Saturday, January 14, 2023

Intentional Reading

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