Sunday, September 19, 2021

Review: Nailed It! The Beauty of Baking Badly

By Claire Booth

I’ve had a lot of things going on lately (car accident*, laptop meltdown**) that have caused me no small amount of stress. Getting the aftermath of all that sorted out derailed my usual crime television routine. I’ve finally been able to sit down a bit the last few days, and the perfect show for my current mindset popped up.

The sixth season of Nailed It! released on Netflix this week and it’s sheer escapism just when I need it. Yes, the crime shows I usually watch are also escapism, but there’s always some part of my brain that’s analyzing them—what works, what doesn’t, how they develop characters, whether the solution is satisfying. Nailed It has none of those things. There’s no crime—unless abusing small kitchen appliances has become a felony—just ridiculously fancy example cakes that inept bakers try to copy.

Host Nicole Byer with baking professional Jacques Torres and a cake most definitely not made by a contestant.

Host Nicole Byer is funny but never descends into meanness, which is especially impressive when you’re having to eat something that tastes like gravel or looks like the cat coughed it up. Some guest judges are better than others, but she’s able to pull along the ones who aren’t so that they don’t detract.

This contestant forgot to add the flour.
If you haven’t watched yet, I recommend you start at the beginning. The show has honed its comedic attitude over the six seasons, making increasingly funnier use of its subtitled baking tips.

I can’t wait to see what words of wisdom this season brings.

* I’m okay. The verdict is still out on my car, though. Lots of damage when the guy plowed into me and spun the car around.

** Microsoft sucks.

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Favorite Movies and TV Shows Featuring Railroads


Scott D. Parker

Earlier this week, over at the Western Fictioneers blog, I posted this column. It served as a fun list of my personal favorite movies and TV shows that feature trains, but it also revealed the cover of an upcoming collaboration with David Cranmer, aka Edward A. Grainger.


When you think of what makes a western a western, railroads and trains naturally make it onto the Top 10 list. They may not be in the Top 5, but they certainly play a significant role. I know they did when it came time for me to write my own western stories, especially with the creation of Calvin Carter, Railroad Detective. You see? It's right there in his title.

David and I emerged on the scene more or less at the same time, now over a decade ago. We each ended up creating a western hero. He created Cash Laramie, the Outlaw Marshal, who, along with his partner, Gideon Miles, deal with outlaws and desperadoes wherever they rear their ugly heads. For me, I spawned Calvin Carter, a former actor who, in the course of tracking down the man who killed Carter's father, learned he had a knack for detecting. He often dons disguises and uses his acting abilities to bring a certain amount of flair to the role of his lifetime.

A while back, David suggested we team up our heroes and, after a decade of stops and starts, the first pairing of Cash and Carter will be published this fall. In Cash Laramie and the Sundown Express, owlhoots have hijacked the inaugural run of the fastest train in the west, and it's up to Cash and Miles to retake the train. Unbeknownst to them, Carter is on board, in disguise, as he, too, attempts to thwart the hijackers while saving the passengers, including the renowned actress Lillie Langtry.

David thought it a fun idea if I made a list of favorite trains in movies and TV. I agreed, but then quickly realized something. Not only did my list almost instantly get filled with non-western ideas, but some of the more well known westerns to feature trains were movies or TV shows with which I am not familiar. Thus, you won't find Hell on Wheels on this list because I simply haven't watched it. And while I have watched both versions of 3:10 to Yuma, I can't speak with any authority because I can't remember a lot of the plot. 

So, with these caveats in mind, here's my list.

The Great Train Robbery (1978)

If I'm being honest, this might be the first heist film I ever saw. From the opening of Sean Connery's voiceover explaining how the gold is transported and secured, you sit on the edge of your seat wondering if he and his team will pull off the robbery from a moving train. 

Many of the scenes I first saw in my youth remained with me, but two always rose to the top. The ending, when Connery's Pierce, escapes on the police carriage as he was destined for jail, smiling all the way, his arms extended in a sort of bow, really stuck with me. Only now that I think of it do I think a part of Carter's DNA must have emerged from Connery's performance.

The other scene that has always stuck with me is Donald Sutherland's Agar as he runs into the train office and makes wax impressions of the keys, all within 75 seconds. I was enthralled by that kind of thinking and ingenuity. I think this film might've set the stage for my continued enjoyment of heist films, and it undoubtedly enamored me with the charming con man.

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

I only saw this film for the first time this century as it is my wife's favorite western. And really, what more is there to say about this Sergio Leone epic that hasn't already been said? Ennio Morricone's score is brilliant, giving the film not only its epic feel but saying, through music, how the modern world is encroaching on the frontier in the form of the railroad.

I appreciate how the locomotive and the building of the railroad serve as the central character in this film, a character that is, in effect, the march of time and we people must adjust to it or get out of the way. And, unlike many westerns that feature railroads, it was a dirty, hot, and mind-numbingly brutal job, but a job that needed to be done, no matter the cost. Of all of Leone's films, this one remains a favorite.

From Russia With Love

I love James Bond and nearly all of his films, but as I've gotten older, I've become more interested in the movies with smaller stakes. This film, the second in the franchise, has a pretty spectacular train sequence that the historian in me loves. 

After Bond and Tatiana Romanova have escaped with the Lektor cryptograph machine, they flee on one of the most famous trains: the Orient Express. In these scenes in the middle of the film, you get to see what it was like to travel in style in what is probably the last major decade where train travel was considered a viable economic means of transportation before planes surpassed it.

Key to my enjoyment of the train sequence is the fight between Bond and Red Grant (Robert Shaw). It is the close confines of a train compartment that give the fight its brutal nature. No gadgets, just fists and brawn and brains. A different Bond (Roger Moore) would again fight in a train (Moonraker), but this Sean Connery version--look at that; two Connery films--is my favorite.

The Wild Wild West

No discussion of westerns and railroads would be complete without a mention of The Wanderer, the train and tricked out rail car of James West and Artemus Gordon. Again, TWWW was my first, favorite western TV show. Being a Star Wars kid, I loved the gadgets, the steampunk-before-steampunk-was-a-thing vibe, and West and Gordon's "home." No matter how many time owlhoots or Dr. Miguelito Loveless boarded the train, you knew there was something the Secret Service agents could do to get themselves out of any predicament. 

Not only the gadgets, but I also appreciated how there was science equipment for Gordon to do his investigations and his disguises. 

Like the bridge of Star Trek's Enterprise, so many episodes either began or ended on board The Wanderer that it became a crucial component of a wonderfully entertaining TV show.

Back to the Future: Part III

When David asked me the question about railroads in the old west, this is the first one that came to mind. 

I consider the first film to be one of those perfect films not only as a time capsule of its time, but the storytelling mechanics within the movie itself. The second one gave us three looks: their future (2015, now our past), an alternate 1985, and a trippy return to the events of the 1955-part of the first film. 

But I have a special love for Part III. Set almost entirely in the old west, director Robert Zemeckis basically made a western that held true to all the aspects we have come to love about westerns, but with a twist. Doc Brown not only makes a steam-powered ice machine but he also gets a delightful love story.

Act III's central action sequence is on a train, one they have to get up to 88 MPH as it pushes the futuristic Delorean down the tracks and back to the future. Plus we get a spectacular crash as the locomotive in 1888 falls off the incomplete bridge and crashes into Eastwood Ravine.

As fun as that is, however, it's in the movie's closing moments when we get a truly over-the-top train. Doc Brown, his wife, and two boys (Jules and Verne) return to 1985 to say good-bye to Marty McFly in a *flying train*. 

Mic. Drop

Well, those are my favorite trains in movies and TV. What about yours?

Friday, September 17, 2021

Can We Stop The Game?

 By Jay Stringer

These days I aim to be a ray of positive sunshine. I learn from Beau's example. Build people up. Share the things you like. Carry around a murderous mannequin. But the old demons are in there, still wanting to come out and growl. So I better put them to good use. 

Here today is a list of crime fiction talking points I don't give a shit about. Things that seem to crop up on the regular on the socials, and burn a hole in the conversations. I'm going to make this an airing of the grievances thing. What talking points do you no longer give a shit about? What should we cleanse from the timeline? 

1. "Transcending the genre."

Straight in with the curve here. You think I'm going to say how sick I am with reviewers or haughty writers saying a book transcends the genre. Nope. I'm saying I don't give a shit when people use that phrase. Who cares? Really? Do you? Really? 

Are we that fragile in our own confidence and our own genre that someone using a trite old phrase can send us into a tailspin of twitter outrage? 

Here's the thing. Reviews have tropes. Same as crime fiction. Sometimes we subvert the tropes, sometimes we play to them, sometimes we ignore them. But they're there. And reviews are the same. Reviewers are taking time out of their day to tell the world about books. And they usually only have a small word count to play with. Sometimes you have someone knocked unconscious as a way out of a stalling chapter, sometimes a reviewer needs to reach for an established old phrase. No big whoop. 

But also, its often meant as praise. They're saying the book is good. They're saying the book is literature. And....aren't we all, really, aiming to write literature? If you see someone else being said to transcend the genre as a slight on you, then I suggest the problem is not with the reviewer. 

I know why I got into crime fiction. I know why I stay in crime fiction. And I know what my strengths and weaknesses are as a writer. And nothing a reviewer says about somebody else's book is going to change any of that. 

2. "Social Fiction."

There's a scene in the movie Seven Psychopaths when Colin Farrell's screenwriter is called on his poor handling of female characters. He pauses, thinks it over, and says that what he's really trying to say is that it's a difficult world for women. It is, the other person agrees, but most of the women they know can still string a sentence together. 

Here's the thing. I'm exceptionally guilty of throwing the 'social fiction' tag around. Go back over a decade to when this here website started, and I was loud and leading the charge. Crime fiction is social fiction. Crime fiction reveals truth. Crime fiction shows us how the world is. 

Yeah, yeah yeah. 

Seven Psychopaths

I mean...I still believe that. But I think the writers who are genuinely doing all of that don't go round shouting about how they're doing it. As the genre finally opens up to new and diverse voices, we're starting to see more and more truths. 

But I'm am so fucking done with a parade of middle-aged leather-jacketed white men using the "social fiction" phrase as a get-out-of-jail-free card when they're called on being sexist, racist, homophobic, or just plain nasty. You're telling on yourself. You're not writing the world the way it is, you're writing the world the way you see it. 

3. Noir vs Cozy.

WE ARE AT WAR, PEOPLE. The cozies hate the noirs. And the Noirs hate the cozies. And the cozies are making nice with the historicals to bring them onside. IT'S WAR. 

Except...none of that is real. Cozy writers don't hate noir writers. And, in my experience, most cozy writers can actually drink noir writers under the table. There's no issue there, no grudge, no problem. We ARE ALL FUCKING CRIME WRITERS. The only people keeping this going are noir writers, who seem to need to exist in some permanent state of "nobody likes us and we don't care" in order to validate their self-worth. 

And....combining points 3 and 1.....


You don't have to go far at a crime fiction convention or festival to find someone complaining that crime fiction is looked down on. That the literary world are all snobs about our genre. That we just can't get a break, just can't be taken seriously. Often, and most amusingly, this complaint will come from someone who regularly sells over fifty thousand copies a year, gets five-to-six figure deals, and has possibly even paid off a mortgage with the proceeds of crime fiction. 

Just stop it, will you? 

Genre fiction in general is what keeps the publishing industry afloat, and crime fiction is often -in whatever form the popular version of it takes at any given moment- filling out a number of spaces in the bestseller lists. Stop pretending like there is some huge thing pushing down on you. 

There are people who have genuine hurdles to overcome in order to even get a seat at the table. People who have systemic issues holding them down. People who can't even keep a seat at the crime fiction table for more than one or two book deals. And to hear your complaints that "people just don't like my genre" while all of that is going on is, frankly, insulting. 

Truth time: The highest contract I received was for 12,000 dollars, and that was for two books. And I don't say this to complain. I was very happy to receive 6,000 for a book, and I had many friends at the time who were on fractions of that. But to hear people who are on multiples of my 6Kx2 -and more importantly, know they will remain on that with future contracts for books they haven't written yet- complaining that they don't get taken seriously is simply ridiculous. Look, if you want the praise that gets heaped on literary books, often with lower advances and lower sales, then go write a literary book. If you pick a lane, don't complain about not being in the other lane. 

Why do we need to play these games? Why do we need to play these games while there are so many people having to fight to even get in to our genre? 

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Stop being a baby about spoilers

By Steve Weddle

Ted Lasso comes out on Fridays. If you don't want to be spoiled about Ted Lasso happenings, mute "Ted Lasso" on your social media until you can catch up.

Or "Lego Masters" or whatever it is you're watching.

Some of us want to talk about those things, and it's silly for us to stop talking about those things because it's Sunday and you haven't had a chance to watch Ted Lasso yet.

You can mute phrases on social media until you've caught up.

You can stay off social media until you've caught up.

You can bury your phone until you've caught up.

We're standing around the water cooler on Monday morning talking about the movie or show we all saw over the weekend. You want us to stop talking about that because you haven't seen it yet? In an office setting, we'd have to stop while you got your coffee, which would be fine. But then you'd head to your desk and we'd get back to talking about the movie we all enjoyed as soon as we were done making fun of your wrinkled shirt. Honestly, buy an iron. They're like fifteen bucks.

On social media, you can't get people to stop talking about shows or movies you haven't seen. You just can't. And it's unfair to try to stop folks from sharing with each other because you haven't been able to see the movie or show or match yet.

If I'm out and about volunteering at the orphanage on the weekend, I'll try to avoid scrolling through social media until I can watch Arsenal lose to Brentford on the DVR. Or I could mute certain phrases: Arsenal, Gunners, chokers, artetaout, etc.

You can mute phrases, while we talk about the show you've missed. Just mute. The "mute" option is a wonderful tool for this. The responsibility is yours.

You have the tool. Don't be a tool.

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Back to a Somewhat Spartan Mindset

After 14 months of working four days a week at home and one in the office, and 4 months of working either two or three days a week in the office and the other days at home, I began yesterday my official return to working full time in the office. It's quite a change after a year and a half, and I have to say it will take a bit of readjusting to what was a routine I followed for years until the pandemic hit.

It's not as if during my time working from home, I had a lot more free time than otherwise to write. I still worked set hours at my job and put in a day of the same length as I do when working in the office. But there can be no doubt that working from home provided a certain sense of flexibility that the rigors of an office schedule, with a daily subway commute to and from work, cannot match. I don't even have an especially long commute -- about a ten-minute walk to the subway and then a 25-minute ride to the office -- but as anyone who rides a subway daily knows, five days a week of taking trains, with their delays and irritations, sap one's energy. Then there's the imperative of being at work by more or less a specific time each day, and the aggravations that can come on occasion, let's face it, with normal office interactions. The solitariness of working from home, the ability to communicate with fellow workers about only the essential things relating to the work at hand, was, I found, a pleasure. Again, it's about mental energy. And I found that waking early, writing, and then slipping directly into work mode, or that waking, working, and then taking a break before slipping into writing mode at night, both suited me.

I guess I got spoiled. A life in pajamas or in clothes like sweats, with full attention and focus on work, whether job-related or writing, it's something I never would have expected to happen and it goes without saying that it's most unfortunate that it happened for the reason it did, but it did happen, and I tried with writing to make the most of it. I got a novel finished. The extra time available around the workday meant I could get more sleep on a nightly basis. I could get more sleep and still wake naturally, without having to set the alarm every single day.

Now I'm mentally gearing up to do things the way I did before the pandemic and the working from home. I'll be either going to bed early to wake in the pre-dawn hours to write or spend the day at work, come home and eat, and write late at night. Time will be more constrained again, the schedule tighter and more rigid. I'll sleep less on weekdays and try to get decent nights of sleep on the weekends. I've done it before, for years, but returning to that rather austere routine will take effort. Maybe I'm just older now? I'm sure that's part of it. But what else can you do? It's how it goes for most people who write, or paint, or play music, or whatever. You have to squeeze in that prime activity when you can and how you can.

At least until retirement, if that day ever comes.

Monday, September 13, 2021

Because I don't want to forget.


I was working at a small fashion company in midtown on Tuesday, September  11. It was my second day and I was just returning from delivering clothes to a magazine nearby when I heard about the first plane. My first thought was a small plane hit it by accident.  

It was when I got back to the front desk and answered call after call for staffers from their mothers that I realized something was horribly wrong. It was an office of eight salespeople and I had five moms on hold looking for their daughters. Thankfully, they were all at their desks. Then my mom called.

“My God! They’re trying to kill us.” She sounded like she was singing.

“It’s okay. It was just an accident.”

“Not the second plane. Oh God.” I heard the phone change command.

“Honey.” It was my dad. Lifetime military and one tough fella.

Behind me, the office began to buzz. The sales pool was getting louder. It sounded like they were crying. I turned on the computer. Images of the burning buildings from a helicopter. All I could think of was the people. All of those poor people. Please, God let them get out.

“Get yourself together and get out of there.” My dad cut into my thoughts with his serious dad voice. It wasn’t until noon, our boss wasn’t in the office and no one was telling us what to do, that we all filed into the stairwells and out into the streets.

I headed west to catch a ferry to New Jersey. People were huddled around cars, listening to the radio. In front of stores watching the news. An older woman in a burqa was walking alone and so I joined her. She said she was afraid because there had been reports on the radio of people attacking mosques in retaliation for the attacks. Arm and arm, we looked south as we crossed to the promenade to join the miles long line stretching north; the air left my lungs. There were tanks on the West Side Highway. 

Quickly, we headed to the gate. A Port Authority employee was taking tickets in her bright yellow vest and sunny sweet smile. When we stopped to ask instruction, she hugged us. Just for getting there. We all talked for a moment, because the line wasn’t moving, and she knew it was a scary situation for my new friend.  She took her from me and accompanied her onto the ferry, with the elderly and endangered. I joined the line.  


Early on the morning of September 12, 2001 I took the Boonton into the city because I didn’t know what else to do but go in, I couldn’t be alone all day with the news and my thoughts. The train schedules were off, of course. There were delays and incidents. Once at the station I noticed the trash cans were chained closed, most stores were dark and there were police everywhere. Station parking lots were full, a car in every spot, but the trains were nearly empty.

There was only one other passenger in my car. He watched me board and waved me over. We introduced ourselves and I sat down.

“Where’re you from?” He was holding his briefcase so tight his hands were red. I think I understood how he felt. Or how he wanted to feel. I think we needed to feel normal.


“No. Before here.” He looked like every fortyish, hard-working Dad type in every movie and show. Balding on top and big round glasses. “I’m originally from Florida. Long line of Gators.”

“From Virginia, originally. With a little bit of everywhere thrown in.”

The train curved wide to the right and we looked out of the window at the same time, sitting across from each other, not talking but still not alone. Taking in the big view, he took a deep breath before his voice cracked.

“I guess we’re all New Yorkers today.”

We made more friends on the train that week as the city tried to keep moving. There were nine of us, meeting on the train in the mornings and at the station in the evenings, most of us with a hot dog and beer in hand. We were loud and boisterous, trying so hard to be happy. When the train would pass the station parking lots, now cramped with tow trucks moving cars belonging to victims from the towers, we were always quiet. The streets of our towns crowded with funerals every weekend. The pictures of those lost remained on the walls of stations and stops.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

"What Are We Going to Say?"


By Claire Booth

There is a homage to character and story and a great actor today in the New York Times. Michael K. Williams, who played Omar Little on The Wire, died this week. And showrunner David Simon remembers him through the lens of his commitment to the story they were trying to tell. 

“What are we going to say this year?” Williams would ask Simon at the beginning of every season, as the show shifted from the Baltimore streets to its port to its city government, schools and newsrooms. And Simon had to answer Williams’s question, had to articulate his vision and his reasoning. What a gift for a writer to have a person like that in her or his corner—one who forces you to explain yourself. I know my stories are better when I have to do that for someone. I can only imagine if that person was someone of Williams’s exceptional talents.

Read the whole essay in the New York Times here:

Saturday, September 11, 2021

Ignore the Scoreboard: A Writing Process

Scott D. Parker

The NFL season kicked off on Thursday of this week, but I was already prepared because of Peter King.

For many years now, a NFL weekend is not complete until I read King’s Monday column. And they are long. Wonderfully so. He covers the weekend’s action, what he’s reading, what beer he likes, tales from the road, and other non-sports pieces as well in a segment he dubs “10 Things I Think I Think.”

On Monday, King commented on a recent article with Nick Saban, the head football coach at Alabama.

“I think I learned something about Nick Saban in his enlightening interview with Alan Blinder of the New York Times. Saban’s a lot more malleable as a coach than I thought. Listen to him about how his approach to coaching has changed:

“The biggest thing that has changed for me — and you might be shocked when I say this — is that I’ve actually become, through the years and through the experiences, a lot less outcome-oriented and a lot more process-oriented. I think that approach carries over to the players because then they become less outcome-oriented, and they’re more focused on process, they’re more focused on one play at a time, exactly what do I have to do and how do I have to do it, what’s going to help me be successful here, and they’re not looking at the scoreboard like we’ve got to win the game. They’re focusing on one play at a time.”

King then continued:

“I think that reminds me so much of what Drew Brees told me a couple of years ago, when I asked him what advice he’d have for your quarterbacks. In effect, Brees said, Ignore the scoreboard. Think about making every play the best it can be. Worrying about the scoreboard distracts from the only thing you can control—the next play. Great advice for football, and for life.”

And great advice for us writers.

The scoreboard for us is when the book is published and some of us might obsess about Amazon reviews or how our book is doing with readers. All things we cannot control and over which we have zero power.

To keep the football analogy going, the next play for us writers could be something as small as the next chapter or as large as the next book. Keep your focus localized to your own work and let the scoreboard take care of itself.

Because every now and then, you’ll fumble the ball and produce a book folk won’t enjoy even if you loved it and poured your heart into it. But at the same time, there will be those days when you publish a story everyone loves and the confetti will cascade down from the rafters.

Be mindful of both moments.

Thursday, September 9, 2021

Beau and the Newspaper Man


This week, Beau takes a look at Burying the Newspaper Man by Curtis Ippolito.

Marcus Kemp is a regular beat cop living a normal life in San Diego, California. Until the day he makes a shocking discovery: a dead body in the trunk of a stolen car. Worse, the victim turns out to be the man who abused him as a child.

Marcus instinctively wants to help the killer get away with murder and, disregarding his police oath, will stop at nothing to make it happen. With both his job and freedom in jeopardy, his investigation leads him to an unexpected killer, and Marcus is soon faced with an impossible decision.

Can he finally bury the past before it drags him under?

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

The Scar and the Nose

Michael K. Williams

By Scott Adlerberg

Two of the greats departed yesterday, one old, one prematurely. When I heard in the morning that Jean-Paul Belmondo had died, I stopped for a moment to reflect on all the movies he did and the pleasure I've received watching them. Eighty-eight years old, a full life. Of course, I felt differently when I read Michael K. Williams had been found dead, at age 54, in his Brooklyn apartment. In reaction to that news, I just felt, like many, very sad.

One thing I did think of later in the day, though -- how these two had two of the greatest faces you'll ever see in films, crime films or any other type. You've got Belmondo with that famous prominent broken nose and Williams with that big scar down the middle of his forehead. In both cases, the "imperfections" only served to add character to their appearances, a sense of these people being absolutely real.

About Williams as Omar on The Wire. I remember watching the very last episode of the last season, and you just sort of knew that after all his escapes and near-death experiences, Omar was not going to make it through that last show. I was sitting there watching with my wife and both of us were saying, "Wire writers, just spare Omar. Whoever else dies, dies. But just leave us Omar at the end even if it's a little unrealistic and you're doing it just to please the audience." They took the narrative route with Omar that made the most sense dramatically and that almost had to happen to him after all those seasons, but damn, when you like a character so much that you want the writers themselves, in a show like The Wire, to just grant you a wish to please you, you know that actor made that character one you care about so so much. Michael K. Williams, I can only wonder what great roles were ahead you would have played, but what's there for us to watch, Omar and Chalky Wright and Leonard in Hap and Leonard and the Rikers Island inmate in The Night Of and the others, I will continue to watch and love.

Jean-Paul Belmondo

Saturday, September 4, 2021

Reading Aloud to Improve Your Writing


Scott D. Parker

I read Jay's blog from yesterday and I thoroughly enjoyed his bonus content where he posted a video of him reading a chapter of his latest work in progress. (I really loved that one of the characters shared my name.) 

Anyway, I loved it so much...that I did the same thing. 

It's a fundamental truth in writing that if you read your prose and dialogue aloud, you will hear errors your eyes miss. It'll also help your character to sound more natural. 

So, here you go: me reading a random chapter (actually the latest) of my current manuscript. And I'd like to challenge our fellow writers to do the same.

(Boy, did YouTube select an awkward image of me.)

Thursday, September 2, 2021

Elmore Leonard's Best Book From Each Decade

 By Jay Stringer

This past week I was the guest over at Grab This Book, adding my choices to the Decades feature. The hook is an author picks the best book from each decade, for five consecutive decades, helping to compile the ultimate library. Go over and take a look, there are a number of great lists and authors

In order to avoid going insane I imposed a couple extra rules on myself. One of them was not to simply pick an Elmore Leonard book from each decade. Because...seriously, I could. Elmore Leonard, along with Lawrence Block, is the main reason I write crime fiction. 

Today I'm writing a companion piece. Which Leonard book would I have chosen from some of the decades I featured? Play along at home. Criticise, debate, correct my choices. 

1970's. Swag. 

Vinatge Leonard. The template of so much that would come to follow. Street level, blue collar, funny-as-hell, a little bit of grit. Crime fiction boiled down to something real and relatable. Two normal guys decide on a life of crime as bank robbers, after writing down a list of rules for success one drunken night. And the rules work. And keep on working. Everything is fine until they start bending the rules...

It's worth also throwing in a criticism. Women weren't particularly well served in Leonards early crime novels. It's something he himself became aware of, after a comment from his wife, Joan. He put in the work to improve, and would later give us a cast of great women. But when reading Swag now -and you should- it's worth bearing that element in mind. 

1980's. LaBrava. 

Freaky Deaky tends to get the attention from the 80's books. And deserves it, with it's comic timing, it's mix of burned out radicals, criminals, and high explosives. And City Primeval shows that Leonard was exploring toxic masculinity long before we called it toxic masculinity. But for my money, LaBrava is the purest shot of 80's Leonard. It catches the sweet spot, the right balance of the quirks, the humour, the realism and the politics. Yes, I said politics. For some reason Leonard doesn't get talked about as a political writer. I find this as strange as the people who criticise his plotting. Leonard is operating on another level. I'd be tempted to use the words 'transcend' and 'genre' if I felt like trolling book twitter. You come to read Leonard, you better come to read subtext. 

LaBrava brings certain themes to the fore. It's about people being good at things. About people changing lanes later in life. About people feeling burned out and wondering if it's too late to do something wild. 

1990's. Rum Punch. 

My gateway drug. Probably the gateway drug for a lot of people, after Quentin Tarantino turned it into Jackie Brown in 1997. I've always loved this book, but for over two decades I thought it was just because it was my first taste, and because it was fun. Re-reading it at 40, the book hit me on a whole other level. This is a book about getting old. There's a great scene in the movie, in which Pam Grier and Robert Forster sit at a table talking about hitting middle-age. With the book as a distant memory, I had started to believe this was a scene created for the film, based around the ages of the two actors. But on revisiting the book I found the same scene there, almost word for word. And that's the heart of the matter. The characters in this book are ageing. They're feeling it. They're worried about getting stuck in a rut, held in place by all their decisions, and wondering: is it too late to change

2000's. Pagan Babies. 

This book made my list over at Grab This Book. Not because I think it's Leonards best book. In fact, I think all the books I've mentioned so far today are better. But rather, because it's the one that stayed with me the longest. The one I had to think about the most. From it's opening page detailing genocide in Rwanda, through it's seemingly by-the-numbers caper plot set in Detroit, through to the come-to-jesus (or not) personal realisations of the closing chapters, this feels like Leonard's summational book. His final attempt at boiling down his themes and passions to their most basic and pure. After this, in the last decade of his career, he became more self indulgent. He began revisiting characters for one last ride -like Jack Foley, Cundo Rey, and Dawn Navarro in Road Dogs- and wrote a couple books that took him right back to his childhood interest in the John Dillinger era. They're all fun and interesting, but they feel like a victory lap, compared to Pagan Babies, which felt like the author saying the thing he'd kept trying to say. 


I filmed a quick video yesterday showing my editing process, the way I read every single chapter out loud to listen for bad notes. Let's see what random facial expression YouTube chooses to present my work to the world. 

Return of the Book Nook


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Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Josh Stallings Discusses TRICKY

 by Holly West

Hiya! Holly here with another author interview. Many thanks to Angel for letting me post on his day.

This month, I tracked Josh Stallings down and asked him if he'd talk to me about his latest novel, TRICKY (Agora Books). The scope of our discussion covers many things, from writing characters outside our own experience to religion to that moment during every book's journey when you think "I'll never be able to do this." But Josh did it with TRICKY, and in my opinion, he nailed it.

But I'll let him tell you about it:


Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Dangerous Visions and New Worlds

A book I am happy to have contributed an article to, called Dangerous Visions and New Worlds: Radical Science Fiction 1950-1985, is due out in October. The title sums up what the book will be about, and my contribution is an extended piece on the great Soviet-era, Russian science fiction writers, the Brothers Strugatsky. For the next month or so, the publisher PM Press is running a pre-sale campaign via Kickstarter, and I just wanted to mention something about the whole enterprise here.

Dangerous Visions and New Worlds celebrates and evaluates how science fiction novels and authors depicted, interacted with, and were inspired by cultural and political movements in America and Great Britain. Edited by Andrew Nette and Iain McIntyre, this is the third book in their series which includes Girl Gangs, Biker Boys, and Real Cool Cats: Pulp Fiction and Youth Culture, 1950 to 1980 and Sticking It to the Man: Revolution and Counterculture in Pulp and Popular Fiction, 1950 to 1980.  

Much has been written about the “long Sixties,” the era of the late 1950s through the early 1970s. It was a period of major social change, most graphically illustrated by the emergence of liberatory and resistance movements focused on inequalities of class, race, gender, sexuality, and beyond, whose challenge represented a major shock to the political and social status quo. With its focus on speculation, alternate worlds, and the future, science fiction became an ideal vessel for this upsurge of radical protest.

Dangerous Visions and New Worlds starts with progressive authors who rose to prominence in the conservative 1950s, challenging the so-called Golden Age of science fiction and its linear narratives of technological breakthroughs and space-conquering male heroes. The book then moves through the 1960s, when writers, including those in what has been termed the New Wave, shattered existing writing conventions and incorporated contemporary themes such as modern mass media culture, corporate control, growing state surveillance, the Vietnam War, and rising currents of counterculture, ecological awareness, feminism, sexual liberation, and Black Power. The 1970s, when the genre reflected the end of various dreams of the long Sixties and the faltering of the postwar boom, is also explored along with the first half of the 1980s, which gave rise to new subgenres, such as cyberpunk.

The book contains over twenty chapters written by contemporary authors and critics, and hundreds of full-color cover images, including thirteen thematically organized cover selections. Besides the Brothers Strugatsky chapter, there are new perspectives on novels and authors such as Octavia Butler, Ursula K. Le Guin, Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, John Wyndham, Samuel Delany, J.G. Ballard, John Brunner, Judith Merril, Barry Malzberg, and Joanna Russ. There are excavations of topics, works, and writers who have been largely forgotten or undeservedly ignored. If the first two books in this series are any indication, this new one should be fascinating, as well as beautifully put together, and any pre-orders will be much appreciated.

This will be a 224-page, full-color, large-format book, and the PM Press Kickstarter to encourage pre-orders will include all sorts of rewards, including other books by the coeditors, related titles and combo packs, and the chance to "upgrade" to a hardcover at any level and add-on the limited throw pillow and handmade high-waisted underpants (yes, undies!) featuring Retro SciFi Pulp Book Cover fabric.

To learn more about the Kickstarter, you can click here: