Advance Notice: Crimson Shore by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

Hi, all! “Advance Notice” is a new section where I review the galleys (advance reading copies) I received via Net Galley and other sources. Most of these books are near their public publication date, so consider this a spoiler alert!

Crimson Shore

Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

Grand Central Publishing

Publication Date: November 10, 2015

Crimson Shore pendergast Lincoln Child

I usually try to alternate between fiction and nonfiction books when I post what I’m reading, but this time I had to jump into Crimson Shore when I was recently approved to read the galley by Net Galley. And yes, there were other galleys that had earlier publication dates, but I was in a Pendergast kind of mood.

I have been a longtime Preston/Child/Pendergast fan since Relic, which introduced the irreverently unorthodox FBI Special Agent Aloysius X.L. Pendergast, of the New Orleans Pendergasts, in 2007. I first picked up Relic at a used book sale for fifty cents, and was hooked. I even read some of the separately written books by both Preston (I recommend The Codex) and Child (Deep Storm was good).

Crimson Shore is the fifteenth installment in the Pendergast series. This book has Pendergast taking on what appears to be a routine wine theft on the outskirts of Boston, Massachusetts, except that the wine overlooked by the thieves was of an extremely rare vintage. Pendergast, being a great oenophile, took the case on the condition that he would receive a bottle of the wine as payment (no small gesture, as one bottle was worth at least $10,000). He also saw this as an opportunity to further socialize his ward and quasi-forbidden love interest Constance Greene, in an attempt to re-cage the savagery she exhibited in Blue Labyrinth. Pendergast navigates the abusive power of the local police chief, and utilizes the assistance of the deputy chief–who comes from one of the town’s prominent families–when the wine theft reveals roots in the town’s dark history regarding a local shipwreck in the 1700s. Bizarre deaths lead a gruesome trail to an unexpected ending, which may finally use up the last of Pendergast’s seemingly nine lives.

Preston and Child still deliver excitement in Crimson Shore, but I can’t say that I’m that enamored of Constance as a more prominent character. Her role has grown in each book since The Cabinet of Curiousities, but I rather liked her when she was confined to an enclosed space, be it Pendergast’s Riverside Drive home; a cruise ship; or a mental institution (she was actually at her best there). Constance on the loose in society, and struggling to acclimate herself to modern public ways, was an incongruous note in an otherwise harmonious book.  I’m also on the fence about Pendergast’s obvious feet of clay since Fever Dream; while humanizing his character (Pendergast driving a Porsche? Really?), the razor-sharp investigative skills and abrasive, yet genteel Southern charm that put him on the public map seem to be eroding since that book; this becomes more evident in Crimson Shore. Still, Pendergast fans will enjoy his latest adventure, and the cliffhanger, while surprising, will not cause too much worry among the Pendergast fan club. There is also a recipe of sorts for preparing Sole a la Pendergast, a fillet of fish with a wine-based, creamy mushroom sauce.

Crimson Shore is available for pre-order at a discount; the book will be released on November 10, 2015, at full price.

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What I’m Reading: The Gauguin Connection by Estelle Ryan

Like many, I like to take advantage of free (and reduced price) ebooks offered through sites such as Bookbub; it’s a good way to discover new (to you) author.

[It’s also a good way to clog up your e-reader with ebooks you intend to read “someday”, “when I have time”,  but I digress.]

The Gauguin Connection, by Estelle Ryan, popped up last year on Bookbub as a free ebook.

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I’m a fan of mystery/thriller/suspense novels, and this one had a rather intriguing premise: an art investigator who was also a high-functioning autistic. A good friend of mine is also high-functioning autistic, so I was curious to see how this condition would be woven into a story.

I wasn’t disappointed.

The Gauguin Connection introduces Dr. Genevieve Lenard, an autistic art investigator for an insurance company in France. She is sucked into a murder/theft/forgery case when a college girl is found murdered, and a piece of a famous Gauguin painting is found on her body–the same painting that is insured by Genevieve’s company. Genevieve uses both her investigative skills and her astuteness at reading body language to solve this case and many others to which the murdered girl was connected.

Genevieve’s character, by dint of her autism, relies heavily on body language in order to function adequately in society. She doesn’t understand slang, colloquialisms, or sarcasm, to the frustration of most who meet her. She also has a limited filter, and often speaks her mind with no concern as to whether or not someone’s feelings (or ego) might be hurt. I found myself laughing aloud at the character’s bluntness; she reminded me a bit of myself, many years ago (no autism, just a tendency to speak without employing diplomacy :D). Autism is not a laughing matter, but Ryan wrote Genevieve in a way that allowed the underlying humor of her remarks to shine through. Plus, I’m a smartass, so I appreciated Genevieve’s responses to asinine questions and replies.

I was also fascinated by Genevieve’s interpretation of body language as a means of assimilating in society. It is often said that most communication among people is nonverbal, and this book reiterates that. I picked up some interesting kinesthetic clues that bear further study, and it made the story even more interesting.

The book may have been a bit heavy-handed on the whole “socializing Genevieve” concept, along with a couple of stereotypical characters (e.g., the overstressed, focused lawman intent on pursuing justice; the lawman and criminal who constantly outwit each other, yet have a grudging mutual respect). Still, I found The Gauguin Connection to be an entertaining read, and I already purchased the next book in the series (which is up to eight books, so far).

[Heads up: the ebook is still free !]

Thanks for stopping by.

RETRO READS: Streetlethal by Steven Barnes

Hi all!  Welcome to Retro Reads, where I talk about my favorite books that were published at least ten years ago. You can still find most of them online, though sometimes they have been re-released with a different cover and/or title. I will let you know if a book is out of print and/or otherwise unavailable.

 

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Streetlethal

Steven Barnes

Sci-Fi/Speculative Fiction

Publication Date: 1983

Status: Out of print/Available used

Streetlethal was my first purchase from Borderlands Books in San Francisco. 🙂 I’d already become a fan of Steven Barnes’  books Lion’s Blood and Great Sky Woman (I checked them out from the public library), but I’d never heard of Streetlethal until I saw it while browsing in the bookstore. I bought it and another of his (unknown to me) books, The Kundalini Equation.

Streetlethal takes place in a somewhat dystopian future Los Angeles. The story centers around Aubrey Knight, a highly skilled nullboxer (nullboxing is like MMA to the nth degree) who becomes an enforcer for the Ortegas, a powerful drug family who also dabbles in black market organ selling and prostitution.  Aubry is set up by his new girlfriend/drug addict (guess who is her supplier?) because he wants to quit working for the Ortegas–which is not done–and sent to a maximum security prison for murder.

(Never trust a big butt and a smile, Aubry.)

He eventually escapes and goes after Luis Ortega, the man who orchestrated his set-up, which is how he meets Promise–a woman who had taken Aubry’s ex-girlfriend/snitch under her wing and got her into rehab. Promise becomes Aubry’s “in” to the Ortegas, with interesting results.

The technological advances in the novel are quite mind-boggling, especially considering that the book was written in the early 1980s. Barnes’s gift is showcasing the range of human emotion in all of his characters. In Aubry Knight and, eventually, Promise, we get everything from euphoria/”top of the world”; to the depths of despair when your world is snatched from beneath your feet; to the unique mindset of athletes, especially professional ones; to the confusion and borderline resignation when things don’t quite work out the way you’d planned. In his strong secondary characters (Tomaso Ortega and Kevin Warrick are excellent) we get the roller-coaster ride of power plays, drug addiction, insecurity, family dynamics, and the urgent drive that comes from feeling like time is running out when you have too much to do. It’s also nice to read a post-apocalyptic novel that doesn’t include zombies; then again, zombies weren’t as much of a thing in the eighties.

I missed the memo that Streetlethal is the first in a trilogy (it pays to read those last few pages of advertisements in a book), and that Aubry’s journey continues in Gorgon Child and Firedance (that has been rectified–thank you, Amazon used books). Fans of dystopian stuff, martial arts, science wonks, and diverse sci-fi/speculative fiction would enjoy this novel.

Thanks for stopping by.

What I’m Reading: The Rise by Sarah Elizabeth Lewis

It’s finally over.

This sense of relief is my predominate emotion after slogging through The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery by Sarah Lewis. Not that the book is terrible, per se. Lewis drops some valid gems throughout the book, and I found myself highlighting passages as if I were back in college. The book was obviously a labor of love. However, her writing style, while perhaps appropriate for her career in the upper echelons of the art world (especially writing art critiques), doesn’t quite translate to the hoi polloi reading audience. Once upon a time, I lived for the flowery yet convoluted sentence structure employed in the book, along with liberal sprinklings of $2.50 words and obscure art and cultural references beyond certain circles; it’s why I was a fan of the late Manning Marable (in fact, Lewis’s writing style reminds me of Marable’s–a lot). Nowadays, maybe my brain is just too old (or overworked) to cut through anyone’s etymological maze in the name of being perceived as one of the smart kids–which I already am –or stopping every other sentence to look up a reference that I don’t understand or with I am unfamiliar.

To quote singer Tamar Braxton: “Ain’t nobody got time for that.” 😉

[I mean, I love using my extensive vocabulary as much as the next nerd, but as a writer I know that my readers have to understand what I’m writing if they are to be engaged enough to drop some shekels in my basket. Feel me?]

Lewis uses The Rise as a platform to examine the correlation between creativity, failure, and mastery. Or rather, why some people use failure as an impetus to achieve mastery, while others use it as an excuse to quit. Why some creative people are content to exist within the prescribed, time-tested parameters of their particular niche; while others are willing to jump off a cliff at the risk of falling to their deaths while hoping to sprout wings and fly. The premise is valid; the execution, not so much.

Lewis likes to pack a lot of information into a small space; she will mention thermodynamics, Shakespeare, Sumerian myth, modern dance, and arctic exploration–sometimes all in one paragraph. The spasmodic jumps between exemplars lack the smoothness of, say, Malcolm Gladwell (to whom Lewis was unfairly compared), who has written bestsellers in a similar vein as The Rise: taking a subject and figuring out how it affects (or doesn’t) certain groups of people. Add this to the aforementioned maze-like conveyance of ideas and a penchant for name-dropping, and I understand why this book was such a chore for me to read.

As I’ve said before: the book isn’t bad, just tedious. Lewis’s perspective on failure and mastery is interesting, though not presented a clearly as I’d like. There’s good stuff in there, but you have to dig for it (alcohol and/or skimming ahead optional). I just had higher hopes for the content, given the initial hype surrounding the book in literary circles.

Thanks for stopping by.

What I’m Reading: Salsa Nocturna

I finally got around to reading a book I’ve had for a while: Salsa Nocturna by Daniel Jose Older.

This is Older’s debut collection of short stories (published in 2012), and the jump-off of his first full-length novel, Half-Resurrection Blues. While I perceived Salsa Nocturna to be the precursor to HRB, Older said that the events in SN took place after HRB instead of before. He’s the author, so he should know, though I beg to differ. 🙂

Anyway, having read some of his other short stories published here and there (and also here); his contributions to the anthologies Mothership: Tales from Afrofuturism and Beyond and Long Hidden; and his debut young adult novel Shadowshaper (more on that in a later post), I was not disappointed with Salsa Nocturna. At all. Set in Older’s preferred boroughs of New York City, Salsa Nocturna introduces the eclectic plethora of supernatural and supernatural-affiliated characters that populate HRB.  The social commentary alone was great (“Protected Entity” was everything) and the characters were so rich and varied that it was like reading a paint palette. The characters meet and bond throughout an array of otherworldly situations that are sometimes as amusing and engaging as the characters themselves (Riley and Gordo quickly emerged as two of my favorites). Older is also one of the relative few Latino authors who does not sugarcoat the mezcla of African and Latino bloodlines and cultures in his writing, and for that alone he gets props from me. I wasn’t really digging HRB based on the excerpt I read (and the character Carlos even less) but after reading Salsa Nocturna, I’m more inclined to plunk down some cash for Half-Resurrection Blues. His character Kia, in the linked stories above, has me anticipating her own upcoming novel, Midnight Taxi Tango.

Salsa Nocturna is, in my humble opinion, Older’s strongest full-length work to date. Short stories are where Older’s talent shines brightest and I would love to see him pen another collection, even with different characters. Do yourself a favor and pick up Salsa Nocturna. Thank me later.

And thanks for stopping by.

The Paradox of Creative Silence

I spent my New Year’s Eve in typical nerd/getting older fashion: playing Words With Friends, eyeballing Twitter, writing down my goals for 2015, doing my vision board (via PowerPoint–makes a great screen saver/wallpaper!), and reading. While perusing my timeline, this interesting post came across it from author/activist Olivia A. Cole:

Now, I follow her on Twitter, and on her blog, so I know that she is a very vocal, passionate activist based on her posts.  Still, I was saddened by the fact that her author friends want her to focus on her writing and stop being so political.

Really? Where they do that at?

Creative people are creative because we have something to say, and we choose our preferred media in which to express ourselves. Indeed, the creative channel is sometimes (and, in some areas, the only time) we get to address the ills of our respective worlds without being immediately arrested or killed. However, by and large, the fruits of the creative’s labor is seen merely as entertainment–nothing more, nothing less. Much in the same vein as a professional athlete, our purpose is seen as providing an escape from the realities of everyday life–not reminding folks of them. It’s a paradox to expect us to express ourselves on paper/on the field/on the court/in a song, but to shut up outside of those prescribed parameters.

Hey, I get it: Ms. Cole’s people are looking out for her. They don’t want her to damage her “brand” for the sake of social activism. They want her to keep collecting as many ducats as possible, and to keep her reputation as pristine as possible in order to continue the fattening of her pockets–because hey, mad people don’t buy her books or follow her blog. This is a blanket argument/explanation for anyone with at least a modicum of fame, to step away from sociopolitical hot-button issues.

Last night, I rewatched (for the umpteenth time) the indie movie Dancing in September, starring Nicole Ari Parker and Isaiah Washington. The movie is a story about an aspiring TV writer (Parker) who wants to write a show that portrays Black people in a positive light. She is hired by a new network executive (Washington), who goes to bat in bringing her positive family show on the air. However, as the two fall in love, the personal affects the professional as Parker is increasingly pressured (by the network, via Washington) against her better judgment to “make it funny”, which turns her show from a highly-rated positive portrayal of Black family love into a declining buffoonery (and, dare I say–and she says–coonery), all for the sake of keeping the ratings high enough to keep the show going.  When she wins a Portrayal Award (a thinly disguised NAACP Image Award) for the show, she states in her acceptance speech that she had turned a blind eye to the personal issues of the show’s star because she was chasing ratings and if she’d paid more attention, she could have helped him more. She also stated that TV and other visual media producers had a responsibility to their audiences to uplift, educate, and encourage, instead of just entertain.

In the same vein, so do writers and other creatives. Yes, there is always the risk that you will lose readers and/or fans because they will not like what you have to say on social media. The same risk exists every time a new book/blog post/painting/etc. is put out there for public consumption. But we are in a new age of social awareness, mainly in part to the 24/7 cycle of social media. there is an ever-increasing group that wants to know the person behind their favorite forms of entertainment. They want to know what kind of person is getting their hard-earned money–or not. They want to know if they person that they see on a TV screen, or is on the cover of a book, is the type of person they’d like to hang out with in real life. They like being acknowledged by such people via replies, retweets, favorites, likes, shares, and forwards. And while boundaries must still be respected, this creator/consumer engagement is becoming even more preferable than admonishments to be like The Rock:

I say all this to say: to Ms. Cole, and the other artists, entertainers, and athletes who are not shy about saying what they think and feel: keep doing what you do. I hope more celebrity-types follow your lead because there are some things bigger than money and fame.

Thanks for stopping by.

Another One Bites the Dust

I finally got around to reading Festive in Death by JD Robb (the mystery-writing pseudonym of bestselling romance author Nora Roberts).

Festive in Death

This is the 39th book in the popular In Death futuristic mystery series, and perhaps that’s why this book is further proof that Robb/Roberts is losing her touch.

At first, I thought that I wasn’t that into the book because it was my first time reading an e-book on Google Play Books, instead of my usual Amazon Kindle app. Perhaps that was the reason I kept putting the tablet down while attempting to read this book: an unfamiliar e-book delivery system. But no; when I read another book via Google Play Books, I was able to stay engaged and had a hard time putting the e-book down. So the platform delivery was not the issue; the book content was.

I noticed that the quality of the In Death plots began to decline with Salvation in Death, book #27 in the series. At the time, I thought the book had a phoned-in quality, like Robb couldn’t be bothered to put forth her best efforts. Random reviews from different bookseller and fan sites showed that I wasn’t alone in my thinking; indeed, many were not pleased by the lack of her normal plot and character depth. She redeemed herself in subsequent books until she reached Indulgence in Death (book #31), which was a poor rehash of the plot of Seduction in Death (book #13). Again, all was decent until Calculated in Death (book #35, which was another poor rehash of the subplot of Born in Death, book # 23).

[yes, I’ve read the entire series from the very beginning, and have most of the books, so I can pinpoint a lot of these changes–so can a lot of other fans.]

There have long been rumors (since around the time of Indulgence in Death) that the In Death series/JD Robb books were being ghostwritten, rumors that Roberts/Robb vehemently denies. Yet continuity errors (character names, character backstories, noticeable difference in writing style from earlier books in the series, etc.) in latter books belie her denials. Given the state of the last three or so books, I’m leaning toward the ghostwriting school of thought for at least some of the books in the series.

Hey, I get it: Nora Roberts has  “written” forty of the JD Robb full-length novels (#40, Obsession in Death, comes out in 2015), plus short stories surrounding the main character, Lieutenant Eve Dallas of the New York Security and Police Department–all in addition to putting out her romance novels under her real name. Nora Roberts got her start, and made most of her money, writing in the romance genre (indeed, her full-length romances are almost instant bestsellers. She’s a very prolific writer who seems to churn out a new book once a month or so), and it can be argued that romances are her first writing love. That being said, it’s easy to see why she’d want to take a break as JD Robb and fall back on what made her famous. It happens.

I’ve seen other of my formerly favorite authors go down the same “phone it in” path: Mary Higgins Clark and James Patterson are two of them. Patterson started the “ghostwriting via collaboration” trend that Higgins Clark is now picking up, as he turned his attention to Young Adult novels with his Maximum Ride series. Perhaps that’s what happens when you publish a certain number of books, or been in the writing and publishing game as long as they have:  you become numb, writing-wise. I’ve seen it in Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta novels; Terry Brooks‘s Dark Legacy of Shannara series (The Dark Legacy of Shannara: Witch Wraith: what was that?!); and both Brenda Jackson‘s Madaris and Westmoreland romance series, as well.  For all of these authors (who are pretty prolific), I stopped reading them on a regular basis years ago because the spark that fueled their first twenty, thirty, forty books had gone dim. I no longer enjoyed their newer offerings and found myself reading their older works (and enjoying them more). Robb/Roberts has now been added to the list.

This is one of my fears as an author: writing so much that I will grow weary of my craft, and start turning out subpar stories just to say I published another book; or worse, hire someone to do most of the heavy lifting and rubber-stamp my name in order to retain and maintain my fan base. I’m not at that level yet, but given the amount of mental energy that goes into writing and publishing a book, I can see where the aforementioned authors are coming from. As Whitney Houston once sang, it’s not right, but it’s okay.

Thanks for stopping by.

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