Thursday, July 31, 2014

Shame on me

Oh, shame on me! I'm supposed to be powering through my current work in progress, but I'm too fried to do anything but stare blankly at the Internet. Thought I could maybe blog instead, since there's a book review I've been meaning to write, but even that feels like too much effort. So instead, I'm just going to post this:

I'm not satisfied unless someone's running for their life, scrambling to save someone's life, or fighting the power... While questioning their beliefs... And wondering if they'll ever be with the person they love...

Monday, July 28, 2014

Familial DNA


The Death of Anyone (Melange Books; February 2013 trade paperback and ebook formats) is a fictional story in which a Familial DNA search is a key investigative component. This is a unique DNA search technique not in common use, only two states even have a written policy. With forensic evidence increasingly important in solving current real-life cases and now being introduced into trials I thought it would make an interesting plot for a story.

 Photo provided courtesy of D. J. Swykert

The trial of alleged serial killer Lonnie David Franklin, known in the media as The Grim Sleeper, is scheduled to begin this month. Franklin will be the first person brought to trial on the basis of Familial DNA evidence in the U.S. Pretrial motions regarding Fourth Amendment civil rights violations have been ongoing for over four years.

The Grim Sleeper was caught because his son's DNA was the closest match to DNA samples collected at the crime scenes in the database. Investigating Franklin's son led them to investigate Lonnie David Franklin. But there was no direct DNA linking him to the crime scene until a matching DNA sample was obtained after his arrest. The admissibility issues are being thoroughly tested by defense attorneys.

Many legal analysts believe Familial DNA searches violate Fourth Amendment rights which guard against unreasonable searches and seizures. The courts may ultimately rule that searching among Familial DNA databases for partial matches would constitutionally be the same as the use of a generalized warrant to search someone's house when there is no prior reason to suspect the person of wrongdoing, which citizens are constitutionally protected from.

Even Thomas Callaghan, the former head of the F.B.I.'s national DNA database, feared that Familial Searches might be legally vulnerable, since courts might view the searches as an attempt to use samples collected for one purpose for a very different purpose.

Just as we would consider it unreasonable to cast a wide net of suspicion without probable cause in general due to concerns of privacy, personal dignity, and unwanted intrusion in the lives of innocent citizens, we should be similarly concerned the identification of a suspect through partial DNA searches will contribute to further loss of freedoms as DNA databases grow and lead to ever more invasive investigative techniques. These are all constitutional issues that will come into play as the use of DNA science continues to progress towards solving criminal investigations and determining the guilt of suspects. Decisions will be made by the courts that will regulate just how invasive of civil rights law enforcement can proceed in the investigation of serious crimes.

I first heard about the use of Familial DNA working as a 911 operator in 2006. It came up in a conversation with officers working a case. I thought at the time it would make an interesting premise for a book. I began writing The Death of Anyone three years after leaving the department. I had just finished editing a first draft in the summer 2010 when news of The Grim Sleeper's capture in Los Angeles was released. I read with interest all the information pouring out of L.A. regarding the investigation and the problems confronting prosecutors.

These are the same issues confronting Detroit Homicide Detective Bonnie Benham in The Death of Anyone.

The Death of Anyone
D. J. Swykert
A Police Procedural

Detroit homicide Detective Bonnie Benham has been transferred from narcotics for using more than arresting and is working the case of a killer of adolescent girls. CSI collects DNA evidence from the scene of the latest victim, which had not been detected on the other victims. But no suspect turns up in the FBI database. Due to the notoriety of the crimes a task force is put together with Bonnie as the lead detective, and she implores the D.A. to use an as yet unapproved type of a DNA Search in an effort to identify the killer.

Homicide Detective Neil Jensen, with his own history of drug and alcohol problems, understands Bonnie's frailty and the two detectives become inseparable as they track this serial killer.


Saturday, July 26, 2014

REVIEW: Acts of Violence / Ross Harrison

TITLE: Acts of Violence
AUTHOR: Ross Harrison
PUBLISHER: Self-Published

Science Fiction - Thriller / Noir

While this book counts as sci-fi because it takes place on a colony planet, it reads like noir. The setting feels very earth-based, and the sci-fi elements (holograms, mentions of off-worlders, etc.) are very much in the background.


Ross Harrison's Acts of Violence is a fast-paced, entertaining mystery packed with action and grit. The story takes place on a backwater planet in the NEXUS universe - Harrison's galaxy-spanning space opera series - but other than a few references to fictional technology (holograms, flying transports, and the like), the book reads more like a thriller or nouveau noir than sci-fi.

The narrator is Jack Mason, a police academy dropout turned wannabe private detective. He tells the story in sharp-edged sentences ideal for the setting: a crime-ridden, mob-run town full of violence and debauchery. A caustic wit and blunt demeanor make him an entertaining character to read, both because of his sarcastic quips and quick descriptions of action scenes. The plot follows his efforts to clear his name of the murder of a bargirl whose name he didn't even know when he brought her home for a one-night stand. But as he delves further into the shady operation she worked for, he learns that it's much more than it seems. Driven to find the truth, he winds up tangled up in a web of deceit and power struggles. 

I really enjoyed reading this book - even missed my train once because I was reading it at the platform and didn't look up in time. Harrison certainly knows how to plot a novel. The suspense and action were riveting, and the twists at the end gave the book a powerful finish. It's not very long, and with its pounding pace and chapter hooks, I could easily have read this book in one afternoon if I hadn't been saving it for my commutes.

Acts of Violence explores the dark underworld of Harem, the aptly named sin city it takes place in, and doesn't pull its punches. It's not horror, and the violence isn't particularly graphic, but there is a lot of it. Things get real rough for poor Jack. 

As far as character goes, Jack is somewhat of an enigma. The story is told in past tense, and he often seems emotionally detached from the situation, but every so often, the anger gets the better of him. He's also an unreliable narrator, denying the reader information about his past, and that adds an extra level of interest.

All in all, I would recommend this book to anyone looking for an entertaining thrill-ride of a read, which was just what I was looking for when I cracked its spine. Well, its digital spine.


Ross Harrison has been writing since childhood without thought of publication. When the idea was planted by his grandmother to do so, it grew rapidly, and after a bumpy ten years or so, here sits the fruit.

Ross lives on the UK/Eire border in Ireland, hoping the rain will help his hair grow back.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

12 Types of Writers You'll Run Into

Writing has often been called a solitary activity, and though it ultimately is when you're sitting in your lake-view log cabin with your feather pen (or, more realistically, at your messy desk with your laptop), the Internet has made it far more social. Chances are, if you're writing, you're also part of one writer's group or another, whether it's online or in person. And, chances are, you've run into (and probably embodied - I know I have) at least one of these personas...

1. The genius with impostor syndrome

This person is both awesome and infuriating at once. You read their book and go, "whoa, this is the best thing ever!" with no exaggeration whatsoever. And the response you receive is usually something along the lines of "oh no, it's terrible... you don't have to be nice." Even after their book lands an agent and sells for a million dollar advance, they'll still go, "oh, I'm just lucky" (okay, so million dollar advances are largely mythological, but you get the picture). It seems no matter how much they achieve, they never quite feel like a "real" writer. And so you waffle between wanting to encourage them and wanting to shake them out of their incurable impostor syndrome.

2. The clueless newbie

This person really, really wants to write a book and has a vague idea for a story but knows nothing about how a book gets written. Their story structure is a mess, their characters flat stereotypes, and their writing atrocious. And oftentimes, they seem to have only a marginal grasp on the English language. As for industry knowledge? All they know is that publishers exist and somehow magically turn a manuscript into a bestseller. This is the person you want to pat on the head and say, "There, there, you'll figure it out eventually." If you're really, really generous, you'll even lead them by the hand to the information to need. But this do so at your own risk, because they might turn out to actually be...

3. The delusional dreamer

This person LOVES their idea for a book and thinks it's pretty much the best thing ever. It's something they've been dreaming up for years and years and is guaranteed to be a bestseller. This person even knows exactly what the cover art will look like and who will play the protagonist in the movie version. Though this person is still in the middle of writing Chapter One, they know that fame and fortune awaits once they slog through the hard part. This person is, unfortunately, the ideal bait for scammers and vanity presses. Though you want to help this person by offering them a reality check, it's often difficult to get their head out of the clouds. And you want to approach this person with caution, because once their bubble bursts, they could turn into...

4. The bitter literary snob

This person hasn't ever read a book they like. All the stuff lining the bookshelves of Barnes & Noble is nothing but fluff and filth. And because there's nothing good out there, they've deigned to write a GOOD book for once. But because those damn greedy publishers only want money, they can't find a home for their masterpiece. They consider themselves to be following in the footsteps of literary greats like Herman Melville who only found fame after death and believe the scholars will someday come to appreciate them, even if the masses won't, because they're ahead of their time. But in the meanwhile, they will talk your ear off about what REAL writers and REAL books are like. And Lord help you if you suggest doing anything to their book to make it more marketable.

5. The salesman who's paying off car loans with book royalties

This person knows how to promote themselves. They're everyone's best friend and know how to make you feel comfortable around them. So you barely even notice that they're always talking about their own book in an effort to get you to subconsciously want to buy it. They'll often tout themselves as a success story and talk about how they're paying the mortgage with their royalties and whatnot, then give you tips on how you can do it too. Though this person is mostly harmless, they can get irritating once you realize that at the end of the day, they're really just bragging and trying to sell something.

6. The writer who doesn't actually read

This baffling sub-species of writer thinks themselves to be a natural-born storyteller with a book to offer the world, but doesn't actually read books themselves. They get their storytelling instincts from movies and video games and news stories, but if you ask them what the last fiction book they read was, chances are they'll mention something they read for English class years and years ago. You can try explaining to this person why it's necessary to read in order to write, since so much about novel writing can't really be taught and is best absorbed through exposure and experience. But chances are they'll tell you that they don't have time to read, and that they don't believe in letting the Establishment interfere with their artistry.

7. The insecure writer who's terrified of having anyone they've met read their book yet wants millions of faceless strangers to read and love it

This person will not let you read their book. You would have to pry the manuscript out of their cold, dead hands because they can't stand the idea of someone actually reading the words they put on paper. Oh, they believe in their story and want to become the next J.K. Rowling like the rest of us, but they want to hide under their bed while their book magically takes off like a Nimbus 2000. If you ask this person what their book is about, they will most likely go on about how they CANNOT talk about it while throwing in little tidbits about the idea (which they secretly think is more brilliant or deep than anything else out there). They showed up to this online forum or local group or whatever because they're hoping someone will spot their genius and take care of getting it out there for them. You're afraid to critique their book honestly because they might actually cry.

8. The happy-go-lucky optimist who wants to give everyone and their book a hug

This person is probably a genuinely nice person, but leaves you scratching your head. They love EVERYTHING. No matter how badly written a work-in-progress is, they'll see the brilliance behind the horrendous grammar. It's hard to tell whether these people are sincerely trying to encourage everyone, if they're just really easily impressed, or if they're hiding nefarious, self-promotional purposes, but they can be nice to have around (because every so often, you need that little gold star comment on your book, even if you're not sure if you actually deserve it). As for their own book? Well, no one wants to give them a brutally honest opinion after all the nice things they've done, and so chances are, this person has no way of gauging the merits of their manuscript.

9. The know-it-all who hasn't published a thing but whose book is totally better than yours

This person is to be avoided if possible. They're closely related to #4 but distinct in that they generally have more experience. They've been to industry conferences and talked to agents and publishers and subscribe to Publishers Weekly. They look down their noses at indie authors and even indie presses because they believe they deserve a million dollar advance and a movie deal. While their knowledge might be impressive, they are often insufferable creatures because no matter how you try to converse with them, they will insist that they are right and TOTALLY BETTER THAN YOU.

10. The tormented artiste

You worry about this person, because they seem to have some deep-seated emotional issues. They write because they must, because the story in their head is just pounding to get out, but it causes them great pain to commit their work to the page. This person will often complain-brag about the agony of being a capital-A Author how it's killing them to write their story, but they go on because they're serving a higher mission of some kind. They may actually turn out to be a genius, but it can be hard to tell.

11. The dogged worker bee

This person wants a writing career, and wants it bad. If they're unpublished, they're out there swapping beta reads with everyone who'll agree to it to make the manuscript the best it can be. They probably also take classes and read character guides and whatnot. And on top of that, they make sure to keep up with the industry by reading the entire New York Times Bestseller list. If they're published, then they're out there pounding the pavement day in and day out in an effort to market their book - giving talks, doing readings, networking at conferences, online networking with bloggers... Listening to them talk can make you dizzy, because it makes you realize just how much you need to do.

12. The old timer who's seen it all

This person has been at the whole writing thing a while and has a pretty clear view of what it's all about. They recognize their own shortcomings and fix what they can while shrugging and muttering "c'est la vie" at the others. They're writing for the sake of writing, knowing all too well that it might all be for just a handful of sales and a gold star. They can be a fount of knowledge, but steer clear of debates because they're too experienced to fall for the whole argument thing. Yet they do enjoy informing others, so ask and you shall receive.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

REVIEW: Diary of the Gone / Ivan Amberlake

TITLE: Diary of the Gone
AUTHOR: Ivan Amberlake
PUBLISHER: Self-published
AVAILABILITY: Amazon (Kindle), Amazon (paperback)

Young Adult - Horror/Paranormal

Creepy but not gory or particularly violent. Appropriate for young readers (reminded me a bit of Goosebumps).


Diary of the Gone is a creepy little horror novella about a fifteen-year-old boy, Callum, who sees ghosts of the dead. The only thing he can do to keep them away is write about them in his diary - which is what the title refers to (he calls the ghosts "the gone"). But then, his visions start touching the real world when a boy from his school vanishes, and he starts seeing the boy's ghosts. And when Callum's own friends start disappearing, he realizes he can't run from his curse any longer...

Ivan Amberlake is a fine writer with a gift for bringing settings and emotions to life and transport you into his world. The haunted environment in which Diary of the Gone takes place ... creepy swamps, chilling spirits, shiver-inducing visions... really stand out, and Callum's sometimes tortured, sometimes deadpan, always tense voice makes him come alive. And the plot intrigue - the disappearing kids, secrets from the past - keep the story moving forward. It's a short, quick read, and I enjoyed every moment.

As far as young adult books go (and I've been reading a LOT lately), Diary of the Gone slides right into the category while avoiding the pitfalls that often come with it. No overlong whining here - the tight nature of the novella won't allow for it. While the premise (boy seeing dead people) isn't totally original, it hardly matters in this context. I love a good ghost story, and sometimes, I just want a good old-fashioned chiller. And what was great about this book was that it wasn't TOO horror-y. There were plenty of scares, but no gratuitous gore or violence. The fear was achieved through suspense rather than shock, which was great.

So if you're looking for a quick, creepy paranormal read, I highly recommend that you give Diary of the Gone a try.


Ivan Amberlake is the author of The Beholder, an urban fantasy novel. He's a member of Breakwater Harbor Books, an author's collective, and a book blogger for Book Reveal.

Monday, July 7, 2014

A Thing for Graveyards


I have a thing for graveyards. And cemeteries. Both, actually. What’s the difference? A graveyard, by definition, is on sacred ground (belonging to a church). A cemetery does not have to be on sacred ground and can be anywhere (for example, the Jewish cemetery located right next to the Freehold Raceway Mall about 20 minutes from where I grew up in Jersey. I always found that to be an interesting locale.). Most people use the two terms interchangeably. Of course, for me, graveyards conjure up images of creeping ivy and angel headstones with chipped wings whereas cemeteries just remind me of my grandma taking me on a tour of the family plots.

So, why do I have a thing for graveyards and cemeteries? Well, for starters I’m a history nerd. And there’s something so mind-bending about seeing the headstones of people who actually lived through some of history’s most incredible events.  I mean, I know people lived during the Revolutionary War but it sometimes doesn’t seem real until I see their birth year as 1755 etched in stone. Under my feet lies a person who saw things I don’t even want to imagine.

Another reason is that I’m a sucker for genealogy. When I was a kid, all these older relatives died around the same time -- my grandpa's sister and his brother; my great grandparents…My brother and I were too little to be left alone so we went to the funerals. My grandmother would feed me sponge cake and show me the family plots. She'd place a rock on top of the headstones (as is Jewish custom) of our relatives and tell me about them. This one was married to this one. This one fought in this war. This one was a bootlegger. Then we'd walk around and explore the rest of the cemetery. The one tidbit I remember the most was when she showed me a headstone in the shape of a tree trunk. "It's for a young person who was cut down in the prime of their life," she had said. Anyway, I've never associated cemeteries with anything too morbid or macabre. For me, they're like taking a tour of family history with my grandma as tour guide.

Lastly, the obvious reason why I have a thing for graveyards is the straight-up spook factor. I’m a writer and graveyards offer up so many potential story ideas. In fact, I wrote a short story set in Key West City Cemetery. If you’ve never been to Key West, you should go just for the cemetery (the epitaphs alone are worth the trip). The locals talk about an old Bahamian ghost who roams the cemetery chastising people for walking on top of the graves. Come, on! Who doesn’t think that’s cool?!  I’ve meandered through cemeteries and graveyards in Boston, Nova Scotia (where the Titanic victims are buried) and Key West. They’re creepy and haunting and entirely inspirational.

If anyone wants to see more photos of graveyards, I have a Pinterest board ( devoted to the subject matter.

So, clever readers – what are your thoughts on graveyards and cemeteries? Have you ever been to any cool ones? Where? Sound off in the comments. And thanks to Mary for having me.

Grunge Gods and Graveyards

Parted by death. Tethered by love.
Lainey Bloom’s high school senior year is a complete disaster. The popular clique, led by mean girl Wynter Woods, bullies her constantly. The principal threatens not to let her graduate with the class of 1997 unless she completes a major research project. And everyone blames her for the death of Wynter’s boyfriend, Danny Obregon.
Danny, a gorgeous musician, stole Lainey’s heart when he stole a kiss at a concert. But a week later, he was run down on a dangerous stretch of road. When he dies in her arms, she fears she’ll never know if he really would have broken up with Wynter to be with her.
Then his ghost shows up, begging her to solve his murder. Horrified by the dismal fate that awaits him if he never crosses over, Lainey seeks the dark truth amidst small town secrets, family strife, and divided loyalties. But every step she takes toward discovering what really happened the night Danny died pulls her further away from the beautiful boy she can never touch again.
Buy the book:

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

I'm out to change the world

Yup, you read that headline right. In my own little way, I'm aiming to give humanity a nudge in the right direction.

The days when women were considered too dumb to handle math and science are long gone (unless you're Larry Summers circa 2005), but the fact is that they're still underrepresented in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) workforce. In the U.S., we've largely achieved gender equality in terms of sheer numbers of workers, but, as I've mentioned before, only 26% of STEM jobs are held by women. And when it comes to engineering alone, the number is just tragic: 13 measly percentage points.

Part of the problem is how girls are still viewed in society - and how they see themselves represented in the media and pop culture. It's telling that while 66% of 4th grade girls say they like science and math, only 18% of engineering majors are women. Why the plummet in numbers? 

Finding stats like this is sadly easy

Maybe it's because everywhere they look, girls are told they should be pretty and likable, but not so much smart. These days, there is an emphasis on "strong" women, but it's almost always portrayed as physical strength. Or having a tough-as-nails attitude. But what about brains?

If you've been following this blog for the past few weeks, you may have heard that I'm teaming up with fellow sci-fi author Paige Daniels to help change that. If not, here's the SparkNotes version: We're publishing an anthology of young adult short stories about tech-savvy heroines, and all revenues from sales of the book will be donated to a Society of Women Engineers scholarship fund. Because maybe if more girls saw themselves portrayed in STEM roles, more might consider that path.

Cover of the anthology
Now, I'm asking for your help. We've started an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign to raise money for publishing costs, and while we're off to a great start, we've still got a ways to go. We appreciate each and every contribution, even if it's $1. Because that's a dollar that says, "Yes, I want to see more brainy girls out there, in fiction and in the real world."

Check out our campaign here:

And if you even if you can't donate, we could still use your support! Help us spread the word. Blast it out on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and anything else you've got going on. Email people you know. We appreciate it all!

Help us change the world, will ya? :-)