Saturday, February 22, 2014

Reading Deliberately

Scott D. Parker

Do you ever intentionally slow down your reading pace of a series that is either over (e.g., Ian Fleming's original series of James Bond novels or Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes tales) or has relatively few entries? I do that. I read the Bond novels very slowly, maybe one a year, because I want to savor them and, to be honest, I kind of don't want to reach the end. When I get to that last book, I know that there will be no more Fleming/Bond books. And that will be a sad day.

A modern example of that is the Isaac Bell adventures by Clive Cussler and Justin Scott. I was thinking about this series after reading a review of The Thief by Ron Fortier. I am eager to move forward to the fourth book in this series, but I know that there are only seven (to date) so I read them about once a year. But I'm behind. Intentionally. That way, if I really get in an Isaac Bell mood, I can catch up and read two or three in a row instead of waiting a whole year for the next one.

I'm wondering if I'm alone in this weird thought process?

To bring my ideas about this series to this blog, here is a review I wrote back in 2012 on The Wrecker.

The adventures of Isaac Bell came to me in a rather serendipitous way. On the one hand, I was in a grocery store last year and I saw a book on the shelf and admired the cover. The cover of The Race showed two planes, clearly early 20th Century vintage, engaged in a dogfight over a city. The image got me for numerous reasons, but, since the To Be Read pile is so large, I basically forgot about it. Cut to New Year’s Day 2012 when my cousin, an avid railroad enthusiast, told me about "this series about a detective who operates on railroads." Cool, I said, seeing as how I had created my own railroad detective and didn’t want to copy anyone else, what’s the title? The Chase by Clive Cussler. Well, image my wonder when, upon looking up The Chase, I discovered That Cover I had forgotten about. And, thus, I found my way not only to Clive Cussler (and Justin Scott, his co-author) but also to Detective Isaac Bell.

I read The Chase earlier this year and was completely entertained. The Wrecker maintains the excitement, the intrigue, and the chess-like machinations of the hero and the villain. The hero is Isaac Bell, a detective of the Van Dorn Detective agency. A tall man with blond hair and mustache, he is the imperturbable, stoic hero of many a story you've read before. What sets him apart isn't his good looks, skill with a gun, nor his hand-to-hand ability. It's that Bell actually gets beat up, dirty, and flummoxed throughout both books I've read so far. He's a bit like John McClain from Die Hard. He may win, but it'll exact a price.

The title character of The Wrecker is the villain. That nickname is the moniker given to the man blowing up various railroads of the Southern Pacific railway in the Cascade Mountains, Oregon, all in an attempt to bankrupt the company. The president of the railway hires the Van Dorn Detective Agency to stop it. Set in 1907, what follows is a wonderful cat-and-mouse game between Bell and the Wrecker.

By giving his villain a nickname, Cussler is able to hide the true identity of the Wrecker for more than half the book. Interestingly, once the identity is revealed, Cussler actually fluctuates between the actual name and the nickname. I found that a little odd. What really sets this book apart from your general thriller is the timeframe. The year 1907 is just modern and technological enough where you have the beginnings of automobiles, phones, and planes. At the same time, it's old enough to where railroads and telegraph are the primary means of transportation and communication. What this mix does for a reader in 2012 is build in some interesting tension. If a hero in 2012 needs to travel across the country from Oregon to New York, it's a plane ride of a few hours. Need to contact some allies across the country? Use the cell phone. Detective Bell can't do that. A trip across the continent takes days. At one point, he needs to contact associates in Oregon while he's in Los Angeles. With the telegraph lines cut, there is only one way to communicate information: in person. That means, take the train. All of this builds tension and the excitement increases.

I've only read three Cussler books, two in the last few months. They are so well choreographed that they just sweep you along. The history is always fascinating and the detail is accurate. If you are tired of the modern techno-thriller, try a historical thriller featuring Isaac Bell. Very good read.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Why did you do that in your book?

By Steve Weddle

I wrote a book called Country Hardball. There’s some cussing in there. And some killing. And, um, some more killing. And some thieving. There’s also quite a bit of hope and prayers and people being hella nice to each other.
But there’s this one thing in the book that kinda catches people.
I’ve talked with people about this story. I’ve FB messaged people. I’ve emailed people. I’ve chatted with a couple people on the phone about it.
If you’ve read the book, then you know the story I’m talking about. If you haven’t read the book, I’ll try not to spoil anything for you, because I have faith that one day you’ll read the book.
People who have been hit in the heart by the story ask me why the guy in the story did the terrible thing he did.
“Why did you do that?” they ask me about the story. “That was terrible.”
You see, I know it was a terrible thing the character did. I hate that he did that thing. It honestly saddens me.
But, in that story, the character took all the weight on himself to do this terrible thing – knowing that it was a terrible thing to do.
For him, in his mind, considering his circumstances, this was the right thing to do, no matter how terrible a thing it was.
This wasn’t dying on the cross to save the world from sin. This wasn’t jumping in a lake to save a puppy. This wasn’t getting up at two in the morning to drive two counties over to pick up your kid from a sleepover because the other kids are being complete assholes.
Sacrifices come in so many flavors that I can’t begin to list them all.
And, in the part of Country Hardball where that character does that terrible thing, he makes a sacrifice which is explained.
You don’t have to agree with his action. I don’t agree with his action.
But, for that character in that moment, it was the thing he had to do.
And, for the book, it was the thing that had to be done.
I’ve watched shows on television and I’ve read books in which someone does something that I’d rather they didn’t do. Why did you kiss that woman who isn’t your wife? Why are you having another drink? You can see these characters doing things you don’t agree with and wish they wouldn’t do, but they do it to further the plot.
That’s part of it.
But there’s that other level, that layer where a character does a thing that you don’t like, something you wouldn’t do, and it’s the absolute right thing to do, even though it’s so terrible.
These are some of the darkest moments in fiction, the last third of Apocalypse Now moments.
These moments aren’t gratuitous. They aren’t plot-driven. And they aren’t fun to write.
They’re terrible to write. They’re terrible to read. And they’re absolutely the right choice.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Classically Vulgar

by Holly West
This post originally appeared on my own blog on December 11, 2009. I've updated it here to include a few more amusing terms.
I've collected a lot of great reference books in my research for the Mistress of Fortune series (it's set in 17th century London), but by far my favorite is A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue by Captain Francis Grose. First published in 1785, it is a collection of slang words from all corners of society.
Here are a few of the entertaining words and expressions found in this volume:
Bum fodder - Toilet paper
Beard splitter - A man given to "wenching"
Captain Queernabs - A shabby, ill-dressed fellow
Cast up one's accounts - To vomit
Dog's soup - Rain water
Fart catcher - A valet or footman, from his walking behind his master or mistress
Flogging Cully - One who hires girls to flog him on the posteriors, in order to procure an erection
Gobble Prick - A lustful woman
Hopper Arsed - One with large, projecting buttocks
Join Giblets - Said of a man and woman who co-habit as husband and wife without being married; also to copulate
Kettle Drums - A woman's breasts
Lazybones - An instrument like a pair of tongs, for old or very fat people, to take something from the ground without stooping
Mantrap - a woman's private parts
Marriage music - The squalling and crying of children
Nunnery - A whorehouse
Poisoned - Pregnant, big with child
Roast meat clothes - Sunday or holiday clothes
Queen Street - A man governed by his wife is said to live in Queen Street
Soul doctor - A parson
Stallion - A man kept by an old lady for "secret services."
Thingumbobs, Whirlygigs, Gingambobs - Testicles
Wap - To copulate
Wool gathering - Said to an absent-minded person, or one in reverie, as in "Your wits are gone a'wool gathering."
One thing that's also interesting about the dictionary is to see how many of the words we still use whose meanings are more or less the same as they were over 200 years ago. Expressions like elbow grease, gift of gab, hodge podge, hush money, quack, ragamuffin, white lie, and ship shape were all used during this time.
Personally, I'd like to see terms like bum fodder, Captain Queernabs, flogging cully, and dog's soup come back into common usage. Let's make that happen.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Fire In The Hole

By Jay Stringer

My first Elmore Leonard novel was Rum Punch, which I read in 1997 when it was adapted into Jackie Brown. In all the time since -and through all of the Leonard novels I read- I never found a screen adaptation that bettered the Tarantino film, and none that came anywhere near as close to honouring the author.

Which is why Justified is causing such problems for me.

I was never really a fan of Raylan Givens. I'd not taken to Pronto or Riding The Rap in the way I'd fallen for Rum Punch, Glitz, Freaky Deaky, City Primeval or Cuba Libre. And the short story that took Raylan back to his roots, Fire In The Hole, had never struck me as anything to return to.

That's not to say any of the three tales featuring Givens were bad because Leonard didn't do bad. They just didn't engage me in the way many of his other works did.

So when I first heard that Raylan Givens was coming to the small screen, I wasn't massively sold on the idea. I didn't even watch it for the first few years. I left the first three seasons for a binge all in one go shorty before season four.

It's fair to say that the first seven or eight episodes of the first season didn't do much to win me over, either. They had some charm, some good dialogue, and they were well made, but they didn't feel like they were doing anything to elevate material that hadn't grabbed me in the first place.

Then everyone involved with the show seemed to figure out what was needed, what the core story needed to be, and from episode nine ("Hatless") the show took off. The characters were interesting. The narratives were compulsive. I don't think the production has ever set a real foot in Kentucky, but they managed to create a setting that made this Englishman feel like he was getting to know Harlan County. And, furthermore, they started to tell stories that belonged to that area. They looked at coal mining, local corruption, family feuds, and stories that made the show feel different to any other identikit crime show.

Season two is one of the best uses of a television screen ever, and seasons three and four managed to maintain a level of consistency that place the show in my personal top tier. The fifth season is screening at the moment, and the sixth will be the final bow, bringing the characters to the end of their journey.

And the strange position the show has put me in, is that I feel it has improved on Leonard. Givens is an interesting bundle of anger and contradiction, a man who (to paraphrase one of the characters) is a hero who will run into a burning building, but who will also have started the fire in the first place. A man who seems to need a white hat and a badge to make him feel different to the people he grew up with, the life he ran away from, and who may fall apart if those things are taken from him. We have Boyd Crowder, a man who has been a white supremacist, a religious leader, a vigilante and a drug lord, and who seems to change his ideas to suit his needs. We're never given an answer on just how much Boyd ever believes what he says, and Walton Goggins has created one of the finest characters on television. We have Ava Crowder, who we first meet as an abused wife who has shot her husband, and  Dewey Crowe, a Neo-Nazi who somehow manages to be one of the most likable characters on TV.

Each of these characters was featured in the short story Fire In The Hole, but they each seem to have a life and a depth that they lacked in the source material.

What's the secret, is it the writing? The staff certainly do a good job. Is it the production? I know everyone involved works hard. Is it the acting? I know that the Boyd Crowder of the pilot episode and the Boyd Crowder of the short story share all of the same dialogue, but the character has a life in Walton Goggins that he lacked on the page.

So where does the magic come from? And am I alone in this? Is anyone else finding that the TV adventures of Raylan Givens are somehow an improvement on the master? What other adaptations can you think of that have improved on the source material?

Monday, February 17, 2014

Quick Notes: Street Raised, White Hot Pistol, The First One You Expect, Dead Pig Collector

I've been using my down time at work to read short novels and novellas lately. So I've been able to make a little dent in the old TBR. Here's some quick thoughts on a few of the books I've read lately. 

I read this back when it was originally published a few years ago. This new version has been heavily trimmed from that version. I was a fan then and remain one now. This is a lean and mean book filled with by god actual crime fiction characters (as opposed to mystery characters). The other thing that comes through is a genuine sense of place.

Two side notes - 1) Because I  had read the original version there were a couple of times where I was wondering where a particular scene was and *maybe* there were one or two sections that were cut a little close to the bone. 2) If you are a fan of this novel you should definitely track down a copy of the original. If only to spend more time with these characters (because it was a substantial trimming).

Highly Recommended

White Hot Pistol by Eric Beetner

White Hot Pistol sits squarely in Beetner's wheelhouse, which is out of the pan and in to the fire fiction. There's a lot of action, a lot of moments designed to keep you reading, and a lot of action. There was one of those moments early on where there is no Earthly good reason for the protag to do what he does, except that if he doesn't the story would have ended right then. Once you get past that set up moment you get a slick, action packed, violent, family revenger.

Note - This is the first title from Bookxy, a new line of novellas, and it only available directly from them.   


A modern kind of spiritual cousin to Crimson Orgy by Austin Williams in the way that it shows the reader the seedy side of low/no budget film making. To the extent I have a complaint it is only that I think there is more story there. I think Cesare could pull a reverse Hansen (his label mate) and expand on this later on if he wanted to. But that's not a real complaint, just an observation. While the end does come quick it does pack a punch and it has a great final line.


This is a bout a freelance body disposal guy. Which is a great start of an idea. Dead Pig Collector however is very dry. There is no real suspense, tension, drama, or even story really. It is a dry recitation of how to properly dispose of a body with a last moment attempt to zing the reader. Could be worth a buck for some readers if they know what they are getting in to but Ellis is capable of (and has done) better.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Life Intrusions

by: Joelle Charbonneau

Things get in the way.  We all know this.  No matter what your intensions for getting things accomplished, life happens and all the things you planned to do don't get done.

As someone who works at home, I can tell you it doesn't take much to get the day off track.  And wow did this week get off track.  Between phone calls and music brainstorming sessions with students, support calls with writer friends, several book events, putting together stuff for the Valentine's Day party at my son's kindergarten and getting all of the supplies required to make the craft as well as having a son come down with a stomach bug things this week were crazy.  Not to mention the work being done in my kitchen.

Yikes - the kitchen!!!  That's a whole other distraction.  Banging.  Sawing.  Laughing.  Plastering.

It looked like this about a week and a half ago:

Now it looks less like the set of SAW (my husband's description) and more like this:
Monday there will be tile and later in the week the cabinets will be added and soon it will look like a kitchen again.  Huzzah!

However, as wonderful as the transformation is, having people coming and going in the middle of getting the kid up and ready for school, getting him off the bus, keeping him entertained, getting ready for events and all that jazz...well, it makes it hard to focus on writing the book I'm working on.  Have I gotten pages done.  Yes.  Is it the number of pages that I'd hoped to create this week.

HA! HA! HA! HA!  No.  No, it's not.

And that's okay.  Because I am still moving the story forward.  I am still climbing up the mountain and working to get to the other side.  But life sometimes gets in the way.  And when it does, it is best to just accept that tomorrow, or next week or in three weeks (which is when they assume our kitchen will be completed), life will settle down and do what you can until that time.  In my case, I am plugging along two or three or four pages a day in the middle of dust and hammer noises and no heat.  (Did I mention that to revamp the kitchen there was a day they had to turn off the heat?)  I will accept that I will do my best and celebrate every page even if they aren't as numerous as I'd like.

At least, that is what I tell myself.  Because really - what other choice do I have?  Sometimes life gets in the way.  That's what life is for!

BUT...since I don't have huge word counts or work related milestones to celebrate- I want to know yours.   What awesome things big and small have you accomplished this week?  Tell me what you have written, or worked on, or helped your kids achieve!  I want to celebrate you!