Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Love and Bullets: Megabomb Edition

In 2017, Nick Kolakowski began his Love and Bullets trilogy with the novella called A Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken Saps.  Shotgun Honey put it out.  The book did pretty well for Nick, and that encouraging development helped lead him to write the follow-ups, Slaughterhouse Blues (2018) and Main Bad Guy (2019).  In this spot, I reviewed Heartbroken Saps when it came out and later Slaughterhouse Blues. I didn't review but thoroughly enjoyed Main Bad Guy when that appeared, Nick wrapping up the saga with more imaginative mayhem and continuing to use the novellas not only as vehicles for pulpy crime fiction but also to score satirical points about any number of things.  Slaughterhouse Blues, to cite one example, has a great extended gag about electric vehicles, and in Main Bad Guy gentrification in the New York City borough of Queens is the target for some not so gentle gibes.  Nick ends Main Bad Guy in a satisfying way, and yet here we are in 2021 with another Love and Bullets book, which is in fact the three novellas back to back mixed in with new material.  How did this come about?

In his introduction to the expanded volume, Nick explains:

"By that point [the writing of Main Bad Guy], the trilogy had sold in Europe, so I had to stitch the three novellas together into a single work, titled -- you guessed it -- Love and Bullets.  Then Shotgun Honey wanted to release a single volume in the U.S., and here we are."

Here indeed.  Nick had the rare opportunity to go back and tinker with something previously published, and he took that opportunity to resurrect a character who, to all evidence, died in the first book.  He doesn't resort to gimmicks, I must say, or to some ridiculous (it was only a dream) re-plotting, but actually exploits an opening from Heartbroken Saps to change a character's fate.  We never actually were told outright that the character in question perished.  

So an intriguing character gets unexpected page time in the Megabomb edition, his own adventures folded into what is taking place in the hectic lives of Bill and Fiona.  There's no question that Nick likes this character (why else would he have brought him back?), and he gets the chance to give this person what you might call a second chance, or a shot at something akin to, if not exactly, redemption.

Is the new material essential?  I wouldn't say that.  And anyhow, that would imply that the original trilogy was lacking something needed for a sense of completion.  The trio of novellas do not need that.  They are quite complete as is, thank you.  But the bloody adventures for the person back from near-death are entertaining in and of themselves and do give an extra resonance to things.  These additions are not without risk either.  The shakiest aspect of A Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken Saps is how it switches, without a feeling of necessity, between its third-person narration for the Bill and Fiona parts and its first-person narration for other parts.  Slaughterhouse Blues and Main Bad Guy, without the first-person narrator character in them, jettison these point of view changes, making the books more cohesive than their predecessor.  With the Megabomb edition, Nick extends the first-person segments beyond the first novella, and here he does take the risk of splintering his narrative and slowing down the story's momentum.  When everything was so tightly put together before, won't the insertions throw the previous structures out of whack?

The answer, in brief, is a little bit, but the tone of the added sections is so of a piece with the original material (despite the point of view switches) that nothing comes across as extraneous.  With the rapid pacing and the chapter cliffhangers, you speed through the chapters old and new alike. Nick's wit and sarcasm and biting commentary remain strong, and his inventiveness with action, with violence, with scenes blending humor and human exsanguination, never flags.  In total, including the trilogy, I've read six of Nick's books now, and I can only marvel at how he keeps coming up with entertaining ways to depict human beings in absurd and absurdly violent situations.  When it comes to carnage, he has a fecund imagination, but as I've said about him before, he doesn't forget that emotion is key no matter how much craziness goes on and that if you don't care about somebody in a story, all the action in the world won't save it.  The Love and Bullets trilogy was highly enjoyable as three separate novellas and it's lost none of its zest as a single, thicker edition.

Get the expanded edition if you haven't read the books already. Get it if you read the novellas before and want to zip through them again while following some smile-inducing, bonus shenanigans.  Not everyone can mix love and bullets on the page effectively, but Nick Kolakowski is a writer who does.

You can get Love and Bullets: The Megabomb Edition here.


Monday, November 29, 2021

Hugh Lessig Takes on The Flash Challenge

Hugh Lessig has been a part of RVA City Writers for several years and he came to us with a lot of experience. He spent more than 30 years as a newspaper reporter, primarily covering politics and the military. He’s spent time with doctors in Ecuador, earthquake victims in Haiti and fellow journalists in Ukraine, but his best memories are the quirky and sometimes questionable characters he’s met closer to home.

Now, Lessig has turned his way with words toward the field of fiction. His short stories have appeared in Thuglit, Shotgun Honey, Needle: A Magazine of Noir and Crime Factory.

More recently, his story “Last Exit Before Toll” was included in Mickey Finn Noir, Volume 1, released last year from Down & Out Books.

This year, he was part of the Guns + Tacos series of stories, also from Down & Out, and next month, Mickey Finn Volume II will be released and include his story “Confessions on a Train from Kyiv.”

He’s currently working on a novel about an aging thug battling Alzheimer’s and the crime boss who abandoned him.

We are pleased to welcome Hugh to the Flash Challenge. What is the challenge? Write a fifty-word flash. That’s it. However, the story must incorporate three randomly selected words and revolve around a single, overall theme. The words have been drawn and shared; letter, afford, and yard. The theme is despair.

Bad dog

By Hugh Lessig

Digging in the yard, Butterbean tears off Joe’s finger and parades up the street, wagging his tail.

After Joe’s drunken rant, everyone cried over my broken arm. I couldn’t afford a hit man or dig a decent grave, but my neighbors won’t care about the letter of the law.


Saturday, November 27, 2021

NaNoWriMo 2021 - Week 4 Encouragement: Congratulations, Honest Assessment, and the Future

Scott D. Parker

Well, as of yesterday, NaNoWriMo 2021 has only four more days. As nice as it was to start the month and our novels on a Monday, we actually have until this coming Tuesday to reach the 50,000-word mark.

I reached that milestone last Sunday, about 36 minutes into my 76-minute writing session (yeah, I kept track of the time and the exact word count). As of yesterday, I’m up to 61,667 words and I still have a bit to go. Not sure how much, but I’m going to keep going until I get to The End. I kept track of the total minutes written so far and they add up to 35.5 hours. It’s moments like this when I superimpose a month’s worth of writing in spurts of 60-75 minutes over a typical day job of 40 hours a week and start to wonder what it would really be like to have a day job in which I wrote fiction for 8 hours a day. I know that it would not be a one-to-one comparison, but I still think about it. Maybe one day.

So, how are you doing? Did you get to 50,000 words? Did those 50,000 words correspond to the end of your novel or do you still have to keep writing to get to The End? Did you fall short? Don’t worry. I’ve done all those things and more.

Depending on your answers, you should do two crucial things.

First, if you finished, CELEBRATE! You have just written a 50,000-word novel. Celebrate. Tell people about it. Post about it on Facebook. Tweet your accomplishments. Open a bottle of champagne. Seriously on that last part, do it. Ever since I completed book 2, I have sprung for a bottle of bubbly to celebrate. It is a monumental thing if you have written a novel, especially if it’s your first.

Second, if you did not finish, do not beat yourself up or chastise yourself. Do not do those things. They do you no good and, in all honesty, they hamper your next writing effort. Believe me. I know this one all too well. It wasn’t until January 2013 when I again looked at the past year of not writing and finally turned myself around. I didn’t chastise myself like I had on previous New Year’s Days. Instead, I analyzed what had kept me from writing. Once those things were identified, I was able to skirt around them, avoid them, and I became a much more productive writer.

Now what?

Well, you’ve got to ask yourself a question. Did you participate in NaNoWriMo 2021 just to say you have written a novel, or did you do it because you want to keep writing stories? If it’s the former, good for you. Print it out, bind it if you want, display it proudly, and mark it off your bucket list. Mission Accomplished.

But if you found you enjoyed the process and kept doing it, you must keep writing. Seriously. Maybe NaNoWriMo 2021 took a lot out of you. That’s okay. Take a break for sure. Revel in your success. But make a plan--today--that you’ll start your next book on a certain day. My suggestion: New Year’s Day.

Now that you know you can write a novel, do it again. What better way to start a new year than with a new novel. I’ve done it the past few years. It’s a great way to get past the inevitable doldrums I often get in January. It’s like the hangover for all the holidays we celebrate the last 62 days of a year. Make a plan to start a book, and then write that next book. I’ll leave it up to you whether or not you decide to make January 2022 into a NaNoWriMo, but make a plan.

Ideally, you’ll finish your next book by 31 January 2022. Then, do it again. The best way to make it as a writer is to keep writing regularly. The ‘regularly’ is the key part. Writing is a muscle. It needs to be exercised to keep it in shape. And here’s the cool part: the more you do it, the easier it becomes.

Even if you don’t do a true NaNoWriMo of 1,667 words a day, shoot for 1,000. That’s the goal of veteran writer Kristine Kathryn Rusch. In two months, you can have your next book written. Or a novella in 31 days.

Just keep writing. Make it a habit. If you do, you’ll discover the joy of writing, the ease of writing, and it’ll likely make you happy.

Right now, revel in your celebration: NaNoWriMo 2021 is almost over. Congratulations. Now, don’t wait another eleven months to write your next book

Thursday, November 25, 2021

Loose Thoughts on...vampires.

 By Jay Stringer

Midnight Mass sent me on a bit of a Vampire fiction binge. I'm sure the season helped. It gets dark in Glasgow this time of year. I've said it on here before, but once the end of October hits, Scotland has a way of reminding you that we're on the same latitude as Moscow. There's an inky quality to the darkness here. A thickness. It seeps in, if you let it, and my tastes tend to turn towards horror when the skies get dark. Asking questions like, do we create monsters in the shadows because we're scared of the dark, or did we learn to be scared of the dark because that's when the monsters came? 

But from Midnight Mass I started listening to the audiobook of Salem's Lot. And watching a lot of vampire flicks and TV shows. Some worked. Some didn't. I became fascinated trying to spot the patterns. 

The thing that's easy to forget about Dracula is what a modern novel it was. A century of seeing it as a period piece, as Lugosi, Lee, Hammer Horror, wigs and capes. But when the book came out it was a contemporary story, about a very modern town being met by a very old problem. Van Helsing was a doctor, a scientist. The book was epistolary, made up of journal entries and -if memory serves- a transcription from a wax recording. Today it would be a book made up of blog entries and a podcast. If it was a movie it would be found footage, webcam maybe. 

And so that's the first thing that I think is needed. The story needs to be set now, and needs to feel like it's about now. Period piece vampire fare just doesn't do it for me. An old threat in an old world. 

This is related to the second key point. Science. Medicine. The story needs to have some form of scientist or doctor trying to figure out the rules. Whether they succeed or fail, the collision of science and mystery is key to the genre. 

What we know vs what we don't. 

There needs to be some form of fellowship formed. We face our own personal demons alone, but to survive in one of these stories we need to believe in something bigger than ourselves. It doesn't need to be god, but it needs to be something, or somebody. We need to put a team together. Which leads right into a final act twist that is also key. A change in genre. No matter what the story has been up until this point, no matter how dark or light, how scary or funny, to really succeed a vampire story needs to turn into an adventure in its final act. The race of the fellowship against time, against the sun, chasing down the Count on horseback, or by car, or on a daring raid into a spooky house. Some vampire fiction tries to subvert or ignore this aspect. It aims for nihilism, or loneliness, or a conspiracy-style open ending. But we need that spirit of adventure and teamwork. 

But I also keep thinking about an element I would be interested in subverting. 

As I said above, the battle between what we know and what we don't is key to this genre. And folklore by its nature is about us providing some rules to life, about figuring things out. The vampire usually enters the story with a sense of those rules. Once they turn up, certain questions about the universe are answered. And, more importantly, the vampire already knows those answers. They know their place in the pecking order. They know their rules, their mythology, their purpose. They tend to know all about the history of their species, and what their powers are, and how.

But I'm interested in finding the human level of that. Where are the atheist vampires? The ones who have as little real sure knowledge of the universe as we do. Sure, they have ancient books telling them their creation myth, just as we do, but beyond faith what do they really know? Why do they get to be so sure? I'm interesting in thinking about a story of vampires who have no more understanding of the meaning of life (or death) than we do. They wake up, they exist, they feed, they sleep, they occasionally look up at the sky and wonder what's up there. Some of them can be religious, some not. Some have carried out experiments and studied to know how their biology works, most haven't. They're just creatures existing on this planet and getting by day by day...by hunting. 

I might have a story in there, fighting its way out. 

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Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Under the Thumb

 by Scott Adlerberg

In this spot back in March, Rock and a Hard Place Magazine co-editor Roger Nokes guest blogged with his piece explaining why the magazine (co-editor Jay Butkowski) was putting out a call for a special themed anthology called Under the Thumb: Stories of Police Oppression.

None other than S.A. Cosby took on the role of the anthology's editor, and in that March piece, he explained the anthology's goal:

“I think the main objective of this anthology is to demystify the cop story in crime fiction. We are trying to invert the usual perspective when it comes to a crime story. A deconstruction of the police procedural that examines the world through the eyes of characters who are usually voiceless. We’ve all read a police procedural that uses the suspects as simply props for the story of an officer who 'bends the rules' to get things done. Too often we don’t consider the cost of this kind of indoctrination. Stories are our myths and our myths become our reality. But it's a reality shaped by a worldview that disavows the truth of people from marginalized communities and underrepresented cultures. I like to say writers are liars who seek the truth. That’s what we are doing with this anthology. Seeking the truth. No matter how much it hurts.” 

Well, the anthology has now been released, and it has a stellar lineup of writers.  There are stories by Travis Wade Beaty, Andrew Case, Hilary Davidson, Hector Duarte Jr., Michael Downing, Jeffrey Eaton, Michael A. Gonzales, James D.F. Hannah, Zakariah Johnson, Preston Lang, Bobby Mathews, Mike McHone Richie Narvaez, Oluseyi Onabanjo, James Queally, Keith Rosson, Jeff Soloway, Joseph S. Walker, and Tim P. Walker.

Crime fiction, as ever, is a great vehicle to explore the power disparities of the world and the flaws and problems inherent in the systems of human justice, and I'm eager myself to see how these different writers approach all this.  There should be a lot to dive into.

Proceeds from sales, by the way, go to The New Jersey chapter of Black Lives Matter.

You can get Under the Thumb: Stories of Police Oppression right here.

Monday, November 22, 2021

Flash Fiction Challenge...Julia Brugh


Julia Brugh is one of the newest members of RVA City Writers, having joined us during the pandemic and soon taking part in our virtual readings. She writes dark fiction with an eye and voice for unreliable narrators, ghost stories, and gothic tales centered in Appalachia. She and her husband, Mark, co-authored the book CIVIL WAR GHOSTS OF SHARPSBURG from History Press, a great read for a stormy night.

In addition, on the first Friday of every month, the Brughs host Happy Hours with Back Porch Cocktails on Facebook Live! Friends gather and chatter over a cold or warm cocktail created by the supremely talented and creative Julia Brugh. The drinks are perfect for the season and the conversations stretch from best rock tunes featuring flute or banjo, to favorite karaoke tunes, or Top 5 “Coming of Age” movies. Bueller? Bueller?

For now, let’s settle in and read Julia Brugh’s flash fiction challenge piece. What is the challenge? Write a fifty-word flash. That’s it. However, the story must incorporate three randomly selected words and revolve around a single, overall theme. The words have been drawn and shared; letter, afford, and yard. The theme is despair.

Tit For Tat
By Julia Brugh

The old woman cursed me after I recorded her in my yard. I couldn’t afford not to.

She’s internet gold-screaming about noise-waving some letter around.

Said I’d cut off my nose to spite my face.

She was right, but I’m okay.

It barely bled,

and I went viral.

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Cover Reveal: Dangerous Consequences

It's here. The cover for Dangerous Consequences, book five in my Sheriff Hank Worth series.

It’s definitely the most “daytime” of my covers, with a a bleached-out, sinister quality that I love.  The others were at night or under cloudy skies. Here’s a look back at them. 


Hank Worth Book One

Hank Worth Book Two

Hank Worth Book Three

Hank Worth Book Four

I’ll have a Dangerous Consequences release date for you soon. Stay tuned!


Saturday, November 20, 2021

NaNoWriMo 2021 - Week 3 Encouragement: Let the Book Breathe and Drive to the Final Week


Scott D. Parker

The third full week of November also counts as the third full week of NaNoWriMo 2021. Still having fun yet? I know I am. I am well ahead of the daily pace of 1,667 words per day. As of yesterday, a daily 1,667 words gets you to 31,673. As of now, I’m only 3,100 words shy of 50,000, a threshold I should reach Saturday (if I have a good writing day) or Sunday for sure.

So I’m pretty jazzed about my progress, and I attribute it to a mantra I apply to NaNoWriMo and every other story I write: let the book breath and be what it wants.

What do I mean by that?

I’ve mentioned before that I set out to write a murder/mystery will elements of romance. Well, as it turns out, my 2021 NaNoWriMo book is more family drama than murder/mystery. Don’t worry. The murder is here, but I opted to write this story in which the corpse does not show up in chapter one. I wanted to set the stage first, introduce the characters first, give the reader a sense of them all before something bad happens.

And I think I’ve accomplished that. I’m the first reader even though I’m the writer, and here’s a telling comment about my enthusiasm about this story: I haven’t read anything else all month. The story I want to read is the one I’m writing. Getting up at 5am on weekday to write is not a chore. I almost literally jump out of bed, go through a few calisthenics, fill a coffee cup, and start writing. I can’t wait to get back to the story.

I’m using Google Docs and it tends to wig out around the 10,000-word mark. As such, I create a new file every 10,000 words. I’ve let some folks read the first part and the response has been quite positive. It’s a good thing when you, the writer, enjoy a story you are writing. It’s great when someone else likes what you’ve actively working on.

As we turn the corner to the last full week of November (the month ends on a Tuesday) and some of us have days off where we can possibly spend more time writing, keep this thought in mind: it’s more important for you to finish the book than reach 50,000 in November.

Here’s why. By now, you will likely have already established a pattern, a routine for writing. Whatever it is, keep doing it until the book is finished.

If you can conceivably complete the book by the end of November, do it. But, if you don’t think you can make that deadline...but do think you can complete the book a few days after 30 November, then make the adjustment. Because, when you get right down to it, the reason you started NaNoWriMo in the first place was to complete a book. The 50,000-word mark was only a trick, a hack, to get many writers started. Your book may only be 45,000. If so, then congrats! You’ve written a book. Your book may actually not be done until you get to 95,000 or more. Your book is your book. Do your adjustments as you see fit.

But this last full week of NaNoWriMo 2021 is the final major push. I’ve done it before. I’m doing it now. Millions of others have done it.

And you can, too.

Thursday, November 18, 2021

Zero Saints

This week, Beau takes a look at ZERO SAINTS, from Gabino Iglesias.

Enforcer and drug dealer Fernando has seen better days. On his way home from work, some heavily-tattooed gangsters throw him in the back of a car and take him to an abandoned house, where they saw off his friend's head and feed the kid's fingers to...something. Their message is clear: this is their territory, now. 
But Fernando isn't put down that easily. Using the assistance of a Santeria priestess, an insane Puerto Rican pop sensation, a very human dog, and a Russian hitman, he'll build the courage (and firepower) he'll need to fight a gangbanger who's a bit more than human.

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

To Swerve or Not To Swerve

I'm sick of the swerve. The twist. The sudden moment where EVERYTHING YOU THOUGHT YOU KNEW WASN'T TRUE.

We've become addicted to the idea that the story must subvert its audience, that creators have to outsmart us in order to entertain us. And mind you, while it can be perfectly entertaining to have expectations subverted, especially in the crime/mystery genre, I'd posit that it's also extremely satisfying to know exactly what we're getting.

And we do, don't we? More often than not, we know our stories will involve good beating bad. That our heroes will learn lessons and grow. It's the road to get there that counts, but why do we insist that road take unnecessary turns every single time?

I've found that trying to subvert the expectations of readers can often lead me to write towards a twist as opposed to a resolution, and while a good outline can iron out the kinks that come with writing to the twist as opposed to writing to the end, I still think it's unfair to the writer and reader when that twist holds more priority than anything else in the story.

I mean, how often do those twists and swerves really leave us amazed? I find myself feeling betrayed more often, especially when writers decide to change characters' personalities or intelligence levels simply to serve said betrayal.

As I write this, I'm trying to think about the last time a last minute twist really sent me for a loop - in a good way - and I can't seem to think of one? I can say the last time I stood up and cheered in a theater was in the absolutely obvious from beginning to end Avengers: Endgame. We all knew what was going to happen, but you know what? We were all mostly satisfied.

So again, when was the last time I was really blown away by the third act twist? The Sixth Sense? What Lies Beneath? The end of the Thriller video? I'm not entirely sure. 

Now, I try to avoid thinking about those swerves until the story demands it of me. I treat my outlines and drafts as simple as possible, as a story that goes from point to A to B to C until I find an opportunity for enhancement by skipping B to get to J. That method's helped me to better my craft and to appreciate my ideas for what they are. 

That said, do you write for the twist? Or would you rather discover it organically? Discuss below.

Or don't. It doesn't matter because I NEVER read the comments.

Stream Twist (ft. M. Night Shyamalan) by Rebel28 | Listen online for free  on SoundCloud

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

The Insult by Rupert Thomson

by Scott Adlerberg 

Late this summer, a friend of mine and I got together to hang out for a night, and he brought along a book that he said I had to read.  He handed it to me -- The Insult, by Rupert Thomson.  I took the book and did the usual. I looked at the front cover and read the back cover copy, and I read the blurbs on the front and back.

I'd never heard of either the book or the author, but I was intrigued. The book had been published in 1996 and this particular edition was a Vintage Crime/Black Lizard edition. The blurb on the back from Time Out said, "Reads like an unholy collaboration between Oliver Sacks and Edgar Allan Poe".  And the description was interesting: "With this eerie, provocative and original novel, Rupert Thomson takes the psychological thriller into unexplored territory.  Martin Blom is walking toward his car in a supermarket parking lot when a single random bullet pierces his brain.  From that moment he is blind -- his doctor says permanently.  But then one evening Martin discovers what is either a genuine miracle or a delusion suffered occasionally by the newly blind: in the dark, he can see."

My friend, who is very well-read and who happens also to have read my books, described this book as one I "had to read".  He said that when I did, it's the kind of book that might make me jealous.  "It's something you would write," he said.  "I'm telling you. You're going to read this and think it's something, if I came up with a premise like that, I could write."  He added that I should not read up on the book before starting it because the less I knew about the story going in to reading it, the better.

You get book recommendations from friends all the time, and like with movies or music, you judge that recommendation in large part on who is making it.  I had the usual to be read pile of books at my house, and I added The Insult to it, thinking I would get to it eventually.

"Don't take too long," my friend said.  "I want to talk about it with you."

It took about two a half months for me to get to it.  In the meantime, I read up a little bit about the book. Not enough to learn any plot points, but enough to find out that David Bowie, of all people, in 2018, had listed it as one of his top 100 novels."  Now I don't know much about Bowie's reading taste other than that he read a lot and liked William S. Burroughs, but praise from him certainly didn't diminish the book in my eyes.

So, having now read it, my reactions:

First of all, I don't think I've ever picked up a book where the cover descriptions and even the blurbs are so misleading.  The book's central conceit does revolve around blindness, and the Oliver Sachs comparison isn't entirely off because the novel's main character does suffer a traumatic brain injury that affects his perception.  He may have what is an actual condition called Anton's Syndrome (a blind person adamantly insisting that they can see).  But beyond that, there is nothing from the cover that you could glean that would give you the slightest clue as to the direction this book takes. And that includes the title, which derives from a rare use of the word "insult".  Even the novel being published by Vintage/Black Lizard threw me off because the novel is not a crime novel in any conventional sense.  This is not a Vintage/Black Lizard in the tradition of Jim Thompson or David Goodis or any of the noir writers like that.

So what precisely is The Insult?  It's a novel, I have to say, not quite like any I have ever read. Rupert Thomson writes easy-to-read sentences using plain language, but he has a great gift for description and unusual but incredibly apt metaphors.  He also never, through 406 pages, lets his story flag. The narrative moves forward briskly at all times, told by a first-person narrator, Blom, the man made blind by a random bullet.  I don't want to describe his bizarre adventures and give things away and I absolutely don't want to reveal much about the book's structure, which I loved.  I'm not sure everyone will love it, but I did. Let's just say that about 260 pages in, when you're wondering where the hell the story is going, caught up in it as you are but completely baffled as to where everything is leading, the plot takes a turn that nobody, and I mean nobody, could predict.  It's more than a mere plot twist also; it's a complete turning of the story, you could say, though at the same time it's a logical progression of everything that has gone before. You read through to the end, riveted by a tale that only gets odder and odder, and at the conclusion, there is a satisfying payoff, or at least I thought so. Some reviews of the book I've read since finishing the novel disliked the ending and indeed the entire direction the book takes from page 260.  I can understand the chagrin of those who didn't like where the book went, but if you like something adventurous, beautifully written, and just downright strange on almost every level, The Insult is a book you may enjoy.

And about my friend.  I've yet to discuss the book with him, but I'm eager to do so.  I'm wondering why he was so convinced I'd like it.  He was right about that, but it's not exactly because, as he seemed to be suggesting, The Insult takes a fascinating premise and develops it brilliantly.  I doubt he saw it as a crime novel I'd go for, because, as I mentioned, it's not a crime novel in a standard sense.  I'm not even sure, in all honesty, what the book is aiming at. It's the kind of story that is written with clarity and that provides a wonderful sensory experience but whose overall meaning is somewhat enigmatic. I do think that perhaps Rupert Thomson has subtly played with detective story forms in the book.  Both the first and second parts have to do with crimes, but the first part, shall we say, has a lot of ambiguity and an open-endedness, leaving lots of questions unanswered, while its second part also has to do with crime but answers everything clearly.  Is the author sort of presenting, in one book, both an anti-detective tale and a more traditional mystery?  Theme built around structure, if you will.  It's nothing more than a theory I have, and I'd love to talk to Rupert Thomson about it if I could.  That probably won't ever happen, but I'm looking forward to talking to my friend about The Insult when we next get together.  And I'll thank him, of course, for the recommendation.  

Monday, November 15, 2021

Flash Fiction Challenge with Shawn Reilly Simmons


First up in our Flash Fiction Challenge is Shawn Reilly Simmons, fearless leader of the fun-loving yet dubious RVA City Writers. She is one of the busiest people in the community as she serves on the Board of Malice Domestic and is co-owner/publisher/editor at Level Best Books. She is a member of Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, the International Thriller Writers, and the Crime Writers’ Association in the UK. Shawn also hosts 5 Compelling Questions with Shawn, a fun and informative podcast featuring authors and industry professionals discussing the writing life aiming to entertain and motivate. She also keeps busy hosting live and virtual writers reading events and educational symposiums. 

And of course, there is Shawn’s extensive doings as an award-winning writer and editor. She is the author of seven novels in the Red-Carpet Catering mystery series featuring Penelope Sutherland, chef-owner of a movie set catering company. She’s also written several short stories which have been published in various anthologies, including “Burnt Orange” in Passport to Murder: the 2017 Bouchercon Anthology; “The Prodigy” in Mystery Tour, the Crime Writers’ Association Anthology; and “Now is the Hour” in Writers Crushing Covid-19.

Shawn’s story “The Last Word,” appearing in Malice Domestic 14: Mystery Most Edible, won the Agatha Award for Best Short Story of 2019. Shawn also won the Anthony Award as editor of the Best Anthology or Collection for the same anthology. In addition, her tale “The Red Herrings at Killington Inn” received an Agatha Nomination in 2020 for Best Short Story.

We are fortunate to have Shawn’s involvement in this challenge. I hope you enjoy this tidbit.

What is the challenge?

Write a fifty-word flash. That’s it. However, the story must incorporate three randomly selected words and revolve around a single, overall theme. The words have been drawn and shared; letter, afford, and yard. The theme is despair.

Second Chance

by Shawn Reilly Simmons

Give a man an inch and he’ll take a yard, Tammi thought as she searched, pushing aside faded boxers and grabbing the gun. She couldn’t afford to miss this time. His love letter to her baby girl was proof he’d burned through his second chance, a gift from a fool.

Saturday, November 13, 2021

NaNoWriMo 2021 - Week 2 Encouragement: Don’t Sweat a Sub-Par Writing Day

Scott D. Parker

As of yesterday, all the writers doing NaNoWriMo 2021 should have reached the 20,000-word mark. This threshold is based on a daily word count of 1,667 words per day. I’m happy to say that I now sit at 31,777 words.

There are two things at play with that number. One, I’m having a blast writing this novel, a traditional murder/mystery, a genre new to me. The words almost always fly from my brain, through the fingers, and onto the screen with joyous abandon.

Additionally, this is more of a character-driven story than I’ve ever written before. For my thrillers or westerns, there’s almost always a bad guy with a gun shooting at my heroes and they have to react. Not so with this book. It’s contemporary, with people talking about real issues and soon to be solving a crime. It’s odd for me, but I’m sincerely digging it. My initial readers are as well. My wife—a very harsh critic, who reads way more books than I do, and typically does not to read some of my more over-the-top stories—surprised me with her verdict on Part I of the story. It buoyed my day yesterday, especially since I’m going down a new path.

Every day until Wednesday, 9 November, I wrote more than 2,000 words in a day. But Wednesday morning, the words didn’t come in a gusher like the other ones have done. I ended up with only 1,880 words that day, above the baseline of a typical NaNoWriMo day, but less than my personal average. I thought about circling back sometime later in the day to bang out and additional 200 words, but opted not to. I wanted to remind myself, when I look at my spreadsheet with the daily tally, that some days will see fewer words than other days. It’s okay and it’s natural. The same thing happened yesterday, when I reached only 1,900 words.

The exception was Thursday. It was Veteran’s Day and I had the day off. What I ended up doing was working on the book all morning. I kept my typical day-job schedule of getting up from my chair every hour and exercising. Basically, I treated the fiction-writing job as the actual day job. It is what I’d love to do. I closed the laptop at noon to go shopping with the wife having booked 5,268 words.

Lessons for the week

It’s okay not to reach a pace you set for yourself. It’s even okay not to reach the 1,667-word mark everyday as long as you have the end goal in mind.

If you have some extra time this month—like I did on Thursday—take advantage of the bonus time and keep writing and add to the book’s total. Not only will you advance your novel, but you’ll be able to reach a point when you can take off a day from writing, like Thanksgiving. Time management is crucial to finishing a book, and be mindful of all the time you have available to write.

Friday, November 12, 2021

Loose Thoughts on James Bond......Again

 By Jay Stringer

I've continued thinking about James Bond over the last two weeks. Which brings the grand total of time I've spent thinking about James Bond this year to two weeks. 

The question facing the producers right now is about broom heads and handles. Or the ship of Theseus. How many things about a Bond movie can be changed before it's no longer a Bond movie?

There's a certain section of the internet that will give you very firm answers on this. Bond is a straight, white, womanising, hard-drinking, defender of the British Empire. Any deviation from that is a surrender to the evil forces of wokeness. 

Or something. 

These legacy characters are incredibly flexible, but just how far can they flex? How far should they flex?

When it comes to Bond, I'm open to any interesting and fresh casting ideas. But I do wonder why a person of colour -or any minority for that matter- would want to take on a role so embedded in colonial identity. I have my own complicated identity with ethnicity and the British State, and I go back and forth over whether I would want to write a character like Bond. Although I've tiptoed in that direction with the character of Joanna Mason in my Marah Chase books. I can't speak to the lived experience of an actor of colour, and if someone out there has a take on Bond and wants to go for it, I'd be interested to watch. 

I suspect No Time to Die -as much as it was a send-off to Daniel Craig- was testing out a format for the future. Keeping Bond as the straight white fella of lore, but filling the world out around him with more diverse and interesting characters. Toning down on promiscuity, allowing women to exist and be strong characters around Bond without him hitting on them every ten seconds. 

In many ways, this leans more into the Mission Impossible movies that I tend to enjoy more than Bond. But that still brings me back to broom handles and heads. I keep thinking of the form. The structure. The DNA of a Bond story. 

Mission Impossible, at heart, is a heist. A team is assembled, the plans are made, the heist is carried out, things go wrong, changes are made on the fly to get things back on track, and there are six billion double crosses. The team element is crucial to a heist story. And this same team element could be used to give everyone a bit of what they want from a modern Bond movie. But then...Bond's DNA is different, Bond stories, at heart, are much more Philip Marlowe, much more of the lone gumshoe. Bond takes on a job. He follows a trail. Clues from A to B, in a sequence, encountering lower-level threats until he uncovers the big bad. And there will be a big rich man's mansion of some form, whether it's a missile silo or a hollow volcano. He doesn't have much of a team. 

Two different forms, at heart. Different DNA. 

To my mind, understanding the form is as important a question as the casting. Bond can probably survive being portrayed as something other than a damaged, alcoholic, misogynist, relic. I think he could comfortably survive being portrayed as a decent guy in a tough job -a compromise that any adult watching the film could relate to on some level- without all of the outdated baggage. But how far from the underlying structure would a film go while still being a Bond film? Following the Mission Impossible template would lead to fun movies, but not James Bond. Whoever is cast, does the story need to follow the Bond DNA? Or is it more interesting at this point to break all the rules and do something else?

How much of the ship can be changed before it's a different ship? 

Thursday, November 11, 2021

The dark is only the beginning


This week, Beau takes a look at Daniel Barnett's Nightfall.

"Tomorrow died on the last morning of May. There were those who saw it happen, who watched the shadow fall, who felt the chop of the guillotine as the world lost its head. Everyone else witnessed only the aftermath, for the event itself lasted no longer than a moment. They stepped outside from windowless rooms, they climbed up from crowded subways, they pulled back the blinds to let in the sun, and found the nightmare waiting for them."

But the dark is only the beginning.

Nightfall is the first volume of the Nightmareland Chronicles, an ongoing serialized adventure horror epic following one man's journey to reach his estranged daughter in a world claimed by eternal night.

Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Truth versus Facts

 As I mentioned on social media recently, I've been listening to the podcast Trickster, about the life and writings of Carlos Castaneda. I read some Castaneda many years ago and loved the books; there are things in those books, thoughts, ideas, that I've never forgotten and actually reflect on to this day. That's nearly forty years after reading the books.

When I read Journey to Ixtlan and Tales of Power and so on, back in the mid-eighties, I was unaware of the entire controversy over whether his books were legitimate anthropology or, at least for the most part, fiction.  But even being unaware of this debate, you had to wonder whether what Castaneda had written was primarily true.  Or wait...I should use a different word than true...let's say factual.  

I remember some time a bit later having a discussion about this with an acquaintance who was a fellow Castaneda reader, and by then, I'd read up on how most in academia apparently, anthropologists and others, now considered Castaneda a hoaxster. They held this view based on a variety of things about his work and so-called "field work"; they insisted he'd essentially fabricated his sagas about the sorcerer Don Juan Matus. Reading the critiques, I could understand why they dismissed Castaneda's work as factually "inauthentic". Given all the evidence, that's accurate to say.  But to describe him as simply a "con man" seemed reductive and also, my acquaintance and I agreed, missed the point. If you read the books, aside from the lively and descriptive and gripping writing, aside from the humor, aside from the adventure -- aside from all that and more -- you get immersed in the great storytelling which carries within it a wealth of perhaps not profound but certainly fascinating ideas.  Ideas presented in stories within stories within stories that, I found, are extremely entertaining to read.  When you've read something 37 years ago, as I have with him, and a decent amount of it remains in your mind as vivid and funny and fruitful still to think about, that's some damn good writing, and whether it's "fiction" or legitimate anthropology, doesn't matter.  I can understand why anthropologists and academics got pissed at Castaneda. That makes total sense.  If people in an academic field that's supposed to demand some scientific rigor make up a lot of what they write, that's a problem.  And a big one.  But if what's in the actual writing has truth in it, not literal truth perhaps but a more metaphorical truth if you will, who cares?  Bad anthropology, or non-anthropology, but writing that succeeds beyond the confines of whether it's factually authentic.  

It all reminds me of similar discussions on this whole truth versus facts question (remember, we're talking art here, not politics), that I've heard elsewhere.  Indeed, listening to Trickster made me think of some things Werner Herzog has said on the subject, and so why not wrap up here today with the ultimate soldier of cinema himself:

Monday, November 8, 2021

Flash in the Pan


Sometimes a little change can do a lot of good. As writers we often work towards the common goal of a full-length novel, because that’s what publishers want and that is what sells. In trying to create that book many writers have to set aside other, more spontaneous forms of expression like poems or short stories. Taking a break from the grind can do a mind and body good, so in the spirit of having a little fun, I’ve tasked my friends in RVA City Writers to a flash challenge.

Who are the RVA City Writers?

RVA City Writers (aka "RiVAh City Writers") is a group of wordslingers in the Virginia area who come together to promote and share the words of local authors usually working in dark genre fiction (crime, noir, horror, mystery). This gang ranges from the not-yet-published to the award-winning.

D Alexander Ward 🗡 Hugh Lessig 🗡 John Glover 🗡Julia Brugh 🗡 LynDee Stephens Walker 🗡 Marietta Miles 🗡 Phillip Thompson 🗡 Meriah Lysistrata Crawford 🗡Shawn A. Cosby 🗡 Shawn Reilly Simmons 🗡 Ward Howarth

What is the challenge?

Write a fifty-word flash. That’s it. However, the story must incorporate three randomly selected words and revolve around a single, overall theme.

The words have been drawn and shared; letter, afford, and yard. Pretty sexy words, am I right? And then we revealed the topic; despair.

When will they deliver?

Each writer has chosen a single Monday between now and the end of the year when their tale will be told. The three words must be used, despair must be the motif, and the word count must remain fifty or under. Next week I will post a calendar of who will be published and when.

I’m looking forward to reading the stories from each of these amazing writers and I can’t wait to share them with you.

Sunday, November 7, 2021

Review: Stuff the British Stole

A helmet full of stolen stuff—like a gift basket for a king!

By Claire Booth

A tiger. A shield. A bronze. A dog. A human head.

Each one gets an episode in this fantastic podcast. Stuff the British Stole isn’t so much a cataloging of what British Imperialists took from Indigenous Peoples around the world as it is a contextualization of the consequences.

It’s also, looking at it from a crime writer perspective, a fabulous true crime podcast. True, it’s crime in more of a global history sense than a street mugging sense (although that did happen, too—often by official representatives of the British Empire).

Take the human head. Or rather, heads. Hundreds of them from the Maori of New Zealand, who preserved and venerated them. Many had facial tattoos that were (and still are) enormously significant and spiritual. That made them highly sought after by British collectors; many ended up in British homes and museums.

Podcast host Marc Fennell talks to Maori who are working to repatriate the heads still in foreign possession. But he also takes his reporting a step to the side by talking to a modern-day Maori tattoo artist, who explained why the tattooing is so special, and how the British derision for it caused centuries of decline and contempt for the tradition. It was heartbreaking.

Stuff is a Australian Broadcasting Corporation production and a great example of the wonderful global-ness of the podcasting universe. It’s also an example of a creative work that gets its tone exactly right. Fennell is a light touch, using humor and cheekiness when appropriate, but also making sure to respectfully show the painful emotions still felt by the Empire’s victims.

I devoured Season One this week and am impatient to get started on Season Two, which is currently releasing an episode every Tuesday. I recommend you dive in before they run out of Stuff to feature—which should only take a few hundred years.

The Season Two logo. In an interview with the 99% Invisible podcast (which is how I discovered Stuff), Fennell said he originally wanted to use a different “S” word in the title instead of “Stuff.” Don’t worry. People are swearing enough as they listen—sample reaction of mine: “What the actual f***?”