Fahrenbruary Repost: A Few Quick Questions With…Duncan MacMaster

Not only did the good people at Fahrenheit Press provide me with Duncan MacMaster’s Hack (which I just posted about), I got an interview with Mr. MacMaster as well! As usual, this is short and sweet, he’s got better things to do than come up with clever answers for me, y’know? Seriously, loved his answers. Give this a read and then scurry out to buy his book.

Would you like to give the elevator pitch for Hack? (for that matter, if you want to throw one in for A Mint Condition Corpse, that’d be fine, too)
The elevator pitch for Hack would be: A desperate man is hired to ghostwrite the autobiography of a washed up TV star with scandal in his past and murder in his future.

The pitch for A Mint Condition Corpse would be: A semi-retired artist’s trip to his favourite comic book convention is spoiled by murder, and only he can solve it.

Do you have experience as a Ghost Writer? Is Hack your way working out some demons? Or does it have a much more benign genesis?
I never specifically worked as a ghostwriter. I did do things like selling jokes to comedians (no one you ever heard of) so I know a bit about doing something that someone else gets credit for.

There is a certain amount of exorcism in the genesis of Hack. By the time I got to writing it I had spent a very long time getting metaphorically kicked in the head by the writing business. The joke market had dried up, and I spent years enduring rejections that ranged from the incoherent to the callous, and some career setbacks that were downright ridiculous.

As you could guess, those experiences left some demons that needed to be exorcised, and Jake Mooney, the hack writer of the title, did it for me. Jake’s had a life defined by setbacks and it’s made him bitter, cynical, and lonely. He sees being a credited author as a step towards some redemption as a writer, and solving the crimes as an attempt at redeeming himself as a human being.

Of course none of this was conscious while I was writing it. While putting down that first draft all I could think about was the plot, the characters and making sure everything made sense. I didn’t discover what I had done with Jake’s and my own hunger for redemption and validation until working on later drafts.

It was different with my first crime novel A Mint Condition Corpse. That started with a conscious decision to make Kirby Baxter, card-carrying comics geek, the Sherlockian hero instead of the comedy relief sidekick, and to use him as a vehicle to combine mystery with a satire of pop culture and the people who run it. Hack, has a lot more of my id running amok in it.

You’ve done a little in other genres, but your publications seem to be predominately in the Crime/Mystery genre. What is it about the genre that brings you back? Is there a genre you particularly enjoy, but don’t think you could write?
I’ve dabbled in science fiction, fantasy, and even horror, and I do plan to do more in those genres in the future, but mystery/crime does seem to have a grip on me. Probably because it deals with people who are at the extremes of their emotions, and also because it’s a genre that’s is still a wide open field when it comes to narrative possibilities.

I always credit my narrative style to SCTV. It was a sketch comedy show I watched as a child that parodied television and movies, and it taught me that popular culture is loaded with tropes and cliches that create expectations in the audience. If you know them and understand them, then you can use them to manipulate expectations to misdirect, surprise, amuse, and hopefully amaze the audience.

When I started reading crime fiction in my teens I began to see the patterns inherent in the genre, and started seeing how they could be manipulated to create something new and entertaining.

As for a genre I enjoy, but don’t think I could write….well, I’m not sure. I’m sure readers would tell me if I really screwed up. My bet would be on straight up horror without any sort of mystery to solve inside it.

What’s the one (or two) book/movie/show in the last 5 years that made you say, “I wish I’d written that.”?
Don Winslow’s The Power of the Dog, a relatively slim volume that contains an epic inside. It sets a high standard that I hope to come close to some day. For the most part I tend to avoid reading fiction while I’m writing. I have a bad habit of inadvertently imitating whoever I’m reading. I wrote some truly dreadful pastiches while I was on a Lovecraft reading binge in my early twenties. All sorts of gooey overwrought eldritch nonsense.
This one’s not about you directly, but what is it about Fahrenheit Press that seems to generate the devotion and team spirit that it does (or at least appears to)? I don’t know that I’ve seen as many authors from the same publisher talk about/read each other’s books — or talk about the publisher — as much as you guys seem to. Is it simply contractual obligation, or is there more?
There’s no contractual obligation for camaraderie at Fahrenheit Press, or the House of Love, as our fearless leader likes to call it.

I can sum it up this way: Joining Fahrenheit is like joining a punk band in the mid-70s.

We don’t know what the future holds, or what we will achieve in the end. All we do know is that we are a band of misfits who are all doing what we love, we’re breaking rules and conventions that some thought were inviolate, and that we are all in this wild ride together.

Fahrenheit has been the best experience I’ve ever had in publishing, and I’m sure my fellow authors will agree with me on that.

What’s next for Duncan MacMaster?
I just finished the first draft of a sequel to A Mint Condition Corpse, called Video Killed The Radio Star, and the brutal editing/rewrite process awaits me. I’m also developing a more experimental project examining male archetypes in crime fiction and the concept of the unreliable narrator. I am even outlining a potential sequel to Hack called Hacked, where Jake goes Hollywood. I’m hoping to complete all these projects and make them worthy of publication as soon as possible.

What happens after that, is anyone’s guess.

Thank you for having me on your blog.

Thanks for your time — I really appreciate it, and hope that the Hack‘s release is successful (as it deserves).

Advertisements

Fahrenbruary Repost: Hack by Duncan MacMaster

We’re focusing on Duncan MacMaster for the next few days of Fahrenbruary. Which means that things are going to be a lot of fun.

This feels a bit rushed to me — and more than a little vague. I guess it should, it was a little rushed, I liked this book enough that I pounded it out a couple of hours after finishing it, I didn’t want to sit on it for a while. And if the post is vague, it’s because this is the kind of mystery difficult to talk about without cracking open all the secrets, and because a lot of what I really liked about this is in the little details MacMaster gave. You need to experience it yourself to get what I’m saying.

HackHack

by Duncan MacMaster

Uncorrected Proof
Fahrenheit Press, 2017

Read: February 28 – March 1, 2016

Little victories, since they’re all I can hope for, they’re what I live for.

Jake Mooney used to be a pretty good reporter — good reputation, good results — but he got out of that game and got into a more lucrative field, even if it was more distasteful. Events transpired,  and that goes away — I’ll let you read it for yourself, but it involves lawyers and an ex-wife. Nowadays, he gets by being a ghost-writer for established authors who don’t have the time or ability to write their own material. Out of the blue, he gets an offer to help a former TV star, Rick Rendell, write his autobiography. He’ll even get credited for it. Credit — and a nice cash bonus. How can he say no?

Before you can say “Jessica Fletcher,” someone tries to kill Jake and then Rick is shot in front of a handful of witnesses, including Jake. Between his affection for (some of) the people in Rick’s life, worry over his own safety, curiosity, and his own sense of justice, Jake dives in and investigates the murder himself.

Jake finds himself knee-deep in a morass involving unscrupulous agents (I’m not sure there’s another kind in fiction), wives (current and ex-), Hollywood politics, an IRS investigation, a Drug Cartel, former co-stars, hedge fund managers, hit men, and a decades-old mysterious death. And a few more fresh deaths. . The notes he’s already taken for the book gives Jake fodder for his investigation — but the combination of notes and his continuing work provides the killer a constant target (and threat). As long as Jake’s working on the mystery/mysteries — and doing better than the police at uncovering crimes and suspects — the killer can’t just escape, Jake has to be stopped.

The voice was great, the mystery had plenty of twists and turns, Jake’s ineptitude with firearms was a great touch and served to keep him from being a super-hero. I really can’t think of anything that didn’t work. There’s not a character in the book that you don’t enjoy reading about. I had three strong theories about what led to Rick’s death and who was responsible — the one I feared the most wasn’t it (thankfully — it was a little too trite). My favorite theory was ultimately right about the who, but was absolutely wrong about everything else. I take that as a win — I felt good about my guess and better about the very clever plotting and writing that outsmarted me.

That’s more about me than I intended it to be, so let me try this again — MacMaster has set up a great classic mystery — a la Rex Stout or Agatha Christie. A dogged investigator with a personal stake in the case, supporting characters that you can’t help but like (or dislike, as appropriate), a number of suspects with reasons to kill the victim (with a decent amount of overlap between those two groups), and a satisfying conclusion that few readers will see coming. Hack is funny, but not in a overly-comedic way, it’s just because Jake and some of the others he’s with have good senses of humor. I chuckled a few times, grinned a few more.

I bought MacMaster’s previous book, A Mint Condition Corpse, when it came out last year — sadly, it’s languishing in a dark corner of my Kindle with a handful of other books from Fahrenheit Press (I’m a great customer, lousy reader, of that Press).  Hack wasn’t just an entertaining read, it was a great motivator to move his other book higher on my TBR list. Get your hands on this one folks, you’ll have a great time.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this from the publisher, nevertheless, the opinions expressed are my own.

—–

4 Stars

Pub Day Repost: Immoral Code by Lillian Clark: A Heist Novel where the Heist is maybe the Dullest Part

Immoral CodeImmoral Code

by Lillian Clark

eARC, 272 pg.
Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2019

Read: January 22 – 23, 2019

It’s their senior year, their lives are stretching out before them, this incredibly close group of five friends are preparing for graduation, college, etc. — even (not that they’ll confront this quite yet) living without each other. They all excel in one or two ways — one’s a hacker/activist, one’s an artist, one’s got a real shot at the Olympics — etc. One is a physics genius (or close enough to a genius to count) who was admitted early to MIT. But there’s a catch. She can’t afford it. Her mom works two jobs to help the two of them barely make it and her dad hasn’t been in her life since he was a poor student and impregnated her mom. Since then he’s gone on to become one of the richest of the rich. The kind of rich that people really can’t believe exists. So when MIT looks at her financial aid, they roll their eyes and move on to the next student.

Not content to shake their heads sadly at injustice, her friends come up with a plan to hack into her dad’s company and skim a little bit of money. Not enough that he’d ever notice — just enough to pay tuition for a year. Their hacker friend is good, but not good enough to break in remotely — she has to be physically in touch with the network — for just a few seconds. Like the tagline on the cover says, “Payback is a glitch.” So over Spring Break they take a little road trip — bigger than their families know — to get access to the network. It’s going to take a lot of nerve, some real disregard for the law, and their combined talents to pull this off.

The question they don’t really consider until it’s too late isn’t what will happen if they fail (although, they all could think of that more), it’s what happens if they succeed?

On the whole, I haven’t seen many people classifying this as a Crime Novel, despite the Heist story at the core. It’s definitely not a thriller. Because the Heist story is just an excuse to talk about friendship, figuring your life out, the pressure on teens to know what they want the next few decades to be about (not the same as the previous item on the list), the complicated relationship that exists between parents and their teens on the cusp of adulthood, and the hugeness of the moment where you leave home/family/friends to start the next phase of your life. Oh, also, morality. Somehow Clark does all that while telling a fast-moving, funny, and heart-felt story.

Which is not to say that the Heist story isn’t important, or well executed. And you can read the book just for the Heist. But you’ll miss out on a lot — and you’ll probably wonder why I rated this so highly. As fun as the Heist/prep for the Heist is, the heart of the book is the rest.

Each chapter jumps between first-person narration from each kid, keeping things moving nicely. There’s plenty to like/identify with in each character. You learn a lot about them as individuals, them as friends, and generally them as children (not that much about them as students, oddly). They’re so well-drawn, I’m sure what I respond to in one character or another will not be the same as what another reader responds to. There is one character who serves as the group’s Jiminy Cricket — their vocal and ever-present conscience. Like Jiminy, the character is ignored a lot and fought against. But I appreciated them — the voice of moral reason, the one trying to save the others from themselves, the only one who demonstrated a sense of right and wrong, not just about what feels right.

The writing is breezy, engaging — no matter whose POV you’re reading. Clark did a fantastic job differentiating the characters, giving them all a unique voice so that you don’t even have to pay attention to the indicator at the beginning of the chapter to know whose voice is telling that particular chapter. Now, as each chapter is told from the Point of View of a teenager, and fairly realistically done, that means you have to check your inner grammarian at the door — so much of this book can drive you around the bend if you don’t.

The novel is engaging, it’s beyond that really — it’s infectious.There were several points during reading that I asked myself why I was enjoying it as much as I was. Not that I thought I should dislike it, but I liked it a lot more than I should have. I don’t mind that I did, I’m just not sure I understand why. I’m just going to chalk it up to Lillian Clark being a very good author — someone you should check out, starting with her debut, Immoral Code.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Random House Children’s Books via NetGalley in exchange for this post — thanks to both for this.

—–

4 Stars

A Few Quick Questions With…Sarah Chorn

So I just posted my thoughts about Seraphina’s Lament and now we get to hear from the author herself, Sarah Chorn. By the way, if you haven’t checked out her blog, Bookworm Blues, you should fix that. But before you do, read this. Chorn knocks it out of the park here.

I don’t know how to ask about Seraphina’s Lament short of handing you a dozen and a half spoiler-ific questions. And, boy howdy, do I have questions. Still, I hope you don’t mind if I don’t touch on the book too much – would you care to start things off with an elevator pitch?
I pretty much fail at elevator pitches. Here goes nothing. Seraphina’s Lament tells the story of a group of people trying to survive in spite of the fact that the world is dying, magic is changing, there’s widespread famine, and the government sucks. They are all tragically flawed and completely unready to face what is happening to them. Basically, I take a handful of the most unprepared, wrong-for-the-job people I could possibly dream up, and just push them and push them and push them until they break and then… things get interesting.
For what it’s worth, I think that’s a pretty good pitch.

While you talk on your site about a long-standing desire to be a writer, this is your first novel after years of reviewing and editing. Was it just a matter of coming up with the “right” story, or was there something that made you decide it was time for you to give it a shot? How do you think years of reviewing shaped your novel?

I think it’s a combination of a lot of things. First, I’ve written novels before, but they are all terrible. I mean, T-E-R-R-I-B-L-E. This isn’t really my first book, it’s just the first one I think is ready to see the light of day. The rest will live on eternally in some dark corner of my hard drive.

It was also a matter of coming up with the right story. All the elements were there, but it took me a really, really long time to figure out how they all worked together, and build the world (this took an absolutely insane amount of research) and characters. Once I had that all sorted, the book really just burst out of me.

I think editing and reviewing has been essential to my writing process. I’ve been reviewing for about ten years now, and editing for almost three. Editing and reviewing has taught me how stories are told, how sentences flow, how to use words, add details, build a world, keep a story moving and so much more. People talk a lot about how to write a novel, and I don’t think there is any one answer. We all do it differently. I can say, my book never would have been written, at least not the way it was, if it wasn’t for all that reading and picking-apart of books I’ve done over so many years. Knowing how words work, and how stories are shaped, was crucial to my writing.

I don’t want to ask “where do you get your ideas?” But combining a magic-filled fantasy world and a Stalin-esque character? How do you get to that? It’s brilliant, by the way, I can’t shut up about it.
Oh, I do so love my tortured Stalin-esque character. I had great fun writing him.

I do a weird thing when I can feel a story brewing in the back of my brain. I head to the library and check out just about every historical nonfiction book on the shelves that I haven’t read yet. About two years ago, this happened to be a bunch of books on Russia, the Romanov dynasty, Stalin, Lenin, and the Holodomor. Well, something in this mélange of books completely unlocked whatever was stewing in the back of my brain. Suddenly, these elements to this story I wanted to tell but couldn’t figure out just sorted themselves out.

Specifically, the Holodomor. It’s a tragic, horrible genocide that took place from 1932-1933 in Ukraine that I knew literally nothing about until I started reading books about it. In the process of reading these books, I came to the idea that sometimes events are so big, so powerful, so dramatic that they become characters in and of themselves, and so two characters in the book were born, both of whom represent the Holodomor. One, the physical aspect of it – the starvation and wasting away, and the other represented the more soulful aspect—a sort of loss of spirit and heart due to tragedy.

Eyad, my Stalin-esque dude wasn’t actually in my first draft. In fact, my first draft of this book was really dialed down on the communism and all these elements of the book. He never had a perspective. I think, if I remember right, I had some lord in a castle who never really had a face or even a name. Then, when I was getting ready to do my rewrite, I saw a tweet that said something along the lines of, why are all the fantasy worlds set in these medieval countries with kings? Where’s the communism? Where’s the industrialization? I read that tweet and I realized that communism was the entire aspect that was missing from this story, and I really, really needed to have someone driving the government. And you know, there aren’t many fantasy books featuring communist government systems so why not give it a go?

Insert my Stalin. Now, I humanized my dude a bit, and I took some liberties, but I really wanted to bring him to life, to show his perspective. Villains very rarely realize they are villains. Stalin was a horrible person, but he thought he was doing the right thing, and man, trying to bring that to life in Eyad was hard. There’s a scene in the book where he’s talking about grain requisition quotas and it just about killed me to write that because I’d read about it. Stalin had to know what he was doing, but he did it anyway, and in the process, he damned millions and millions of people who didn’t deserve it.

It took a ton of research to write all of this. I’ve got a series of books on Stalin on my bookshelf that clock in at a grand total of 6,000 pages, and that’s only a fraction of what I’ve read on him. Probably equally as much about communism in Russia. There aren’t as many books about the Holodomor, because the research is fairly new and it is, unfortunately, not an acknowledged tragedy to most of the world, but I read every bit I could get my hands on, and talked to some people who either survived it, or had relatives that did.

The magic itself came about because I’m personally fascinated by the idea of elemental magic, but not the kind where you point and fire shoots out of your finger. Man has been controlling fire for as long as we’ve existed. I’m fascinated in the idea of, what happens when fire controls man?

When it came to writing Seraphina’s Lament what was the biggest surprise about the writing itself? Either, “I can’t believe X is so easy!” or “If I had known Y was going to be so hard, I’d have skipped this and watched more TV!”
I was really amazed by how much research I had to do into the Holodomor, communism, and Stalin in order to write this book. I use barely a fraction of what I learned, but once I got started writing, I realized that in order to put so many things in context, I had to understand what happened before. I had to know about the things that laid the groundwork for this particular situation. For example, you can’t understand Stalin without understanding Lenin (and life in Georgia). You can’t understand Lenin until you understand elements of WWI, and Tsar Nicholas. You can’t understand Nicholas until you understand the two Tsars before him (at least). And then I had to understand how all of this impacted the average person living in this area of the world, so I ended up falling down all these really wild rabbit holes about village life in Russia, and turn-of-the-century Russian culture.

I had to do this with Ukraine, as well. In order to understand the Holodomor, you’ve got to understand the politics in Ukraine, into the relationship between the Ukrainian people, and the Russian people (which goes back well over a thousand years and is really, really interesting). I had to learn about how Ukraine is the breadbasket of that region (and the gateway to the West), with fertile soil and lush crops, and how the insertion of Stalin’s obsession with modernization fundamentally impacted life, cultures, and traditions. I had to read about land owners, and village life, and so much more.

All of these things mixed together to give me a ton of context that I could use to hopefully give events in my world a bit more grounded, well-rounded look to them.

What’s the one (or two) book/movie/show in the last 5 years that made you say, “I wish I’d written that.”?
I have a toddler and a seven-year-old. The past five years of my life has been filled mostly with Paw Patrol and Peppa Pig.

This is going to be a boring answer, but there are a lot of authors I admire and learn from, but I’m glad they’ve written the books they wrote because those books just need to exist, and I probably couldn’t have done it half as well as they did.

Lastly, I (mostly) jokingly told your publicist that I’d read the book because it was probably the best way to get that cover image out of my mind. That’s one of the most striking covers I can remember – did you have any input on that, or did your designer just hit you with it? I don’t know how to ask something coherent about it, so let me just say – what would you like to say about the cover
Pen Astridge is the bomb. Seriously. I sent her the first few chapters of my book (which I ended up rewriting in edits). She asked for some inspiration, if I had any, and I basically drew a blank. I told her something along the lines of, “basically everyone dies and it’s really dark so just death this sucker up.” I think I attached a picture of a dead tree and some skulls, too. I mean, I impressively suck at that sort of thing. Somehow, Pen took all that total crap and then handed me this book cover.

I say it in my acknowledgments, but I’ll say it here, too. Everyone should hire her. Pen is the absolute best in the business, and I am beyond lucky to have her create my cover. It was better anything I could ever imagine and exactly what the book needed.

Thanks for your time, I hope you nothing but success with Seraphina’s Lament and I hope the work on volume 2 is going well.

Seraphina’s Lament by Sarah Chorn: Beautiful, moving, and brutal. You haven’t read anything like this fantasy.

I just reread this, and it doesn’t cover everything I wanted to, but it’s approaching that length where it becomes untenable — and I really don’t have time to add the 3-5 paragraphs that I want to (and who knows what else I’d think of when I open the floodgates). It’s a good start, anyway…

Seraphina's LamentSeraphina’s Lament

by Sarah Chorn
Series: The Bloodlands, #1

eARC, 342 pg.
2019

Read: February 12 – 15, 2018


I just don’t know that I can do an adequate job describing this book — actually, I do know that I can’t do an adequate job describing this book. But I can sort of explain things enough that you might get an idea if this book is for you. Maybe.

This takes place in some sort of Fantasy World, one rich in magic — elemental magic. There are those with Fire Magic, Earth Magic, Animal magic — and so on It’s hard to tell just ow the various people use their magic — but you get an idea that the world was full of a lot of magic that just isn’t working any more. The planet seems to be dying and one of the first signs was that fewer people were showing signs of magic and those who had it couldn’t use it has they could before. That right there is a great hook for a fantasy story — but for this book, it feels like it might be the seventh or eighth most important thing to know.

There’s a little bit of chicken and egg to this situation — did the economic and political upheaval happen because of the dying magic, or is they dying magic a response to the upheaval? I don’t think the book answers the question and I think I could argue for both positions (I’ve only read the book once, and I might be forgetting the one or two lines that definitively answer this question). The dynasty that had ruled The Sunset Lands was toppled by revolutionary forces — collectivist rebels seeking to remake not just the government, but society as a whole. After the Revolution, the Premier ends up pushing the citizens into collective farms and mines to provide for the nation as a whole. This is met with resistance, counter-revolutionary movements and problems. As the world dies, as the magic that aided people in both industries fades, the situation gets worse and people are pushed to desperate actions — and things that are even beyond desperation — just to survive.

In the midst of all this we focus on a few people — one farmer who lost everything, his home, his family, his hope. Seraphina, the title character, a personal prisoner of the premier, a slave that he spends years tormenting and crippling. Her twin brother, who escaped from the premier because of Seraphina’s sacrifice. We also meet others who offer aid and succor to as many as they can — food, shelter, assistance fleeing from the government’s forces — they’re dubbed counter-revolutionaries, and while they might aspire to that, they basically just help people live a little longer. We also, of course, spend a lot of time with the Premier — who can do nothing to prevent the collapse of his world and his society, but puts all his efforts into it. Lastly, we see the sleeping gods of this world awaken to watch the approaching end. I don’t feel comfortable enough talking about the characters in any more detail than that — they will grab your heart, break your heart, inspire and frighten you.

I’ve seen a couple of reviews that use the phrase “grimdark” to describe this book. Maybe I’m being restrictive in the way I use the term, but I don’t see the book in that model. It’s a different kind of dark, if you ask me (there’s a torturer that I can imagine Abercrombie’s Glotka accusing of going too far). This novel feels like it’s a few steps beyond dystopia, when the status quo of unjust society, environmental woes, extreme poverty are looked back on by people in a sense of “remember when we still had a chance to turn things around?” One character prepares for death and thinks back on his full and happy life. My notes focused on that “happy” with an all caps, “HOW?” Yet somehow, and I wish I could give a reason for this, somehow the book never becomes burdensome to read, you’re never thinking, “I’ve got to trudge through how many pages before we can get to some resolution?” You don’t want to see more tragedy befall the characters you know, you don’t want to face another interlude where you see the horrors that other characters face, where society breaks down further, where taboos disappear like a mist. But you can’t stop reading this book, you can’t help but read on.

This comes down to the way that Chorn tells the story, the language she uses to talk about the heartbreak, the horror, the tragedy, the atrocities, everything. So often, she’d be talking about life being pain, and death being the release in ways that elevated the idea, that seemed new and revolutionary, yet so true, so familiar that you intuitively related to the sentiment. It’s not right of me to talk about this without examples — but I have an ARC, so I can’t quote from it (and even if I had a published version, I don’t know that I could’ve picked just one or two examples — I’d have had a hard time limiting myself to a dozen favorites). There’s a lyrical, poetic quality to the language. There’s a humanity that infuses every nook and cranny of this novel in a way that I can’t imagine not appealing to readers.

Before I forget, I want to talk about this cover a little bit. Is that not one of the most disturbing images you’ve seen lately? When Chorn’s publicist approached me about reading this book, I (mostly) jokingly said something about having to read this book just to get the image out of my brain — like you have to listen to an earworm all the way through to get it dislodged from your brain. It’s a perfect cover for this book.

This isn’t a perfect book — there were times I wondered if she’d gone to far with the depravity expressed by one character or another. The repeated uses of “closure” as in a character getting or needing “closure” or “moving on,” seemed out of place for this world — the same for “survivor’s guilt.” And honestly I have no problem with the conventional wisdom of a world like this having a concepts similar to those, but talking about it in the psychological language of late 20th/early 21st century seems odd to me. The Yeats allusion really struck me as unsuitable. (any of these might have been addressed in the final edits and might not appear in the final copy). None of these ruined a scene or a moment for me, but they did all cause me to take a beat and ask, “really?” It’s nothing significant, but they all felt inappropriate in this setting.

Time and time again while reading this book, I was struck by how unique, how unusual this experience was — I hadn’t felt like this since I read Darrell Drake’s A Star-Reckoner’s Lot a couple of years ago. Which doesn’t say much to most readers, because it’s a criminally unknown book. So I stretched my memory some more and came up with N. K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms as having a similar impact on the way I thought about the story, and how unusual it feels compared to other fantasies I’ve read. The experience of reading this isn’t something I’ll forget any time soon.

Now, this is the first book of a trilogy, and I’m left totally unprepared for the second book. The middle book of a trilogy is where things are supposed to take a turn for the worse, leaving the reader wondering where the story is going to be able to take a turn for the better. I don’t see how things can get worse from this point, how there’s more chaos, more destruction, more peril possible. Which means that Chorn’s going to have to cast off traditional story structure, or pull a rabbit out of her hat (well, probably a few nests’ worth). Maybe both. I’m eager to see how she accomplishes book two.

But to focus on this book — this is a special fantasy. Beautiful, moving, and brutal. Read it.

Disclaimer: I received an ARC of this novel from the author, it didn’t impact my opinion beyond giving me something to have an opinion about..

—–

4 1/2 Stars
LetsReadIndie Reading Challenge

Fahrenbruary Repost: Know Me from Smoke by Matt Phillips: A heart-wrenching noir love story.

Know Me from SmokeKnow Me from Smoke

by Matt Phillips

Kindle Edition, 193 pg.
Fahrenheit 13, 2018
Read: November 15 – 16, 2018

If you’re looking for an example of noir — in the classic sense — look no farther than Matt Phillips’ Know Me from Smoke. You can tell that’s going to be the case from the opening paragraphs. The first chapter builds on those first three or four paragraphs and sets the atmosphere, the mood, the tone for the rest of the book — and pretty much casts a spell on the reader, too. The second chapter — where we meet our second protagonist firms that up, and from there Phillips builds on this foundation to deliver a book that will stay with you long after you’re done with it.

But let’s step back from that for a minute — we begin by meeting Stella Radney. She’s in her mid-40’s, a lounge singer, and a widow still grieving her murdered husband twenty years after his death. During the robbery that left Virgil dead, Stella was shot as well and the bullet’s still in her hip — a constant reminder that her loss and pain are physical as well as emotional. Both pains seem a bit fresher in the beginning of the book because Stella’s been informed that new DNA technology (unavailable 20 years ago), has led the DA’s office to reopen the case and they hope to have an arrest soon. Stella’s feeling a little raw, hanging on only by more alcohol than is probably good for her and losing her self regularly in the music she performs.

Royal Atkins is a free man, a man with a second chance — a convicted killer released on a technicality and determined to make the best of his second chance. Sadly, a couple of men at his halfway house decide that the best thing for Royal would be to join them and pull a few stickups — and a few other forms of robbery as well. Royal resists — but it’s as clear to him as it is to the reader that this won’t last.

Stella and Royal meet and the chemistry is instantaneous. The chapter where they meet for the first time is possibly the best chapter I’ve read this year — just magic. For obvious reasons, Royal edits the personal history he tells Stella, and his associates from the halfway house use this to blackmail him into going along with them. He’s trying to build a new life, she’s trying to rebuild her life, and neither of them want to be alone in the process.

So we get to watch the growing love story of Stella and Royal, Royal’s history being used against him, the crime spree, and the certainty that this is going to all going to come to a messy end. A little before the halfway point, I put in my notes, “if I stop, some broken people get to live a decent life. If I read another chapter or two, everything will fall apart and lives will be ruined. So tempted to walk away from it.” I really was — I liked these two so much, I wanted to let them have this chance.

But there was no way I was going to stop, Phillips’ prose was too good to abandoned, and I had to see what actually happened to these characters (no matter how inevitable the end seemed). Seriously, I’d have kept reading just so Stella could think about her relationship to music and songs some more — those sections of the book are practically poetry.

There’s conversation between a couple of characters about Pulp Fiction — and Tarantino’s work feels appropriate to this book. But not that movie. Jackie Brown is the movie that this feels like. Maybe the novel, too, but I haven’t read Rum Punch. They’re both from the same species of sweet, second-chance at love story in the middle of a story of crime, criminals and ex-cons.

This is going to go for my entry for “Read a book you chose based on the cover” in the While You Were Reading challenge — it’s not entirely true, but the cover is fantastic and got me to read the blurb a few times, so it’s close enough.

I love that title, too.

There’s just so many things that are right about this book, and so little that’s wrong. This is a winner — it’ll grab you by the heartstrings, will pull you along through the highs and lows of this story, and only let you go some time after you finish (I’m not sure how long that effect will last, but it’s been almost a week and it really hasn’t let go yet).

—–

4 Stars

Fahrenbruary Repost: Burning Secrets by Ruth Sutton: A Child Abduction Sets Off a Disturbing Chain of Events

I originally posted about this for a blog tour — one of those that I ended up being very glad I participated in, this atmospheric mystery is one to check out.

Burning SecretsBurning Secrets

by Ruth Sutton

Kindle Edition, 264 pg.
Fahrenheit Press, 2018

Read: October 2 – 3, 2018

For a book that clocks in at 264 pages, Sutton packed in a lot of story. I’m having difficulty deciding what to focus on, I’ve got to say. If only all authors could present a guy with such problems . . .

This book starts off with a child abduction — a child, Helen Helsop, that we get to know a little bit before she’s abducted. Immediately I groaned, because the last thing I wanted to deal with is a book about a little girl getting snatched and then dealing with whatever abuse is looming. Without spoiling much, let me assure you — nothing like that happens. This is not that kind of kidnapped child story. This doesn’t mean that she’s been taken for benign or even beneficial reasons, however.

Helen hasn’t been living at home — she’s been staying with family in town so she can attend school. Because theirs is a farming community — predominately, or at least heavily, a dairy and cattle area, and this is 2001 — the height of the Foot and Mouth crisis. I’ll be honest, as an American in a pre-social media age, I didn’t have a strong grasp on the effect this had on smaller farmers — I just never was exposed to it. I got what it meant on the national/industry front, but didn’t think much more about it. If I had, it would’ve been obvious just how much this would decimate a community, an individual family, and why this was such a horrible crisis. Anyway, back to Helen — she hasn’t had a good time of it in this temporary home and is easily persuaded to leave. It’s hours (of course) before anyone notices that she’s missing, and even then, most of her family doesn’t believe she’s actually missing.

Before that, thankfully, the police are called in — we focus on DC Maureen Pritchard — a well-known fixture in the community (not as well-known as her father, however) and the newly-arrived DS Anna Penrose. There’s a little professional jealousy between the two — Pritchard envies another woman in a position she was denied and Penrose would love the acceptance and respect her fellow officers seem to have for Pritchard. But largely, they can put that aside to focus on Helen. It’s obvious from the start that the foster family and Helen’s actual family are both holding back from the police, but it’s hard to tell if it’s germane to the case, or if it’s just things that no one wants to share with outsiders.

This is all so compellingly told — the layers that Sutton is working on are something to behold. She’s excellent at revealing more and more about Pritchard and Penrose while they’re uncovering more about Helen’s life and whoever took her. You could make the case (I think you’d be wrong, but you can make it) that the mystery in this novel takes a back seat to the drama surrounding the women and their superiors. Initially, probably because we meet her first, I was pulling for Pritchard to solve the case, rescue the girl and save the day to put Penrose in her place. But soon, I just wanted the two of them to knock off the nonsense and just work together — preferably by being open with each other about what’s going on. I won’t say if I was ultimately satisfied in that desire, but I can say that Sutton deals with their relationship in a way that is absolutely believable and realistic — a very satisfactory job.

The greatest impediment to the search for Helen isn’t the fact that the family is hiding something(s), the difficulty in tracking down a person of interest, the cleverness of the kidnapper, finding a particular van in a decent size, getting a straight answer out of scared kids with overbearing/concerned parents interfering (for nefarious reasons or unintentionally), or any of the other absolutely understandable and inevitable roadblocks. Instead, it’s Detective Inspector Stanley Bell — he’s too focused on the budget and on impressing his DCI, not that we can forget his obvious misogyny and blatant racism. It’d have been easy for Sutton to leave him as a buffoon, an obstacle, a foil for Pritchard and Penrose — but she doesn’t, there are times when he seems to be a perfectly capable police officer. But those times are the minority — it is fun to watch his subordinates play him to get their way, Penrose learns from Pritchard’s example quickly on this front.

If I tried to talk about the kidnapper, I’d spoil it — if I tried to talk about Helen’s family, I’d fail. I can’t summarize what Sutton did there (I was reductionistic enough with the police — and I’d still be reductionistic if I’d included everything I wanted to say about them) — I’ve known men like her father and older brother. I could feel their pain, their frustration — with their life in general, even before Helen’s abduction, which just seemed like the next-to-last straw for them. Between Foot and Mouth, general hardships (physical and financial) related to this lifestyle, too much alcohol, and a wife who wants more than all this — it’s just too much for people to take.

The depiction of Helen is really strong, as well — she is a scared twelve year-old doing the best she can in a horrible circumstance. At some point the police don’t understand why she did X in a situation. I wanted to yell at them, “because she’s a scared little kid!” Of course, she’s not going to act like a rational adult. (The other thing I had a hard time buying was that given the emphasis the officers put on local knowledge, was that it was the outsider who understood the importance of getting his cows milked to a dairy farmer)

I’ve gone on too long, and haven’t said nearly enough. So let’s hit the important things as I try to wrap up.As I said at the outset — this is not a typical kidnapping novel. Every assumption you make early on in the book will prove to be mistaken, but it all feels organic, it all seemed natural. This isn’t one of those books where you can see the author moving pieces around to achieve her ends. I have no doubt she did — but I couldn’t see it. There’s some good action, some very clever policework, and a strong psychological-thriller bent to parts of this as well. There’s a strong Perry Mason-esque quality to the strategy the police employed at the end, which I appreciated. Burning Secrets ticks almost every box a mystery-fan will have on their list.

This is a novel about family secrets, family problems — all families, on some level, I’m sure. There are strong threads about options various women take to take care of their families and themselves — what lengths they may go to, what shortcuts they may take, what hard choices they may make — to secure happiness, health, or survival. This is a novel about change — individual and societal — how difficult that is. But none of these themes detract from a heart-stopping and heart-breaking story about a kidnapping and the consequences radiating from it. All in less than 300 pages — not a bad feat.

I have no idea if Sutton intends to write more about these characters (there’s every reason to think she will, given her track record) — but I’d love to spend more time with them. If Penrose and Pritchard can turn their détente into some sort of working understanding, or better, a real partnership, they’d be a fantastic combination (for drama, they’d still be interesting if they don’t form any closer relationship, but it wouldn’t be as fun to read). Sutton does have a pretty hefty backlist, and I should try to dive in — and you should, too. Start with this, though, it’ll whet your appetite for the rest.

—–

4 Stars
My thanks to damppebbles blog tours for the invitation to participate in this tour and the materials they provided.