Review: The Dead Student is exciting, psychological thriller

New York Times best-selling author John Katzenbach knows how to get into people’s heads, whether it’s in the psyche of his characters, or the minds of his readers. His newest novel, The Dead Student (The Mysterious Press, Oct. 6), is a perfect example.

KatzenbachThe Dead Student wastes no time shaking things up for his protagonist, Timothy Warner. A PhD student better known by his nickname “Moth”, Timothy is a recovering alcoholic who battles the temptation to sink into the depths of drink and despair every day. Even with ninety-nine days of sobriety behind him, Moth knows he is one glass away from falling into a devastating abyss.

When his AA sponsor Uncle Ed is found dead, that yawning pit opens beneath Moth. It is only through a concerted effort, and the help of his AA group, Redeemer One, that he sobers up long enough to realize that his uncle would never kill himself. But gut feelings like his aren’t proof enough for police, who appear more than comfortable with their suicide theory.

Read the full review
 at Killer Nashville.

Review: The New World excites, then settles into a lull

by G. Robert Frazier

Welcome to the New World, Jim Hawkins; it’s savage, untamed, and wholly unpredictable. Hawkins, the son of Robert Louis Stevenson’s more renowned Jim Hawkins of Treasure Island fame, and his companion Natty get a rude introduction to life in North America courtesy of author Andrew Motion’s The New World (Crown Publishers, $25).

the new worldPart action-adventure part literary memoir, the novel picks up on the heels of Motion’s earlier unofficial sequel, Silver, with a violent shipwreck off the coast of Texas. Jim and Natty are among the only survivors, though their true ordeal is only just beginning.

Before they are able to gather their wits about them, the pair are beset upon by a tribe of brutal Native Americans who take them prisoner while plundering the debris of the shipwreck and its lost treasures The only other survivor of the ship, Mr. Stevenson, is quickly shot to death by the Indians’ arrows, immediately upping the tension for Jim and Natty.

The death of Stevenson is symbolic in a way of how this book deviates from the more action-oriented fare of the original author. After being taken into captivity, The New World morphs into a more introspective-laden memoir, detailing Jim’s every thought and nuance during his ordeal. There is considerably less emphasis on action and more attention given to Jim’s thoughts and feelings on everything from his life with his father to life with Natty to the lives of his captors.

Motion aptly hooks the reader with his forceful prose, then allows the lulls in the action to express himself in a more lyrical voice. His love of words and their sing-song quality — he is one of the UK’s most renowned poets and was actually poet laureate for ten years – is clearly evident.

That’s all well in good, for literary readers. For those who favor the swift action of a genre story, however, the sudden shift in styles and contrast in the story’s tone is a bit of a letdown. After a bold, action-packed start, the novel segues into moody memoir and colorful description. The action only briefly reasserts itself late in the novel when Hawkins must face his Indian captors in a final showdown in the bustling port city of New Orleans.

The New World lacks the sense of fun and danger that its classic predecessor managed to instill, instead taking on a darker, more serious tone. Nor is Hawkins’ antagonist, Black Cloud, remotely as interesting as Silver in Treasure Island. His companion, Natty, is unfortunately a totally unlikable character from the start.

Overall, The New World races out of the gate, but crawls to the finish line.

Note: I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review.

Review: Constance Kopp a heroine worth waiting for

Author Update (9-28-15): Author Amy Stewart promises a sequel in the Kopp sisters story due in 2016. Also, movie and/or TV offers in the works. Read more at http://nurph.com/LitChat/chats/2481

by G. Robert Frazier

Constance Kopp could be just the leading lady Hollywood has been waiting for. She’s independent, resourceful, intelligent, brave, and she won’t back down from any man. While we wait for the inevitable movie adaptation and for the dust to settle over which A-list actress should portray her on the big screen, readers can whet their appetite for Constance’s adventures now in the pages of Girl Waits With Gun, the new novel by Amy Stewart (available Sept. 1 from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $27).

Girl Waits With GunSet in 1914, the novel wastes no time as Constance, along with sisters Norma and Fleurette, are nearly killed in the opening pages in a horrific collision between a motor car and their horse-drawn buggy in Paterson, N.J. Both Constance and Norma escape the mishap with minor scrapes, though Fleurette, who is the youngest of the three at just 16, suffers a badly injured leg.

Making matters worse, the driver of the motor vehicle, silk factory magnate Henry Kaufmann, has no remorse for what’s happened and lays the blame for the wreck on the Kopp sisters. When he tries to drive off, Constance promptly shuts the car door in his face and demands his name so that she can send him the repair bill for the wreckage to their buggy. Right away readers cannot help but cheer for Constance Kopp and want to keep reading.

Read the full review at Killer Nashville

Review: Author Todd Moss counts down to excitement in Minute Zero

by G. Robert Frazier

 In the life of every country, at a moment of extreme national disruption, there is a brief period of breakdown, when everything is uncertain. That is the moment to act, to shape events how you want them to go. That is Minute Zero.

Minute ZeroState Department Crisis Manager Judd Ryker is thrown into the midst of just such a scenario in Minute Zero, the new book by Todd Moss (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, $27). Inspired by actual events, the novel highlights the chaos of a national election gone awry in the African country of Zimbabwe. Rudd is tasked with helping steer a political outcome that will benefit the United States, but, unknown to him, he is just a pawn in the political game being played out around him.

The election pits longtime Zimbabwe leader Winston Tinotenda against upstart rebellion leader Gugu Mutonga, and early signs point to a possible victory by Mutonga at the polls. Ryker’s investigation unveils a money trail and secret US support behind the candidates, as well as a scheme to uncover a high-grade uranium mine that could put the weapons-grade material in the wrong hands.

But as the election draws to a close, the country is rocked by a series of events.

Read the full review here.

Book review: Dragonfish weaves noir, memoir into thrilling read

Review by G. Robert Frazier

Dragonfish, like Gone Girl, is two interconnected stories in one – and both are thoroughly engrossing. Written by Vu Tran, the novel is part noir-crime thriller and part literary memoir.

DragonfishAt the heart of both stories is Suzy, a Vietnamese woman haunted by her past and her own inability to find true happiness with either of the men in her life. Her mood swings—from attentive and loving wife to sullen and mysterious stranger—baffle both men, Oakland police officer Robert Ruen and Vietnamese gangster Sonny Van Nguyen, neither of whom can let her go once she decides to leave them. Robert’s off-duty investigation takes him into the seamy warrens of casinos and gambling dens of Las Vegas, with Sonny’s sadistic son “Junior” shadowing his every move.

The story takes on a grim tone of mystery, lost love, and the slim hope of atonement for Robert, who is forever remorseful for having struck Suzy during one of their arguments. That tone is reflected further in Suzy’s own story, told in a collection of letters to her daughter, recounting her journey of discovery from a refugee camp in Malaysia after the fall of Saigon to her life in America.

Read my full review on Killer Nashville’s website.

Additional reading: The immigrant story as noir: Vu Tran’s artistic obsesscions

Review: Gray Lady a unique, warm story of family, friends, life

Home is where stories happen. Where lives, young and old, come together. Where lives are celebrated, changed forever, mourned, and remembered. Where birthdays are observed, Christmas presents opened, children conceived, marriages endured or shattered. Where the events of the day are witnessed, recapped, debated, and put in perspective. Where laughs and cries are shared.

If walls could talk, oh, the stories they could tell.

That’s the premise behind author Maura Satchell’s new novel, The Gray Lady of Long Branch, (coming Aug. 25 from Four Pillars Media, $14).

IMG_20150730_151821939 (625x1024)In this case, Satchell’s novel focuses on the lives of those coming and going at a grand Victorian beach house in New Jersey. Built in the 1910s, the house serves as the unique setting and narrator (yes, narrator!) of more than a dozen vignettes within its walls, taking readers on an emotional journey through time. The stories relive milestones in the lives of the DiStefano family who owns the house, friends, and visitors who rent the house for weekend getaways or vacations.

The stories are often warm and uplifting, and sometimes sad. Satchell excels at drawing readers into the lives of her characters and making you care about them. The characters, and their experiences, are all easily relatable to our own stories, our own personal triumphs, challenges, and tragedies.

“I was staying at the beach home of a prestigious songwriter, a little jewel of a place on the Florida Panhandle, she’d escape to and compose music and lyrics. I was there, along with my husband, my laptop and some serious rain and red tide that kept us more housebound than we’d planned,” Satchell says. “It hit me that that wonderful little place must have some stories, and maybe a soul.”

Even after a hard drive crash in which she lost everything she’d written, the beach house and its stories called to Satchell.

“I thought that was the end of it, but after five years, the characters kept beckoning and reminding me of their existence,” she says, and thus her newest novel was written again.

Satchell goes on to note that “a message emerged organically from this and I only discovered it near the very end of the writing, and that is the empowerment of women in the past several decades. It came out unbidden, but I’m very pleased how it’s revealed.”

And in case you can’t suspend your disbelief that a house can act as a narrator, stick with it. All will be made clear in the end.

“The other thing I hope readers take away from this is the possibility there is more to life and to this world than what can be seen by the naked eye,” Satchell says.

Satchell has always had a knack for telling stories in a compassionate way and for letting the passions of her characters define them, and that skill is evident here. Prior to crafting fictional stories as a novelist, she chronicled real-life stories as a reporter for The Tennessean in Nashville and other area newspapers. She holds a bachelor’s degree in mass communications from Middle Tennessee State University.

The author is also a talented artist; one of her paintings graces the cover of the book.

The Gray Lady of Long Branch is due to be released Aug. 25 and will be available at the publisher’s website – www.fourpillarsmediagroup.com – in both paperback and digital formats. It will also be available via Amazon, Barnes & Noble, ITunes and other online retailers, and by request at bookstores and libraries everywhere.  Four Pillars is offering a 30 percent advance discount for books purchased before the release date at their website using the code GL30Advance. Pre-purchased books will ship before Aug. 25.

Note to readers: Maura and I were co-workers in our other lives as newspaper journalists for several years. I’ve tried to be objective in my review of her book. It’s not my usual genre, but stories well-told transcend artificial boundaries. This is one of those.

Get to know author Maura Satchell: 

Review: Ant-Man’s silly fun works for fan boys, kids only

I’m apparently not the comic book fan boy geek I used to be.

Antman movie posterOtherwise, I should have loved Ant-Man, the latest Marvel super-hero opus gracing your local Cineplex. But, for all of its efforts, I was bored, annoyed, and just plain uninspired by the film.

Oddly, it’s getting pretty decent reviews from most of the entertainment media and critics. Not the incredible rave reviews that Guardians of the Galaxy fetched last summer, but plenty of kudos nonetheless. A number of critics have stated the film is fun and features a terrific third act.

After watching the first two acts, it desperately needed something to save it. I can’t speak to whether the third act did the trick or not, though, because after 90 minutes of the dreck that is Ant-Man I walked out. Mind you, I don’t normally walk out on movies, so that says a lot right there.

For starters, Ant-Man is already a hero you can’t take seriously. Even Saturday Night Live once lampooned the character in a skit featuring Garrett Morris as the diminutive hero at a gathering of heroes. When asked about his power, he replies: “I shrink myself down to the size of an ant while retaining my full human strength.” To which The Flash (Dan Ackroyd) replies: “Oooh, that’s really impressive. Size of an ant with human strength. You must be able to clean house on those other ants, huh? Hey, Hulk, check this guy out. .. He’s got the strength of a human!”

IMG_20150724_153513431 (950x1280)So, to be fair, I didn’t give the movie much of a chance right out of the gate. The previews had left me less than excited and Ant-Man was never one of my favorite comic book heroes. How could he be when there are heroes like Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor around?

Maybe I shouldn’t have gone to the movie in the mood I was in. Did I mention it was my birthday and I was feeling old? But, I was bored at home alone and I wanted to do something to mark my special day. And, it wasn’t like there were a lot of alternatives at the theater to see. Well, there was Minions 2…

In any case, you’re probably wondering, what’s wrong with Ant-Man? Why didn’t you like it?

I think, in part it has to do with the mood or tone of the movie. I couldn’t tell if it wanted its audience to take it, and its little hero, seriously, or yuck it up for laughs. I mean, who is the target audience of this film? If it’s comic book fan boys, OK, parts of the movie should have satisfied them. References to the Wasp, the fight (if you can call it that) with the Falcon, and its continuity within the Marvel world of movies were all points to savor. But, on the other hand, it was chockfull of silliness you’d expect from a Disney film. (Oh, wait, Disney owns Marvel now, right?). Paul Rudd, as one critic put it, is “laughably unheroic” in the role.

The film also plays all the right notes when considering its story structure, following the hero’s journey/character arc from reluctant no-good conman to redeemable superman by the end. There are parallels of father-daughter subplots between Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his daughter and between Scott Lang (Rudd) and his daughter. There’s the slighted pupil turned evil bad guy against his mentor (Pym).

But for all of that, the film seemed flat and boring. All the plot points seemed to come about more by rote (as in, story structure says such and such an event must happen next) than through the organic growth of the characters and plot. The result was a very dry, predictable romp for the first 90 minutes of the movie. I kept waiting for the movie to surprise me, and it just didn’t do that.

Favorite quote:

Paul Rudd as Scott Lang (Ant-Man): My days of breaking in places and stealing stuff are over. What do you want me to do?

Michael Douglas as Hank Pym: I want you to break into a place and steal some stuff.

What other critics are saying:

Update (Aug. 12): I just came across this trailer from Werner Herzog on his interpretation of Ant-Man, in which Scott Lang is trapped in the insect world and experiences the grim brutality of nature. This could have been a cool take on the Ant-Man movie. No silly super-villains. Man against nature. Much more interesting.

So, have you seen Ant-Man? What did you think? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Reading and Writing for the Web 7/22

Every day I scour the web for articles on reading and writing to further my education about my craft and try to share the best of those articles with you here. Today, I thought I’d focus on reading.

One of the most common, reiterated pieces of advice for writers of any sort — be it novelists, memoirists, poets, or screenwriters — is to read. But don’t just read for entertainment — although that works too – you need to read with a critical eye toward learning. Reading is one of the best, if not the best, ways to study your craft in action, to see what works on the page, how it moves you, and how emulating another author’s style of writing can elevate your own writing. Read widely, read voraciously, read with a critical eye.

One way to do just that is to write book reviews. I came across Blogging for Books some time last year and have been reading and reviewing books for their website and this blog ever since. I’m averaging about one book per month. I also started reading books this month for Killer Nashville, an organization dedicated to the mystery/thriller genre. My first review (of Chris Knopf’s Cop Job) is slated to appear on their website on Sept. 1. One of the neat things about both sites: free books! And, as an added bonus, exposure to new authors whom I otherwise would not have picked up. Both sites are looking for additional readers, so check them out.

I’m also a first-round reader for entries in this year’s Austin Film Festival Screenwriting Competition. The gig came about thanks to a referral from the fine folks at the Nashville Film Festival, for whom I’ve read scripts for the past two years. If you are interested in screenwriting, reading screenplays is one of the best ways to learn the ins and outs of the craft.

Speaking of reading, I came across a cool online sweepstakes where you can enter and possibly win a collection of 80 Penguin and Penguin Classic titles. I’ve already got or have read a few of them, but there are a lot more on the list of books you could win that I don’t have. (Not that I will ever have time to read them all, but, hey, if it’s free…).

Finally for today, let’s all bid a fond farewell to an influential author, E.L. Doctorow, who passed away Tuesday. Doctorow was the man who brought us the critically acclaimed, award-winning novels Ragtime (which inspired the hit Broadway musical), Billy Bathgate (which became a hit movie starring Dustin Hoffman), and The March, to name just a few.

Remember, if you come across any interesting articles on reading or writing, you can post them in the comments section.

 

Review: Action heroine peels back secrets, kicks ass in The Mask

Taylor Stevens has created a tough, intelligent action hero in the character of Vanessa Michael Munroe, one in whom many readers will want to spend time with. Munroe’s sharp wit, keen mind, and physical abilities are all evident in Stevens’ new novel, The Mask ($24, Crown Publishers). All of Munroe’s skills come into play as she is thrust into the role of investigator and savior of her lover, Miles Bradford, who is accused of murder while acting as a security consultant for a Japanese firm. With Bradford locked up and awaiting indictment, Munroe is his only hope of getting out of jail. But to find the truth, she must go deep undercover – disguising herself as a man to infiltrate the corporate, male-dominated Japanese society. (Hey, if Bruce Jenner can run around pretending to be a girl named Caitlyn, why not?)

The MaskIt’s an intriguing premise and Stevens does a good job of weaving elements of the Japanese culture into the narrative. Munroe goes from dogged investigator – digging through video surveillance and documents – to all-out action hero as she engages Japanese thugs sent to silence her. The climax sees her taking on more than a half dozen goons on her way to exacting her own brand of justice on the real perpetrator of the crime, making that last twenty pages an exciting payoff for sticking with the book until its end. You don’t want to take on Munroe alone, or at all, for that matter, if you know what’s good for you.

All of that said, the overall experience from reading this book is, it could have been better. The Mask is the fifth book to feature Munroe, although the publishers promise you don’t have to read the others to enjoy it. For the most part that’s true. The case at hand isn’t related to anything that has gone on before; the situation and the villain of the piece are both new to Munroe. But, it’s Munroe herself that seems devoid of personality. First-time readers really get no sense of who she is, how she came to possess the skills she has, what her own personal goals or motivations are. We aren’t privy to how Bradford and Munroe became a couple, why they have such loyalty to each other, or what they may have gone through to reach the state they are in, in this novel.

Backstory usually reads as boring stuff in an action/thriller, but no backstory or deep characterization results in a disconnect for most readers. That was the case here. Of course, readers interested in such things could scurry out to get the first four books in the series (The Informationist, The Innocent, The Doll and The Catch), and maybe that’s by design. I’m sure Stevens and publishers wouldn’t mind that at all. But that sort of defeats the claim that this is a standalone book, then, doesn’t it?

And while the final twenty pages were exciting, along with Munroe’s other encounters with the goons sent to silence her, the in-between bits were decidedly not. Too often I found myself skimming over the pages, looking for more action. Munroe spends far too much time buzzing across town on her motorbike to parking garages, apartments, the airport, coffee shops, and board rooms, supposedly while on the trail of the truth. At other times, Stevens spends page after page with Munroe in deep study of documents or videos in search of clues. The reader, meanwhile, just has to take her word for it as all of this unfolds in a dry, tell-tale format.

Note: I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

Book review: Sci-fi premise of The Fold fizzles into horror movie mayhem

I don’t read a lot of sci-fi, but The Fold by Peter Clines looked like an interesting read, and it was – though not in the way I expected.

The FoldThe novel details a unique program in which scientists have created a new mode of transportation, dubbed the Albuquerque Door, in which people can cover long distances by simply stepping through the doorway. Unlike a transporter on Star Trek in which a person is disassembled down to the very molecules that make them up and then reassembled on the other end, the door simply folds great distances together, like points on a piece of paper. You step through one door and come out the other, miles away.

Mike Erikson, a teacher with an annoying eidetic memory, is recruited to report on the project’s viability in the face of pending budget cuts. He’s immediately regarded as an outsider and a spy by the scientists working closest to the project and, as a result, begins to suspect they are hiding some big secret about its inner workings. Of course, as the story progresses, he’s proven right.

None of the scientists can actually pinpoint how or why the fold works, they’re just elated that it does. There’s some mumbo-jumbo about how the idea was fueled by some nonsensical equations in an old 1880s text written by a man named Aleksander Koturovic. The scientists were all drunk at the time, but they didn’t let that stop them from running the numbers anyway. Then they turned on the device and, voila, it worked.

“And to this day we don’t know how,” one of the scientists boasts.

So much for a solid sci-fi story. Instead, the reader is suddenly thrust into a realm of pure fantasy make-believe bullshit. And, sadly, the plausibility of the story just goes downhill from there.

To his credit, Clines slowly builds the mystery and intrigue surrounding the doorway. There is a palpable sense of awe and wonder about the ramifications of such a machine could mean, as well as its unintended consequences.

Unfortunately, Clines is unable to sustain the scientific part of the novel, casting away intriguing scientific theory in exchange for big guns, C4 explosives, creepy crab people and Cthulhu’s multi-tentacled flying cousin. It’s an unexpected turn of events, and one that will keep you reading, but it’s an unsatisfying freefall from the scientific possibilities the story first mines.

As a horror fan, I loved the chaotic conclusion, but sci-fi fans will justly groan about the lost opportunities.

Note: I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review.