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WRITER’S CLUB

Here’s where I post occasional reviews of great books and stories. Read them below.

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LUCKY STRIKES
by Louis Bayard

In my parents’ attic there’s a black and white photo of my maternal grandparents, Inabel and Carl, from back when they were “courting.” It was taken in the mid 1920s a few years before the Dust Bowl nearly destroyed the agriculture and prairies of Oklahoma and most of the Midwest.

I’ve always loved the photo because it showed how beautiful Inabel, my “Mema,” was at the age of 18, with her bobbed light brown hair and frilly dress, and the dashing profile of my “Pa” in his vested suit. They’re leaning against a car with running boards, and in their faces I see two young adults in love, both of them smiling with a sense of shyness and mischief at the same time.

As a writer I also love the photo because of the story behind it – which is that it was taken not too long after young Carl, a manager-trainee at the town bank, was sent out to collect a debt from a farmer’s daughter who had written a couple of checks that slightly exceeded the amount of money in her account. As the story goes, Carl and Inabel were married within just a few months after that image was captured in front of her family’s farmhouse.

Today, after reading Lou Bayard’s Lucky Strikes, I have the opportunity to let the story of Inabel and Carl meander to different places in my mind. I’m imagining them on a long road trip to Washington, D.C. a few years later, taking the scenic route through Warren County in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

[Read more]

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GUILTY MINDS
by Joseph Finder

While Sweet Smell of Success is a widely heralded as a 1957 film noir, its plot description on your Netflix envelope won’t mention murder or blackmail or any other characteristics associated with the genre. In fact it sounds almost tame as a tale about people who use the power of the press to sully reputations.

Even so it turned out to be 100 percent nastier than some of the biggest shoot-em-ups of the era, with Burt Lancaster projecting the lethally hypnotic stillness of a hooded cobra striking at-will to destroy peoples’ lives, and Tony Curtis embodying every archetypal quality of the sleazy publicist beholden to him.

As someone who makes a living in the media business, I remember getting up at the end of the movie and wondering if some of the more difficult people in my industry might actually be evil, as opposed to just annoying.

Years later I imagined that prospect once again as I read Joseph Finder’s GUILTY MINDS. At the first line – “Lies are my business. They keep me employed” – I realized it was another Nick Heller thriller, Finder’s fifth story (counting a short story co-authored by Lee Child) centered by this cool character who bills himself as “a private spy” – someone who’s often hired by dangerous people to get them out of dangerous situations. [Read more]

SHARP OBJECTS DARK PLACES

SHARP OBJECTS and DARK PLACES
by Gillian Flynn

I subscribed to the print edition of Entertainment Weekly for years, and always flipped to the book reviews written by Gillian Flynn first. That’s one reason why her name was familiar to me long before the astounding success of Gone Girl. The other reason was my reaction to the two novels, SHARP OBJECTS and DARK PLACES, she wrote before it.

As a result, I like to pretend I’m part of a special club of people who discovered Flynn before the 15 million readers who kept Gone Girl on the New York Times Bestseller List for 130 weeks. Although SHARP OBJECTS and DARK PLACES were also bestsellers that earned critical acclaim, there weren’t a zillion people yakking about them in the years between 2006 and 2010. There were, however, millions who loved them for their gripping narratives and compellingly believable characters. These novels were also loved by a lot of writers, like me, who continuously searched for books that inspired us to aim higher in our own work. [Read more]

Make Me cover

MAKE ME
by Lee Child

Most of us regular guys and gals are a lot alike. We go to work and take orders from someone above us five days a week. We’re anchored to our residences by the mortgages or rent we have to pay every month. We don’t often get into fights, and would be apt to turn the other way if we encountered a band of thugs on the sidewalk in front of us.

Most of us – at least the people I hang out with – are happy with our lives. But then there are those days when things seem a little off. The walls around us feel stifling. The bosses and clients we work for make us feel like drones. We step out of a bar at midnight, feeling lightheaded and thinking of nothing but sleep until we round a corner and see four big guys in ski masks, hands in the pockets of their jackets, walking purposefully toward us . . .

“That’d be one of those moments when you want to be Jack Reacher,” my dad tells me, with a chuckle at the other end of the phone. [Read more]

FIND HER cover

FIND HER and many other books
by Lisa Gardner

A couple of decades ago an editor at one of the big publishing houses talked with me about the proliferation of “woman-in-jeopardy” plots filling the drug store bookshelves and occasionally making their way onto bestseller lists. She was cranky about the lookalike plots incorporating stalking villains and “plucky” (her word, taken from innumerable reviews) women protagonists who typically started as victims before “turning the table” on the bad guys.

As she put it:

“There’s always this point – I can predict it exactly – where she suddenly ‘takes charge’ and begins to turn it all around . . .” [Read more]

THE WAYS OF THE DEAD THE FALL

THE WAYS OF THE DEAD, by Neely Tucker
and THE FALL, by John Lescroart

Narratives are powerful. They’re the reason why Donald Trump, with his Make America Great Again slogan, will win a disturbingly large share of the popular vote in the presidential election. They’re the fuel that turbo-charged headlines about an exotic dancer who was supposedly raped by Duke University lacrosse team members in 2006 and Rolling Stone’s short-sighted rush to expose allegations of the same crime against University of Virginia fraternity brothers in 2014. They also have everything to do with the reasons politicians are so eager to line up alongside “victims of police brutality” every chance they get.

In these cases and so many more, the narratives don’t have to be true. They’re stories we want to read, and tell, because they confirm viewpoints we hold dear. [Read more]

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CRAZY LOVE YOU
by Lisa Unger

“Worldbuilding” is a term that typically describes the process of creating the richly detailed alternate realities we find in works ranging from Lord of the Rings to Game of Thrones to the Harry Potter series. These settings are overtly different places peopled by characters with odd and magical traits. You know from the beginning you’re in an imagined universe. It also happens to a different degree in works by John Farris, Richard Matheson, Stephen King and other thrillermeisters who take the richly detailed real world we know so well and integrate an extra dimension where the supernatural becomes completely believable. [Read more]

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HIT AND RUN
by Doug Johnstone

A driving factor of successful storytelling is your true belief, as the writer, in the story you’re telling. Meaning, you often feel as if you’re reporting it as opposed to creating it, because there’s absolutely no doubt that it’s really happening. That belief is fostered as your characters break away from your carefully-crafted outline and start speaking for themselves, which makes you feel like you’re simply listening to them and just typing as fast as you can to get it all down. And it’s clinched in those final scenes when everything you imagined and believed comes together with a wham-pow ending that unequivocally assures you that these final lines were where you were headed all along. [Read more]

THE KIND WORTH KILLING cover

THE KIND WORTH KILLING
by Peter Swanson

I went through a bad spell at my day job a few years ago. It began in March. I was working for a woman who had been a friend for over three years.She’d always had a reputation for creating discord that engendered a kind of mean-girl hatred around the office but I was a nice guy who’d never experienced it firsthand. That began to change when she called me into her office to talk about a client budget and kept me waiting while she gave one of her kids a lecture about homework over the phone. I’d heard this biting, “no-nonsense” tone before, because there had been so many of these conversations with children and stepchildren that had bled into the work day. Her eyes met mine and then narrowed as I stood at the door, giving me the feeling there was something kind of craziness going on behind them. [Read more]

ROGUE MISSION cover

ROGUE MISSION
by Jeffrey S. Stephens

Thriller writers can evoke different kinds of fear. There’s that boogeyman kind of fear you feel as Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs heads down the stairs to the basement where Jame Gumb is waiting to cut away her skin. There’s the psychologically scary “this can’t be happening” fear you feel when Tessie from The Lottery opens the white slip with the black dot, a nightmarish moment that might forever change the way you view “normality” in your life. And then there’s the slow-burn fear you feel as you scroll through CNN headlines and realize that the terrorism that’s happening in the real world could suddenly hit right here and now. [Read more]

SON OF A GUN

SON OF A GUN and FOUNDERS’ KEEPER
by Ed Markham

Based on its essential role in everything I write, buy, or watch, I expect the Internet knows me pretty well by now. Every once in a while I get a sign that that might actually be a good thing – most recently through Amazon, where a team of people behind a mysterious curtain tracks my browsing habits and online reviews to come up with books that I have a good chance of liking.

The latest recommendations are for the work of Ed Markham, author of SON OF A GUN and FOUNDERS’ KEEPER. Because the lineup I see most mornings when I log on is full of brand name authors, I hadn’t heard of him. But at some point, thanks to Amazon, I ordered his thriller, SON OF A GUN. I started it on a Sunday night with that “I’ll just read a few pages before I go to sleep.” mindset. An hour later I was a third of the way through, and completely spellbound. [Read more]

Capital Offense

CAPITAL OFFENSE
by Kathleen Antrim

Hey, you! Yes, you – in the dark blue suit, second row; the one who can’t stop looking down at your screen in hopes of finding a trailer for the next season of House of Cards. The one who binge-watched all of the previous seasons – twice – spellbound by the suspense and wondering all the while if you’d ever see one single honorable moment in the lives of Frank or Claire Underwood.

I’ve got bad and good news for you. The bad is that you probably won’t see any teaser trailers for the next season until at least January of 2017. The good is that Kathleen Antrim’s CAPITAL OFFENSE gives you another opportunity to be pulled into a story that chronicles the same kind of scheming, betrayals and outright charisma it probably takes to get the keys to the residential floors of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. [Read more]

THE FIXER

THE FIXER
by Joseph Finder

Joseph Finder’s bestselling novels frequently incorporate mysteries that must be unraveled by lead characters we can instantly empathize with. They’re typically smarter-than-average guys who are emotionally wired to play by the rules, but who are tempted to roll the dice and score something far more exciting than what their simple lives might otherwise deliver. Virtually always, they’re good guys caught in desperately bad situations that force them to commandeer their moral compasses to save their souls while simultaneously striving to save their skin.

These were the thoughts that ran through the subterranean part of my mind as I fell headlong into last summer’s Finder novel, THE FIXER. I went into it knowing I was apt to experience a fast-paced story about a single protagonist mortally endangered by conspiracies and secrets. I knew the high-stakes of those conspiracies would make the villains especially violent. [Read more]

FOREIGN AND DOMESTIC UPDATED COVER THREE MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT COVER

FOREIGN AND DOMESTIC and THREE MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT
by A.J. Tata

Thriller fans have all kinds of reasons to love hit shows like 24 and Homeland. There are the high stakes of the interpersonal and geopolitical conflicts that get all mixed up in the minds of Jack Bauer and Carrie Mathison. There’s the pacing and cliffhanger plotting (which is faster and scarier in 24 but more nuanced and perhaps more rewarding in Homeland). And there’s the realism. You don’t really believe Chloe can instantaneously send schematics where bad guys glow green to Jack’s PDA every time he enters a warehouse with his gun drawn. Yet the terrible things that happen in both shows aren’t any less terrible than the things that are happening in real life right now.

What makes both shows most compelling to me are the changing faces of the enemies. They hide behind the uniforms and credentials of military and government authority. They are concealed by the charisma of sociopathic schemers who prove to be deranged only after you’ve come to think of them as good guys. And more often than not, they’re U.S. citizens whose minds have become corrupted by an insane need for power or wealth or faulty psychological wiring. [Read more]