Thursday, March 23, 2017

Grit and Girl Power

Lola – A Novel – Melissa Scrivner Love (Crown)

The Crenshaw Six are a gang of rookie bangers, looking to make their mark, and the way to measure your place in the underworld is based on how many corners you get to control and peddle your wares from. Garcia the nascent gang’s leader gets hooked up with an opportunity to expand his base of operations, but with the Cartel that’s dangling the “opportunity” screwing up comes with a high price tag attached.

That tag is a target, firmly attached to the life of his girlfriend, and the books namesake Lola. The debut novel from television dram writer Melissa Scrivner Love, who's credits include CSI: Miami and Person of Interest, among others; offers a gritty look at life inside the reality of a drug gang.



Love paints and honest and edgy picture with broad strokes of the pecking order not only within the gangs but within the neighborhoods they populate. Backstabbing, threats, betrayal and death are the coin of the realm that she leavens with Lola’s smarts and oddly tenders, caring actions set against that back drop.

There is a true sense of girl power that pings through this book, but it never overwhelms the action and thrills of the story. A solid debut that marks what I hope we be on ongoing career path for this word scribbler.


Sunday, March 19, 2017

Fiction: With a Different Spin

Zodiac: A Novel - Sam Wilson (Pegasus)

In San Celeste, “What’s your sign?” isn’t just a bad 1970s pick up line, it truly is a way of life; the determining factor on what your life will be like. That is the backdrop for the startling good new thriller, Zodiac: A Novel, by South African writer Sam Wilson. A television writer and program developer, this is Wilson’s first foray into novels



Wilson does a wonderful job of setting the setting of the story, where birth determines your place in society and is binding for life. Utopia spins off its axis when a serial killer starts to perpetrate brutal crimes that ignore the societal set up by crossing all boundaries. Wilson gets a little new age CSI with the introduction of astrological profiler Lindi Childs working side by side with detective Jerome Burton to unlock the mystery and solve these heinous murders. While clearly bound to fantasy, Zodiac delivers some very realistic and entertaining goods.

I See You – Clare Mackintosh (Berkley)
Imagine…you ritual commute home includes perusing the local paper and things take a different turn, when suddenly you find yourself staring at a picture of yourself in the classifieds. Then things get really strange when different women pop up in the advertisements and the common thread is they all are victims of crime.



That is the set up for British novelist Clare Mackintosh’s second psychological thriller, I See You. Mackintosh puts to good use her experience as a police officer and criminal investigator by lacing the story with just the right amount of realistic police work, but she doesn’t let it get in the way of driving the story’s suspense. She does a masterful job of keeping you guessing right to the end.

Clownfish Blues: A Novel – Tim Dorsey
What is it about the state of Florida? Is it something in the water? Is the combination of salt water, sand and heat that goes into the cooking up of the gathering of quirky, entertaining writers that the state has spawned? You can count Tim Dorsey among that gang of folks who spin not only twisty-turny yarns, but also know how to deliver characters from the different side, mixed with a healthy dose of laughs.



Dorsey’s latest, Clownfish Blues delves once again into the sun soaked mind of Serge Storms as he and sidekick, the perpetually fatty stoke Coleman along for the ride as they retrace “Route 66” (don’t let the fact that that famous motorway doesn’t actually find its way to F-L-A) as Storms learns that the iconic 60s TV show filmed a series of episodes in the Sunshine State. The duo, along with usual cast of colorful characters, flames and thugs are along for the thoroughly quixotic ride.

The Lost Book of the Grail: A Novel – Charlie Lovett (Viking Books)
For those of us who love to read, there is just something special about holding a book and turning the pages as you delve into the story. With apologies to the folks at Amazon and other tablet purveyors, that feeling will never be a part of clutching an electronic device like a Kindle. It is that love affair with books, set against the digital age that is the stage for Charlie Lovett’s latest book, The Lost Book of the Grail.



To say that Arthur Prescott is old school, may be a sizable understatement. Prescott chafes at the thought of a college level Harry Potter course in an era when the Bard is all but a memory. When a young American girl, Bethany Davis arrives at Prescott’s beloved Barchester Cathedral Library to begin the process of digitizing the library’s collection of manuscripts he is more than a little put off.


Then comes the twist of a search for a missing manuscript. That adventure is truly befitting the grail-like hunt. While the pace starts out on the glacial side, understand up front that the set up is worth the wait as the adventure is worthy of a book lover like Lovett.   

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

STUFF

Let It Go: Downsizing Your Way to a Richer, Happier Life – Peter Walsh (Rodale Books)

There is a thin line between collector and hoarder…or at least I have been trying to convince my wife that for nearly thirty years.

We lost my Mother-in-law last year and so began a process of clearing and cleaning out her house that became a much larger and more daunting task then any of us had expected. Here was this frail, kind old lady, who knew that she was hiding a life time of STUFF in her four bedroom split level. First as her power of attorney and later as the executor of her estate I was charged with tackling the finite details of her STUFF; the mounds of paperwork dealing with her healthcare and her finances alone was a challenge. Tax returns dating back to the 1960s, bank statements or accounts at banks that no longer exist, countless investment vehicle statements that had long since been moved to new accounts.

Hey you never know when you’re going to need the instructions for the vacuum you bought back in 1970…that broke, but you couldn’t quite find the strength to take to the curb. Are you getting the picture here? I could have desperately used a copy of Peter Walsh’s new book, Let It Go: Downsizing Your Way to a Richer, Happier Life. Walsh eloquently outlines the emotions that we attach to our STUFF and helps explain how we can break down the self-erected barriers that we place around these things that prevent us from letting them go to find new homes.



The greatest examples came from my wife, who had so many memories that connect these items, this STUFF that we found ourselves sorting through. Some was easy STUFF; the four packed tight filing cabinets full of detailed files of instruction manuals, receipts, paper work and documents that had absolutely no value. That STUFF and a lot of broken down old items found their way into what would quickly become a 30 cubic yard dumpster full bound for the land fill. Then came the challenge of what we wanted to keep balanced against what we had room for in our home.

Walsh offers insight into not only way we gather all this STUFF, but how to break the attachment, the “I might need_______ someday” mindset that we use as an excuse to keep things in our possession. Walsh has developed such great insights into our mindsets that he is able to offer up guideposts and encouraging processes to help us get over those ties that bind us to our STUFF.

With the baby boomer generation aging with each passing day, more and more folks will be confronted with the difficult choices of downsizing either their parent’s homes or their own. Walsh offers great advice for both scenarios to help ease your way into these always difficult transitions. As someone who was dropped into that process, I recommend picking up a copy of Let It Go now before you are confronted with the task.


You will quickly start to examine your own life and the choices you make. As a writer, I love really nice pens and leather bound notebooks for more projects. With Walsh’s help I have determined it’s time to ponder the downsizing for my collection of both…maybe tomorrow. Hey Walsh is great and offers outstanding advice, but this is my STUFF.

Open-minded Look at Death

Surviving Death: A Journalist Investigates Evidence for an Afterlife – Leslie Kean (Crown Arcetype)

Up front, here’s how I approached Surviving Death: A Journalist Investigates Evidence for an Afterlife by Leslie Kean with an open mind with my position on the afterlife going something like this; I don’t know exactly what the afterlife looks like, but I am not so self-centered to believe that this is all there is.

Kean, who made her bones by delving into the phenomena of UFOs: Generals, Pilots and Government Officials Go on the Record, her NY Times bestselling exploration of the unexplained. She continues down the natural path by looking at near-death experiences, verifiable past lives, apparitions and mediums who “contact” those who have crossed over.



Here is where the problem starts; there is such a long and checkered history of frauds, charlatans, and scammers that even those who appear to have legitimate stories are doubted because of the snake oil salesman, who have gone before them.


Kean appears to not have a horse in the race as she takes a journalistic approach to things, trying to look for holes in the stories people tell her and to identify facts to tell her story. Quite frankly, there are things here that I would found hard to debunk and others that raise red flags for me. Hence the open mind I brought to the table at the start of the book. 

Legend…In Every Sense of the Word

Charlton Heston: Hollywood’s Last Icon – Marc Eliot (Dey St.)

The call came in from the NRA press office, with the question, would I host a local rally, introduce Wayne LaPierre and Mr. Heston would be available to record and interview. Wait…what? Mr. Heston? As in Moses…Ben Hur! The NRA road show was coming through town to rally Second Amendment supporters to get out and vote for George W. Bush.

The local hall was jammed with 3000 proud gun owners, enthusiastically cheering on the NRA team. After firing up the crowd and starting the festivities, I was escorted back to a dusty storage room, converted for the occasion into a “green room” where Heston waited for his introduction. I was going to interview Moses! As I stepped into the room I was a bit startled by what I encountered. Here was a man who was a true Hollywood legend; a man who had played larger than life historical figures and yet here was an almost fragile, slightly frail version of Heston.

He stood, in stocking feet, and beamed a thousand watt smile and grasped my hand with a firm grip and with the voice of Moses welcomed me like an old friend. He explained how his feet bothered him, hence the lack of shoes and we began the interview. Later when he took the stage, raised the rifle above his head and uttered his trademark phrase “from my cold dead hand” to shouts from the throng.

That was my interaction with a man author Marc Eliot writes about and dubs Charlton Heston: Hollywood’s Last Icon. In the book Eliot explores not only the man, but Hollywood itself in a different era; an era of real stars, who earned their status, not expected it. Heston was a star with real star power, that very few can generate today.



Eliot describes Heston’s transition to the conservative, NRA stalwart that he would become in his later years. He also reminds us of the glaring deferences between stars from Heston’s era and those of this generation, who stooped to insult Heston after he publically revealed his battle with dementia, because they disagreed with his stance on guns in a era of Columbine. It really boils down to the difference between being classy and a low life, loser, scumbag like Michael Moore.


Like he did with, Jimmy Stewart, Steve McQueen, John Wayne, and Clint Eastwood, Eliot does a masterful job of cover the real breadth of Heston’s life and career. 

Monday, March 6, 2017

March Fiction Madness

Shining City – A Novel – Tom Rosenstiel (Ecco)

WOW! That was my first reaction to diving into the debut novel, Shining City, from veteran political and media observer and longtime journalist Tom Rosenstiel. Not only does Rosenstiel put to good use his years of insider knowledge of the political process, he delivers the goods with an easy, free flowing writing style.

Rosenstiel, along with Bill Kovach has authored some of the seminal books on journalism and reportage, so it is in no way surprising that Shining City has a ripped from today’s headlines feel about it. There is a sudden vacancy on the Supreme Court, (sound familiar?) and the President sees not only the opportunity to fill that slot, but to fundamentally impact the highest court in the land.


The story involves the very real feeling character Peter Rena, a political fixer, you know the guy who gets things done and his partner, Randi Brooks, a lawyer on the other side of the political aisle, or is it better side on the other side of the political divide. Rosenstiel serve up some insight into what the vetting process for a SCOTUS nominee is like. While this a slick insider’s viewpoint, it doesn’t slide off into the silliness of the TV show Scandal that can fix all the world’s problems in a 48 minute TV script.

Now throw in the curveball of a seemingly random series of murders that ratchet things up a notch and have Rena scrambling not only for answers, but to keep the nominee safe and sound. Like I said, WOW! This is a great debut and I can’t wait for Rosenstiel to hang up the reporter’s notebook and to delve full bore into being a novelist. Well done!

The Prisoner – A John Wells Novel – Alex Berenson (Putnam)

Some writers hit on a great concept, and then have the concept overwhelm the story. A great concept in the hands of other writers becomes the foundation on which that story and all future stories are built upon. NY Times reporter, Alex Berenson hit upon the simple, yet brilliant idea of a character that is an undercover agent who fights alongside the belligerents of Osama bin Laden.
That jumping off point has never overwhelmed the John Wells character, but has provided an interesting and ongoing tension to the plotlines of Berenson’s ongoing series of Wells books.



The latest entry in the series, The Prisoner finds Wells trying his hand at stepping away from his role with the CIA and even going so far as to try his hand at the domestic life and a surprise fatherhood. But like Al Pacino’s Godfather 3, just when he’s trying to get out they drag him back into the action. While Wells doesn’t dwell on his conversion to Islam while undercover, it is part of his existence. Can’t help but conjure the image of Damian Lewis’s character on the prayer rug in the garage, in the early seasons of the stellar Homeland series.

Berenson doesn’t overplay the bin Laden connection, but masterfully utilizes the internal questioning that the Wells character goes through as he tries to balance his faith with his allegiance to country. There is a great energy that propels the story forward.

Gunmetal Gray – A Gray Man Novel – Mark Greaney (Berkley)

So you think you’re having a bad day…just imagine how the Gray Man feels. The minute he steps off the plane in Hong Kong for seemed to be a pretty straight forward assignment to collect a rogue Chinese master hacker, he ends up with a couple of Chinese secret police attached to him like a magnet. His hand forced, Court Gentry has to eliminate the duo including sending one out the window of luxury hotel and that’s just the first day of this trek.



Gunmetal Gray is the sixth installment in Mark Greaney Gray Man series and it bustles along a steady, breakneck pace. Greaney gives these stories a lived in feel, playing on his international studies background and his training alongside members of the military and law enforcement.

Gentry has a history of being a one man battle group, but he’s up against apparently stacked odds with two teams of folks sent to round up the scrawny hacker have been sent, but never heard from again. Gentry has his work cut out for him; he has to get the job done and in the process free his friend Don Fitzroy from the clutches of Chinese secret police.


Toss in a couple of femme fatales to make things interesting and Greaney has spun one of his best Gray Man outings yet. 

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Trump Is Right

United States of Jihad: Investigating America’s Homegrown Terrorists – Peter Bergen (Crown Books)

Peter Bergen is the go to guy when it comes to understanding the mindset of Jihadist terrorists. Bergen has authored or co-authored a shelf full of must read books on the subject; his latest, United States of Jihad: Investigating America’s Homegrown Terrorists, tries to delve into the minds and actions of terrorist actors who have signed on to the Islamic Jihad either on our shores our exported themselves to take part in terror overseas.

Bergen tries to help us understand what makes these people tick, what motivates them act out as lone wolves or to travel to far flung places to plan and or participate in mass murder or suicide attacks. Along the Bergen is careful to examine what actions law enforcement and homeland security have taken to try to identify these budding Jihadis and prevent them from taking action.


Bergen makes the case that the multi-billion dollar National Security Agency program undertaken by the Obama administration, of spying on our phone calls and e-mail in an effort to sweep up Jihadist planning has been an abject failure and despite the administrations claims that the program derailed many terrorist attacks before they started, that simply doesn’t match the reality.

Bergen lays out the threads of commonality that many of these angry, losers who sign on to the Jihad share. His chapter on the Boston Marathon bombing Tsarnaev brothers had me concluding that they were the participation trophy winners of the terrorist world; two losers who had everything handed to them when they relocated to the U.S. and yet always managed to come up short—then blame everybody but themselves for their failures.

As with Bergen’s prior books, United States of Jihad: Investigating America’s Homegrown Terrorists, is a thoroughly research and well crafted examination of not only the history of these homegrown Jihadis, but also the current and future state of what will be an important focus for the war on terror.