The above illustration, "Blowing Bubbles," has been adapted for use here by generous permission from the artist, Cyril Rolando.

August 24, 2010

REVIEW: WORKING STIFFS by Simon Wood

With a wicked sense of humor and a deft hand with the plot twist, Simon Wood makes Working Stiffs, a collection of six short stories and one novella, a delight from beginning to wild, wild end. The stories are tied together with a workplace theme, and collectively convey a new understanding of just how dangerous the job can be.

In Old Flames Burn the Brightest, a renowned mystery writer finds himself boxed into a murderous corner not of his own writing.

In My Father's Secret, young Vincent helps his dad out in the hardware store until he discovers his father is moonlighting. And what Vincent knows could get his father killed. This story won the 2007 Anthony Award at Bouchercon for Best Short Story.

Sam just can't resist a pretty woman. It gets him A Break in the Old Routine, not to mention the job interview of a lifetime.

Parental Control puts a whole new spin on the concept of 'tough love' when Preston refuses to stand by as his son makes poor life choices. When Preston decides to apply the same kind of 'touch love' to the workplace, he finds it a much happier place to be. But you might not want to be his boss.

Kenneth Casper, aging and decrepit CEO of a major corporation, seeks out a Chilean shaman for a healing that will enable him to lead his company with renewed vigor, in The Real Deal. But of course, some people would just as soon see Kenneth retire.

When a street hood takes beat cop Webber's gun away from him and nearly kills him, in Officer Down, Webber has to take some time off the job to get his head straight. But he can't get his head straight until he gets that gun back. And once he does that, should he keep it?

The Fall Guy is a freewheeling five-part novella that begins with Todd working a dead-end job. Trying to avoid being late -- again -- Todd has the misfortune to back his POS car into a Porsche Boxster, breaking a headlight on the expensive vehicle. In order to pay for the damages, Todd explores all kinds of job skills he wasn't even aware he possessed, like safecracking and grave digging.. The job perks include traveling the country with six keys of coke and a corpse not of his making -- at least not directly. Crime hasn't been this much fun or unpredictable since the time second-story man John Dortmunder squeezed himself into a dishwasher. You can sample a small portion of part one of this novella by clicking here.

Working Stiffs is available in paperback, as well as in a $2.99 ebook format at:

August 19, 2010

REVIEW: THE GLASS RAINBOW by James Lee Burke

Detective Dave Robicheaux has an ugly case on his desk. Seven young women brutally tortured and murdered. But one of them doesn't fit with the others. Six of them were addicts, prostitutes, runaways. Throwaway lives in today's world. One young woman was a high school honor student with a college scholarship awaiting, and no connection to the streets. Another victim, a runaway down from Canada, had been tortured so viciously that she had actually sweated blood. Dave's only lead is a pimp named Herman Stanga. When Stanga fails to cooperate, Dave's best friend, Clete Purcel, a PI and all-around loose cannon, administers a brutal public beating -- the cell-phone cameras were clicking away -- to Stanga. Clete's freedom, his whole life, is really going down the tubes this time.

Just in case a sadistic psychopath isn't enough for Dave to worry about, he has to stand by as his daughter, Alafair, gets engaged to a wealthy author, Southern scion Kermit Abelard. Said scion has been keeping a-leetle-too-close quarters with a literary ex-con beloved by the reading world. Not so beloved by Dave though, who loathes the historical Abelard family values and the literary ex-con alike.

The Glass Rainbow
is a highly-charged, evocative thriller packed with the author's musings on the end of life. There can be little need to describe the beauty of Burke's prose to anyone who has read any of his work, and there is no let-down or backing away in this book. In the first paragraph alone, Burke paints a word picture of  misty shadows that readily conveys the book's atmosphere from the outset. When it comes to juxtaposing light and shadow, Burke is a verbal Rembrandt. The depth of his characters is revealed in every action, every line of dialogue, and the overarching theme, facing one's mortality, is handled spiritually, symbolically, and with a great tenderness. This is a story both fearsome and moving. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

Instead of a single excerpt from The Glass Rainbow, I'd like to share just a few of my favorite sentences:
  • "There are instances when the exigencies of your life or profession require that you ingratiate yourself with people who make you uncomfortable, not because of what they are but because you fear their approval and the possibility you are more like them than you are willing to accept. I kept believing that age would one day free me of that burden. But it never has."
  • "The vagueness of the term 'homeless' is unintentionally appropriate for many of the people inside this group. We have no idea who they are, how many of them are mentally ill or just poor, or how many of them are fugitives. In the 1980s, hundreds of thousands of them were dumped on the streets or refused admission by federal hospitals. The mendicant culture they established is still with us, although our problem of conscience regarding their welfare seems to have faded."
  • "To try to control the lives of other people is a form of arrogance."
  •  "A time comes when the loudest sound in a room, any room, is the ticking of a clock. And the problem is not the amplified nature of the sound; the problem is that the sound is slowing, each tick a little further away than the one that preceded it."
  • Describing the fat cats at a fundraiser: "They were porcine and sleek and combed and brushed, and they jingled when they walked."
  • And a conversation between Sheriff Helen Soileau and Dave, where the reader gets a rare glimpse of Helen's rage: 
    • "You know how many unsolved female homicides there are in Louisiana?"
    • "No."
    • "That's the point. Nobody does. Not here, not anywhere. It's open season on women and girls in this country. You bring that asshole in. If he falls down and leaves blood on the vehicle, all the better. His DNA becomes a voluntary submission."
  • "The dead carry a special kind of passport, and they go anywhere they want."
  • "Don't let anyone tell you that age purchases you freedom from fear of death."
  • "It has been my experience that most human stories are circular rather than linear. Regardless of the path we choose, we somehow end up where we commenced -- in part, I suspect, because the child who lives in us goes along for the ride."

August 17, 2010

Life in Translation 2010

PopCultureNerd is smarter than the average bear, Yogi. And clever? Yah. She came up with a meme which she calls My Life as a Book. According to the rules, I must describe myself by completing a set of (her) sentences using only titles of books I read in 2009. I looked around and -- I just don't seem to have that list handy. (Okay, I didn't even start keeping a list until this year. I only kept lists of what I wanted to read.) So I'll use what I've read so far this year.

In high school I was: Still Missing (Chevy Stevens)
People might be surprised I’m: Pushing Up Daisies (Rosemary Harris)
I will never be: The Devil (Ken Bruen)
My fantasy job is: Thinning the Turkey Herd (Robert Campbell)
At the end of a long day I need: Noir (Robert Coover)
I hate it when: Bad Things Happen (Harry Dolan)
Wish I had: Intelligence (Susan Hasler)
My family reunions are: A Parade of Cockeyed Creatures (George Baxt)
At a party you’d find me with: The Wolves of Fairmount Park (Dennis Tafoya)
I’ve never been to: Calumet City (Charlie Newton)
A happy day includes: The Last Good Kiss (James Crumley)
Motto I live by: No Sleep Till Wonderland (Paul Tremblay)
On my bucket list: Wake Up Dead (Roger Smith)
In my next life, I want to be: Abby Cooper, Psychic Eye (Victoria Laurie)


Thanks for the fun, PCN.

August 16, 2010

SCAR TISSUE: Seven Stories of Love and Wounds by Marcus Sakey

Truly one of the wonderful things about digital self-publishing is that an author can collect and publish those short stories of his that would otherwise be unavailable to the reader. For example: Marcus Sakey's thrillers are well-known and widely praised, but until now his short stories have not garnered as much attention as they should. What a pity, because this collection reveals, perhaps even better than his novels, what a gifted and skilled writer Sakey is. There is an emotional core, a human heart beating at the center of each of these stories, a rhythm that resonates with the reader. Sakey hollows out a space in your soul for his characters where the reader can encompass the pain, the loss, and the lost.

In The Days When You Were Anything Else, meet a father who'll give his estranged daughter anything she asks for, even when she doesn't know or perhaps care about the repercussions.

As Breathing is a story about a hit man who gives up that life for the woman he loves, and goes into the heist business. But some things just come as natural as breathing.

Gravity and Need is one of the most extraordinary short stories I've read in a long while. It's about a couple who've always been close, closer than other couples. And equals in the relationship. Neither gives or demands more than the other. Then one of them has an accident, ends up in a wheelchair for life. And suddenly the relationship, and their lives, are out of balance. This story has a marvelous kind of serene tension, and an ending worthy of Serling or Hitchcock.

In the brilliant, Macavity-nominated The Desert Here and the Desert Far Away, Sakey uses the unusual second person POV to depict the rage, the isolation and detachment of a naive young soldier newly returned from one desert war to find himself drafted into another one at home.
 
Other stories in this collection include No One and Cobalt. Sakey also includes a work of micro-flash fiction, The Time Before the Last.  Bonus materials include excerpts from each of Sakey's first four novels as well as a sneek peak at his next book, untitled for now, due in June, 2011.

Kindle users can order SCAR TISSUE here, everyone else can get it at Smashwords.
And if you would like to check out one of Marcus Sakey's excellent stories free of charge, and you really should, click here, and use the code YB98Q at checkout.

REVIEW: CALUMET CITY by Charlie Newton

I must be living right. Everything I've picked up to read lately has been high caliber, the kind of books I just want everyone around me to enjoy as much as I. I know this streak cannot last but while it's still red hot, let me tell you about CALUMET CITY, by Charlie Newton.

Chicago's most decorated cop is Patti Black. No one doubts her courage but then, no one knows the nightmarish past she endured to get as far as she has. Nobody can get close to her, she has too much to hide. Then two men die in a drug bust she's a part of, but the white sections of the city are paying more attention to the attempted assassination of the mayor. The body of a woman is found inside the walls of a building, and there is evidence that the woman was buried alive. And this woman had known Patti's secret nightmares, had helped create them. The building is owned by the mayor's wife; the current police chief had once lived in that building. Suddenly Officer Black finds her past catching up with her present in a hot hurry. She's not ready for that. But she is ready to kill to protect her secrets.

CALUMET CITY is one of those novels that gets tagged with that laudatory but unattractive phrase, "adrenaline fueled." I'd rather say the pace is red hot, intense, and unflagging. The story takes place over the course of a week and trust me, by day five the reader is having trouble keeping up with Patti. Her pain is a constant, her fear nearly so, and the author heaps action and twist upon pressure and conflict. It's exhausting, yes. And one hell of a dark and action-packed reading ride.

There is more than enough action to keep the average thriller fan happy, while the story is wonderfully complex, weaving together politicians, bureaucrats, journalists, beat cops, common criminals, monsters, and everyday people. Everyone has an agenda, an axe to grind, secrets to protect and not all of them dirty. No one is trustworthy; the strong are weak and the weak are deadly. The author wisely does not try to tie up every possible loose end into a pretty package of all's-well-that-ends-well, and the reader is left to draw his own conclusions about some characters and motives and outcomes. The reader may not agree with some of Patti's choices, at least those of us fortunate enough not to have endured a similar life, but her decisions always spring from what she had been, who she has become, and what she holds dearest. I hope Charlie Newton brings Patti Black back again. I'll be cheering for her.

August 15, 2010

On axes, awards, and atypical behavior

I neglected to mention that I did get to attend Pulp Fest, however briefly. My advice to newbies regarding the vendor room: Know what you're looking for.  I didn't and was overwhelmed by my own ignorance. Also, crime fic appeared to be less well-represented than fanstasy/SF but it was there if you knew where to look. If you see something you want and choose not to buy it that minute, don't expect the object of your desire be there waiting patiently after you've circled the room. If it's something you want, chances are someone else wants it as well. So damn you, whoever took that fabulous copy of Give'em the Ax.

Imagine my amazement at learning that I've actually read three of the five Shamus nominees in the Best First PI Novel category: Russel D. McLean's THE GOOD SON; Brad Parks' FACES OF THE GONE; and Norman Green's THE LAST GIG.  And of course, DM favorite Dave Zeltserman received a nom in the Best Short Story category for his novella, JULIUS KATZ.  Congratulations to them and to all the other Shamus nominees.

Les Ballets Trockadero returns to central Ohio this winter, and I'm buying tickets as a Christmas gift to a good friend. Reckon it's about twenty years since I saw Trockadero perform. A memorable evening that was, too, having nothing to do with the ballet, but a rambunctious tale best not shared with those who see me as passive or genteel or, uh, non-violent. I hate to disillusion people. There's a demon in all of us, and if you've drunk whiskey, there are two.

August 12, 2010

REVIEW: SAVAGES by Don Winslow

Ben and Chon grow and sell the finest marijuana in SoCal. Business partners and best friends, they even share the same girlfriend, an Orange County Princess called O, short for Ophelia. Beyond providing healthcare benefits for their dealers, the philanthropic Ben also spends a lot of time digging wells, building schools, and providing mosquito nets in developing countries. Chon spends a lot of time staying fit and enjoying his time away from Iraq and Afghanistan. O -- well, she divides her time between sex and shopping. Then one fine day the Baja Cartel come calling, sending in advance a video of a few severed heads for emphasis. The cartel demands that Ben and Chon pretty much turn over the business to them. And they kidnap O for use as a bargaining chip. Ben and Chon have no choice but to do whatever the cartel wants if they want to save O's life (and perhaps their own). Because two men cannot possibly bring down an entire cartel. Can they?

From that summary you might think you won't like Ben, O, and Chon. Drug dealers? C'mon. But you will. They are not so very different from many of the bright, fun-loving, intelligent young people who got their sheepskins this last spring. But they are, taken as a whole, an unusual trinity: Ben, the genius in botany; Chon, the soldier; O, the rebellious daughter and free-spender. But they aren't just close friends, they are loyal and have good hearts and intentions. The Cartel -- not so much. To survive, Ben and O and Chon will have to set aside their good intentions, their veneer of civilization, and reveal themselves to be just as savage as their enemies.

Don Winslow is getting rave reviews for this book and deservedly so. The prose is cool, clipped, and the word games alone will knock you sideways. And as with all great books, there's more than just a story here. Commentaries and revelations abound, on our culture (carelessness, stupidity, and greed), and on our politics, and there's a stunningly beautiful parable to be found as well. The third-person narrative voice (Greek chorus?) is detached, cynical, wise, street-wise, and more than a trifle bitchy. Love, says the narrator, will make you weak, then goes on to reveal how love also makes one strong.

Winslow applies wit, worldview, and savagery (yes, that's the word) to the American dream, speaking to American society as a whole about how we define ourselves and how other cultures define us; about what, if anything, separates the savage from the civilized; and he speaks in a sometimes staccato, sometimes sensuous, rapid-fire wordsmithing that is both enlightening and entertaining. Savages is worthy of multiple reads (or listens, because the audio version is brilliantly read by Michael Kramer), and you won't get these characters, or their story, out of your head for -- maybe never. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. AND THEN SOME.

My neverending gratitude goes to Michael for providing me with the wonderful (and autographed!) audio edition of Savages. I can honestly say that if asked which I preferred, audio or hardcopy, I could not choose. If you are as lucky as I am and have the opportunity to experience both, do so. This is a work that easily eclipses its format.

Here is an excerpt in which O and Chon first see the video clip involving the severed heads.
OMG.

RU Reddy 4--

Decapitation porn?

Check that.

Gay decapitation porn?!

O knows that Chon is seriously twisted -- no, she knows that Chon is seriously twisted -- but not like day-old-spaghetti-in-a-bowl twisted, like getting off on guys getting their heads lopped off, like that TV show about the British king, every cute chick he fucks ends up getting her head cut off. (Moral of television show: if you give a guy really good head (heh heh), he thinks you're a whore and breaks up with you. Or: Sex = Death.)

"Who sent this to you?" O asks him.

Is it viral, floating around on YouTube, the MustSee vid-clip of the day? MySpace, Facebook (no, that isn't funny), Hulu? Is this what everyone's watching today, forwarding to their friends, you gotta check this out?

"Who sent this to you?" she repeats.

"Savages," Chon says.

August 7, 2010

REVIEW: THE GHOSTS OF BELFAST by Stuart Neville

Don't hate me because I'm late to the party. Which party? The one celebrating this terrific debut novel, The Ghosts of Belfast aka The Twelve, from Stuart Neville. The party has been going on a good long while without me, too, because Neville's second novel, Collusion, has just been released in the UK and is slated for an October release here in the USA. And it isn't like the party didn't get loud -- praises and toasts were being sung all the way from The Irish Times to The New York Times to The Los Angeles Times, which went so far as to award this book the 2009 LA Times Book Prize for Mystery/Thriller. And now that I've read this book at last, I'm not at all surprised by any of it.

Oh, wait. Yes, I am surprised by one thing. The Mystery Writers of America failed to give so much as a nomination to this book. Oh, but... those are the Edgars they give out, right? Now I'm not surprised anymore. (Color me bitter.)

In this dark, gripping, gritty, riveting, compelling, pulse-pounding [insert other standard review adjectives here] novel, the Norn Iron peace is tentative. Wouldn't take much to undo it and drop the country right back into the recent troubles. Gerry Fegan, former hit man and deliverer of bombs for You Know Who, is out of prison and troubled by his dark deeds. To be specific, there are twelve ghosts, Gerry's victims, who won't let him sleep, who drive him to years of drink and finally back to the dark side, and dark deeds. But it's a sma' sma' world,  and it doesn't take long for everyone to figure out what bad Gerry's been doing. Thing is, the politics of peace are just as complicated and shifting as the politics of terror, and deciding what's to be done with Gerry is a decision that can't stay made. Add in a beautiful blonde and her daughter what thinks the world of Gerry and all, and he'll turn this world of traitors and zealots, brutes and bigots, on its collective ear.

What, for me, is wonderful about Neville's book, is that he manages to make the tangled political situation easily understood and doesn't have to recite decades of Irish history to make it so. The author has created a thriller with great visuals and among those visuals are the hatred and fear and greed that have always underpinned the violence. In Gerry Fegan, the author has created a character at once sympathetic and vile.. The reader won't wish Gerry all the best, but you won't want to see him go down the dark side either. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

And if you would like to try some of Neville's short stories, for FREE, he's made six of them available in a single ebook download. Click here.

August 1, 2010

REVIEW: BUCKET NUT by Liza Cody

I don't know your name, Miss ?, and I barely remember what you looked like, but you walked into Sleuth of Baker Street on Friday, July 9, 2010. I was standing near the counter, chatting with the store's co-owner, J.D. Singh, and wondering whether I could afford to add just one or two more books to the stack of ten I had already selected. And you told J.D. that the last time you were in the shop, he had recommended Bucket Nut, by Liza Cody; that you loved the book and wouldn't he please recommend something else.

I don't remember his reply but I picked up a copy of Bucket Nut and added it to my stack, just that quick. And now I want to thank both you and J.D. for guiding me to this book. Yeah, I loved it. Yes, I will read more by Liza Cody.

See, I had never heard of Liza Cody, and yet she has nearly a dozen novels and a slew of short stories to her credit. She also has some CWA awards and MWA nominations under her belt. So why hadn't I heard of her?

I don't know. But don't the rest of you be like me, stumbling around in the dark until you find this gem of a book by a gifted writer. What's it about? Oh, you always ask that.

It's about Eva Wylie. Eva is a big woman. Big. Bigger than most men. She's not very attractive. Okay, okay, she's ugly. And she has bad teeth, her mouth is forever in pain. There are some who would accuse her of ranking fairly low on the IQ pole, too. She lives in a POS RV in a wrecker's yard, with no electricity and no hot water, and for her that's a real step up from sleeping on the streets. But Eva has goals. She's working (night security in the wrecker's yard and days she's an errand-girl for a mobster named Mr. Cheng) and saving her money so she can get her teeth fixed. She stays fit through daily workouts and gets the occasional pro-wrestling bout, but she dreams of becoming the heavyweight champion of England. She's a "villain" though, and they don't usually get to be champions. So she revels in the boos and jeers and keeps on dreaming.. More than anything, Eva longs to find her sister, Simone, from whom she was separated at around age 12 after an incident Eva can't properly recall. Otherwise, Eva wants only to be paid for her work and left in peace. But when a mob war develops, and the bullets and bombs start flying, Eva finds herself at the center of the violence.

Told in first person, Eva is an unreliable narrator of great good humor and volatile temper, and the reader will interpret actions and speech in ways she will not. Author Cody's prose is direct and vivid, the story funny and poignant. Remember the Elmore Leonard quote about taking out of your writing all the bits that people skip over? Cody has done that. The story is lean, not overly complicated, and the book reads like a short story, with every word serving a purpose, in the right place and at the right time.

Strictly speaking, Bucket Nut may be a crime novel, but it is not a mystery. In some ways, for the twenty-something Eva, it's almost a coming-of-age story. Eva is a street smart character, she's had to be, but when it comes to people and relationships, she's naive. Even when she realizes someone is making fun of her, most times it doesn't bother her. She has an enormous capacity for forgiveness, most obviously displayed in regard to her mother whom Eva pities because "she had a hard life." The reader will not feel the same sympathy for her mom. There's no question that the events of Eva's childhood left her emotionally stunted and unable to relate to people in ways the rest of us take for granted. But don't you pity her. God, don't you pity her for one minute, because Eva is strong and she is capable and she is determined. Her dreams may cost her dearly, but she's ready to pay the price. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.