Left Coast Voices

"I would hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo. If an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight." Richard Wright, American Hunger

Archive for the tag “Amazon.com”

Healthcare.gov, Oh my! – Tom Rossi

The launch of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (aka ACA, aka Obamacare) has gone pretty poorly. This has been due to website malfunctions and the resulting (and predictable) media frenzy.

Now I don’t want to discount the possibility (and even probability) of incompetence on the part of the healthcare.gov website designers, but is this really such a surprise? Are these failures really so rare? I think not.

The ACA website is probably the first in history to have such an intense debut. Of course, the designers knew that it would be intense all along but, unlike Facebook, Google, or Amazon, the first day the website was up, it was flooded with “hits“. Other major websites built up gradually as they got more popular.

But even so, are other websites really all that great? I think not. I’ve had problems with almost every website I’ve visited more than once. And some I had problems with the first time and that’s exactly why I didn’t go back! I’ve filled out forms, clicked “send” or “done” or whatever, only to have my work wiped out with no way to get it back.

Unhappy Customers are not Engaged Visitors

On Hotels.com my wife and I were searching for a room, the site screwed up somehow, and we had to start over. For some reason, when we started over, the calendar on the site set itself a year forward, so we ended up booking a room for a year later than we wanted. To their credit, one of their reps stayed on the phone with us for a half an hour until it was fixed. But even THAT went wrong! I was on my cell phone with a rep, our call got “dropped”, and we had to call back and… start all over with another rep.

Anyone who has visited the “Daily Show with Jon Stewart” website knows how bad it is. They’ve only recently figured out how to stream their videos without a bunch of fits and starts interrupting you. Great show. Crappy website.

Have you tried to search for a topic on Dr. Oz’s website? Good luck. Dr. Oz is great, his web designers? Aaaaah, not so much. And although things have eventually improved at Expedia.com, at least twice I’ve been at the airport and the numbers they gave us for out itinerary didn’t match the numbers that the airlines expected. The result? About a half-hour delay as one of the now rare ticket agents got my situation straightened out.

I’ve had hours and hours worth of frustrations on websites. Amazon once decided to ship something I ordered to an address that I moved out of ten years earlier. Believe it or not, fixing that took incredible effort. And just try to get something done like contacting Hewlett-Packard support through their website. Here’s a hint – where it says “contact HP” does not lead to the actual ability to contact anyone, just to search their FAQs for the same issue. I tried various methods for almost an hour and finally got ahold of a person… through the phone.

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Unfortunately, Hewlett-Packard doesn’t stand out as a tech company with a bad website. Apple, Dell, Microsoft, almost anybody you can name has a clunky, ridiculously overblown website where it’s incredibly difficult to solve an actual problem. To a lesser degree, even Google’s basic search engine seems to go on vacation, once in a while.

Web sites have problems. They also almost universally have bad designs at their core. And most of these websites have had years to improve. How many times have I entered some serial number or something on a website and it comes back with an error: “You must enter a serial number”? How many times has a website crashed on me, just as I thought I was getting through all the steps to accomplish something?

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The ACA website, healthcare.gov’s problems are not that big a surprise to me at all, not after trying to change my address on the California DMV website – another winner. The healthcare.gov problems simply make news because any failure associated with the ACA is automatically news. And the pundits are using their usual “I’m not saying this, I’m just asking” method to “ask” if this all means that the ACA is a failure. That’s sensationalism, and that’s today’s pathetic excuse for journalism. End of story.

I hope everybody will calm down, ride out the problems, and get themselves some high quality health coverage. I’m going to do just that. Website problems aside, next year I’ll finally be able to afford going to the doctor, if I need to.

-Tom Rossi

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Tom Rossi is a commentator on politics and social issues. He is a Ph.D. student in International Sustainable Development, concentrating in natural resource and economic policy. Tom greatly enjoys a hearty debate, especially over a hearty pint of Guinness.

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The Magic Never Grows Old

This is actually the eighth time that I am on the cusp of a book being published. This count includes a couple of self-published books that were picked up by Three Clover Press and repackaged with new covers, titles, and an extensive round of edits. A face-lift and open heart surgery never felt so good! But today I am as excited as I was the first time, and the second, and the third… You get the point. Sometime in the next two weeks, Ashbar, sequel to The First Decree, and the 2013 Eric Hoffer Book Award YA category, At The Walls Of Galbrieth, will be officially released by Tourmaline Books. Ashbar front cover I wonder how it is for the big fish? When those A-list authors have their 20th, 30th, or 40th novel released, are they just as excited? Yes, I’m thinking of you, Terry BrooksGeorge R.R. Martin, J.K Rowling, Terry Goodkind. Are these authors and others coolly not checking their email every hour for the official notice from their publishers? Do they accidentally type their name into the Amazon.com search engine and browse down the list of books on their author’s name? I am, of course, way to cool to be checking every hour, myself. In order to be productive at work and give my sons the attention they deserve, I have set reminders for four times a day – I’m awake for eighteen, I figure that’s too compulsive! I have not yet held my review copy – it is on the way, I am promised, though this might have been a desperate ploy to shut me up (can’t blame them) – I remember each time it happened with almost the clarity of holding my newborn sons. The books, I have to admit, were not as slimy or noisy. I am currently 50,000 words into writing a fantasy novel for adults that I hope will be a series alongside the Wycaan Masters. I believe authors who keep two series running (Terry Brooks is my role model), then both series’ remain fresh. But I have promised to start the editing process for Book 4 (actually started with my writer’s group over the summer) before sending it off to Tourmaline’s wizards) so that they receive it by the end of 2013.

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Where it all began: Writing Book 1 with sons in an ancient Redwood forest.

The process is ongoing. Each magical, landmark moment: finishing writing the last page, sending the book to the editor, seeing the cover for the first time, receiving the review copy… these are all just stages in a journey to build not only a world, but a dynasty – a multi-generational world with a history of its own.

But that never stops these special moments of holding a real copy of your book for the first time being magical – and it never should.

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Alon Shalev is the author of the 2013 Eric Hoffer YA Book Award winner, At The Walls of Galbrieth, Wycaan Master Book 1 and The First Decree, both released by Tourmaline Books. Ashbar – Book 3 – is due for release in October 2013. Shalev is also the author of three social justice-themed novels including Unwanted Heroes. He swears there is a connection. More at http://www.alonshalev.com and on Twitter (@elfwriter).

The Growing Power of the Ebook

My teenage son asked me to download the latest book from his favorite author. He was excited having seen an email that Amazon.com were kind enough to send him announcing the new book. My son is a voracious reader and I am extremely happy about that. He has a kindle and he is not afraid to use it.

I glanced and said no. “Why?

My first objection was that the ebook was $10, a price that I consider ridiculous for an ebook. “I’ll pay half,” he responded. That always gets me that he is willing to invest his paltry wealth into a book. He also knows that gets me.

I change track and suggest he orders it from the public library. His eyes roll as I begin a favorite lecture which can be summed up by: I pay for that library (a brilliant institution, by the way) with my taxes, so we should use it. He reminds me that last time I told him to do that, he was wait-listed for three months before I gave in and downloaded the book for him. “Oh,” he adds. “How long did you wait for that new John Grisham you are listening to?

I wince. I have complained for half a year as I waited for The Racketeer.

Finally, as I desperately stare at the Amazon.com advert, I realize this is a pre-launch announcement and the book isn’t due out for a few months. I sigh with relief. I have not won the battle, only deferred it. 

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The argument rages on: Ebooks .v.Tree Books. I have a kindle as does my eldest, and my youngest can use my phone. Mrs. Blog has snapped a picture of the three of us taking a break from ‘screen time’ to read, and are each absorbed in whatever is on our kindle or phone.

In the past, I have talked about the environmental advantages of the ebook, but my children’s generation will add two factors to the argument that were probably not considerations when ebook technology was being designed:

1) It is instant, as are most things for these young people.

2) It is connected to the bigger information highway that is an integral part of their lives.

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I have been reading and enjoying a how-to book – The Kindle Publishing Bible by an Internet entrepreneur, Tom Corson-Knowles. Tom (May I call you Tom? I feel I know you so well after reading this book) provides very clear instructions and methodology. He enhances this by providing links to examples and further information. Most impressive, he can update something that changes on a webpage and I can receive the most up-to-date data and developments.

I found this added aspect really exciting, but then I am only a year shy of fifty. My sons will take this service for granted…they probably already do.

But there is still that magic of holding a book, gazing at the cover, smelling the musty scent, and hearing the crackle of pages. While recently on vacation, I bought a few hardcovers from a used bookstore. I have read them all and my son was puzzled why I would buy them. They are great books and I want them to adorn my bookshelf and I want to be able to lend them to friends.

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The advantages of ebooks are obvious, their market penetration destined. This is good for the planet, for the increasingly smaller spaces we live in and the need to be on the move and not be laden with heavy tomes, and probably good for the author. My epic fantasy series has been consistently selling more ebooks than tree books.  Moreover, it just fits so seamlessly into the lifestyle that will be prevalent for my children.

I can just imagine them one day, holding their own children’s little hands and staring at my bookcase. “Yes, Grandpa actually read those tree book things, even though he loved the trees. You know he used to make me read them, and often wait months to receive them, even when I could have simply downloaded a book with a click!

The other advantage for the reader is the far more affordable price of a book, often tempting us to try a new author for less than the price of a cappuccino. This might be a good time to share that to celebrate the release of my next Wycaan Master book, Ashbar, my publisher has decided to lower the ebook price of At The Walls Of Galbrieth to $0.99 (see my very different attitude here as the author!) for the month of August.

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Alon Shalev writes social justice-themed novels and YA epic fantasy. He swears there is a connection. His latest books include: Unwanted Heroes and the 2013 Eric Hoffer Book Award for YA – At The Walls Of Galbrieth. Alon tweets at @alonshalevsf and @elfwriter. For more about the author, check out his website.

Two Birthday Wishes

Today is my 49th birthday and what better way to spend it than blogging! Okay, I have other plans, so I have lifted from a post I wrote a couple of years ago. Forgive me.

I have two requests for you to consider on this auspicious day – one self-serving and the other philanthropic:

1) If you have read any of my novels, please pop over to Amazon.com (or Amazon.co.uk if you reside over the pond) and leave a review. I am less than 100 days from the release of my next epic fantasy novel so any review for Books 1 or 2, or my social justice novels, would help lay a great foundation for my next launch.

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2) Consider a small investment at KIVA, a micro-loan non-profit that empowers the most impoverished to climb out of the poverty spiral in a sustainable and successful way. It truly is a remarkable agency. Below is an edited version of what I wrote a while back.

We can change the world. The problem is that there is so much to do, it can just feel so overwhelming. A few weeks ago my eldest son (then 11) and I saw a newspaper article with a multimillion dollar lottery winner. “Imagine how that could change your life,” I muttered.

My son decided to fantasize what we would do with a few million dollars. Admittedly, owning our own house, replacing our shuddering geriatric car, and a basketball backboard came first.

But then he began talking of projects to help people. We had recently met someone who runs a bakery on the East Coast that employs homeless and impoverished people. My next novel, Unwanted Heroes, is about homeless war veterans and my son began to describe how we could create a similar project for such people in San Francisco. As all youngsters do, he soon got caught up in the details.

I told him how a learned Jewish medieval scholar, Maimonides, had created a pyramid of different levels of giving. Providing someone with a skill and a means to support themselves and their family is considered the highest form of giving in Judaism.

This brings me to KIVA, a non-profit micro-finance bank that raises money through small gifts to help people invest in family or community enterprises. These are essentially loans, though the donors often reinvest the money back into Kiva. For more on the mechanics of micro-finance, click here.

For just $25, you can help a father of four in Tanzania set up a coffee shop, or a woman in India establish a juice bar. It is truly inspiring. Recently, I was invited to two birthday celebrations. The celebrants requested either not to receive gifts, or to donate to a charity in their name. I had a great time investing in Kiva on their behalf.

Join me to help change the world – one birthday gift at a time. Thank you.

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Alon Shalev writes social justice-themed novels and YA epic fantasy. He swears there is a connection. His latest books include: Unwanted Heroes and the 2013 Eric Hoffer Book Award for YA – At The Walls Of Galbrieth. Alon tweets at @alonshalevsf and @elfwriter.   For more about the author, check out his website.

 

An Imaginary Author’s Co-op

There are a lot of authors out there, a lot of books, and a lot of noise on the Internet. Each author racks his/her brain for an original idea to blaze a trail in one social media or another that will create the elusive momentum that will propel a series of book sales, of movie options, and publicity.

That’s a lot of work for one person, especially one who would prefer to sit behind a computer screen creating new characters, plots and worlds. Even more so, that comes after possibly a full time job, helping the kids with homework, paying the bills, working out…

DSCN1387I believe I spend an hour a day blogging, tweeting, answering emails (as an author). I often do this with ease; either early in the morning, during a lunch break, or after my boys are in bed. But I am giving seven hours a week to promote myself and if I had more time, I would delve into Facebook, Goodreads, redesign my website, participate on other people’s blogs and forums.

What if I spent that time promoting not only myself but also five other authors, all writing within the same genre? What if we parceled out each social media forum, not exclusively, but the person in charge of Twitter, for example, would delve deeper into how best to leverage this medium. We would all tweet, retweet, dm, and build our own twitter following, but the cross-pollination would make it six times as visible.

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And then, we would offer extra time and focus when someone’s new book is published. We would write reviews on Amazon, on their website, interview them on our own blogs, and recommend them to friends. I recently went to a party and could have given my book-loving friend a book. She has read mine, but why not then give a copy from someone in my co-op. 

It demands honesty and trust. We are all desperate to ensure our own success and need to rein in the tempting opportunity to promote ourselves to the detriment of others. A ‘friend’ stood up at a venue where I spoke, told everyone how great The Accidental Activist is, and how it reminds him of his novel… and he then went on to pitch his own.

One of the best events I participated in was a panel set up by the historical fiction author, JoAnn Smith Ainsworth. There were four authors and we all flowed in effortlessly. We had decided that Christine London, a romance author, would be our informal facilitator, and probably no one in the audience noticed as she occasionally directed a question to an author who had been quiet for a while. The audience was considerably bigger than it would have been if it was only me appearing – there were fans of all genres.

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I spent almost half my life on kibbutz and when we all worked for each other the synergy was amazing. Is it possible to replicate such mutual support in the world of promotion, sales, and money?

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Alon Shalev writes social justice-themed novels and YA epic fantasy. He swears there is a connection. His latest books include: Unwanted Heroes and At The Walls Of Galbrieth. Alon tweets at @alonshalevsf and @elfwriter.  

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Running with the Enemy…Forever

Running with the Enemy is the latest offering from Lloyd Lofthouse, author of My Splendid ConcubineI thought to review the book, but Lloyd is my publisher and mentor. Given the controversies currently surrounding reviews, I think it easier to present (with his permission) the first chapter and let you be the judge.

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A word, however, about Lloyd: He served in Vietnam in the Marines and I can only imagine how difficult it is to return there in your mind when writing a novel. As I sent him chapters of Unwanted Heroes, a story about an Asian-American war veteran battling his PTSD seen through the eyes of a young Englishman who befriends him, I often wondered how Lloyd would cope with it. It took a lot of courage to return there, but as one war veteran said after reading Unwanted Heroes: it is a story that must be told.

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In this suspense thriller set during the Vietnam War, a rogue CIA agent needs someone to blame for his crimes. Recon Marine Ethan Card is the perfect patsy. As a teen, Ethan ran with a Chicago street gang, and he has a criminal record. He also has a secret lover, Tuyen, who is half Vietnamese and half French.
 
Tuyen is also a beautiful Viet Cong resistance fighter.
 
Since she was a young child, Tuyen has lived under the brutal control of her older, sexually abusive half-brother, Giap, a ruthless and powerful Viet Cong leader, who has forced her to kill Americans in battle or die if she refuses.
 
When Ethan discovers he is going to be court marshaled for weapons he did not sell to the Viet Cong and Tuyen will be arrested and end up in an infamous South Vietnamese prison, where she will be tortured and raped, he hijacks a U.S. Army helicopter and flees with Tuyen across Southeast Asia while struggling to prove his innocence.
 
The CIA agent and Giap—working together with the support of an unwitting American general—will stop at nothing to catch the two, and the hunt is on.
 
The star-crossed lovers travel across Laos to Cambodia’s Angkor Wat; to Bangkok, Thailand, and then to Burma’s Golden Triangle where Ethan and Tuyen fight a ruthless drug lord and his gang.
 
In the rainforests of Burma, Ethan also discovers that a massive assault is planned on his Marine unit’s remote base in South Vietnam with the goal of killing the man he admires most, Colonel Edward Price, who is the only one who believes Ethan is innocent.
 
Ethan must risk everything to save Price and his fellow Marines. Will he succeed?

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Alon Shalev writes social justice-themed novels and YA epic fantasy. He swears there is a connection. His latest books include: Unwanted Heroes and At The Walls Of Galbrieth. Alon tweets at @alonshalevsf and @elfwriter.  

Running with the Enemy – Chapter One

On April 11, 1880, General William Tecumseh Sherman addressed a crowd of more than ten thousand in Columbus, Ohio, and said, “There is many a body here today who looks on war as glory, but, boys, it is all hell.”

 ***

       

         His lover—a member of the National Liberation Front—was trained to kill Americans. It was possible that she had already killed some of his people, but that wasn’t going to stop him from wanting more of her.

        

         Ethan Card stared out the sunken pit of a broken window at the grounds of the former French colonial rubber plantation, which the South Vietnamese rainforest was reclaiming. Columns of mature, struggling rubber trees marched away from the dying house as if they were soldiers fighting a losing war. A patch of blue sky was still visible, but the rest was an angry blanket of dark clouds.

 

 When the French ruled Vietnam, Ethan thought, this place must have been something.

He heard the distant popping of a firefight that signaled combat and wondered who was dying: Viet Cong, North Vietnamese, Americans, South Koreans, ARVN, or Chinese communists?

The scuttle of a tiny, hard-shelled monster on the gray, wood floor of the second-story room distracted him. He knelt and flicked the insect away; watched it roll into a ball then, slipping into a crack, disappear into the floor.

 

The house creaked and he shivered. Before returning to the olive-green GI blanket spread on the floor behind him, Ethan looked around warily. Something did not feel right, and he paid careful attention to his warrior instincts.

 

He sensed Tuyen’s movement and glanced at the blanket where she lay nude on her stomach—her face cradled on her arms. Her long, dark, glossy hair hid most of her features. She was French, Vietnamese and Thai. At least that was what she had told him. There were other indications, as well.

In the village where they met, a Vietnamese woman called her a French bastard behind her back. He was sure Tuyen had heard and ignored it.

 

Her height and aqua eyes were French, but the rest was Asian. She was tall for a Vietnamese with the slender body of a fashion model. Admiring her nudity, he knelt and traced a line between her shoulder blades down her spine with his finger tips, stopping just above her hips.

 

Her silky, warm skin excited him causing his heart to race and his breath to catch in his throat. The urge to make love again was tempting, but they had already been in the deserted house too long.

 

“Why you fuck woman that fight with your enemy?” she asked in broken English.

 

“Because you told me you are not a communist,” he said. “Why are you fucking me?”

 

“Maybe you go home to America and replace me with other woman,” she replied.

 

He loved listening to her throaty, crude accented English.

 

“I am not a butterfly,” Ethan replied, “and, when I return to the United States, I’m taking you with me.” Otherwise, there wasn’t much for him in America but bad memories and a strict Evangelical Christian mother who often quoted Holy Scripture when lecturing him.

 

A loud creak sounded outside the shattered window. “What was that?” he asked, aware that discovery by either side would be disastrous for both of them.

 

A rumble of thunder shook the old house, and it started to rain. The fat drops pounded the leaky roof like a barrage of pebbles.

 

“It nothing,” she replied, as she rolled over on her back. “Only ghosts. This is old house.” Slipping an arm around his neck, she pulled him down on top of her.

 

Still, that creaking noise bothered him—it sounded as if someone had shifted weight from one foot to another. His combat sense warned him to listen closer, and when he did, he heard a rat scampering across the rotting attic floor above their heads.

 

“I think us together this morning too long,” she said.

 

“Maybe it is your Commie brother, Giap, spying on us.” He watched her features closely and noticed a quiver in her lips as heat climbed into her face at the mention of her half brother’s name.

 

“No,” she said, spitting her words out as if they were laced with cobra venom. “Giap recruiting in far village.”

 

Ethan knew that something dark and brooding existed between Tuyen and her half brother, but he couldn’t ask what it was. She had made it clear when the affair had blossomed months earlier that questions of her private life and family were forbidden. To cross that line could mean losing her, and she was his addiction—his opium.

 

Then as fast as the hate in her face had switched on, it vanished. “I loving you,” she said; then kissed him on the mouth. He felt a thrill shoot through his groin as her lips pressed against his. He should have stopped, but he couldn’t resist.

 

***

 

Victor Ortega picked up the pocket recorder from the windowsill and turned it off. He leaned against the wall and stared at the abandoned rubber plantation that spanned thousands of acres across hills where the jungle was still reclaiming the land. Raindrops from the swollen clouds pelted him. It was time to leave with his evidence.

 

A smile split his tanned, leathery face. Langley would not approve of him using his CIA skills to frame an innocent man. Ortega’s part-time business—the selling of weapons and information to the North Vietnamese Communists—had put Army intelligence on his trail. He needed a goat and Ethan and Tuyen fit the bill.

 

Ethan Card didn’t know it yet, but he was going to take the fall for Ortega’s illegal operations. Ortega had been watching several armorers, and because he had discovered Ethan fucking Tuyen, that link made him the perfect patsy. Card was having an affair with a member of the NLF who had a North Vietnamese Communist cadre leader for a brother. Who wouldn’t believe Card was guilty?

 

Using a miniature, silent camera, Ortega leaned into the window and took half a dozen pictures of the nude couple copulating for the third time.

 

Perfect! These photos would be the clincher. One shot had caught Ethan’s full profile and her face with eyes closed.

 

It was time for him to leave, and he had to be careful. Ethan was a recon Marine with a tiger’s senses. Ortega took a cautious step on the blue, rain-slick tiles of the veranda’s roof. He shifted his weight gently from one foot to the other. Then a crack sounded from one of the veranda’s tiles.

 

Oh, shit!

 

Icy fear shot through him galvanizing him into action. Moving quickly, he lay against the house below the window opening where the roof met the second-story wall. Holding his breath, he waited.

 

***

 

Ethan couldn’t dismiss the noise this time. He slipped from Tuyen’s embrace, rolled away from her across the floor and grabbed his forty-five caliber M3A1 submachine gun that he lovingly called his Greaser, because it fired four-hundred-fifty rounds a minute.

 

He waited until Tuyen had finished rolling the other way, picked up her AK-47 assault rifle and pointed it toward the offending window the sound had come from.

 

She nodded, and he darted toward the window to flatten himself against the wall next to it— his heart hammering from the rush of adrenaline.

 

Moving fast, he spun and aimed the Greaser out the window until he was flat against the wall on the other side. He stared at her and shook his head.

 

“We go,” she said, and gathered her clothing.

 

He watched her long, naked legs slide into black pants. “I can be here early tomorrow morning,” he said.

 

“Giap back. I no make it.” She slipped the black blouse over her head.

 

He was disappointed at losing sight of her naked body.

 

“We together in three days,” she said. “He gone again.”

 

He finished dressing, went to her, and placed a hand on each of her shoulders. They kissed.

They should have met in another time, another place where there was no war. He worried that someday what he had with her might end. That day would be a clusterfuck! There must be some way he could keep what he had with this lusty beauty.

 

***

 

Ortega, drenched from the rain and sweat dripping from his face, rolled down the veranda’s roof. He dropped easily over the side, twisted his body like a gymnast, and reached out to grab the edge of the roof above him. His brief grip with tiles slowed his momentum, and he landed easily on his feet. Turning right, he ran close to the house and sprinted for the trees.

 

***

 

An hour later, after driving miles through the rainforest, Ortega arrived at the United States Marine Corps recon base camp. Inside the fortified camp, he crept to the armorer’s van surrounded by stacked layers of sandbags.

 

The rain pounded the metal roof of the van, masking his entrance. Storage lined one wall of the long, narrow space and a workbench took up half the other wall. Shadows smothered the small desk at the far end of the van. To one side of the desk was a file cabinet that Ortega had searched a few times without Ethan’s knowledge. His eyes settled on Lance Corporal Wilson, Ethan’s assistant, who was bent over the bench working on a weapon. The man was an idiot; a fucking lowlife fool.

 

“Hey, man, did you pick up the fucking weapons at division?” Ortega asked.

 

Wilson yelped and jumped. “Asshole!” he said, and turned revealing the Ka-Bar he was holding close to his body with the blade’s edge facing Ortega.

 

Ortega laughed. “You’re such a fucking jerk.”

 

Wilson blushed and put the knife away. “They’re here.” He went toward the back of the van, returned with a crate, and put it on the bench. “It makes me nervous when you arrive this late to pick up the goddamned weapons. What if Ethan comes back early? What the hell would I say?”

“You worry too much, man.” Ortega reached into a pocket for a roll of South Vietnamese piasters, and threw the money on the counter.

 

“You bastard,” Wilson said. “I am taking all the risks. If Ethan find out what I’m doing, he’ll skin me alive. Do you know how crazy these fucking recon Marines are?”

 

“And do you know the strings I had to pull to get you, a regular piss-ant jarhead, assigned to this unit as its assistant armorer?”

 

Ortega stared with scorn at the lance corporal, and said, “Nothing will go wrong if you do as you are told.” He stopped talking and glanced at the wall clock behind the desk when a helicopter roared overhead. The thin metal roof of the van vibrated from the backwash. He knew it was the evening ass-and-trash flight to the division area at Chu Lai fifty miles away.

 

Once the noise of the slick was gone, Ortega continued. “You have nothing to worry about, alright, man? Soon, Ethan will be working for me.”

 

Wilson bared his teeth and pushed his face toward Ortega. “That’s easy for you to say. You don’t know the bastard. He lives by the rules.”

 

“It’s in the bag, man.” Ortega wrapped a poncho around the crate with the two M-60s in it. He shouldered the weapons and went to the door. “Now, cool it. Tonight I’ll make my pitch to Ethan. Then you won’t have anything to worry about.”

 

He left the van and went to his Jeep thinking he would have to kill Wilson soon. The man was unreliable and unstable.

 

***

 

Ethan returned from his business in Chu Lai to the recon base camp late in the afternoon. In his olive-drag Dodge M37 truck, he approached the steep narrow climb to the camp at the top of the orphan hill—an island fortress surrounded by rice paddies that in turn were surrounded by a dense rainforest.

 

A trailer-towing Jeep barreled down the dirt road toward him. Ethan automatically searched the paddies on either side for signs of life, hoping the demolition team had checked the road thoroughly that morning for buried explosive. Satisfied, he pulled his truck to one side, stopped, and waited for the Jeep to pass. His windshield wiper clicked back and forth clearing the raindrops from the glass.

 

He stiffened when he saw the man driving the Jeep. It was Ortega. The bastard had talked to him once—veiled, probing questions about weapons and how to requisition them. Ethan saw similarities between this man and members of Chicago’s Black P-Stone Nation street gang.  As a teen, Ethan knew Jeff Ford, who had united the leaders of about fifty street gangs in Chicago and called the new organization the Black P-Stone Nation.

 

In fact, Ethan had run with one of the smaller street gangs that joined Fort’s organization, and when Ethan told his fellow gangbangers he was leaving for good, they jumped him and beat him ruthlessly. He’d arrived at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot at Parris Island bruised, limping and wearing torn and bloodstained clothing that didn’t impress the drill instructors. They rode him harder than the others for the next few weeks, but he welcomed the challenge and absorbed the discipline as if it were his salvation.

 

Ethan had been told that Ortega was a civilian liaison working with tribes living in the Central Highlands of Kon Tum Province, and that his job was to gain their loyalty to fight for America. However, the rumors also said he was CIA and had an army of Montagnards tucked away in the Annamite Mountains straddling the Laotian border with Vietnam.

 

***

 

Ethan inserted the M1911 Colt Forty Five’s new recoil spring as he finished reassembling the weapon, and then rubbed his hot, itchy eyes with the knuckles of his free hand. He had also replaced the barrel bushing to increase the weapon’s accuracy. The large wall clock showed three in the morning. He needed sleep, but there was too much to do. Lance Corporal Wilson was an expert at avoiding his job and seldom kept up with a day’s work.

 

Sensing movement behind him, Ethan reached for one of the twelve-inch throwing knives he kept on a shelf under the bench near his workstation. He glanced in a small steel mirror on the wall and looked at the face reflected in the polished metal.

 

“Shit!” He hissed. Putting the knife back, he picked up a rag and wiped his hands. “What do you want?” He faced Victor Ortega.

 

“We’re about to become fucking partners, man,” Ortega said.

 

“What the hell are you talking about?” There was something strange about Ortega’s voice. It sounded as though he had just smoked dope. Natasha, one of several girlfriends he had collected during his year in community college, had sounded that way after a few joints—something he never liked about her and one reason he dumped her before shipping out for his third tour in Vietnam.

 

Ortega spread half-a-dozen requisitions on the counter. “Take a good look at your name. These are fucking weapons you signed for, man.”

 

Ethan reached out, hesitating when the hill trembled from several artillery rounds going out. The roar of the mobile, armored one-hundred and fifty-five millimeter howitzers shook the hill and everything on it causing a thin haze of dust to rise from every surface.

 

When the battery stopped firing, Ethan took one of the papers and studied it. It was for two M-60 machine guns and the date was yesterday. “I never ordered these.”

 

“Of course you did. It’s your fucking signature. Look closer, man.”

 

The howitzers started firing again, and Ortega spoke louder. “I know for a fact that those weapons are in the hands of Viet Cong, and that there’s a bank account in Okinawa with your name on it. Check the fucking receipts in your file cabinet. They go back months. Some of those receipts are for weapons that have been found in the hands of dead Viet Cong.”

 

A cold shiver of disbelief invaded Ethan’s gut. His submachine gun was in reach, but the throwing knife was closer. “What the hell is this about?”

 

“These receipts say you’re going to fucking work for me, man. My customers want what you can supply. You are going to feed that demand. After all, the United States is a demand and supply economy. Anything for money. Say no, and I will hand these papers and others like them to Army intelligence. With your history as a member of a Chicago street gang, you’ll spend the next twenty years to life in a federal pen.”

 

Ethan couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He reached for his Greaser. “Wilson is mixed up in this, isn’t he?”

 

“Don’t be a stupid ass, man,” Ortega said, almost shouting to be heard over the roar of the howitzers. “I’m not in this alone, but I wouldn’t work with a fucking idiot like him.” The battery stopped firing leaving a sudden, shocking silence.

 

Ortega glanced behind him with disgust and lowered his voice to a near whisper. Instead of staring at the barrel of the submachine gun pointed at him, he looked into Ethan’s eyes. “Pull that fucking trigger and friends of mine will turn this evidence over to the Provost Marshall in Da Nang. It doesn’t matter if I’m dead. Your ass is still mine, man.”

 

Ethan tightened his finger on the trigger. It wouldn’t take much pressure to fire. “You’re bluffing.”

 

“Do it, man,” Ortega said, and rubbed the tip of an index finger along his top row of teeth. “Go ahead. You have all this fucking honesty and integrity to uphold.” His bark of laughter was chopped off short at the sound of troops running outside. Once the squad was gone, he said, “The people I work with are all over Southeast Asia. You want fucking power. You want fucking money. Join me and you will have both.”

 

Ortega moved closer to one of the storage racks and placed a hand on the barrel of an M-16. He caressed it as if it were a woman’s leg. “If the Army catches you moving the weapons, man, I’ll know it before they can get to you. When that time comes, I’ll set you up with a warlord in the opium trade in Laos near the Golden Triangle. That will put you hundreds of miles from Vietnam. The fucking Army cannot touch you there. That is a winning deal, man?”

 

“Fuck you.” But Ethan didn’t pull the trigger. “Maybe I should take you to the Colonel,” he said, “and give him these papers—let him hear what you want me to do.”

 

“That wouldn’t be smart, man,” Ortega said. “Do that and I’d tell him you caught me going through your files. The fucking rumors are true. I do work for the CIA. Who would they believe? You, a criminal that ran with street gangs in Chicago, or me, a career agent working to preserve democracy throughout the world?”

 

“I’m not going into business with you.”

 

“Well,” Ortega drawled, “there is the matter of a little Viet Cong pussy you’ve been banging. The way I see it, you love that slant-eyed snatch. The fucking Army will hear about her if anything happens to me or if you decide not to get with the fucking plan. She will look good sitting in that China Beach prison the ARVN keep for prisoners of war. Imagine what those South Vietnamese intelligence agents would do to her to make her talk.”

 

Rage pounded inside of Ethan’s skull, and he struggled to keep it under control. His finger twitched against the Greaser’s trigger.

 

The door creaked. Ortega slid into the shadows behind the door and vanished from sight.

 

Corporal Alex Smith stood in the opening staring at the submachine gun. With the night behind him, his face glowed as if he were a ghost. “Hey, Card, calm the fuck down and aim that thing away from me.”

 

Ethan’s friends called him by his last name.

 

 “You work too hard. I went to three fucking places looking for you before I came here. I should have known. Belamy is putting the team together. We are going to Laos to pick up a downed Navy pilot. The air-rescue boys can’t get to him so get a move on. The slick flies in five fucking minutes.”

 

Ethan stared at him with a dazed look.

 

“Did you hear me?” Smith said. “Are you fucking shit faced or something?”

 

“I haven’t slept for forty-eight hours,” Ethan said. “Don’t worry. I … will be there.”

 

Smith nodded and disappeared in the shroud of darkness outside the van.

 

“When you have had time to think,” Ortega whispered harshly, “you’ll see how hopeless your situation is. Just remember, evidence is everything, and in a military court, you will be dead meat. I got you, man. You belong to me.”

 

Ethan looked at the silhouette of the man in the dark corner. “I’m taking you to the Colonel.”

“The Colonel ain’t here,” Ortega said. “He’s off to that ARVN ranger camp near Kon Tum. You’ll be going there when you return from Laos. That is, if you don’t get yourself killed first. The way I see it, man, you have only one choice.”

 

Ethan didn’t want to deal with this now. He grabbed his gear for the mission and left the trailer in a rush. The noise of a helicopter approaching the hill grew in volume.

 

The mission wouldn’t give him time to think about Ortega’s demands. Every skill he had would be called on to keep him and the team alive. There was no half effort in terrain controlled by an invisible enemy that wanted you dead. Maybe when he returned, if he survived, he would discover this was nothing but a nightmare—a joke or something. However, the anger and frustration filling him said Ortega’s threats were real.

 

***

 

After his confrontation with Ethan, Ortega flew in a Cobra gunship to the highland ARVN ranger camp.

 

Back in Puerto Rico in that fucking San Juan slum where he grew up, Ortega’s father had taught him how to read a person’s body language, and Ortega’s instincts said Ethan wasn’t going to cooperate.

 

He needed the Army to back off their investigation of the stolen weapons. Because Ethan wasn’t going to cooperate, Ortega decided to hand him over, and he would earn credit for solving the Army’s case, while staying in business.

 

He watched the sun splash brilliant colors across the horizon. The high mound of dirt to his right surrounded the camp and hid the bottom of the rainforest from his view. Logs and concertina wire ringed the top of the mound.

 

The tall, thin figure of Colonel Edward Price jogged into sight. Price, an African American, was in his forties with close-cropped dark hair peppered with white. Sweat soaked his camouflaged clothing.

 

“Colonel,” Ortega said, remembering that his old man taught him it was best to talk cultured when around people with money or power.

 

The Colonel stopped, but his legs continued to pump as he ran in place. Obviously, Price had been running for some time, and Ortega saw that he wasn’t the slightest bit winded.

 

“I thought it only right to let you know what one of your men has been up to.” Ortega took several forged requisitions and the photos of Ethan and Tuyen having sex and handed them to the Colonel.

 

Price’s legs stopped moving. His granite face remained expressionless as he studied the papers and the photos. “That’s Ethan Card,” he said. “Where did you get these?”

 

“Colonel, division will be contacting you today or early tomorrow,” Ortega said. “They want Ethan Card for selling weapons to the Viet Cong, and he will be court-martialed.”

 

“This cannot be true,” Price said. “Card is a good man.”

 

“General LaBourne in Da Nang feels differently. His people have been trying to find the traitor for months. Americans have been murdered by weapons Ethan Card sold to the Viet Cong. I recorded a conversation between Ethan and a Viet Cong woman that is his contact. There’s also a bank account in Okinawa in his name with too much money in it.”

 

Price lifted his gaze from the papers and pinned Ortega with his cold, gray eyes. “I know my men. I know Ethan Card. I don’t believe this crap.” He dropped the papers and the photos to the ground and resumed jogging without looking back.

 

Ortega knelt, picked up the evidence and smiled. He was pleased. The Colonel had reacted as predicted. With Price primed and angry, Ortega would now arrange through his contacts to make sure General LaBourne called the Colonel to Da Nang. The General was an Arkansas bigot. He and Price had a history stretching back to World War II. Once the two met, Ortega might as well order Ethan’s body bag.

 

______________________________

Running with the Enemy can be purchased at any of the following outlets:

Amazon Kindle

Paperback

Amazon.com

Smashwords

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Reviewing Reviews

I have a friend who is successfully establishing herself as a novelist and doing it by selling books on Amazon.com. Francine Thomas Howard is an Amazon Encore author. This means that her first book, Page from a Tennessee Journal, advanced deep into the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest and was selected by Amazon to publish. They were sufficiently impressed to take on her second novel, Paris Noir.

imgresFrancine is a wonderfully modest woman who attends the California Writers Club’s Marketing & Success Group to help struggling authors with her experience. She does this in a way that is neither condescending nor arrogant. She cares about other people. I don’t know how many successful authors there are around like her, but I don’t see many attending author events unless they are the main act.

Francine protests that she is not responsible for her success beyond the writing of her novels and gives all the credit to the folks at Amazon Encore. However much time and energy she invests in marketing her own books, Francine has done a great job at garnering reviews – 83 for Page from a Tennessee Journal and almost 50 for Paris Noir.

I am convinced that reviews are crucial in a world where people purchase novels on the Internet, whether e-book or tree book, without the help of a friendly bookseller or extravagant display at the front of a store. Surveying several friends I have come to the conclusion that book reviews are critical to sales on Amazon and other book purchasing websites.

In particular, when it comes to new authors or authors that the reader has not read before, the reviews offered are scrutinized. Interestingly enough, people seemed more apprehensive about investing their precious reading time in a bad novel over the fear of having wasted money.

I believe that reviews are now the second most important marketing tool. The first is a good old-fashioned recommendation from a friend. Word-of-mouth, even in the digital age, remains a powerful influence. I find this strangely comforting.

The issue I want to raise, however, is how ‘kosher’ are these reviews? I recently heard of a man making more than $20,000 a month generating reviews for authors. He was exposed for not having read the books, and accused of offering a five-star review for cash.

I am struggling to get reviews for Unwanted Heroes. I implore anyone who tells me they bought it to post on Amazon but most people, unsurprisingly, don’t generally write reviews. They are too busy devouring the next novel on their towering ‘To Read’ pile.

Heroes Low Res Finished Cover 11.18I do not want to pressure friends because they will feel they must leave a 5 star review, otherwise I won’t car pool their son to basketball practice. I want readers to leave an honest review and generate a solid collection on my Amazon page, but I am not sure how to go about it.

Do you have any ideas how I can solicit honest reviews? Oh, and if you have read Unwanted Heroes (or any of my other books), please take five minutes and leave a review on Amazon, Goodreads, or wherever you hang out.

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Alon Shalev writes social justice-themed novels and YA epic fantasy. He swears there is a connection. His latest books include: Unwanted Heroes and At The Walls Of Galbrieth. Alon tweets at @alonshalevsf and @elfwriter.com.

A Place for Tree Books

My latest novel, Unwanted Heroes, was released in ebook format over Thanksgiving. I was stoked. Readers of this blog know that I am a big fan of the electronic book revolution and my Facebook status lists me in a steady relationship with my kindle. I would, I admit, consider an open relationship but no iPad came down my chimney last month – I really should ask the landlord for a chimney.

When the ebook was released and I alerted the usual suspects, I was surprised at the number of people who responded with: “Let me know when the paperback comes out.” My surprise was because many were people who enthusiastically embrace the tech revolution and could probably download and read a book simultaneously on their phone, tablet, laptop, computer, TV, and by just staring up at the cloud.

Heroes Low Res Finished Cover 11.18

But they choose to hold a ‘real’ book in their hands. They want the feel, the crackle of pages turning (there must be an app for that), the smell of a book (how about an ink-addiction app?). One person told me that, when buying a book by an author that she knows, it doesn’t feel right if she is not holding ‘a real copy’. For authors she doesn’t know personally, she buys ebooks.

Two months ago my family moved house and for a long time there was a great wall of boxes in every room. I realize that the point when I began to feel at home was when I was able to unpack and shelve my books. This was my identity, my stamp on the territory.

On Wednesday, Three Clover Press announced the release of Unwanted Heroes in paperback. So, all you tree book lovers, I would be honored for a place on your bookshelf.

I have also set myself a goal to garner five reviews on Amazon for Unwanted Heroes. If you have read the novel, please consider leaving a review. It is very important to me. Thank you. 

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And just for the record:

Unwanted Heroes brings together an elderly, battle weary Chinese American war vet and an idealistic and somewhat pretentious young Englishmen, who share a love for San Francisco, coffee and wine. They soon discover they share even more when repressed abruptly surface, cementing an unlikely relationship that just might release each from the tragic pasts that bind them.

Set in beautiful San Francisco, this novel is a tribute to the city, its people and those who sacrificed so much to keep it and America free, as seen through the eyes of a young struggling writer from across the Atlantic, who brings more baggage than just his shiny laptop and romantic ideals.

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Alon Shalev is the author of three social justice-themed novels: Unwanted Heroes, The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Jewish Student Center, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

Shopping for the Holidays? Beware the Attack of the Fanboys! – Tom Rossi

People have come to depend somewhat heavily on online reviews of products to help them make shopping choices. Whether it’s a gift or something needed or wanted for ourselves, online reviews can help us to avoid products that are poorly designed or manufactured.

They can also help us to determine whether a product or type of product will do for us what we need it to do. Will this blender crush that dirty chunk of ice that forms under my cars fenders in the winter? Will this electric shaver work on my back? Can this hair dryer double as a hot glue gun? Can i use this vacuum cleaner to enlarge my… well, you get the idea.

Websites like Amazon.com have lots of ratings that customers have posted. Some of these are painstakingly detailed. Some people seem to have lots of free time and use it constructively, maybe in hopes that someone like me won’t buy a Yugo or something. And in addition to the long and detailed reviews, some are concise and to-the-point. These can be almost as informative.

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But then come the spoilers. These come in several forms. One is the fake review: “This is the perfect thing for young couples just starting out!” or, “This book was written by a liberal and I’m sure it has liberal ideas. Therefore I’m giving it one star out of five, even though I haven’t read the book myself.”

But the most dreaded, evil entity, lurking in the reviews, is the “fanboy.” Fanboy (not the cartoon character) is a pop-culture word, and there’s no reason not to suppose a fanboy might be female, but that’s the term. Fanboys cruise Amazon and other sites, looking for negative reviews of some product or brand they are in love with. Then they rate the review, itself, as “not helpful”. It seems these little gremlins probably have multiple accounts, so that they can rate a review as “not helpful” enough times as to make it kind of disappear, especially on sites that have the highest-rated reviews at the top of the list.

Fanboys also write inane, negative comments in response to reviews, ridiculing the original reviewer. They ridicule, write five-star reviews of things that aren’t that great, write negative reviews of competing products, and generally confound the process any way they can. Some fanboys might actually be employees of a company and trying to improve its image, but it probably doesn’t work.

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“Free market” freaks tell us that, without “interference” from government safety or quality regulations, the capitalist market would solve issues of poor quality because, if something isn’t good, people will stop buying it. How is that theory supposed to work with so much dishonesty out there? Fanboys engage in the sabotage of free speech. They use lies and tricks to get people to like (or seem to like) what they like or to buy their company’s products.

What motivates this behavior? In the case of the company employee, it’s pretty obvious. But when it’s a true fanboy, who is simply in love with his Dell laptop, or his Easy-Bake oven, something else is happening.

For some people, it’s very important that their tastes and choices are validated by others. I had a roommate once who recommended a movie for the three of us who shared an apartment in college. He thought this movie was just the best thing ever, and it was, in fact, very good. But just because we knew how easy it would be to irritate our friend, the other roommate and I just said, “Meh. It was OK.”

“Just OK?!?!?! What are you, crazy?!?!?” He practically tore his hair out because we, apparently, didn’t like the movie as much as he did. And I’ve had people try to talk me into changing my taste in food, women, cars, music, you name it, and all so that they can feel validated by my agreement. Likewise I’ve received many approving, sometimes even admiring looks from people I happened to share similar tastes with, in one area or another.

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These feelings are not abnormal, but I’ll say this to the fanboys out there: Grow up! The fact that I like Guinness and you like Coors Light doesn’t make one of us better than the other… Well… yes it does. Bad example. But you get the point. Taste is taste. Let people have their own, and let people communicate honestly about things, so that they can make informed choices for themselves.

-Tom Rossi

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Tom Rossi is a commentator on politics and social issues. He is a Ph.D. student in International Sustainable Development, concentrating in natural resource and economic policy. Tom greatly enjoys a hearty debate, especially over a hearty pint of Guinness.

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Unwanted Heroes – Released Today In Ebook!

Now that’s what I consider a great Thanksgiving gift!

Three Clover Press announced that Unwanted Heroes is now available on Kindle and Smashwords. The paperback will be closer to the expected January date.

They generously agreed to price the ebook at $2.99 for the present. I would like to take the opportunity to thank Lloyd Lofthouse, a fine author and a war veteran, who personally deals with and writes about P.T.S.D on The Soulful Veteran blog. I am sure it was not easy for him to edit my novel.

Lloyd has overseen the project throughout the various stages and provided me with both honest feedback and tough love.

Here is a quick synopsis:

Unwanted Heroes brings together an old, battle weary Chinese American war vet and an idealistic and somewhat pretentious young Englishmen, who share a love for San Francisco, coffee and wine. They soon discover they share even more when repressed memories bring them together, finding in each other, an unlikely ally to free themselves from the tragic past that binds them both.

Set in beautiful San Francisco, this novel is a tribute to the city, its people and those who sacrificed so much to keep it and America free, as seen through the eyes of a young struggling writer from across the Atlantic, who brings more baggage than just his shiny laptop and romantic ideals.

Unwanted Heroes follows two other social justice-themed novels, The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale, that were both placed in my native England. This novel is the first of three that will be situated in San Francisco, the city I have grown to love and dare call my home. Unwanted Heroes focuses on the issue of how we treat our war veterans and the homeless. The two future novels will deal with other issues relevant to the US – gay rights and gun control. After that, who knows?

But right now, I am very proud to share Unwanted Heroes with you. If you would do me the honor of reading it, please take a few minutes to post a review on Amazon.com or Smashwords. Reviews are playing an increasingly critical role in guiding readers to purchase a book.

Thank you.

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Alon Shalev is the author of three social justice-themed novels: Unwanted Heroes, The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Jewish Student Center, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

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