DRIFTWOOD in paperback!

Folks, Driftwood, a first-rate novel by my friend and colleague Elizabeth Dutton, is now out in paperback! Only $9, so snag it here. To celebrate the occasion, and, hopefully, entice more to buy and review this excellent book, I’m re-posting my review of Driftwood. Also, if you’re so inclined, check out her website here.

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I’ve been a serial obsessive for most of my life, and many of the things I’ve obsessed over–eating shrimp two meals a day, wearing green sweat pants, and dying of carbon monoxide poisoning, to name but three–I’ve managed to, more or less, move past.  But music and California are two obsessions that will always dominate my imagination. And in Driftwood, the debut novel by Elizabeth Dutton, I can indulge in both of those long-standing obsessions.

Here’s the basic set-up: Clem Jasper (great f-ing name!) is an L.A. trust fund kid with a well-known rock musician for a father who dies suddenly while playing ping-pong.  Still reeling from the loss and trying to figure out her place in the world, Clem receives a rather strange inheritance: a bundle of letters from her father instructing her to visit several meaningful yet mysterious destinations around California.

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Clem’s a quirky and relentlessly self-commenting narrator, but an oddly likeable one.  She is one part misanthrope and one part romantic.   As a reader, I sympathized with her, gobbled up her irreverent remarks and witticisms and spot-on commentary about, well, everything. In short, Clem is that often-talked-about-but-rarely-realized round character.

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The other brilliant aspect of this book is the setting: California. In Dutton’s hands, California comes alive, becomes something more real, more interesting, more quirky than the glittering yet static version of California that’s lived in my imagination for so long. I particularly enjoyed the oddball characters Clem meets in the towns she visits; I relished the descriptions of the landscape, the weather, the vibe of each new place she goes in search of gaining a deeper connection with her father. And, of course, there is the music. Yes, many songs and bands (both real and fictional) are mentioned, discussed, and evaluated, but what struck me the most was the (forgive me) music of the road.  Throughout Clem’s journey, she is attempting to find a rhythm for her life, to write her own song, one that redefines who she is and what family means.

Bottom line, I highly recommend this book.

Favorite Novels of 2015

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When combing through the list of books I’ve read this year, these five really lingered, got under my skin, stuck in my head. . .and stayed there.  If you haven’t read any of these, you should as well as the other books I’ve reviewed on this site (check archives). But, alas, these are my favorites.

  1. Dear American Airlines, Jonathan Miles. Bennie Ford, a failed poet turned translator, gets stuck at the airport while on his way to his estranged daughter’s lesbian wedding. An acerbic, heartbreakingly unflinching autobiographical letter to (yup!) American Airlines follows. This inventive play on the traditional novel form is howlingly funny, dangerously insightful, and, my favorite, sneakily soulful.
  2. The Perfect Son, Barbara Claypole White. After his wife and super-mom Ella is hospitalized indefinitely by a sudden heart attack, Felix Fitzwilliam, an OCD financial geek with zero patience, must, for the first time in his seventeen years as a father, become a real parent to their son Harry, who, aside from having a high IQ and a perfect SAT score, suffers from Tourette’s Syndrome. This one was a pure reading pleasure, mostly because of the careful and touching portrayal of all the characters, especially Harry.  The difficult relationship between the father and son really resonated with me, and I was moved by the surprising, yet inevitable ending of the novel.
  3. The Land of Steady Habits, Ted Thompson. Anders Hill, an empty-nester living in Connecticut, blows up his cushy life by divorcing his wife and opting for a small condo instead. Hilarity–and humility–ensues. Maybe even some personal growth. This book is a modern day Rabbit, Run, but, in my opinion, funnier.
  4. Outline, Rachel Cusk. This one, more than any other book I read this year, snuck up on me. A friend recommended it to me, I read the synopsis and wasn’t really excited. I read it, anyway, and wow. . .Essentially, it’s about a woman flying to Greece to teach a creative writing class.  That’s it.  But really, it’s about observation, listening–really listening.  It’s also a master class in storytelling as the protagonist reveals next to nothing about herself, and yet I was riveted the whole time.  Not a great description, I know, and yes, some readers–namely, impatient ones–will give up within a page or two, but if you read on, if you think about what you’re reading, you will be rewarded.
  5. Rumrunners, Eric Beetner. The plot: Webb McGraw, an aging rumrunner, is given a lucrative pick-up-and-drop-off gig by Hugh Stanley, who presides over a criminal empire “running anything and everything illegal.” Used to driving American muscle cars, McGraw enlists the help of a long-haul trucker to drive the eighteen-wheeler, which, of course, turns out to be a huge mistake. McGraw gets highjacked, barely escaping with his hide in tack, but now he’s faced with a dilemma: run and hide, or go back to Hugh Stanley and admit failure? This is a well-written pot boiler brimming with good dialogue, memorable characters, and thrills on every page.

Book Review: One Dead, Two to Go by Elena Hartwell

 

Attention mystery fans hungering for the good stuff: One Dead, Two to Go is a full course buffet. Infidelity, murder, and kidnapping are all on the menu, but the main course is Eddie Shoes (great name!), who is an engaging, resourceful, and tough female P.I. Throw in her poker-playing, Mafia-connected, breaking-and-entering mother named Chava and a pot-boiler of a plot, and I finished this book with a full belly, yet starving for more Eddie Shoes adventures. The writing is cinematic and vivid, the characters well-drawn, but the dynamic between Eddie and Chava, which reminded me fondly of Cagney and Lacey, is what makes the story. Fans of the Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich should definitely check out One Dead, Two to Go. Recommended.

Note: I was given a free copy of this book by Camel Press in exchange for an honest review. One Dead, Two to Go is available for preorder here.

 

Book Review: DEADLY CATCH by E. Michael Helms

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After a quarter century as a Marine, Mac McClellan needs an extended vacation. And what better place than St. George, a sleepy beach town on the Florida panhandle, to fish, drink beer, and figure out how to spend the second half of his life.

But there’s a problem: McClellan hooks a dead body on his first cast of the trip (talk about a buzz kill!). The body turns out to be a young woman, who has been missing for a while and just so happens to be engaged to a low-level drug dealer in way over his head with the wrong people. McClellan begins investigating a bit, and he soon realizes there is a bigger (and even more dangerous) plot afoot involving drug smuggling, murder, family feuds, political corruption, forbidden romances, and good old-fashion greed. McClellan survived the IED-filled streets of Iraqi, but will he make it out of St. George alive? And stop the bad guys in the process.

Overall, this is an enjoyable mystery with a flawed yet likable lead character in Mac McClellan. He is resourceful, trustworthy, funny, and iconoclastic, all attributes one looks for when starting a new series. And Kate Bell, his feisty girlfriend, is an interesting character, relatable in the best way possible, and I, for one, hope to see more of her in future installments. (I particularly enjoy the scenes where the two of them are working on the case together as they have real chemistry.)

In some instances, however, the author relies too heavily on summary and exposition when, for my money, it would have been nice to see some of that stuff hashed out with “action,” if for no other reason than McClellan is such an engaging character I wanted to watch him operate even more. But still, there is much to praise in this mystery. The first person narration reads as if that cool, former-vet uncle of yours is telling you a whale-of-a-story, and the town of St. George is described so well it actually feels like another character. Too, the author obviously knows his boats and fishing and Marine life, and that attention to detail gives both the narrative and McClellan himself a real air of authenticity, which I greatly appreciated.

Bottom line, I recommend this series to fans of the Spenser series by Robert Parker, and I also see many favorable similarities between Mac McCllelan and Quinn Colson, the Army Ranger turned sheriff character featured in the excellent books by Ace Atkins. I definitely recommend Deadly Catch. I’m already reading Deadly Ruse.

Reading Recommendations

Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell. This is an entertaining and informative book. Learned quite a lot about the “adaptive unconscious” and the “power of thinking without thinking.” blink

The Tailor of Panama, by John le Carre. A spy novel that moves at a glacial speed, but nobody does dialog and characterization and language like le Carre. (Note: this is not a James Bond-esque spy thriller; think literary spy thriller on a slow, low boil).

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Deadly Catch: A Mac McClellan Mystery, by E. Michael Helms. McClellan, a former marine, is a dynamic, interesting, and formidable series lead, and this is an enjoyable page-turner. Definitely gonna read the next installment.

 

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SHAMUS IN A SKIRT by M. Ruth Myers…only .99 cents!

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Okay, the Maggie Sullivan books are definitely among my favorite of the P.I. series running, so I’m delighted that the latest installment, SHAMUS IN A SKIRT, is available now for only .99 cents! The third book, DON’T DARE A DAME, won the Shamus Award for Best Indie Novel last year, and it’s great. Check out a bit of my review below to get a flavor of these first-rate mysteries.

Myers definitely makes good on the “strong women” in this novel, especially the protagonist Maggie Sullivan.  Tough and pretty with a smart mouth and a strong moral compass, Sullivan is a “dame” a reader can root for.  This is the passage in chapter one that really sold me on this character when Sullivan takes a bully down:

I hated to persuade him, but Neal seemed like one of those guys who needed taking down a peg or two. I gave him a quick little kitten jab in the snoot. Not enough to break it, just enough to start blood gushing down to his chin and get his attention. . .’Don’t drip on the rug on your way out,’ I said.

Now that’s my kind of detective, but if you remain unconvinced of her toughness, here’s a great exchange between Sullivan and one of her operatives after she’s caught a beating herself:

“Holy smokes, Sis! Someone roughed you up bad.”

“Yeah, but I shot him,” I said to allay his dismay. ..

“Was it Cy Warren’s mugs did it?”

“Nah,” I lied. “Some girls have a fan club. The one they started for me is people lining up to break my nose.”

 

Book Review: TRIO OF LOST SOULS by Jack Remick

On the surface, Trio of Lost Souls is a simple story. Bill Vincent, a prize-winning journalist and leather-clad biker, exacts revenge on three men who inflicted horrible violence upon his wife Claire. The novel begins with a stark description of Vincent bludgeoning these three men to death, and then speeding away on his Black Shadow. From there, he hits the road, wandering from town to town, drinking and picking up odd jobs and meeting interesting characters.

Back to the part about this being a simple story. The Kerouac-esque vibe of the narrative is both familiarly satisfying and oddly foreign, and I often stopped to re-read passages of description for the sheer pleasure of the language and attention to detail. Remick knows California, its people and landscapes the way, for instance, Jim Harrison knows Montana, or Ron Rash knows the Appalachian Mountains. Like all good road novels, there is a very strong sense of place, and as I turned pages, I came to know California, began to experience it through the eyes of Bill Vincent. Which brings me to another aspect I particularly enjoyed: the protagonist. In the hands of a lesser writer, Vincent could have easily come across as a caricature, but he doesn’t, and that is a testament to Remick’s powers as a novelist. Through some type of alchemy that most writers simply do not possess, Remick manages to portray Bill Vincent as an often-talked-about-but-rarely-realized well-rounded character, and I think he achieves this, partially, with another skill a lot of writers don’t have: restraint. Adhering closely to Hemingway’s iceberg principle of character development, the reader sees only a small portion of who and what Bill Vincent is, and the rest is left up to the imagination. That takes trust and active participation by the reader, two things I prize highly of any writer, especially a novelist. To put a coda on Bill Vincent, I think what really drew me in was how Vincent, who is essentially a decent man, started off by running from the police, but ends up running on instinct. Although Vincent clearly loves his wife Claire, and he deeply regrets that he had to kill those men, he is, at heart, a seeker. Perhaps I’m projecting myself onto the page, but I do believe there is a small part of every man who secretly wonders if he would be up to the challenge of meting out justice for the woman he loves. And, of course, many men often fantasize about hitting the road and living off one’s wit.

Bottom line, the still waters of Trio of Lost Souls run deep. If you’re a fan of Jim Harrison, Ron Rash, or even Cormac McCarthy this book is definitely worth a read. Recommended.

Acknowledgment: I was given a free copy by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

 

 

Book Review of THE ACCIDENT by Chris Pavone

This is the definition of a page-turner.

The plot: an unauthorized biography of Charlie Wolfe, a billionaire media mogul, lands in the hands of Isabel Reed, a high powered literary agent. This manuscript entitled The Accident unearths some serious crimes perpetrated by Wolfe, and therefore, it’s worth killing for. Of course, those backing Wolfe–the CIA, namely–will stop at nothing to destroy the book and anyone who has read it or even knows about its existence. The characters are very well drawn, especially Isabel Reed (sympathetic, tough, resourceful) and the CIA operative known as Hayden (polished, morally-bankrupt). The descriptions, particularly of New York City in general and the publishing industry specifically, are a joy to read. Thematically speaking, this novel could (and should) be categorized as a literary book, for moral ambiguity permeates every aspect of the narrative, including the ending. Finally, another fun layer of the book is this: scattered throughout the novel are excerpts from the unauthorized biography, and every character who comes across the manuscript literally cannot put it down, it is so engrossing; the same could be said for The Accident (the novel itself).

I really liked this one, and now I’m definitely going back to read Pavone’s first novel.

 

Book Review: WOLF IN WHITE VAN by John Darnielle

Impatient readers need not apply here, but if you allow the hypnotic voice and fragmented imagery and disjointed narrative structure to carry you away, you can and will find great reward in these pages. To me, this isn’t a novel in the conventional sense. It is more of a twisted yet highly readable mind map of the protagonist, a horribly disfigured young man who invents a choose-your-own-adventure game called Trace Italian. He creates (and runs) this game via snail-mail, partly to help heal both his mind and his body after he shots himself in the face and has to spend a very long time in a hospital. The game attracts a cult following, and two teenagers–a boyfriend and girlfriend–actually get so into the game that they lose touch with reality and one of them, the girl, dies while playing it. Another player dies as well under similar circumstances, but thematically speaking, these are minor because the game (and Wolf in White Van itself, too, really) is just a metaphor for the human brain–and the very wonderful and truly horrific things it is capable of. I guess you could also file this novel under the Character Study category, which I enjoy, especially if the character in question is so confounding. And this one definitely qualifies. As I read this book, I started to imagine that I was traveling down every single synapse in this guy’s brain, that I had access to every thought, dream, nightmare, fear, fantasy. . .and yet I still couldn’t say I know what makes him tick. (To the book’s credit, there is a passage in here where the protagonist actually admits there isn’t anything that makes him tick.) You could also discuss, at length, the various ways in which imagination plays a key role in fiction in general, and this novel in particular, but I’m just going to suggest you start reading it and see for yourself. 

Bottom line, I finished Wolf in White Van almost a week ago, and I’ve found myself thinking about it every day since. What else can I say?

Book Review: BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALFTIME WALK by Ben Fountain

This book is amazing on many different levels. First, it’s an intimate character study of Billy Lynn, one-eighth of the Bravo company who performed a singularly heroic act in Afghanistan. Billy and his fellow soldiers are now on a Victory Tour across America to rally support for the War on Terror, and a majority of the novel takes place at the old Cowboy Stadium during a football game. Over the course of the book’s barely 300 pages, the reader gets to know Billy–I mean really gets to know him. . .warts and all, and he is sympathetic character for a million reasons besides his youth and newly-appointed status as a National Treasure. Billy grapples with the obvious things–war, death, etc.–but he also tries to figure out what it means to be a human being, first, an American solider, second, and a young man with normal hangups and desires, third.

Another reason this book is riveting has to be the writing, and more specifically, the passages about America and Americans. Just one fantastic, funny, sad, and dead-on-balls accurate sentence after another about how we talk, think, behave, and interact with each other and the world around us. My favorite has to this though (don’t have the book in front of me, so I’m paraphrasing): Americans are polite as long they get their way. How great and f-ing true is that statement? This book is packed full of truisms like that one, and for my money, that’s what the book does better than anything else: it holds a mirror up to the face of America. . .and the image reflected back is equally beautiful and terrifying.

Oh and if you’re into that sort of thing, the main setting–the old Cowboy Stadium–serves a useful, apt, and rather depressing metaphor for our great country.

 

http://www.amazon.com/Billy-Lynns-Long-Halftime-Walk-ebook/dp/B00655KLOY/ref=cm_cr_pr_product_top