Author of 'Sendero' and 'Who Sings to the Dead?'

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Silent Scream – Angela Marsons #BookReview

This is a thoroughly engaging, well-crafted police procedural set in the UK that will appeal to fans of Prime Suspect and the like. Kim Stone, the protagonist DI, is sort of a young jaded Jane Tennison with issues, and a gruff person as a result but, as one might expect, her heart is in the right place. She gets the job done, brandishing her acerbic wit (and temper).
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When an employee connected to a state run institution is found drowned in her bathtub, DI Stone begins to investigate the murders of three unfortunate girls who are found buried in a shallow grave outside a former orphanage from hell. More bodies pile up. And maybe one or two more. The story itself might stretch the reader’s belief system a bit but it’s a well-told one, with excellent investigation details, nuanced supporting characters (I love Bryant, especially when he – [mini spoiler] – adopts the dogs), terrific descriptions of the Black Country locale and a genuine commentary on institutional systems that create monsters and misfits out of their inhabitants and administrators.

I would easily have given this book five stars if not for…

*** SPOILER AHEAD ***

Multiple murderers. Come on! For those of us who enjoy trying to piece the clues together and ‘solve the crime’, this is such a disappointment. The author is in good company here (Gillian Flynn, anyone?) but it’s not playing fair with the reader. A writer who works this hard can surely tell a compelling mystery without obfuscating the story with over-complicated plot lines and pulling the wool over our eyes the easy way.

Having said that, I would recommend Silent Scream to fans of crime fiction, and personally look forward to more in this series.

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Spenser Version 2.0: Wonderland by Ace Atkins #BookReview

Back in the dark ages before Kindle, one of my favorite authors was Robert B. Parker. His Spenser PI books were enormously readable: entertaining, witty, with literary illusions for the college grads who read pulp, not to mention some pretty decent plots. Spenser was the updated wise-cracking detective, tough and tender, the lone gunman who could jump through windows or whip up a gourmet meal with one hand while drinking an imported beer with the other. Spenser’s sidekick Hawk introduced the American reading public to perhaps their first minority mystery character, and Spenser’s main squeeze, Susan Silverman (Spenser is monogamous, despite the efforts of many persistent females), added some pop psychology and sophisticated banter. I remember reading my first ‘F’ word in a mystery novel ever in a Spenser book back in the 70s—what a shock. In close to forty books Parker took a tired format and punched it up to become one of the most popular PI series ever. There was even a television show: Spenser for Hire.

0-ABC-SpenserWhen Robert Parker passed away in 2010 I assumed that was the end of Spenser as well, who was perhaps getting to be a little old to be jumping through any more windows (even though Spenser, the man with no first name, never ages). Times were moving on and we had a new cast of grittier, darker, more urban detectives to read.

So when Ace Atkins (author of the acclaimed Quinn Colson ‘Ranger’ series) took on the Spenser books in 2011, I held off. I have never found a book continuation that ever truly worked under a different author (not even Parker’s Chandler). The smudges on the copy were always too evident for my liking.

Well, I was wrong.

I started with Wonderland, simply because it had the highest Amazon ratings, and was more than pleasantly surprised. Spenser is back, version 2.0, with upgraded smart-aleck remarks and current themes. Spenser’s signature humor is even punchier than I remembered. The settings and PI tone are just about perfect to the original. There’s a new sidekick, a Cree Indian named Z, who is kind of a junior Hawk in training, but one with personal issues he must deal with. And the usual cast of good and bad guys. A cross-country airplane flight whizzed right by.

Wonderland opens with some thugs pushing Spenser’s boxing pal Henry Cimoli and his neighbors around, trying to muscle them out of their condo building. Spenser and Z get involved, thinking they’ll shoo off the bad guys and be back to drinking beer and trading one-liners in no time. But the toughs don’t scare easily. Then Spenser finds a disused, broken-down dog track by the name of Wonderland near Henry’s condo complex to be the center of interest for some Vegas hoods and a local Boston politician. When a moneyed real estate developer a la Donald Trump loses his head—literally—Spenser realizes he’s onto something big. Then come the fisticuffs, gunfights and a beautiful unclothed female, along with the usual Spenser fare. But most of all there is Spenser’s classic wit, extremely well-handled by Atkins. Maybe even better than Parker’s. I read an interview with Robert B. Parker (way back before there were Kindles) and recall him saying he essentially wrote one draft of each Spenser book. That was it. Well, towards the end of Spenser version 1.0, it showed. Not so with Atkins, however, who has polished Spenser’s dialog to a shine that dazzles. I found myself rereading much of it for sheer pleasure.

The plot in Wonderland gets a little elaborate past the half-way mark, with an ever-growing cast of bad guys and some questionable motives by the lead suspects, but it doesn’t really matter by then. When the last page came, I was ready for more Spenser version 2.0.

Two Faces of January – Dead Bodies and Love Triangles – Book Review

Patricia Highsmith’s wonderfully deviant, amoral characters set her books apart in a genre where sociopaths are the norm and just about essential for any psychological thriller worth its salt. No other suspense author drills down into the inner workings of their players quite like Highsmith did. Much of the reason is that she took her time to build her characters, letting small details work their tension, blending the mundane with the immoral so that we as readers identify with some fairly reprehensible people before we can be repelled by them. A saved letter about an unattended funeral speaks volumes about a young man’s feelings towards his father, allowing us to comprehend his later actions. A man’s love for his young wife makes us overlook a good deal of his criminal behavior. In Highsmith’s novels it’s not easy to discern the hero from the villain and often, as in her popular Ripley books, it’s the criminal (usually murderer) we end up rooting for. The same forces are at work in The Two Faces of January but to a subtler degree. You won’t find a truly good person in these pages but it doesn’t matter. In this story of three expat Americans who cross paths in early 1960s Athens, you’ll want at least one of them to get away with breaking the law.

Dead bodies and love triangles tend not to go together well. (Photo from the motion picture adaptation of Two Faces of January.)

Rydel is a wandering Peter Pan living off his grandmother’s money, putting off the inevitable trip back to the US to face responsibility and tedium, when he encounters Chester, a crooked stockbroker on the run, who accidentally kills a Greek policeman who is onto him. For no other reason than Chester reminds Rydel of his father, Rydel helps Chester hide the body and acquires forged passports for him and his comely wife, Colette. Chester then invites Rydel to accompany him and Colette to Crete to help the couple navigate their way out of Greece, beyond the reach of the authorities (Rydel speaks Greek and has shady connections). But Colette’s infatuation for Rydel upsets the applecart, and Chester sees red. No one seems to think twice about the death of a policeman, let alone marital vows. It may even feel like love–for two of the three anyway–but it doesn’t end well.

Rydel is one of Highsmith’s better creations, quite affable as he keeps veering away from doing the right thing. He just can’t seem to. The reader understands. Chester is a perfect villain, because he knows who he is. Colette is a well-nuanced temptress, made of real flesh and blood, with a heart and soul. The secondary characters in this novel are all Highsmith quality as well.

I’m not sure why this book is trending towards three stars in the ratings—it’s one of Highsmith’s better ones, with its simple tale of three people who think they can do no wrong but end up doing an awful lot of it.

My only minor disappointment came in the final few pages, where I was hoping for one final twist that didn’t come. The ending I envisioned seemed glaringly obvious to me but Patricia Highsmith clearly wasn’t thinking what I was thinking when she penned this book—or maybe she didn’t want to be predictable. But it works, and redeems one of the characters.

Regardless, by the time Two Faces is rolling, the plot feels inevitable. And that’s the mark of a master.

Looking for the Dead Boys: Now on a Kindle near you

Dredge thought Spider said they were going to buy the kilo from the Mexicans. 

Not pull a fast one…

Looking for the Dead Boys Web

It’s 1977, California. Once blissed-out hippies have taken a liking to crystal meth. Punk rock is on the turntable.

More than anything, misfit Dredge wants to be one of the Dead Boys, a motorcycle gang bent on controlling Santa Cruz’ growing methamphetamine market. But first he has to impress Spider.

Spider isn’t going to let anyone take over his lucrative dealing action. A drug deal with a Latino gang trying to move into Dead Boys’ turf turns into a killing spree.

With long red hair, an oil-burner dope habit and a pair of earrings that look like little silver birds, Eva Braun—not her real name, of course—is Spider’s old lady. Her self-destructive streak leads her to tell the cops about the murder of four Latin gang members. Dredge would love to save Eva, but maybe he better find a way to save himself.

Colleen Hayes did ten years in prison for killing her ex. With a gun in her pocket, she’s heading to Santa Cruz on a mission: to rescue her glassy-eyed daughter from the Dead Boys.

Nobody crosses Spider. Not the Latinos. Not the Chinese Tong waiting to make their move. Not Dredge. Or Eva. Or Colleen. And not the little girl who lives next to the Dead Boys’ house and watches everything, especially the pretty lady with the red hair and bird earrings.

Their lives are on a collision course and time is running out.

Looking for the Dead Boys: Peace, love and vengeance.

~~~

Take equal parts Elmore Leonard, Patricia Highsmith and Cormac McCarthy, add a dash of Quentin Tarantino and stir in a stolen kilo of methamphetamine. Blend it with what Henning Mankell calls “my own language” and you have LOOKING FOR THE DEAD BOYS.

Do you want to order Dead Boys? Of course you do! –> Order Dead Boys <–

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Don’t read Sendero

That’s correct. Don’t read Sendero, an edgy thriller set in Peru, a country still haunted by the dirty war of twenty years ago.

Listen to it!

Sendero is now available as an audio book.

Downloadable from Audible or iTunes,  you can listen to the book that Kirkus rated as one of the top 100 Indie novels of 2012, as narrated by the incomparable Sarah Van Sweden. Sarah is a terrific reader and a woman of many voices. I found myself caught up in her rendition of Sendero and believe me, I’ve read this book myself more than a few times. I know what happens. The lady can read the phone book and make it suspenseful. Check out the audio sample and see if you don’t agree.

Sendero Audio Book

Click the image to check out the Audible audio sample

If you’re new to Audible and sign up, you can get the audio book for free. If you’re more of an iTunes type, you may click here,

Ten books that made me want to be a writer

Who doesn’t read ‘top ten’ lists? There’s one going round at the moment where people rate their ten favorite books, and I was inspired to list the ones that influenced me as a writer. Here are ten by authors at the top of their game, whose stories reverberated, whose voices made me want to find one of my own. Books that made me say ‘I want to do that.’

10. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Hunter S. Thompson) – Many a true word written in jest. Wins the opening line award: ‘We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.’

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the_postman_always_rings_twice-cover9 The Postman Always Rings Twice (James M. Cain) – Cain was master of the breakneck-paced novel with scummy characters you love to root for.

8. The Stranger (Albert Camus) – Another terrific opener: ‘Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday.’ Who says you can’t tell vs. show? Fun Fact: Camus was influenced by James M. Cain.

7. The Dancer Upstairs (Nicholas Shakespeare) – The story of a South American detective trying to do the right thing in a country beset by corruption and civil war. And then he falls in love.

6. Strangers on a Train (Patricia Highsmith) – Anything Highsmith wrote is steeped in psychological turmoil. This was her first. Hitchcock was compelled to make it into an equally excellent film.

"My imagination functions much better when I don't have to speak to people." - Patricia Highsmith

“My imagination functions much better when I don’t have to speak to people.” – Patricia Highsmith

5. God’s Pocket (Peter Dexter) – An orgy of wonderfully low rent characters, including one who drives around with a body in the back of a refrigeration truck and you just hope he gets away with it.

4 Killshot (Elmore Leonard) – Leonard pioneered the modern crime novel. This is his darkest and most powerful.Unknown

3. Of Human Bondage (W. Somerset Maugham) – 50,000 words too long but what words. Daring stuff for its time about a lost soul who falls for a woman of questionable morals. There’s a reason Maugham was one of the most popular writers of his era.

2. The Road (Cormac McCarthy) – I dare you not to be moved by this haunting tale of love between father and son during the apocalypse.

1. The Ginger Man (JP Donleavy) – One man’s battle against sobriety, decency and sanity. Hysterically funny and tragic at the same time. A masterpiece.

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Those are my ten. Did I miss a must-read gem? Feel free to let me know.

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Sendero – an international thriller – 0 cents for a limited time

“A vividly described journey through Peru’s underbelly as the narrative gains momentum, hurtling toward a dramatic climax.”

Read the book that Kirkus listed as one of the top 100 Indie novels of 2012 – for 0 cents. Free. Nothing. How can I do it, you ask? Volume, that’s how. So avail yourself to the wonder of the world wide internet and download Sendero from Amazon,  Smashwords, iTunes, B&N. For Free.

Sendero!

[Click image for more …]

Watch the trailer. Read a sample.

Out by the Trees – Short Dark Fiction – Free

My short story collection is now free from most online retailers …
 
OutByTheTrees min 100

Red Badge of Courage – the ultimate anti-war novel? (#BookReview)

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I finally read this classic and was immediately swept away by the tale of young Henry Fleming (often referred to as ‘the youth’ in Red Badge of Courage), who itches to go to war, despite his mother’s wishes.

Stephen Crane’s writing has aged gracefully since the novel was first published in 1893. The forbidding atmosphere of war is ideally suited to a style that might be considered florid by today’s standards. The potent tone fits the story but the writing still feels current, authentic and devoid of sentimentality.

Henry’s character is laid bare as he experiences both cowardice and bravery in battle. Both emotions are seen as almost uncontrollable responses in times of war and the author doesn’t pass judgment, letting subtle ironies prevail instead. Red Badge of Courage is as much a psychological novel as a war story. And faced with what Henry and many of his comrades confronted, the reader might well have turned and headed for the trees as well.

Images of war are lightly rendered in comparison to modern novels but just as jarring. In one scene the wounded trudge to their impending deaths (as anyone injured in battle during the Civil War frequently had mere hours to live), and young Henry describes a soldier he encounters who has two wounds, ‘one in the head, bound with a blood-soaked rag, and the other in the arm, making that member dangle like a broken bough.’

Hemingway said that Red Badge of Courage was ‘one of the finest books of American literature.’ Reading Crane’s prose, it’s easy to see precursors of Hemingway’s own style:

‘It rained. The procession of weary soldiers became a bedraggled train, despondent and muttering, marching with churning effort in a trough of liquid brown mud under a low, wretched sky.’

Stephen Crane modestly stated that he wanted to write a war story reminiscent of the books he read as a boy, and ended up penning an adventure story that doubles as fine literature and perhaps the ultimate anti-war novel.

The Literary Chain Letter – aka ‘My Writing Process’

I’ve been tagged to tell you how I do what I do when it comes to doing what I love best to do: writing. Specifically, my writing process – or lack of one. But I’m happy to make something up. Well, I am a fiction writer.

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My writing process (high level view)

For the trail of this writing process request chain see Mark Miller, who referred me, and whose entry you may read by clicking said link. You will discover that Mark can really write, not only because he’s good, but also because he writes non-fiction, which requires sticking to the facts.

I truly admire anyone who can turn the truth into something readable as I find it a little – er – restrictive. I’m like the Irishman who had such a respect for the truth that he was known to use it in emergencies. Anyway, I digress. Which is part of my writing process actually: digression. Call it exploration. Research. But, back to the truth – briefly – to quote my old writing teacher, the stalwart Jim Frey. (No, not that Jim Frey, who committed a disgracia on Oprah. Talk about not sticking to the truth.) I mean the Jim Frey of ‘How to Write a Damn Good Novel’, who said ‘if your story needs a BART station in Golden Gate Park, then there’s a BART station in Golden Gate Park.’ (There isn’t, by the way, for those of you who don’t live in the People’s Republic of San Francisco.) The point is, it’s FICTION. It doesn’t have to be true, just believable. And sometimes, the more outlandish, the more believable.

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There are many approaches to effective writing.

I’m work-shopping a Noir novel at the moment, channeling the demons of Jim Thompson, Elmore Leonard, Graham Greene and Patricia Highsmith and corralling them into a ’70s biker novel with a woman bent on revenge, and I can’t believe my fellow work-shoppers are buying some of the things Colleen Hayes, who gets out of prison and goes hunting for her wayward teenage daughter, gets up to. They don’t seem to have issue with the ‘fact’ that a bascially nice person goes nuts with a shotgun, but more with the very basic aspects of character – motivation, capacity, growth – that affect all characters in all novels under development. Like they say, if you can make a reader (or viewer) believe a man can fly, they must want to believe it.

But I digress.

Like the man said, who wants to read about people who never really existed, doing things that never really happened? I do. And so do a lot of you. And I want to write about it, too. What an arrogant thought, really, thinking that someone wants to read something you just made up. But they do. If it connects. And, to do that, it has to connect with the author. So that’s part of the reason my writing process might seem so fluid. Because looking for inspiration, that little nugget, requires a lot of wild casting and hoping the line doesn’t get snagged in a tree. Or around your neck. But if it does – so what? Print is cheap. You’re not shooting a movie. Go big.

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In my other life, the one where I make money, I’m a computer programmer, and one of the tenets of modern software development is to iterate. Start with something and keep refactoring it, until it works. Don’t shoot for perfection right off. To me, writing fiction and code have much in common that way. All programmers write code their own way too.

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I like to write women protagonists. Why? I find them a great contrast to most of my bad guys (who tend to be guys) and I think that women characters can have a wider emotional range. They get away with a lot of things men can’t. I admire writers who can write dark sympathetic male characters. Case in point: Stephen King. In ‘The Shining’ his protagonist breaks his five-year-old son’s arm and the reader still identifies with him.

Some rules I follow but not always:

1. Don’t keep going back to the beginning of your draft every time you sit down in front of your computer (or pen and paper). Push ahead.

2. But do sit down at your computer (or pen and paper) as much as possible. Some people say every day but if you work for a living this may not be doable. But half an hour writing is better than half an hour not writing.

3. Be prepared to throw away most of what you write. Keith Richards jammed for hours – months, in many cases – to come up with a riff for one of those three minute gems. It was worth it. Segovia practiced for five hours per day. Write a lot and be prepared to write a lot of sh*t. It’s good enough for Henning Mankell.

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One of the tamer Sasquatch Erotica titles out there.

4. Read as much as you can. Read what you want to write. For me, those are my heroes (Elmore Leonard, Patricia Highsmith) but I also read the odd classic and I even read some junk. I’m an American author and popular fiction (and culture) is ingrained in me. I draw the line at Sasquatch erotica however.

5. Work-shop your work. If you don’t, you’re an amateur. Listen to the critiques. If more than two critiquers make the same comment, they’re right. Sorry, Hemingway, you got to kill your darlings.

6. There is no rule six.

7. I like to write early in the morning, mostly because that’s when I have time but also because my mind isn’t clogged with mundane garbage yet. I don’t check my stocks before I write, read email, or do anything that pulls me out of the ‘fictive dream.’

8. I read my work out loud.

9. I listen to all the critique but in the end it’s my story. I need to decide what happens. This is so hard but for me was the breakthrough that made my work better (IMHO). Trust your instincts. ‘Write from the fingertips’ Jim Frey says.

10. I write thrillers and mysteries. It’s important to stay within the genre, whatever genre you choose. Literary fiction is a genre, by the way. But by the same token, you need to break the genre, just a little, to make your story fresh.

11. I try to have fun and remember why I write. I get disappointed and frustrated just like everyone else but if the entire world isn’t in love with my books, that’s their problem. And it’s a first world problem to be wallowing in writer’s angst.

"My imagination functions much better when I don't have to speak to people." - Patricia Highsmith

“My imagination functions much better when I don’t have to speak to people.” – Patricia Highsmith

12. I do quite a lot of research (hasn’t Google made research easier, everyone?) For my biker Noir novel, I read more than I wanted on the history of Meth in this country and all I can tell you is that fiction ain’t got nothin’ on the truth. I’m still trying to get some of those images out of my mind. Much of my research is on the page in early drafts but eliminated as I rewrite. Tip of the iceberg is what I aim for. Elmore Leonard is a master at including that one detail that brings a scene or character to life.

13. There is no such thing as writer’s block. As Jim Frey said, what would you say to a plumber who said that he (or she) had ‘plumber’s block?’ You’re a plumber. Get to work. If you can’t be wonderfully creative today, do some low-level self-editing. There’s always something to do to make your novel better.

So there you have it.

I want to call out three fellow authors I think are innovative and pass the baton, and hope they follow suit and tell us how they write. (It’s a chain letter. If we all do this the entire world will be inundated with blog posts about writing. And then what? A few million authors at the end of the chain will be stuck and the internet will probably break. But if my three chosen authors wish to participate I look forward to their secrets for success.)

Tess Collins – author of Appalachian fiction and more
Anne-Rae Vasquez – paranormal, fantasy, dystopian (and more)
Jill Nojack – queen of the fae (and more!)

If you write, I hope my humble thoughts have encouraged you in some way. We all do it differently but we all do a lot of it the same. What an arrogant thing to think that someone will want to read something you made up.

But I digress.

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