What I’m Reading (July 2015)

Hype. It seems that every month, if not every week and day, someone is hyping something. This movie is Must See! That show is the BEST! This podcast (well, maybe podcasts don’t get hyped to the same level as movies and shows- although if you’re not listening to Mystery Show, really, I don’t know what to say) And yes, even books- this story is riveting!

In my experience, the product rarely lives up to the hype.

Thus, when I come across something, like a book, that matches and even exceeds the hype, well, that book will be the book of the month.

BOOKS

Books of the Month (yes, books in plural)- Recently, Don Winslow released The Cartel, which is a follow up to his earlier book, The Power of The Dog. I must’ve been hiding under a rock when The Power of the Dog was released, because I’d never heard of it until The Cartel came out.

I can’t recall, at least in recent memory, hearing so much praise for one book. Since it garnered so much praise and was a crime novel, I had to give it a try. However, since The Cartel is a sequel to The Power of the Dog, I started with it, although that’s not necessary.

Taken individually, each book is a standout. Taken together, they are phenomenal. Masterful.

In short (which is a bit of a misnomer, since the two books total over 1300 pages), Winslow tells the story of two men, Art Keller (DEA Agent) and Adan Barrerra (cartel drug lord) over a forty-year period. An early friendship turns into a life-long battle with each man wanting to get the other. The story of these two men is told against the backdrop of the drug wars in Mexico over the last forty years. Graphic and dark in sections, the storytelling is hypnotic.

If I had to compare these two books to anything, I’d liken them to James Ellroy’s LA Quartet (The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, LA Confidential, and White Jazz).

Having been blown away by Winslow’s writing, I delved into some of his other books:

  • SavagesThe Kings of Cool, and The Death and Life of Bobby Z. How best to describe these two books? Ken Bruen meets SoCal (Or maybe Ken Bruen is Don Winslow meets Galway.)

Other books I read this month include Small Crimes by Dave Zeltersman (noir), The Great Detective: The Amazing Rise and Immortal Life of Sherlock Holmes by Zach Dundas (an in-depth look at Sherlock Holmes), and The Pine Tar Game: The Kansas City Royals, the New York Yankees, and Baseball’s Most Absurd and Entertaining Controversy by Filip Bondy (an entertaining look at the infamous Pine Tar Game).

TV & FILM

I really should keep an ongoing log of what I watch (which isn’t much), because when the end of the month arrives, I can’t remember what I’ve watched. I gave up on True Detective after episode 3, the story made no sense. I watched the first episode of Rectify– seems promising. That’s about all I can remember.

Except for the Tour de France. I did watch that.

WRITING

Here it comes, an actual drop-date (or semi drop-date) for my next novel, Taken For Granted. Look for it by mid-September at the latest, if not earlier. Hopefully, I have one last copy edit and then it will be ready.

In case you missed it, this month I reduced the price of the ebook version of Secrets To Keep to .99.

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What I’m Reading (June 2015)

A few good books and an interesting documentary.

BOOKS

Book of the Month – All the Old Knives by Olen Steinhauer. This is a page-turning spy thriller well worth the read. (Review here.)

I also read the following:

  • Dirtbags by Eryk Pruitt (review here)
  • A trio of noir books by Bill S. Ballinger: RaffertyThe Body in the Bed, and The Body Beautiful.
  • Quack This Way by Bryan Garner. Backstory on this book: I listened to an interview with Bryan Garner on The Moment with Brian Koppelman. Years ago, Garner wrote a book, Modern American Usage, and David Foster Wallace (one of my favorite authors) wrote a ninety-five page essay about the book. Wallace and Garner then became friends and Quack This Way is an interview of Wallace by Garner about language and such.
  • Don’t Suck, Don’t Die: Giving Up Vic Chestnutt by Kristin Hersh. I first heard of Vic Chestnutt, a singer, when he appeared on a song or two with Jack Logan. Who was this guy? Chestnutt was a quadriplegic, who developed a cult following with his music. He died a few years and this book, written by a friend of his, is a close up, unflinching perspective on the complications of friendship with Vic Chestnutt.
  • The Badger: The Life of Bernard Hinault and the Legacy of French Cycling by William Fotheringham. A long overdue biography on the five time winner of the Tour de France.
  • Little Victories: Perfect Rules for Imperfect Living by Jason Gay. A humorous book on life and living. Gay is a columnist for The Wall Street Journal.

TV & FILM

Going Clear– A documentary about Scientology based on the book of the same title. All I can say is ‘Wow, the things some people will believe.’

True Detective (Season 1) – A little late getting to this one. I can see why so many people liked it, although I’m not sure about the last episode. Pretty good viewing though.

WRITING

Taken For Granted is in the copy-editing phase. Not sure how long it will take, hopefully not too long. My goal is fall at the absolute latest. Sooner if possible. There might be some news on the cover soon.

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Book Review: All The Old Knives by Olen Steinhauer

I read across a wide variety of genres, noir being preeminent among my reading, but I don’t read many spy thrillers, unless your name is Graham Greene or Olen Steinhauer. I’ve been a reader of Steinhauer since the beginning, when he released The Bridge of Sighs, the first in a five book series about a fictional Eastern European country after the end of WW2. Since completing that series, he has transitioned to modern day spy thrillers, and his latest, All The Old Knives, continues in that vein.

The story takes place over two nights, one in the present and the other in the past. The narration alternates between the perspective of Henry and Celia. The central question concerns who fed information to a terrorist that led to the slaughter of innocent people.

Henry, a current operative, invites Celia, a former operative and his former lover, to dinner. Celia has moved on from the spy game, trading the spy game for marriage and family. Despite their breakup, Henry still pines for her. Henry is investigating who gave the information to the terrorist.

The past sequence revolves around the day in question when a terrorist group hijacked a plane and demanded the release of certain prisoners. They threatened to kill everyone on board if their demands were not met. An operative inside the plane begins sending text messages to the other operatives with details about the terrorists. His messages continue until someone outs him to the terrorists, resulting in his death. Who sold him out and caused the deaths of everyone on the plane?

Back in the present, the former lovers and operatives try to figure out what the other knows and the evening climaxes with the revelation of the truth. All The Old Knives is an outstanding page-turning spy thriller.

***

If you haven’t read Steinhauer’s previous books, you should check them out:

  • The Cairo Affair
  • The Milo Weaver stories (The Tourist, The Nearest Exit, An American Spy)
  • The Ruthenia Quintet (The Bridge of Sighs, The Confession, 36 Yalta Boulevard, Liberation Movements, Victory Square)
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Book Review: Dirtbags by Eryk Pruitt

In most cases, if I see the words ‘serial killer’ in the synopsis, my interest in the book dissipates. For me, the serial killer crime novel is a tired genre with writers using it as an excuse to write gruesome scenes with deranged characters. However, if I’ve read another book by the author and been impressed by him or her, I’ll give their serial killer novel a chance.

I’d heard of Dirtbags by Eryk Pruitt when the book first came out, but upon seeing ‘serial killer’ in the synopsis I passed on reading the book and forgot all about it. Recently, I read Pruitt’s second novel, Hashtag, which I enjoyed a great deal (Review here) and wanted to read more of his work. A quick search brought me back to Dirtbags and I decided to give it a chance.

Sometimes, a bias can keep you from a really good book and Dirtbags is one such example. Although one character’s quest to become an infamous serial killer is at the heart of the story, the overarching theme is the desire to be known.

In both of Pruitt’s novels, he employs an intriguing writing device. He writes from the viewpoint of three different characters, but rather than telling a linear story jumping back and forth from each character, he takes a different approach. His two novels are divided into three sections. Each section is told from the viewpoint of one character. When he switches to the next section and thus the next character, he takes a step backward in the story, provides a bit of backstory, and then progresses the story forward. When he moves from section two to section three, he does the same thing again. The story moves forward with each character taking their portion of the story to a certain point. The device works well.

Dirtbags revolves around the three characters: Calvin Cantrell, a born loser who believes the only way he’ll ever be recognized in the world is by becoming a serial killer; Tom London, a restaurant owner who hires Cantrell to kill his ex-wife which causes him multiple problems; and Rhonda Cantrell, the wife of Calvin and the lover of Tom, who uses her body to get what she wants. Pruitt uses these three characters to tell the story of three hard luck losers stuck in a small town, desperate to break free from the constraints of the small town, and eager to find recognition in the eyes of others. I’m eager to read more of Pruitt’s work.

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Book Review: Hashtag by Eryk Pruitt

Aspirations for fame mark the characters in Hashtag by Eryk Pruitt. The novel revolves around three characters who desire recognition in a world where they feel overlooked. To get what they want, they resort to a life of crime.

Odie Shanks works at Maggie’s Pizza Pick-Up in Lake Castor. A chance meeting with Jake Armstrong leads Odie to concoct a robbery plan at Maggie’s where Jake will take him hostage. His name is bound to fill headlines as the victim. When he doesn’t even make the news, Odie joins Jake on his tour of revenge and robbing gas stations for money.

Deputy Roy Rains patrols Lake Castor. The robbery of Maggie’s Pizza Pick-Up and the abduction of Odie is seen as the final black mark on the the Deputy’s ability as a law enforcement officer. Threatened with his job, Rains devises a plan to frame someone for the crime. Despite nothing going according to plan, Rains emerges as a hero. Soon people are treating him different and talking about him as the next Sheriff. Everything’s fine until people starts asking questions.

Melinda Kendall wants to teach her boyfriend a lesson. His drug-dealing is getting in the way of their relationship. Her scheme backfires and fearing for her life, she goes on the run. Along the way, Melinda resorts to the robbery and humiliation of the men who cross her path. Despite her efforts to keep a low profile, she becomes a news and pop culture sensation.

While running from the police, Melinda runs into Odie, who recognizes her. They decide to work together on the way to Hollywood, where Odie is headed for fame and fortune. Will they find love or will their aspirations doom their relationship?

Hashtag is fast-paced crime novel shining a light on the desire for fame and recognition and the ways every day people go about manufacturing it in a tech-driven world. Great writing, great story. I’ve not read Pruitt’s work before, but next on my bookshelf is his previous book, Dirtbags.

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What I’m Reading (May 2015)

Anytime I talk to someone from outside Texas, they want to know, ‘Are you floating away?’ Another example of how the news highlights one thing and insinuates that everyone is suffering. Is it raining a lot? Yes. Have I had to take some detours to work? Yes. Am I in danger of flooding? No.

BOOKS

Book of the Month: Portrait in Smoke by Bill S. Ballinger. Another classic noir book republished by 280 steps. Curiosity over a girl in a picture turns to fascination and then to obsession. Danny April might wish he’d never seen the picture of Krassy Almauniski. He decided to find out what happened to the girl and finds a trail of men and bad debts in her wake. When April finally catches up with Krassy, will he be the man to tame this beauty, or will she leave him in the lurch as she’s done with all the others? I couldn’t put this one down. I’m looking forward to reading more of Ballinger’s books.

Other books I read:

  • Green Hell by Ken Bruen (outstanding as always)
  • Walkin’ After Midnight by Joe Ricker
  • Hashtag by Eryk Pruitt (review coming later)
  • Gravesend by William Boyle
  • Slice Harvester by Colin Hagendorf (review coming later)
  • Natural Born Heroes by Christopher McDougall. Born to Run was a fascinating read. As for Natural Born Heroes, for me, there seemed to be too many storylines and i had trouble seeing how they fit together. The majority of the book centers on a group of individuals on the island of Crete who kidnapped a German general during WW2 and managed to avoid capture by the Germans. Even the parts of British intelligence worked for me. The parts on parkour seemed a stretch to me. I see how he attempted to bring them all together, but it seemed like a stretch to me.
  • Do Over by Jon Acuff (I heard Acuff interviewed on The Moment with Brian Koppelman.) This is a book on starting a new career, something I’ve done a few times in my life.

TV & FILM

Either I didn’t watch anything this month or nothing impressed me enough to stand out in my memory.

Strike that. My son wanted to watch all three Lord of the Rings movies, so we did. Mostly. I may have been reading at the same time through one or two of them.

WRITING

A productive month. I finished the first draft of a new novel, which might be the fastest I’ve ever finished a first draft. Tentative title is Down By The River (likely to change).

I’ve started on another round of edits with Taken For Granted. I keep saying I’m almost done. One of these days.

In other news, I might have a new cover of Secrets To Keep coming soon.

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How Others See Jack Taylor in Ken Bruen’s Green Hell

Ken Bruen once more proves himself to be one of the most unique and entertaining crime writers working today. Green Hell, his latest book, returns to the streets of Galway with Jack Taylor. With Jack, there are books to be read, TV shows to be watched, drinks to be consumed, snarky comments to be made, and oh yes, the small matter of vigilante justice.

In Green Hell, we see a slightly different picture of Jack. Rather than hearing the story all from Jack’s perspective, we hear how his former friends view him through interviews with Boru, a man writing a book on Jack. The picture is not pretty. The mention of his name brings vitriol from those once considered friends. Taylor is a bully and a brute with a drinking problem, an anger problem, and to some, a people problem. The world would be a better place without Jack. His former friends regret ever crossing paths with the man. If Jack is there, havoc is sure to follow.

Boru, a doctoral candidate in Galway to write his dissertation on Becket, meets Jack when the man of Galway rescues him from a brutal beating by two thugs. Boru and Jack become friends, at least as much a friend as Jack can have. Enchanted by Jack, Boru ditches his dissertation and begins writing a book about Taylor.

Burgo is a man with the right connections who happens to have a habit of raping women and getting away with it. When Jack learns of Burgo’s escapades, he confides in Boru his plan to murder Burgo. Boru, frightened and unsure what to do, goes to the Guards and tells them of Jack’s plan. Word gets back to Jack and Boru is cut off. In Jack’s world, one thing he doesn’t tolerate is the betrayal of a confidence. Boru’s world unravels. Jack deserts him and his girlfriend dumps him, devastating him. When her murdered body is discovered, the Guards arrest Boru.

And then enters Emerald, or Em, as she prefers to be known. With her help and guidance, she and Jack try to clear Boru and get Burgo at the same time. Along the way, Jack rescues a puppy (no kidding), reads, drinks (and drinks some more), tries to figure out who the mysterious Em is, fails at repairing past relationships, and works the case.

Bruen is a crime novelist without peer. He writes in a poetic style littered with references to pop culture, writers, music, and news events of the day. One page brings laughter and the next breaks your heart. In Jack Taylor, we see the rise and fall of a man with frailties, addictions, a heart hidden inside a hardened exterior, and a deep well of strength. As with Bruen’s other books, Green Hell entertains and makes you wish there were more.

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Everybody Wants Something In Joe Ricker’s Walkin’ After Midnight

In Joe Ricker’s book, Walkin’ After Midnight, everybody wants something. It might be a divorce for one, a murderous impulse in another, but no one is content with their current situation. They long from freedom and relief. Unfortunately for some of these characters, their action and inaction wreaks havoc on themselves or those around them.

“The Fallen” revolves around a cop enlisted to watch a local drug dealer from a nearby apartment building. A recovering alcoholic and alone in the apartment, the cop watches the commission of one crime after another, helpless to intervene because of the orders from his boss. When he witnesses an innocent party suffer because of the drug dealer, the torment threatens to overwhelm him. Ricker writes, “Footprints began where angels dropped you, if you landed on your feet, the weight of you unwanted, your prayers a burden on the ear of God.

In “Delivery Man,” a town fears the annual return of the serial killer who strikes on the same day every year. Will he strike again? Who is he? Why does he only strike once a year? Is he an outsider? Or one of them?

“Watch” might be my favorite. A wife wants a divorce and the money that goes along with it, while the husband wants to stay married. He figures she’s been cheating, but when he determines who she’s been seeing, he concocts a plan get them both.

In Walkin’ After Midnight, Joe Ricker has crafted a collection of well-written stories about the criminal and desperate ways people attempt to alter the trajectory of their lives.

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The Other End of the Tour de France in Max Leonard’s Lantern Rouge

After three weeks of racing across France, across the flats, up and down monstrous hills, through the heat, the wind, and the rain, one man is crowned winner. TV crews and journalists repeat his story to the masses. Perhaps they dash off a story about those who could’ve won or the dozen or so who dropped out or crashed out. But the man who finished last, the Lanterne Rouge, is left to himself. No one tells his story. In his book, Lanterne Rouge: The Last Man in the Tour de France, Max Leonard profiles the some of the men who have finished last in the Tour de France. In doing so, he has provided readers with a more complete story of this great race.

The lantern rouge is not an officially recognized honor in the race, at least by the Tour organizers. They want racers to chase the award for first, not last. Some look on the award as a dishonor to the sport. They consider it a disgrace, rather than seeing the award for what it is- an acknowledgment for finishing one of the world’s hardest races.

Immense effort is required to finish each day within the time limits and to get on your bike day after day when you know you have zero chance of winning. It takes courage and strength to fight to win, but what does it take to keep going when the only thing you have to look forward to is finishing? When people ask how you did, all you can say is, ‘I finished.’

But maybe there is something in just finishing.

***

A digression.

Though not on the level of the Tour de France, I’ve participated in my own endurance events. I’ve struggled to finish a long distance cycling event and even dropped out once. That DNF (did not finish), although it could not be avoided, left me with a sinking feeling that lasted longer than the nausea which caused me to quit that day.

A couple of years later, overcome by the same wave of stomach sickness, I pulled off the road, handed my bike to a volunteer, and climbed into the back of the truck. I was going to DNF again. I knew the dread that would stick with me. I wanted to avoid the questions from friends who would ask how I’d done.

While I waited on the volunteer, I talked myself into finishing. I got out of the truck, took my bike back, and started pedaling. Ten minutes later, the stomach cramps returned and I cursed myself for getting out of the truck. Still, I kept on. Two miles from the finish, having been unable to get any food or drink in me for a couple of hours, my legs seized up with cramps and I had to stop at the side of the road. I laid on the ground and watched my legs spasm.

When my legs finished torturing me with spasms, I got up and rode the rest of the way to the finish. To be honest, I pedaled a few strokes, coasted as far as possible, and then pedaled some more.

And I finished. Sickness and soreness accompanied me for days, but the feeling of accomplishment diminished their effects. I made it to the end. No one could take that away.

****

Book after book has been written and will continue to be written about the men who won and win the Tour. People buy these books for the inspiration they provide, but they only tell part of the story. Max Leonard’s Lanterne Rouge completes the picture by telling us the stories of the men at the other end of the Tour de France.

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Still The King – Harry Whittington

They called him ‘The King of the Pulps.’ He wrote over two hundred novels during his career, 85 in a 12 year span, and 7 in one month. His productivity was astonishing, but it’s the quality of his writing that sets him apart. Even after his death in 1989, Harry Whittington is still the king.

fires-that-destroyWho?

Exactly. Like many, that was my reaction the first time I heard the name Harry Whittington. Having read mysteries for years, I’d never heard of, or even come across, his name. A fact I find somewhat embarrassing. How could I have missed one of the best? Recently, his name popped up on a blog post or two and a couple of different books mentioned him. Each writer commented on the Whittington’s greatness. With such ringing endorsements, I had to give a book of his a try and see if he merited such great accolades.

He did.

I started with A Night For Screaming and enjoyed it a great deal. I moved on to Fires That Destroy and liked it even more. Halfway through Fires That Destroy, Whittington had me hooked.

Whittington’s writing is marked by a few things: 1) Brevity- Most of his books clock in under 200 pages, although this does nothing to diminish his ability to tell a story. This happened to be a necessity of the time in which he wrote; 2) Diversity- His crime novels span the genre- the police detective, the man on the run, the ordinary man facing unbelievable odds, and the woman who makes a mistake, just to name a few; 3) Tension- That should be tension with a capital T. If Whittington is known for anything, it’s his ability to start the tension high and keep ratcheting it up page after page.

So far, I’ve managed to read a half-dozen of his books:

  • A Night For Screaming – A man is on the run for a crime he didn’t commit. He gets off the train in a small town and finds work on a farm while trying to avoid the police. The owner of the ranch involves the man on the run in a scheme that will help them both. Nothing goes according to plan.
  • Fires That Destroy – A homely woman kills her boss for the money. She then meets a man more handsome than she could imagine and they get married. Once married, Mr. Right turns out to be Mr. Wrong. Can she kill again? (This might be my favorite so far)
  • You’ll Die Next – Let’s just say this is the epitome of the day from hell. Gorgeous wife, great life, and when you open the door a total stranger attacks you. The day only gets worse.
  • Brute in Brass (Ballard #1) – Mike Ballard is a cop on the take. The higher ups are closing in on him. Is there any good left in Ballard?
  • Any Woman He wanted (Ballard #2) – Ballard wants nothing more than to do his job and go home, but everyone from the honest law enforcement types to the crooked cops want him back in the game on their side. Can Ballard find his own way without becoming a pawn in the hands of others? (Related question: Why aren’t there more Ballard books? Great character!)
  • A Ticket To Hell – A ex-con on a job lets his conscience get the better of him. When he intervenes against his better judgement, all hell ensues.

A number of Whittington’s books have gone out of print, but a few publishers are bringing them back. You can find e-book copies for under six bucks, which is a treat for fans of noir and great writing. Harry Whittington was a master of his craft, and he remains ‘The King of the Pulps.’

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