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Friday, July 13, 2012

Guest Blog: Pam Stack "From Reader to the Writer"

Today on the blog voracious reader and frequent MRM contributor Pam Stack joins us with an open letter to writers.

I’m an avid reader.  Crazy avid reader.  When I was young, my Mom showed me the value and joy of reading and I’ve been doing it ever since.  I used to read the print on the boxes of cereal (what 7 year old should know about all the junk in cereal?)  But I did.  And that love has taken me on journeys through countries never visited, mystic countries only real in my mind,  given me conversations with the most interesting characters.  I’ve heard beautiful music and seen exquisite art. When I read I have a small movie paying in my mind as words unfold on the pages before me.

Which brings me to the writers of all of these wonderful journeys.  As a reader I want to thank you for helping my brain grow and letting my imagination soar.  However.  Don’t you hate that word?   However, while I support writers and authors of all genres, part of your responsibility to me, the reader, IMHO, is to make my trip the most entertaining it can possibly be.  There are “speed bumps” along the way that detract from the journey.  Not your problem you say?  Yes, it is.  I am your customer.  There is a certain standard by which you are judged by your customer.  So here at some thoughts about those speed bumps.  

Please remember that if you introduce a character, regardless of how insignificant YOU think he/she is, I will remember that character. I may go back pages to remind myself about that character.  If you drop him/her like a lead weight and never mention them again, I am likely to think you’re in the early stages of dementia.  After all, shouldn’t the writer always remember who they write about?  

If you switch your dialogue from past to present and do not explain WHY you are doing that, chances are I will lose some of the richness of your story.  You don’t care?  I won’t either and it is likely that I will not buy your books again.  Consistency has its place in a storyline and since we readers want that consistency, please be kind to us.  

And the now, the speed bump of all speed bumps.  PUNCTUATION.  Lordy lordy, some of you writers have never been introduced to punctuation and some of you love it so much that you use it everywhere.  Do you realize that you change the nuance of dialogue by placement/non-placement of your commas, periods, colons and question marks and those other little delightful “road signs”?  I want to read your story knowing exactly what you meant to write.  It’s not a rap song, unless you meant it to be a rap song and I’m unlikely going to purchase a rap song in book form.  Please – read out loud what you wrote. Does it make sense to you with the  punctuation or lack thereof?   

Thank you, dear writers, for giving me a joy and passion that cannot be duplicated.  We readers want to be invested in your stories as much as you were when you wrote them. Perhaps these little tips might make our mutual trips ever the more pleasurable.  I look forward to the next journey!
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Monday, July 9, 2012

MRM Reviews: A Dozen Favorite Mystery/Crime Books

Today on the blog we have short reviews of a dozen books that we have recently read and highly recommend.

Dave Zeltserman recently released a new short story collection One Angry Julius Katz and Other Stories.  Zeltserman has become one of my favorite mystery/suspense authors for his ability to span the genre, producing high quality classic/cozy mysteries, dark noir crime chillers, horror novels, fast paced thrillers, and sometimes mixing them all together in his own unique stew. He is like a Donald Westlake or Lawrence Block for this generation (though unlike those authors, to the best of my knowledge, he is not writing erotica under pen names on the side).  I snapped the collection up on release day and read it on my commute to work (not driving but on the train!).  The big news with this collection is the new Julius Katz story "One Angry Julius and Eleven Befuddled Jurors", first published a couple of months ago in EQMM. This is another fun entry in this classic mystery series, and once again it is the interplay between Julius and his AI assistant Archie that steals the show. All six stories are very strong, but I particularly liked "When Death Shines Bright", in which Zeltserman does a great job of getting inside the head of a man who is living on the run and on the edge.

Zeltserman has also recently launched his "The Hunted" series by releasing a pair of novellas, The Hunted and The Dame.  Set in the near future and featuring government trained assassin Dan Willis, the novellas recall the Parker novels that Donald Westlake wrote as Richard Stark (especially the earliest ones) for their stripped down prose, tough protagonist fighting a powerful organization against long odds, and seamless plotting. While the books might be classified as hard boiled escapist reads, the social problems of today (terrorism, unemployment) form the backdrop of the novellas and give them a little more weight.  Although the novellas are self contained, I like that there is a common thread running through them that promises great things for future releases in the series.
Another pair of novellas well worth reading are Trent Zelazny's Fractal Despondency and the sequel A Crack in Melancholy Time.  I found both darkly beautiful and haunting, with almost a dreamlike quality to them.  Zelazny's noir is not built on tough guys and violence, but is more of a psychological exploration of a man on the edge, one struggling with the damage done by his own bad choices.  The feelings explored by the novellas are so real that it is easy to assume that the material is largely autobiographical.  Ultimately though, it does not matter if it is or not.  Zelazny's ability to make this world resonate with the reader is a major accomplishment.

I came late to the party for Bruce DeSilva's Edgar winning debut mystery novel "Rogue Island", only getting around to reading it in the last month.  I should not have waited so long.  The first book in the Liam Mulligan series (the second, "Cliff Walk", was recently released and this time I was sure to buy it on release day), "Rogue Island" is a gritty and funny tale of corruption with an assured sense of place, peppered with sharp dialogue and inhabited by fully realized characters.

I am even later to the party for Jess Lourey's 2006 release May Day, the first book in her Murder by Month series. While this book is ostensibly in the small town cozy amateur sleuth tradition, unlike many cozy heroines who (as my grandma might say) would not say shit if they had a mouth full of it, assistant librarian/part-time reporter Mira James has a ribald sense of humor, a smart mouth, and a healthy libido.  I found it a very entertaining read that was wacky and fun, but also grounded in a fully realized and very real character.

 Marika Christian's Phone Kitten, with it's phone sex operator and amateur sleuth Emily, is actually much more comfortably a cozy than "May Day", despite the subject matter.  The book is quirky and very funny without resorting to outlandishness as a substitute for humor.  Emily is a heroine who is easy to relate to and root for, one who grows in confidence as she tackles her insecurities.  This could easily turn into a wonderful series, and I hope that Christian is hard at work on the next book.

I recently had the pleasure of reading James Reasoner's Dust Devils back to back with Roger Smith's crime novel of the same name.  While both are terrific reads that would usually be labeled hardboiled or noir, they are quite different in the ways they achieve their ends.

Reasoner's novel is the more streamlined of the two, a deftly plotted Texas country tale with a series of narrative surprises (including the final twist) that had this reader feeling like he was being taken for a ride in a sleek, fast car.  The first 10% of the book fools the reader into thinking they might have stumbled into a sappy romance novel (or perhaps a bad Garth Brooks song) before a critical revelation followed by a spurt of violence completely changes the tone of the novel.  The book has the feel of a 50s Gold Medal paperback original (that is a big compliment), and is cut from the same cloth as Tractor Girl.

Roger Smith's novel is more modern and ambitious, and I could easily see a graduate student doing a thesis comparing and contrasting the way the 4 main male characters approach violence.  The story is told in alternating points of view between the main characters, and there is a certain inevitability to it as their arcs race toward a collision.  The narrative has a visceral quality to it, and Smith makes the South African setting come alive.  This is one that stayed with me long after I finished reading it.

$200 and a Cadillac was my first taste of the work of Fingers Murphy, and I expect I will be back for many more helpings.  The material is darkly humorous, and Murphy populates the novel with a bunch of quirky and interesting characters that feel like they could have stepped out of an early Elmore Leonard novel.

Finally, Joe Lansdale's Edge of Dark Water may just be the best thing he has ever written (and that is saying something).  It is very much of a piece with his Edgar winning The Bottoms in that it combines a historical coming-of-age drama with a crime novel in an East Texas setting .  Lansdale is a terrific storyteller, and the voice of the narrator, 16 year old Sue Ellen, is pitch perfect -- a combination of homespun wisdom, wry observation, and lyrical description.  The book is often scary and dark, but it is life affirming at its core.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Guest Blog: Mike Faricy on Carl Hiassen

Minnesota native Mike Faricy, author of "Russian Roulette", the recently released "Bite Me", and 7 other funny, quirky crime novels (all available for $2.99 for Kindle), joins us on the blog to discuss authors and characters who have been an influence on his writing.  Up today is Florida author Carl Hiassen.

Thanks again to Must Read Mysteries for letting me share my thoughts on crime writers and characters. Again, demonstrating an authority problem, let me immediately dwell on a writer who is usually featured in the crime/mystery shelves of your local bookstore but is more aptly labeled as the writer of ‘Environmental thrillers’.

Born in Plantation, Florida, a suburb of Fort Lauderdale in 1953, Carl Hiaasen stems from Norwegian heritage. He graduated from the University of Florida in 1974 with a degree in journalism, was hired in 1976 by the Miami Herald where he still writes a weekly column.

Tony Hillerman once referred to Hiaasen as ‘The Mark Twain of the crime novel.’ He has no real series character in his books, although there are two recurring characters, Clinton ‘Skink’ Tyree, the former governor of Florida, now a swamp rat who lives on road kill. The character is actually based on a childhood friend of Hiaasen’s, Clyde Ingalls, who took his life as a teenager, in part over the developmental devastation of Florida. The other recurring character is a homicide detective named Al Garcia (Zorro anyone?) who maintains a vivid memory of every corpse he has ever had to deal with.

He writes wearing a fishing hat and hearing protection muffs. His books dovetail with his concerns as a journalist and native Floridian. He once said that “Florida has always been a magnate for outlaws, scoundrels, and a sort of predatory element.” The Florida of his books is populated by greedy businessmen, corrupt politicians, dumb blondes, apathetic retirees, and intellectually challenged tourists. There’s no end to the bad behavior on the part of characters who theoretically are supposed to hold the public trust.

With few exceptions, his main character is never a PI. They’re usually younger individuals who’ve been kicked around the block more than once. They’ve all either failed at a career or just simply burned out, wandering aimlessly, not really caring all that much. A woman in some sort of difficulty usually raises them to the surface and provides a cause to champion

The film Striptease, based on Hiaasen’s novel Strip Tease starred Demi Moore wearing pasties and Bert Reynolds covered from top to bottom in Vaseline. Hiaasen insists the film represents a high water mark in American cinematography.

Wry humor is one of his trademarks. His tales take place in a world where Florida scams and schemes seem to be par for the course. “None of my novels, I don’t think, are really whodunits. By page 90, everybody knows whodunit. The trick and the fun is trying to figure out how are they going to get out of it?”

Every one of Hiaasen’s novels are different. The characters are always a surprise and they face a number of forks in the road along their madcap journey. Critic’s complain that his work is the same book written over and over again, only with different characters. It’s fair to say the plots follow a familiar line, a beautiful part of Florida is threatened by corporations. The fun part in every Hiaasen tale is the weirdness and quirky behavior of his characters. If you haven’t read him, give him a try, I think you’ll inhale each and every book.

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