About Victoria

Born in Detroit. Lived in Ohio, Pennsylvania, D.C., and Princeton, New Jersey. Degrees in Journalism (U. of Michigan) and Public Health (U. of Pittsburgh). Alumna of U. of Michigan and U. of Pittsburgh. Favorite authors: Neal Stephenson, Frederick Forsyth, Alan Furst, Charles Dickens--they all know how to tell a good story! Best book read so far in 2012: Hilary Mantel's Bring up the Bodies. Favorite TV: The Wire; Treme.

****Texas Two-Step

cowboy boots

photo: Robert Stinnett, creative commons license

By Michael Pool – In this novel of crimes, both petty and not-so, Michael Pool takes you from the laid-back atmosphere of Colorado, where marijuana growing, possession, and sale is legal to rural Teller County in East Texas where it definitely is not. The county’s official policy is strictly anti-pot, rigorously enforced by its long-time sheriff, Jack Gables, who is especially diligent if he isn’t getting a cut of the action.

Transplanted Texans Cooper Daniels and Trevor Davis, close friends from childhood, have been living in Colorado for years. They think of their Texas drug deal as just going home for a spell, but home has changed, and they’ll have to dance a pretty lively two-step to stay out of jail and, maybe, out of the cemetery.

Cooper believes it’s worth the risk of selling his organic crop to the sketchy Texas drug dealer, “Sancho” Watts, because he’s vowed this deal will be his last. He’s turning a new leaf and has sworn to acquire himself a legitimate career to please his pregnant girlfriend. If he doesn’t shape up, she’s leaving him.

Cooper and Davis seem like good-natured stoners, but Watts is a wild man. Some time before the story starts, Watts sold a psychedelic drug to the grandson of a Texas state senator, and the boy killed himself. Now the legislator wants revenge, and he’s tapped Texas Ranger Russ Kirkpatrick to get something on Watts—anything, just so it puts him in jail for a long stretch.

To Kirkpatrick, the senator is a pest with a strong sense of entitlement. But the politician is not letting go, and if Kirkpatrick doesn’t produce, he’ll be a Ranger no more. While he’d rather not have this assignment, he has it, and it leads him to Teller County where the sheriff is notorious for pulling in the welcome mat when out-of-town law enforcement arrives.

Sancho Watts has teamed up with a Teller County celebrity, and you’d have to appreciate how much Texans love their football to understand the full significance of this partnership. The young man is former University of Texas footballer Bobby Burnell who lost his budding pro football career in a freak accident.

The separate strands of the story move smoothly toward an inevitable showdown, the outcome of which could go a number of different ways, most of them disastrous. Focusing on the action, Pool is light on description, and he writes good, humor-laced dialog. This is a book for fans of how things are done in Texas. Big. Very big.

Your Next Thriller: Idea Goldmine

The July 2018 issue of Wired is a treasure trove of ideas for thriller writers. Here are the ones that got my creative juices flowing.

satellite 2

photo: Alexas_Fotos, creative commons license

Space Wars and Daily Life
“The Outer Limits of War,” by Garrett M. Graff, which bears the provocative subhead “a new arms race is threatening to explode—500 miles above our heads.” A parenthetical factoid declares that 14 out of the 16 “infrastructure sectors designated as critical by the Department of Homeland Security, like energy and financial services, rely on GPS for their operation.” Things you might not expect, like ATMs, cellular networks, and credit card systems depend on GPS. And the satellite array that makes GPS possible is highly vulnerable to deliberate attack, not to mention the 500,000 pieces of debris, marble-sized and up, currently orbiting earth at up to 17,000 mph.

The All-Seeing Eye
In Steven Levy’s “The Wall,” Palmer Lucky’s portable surveillance towers use radar, cameras, and communications technologies to identify moving objects up to two miles away. The virtual reality component of the system tags objects as people or coyotes. Then it reports in to those who will do something about it. Such systems would have military uses, scanning the battlefield, and are being tested at the U.S.-Mexico border. Lucky’s virtual wall would cost about one-fiftieth of the proposed 30-foot high concrete structure under consideration at the border, with all its security, wildlife disruption, aesthetic, and property infringement downsides.

Bitcoins

photo: Mike Cauldwell, creative commons license

Cryptocurrency
“The Blockchain: A Love Story; The Blockchain: A Horror Story,” by Gideon Lewis-Kraus. How the Tez went bad. Leaving aside the particulars of this long piece, a good thriller writer can expertly decode the most opaque problem. So I hope you’re working on a novel about cryptocurrency and blockchain technology, so I can finally understand it.

Mission Possible?
Oh, and the Mission Impossible movie franchise technologies that have—and have not—achieved reality. Gecko gloves, yes. Covert subdermal implants, no.

That Plastic Gun Isn’t a Toy
Finally, check out this chilling video on the Wired website headlined “Legal Win Opens Pandora’s Box for Weapons.” Forget age requirements. Forget background checks. Forget gun control altogether. Thank you, DoJ.

Noir at the Bar

photo: Jo Sutera, with permission

Last Sunday, the Manhattan efflorescence of Noir at the Bar had one of its irregular celebrations of crime fiction writing at Greenwich Village’s Shade Bar (where the food is pretty darn good too). Ten crime fiction authors read from their works in three sets, with intermissions for nonstop talking and grabbing another beer.

Jen Conley and Scot Adlerberg are the m.c.’s, of the Manhattan group, and make an effort to exert some organization (no doubt plenty goes on behind the scenes). But the vibe is more good-natured free-for-all. Jen is an editor at Shotgun Honey and read her short short story about the meetup of two teenage girls’ soccer teams—one preppy, the other from the “New Jersey girls, they have big hair” school. It doesn’t end well. Scott also read from his crime fiction, and he has written novels and short stories and conducts a series or two of Manhattan-based meet-ups about films.

The stories live up to the billing with their emphasis on noir. Dark deeds and dark characters on the underside of down-and-out. Jennifer Hillier’s excerpt from her new novel, Jar of Hearts, featured a woman about to be released from prison; Rick Ollerman’s story about a bunch of lowlifes in Las Vegas (I think), ends with a real ouch! twist; and Danny Gardner read a chapter from new work. At a previous Noir at the Bar I attended, he read from his highly rated A Negro and an Ofay, and the new work sounded just as powerful.

photo: Jo Sutera, with permission

What else? Especially enjoyable was the glamorous Hilary Davidson’s excerpt from “Answered Prayers,” a story that appeared in the May/June Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. Even though we only heard a few minutes’ worth, the conviction that a diabolical imagination lay behind what she read had everyone chuckling. Shout-outs also to Rob Hart, Alex Segura, and Kenneth Wishnia. My writing group does a public reading in March and October, and I can attest to how helpful it is for authors to have a live audience and get that feedback.

In the book raffle, I was delighted to choose a copy of James McCrone’s Faithless Elector. Now what made him think that the people who actually elect U.S. presidents would be of any interest at all? Go figure.

Many U.S. cities have Noir at the Bar events. Including, but not limited to Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Durham, N.C., Washington, D.C., St. Louis, New Orleans, St. Paul, the Bay Area, Dallas, Chicago, Denver, Baltimore, Miami, Queens and Staten Island, Seattle, Monterey, and cities around the world, from Glasgow to Melbourne. It may take a bit of sleuthing to find one near you—try Facebook—but it’s a fun evening meeting authors, hearing new work. Treat yourself!

Comfortable Ambiguity

pond

photo: Jill111, creative commons license

Uh-oh. I have to lead a book group discussion today of Celeste Ng’s debut novel, Everything I Never Told You—which I read and reviewed three years ago, and I can’t find my copy of the book! And the library doesn’t have one. I feel so unprepared. But at least I have this:

In a perceptive Glimmer Train essay, summarized here, Celeste Ng talked about “comfortable ambiguity,” and how in Everything I Never Told You, she tried to give readers space to enter the world of the story and enough clues to come to their own conclusions about the fates of the characters. Since so many of her early readers had strong—and differing—opinions about what those fates were, her efforts were clearly successful. I’m hoping my book club members came to different conclusions too. A lively discussion should ensue!

If you’ve read this book, you’ll recall that the story takes place in the 1970s and centers around a family living in a small town outside Cleveland (modeled on Ng’s home town of Shaker Heights): honey-blonde Marilyn, the mother, estranged from her own mother, her would-be career, and the future she thought she would have; James, her Chinese husband in an era and a place where being Asian made him—at least in his mind—the perpetual outsider; and their three black-haired children, the only Asian-Americans in their school. Hannah, the acutely observant youngest, Nathan, the oldest, on his way to Harvard, and in the middle, Lydia—serious, responsible Lydia—her parents’ favorite. Their hopes are pinned on her.

But something goes drastically wrong, as we learn in the book’s first irrevocable sentences: “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.” In the aftermath of her daughter’s disappearance, a desperate Marilyn finds the dozen diaries she’s given Lydia to see what clues they may hide. She jams the flimsy locks open. Every page is blank.

As the story’s point of view shifts among family members, and each tries to piece together what happened to Lydia and why, the secrets, the alienation, and the deceptions in their own lives emerge. Even in this crisis, little is shared among them. Each must come to an understanding of Lydia’s tragedy in a unique, highly personal, and for some, devastating way. In my experience the novel skillfully drew me into deeper and deeper waters until I realized the surface was far above. I will be interested to see whether the book group members are comfortable with its lack of a final clarifying answer.

Everything I Never Told You was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and named a “best book of the year” by many reviewers. Ng’s second book, the 2017 Little Fires Everywhere, also delves into family secrets when a custody battle erupts in a “progressive” Cleveland suburb (you-know-where) over the adoption of a Chinese-American baby. It’s an exploration of race, class, and unconscious privilege that also received extravagant praise and is being turned into an eight-episode television series. Less ambiguity in the story here, but also less comfort.

***Animal Instinct: Human Zoo

Elephant - Sam Felder

photo: Sam Felder, creative commons license

By Simon Booker (this is an Audible Original, narrated by Imogen Church with a strong cast portraying the characters). PTSD has left former police detective Joe Cassidy (played by Brendan Coyle—Bates on Downton Abbey) with debilitating panic attacks. To get away from the world, he’s set himself up in a remote cottage on Dungeness Beach in Kent, but the world comes to him when he’s contacted by an old friend. Adam Pennyfeather (Joseph Marcell) inherited a wild animal park, and once saved Cassidy’s life when he was almost trampled by an elephant. Adam’s daughter Bella has gone missing, and he wants Cassidy to help find her. As a friend. As someone who owes him.

Cassidy is also on hiatus from his marriage to Katie (Lia Williams), herself a police detective, who’s handling the investigation of Bella’s disappearance. When Bella’s body is found in the elephant house, strung up like a side of meat, Katie is handed her first murder investigation. This creates inevitable tension between the couple, acting in their official and unofficial capacities.

The fault lines in the Pennyfeather family gradually reveal themselves. Adam’s wife is Isabel (Victoria Hamilton), and his younger daughter is Saffron (Rebekah Hinds). She and her husband, pizza entrepreneur Liam O’Mara (Harry Lloyd), tell Cassidy about Isabel’s lifelong loathing of her younger brother Felix, now Adam’s lawyer, and how Isabel preferred her daughters to her son Gabriel. His birth led to serious post-partum psychosis for which she was hospitalized. Fearing for the boy’s safety, Adam put him up for adoption many years before, and has since learned that Gabriel died in a motorcycle accident.

Trying to worm her way into Cassidy’s orbit is a relentless local journalist, an Australian woman named Chrissy McBride. Brigid Lohrey makes this character so annoying that, along with Cassidy, you’ll probably think, “Oh, no, not her again!”

Cassidy believes his wife is seeing someone, was seeing someone while they were married, at least early on, and that their son Luke is the other man’s child. Three DNA samples sent to a Cambridge lab will tell the tale, but is that information he really wants? Booker builds a nice bit of tension around the receipt of these laboratory results, and with Coyle’s solid portrayal, you can appreciate how torn Cassidy is.

The production includes sound effects of the type a foley artist would deploy in a radio play to indicate a closing door, footsteps, and the like. Possibly this is a matter of personal taste, but the sound effects feel redundant and jar me out of the story.

Animal Instinct is a nicely played, complex story and billed as the first book in a series featuring Joe Cassidy. TV writer Booker will find his listeners looking forward to more.

Borg vs. McEnroe

Borg vs. McEnroeRight in the middle of Wimbledon’s 150th Championships we scored a Netflix copy of director Janus Metz’s 2017 movie about the classic 1980 matchup between Ice-Borg and the Superbrat, with a script by Ronnie Sandahl (trailer). While their rivalry makes an entertaining film, I’d still flunk a quiz on how to score the game.

Sverrir Gudnason plays Björn Borg, instantly recognizable, lean and riddled with doubt, and Shia LaBeouf does fine work as the temperamental, foul-mouthed McEnroe. Apparently, Gudnason had to put on muscle for the role, while LaBeouf had to take some off. They both looked in fine form for the on-court scenes at the 1980 Wimbledon. In what is regarded as one of the greatest tennis matches of all time, Borg blew seven match points as he attempted to win his fifth straight Wimbledon victory. McEnroe might be a bad boy, but he could play some tennis, and, in the end, he got a standing ovation from the Wimbledon fans who’d started the competition by booing him.

While the competition between them was always billed as a rivalry between opposites, fire and ice, what the movie shows is that from his youth Borg wanted to be best in the world. (The young  Borg is played by his son Leo.) As a teen, Borg (played by Markus Mossberg) was every bit as fiery as McEnroe, arguing with the refs and his coach, throwing his racket, stomping off the court. They’re also alike in how deeply they care about winning.

Finally, Borg’s coach (Stellan Skarsgård) told him he was through unless he channeled his anger and frustration into his game. He needed to become emotionless. It sounds impossibly difficult, but he did it. What he also did was develop a lot of peculiar habits and rituals that had to be followed to the letter: the way his rackets were strung, the kind of car they rented. Sports stars are legendary for having “good luck” rituals, and his were all-encompassing.

McEnroe also got his comeuppance from friend and fellow tennis-player Peter Fleming (Scott Arthur) who told him he’d never be regarded as one of the greats because nobody liked him. At Wimbledon, his volcanic persona was in check after that, at least in the film.

We see less about McEnroe as a young man (it’s a Scandi movie after all), and I would have liked to. Still, it’s an engrossing film even for someone not obsessed with tennis (me!), and it deserves more attention.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 83%; audiences: 73%.

Crime and Thriller Beach Reads!

photo: klarinette71, creative commons license

Here’s your beachbag packing list: sunscreen, bottled water and Bai drinks (a local product!), organic non-GMO snacks, and, most important, half a dozen books, plus one. From my past year of book reviews, many of which are beachbag-worthy, I’d recommend:

  • I.Q. by Joe Ide – the banter among the characters will keep you laughing all the way to where you parked the car, wherever that may be.
  • Maisie Dobbs – if 21st century mayhem is a bit much for a beach holiday, try one of Jacqueline Winspear’s charming books, set in England between the wars. This is the first.
  • The Never-Open Desert Diner – by James Anderson. Now is where I have to confess a bit of a crush on his half-Indian, half-Jewish protagonist Ben Jones, who drives a hundred-mile route across the high Utah desert, serving his customers, most of whom live far from civilization for a pretty good reason.
  • Kompromat by Stanley Johnson – In real-life an EU official and father of one of the Brexit proponent Boris Johnson, this hilarious roman a clef explains the two baffling political cataclysms of the past two years: Brexit and the election of Donald Trump.
  • Back Up by Belgian author Paul Colize – a murder mystery that begins in 1967, when all the members of the rock band Pearl Harbor die mysteriously, except for one. Are they still after him?
  • Paper Ghosts – Janet Haeberlin’s novel requires you to believe a young woman would knowingly embark on a cross-Texas road trip with the man she thinks killed her sister. Get past that, and it’s a page-turning cat-and-mouse game.
  • Beside the Syrian Sea – a spy thriller with an unexpected hero. Does this bumbler have a plan to rescue his father from mid-East terrorist or not? No one knows. And you won’t either. Funny and surprising.

*****Righteous

photo: Telstar Logistics on Visualhunt, creative commons BY-NC license

By Joe Ide, narrated by Sullivan Jones – Second in Joe Ide’s series about Isaiah Quintabe, a young black man living in tough East Long Beach, California, who’s really good  to have around if there’s trouble. Not that he’s a crack shot or a kung-fu warrior. Quintabe gets people out of jams large and small by sheer brainpower.

If you’ve read his earlier book, IQ, you’ll happily see the return of a number of its characters. None is more welcome than Quintabe’s sometime partner Juanell Dodson. The fast-talking, wise-cracking Dodson is forever hoping yet failing to outthink the younger man. Ide writes the Dodson character with much humor and affection and gives him girlfriends with attitude. With impending fatherhood, he’s adopted a veneer of responsibility that crumbles under the slightest pressure.

Quintabe was seventeen in the first book when his adored older brother Marcus, killed in a hit-and-run, left the teenager on his own. This book takes place eight years later, and he’s still a solitary soul, alone except for his dog, and emotionally isolated. His neighbors gladly call on him to help him solve their problems—missing jewelry, a threatening ex-husband—which helps him make ends meet, barely.

He gave up his obsessive search for the car that killed Marcus some years ago, but in a short prologue, he finds the car and with the few clues inside, rethinks the events of that deadly afternoon. His conclusion? Marcus’s death was not a random traffic fatality, it was a hit. But why? And who?

Las Vegas strip

photo: Mariamichelle, creative commons license

In Las Vegas,  a young Chinese woman and aspiring DJ Janine Van and her deadbeat boyfriend Benny are gambling away money they don’t have. He’s behind on the vig with some rough characters more than willing to hurt him and Janine too. Benny is a whiner, and not very appealing, though the sassy Janine loves him. As a flavor-enhancer, here’s her exit line after jockeying a club set: “Whassup my people! This is your queen kamikaze, the heat in your wasabi, the gravy train in the food chain, the champagne in the chow mein, I’m DJ Dama, baby, that was my set, and I’m gettin’ up outta heeerre, PEACE!”

Out of the blue, Quintabe is contacted by Marcus’s ex-girlfriend, Sarita, now a lawyer at a high-priced law firm. Quintabe had quite a crush on her, still does, and she wants to meet. His hopes raise (the one illogical thought he pursues), but what she wants is for him to find her younger half-sister, in trouble in Las Vegas where she hangs out with her screw-up boyfriend. You guessed it, Janine and Benny.

What sounds like a simple rescue operation becomes terrifyingly complicated, as Ide deftly sets several crisscrossing plots in motion. Quintabe has a run-in with a Mexican gang, the Sureños Locos 13, and they’re out to get him. Janine and Sarita’s father seems a respectable business man, but somewhere in the background are human trafficking, prostitution, and the murderous Chinese triads. The ethnicities vary but the characters are alike in their mastery of the entertaining verbal insult.

And Quintabe still searches for his brother’s murderer. His prime suspect is Seb Habimana, a dangerous East African man who lost a leg in the Hutu-Tutsi wars. He uses a cane he made from the legbone of the man who maimed him.

As with the previous book, Sullivan Jones’s narration of all these muticultural, crosscultural and anticultural characters is flawless. You get Benny’s whine, Dodson’s jive, his girlfriends’ attitude, and the Chinese black-gangster rifs. Jones hits every comedic and ironic note, making music out of it all, and never missing a beat.

Making Myself Clear

Bell

photo: analogicus on Pixabay

Loving this long lithub article by Francine Prose about the need to write clearly. There’s nothing like absenting yourself from a manuscript draft for a couple of months to reveal all the places where you need to ask yourself, “what the heck am I trying to say here?” Short stories can turn up murky, but a novel—with its larger number of theme, characters, plot strands, and ultimately, purposes—can be downright impenetrable. And getting the words right, making the text clear, as Prose says, “is harder than it looks.”

In some novels, every word seems exactly right, in exactly the right place, like bells change-ringing. It’s something to strive for. In rereading my own work, I come across sentences that are like an impenetrable hedge around a thought (if there is one). I have to stop myself and ask, “what are you saying here?” If there is some kernel in there, it is so masked by syntax and verbiage that even I, who should know what is intended, can barely find it.

Prose excerpts letters from Chekhov to the young Maxim Gorky in which he suggests (advice frequently resurrected now 120 years later) that Gorky dispense with excessive modifiers. “The brain can’t grasp all of this at once,” Chekhov says, “and the art of fiction ought to be immediately, instantaneously graspable.” Simplification was one key to finding my way out of brambly sentences too. And if a whack through the brush and can’t find the kernel, well, that’s why I have a delete key.

The noted editor Harold Evans provides “ten shortcuts to making yourself clear” in his entertaining and helpful book on “why writing well matters.” His book in its entirety is about giving writers the tools to unravel knotty prose.

Prose advises writers to ask themselves, “Would I say this?” She clarifies that she doesn’t mean they should write exactly the way they would speak (listen to conversations on the train and you’ll see why), but that “they avoid, in their writing, anything they would not say out loud to another human being.” In her brand new book, What to Read and Why, she discusses some of her favorite writers and what makes their work enduring, along with an essay specifically “On Clarity.”

Time and a balky memory give me distance from the words I’ve so carefully and at times inartfully put on paper. Assessing whether a sentence or passage is clear requires reading it as if the writer were a stranger to it, Prose believes. As writers, we’re on a quest. She says, “Clarity is not only a literary quality but a spiritual one, involving, as it does, compassion for the reader.”

Simplicity is not the only cure for confusion. Prose cites long and grammatically complex sentences of Virginia Woolf’s that, though they require an attentive reader, are nevertheless clear. Inviting and assuring the reader’s attention means making the subject and the characters interesting, providing sufficient motivation for readers to fix their attention on them. A subject for another time!

The Catcher Was a Spy

The Catcher Was a SpyIt might almost be worth seeing the new movie Gotti with a sneering John Travolta in the lead, simply because it has received a (surprisingly) rare “0” rating from Rotten Tomatoes critics. Unanimity about a movie’s goodness or apparent awfulness is so rarely achieved that this may be a cinematic low-water-mark. A filmic Sahara. A future cult classic.

Last weekend, I went to another movie most critics have panned, because it is crammed with components I like: spies! history! Nazis! baseball! Based on a book by Nicholas Dawidoff, it recounts a bit of the true story of Red Sox catcher Moe Berg and was directed by Ben Lewin (who gets most of the blame), with a good script by Robert Rodat (trailer).

It wasn’t perfect, and maybe it’s slow for action film devotees, but the acting was superior. Paul Rudd played Berg, a man who loved baseball and had a great smile, but was hard to know. Through his Princeton connections, he was recruited to the fledgling OSS by its head Wild Bill Donovan (Jeff Daniels), mostly because of his facility with languages and despite his somewhat ambiguous sexuality. He has a girlfriend in Boston (Sienna Miller) for much of the film, but that’s an on-again, off-again thing, first with his baseball travel schedule, then his work in Washington and overseas.

Finally he gets the kind of assignment he craves: the U.S. has the Manhattan Project to develop a nuclear weapon, and the Allies believe the Germans are attempting this too, led by Werner Heisenberg (Mark Strong). But they can’t be certain (sorry). Berg is teamed up with a military man (Guy Pearce) and a physicist (excellent work by Paul Giamatti) to find out. If these suspicions are correct, Berg is to assassinate him. Unlike so many celluloid spies, Rudd’s Berg seems actually to weigh the significance of this assignment.

In a key scene early in the film, Berg signals the pitcher, but the pitcher waves him off. The opponent on first tries to steal second, but Berg manages to get the ball there in time to throw him out, ending the inning. Walking back to the dugout, he says to the pitcher, “Never ignore my signal when a man’s going to try to steal second.” Pitcher: “How’d you know he’d try?” “I just knew.” Berg’s skill in sizing up people was perfect for the OSS.

Rex Reed in the New York Observer said, it’s “a juicy story told blandly,” but still a movie worth seeing, and I agree. Maybe Gotti should get a second look.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 32%; audiences 67%.