Book Review of American Crow by Jack Lacey

To paraphrase the late great Elmore Leonard: a novelist should cut out the parts that readers skip over.  This is excellent advice, advice which Jack Lacey, author of American Crow, seems to have taken to heart.  The pacing of this novel is frenetic, the scenes chock full of action.

American Crow begins with our hero Sibelius Blake vacationing on a beach in France with his seventeen year old daughter. A freak accident occurs, and the daughter dies, rendering Blake unfit to continue his line of work: finding people who no other bounty hunter or private investigator can (or will) find.  But after a brief fallow period, Blake, a tattooed, rough-around-the-edges Londoner, takes a case in America. His mission: locate an eighteen year old girl named Olivia.  Sounds easy enough, but there are, of course, a multitude of complications. For starters, Blake is wanted by the authorities in the U.S., so he has to sneak into the border via Canada to get to Minnesota, where Olivia was last seen. Once Blake makes it to Minnesota, he follows up some leads and soon discovers that Olivia has joined a local activist group.  This group has gone down to the Cumberland Mountains in Kentucky to protest a very large and very powerful mining company, the head of which is a dangerous man named Corrigan.  That, as they say, is when the fun starts. No spoilers, but Blake runs into trouble at practically every turn, and his troubles keep the reader entertained (and suspended) until the last page.

I did have one or two criticisms of the book, however. One, the author repeatedly uses. . . (dot, dot, dot)  This becomes noticeable almost after the first chapter, and every time it takes the reader out of the story a little. Two, the dialogue of the Southern characters does not, in many places, ring true. Born and raised in North Carolina, perhaps I’m just hyper-aware of Southern speech patterns, and how different they can be from one state to the next, one town to the next.  That said, I found not just some of the dialogue but some of the portrayals of Southern characters, well, caricature-esque.

Bottom line though, Sibelius Blake is an interesting lead character, and there is a cinematic quality to Lacey’s narrative that is addictive.  Too, I think the author’s background as a journalist is a real asset as the writing is taut, the level of detail spot-on.  I recommend American Crow, especially to those hooked on the Jack Reacher series, or those who can’t pass up a lightening-fast plot with solid prose.

http://www.jacklacey.co.uk

american crow

This book, featuring Blake, a rough-around-the-edges, tattooed man who specializes in finding people who cannot be found,

Revision of Go Go Gato…Meet Eli Sharpe, PI

I just received my editor’s comments on Go Go Gato.  Aside from minor tweaks, they are asking I change the main character’s name.  After several days of kicking around names with my wife, and a writer friend of mine at work, and my students, and pretty much anyone whose path I’ve crossed recently, I have settled on… Eli Sharpe.  I’ve always loved one-syllable first and last names, and I dig the name Eli.  Too, I’ve always been obsessed with the cadence and rhythm of a person’s entire name.  Eli Sharpe, to my ear, rolls off the tongue.  Hopefully, one day, the stories of ELi Sharpe will be as loved as the stories of my favorite PIs: Elvis Cole, Spenser, Conway Sax, and Boone Daniels.

I’m very excited to begin reworking Go Go Gato for publication next year. I’m also very grateful to Camel Press for the opportunity to bring my stories to print.

http://camelpress.com

Review of Shotgun Lullaby by Steve Ulfelder

Conway Sax, a recovered alcoholic with a checkered past, is a man who pays for his sins one favor at a time. In Shotgun Lullaby, the third book in the series, the initial favor is squaring a small car loan debt for one Gus Biletnikov, a wiseass college boy who recently joined the Barnburners (think: Alcoholics Anonymous, but even more intense).  After Sax erases the debt with his fists, he takes a keen interest in helping Gus stay sober and get back on his feet, for the young Biletnikov reminds Sax of his own estranged son.  But the real problems start when Biletnikov falls off the wagon.  First, someone guns down a kid staying in Biletnikov’s room at Almost Home, a halfway house for people fresh out of a rehab or jail. Figuring (correctly) that Biletnikov was the actual target, Sax vows to find out who is after Gus Biletnikov…and why.  This leads to problems with the sordid cast of characters in Biletnikov’s orbit, which includes a gorgeous, but hatable step mother, a smooth-talking con man, a burnt-out drug dealer whose in love with Gus, and a father-son duo of gangsters.  The plot in this one keeps you guessing until the very end.

But what makes this installment of the series stand out is the depths to which Sax is willing to go to redeem himself and, at least in part, to do penance for his past transgressions. Loyalty is not just a word with Conway Sax; it is a lifestyle.  True, Sax has a black and white view of the world and is intensely loyal. He is also prone to fits of rage and violence, but he is not a violent or immoral man. Similar to the violence depicted in Breaking Bad, the violence in this novel is not gratuitous; every punch thrown, every gunshot fired, every life taken costs Sax something, and, by extension, costs the reader something.  This, in a way, elevates this book (and the series) beyond the typical PI/mystery book genre, makes it social commentary…highly readable, extremely enjoyable commentary.

Bottom line, Conway Sax is a good man, and in today’s world where people’s loyalties and moral compasses change depending on self-interest and survival, there is something incredibly admirable about this character’s dedication to family and friends. Put another way, I not enjoy reading these books, I actually relate to Conway Sax. Perhaps it is my INTJ personality, but like Sax, I take my commitments seriously and never give myself a break. Neither does Sax. This makes him the most realistic fictional PI out there right now.  This series is, in a word, revelatory. I hope to one day write something this good…and this relevant. 

http://www.ulfelder.com

shotgun lullaby

 

 

 

from issue #1: ‘Meeting James Crumley’ by Noel King

James Crumley is almost entirely responsible for my fascination with private detective novels. I first read The Last Good Kiss in graduate school, and I’ve read it at least seven or eight times since. That number doesn’t include the countless times I’ve re-read my favorite highlighted passages for inspiration and for pure enjoyment. C. W. Sughrue remains my all-time favorite PI, and Crumley’s prose is, for lack of a better word, addictive. This blog post was a joy to read simply because I wish I could have gone to a bar in Montana, ordered a beer, and met one of my literary heroes.

White Heat by Paul D. Marks

In White Heat, former Navy SEAL turned PI Duke Rogers makes a quick $250 dollars by locating the address of Teddie Matson, a burgeoning TV actress.  A day later Matson is murdered, and Rogers, wrenched with guilt, sets out to find the killer.  Set in L.A. during the riots following the Rodney King case, Rogers is beset on all sides by looters and gang bangers, stalkers and criminals, grieving families and damsels in distress, fires and bullets. But it is Rogers’s conscience that proves to be the biggest obstacle. Occasionally calling on the assistance of Jack, a racist/xenophobic ex-SEAL who is eerily likable, Rogers is a formidable hero and more than interesting enough to carry a series.  No spoilers here, but I liked the ending precisely because every narrative thread was not neatly tied up, and yet, in the vivid, hard-boiled world Marks has created, justice is served.

White Heat won the Shamus Award for Best Indie PI novel in 2013, and I certainly see why.  There are several elements to this book that make it more than just the run-of-the-mill private dick story.  Exhibit A: the fantastic descriptions of Los Angeles. Having been to L.A. a total of once, most of my ideas about La-La Land come from TV, movies, and books. Marks does a remarkable job of portraying a city in crisis, a portrayal, I might add, that is more vivid than Raymond Chandler’s L.A. and more realistic and complex than James Ellroy’s. (Note: I love both of those writers and their books).  Exhibit B: the palpable tension running through the narrative. Stalking is a big theme in this book, and as I read, I felt the fear, anxiety, and paranoia gripping me.  Throughout the novel, there are italicized sections of inner monologue that serve to put the reader inside Rogers’s head and in the belly of the riots.  Exhibit C: the commentary on race. It’s damned hard to successfully weave social and/or political commentary into a novel without coming off as preachy, but Marks pulls it off.

Bottom line, I’ve come up with a simple question for determining if a book is really good or not: how many hours of work and/or sleep did you lose because you couldn’t stop reading? Let’s just say I have a stack of ungraded essays on my desk, and my eyelids are very heavy. Cheers to the author of White Heat for that.

P.S.–Check the author’s blog linked below. Love his thoughts on old noir films.

White-Heat-cover----new-pix-batch----D22b

http://pauldmarks.com/index.html

http://www.amazon.com/White-Heat-P-I-Duke-Rogers-ebook/dp/B007SIR8QG/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1386340106&sr=8-1&keywords=white+heat+paul+marks

Writers I Admire: Steve Ulfelder

I’m a sucker for a good series, and the Conway Sax books are not good, they’re great.  Sax, a part-time mechanic, part-time PI, specializes in doing “favors” for fellow Barn Burners, or recovering alcoholics. As a former drunk, Sax has a checkered past, which, in a variety of interesting ways, both haunts and motivates him to assist other former alcoholics, even when they are ungrateful or downright despicable. But what I dig most about Sax is this: he is a decent guy, an American hero in the same vein as the Colson Quinn character in Ace Atkins’s novels.

In “The Simple Art of Murder,” Raymond Chandler says this about the detective: “He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it…He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job.” To me, it’s almost as if Chandler were writing about Conway Sax. 

Aside from the main character, however, there are many other excellent reasons to read Ulfelder’s books. The wonderful clipped prose. The fast-paced narratives typically centered around loyalty and redemption. I could go on, but I’ll let the writing speak for itself. Click on the link below, and read the opening chapter of Ulfelder’s latest novel Shotgun Lullaby.  

Shotgun Lullaby

Writers I Admire: Video with Ace Atkins

This is Ace Atkins talking about his latest Quinn Colson novel The Broken Places. Atkins, a former Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist, is, in my humble opinion, the best crime novelist in America. In this video, I love what he has to say about American heroes, Mississippi, and, best of all, the craft of researching and writing. If you haven’t read any of the Colson books, you should. They go in this order: The Ranger, The Lost Ones, and The Broken Places. 

http://www.aceatkins.com

 

 

 

 

Advice for Writing a First Novel, Part 3

Congratulations!  You have a completed rough draft of your very first novel.  You deserve a bit of a celebration.  Grab a gluten-free muffin and a decaf.  Do a couple of deep knee bends, and put your butt back in the chair because now the real fun begins.  (Actually, I’m quite serious about the fun part; I really dig the revision process, but I am, admittedly, OCD.)

  • Read the entire manuscript and make notes only on plot issues. As a mystery reader and writer, I am obsessed with plot.  The narrative is what keeps a reader turning pages, so make sure your plot a) makes sense, b) creates tension and suspicion, c) moves at a moderately rapid pace, and d) provides a surprising, yet inevitable and satisfying ending. And the only way I know to achieve a, b, c, and d is to revise, revise, revise, revise, and then revise some more. A quick tip on revision reading: assign yourself no more than five pages per day.  Moving at this glacial speed, while tedious at times, will ultimately make your reading sessions more productive.  After you’ve identified the plot issues, make any and all necessary corrections.
  • Read the entire manuscript again and make notes only on tone.  Plot is important for mystery readers, but we also read for the voice.  Bottom line, we want an engaging, lively, and unique narrative voice, so take the time to make sure your first novel has one. Too, make sure the tone is consistent throughout. Characters, of course, can evolve (or devolve), but the tone should not. Think of it this way. I’ll bet if I  copied and pasted a passage from one of your favorite author’s books into this post, you’d be able to tell me right away who wrote it. And how would you be able to do that? Because the author created a distinct tone, a unique voice. After you’ve identified the tone issues, make any and all necessary corrections.
  • Read the entire manuscript again and correct any mechanical errors. Like I tell my students day in and day out: proofread for grammar, spelling, and punctuation.  An abundance of typos, misspelled words, and rambling sentences is just sloppy.
  • Have an astute reader read your manuscript.  This must be someone you trust to give you honest feedback.  Me, I give my manuscripts to my wife, who is a voracious reader and highly critical (in the good way). Quick story: I gave my wife my first Nick Suits novel, and she flatly told me the plot was all over the place, the voice was off-putting, and the dialogue was wooden.  This criticism, while difficult to hear, was, in a word, spot-on.  Even better: it was specific. My point is find someone who can do more than just say, “I enjoyed it,” or “It wasn’t my cup of tea.”
  • Put the manuscript in a drawer for a month…and then read it again. Honestly, I think all writers get too close to their work, so this break is very important. One other thing: during this break, start a new writing project. After all, writers write.quote-every-writer-is-a-frustrated-actor-who-recites-his-lines-in-the-hidden-auditorium-of-his-skull-rod-serling-167422

Advice for Writing a First Novel, Part 2

Now that you’ve not only read and applied the advice I outlined in Part 1, but you’ve also vowed to name your firstborn child after me for providing such sage-like wisdom, it’s time to do the hardest part of writing: apply ass to chair and write. But because I teach for a living, I will try to be more specific. Hope the bullet list below is helpful.

WHILE WRITING THE NOVEL

  • Stick to your writing routine…no matter what.  In Part 1, I suggested that every first-time novelist should create a writing schedule, a set time and place where and when he or she writes every single day. The trick to this is sticking with it…because there will be days when the words come easily and days when they don’t. Either way, keep writing. And don’t take days off to go fish. Or to the movies. This is a job, so treat it as such.
  • Eliminate distractions. By this I mean do not listen to music, watch TV, or have any electronic device in the room while you write. At most, have your laptop and your beverage of choice. (I’d advice against alcohol; too distracting). I also recommend getting rid of the Internet on the computer you write on; this will limit the temptation to check Facebook or Twitter.  If you prefer to write your stories out by pen, that’s cool, but make sure you store your manuscript in a safe place. For anyone out there who likes to work in a coffee shop or other public location, I suggest you try my solitary approach and see how much more efficiently you write.
  • Have your detailed plot summary and character bios handy. If you want, you can condense these documents down even further to make it easy to keep track of scenes and basic character information. Try putting the condensed character bios on index cards and taping them above your work station. Ditto the scene by scene plot outline. Again, this level of organization is incredibly helpful, and it pacifies my OCD.
  • When not writing, read! More specifically, you should read novels in the genre you write. This will provide you with an idea of what’s being published, and it will serve as inspiration. And remember: good writers borrow; great writers steal. My advice: dare to be great.
  • Carry a journal with you wherever you go.  Throughout your work day, you will undoubtedly think about your novel, so keep the journal handy to record any ideas. This might include images, descriptions, plot points, settings, etc.

Below are links to excellent websites for mystery writers. In them you will find information on writing, revising, editing, marketing, and promoting your novel.  Check them out.

Home

The Weekend Novelist Writes A Mystery

http://margotkinberg.wordpress.com

http://mysterywritingismurder.blogspot.com

Advice for Writing a First Novel, Part 1

If time travel was possible, I would go back to 1999 and give my younger self some advice on how to go about the business of writing a novel. And, time permitting, I might tell him to never again dye his hair blonde and wear sport coats with shoulder pads. But that’s a post for another time.

Being that I’m older now and fanatical about organization, I’ve learned that all battles (and writing is a battle, albeit a fun one) are won or lost before they are ever fought.  With that in mind, this is the first in a series of three posts about penning a first novel. Learn from my many, many, many, many mistakes.

BEFORE WRITING A NOVEL

  • Make a detailed plot outlineI write a scene by scene summary of the plot on over-sized artist sketch paper, labeling each scene by number from beginning to end. Handwritten, these summaries are no more than five or six sentences in length.
  • Write detailed character bios. Include a physical description as well as some backstory on every character you plan to use in the novel.  Don’t forget to include full names, ages, and any memorable traits. For you mystery writers like me, don’t forget MMO (motive, means, opportunity).  Remember you want a lot of detail on these characters, especially the protagonists and antagonists.
  • Designate a specific time to write and a specific place…everyday! For me, this was in my tiny home office from 2pm to 4pm, no exceptions. I stripped the walls of said office of everything but my detailed plot outline and character bios, and I removed the Internet and all games from my laptop to really focus on writing. And of course: no cell phones, music, or TV. Humans aren’t cut out for multi-tasking, despite the rumors.
  • Write a contract for  yourself.  Perhaps this seems extreme, but I found it necessary to actually write down my goal, which was to complete a rough draft of my novel by a specific date. In addition, I wrote down vows, which were actions I swore I would take to reach my goal. Once I wrote these goals and vows down, I printed out several copies and posted them in my home office, my work office, my refrigerator, and half a dozen other places I would see them everyday. Call it an accountability thing.  (See the picture below for what this contract looked like.)

    Discipline trumps talen.
    Discipline trumps talent.

Writer/ Wearer of comfortable pants