Book Review of THE SETUP MAN by T. T. Monday

Okay, so Johnny Adcock, a relief pitcher for the San Jose Bay Dogs and part-time private investigator, is a bit of a jerk.

And he is a millionaire with what amounts to two incredibly cool part-time jobs that pay more in a month than I make in a decade.

And he has a whip-smart and sexy girlfriend who is a venture capitalist and requires nothing more from Johnny than casual sex and witty banter.

And he travels all over the country, playing the greatest sport known to man and staying in plush hotels, and when he isn’t facing his one batter per game–note: that’s what a “set up man” in the bullpen does–he’s chasing down high-end prostitutes and fighting off Mexican gangsters and setting up stings.

Not a bad life, if you can get it.

Yeah, I’m jealous, for Johnny Adcock has the top two jobs on my All-Time Dream Jobs List: Major League ballplayer and private investigator.

In THE SETUP MAN, Adcock is asked by his teammate Frankie Herrera to look into a “problem with his wife.” Pretty standard stuff, until Adcock discovers Herrera’s wife has starred in a porn film, and apparently, someone is attempting to blackmail Herrera with it. As soon as Herrera enlists Adcock’s help, Herrera dies in a car crash. . .and there’s a woman in the car with him: a young prostitute.  From there, Adcock gets drawn into a ring of murder, high-end hookers, Mexican drug cartels, and blackmail. And it’s all fun.

Bottom line, this is a page turner, and even if you don’t know about or like baseball, you’ll get sucked into the narrative because of the sarcastic lead character, good dialogue, and fast-paced plot. Highly recommended.

http://www.amazon.com/The-Setup-Man-A-Novel/dp/0385538456

the set up man cover

 

 

 

Book Review: The Year of the Storm by John Mantooth

I’m a pre-maturely middle-aged curmudgeon, who no longer enjoys reading coming-of-age stories.  There, I said it.

Now let me say something else: The Year of the Storm, a crime/horror/literary coming-of-age novel, is a fantastic book.  Told through two perspectives, one a fourteen year old boy named Danny, the other an old man named Walter, the story revolves around two missing people: Danny’s mother and sister, who are presumed by many to be dead.  When the novel begins, Danny is desperate to know what happened, and then Walter, a chain-smoking wreck-of-a-man, appears on Danny’s doorstep in the middle of the night. Turns out, Walter may know something about Danny’s mother and sister, but in order to find them, Danny will have to engage in “slipping,” which, essentially means using the power of imagination to slip from the real world to another one.  Entered into via a hidden storm shelter, this other world is guarded by a purely evil man who is holding Danny’s mother and sister as well as two other innocent young girls. In the end, Danny faces his fears and goes into this other world, so you could also call this a quest tale.  As for plot, I don’t want to say much more.

There is much to praise in this jewel of a book, but I’ll start with the prose. Reminiscent of Ron Rash, the writing is elegantly spare with a depth of insight and heart not often seen in novels, let alone debut efforts. Throughout the narrative, I felt as if I were sitting on a back porch somewhere, cold beer in hand listening to these two men tell me a very personal, very engaging story.  It is a testament to the strength of voice in this novel that early on in the story I no longer thought of Danny and Walter as characters, but as two men, flawed and conflicted, yes, but fundamentally decent human beings, ones I could relate to and root for. Great care was put into every sentence in this novel, and it is worth reading for the prose alone, but I also appreciate–on many levels–the use of the storm shelter and the storms themselves as literary devices. Granted, bad weather–tornadoes and lightning storms, in particular–are overused tropes in literature, and in the hands of a lesser author, they might have come across as passe or trite.  But in this book, they fit perfectly and add layer upon layer of meaning.  Danny is fourteen, which, as many of us know, means he is not a boy anymore, but he is not a man either, and the storms mirror that chaotic swirl of emotions that occur during that time in adolescence. Too, the storms make for a useful metaphor for fear, or, more specifically, facing down our deepest fears.  A final element I enjoyed: this book is thematically dense while being extremely enjoyable. Weaved near-flawlessly into the fabric of the narrative are half a dozen themes: good versus evil; belief in magic; human sympathy; conquering deeply-held fears; friendship; and many more besides. And what’s particularly impressive about this is the author manages to nail pretty much of all of them.  Readers of all ages could pick up this book and find something profound about human experience, something worth reflecting on.

In the end, The Year of the Storm manages to walk confidently on that tissue-thin line between a horror/crime novel and what is known as a literary book. It manages to make a reader turn pages AND think AND feel.  That, I think, is a feat in and of itself . . .and a fairly stunning one at that.  Read this book immediately.

The Year of the Storm

http://www.amazon.com/The-Year-Storm-John-Mantooth/dp/0425265749

10 Vital Novel Writing Tips from The Marshall Plan

I’m always looking for a way to simplify the process of writing novels, and again and again, I return to the Marshall Plan for Novel Writing. These ten key tips, I’ve found, to be extremely helpful. Click on the link below to read the full article.

http://themarshallplan.net/tenvitalnovelwritingtips.htm

marshallplan-bookjpg

 

our story’s lead must be a sympathetic character. To achieve this end, build in four key characteristics: courage, virtue, likability, competence – See more at: http://themarshallplan.net/tenvitalnovelwritingtips.htm#sthash.wmgwkzPO.d
our story’s lead must be a sympathetic character. To achieve this end, build in four key characteristics: courage, virtue, likability, competence – See more at: http://themarshallplan.net/tenvitalnovelwritingtips.htm#sthash.wmgwkzPO.dpuf
our story’s lead must be a sympathetic character. To achieve this end, build in four key characteristics: courage, virtue, likability, competence – See more at: http://themarshallplan.net/tenvitalnovelwritingtips.htm#sthash.wmgwkzPO.dpuf
our story’s lead must be a sympathetic character. To achieve this end, build in four key characteristics: courage, virtue, likability, competence – See more at: http://themarshallplan.net/tenvitalnovelwritingtips.htm#sthash.wmgwkzPO.dpuf

DRIFTWOOD: A California Road Trip Novel by Elizabeth Dutton

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.

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.

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. It will be widely released on November 4, but is available for pre-order now. Click on the link below.

 

http://www.amazon.com/Driftwood-California-Road-Trip-Novel/dp/1629144991/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1396222049&sr=8-2&keywords=driftwood+novel

 

 

 

 

Checklist for Writing a Mystery Novel

One of the many mystery/crime writing blogs I follow is called Writing Mystery is Murder by Elizabeth Spann Craig.  Craig is an accomplished mystery novelist and award-winning blogger, and she always posts incredibly helpful articles about the business of being a writer.  Recently, I was scrolling through the archives of her blog, and I came across a post entitled “Mystery Writing Checklist.” As I was (and am) in the process of outlining my third book in the Eli Sharpe mystery series, I read the article and found still more useful tidbits about preparing a mystery novel to be sent out into the publishing world.  Below are the items I believe are the most important. A link to the entire article is posted below.

Genre: Have you got a clear genre for your book? Thriller, cozy, police procedural, hard boiled? If you can’t identify your genre to an agent or editor, your manuscript won’t go too far.

To add to that, you might want to have a good idea what published authors write in your milieu; both agents and publishers always want to know where your manuscript will fit in the current market.

An Engaging Beginning: Have you started out with a bang? Or have you started out with some messy backstory that no one wants to wade through at the beginning of your book? Make sure you’ve lured your reader in from the very beginning so they’ll want to stick with you.  Think twice before using a prologue or using flashbacks at the beginning of your manuscript.

Personally, I do not like books that begin with prologues, particularly prologues that do not begin with action. Too, and this is just my humble opinion, many times too much of the mystery is given away in a prologue. Start with action, and sprinkle in relevant backstory throughout the narrative.

A Murder that Happens in First 50 pages or so: Don’t wait until you’re half-way through the book for a body to be discovered. Your reader may give up on you.

When I read mysteries, I want someone to get killed, kidnapped, blackmailed, or beaten pretty quickly. (And yes, I know that sounds awful).

Protagonist: This will be your sleuth or police detective. Are they likable people or at least people interesting enough for your readers to want to spend time with? What special talents do they have that make them capable of solving the crime? Are they easy to talk to? Have they spent many years in the police department? What sets them apart?

Of all the elements in a mystery, the protagonist is the most important to me. If the star of the book is interesting, I’m in. Characterization is always the hook for me. Write interesting characters, and interesting situations will follow. And when interesting situations follow, I’ll be reading.

Suspects: Do your suspects all have motive, means, and opportunity? Does their motive make sense and is it believable? Have you given the reader a chance to meet each suspect and learn about them? Have your suspects misdirected your readers and provided some red herrings? Have they lied to the sleuth and the reader? Do they have secrets? Do they have some depth?

Always remember MMO (motive, means, opportunity). And when it comes to suspects, try to avoid cliches.

Clues:  The clues need to be made available to the reader as well as the detective.  You have to be fair with your reader in providing them the clues, but make sure they don’t stand out too obviously in the scene.  If they do, think about pointing the reader’s/detective’s attention in another direction, quickly.  There also needs to be more than one clue–preferably three or more.

 

Exciting Chapter Endings: Don’t let your reader put down your book and go to sleep. Do you have some exciting chapter endings so they’ll want to go on reading?

When I was rewriting the second book in my Eli Sharpe series, I realized just how important chapter endings were (and are). Think of it like show business: always leave the reader wanting more.

Resolution: Did you catch the bad guys in the end? Did you tie up all the loose ends that you created? Did you explain how the sleuth/police followed the clues?

A professor of mine once said that the ending of a story has to be surprising yet inevitable.  The resolution, by extension, must make sense, and, if you’re writing a series, perhaps you could give a bit of hint about what’s next for the protagonist.

http://elizabethspanncraig.com/1386/mystery-writing-checklist/

Elizabethcraig_deathatadropin_ebook_final

Book Review of LA Late @ Night by Paul D. Marks

If you like tautly-constructed hard-boiled stories featuring gritty characters, snappy dialogue, and plenty of action, then LA Late @ Night is right up your alley.  The title story features a hotshot defense attorney–Cassie Rodriguez–who successfully defends a rich Hollywood director on murder charges.  Several elements of this story interested me, beginning with the format. Written as a modified movie script, this story feels as if you’re a cinematographer, simultaneously shooting and observing the action up close and personal from behind a camera. Another compelling element was the theme. I mean, how often does a wildly successful attorney even attempt to right a wrong the justice system couldn’t, let alone actually succeed? But in this story, it happens. And it’s believable, primarily because of the way Cassie’s character is portrayed and developed.

The title story is by far the most original of the five tales, but my favorite is definitely “Angels Flight.” This one is about Tom Holland, a jaded homicide detective who gets saddled with Lucy Railsback, a member of the mayor’s Community Police Action Committee.  Lucy assists Holland in the death investigation of a body the police find in Echo Park Lake. Without spoiling the ending, Lucy uses both good old fashioned street smarts and voodoo to help solve the case.  Similar to the title story and the other tales in the book, “Angels Flight” is satisfying for its memorable characters, quick dialogue, and clipped prose. But what I enjoyed most about this story was what I enjoyed most about the collection in total: the setting of Los Angeles, which simply comes alive in the hands of a skilled writer like Marks. The L.A. Marks depicts is dangerous and raw, and it is, for my money, the most compelling character present.  Just like in his excellent PI novel White Heat, Marks manages to capture the dirty underbelly of one of the most written about cities in modern history, and, miraculously, he does so in a uniquely singular way.  . .a true literary feat indeed.

Bottom line, I highly recommend this collection to any true fan of the hard-boiled/noir genre.  Oh, and make sure to read the excerpt from White Heat; the opening chapter hooked me from word one.

http://www.amazon.com/L-A-Late-Night-Mystery-Streets-ebook/dp/B00I9289HM/ref=cm_cr_pr_product_top

 

 

 

 

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Famous Writers on Writing

I recently read an article about the work routines of famous writers, and a common theme emerged: discipline and dedication are far more important than talent or skill. I cobbled together the best quotes from some of my favorite authors. Their insights helped me stay motivated.

Tobias Wolff

I know I have to push through. Sometimes when I get to the other end it still won’t be that great, but at least I will have finished it. For me, it’s more important to keep the discipline of finishing things than to to be assured at every moment that it’s worth doing.

Bernard Malamud

There are enormously talented people around but the problem is getting organized to use your talents. A lot of people lose it, they just lose it. Life starts turning somersaults over your back and the next thing you know you’re confronting things that seem to you more important than getting organized to do your writing. And if you can’t get organized, then you can kiss your talent goodbye.

John Gardner

What this means, in practical terms for the student writer, is that in order to achieve mastery he must read widely and deeply and must write not just carefully but continually, thoughtfully assessing and reassessing what he writes, because practice, for the writer as for the concert pianist, is the heart of the matter.

Ernest Hemingway

When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write. You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again. You have started at six in the morning, say, and may go on until noon or be through before that. When you stop you are as empty, and at the same time never empty but filling, as when you have made love to someone you love. Nothing can hurt you, nothing can happen, nothing means anything until the next day when you do it again. It is the wait until the next day that is hard to get through.

Ray Bradbury

My passions drive me to the typewriter every day of my life, and they have driven me there since I was twelve. So I never have to worry about schedules. Some new thing is always exploding in me, and it schedules me, I don’t schedule it. It says: Get to the typewriter right now and finish this.

Below are some good articles about the writing routines of famous writers. Definitely worth reading.

http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2012/11/20/daily-routines-writers/

http://jamesclear.com/daily-routines-writers

bradburyhemingway

Book Review of The Barkeep by William Lashner

Justin Chase is an ex-law student turned traveling bartender who follows the teachings of The Tibetan Book of the Dead to numb the pain of his mother’s murder, the murder that Justin’s father is now rotting away in prison for. One night while tending bar, Chase makes the acquaintance of Birdie Grackle, an alcoholic hit man who claims to have killed Chase’s mother. For a price, Birdie is willing to tell Chase who hired Birdie to kill Chase’s mother. Instead of paying the hit man for the information, Chase begins investigating his mother’s murder, and aside from crossing paths with some well-drawn characters–a beautiful but self-loathing mistress, an aging detective obsessed with doing jumbles, and a borderline-retarded yet effective killer–Chase makes some shocking discoveries about the case, and his father.

This is a page-turner, but what I really enjoyed was the characterization and the shifting narration. Every character has a clear voice and is uniquely flawed, which made them all compelling. Too, the dialogue, particularly the scenes at the bar with Justin and his regulars is fantastic. There is something very cinematic about Lashner’s writing, but it is also literary as well. I really enjoyed this one, and I will definitely pick up another of his novels.

the barkeep

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MacGuffin Revisited

Far be it from me to disagree with Alfred Hitchcock, but I believe the concept of the MacGuffin has evolved sense he first popularized the term with his 1935 film The 39 Steps. Below is a brief definition of the term from the excellent literary magazine The MacGuffin, which is published out of Schoolcraft College:

The moving force (and sometimes the solution) of a work of mystery fiction is referred to as a MacGuffin. . . Alfred Hitchcock used the term and said, “No film is complete without a MacGuffin because that’s what everybody is after.” . . .in short, the MacGuffin is any device or gimmick that gets a plot rolling. The MacGuffin itself has little, if any, fundamental importance, and, according to Hitchcock, is nothing in and of itself.

Now, I am a fan of Hitchcock’s films, especially Rear Window and Psycho.  AIthough I cannot be sure what precisely he means by “fundamental importance,”I interpret it this way: the MacGuffin is purely a way to kick start a story’s plot, and it has no real significance beyond that. Working from that interpretation, I must offer an alternative thesis on the subject: in films and books, the MacGuffin does much more than just get the plot moving. When used by skilled artists (including Hitchcock himself), the MacGuffin has both symbolic and thematic significance.

malteseTake mystery novels, for example.  More specifically, let’s examine The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett for a moment.  The valuable black bird figurine–a.k.a. the maltese falcon–does exhilarate the narrative, but it also becomes a symbol for greed (the figurine is worth a bundle) and trickery (the figurine turns out to be a fake); it becomes a tangible representation of human weakness. To take the idea a bit further, the maltese falcon also not only propels the plot forward, but it helps develop layer upon layer of characterization in the novel. In this sense, the figurine reveals (or helps to reveal) the uglier sides of basically every character in the narrative, sides which would have remained hidden without the introduction of the maltese falcon (the MacGuffin).

dude How about an example from the movies? The Big Lebowski, a personal favorite, has arguably two MacGuffins: the alleged kidnapping of Bunny Lebowski and/or the theft of The Dude’s favorite rug. But let’s discuss the rug as it is the more interesting MacGuffin of the two. When The Dude is employed to give the money to the kidnappers and get Bunny back, he isn’t so much motivated by the fee he will receive; he is more interested in recovering his beloved rug, the one that “really tied the room together.” Because the rug belongs to The Dude, who has precious little interest in material possessions, it takes on an added layer of meaning when he is willing to risk life and limb to recover it, and he does so in such a humorous and imminently watchable manner. Go a step further: I would argue that the rug has a metaphorical significance as well, for The Dude’s life before his rug is taken is tranquil; after the rug is “swept out from under him” so to speak, his life is chaotic and, in many ways, not nearly as happy.

hitchcockBottom line, I think Hitchcock’s definition of the MacGuffin is limited. In many ways, the MacGuffin contributes to a more deeply satisfying narrative in both film and books. I recently turned in my second Eli Sharpe novel to my publisher, and the MacGuffin in that one is a valuable baseball, which has been stolen. I intentionally tried to make the stolen baseball mean something different to every character in the novel, and, in a way, the baseball becomes a character in and of itself. Hitchcock did this also, made MacGuffins more than just plot devices. What’s more, I suspect he did it deliberately. How else would he have become such a master of suspense?