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Friday, March 27, 2015

Noreen Ayres is a good writer

The Juan Doe Murders by Noreen Ayres. Brash Books.

Great writing right from page one to the end. The Juan Doe Murders is the first book I’ve read by Noreen Ayres, and the third Smokey Brandon forensic mystery. Normally, I’m turned off by first person narratives. But the writing is so wonderfully concise that I couldn’t stop reading. Ayres describes forensic procedures in intimate accurate detail. Her descriptions of evidence collection and the politics of policing is spot-on, and her imagery is faultless. Here’s an example of imagery to die for: “Irvine is a vast, flat, master-planned and virtually antiseptic city so dirt-free you could drop a sandwich, pick it up, and eat it without a thought. A breeze could blow between buildings of the business park where the body was found and not lift a single leaf.  It was not a place where you might imagine a man to be sitting against a white wall with a bullet drilled through his head.”

            Notice the way her alliteration works? That’s poetry in action.

            Ayres mixes narration with realistic dialogue. Not too much of either, just the right mix. Reading The Juan Doe Murders is a pleasure. The story flows effortlessly.

            The storyline itself is a hardboiled mystery with plenty of dead bodies. Smokey Brandon is a county-wide crime scene investigator in California. Unidentified Hispanic John Does are turning up all over the place, one right after another. One common denominator is the lack of shell casings at the scene, even when the victim is a supposed suicide. How does one off himself with an automatic and not leave behind a shell casing? Also linking several of the victims is the same name on fake IDs: Hector Rios. And the gun-shot residue on their faces indicates they were each shot up close and personal-like.

            What I especially liked about this novel were the details other authors often miss: an ME lighting a paper towel above the victim’s abdomen to ignite and disperse smelly escaping gasses released during the Y-opening at autopsy; behaviors of wild birds and other animals, including bloodhounds and guinea pigs; vivid descriptions of California flora; observations of various ways co-workers interact with one another on a daily basis and when under stress; the intended and unintended complications of interpersonal relationships that mess up innocent lives. Ayres takes her sweet time to tie together a lot of loose ends, and the story’s pace does drag a bit in the middle. But there is enough emotional and sexual tension to hold the reader’s interest as complications abound.

            The Juan Doe Murders isn’t a perfect novel, but it is an entertaining and enlightening read. I recommend this book to anyone who loves a good police procedural.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Richard Thomas's Disintegration

I’m not sure whether Disintegration by Richard Thomas is brilliant or totally insane. I know that author, and he is brilliant. So I read the whole novel again and try to make up my mind. Now the story makes sense to me. There is a method to this madness. The novel is both brilliant and insane.

First read didn’t go well for me, so used to straight narrative and give and take dialogue from the usual word merchants am I that I couldn’t make hide nor hair of the skeleton in the closet of the protagonist’s mind. First-person stream-of-consciousness William Burroughs avant garde does not compute. What is real and what isn’t? Hard to tell.

And that’s the brilliance of this novel. You get drawn in so your own mind constantly questions what is real and what isn’t until, finally, you don’t care either way. The human mind is marvelously adaptive and mimicking, and you find yourself inside the narrator’s demented psyche and tattooed skin thinking just like him. After a while, the story seems vaguely familiar, and you realize it’s probably because the style and setting remind you of a combination of Nelson Algren’s novels and Wayne Allen Sallee’s award-winning “Take the A Train.” Maybe even a touch of Hemingway’s “The Killers.” Maybe it’s mainly because Disintegration takes place in Chicago and the streets and buses and trains have Chicago names. Or maybe it’s only because Chicago writers tend toward a dark way of thinking that’s broody and moody and self-destructive.

This quote from Richard Thomas’s novel rings true for me: “They say that your experiences in life, whether real or imagined, something you’ve seen in a dream or a movie—they all stay with you, they all become part of your past, with equal weight, your emotional baggage, the fabric you stitch together to weave the stained blanket of lies you call your life.”

Fair warning: Once you’ve read Disintegration, the stained blanket of your life won’t ever be the same. You’ll be haunted with horrible nightmares, doubts, delusions. It’s an experience you can’t forget, no matter how hard you try. It’ll be tattooed to your psyche forever.

Monday, March 16, 2015

A great read for suspense lovers

It’s the writing that makes Abducted by Brian Pinkerton special. Good writing is hard to do. Believe me, I know. But Pinkerton has the eye for detail that makes good writing, and his narrative and dialog are so realistic you can’t help but be drawn into the story.

Pinkerton begins by patiently and painstakingly introducing the characters and the situation. Anita Sherwood is a workaholic mother who has just quit her job to stay at home with Tim, her infant son. Anita and husband Dennis leave Tim with nanny Pam Beckert one final time to go out to dinner to celebrate Anita’s new-found freedom from the daily grind. When they arrive home, Tim and Pam have disappeared along with five hundred dollars in cash Dennis had stashed in a drawer.

An hour after looking everywhere for Pam and Tim, Dennis calls the police. Anita is overwhelmed by police procedures as investigators search the house and surrounding neighborhood, waking neighbors, putting out an Amber alert, reporting the kidnapping to the FBI. News reporters hound Anita for interviews. Then things go from bad to worse as Pam’s Toyota is found abandoned near the ocean.

Pinkerton expertly builds suspense. This is the kind of novel you won’t be able to put down. I highly recommend Abducted by Brian Pinkerton to anyone who wants a good read.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Why I write and go to conventions

I write novels because writing novels makes me happy. When I’m not writing or reading, I’m not happy. Anything that takes me away from reading and writing for more than an hour or two throws me into a blue funk.

Marketing my writing takes away from what precious little writing time I have each day. I try to do marketing tasks while taking a break from writing or revising, and I usually break for an hour or two in the afternoon and then again between nine and eleven PM to read e-mails, return phone calls, and attend to social media.  During this afternoon’s break, I put my current novel aside and ventured to the local Barnes and Noble store in the mall to see if they had displayed copies of Abandoned (my new novel released by Eldritch Press on March 1st) in the front of the store or on the shelves. The local B&N did have copies on order, but no copies prominently displayed as one might expect them to do for a local author. They assured me they would have plenty of copies available for the autographing I have scheduled in their B&N store on April 18th.  I want to believe them.

With multiple new novels appearing this year, I’ve already committed to appearing on panels or do autographings at Odyssey Con, World Horror Convention, Wisccon, Nebula Awards, Sasquon, World Fantasy Con, Windycon, and Bouchercon. I’ve had to turn down other invitations to be on panels or to autograph books. I must be getting older and much more curmudgeonly because I used to enjoy going to sf, fantasy, horror, and mystery conventions more than anything. I still love to talk with friends and fans at cons and bookstores, and I love talking shop with other authors and agents and editors and publishers. What taxes me to no end (beside the IRS and the State of Illinois Department of Revenue) is the hassle of traveling these days. It often takes ten times longer to get checked in at airports than the flight itself takes, and it seems I usually get booked on flights that leave from the gates most distant from the main terminal. Several of my recent flights have been cancelled or delayed because of severe weather or mechanical problems. By the time I get to a convention and settled into a hotel room which always seems to be the room at the end of the hall most distant from an elevator, I feel too exhausted to enjoy the con. The arthritis in my knees becomes painful from all that walking and standing. And I suffer from nicotine withdrawal because not only can one not smoke on airplanes anymore, one cannot smoke in hotel rooms or bars either. No big deal. I don’t need to smoke, but I do like to smoke because I enjoy it. That’s probably a lie. But now, when I want a smoke at a convention, I do have to trudge all the way outdoors and away from the doorways themselves to stand in the cold and rain or snow. That takes extra time and effort I no longer have.

I used to write at least one new short story at each con, and I still squeeze in some writing time whenever I can. But novels require concentration to achieve continuity, and I can’t concentrate on my writing at conventions. Maybe other writers can, but I can’t. Besides, it seems silly to spend a small fortune to travel half-way across country to attend a convention and then spend most of the time inside my room writing. When I’m at a con, I want to meet people. I want to talk and listen and catch up on what’s happening in other people’s lives and careers. And I am constantly torn between my need to write and my need to communicate face to face.

You can sense my conflict in these paragraphs. I want to meet people and talk about writing. But I also want to write. Are they mutually exclusive endeavors?

I have known so many people who spend more time talking about writing than actually writing. I have done that myself from time to time, and my writing suffers for it. It’s better to let the writing speak for itself. Whenever someone asks me what my latest novel is about, I really want to reply, “Read the book and see for yourself.” Instead, I have memorized short elevator speeches to describe each of my novels. I can usually tell by the look in a person’s eyes if I’ve hooked them. It’s like watching readers browse in libraries and bookstores. People read the blurbs on the back cover and end-papers first. Then they open the book and read the first and sometimes last pages. They may even flip through the pages to scan some of the dialogue. Then they either put the book back on the shelf or add it to the pile they intend to check out or buy. You know when you see the eager glint in their eyes that they’ll buy the book because your words hooked them. That’s what I’m still learning to do with my elevator speeches. I need to give readers enough information to keep them interested, but not so much that they don’t need to read the novel to get the whole story. I want them to have that same wonderful look in their eyes after they’ve finished reading the entire novel and they simply can’t wait to rush out to find other books with my by-line.

Book marketing is as much an art as book writing. Finding the right words at the right time takes skill and practice. I’m still learning, and I learn best by doing. I know I need to get out there and talk to people about my books. Each time I go to a convention or attend an autographing, I learn more. Now I need to find the right balance between talking away my stories and writing what people want to read.

I’d rather be writing. Writing makes me happy.

But there’s something magical that happens when I witness that gleam in a reader’s eye, and seeing that gleam—that hunger for more—in a reader’s eye makes me ecstatically happy, too. It doesn’t matter if that gleam appeared because of something I’ve written or something another author has written. I love to share in the reader’s joy. Joy is contagious.

That’s why I write. And that’s why I go to conventions and do signings. I just wish there were more time to do both.