What I Read On My Summer Vacation

So I’m back from my  long-awaited and sorely needed vacation, in which  the missus and I spent a week on lovely Oak Island, NC. There’s just something about the ocean that makes it impossible to hold onto stress for long. A few days next to that immensity and that steady, eternal rhythm constantly in your ears is better than a truckload of Valium, IMHO.

I confess, I’m pretty boring at the beach. Some people seem to regard the beach as a place for vigorous physical activity. They bring volleyball nets, footballs, Frisbees, etc. Me, I tend to sit by the water and read, pausing only to take a dip when it gets too hot or a walk (and by “a walk” I usually mean a trip back up to the beach house for more beer). It’s great to have that leisure time to really be able to focus. It also helps that I’m usually away from the Internet. This time, my only connection was a weak (and let’s be honest, not totally legal) connection to the unsecured Wi-fi next door. So my web surfing, Facebooking, Tweeting, etc. was nearly non-existent, which gave me more time to read and fewer available distractions from it. And when I have that kind of time, I really plow through them.

So, this is what I read while at the beach:

 HOSTILE WITNESS, William Lashner: Dave White was raving about this underappreciated author a while back,  and Dave’s a damn fine writer himself. So I downloaded this one, and let me tell you, it’s great.

Victor Carl is the perfect noir protagonist: grasping, resentful, bitter that his legal career never put him amongst the elite of Philadelphia society. When he’s offered a chance to take over as counsel for what seems to be a minor player in a Federal racketeering and extortion trial, he jumps at the chance to play in the big leagues. Victor initially balks at the fact that the trial is in two weeks, but the blue-blood society lawyer defending the main player, a flamboyant city councilman, assures him that all he has to do is follow the lead of the big boys, show a united front, and keep his mouth shut. Pretty much everyone but Victor can see he and his client are being set up to take the fall. Fall he does, in spectacular fashion, including falling for the councilman’s mistress, a classic femme fatale if ever there was one. But he keeps getting back up….

This is one of the best novels I’ve read in a long time, and I can’t wait to read the next ones in the series.

 NEVER GO BACK, Lee Child: Jack Reacher finally makes it to Virginia to meet the woman who he’s been trying to get to for the last two books, an Army Major (and commander of his old unit) who he only knows as an interesting voice on the phone. When he gets there, she’s in jail, Jack’s charged with the murder of someone he barely remembers, AND he gets hit with a paternity claim from a woman he doesn’t remember at all. Clearly somebody’s trying to make Reacher run away and abandon the damsel in distress, and we all know that’s not going to happen. Asses are kicked, names are taken, Jack does what Jack does. It’s the same old thing, but it’s the same old great thing. Recommended.

CALIFORNIA FIRE AND LIFE, Don Winslow:  Disgraced former cop Jack Wade, currently an arson investigator for the titular insurance company, is convinced that the fire that  destroyed the house of real estate mogul Nicky Vale and incinerated Vale’s beautiful estranged wife Pamela was not, as his former colleagues in the Sheriff’s Department ruled, an accident. No, he thinks it was arson and very possibly murder. As he digs into the evidence, both literally and figuratively, he discovers a web of deceit, betrayal, and counter-betrayal that may just lead to his own immolation.

All I can say about this book is: Wow. Only a writer as skilled as Don Winslow could make a plaintiff’s lawyer like me love a book with a claims adjuster as its protagonist. A surfing claims adjuster, of course, because this is, after all, Don Winslow. But he keeps you guessing, twist upon twist, until the final surprise and an absolutely perfect twist at the end. Highly recommended.

THREE GRAVES FULL, Jamie Mason: “There is very little peace for a man with a body buried in his backyard,” this book begins, and there’s even less for hapless nebbish Jason Getty when the landscaping crew he’s hired turns up two other bodies, neither of which are the man he killed a year ago and buried to cover up the crime. When a pair of engaging small town detectives (and a dog who always follows her nose) pursue the investigation into the two bodies in the front yard, they turn up evidence of another crime they can’t identify…and then things get a little crazy.

One of the cover blurbs compared this to a Coen brothers movie, and there are definite similarities, particularly in the Fargo-esque setup of good hearted small town cops vs. a Casper Milquetoast scrambling to cover up the crime he committed when pushed too far. But Jamie Mason’s worldview isn’t quite as bleak as the Coen’s. The book’s a lot of fun, and I have to admire the skill of a writer who can use a dog as a viewpoint character and not make me roll my eyes. Recommended.

THE SECRET SOLDIER, Alex Berenson: Pretty standard stuff for an international thriller. Troubled ex-CIA agent John Wells is your usual two-fisted thriller hero in the Bolt Studly mold, who gets called in to set things right in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia by no less than King Abdullah himself. There’s some interesting stuff about the House of Saud and how they came to power, and the villain is suitably scary and believable. There’s a long stretch in the beginning where Wells and his sidekick are chasing a renegade CIA agent turned drug dealer which I kept waiting to connect with the rest of the book, but which never really does.  Still, it was entertaining, and good for a beach read.

 THE LIVES OF TAO, Wesley Chu: Human history has been influenced since the dawn of mankind by a group of non-corporeal aliens who crashed here millennia ago and have been possessing human hosts ever since, using them to try and nudge human progress to the point where humanity has the ability to get the aliens home. A while back, they split into two factions, one more ruthless and violent than the other. When one of the more peaceful aliens suffers the unexpected and violent loss of his host, he winds up in the body of overweight and aimless computer geek Roen Tan and is forced to make the best use of his raw material. The “Zero to Hero, with hot ass-kicking chicks in leather along the way” trope is pretty obviously aimed at what the publishers assume is SF’s core demographic. The book takes a while to get going, but eventually ends up being a fun action romp. Still, I don’t think I’ll be getting the sequel.

FIDDLEHEAD, Cherie Priest: The final chapter in Priest’s “Clockwork Century” series (or so she says) ends up being the best one I’ve read so far. It’s got all the wild inventiveness of BONESHAKER (how can you resist an alternate Civil War history steampunk zombie story, with airships?) and the breakneck action of DREADNOUGHT (same thing with steam powered mecha and armored trains), without the clumsy characterization and stilted dialogue of those two. I liked it a lot.

So, what are you folks reading?

 

 

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News Flash from the Muse

 Behold the Thalians!

Summer releases, and fall releases to look forward to, from the Thalia Authors! Happy summer to all, and exciting reading, whatever your inclinations.


In Astonishing Heroes: Shades of Justice from small press iPulp Fiction, Gary Phillps has collected his prose off kilter superheroish stores.  In its pages you’ll find the likes of the Reclaimer, an anonymous city bureaucrat who knows what evil lurks via psychic emanations from tenement walls; Onyx Adams, an Afro wearing, kung fu kicking swinging ’70s female PI, and American Black, an agent provocateur created by shadowy right-wing forces who reveals his own agenda.  In tradepaper and ebook

 

Gary Phillips
Gary Phillips

Shades of early Dos Passos and Jack London, beginning in September, Gary will be writing a weekly serial about the working class members of the Dixon family; handyman Uncle Hank, his niece, Afghanistan war vet Jess, and his nephew, the peripatetic Little Joe.  The Dixon Family Chronicles will combine issues such as efforts to income inequality, gentrification and temp work while their lives unfold.  For the Capital & Main site.


Kate Flora
Kate Flora
GirlsNightOut-2-2
Kate Flora has a new novella out now, from SheBooks! Check out Girls Night Out.
When the man who date-raped their friend is found not guilty, a woman’s book group decides to take their own revenge, with surprising results.
Kate’s new books are coming up this fall. Look for them at booksellers everywhere
Spin.Doctor.indd Death Dealer is the true story of a police investigation in Miramichi, New Brunswick, into a resident’s mysterious disappearance. It pulls readers directly into a tense and complex, real-life search as cops and, ultimately, game wardens from the neighboring state of Maine with cadaver dogs, painstakingly make their way through scarce evidence, frightened witnesses, and forbidding terrain to uncover the victim’s body and bring a killer to justice. ISBN: 978-0-88282-476-5 AndGrantYouPeace-final-4  
This 4th book in the Joe Burgess mystery series, And Grant You Peace, finds Burgess pulled inadvertently into a case rife with religious tensions after finding a young mother and a baby locked in a closet inside a burning mosque. His search for answers leads him to an outlaw motorcycle gang, a fishing boat captain who may be supplementing his income with illegal activities, and an immigrant community suspicious of the police. The professional becomes the personal when his family is threatened and he faces the prospect that the “normal” life he’s begun to establish may be coming to an explosive end. ISBN: 978-1-4328-2939-1


AlixThorssen-Box-Set Lise McClendon has released her first mystery series in a box set. The Alix Thorssen mysteries set in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, feature art dealer Alix in a variety of western and arty dilemmas. They include four complete novels and two bonus short stories in one package. Exclusively on Amazon, and free with Prime or Kindle Unlimited.   crimspreegif

Lise McClendon
Lise McClendon
Lise’s new suspense release, The Girl in the Empty Dress, is garnering good reviews. This sequel to her bestselling women’s novel, Blackbird Fly, features Merle Bennett and her sisters on a walking tour in France. When the annoying “sixth wheel” obsesses about an injured dog they find along a roadside the sisters’ idyllic summer tour turns dark. Find out if Merle settles for her New York boyfriend or takes a chance on Pascal, last summer’s fling, as The Girl in the Empty Dress tests the familial bonds in new and dangerous ways.

New, Hot, Scary

McBleak-ExtractorsMeet Malcolm Cavanaugh Bleekston, most often called McBleak. He appears to be a one percenter, hobnobbing with other millennials of his ilk; excursions on yachts while extolling the virtues of banksters, and enjoying the fruits of his non-labors while the rest of us hustle to put food on the table and keep the wolf from the door.

In the novella The Extractors by Gary Phillips, he lays plans to take a greedy man’s gain while wondering if his girlfriend, who comes from inherited wealth but is dedicated to using her resources to make a difference, is beginning to see through his façade – and if so, can he bring her to his side or will she turn on him?  But nothing ever goes as planned, and McBleak has to think fast on his feet or his life might be extracted from him.

Available for $2.99 on its own app bookxy across all platforms as well on Kindle, Kobo, etc.

• • • • • • •

Also in Southern California, Taffy Cannon has been lurking at the library.

I was just on a Noir panel for the Oceanside Library’s Big Read program with Lisa Brackmann, Alan Russell, Ken Kuhlken, and Debra Ginsberg. On April 5, I’m moderating a mystery panel at the Carlsbad Library with Denise Hamilton, Vince Aiello, Isla Morley, C.E. Poverman, and Matt Coyle.

• • • • • • •

Blackbird_FLY=ebook-NOOK

It’s back to France this summer for the five Bennett Sisters, last seen in Lise McClendon‘s Blackbird Fly. The new book will be out in May (called The Girl in the Empty Dress) but in the meantime you can read installments of Blackbird Fly for free on Wattpad. Suspense, wine, & intrigue. There’s a snazzy new cover too, redesigned by the amazing Lisa Desimini.

Ready to read it straight through? That can be done!

Kindle Nook KOBO Paperback Audio

• • • • • • •

JD Rhoades reports in with exciting news. Look for his new thriller, Devils and Dust, coming soon.

I’m pleased to announce that Polis Books the digital imprint started by bestselling author and former St. Martin’s Press editor Jason Pinter, will be publishing six of my books this spring: all three books in the Shamus award-nominated Jack Keller series (with spiffy new covers, naturally) , then the thrillers BREAKING COVER and BROKEN SHIELD, all leading up to the release of a brand new Jack Keller novel, DEVILS AND DUST. I’m totally psyched to be working with Jason and Polis.

• • • • • • •

Kate Flora, 2013 Maine Literary Award for Crime Fiction winner, has been busy. She reports in on three upcoming book releases.
My crime story, Girl’s Night Out, will be published as an e-book by Shebooks, an exciting new internet publishing venture featuring fiction, memoir and essay, by women and for women, in April, 2014.
My Canadian true crime, Death Dealer, which was five years in the making, will be published by New Horizon Press Books in September. Death Dealer fascinated me because while the killing took place in northeastern New Brunswick, it would involve search and rescue teams and game wardens with trained cadaver dogs from the neighboring state of Maine to locate the victim’s hidden body. Two full first degree murder trials, and many appeals later, the killer was sentenced to life is prison.
The fourth book in my Joe Burgess police procedural quartet, And Grant You Peace, will be published by Five Star in October.

One Picture, One-Thousand Words

Here at Thalia we are word slingers. We craft sentences that lead to paragraphs that morph into scenes that join into chapters and eventually become novels. We love words. They are our clay, our seeds, our bricks, our dirt.

Movie.jpg

That said, we live in an image-driven world. A world of television, movies, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, and the next big photo site. For me writing stories is a way to describe the movies in my head. I am a visual person. I really wanted to be a film reviewer right out of college. I love movies. I love the stories they tell, the subtleties conveyed in a passing look on screen, in a touch, in the twitch of a smile. Film is an emotional medium. A picture, as they say, is worth a thousand words. An image conveys different emotions to different people. Words work on readers the same way but there is something about a picture.

Assuming then that I have added all sorts of pictures to this post and you are still engaged, I’d like to point out that a thousand words makes a very short story. Like short-short. One-thousand words times five is a short story. One-thousand words times seventy is a novel. So a series of seventy photographs might tell you the story depicted in a novel? In a comic book there are twenty or thirty pages with six or so panels per page. That makes 120 to 180 images per story. Does that mean a comic book is richer and more textured than a novel of 70,000 words? Your call. To each his own entertainment.

reading-life.jpgI come to you with no agenda. I don’t write comic books or screenplays. I am a novelist. I love the long form story. I can write short stories but I don’t find them as, well, rich and textured and satisfying as a novel. A novel takes months to organize. It takes another big chunk of time to write from that hilarious outline you wrote before you started. Six, ten, twelve months, sometimes much more. Then more time to clean up the mess of the first draft. If a novelist is lucky and extremely organized — and can we say ‘driven’? — writing a polished long work of fiction in twelve months is good, honest work. That doesn’t include time spent promoting your book, blogging (yes, here we are!), tweeting, traveling to conferences, doing public appearances and booksignings and even getting your book copyedited and proofread. And if you’re not with a traditional publisher, getting your cover designed.

The novel, despite its name, isn’t all that new any more. Today the definition is “a fictitious prose narrative of book length, typically representing character and action with some degree of realism.” Realism is a bit of a stretch these days. Novels of urban fantasy, science fiction, and time travel exist. What ties them together is the understanding they have of the human psyche, human existence, its vulnerabilities and ironies. Is that touch, that indescribable something, more easily conveyed by a film clip or a photograph? Or is the depiction of the journey a character goes through, the barriers, the trials, the highs and lows, more honest?

child-watching-movieDuring Oscars week we can take some collective joy in the stories told on film, and every medium. Some movies are adapted from books we love. We hope they translate well. (If not we can always go back to our books.) More are delivered via letters and words and sentences, between pages, on screens, wherever people read. Wherever we get our stories is fine.

Our stories bring us together, help us connect with one another, and illuminate the fabulousness and ironically  deep pain of life. Which makes us all better humans, if only we continue to read and listen to stories.

————

PS: I was watching ‘A Good Day to Die Hard’ while I wrote this. Not saying it changed my life. Just saying. 😉

Cross posted at lisemcclendon.com

Ulterior Motivations

In the writing life there are two kinds of motivation. One is the kind that gets you to apply your backside to a chair and get some writing done every day. The other kind is the reason why your characters do the things they do. Both motivations can be difficult at times, but let’s start with the more basic: why do you write?

Most fiction writers, it seems, like to be read. Writing for yourself is interesting but not ultimately satisfying, so if you write for publication the communication continuum is complete. Editors give you feedback, reviewers give you thumbs up. You hear from readers, they like your novel, they hate it, whatever. They read it. Fifteen years ago I would hear successful writers talk about their “brand.” You still hear this, about branding yourself. Back then they said it with a touch of regret. “I write about this character, that’s the brand.” This usually meant their publisher wanted only their series books, a known quantity, and didn’t want them to veer off into the unknown. Stick with success, baby. Don’t mess it up. Since a significant amount of money is riding on that success, for both writer and publisher, everybody’s happy if the brand is continued. These writers are motivated by their own success. They worry about doing better on this book than the last. They worry about their publisher turning sour on them. They worry about their next three-book contract.

Actually I have no idea what they worry about because I am not one of those writers. So I’m not motivated to write by the contract deadline. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with making a good living as a bestselling writer! But I find it a bit sad when writers refer to their books as their products and their career as their brand. Writing is so personal. (Good writing anyway.) It comes from a place you don’t even understand, the subconscious, and informs your story in ways that are surprising and sometimes even magical. If you are pre-determined to write about a specific character ad nauseum, doesn’t this take away from the joy of writing? (This is probably why I no longer have a New York publisher!)

What motivates a writer when there is no one clamoring for that next book? Your love of the process. For me writing a novel is like putting together an enormous jigsaw puzzle whose picture is fuzzy. As some of the parts come together the picture clears up. But then other pieces don’t fit with that part so you take it apart and start over. Novel-writing is an organizational challenge, and a big challenge it is. If you like to see the big picture, work out how to make sense of characters’ actions, think hard and then re-think and re-think, then novel writing is for you. If you’re in love with words, write poetry. If you want to write about a slice of life, a moment or a day, write a short story.

It can be extremely frustrating to write a novel, especially if you’re trying to do something new. And (you knew this by now) I don’t like the old. If I’ve conquered a type of novel, at least in my own mind, I want a bigger challenge. I want to dig deeper. Every novel I write touches me in a new way, makes me see the world afresh. I don’t know why you would be a writer if you didn’t have your own ulterior motives for writing. Mine is to see life from a different angle, to explore what it means to be a human being in a certain place and time, to figure out what’s going on inside my own head and my own heart.

Which leads us to the second motivational challenge, getting characters to act in a way that appears rational. If characters have no motivation to do certain things, your story falls apart. Back to the drawing board. This is another hurdle you have to cross yourself. Good prep work can solve most of these problems. If you outline, make sure the seeds of important actions are planted early on. If you’re a pantser like myself, fill your notebooks with the wanderings of your mind, figure out what sort of person would do whatever it is they must do. (Being a pantser doesn’t mean you can just sit down and start a novel without figuring it out ahead of time. It just means every part of the novel isn’t figured out.)

It’s a great journey, writing a novel. Enjoy the trip.

Lise McClendon’s new novel, All Your Pretty Dreams, is a twist on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. It comes out August 15.

Rereading your favorite novel, love or leave it?

They say that every time you read a book it’s a different book, because you are different. If you read a book when you’re twelve you bring one set of experiences, opinions, and influences to that reading. Read it again at twenty-one, it’s a new book because you’ve survived to your majority, studied, read, and maybe even written something yourself. So if you keep reading that book, at thirty, forty, fifty, does it keep changing for you?

I submit that it is possible to read a book too many times. Unless you are dissecting it for the purpose of figuring out its structure you can bore yourself. There are so many books in the world! Read a new one! Only my most favorite novels hold up time after time, offering up nuggets of humor and wisdom again. My favorite novel is Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen precisely because there is so much left out of it. I read it first at seventeen. I reread it looking for more, sure there is something I missed. Most novels, even ones that I absolutely adored, stories that make me gasp and cry, leave it all on the page. Because, frankly, that’s where it’s at, writing-wise.

I’ve been thinking about reader reactions, and rereading, since reading this piece in the Guardian. Authors are generally voracious readers and sometimes reread novels out of necessity (nothing else in the house) or to study the way an admired author got the job done. Poetry, of course, and classics like Shakespeare, Doestoevsky, and Jane Austen are definite rereads. The classics hold up because they are dense and enjoyable and fulfill a reader’s need for philosophy of living, human emotion, or just plain excitement.

As you can see from the article authors have a diverse list of favorites that are often very personal. Reading is like that. Have you ever given someone a book (that they didn’t request, written by someone they’ve never read) and wondered why they never read it? You loved it so they should too. But like jewelry and perfume, novels are an individual taste. Often as readers we don’t know exactly why some stories resonate, holding us captive and nestling deep in our subconscious, while famous novels loved by millions leave us cold. It doesn’t matter what you read as long as you’re reading for pleasure (unless you are in a Nazi book club. If so, my condolences.) Pick a novel, new or old, fresh to you or as familiar and comforting as an old sweater, and read it. Enjoying reading is one of the most basic, simple pleasures of life.

Reader reactions fascinate me. As a writer you can only write the book you can write, and hope that it appeals to someone (or many someones.) In the age of online reviews anyone who reads a book can offer his or her opinion of it to the world, uncensored and often poorly spelled. It’s sort of like fan mail. One of my novels now has nearly 40 reviews on Amazon (a consequence of a giveaway campaign last summer) and as much as I hate the bad reviews and cherish the good ones I find the whole thing amusing. How can one reader write: “something for everyone, intrique, romance, murder and all tied up neatly together,” and another have the opposite reaction: “too much nonsense in it. It took me forever to read as I was very bored with parts”? Well, because one might be fifteen, the other seventy. One might be used to reading romance novels, another might be into ‘Twilight.’ You never know. I couldn’t have written this book when I was twenty (Blackbird Fly, by the way, written when I was 50ish. I couldn’t have written any novel at 20 but I loved my journalism classes.)

I bring to the table my own experiences, just as the reader does. I love that I can hear what they think. It makes writing a lot less lonely.