Saturday, June 19, 2010

Book Review: The Dawn Patrol by Don Winslow

(A couple of weeks ago, when I attended the fabulous book signing with Duane Swierczyski, Victor Gischler, and Lisa Brackmann at Houston's Murder by the Book, I picked up an imported copy of Don Winslow's The Gentlemen's Hour. It's the sequel to his 2008 book, The Dawn Patrol. Quite simply put, The Dawn Patrol was my favorite book from 2008. And, equally as simply put, I couldn't wait until 2011 for the American edition of The Gentlemen's Hour. Since I'm a little (lot!) hamstrung with the day job, I'm posting my review of Dawn Patrol here. It's from the summer of 2008 and I didn't change a word. Back with something modern and pertinent next week.)

Epic macking crunchy.

That is the term, in Surfbonics, a character in Don Winslow’s The Dawn Patrol uses to describe the big wave that is approaching the beaches of San Diego. It’s a once-per-twenty-years ocean eruption that makes and breaks careers and that every surfer worth his weight in sunscreen comes to So Cal to experience. And it’s all Boone Daniels wants.

Except Boone, a PI who works just enough to pay some bills, has a new case. It’s a case he doesn’t want. He’ll happily get to it after the big swell. But his client—drop-dead gorgeous Brit Petra—is having none of it. So, Boone has to stow his board and wave bye-bye to the other members of the Dawn Patrol—a group that meets every morning to surf—to go look for a lost stripper who needs to testify in an upcoming trial.

From that seemingly inauspicious beginning, Winslow throws the reader into the world of southern California. And what a tour it is. I happened upon The Dawn Patrol (TDP) because I vacationed in San Diego and wanted to read something criminal in nature and local. I decided against TDP largely because I didn’t have time to buy the book. It’s a good thing, too, for Winslow as Tour Guide permeates this book like the smell of sunscreen at a beach. He gives you the experience of surf culture in So Cal without having ever been there. Folks as far away as Iceland are going to want to chuck off the parkas, pick up a board, and cut through the waves. Having visited the locations of TDP in June, I thoroughly enjoyed Boone and his friends traverse the locales I did. But the beauty of TDP is that you don’t have to know what the Pacific Coast Highway is to enjoy the story. It is a rush. It is like a wave, an epic macking crunchy one, powering its way into your brain.

The style of Winslow’s writing propels the story forward using the present tense and short chapters. I really liked that style and found it way too easy to just read (or listen, as I did) to a few more chapters. Every now and then, Winslow stops the action to give a brief history of a portion of San Diego. Those really make the book, especially his short dissertation on what constitutes a wave. There are books where the author does his best to get out of the way and just present the story. That’s the Elmore Leonard School of Writing. It works. But TDP was like Winslow himself telling you the story, sitting across from a beach bonfire from you, the waves lapping the beach a few yards away, the sun a distant memory, the stars the only other listeners. And it worked brilliantly.

The members of the Dawn Patrol—Hang Twelve, Dave the Love God, Johnny Banzai, High Tide, and Sunny Day
—are priceless. Each member gets his or her own bio at just the appropriate time in the book. Hang Twelve, a young surfing fanatic, has his name bestowed on him by Boone for the very reason you’d suspect. Ditto Dave the Love God, a lifeguard on Pacific Beach who, according to Johnny Banzai, has been “spread over more tourist flesh than Bain de Soleil.” Banzai, a SDPD detective, is Japanese-American and if you’re a Japanese-American, according to Winslow, who is “a seriously radical, nose-first, balls-out, hard-charging surfer, you’re just going to get glossed either with ‘Kamikaze’ or ‘Banzai,’ you just are.” High Tide is Samoan and I’ll give you one guess as to his size and his sobriquet. Sunny Day, the lone female of the bunch, is “a force of nature—tall, long-legged—Sunny is exactly what Brian Wilson meant when he wrote that he wished they all could be California girls.” With a group like this, who wouldn’t want to go along for an adventure.

Except the adventure in question gets deadly, and in a hurry. And the choices certain characters make puts them at odds with other members of the Dawn Patrol. As a reader, I didn’t want Character A to do something because Character B would have to fight it. But as a writer, I realized that all the actions of all the characters are precisely correct. These folks are real people who make real, yet sometimes, difficult decisions. They live with the consequences but their choice, based on their character, was perfectly aligned. That is a good lesson in storytelling.

The benefit of the quick, short chapters that Winslow uses is that the action can jump from once set of characters to another in the space of half a page. I liked it, while some other readers may prefer longer chapters. But the quick cuts eliminates the painstaking ‘recap’ where an author has to write something like this: “Just as Bob was blasting through a door, half a city away, Jane woke with a start.” It’s just easier Winslow’s way.

The quick cuts also allows Winslow the flexibility to juxtapose sad scenes with happy scenes, or scenes of calm with scenes of high anxiety. There is a sequence of events, late in the book, where something good and exciting is happening and something bad and exciting is simultaneously happening. I could give all sorts of excuses—it was morning, I was tired, I hadn’t had a complete cup of java yet, the rising sun hit my face at just the right time—but I’ll just confess to the obvious: I felt the sting of tears and goose bumps at a certain scene. Winslow had set a pace of actions and expectations that overcame me at a certain moment. The tears didn’t leave my eyes but my contacts certainly felt more comfortable. I’ll not say if it was tears of joy or sadness. You’ll have to read to find out.

I’ve spoken before about audiobooks but this is one you simply must listen to. Ray Porter gives a fantastic performance. For most of the men, he adopts a surfer voice that puts you right there next to them. For Petra, the British gal, he adopts a lilting English accent. It was spectacular.

Early on the in the book, the Dawn Patrol have an ongoing List of Things That Are Good. Included are such topics as double overheads, free stuff, fish tacos, and all-female outrigger canoe teams. You have to read the entire list and scene because it’s quite hilarious. In crime fiction, there is also the List of Authors That Are Good. I’m compiling my own list, two actually. There’s the Classic Authors That Are Good (familiar names: Hammett, Chandler, Miller, Keene, Block) and then there’s the New Authors That Are Good (new names: Lehane, Pelecanos, Faust, Swiercznski, Bruen, Guthrie). Guess what? Winslow just got himself on the list. Read The Dawn Patrol and tell me if that book isn’t epic macking crunchy.

Friday, June 18, 2010

And now, a word from our sponsors*

By Russel D McLean
(well, sort of)

My internet provider is playing silly games this week, so I don't have the time for a big post. I'll be back up to speed (I hope!) next week. But thanks to the wonderful Joelle for filling in last week: she is a truly talented lady, and as well as her reading her wonderful blog entries you should go read her book, too! Go.

But if you've ever wondered what it takes to be a writer like Joelle (or even a general miscreant like myself), and you live in Scotland, you could learn a lot from this event** being run on 16 July by two of the top Scots crime writers. And I can say from first hand experience that Al Guthrie is one hell of a teacher and knows his stuff inside out. If you're going to attend a course on writing, then one run by these fellas is going to be top notch. Anyway, towit, a press release:

Two of the country's leading crime writers are teaming up to pass their know-how on to the next wave of upcoming authors.  Edinburgh-based Tony Black and Allan Guthrie have had 10 novels published between them. Now they're getting together to present a unique workshop in the Scottish capital, called Writing Your Crime Novel - Seven Steps to Success.  Crime-writing is one of the most popular genres among readers in Britain and beyond, and it remains one of the very few growth areas in publishing. With many new writers eager to turn their hand to this area, the workshop is designed to help authors hone their skills by providing a unique insight in the creative process of planning and writing a crime novel. It covers such key areas as plot development, story structure and characterisation.  Tony says: "The potential market for crime writers is massive these days, but finding a pathway through it is more difficult than ever.  “Publishers are all looking for the next big thing - but are very specific about what they want. This course is aimed at pointing out just what it is they’re looking for, and how to go about delivering it."  Tony will host of the majority of the event, while Allan will present a section dealing with how to go about attracting the interest of a literary agent.  Tony says: "This is probably the most valuable insight you can afford a new writer as without an agent, there’s simply very little chance of being published."  Writing Your Crime Novel workshop takes place at the Royal Over-SeasClub, 100 Princes Street, Edinburgh, on Friday 16 July. For more details, go to 

* If we call them "sponsors" will they give us money? I think the answer is no but it was worth a try.

**full disclaimer - I am associated with the Ideas Space which means that one of these days I'll probably be dishing out my lunatic knowledge on unsuspected students

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Very superstitious.

by Dave White

I am very superstitious.

When my favorite team is in the playoffs, I try to sit in the same seat, drink the same beer, and eat the same food. I will readjust the angle of my cap and wear the same shirt.

The same goes with writing. When things are going badly, I'm always looking for a way to switch things up. I go to a coffee shop to get a different outlook. I take a few days off before writing. I write in the morning or late at night instead of right after work.

But when things are going well, there is no messing with me. I sit in the same seat. I write in the same seat. I follow the same routine (the one I chronicled last week.). I try not to overwrite something and I try not to underwrite. That means I write a complete scene. I try to up the stakes and give me a damn good cliffhanger to figure out the next day. I shoot for 1000 words. Sometimes it's higher sometimes its lower.

And I ride the hot streak. I go as far as I can for as long as I can.

What I'm saying is... I'm going to keep this blog post short, because I don't want to jinx anything.

Are you a superstitious writer? How? Why? What are your routines?

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Is Crime Fiction Too Well-Written?

John McFetridge

A little while ago Jason Duke offered up a prize for a writing contest. A hundred bucks. I agreed to be one of the judges and yesterday (only one day late) submitted my picks.

But really, every story entered was very good. I had a feeling they would be. Every flash fiction challenge I read is full of really well-written stories. Every issue of ThugLit. Everything on Twist of Noir. Needles, the actual ink on paper magazine put together by our own Steve Weddle and Scott Parker had really, really good stories.

So, now here’s my question. Is this crime fiction too well-written?

The only time I’m ever pulled out of one of these stories is when it’s told from the point of view of some uneducated thug or a hooker who’s been living on the streets since she was twelve and they use a word like “purchase” instead of “buy.” What’s that expression about not using a ten dollar word when a ten cent one will do?

Or, the famous Faulkner line about Hemingway, that he’s, “never used a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.” I’ve always imagined that Faulkner thought it was an insult and Hemingway took it as a compliment.

But it’s also the characters. Sometimes I wonder if maybe we’re all using too many of these down-and-out, desperate characters (I include myself in all this, too, of course). So many strippers and hit men and mob thugs. And hanging out in so many dive bars. Often it feels like a Bukowski novel, but Bukowski actually lived that life.

So, I wonder, why doesn’t more current crime fiction involve characters more like the people writing it – middle-class, educated, pop-culture savvy? Able to use Google and a cell phone?

The crime world is pretty much the same as the rest of the world, it’s filled with everyone from down-and-out, desperate, homeless people to absurdly rich, worldy, successful people. And there’s a middle-class in crime, too. And cops who aren’t dysfunctional or burnt-out or damaged.

It may be more challenging, it may be riskier to try and make these kinds of characters interesting enough to carry a crime fiction story, but the payoff would be greater, too (maybe not in sales, I admit, but in literary quality maybe).

Sometimes I read Texts From Last Night – they’re funny and sometimes telling. Mostly college kids. A lot of texts about binge drinking and anonymous sex and plenty about drugs – they mention their dealers a lot. It makes me think that maybe there are crime stories on campus and in the suburbs that aren’t being told. Those drugs got there somehow and sometimes college kids run out of money.

Of course there are plenty of examples of crime writers having characters a lot like the people in their lives. Victor Gischler’s Pistol Poets has some great stuff on campus. Robert Stone has written some fantastic stuff about middle-class people who get involved in drug smuggling.

So, what’s some of your favourite crime fiction with characters a lot like you?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Women, Bloody Women

Guest review by Lisa-Marie Ferla

Before I get started, I should probably admit to being one of those people who “didn’t really read crime fiction” before shacking up with Do Some Damage’s own Jay Stringer. In fact, there are some who would argue that I still don’t really read the stuff - but that’s only because his second manuscript is a six-inch stack of A4 on top of the record player.

I don’t like to think of myself as any kind of literary snob, and so the past few years have proved invaluable in breaking down my personal prejudices around the genre. I’ve been a reader of DSD from the beginning, and although I tend to keep quiet in their comments a few related sites have found their way onto my feed reader. Discussions around “literary vs. genre” and parallels drawn between the medium and film or music have proved of particular interest.

And so I’ve come to discover that crime fiction isn’t all grizzly hard-drinking PIs, listening to classic rock and hating on their ex-wives in smoky front seats. For one thing if a stakeout counts as a place of work nobody’s smoking in any of them these days; and for another there’s work by the likes of Megan Abbott in the to-read pile or Joelle Charbonneau’s witty and engaging columns on this site every second Sunday. Just recently I found myself heading off for a Stringer-free week away laden down with the latest books from a couple of Glasgow-based female contributors to the crime fiction genre - Donna Moore and Helen Fitzgerald - and I’ve let the other half persuade me to take a night off from writing about bands for my own site in order to let you know what I thought.

Bloody Women isn’t the first Helen Fitzgerald novel I have read - that honour goes to 2009’s The Devil’s Staircase - but it was no less engaging for all that even if possibly not the best thing to read six weeks off my own wedding to a crime writer. The novel’s heroine, Catriona Marsden, is about to marry a handsome Italian hunk and settle into the good life in sunny Tuscany; but before she does so she’s determined to tie up some loose ends, as it were - in the form of four ex-boyfriends. And when they all turn up dead, there’s only one obvious conclusion.

Here’s another genre that gets vilified: so-called “chick lit”. Quite rightly so, from the few examples I’ve skimmed through on holidays for lack of anything else to do, which is why you might find it surprising I’d tentatively tag Fitzgerald’s writing with that much maligned label. There are no pink cupcakes or six-inch high heels on the cover of this book. The average twenty-something airport shopper is unlikely to pick it up. Fitzgerald probably wouldn’t appreciate it if her publishers took that tack anyway, but there’s something so incredibly refreshing about her writing style that I pity those judge-a-book-by-its-cover types who are missing out. Bloody Women is an intelligent, frank and at times downright disturbing read, peopled with twisted characters you don’t want to like but who are crafted so skillfully and believably you find yourself doing so anyway. Quite apart from that this book is funny as all hell, as well as being one of the most unpredictable things I have ever read. Fitzgerald is already a master of her genre, and frankly I’m begging for more.

Old Dogs, the second novel from Donna Moore, does have some pink cupcakes on the cover - but it also has a smoking handgun, so don’t let that put you off. As I was already a big fan of Moore’s writing through her Scottish crime fiction blog, Big Beat From Badsville, I was looking forward to this arriving and it doesn’t disappoint - the same wicked irreverence with which she tells her famous stories of the number 62 bus permeates her fiction writing and this is an accomplished debut. Depending on your level of politeness, and possibly your native dialect, the “old dogs” of the title are either some jewel-encrusted antique Shih Tzus or two hard-drinking elderly sisters in punk rock t-shirts and motorcycle boots who somehow manage to disguise themselves as Italian aristocracy with hilarious - and, for some, fatal - consequences.

This book cries out for a film adaptation, particularly as far as its climatic museum scenes are concerned: protagonists cross paths and fall over each other with the screwball comedy - albeit with a sinister edge - of all the best capers and Moore’s lively prose brings it all to life perfectly. It would actually more than likely be a low budget STV adaptation, just because Hollywood would doubtless balk at all the swearing and fail to get the accents right anyway.

There aren’t really any good guys in this one, but there’s a fair few you’ll find yourself rooting for anyway. Moore doesn’t shy away from a few violent scenes where it’s needed to get her point across - and with my native city so vividly captured on the page, I’ve looked twice when passing a fair few alleyways recently.

Anyway, if you’ve got a few weeks off coming up and you want your summer reading engrossing, entertaining and thoroughly dark-hearted, you could do worse than to check out these two.

Amazon links:

Bloody Women:

Old Dogs:

Monday, June 14, 2010

When NOT to read a good book

By Steve Weddle

Reading a good book is probably the worst thing you can do if you're writing a novel.

Some coach in some sport somewhere was saying, uh, wait, you're not going to believe me if I say it like that. Um, OK. When the Omaha City Oilers were down three games to none in the best-of-seven Super Bowl back in 1987, Coach Tom Fauxnomme called his team together before the game.

"Boys," he said, as they were all gentlemen of a certain age. "Things haven't been going our way out there on the ice pitch this week. When we needed a three-pointer, we got a foul. We we needed to draw a foul, Randy there killed a pigeon." Then he went on a long discourse about fighting hard and having fun, comparing their troubles to the castaways on "Gilligan's Island." And then he said something about winning one for the Skipper.

After they lost that game 15-0, one of the players asked the coach why he never yelled at them during the game. "You don't coach during the game, son. You manage."

And that's a lesson we can all learn and apply to our crime writing.

The worst thing you can do when you're writing your book is to read someone else's, especially if it is better than yours.

If I have a day to myself, I'll try to split my time between reading and writing. I have to get the writing done first before the reading. I'd thought that this was because I'm freshest early on and need my brain functioning at its best to write. Once I've broken all my brain cells to pieces, then I can kick back and read through the afternoon. (At least until I have to go upstairs, put my suit on and then wait down the block in my car until my wife and kids get home and then drive up like I'd been at work all day because if she knew I took off every Friday she'd expect me to do some housework instead of just driving into the garage, getting out, grabbing a bottle of gin, and falling asleep to another Nationals' loss.)

Turns out, if I read a good book in the morning, I never get to the writing. Especially if I'm reading a really good book. Maybe I'm thinking, "Gee. This is quite entertaining. Perhaps I'll continue reading as I am being quite entertained." That's what my excuse will be. I just didn't want to put it down. In truth, though, when I'm reading a good piece of crime fiction, I'm at least partly thinking, "Well, hell. I can't do that." And then I'm frozen. Did I have the reveal too early? Is that about when it was in the Reed Farrel Coleman book? Oh, was my bad guy as much a surprise as the dude in the Michael Connelly book I just finished? As scary as the JT Ellison one? As easy to get along with as the one The Gischler just put out? Why even bother, right? When you've got so many great books out there, what's the point?

Just look over there to the left. McFet's Canada crime stuff is phenomenal. Russel's McNee books are just so well done. And then there's Joelle's book which is an absolute delight and on your store shelves -- and your nightstand -- this fall. And Dave's New Jersey novels make me want to curl up with a nice hunk of Taylor Ham and keep reading. And Stringer's OLD GOLD is so brutal and thrilling. And stories from Scott and BQ, too. Westerns and sperm bank hold-ups, how can you go wrong with those two?

Right now I'm reading that chick with the dragon ink on her shoulder book. Hell, I can't do what he's doing. It's like, I don't know, part Thomas Mann and part Sean Chercover. Hell no I can't do that.

I don't care what BQ said on Sunday. I have to stop reading books while I'm writing. It's like the books are coaching me in the middle of the game.

My high school baseball coach once tried to help me out of a slump. I was dropping an elbow or moving a foot or blinking in the wrong eye. He gave me some advice that got into my head. I got to thinking about things too much. So many things can go wrong. The ball -- even when you keep your eye on it -- is really kinda teeny-tiny. And it's moving around. Not just fast and towards your face, but sometimes the damn thing just drops a couple of inches just before you swing. And you have to catch it at just the right time. And on just the right part of the bat. And at an angle in which you don't pop it up or ground into a double play. How can you ever get that right?

The thing is, I think, you can't let anything get into your head when you're trying to get something out. Whether you're trying to line the ball into right field so that the guy on second can get around or you're trying to figure out just why the hell your main character wouldn't just call the cops instead of going into the building alone, you can't let the coach get into your head.

I read when I plan or after I've gotten a draft down. Before the game and after the game, I take my coaching. During the writing, all of that just becomes muscle memory as I manage the best I can to keep it all straight.

You gotta play your game. You gotta write your book.

And then you gotta knock the damn thing out of the park.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Reading and Writing

**As you're reading this, I'll be driving back from Chicago where I popped in for a day to visit the Printers Row Literary festival. I hope I had fun and this finds me well...

Dave mentioned last week that he was going through a slump in his reading and it got me thinking about the relationship between reading and writing. I'm on a decent reading streak right now, having changed up genres and read some supernatural stuff, but when I'm in a reading slump my writing really suffers. I always hear about those people who can't read while they're writing, or can't read in their genre when they're writing and I've never worked that way. If I'm writing a dark crime short story I like to be reading dark crime stories. When I was writing PI novels, all I read were PI novels. My reading serves as inspiration and fuel.

This also got me thinking about the future of publishing. Lots of talk has been going on about how new technology and new paradigms will allow many, many writers to find an audience who wouldn't have otherwise had an audience. Self publishers, and electronic publishers are sprouting up every day. Magazines, online classes, workshops, seminars, and advice blogs are everywhere for writers. Attendance at graduate creative writing programs has never been higher and new programs are being created every year. So yeah, there's lots of writers out there.

And yet reading is declining.

I find this both baffling and frightening.

First, from a craft point of view, how can you expect to be a good writer if you aren't reading good writers. Everything I've managed to learn about writing a novel has been learned by reading novels and thinking about the novels I've read and analyzing them. Whether they read while they're writing or not, every writer I know who has "made it" is an active reader. Now, from a professional perspective, how can people expect to be published, without supporting the industry they wish to be part of? I try to buy as many books as I can from independent bookstores, but even if I can't I'm buying them from Borders which gets money back to publishers so they can stay in business or I'm getting them from the library which sees that activity and buys more books which keeps the publisher in business, or I buy them used from independent bookstores which helps keep them in business as they help and support writers.

If everybody out there who wrote a novel or short story and wanted to have it published bought books or checked them out from a library, the publishing industry would be in much better shape than it is now.