Wayfaring Stranger by James Lee Burke (S&S, July 15th, 2014)-I shamefully admit that it’s been awhile since I’ve read anything by the wonderful James Lee Burke. It’s all good, though, because Wayfaring Stranger has reignited my love for his books, and I’ll be devouring the rest of them soon enough. Wayfaring Stranger could be called a thriller, I suppose. It’s paced like one at times. But, oh gosh, it’s so much more. Weldon Holland, grandson of Hackberry, is only 16 in 1934 when Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker come blazing through the Holland land after orchestrating the prison break at Eastham. Insouciant in their 1932 Chevy Confederate, they’re a source of instant fascination for young Weldon, especially the feral eyed Bonnie Parker with her beret titled over one eye. In a separate encounter a short time later, perhaps thinking he was protecting his grandfather, Weldon shoots his .44 into the back of the Chevy as it flees. This would prove to be a defining moment in his life. Then we move on to Holland’s stint in WWII in which he and his Sergeant, Hershel Pine, rescue a lovely woman, Rosita, from an SS death camp. Holland subsequently marries Rosita and when Pine tracks him down with a claim of a pipe weld that would never break, and the birth of their company, The Dixie Belle Pipeline Company, in 1946. The following years are good for them, but after a business venture goes south, they have no choice but to accept a loan from an untrusted source, and when Pine’s wife, the spirited and wayward Linda Gail, is “discovered” and introduced to the glittering gutters of Hollywood, it kicks off a chain of events that threaten everything they’ve built and everyone they love.
If you enjoy character driven sagas with plenty of kick, you’ll love Wayfaring Stranger, and if you’re already a fan of Burke’s work, it’s a given. Weldon Holland is a hero, but it’s his quiet way, loyalty, and deep seated morality that make him a standout. His fierce, fierce love for Rosita is enough to make a girl swoon. Enjoy that, because you won’t see me write that very much. I’m not much of a swooner, but good grief, the things he writes about Rosita are beautiful, and he respects and cherishes her in a time when women were sometimes not very respected, at least for anything other than how they looked. Lest you think that Weldon is the strongest character, Rosita is an absolute force of nature, Hershel is a loyal friend, solid and good, Hackberry Holland is very much the lovable curmudgeon, and if at first Linda Gail gets under your skin (oh, how she will), her eventual redemption and hard won strength are a glory to behold.
Wayfaring Stranger has a bit of everything that I love. It’s a grand literary tour of some of the most significant events in American history, and the glamorous parties of old Hollywood and sometimes diabolical machinations of behind the scenes players mark a time thought of as “innocent” which really wasn’t. I’m from Texas, and couldn’t help but revel in a book chock so full of so much amazing Texas history. How was I ever bored by this stuff in school? Maybe I just needed James Lee Burke for a teacher. This book is embodies everything that I think a good story should have, and not only is it a fine story, it’s also a meditation on human nature and our capacity for cruelty, but also the ability of the human spirit to rise above it, to love completely, and to refuse to give into the evil the evil that men, and women, do. Rosita endures some horrendous things throughout the course of this book, and her refusal to give in to those that would hurt her is inspiring, even as your heart breaks for her plight. I savored every word in this big, bold, gorgeous book. I didn’t want it to end, but what a helluva ending it was, certainly worthy of a Golden Age Hollywood actioner (I may have cried, don’t tell anyone.) If you only read a few books this year, make this one of them.
Please welcome Sarah McCarry to the blog! Her new book, DIRTY WINGS, just came out last week, and she stopped by to answer a few of my questions! Also, courtesy of the author, I’ve got 2 Audible.com promo codes for a free download of the audiobook of DIRTY WINGS for 2 lucky winners (international)!
You’re the author of the much lauded All Our Pretty Songs, and your new book, Dirty Wings, just came out. Will you tell us more about it and your protagonists, Maia and Cass?
Sure! Dirty Wings is a standalone prequel to All Our Pretty Songs that focuses on the story of Cass and Maia—the mothers of the two main characters in All Our Pretty Songs—as teenagers. Cass is a runaway street kid who’s squatting an abandoned house with a handful of punks; Maia is a sheltered piano prodigy who knows nothing of the world outside of her lessons and her strict, claustrophobic household. The two girls strike up an unlikely friendship that turns out to transform them both: for Cass, Maia is the stability she’s always craved, and for Maia, Cass is the key to her freedom. But when Maia falls in love with Jason, a boy who’s no good for her, everything heads south in a hurry, and the stakes get even higher when a music producer who may or may not be literally from Hell takes an interest in Jason—and Maia.
I love books that celebrate female friendship (also a theme in All Our Pretty Songs), and I imagine that will be a big draw for readers, but why do you think readers will connect with them?
Cass and Maia are characters with particular stories, but they both struggle with questions that I think are pretty universal: they’re trying to figure out who they are in the world, and who they want to become, and if their dreams belong to them or if they’ve been shaped by other people. They both make quite a few mistakes along the way—I don’t write about perfect people, because I don’t think they’re interesting (or real, for that matter). They’re also both girls who are outsiders for different reasons, and who choose to define their own stories and their own experiences—I think readers, especially women, who don’t often see themselves reflected in stories about growing up and making your own way in the world will connect with Maia and Cass. I tend to write for people who like bad decisions.
Those Who Wish Me Dead by Michael Koryta (Little, Brown, June 2014)-I’m not new to Koryta’s work, and really enjoyed The Prophet, so I had high expectations for this one. Since I read it in one afternoon, it’s pretty safe to say they were met. I’m a sucker for survival stories, and this is one, but it’s also a thriller that pretty much starts with a bang and doesn’t stop to take a breath. Jace Wilson is 13 when he decides to practice his diving in a quarry in order to make good on an ill conceived bet. He’s worried about the fallout if he fails to deliver on the dive, but when he encounters a dead body in the water, throat cut, after one of his dives, the bet becomes the least of his worries. This is a creepy, creepy scene, and Koryta sets it up perfectly, especially from the perspective of a 13 year old boy. If the body wasn’t bad enough, the two killers actually return, with a hostage, and poor Jace actually witnesses that killing.
Jace is subsequently given a false identity, and eventually finds his way to Ethan and Allison Serben, who run a survival wilderness program in Montana. Ethan and Allison are approached by former US Marshall Jamie Bennett, who had previously taken part in one of Ethan’s survival courses. Jamie gives them the bare minimum that they need to know in order to make a decision: one of the boys in their next survival program will be a witness under a fake name, and there is little to no chance that he will be found in the Montana wilderness. Allison initially thinks it’s way too risky, and Ethan does too, but Allison knows that he won’t say no, that he can’t say no. Soon, Ethan and Allison meets the new group of boys, and off they go, with Allison manning the radio, but with no knowledge of their route this time. One would think that Jace would be safe in the mountains, but these killers are far from ordinary.
Let’s talk about the Blackwood brothers (our intrepid killers) for a minute. Not only do they have absolutely no qualms about killing, and killing a child, no less, but they’re just creepy. The author notes that it’s like they’re in their own little world, and everyone else is just window dressing to be dealt with. They’re as cool, calm and collected as it comes, and very, very capable. As you can guess, a game of cat-and-mouse is afoot, but it’s in the Montana mountains with an advancing forest fire, and it’s a chilling scenario. Jace is a smart, capable kid, though, and he’s got Ethan, Allison, and emotionally damaged former firefighter, Hannah Faber, at his back. Koryta has a gift for smart characters that don’t stretch believability (they’re smart, but flawed, too), and in Allison and Hannah, he’s given us some of the strongest female protagonists that I’ve seen in a long time. Yes, Ethan is manning the survival expedition, but Allison is no wilting violet sitting at home waiting for her husband to return. She’s awesome, and the lengths that she will go to in order to protect those she loves is boundless. I also love a thriller that makes my jaw drop, and this one did it in the third act. I couldn’t put it down, seriously. This is a smart thriller with smart characters and some of the most unearthly bad guys I’ve read in a while. The pacing and dialogue reminded me a bit of peak Koontz (without the SF/supernatural element), and for me, this is a positive. Koryta’s got his own unique mojo, however, and it works, as does just about everything in this book. This is the perfect summer thriller.
Kenneth Mark Hoover’s supernatural western, HAXAN, just came out in June, and he kindly answered a few of my questions about the book, and more! Please give him a warm welcome!
Congrats on the release of HAXAN! Will you tell us a little about it and what inspired you to write it?
First of all, thank you for inviting me to the interview! I have always been a big fan of Old Time Radio. I began to listen to the old Gunsmoke radio episodes written by its creator, John Meston. He wanted to bring adult sensibilities to the western and leave mythology and Hollywood clichés behind.
It wasn’t long before I was hooked and knew I wanted to write a story about the Old West along the same lines, but leavened with dark fantasy. Not a lot. I didn’t want the fantasy to overwhelm the Old West itself. Nor did I want the West to be nothing more than a backdrop.
I had also been a fan of the Jonah Hex comics. So using this as a starting point I began to write “Haxan” the first short story in the series. That was the beginning.
Have you always wanted to be a writer? Will you tell us more about yourself and your background?
I knew I wanted to be a writer when I was 9 years old. I’ve never wanted to do anything else. When I started there wasn’t a lot of research material in bookstores or libraries so you had to learn the profession as you went. I was lucky. I had two really good mentors, Marian Poe and Harold King, who showed me the ropes.
I’ve done other things besides, writing, of course. I’ve been a surveyor, a salesman, an educator, and I’ve delivered pizzas in college. But more than anything else all I’ve ever wanted to do was write.
Echo Lake by Letitia Trent (Dark House Press, June 2014)-Emily Collins has been spending the last 5 years or so working to support herself and her musician husband, while he plays gigs and crashes at friends’ houses. When Emily discovers that he’s been cheating on her (probably for a while), instead of breaking down, she throws him out, and discovers newfound freedom. Perhaps it’s fate, then, when she gets a letter notifying her that her Aunt Frannie has died, and left her Heartshorne, Oklahoma house to Emily. It’s almost too easy for Emily to shed the remnants of her old life, and head to Heartshorne, the place that her mother had left so long ago, vowing never to go back.
When Emily finally arrives in Heartshorne, she finds that Frannie’s house is a little dilapidated and worn, but that’s ok, because it’s hers. Soon she is greeted by the local Reverend, Levi Richardson, and soon learns that Frannie was actually killed in the home. In spite of that, Emily feels a connection to Heartshorne, and after finding out a terrible secret about her mother’s childhood that she never shared, Emily decides to find out the truth. She starts digging, with the help of a new friend, Jonathan, whose talent with tarot serves to strengthen Emily’s resolve, and whose companionship Emily comes to cherish. When more people disappear and start turning up dead, Emily feels compelled to make things right.
The title refers to a man-made lake in Heartshorne that serves as a literal and metaphorical repository of secrets. It’s dark, and beautiful, and sometimes gives off a menacing fog, but it seems to draw evil like a moth to a flame. We’re given the strong sense that Echo Lake is the key to just about everything, but Trent reveals its influence in snippets, some of them horrifying, some of them simply creepy, and it’s her fantastic sense of time (both past and present) and place, with Echo Lake at the center, that really propels this chilling book forward. If you’re looking for a heavy-handed horror tale, drenched in the supernatural, you won’t find that here. What you’ll find is a subtly menacing tale of secrets, murder, and home-grown vengeance, with a sometimes surrealistic veneer. It’s also a coming of age novel; alongside Emily’s journey (yes, she’s an adult, but when she leaves her old life behind, she’s only really beginning her true adulthood), we get the story of her mother Connie’s loss of innocence as a young, brash, headstrong girl of only 13. As Emily digs into her mother’s past, it starts to become clearer to her as to what made her mother what she was as an adult (she has since died of cancer), and as a mother, and it’s an important part of Emily’s journey. I really enjoyed this story of self discovery wrapped in a slightly supernatural murder tale. Letitia Trent has a poet’s grasp of language (as she should, since she’s a published poet), and this works so well in this atmospheric, creepy gem. This is a good book, and I’m really looking forward to what comes next from this talented author.
I really, really liked AJ’s first book, THE COLONY, and am thrilled to have her back to talk about her new book, SEEDERS, which just came out this month! Please welcome her back to the blog!
I loved The Colony, so of course I can’t wait for Seeders! Will you tell us a little about it?
It’s another scary thriller based on actual science. This time I go into the secret world of plants, the relatively new and controversial field of plant neurobiology. The story is set on a cold, remote island where George Brookes, an elderly plant biologist has died a mysterious death and six of his heirs arrive for the reading of his will. One of the heirs, Jules Beecher, begins investigating the laboratory and scientific papers left by George, and comes to realize that his mentor may have achieved a monumental scientific breakthrough—communication between plants and humans.
It isn’t long before the island begins to have strange and violent effects on the group, especially Jules who becomes obsessed with George’s journal, the strange fungus growing on every plant and tree, and horrible secrets that lay buried in the woods. Soon he’s falling head-first into madness, but as a storm hits and the lights go out, the group realizes there’s something far more sinister lurking on the island.
I really like the setting of Seeders. I mean, what better way to set the tone than a secluded island! What kind of research did you do for the book?
I’d like to say I visited dozens of islands – but then, it would have been a tropical setting, like Hawaii! Actually I used Google Earth to find the geographical location. I wanted it to be cold and remote and close to New York, which meant Canada. Then I researched what it would be like in the spring, the types of plants and birds off Nova Scotia. I emailed back and forth with a survival expert, who told me how I can set up this house on the island with food, water, electricity. However, most of my research, which took months, was on plants and fungus and required reading a lot of journal articles and interviews with plant biologists and mycologists.
Tigerman by Nick Harkaway (Knopf, July 29th)-British Sergeant Lester Ferris has been sent to the (fictional) island of Mancreu to ostensibly keep the peace at the end of his career (after a rather disastrous tour in Afghanistan), as the island slowly gives way to waste and chemical abuses resulting in toxic gases that are affecting the wildlife and fauna . This “Mancreu Cauldron” will eventually destroy the island, not to mention leeching toxins out into the ocean into farther reaches, and its denizens have even succumbed to the toxic Discharge Clouds that have caused interesting, and sometimes dangerous, neurological problems. Leaving (that’s a capital L) parties have become the norm as citizens depart for brighter horizons, but there is still beauty to be found in the land, and in the people. For Lester, aside from an unrequited crush on a local scientist, he solves small cases and pals around with a young boy with a penchant for comics and a love of American pop culture. After a brutal shooting by five men in a local bar, resulting in the murder of a friend, Ferris is at loose ends, but is eager to get to the bottom of things, and enlists the boy to be his eyes and ears among the locals. The boy is ecstatic at his chance to be a crimefighter and takes to his new tasks with gusto. Soon, the boy and Lester embark on a mission to strike fear into the killers and what results is…kinda fantastic-comically, terrifyingly fantastic.
For all of his physical strength and considerable experience, Lester Ferris can come off as a bit hapless at times, but really, he’s anything but. He’s plopped on this doomed island, thinking he’ll wait out the inevitable by solving mundane, rather boring crimes and knocking around in Brighton House, but the crimes are anything but ordinary (one missing dog turns into a downright tragedy), and his connection to the boy that calls himself Robin (as an homage to Batman? his real name? ) is unexpected, and yet, as their relationship strengthens, he finds himself entertaining thoughts of taking the boy with him when the island burns, being a father figure to him, and is increasingly astounded at how much he’s come to love this funny, smart boy who talks like American film and hoards comics. With certain destruction looming, the populace grows restless, dangerously so, a gang of thugs has been terrorizing innocent people, and just what is going on with the menacing fleet of ships that gather in the harbor? Can Tigerman save the day?
This book, ya’ll. Tigerman is wrapped in a sort of old-school, boy’s pulp adventure package, but it’s actually a very timely book. There’s some pretty astute observation on how we treat our planet and what the fallout can be for us, the little folk, but there’s no preaching here, and the real meat of the book lies with Lester, who, in the beginning is just sort of existing, not happy or unhappy, but sort of lacking in purpose. It’s in the boy, and also the people of Mancreu, that he finds his purpose, and watching this transition, from slightly directionless, to full-on hero is a glory to behold. There are some phenomenal action scenes here, but for me, it was the quieter moments that made this book so good. The moment in which Tigerman is “born”, in the quiet stillness of a graveyard, is particularly perfect, and it gave me goosebumps (you’ll know it when you read it.)
Tigerman is about the birth of a hero, promises made and promises kept, finding meaning, the freedom we find when we take ourselves out of the everyday, and the fierceness, and heartbreak, of parental love. It definitely broke my heart, but good books have a habit of doing that, and Tigerman is so very, very good. Harkaway’s writing is gorgeous, and this unexpectedly funny, and sweet, and sad, and everything-in-between book will have you entranced. Tigerman is full of win, and roarsome, and wonderful. Don’t miss it.
Adam Nevill’s new book, THE HOUSE OF SMALL SHADOWS, just came out here in the US this week, and he was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about it, and more! Please welcome Adam to the blog!
I’m very excited that The House of Small Shadows is finally out in the US! I’ve read that the book was inspired in part by your childhood in England. Will you elaborate on that a bit?
Thank you for the anticipation. I’m hoping the range of imagery and folklore in the story will be relevant to North American readers too, as many of you share the same old world culture and history as us. Though the story isn’t autobiographical in term of characters or events, the novel catches a sense of what I found captivating, frightening and grotesque as a child in England, as a toddler and young boy, in the seventies. What I recall affecting me ranged from puppets in television shows and school visits, memories of dolls, museums, including a wax museum, and various trips to castles and so forth, a growing awareness of the past and of the alien. It was a time when I believed quite strongly in magic and the supernatural and observed little superstitions – I often used to smile at dolls to make sure they liked me. So I wanted to cross over into memory and imagination, and where they combine or become confused. I wanted to drill down to my own early strangeness.
I lived in the Midlands and went to university in Worcestershire, where I lived for three years, but Herefordshire is close by and a curious county; quite beautiful and Tolkienesque in the summer for me. It is the kind of place that suggests the presence of old magic, much as Wales does, which Herefordshire borders.
Hmmm…a mysterious house full of antique dolls and puppets…definitely a recipe for scares. Why do you think that dolls are such a source of the creeps for so many people?
When we are children I think they suggest a second and hidden life that occurs either someplace else, or when we are not looking at night. Their antics continue in places we are not privy to. And we invest our imaginations into them and pretend they live. As a child, who didn’t have the fear that dolls and puppets would get up and move at night? A terrifying but an enchanting proposition, particularly if the toys had access to powers beyond natural law.
I’ve been a fan of Jennifer Hillier’s since she debuted with CREEP in 2011 and now her third novel, THE BUTCHER, a standalone, is out! She stopped by to answer a few of my questions about the new book, and more, so please welcome her back!
Congrats on the new book! Will you tell us a little about The Butcher?
Thank you! This is my third book, and while I now have a good idea of what to expect with releasing a new title, it never gets any less exciting (or nerve-wracking, for that matter).
THE BUTCHER is my first standalone thriller, and it was a ridiculous amount of fun to write. It stars Edward Shank, the retired Chief of Police of Seattle, who hunted down the Beacon Hill Butcher back in 1985 and became the city’s hero. He’s now 80 and living in a retirement home… and he’s getting bored.
Edward’s grandson, Matt Shank, is an up-and-coming celebrity chef with a popular restaurant and a TV deal for his own cooking show. Matt discovers a horrible secret buried in his grandfather’s backyard, one that shatters everything he thinks he knows about his family.
Meanwhile, Matt’s girlfriend Sam, a true crime writer, is researching a new book based on the theory that the Butcher was never killed back in 1985. Little by little she inches closer to the truth, and when dead bodies begin showing up, she becomes even more convinced that Seattle PD got the wrong man all those years ago.
Oh what a tangled web we weave…
Why do you think readers will root for Matt and Sam?
I think Matt and Sam are an extremely realistic couple. They love each other, but they’re growing apart. The more successful Matt becomes, the less time he spends with her, and Sam’s caught up in her own career. They’re having a hard time putting each other first, and of course Matt’s secrets begin to affect their relationship even more. In my experience, relationships don’t often end because the couple stops loving each other. It’s everything else that gets in the way. I think most couples can relate to that.
If you’ve followed this blog for a while, it’s no particular secret that I think Ben H. Winters’s The Last Policeman trilogy is one of the best things going out there right now, in any genre. The final book in the series, WORLD OF TROUBLE, came out yesterday, and to celebrate, a few blogs are hosting guest posts and some giveaways, and sobbing in our cups that it’s over (maybe that’s just me, I dunno), but either way, if you haven’t discovered this amazing series, now’s the time, and you can be sure that what Winters has up his sleeve next will be just as great!
Also, to help you discover said series, I’ve got copies of THE LAST POLICEMAN and COUNTDOWN CITY to give away to one lucky winner. It would be the whole trilogy, but Quirk ran out of WORLD OF TROUBLE (see,that’s how awesome and in demand it is), but no matter, you’ll be well prepared to face that asteroid head on with the first two books!
Please welcome Ben back to the blog!
I was pretty resistant to psychoanalyzing Detective Palace while I was writing him. I was worried, selfishly, about sabotaging myself—to think about him too much would mess up my ability to write him. Plus, as ridiculous as it sounds, I guess I was also trying to be respectful to Palace, who would so much hate to be psychoanalyzed.
But people in the books are trying to figure him out all the time (“You’re like an alien, Palace. You know that? You’re like from another planet or something”), so maybe it’s time his author gave it shot.
Bottom line, the man is driven by loss. As we find out halfway through the first book, his childhood was marked by a devastating catastrophe. That makes him like a lot of characters: like David Copperfield, like Tom Ripley, like Bruce Wayne. (Naomi Eddes, at the Somerset Diner, actually compares him to Batman, which causes a bell to go off in Palace’s policeman’s heart).
Inevitably, those early setbacks defined him. He couldn’t protect the people who needed protecting, so he spends the rest of his life trying to protect other people—including, crucially, his little sister Nico. I suspect that if she hadn’t been around, if she hadn’t needed him to protect her, he might not have developed the constant anxious responsibility that is a big component of his sense of duty.
(I say all this like he’s a real person, who just presented himself to me. As if he was really created not by a devastating loss, but by me, and by my need for the appropriate hero for this particular story.)
So here’s this guy, he’s got this fire in him, this need to do the right thing—this fire that was kindled by incredible loss—and suddenly what happens to him, when he’s in his 20s? Asteroid! He’s suddenly abut to lose the whole world. Literally the whole world.