“Life moves fast — books should too,” promises a promotional website for mega-bestselling author James Patterson’s new line of branded mini-novels. BookShots are Patterson’s take on the genre novella, a slick package intended to appeal to Twitter-friendly attention spans. BookShots.com promises that each of the thrillers and romances under the BookShot umbrella will be “Under 150 pages. Under $5. Impossible to put down,” and in case the breathless copy doesn’t get the point across, the site features a 30-second ad featuring a Patrick Bateman-looking young man being chased through the streets of a big city as he reads a BookShot:
Honestly, BookShots are a terrific idea. The genre novella is an underappreciated form that stretches back to pulp magazines of the 1920s and 30s — the age of serialized heroes like Doc Savage and The Spider and midcentury sci-fi novelists like Hubbard and Heinlein. These are books that introduced protagonists quickly, solved a succession of problems with a rat-a-tat rhythm, and then resolved situations neatly. If you’re looking for something cheap and fun and light for your summer vacation, a BookShot-sized read would be just the thing.
Unfortunately, the four BookShots I’ve tried to read are neither propulsive nor particularly interesting. Instead, they’re dumb exercises in formula, a plasticky surface held together with sticky clichés. I’m not asking for high art in my genre thrillers, but a romance protagonist who informs us that she “couldn’t carry a tune in a Kate Spade handbag,” as we’re told in Little Black Dress, is a bit too artificial and precocious to be compelling. Or consider the first few pages of the supposedly thrilling Women’s Murder Club: The Trial, which wastes precious attention spans by relaying every main character’s personality through their outfit with all the panache of lazy J.C. Penney sale flier copy:
I was wearing straight-legged pants, a blue gabardine blazer, a Glock in my shoulder holster, and flat lace-up shoes…Clare Washburn was wearing a trench coat over her scrubs, with a button on the lapel that read SUPPORT OUR TROOPS…Cindy was also in her work clothes: cords and a bulky sweater, with a peacoat slung over the back of her chair…[Yuki] was dressed impeccably, in pinstripes and pearls.
If you’re going to build a world, establish characters, and grab a reader’s attention in ten pages or less, your prose needs to be muscular and lean, not bland and awkward.
At the same time that I was struggling through four supposedly easy-to-read BookShots, I instead found myself taken hostage by a zippy new novella from Seattle-based sci-fi publisher Broken Eye Books. Adam Heine’s first book, Izanami’s Choice, delivers everything that Patterson’s slick ad copy promised: a compelling plot unveiled with no wasted time in a complete world relayed in simple, clear prose.
In a couple hundred words, Choice lays out its premise: In an alternate Japan, a samurai named Itaru must determine if an android has murdered a human being. This should be impossible; everyone knows androids don’t have free will. But Itaru’s lifelong distrust of androids leads him to believe that perhaps these lifeless automatons have learned how to mislead, and rebel, and kill. Using only his sword and his wits, Itaru must solve the crime, quell a hypothetical robot revolution, and not bring dishonor upon himself and his family.
Choice is a ferocious little genre blender in book form: part Hammett novel, part Kurosawa Samurai epic, part Blade Runner, and entirely obsessed with keeping the reader’s eyes moving from one page to the next. Unlike the BookShots, which are overstuffed with needless words and time-wasting asides, every sentence in Choice moves you forward. Other writers could fluff the story out into a novel or — as is the unfortunate trend in sci-fi novels — a trilogy, but Heine knows that some plots are more meaningful as a sketch than as an elaborate triptych.
Most genre fiction that runs about a hundred pages or less — Choice is just 88 pages — only really has the space to successfully develop one theme. Heine has tapped into a big one: the concept of free will, how it relates to one’s responsibility to the community, and whether we can ever really ascertain someone else’s individuality. The mystery of the book is engrossing and it’s resolved in a satisfying way.
And the juxtaposition of samurai trappings with sci-fi isn’t a pointless gimmick — instead, Itaru’s sense of duty and honor is repeatedly measured up against that of an android’s puritanical, pre-programmed morality. If you’re a decent person who never breaks the rules, how free are you, really? Thanks to Heine’s dedication to economy of words, it doesn’t take very long to uncover the answer to that particular vexing question.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant