Santa’s Bookshelf

Santa Claus, reading

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Still looking for that perfect book for under the Christmas tree? Here are a few ideas for your weekend shopping that might suit some of the hard-to-buy for people on your list:

Film Noir Junkies – A.J. Finn filled his blockbuster psychological thriller, The Woman in the Window, with references to classic noir, and the main character watches quite a few too. And drinks Merlot by the case (trigger warning, Sideways fans).

Intrepid Travelers – if you can’t give a trip to Paris, you can give Mark Helprin’s Paris in the Present Tense. If they’re also classical music devotees, bonus points to you for finding this story about an aging cellist in the City of Light who really makes crime pay.

Jive-Talking Rap Music LoversRighteous or any of the other I.Q. books by Joe Ide. His characters’ language unspools across the page in pure urban poetry, as they solve crimes and right wrongs.

Unrepentant Bookworms – a book they can burrow into for days and maybe never sort out all the plot shenanigans, Lost Empress is about football, Rikers’ Island, a missing Salvador Dali painting, a man and his mom, transcribing 911 calls, Paterson, New Jersey, and so much, much more.

Armchair Psychologists – OK, does he have dementia or doesn’t he? Grace may not live long enough to find out on a Texas road trip with the elderly man she believes murdered her sister. Paper Ghosts is nice work from Julia Heaberlin.

Inveterate Classicists – David Hewson’s Juliet & Romeo is another in his fine adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays. Always inventive, always interesting. His Macbeth and Hamlet were winners too.

Road WarriorsShe Rides Shotgun is Jordan Harper’s award-winning debut thriller about a man and his young daughter on the run. They won’t be able to turn the pages fast enough.

Fairy Tale Fans – True, they may be startled at the liberties Karen Dionne took with Hans Christian Anderson’s tale, but in The Marsh King’s Daughter, she’s created a compelling story of a girl raised off the grid and what it takes for her to build a conventional life. Can she keep it?

Anyone Who Just Likes a Damn Good Book – You should get a twofer for Philip Kerr’s book Prussian Blue, which does a deep dive into both the dark days of the Third Reich and early 1950s France. Detective Bernie Gunther’s skill at solving murders doesn’t always make him friends.

Noir at the Bar: Manhattan


photo: Adam Fredie, creative commons license

I had to see for myself. Noir at the Bar (N@B) is a thing, a cultural phenomenon I’d never heard of until Canadian writer-friend June Lorraine Roberts told me about it. It’s simple in concept: crime writers occasionally get together at a local watering hole and read about ten minutes’ worth of their work to each other. I suspect the interpersonal dynamics can be more complicated.

Last Sunday, my friend Nancy K. and I met up at Shade Bar in Greenwich Village for the Manhattan N@B and found a noisy group laughing and talking. I yelled in Nancy’s ear, “Well, they are word people.” Mostly under 40, mostly male, and a notable prevalence of tattoo sleeves. We heard nine of the 11 scheduled presenters, ducking out early so I could catch the train back to Princeton.

What an entertaining evening! The quality of the presentations never let up. The authors read from printouts, books in hand, cell phones, tablets. E.A. Aymer included music (a first, we were told); Nik Korpon had memorized a piece in the style of a tent-revival preacher.

Although I had a friend in the audience (short story writer Al Tucher), the readers were all new to me, and they weren’t all from New York, coming from Washington, Baltimore, and California too. For the flavor of these events, here’s E.A. Aymer reading one of his stories at the Washington, D.C., N@B—he was the lead-off reader Sunday.

While each reader was entertaining in his own way, the most compelling for me was Danny Gardner’s gritty story about how black people in Chicago get guns. Maybe that’s because my family lives in Chicago, and I care about that city. Maybe it’s because I was in Chicago for the four-day July 4 holiday when 101 people were shot. Or maybe it’s because the story’s characters were just damn good. All three, I think.

Other readers we heard were Joe Clifford, Angel Luis Colon (Nancy won one of his books!), Rory Costello, Lee Matthew Goldberg, Nick Kolakowski, and one of the organizers of Sunday’s event, Scott Adlerberg.

Peter Rozovsky started the N@B thing about a decade ago in Philadelphia, and it has spread across this country and internationally, including to Canada and the U.K. Over the next few months June and I are going to report on conversations with some of these N@B organizers and participants about the enduring appeal of crime fiction, story trends, and the local crime writing scene.

Meanwhile, if you discover a Noir at the Bar near you, go, enjoy!

What I’ve Learned about Book Reviews (by writing them): Part 1

books, reading

5-star books of 2015 (photo: Vicki Weisfeld)

You may have read some of the book reviews I’ve written for and Crime Fiction Lover. Perhaps you’ve wondered what criteria I use in assessing a book and assigning the stars. For one, you may have noticed that most books reviewed cluster in the 3-4 star range (good to excellent). There’s a reason for that. I really don’t read books at random; unless they promise to be pretty good, they aren’t on my reading pile. Another way to say this is, there’s so much good stuff out there these days, why waste time on schlock?

Offhand, I can think of only two one-star reviews I’ve given, and those books were gifts, well-intended, of course. At the same time, a book has to be really a cut above—usually by having strong literary qualities or a truly compelling story—before I give five stars. Proof of this “high average” is that I’ve reviewed 36 fiction/memoirs so far this year; of these, 18 were four-star, while five were five-star. In 2014, I read 56 books, and gave 22 of them four stars and only half that many five stars. The stars are explained on this website’s “Reading . . .” page, as follows:

Book Review Rankings

***** Highly recommended
**** Excellent read
*** Some flaws, but good
** Take it or leave it
* Save your $

While good reviews are important to writers, book reviews are mainly for readers, so I try to focus on the factors that make a book a good reading experience. And, because they’re for readers, **no spoilers!** in my book (and movie) reviews. This probably doesn’t please my friend who turns to the back of a new book and reads the last chapter first.

It’s generally helpful to signal the genre of the book (some people love sci fi and other hate it, for example) and provide a short synopsis of the book’s set-up. This lets prospective readers know whether it’s the kind of book they would like in general, and whether the subject matter is likely to interest them.

Summary Judgment

First, I think about the overall impression a book makes. When I reach the last page and think, “Now THAT was a good book,” assigning the stars is easy. But it isn’t enough to tell other readers “it’s awesome” or “meh” and be done with it. Writing these reviews has helped me figure out why I have these overall impressions.

An important component of this summary impression is the idea or theme a book explores, which is accomplished by bringing together all its elements (plot, character, etc.) in a coherent, if sometimes invisible, way. Invisible or barely visible, because no reader wants to be lectured at. Ideas and themes must be presented artfully, something numerous critics (not me) felt Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior did not achieve, and which Neal Stephenson’s novels do so well. As the old Hollywood saying has it, “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.”

Ideas and themes are what a book is fundamentally about, and what it is about is not the same as plot. It took me a long time to learn that in my own writing. People would ask, “So, what’s your book about?” and I’d say, “It’s about a New York City architect who finds his mistress murdered and then what all happens as he tries to figure out why.” Now I say some of that, but I add “and what it’s really about is a man trying to regain his self-respect.” The “what a book is about,” stripped of plot intricacies, is the universal that readers respond to.

Tomorrow: Component Parts, Errors, & You

Fan Fic Fest

Sherlock, Freeman, Cumberbatch

Martin Freeman (Watson) & Benedict Cumberbatch (Holmes) in Sherlock

Last night a high-powered panel of experts discussed fan fiction and its uneasy relationship with traditional media, moderated by Anne Jamison, author of Fic, and oft-quoted academic expert on this phenomenon. (She teaches the fan fic class I’m auditing at Princeton.) Fan fiction, in essence, is taking existing characters (from Elizabeth Bennett to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, sometimes both at the same time) and creating new plots and storylines for them. One of its fundamentals is that people write it for love of the characters, not for money. On the panel were New Yorker tv critic Emily Nussbaum, Jamie Broadnax, creator of the website Black Girl Nerds, commentator Elizabeth Minkel of The Millions and The New Statesman, and intellectual property attorney (and fan) Heidi Tandy.

Traditional media often treat the huge and hugely diverse fan fiction universe in what the panelists observed is a mocking way, as if it were made up solely of young women who want to write about male-on-male sex. That trope is called “slash,” it is alive and well, and it really got going with Spock/Kirk fan fic. Now there’s a huge Johnlock (John Watson/Sherlock Holmes) fandom. (Find some well-written Johnlock material here.)

By contrast, the X-Files spawned a lot of het (heterosexual) fic written by people who really thought Scully and Mulder should get together. And, of course, the runaway financial success 50 Shades of Grey began as E.L. James’s fan fic based on the Twilight series.

Though sex is an important component in some fan fiction, and though a lot of it is written by young women, it’s a much more diverse field than commentators typically acknowledge. Meanwhile, there’s something unseemly, panelists agreed, about highly paid stars and showrunners snidely critiquing the writing of people who are doing it for free.

Interestingly, some tv shows are courting the fan fic community, counting on its obsessiveness to uncover Easter eggs in the story and faint clues and parallels and arcane references. Sherlock (though Benedict Cumberbatch has run afoul of the fan fic world for some of his critiques of it) uses many fan fic tropes, and the first episode of Season 3 included a group of fan fic writers as characters, creating their explanations for how Sherlock was not dead, even after the fall witnessed at the close of Season 2. Panelist Minkel has covered these developments nicely.

The Sherlock showrunners draw on many sources—not just the “canon” of Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories—but all the movies, books, and other derivative works about Holmes that have been created subsequently. Fan fiction, the practice of live-tweeting shows, and other possibilities are cracking open the tv screen, and, in the future, popular programs will likely exist both within and outside their scheduled allotments.

Fan fic is a great big and raucous world, and if you’re at all curious, here are some places to start exploring or toe-dipping: Archive of Our Own (AO3), which reports it contains almost 18,000 fandoms, has more than a half-million users, and 1.6 million works; and the FanFiction Network, which used to be the most popular fan fic site, but is being outrun by AO3.

The tagline of Jamison’s book is the possibly aspirational “Why fanfiction is taking over the world.”

****Glimmer Train – Fall 2014

Jewish man, Miami beach

(photo: by Sagie, Creative Commons license)

Glimmer Train doesn’t usually announce theme issues, except for the “Family Matters” issue, but a clear current in the 11 short stories in this issue is the desires and dislocations of immigrants and the desperation of those who want to immigrate. This is also the issue that includes the wonderful interview with Junot Diaz, covered in part by the First Draft blog.

The frustrations of would-be immigrants are explored in the story “Stowaways,” by Joseph Chavez, in which a man falls from the sky; in the poignant story “Hialeah” by Kim Brooks, about a gathering of Jewish men in Miami, strategizing how to convince the Roosevelt Administration to let a boatload of Jewish refugees land (you’ll remember this real-life episode of the SS Exodus 1947), and “Maghreb and the Sea,” by Robert Powers, which takes on the voice of a would-be African immigrant facing impossible hurdles trying to get to Europe, America—away. Told without dialog, it has the genuine feel of writing from that part of the world.

Other stories tell the trials and uncertainties of people newly in America and the pull of “home.” As author Mehdi Tavana Okasi says in his biosketch, his mother is convinced that, in Iran, he would have become a doctor. “Perhaps she is right. But there is no way to know the other scars I would bear. These are questions that can never be answered, and as immigrants, our lives are filled with them, the what ifs and if only I hads. It’s fantastical and dangerous.” And, thus, the stuff of fiction.

The wide-ranging interview with Junot Diaz also touches on immigration, in his case between the Dominican Republic and the United States. Of the two countries, he says “their shadows fall on each other.” He finds it a useful metaphor because, “all of us are haunted by the other world we call our past.” The immigrant can double down on that haunting.

10-28-14 ****Bastard Out of Carolina

Bastard Out of Carolina, Dorothy Allison, Southern gothicBy Dorothy Allison – The West Windsor Library’s annual book sale is where I stock up on books I should have read a long time ago. Set in Greenville, South Carolina, this debut novel, published in 1992, was probably somewhat more shocking as a tale of parental oversight and abuse at the time, and so beautifully written it’s no surprise it was a National Book Award finalist. It remains a powerful and empathetic portrayal of class and gender differences in the 1950’s.

Prior to this book, Allison had published two volumes of poetry sharing the same main title, The Women Who Hate Me, and it’s interesting how she’s able to tamp that back and stay in the voice of the pre-teen first-person narrator, Ruth Anne Boatwright, whom everyone calls Bone, even as she reveals great depth and precision of language. Bone both lovingly and mercilessly describes the hard-drinking, violence-prone Boatwright men and the frustrated and hard-working Boatwright women. They may be poor—“trash” people call them and they call themselves—but they are tender toward Bone and her only thin protection against her mother’s new husband.

You may be familiar with the 1996 movie version of the novel, but I haven’t seen it. Anjelica Huston directed, and it starred Jennifer Jason Leigh, Ron Eldard, Christina Ricci, and Dermot Mulroney. Jena Malone played Bone. A 100% critics rating from Rotten Tomatoes!

*** Three Ellery Queens


“Spotted Ghost” by Lou Hedge

Finished three issues of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine recently—August 2014, September/October 2014, and, embarrassingly, August 2012. Some items in my reading pile are truly “aging in place”! For variety of locale and time, the monthly collections in this deliciously pulpy magazine can’t be beat. These three issues contain stories from Colonial America, to 1890s San Francisco, to modern Taiwan, to Belize City, where tourists hunt the elusive jaguar.

One of the scariest involved the escalating war of nerves between an adolescent boy and his new neighbor, written by popular short story writer David Dean, author of the novel The Thirteenth Child. A funny tale about a couple who owns a dry cleaners’ shop also appeared in the 8/14 issue, by British author Belinda Bauer, known for the “blackly funny” style of some of her books.

The most recent issue departs from longstanding EQMM tradition by including some stories with paranormal elements. Despite its title, “Ghost Town,” by Terence Faherty, does not. It refers to the near-abandoned Ocean City, New Jersey, in February, plagued by a series of mysterious break-ins. One of the shorter stories—“The Hard Type” by Carl Robinette—packed the most emotional punch. In it a young boy questions his actions when he sees a couple terrorized by a motorcycle gang.

I also enjoyed “Jaguar,” about a young girl brought to New York as part of a human trafficking ring. Short stories by its author, Joseph Wallace, have appeared in several anthologies, including the Best American Mystery Stories. His most recent novel, Invasive Species, is a science fiction thriller.

*****Miracle Boy and Other Stories

cock fight, cockfight

(photo: wikimedia)

It’s hard to pass up a book by someone with the irresistible name of Pinckney Benedict, and you shouldn’t. His 14-story collection, Miracle Boy and Other Stories, is something that will stay with you a long time. (“Miracle Boy” was made into an award-winning short film—trailer). I came away with a strong sense of the people, animals, and the not-necessarily-explainable happenings in his narrow, timeless Seneca River valley setting, an oasis where myth, history, modernity, and even the future exist side-by side. Other readers have been similarly entranced.

The following quote, from a boy talking about how he copes with the world, demonstrates the deceptive simplicity of Benedict’s prose: I could usually get along by just looking them straight in the eyes and smiling and nodding and making little noises like I understood [what they said] and I thought what they were saying was just great. (“Bridge of Sighs”)

How many of us have faked it just like that?

Several themes (no doubt many more than my weak skills can identify) pervade many of these stories. The possibility of falling, literally and symbolically, is a strong one. It appears in the eponymous story, in “Joe Messinger is Dreaming,” and in the jet crash of “The World, The Flesh, and the Devil”: The wet soil of the field looked soft as a featherbed. It seemed inviting, as though it wanted him simply to loose his hold on the ladder, to spread his arms, and drop down sprawling onto it. (“Mudman”)

The close melding of humans and their animals weaves throughout. Benedict’s dogs are not the bright, cute fellows cocking their photogenic heads at us in our friends’ Facebook posts. Animals can be victims, when an epizootic plague strikes the valley’s farms, or aggressors in stories of dog and cock fights. They can take on (distressingly) human qualities and tend to look out for #1 (not you). Feel the speed and powerful movement in this passage about a pack of wild dogs chasing a downed aviator: He shoved his way forward in the pack, striving for all he was worth, until there were no dogs in front of him. He flew through the forest, and the frontrunner’s howl broke from his throat, and the dogs behind him took it up adding their voices to the awful wail. (“The World, The Flesh, and the Devil”)

The river valley’s isolation nurtures altered mental states in which interpersonal connection falter and sizzle out: For a brief instant (my father) stood still, motionless as I had never seen him. It was as though a breaker somewhere inside him had popped, and he had been shut off. (“Mercy”)

I ordered this book because of an interesting interview with Benedict in Glimmer Train, and feel quite smug that I ordered it from his independent publisher, Press 53 of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, not Amazon. At the time I ordered, Press 53 was engaged in its “Books for Soldiers” campaign, and because of my purchase, mailed a book to a deployed or recovering U.S. soldier at no additional charge. Nice!

****Glimmer Train

Recently finished the Winter 2013 issue of Glimmer Train, one of the most competitive literary magazines on the U.S. scene, with 32,000 submissions a year. Its almost 200 pages included nine short stories and an interview with author Pinckney Benedict (after reading this interview and reveling in his awe-inspiring name, I bought his most recent book, Miracle Boy and Other Stories; apparently, he’s inspired other readers, too). $19.95 from Benedict’s hard-working small publisher, Press 53; $17.96 from amazon. Hoping my extra $1.99 is nurturing the dream of small publishers.

wrecked boat, ribs, sea


Among the stories, I especially liked “Angstschweiss” by Susan Messer, and anyone who’s had to make a trepidatious visit to a nursing home, rehab hospital, or other institution caring for the wreck of a loved one remembered in full-sail, will identify. The title of her novel, Grand River and Joy, Detroiters will recognize as an intersection, and far from being an uplifting statement, the book explores the city’s racial tensions that exploded with the 1967 riots—“complex, challenging, and bitterly funny.” On the “to read” list.

Two stories—“Wilderness of Ghosts” by Janis Hubschman and “Patient History” by Baird Harper—focused on young women troubled at leaping the chasm from late adolescence to “what’s next.” “Gladstone,” a charming story by Marjorie Celona, nicely capture the skewed neighborhood observations and preoccupations of a group of 10-year-old boys. Her novel Y—about the fractured life of a newborn baby left at the YMCA with a great many questions—one Goodreads reader said, “I don’t think I have ever been so sad to see a book end.”

Tamer of Horses

Iliad, Hector, Tamer of Horses

Hector, Tamer of Horses (photo:

A wonderful play by Trenton playwright William Mastrosimone in production through 6/8 by the Passage Theatre Company. Amazing acting (Hector, played by Reynaldo Piniella; Ty Fletcher, by Edward O’Blenis; and Georgiane Fletcher, by Lynnette R. Freeman), and the well-plotted play moves along briskly, exploring the limits of teacher and teaching. The play never descends into sentimentality in dealing with a tough street kid and the middle-class couple that believes it better to try to save him than protect themselves. Direction by the sure-footed Adam Immerwahr.

The Iliad and its hero Hector, Tamer of Horses, also stars, providing enduring lessons to a generation that knows a Trojan as something you buy at the drug store. Homer’s words “take their place next to urban rap lyrics” as the modern-day Hector and the disaffected teacher “match wits in a struggle for Hector’s survival.” Passage Theatre productions appear at Trenton’s easy-to-get-to Mill Hill Playhouse. Secure parking right in front. Don’t miss it!