Saturday, January 28, 2023

Reading Into the Dark


By

Scott D. Parker

At least nine times a year, I start a book with zero knowledge about it. And it’s wonderful

We’re all readers here, right? How do you usually pick that next book to read? If we’re in a brick-and-mortar store, we look at the cover, we note the author, read that all-so-important description, and then maybe a few pages of chapter one. If we’re online, all of that is still present, but we get the added bonus of that preview. We can actually read the entire preview before we make that purchase decision. Oh, and then there are the reviews—from professionals as well as amateurs.

In every step of this process, we constantly build on what we think the book is going to be about, especially if you’ve got a good book description.

When’s the last time you started a book without any of that? Okay, you can throw in the author, title, and book cover because you actually have to pick it up or download it, but nothing else.

For me, three out of every four months, I get to do that.

I’m in a four-guy science fiction book club that has lasted now over twelve years. We take turns picking the book, we read it during the month, and then gather on the first Tuesday of the next month to discuss. It is at the meeting where we offer our grade and then the Picker gets to explain why he picked the book. When it’s my turn to assign a book, I’ve already gone through every step mentioned above.

Sometime in 2021 (or maybe 2020), I started going into the books picked by the other guys cold. Nearly every selection is on audio so the day the new book is picked, I download it (via Libby and my local library or Audible) and start playing. In this manner, I experience pure story. Sure, I’ve seen the cover and read the title and author, but that’s it.

I love it. With so much of our lives dictated by a myriad of decisions—including the books we read—it’s great to have that choice offload three out of every four months.

What I really love is when there’s a book by an author I don’t know. It happened with this month’s selection: Dead Silence by S. A. Barnes. Knew nothing about it and it is the book to beat for 2023. It’s a rare trick when a book’s spooky nature and a narrator’s excellent performance literally gives me chills and compels me to turn around on my nightly walks to make sure I’m alone.

I find having a book picked for me quite fun. It also happens every month with my cozy mystery subscription through Houston’s Murder by the Book. I do read those book descriptions because I think they are among the best, pun-filled descriptions out there.

With the monthly SF book and the cozy book already picked for me, it frees me up to make my own selection with more care. After all, even with audiobooks, there is only so many story hours in a month.

Note: since there are so many hours in a month to read or listen to stories, if the book is bad or isn’t capturing me, I pull the rip cord and stop. I do not feel compelled to finish. The other guys in the club used to question me and my response remained constant: Life’s too short to read bad books or books you don’t enjoy. Thus, when I give it a grade—officially an I for Incomplete—I’ll explain why the book failed me.

So, have you ever read a book without even reading the book description or reviews or anything? You should try it sometime. Get into a book club, but if that’s not an option, have a spouse or friend select your next book and just read.

Photo: Mo Eid via Pexels.com

Thursday, January 26, 2023

Beau chooses Hell

 


This week, Beau takes a look at Angel Luis Colón's HELL CHOSE ME.


“Equal parts profound and profane, HELL CHOSE ME is a damned good read—a vividly imagined pulp nightmare best read through splayed fingers.” – Chris Holm (Anthony Award winning author of THE KILLING KIND)


“Angel Luis Colón levels up in his first full-length novel with superb writing and a voice that seizes you from page one. A dark, dirty, gritty delight.” — Jennifer Hillier, author of JAR OF HEARTS


Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Never Let Go

A former crime reporter, Lori Duffy Foster knows her way around a strong story.  She has invented one in her new book, Never Let Go, and she tells it with the swiftness and efficiency of a consummate professional.

The novel opens with a woman called Carla taking a bath and thinking about her baby with much anxiety.  When a voice comes through the room's walls asking her "What do you think you're doing?", we know something is seriously wrong and that she has an immediate reason for being so tense.  Over the first chapter, we learn that in the small town where they live -- in rural western New York State -- Carla and her six-month-old named Christopher have been kidnapped by Carla's best friend, Rachel.  Rachel is Carla's childhood friend, in fact, someone who spent many hours of their childhood in Carla's house.  Rachel has sold Christopher off to people as part of an illegal adoption and, obsessed with Carla's husband, as she has been since their high school years, though she's hidden this obsession for a long time, she plans to use Carla's absence as a means of replacing her in her husband's life.  She needs Carla alive, though, at least for the time being, to give her exact tips on her husband's likes and dislikes.  She needs specific details on things like how to kiss him, how to touch him, what to say to him, so that she's all but guaranteed to turn him on sexually. The husband, Nick, has no idea what happened to his wife and son other than that they were abducted -- he doesn't even know whether they are still alive -- and seducing a man in that state will take guile.  Of course, Nick has no clue that Rachel, always coming by the house ostensibly to keep him company and bring him food, is the one who took his wife and kid.  He doesn't know that Carla is a short drive away, locked in a soundproof basement Rachel devised beneath her house. Nick never was all that keen on Rachel, to be truthful, but in a time of such anguish, he could be vulnerable.  He could be open to the affections of someone who appears to be upset herself and who's pretending to be helpful in any way she can.

Scherezade had to tell stories to keep herself alive.  Carla finds herself in the horrible position of having to coach her abductor on how to excite her husband.  This is valuable information to Rachel, and without it, Carla might lose all worth to Rachel, become expendable. It's a situation that in the hands of the wrong writer could become melodramatic and far-fetched, but Foster makes it all plausible.  It's actually the kind of story you do sometimes come across, in all its craziness, in true crime shows on channels like Oxygen.  Except instead of the breathless and hyperbolic narrator, we get Foster's even and forward-moving narration, a seamless flow of ever-increasing suspense.  She knows exactly what she's doing, and through third-person narration, she's adept at getting into the thoughts and emotions of both Carla and Nick.  They are intelligent yet ordinary people caught up in a horrific situation, and their fear, rage, equivocations, and reversals of thought are captured with precision.  We care about these very relatable people suffering through about the worst situation any parents could suffer, and we want them to vanquish Rachel, a cunning and twisted foe, and get back their child.  And even if they do all that, will their marriage survive?  They love each other, but their marriage, like most marriages, had subtle fault lines before the crisis ensued.  After everything they have to go through, no matter how it turns out, positively or disastrous, will they be the same people as they were before, a couple who can just pick things up after the abduction and carry on?  And what about their son?  What about Christopher? If they get him back alive and in good health, will he even remember who they are?

Foster has a second plot interwoven with the double kidnapping plot, and this one involves a murder, the discovery of the remains of a teenage boy killed years ago. The town's police chief, Sawyer Hamill, investigates, and this thread of the novel is quite interesting in and of itself, with Sawyer poking around into the victim's past, the town's past.  The intercutting between the two plots is skillful, the respites from the kidnapping strand making you eager to get back to it, while at the same time, you want to find out what happened to the teenage kid.  He was a somewhat mysterious kid who seemed to be a misfit when he attended high school, but as Sawyer finds out, to his surprise, the victim may not have been a weirdo at all.  Things come to a head with Sawyer involved on both fronts, and both plots, I should say, have satisfying payoffs.

In Never Let Go, Lori Duffy Foster has written a book that one zips through feeling the most basic reading instinct one can have: you want to find out what happens next.  She combines a pure suspense tale with a murder mystery, and with an effortlessness that is admirable, she pulls the whole package off quite well.  

Saturday, January 21, 2023

The End of New Amsterdam and the Twilight of Network TV for a Gen Xer

by

Scott D. Parker

One of my favorite TV shows ended its five-year run on Tuesday and I’m wondering if it’ll be the last great network show I watch.

New Amsterdam


Like Castle, New Amsterdam had me at the trailer. The show starred Ryan Eggold (whom I knew from The Blacklist) as Max Goodwin, the new medical director at New Amsterdam, the oldest public hospital in America (based on the real Bellevue hospital). Eggold’s performance on The Blacklist stood out, especially when he was in the same show as series star James Spader, but with Max, Eggold had a role to which he could bring his considerable charm and humanity. It didn’t hurt that he had Max’s mantra as a north star: How can I help?

If you watch the trailer, you get what the series was about: helping people despite the massive forces standing in the way. Over five years, and through a pandemic, Max and his colleagues kept running up against seemingly insurmountable odds. Sometimes they’d win, other times they’d lose, but they kept trying, striving to do what they can.

New Amsterdam ran on Tuesday nights on NBC right after the massive hit This is Us. My wife watched that show from the jump and, like many viewers, often ended episodes with tears in her eyes. I didn’t watch that show, but New Amsterdam proved to be my weekly dose of heartwarming tears.

Storytelling-wise, the writers of New Amsterdam often used a very small story—often a single patient—to tell a larger tale. Like all good TV shows, the supporting cast each had their time the spotlight. A particular favorite was Tyler Labine's Iggy Frome, a psychiatrist, who often ran up against the pillars of big medicine just as much as Max did. A season 5 recurring theme for Iggy was the crumbling of his marriage and having to come to terms with himself before reaching out to his ex-husband and asking him for a simple date, to try again.

Sandra Mae Frank's Dr. Elizabeth Wilder was the Chief of Oncology. The actress is also deaf. She became a love interest to Max in the last season and I found it wonderful not only to see how a deaf surgeon navigated the world of the hearing in the operating room but also how the writers showed a burgeoning love often in silence and sign language.

I enjoyed seeing Jocko Sims's chief surgeon come to terms with things he could not easily fix--like his personal life as well the relationship with mostly absent father--and how Jocko imbued Floyd Reynolds with deep grace and understanding. And Janet Montegomery's Lauren Bloom, a character who grappled with addiction and showed how the messiness in life can be dealt with, but that it's hard and it takes one day at a time, one decision at a time, and the struggle never ends.

The writers and directors brought all their resources to bear in fun way, sometimes using time-honored tropes quite effectively. They did so for the finale episode, adding a nice twist that pulled all the tears from my eyes. [I’ll add my thoughts about the finale at the bottom of this post.]

But what really got me thinking about the end of New Amsterdam is what it might signal for me as a viewer: Would this be the last network TV show I watched on a regular basis?

Network TV for Generation X


Born in 1968, I remember when there were three networks, PBS, and a local UHF station here in Houston. By the time I got to middle school, we had two more local stations, but that was it. Every fall, the three networks would roll out their Saturday morning cartoon lineup, showcasing them in specials that aired the previous night. There'd be articles in the local papers for the new fall TV shows (including a side-by-side grid) and big splashes on TV Guide. I remember scanning all those resources and then making a schedule for what I'd want to watch.

This practice pretty much continued through the publication history of Entertainment Weekly and the birth of the internet when information was much easily found. I'm always game to see what the Big 3 had planned.

With the birth and rise of streaming TV, however, things began to change. Netflix would drop every episode of a new show and you could binge them all in a weekend. Other services followed suit. It was a different way to watch TV. Not wrong, mind you, but different. Just because I grew up in the weekly format doesn't mean I don't appreciate having all episodes of a season at my fingertips. Ever since last summer, my family has been watching the entire run of Friends, an episode a day at dinner, something that would have been difficult prior to streaming. But there is something to having a week to think about and digest plot elements and revelations of any given episode. I remember when Lost was airing, the morning after, a group of us would discuss the newest episode over coffee. It was quite fun.

Things change and I change with them. That's how life is, but I will say I dug when Disney+ opted to drop episodes of its Marvel and Star Wars TV shows on a weekly basis. Sure, it meant the company would secure subscriptions for a longer time, but it was fun to think and read about what the latest revelation about Wanda (WandaVision) or The Mandalorian or Andor might mean.

As Fall 2022 approached, I did my usual thing that I've done all my life: I scanned what was returning and what new shows would debut. New Amsterdam was top of my list even though I knew going in it would be its last. And a shortened 13-episode season at that. It was, however, the only returning show I watched and cared about. The only other network show I watched live--SyFy's Resident Alien--wouldn't be returning until 2023.

That left the new shows. As I read about them and watched previews, I experienced something foreign to my experience: none of the shows appealed to me. Granted, I'm a middle-aged guy now so that might be a thing, but you'd think the shows at CBS would be in my wheelhouse. Some of them probably should be. I'm looking at NCIS or FBI, but for whatever reason, I just never started.

The Future of Network TV


So what's next? Network TV is not going away, but perhaps that majority of its viewers are. The Boomers are slowly dying and us Gen Xers are now in middle age. Millennials grew up in the 1980s and 1990s so they remember what it was like to be in front of a TV on Thursday nights (or set the VCR) but for Gen Z, the ones born in the late 1990s, I don't think network TV barely registers. My son, now twenty-one, rarely watched anything on "live" TV after he stopped watching Blue's Clues. His network is YouTube and streaming. When he moved out of the house, I made sure to load the apps of the local TV stations on his smart TV. "It's for the weather at least," I told him. He just showed me his phone. "I get the weather here."

And he gets his TV there, too.

Now that New Amsterdam is gone, network TV is now the place I watch Stephen Colbert every night. And football until the Super Bowl and then golf on Sunday afternoons without football. If you throw in ESPN, it's also the place I'll catch NBA games, but I think you're seeing the trend. Network TV might become the place for live events where scripted TV shows are things I'll catch on a streaming service.

Might network TV have lost a viewer? Unlikely. Come next fall, I'll still read about the new shows. There might be another New Amsterdam, a new This is Us, or a surprise sitcom that comes out of the blue. I will always be curious to see what network TV has to offer.

But it has been a fascinating realization that the end of New Amsterdam likely marks a point in my lifetime of TV watching.

What about you? Do you still watch network TV or are all your favorite shows on a streaming service?


The New Amsterdam Finale with Spoilers


One of the tropes the writers used in the finale was to give each character their origin story via flashbacks. We see how Max, Elizabeth, Iggy, Lauren, and Floyd each found their way into the practice of medicine. I'll add that I kind of hoped for a flashback to Anupam Kher's Dr. Vijay Kapoor but, as my wife suggested, perhaps the show and the actor didn't part well. Ditto on both accounts for Freema Agyeman as Dr. Helen Sharpe, Max's previous love interest.

In one of those tricks via editing, you see Max's last day at New Amsterdam with his young daughter, Luna, as they try and get out of the hospital. Max has resigned the position of Medical Director in order to spend more time with Luna. There is, of course, a major emergency that will harness the powers and abilities of all the staff and it forces Max to miss the mermaid parade yet again (it's something Luna always wants to attend but they kept missing it because of Max's job, thus the resignation).

 


The editing trick is where you see what is presented as the next medical director, a young woman who showed up and has to deal with whispered rumors about her. Halfway through the show, as Max's edict of "How can I help?" has been uttered more than once, I looked over to my wife and said, "If the final four words of this entire series isn't 'how can I help?', then the writers will have missed a golden opportunity."

They didn't, but they went one better. My wife figure it out first and suggested it: "I think that new medical director is Luna all grown up."

Boom! That is exACTly what it was. Some writer I am. I didn't even see it coming (although, to be fair, I rarely try and guess stories while I'm in the middle of them because in that moment, I'm a viewer/reading rather than a writer).

Turns out, Luna's origin story was Max's last day at New Amsterdam. And it is she, looking directly at the camera, who speaks those famous four words: How can I help? Cut to black and cue the tears.

Oh, and props to the writers for not showing us older versions of the same characters. I first thought I might've wanted to see a gray-haired Max, to see him be proud of his daughter, but then realized my error. And here's the veteran writer tip: you don't have to see Ryan Eggold in old person makeup to know he's proud of his daughter. If you've written characters well, stuff like that is understood and doesn't always have to be shown. Besides, New Amsterdam no longer belonged to Max. It's Luna's story now.

Thursday, January 19, 2023

Beau recommends Laird Barron

 

This week, Beau takes a look at Laird Barron's Black Mountain

When a small-time criminal named Harold Lee turns up in the Ashokan reservoir--sans a heartbeat, head, or hands--the local mafia capo hires Isaiah Coleridge to look into the matter. The mob likes crime, but only the crime it controls . . . and as it turns out, Lee is the second independent contractor to meet a bad end on the business side of a serrated knife. One such death can be overlooked. Two makes a man wonder.

A guy in Harold Lee's business would make his fair share of enemies, and it seems a likely case of pure revenge. But as Coledrige turns over more stones, he finds himself dragged into something deeper and more insidious than he could have imagined, in a labyrinthine case spanning decades. At the center are an heiress moonlighting as a cabaret dancer, a powerful corporation with high-placed connections, and a serial killer who may have been honing his skills since the Vietnam War.

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

The joys of the slush pile

It's my first post of 2023 and I'm going to spend it looking backwards. 

Maybe it's not the right time of the year for that. You, surely, want to hear about my resolutions and goals for 2023. You want to hear about why I think this year is going to be the best year ever. And, shit, it might very well be, but that's not what this is about. 

Three years ago I started as an Editor for venerated crime fiction site Shotgun Honey. But on January first, my watch ended. 

I have no idea how many stories I read over the course of those three years. A lot, I'm certain. One thing about Shotgun Honey: as soon as they open, writers come out swinging. 

Most of the stories, I think, were okay. Some were good. A few were excellent. A surprisingly small amount were out and out bad (though when something is a stinker - the kind that makes you close your laptop and go give the dog a few pets? that hangs around in your head a bit). We published the good ones and cherished the excellent ones, but the thing I didn't know about being an editor? Each and every story sticks with you. Not the plot. Not the names of the characters of the specific twist at the end, not even the aesthetics of the story. It'd take a superhuman memory to remember all those details. But every single story I read as an editor taught me something. Every single story added to the membrane in a writer's brain, the fatty muscle between the ocular fibers and the ether in which creativity breeds itself in to a new form each day that says, "see? This is how that works," or, "Oh, this isn't working because of what happened here" until the writer can recognize the structures and patterns and techniques subconsciously. 

That seems obvious. Writers learn by doing and by reading. But the thing about a slush pile (especially a near never-ending slush pile like Shotgun Honey has) is that there's a LOT of reading. An amount of reading that can feel overwhelming and insurmountable. If that seems like a complaint, it's not. It was an opportunity. A challenge. And an education. My writing is better because I read so many stories. Because I read so many good stories. Because I read so many stories that didn't quite work. 

And, ultimately, that's the reason I stepped aside.

My life is really busy. I've got a wife. A kid. A dog. A house. A job. Family. And hobbies other than writing and reading (someday I'm going to do posts on the Zen of painting Warhammer and the storytelling rules you learn playing Dungeons and Dragons). But I made it work for three years. And I could have made it work for more. But if being an editor is a constant education, an always repeating exposure to what works and what doesn't work about storytelling, it's also not fair to hoard that knowledge for myself. 

It was time for me, in a lot of ways, but that also means it's time for someone else. I've come to truly believe that anyone who wants to improve as a writer needs to read a slush pile; that nothing will make you sharper about story and more certain of aesthetics, and more aware of the power of structure than reading a whole lot of stories that do things well and reading even more stories that don't. After long enough you'll be able to recognize whether or not a story is going to work within the first sentence. And after that, you'll learn to be on the lookout for those marvelous, rare, stories that show you a sentence that doesn't seem like the rest of it is going to work, and then the joy when it comes together to pummel you in the face. 

I have no idea whose name will be on the editorial masthead of Shotgun Honey when they reopen later this year, but I'm certain, whoever they are, that when they eventually leave, they'll be a better writer than when they started. The lessons of the slush pile are myriad and contradictory, but when enough time, they become one of the most powerful educations a writer can have. 



Monday, January 16, 2023

Ed Aymar delivers NO HOME FOR KILLERS






NO HOME FOR KILLERS

E. A. Aymar

Available February 1



“Blends Shakespearian tragedy with street savvy for an engrossing and entertaining novel like none other you’ll read…a benchmark in noir fiction.”

– James Grady, legendary creator of Condor and author of This Train



E. A. Aymar releases another thriller, NO HOME FOR KILLERS, and once again proves he has talent and heart. He has the remarkable ability to craft fast paced, intense reads highlighting his pitch-perfect dialog and complicated, compelling characters. As well, his storytelling does not turn away from the ugly and the profane, indeed Aymar handles dark subject matter with sensitivity and sincerity. His use of such subjects is purposeful, often underlining Aymar’s bigger picture, the story of violence and the control it has on so many lives. Ed has a lot to say.

NO HOME FOR KILLERS introduces us to the Peña family. Markus Peña, jazz musician, social activist and brother to Melinda and Emily, is found murdered in the early part of our story. Former social worker Melinda, traumatized after years of trying to save the fragile and weak, and Emily, a justice seeking undercover vigilante, come together to find out who committed this crime. As his sisters work to discover who killed him and why, they uncover many ugly truths about their brother and revisit dark family secrets and pain all while trying to outwit and outrun brutal criminals.

Previously Aymar delivered the smart and kick-ass female led THEY’RE GONE, a book acclaimed by Publishers Weekly, Kirkus and named one of the best books of 2020 collections by the South Florida Sentinel. 2019 saw THE UNREPENTANT, the tale of desperate eighteen-year-old Charlotte as she runs from an abusive home only to end up kidnapped and forced into an even darker life, set atop the finalist list for several awards including Foreward Indies, Readers Favorites, Next Gin Indie and the Anthony. THE UNREPENTANT also graced the Amazon bestseller list. And his Dead Series, I’LL SLEEP WHEN YOU’RE DEAD AND YOU’RE AS GOOD AS DEAD, amassed rave reviews from crime and thriller readers.

Ed doesn’t just write, he continues to sharpen his craft and finds the time to help new writers, as well. His column, “Decisions and Revisions,” appears monthly in the Washington Independent Review of Books. He is a former member of the national board of the International Thriller Writers and, for years, was the managing editor of The Thrill Begins, an online resource for debut and aspiring writers. He is also an active member of Crime Writers of Color, the Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime. Plus, he runs the Noir at the Bar series for Washington, D.C., and has hosted and spoken at a variety of crime fiction, writing, and publishing events nationwide. He manages the popular and well-regarded monthly newsletter called Crime (Fiction) Works featuring upcoming top crime fiction novels, interviews, and monthly prizes for subscribers. Click HERE to sign up!

Ed loves writing. It’s clear. And with the passion and talent he puts into every project you know you're going to be THRILLED.



Saturday, January 14, 2023

Intentional Reading

By
Scott D. Parker

Do you ever feel left out of a conversation?

It’s only mid-January and while the year is still brand-new, the old year still has a few remnants lingering. The biggest me for is the various Best Of lists still readily available. I read many of them—books, TV, movies, music—and made an interesting observation about the book ones: I read few of them and could not contribute to the conversation.

I’m an avid reader I have anywhere from 2-5 books going on all at once. Well, let me clarify: I’m re-reading Ryan Holiday’s The Daily Stoic in 2023 so I’m only reading a page a day, but it’s still active. I’m blazing through the audio of Dead Silence by S. A. Barnes (for my SF book club), I’ve started Vinyl Resting Place by Olivia Blacke (from Murder by the Book’s Cozy Mystery subscription service), I’m re-reading P.D. James’s Talking About Detective Fiction, and I’ve bought a copy of The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene. The Blacke book is new and the Barnes book is just shy of a year old and the rest are older.

I have always liked my rabbit-trail way of reading. I’m easily influenced, be it from podcasts, news interviews, Twitter, or recommendations by my fellow writers at Do Some Damage. But when it came to reviewing the Best Mysteries of the Year or the Best Non-Fiction of 2022 or just about any other book list from 2022, I found myself woefully behind.

And it’s not even close.

As such, I created a resolution specific to reading and it boils down to a single phrase: Read Intentionally.

What does that mean as a practical habit? Well, it means I’ll be more aware of books that are released throughout this year and make active decisions to read more new books in 2023 than I did in 2022. I still get to made judgement calls—I’m aware that Prince Harry published a book this week but I have zero interest in it.

On the fiction side of things, this week saw the publication of Jordan Harper’s Everybody Knows. I can’t tell you how many fellow writers read this book pre-publication last fall, but it seemed like it was everyone. The praise was universal. Throw in the blurbs you see on press releases and the book cover and you’ve got yourself a contender for a Best Of list in 2023 right out of the gate.

Harper’s book was the first can’t-miss book of the year, and I didn’t. I download the audiobook on release day and am looking forward to giving it a listen.

Later, as the year goes on and more books like Harper’s are released, I plan on keeping up. Then, come December 2023, I’ll have a list of favorite books that will include newly published ones. Why the emphasis on ‘newly published’? Because I still find myself drawn to older books and I don’t want to leave them behind.

Agatha Christie


For the past few years, in light of the success of the Rian Johnson films (Knives Out; Glass Onion) and the Kenneth Branagh adaptations of Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile, I’ve been curious about Agatha Christie. 2020 celebrated the century mark of her first book and the yearly reading challenges started. I didn’t do very well before but I intend to change that. I plan on reading—intentionally—the books on the Read Christie 2023. This year’s theme is “Methods and Motives.”

Good news: I’m one for one. Sad Cypress is January’s book and I’ve already listened to it. Even better, if you check out the website, they’ve listened ten of the twelve books on tap for the year. That way, you and I can stay abreast with the new challenge and read at least twelve Agatha Christie books. I’m particularly looking forward to February’s book, Partners in Crime, the second book in the Tommy and Tuppence series.

Oh, and you don’t have to read the books they suggest. They have a particular method of murder or a motive and you are free to pick any of her books. But as a Christie newbie, I’m just going with the flow.

Friday, January 13, 2023

Cover Reveal: Magic City Blues

Guest Post by Bobby Mathews

I never met Robert B. Parker, but I owe him. I found the Spenser novels by chance — and coincidentally, the book was called Chance as well — when I was in my mid-20s. College was over, and I was drifting, with no real sense of who I was or wanted to be. I was nearly feral with my lack of either social graces or any sense of will that would break me out of the red-dirt road life I’d been raised in. Then Spenser and Hawk came into my life, chasing the daughter of a Boston crime lord who had run off with her ne’er-do-well husband. I was hooked instantly.

In the years since, I’ve read everything that Parker ever published, save for his doctoral dissertation. I hunted down the rare Three Weeks in Spring, read Early Autumn and A Savage Place and Looking for Rachel Wallace so many times that the covers wore off the the cheap paperbacks that were the only versions of the books that my local bookstore carried. I can still recite the opening line of A Godwulf Manuscript by heart — “The office of the university president looked like the front parlor of a Victorian whorehouse.” Those books sang to my heart in a way that very few other things have. In many ways, meeting Spenser and Hawk and Vinnie (and yes, even Susan), helped me see that a different life was possible. That I could be the man — the adult — that I wanted to be.

But I owe someone else, too.

Bobby Mathews

Around the same time I found Parker, I discovered Donald Westlake (in all of his many names). I love the Dortmunder novels and the Sam Holt novels and the Mitch Tobin books. I have hunted high and low for the hundred-and-something books Westlake wrote during the course of his lifetime. From I Gave at the Office to Kahawa to Humans to What’s the Worst That Could Happen? I drank down every last Westlake novel that I could find, like a thirsty man plunging his head into cool, clear water that would save him.

One of Westlake’s alter egos, Richard Stark, wouldn’t save anybody. He wrote brutal, short noir novels that were, above all, about a workman — a sociopathic antihero named Parker — doing his work, which happened to be stealing. Parker was in a rough business, rougher and bleaker than Spenser’s. But I loved it anyway. The first line of Stark’s 2001 novel, Firebreak, features what I believe to be the most perfect first line in all of crime fiction: “When the phone rang, Parker was in the garage, killing a man.” And yes, that one’s burned into my memory, too.

So Parker and Westlake … blame them for what comes next. I used the enforced solitude of the pandemic to write a couple of novels. The book I’m here to talk about, Magic City Blues, was written and sold first. Due to the vagaries of independent publishing, I withdrew the book from its original deal. (I’ve written extensively about the situation before, but if you want to hear it again, find me at Bouchercon in San Diego. I’ll be happy to hold forth.) Thankfully, Shotgun Honey Books offered to rescue my book. As it turned out, Magic City Blues is no longer my debut, but my second novel. A hell of a way to avoid the sophomore slump.

I’m proud to reveal the cover (designed by Ron Earl Phillips) here at Do Some Damage, and here’s a short synopsis that hopefully gives you an idea of what the book is about:


When low-level legbreaker Kincaid takes on a new assignment, he discovers it's not really a step up — it's a setup. The deal was supposed to be this: Protect Abby Doyle, the daughter of Birmingham, Alabama's most dangerous crime lord. But when Abby's fiancé is found murdered, Kincaid is forced to team up with BPD detective Laura D'Agostino to find the killer and protect Abby at all costs ... even from her own father.

One of the things I always loved about Parker and Westlake was their ability to lead the reader through their milieu — Parker’s Boston, Westlake’s New York — and I hope that I’ve done that with this book’s setting, Birmingham, Alabama. I hope you’ll come along for this dangerous, bloody march through the city. And if you see the shadow of a Boston PI or the ghost of a cold-blooded heister, know that it’s on purpose. Parker and Westlake have gone on to whatever reward is in the next life, but their creations still cast long shadows in the work of other writers, maybe especially in my own.

Magic City Blues drops on February 24, 2023. Pre-order HERE.

***

Bobby Mathews is the author of Living the Gimmick (Shotgun Honey Books) and co-editor of the forthcoming Dirty South: High Crimes and Low Lives Below the Mason-Dixon Line (Down & Out Books).


Thursday, January 12, 2023

The Final Frontier

 


This week, Beau recommends Keelan Patrick Burke's Guests.



After the death of the woman who raised him and the realization that the girl he loves will never love him back, young Mark Callahan decides it's time to leave the small harbor town of Miriam's Cove for good. All that remains is one last shift at The Windcrest Hotel, a seaside resort that has seen better days.

Tonight, with a ferocious winter storm bearing down on them, there are few staff and fewer guests, until a last-minute booking takes everyone by surprise. There's a small yellow tour bus bound for The Windcrest and soon the hotel will find itself under siege by something much worse than the storm.



Tuesday, January 10, 2023

A Meaningful Life

Once upon a time, a novel that's described as a "blistering black comedy about the American quest for redemption through real estate and a gritty picture of New York City in collapse" would not have been one that piqued my interest very much. The "blistering black comedy" part of this description would have drawn my attention as would the part about the book being "a gritty picture of New York City in collapse".  The period of collapse mentioned is the late 1960s, early 1970s, a time of high crime rates in the City and large pockets of urban blight.  It's a time, pre-gentrification, that some romanticize now for its griminess.  So far, so good.  But "redemption through real estate"?  A while back, that phrase would have not sounded especially compelling to me as a reason to pick up a novel and read it, but now as the years have passed and I own property, even if I'm not looking for anything like redemption -- more like just hoping I can go a few months without something breaking down in that house and causing me to dig into my bank account to fix it, yet again -- the idea of a novel centered around the ups and downs of real estate and your own relationship to a house you bought is one that I can relate to.  And absolutely it sounds like a fertile area for the darkest of dark comedy.


Such is the novel A Meaningful Life, by L.J. Davis, published in 1971.  It caught my eye in a Brooklyn bookstore, and when I read the description and saw the blurb on it from Paula Fox and read the introduction by Jonathan Lethem (these two, of course, having written some of the greatest Brooklyn novels ever), I was intrigued enough to buy it. Lethem describes it as one of the three great Brooklyn novels from that particular era, along with Fox's Desperate Characters and Thomas Glynn's The Building (which I haven't yet read). We are in the time of brownstones in what is now upscale Park Slope well before the area's "recovery".  As Lethem puts it, "The dystopian reality of late 60s and early 70s outerborough New York City can be difficult to grant at this distance; these streets, though rich with human lives, were collectively damned by the city as subhuman, crossed off the list.  Firehouses and police stations refused to answer calls, whether out of fear, or indifference, or both.  As L.J. told me once, most simply, 'Anyone who chose to move to the neighborhood was in some way crazy.  I know I was.'  How precarious this existence was -- morally, sociologically, financially -- was never exactly permissable to name outside of L.J. books, or at least not with such nihilistic glee."

Davis' main character is Lowell Lake, from Idaho. He comes to New York with his Brooklyn-born wife, who he met as a sophomore at Stanford University.  They drive across the country to live in New York City and then begin their life in Manhattan, Lowell with the intention of becoming a great novelist.  The novelist part never pans out, and Lowell winds up working for years as a technical editor at a periodical while his marriage to Betty, in ways cringeworthy, recognizable, and funny, gets worse and worse.  

On a whim, after a subway trip that lands them in the wilds of Park Slope Brooklyn, he buys a run-down brownstone occupied by people you can only call squatters.  He insists that he needs to have the house despite his wife's trepidation.  This house somehow will change his life, give it a purpose, make his existence meaningful...he thinks.  It does not, naturally, but it does become something that obsesses him, further poisons his marriage, and both saps and sustains his creative side. It even, in the end, involves him in a murder, the consequences of which he seems oddly unconcerned about.  

Davis writes with great nuance and control, able to switch tones at will from droll to detached to bleakly funny to menacing.  I laughed many times reading the book and felt myself quite often on edge, sometimes during the same passage.  A Meaningful Life is an urban novel par excellence and yet another example of a novel that drew attention when it was published but then faded into obscurity.  It happens to good novels so frequently.  In this case, Jonathan Lethem and then the New York Review of Books helped bring it back into the light, and it's a great thing they did.  Well before the Brooklyn of now, the thriving Brooklyn, the hip Brooklyn, that is home to countless television series both dramatic and comic, there was the Brooklyn of L.J. Davis' A Meaningful Life.  It captures the moment in time that was the dawn of the real estate transformation in a neighborhood, and though I live in the highly transformed Brooklyn of today (in Bed Stuy, not Park Slope) and hope not to end up where Lowell Lake does by the end of Davis' book, I could understand all too well a good bit of what his character goes through.  Glad I read it.

Sunday, January 8, 2023

Year in Review: Nonfiction in 2022

 

 

 By Claire Booth

 

As we start a new year, I wanted to take a look back at the old one and what I ended up read on the nonfiction front. I keep terrible track of the fiction I read—I think because I do it so many different ways: buy real books, buy ebooks, check out both kinds from the library, borrow from friends. But with nonfiction, I tend to read ebooks because my ereader is easier to use late at night. Here’s what I did in 2022.

 

Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs, by Camilla Townsend

I started off the year with what turned out to be one of the best books I’ve ever read, a history of the Aztecs from their perspective. Taken from journals and writing done in the window of time when Aztec children were taught to read and write by Spanish priest but still had living relatives who knew the stories and ways of life from before the European invasion. It’s fascinating and heartbreaking.

 

The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story, by Douglas Preston

You might know him as half of the thriller duo Preston & Child, but he also travels the world doing things most people could only dream of. Here, he travels to the Honduran jungle to take part in the discovery of a prehistoric city in an unexplored valley. Naturally, he gets more than he bargained for.

 


The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century, by Kirk W. Johnson

This one was both nonfiction and crime. Johnson tells the best kind of true crime read—full of extraordinary characters, quirky, and so unbelievable it has to be true.

 


Origin: A Genetic History of the Americas, by Jennifer Raff

 

 




Fermat's Enigma: The Epic Quest to Solve the World's Greatest Mathematical Problem, by Simon Singh

 

 

 



The Writing of the Gods: The Race to Decode the Rosetta Stone, by Edward Dolnick

 

 




Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War, by Howard W. French

 

 




The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It . . . Every Time, by Maria Konnikova

This book isn’t about confidence. It’s about cons. It’s an excellent window into the kind of mind that doesn’t have a problem with taking every penny you have. It’s turned out to be a very useful reference when I’m developing characters.

 



Unmasked: My Life Solving America's Cold Cases, by Paul Holes

 

 

 

 

 

Ancient Bones: Unearthing the Astonishing New Story of How We Became Human, by Madelaine Böhme, Rüdiger Braun, Florian Breier

 

  An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us, by Ed Yong

This was a beautiful book. The writing was beautiful, the subject matter was beautiful, it makes me happy just thinking about it right now. Read this book.

 

The Dark Queens: The Bloody Rivalry That Forged the Medieval World, by Shelley Puhak

 

   Brunelleschi's Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture, by Ross King

   


God's Shadow: Sultan Selim, His Ottoman Empire, and the Making of the Modern World, by Alan Mikhail

 

 

 

 

  If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal: What Animal Intelligence Reveals About Human Stupidity, by Justin Gregg