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May 2011

Book Review: PURGATORY CHASM by Steve Ulfelder

First of all, how good is that title? Now check out this opening:

There are drunken assholes, and there are assholes who are drunks. Take a drunken asshole and stick him in AA five or ten years, maybe you come out with a decent guy.

Now take an asshole who’s a drunk. Put him in AA as long as you like. Send him to a thousand meetings a year, have him join the Peace Corps for good measure. What you come out with is a sober asshole.

Tander Phigg is a sober asshole.

Phigg asks Conway Sax, a mechanic and former NASCAR driver, to retrieve his Mercedes from a garage where it’s been held hostage for eighteen months, with the owner giving Phigg one reason or another for why he won’t release it. Sax only helps Phigg because he’s a fellow member of the Barnburners, an AA group that got Sax sober. The task should be relatively simple except it isn’t. Sax finds a dead body and himself in the thick of some nasty business. If that weren’t enough, his alcoholic father and Phigg’s son show up with his wife and kid, all needing a place to stay. Several people’s lives, including his own, depend on Sax getting to the bottom of the mystery, all the while trying to learn how to stop being, as his girlfriend says, “a clenched fist all the time.”

Sax is a very likable character, even if he feels obligated to sometimes do questionable things for the Barnburners to repay them for saving his life. The way he sees it:

They need to be rescued from the jackpots they get into, but they don’t appreciate it the way you might think. Everybody knows that without spiders, the world would be overrun by insects. But that doesn’t make people love spiders.

He’s righteous in his own way, like how thieves can be honorable. My problem is with his father, who is definitely an asshole who’s a drunk. From the flashbacks of Sax’s boyhood to the present day, the elder Sax proves himself an irredeemable character, which caused me to disconnect from the scenes between father and son. I just couldn’t root for Sax to somehow resolve that relationship. It’s like listening to a friend who’s married to a cruel man discuss her marital troubles. You have a hard time sympathizing when all you want to do is scream, “Leave him!”

That’s not to say I couldn’t feel Conway Sax’s pain. Ulfelder writes some devastating scenes, made more so because of things that aren’t said. We hurt more for Sax because he’s not openly sentimental; we fill in the blanks when he doesn’t show us his feelings. But show Ulfelder does, instead of telling, and for that I’m glad I came along for the ride.

Nerd verdict: Complex journey through Purgatory

Buy this from Amazon| B&N| An indie bookstore


Introducing the Stalker Awards

I know there are many awards out there for crime fiction, but most require you to be on a panel or part of a certain group in order to vote. I imagine there are many passionate readers and supporters of the genre who don’t belong to any organization so I decided to create the Stalker Awards. They will be given to books we’re obsessed about and the authors who write them, and the only requirement for you to nominate and vote for recipients is that you read crime fiction.

Here’s how it’ll work: I’ll take nominations until 9 p.m. PST, Sunday, May 29 via the form below. Nominees must have been originally published in 2010. Please nominate THREE in each category, with #1 being your favorite, #2 your second favorite, and so on. This is to reduce the chances of a tie. If 50 respondents place 50 different titles in their #1 slot for favorite novel, for example, I’ll look to see which titles also show up as #2 and #3 on people’s lists to determine the highest vote getters.

You don’t have to fill out all categories but if some are tough for you, perhaps you can discuss ideas with fellow genre fans. I hope the process will help you revisit the outstanding crime fiction you read last year or discover books and authors you overlooked. Any questions, leave them in the comments so I can answer them publicly in case others are wondering the same thing.

I’ll announce the nominees on or around June 1, at which time you can vote on them and winners will be revealed mid-June. Spread the word, get your friends to participate, and let the stalking begin!

*Disclaimer: My lawyer (aka my cousin) says I should note that I mean stalking in a tongue-in-cheek way and do not condone the actual criminal act.

I also wanted to thank Katie at KD Designs, the same talented designer who made my ninja blog header, for doing the graphic for this award. Though I abused her with all my specific demands, she was amazingly patient and deft in getting it just right. If you ever have graphic design needs for your website/blog, I’d highly recommend Katie.

*Polls are now closed. Vote on the nominees here.*



Trailer: ONE DAY

Last summer, I reviewed David Nicholls’s book, One Day, which follows the relationship between friends Dexter and Emma by dropping in on them on the same date every year, from the time they meet on their college graduation day to twenty years later.

The trailer for the movie, starring Jim Sturgess and Anne Hathaway, was released this week. I think the lead actors are good choices for Dex and Em, and a movie can only be enhanced by having Patricia Clarkson in it.

One Day fans, what do you think? If you haven’t read the book, does this make you want to?


L.A.TIMES Festival of Books Report, Pt. 2

A little blurry due to low lighting...

The second panel I attended last Saturday after “Organized Crime” was Robert Crais’s interview by NPR’s Karen Grigsby Bates. I got in line an hour before it began because the panel was sold out and I was taking no chances of getting a sucky seat in back with a big-haired person right in front of me. Luckily, the Craisie crew and I got nice center seats, taking up almost a whole row. Following are highlights from the session.

Bates asked Crais to talk about how he started writing mysteries in case there were people in the audience who didn’t know who he was. His response: “It’s not possible.” But he obliged and discussed his beginnings as a TV writer before he became a novelist. I won’t recap his early history because you can find those details at his website here.

Bates then asked Crais to tell the audience about Elvis Cole and Joe Pike. “Why won’t you sell them to Hollywood?”

“A book requires a human being to read it. At that moment, we are collaborating,” Crais said. He added that for each person, the collaboration is unique and he wants to preserve that.

Asked what his two protagonists look like, he said, “I’ve never seen Elvis and Joe, I’ve never seen their faces. I’m not sure why; I’m very visual as a writer. I can see the wood in the floor of [Elvis’s] house…I can see his shoes, the wrinkles in his pants. But as it gets higher, it goes into silhouette.”

Bates asked if Elvis and Joe see the world the same way.

“Elvis is more a black-letter-law type of guy. He wants to believe in the system. Joe has no belief in it,” Crais answered.

“The theory,” Bates said, “is that neither will ever be able to have a romantic relationship because of their relationship with each other. Talk about that cost.”

Crais said someone asked on his Facebook page, “Is [The Sentry] the book where Elvis and Joe are finally going to kiss?” He then discussed slash fiction involving Elvis and Joe—stories fans write about them in which they get, ah, really friendly. “I tried reading some of it. It grossed me out,” he said.

Bates then brought up everyone’s favorite polarizing character, Lucy Chenier, the woman for whom Elvis pines. Crais shared an anecdote about a woman at a signing in La Jolla, CA, who said, “I came all the way from Hawaii to say one thing: Kill Lucy.” At this point, Crais polled the audience to see if the majority liked or hated Lucy. By my estimation (being a shortie, though, I couldn’t see over everyone’s heads), more people were pro- than anti-Lucy.

“Elvis still loves Lucy,” Crais said.

“What’s he gonna do about it?” Bates asked.

“You’ll have to wait and see.”

Bates asked about Joe Pike’s love life. “He sees women…but you’re not going to see him standing in line to see Rio,” Crais said.

“Does Elvis meet all his emotional needs?”

“He does have needs beyond Elvis. He doesn’t know how to fill those needs. He feels something’s lacking in him,” that he wouldn’t be able to give a woman what she needs.

“Would he ever do therapy?”

“What would he say?” Crais said. “He knows he’s a hidden man. His whole M.O. is to give away nothing. He’s learned to be that way to survive but he knows it’s not right. He’d like to be more like Elvis but doesn’t know how to do it.”

“Talk about L.A. What is it about it that keeps you placing your characters here?”

“The canvas is spectacular,” Crais answered. He said Los Angeles is a destination for hope, where people come to reinvent themselves, chasing hopes and dreams. “When you have that many people risking so much…it’s true grit for me, fantastic stuff to work with.”

Bates said that some authors, when setting their books in L.A., get their details wrong. But Crais, she pointed out, makes his neighborhoods recognizable. How does he do it?

Crais said he keeps weird hours, getting up at 3 a.m., driving around, sometimes “hanging out at donut shops in South Central talking to people.” He looks for the little things to drop into a scene, asking himself, “What makes it real to me?”

“Talk about your writing schedule. Do you write every day?”

“My work year is only about ten months” because two months are taken up by promotional work and touring. “I’m lazy for about the first third of the book. Then I slam up against deadline hell and then I obsess.” He said when he’s near the finish line, he does 12-14 hours, 7 days a week.

Bates asked Crais what will happen to Elvis and Joe, if he’ll allow them to grow old.

“There’s a heavy action component in my books. If I allow my guys to age in real time, after a while, they won’t be able to do it.” He says he does “a time-slip thing,” putting them in their “gray, foggy 40s” by keeping time references vague. In his early novels, for example, he said the two were in the Vietnam War; now it’s just “the war.”

He continued, “I used to know what the last two books are. The second to last, Elvis gets murdered. In the last one, Joe makes them pay. But I’ll never write them.” He said he hopes he never gets tired of writing Elvis and Joe books “but never say never.”

When Bates asked about his standalone characters, Crais said he would like to see them again. “The question is [whether] to bring them back in their own books or bring them into Elvis Cole’s L.A.”

“What was the hardest book to finish?”

Much clearer here

L.A. Requiem made me sick to my stomach,” Crais said. He thought his publisher would cancel his contract. It ended up being his first novel to hit the bestseller list. “It got fantastic reviews but it was so different. It had first- and third-person POVs and flashbacks. I was terrified people would reject it. I wasn’t sure if I’d pulled it off.”

At that point, people from the audience started asking questions. The first person asked Crais how many drafts he writes of each novel.

“I revise endlessly…until the publisher says, ‘Crais, you can’t. We’re publishing tomorrow.’ Another weakness is I can’t read my previous books because I want to change stuff. I can’t stand it.”

A bunch more people asked questions but my wrist started flashing the carpal tunnel alert so it was pencil down for me. Hope you enjoyed the report!


The Edit Ninja

I’ve been prowling the streets at night as my other secret identity but Brett Battles busted me recently and unmasks me over at Murderati today. Hope you’ll join me there as I obsess over grammar and general nerdiness!


AMERICAN IDOL S10: Top 5 Get Modern and Classy

by Poncho

Tonight’s theme is “Now and Then” or something like that. It’s modern songs and then songs of the ’60s or ’70s, and all five contestants are butchering and/or killing one of each. This should be interesting.

The first round is the “Now” round, and this is how they did.

James Durbin opened the show with “Closer to the Edge” by 30 Seconds to Mars. I just can’t make up my mind about this one. For one, I think it was a good choice, and an original one (I don’t know how long the song lists are for the contestants this season, but I’d like to think they have carte blanche). I also think he’s got good communion with the audience and his vocal pyrotechnics thrill them, too. And, of course, he nails the song in the wailing part. But he still misses quite a few notes on the lower register, and while I commend the song choice, I’d rather hear it as a closing number, or an encore one. Do you get what I mean? I didn’t think the number had enough energy, soul, or emotion to carry an audience for a full show.

When I read Jacob Lusk’s song choice—“No Air” by Jordin Sparks & Chris Brown—I cringed. When I saw his performance, I cringed again. Let me list what was wrong. First: The song choice sucked. It’s one thing to turn a solo into a duet, but to turn a duet into a solo is just dumb. Second: He came in full skanky diva mode, and he’s supposedly a dude. Third: It sucked. Fourth: He, again, lost control of his vocals. Fifth: It sucked. Sixth: His awkward dancing reminds me of [Mexico’s] Juan Gabriel. Also: It sucked. Need I say more?

Lauren Alaina rocked. She sang “Flat on the Floor” and left the previous guys just like that. Her vocals were spot on, her delivery amazing. Just one complaint: I wish she would make more of the stage; she barely moved and the whole performance looked energetic and static at the same time. Other than that, it was just a few steps from a true Idol Moment™, in my opinion.  Good stuff indeed. She’s a keeper, that one!

Holy cow! Scotty McCreery was good as well! He sang “Gone” by Montgomery Gentry and I did feel like I was at a concert, one where they drench you in Velveeta, but hey, who am I to complain? (If one of you heard me singing, you might). The vocals were fantastic, though it seemed he was half a beat too slow for the first third of the song. He had good chemistry with the backups; he gave them their spotlight AND upstaged them. I still think he’s too cheesy and his crazy [singing] faces gives me the creeps, but for the first time in a while, Scotty was fun!

Haley Reinhart took the “Now” [part of the show] one step further and turned it into “Tomorrow.” She established a new precedent by doing an unreleased Gaga song. Yup. She sang “You and I” from the upcoming Born this Way. I loved how the judges were absolutely clueless in what to critique. And I think that worked better! She’s been hurting for a bunch of weeks because of the lukewarm feedback from them and she pulled an “in your face.” I think it was good, sexy, and fitting. The song felt like it belonged to her and vice versa. The tone was fantastic, her growl fit wherever she put it, and she looked much more comfortable on stage than she’s ever been. The whole thing worked for me. If I were American, I would have voted like crazy for her. How could someone not love her when she’s the only really bold one left after they ditched Naima? #SaveHaley. ‘Nuff said.

Now, for the second round, the “Then” performances…

James went into the overly sentimental territory (like Jacob last week) and botched it. His voice was completely flat in Harry Nilsson’s “Without You.” Thank God it didn’t go into Ken Lee territory but it was pretty close. Bummer, because I thought this guy almost had the It factor, but sadly no. He just cannot connect to an audience through his voice. He depends entirely on the theatricality and his “deep emotional connection” felt completely fake, even with his strategically placed tear-down-cheek thing. And for the first time, Steven Tyler called him on his pitch. That’s something, ain’t it?

I’ll admit I enjoyed Jacob a little better this time. After hearing him sing “Love Hurts,” one would think older songs are more his thing. He still lost control of a few notes, but even when he went for the crazy ones, he held it all together much better than he has since the semifinals. But still, I don’t like him. And while he sang so-so, his moves were like that of a child having a temper tantrum. It sort of suits the song, though, so who knows?

I have bittersweet feelings about Lauren tackling “Unchained Melody.” She does sing beautifully, has good sense of pitch and nice (not great) stage presence. And she’s growing as a performer. She managed the song well, but she missed the nice things that make it a classic. For one, she gave it a few more runs than she should, even missing the beat a few times because of it. And then, she didn’t even TRY to go high. The prettiest part of the song for me is the falsetto part (you know, the “I neeeee-hee-heed your lo-oove”), and she went the other way. Like her trying to tackle “Natural Woman” a few weeks back, she seems to lack the life experience to sing a song THAT intimate to someone, and so it felt pageantry, even artificial.

Almost the same thing happened to Scotty on his next choice. He sang “Always on My Mind” mostly on key but didn’t get the feeling and soul of it. Also, his country vibe didn’t quite fit the arrangement. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t bad by any means, but it wasn’t memorable.

OK, scratch all I’ve written so far. Haley stole the night. Again. Her “House of the Rising Sun” was AMAZING. Flawless. Even if her song choice could be nitpicked, she just had the first Idol Moment™ this season. Period. Everything about Haley’s performance was perfect. The lighting, the a capella start, the way the band entered. OMG. I’ll use my first Randy-ism and say “Haley is in it to win it!” She’s hands down the one who’s most improved, and who’s taken this contest as a platform and learning experience. And it shows. This was fantastic.



L.A. TIMES Festival of Books Report, Part 1

This past weekend was another fun and enlightening experience at the annual festival of books. This was the first year since its inception that the festival was held at USC instead of UCLA. It’s a smaller campus so I didn’t have to walk as far to go everywhere but the layout was a little confusing and I got lost a lot. I did manage to find a student lounge where I could rest between panels and enjoy the air conditioning and free McDonald’s iced coffee. I don’t know why I never sneaked into student lounges at UCLA.

I only attended on Saturday but it was a full day. Besides meeting bloggers Danielle from There’s a Book and Rachel from Scientist Gone Wordy for the first time, I got to hang out with my old pal, Paulette, an original gangsta Craisie; and the le0pard man himself, Michael from It Rains…You Get Wet, and his awesome family. True story: They gave me lemonade and chips. Jealous?

I started the day by going into “Organized Crime”—the panel, that is. (I got no skills for making fake Coach bags.) The panelists were T. Jefferson Parker, Attica Locke and Stuart Neville with moderator April Smith. The authors have all written novels in which organized crime plays a major role, and they told fascinating tales about their research process and how their lives are affected by the things they write about. The following are some highlights from the discussion.

Smith started by saying, “It’s a shadow market that cycles drugs, people, merchandise…a $2-trillion industry that’s transnational. Organizations that you all have probably heard of—the Yakuza, the Mafia, Mexican cartels, Eastern European groups.” Then she asked, “How do you make a book out of that?”

Parker, a three-time Edgar winner who writes about Mexican drug cartels in his Charlie Hood series, said, “We put faces on things.” He said drug-related deaths in the last five years number 40,000. “I just take one of those deaths and write about it.” And then he said imagine that one story multiplied 40,000 times.

Neville continued along these lines by saying, “Death can very well just be a number, a statistic.” He said in his writing, he tries to turn the number into a person—someone’s mother, father, friend, etc.

Attica Locke signing for a fan

Smith guided the authors towards a discussion of bureaucracy in our government and in crime cartels. Locke, whose Edgar-nominated Black Water Rising is about the Texas oil industry in 1981, said, “Bureaucracies are fighting shadows of themselves because there’s just as much organization in drug cartels as in any government building.”

Neville, who won an L.A. Times Book Prize last year for his The Ghosts of Belfast and lives in Ireland, said it’s been taboo there for the last ten years for Catholics to join the police force. Less than two weeks ago, a Catholic police officer was killed by a car bomb “by someone from his own background.” The protagonist in his latest novel, Collusion, is a Catholic policeman. “There are crimes that shouldn’t be investigated too closely. It might unearth something worse than the crime,” he says.

Locke added, “We all know there are things in our government that’s absolute bullshit…But if we dig it up, it’d turn everything upside down. It hurts too much to acknowledge they don’t give a shit” so we go along with it and look the other way.

Parker said that counterfeit goods is a huge criminal industry and guess who buys most of it? The U.S. “Organized crime leads to Gucci,” he says.

Smith asked the panelists, “How do you know all this stuff?” She then talks about her own research process for her June novel, White Shotgun, which is set in Siena, Italy. She’s been working with the FBI since her first novel, North of Montana (the protag is Special Agent Ana Grey) so she talked to them in Rome and the police in Siena.

Locke said she found the “oil stuff” really challenging because she didn’t know anything about it. She has a young daughter and couldn’t travel around for research so much of it was done at the library.

Neville told an anecdote about how he traveled to New York and took pictures of buildings for research. While writing Ghosts, he realized he really needed an alley behind a particular structure but the real building didn’t have one. When he tweeted about his dilemma, “someone said very helpfully, ‘Make it up.'”

Locke said her lead character, Jay Porter, is based on her father. He would tell her stories from his experiences as a criminal defense attorney but at one point she had to ask him to stop because she wanted it to be her story, not her dad’s.

With Jeff Parker

Parker pointed out “there are books that are fastidiously researched and deathly dull.” For his part, he takes research trips for the atmosphere, “for the feel.” He said you can see a picture of Veracruz’s City Hall on the Internet but when you go there, you see pigeons gathered out front and putting them in the description makes it more real.

Locke asked her fellow panelists, “Anybody afraid that what you put down on paper might get you in trouble?”

Smith said, “Yeah, animal rights with [her last novel] Judas Horse. I don’t know about the Mafia [for Shotgun]…”

Neville said simply, “I have concerns.” To me, these were the most unsettling three words spoken during the panel.

Parker lightened the mood by saying, “Even when I write about cartel guys doing horrible things, I write them with respect…I think the henchmen might actually like my books and not want to kill me because they’re proud of their exploits.”

Smith added, “Maybe when our publishers go out of business, we can work for the cartels!”

Smith then opened up the floor to questions from the audience. At this point, I stopped taking notes because my hand got crampy.

Check back later this week for my report from the other panel I attended—Robert Crais being interviewed by NPR’s Karen Grigsby Bates.


Exciting News

I hope you’ll excuse my being a little immodest today because I want to share something exciting with you. I’m going to be a published author! Are you sitting there thinking, “Wha?” like I did when I first found out? Are you dumbfounded like my friend who just stared blankly at me when I told him?

Let me clarify I wrote a short story that will be published, not a novel. I entered it in Buddhapuss Ink’s Mystery Times Ten YA Short Story Competition, which awards nifty prizes (including a Kindle) to the top three winners, and publication in an anthology for the top ten. I didn’t win the Kindle or any of the cash but my top ten placement, out of over 200 entries, is still beyond my expectations.

Back in January, I decided to enter the competition only four or five days before the submission deadline. I was doing a play at the time, which required rehearsals six days a week with a long commute. I also had deadlines on a couple of reviews for a magazine and needed to finish reading the books I was covering. I was exhausted.

But then I heard about this competition, thought, “Oooh, free Kindle!” and decided to go for it. It was a ridiculous decision in many ways—I’d never written short fiction, I’m not versed in YA, I had no idea if I could write in a young person’s voice, and, oh yeah, I was already overwhelmed with other obligations. But here’s the thing: If I start thinking I can’t do something and coming up with a bunch of excuses for not doing it, that’s when I know I have to do it. Otherwise, I’d have to accept I’m a loser before I even try.

So I wrote for four nights straight until three or four in the morning, sometimes falling asleep over my keyboard. Two days before deadline, I junked most of the story and started again from square two. I wanted to stop, wondering why I was abusing myself. But then the sadistic part of my brain called me a wimp so I kept going.

I submitted my story at 5 p.m. on deadline day. Even with sleep deprivation, I felt elated that I managed to finish it and on time to boot. I had beaten down that internal voice calling me a sissy; I could hear the Rocky theme in my head after I hit “send.” I expected nothing else from the experience because I felt I’d already won.

That’s why the news that I scored high enough to get published is astonishing to me. With this kind of luck, I should head straight to the nearby retirement home and challenge everyone to a game of Bingo. I’m deeply thankful to Buddhapuss for hosting the competition and all the judges who found my story not awful. This encourages me to not only continue writing, but to keep taking on challenges that look scary and daunting. Unless it involves stuffing a turkey, which I know I will never master.