New book: ‘Venetian Springs’

I’ve got a brand new book on Amazon: Venetian Springs!

Two couples—one idealistic, one criminal.

A ruthless Mexican drug kingpin. A fortune in heroin and cash.

They all come together one night at a casino called Venetian Springs, in a high-stakes gamble that only a few of them will survive.

Preview Chapters:

Part I: Tuesday

Chapter 1

Mark Baxter was determined that he and his wife, Gina, were going to crack the nut of their household budget. 

Laid out on the kitchen table before them were a pile of bills, a desktop calculator, and a yellow legal pad.

Mark had drawn a line down the center of the top sheet of the legal pad, dividing it into two vertical columns. In the lefthand column, he had tallied up their monthly take-home pay. They were both second-year teachers at Ambrose E. Burnside High School, a school in the Indianapolis Public Schools district. 

In the righthand column he had listed their expenses: mortgage payments on the house, their college loans, groceries, utilities, and everything else.  

The total on the left was only slightly larger than the total on the right. 

That was a problem.

Gina, moreover, wasn’t paying attention. That was another problem. Her brown eyes kept darting to the open doorway between the kitchen and the rear hallway. She was twirling a length of chestnut brown hair between two fingers.

Gina had been distracted of late—and not just because of their perilous household finances. Mark knew part of the reason for her distraction; but he suspected that there was also something that she was keeping from him.

Why would Gina be looking toward the rear hallway?

The rear hallway of the house terminated at the back door. Gina was probably thinking about the intruder again.  

Mark didn’t believe in the intruder, and Gina did.

That was yet another problem.

In recent weeks, Gina had become convinced that someone was entering their house during the daytime hours, when they were both teaching classes at the high school.

She claimed to notice that some items in the house were slightly awry, as if an outsider had been rifling through them. Closet and cupboard doors were left ajar at unfamiliar angles.

Or so Gina had claimed.

Mark had taken his wife’s concerns seriously—at first. He checked all exterior doors and windows for any sign of a break-in or tampering. 

And he had found nothing. 

Mark also pointed out that the supposed burglar had not taken any of their few possessions that were actually worth stealing: the laptop they used jointly, the antique brooch that Gina had inherited from her Grandma Tortelli, etc. 

Even the cigar box, the most obvious target for a thief, had been left intact. This was the old Dutch Masters box that they kept atop the dresser in their bedroom. It always contained between fifty and a hundred dollars of emergency cash. 

Any self-respecting thief would have taken the cigar box, Mark observed. 

But the thief had not taken the cigar box, nor anything else—so far as either of them could ascertain.

Mark therefore concluded that there was no thief, no intruder. 

“Earth to Gina,” Mark said. He waved his hand from side to side in the air, as if trying to rouse her from a trance. 

“I heard something,” Gina said. “At the back door.”

“Oh, no. Don’t tell me that one of the problem students at Burnside has followed us home again.”

She didn’t laugh at the obvious joke. She flinched, in fact. 

Mark wondered: Was one of the students at the high school in fact bothering her? Was that her problem?

“I’m telling you, Mark, I heard something back there.”

The damn intruder again. Mark rarely spoke a cross word to Gina, but he was getting fed up with talk about the nonexistent burglar. Whatever else was going on, there was no evidence that anyone had been inside their house.

“Gina,” he said gently, “I don’t think—”

And then Mark heard it, too. Continue reading “New book: ‘Venetian Springs’”

‘Bosch’ season 4: what I’m binge-watching

As I’ve written here before, I am a long-time fan of Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch LAPD detective series. I’ve been reading the novels since 2004, more or less.

Since last month, I’ve been binge-watching Bosch on Amazon Prime Video, starting from season 1.

I’m now most of the way through Season 4. I’m still enjoying this original series immensely. Very, very good stuff.  

***

Season 4 is based on the Bosch novels Nine Dragons and Angels Flight

Or should I say, “inspired by” these two novels? Continue reading “‘Bosch’ season 4: what I’m binge-watching”

Rereading ‘Watership Down’

I’ve been listening to the audiobook version of Richard Adams’s 1972 novel, Watership Down.

This is my third exposure to the story. I watched the animated version when I was a kid, back in the 1970s. Then, the summer after high school (1986), I read the book. This time around, I’m consuming it in bits and pieces, mostly listening as I perform other tasks. (Today I listened to about three hours of the book, while I cut two lawns.) Continue reading “Rereading ‘Watership Down’”

Social media, the face, and vanity, insecurity

This seems like the kind of article that could only come from a Millennial staff writer at CNN, Huffington Post, or Slate. (It came from Hannah Lack, a writer at CNN. I don’t know if she’s a Millennial; but I have my suspicions.):

Why the pressure to change our faces has never been higher

The article is filled with quotes from Jessica Hefland, the author of Face: A Visual Odyssey.

Continue reading “Social media, the face, and vanity, insecurity”

Recalling Mark H. McCormack’s career books

Among the more influential of the many self-help books I read in my twenties were several titles by the late businessman Mark H. McCormack (1930~2003).

Mark McCormack was the founder of the International Management Group, or IMG. McCormack started IMG in 1960 with the idea of managing the careers of professional athletes and other celebrities in an organized, profitable manner.

There is nothing revolutionary about this business model today; but it was a novel concept in 1960. The age of mass-market television was really just beginning. So, too, was the age of the paid celebrity endorsement. Today we think nothing of it when we see a famous athlete endorsing a product on television. But that market was brand-new as the 1960s began.

IMG’s first client was the legendary golfer Arnold Palmer. Jack Nicklaus signed with IMG shortly after that. IMG still exists and is headquartered in New York. Continue reading “Recalling Mark H. McCormack’s career books”

‘Blue Ocean Strategy’ (what I’m reading)

Every market seems to be overcrowded nowadays. It doesn’t matter if you’re a science fiction author or a plumber.

But what if you could find ways to create and tap new markets, and thereby make the competition irrelevant?

This is the premise behind the book, Blue Ocean Strategy: How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make the Competition Irrelevant. The authors, Renée Mauborgne and W.Chan Kim, developed the ideas in this book while researching and writing a handful of articles over the years. If you compete in a crowded marketplace (and who doesn’t?), Blue Ocean Strategy is very much worth reading. Continue reading “‘Blue Ocean Strategy’ (what I’m reading)”

The Best Short Stories 2019

I like short stories, and so I am a habitual reader of the annual Best Short Stories collections, which are edited by Heidi Pitlor and a guest editor.

This series often leads me to the discovery of new writers whose work I enjoy. It was the 2007 edition (guest-edited by Stephen King) that introduced me to the work of the late William Gay (1941~2012). I went on to read all of of Gay’s published books after that. The 2007 collection  collection also features John Barth’s memorable tale on age and mortality, “Toga Party”. 

But we’re talking about the 2019 collection, guest-edited by Anthony Doerr. I listened to the audio version of the book. (I went through several stories while I was mowing my lawn and my dad’s lawn, in fact.)

This collection is very much a mixed bag. Some of these stories are (in my estimation, at least), pointlessly depressing, navel-gazing stories, while some are actually quite good. 

There are two well-known names in the collection: Jeffry Eugenides and Ursula K. LeGuin. I did not like either of their offerings. No big surprise in either case: I enjoyed Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot; but Middlesex and The Virgin Suicides both left me cold. And Ursula K. LeGuin’s work has never been to my taste.

That said, there are a handful of genuinely good stories in this collection—or stories that held my attention, anyway. These included Weike Wang’s “Omakase,”, Alexis Schaitkin’s “Natural Disasters”, Mona Simpson’s “Wrong Object”, and Saïd Sayrafiezadeh’s “Audition”. 

Don’t let my very mixed assessment of this very mixed collection dissuade you from giving it a try, if short stories are your thing. Any anthology containing work from different authors is going to be, by definition, uneven and punctuated with many ups and downs. While I did not like all the stories in this book, the good ones more than offset the ones that weren’t to my taste.

***

View The Best American Short Stories 2019 on Amazon

Watching ‘Bosch’ on Amazon

Different from the novels, but good nonetheless

Tonight I started watching the Amazon original series, Bosch

I’m a little behind on this one, I know. (The series premiered in 2015.) But hey—I got to The Sopranos only a few years ago. I am, however, a very longtime reader of Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels, so I knew that I would eventually find my way to the Amazon series, too.

First things first: This isn’t the Harry Bosch of the novels. The Harry Bosch of the novels is now about 70 years old. The onscreen Harry Bosch (played by Titus Welliver) is a old Gen Xer or a young Baby Boomer. (The actor, Welliver, was born in 1962.) Continue reading “Watching ‘Bosch’ on Amazon”

Traveling (virtually) through fiction

10 Books That Will Transport You All Around the World

If you can’t out (thanks to the quarantine, of course), then why not read a novel about a distant location? That seems to be the idea here.

I’ve read one book on the list: Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson.

That one was pretty good, and you can get it on Amazon

‘The Stand’: rereading update

As I mentioned in a previous post, I have recently started rereading The Stand, Stephen King’s post-apocalyptic novel of the “superflu” or “Captain Trips”. 

I also mentioned that I read the book for the first time back in the mid-1980s, when I was a high school student. (I believe I read it in the fall of my junior year, which would have been October~November 1984, more or less.) Continue reading “‘The Stand’: rereading update”

‘The Stand’ by Stephen King, and why I’ve chosen to reread it now

Like a lot of readers in recent days, I’ve been seized by a sudden (and arguably masochistic) urge to reread The Stand. This is Stephen King’s 1978 post-apocalyptic novel of a “super-flu” called Captain Trips. In the novel, at least, the super-flu wipes out civilization and leaves few survivors.

So I went ahead and ordered it from Amazon the other day.

The premise of The Stand is obviously topical now. But this is also a book populated with some of Stephen King’s most memorable characters: Stu Redman, Franni Goldsmith, Mother Abigail, etc. It is a long book, but it is not a slow book.

The Stand is the most common favorite of longtime Stephen King readers, a fact which has caused the author a certain amount of chagrin over the years. In at least one interview, King wondered aloud why so many readers give their highest rating to a book that he wrote while still in his early 30s. But that’s the way it goes with art sometimes.

I read this book for the first time in 1984. I was in high school then, and those were simpler times. That isn’t just my nostalgic side speaking. Heck, last year was simpler times.

Like a lot of you, I’ve been feeling a little bit like a character in The Stand of late, and I want this movie to end, already. The good news is that coronavirus is not nearly as deadly as Captain Trips, nor should a cure or a vaccine indefinitely elude researchers.

But yes, these are unsettling days, and we all need the catharsis of a good story—even one we’ve read before, a long time ago.

View The Stand by Stephen King on Amazon.

The Bernie Sanders of the 1930s: Huey Long

Bernie Sanders is not the first “share the wealth” populist to come along, and he almost certainly won’t be the last.

Around the turn of the 20th century, a socialist named Eugene V. Debs ran for president multiple times (not as a Democrat, but explicitly as a socialist). In the election of 1912, Debs won 6% of the popular vote.

And then there was Huey Long, the so-called “Kingfish”.

Huey Long came from a poor part of the country (rural Louisiana), though his family was well-off relative to his neighbors. Huey Long was egotistical, power-hungry,  bombastic, and extremely divisive.

Unlike Bernie Sanders, Huey Long explicitly disavowed Marxism. What Long seemed to want (other than his own political power and self-aggrandizement) was a more robust form of the New Deal welfare state, which was in its infancy in Long’s day. (Long was killed by an assassin in 1935.)

I’m presently reading Kingfish: The Reign of Huey P. Long by Richard D. White.  This is a very readable biography; and I highly recommend it if you’re interested American history and/or economics. 

A story that scared me in 1977

I can recall the first time that I was actually scared by something that I read.

It was the summer of 1977. Somehow a book of short horror stories had come into my possession: Stories of Ghosts, Witches, and Demons. This slender 80-page volume, edited by Freya Littledale, was published by Scholastic in 1971.

Although I read the book cover-to-cover, I have forgotten all of the stories—except one: an especially creepy tale called, “The Demon of Detroit”.

This is the story of a married couple, Mr. and Mrs. Adams, who move into a house in the Motor City. They soon discover that they aren’t alone. Something horrible inhabits their back bedroom.

After a series of disturbing events, the couple decides to move out of the house. The last lines of the story are particularly haunting: They indicate that the Adamses “admit defeat”. Whatever lurks in the back bedroom will now have the rest of the home to itself, too.

The full text of the story (along with a clip of the artwork appearing in the original Scholastic publication) is available online. I do recognize the artwork. I can’t say for certain if the transcription of the 1971 text is one hundred percent faithful. (I was nine years old in 1977, after all.)

“The Demon of Detroit” seems to be based on an urban legend from the 1960s, which has enjoyed a modest contemporary revival. Urban legends, I’ve found, often make good source material for horror films and short stories, because urban legends are instantly relatable and easy to grasp. They aren’t overly complex. That’s important in horror film and fiction.

“The Demon of Detroit” also demonstrates the effectiveness of the short form in horror. This short story is perhaps a thousand words long. Obviously, they won’t all be that short. But as a rule of thumb with horror: the longer the story, the harder it is to maintain the suspension of disbelief. (Notice that Poe, Lovecraft, and even Stephen King are at their best when writing in the short form.)

“The Demon of Detroit” is a story that begins with a subtle atmosphere of darkness, and builds, over about a thousand words, to something truly malevolent.

“The Demon of Detroit” scared the bejesus out of me in 1977. I reread it today (the online version). It still brings a chill to my spine, forty-three years later.

Clive Cussler dead at 88

Clive Cussler, best known as the author of the Dirk Pitt adventure series, has passed away at the age of 88.

He had a long career. Cussler’s first Dirk Pitt novel was published in 1973. He kept writing right up till the very end, albeit with the help of cowriters. His last book came out in 2019.

He will be missed, both by intimates as well as strangers.

Eighty-eight, though, represents a good, long run. Cussler’s life, moreover, seems to have been a happy and fulfilled one.

No one will claim that Cussler’s books were classic literature. They were fun, however.

Arguably we need more fiction like that—Cussler-esque stories that are just plain fun.

Clive Cussler (1931 – 2020), R.I.P.

‘Dark Shadows’, the original novel

One rainy afternoon during the summer of 1982, I found myself out in the country in a double-wide trailer. My only real source of entertainment was an old Zenith television set that received but two or three channels. (I’ll spare you the backstory of all that.)

It was on this day that I discovered—quite by accident—that old vampire soap opera, Dark Shadows

And yes, Dark Shadows, which originally aired from 1966 to 1971, was old even then. I was skeptical as the opening credits played. But like I said, this was a rainy summer afternoon and I had no other sources of diversion. I gave this old show a chance…

And I discovered that…Dark Shadows was pretty darn good. 

Not quite a horror show, not quite a conventional drama, Dark Shadows is filled with interesting characters and intrigue. I don’t like Dark Shadows nearly as much as I like some modern series like The Americans or The Sopranos (two other serial dramas about families with secrets); but this is still quite impressive for television that was written and produced when I was a babe in diapers.

So when the audiobook of Marilyn Ross’s original Dark Shadows novel was on sale recently, I decided to give it a try. 

The novel is pretty good, too. Once again, this is entertainment from another era; and you have to judge it for what it is. But here, too, the story of Victoria Winters’s interactions with the mysterious Collins family is well, oddly captivating. 

If you’re in the mood for something a little different, this might be for you. 

‘Follow the River’ by James Alexander Thom

In 1755, during the French and Indian War, Mary Draper Ingles, a pregnant 23-year-old woman living in southwest Virginia, was kidnapped by a band of migratory Shawnee. They transported her to Ohio, and kept her as a slave.

Ingles escaped her Shawnee captors, and eventually fled home along a river route. Part of this route has been named after Ingles, the Mary Ingles Highway in Northern Kentucky.

As I live in the Cincinnati area, I’ve been on the Mary Ingles Highway many times, but I never knew much about the actual woman.

I’ve been reading James Alexander Thom’s biographical novel of Ingles, Follow the River (1982). Suffice it to say that the book is a page-turner. Highly recommended to anyone who enjoys both history and a good story.

View Follow the River on Amazon

‘The Night Fire’ and Renée Ballard

I’m reading Michael Connelly’s latest, The Night Fire, and it’s pretty good so far. (I’m about 2/3 through the book.)

This is Connelly’s third Renée Ballard book, and—if memory serves me—the second novel in which she teams up with retired LAPD detective Harry Bosch.

Like most Michael Connelly fans, I love the Harry Bosch novels. I’ve read every one of them.

The problem, though, is that Harry Bosch will be seventy this year. (Those of you who’ve read all the books have probably already done the math, too.) Bosch is a Vietnam vet and a Baby Boomer. He’s way past the age of a working detective. 

Connelly has kept Harry Bosch active for so long (my guesses) because a.) Bosch has been a lot of fun for him to write, and b.) Bosch has been very lucrative, both for Connelly and his publishers. 

But sooner or later, Harry had to retire. That meant that Connelly had to either find a new series detective, or revisit some of Bosch’s past adventures.

But the Bosch series has always been present-based, so I doubt that the second option was really an option. Connelly needed a new character…which brings us to Renée Ballard.

Renée Ballard is about as unlike Harry Bosch as she could be. She’s not only female, but also a Millennial. Whereas Harry was “old school” all the way, Renée Ballard shares the concerns of a stereotypical “woke” Millennial. (In the first Ballard novel, she scolds someone for accidentally misgendering a transgender crime victim.)

Part of Renée Ballard’s backstory is that she was sexually harassed by her former boss, Captain Olivas. This history, and the ongoing tensions between Ballard and Olivas, comprise a recurring element in the Ballard series so far.

The net result of all this is that the Renée Ballard novels have a very different feel than the earlier Harry Bosch novels. Connelly seems to be attempting to make the Ballard books at least partly focused on contemporary controversies. This was never a fixture of the Bosch books, which were apolitical police procedurals. 

Keep in mind that Renée Ballard is a fictional character. This means that she is not a real Millennial female detective, but rather, the image that a 63 year-old male writer has of a Millennial female detective, and Millennial women in general. 

I have to wonder if the lingering presence of Bosch in these novels isn’t indicative of a.) Connelly’s discomfort in writing in the unfamiliar headspace of a Millennial woman, or b.) Connelly’s fear that longtime Bosch fans won’t “get” Renée Ballard. 

Or c.)  maybe a little of both.

Only Michael Connelly knows the answer to that one, of course.

I have to wonder, though, if the author really made a good decision in picking a Bosch replacement who is a.) three decades younger than him, and b.) of a different gender.

Connelly might have felt the conscious need to make his next character a non-white-male type. When the first Bosch novel was published in 1992, the racial, gender, and sexual identities of fictional characters weren’t seen as matters of life and death. But times have changed. Perhaps Connelly didn’t want to be seen as an older white male author who only wrote about older white male detectives. Perhaps his publishers put pressure on him in this regard. 

I’m going to take a wild guess and suggest that Harry Bosch was—and is—far easier for Michael Connelly to write. The Renée Ballard books are still good, but sometimes the reader gets the sense that Michael Connelly isn’t having quite as much fun writing Harry Bosch’s successor.

I could be wrong, but that’s what my gut tells me—as both a reader and a writer. 

Get some stories, help disabled vets

How would you like to get 981 pages of action-thriller stories, and help disabled vets in the process? 

Check out Origins of Honor: An Action-Thriller Collection on Amazon.

Many of the authors in the collection are military veterans themselves. 

100% of the proceeds go to the Oscar Mike Foundation for disabled vets.

I’m from that generation that was too young to serve in Vietnam, and mostly too old for the recent troubles in the Middle East. I turned eighteen in 1986. At that time, Cold War tensions between the US and the USSR were easing, but no one was thinking about the threat of Islamic terrorism yet.

I was twenty-one in 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, and everyone naively believed that we’d seen an end to war and strife.

I did not serve in the military. 

Nevertheless, I’m immensely grateful to those who have. And we should all be grateful to those who have paid the ultimate price, as so many young men and women have in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Internet, Jonathan Franzen, and distractions

About a year ago, literary novelist Jonathan Franzen shared his “10 rules for novelists”. Number 8 was:

“It’s doubtful that anyone with an Internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.”

Jonathan Franzen

I’m not sure I would be this absolutist about the matter. But as someone old enough to have reached adulthood before the Internet was “a thing”, I can appreciate just how distracting cyberspace can be.

It was bad enough in the beginning. But then came social media (I’ll spare you my usual rant), and those damned smartphones. 

As for Jonathan Franzen: The guy gets a bad rap, and I’m not sure why. Yes, he is quirky and eccentric. Yes, he is fashionably progressive and eye-rollingly politically correct in his politics. But no more so than many other people in the arts.

I’ve read two of his novels: The Corrections (2001) and Freedom (2010). I thought both books were pretty good. 

Perfect autobiographical memory

Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM), or hyperthymesia, is a rare condition in which an individual remembers every single day of his or her life in precise detail.

Less than a hundred people in the world are believed to have perfect hyperthymesia. One of them is actress Marilu Henner. In 2012 she published a book about her memory (with tips for how to improve yours) called Total Memory Makeover: Uncover Your Past, Take Charge of Your Future. 

(I’ve read it, by the way—it’s a worthwhile book if you’re interested in this topic.)

What I’m reading: ‘Judgement’ by Joseph Finder

I love Joseph Finder’s corporate and legal conspiracy thrillers.

Some of you have asked me which authors I enjoy reading, which ones I look up to artistically.

Well, Joseph Finder is definitely on my A-list. His books have been a major influence behind several of my corporate conspiracy thrillers, including The Eavesdropper.

Finder doesn’t have quite the name recognition of a Clive Cussler or a David Baldacci, let alone James Patterson.

Finder’s books are categorized as thrillers, for bookstore shelving purposes, but what they really are is suspense.

That means fewer car chases and shootouts than you’ll find in something written by Patterson or Cussler. His books are highly entertaining, but they aren’t pure escapism. They are very lifelike. Patterson has said that he doesn’t do realism. Joseph Finder does do realism, and he does it quite well.

The typical Joseph Finder novel involves a lawyer or a corporate professional in an unusual situation, with lots of conflict and menace, but–I repeat–not the over-the-top action you’ll find in most thrillers.

Judgement is about a married female judge who is presiding over a sensitive, high-stakes case. One night while she’s out of town on business, she sleeps with a handsome stranger on a whim.

But that stranger is not who he appears to be. (Handsome and beautiful strangers in novels almost never are.)

***

Another thing about Finder’s books: They often involve intersections of crime, sex, and business.

Good stuff, all the way. I’m reading Judgement on my exercise bike each morning. Great entertainment for those 5:00 a.m. rides in the basement!

Family ties, external threats, compelling fiction

I am reading Greg Iles’s kidnap-for-ransom novel, 24 Hours (2000), for the second time. 

I first read the book in 2009. I usually wait at least ten years before I reread any title. (I only subject my favorite books to rereads; there is simply too much new stuff to devour.) The first time I read 24 Hours, I gobbled up the 415-page novel over the course of a weekend. This time, it will take me a full three days.

24 Hours is that good. I won’t explain the whole plot here. (Amazon and Wikipedia have already covered that ground.) But you already know, more or less, based on my description above: kidnap-for-ransom.

Here are a few more details: Will and Karen Jennings are an affluent Mississippi couple. (He’s an anesthesiologist.) A gang of three criminals—two men and one woman—kidnap the Jennings’s diabetic daughter, Abby, for ransom. If the gang doesn’t get what they want, they will murder the Jennings’s young daughter.

24 Hours is a superbly written, page-turning book; but no one would call its premise original. You’ve seen and read multiple interpretations of the kidnap-for-ransom plot, probably including the 1996 Mel Gibson film, Ransom. The movie Ransom came out four years before 24 Hours was published, so Ransom may have influenced 24 Hours. That wouldn’t surprise me. 

Story concepts can’t be copyrighted, of course—for good reason. We certainly haven’t seen our last interpretation of the kidnap-for-ransom story, also for good reason. If these plots are executed with any reasonable level of skill, they make compelling film and fiction. A kidnap-for-ransom plot involves family, an external threat, and a series of best-worst choices. There are the makings of a good story, right in front of you. 

The flat-footedness of officialdom is also a fixture of the kidnap-for-ransom plot. In all of these stories, the authorities are unable to satisfactorily resolve the situation, regardless of whether or not they are informed or involved. Someone from within the family (usually a parent) therefore has to do what the authorities cannot or will not do.

In this regard, the kidnap-for-ransom tale is also delightfully reactionary. Hillary Clinton once told us, “It takes a village to raise a child.” This earned her cooing praise from the left, and eye-rolling disdain from the right. 

The kidnap-for-ransom story is telling you that you can’t ultimately depend on the village, the village elders, or the village police. The kidnap-for-ransom plot is telling you that it takes a committed parent—and not a consensus-driven village—to save a child’s life when all the chips are down. 

Don’t trust the authorities, in other words. Don’t trust “society”. Rely on your own wits, and do what you must in order to save your child. 

View 24 Hours by Greg Iles on Amazon.

Why you should read Stephen King’s short story collection, Night Shift

I discovered Stephen King in 1984, when I serendipitously picked up a copy of ‘Salem’s Lot in my high school’s library.

I was immediately hooked. I set out to read everything King had published to that time–which was considerable, even in 1984.

My initial instinct was to focus on King’s novels. I read The Dead Zone and Cujo, The Shining, and (of course) The Stand.

Oh, yes, and Carrie. I liked Carrie a lot.

I was methodically working my way through the King oeuvre. I mostly did this by going through the books on the library shelves. (There was no Wikipedia, no Internet, in 1984, you’ll remember.) After I’d read all of the Stephen King novels I could find, I came across this other book: Night Shift.

Night Shift, I immediately discovered, was not another novel, but a collection of short stories.

I was a bit skeptical–as much as I already loved Stephen King. My experience with short stories thus far had been limited to assigned readings in my high school English class.

I had a teacher that year who was obsessed with Ernest Hemingway. He particularly loved “A Clean, Well Lighted Place”. This is a story in which an old man has a drink in a cafe, and two waiters talk about him. Another Hemingway story, “Hills Like White Elephants”, consists of an oblique conversation about how an unmarried couple will handle an unwanted pregnancy.

Hemingway’s short stories bored me to tears. I couldn’t relate to the old man in the cafe in “A Clean, Well Lighted Place”. I was fifteen, after all. And at that age I hadn’t even had sex for the first time yet, so the roundabout conversation between the man and the woman in “Hills Like White Elephants” left me cold, too.

I’m a bit older now, and I’ve acquired some appreciation for the short stories of Hemingway. (Hemingway really isn’t the best choice for younger readers.) But at that time, my readings of literary short fiction had convinced me that short stories were little more than pretentious vignettes in which nothing much happens.

Nevertheless, I took a chance on Night Shift. I was glad I did.

Night Shift was–and still is–filled with short stories that grab you from the get-go. Stephen King’s forte, I had already discovered, was to transform the ordinary into something dark and magical. The stories in Night Shift accomplished this just as adroitly as King’s novels.

Take, for example, the story “I Know What You Need”. This is a story about a popular young woman named Elizabeth Rogan, who finds herself inexplicably attracted to a social misfit named Ed Hamner, Jr. As the title implies, Ed always seems to know what Elizabeth needs.

But there is a dark secret behind Ed Hamner’s intuition. What is it? I’m certainly not going to ruin “I Know What You Need” by telling you here.

The events in “I Know What You Need” take a supernatural turn, but the initial setup is something that everyone can relate to. You meet a stranger who simultaneously attracts you and arouses your suspicion. Who hasn’t been in that situation?

And then there is “Quitters, Inc.” This tale concerns an agency that uses highly unusual methods to help people stop smoking. There are no ghosts in this one; but King does present a unique spin on bad habits…and how difficult it is for us to give them up.

“Quitters, Inc.”, just like “I Know What You Need”, is immediately accessible. Everyone has struggled with a bad habit of some kind. That might not be smoking, in your case: Maybe it’s gambling, or overspending, or overeating, or watching Internet porn. Unless you’re a very unusual person, you have at least one bad habit. What would it take to get you to quit yours?

One of the best stories in this book is “Jerusalem’s Lot”, which is written in the same fictional universe as King’s novel, Salem’s Lot. Like the novel of a similar name, “Jerusalem’s Lot” has vampires. But these aren’t sissified, teenage girl heartthrob vampires, like you’ll find in Stephanie Meyer’s crime against vampire fiction, Twilight. These are real vampires: dark, evil, and very, very scary.

Some of the stories in Night Shift have been made into movies. I am here to tell you that the movies haven’t been nearly as good as Stephen King’s stories.

To cite just one example: Maximum Overdrive, which hit the theaters in 1986. The only good thing to come out of Maximum Overdrive was the AC/DC song, “Who Made Who”. The film adaptation of “Sometimes They Come Back”, made in 1991, is a little better. But not by much.

Read the stories. Ignore the Hollywood cash-grab film versions.

All of these stories involve matters of life and death (as all great fiction does); but not all of them contain elements of the macabre or the highly unusual. Two stories in particular, “The Woman in the Room”, and “The Last Rung on the Ladder” are stories that “could happen” without violating any of the rules of what we call “the real world”. Nevertheless, these stories involve real elements of suspense; and they both conclude with an emotional gut-punch.

I am a longtime Stephen King fan, but I am not an uncritical one. I haven’t hesitated to pan some of his clunkers. Cell, Lisey’s Story, and that horrid doorstop, Under the Dome, stand out among Stephen King’s turkeys. (Hey, the guy has been professionally writing since Richard Nixon was president; not all of his stuff can be brilliant.)

Even King himself admits that The Tommyknockers and Dreamcatcher leave much to be desired. I personally prefer the “old”(pre-1986, pre-It) Stephen King books to the newer ones. The Outsider (2018) has been on my bedside reading table for months now. The Outsider is a book worth reading, but not one that keeps me compulsively turning the pages.

But Night Shift is that good. These stories were all written when Stephen King was a relatively unknown writer, before he had become a “brand”. King wrote most of them for publication in men’s magazines. To put the matter crudely, these stories had to vie for male attention with photos of nude and scantily clad young women. They therefore had to hook readers from the very first paragraph.

And since they were originally written for magazine publication, not a word could be wasted. Every story in Night Shift is taut and economically written. There is no hint in Night Shift of the bloated literary style that would eventually emerge in the 850-page, indulgently overwritten 11/23/63.

I envy you, in a way, if you are new to Night Shift. I have read these stories so many times, that I now take the events in them for granted. I will always admire these tales, but I can no longer read them with virgin eyes.

But perhaps you can. If you haven’t read Night Shift, then you owe it to yourself to pick up a copy of this book.

And while you’re here…Be sure to check out my FREE short horror stories and other online fiction!

James Clavell’s novels ranked

Which James Clavell novels are the “best”? And which ones should you read first?

James Clavell (1921 -1994) was an author of adventure/suspense novels set in Asia. His Asian Saga consists of a group of six novels. These books feature overlapping characters, and a fictional trading company, Noble House:

King Rat (1962)
Tai-Pan (1966)
Shōgun (1975)
Noble House (1981)
Whirlwind (1986)
Gai-Jin (1993)

What are these books about?

Good question. Here is a (very) brief explanation of each:

King Rat

Set in Changi Prison (in Singapore) during WWII, this is Clavell’s first novel. At around 400 pages, it is also Clavell’s shortest novel.

King Rat is semi-autobiographical. Clavell himself was a POW of the Japanese during WWII, and was interned in Changi Prison.

**View James Clavell’s King Rat on Amazon**

Tai-Pan

This is the story of Dirk Struan, the founder of the Noble House trading company. This story takes place during the Opium Wars of the nineteenth century.

**View Tai-Pan on Amazon**

Shōgun

Shōgun is the tale of a British navigator who crashes on Japanese shores around the year 1600. He becomes involved in the unification of feudal Japan.

Clavell borrows heavily from Japanese history in Shōgun. This isn’t exactly a historical novel, though, as Clavell modifies names and dates to suit his story. 

The real history involved here is the biography of Anjin Miura (William Adams), a British navigator who really did shipwreck on Japanese shores during a typhoon. Another real historical inspiration for Shōgun is the story of Japan’s unification under the Tokugawa Shogunate during the early 1600s.

But once again…Shōgun is fiction inspired by history, not a historical novel. There is a big difference!

**View Shōgun on Amazon**

Noble House 

In Hong Kong in the early 1960s, Ian Dunross is the CEO—or tai-pan—of Dirk Struan’s Noble House (which, in the mid-20th century, has become a multinational trading firm).

Noble House is a huge novel, weighing in at about 1,300 pages. The book is filled with gangsters, bold business executives, and seductive women.

I enjoyed reading Noble House. I also enjoyed watching the 1988 NBC miniseries adaptation, starring Pierce Brosnan and Deborah Raffin.

Whirlwind

Easily the darkest of Clavell’s novels, Whirlwind is set in Iran in 1979, at the height of the Islamic Revolution.

Clavell is sometimes criticized for his “orientalism”: All of his books to some extent pander to Western fantasies about Asia. In Clavell’s novels, every Chinese merchant is an ultra-savvy trader who simultaneously plays a dozen different angles. Asian women are all sloe-eyed embodiments of submissive femininity.

In his books about China and Japan, however, Clavell openly admires the cultures he depicts, even if some of his depictions seem simplistic or politically incorrect to “progressive” twenty-first century readers. If Clavell stereotypes the cultures of Japan and China, he does so with the intent to praise, not belittle.

Clavell clearly does not admire Iranian culture, or the culture of Islam, however. While not all of the Iranian characters in Whirlwind are scoundrels and fanatics, many of them are. 

Make of that what you will. But there is no denying that Whirlwind has a different tone than Clavell’s other books. 

Gai-Jin

This was the last novel Clavell completed before his death in 1994. Gai-Jin takes place in Japan in 1862, as the country is struggling with new forces of westernization.

Do you have to read them in order?

No. The novels of the Asian Saga do not have to be read sequentially. Each one is a more or less self-contained story. You can read them in any order you choose without missing much.

So…which one is the “best” then?…And which one should you read first?

Tai-pan and Shōgun are generally regarded to be the “best” books of the Asian Saga. 

In this case, I have to agree with the general consensus (a relatively rare occurrence for me). BothTai-pan and Shōgun are readily accessible to the first-time reader, long enough to be satisfying, but still page-turners.

You might start with either of these.

King Rat is a good novel, but it’s also a small story set in a very narrow environment. 

Oh—and no female characters to speak of. If you aren’t interested in an all-male story set in a WWII prison camp, you might not like this one as much as Clavell’s bigger novels. 

King Rat is, as I mentioned, semi-autobiographical. This was obviously a story that Clavell wanted to tell, needed to tell—and he tells it superbly. But it is a narrowly set story. 

One of the themes of King Rat is the necessity of adapting your ideals to the realities of an often cruel and unforgiving world. I read this book when I was nineteen going on twenty, just making the transition from late adolescence to full adulthood. Many of the book’s insights were useful to me at that time, and they are still with me today.

I would recommend that you do read King Rat; but I strongly recommend that you read it after you read Tai-Pan and Shōgun, and you have a full appreciation for Clavell’s work.

Noble House, Whirlwind, and Gai-jin are good books, but for James Clavell “completists” only.

(I’m a James Clavell completist, so I read all three.)

Each of these books is over 1,000 pages. I mean—come on! If a book is over 1,000 pages, it had better be awesome, right? 

These books are good, but they aren’t “awesome”. Noble House is the best of the three. Both Whirlwind and Gai-jin have a tendency to drag in the middle. Whirlwind in particular has too many characters, too many subplots. 

I came to these three novels after reading Tai-pan, Shōgun, and King Rat. Had I started with Gai-jin, for example, I don’t think I would have been motivated to continue with Clavell’s fiction.

Anyway, such is my assessment of the Asian Saga.

I think you’ll love this series—especially if you like the idea of historical suspense set in Asia. But do yourself a favor, and start with either Tai-pan or Shogun.

***

For fans of James Clavell…

THE CONSULTANT

A beautiful woman with a secret.
A coup in North Korea.
A lone American trapped inside the world’s most tyrannical regime.
He has one goal: escape at any cost!

Read THE CONSULTANT for FREE in Kindle Unlimited!

View it on Amazon!

Or….

Read my FREE online stories and serial novels, right here on Edward Trimnell Books!

‘Tartuffe’ by Molière (Richard Wilbur translation)

If you are in the mood for some 17th-century French drama (and why wouldn’t you be?), then you can’t go wrong with Tartuffe, by Molière.

And you don’t even have to read French. This translation by the American poet Richard Wilbur (1921-2017) is excellent, and quite probably an improvement on the original French version.

I’ve written about Richard Wilbur before on this site. His poems are probably the best examples of American poetry written during the twentieth century. Wilbur brings all of his skill to bear in his translation of Tartuffe.