One Bite at a Time




Monday, March 31, 2014

Sleeping With Veronica Lake

Authors continuing series created by others is the rage right now. Among the first was Max Allan Collins, finishing up Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer series. (This is a bit of a special case, as Collins had worked hand-in-glove with Spillane for years, and was asked to complete the unfinished Hammer novels by The Mick himself.) Ace Atkins is continuing Robert B. Parker’s Spenser series at the behest of the Parker estate. More recently, Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe has been resurrected by Benjamin Black, who isn’t even really Benjamin Black, but John Banville. (As if who’s writing these books lacks complication already.) Parker himself was an early adopter, having completed Chandler’s unfinished manuscript of Poodle Springs, and penning his own sequel to The Big Sleep, Perchance to Dream.

The only issue I have with this trend is mild disappointment that the reading public is too timid in its tastes to try something new, even after their favorite author has shuffled off his mortal coil. (This should also be an ego check for authors who write series; they love your characters more than they love you. Get over it.) Maybe a reader of one of Atkins’s Spenser novels will be tempted to try a non-Spenser book by the same author. One can only hope.

While I’m good with the idea in principle—anything that pays writers is a good thing, almost by definition—I won’t be reading any of them. No offense to the writers mentioned above, or others who may be earning a living doing the same thing. It’s a matter of authenticity.

L.A. Confidential is one of my favorite movies, as close to a perfect crime film as I can think of. A key plot line involves a stable of prostitutes who pass themselves off as famous actresses of the day, even if a little plastic surgery is required. Ava Gardner. Rita Hayworth. Kim Basinger plays a hooker who passes for Veronica Lake. (And, as Russell Crowe says in the movie, “looks better than Veronica Lake.”) Men will pay premium prices to have sex with these “actresses.”

Here’s the thing: sleeping with a hooker who looks like Veronica Lake isn’t sleeping with Veronica Lake, even if the hooker looks better. Even if she’s better in bed. It ain’t her.

I’ve not read any Atkins or Black yet. I may well do so, when my backlog sorts itself out a little. If/when I do, it will be a book with a world and characters they created. Just as I want the original Chandler or Parker, I’ll want these authors’ unfiltered best, to lose myself in their world, instead of hopelessly trying not to compare them to someone else.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Misogynistic, or Picky?

Egomaniac that I am, I publish an annual list of what I thought were the best books I read each year, as if anyone else gives a shit. In 2012 the list contained no female authors. This was a genuine surprise to me when pointed out—I honest to God hadn’t noticed—but it got me to thinking. Since then I have made a conscious effort to read more female writers, and to add female characters to my writing.

My 2013 list contained only two females, both in the Honorable Mention list. (Laura Lippman and Zoe Sharp.) None made the Top Ten.

This prompted some examination. Why don’t I read more female authors, and why don’t I enjoy them more when I do? As the father of a daughter, I felt a need to see if there was something more afoot. I doubt my conclusions will satisfy many, but what good is a writer without an occasional well-intentioned controversy?

I looked for a common denominator in the writing that might put me off. This is dangerous business, as that implies all women write more or less the same way, which is no truer that saying all men do. I needed to organize my thoughts around writing, not gender, to see if there were common elements in the books I either didn’t like as much as I’d hoped, regardless of the author’s plumbing. I found three things:

1. So long as the story is plausible and doesn’t require me to rupture myself suspending disbelief, I’m interested more in the manner of the telling than I am in what’s told. In short, I read for style. Most of the female authors to whom I’ve been exposed are storytellers more than stylists, with a couple of notable exceptions. (Megan Abbott, Christa Faust.)

2. Women tend to be more descriptive than men. Lots more adjectives. I don’t care that it was a pale blue house with a white door and cedar shake shingles unless it’s important for some reason. I don’t care that a person set down his Louis Vuitton garment bag, shrugged up the sleeve of his Caraceni suit, and looked at his Piaget watch unless it tells me something about him, and it’s something worth remembering, which means I don’t have to hear about it every time. That reason doesn’t have to be readily evident, but there needs to be one. That’s a matter of personal taste. It doesn’t make me right, but it does affect my reading enjoyment.

3. Forgive me for saying this, but a lot of female authors drop in too many scenes that seem to have been written for Lifetime TV movies. I don’t watch TV movies. As above, that doesn’t make me right, but it does affect my choices.

Who do I read and enjoy? Megan Abbott. (Though I’ll admit Dare Me put me off. Maybe because I used to be a public school teacher or because my daughter is not that far removed from high school, but every character I remember was detestable, and I just stopped caring about them. In fairness, Bury Me Deep is as good as it gets.) Christa Faust. Laura Lippman’s standalones (Tess Monahan I can live without). Sandra Parshall. S.J. Rozan. Zoe Sharp.

Help me out. With the above caveats in mind, who am I missing?

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Movies in February - March

Not as much different stuff was watched over the past month, due in large part to binge-watching Item Three.

Life of Pi. Actually saw this the previous month, forgot to include it, which shows how memorable I found it. The allegory goes on too long, then has to be explained so everyone “get” it. The explanation is heavy-handed and full of holes; the overall effect is to provide the illusion of depth. In the end, it’s thought-provoking on a level of Boone and Katy getting high in Animal House. (“You mean the tiger’s not really a tiger? Oooohh, wow, man. You just blew my mind. I mean, like blew it. [insert explosion sound effect here]”)

All is Lost. Including our interest, after about 45 minutes. This fell into a category of films that can best be described as, “I have no idea what I’m supposed to take away from this.” An artistic take on the modern thriller, where things get worse and worse until…I don’t know. Maybe they got better at the end, though, after the film’s opening, even that would seem to be a bit of a cheat.

The Shield. After our interest in All is Lost sank, we had an evening to fill. Several friends have recommended The Shield, and we’re currently between TV series to watch whenever we have a story hour, so we gave it a shot. Now we’re in for the long haul. Michael Chiklis creates a marvelously three-dimensional character, and the interplay between the cops is fascinating. The interrogation scenes are also a lot more nuances and realistic than most television and movies. In some ways, there’s more character development here than in The Wire, as the people are more the focus than the environment.

(One more thing: Happy St. Patrick’s Day, boyo. Stay hydrated, ye bastards, but don’t get shite-faced and drive into a sheugh.)

Thursday, March 13, 2014

OCD (Observing Creative Discipline)

I have definite, not overwhelming, obsessive-compulsive tendencies. I don’t wash my hands every time I touch something, or close doors three times before passing; I do seem to have an inordinate fear of overlooking something. This is not necessarily a bad thing, if the condition can be harnessed. I once locked my keys in a running car twice in the space of two weeks; now I never lock any door unless I’m looking at—or physically touching—the key that will get me in. I haven’t locked myself out of anything in almost twenty years. I consider that a win.

A bit of manageable OCD can work wonders for a writer. I have a routine, most evident in final drafts:

1. Search and destroy as many “clutter” words as possible: but, was, were, just, enough, very, actually, and a few others. (Adverbs.) They may serve as scaffolding in early drafts, adding little or nothing to the final product. (Exceptions made for dialog.)

2. On Day One, read Chapter One. That’s all; read it.

3. The next day, I read Chapter One aloud from the screen and make when I intend to be the last serious edits. Then I read Chapter Two.

4. The following day, I read aloud from a hard copy of Chapter One, and make any last minute changes, knowing I do not intend to look at this again unless an agent or editor requests. Read Chapter Two aloud from the screen and edit. Read Chapter Three.

5. Repeat until the book is finished. (Sometimes doubling up on days off from the day job.) Then, and only then, I type THE END.

This may seem tedious. It gives me a sense of performing my due diligence. The payoff comes in comments I have received about how clean my manuscripts are. I detest the idea of wasting someone’s time through my carelessness. (Aside: Twice in the past two weeks I’ve read books where “reign” was used when the proper word was “rein.” With my routine in mind, if I ever turn in a manuscript with “rein” and see a galley with “reign,” there will be hell to pay.)

The same applies to my reading. Growing involvement in social media—blogs and Facebook, for the most part—exposed huge gaps in my knowledge of my chosen field. I’ve worked to close these gaps, and found many wonderful writers. On the down side, many favorites fell through the cracks. It’s been five years since I read a Robert Crais novel; last month I discovered it had been seven years since my last Carl Hiaasen.

How do I know this? In 2006 I started a spreadsheet to track the books I’d read. I was curious about how many books I read in a year, and also needed to overcome a habit of not remembering titles and buying books I’d already read. One of my better ideas, the spreadsheet allows me to track my best reads of each month and year, and is fun to scroll through to read what I wrote about certain books at the time.

A lot of good stuff still got missed. I altered the format of the spreadsheet to include a “Books To Be Read” list where I add books and authors as I become aware of them. The list now extends 102 books into the future, a more daunting prospect than anticipated. The good news—for me—is I no longer have long gaps between the books of favored authors; as soon as I finish a book I like, he or she is added to the end of the list. I never stand in front of shelf of books, wondering what I’m in the mood to read next. I check the spreadsheet, and there it is. I look ahead a bit to build anticipation for upcoming books, so I am in the mood when their turn hits. Books are bought a little ahead of time to keep the process moving.

Extreme? Maybe. What about you? How do you keep from letting the rest of your life from distracting you from the reading and writing you really want to do? (All comments received before 11:59 EDT Sunday, March 16 will be entered into a drawing for a copy of Grind Joint.)

Monday, March 10, 2014

In the Morning I’ll Be Gone

This will be a hard review to write, if only because I don’t want to come across as a fan boy. Adrian McKinty’s In the Morning I’ll Be Gone is that good.

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I waxed rhapsodic about the first of the Troubles  Trilogy (The Cold Cold Ground) and raved about its successor (I Hear the Sirens in the Street). In the Morning I’ll Be Gone not only builds on its  predecessors, it improves on elements previously introduced.

September 1983. Sean Duffy has been banished from the Criminal Investigation Division (CID) of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) after the blowback from the case solved in Sirens. We see what life is like for a street peeler in Troubles Northern Ireland until Duffy meets—well, I’m not one to give away even intermediate plot twists. Let’s just say McKinty uses the early parts of the book to get the plot engine running while showing in stark terms what life is like on the “front lines” of what had become a guerrilla war. Duffy’s unit patrols along the border, where snipers in the Republic can take pot shots with little fear of pursuit.

Everything that distinguishes the earlier books is here, ratcheted up a notch. McKinty’s greatest skill may be his ability to make so many diverse elements serve the story. Some authors write thrillers; some character studies. Others prefer puzzle mysteries in the English tradition. There are authors who like to make setting a “character.” In the Morning I’ll Be Gone places a locked room puzzle mystery in the context of a thriller that could not have taken place anywhere but Northern Ireland during The Troubles. There are no stereotypical characters, and Duffy is as cynical a hero as you’ll to find. He does what he does for his own reasons, yet is not an antihero; his priorities are not always in synch with his superiors’. Throw in the Ellroy-esque elements of weaving historical figures and events into the story seamlessly and inextricably and a dash of political commentary that makes sense in a Realpolitik way in the light of future—to Duffy—events, and you’ve hit some of the elements that make In the Morning I’ll Be Gone an extraordinary book.

That’s right: some. As if all of the above weren’t enough, the writing is fluid, the reading effortless. An Irish accent will come to mind when reading the dialog. Never showy, McKinty always knows the right word to keep the reader embraced in his vivid and continuous dream. There are no loose threads in the tapestry of the writing. A lesson in Irish history is not the least of the takeaways, though one never feels lectured. Even the solution to the locked room element is prepared in advance to create an aura of surprise and inevitability.

Each book of the trilogy works well as a standalone, though I strongly recommend reading them in order. Each sets the stage for its successor to build upon, which makes the payoff of In the Morning I’ll Be Gone that much more rewarding. McKinty has sworn there will be only three books in the Duffy series, though the ending leaves him a trap door to continue. My desire to see him give Duffy at least one more go is tempered by wondering what McKinty will come up with next, as he routinely exceeds my now-excessive expectations.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Twenty Questions With Bruce DeSilva

Bruce DeSilva's crime fiction has won the Edgar and Macavity Awards; has been listed as a finalist for the Shamus, Anthony, and Barry Awards; and has been published in ten foreign languages. His short stories have appeared in Akashic Press's award-winning noir anthologies.

In forty years as a journalist for forty years, Bruce worked as writing coach world-wide for The Associated Press, editing stories that won nearly every major journalism prize including the Polk Award (twice), the Livingston (twice) and the Pulitzer. Earlier in his career, he worked as an editor and national writer at The Hartford Courant and as an investigative reporter at The Providence Journal. He has worked as a consultant for more than fifty newspapers, taught at the University of Michigan and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and lectured at Harvard University's Nieman Foundation. (All of which means his career should be able to withstand appearing here.)

The third book in his Liam Mulligan series, Providence Rag¸ launches today, so there’s no better time than the present to subject Bruce to Twenty Questions about the book, his writing, and life in general.

One Bite at a Time: Tell us about Providence Rag.

Bruce DeSilva: The youngest serial killer in U.S. history butchered five of his neighbors before he was old enough to drive. When he was caught eighteen years ago, Rhode Island’s antiquated criminal justice statutes—never intended for someone like him—required that all juveniles, no matter their crimes, be released at age twenty-one. But today, the killer remains behind bars, serving time for crimes supposedly committed on the inside. That these charges were fabricated is an open secret; but nearly everyone is fine with it. After all, if the monster ever gets out, more people will surely die. But Edward Mason, a young reporter for The Providence Dispatch, is not fine with it. If officials can get away with framing this killer, he says, they could do it to anybody. As Mason sets out to prove officials are perverting the justice system, his mentor, veteran police reporter Liam Mulligan, searches frantically for some legal way to keep the killer behind bars. Their dueling investigations pit friend against friend in a high-stakes race against time—and entangles them, their newspaper, and the city of Providence in an ethical dilemma that has no right answer.

OBAAT: Where did you get this idea, and what made it worth developing for you? (Notice I didn’t ask “Where do you get your ideas?” I was careful to ask where you got this idea.)

BD: The plots of the first two novels in the Mulligan crime series sprang entirely from my imagination, but Providence Rag was inspired by a true story that I covered when I was a journalist. Craig Price, The Warwick Slasher, was only 13 years old when his rampage began and fifteen when he was apprehended. Although Rhode Island law mandated that he be released on his twenty-first birthday, he is still in prison. If authorities have been playing games to keep him locked up, as I suspect that they have, they are abusing their power. But Price is much too dangerous to be set loose. So no matter which side of this issue you come down on, you are condoning something reprehensible. I wrote the novel to explore this disturbing ethical dilemma.

OBAAT: How long did it take to write Providence Rag, start to finish?

BD: When I’m working on a novel, my goal is to write at least a thousand good words a day. If I accomplish that in a couple of hours, I can give myself the rest of the day off. But if I don’t have a thousand good words after eight hours, I have to keep my butt in the chair until I reach my goal. By doing that, I should be able to turn out an eighty-thousand-word novel in eighty days. Of course, it never quite works out like that. Some days, when life intrudes, I don’t write at all. There are household chores to be done, ballgames and blues concerts to attend, vacations to take, family obligations to be met. Including such interruptions, Providence Rag, my most complex book to date, was completed in six months.

OBAAT: What’s the back story on the main character?

Liam Mulligan was raised on the top floor of a tenement house in a working class Providence, R.I., neighborhood. As a kid, he was obsessed with the game of basketball, dreaming of going to Providence College on a sports scholarship and then getting drafted by the Boston Celtics. But by his senior year of high school, he wasn’t good enough for that. He ended up making the PC team as a walk on, but he rarely got off the bench. So he studied journalism and discovered a new dream of becoming the next Edward R. Murrow or Seymour Hersh. After graduation, he caught on as a sports reporter for the local newspaper and eventually worked his way onto the investigative team. But soon, falling revenues and declining readership took their toll on the newspaper. Mulligan realizes now that the Dispatch, like many newspapers across the country, is dying. At age 44, he feels trapped. He knows there’s no future in newspapers, but he believes that investigative reporting is his calling, and he fears that he could never be any good at anything else.

OBAAT: In what time is Providence Rag set?

BD: The novel begins in 1992 when Mulligan, a rookie sports writer at the Dispatch, is temporarily assigned to help the paper’s police reporter cover a string of serial murders in a Providence suburb. The murders are solved, and the killer arrested, in the first seventy-five pages. The story then flashes forward to the present, when we learn that the killer, who was supposed to have been released from prison on a technicality years earlier, remains behind bars, held there on a series of trumped-up charges.

OBAAT: How important is the setting to the book as a whole?

BD: Very important. The most memorable crime novels transport you to interesting places and let you hear, see, and smell them. It is difficult to imagine Ken Bruen’s best novels set anywhere but in his native Galway, Ireland, or Daniel Woodrell’s work set anywhere but in the Ozarks. Read James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux novels and you have been to New Iberia, LA, even if you’ve never left your house. As my friend, the novelist Thomas H. Cook, once said, “If you want to understand the importance of place, imagine Heart of Darkness without the river.” So Providence Rag, like each of my other books, is very much a novel of place--an evocation of 21st century life in the capital city of our smallest state. Unlike big, anonymous cities like New York, where many fine crime novels are set, Providence is so small that it’s claustrophobic. Almost everybody you see on the street knows your name, and it’s almost impossible to keep a secret. Yet it’s big enough to be both cosmopolitan and rife with urban problems. And its history of corruption, which goes all the way back to a colonial governor dining with Captain Kidd, makes it an ideal setting for crime fiction. I have made Providence not just the setting but something akin to a major character, in my novels. One reviewer called my portrayal of the place “jaundiced but affectionate,” and I think that gets it exactly right.

OBAAT: How did Providence Rag come to be published?

BD: After the critical success of my first two novels, Rogue Island and Cliff Walk, my publisher rewarded me with a three-book contract. Providence Rag is the first one written to meet that obligation.

OBAAT: What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors?

BD: When I’m writing, I rarely read anything but newspapers; and I make a special point to avoid crime novels. I find that if I read them, my writing begins to mimic their author’s voices, and I can’t allow that to happen. But when I finish writing a book, I take a break from work and binge-read novels and American history. Like most word-lovers, I could list a hundred favorite authors and still feel guilty about the ones I leave off. Ernest Hemmingway? Joseph Conrad? Eudora Welty? Of course. But I also have a deep admiration for contemporary crime novelists such as Daniel Woodrell, Thomas H. Cook, Walter Mosley, Kate Atkinson, Dennis Lehane, and others who use the popular form of the crime novel as a way to address serious social issues and still reach large audiences. I love the quirky characters and lyrical style of Howard Frank Mosher, the closest thing we have now to the great Mark Twain. And my wife Patricia Smith, one of America’s most honored living poets, is the most gifted writer I know. That said, the opening paragraph of John Steinbeck's Cannery Row is my favorite passage in the English language.

OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences?

BD: My first love is the hard-boiled crime genre, so I have to begin with Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, the first to lift those dark stories out of the pulp magazines and turned them into literature. But I’m influenced by everything I read—even the bad stuff because it shows me what not to do. I’m also influenced by the best contemporary television dramas. I’ve learn a lot about character development, story structure, pacing, scene setting, and dialogue from Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Sopranos, Justified, Masters of Sex, True Detective, House of Cards, and The Wire.

OBAAT: Do you outline or fly by the seat of you pants? Do you even wear pants when you write?

BD: I don’t outline. I begin with a theme. For example, Providence Vipers, a novel I just completed for publication sometime next year, began with an impulse to explore the worlds of legal and illegal sports gambling. With nothing more than that, I set my characters in motion to see what they will say and do. I enjoy discovering the story as I go along, and I believe that if I don’t know what’s going to happen next, my readers probably won’t either. There is risk in writing this way. Occasionally, I write myself into a corner and have a heck of a time writing myself out of it. But I really don’t have a choice. If I know how the story’s going to turn out in advance, my desire to write it evaporates. Yes, I wear pants when I work. I tried writing in a bathrobe, but it’s too drafty.

OBAAT: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?

BD: Do not be intimidated by the seemingly daunting task of writing a book. It’s not as big a job as you think. If you write a thousand words every day, you can finish a first draft in eighty days. You say you can’t fit that much writing time into your busy life? Then write five hundred words every day, which isn’t much, and you can finish in a hundred and sixty days. Still too much? Write a thousand words a week and you’ll have a book in eighteen months. The key is to set a reasonable goal for yourself and stick to it. Don’t be a wannabe. Writers write.

OBAAT: Favorite activity when you’re not reading or writing.

BD: Playing with my two enormous dogs, getting beaten at Scrabble by my brilliant wife, and collecting daguerreotypes and other forms of 19th century photography.

OBAAT: Which do you take to bed at night, the money earned or the good review?

BD: When I wrote my first book, I had no expectations. I didn’t know if it would get published; and when it did, I didn’t know if anyone would like it. My novels have received more critical praise and sold better than I could have imagined. The Edgar and Macavity Awards and the flood of glowing reviews have been gratifying, although some of the attention has been so flattering that I find it embarrassing. For example, The Dallas Morning News declared that “Rogue Island raises the bar for all books of its kind.” Hey, I thought it was pretty good, too, but I don’t think I did that. If I had, my friend Dennis Lehane would never forgive me. So I guess my answer to your question is both. I wouldn’t write a book I’d be ashamed of even if it were guaranteed to be a best seller, but I do enjoy getting paid.

OBAAT: If you were just starting out, which would you prefer: 1. Form your own indie publishing house and put your work out in paper and e-book yourself? 2. Go with a small or medium traditional house that offers very little or no advance, a royalty that is only a fraction of what you'd get on your own, and also makes no promise of any type of publicity push, keeping in mind that you also will lose the publishing rights for a period, sometimes indefinitely? 3. Go with a Big Six or legacy publisher that offers a larger advance, legitimate review possibilities, entrance to industry literary awards, and exposure on the shelves of brick and mortar stores. Pick one and say why.

BD: My preference is to go with one of the Big Six, which is how it worked out for me.(My publisher, Forge, is a division of MacMillan.) I am grateful to have a publisher who relieves me of the task of distributing the book and at least some of the burden of promoting it (although all authors need to promote their work these days.) The work my publisher and my agent, Susanna Einstein of the Einstein Thompson Agency, do for on my behalf gives me more time to write.

OBAAT: Beer, mixed drinks, or hard liquor?

BD: Bushmills Irish whiskey and a Killian’s Irish Red back—just like my protagonist, Liam Mulligan. It’s one of the things we have in common along with a smart mouth, a bad attitude toward authority, a cigar habit, and blues music as the soundtrack of our lives.

OBAAT: Baseball or football?

BD: I’m a rabid fan of the Boston sports teams: the Red Sox, the Patriots, the Bruins, and the Celtics. I love the rituals of baseball, the chess-match complexity of football, the frantic chaos of hockey, and the graceful choreography of basketball. As a kid, the sport I excelled at was hockey, probably because I enjoyed hitting people. I still do, although now that I’m in my sixties, opportunities don’t often present themselves aside from the occasional bar fight.

OBAAT: Would you stop writing if someone paid you enough money so you’d never have to work again, on the condition you could also never write again?

BD: I’d take the money, fake my own death, and keep writing under a pen name.

OBAAT: What question have you always wanted an interviewer to ask, but they never do?

BD: I’ve been interviewed so many times over the last five years that I’ve been asked every good question—and most of the stupid ones. But my favorite question was asked just once: What is it like to be the second-best writer in your family?

OBAAT: What’s the answer?

BD: I jokingly told the interviewer that it’s a daily humiliation. I win the Edgar Award? Patricia wins the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, two Pushcart Prizes, The Rattle Poetry Prize, and the National Poetry Series Award, is a finalist for the National Book Award, and gets elected to the International Hall of Fame for Writers of African Descent. I get invited to speak at Thrillerfest? She gets invited to speak at Carnegie Hall, the Sorbonne, the Poets Stage in Stockholm, Urban Voices in South Africa . . . But the truth is, it’s a joy and a privilege to have this astonishing woman as my soul mate and writing partner.

OBAAT: What are you working on now?

BD: When I return from a coast-to-coast book tour to promote Providence Rag, I’ll have three projects ahead of me. I want to get started on another Mulligan novel. I’ve already made a small start on a stand-alone, or perhaps the beginning of a new series, featuring a young man who grew up in a criminal family and is trying to decide which side of the law to live his life on. And my wife and I are collaborating on a crime novel with two alternating narrators, one in her voice and one in mine. The story follows the intersecting lives of two people, one white and one black, in the weeks before and after the 1968 riots that destroyed much of the Chicago’s West Side.

Monday, March 3, 2014

February’s Reads

Before we begin, a brief reminder that the audio book of Grind Joint is now available on Amazon, audible.com, and iTunes. Mike Dennis has done an excellent job of capturing the aura of Penns River and the attitudes of the characters.

Not as many recommended reads from February as in January, but 1.) January was an exceptional month, and b.) February is shorter.

Herbie’s Game, Timothy Hallinan. I scored an advance copy of this one, and you’re jealous, even if you don’t know it yet. The best of Hallinan’s Junior Bender books, with the same humor plus a little deeper level of character development. The series started in this direction with The Fame Thief, and the momentum continues to build. All four Bender books are great stories and fun reads, but this one steps it up a notch. (Launches in July 2014, when a more detailed review will be available.)

Appaloosa, Robert B. Parker. I stopped reading the Spenser books the last few years of Parker’s life; I had the impression he had started mailing them in. His interest in the Virgil Cole/Everett Hitch novels may have been why. Great pacing, spot on dialog, and the dry style Parker had evolved toward is perfect for the setting. Using Hitch as Dr. Watson to Cole’s Holmes was inspired. Looking forward to reading the next in the series, after how this one ended. Highly recommended. I’m not sure why Cole becomes so enamored of Allie, but maybe that’s because Renee Zellweger played her in the movie. (The movie is also highly recommended. Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen more than make up for the dubious allure of Ms. Zellweger.)

Whiplash River, Lou Berney. I stumbled—almost literally—onto Berney’s Gutshot Straight at Bouchercon Indianapolis: the line to work one’s way through the book tables stalled with me in front of it. (For what it’s worth, how Indianapolis handled the free book situation was perfect. Attendees got tickets (Three? Five? I forget.) to be redeemed at an exhibition of authors sitting at tables where the books could be inspected and the authors chatted up. I read every book I got there. I can’t remember the last time I read a book I got in my MWA bag.) I finally got around to Whiplash River and was delighted to find Berney suffered no sophomore jinx; it’s at least as good. Berney combines Elmore Leonard-like characterizations with Carol Hiaasen plotting without ripping anyone off; Berney’s voice is his own. If you haven’t read either book yet and you like Leonard or Hiaasen at all, you really need to catch up.

Star Island, Carl Hiaasen. Speaking of Hiaasen, my reading of him went on hiatus for a while after Nature Girl, where I felt he’d qualified for Raymond Chandler’s comment: “he knows all the tricks and has nothing to say.” (Hmmm. Looking back, I see I read Nature Girl seven years ago. It wasn’t that disappointing.) Star Island is Hiaasen back in vintage form: characters who stand in as satirical archetypes (though Chemo’s prosthesis is a bit much), dialog that sounds almost unintentionally funny, a plot just goofy enough to make you know you’re suspending disbelief and digging it, and laugh out loud moments. He moves away from his usual Florida developer subject this time—though a prominent subplot skewers it again, literally—to give the world of celebrity and paparazzo “journalism” his own unique perspective. Skink also makes an appearance, which should be enough for Hiaasen fans to want to look this one up.