Review of A Reliable Wife

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If you had picked up this book and admired the cover, relishing the promise of a devious noir tale set in the snowy bleakness of small town Wisconsin in 1907, you would have perhaps decided to purchase the book, carrying to the front counter of the book store a thick paper bundle made slightly for substantial in your hand by the weight of your expectations. You would have remembered so many other books you had purchased in this way, taking them home and cozying up on the couch with a cup of hot English tea, mixed with a little milk poured from a grocery store carton and honey harvested from local hives. As you stood there, stirring your tea together with the milk and honey, you would have felt the poignancy of rising anticipation building in your breast as you thought of that book sitting in the other room on a little mahogany table beside the end of the couch, just under the curved swoop of your favorite reading lamp.

Perhaps you would have been struck by the anachronistic use of second person to set the scene, but perhaps too you would have been dazed by the lush prose and the languid sentences. Perhaps you would have shrugged off the long tedious exposition as a delightfully droll devise for providing background information about the story that you believed to be on the verge of beginning any page now. After all, you were learning about the characters. You knew now how Ralph Truitt was so rich that he bought and sold the two thousand other people who lived in his town but how he secretly worried very much about how these people regarded him. You knew too how Ralph was a lonely widower and how during long cold nights especially he was above all extremely sexually frustrated and jealous of all the other townsfolk who he imagined were having frequent and satisfying intimate relations with each other. You knew now how Catherine Land was not what she seemed but more of a schemer, a woman of considerable if fading beauty who had finally determined that she would not reach the end of her life without having attained for herself either a great love or an enormous amount of money. And yet, for all your reading of the two lengthy chapters of the novel, this was the sum of your knowledge. The first chapter described him waiting on the train platform with all these internal thoughts and background stories; the second chapter provided the same exhaustive character sketch for her.

Perhaps you would have taken a deep breath then to shake off your frustration with such an obviously capable writer choosing to tell you all these things about the characters rather than showing you things about the characters and allowing you to draw your own conclusions about their personalities and motivations by experiencing them actually doing things. But, forgiving soul that you are, you would have gone quietly to the kitchen to refill your tea cup, remixing the perfect blend of milk and honey, and pausing there as you set down the spoon to refill your patience.

Back on the sofa, you would have felt pleasure upon reading the first line of the third chapter for it seemed at last that here was action: “She stepped into snow.” Reading on, you find that the prose still has the over-rich, languid quality of the first two chapters, but now at last things were happening. Slowly, yes, but they were happening. Ralph and Catherine were meeting on the train platform. Her clothes were too cheap and thin for the Wisconsin blizzard. Ralph’s words nearly betrayed his preoccupation with avoiding the searching eyes of the townsfolk. And most tellingly for the story to come, Catherine had deceived Ralph in her letter, sending him a photograph not of herself but of another woman she now claimed was her cousin. This deception irritates Ralph and he tells her that whoever she is she should know that their relationship begins with a lie. Then they take his carriage from the station to his house, and barely speaking, they revert to their interior thoughts where you are again made privy to all their fears and hopes, their frustrations and worries. As you’re reading this third chapter, you are now convinced this one should have started the novel instead when the editor excised the first two like a dental surgeon removing wisdom teeth that are not only unneeded but also tend to crowd their more useful fellows. You might even notice as you’re reading that full sentences of exposition from the first two chapters find themselves repeated and reiterated here, and at the end of this third chapter, though it’s started to give you hints of the story, you decide to lay the book aside.

Lovely prose does not a compelling novel make. Perhaps you will decide to re-read Louisa May Alcott’s novella “Behind a Mask” instead. It’s a similar tale in some ways but much more deftly told.

Review of Blackbirds

Chuck Wendig’s Blackbirds stands out as one of my favorite novels so far this year.  To be fair, it’s probably not everybody’s cup of hot arterial blood, but if you like your novels down-and-dirty, pedal-to-the-metal, and still thought-provoking, you can’t miss with this novel.  I’d say it’s actually more horror than “urban fantasy” – it has more in common with the novels of Joe Hill and Gary A. Braunbeck than it does with those of Charles De Lint and Neil Gaiman – but wherever it gets shelved in the store, this is one feisty mofo that grabs you by the scruff of the neck and shakes you till you pee yourself.  Seriously, folks, if you like your fiction dark and weird, you need to read this book.

Still don’t believe me?  Here’s seven reasons you’re gonna love this book:

The Cover – I mean, come on!  Have you looked at this thing?  Angry Robot not only publishes awesome books, they adorn them with the magnificent covers they deserve.  Wendig must have come in his pants when he saw this thing the first time.

The Premise – Wrestling with the question of fate versus freewill is as ancient as the Greeks and as timeless as Shakespeare, but you’ll notice that we’ve never actually solved this particular problem.  Add in a protagonist who can foresee the future, and you’ve got all the working materials of classic myth. Wendig makes these old conundrums fresh with his lively prose and his knack for contemporary grit.

The Prose – This author can flat out write.  There’s nary a wasted word in the novel.  The nouns sing brightly and the athletic verbs leap from the page.  Ray Bradbury would have loved Wendig’s effervescent prose style.  You will too.

The Protagonist – Miriam Black is the most troubled, sexiest, spookiest clairvoyant you ‘d ever hope to meet in a novel.  Her struggles with her gift/curse and the problems it causes her in relation to others makes Miriam a girl you’d never want to meet in real life, but vicariously through a book, her character is as compelling as they come.

Rampant, Gleeful Mayhem – From midnight strolls along the interstate, to bar room brawls, to visits from thuggish people carrying FBI badges, you never know what’s going to happen from one page to the next.  This ups the ante in the fate versus freewill contest because Miriam has already seen the deaths of anyone she’s touched.  And fate always wins, right?

Wendig’s Dirty Mouth – Chuck Wendig has more fun with creative obscenity than anyone I’ve read since early Stephen King.  Who else would have the writerly balls to pop out with insults like “fuckpie” and a nameless character referred to as Gray Pubes.  Again, this book is clearly not for everyone, but if you’re going to use dirty words at least make them interesting.  Wendig does.

Mockingbird – If there’s anything better than reading a great book you don’t want to end, it’s knowing that a sequel is already in the works.  Even more awesome than that is knowing you don’t have to wait a whole year.  The next title in this series is slated for release in September 2012.  You can bet I’ll be snagging mine the week it comes out.

Quibbles?  Yeah, I’ve got a few.  I always do, but I’ll spare you hearing about them.  The scale firmly tips in favor of this novel.

Blackbirds easily earns five out of five stars.

Why are you still sitting there?  Go get a copy of this book and start reading it.

Review of Dead Harvest

Okay, so I know you can’t judge a book by its cover, but before launching into an assessment of the novel per se, let’s pause to admire the artistry that went into designing the cover of this paperback original.  Angry Robot has been publishing quite a number of interesting novels lately and they’ve all had great covers, but they outdid themselves with the jacket for Chris F. Holm’s Dead Harvest.  The stark blue and white vintage look works very nicely on its own, but they’ve gone one step further by making the cover look smudged and time-worn.  That’s awesome.

That said, the novel housed within very nearly lives up to the pure aesthetic joy of the cover.  Almost, but not quite.  To be clear, Dead Harvest is a fast fun read with plenty of lively action sequences.  Imagine a bodiless Jack Reacher finding himself in a cross-over episode between Joss Whedon’s Angel and the old comedy-drama series Dead Like Me.  For fans of hard-boiled supernatural fiction like that of Jim Butcher and company, this is definitely one of the better books you’ll read this year.  Holm’s full-length debut, the first in his series of Collector novels, introduces us to Sam Thornton, an eternally-damned yet still-ethical soul collector.  This book is a thrill ride and I enjoyed it immensely, but there’s a “but” and I’ll get to that in a minute.

Doomed to do the dirty work of collecting souls of the damned for his mysterious and angelically mesmerizing overseer Lilith, our hero Sam finds himself on the run after he’s sent to collect the soul of a young murderess and fails in his mission because touching her pure soul convinces him there’s been some terrible mistake in the bureaucratic offices of the great beyond.  Either that, or it’s a frame up job and whoever’s pulling the strings is trying to cause the end of the world by having an innocent soul sent to hell.  The smart money’s on the latter as demons and angels alike start cranking up the pressure on Sam to comply with his orders.  Or else.  By the way, the thuggish angels are an especially wonderful touch here.

Other than his hard-boiled attitude and his impeccable morals, Sam’s best weapon is his ability to shift around and inhabit bodies of the recently deceased, or crowd into and commandeer the body of a living person.  Unfortunately, one of the ringers the powers that be send in to clean up Sam’s mess has this same ability.  I know, this sounds confusing, but it’s actually great fun in the novel.  And to Holm’s credit, the reader never gets lost during all this body jumping.

But – ah, you knew that was coming – for all the shoot-’em-ups and narrow escapes from certain doom, Dead Harvest seems to lack moral weight.  Perhaps this is a quibble to ask for ethical substance from an “entertainment” but I don’t think so, especially since we’re asked to imagine we’re on the front lines of an epic war between good and evil.  The quasi-Christian mythology seems somewhere on the spectrum between Milton’s Paradise Lost and Whedon’s Buffy universe, but Dead Harvest never pauses the shoot outs and chase sequences long enough to give all this action the ethical dimensions that would make this novel live up to its titular allusion to Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest.  Hammett never wrote about angels and demons, but he wrote about real moral dilemmas.

True, Sam’s backstory, told throughout the novel in italicized flashback sequences, attempts to give the action hero more depth, but ultimately it never manages to give him or his actions quite the moral dimension we’re expecting.  Holm has turned up the volume, but doing so actually flattens the moral affect.  These angels and demons seem like the larger-than-life figures in a riff-heavy speed metal song.  Just like anybody, I’ll crank up the stereo when a Judas Priest song comes on, but when the song is over I don’t find myself wondering about the ethics of “Breaking the Law.”

Of course I do want more.  Can’t wait for The Wrong Goodbye.  I expect these adventures will get better and better.

Four stars out of five.

“A Lady’s Pistol” at Fires on the Plain

My latest western noir tale, “A Lady’s Pistol” is now available online at Fires on the Plain, a new e-zine dedicated to publishing the best of independent western crime fiction.

This publication is definitely right up my alley.  I was beside myself when I heard it was going live in late February, and I haven’t been disappointed since.  Editor Cullen Gallagher is doing a bang-up job getting this fledgling project off the ground.  The e-zine started strong with three really great stories in the first three weeks — “The Serpent Box” by Jake Hinkson, “Pox” by Patti Abbott, and “Jingle Bob” by Ron Scheer.  I’m thrilled to be joining their ranks with this week’s featured story.

Please step on over to Fires on the Plain.  I’d appreciate your comments on this western noir tale of murder and mayhem.

“Whistlin’ Pete” at Flash Fiction Offensive

I’m thrilled to be back in the saddle over at the Flash Fiction Offensive with a nasty little tale called “They’ll Call Me Whistlin’ Pete.”  My latest piece of “western noir” went live last Friday and remains the featured story for the duration while they go through some minor transitions.  If you haven’t had a chance yet, mosey on over and check it out:

“They’ll Call Me Whistlin’ Pete” at Flash Fiction Offensive

David Barber does a hell of a job as editor there, and I’m very grateful that my stories can find homes at his wonderful publication.

For those of you who keeping score at home, this is the second story to see light of day from my forthcoming Tales of Perseverance collection.  A series of interlinked western noir tales set in and around Perseverance, Oregon, in the 1880’s.  Founded at the end of a wrong turn off the Oregon Trail, Perseverance is in the words of one resident, “A town named after the dubious virtue of steadfastly moving in the wrong direction.”

Watch for more Tales of Perseverance in the coming weeks and months!

How to Jump Start Your Writing

I recently taught a two-hour session on how to jump start your writing.  In preparing for this, I put together a one-page handout of all the best writing advice I know in a collection of bullet points under the acronym WRITE.  (Yeah, I know it’s corny.)

In any case, I thought  others might find this list helpful, so here it is.

If you use it, great!  We need better writing in the world.  If you share it, just give me credit.  Thanks!

How to Get It Done: WRITE

By Chuck Caruso

“W” is for Writing

  • “Vomit in the morning and clean up at noon.” –Ray Bradbury
  • Find the tools and the location that work best for you so you can focus on being productive.  Consider longhand versus typing and home versus writing in cafes — your tone and style will change with each of these.
  • Start with action and always use action to reveal character.
  • Show; don’t tell!  If you have to give background information, at least hide your exposition in action scenes.

“R” is for Reading and Research

  • Read a lot!  You need to see how other people do it in order to get the voices going inside your own head and practice verbalizing.
  • Read broadly but make sure at least some of your reading is in the genre and sub-genre you want to write.
  • Pick apart books you like to see how they work.  Then steal their plotting structures, character development tricks, and pacing devices.  No, don’t plagiarize, but borrow the tools that work.
  • Readers keep turning pages for three reasons:
  1. Human interest.  Because they like the characters.
  2. Suspense.  Because they want to find out what happens next.
  3. Puzzles.  Because they want to know the solution.
  • Most successful novels combine only two of the above elements, using on as primary and another as secondary.  Don’t mess with the mix during your novel or your story will seem to sag in the middle and the reader will lose interest.

“I” is for Ideas

  • Develop your ideas on paper.  Thinking about your ideas is valuable, but at the end of the day it doesn’t count.  Get a notebook and start jotting things down.
  • Outline!  Make a list of chapters and write down the two or three things that need to happen in each chapter to advance your plot.
  • Remember that you need to know how the story ends before you start writing it.  Otherwise you can’t plant clues or build up to the finish.

“T” is for Tenacity

  • To make yourself write, commit to writing for at least 15 minutes every day.  Of course you’ll need to do more in the long run, but this will help you build the habit.
  • Don’t believe in writer’s block.
  • Once you start, don’t circle back and revise until you have a full draft.  Most unfinished novels die at about page 50.  An outline and good writing habits will help you push past this common breaking point.
  • You can’t finish your novel if you’re not getting your butt into the chair and doing it.
  • Don’t give up!

“E” is for Editing

  • Once you finish your first draft, let it sit for a while.  In the meantime, start outlining and doing character sketches for your next novel.
  • After a few weeks or a month, go back and clean up your draft.  When you’ve gotten rid of the typos and the “embarrassing” missteps, have a trusted friend or two read it for you and give you feedback.
  • Listen to your readers and don’t defend yourself.  If you have to explain what you meant to do, then you didn’t do it well enough.  Take note of what you need to change to make things clearer for the reader when you’re not there to explain it.

Review of An Ordinary Decent Criminal

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I recently read An Ordinary Decent Criminal by Michael Van Rooy.  It has a great cover — dark, dark blue with the title in somewhat flawed white block letters, the author’s name in also somewhat flawed red block letters, and the distant outlines of a little night-lit town along the bottom.  Presumably the photo shows us the sleepy berg the novel’s title character will be menacing.  Winnipeg.  Yeah, that seems about right.  I’ve never been to Winnipeg, and probably you haven’t either, but we’d both guess that it would look like this.  And Winnipeg seems like exactly the quiet type of place a violent ex-con might settle down if he was trying to clean up his act, make his marriage work, and raise his infant son in peace and safety.  Which, it turns out, is exactly what our eponymous narrator Montgomery Haaviko has decided to do, and Monty really does seem like an ordinary decent criminal, though the local sheriff labels him with that sobriquet somewhat facetiously.  As a narrator, Monty is charming and instantly likable.  You care about him and want him to do well.

The trouble, as the jacket blurb from Michael Koryta suggests, presents itself on the very first page.  Despite our hero’s stated desire for a nice boring life, this novel (in Koryta’s words) “would have Quentin Tarantino smiling from page one.”  Regardless of how you feel about Michael Koryta and Quentin Tarantino, the blurb gives you a good idea of whether this book will suit your tastes.  Other reviewers have also drawn the comparison between Van Rooy’s novel and Tarantino’s films, though I would suggest that ultimately a better comparison might be to an Elmore Leonard character attempting to live on Desperate Housewives’ Wisteria Lane.  Monty has an undeniably troubled past and he still harbors dark impulses and an encyclopedic knowledge of criminal skills, but he’s a thoroughly sympathetic character who really seems like he’s trying to be good.  But Winnipeg (in Van Rooy’s version of it) proves to be full of nasty nosy neighbors and corrupt cops.  Monty has to turn bad again just to survive on these Canadian mean streets.

Overall, this book is a lot of fun, and I’d recommend it with four (out of five) stars.  The narrative voice works.  You care about Monty and want to hear him tell his story, even when you’re not sure if you should entirely believe him.  In the first half of the book, the pacing can be uneven – it drifts into too much detail about the Haaviko home and Monty’s attempt at domestic bliss – but things pick up in the second half and the climax of the tale delivers the goods (with just a couple minor false moves in the storytelling).  I was very pleasantly surprised that ODC turned out to be one of those debut novels capable of getting you very excited not only about the book you’ve just read but also quite eager to see more from the novelist.  Luckily, although this first novel just came out in the US, Van Rooy turns out to be a Canadian author with three books under his belt so there are already two more books waiting to be published in this country.  Of course if you have more money than patience, like one reader I know, you can track down the next two novels down and pony up for shipping to get them sent to your door from their Canadian publisher.  There are worse ways to spend your hard-earned money, and you can bet Monty’s continuing adventures will keep us well entertained.

If you like your crime novels hard-boiled with plenty of wry, dark humor and unpredictable twists, you should read Van Rooy.  You won’t be disappointed.

On Writing the Bradbury Way

While attending school in Los Angeles some years ago, I was blessed with the amazing opportunity to spend an entire afternoon with one of my writer heroes, Ray Bradbury, author of The Illustrated ManThe Martian ChroniclesDandelion Wine, and Fahrenheit 451.  If you don’t know Bradbury’s work, you’re really missing out.  I would suggest that immediately upon reading this post you rush out and buy at least two of the books I named – you won’t be sorry.  You may also want to pick up a copy of his book Zen and the Art of Writing, which contains some of the writing advice I’ll be discussing here (and much more).  Along with Stephen King’s On Writing, Bradbury’s book is one of the best books about writing that I know.  Both of these prolific authors have a knack for stoking the fires of inspiration when your passion for the work has been reduced to smoldering embers.  So if you need a serious kick in the pants to get you back into your home office (or wherever you write), you need look no further than these two.  In the meantime, I’ll do what I can here to get you past that slow patch, or what sometimes gets referred to as the dreaded “writer’s block.”

After showing me and my friend Zac around his office, pointing out memorabilia and knick-knacks from all aspects of his amazing writing career, Bradbury sat us down in his writing space and waved his hands significantly over the IBM Selectric II typewriter that had served as his workhorse through many books and countless short stories.  He told us he’d never used a computer and didn’t imagine he ever would.  His typewriter did the job for him because he knew the one essential secret to being a successful writer.  We scooted forward to the edge of our chairs, eager to hear the secret.  Here’s what he told us:  “Vomit in the morning and clean up at noon.”

There’s a bit more to it than that, obviously, but basically this means that when you sit down to write you need to get out of your own way and let the writing flow out of you as quickly and as naturally as it can.  Don’t worry if it’s not perfect.  Hell, don’t even worry if it’s coherent.  Yeah, it might suck.  It might be embarrassing stuff you don’t want your Aunt Ethel to read.  It might not be something you can ever sell to a publisher.  That doesn’t matter.  You can’t worry about any of those things when you’re in the creative mode.  Just write.  Vomit the words out on to the page (or the screen).  Later you can go back and clean it up, re-crafting into whatever your conscious mind thinks it ought to be.  But when you’re in the mode of drafting something for the first time, you need to get out of your own way and let the magic happen.

Stephen J. Cannell, another hugely successful author best known for his creation of The Rockford Files and many other TV detective series, puts it this way, “Writer’s block comes from the desire to be perfect.”  It’s another angle at the same central principle.  Creativity happens best when you just let it happen.  At its best, writing is more play than work.

When Bradbury started his career and hit upon his vomit method, his goal was to write a short story a week.  He figured that if he wrote 52 stories a year, at least a few of them would have to be good.  No kidding.  He turned out to be Ray Bradbury, one of the best and most respected science fiction writers of the twentieth-century.  But when he started, he was just a kid with thick glasses, unruly hair, and a big dream.  Putting himself in the chair and making himself vomit words on the page over and over again is what made his dreams come true.

This is the method.  Bradbury gave it to me and Zac, and we’ve followed it as our holy gospel ever since.  Now I’m passing it on to you.

Follow this advice and you’ll never go wrong.  Vomit in the morning and clean up at noon.

As a footnote to this story, I’d like to add that a few years later, shortly after my first professional sale to a national magazine, I got a postcard in the mail from Ray.  It said simply, “Congratulations!  You’re on your way.”  God bless you, Mr. Bradbury.