Friday, September 30, 2011

Every Shallow Cut

Tom Piccirilli

Every Shallow Cut

Chizine Publications, 2011

The unnamed narrator, once quite a well-known writer in a narrow range, even received several literary awards, remains alone without a home (taken by the creditors), wife (ran to a lawyer), money (books are selling very bad), with only his faithful dog named Churchill. Gathering a few own things in the car, the writer wants to take them to the flea market, helping a little money. Three street robbers who want easy money attack the narrator on the street. The writer sees no reason to live, having lost everything, but something inside him snaps, and now he is fighting back the young scum, seriously beating them and taking money from one of them. Selling possessions and adding the money from the pocket of the beaten punk, the narrator buys a gun, and he does not yet know why: whether to self-defence, or to make a suicide. Alone, driving through the country, the writer goes to his brother living in New York, again without knowing why: whether to see him at last, or to start a new life.

Piccirilli, until this book having reputation of excellent plotter, this time dropped the plot altogether aside, writing an excellent jazzy prose. This is, in general, a poem in prose, stanzas about despair, anger and fall into the abyss. The hero has no name, face, desire and reason to live and flies into the abyss, yet less than a week ago he had almost everything you need for life. The unnamed narrator has no face, because instead of it is a mirror in which everyone will see one’s own reflection when will also fall into the abyss.

Something inside of the writer still does not allow him to say goodbye to this world, perhaps a desire to finish the last novel. One of the best scenes of the book, when the author visits his agent, wanting to know the situation with his unsold manuscripts, ends thus:

«I thought of pulling the piece and putting one in his thigh. The underworld heroes of my stories often shot each other in the thick meat of their thighs. It was a way of saying that they were bad but not too bad. That they could handle violence with ease but still kept life in some kind of high regard. I put my hand in the rucksack and got my fist around the revolver. I started to sweat. His laughter made me sick to my stomach. I glanced at the bookcase and wondered which of the names on the spines of the books he was in love with at this moment.
Toppling the bookcase across his office might make a bolder statement than shooting him in the leg, but the case was bolted to the wall.
I walked out past his girl and said goodbye. She wasn't doing anything. She wasn't reading or typing or texting or checking voice mail. She was just sitting there, lost inside herself. She didn't look up. I almost kissed her.»

This novella cuts like the sharpest knife.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Fun & Games

Duane Swierczynski

Fun & Games

Mulholland Books UK, 2011

Lane Madden, third-rate actress, drives on Hollywood highway to unwind and breathe the air, when a psychopath begins to pursue her. Miraculously surviving the accident, Madden seeks salvation and gets into one of the empty houses in Hollywood Hills. By coincidence, soon in this house arrives Charlie Hardie, an ex-cop, now a man with a curious profession – he is a housesitter. Hardie, for a few years after the massacre of his partner and his family by Albanian mobsters, has been flying across the United States, guarding expensive houses of the rich, while they are away. The next gig is also not going to be anything extraordinary, just watch old movies and drink beer all day. But in the house Hardie meets an intruder - Madden, armed with a mic stand. The actress thinks that Hardie is one of Them, and almost kills him in self-defense. THEY are The Accident People. When the housesitter has still convinced the actress that he is not one of Them, but simply has come to watch the house during the absence of the owner, he understands that these professional hitmans will not leave alive neither him nor the actress.

If you've read once about a book that it is a page-turner and endless action, then it was a lie. Because compared to the «Fun & Games» other books may seem a snail runs. The action begins with the first page and does not stop at all. The heroes of the book have an opportunity to think only on the run, on the walk, crawling on all fours, in a jump, in the car chase. By heroes, I mean not only Hardie and Madden, but The Accident People as well. The narrative changes from Hardie’s point of view and from The Accident People’s point of view. And the mysterious killers have to come up with more and more ingenious plans to assassinate an actress, along with Hardie, that is him who puts a spoke in the wheel of well-functioning mechanism.

You might think «Fun & Games» is just another shooter. And it's true. But what is wrong with this shooting, if the author has one hundred aces up his sleeve and he is a crooked gambler. Moreover, «Fun & Games» is a science-fiction crime novel, and it is possible that the final book of the trilogy will show us that that it is not even sci-fi, but fantasy. There were quite a lot of successful hybrids of crime and fantasy in recent years, but this hybrid is absolutely original. Fantastic elements allow Swierczynski invent more and more new plot twists. Here, indeed, there is fun and games. Swierczynski is able to make his characters run. The fact that this is only the first book of the trilogy says only that the author has shown not all of his possibilities.

Hardie himself is far from original. He is an ex-cop who after the shooting of his partner and his family, refused to contact with his own family, safely hid it, so that what happened to his partner, has not repeated with Hardy. But what happens with Hardie and how he has managed to end up in such a story, this is a highly original and sometimes extremely funny.

People should build queues in shops to buy «Fun & Games».

Monday, September 19, 2011

Triple Crossing

Sebastian Rotella

Triple Crossing

Mulholland Books, 2011

Valentine Pescatore, after got into trouble in his native Chicago, moved closer to the Mexican border in San Diego, where he began to work as a Border Patrol Agent. Pescatore’s supervisor Agent Garrison is a dirty cop and carries out assignments for the serious people from the cartel. American government has long been dreaming to expose Harrison, but he is very careful and does not make mistakes. When Pescatore violates the law by crossing the border with Mexico, it offers big troubles for. American female agent Isabel Puente investigating the affairs of the influential members of the cartel, offers Pescatore to go undercover, rubbing in the credibility of Garrison, which can lead to the top of the cartel - Junior Ruiz Caballero. This way the agent may avoid prison. Pescatore, a rookie, agrees, but also manages to sleep with Puente. And if beautiful Puente entirely trusts Pescatore, then one more important character of the book - Leo Mendez, a former Mexican journalist and now head of anti-corruption unit in Tijuana – believes that Pescatore is an unreliable source that can work on both sides. Mendez is not only famous for his probity that even causes fear among dishonest: he also heads the so-called The Diogenes Group, which includes the most proven people of Mexico, and two aides of Mendez are called Athos and Porthos.

When Garrison is killed in a shootout, Pescatore is embroiled in a web of intrigue, working for the cartel. The undercover agent after a certain time is cut off from Puente and Mendez. Now, for him the most important thing is to survive.

Rotella is a journalist, who have been writing for decades about the US-Mexican border. He know what happens at the junction of the two states. Because of that the novel seems at times more non-fiction, than fiction. Human trafficking (and not only from South America but also from Asia and Eastern Europe), drug trafficking and piracy, arms smuggling, lawlessness in Mexocan prisons - all that Rotella describes as a matter of course. The author digs much deeper and dedicates the reader in the whole corrupt scheme, linking Americans and Mexicans. Subordination of the Federal Police to Mexican cartel and the city police to corrupt officials, close cooperation between U.S. senators and psychopath of the Mexican cartel. These schemes works in novel’s plot. The plot, by the way, is rather disingenuously made. Part of the intrigue is predictable, but the other part will present surprises.

Of all the heroes of the book the most interesting is Pescatore (Puente is nothing more than a faceless, but pretty representative of American power, and Mendez is roughly described fighter for justice), as the most hesitant and unsure of himself and others. He is caught between two abysses - between the thugs of the cartel and Mendez who hating the agent.

Style of Rotella immediately gives us impression that the author is a journalist. He writes dryly, at length, sometimes there is mismatch between the fast scenes and "slow" language. Here the author describes Puente: «She advanced with lithe, sure-footed strides, grinning playfully. She had her hair pulled back today like a flamenco dancer, bringing out the feline bone structure, the wide-set eyes. She was diminutive, athletically well proportioned, wearing a snug gold turtleneck and matching corduroy pants. The belt holster peeking out of her down vest was empty; US agents were forbidden to carry firearms on Mexican soil. But Méndez suspected that she was packing her second gun, a short-barreled automatic, in one of her knee-high suede boots or the bag over her shoulder.» And this is Pescatore after using drugs: «What did he remember about her? Her name: Marisol? Soledad? The tops of her breasts swelling out of a leotard. Extra heft in the hips and thighs. Turning, posing on the dance floor, swaying against him in knee-length leather pants. Marisol-or-Soledad was from Calexico. Said his accent in Spanish was cute, reminded her of this South American singer on MTV Latino. She was one of the platoon of women waiting when the homeboys arrived at the ranch. The place was fancied up for a party: mariachis, an outdoor bar, a disc jockey on the gazebo spinning tunes. Oldies for cholos: "Always and Forever," "Who's That Lady?," "Lean On Me." But the mood was less than mellow because Pelón wandered around firing one-armed volleys at the stars with his AK-47."

Perhaps in his next novel Rotella will be more concise and give up on his love for excessive descriptiveness.

«Triple Crossing» is certainly a fascinating and dangerous journey to Latin America, and Rotella in his debut novel shows that he is capable of much.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Third Bear

Jeff VanderMeer

The Third Bear

Tachyon Publications, 2010

This collection of short stories (one original, other 13 were published in one form or another in magazines and anthologies) by Jeff VanderMeer can confound all those who believe that the format of the short story had died. After reading «The Third Bear», it becomes clear to anyone that the story is alive and is not going to die for a few hundred years more at least.

«The Third Bear» is a shooting gallery for the reader. The book is populated by huge numbers of animals and the creatures that pretend to be animals, and when the eye-gun hits the target, then as a gift you take a story about an animal.

In «The Third Bear», which after the first page seems the standard fantasy, but then turns into something more sophisticated and unconventional, a kind of monster that people call for the convenience The Third Bear, attackes the village of Grommin, abducting people and devouring them. The Third Bear, of course, is not a bear, and got his nickname because of the consonance with Theeber. The village already is in a mess, but the monster eats strong men, placing the existence of the entire community at risk. Head of the village at any price has to stop the dangerous animal. You can’t find in the story typical clashes between conan-villager and man-eating bear; powerful wizards; king defender, guarding his citizens. Vandermeer does not give the answer where the bear came from and for what purpose. Author does not give an answer to the question, what kind of world is this, as well. This well may be the Earth in feudal times, this may be another planet, another world. And is it so important when you stay cut off from the world, with your village in front of the forest with the most terrible creature, which you ever saw?

VanderMeer leaves unanswered the appearance of the speaking rabbit in the story «The Quickening». Parents of 12-year old Rachel died in a car accident, and now she lives in a house with his aunt Etta. One day a stranger near the pond gives the girl a rabbit and says his name is Sensio. Sensio soon begins to talk to the girl and tells her that he is not a rabbit. The Aunt Etta, having learnt about the abilities of the beast, at first gives him royal honors, and then decides to make money. To some people the fabula of «The Quickening» may seem unoriginal: how many times we've read about talking animals? But Sensio is anything, but not an animal. This is a story (not without a bit of black humor) about the blackness of the soul and tyranny, about the narrow-mindedness and breadth of meanness. «The Quickening» could be written by Updike or Carver, if they came up with the story of a girl, her despot aunt and a creature in the guise of a rabbit.

«My manager was extremely thin, made of plastic, with paper covering the plastic» - so begins «The Situation», very weird office farce. Conspiracy is building up against the protagonist, his Manager every day asks whether he loves her, colleagues mutate. The expression "office plankton" should be understood literally. Very weird.

Each story in this collection is not what it seems. «Fixing Hanover» is more than steampunk. «Errata» is more than a postmodern story on how to write a story. «Shark God Versus Octopus God» is more than a story based on a myth. «The Surgeon's Tale» is more than the retelling of "Frankenstein."

Vandermeer has everything that a good storyteller should have: he is original, he knows how to build a structure of a story, and he can change style depending on the story. Read this book, or you will be eaten by the bear.

Thursday, September 15, 2011


Ed. by Sandra Ruttan and Brian Lindenmuth

Snubnose Press ebook, 2011

This collection of six stories, which the publisher calls an anthology, looks like a sampler than a full anthology. The authors presented in the book are probably not familiar to the reader of popular fiction, while you can’t call them newcomers. Nik Korpon, Richard Thomas and Jonathan Woods have published books, Nigel Bird has released two self-published collections of his stories in an electronic format, Matthew C. Funk widely published his stories in various magazines. Nevertheless, they did not become the authors of bestsellers. These writers are not alike at all, and you should pay close attention to some of them.

Stories by Nigel Bird and Jonathan Woods are complete opposites. «You Dirty Rat» by Bird is too simple. This is a story of revenge of soldier to his officer after the Second World War. Bird also writes in simple, abrupt sentences, designed to show anger and sense of purpose of the French soldier. Bird is capable of more; this story is not his most successful thing. «Crash & Burn» by Woods on the contrary has too complicated plot. The author in the final brings together several plot lines. But the story is told too quickly, causing the heroes seem flat, and you do not empathize them. Woods, it seemes, wrote complex mathematical equation, where the only interesting thing is the answer, but not the solution process.

The best stories here are Korpon’s and Thomas’. Stylistically, they are most interesting, despite the almost complete absence of plot. «Mori Obscura» by Nik Korpon tells the story of a journalist with a criminal past who is facing a difficult choice: break the law again or refuse tempting offer and stay law-abiding. Thoughts of the hero of the story, from whose view the story narrates, are confused, and we will not know what choice he makes.

If the story by Kopron only lasts about half an hour of real time, then «Herniated Roots» by Richard Thomas is stretched over a longer interval. Michael, alcoholic cut off from the world and has been for 6 years trying to stay sober, meets a woman in a supermarket. Alcohol almost ruined Michael’s life some time ago: «When he first quit drinking, he gained a lot of weight, needing to do something with his hands, to drink something else-water, iced tea, soda, juice. He was slightly overweight now, but you wouldn't know it from looking at him. He had nobody to tell him that his gut was an eyesore... No woman had seen him naked in a long time, and this was also part of his plan». Michael’s plan is at all costs remain sober. But meeting with a charming Sandy could start the journey to hell for him. Thomas paints in the dark colors the existence of a single man on the edge. How long Michael would be able stick to his plan, here's a question we get the answer to after reading.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Help Yourself

We all started to buy and read ebooks. They're great. Part of us, writers, realized that ebooks is a great oppurtunity to bring back in electronic formats out-of-print novels, collections, novellas, to bring together stories from different anthologies and magazines. Now writer shouldn't wait when publisher will decide to finally publish short story collection of non-commercial author. Part of us, readers, now can buy cheap books and no longer track used bookstores trying to find expensive out-of-print copy of some book.

However writers not only bring back old titles, but publish new self-pubbed novels and collections as ebooks. That's great, too. A lot of experimental works can reach readers now. A lot of good books refused by traditional publishers now will get their readership. But it seems not all self-pubbed writers realize that they have to not only upload their books on Amazon, but have to bring information about their books to reader.

If you start to browse on Amazon among self-pubbed works, you can see that lots of books don't have proper information. You click on Amazon page of some title, and all you see is a couple of sentences on book. How a reader could decide should he buy your book or not, if you don't give him proper info what this book is about and who are you, a writer. Reader just clicks on another book with proper info and buys it. You sales remain the same.

Now I want to give some advises to writers who upload their works on Amazon/Smashwords. I hope they will help your sales.

1) Post on your book page proper info about plot. It's really important. Not a couple of words: a couple of paragraphs. Covers on Amazon are small, and they don't really matter. Proper info is far more important.

2) If your book had been published by traditional publisher on paper somewhere, say so. Maybe a reader after finishing your ebook will decide to hunt and find this out-pf-print title.

3) Get some blurbs from good writers. Maybe not so famous, but good. Writers you like. Blurbs are important too. You wrote a book and couldn't make a good writer read it? It's a shame. Blurbs make readers feel that you are good: writer X praises you!

4) Small bio would be good. Yes, maybe you don't have awards, you hadn't been published much, but you wrote a great thing. We read not bios, but short stories and novels.

5) If it's possible, include in description your website link.

Interesting but even books published by Amazon imprints don't have proper description.

If you want that your book haven't been lost among a thousand of different titles, spend an hour to write a decent description to your book. You spent 2 years on your masterpiece and can't spend an hour to write a description? Well, in that case no one will read your masterpiece.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Songs of Innocence

Richard Aleas
Songs of Innocence

Hard Case Crime, 2007

A former private investigator and currently the administrator of the course «Creative Nonfiction» at Columbia University, John Blake once lost his beloved and barely survived himself. 30-something-year-old Blake, himself attending a course on creative writing, moves closer to Dorrie Burke, who also attends the course. When Dorrie found dead in her apartment with a bag over her head and a book «Final Exit» next to her, the police do not doubt that she committed suicide. Dorrie's mother is not so sure of it and hires Blake to conduct an investigation of suicide and show to her that it was murder. Dorrie trusted Blake, and he knew her secret that she kept from her mother. Dorrie worked in massage parlors like sort of a prostitute and once took Blake's promise that if it something’d happen, Blake would have to remove all traces of the second life of the girl. The PI removes all information from Dorrie’s laptop that may reveal her secrets. On the Internet Blake looks for clues, how he would find people with whom she Dorrie worked. Among them is a dangerous mobster, a Hungarian by birth.

It is difficult to say who has written this book so well, Richard Aleas or John Blake. Aleas cleverly combined the two professions in Blake, a private detective and a writer, and this is what explains why this Blake not only knows where and whom to look for, but how apply words to each other, but still with such grace. There are enough detective writers in the world literature, Aleas is not the first in there, but he successfully solved the problem, which troubled many readers of detective stories about private detectives, written from the first person view: why do these men who shoot well and hit in the face (and are hitted themselves not less) well tell their stories so good? Here the answer is obvious: Blake has the literary talents.

Blake, however, is not demure and not a homebody. In his past as a private eye he had lost any kind of innocence, and because of that the tour to massage parlors of New York (and «Songs of Innocence» is exactly this trip), with its meetings with the lower social classes, dangerous criminals, strong prostitutes, does not scare or surprise Blake at all. He has already seen it. He already has passed it.

Aleas not only writes well, he's a masterful plotter, with each chapter throwing new puzzles. The novel is built by the canons of 30-50s pulp fiction, and if not the sudden appearance of a laptop in the first chapters, one would think that the action is taken place in our time. However, «Songs of Innocence» is a story of today, with mobile phones, laptops, Internet, e-cards in the subway. It should complicate the task for a writer, because he must take into account new elements added to the classic story. And here Aleas manages to be original: not revealing the plot, I will note only that modern technology plays a key role in the highly twisted plot.

This is a book about the irreversibility of the secrets and mysteries of the people; about that always there is a line that under no circumstances must not be crossed. Already closer to the finale Blake recalls that he once has been told by a detective from the NYPD:

«You work like a bastard for days and days and nothing makes any sense. You're lost, you're confused, you've got no answers and you're wasting your client's money. You're a fraud, you've always been a fraud ... one day, you think of something. Or you see something. Or someone tells you something. And suddenly, everything that didn't make sense does. Only here's the thing: nine times out of ten, you wish it didn't. You wish you were a fraud again. Because the things people hire us to figure out are the ugliest fucking things in the world».

For the same reason we read books: to get to the dark corners of human soul, to look at these ugliest things, to be a little different after reading. And songs of innocence no longer play in your head.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Kiss Her Goodbye

Allan Guthrie

Kiss Her Goodbye

Polygon, 2006 \ Hard Case Crime, 2005

Joe Hope works on an Edinburgh loan shark named Cooper. If someone owes money to Cooper, Joe (with baseball bat) pays a visit to a debtor. When his daughter, Gemma, commits suicide, Joe blames for this her boyfriend Adam, who did not keep up with Gemma. Furious, Hope flys to the other side of Scotland, where Gemma was living in the complex for writers and screenwriters, organized by Adam. Upon arrival Hope is arrested on suspicion of murder of his wife, Ruth, with whom he had a hard relationship. But Hope did not kill Ruth:

If Joe had killed her that's how he'd have done it. But he hadn't, had he? At the time he was - well, he didn't know where he was. Fuck it, he knew nothing. He didn't even know when she'd been killed, did he?

Someone has framed him. Having fake alibi, Joe comes to freedom. And while he has time, he must find the real murderer.

If the action of «Kiss Her Goodbye» was put twenty years into the past, it would be almost perfect revenge novel. But events in the book occur in the middle of 00s, and it hurts credibility of the book. Wanted for the murder, a man walks through the streets of Edinburgh, uses his cell phone, doing everything to get caught. But for the plot Hope should remain out of prison, and all the modern technology remain in the past. Plot instability is compounded by simplicity of the final, although both ends meet, Guthrie is a professional.

Despite the flaws of the plot, «Kiss Her Goodbye» is a very good as a portrait gallery of the lower classes in Edinburgh. Hope, the muscle with a university degree who hates his wife, but not able to fully cheat on her. Hope’s lawyer, a young professional, selflessly helping the fugitive. Cooper, greedy on bodies of young girls. Tina, a prostitute, often at night welcoming Joe, the only one whose services he used. All of them are somewhat broken down, all with their flaws, but Guthrie makes them attractive to a reader. Anyone who falls once, not necessarily the fallen man.

There is enough of violence, justified or not, but violence does not shock anyone here, it is everyday life of the heroes of the novel. Whether the book has more elaborate plot, it would become one of the best examples of modern neo-noir. But so - kissed it goodbye and forgot.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Low Life

Ryan David Jahn

Low Life

Macmillan, 2010

Loner-accountant Simon Johnson goes to work even on weekends to kill time in his worthless life. In the evenings, he gets drunk to fall asleep faster and not think about nothing. The whole social life of Simon comes to communicating with two colleagues during the lunchbreak. On the road from work, Simon occasionally calls in video shop to watch a porno movie in the booth. Simon’s meaningless life is over one night, when someone breaks into his apartment and wants to kill Simon. Not getting lost in the darkness, Simon in self-defense kills the stranger, who looks exactly like Simon. Thinking that the police won’t understand the situation, would it be self defense or not (and Simon almost smashed the head of the attacker), Simon puts the body in a bath filled with ice. All that now remains for Simon to do is find out who the attacker is and why he wanted to kill Simon.

If the previous novel by Ryan David Jahn «Acts of Violence» was solid, but undistinguished thriller, this is quite outstanding one. Very entangled plot, rising till the end of the books suspence, pressing reality of the situation, the psychopath protagonist, the inexplicable cruelty - all this is enough to get a quality reading. But Jahn does not stop there. He tells the story not as an omnipotent author who knows what will happen to the hero on the next page, but as a counterpart of Simon, who knows no more about what is happening than the protagonist. Simon is not a great detective with excellent logic, not a man with connections. He can not untwist cleverly woven network of puzzles withing a few hours. He is a sociopath, a loner, a little man, who only with his own assertiveness can solve his problem.

Simple style is for a simple man, and the author achieves high level of paranoia in the first place because of his style. Simon thinks of simple sentences, speaks simple sentences, and acts simply but well.

The answer will be terrible, but Simon knew it from the moment when decided to leave the body of the stranger in his own bathroom.