On critical reviews

I am a hard critic of what I read, especially in the thriller genre. I think it earned me a couple side glances from other authors when I post reviews. But I have nothing but respect for them. I’m thinking of a few specifically, and I really admire them. 

The author, left. His conscience, right.
The author, left. His conscience, right.

I’m no one. I haven’t yet published. I push myself and think too much about others. It’s hard to share that sentiment across the Internet transom

I want fiction to be better. I want writers to push themselves. I want nothing more than to have them see me as a colleague.

I’m in a strange infancy with writing where I know I can do this, but almost no one else does yet. I have nothing to show for it. No way to connect with others except for the obvious — reading their work and providing some reviews.

I like to think I understand the grit it takes to write fiction. And for that, my hat is off to those who do it.

Book Review: The Killing Kind by Chris Holm

Chris Holm’s The Killing Kind is a hit man tale with a twist. He’s an assassin who hunts others like him, an effort to redeem his mysterious past and failure to come home from war to a woman he loves.

The Killing KThe book is a solid thriller with well paced chapters. Holm’s action scenes flow, sometimes at breathless pace, and he grounds everything in a practical detail that brings real clarity to the action.

The primary characters of the novel work well for the concept and situation they’re all facing, but each needs more depth and nuance to justify their larger than life calamities. Then at other times, lesser characters come to life only to disappear with insufficient resolution (the casino ventriloquist, for example).

The book takes a dark twist with a mostly convincing psychopath villain, and Holm builds a little sympathy for the FBI characters trailing the hero hit man. But it’s too little too late for the book’s otherwise well paced structure. The ending is momentous, too much so. The hitman earns his explosive climax, but it’s hard to justify his choice.

All told, The Killing Kind is an entertaining read with a hard edge that needs just a little honing.

The Killing Kind by Chris Holm: ★★★

Cowboys and Spies and Zombies, oh my!

In college, we studied the death of the cowboy as the popular American icon, who gave way to the inventor. It was a study in popularized fiction as generations changed amid urbanization. Westerns became science fiction in the span of a couple generations.

Randolph Scott
Whatever happened to Randolph Scott?

That always stuck with me, the too-eager fan of fantasy and science fiction. My father’s generation had greater fondness for earnest old Westerns and detective serials than they did for high flying laser beams. Those sf lasers crossed swords with the worlds of fantasy, which began a slow grind out of the back shelves and into the mainstream.

Fantasy became pervasively mainstream in its many forms since my youngest days ogling at Star Wars on screen. My father wouldn’t recognize Harry Dresden’s sorcery alongside his Mickey Spillane and Spenser mysteries. The Halloween hordes long since took over popular reading — and watching — with vampires, then were-anythings, and now endless zombies.

Somewhere the mashup became a selling point. Pride & Prejudice & Zombies is in movie theaters as I type. Kung fu westerns. Robot pulp heroes. Steampunk this. Zombie romance that! Hell, bog standard science fiction like my recent favorite, The Expanse, on SyFy is almost novel in its lack of cross-genre tropes. Nary a space-wizard in sight.

Edward-sparkling
No. Just … no.

I lived geek culture, though I never figured out how to make it cool like “these kids today.” My geek-ery was more of the Patton Oswalt club of shame who loved Chris Claremont’s X-Men and remembers Ice Pirates in the theater. Today, I recognize the Marvel movie cameos and understand the background behind the zombie craze. I know the references and easter eggs. I cheered most of the geek rise along the way. Ok, so I was a little late to the zombie love fest, but I did draw the line at scintillating vampire dreamboats like a proper geek.

As much as I loved this speculative wonderland, I always kept one foot on less fantastical ground. I cut my teeth on Tom Clancy novels and Alistair MacLean films. James Bond may dabble on the moon, but he’s still a Cold War cast off near and dear to me.

Now I’m writing a spy thriller novel. All those years of geeking out, and I went legit. No fantastical elements to be found — as they say on Seinfeld, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”

Moonraker James Bond
“Where’s this Princess Leia I heard so much about?”

But is there? Did I come too late? Cold War’s over. The big successes are a mature bunch. For every young spy thriller writer I come across, I can find another who made it “spec ops with magic.”

I look around at the run-away successes in fiction, and the go-to fan bases. Harry Potter. Hunger Games. Paranormal romances. There’s surprisingly little demand for George Smiley or Ethan Hunt, or even Alex Rider.

Are my spies and real-world heroes becoming like my father’s old worn out cowboys? A dying breed in changing times? Should I change with them?

I do wonder. Still, I keep writing. Working hard. Enjoying it. Dad, at least, will really like it!

Book Review: Inspector of the Dead by David Morrell

Inspector of the Dead is David Morrell‘s second successful effort to resurrect Victorian London in prose. In this second novel, he improves upon his own formula for a much more gripping read.

Inspector of the DeadLike Murder as a Fine Art, the previous book, this one centers on Thomas De Quincey, a real life writer of the period who Morrell drags into fictional detective work. Opium-addicted De Quincey and his doting daughter pair up with detectives Becker and Ryan, and the four of them annoy the aristocracy as they unravel the rampage of a murderous “revenger.”

De Quincey works as a pitiful old genius who challenges London’s sensibility with radical ideas of perspective and reality. It’s one of the book’s greater charms for modern readers already familiar with his ideas enjoy the reactions of Londoners who find the ideas so strange — including Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.

The book spends slightly less time exploring on De Quincey’s idiosyncrasies than its predecessor, and shines less spotlight on the physical Detective Ryan. The detective quartet bounces about London at an enjoyable, often exciting clip, practically inventing detective work and psychological profiling. It’s one of the books charms as De Quincy and his daughter challenge Victorian sensibilities with new ideas modern readers recognize, like Immanuel Kant’s notions of perspective and subjective realities. There’s still time for Emily and Becker to become more familiar with one another. But the pace of the book rises above. It’s full of surprises and shocks, and the pages turn easily with the well-crafted action.

The revenger, the villain at the heart of a long conspiracy, has a woeful tale that Morrell divulges bit by painful bit. He does share several similar characteristics with the villain from the previous book’s villain. But, Morrell creates a more developed, even more sympathetic antagonist, one that expands rather than strains the immersive setting of the book.

Morrell’s fascination with and exhaustive research on Victorian London underpins everything about this enjoyable book. He captures incredible details, political sentiments, and even the form of the novel itself to immerse readers in a foggy-bound world that breathes and seethes London at the murky dawn of the modern age. Mimicking Victorian novels, he combines the narrative with explanatory passages and first-person journal entries from De Quincey’s daugther, Emily.

Inspector of the Dead is an expertly paced historical thriller and a joy to read.

Inspector of the Dead: ★★★★★

Curse of the Present Participle Phrase

Diction’s a real bastard. It’s what gives writers their identity. It’s our word choices and style, which creates voice. This is the art, but this requires real craft.

Craft is work. We can get to the art later, when it emerges from better work.

One of the most common problems I see is overuse and abuse of the present participle phrase. I’m sometimes guitly myself.

For those who need a grammar school refresher, here it is. And, yes, I had to look this up. Forgive me. Ms. Lawson’s class was 25 years ago.

The present participle phrase:

Running out the door, he grabbed the car keys.

The verb is grabbed. The noun is he. He grabbed. Hell, it’s even in active voice!

The present participle phrase is: Running out the door.

What’s wrong here? Nothing. Just stop over-using it!

I’ve read whole paragraphs where every sentence used the past participle phrase. It’s lousy diction.

I get it. The sentence structure is so useful, especially for tense, action-filled scenes that are common among fellow action and thriller writers. I use it myself, like I said.

Find these in your writing. Use them more sparingly. Then, rewrite those sentences. Often, they can be even better at ramping up action or tension.

Here’s a real life example I just read in an indie thiller:

Scanning briefly over the information on each man’s DOJ application he settled on the fact that the information was likely real.

Here’s another one, on the same page as the above even:

Pressing the send button, he waited as the service connectioned and uploaded the pictures.

Both are legitimate sentences. They’re a bit of a mouthful at a tense scene. How about reworking those?

He scanned the DOJ applications. Each familiar face of his attackers, every line of their information was real. He knew it.

He pressed send. The phone delivered the evidence in agonizing seconds he didn’t have to spare.

That’s just my stab at it. Season to taste. My good-faith intent is to show how much more we can pack into better sentences that still amp up the suspense and action.

The point is to reconsider when you hear yourself writing those phrases. Past participle phrases just roll off the “tongue.” It’s the kind of writing we hear in our heads that ends up quickly on the page. With overuse, it becomes predictable diction. A poker tell for an eager, crafty audience.

Get crafty right back at them.

The casualties of ideas

Have you learned lessons only of those who admired
you, and were tender with you, and stood aside
for you?

Have you not learned the great lessons of those who
rejected you, and braced themselves against you?
or who treated you with contempt, or disputed
the passage with you?

Have you had no practice to receive opponents when
they come?

-Walt Whitman

I’ve spent far too much of my time in the odd corners of the Internet conversing with strangers.

The messenger evolved. I’ve read and participated in dozens of online channels. Usenet, the old ISCA BBS, LiveJournal, forums, blogs, article comments, Facebook, Twitter. You get the idea. I gave as good as I got, mostly. I watched subcultures flourish and squander. I encountered new friends and some troubled souls. I cheered and jeered. So did almost everyone else. We still do.

The internet is an idea amplifying engine.

Through the miracle of transfer protocols and pseudo-anonymity, we rally around fellow digital wanderers. We generate heat and a little light in a crucible of ideas. At last! We abandon the vagaries of our geography and find kindred spirits who think and feel like us.

We form tribes. Yes, they are fluid and even overlapping, and we navigate among our own tribes as easily as we drive down the road. But they are tribes of ideas. And, inevitably, of ideals and ideology. Tribes protect their own. Tribes lash out. I’ve watched my own tribes do this over the years, and borne the brunt of other tribes doing their own identity protection.

I hear friends and acquaintances lament the state of politics, especially in America. It may be an American phenomenon, but I doubt it. I do know it’s clear to me that my country has become more polarized in my lifetime, not less. More tribal, not more diverse and open-minded. We have less in common, yet insist the contrary. No “side” is immune. If only this experience were limited to politics. It’s not.

As the internet amplifies our ideas, it weakens our empathy.

We’re less able to forgive heated words. Not everyone and not all the time, but our ability to get over it and get along anyway ebbs away on the screen. We dehumanize those with different ideas. We call them names and think impossibly nasty things about them.

I think it’s because ideas become our bond. With ideas as our common ground, we react violently when that’s threatened. Our noble ideas drive us toward stridency. Toward puritanical attitudes about our mores, whatever those may be. Toward moral panics. The world’s going to hell in a hand basket! Oppression reigns!

We shout down others. We say things most of us would be ashamed to shout to someone on the street. We close our minds and latch on to certainties.

Ideas seem to be our most important things.

I love ideas and this idea-amplifying engine. It brings me new friends and helps me figure myself out and learn about the world. I love my tribes, though I hate yours at my folly. Besides, why shouldn’t our ideas be our most important things?

Our experiences know better.

Book Review: The Spy Who Came in From the Cold

I first encountered master spy novelist John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold in high school. My librarian recommended it to me, but like a fool I never read it, but knew it’s considered a masterpiece. Quite rightly.

the-spy-who-came-in-from-the-coldThe novel begins tense, with an agent fleeing the border crossing at Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin. He’s gunned down, and his handler, Alec Leamas, falls into a master plan to recover the loss.

Leamas begins a subtle gambit, masterminded by Control, his boss at MI6. This ruse sends him on a tailspin of alcoholism — less a ruse than Leamas would like to admit — unemployment and bitterness. He discovers a new love, gets recruited by the East Germans to turn against the British and Americans, and finds himself interrogated, imprisoned, and then on trial before the East German Praesidium.

Each step, le Carré crafts fascinating spies, a cast of heroes and villains more disheveled than dashing. While some, like Leamas’ naive lover who is central in Control’s plan, border on the caricatured, others are captivating.

The story is brief and constantly tense. For those unfamiliar, le Carré is all tension and inference, not action and adventure. The Cold War seethes here, and the characters become players of a cerebral game, themselves imagining narratives of what their adversaries are plotting. Still, there is action and violence that’s suddenly urgent and vivid and ultimately tragic.

But, above all, I find le Carré an astounding writer of prose. Yes, his characters and his narratives rise above, but his sentences are genius here. It’s a tightly written book of beautiful shadows and gorgeous light amid gray upon gray characters and their ashes, literal and figurative. Le Carré isn’t so much painter as he is photographer.

I can’t yet speak to his other works, many of which are famous — Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Russian House, The Constant Gardener, and many more. I’m only a little disappointed it took me this long to discover his work. It’s extraordinary.

The Spy Who Came In From the Cold by John le Carré: ★★★★★

Writer, 40 years in the making

I turned 40 on Saturday. We celebrated with old and new friends inside a refurbished barn in our new home town. They braved freezing cold and wind to eat barbecue and listen to me and friends ham our way through some tunes on our guitars and drums. It was glorious.

matts-top-40-jam-band
Jamming with friends and family at my 40th birthday party.

Several friends asked me if I felt 40. I don’t know what that means. I feel like I always have — myself, here and now. My knees ache a little when I bother to run. My hair’s thinner. But I don’t feel old.

Still, those inevitable thoughts crept in. I won’t always be 40. I won’t always be. Maybe that’s what being old feels like. Guess I had to find out for myself.

I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was in the eighth grade. I dabbled, but had next to nothing to show for it. I became a journalist, more editor than writer. I changed careers. Became a family man. I even wrote some goofy, imaginative games. All worth it, but I kept kicking that writing dream down the road. That road gets shorter and shorter.

Somewhere in my early 30s, I thought I should set a goal to write a novel by the time I was 40. I failed.

I had other priorities. I had a lot to change in my life at home, at work, with friends. I knew it, and I set out to change it.

And I’ll be damned if it didn’t work. Not overnight, but drip by drip. Doing the work wasn’t the hard part. The hard part was wanting to, and to keep wanting to.

It took me almost 40 years to learn confidence and find a passion. Last year, I started writing a novel. It took me a few weeks of anxious doubt, but I wrote. Then I found some fellow writers and kept writing. I found a routine, too, a slow but steady routine. And in the nine months since I figured out I can do this. I want to do this.

And that’s not going away. It’s never easy, never effortless. The doubt creeps in like a thief. My weeks fill up, and with them the pressure to stay the course. It becomes its own cycle, and writing itself some kind of trance.

I still squint down that road, for a day past 40 when I have a novel written. Something worth reading. I can’t wait.

Book Review: Murder as a Fine Art by David Morrell

For his canvas, veteran writer David Morrell recreates 1854 London in Murder as a Fine Art. It’s an ambitious book, and Morrell immerses himself and, thus, readers into not only a detailed era but a forgotten mindset.

Murder as a Fine Art by David MorrellThis detective novel stabs higher than mere Victorian whodunnit by latching on to historical figure Thomas De Quincey as protagonist. Morrell gets recursive within the mystery genre. The real-life De Quincey, who penned On Murder as Considered One of the Fine Arts and Confessions of An English Opium Eater, inspired Edgar Allan Poe directly, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle indirectly. Thus, Morrell invents the inventor of detectives, and explores an era where detectives have to fight against not only criminal masterminds but also unsympathetic attitudes.

De Quincey is the brains of the investigation. He’s an aging writer and laudanum addict — part genius, part wretch. At his side is his progressive daughter, Emily. They befriend an Irish detective named Ryan and an ambitious constable named Becker. Together, the team are like parts of the mind, the gutsy id and sensible super ego. Morrell smartly dabbles in early ideas of the subconscious. How conscious, I wonder, was his assembly of these detectives with their investigative minds working as one?

They investigate a terrible murder, a recreation of a decades-old murder that scared London into panic. De Quincey’s writings about the first event thrust him into suspicion, but Ryan and Becker quickly determine De Quincey and Emily’s dedication to solving the mass murder before worse happens.

And worse does indeed happen as the murderer “paints his art” across London. While fascinating, the villain and his back history intermingle grand political effort and deep family tragedy. The mix doesn’t quite blend on the canvas, and the art itself becomes mere mess. Is he an artistic sadist? An avenger? A political rebel? The answer is there up to the end of this tense and delightfully action packed Victorian escapade, but the villain encompasses too much to be believed.

No doubt, the novel captures interest as a good, historical thriller. Like his characters, Morrell is ambitious. His research of 1850s London shines, and his wonderful afterword explains well the techniques he used.

It’s a fine work well worth reading, but in the end the realities of this murder spree don’t quite rise to the level of art and the subconscious breakthrough it “inspects.”

Murder as a Fine Art by David Morrell:★★★★

Book Review: A Kill in the Morning by Graeme Shimmin

Here is a spectacular, speculative thriller worth  every page. Graeme Shimmin’s A Kill in the Morning is a wild ride of alternate history, hard-edged British spy homage, and Nazi super villainy.

A Kill in the Morning by Graeme ShimminThroughout, Shimmin’s tight prose delivers and plot twists abound. The author’s love of thriller fiction from the post-war period soak into each chapter. Here are fond echoes of Flemming, MacLean, Higgins, and more.

But, the novel is no mere homage. Shimmin constructs an alternate history of 1955 that if not exactly plausible, pulses with excitement and rich detail.  The Nazis control much of Europe in a double-front cold war with the British and Soviets — the Yanks are largely absent from the situation.

The book’s unnamed protagonist is a veteran special agent with a knack for killing, and a license to go with it. He’s hyper-competent and hard-edged. Shimmin peels back his unnamed history. The poor bastard does all for queen and country without feeling like a robotic superman. His exploits are exciting, but tempered in the face of incredible opposition.

Along side him are two women that shape and soften his determined suicide missions. Molly is a fellow agent with a hard, lonely heart that softens for the hero. Kitty is a German revolutionary who suffers at the Nazi’s base cruelty. Both are likable and headstrong, if perhaps a little too defined by their sexual charms and suffering.

The book is filled historical figures, especially Nazi leaders like Heydrich, Hess, and Canaris. Heydrich is the aggravating villain of the book, and the target of the protagonist’s main mission. He’s over the top and a wonderfully aggravating character, even for his rival Nazis.

Shimmin makes no bones about his speculative thrill ride that boils ever higher into crazed Nazi super-science fiction. There are parts and pieces of the book that feel obligatory for sub-genre fans. Wewelsburg castle and the Black Sun occult appear, as does Nazi ramblings about Aryans, Hyberboreans and Ultima Thule. And, there is some wry humor and cheek, but it remains a serious and violently real book, to its credit.

The reader can keep both feet on the ground through the grit of the British agent and his compatriots. They meet Nazi absurdity and cruelty to the end with fortitude and blood-and-guts action.

In short, this is an extraordinary engaging read I highly recommend. A gorgeous cover certain doesn’t hurt its appeal!

A Kill in the Morning by Graeme Shimmin: ★★★★★

Note: The recently published book is available in the UK, but not widely available in the US. You can order on Amazon UK or get a hard copy on BookDepository.com.