDP Rules to Discourage Book-Stuffing.The Digital Reader. July 12, 2018.

2. This is a guess, but probably true, as it wouldn’t be much of a story otherwise.

3. Derek Haines. “Is Kindle Unlimited Pay Per Page Read Fair For Authors?Just Publishing Advice. June 21, 2018.

4. Nate Hoffelder. “Kindle Unlimited Per-Page Rate, Funding Pool Up in September 2017.” The Digital Reader. October 15, 2017.

Social Media Stage Fright

I don’t get stage fright. Not usually. If I’m standing in front of a group of strangers to give some information about a service they could use or learn from (an occasional side function of my job in education), I typically turn off the part of my brain that cares what they think about me and just deliver them the info I came to deliver. Unless I’m coughing up a storm while my zipper is down, two things I tend to get under control prior to arrival at my speaking destination, usually, I don’t worry about how I’m received. The audience either cares or it doesn’t. Doesn’t affect me either way.

Yet, the reverse seems to be true about my online presence. It’s usually more appropriate to answer questions in an unbuttoned pair of jeans (especially after a big lunch or dinner) online than it is in front of a live crowd, depending on the topic, I suppose, but the words I deliver online last much, much longer than what I deliver in person, and that can be scary when the words or information matters. In front of real people in real time, most of my audience will remember less than 10% of what I say, and if they remember me at all, they’ll likely remember me as “some guy who came to my classroom to tell me about grammar or something.” I’m not threatened by that. But, when I send a message on Facebook or a tweet on Twitter, suddenly my words are permanent and have scrutiny appeal.

Frightening!

It’s a strange paradox to be sure. We all talk about how social media can mask our identities when necessary, giving room for transparency in our thoughts, especially if our name is “Anonymous” or “Some Dude,” and suddenly we’re titanium. We see it as license to spout off all sorts of nonsense because who’s going to associate it with our faces if they can’t see them? In fact, I find it especially paradoxical in the dating world (something I gave up on a long time ago), where approaching strangers for the intention of getting a date is somehow easier through a comment on a profile page and a follow-up wink (or maybe it’s vice versa—I’ve never been great at the dating thing) than it is in real life where the person of interest has to watch me stumble out the words she may never take seriously face-to-face. It’s strange how these same vehicles of delivery can suddenly flip the perception I have of people and vice-versa, depending on the topic. But masking identity isn’t always useful. In person, my audience gets to see my face. In personal relationships, that should be a perk. Hopefully. But online, what I look like doesn’t matter. What I say does, and now they have the option to not only hear my words, but to remember them. In person, I have the freedom to flub my statements. Online, I better get it right, and I better get it right the first time because they can go back and check, check, and check again, and they can fault me if they see the mistakes or inconsistencies in thought, or whatever. As a writer, it’s embarrassing if I mess that up, especially if what I say is in of itself embarrassing (or simply unimportant). Online, I have plenty of places and opportunities in which that embarrassing thing can surface.

So, social media suddenly becomes a scary thing because that Facebook post about what I had for dinner isn’t just a Facebook post anymore. It’s an admission of guilt (even though I might see it as an attempt to engage an audience). Sure, I had a salad tonight. But I also had baked fish and mashed potatoes. And a sweet roll! To anyone who thinks I should be on a diet, I may have just incriminated myself. Sweet rolls have melted sugar on top, and that’s not healthy! How dare you promote bad health? And what of Twitter and its hashtags (also not healthy)? Is it possible for anyone to use Twitter without stirring up a string of controversies? Even with 27 followers and most of them being marketing robots, the risks of shooting myself in the foot are present if not inevitable. If I confess I had a sweet roll to a live crowd, they can at least watch me wink in jest as I deliver the truth. “Yeah, I had a sweet roll last night, and how sweet it was,” I say, as I pat my belly and gesture at how much of it is now sugar. (Note: What I eat for dinner isn’t actually anyone’s business.) Online, they may not even read that far.

As a writer, I’m told I need to master social media if I want to get followers. Okay. It’s also suggested that I post regularly to Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, LinkedIn, Google+, MySpace, Hotmail, AOL, AOL Instant Messenger, Reddit, AltaVista, Match.com, Yahoo, Wazoo, Kazoo, and other things I’m probably just making up now, oh, and my blog!, and it’s too much to keep up with, yet posting builds an audience of readers, and I want to be read, right??? And everything I say must be timely, yet accurate, and interesting, yet short, and if I mess it up, I’ll lose the people, but don’t worry about that because even with ten different ways to shoot myself in the head, I only have to do it once to lose them, so don’t worry about it and just enjoy the process, as even players of Russian Roulette can be successful at times!

I’m tired, and that’s just from writing the names of these platforms.

As I read about new platforms I can use to expand my readership, something I’m desperate for, as getting readers is the hardest part of the writing process, and I’d probably have an easier time running for public office based on the experience I’ve had doing this (getting a date is still tougher for some reason, though I have no idea why, as I’m smart, handsome, idea-driven, rich—no, the opposite of that, sorry—funny…okay, this post isn’t about that), I suddenly feel intimidated all over again because here’s one more service I should sign up for to give my readers even more options for staying connected with me, even though they have enough information overload from everybody else who wants their attention, and the only way any of this matters is if they really, really want to hear from me. If the students I speak to are of any barometer, I’d think even those who need to hear from me probably don’t want to hear from me. They’re probably too busy thinking about their Facebook posts, and Instagram photos, and whether anyone will like them to worry about liking me.

So, what can I say to convince them to listen? I suppose the keyword is “free money.” But, I don’t know. Social media already seems to fit that bill. If everything is free, then nothing is valuable. Including time. I value my time. And, I value my words.

To be clear, I don’t actually mind social media. I see it as a great way to find out where people I used to hang out with ten years ago are vacationing. I’m not there with them, but I can feel like I’m there with them. It’s almost as good, right? At some point, though, I want new things to talk about, and I can’t vacation every weekend or devote hours of every day sending out social media alerts to the few people who might see it to feel some kind of connection to them. At some point, it’s time to meet face to face again. Real relationships are frightening, too, but they’re real, and they feel real. That adds to their value.

The fact is, I read all the time about how important value is to people, and it’s almost scary how much that’s true. I’m not sure how valuable social media really is. My words are permanent, but are they being read? Here’s a picture of a moose you can look at while you contemplate the answer to that question.

bull-386742_1280.jpg

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Cover image: Pixabay