Book Reviews

Scribbling Scrivener Reads: Data Bank by Tonya Sharp Hyche

Data Bank by Tonya Sharp Hyche is a modern day crime thriller set in Forest, TX. A suburb of Dallas this seemingly quiet and crime-free oasis comprises of upper middle class, white collar families. All of that is quickly shattered when a mysterious woman and man kidnap a doctor and her daughter. They force the doctor to perform covert, emergency surgery on a little boy. This sets off a string of events and more crimes culminating in several deaths. From the beginning it’s made clear to the reader, but not the cops investigating, this is connected to something called Data Bank. Data Bank is a software program of data compiled by various residents and service providers in the area. In exchange for the information, these people get money deposited into an off-shore bank account. The common denominator of the data gatherers being they are all gambling addicts. However, this is not what the book is about. Rather it focuses on Willow Bradley who manages to gain access to Data Bank in order to find a doctor to perform the emergency surgery on her son.

On the surface this sounded like a great idea. I picked it up because it was different from what I normally associate with crime thrillers. Instead of being about Data Bank, its reluctant creator, users, data gathers, and the morality of it, Hyche instead chooses to focus on Willow Bradley, Dr. Keri Daniels, and Detective Hudson Bray.

Unfortunately none of these main characters or any of the supporting ones is interesting. Most act and talk wooden and felt more like mannequins positioned to act rather than anything resembling a real person the reader could connect with. The main characters are one dimensional and change very little. Somehow it’s easy for people to shake off traumatic events to find time to date each other. By the end of the story all involved are vacationing on some tropical island. As a reader I got the impression Hyche wanted me to feel for them simply based upon on past history rather than on who these people are currently.

It was particularly difficult for me to care about Willow Bradley, the person who sets off this series of events. A former stripper who worked her way toward a degree in architecture, she is trying to leave her abusive marriage with her young son. Somehow two of her husband’s henchmen find her and accidently shoot the child, rather than Willow. Instead of going to a hospital like any sane person would, she instead hacks into a former lover/wannabe lover’s (their exact relationship history was never clarified) email account and accesses Data Bank for the name of a doctor. Another former lover gets the email and somehow manages to arrange for the medical care to take place in a conveniently unoccupied home he knows about. Together they fly kidnap the doctor and fly her to where Willow’s son needs help. After the doctor does her job, the story doesn’t end there as Willow’s actions and missteps continue to impact Dr. Daniels’ life and others in Forest and beyond.

There are a lot of problems with Willow’s plan and the more I think about the timing of the initial events, the more the overall plot of Data Bank begins to weaken. First, Willow and her son, Noah, live in New Orleans. He is shot there yet is transported via private jet (Willow’s husband is loaded) to Miami. They kidnap Dr. Keri Daniels and her teenage daughter from their home in Forest, TX to fly them to Miami. I’m surprised Noah didn’t die on the plane let alone the several hours it had to take to arrange the safe house in Miami and for Willow’s accomplice to get his hands on all kinds of medical equipment. And that’s before the hours spent with Noah waiting for a doctor to show up.

The subplots in Data Bank are all very conveniently constructed to quickly lead Detective Hudson Bray back to Dr. Daniels’ kidnapping and thus to start looking at the people involved with Data Bank. There are other subplots that revolve around Willow and her seemingly inability to figure out which former boyfriend would be a better fit for her than her husband.

Another issue I had with Data Bank has less to do with the story itself rather it speaks to style preference. Personally, I found the prose to be stilted and Hyche uses too much space to catalogue mundane actions such as walking across a room, getting a plate out for food, or something else that doesn’t serve the character or the plot. If this had been done for one character, especially one that is very detail oriented or has OCD or something similar, it would make sense as a way of showing the reader how the person interacts with the world. But this is not the case. It’s just paragraph after paragraph, page after page of filler. The effect causes the story to drag and doesn’t allow the reader any sort of character development.

I found the dialogue to be generic and often unrealistic with everyone speaking in the same nice way. Even the supposed bad guys are relatively benevolent. I get this is set in the American South with a cast that is mostly Southern, but my goodness, no one is as polite and nice as these people. With so little variety it’s hard to distinguish one character from another. Perhaps that is why the reader is constantly reminded of who people are by being told the character’s full name each time he or she appears for the first time in a chapter. Also, internal dialogue was way overused and was applied to most of the characters.

The way people acted and reacted also felt unrealistic. Again, if one or two characters acted odd then I could overlook it as being part of their makeup. However, when everyone either overreacts or underreacts, it becomes noticeable. For example, one very minor character, who is one of Data Bank’s info gatherers, is exposed near the very end as having been involved with a bungled robbery attempt at her ex-husband’s house. When confronted by the police at her place of work, a bakery, she stabs herself in the heart with a knife rather than be arrested and face jail time. Doesn’t matter she’s now left her child motherless.

Overall, there wasn’t much I enjoyed about this book. The one-dimensional characters, plot, and abrupt, unearned ending disappointed me. On a scale of one to five pencils, I give Data Bank one and a quarter pencils.


Weekly Musing: What is a REAL Writer?

For some reason 2016 has turned into the year where I’ve questioned different aspects of writing. Questioning what it is that I truly want from my writing career. Questioning what kind of writer I want to be. Questioning who and what to pay attention to, just to give a small sampling of the existential crisis I seem to be suffering from.

One of the questions I’ve asked myself repeatedly is “What is a real writer?” Is it the person who wins literary awards and is a critics’ darling? Is it the person who sells millions of books and rakes in staggering amounts of money? Is it the person who slaves away for years, decades in obscurity, never has a single thing published, yet has an amazing amount of talent? Or is it something else?


A real writer is all of that and everything in between. I used to have a narrow view of what constituted a real writer. I believed I couldn’t call myself a real writer until I had something published. Or made the transition from writing short stories to novels. Or having a novel published. In my ignorance I relied upon my ignorance of what I thought it meant to be a writer as inaccurately presented to me via the media.

However, this year I’ve determined the definition is whatever each individual writer determines it to be. In a way it’s similar to what you define as success and how you go about achieving it. As human beings it’s difficult to not compare ourselves to others. It’s how we motivate and push ourselves to do better in life. It’s also how we can wind up destroying our lives feeling we cannot live up to expectations. It doesn’t help when others give strong opinions on the topic. The adamant, confidence in which our favorite author or fellow writers speak with gets into our heads.

Hell, I’ve probably made an asinine statement defining it somewhere on this blog. If I have, I apologize and seriously, ignore it unless I somehow wasn’t an ass and said a “real” writer is whatever the hell you think it is.

I’ll tell you what I originally thought what made a real writer. I used to think I could never call myself truly a writer until I had at least one story published. Even when it happened I changed the definition to “Oh, I’m not really a writer until I can make a steady income and publish novels.”

I’m not quite sure how detrimental this has been to my growth. I think it has at the same time pushed me and saddened me when I think about how either of those things may not happen. I’m still relatively young so realistically both things are very possible. I’m sure as I continue on along this journey I’ll be revising my definition of a real writer. Or perhaps I’ll just throw such a thought out the window and be kinder to myself. To realize that yes, I am a writer. A flesh and blood writer who should keep going on, and to stop trying to define something with no true definition.


Weekly Musing: Get Paid!

The starving artist. A man or woman suffering for his or her art rather than “sell out”. They do it for love, not coin you capitalist pigs! They are above everyone else who works for a living as their motivation is a deep passion burning within their heart. The artist is a better creature, the ideal we all secretly wish we were.

What a noble image. Except it’s not. Quite frankly it’s bullshit ideal to aspire to. People are paid to do pretty much anything and everything yet when it comes to music, acting, writing, dancing, and the others arts, there tends to be this hesitation about payment and when. An overwhelming majority of artists have “real” jobs that provide a living income. This job is in addition to practicing their art in the hopes of making their passion their “real” job.

NOTE: Before I go further I want to make clear this isn’t a post about the lack of fine arts support or that I’m referring to novels. I’m strictly relaying my opinion based upon my experiences with submitting short stories.

I wish I had realized a years ago that instead of sending my short stories to places who only promised “exposure” and contributor copies upon publication that there was another option. I also wish I hadn’t submitted places that charged reading and entry fees especially when no payment was offered upon acceptance.

But I did it because as a beginner I listened to wise veterans espousing it is perfectly okay and even expected to give our work away for free. The (il)logic behind it is you need to build your portfolio of publication credits in order to achieve bigger and better success. Also it is about paying one’s dues on the ladder of success. Last year I had an epiphany where I realized how wonky and untrue this is. If a story or poem has merit, it will be accepted regardless of how many publications you have under your belt. Many places claim they read the submissions blind so whatever publishing credits you do or don’t have aren’t influencing their decision.

Let’s breakdown the notion of paying a writer in exposure and contributor copies only. Honestly, with the exception of a handful of publications, if the only promise upon publication is exposure, then it’s not worth it. With so many print and online magazines competing for the same audience, exposure probably isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. And if the magazine can’t afford to pay even a token fee of a few dollars then you have to think about how large their audience really is.

One of my biggest pet peeves in all of this is the entry or reading fee. I hesitate to use the word scam because many honest and reputable entities, like Writer’s Digest, have them in connection with their contests. Overall, though, to me reading/entry fees are a way for magazines to make money. I understand a vast majority aren’t rolling in dough and the fee is covers website and printing (if there are any) costs and to compensate for the editor’s time. If it’s a contest, sometimes the outfit openly admits the fee is what pays for the prize money.

But what about the value of our time? Does not our work deserve compensation, too? After all, our work is the reason why you have anything to edit. And why ask writers, a profession that historically is not known as well-paying, to be your revenue stream? Plenty of sites exist where people are willing to donate money in order to help people fund projects. There’s also the oh-so-lovely option of advertisements. Don’t ask your content providers to also be your funding source. Even if the fee is a small amount like $3 or $5, that’s still asking a writer to pay in the slim hopes of being published.

If you are a writer and want to pursue publication, don’t give into the temptation to submit your short stories and poetry when there is no financial compensation. Even when the reward is a few dollars, at least someone is willing to give you money for your efforts. It doesn’t make you a sell out or an arrogant jerk to expect it. Hell, the first piece I ever had accepted I received money for and it was a story I sent in on a lark. What did I have to lose, after all?

Unfortunately I kept submitting work to places that offered no compensation or who charged a fee. As a result, the next few stories published I made nothing. Yes, it’s a great feeling to know someone thought your work worthy enough to be published. I am very grateful for every story published regardless of dollar amount. But I wish I’d had more belief in my ability to allow myself to acknowledge every short story is worth something.

While the number of places willing to pay for work is smaller than those offering exposure only, plenty of publishers exist who will. A couple of places I like to use to discover publishing opportunities are Submission Grinder and allows you to sign up to receive an email whenever a new publishing opportunity arises. Not every website link they send is a paying market, but it’s another source I’ve found useful. Authors Publish is another place that sends an email with links to publishing opportunities, both paying and not. They also include links to articles on a variety of topics and they also include book publishers seeking stories.

Over the past year I’ve been submitting my short stories only to paying outfits. Has it limited the number of opportunities available to me? Yes, however, between last year and year-to-date I’ve submitted work to 70 paying markets. That doesn’t mean I only found 70 paying markets because there were more. I passed on some because either I couldn’t have something ready by their deadline or the market didn’t seem like the right fit for my work.

So I say to anyone other there submitting work, don’t be afraid to submit it to places that will give you money. Your time and your art are worth it. There are places waiting for a story like yours and doors are open if you look for them.