Monday, February 27, 2012

The connections beneath the surface

by Alan Glynn

In a marketplace filled with legal thrillers, techno-thrillers, and crime thrillers galore, a true conspiracy thriller is a rare animal indeed.  This one opens with some sort of paramilitary operation in Congo.  The reader is thrown into a heightened situation without any exposition or background, and it’s a little disorientating.

From there, we are in the study of a young, Irish journalist, Jimmy Gilroy.  These are hard times for journalists.  Papers aren’t hiring, so you take what you can get.  What Jimmy has gotten is a cheesy biography of a troubled actress who died in a helicopter crash a few years earlier.  He is stunned when a former mentor calls and puts some not too subtle pressure on him to drop this utterly inconsequential job.  But it’s a paycheck, and he needs it. 
Next, the reader is introduced to a series of powerful men on both sides of the Atlantic, from businessmen to politicians.  Glynn isn’t spoon-feeding readers his story, and it takes a while to make the connections.  What other readers describe as being “slow,” I chalk up to complexity and brilliance.  The author made me work a little.  There were a lot of names, places, and people to keep straight and links to discover.  I got to uncover what was going on alongside Jimmy Gilroy, and I loved it every step of the way!
Now, this isn’t a novel with a lot of room for character development.  Actually, I think there was more “lack of character” development, because there were some seriously morally bankrupt people in this tale.  But I did think it was well written.  More than anything, I just thought the plotting was so deliciously complex and smart.  It was a pure joy putting these pieces together.  I thought the world of international powerbrokers in which Glynn set his story was fascinating.  While this novel didn’t have the same kind of pacing as an action thriller, I found myself unable to stop turning the pages.  Intellectually, I just NEEDED to know what was going on.  Mr. Glynn gave me several satisfying twists and turns, and I never came close to guessing the ending.  Tension builds throughout the novel as Jimmy gets closer and closer to the truth, and as those who are obfuscating it get increasingly desperate.   It’s all believable enough to make one wonder how much of the world really works like this. 
I’d highly recommend Bloodland to patient readers willing to work a little for a solution.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

A Winter's Tale

The Snow Child
by Eowyn Ivey

“Like many fairy tales, there are many different ways it is told, but it always begins the same. An old man and an old woman live happily in their small cottage in the forest, but for one sorrow: they have no children of their own. One winter’s day, they build a girl of snow.”

The quote above is about the Russian fairy tale that is the basis of Eowyn Ivey’s debut novel, The Snow Child. Set in Wolverine River, Alaska, shortly after WWI, a middle-aged couple is struggling to get their footing as homesteaders. Mable and Jack fled Pennsylvania in an attempt to escape their enduring sorrow over the stillbirth of their only child ten years prior. The couple is loving, but lonely on their own, their fondest wish having never been fulfilled.

One night, in an unusual fit of whimsy, the two fashion a snow girl, detailed down to the berry juice that stains her lips and a hand-knit scarf and mittens. The next morning, the sculpture is reduced to a lump of snow; the scarf and mittens are nowhere to be found. But over the next several days, both Jack and Mable spot a small, blonde girl at the edge of the woods near their home, on her own in the harsh environment. They see footprints in the snow. No one seems to know of a child in the area. No one seems to believe in a child in the area. But eventually Jack and Mable forge a relationship with this almost feral and quite possibly otherworldly child.

And that is the beginning of an exquisite and truly magical tale. Gently, gently the tale expands. An Alaskan herself, Ivey brings her landscape to life, in all its wintery beauty. Her use of language is likewise beautiful. Her characters are understated. Their lives are hard. But she takes the time to allow them to develop and show all of their subtle colors. New friends bring new life to this damaged couple, and do much to lighten and enliven the tale. The story unfolds in unexpected directions, and I kept changing my mind about whether I was reading realism or magical realism. I never knew how the tale would end. There was so much potential for both joy and tragedy. Ultimately, The Snow Child was enchanting from start to finish.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Who needs book recommendations when you have drinking buddies?

Me, Chris Kuzneski, Elle Lothlorien, Boyd Morrison, & Lissa Price

See this photo? It was taken in New York, four or five years ago. I’m looking bedraggled on the far left, and next to me is Chris Kuzneski, then Elle Lothlorien, Boyd Morrison, and Lissa Price. The four of us met about six years ago at the very first Thrillerfest conference in Phoenix, AZ. The only T-fest to be held in Arizona, actually. Anyway, I met these four and many others during what turned out to be a magical conference. At the time, Chris was self-published (on paper—this was before the Kindle was even invented), and the rest were completely unpublished.

Somehow Chris turned his initial self-pubbed thriller into a very successful mainstream publishing career. He’s published seven Payne & Jones novels at this point, and he's a bestselling author here in America.  In fact, his novels have been translated into 20 languages.  Intriguingly, I have it on good authority that he's at the very top of the bestseller lists in Britain.  The man’s a rock star over there!

Elle, who guest blogged here last week, had opportunities in traditional publishing, but is one of the new breed of novelists who has found great success self-publishing both electronically and in print. Like, quit-your-day-job success. She was recently named one of the 25 Self-Published Authors to Watch. (Boyd and several other friends made that list, too.) Elle’s readership is growing exponentially with each novel released, and fans are clamoring for her next, Rapunzel.

Lissa you may not have heard of yet, but I think that will all change in the next few weeks. Her debut YA novel, Starters, is being published by Random House on March 13, 2012. Less than a month away now! I read it a few weeks ago. It’s as close to Hunger Games-level awesomeness as any YA title I’ve read since falling in love with Collins’ series. We all think Lissa is poised for greatness.

And then there’s Boyd, who is the first member of this group that I really clicked with. I’ve been a huge fan and supporter of Boyd’s work since before anyone else discovered him. I’ve been reading (and criticizing the hell out of) his novels since we first met all those years ago. After failing to sell three novels to a “big 6” publisher, Boyd decided, What the hell? He posted his novels for free on the internet, and for sale in the Kindle store. Seven thousand sales later, Boyd was the first writer to turn self-publishing via Kindle into a major publishing contract. I’m still his biggest fan, (and FYI his next Tyler Locke novel may be the best yet).

This group of friends and I have looked at this photograph many times over the years. What amazing success they’ve each realized! What are the odds? All of them? Heck, they might as well crop me right off the end of that photograph, LOL.

I’ve discovered that one friendship leads to others. The gang above befriended Graham Brown before I did, but I met him through them several years ago, and now he’s my friend too. Boyd introduced me to Sophie Littlefield over a casual dinner in San Francisco while he was visiting a few years ago. As Sophie and I both live here, I get to see her more often, now, than he does. Not only is she just a lovely, lovely lady, but I started reading her novels out of curiosity after we met and now I’m totally hooked. Graham, too, for that matter!

In fact, in the past few weeks, I’ve read published or forthcoming works by Elle, Lissa, Boyd, Sophie, and Graham. I’ve got an audiobook of Chris’s on deck that I’ve been meaning to get to. And earlier this week I acquired a galley of Clawback by Mike Cooper, Sophie’s brother, who I had the pleasure of meeting at T-fest last summer. And just today I recieved a galley of the lovely Allison Leotta’s  sophomore novel, Discretion. I can’t wait to dive right in! I really loved her debut, Law of Attraction—another novel I read out of curiosity after meeting her a couple of years ago. Ali is also part of the gang of friends above. Membership just keeps growing and growing! And like so many of these people, Ali and I keep in touch and get together whenever we’re in the same city.

Elle Lothlorien, Paul McEuen, me, Lissa Price, Ali Leotta - All we do is eat.
Even I bring folks into the fold occasionally. Last summer, at the T-fest opening reception, I sought out novelist/physicist Paul McEuen to tell him how completely awesome his debut novel, Spiral, was. I walked up to him and said, “Dr. McEuen, I’m a big fan!” He wound up kibitzing with me and my girlfriends, until Lissa said, “Let’s all go grab dinner.” And abve is a photo from that dinner. I’m looking even more bedraggled than usual, but what a fantastic night that turned out to be! Now Elle, Lissa, Ali, and I are all fans of Paul’s, and I look forward to the day that I can add his next novel to my reading list.

Basically, I could read more books than the vast majority of Americans without ever stepping outside my social circle. Some months, it seems like all I’m reading are books written by friends, and believe me, this isn’t social obligation. It’s pure pleasure! I don’t read every writer I socialize with—even I don’t have enough time to do that. And perhaps it makes sense that I enjoy these writers’ work so much, since I enjoy the people creating the work so much.

Come to think of it, I have a few more books by friends on tap for the immediate future. Jeremy Bates's forthcoming debut novel, White Lies, is waiting on my Kindle to be read. As is Raymond Benson’s second Black Stiletto novel, Black & White. I really enjoyed the first Black Stiletto novel, so I'm looking forward to the new installment.  Heck, I even have a galley of Owen Laukkanen's The Professionals on hand.  I've never met the guy, but any friend of Elle's...

Many of us will be converging on Sacramento late next month for the Left Coast Crime conference. I’ll be in the bar, nursing a Coca-Cola and hanging with my friends. Who knows who I’ll meet at that conference? But I wouldn’t be surprised if I pick up a new favorite author, because who needs book recommendations when you’ve got drinking buddies?

The night we ditched Kuzneski for Boyd's far more beautiful and charming wife, Randi.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

“Quiet was as close to happiness as we would ever get”

We the Animals
by Justin Torres

When I was younger, I had the very naive idea that most families were pretty much like mine.  I’m older now, and I no longer thing that.  Told from the perspective of the youngest son of three sons, We the Animals is the story of a profoundly dysfunctional family.  It’s not without joy and not without love, but these people are very messed up.  The interracial parents exhibit the kind of passion that is frequently explosive.  The sons are rowdy, affectionate, neglected, and perhaps caught in the same cycle of poverty as their parents.

Debut novelist Justin Torres writes beautifully and with affection for his characters.  The tale is told episodically, almost as a collection of linked stories.  At the beginning, the unnamed narrator is just turning seven, and at the very powerful and moving conclusion he is in his mid-teens.  Except, it isn’t really a conclusion; it’s just where the story happens to end.  (It would certainly be interesting to revisit these characters later in life.)  The book comes in a brief 144 pages, but they’re an intense 144 pages and the book didn’t need to be any longer. 

Were I to summarize the book in a single sentence, it would be the following quote: 
“Ma stood up from her chair, lifted the receiver, and placed it back down again in one quick movement—and for a moment nothing, maybe even a full minute, long enough for our ears and clenched muscles to relax, long enough to remember and realize fully something we had long suspected: that silence was absolution, that quiet was as close to happiness as we would ever get.” 
 This is a family drama worth reading.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Third in a series, but works fine as a stand alone

The Devil's Elixir
by Raymond Khoury

As many thrillers as I read, somehow I hadn’t yet made it around to Raymond Khoury.  So, even though I hadn’t read earlier Templar novels featuring Sean Reilly and Tess Chaykin, I decided to dive right in.  Fortunately, Khoury’s enough of a pro to gracefully exposit everything I needed for this novel without spoiling past tales.  I didn’t feel like I was missing a thing.

The Devil’s Elixir opens with three brief prologues that establish elements of the story.  After that, the action takes off with a bang.  Specifically the bang of the gunshot that kills former DEA agent Michelle Martinez’s boyfriend the moment he answers the door to her apartment.  The killers then go after Michelle.  She grabs her four-year-old son, gets out, and calls the most trust-worthy person she can think of, former flame Sean Reilly.  He gets on a plane no questions asked and gets sucked into Michelle’s inexplicable nightmare.  She hasn’t worked in law enforcement in years, but these killers won’t quit. 

Of course, this is barely the beginning of what turned out to be an entertaining page-turner.  As noted earlier, there’s plenty of action, but story doesn’t suffer in service of it.  Things move at a consistently fast pace.  I won’t claim these are the most well-developed characters of all time, but they’re likable enough that I cared about their fates.

Finally, there was a major twist in the last quarter of the novel.  Ultimately, I’m not sure what I thought of it, but I didn’t see it coming at all.  Overall, it was well-handled.  This was a positive enough introduction to Khoury’s work, that I’m much more interested in reading the earlier Sean & Tess novels and will certainly consider reading future works.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

There is very little about this little book that I didn't like!

The Odds: A Love Story
by Stewart O'Nan

It opens, “The final weekend of their marriage, hounded by insolvency, and, stupidly, half secretly, in the never distant past ruled by memory, infidelity, Art and Marion Fowler fled the country.”  Yeah, it’s a bit unwieldy, but it gives you the basics of the entire novella’s plot, which is this:

After decades of marriage, and deep into middle age, Art and Marion are at the end of their rope.  Both are out of work.  They’re about to loose the house.  The marriage is shaky.  The kids are out on their own, but the two of them are flat broke.  So they’ve decided to go for broke.  For their anniversary weekend, they’re heading across the border at Niagara Falls where they spent their honeymoon all those years ago.  They’ve got the Honeymoon Suite, and they’re hitting the casino.  They’re smuggling across the last few tens of thousands in cash they have left.  If they can double it, they can keep the house for a while longer.  If they can’t, they’ll loose it all.  And if so, they’ll return home and get divorced to protect what very little they may be able to salvage.

The novella tells the story of what happens that weekend, but also the story of Art and Marion’s lives together, their past indiscretions, and secrets or secret agendas one or the other may have.  Dispersed regularly throughout the book like chapter headings are statistics:

  • Odds of a U.S. tourist visiting Niagara Falls: 1 in 195
  • Odds of being killed in a bus accident: 1 in 436,212
  • Odds of the sun coming up: 1 in 1
  • Odds of a U.S. citizen filing for bankruptcy: 1 in 17
  • Odds of the Cleveland Indians winning the World Series: 1 in 25,000

These statistics were a bit like a running commentary on the action, and also on the times in which we live.  (And I found myself wondering if any of them were true.)  In any case, I found them to be a delightful and often comic punctuation to the story.

I’ve never read Mr. O’Nan before, but his prose was a pleasure to read.  His characters had all the quirks and flaws of real people, and I got to know this couple and appreciate what they had together.  The spare story moved quickly, and like any story that builds up to a roll of the dice, it keeps you hanging on to the very last page.   I rooted for a happy ending.  Frankly, I was just hoping for resolution, because you never know with these things.  I left satisfied, and feeling like I’d just discovered a tiny gem of the new year.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

GUEST BLOGGER POST: Finding Your Inner Bitch on Valentine’s Day by Elle Lothlorien

Let’s talk about Cadbury eggs. No, seriously.

A good friend of mine loves Cadbury Eggs. You know—those fondant crème chocolate eggs that are ubiquitous as Peeps just before Easter. Sure, I’ve seen them at other times of the year, but they’re usually relegated to a remote corner of a Walgreens, lurking on an untouched section of shelf, and covered with enough dust to give you Black Lung Disease.

So I was surprised when I walked into a grocery store right before Christmas and saw a fresh-looking display front-and-center, overflowing with dust-free Cadbury eggs. I immediately called my friend, sure she’d be excited by the news. “You’re not going to believe this,” I said in a taunting, sing-song voice. “I am staring at an entire display of fresh Cadbury Eggs right now!”

I figured that after she did a backflip and saluted the judges, she’d demand that I buy every one of them on the spot. Instead, she sniffed, “I never eat anything the Easter Bunny’s laid before the Christ Child is born.”


Let’s talk about Forrest Gump. No, seriously.

At a writer’s conference a couple of years ago, a group of us were enjoying a round of drinks in the hotel bar, when the topic of Forrest Gump came up. All agreed that it was a fine, funny movie and, well into our second, third, and even fourth cocktails, each of us threw out their favorite Forrest Gump platitude. There were the usual suspects: “Peas and carrots,” and “I was ruuunning!” and “Life is like a box of chocolates.”

My friend, who I will refer to as “Forrest” solely for purposes of anonymity, paused briefly before saying, “I never understood that one. ‘Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get?’ What do you mean you don’t know what you’re going to get? You’re going to get f**king chocolate!”

Oh dear.

Each of these anecdotes has two things in common. 1) Chocolate. 2) They both eventually found their way to a file in my computer called “Funny/Stupid Shit My Friends Say When Sober/Drunk That I Will Later Use in a Novel/Guest Blog Post at Some Point with Only a Minimal Effort to Hide Their Identity.”

No one is spared. To be fair to me (and I love to be fair to me), I give these people fair warning. When I meet someone for the first time and discover that they’re very funny, I tell them, “Just to let you know, anything you say can and will be used in my next book.” You can ask anyone.

It’s at this point in my guest blog posts that I usually provide a tie-in of sorts between the humorous anecdote and the business of publishing or the pleasure of reading. Now, you might think these two stories share no immediately discernible commonalities. Ah, but you’d be wrong.

As you can see, they both have to do with chocolate. Hey, it’s Valentine’s Day, it’s almost obligatory.

And…that’s pretty much it.

No, wait! There is one other thing. Let’s talk about Your Feminine Side. No, seriously.

Your Feminine Side is the part of you that you’re supposed to be “getting in touch with,” as if it’s an old college roommate you stopped calling fifteen years ago after they became richer and more successful than you.

Instead of “Getting in Touch with Your Feminine Side,” I recommend that you “Find Your Inner Bitch.”

Because your Feminine Side wonders if their significant other will buy you chocolate on Valentine’s Day. Your Inner Bitch just drives to the store and buys those dusty Cadbury Eggs for herself.

Your Feminine Side sits at home on Valentine’s Day and wonders if it’s okay to be single after all this time. Your Inner Bitch goes to a hot-tub party with other single girlfriends, and agrees with the group that if you were married/in a relationship, you’d probably be spending V-Day picking dirty boxer briefs off the floor, and telling him for the umpteenth time that him farting constantly in front of you drastically reduces the odds that he will ever bed you again (the limp bouquet of flowers he picked up on the way home notwithstanding).

So, whatever your status today, married or single, find Your Inner Bitch and just make it happen. Save Your Feminine Side for when you’re PMS-ing and reading your free copy of The Frog Prince or Sleeping Beauty, my two romantic comedies that I’m giving away FOR FREE, in the Kindle Store today in honor of Valentine’s Day.

And don’t forget to have Your Inner Bitch pick up the chocolate on the way home.

A “military brat,” Elle Lothlorien was born in Germany, and spent her childhood in such far-flung places as Puerto Rico, Charleston, S.C., Italy, and Washington, D.C. Sadly, the only language she ever became semi-fluent in is English. An early mid-life crisis propelled Elle Lothlorien to take a Lindy Hop swing dance class at a Denver bar. Three years (and a few ankle and knee braces) later she does a mad Charleston and can pancake like nobody’s business.

Elle lives in Denver, Colorado, and keeps two dachshunds around the house to provide comic relief.
You can find Elle Lothlorien’s romantic comedies The Frog Prince and Sleeping Beauty on Amazon. Her third romantic comedy, Rapunzel, will be released in the spring. You can read more about her and her upcoming novels at, Facebook, and by following her on Twitter.