From thrillers to autobiographies, there’s something for everyone

By G. Robert Frazier

My latest reviews for BookPage include several novels and a cache of audiobooks, from thrillers to autobiographies. I even posed questions to author Chris Pavone for an engrossing interview.

There’s something here for just about everyone, so dive in!

In Chris Pavone’s suspenseful new novel, Two Nights in Lisbon, recently married couple Ariel Price and John Wright have shirked their former identities for new lives unfettered by past encumbrances. Or so they think.

To enjoy James Patterson and Dolly Parton’s Run, Rose, Run (10.5 hours) to the fullest, you must listen to the audiobook. Not only is it a necessary companion to Parton’s album of the same title (featuring songs inspired by the novel), but the cultural icon also voices one of the main characters, veteran country music star and bar owner Ruthanna Ryder.

Bestselling author John Darnielle’s most bizarre novel to date, Devil House (11.5 hours), is an odd amalgam of crime fiction, buried memories and investigative journalism.

The success of Amazon Prime Video’s adaptation of the late Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series is enticement enough to revisit his epic fantasy novels, which debuted in 1990. But even more exciting is listening to the new audiobook of book one in the series, The Eye of the World (33 hours), narrated by Golden Globe- and Emmy Award-winning British actor Rosamund Pike.

Bestselling author John Darnielle’s most bizarre novel to date, Devil House (11.5 hours), is an odd amalgam of crime fiction, buried memories and investigative journalism.

The Nineties provides a fascinating, granular look at a defining period of history, and author Chuck Klosterman narrates in an almost tongue-in-cheek fashion.

In The Boys (13 hours), Happy Days actor-turned-director Ron Howard takes turns with his brother, Clint, also a child actor in “Gentle Ben,” to reminisce about their memories of being icons to millions of adoring viewers in the 1960s and ’70s.

Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl’s memoir, The Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music (10.5 hours), is as raw and unfiltered as his music.

I’ve also reviewed three books for Chapter 16 so far this year, including Mark Greaney’s latest Grey Man novel Sierra Six, Don Winslow’s mob epic City on Fire, and Valerie Nieman’s suspense thriller In the Lonely Backwater.

As always, I’m grateful to the fine editors at BookPage and Chapter 16 for the opportunity to read or listen to these books and offer my insights.

Keep watching both sites and this space for additional reviews, including an audiobook review of John Grisham’s new collection of novellas, Sparring Partners.

Until next time, happy reading!

Supernatural elements feature in top books read in 2021

By G. ROBERT FRAZIER

It’s hard to pick a favorite. Or even several favorites. But here goes.

Of all the books I read and reviewed in 2021 – 41, counting the dozen audiobooks I also listened to – I’ve narrowed my list of best books to five, plus my top three audiobooks.

Looking over the list, my novel selections (except one) have a supernatural element or otherworldly force in them. That’s not all that surprising as my two favorite genres are mysteries/crime and horror (Stephen King being one of my favorite authors). You can’t go wrong with a gritty crime thriller or noirish detective tale combined with ghostly chills or otherworldly mayhem.

Top 5 Fiction

Clay Chapman’s Whisper Down the Lane stands out as one of my most memorable reads this past year.

Inspired in part by the real-life McMartin preschool trial—in which members of the McMartin family who operated a preschool in Manhattan Beach, California, were charged with sexual abuse of children, which in turn gave rise to a national panic over satanic ritual abuse—the novel follows similar circumstances, although in a highly fictionalized way.

Chapman alternates chapters from the perspectives of Sean, a kindergartener in 1983 Greenfield, Virginia, and Richard, a teacher living 30 years later in Danvers, Virginia, where he and his wife are raising his stepson, Elijah. As you might expect, their stories are inextricably linked, and everything starts when Sean, influenced by his mother’s paranoia, tells a lie that will change his entire world.

Part of the novel’s chilling effectiveness comes from its portrayal of the detectives assigned to Sean’s case and how their leading questions ultimately result in Sean saying what they want him to say, resulting in the unfair and undeserved persecution of Sean’s teacher on suspected sexual offenses. Chapman pulls no punches, revealing how the simplest of misrepresentations can result in a sort of mass hysteria against someone, just as it did in the real-life McMartin era.

The Final Girl Support Group by Grady Hendrix

The six women in Lynnette Tarkington’s therapy group are fiercely independent and strong-willed but also tragically haunted by their past experiences. All of them survived random mass killings that later became the bases for Hollywood slasher franchises that were popular among moviegoers in the 1980s and ’90s. 

But then “America’s first final girl” and keystone support group member Adrienne Butler is killed in a massacre of camp counselors at Camp Red Lake. Hendrix puts Lynette and her fellow survivors through all the typical horror tropes as they are forced to once again face a mysterious killer.

The Book of Accidents by Chuck Wendig

Chuck Wendig’s new horror/dark fantasy novel The Book of Accidents (Del Rey Books, 0399181136, $28.99) is a chilling romp through dark dimensions in the best Stephen King tradition.

The book starts out in typical horror fashion as our protagonists – husband and wife Nathan and Maddie Graves and their fifteen-year-old son, Oliver — uproot their lives to move to Nathan’s rural Pennsylvania family home following the death of his father.  As is typically the case in a horror novel, though, strange occurrences soon follow and grow exponentially more bizarre as the story rockets along.

The Girl Who Died by Ragnar Jonassen

The advertisement is simple and honest: “Teacher wanted at the edge of the world.” And for Una, the main character of Ragnar Jonasson’s The Girl Who Died, it is the perfect enticement to leave her drab life behind and start a new chapter.

The “edge of the world” is actually the isolated fishing village of Skálar, located on the northeastern tip of Iceland.

At first, the idyllic community of just 10 people, including two young girls whom Una is hired to tutor for the year, seems like something out of a storybook. It’s not long, however, before the remoteness of the community and the tight-lipped nature of its residents begin to weigh on her, forcing her to question if she’s made a serious mistake.

City on Fire by Don Winslow

The only book without a touch of the supernatural on my list is Don Wilson’s City on Fire, which I read for Chapter 16. But as the book’s publication date was postponed until spring because of the Delta Covid outbreak, my review has yet to be published. I’ll let you know when it’s up, but for now you’ll just have to take my word that it is not to be missed. (Hmm, I wonder if I should count it as a 2021 best book or a 2022 best book?).

Top 3 Audiobooks

Until this past year, audiobooks were not a thing for me. But BookPage editor Cat Acree asked if I’d be interested in taking on reviews and I was eager for the challenge. I’ve come to the conclusion that I prefer reading my books to listening to them, but maybe this audio thing will grow on me in time.

Certainly, the audio experience is vastly different from physical reading and takes some getting used to. It does require a different skillset, namely, listening. With audiobooks, you can’t allow yourself to become distracted by other tasks or …

Most of my audio selections were nonfiction-oriented, but I also managed to listen to a few novels.

Topping my list of best audiobooks is Carry On by John Lewis. Written by the late, great civil rights icon and representative from Georgia, the book is made up of inspirational essays from Lewis on such topics as teamwork, friendship, success and justice. It’s like those motivational posters on the walls of your workplace, only better, because his aphorisms are punchy yet never cliched, and you can take his inspirational words with you and play them anytime you need a lift.

One of the most important books, or audiobooks, you should listen to is Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty by Patrick Radden Keefe.

In jaw-dropping detail, the New Yorker staff writer Keefe recounts the greed, deception, and corruption at the heart of the Sackler family’s multigenerational quest for wealth and social status through their company, Purdue Pharma, and the rise of the OxyContin painkiller epidemic.

The Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton

In a series of first-person interviews conducted by journalist S. Sunny Shelton, the fictional oral history recounts the story of a 1970s rock collaboration between glam Black American singer Opal Jewel and white British singer-songwriter Nev Charles. Walton skillfully blends in real-life events such as Vietnam War protests to firmly establish the narrative’s tone and time period, layering the duo’s rise to rock stardom with social, economic, racial and sexual undercurrents.

Click the links in any of the above articles to read the full reviews.

Review: The 1619 Project is vital, thought-provoking reading

One of the most thought-provoking books you could read this year, or perhaps any year for that matter, is The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story (One World, 978-0593230572, $38), created and edited by Nicole Hannah-Jones.

An in-depth collection of essays expanding on the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times Magazine series, the book offers a critical examination of race in the United States from the introduction of slavery in 1619 to the push for voting rights in the present day.

The project makes the argument that America’s uneasy relationship with Black Americans has permeated every facet of society today – from race to politics, from citizenship to capitalism, from healthcare to music – and extends back to the first arrival of slaves in America in 1619, well before the country’s more publicly acknowledged “birthdate” of 1776.

The authors pull no punches as they highlight some of the biggest lowlights in this country’s history. The affronts to the Black community through history are numerous and, oftentimes, horrifying.

This is not some glossed over middle grade or high school textbook, but an unflinching and stark account of America’s darkest, most vile act of slavery of a race the authors argue became the backbone of the economy and the nation itself.

Detractors argue the book’s authors are biased and their arguments attempt to rewrite history. As such it has inextricably been tied to discussions of critical race theory, which they argue shames or humiliates whites.

More to the point, it reveals aspects of history all too often overlooked for a more palatable narrative.

This is not a rewrite of history, but a more thorough reckoning of our country’s origin.

Context matters.

Some of the arguments and essays may stretch the authors’ point, but there is certainly merit behind much of it.

Either way, it is information worth reading, discussing, debating, and learning from. If the country is ever to move past its racial divide, understanding comes from knowledge, not misrepresentations.

This book attempts to do that and deserves to be on everyone’s reading list.

Review: The Book of Accidents King-like in scope, sheer terror

by G. Robert Frazier

Make no mistake, Chuck Wendig’s new horror/dark fantasy novel The Book of Accidents (Del Rey Books, 0399181136, $28.99) is a chilling romp through dark dimensions in the best Stephen King tradition.

The book starts out in typical horror fashion as our protagonists – husband and wife Nathan and Maddie Graves and their fifteen-year-old son, Oliver — uproot their lives to move to Nathan’s rural Pennsylvania family home following the death of his father.

Nathan is more reluctant about the move than any of the trio because of his traumatic past with his abusive father. But after Oliver experiences an emotional breakdown at school during an active shooter drill, they agree this may be the fresh start they all need.

At first, things seem to go well. Oliver makes a few friends in his new school, Maddie takes up a new hobby, and Nathan takes on a new role as a park ranger. As is typically the case in a horror novel, though, strange occurrences soon follow and grow exponentially more bizarre as the story rockets along.

Oliver falls into a feud with a new school bully and is rescued by a mysterious scarred youth who seems oddly familiar; Maddie’s hobby with wood sculptures results in a bizarre obsession; and Nathan sees a strange figure on his lawn in the middle of the night. It seems the town is haunted by the spirit of a serial killer who did most of his slayings under a bridge in the local park, which sits over a series of coal mines.

Oliver’s overly sensitive personality ultimately collides with a malevolent version of himself as the action ramps up toward a fierce, violent showdown.

Wendig skillfully alternates perspectives between the three family members over the course of the 500-page tome, allowing readers to become more invested in each character. While Oliver eventually takes center stage, the author roots the action in the family’s unique bond for each other, making each spell-binding chapter emotionally impactful and altogether terrifying.

This is horror at its grandest, darkest level: viscerally stunning and spooky good.

Detective’s dark secret may end career in McCaw’s latest novel

By G. Robert Frazier

Hilo, Hawaii chief of detectives Koa Kane has a talent for digging up secrets – and keeping them buried when needed.

Kane is tested on both fronts in Treachery Times Two (Oceanview Publishing, $27.95, 9781608094646), the fourth in Robert McCaw’s suspense-filled mystery series.

On the one hand, Kane is undaunted in his quest to apprehend whoever killed a woman whose mutilated body is discovered during a volcanic earthquake. On the other, he is determined to keep his own murderous misdeed years ago secret.

McCaw and Kane are both new to me, so I was a little hesitant about diving into a series that was already four books old. But McCaw managed his character’s introduction and set up the book’s premise so well that my fears were put at ease.

I was hooked by the first case when McCaw reeled me in all the way with the second.

Thirty years ago,Anthony Hazzard orchestrated the murder of Kane’s father at a sugar mill where they worked. Kane followed Hazzard to a remote hunting cabin on the island and confronted Hazzard, who retaliated, forcing Kane to fatally strike him with a fire iron. Kane staged the scene to look as if Hazzard had committed suicide.

But now, Bobby Hazzard has come to the big island in search of answers about his grandfather’s death. With a powerful senator backing him, Kane has no recourse but to cooperate and reopen the investigation into Hazzard’s death, even though it could point the finger at him.

“He had come to believe his suicide ruse had succeeded. He felt safe. Seeing Bobby Hazzard, his fear had come roaring back like a spike through his heart.”

Robert McCaw

When a fingerprint left at the scene of the cabin identifies another man as a suspect, and the DA’s office seeks an indictment, Kane faces another moral dilemma: Does he let another man take the fall for a crime he committed?

“He saw his future as tenuous,” McCaw writes. “He could not, under any circumstances, let an innocent man go to jail for his crime.”

The internal struggle Kane experiences in the novel is enough to compel readers to keep turning pages alone. At one point, Kane even contemplates suicide.

Robert McCaw

But McCaw doesn’t let up. There’s still the initial case to be resolved.

After identifying the victim, Tiger Baldwin, as an employee at X-CO, a government defense contractor on the island, company officials prove less than willing to cooperate with his investigation. Before long, Kane’s efforts attract the attention of the FBI who are conducting their own probe into stolen plans for a secret weapon.

Kane’s sense of duty leads him to unwanted truths about a longtime friend as well as his own hidden past. Whether his desire to see justice done is enough to make amends for his own murderous past remains to be seen.

As its title suggests, Treachery Times Two is a riveting, double-edged mystery. Whether you enjoy good, old-fashioned police work or a moral tale of right and wrong, this one’s got it all.

I’ve definitely got the inevitable book five in the series on my radar.

+Horror Library+ Vol. 1 is edgy, cringe-worthy, glorious fiction

What does horror mean to you? Is it the loss of a son or a daughter or loved one to some tragedy? The stranger on the street? The person you thought you could trust, only to learn they’ve betrayed you? The deal you cannot rescind? Is it the monster under the bed? The dark unknown?

Not everyone is afraid of the same thing.

Horror is subjective, our fears deeply personal. Sometimes even irrational.

Eric Guignard

Naturally, you may not be terrified of all the stories served up in the +Horror Library+ series, but you’re virtually guaranteed to cringe from some of the selections. First published by Cutting Block Books and editor R.J. Cavender, the seven-volume series has been re-edited, redesigned, reformatted and reissued under the Dark Moon imprint from two-time Bram Stoker Award winner Eric J. Guignard, who promises to keep the best contemporary indie horror alive with a forthcoming volume.

He was kind enough to send me e-books of each volume in the series to date to review, so let’s dive in!

Volume One

First, know that none of the authors here are household names.

That doesn’t mean they are not talented wordsmiths with vivid, and sometimes twisted imaginations that will make you quiver, gasp, or flinch in fear. A search on Amazon reveals some have gone on to publish additional works and, if you pick up enough horror literature, you are bound to see their names crop up every once in a while on the table of contents pages.

You never know what you’re going to get in a non-themed collection like this – there are thirty stories alone in Volume One — whether it’s a bizarre alien encounter with sluglike beasts or a grisly story of dismemberment and torture.

Fair warning: Some works are exceedingly graphic and tackle any number of taboos from sex to torture, incest to child abuse, and more.

Cavender makes an unusual decision in leading off the book with one of its grisliest, unnerving selections, “Palo Mayombe in Matamoros” by Boyd E. Harris. The story offers one possible, terrifying scenario accounting for the 1,100 random deaths of taxi drivers throughout the world over ten years beginning in 1997 in what’s touted as a piece of creative nonfiction. Harris, who goes on to co-edit a later volume in the +Horror Library+ series, pulls no punches as he graphically depicts the torture and dismemberment of the story’s main character. With no plot to speak of and no escape for the main character, it’s a torture to read.

In fact, if you were not a stalwart reader of horror, you’d close the book here. But in doing so, you would miss much more interesting and haunting stories – and authors — deserving of your time.

As odd as it may be to admit, that’s part of the fun of a collection like this: reading an adventure that challenges your sensibilities or morals, forces you to confront your fears, and dares you to look upon the darker side of humanity.

Just remember, if you don’t like one story, skip on ahead to the next.

The Highlights

Like many anthologies, some stories naturally stand out more than others.

Take, for instance, “Oren’s Axe” by Jed Verity, in which the titular character discovers a grotesque oddity at his doorstep in the dead of night. Wracked by disgust and fear at the sight of the thing, Oren is moved by its plight and surprises the reader by showing his compassion for the thing, first by snipping away a set of sutures over its lips, and second by giving it fresh water to slake its thirst. But as noble as his intentions are, as often happens in the case of horror stories, he is shocked by the thing’s sudden, unexplained outburst of violence toward him.

Or, consider “Little Black Box” by Eric Stark, in which the seemingly innocent appearance of a small black box in place of the daily newspaper heralds a mysterious, inescapable invasion. The fear comes not so much from the boxes themselves – they don’t do anything other than grow in number – but in the unknown origin of the cubes and the stark realization that there is nothing anyone can do to escape them. “Who’s afraid of a little black box?” his lead character asks. Who indeed?

A simple mosquito bite leads to another unforgettable calamity in John Rowlands’ entry, “One Small Bite.” The ensuing outbreak is eerily reminiscent of the current pandemic’s spread. It hits a little too close to home during these harrowed times, but that’s what makes it so powerful.

“The Mattress” by John Peters is another story that will linger long after reaching the end. It’s a modern-day update on an age-old story of a succubus whose unyielding sexual assaults makes a long-lasting impression upon her victims. At the very least, you’ll think twice about ever buying a “slightly” used mattress again.

“Flamenco Amputee” by Paul J. Gitschner offers up a strange audition by prisoners willing to risk life and limb to impress a panel of judges to earn their freedom.

A shadow-like spider skulking around a mother recently risen from the dead is an eerie Creepshow-like tale of love and family sacrifice in Mark E. Deloy’s “Momma’s Shadow.”

Marcus Grimm entertains readers with a cautionary tale when making the deal of a lifetime in “A Hell of a Deal,” while eerie wishmaster Heman Black solves problems in a unique way in “Dark and Stormy Wishes” by Bailey Hunter. And in “The Exterminators,” Sara Joan Berniker reminds readers to read the fine print on their contracts.

A Boy Scout learns sometimes virtuous deeds are not worth that little badge in Curt Mahr’s shocker, “Helping Hand.”

The main character in Kevin Filan’s “The Remembering Country” is forced to recall an incredible secret about the beast within him.

And, in one of my favorites, M. Louise Dixon leaves readers in awe with a tale of giant worms in “Las Brujas Del Rio Verde.”

Sleep with the lights on

Oftentimes, there is little in the way of explanation for what transpires in each story, which is what makes short horror like this so incredibly weird and exciting. The answers are left to the readers’ own imagination.

By the same token, most stories end on a shocking or tragic note. These are not tales where the final girl prevails in the end, nor should they be.

These are tales that will make you go to sleep with the lights on, if you dare sleep at all.

Next time: +Horror Library+ Vol. 2

Screenwriting Twitter is a thing

Screenwriting Twitter is a thing that can be educational, empowering, and oftentimes amusing.

For those uninitiated, screenwriting Twitter is where all the would-be, hopeful, and think-they-are-expert screenwriters, along with a few actual industry folks, hang out when they’re not writing because, well, writing is procrastinating for most and Twitter is the epitome of procrastination.

In any event, on any given day you are likely to find robust debates on all things screenwriting, from copyrighting your work to whether you should share loglines with the rest of the world to how to format your sluglines (bold!). Keep in mind there is a camp of writers who contend there are no rules of screenwriting, that you can do as you like because no one, including Hollywood (which some say isn’t a thing), knows what they want or can agree on how they want it. There are “guidelines” and “conventions” and patterns, but if you trust books like Save the Cat you should be shunned and shamed. That’s because it follows a proven formula of how movies have been made and, heaven forbid, if your story should follow an existing pattern or formula and not think outside of the box (but that’s fodder for another article altogether).

Bottom line, you must take everything you read or hear and ultimately make up your own mind because no one in this industry really knows anything.

Screenwriting Twitter (#screenwriting) is also great for networking and building relationships with other like-minded screenwriters. I’ve followed a few Twitter “regulars” and interacted with some of their tweets, but I haven’t really developed any “friendships” or “connections” yet. These things take time. I did draw the attention of Stage 32 (an online screenwriting site that provides script services, webinars, and pitch meetings with execs – for a fee, of course!) who sent me a nice message saying they’d seen me on Twitter and invited me to contact them to help further my career.  I haven’t taken them up on the “offer” yet. It seems there is money involved and, well, I don’t have any.

I also enjoy Twitter for its occasional fun tweets. You can often find threads about favorite movies, movie tropes, and jokes about screenwriting. It’s somehow comforting to know that others are going through the same feelings of doubt and insecurities about writing as you are and that you can laugh about it.

Additional reading: The power of Twitter for screenwriters

Most of the time, the screenwriting community is supportive and encouraging. Members routinely chime in to help celebrate even the smallest of individual accomplishments, whether that is finishing a first draft of a script, placing in a contest, or, better yet, landing a manager, agent, job in a TV writers’ room, or a spec sale! I’m in this camp because I firmly believe in supporting creatives regardless of where they are in their careers.

That can’t be said of many in the Facebook screenwriting community who can be downright rude, insensitive, and condescending. This group would much rather malign you for your incomplete loglines, your pesky questions about the craft, or your requests for feedback on your work. It’s gotten so bad in a couple of the screenwriting Facebook groups that I’ve quit the groups and have had to block some users. I just don’t have time or patience to put up with haters and “better-than-you-alls.”

That’s not to say that all Facebook screenwriting groups behave that way. The Tennessee Screenwriting Association, of which I am a page administrator, strives to be supportive and always encouraging. We know screenwriters are at various levels of their career and if we can help them out or point them in the right direction to furthering their craft, we’ll happily do that.

I guess what I’m saying is, pick and choose your friends and groups carefully. No one likes a hater, no one likes a know-it-all.

So, enough about that. Time to recap the week:

Writing update

So, last week I had a goal of finishing a spec script based on the TV show What We Do in the Shadows (the new season starts next week on FX!). I’m still not there yet, but I’m closer. Maybe this week will see me cross the finish line.

I also had planned to outline a new comedy pilot, which is a spinoff to my 2019 Austin Film Festival finalist screenplay ZARS: Zombie Apprehension & Relocation Service. I’ve already got the teaser or cold open written (that’s generally what is known as the first scene of the script that serves as a tease to the episode ahead). I also have a couple scenes mapped out, but I still need to come up with the connective tissue that will hold everything together.

Both of those projects will be at the top of my to do list for this week. Then it’s on to my feature script Jerry Lonely and planning/outlining/character work for a mystery novel I’ve got up my sleeve.

Reading update

I finished reading The Good Death by S.D. Sykes and Lightning Strike by William Kent Krueger and wrote a book review for BookPage. I’ll let you know when it gets published. In the meantime, my review of Small Favors by Erin A. Craig has been posted on Chapter 16’s website.

Next up is City on Fire by Don Wilson (it doesn’t go on sale until April but I’ve got an ARC!) and Horror Library Vol. 1, a collection of horror short stories newly republished by Dark Moon Books.

And on the comic book front, I’m reading Batman: The Adventures Continue, Season One, which reprints the first eight issues of the comic book series continuation of the Batman animated TV series.

That’s it for this time out. Tune in again next week as I ramble on about something else.

Skipping Killer Nashville conference a difficult choice

Some devious and cunning minds will gather in Franklin (TN) this week for the Killer Nashville writing conference. I wish I could be with them, but this whole Covid pandemic thing has convinced me otherwise.

I’m fully vaccinated (although apparently a third shot is in the cards), and KN organizer Clay Stafford promises the conference and hotel are taking precautions, but I’m not comfortable taking any chances. Heck, I’m still masking up everywhere I go and I’m still using Walmart’s pickup service for my groceries until this all blows over.

Killer Nashville founder Clay Stafford poses with guests Joyce Carol Oates and David Morrell.

Killer Nashville is one of my favorite events every year, which makes missing out so difficult.

The four-day event held each August (this is its 15th gathering after skipping last year because of the pandemic) attracts some of the best authors from across the globe for informative, educational, and entertaining panels on writing mystery, crime, and thrillers across a variety of mediums, including novels, short stories, and screenplays.

Anne Perry

The event is typically headlined by a few best-selling authors. Past guests have included Jeffery Deaver, William Kent Krueger, Joyce Carol Oates, Otto Penzler, Max Allen Collins, Anne Perry, and Janet Evanovich, to name just a few. This year’s conference honors guests Walter Mosley, Lisa Black, and Tennessee’s own J.T. Ellison.

In addition to a nonstop slate of panels presented by attending authors and other guests, the event features an awards banquet for best published and unpublished novel in numerous categories, a mock crime scene to test your deductive skills, and pitch meetings with agents and editors.

But perhaps one of the best aspects of the conference is just meeting and networking with folks. I’ve met numerous authors and am fortunate to call them friends. The writing community at Killer Nashville is just that – a community of writers who genuinely support and encourage each other in all phases of their writing journey.

Clay Stafford

The event, of course, wouldn’t be the success it is without the vision of KN founder Clay Stafford (there’s a great interview with him here) and dedication of his staff. I’ve been fortunate to work alongside each of them over recent years as a book reviewer, Claymore contest reviewer, and volunteer. I even served on a panel one year, which still blows my mind.

I’m already looking forward to next year’s conference.

Writing Week in Review

My co-writer Jay Wright and I finished some revisions to our crime feature script Kings of Mississippi and submitted it to the Finish Line Screenplay Contest. We got some excellent feedback on our first read through from one of their readers that strengthened some of the emotional elements of the script. Now we wait and see if the revised script makes the quarterfinals cut.

I also tweaked a short horror script I wrote called Kurupira and entered it in the Fresh Blood Selects contest.

My other short horror script Skin, which just narrowly missed the Finals stage in the Nashville Film Festival’s screenwriting competition, failed to even make it to the quarterfinals in The Script Lab’s Free Screenwriting Competition. Sigh. Of course, there were 13,000 entries overall and only the top 1,000 made the first round of cuts. I’m sure Skin must have been right there knocking on the door, though, probably at No. 1001. Yeah.

And I made a little more progress on my spec script episode of What We Do in the Shadows. If you’re familiar with the FX show, you know it’s about a trio of vampires living in Staten Island. In my episode, Nandor and his familiar Guillermo attend a “Vampires Anonymous” meeting, while Laszlo and Nadja go to a Little League baseball game. To coin a phrase, hilarity ensues.

As I mentioned in a previous blog, I had planned to start on my feature script Jerry Lonely, but I’m still outlining it. Hopefully, I’ll have all the major plot points worked out and be ready to do the actual writing in September. The title has piqued the interest of several readers who want to know more, but all I will say about it at this point is that I’ve been watching The Godfather movies as prep work.

Which brings me to: My writing calendar.

Every couple of months or so I revise and prioritize my list of ongoing writing projects. I have a list of screenplays (shorts, TV pilots, and features) and other writing projects (shorts stories and novels) that I try to juggle. I try to match it up with upcoming contest or submission deadlines and then go from there.

Often, my plans go to hell, and I find myself having to reconfigure them a couple months later. But at least I’m trying.

I plan to use these weekly blog posts in part to help hold myself accountable to my writing plans by posting updates on my progress each week. My goal in the week ahead is to finish the first draft of the What We Do in the Shadows script and outline a TV pilot script. Check back here next week and I’ll let you know how I did.

What I’m Reading

Last week, I posted about the importance of reading and I’ve been making progress on my to be read pile.

I read the pilot script for the Emmy-nominated Hacks and listened to a streaming panel with the creators and actors, courtesy of Deadline’s Contenders series. There are more than a dozen other panels with the creators and stars of other Emmy-nominated shows on the platform, all free to view online.

I also finished reading a screenplay from one of my fellow Tennessee Screenwriting members and will be sending him some notes after I post this.

Meanwhile, I’m reading Lightning Strike by William Kent Krueger, which I should finish by the weekend. I’ll then start on The Good Death by S.D. Sykes. I’m reviewing both books for BookPage.

Until next time…

Books: Campbell’s latest disappoints; Tobey thrills, Bain delivers again

by G. Robert Frazier

In between the books I review for BookPage, Chapter 16 (Humanities of Tennessee), and Killer Nashville, I do manage to squeeze in a few other reads from time to time. Below are a few reviews for books I’ve read this year not included on those sites.

The Influence by Ramsey Campbell

I was thrilled when I received an advance reader copy of this book from Flame Tree Press. Ramsey Campbell is a master of the horror genre, so I dived right into this novel, expecting heart-stopping chills and scares that would keep me up at night.

the-influence

Campbell sets the stage quickly enough as Queenie, the matriarch of the Faraday family, dies, setting in motion a series of bizarre events. Queenie asks to be buried with a lock of hair from her great-niece, 7-year-old Rowan, with whom she has a strong rapport. Rowan’s parents, Alison and Derek, and Alison’s sister Hermione, who was traumatized by Queenie as a child, argue over the Queenie’s odd request, but Derek ultimately allows it. Soon after, Hermione is discovered dead.

Rowan, meanwhile, seems to be taking on some markedly different traits, including a condescending attitude toward her classmates and a growing aloofness toward her parents. A new friend, Victoria, who coincidentally shares Queenie’s real name, also begins to have a strange influence over Rowan and eventually appears to take Rowan’s place in the family.

Has Queenie’s spirit leapt from beyond the grave? Will Rowan be able to escape her great-aunt’s influence and return to her rightful place in the family?

Campbell’s writing is darkly atmospheric and mysterious, building slowly in intrigue and suspense. Unfortunately, this wasn’t a slam bang horror opus like I was hoping for, but more of a slow-burn novel with subtle creeps. Not that that’s a bad thing, it just isn’t my thing, so I was ultimately a bit disappointed.

The God Game
The God Game

The God Game by Danny Tobey

I’ve never been obsessed with gaming. Sure, I used to play Sonic the Hedgehog on my Sega Genesis console and I used to play NHL hockey video games, but I never got sucked into the whole gaming world. I bought a Wii game console once – it’s still connected to my TV – but I haven’t used it in years. I just don’t have time for it.

The God Game

I don’t even like movies based on video games. Not even Ready Player One could change my mind.

So, a book about gamers was not really on my list of must-reads, but since St. Martin’s Press decided to send me an advance reader copy of Danny Tobey’s The God Game, I was obliged to read it.

Billed as a dark thriller, the book follows several teens who become obsessed with a video game created on the dark web and controlled by a mysterious artificial intelligence that believes it’s God. Tobey wastes no time in establishing that this isn’t exactly a compassionate god, though, as when the boys ask the game why there is war, it responds: “Because killing feels good.”

The deeper the teens delve into the game, it becomes abundantly clear that they aren’t playing the game, the game is playing them. Before long, it forces them to do dark deeds at its behest or suffer serious consequences in their real lives.

Tobey creates a typical teen cast – characters subjected to bullying by their peers or dealing with various pressures of growing up – which lends authenticity and depth to the story, then sets them loose in a fast-paced, high-stakes adventure ala Hunger Games or The Maze Runner. There are some fun scenes and it never gets boring, though it does plod toward a somewhat predictable outcome.

Murder She Wrote: Trouble at High Tide by Jessica Fletcher & Donald Bain

Mom was a big fan of Murder She Wrote, and I must admit I liked the show too. Yes, it was formulaic. Yes, it was quite tame as far as murder mysteries go. But somehow it was always an entertaining diversion.

MSW Trouble at High Tide

After Mom passed, she left her collection of Murder She Wrote novels to me and I’ve been trying to read at least one a year as a sort of tribute.

Trouble at High Tide was another fun read in the series with Jessica Fletcher stumbling upon a body on a Bermuda beach during a vacation (doesn’t she always?). At the same time, the local police are caught up in a series of brutal Jack the Ripper-style killings. Whether the cases are related in some way remains to be seen.

Jessica and an old friend, Inspector George Sutherland, investigate all the requisite suspects, uncover a slew of secrets, and get dangerously close to the killer. Donald Bain, whom I met at a Killer Nashville writing conference prior to his death, expertly captures the essence of the TV series sleuth.

Review: Lullaby Road won’t lull readers to sleep

By G. Robert Frazier

Long road trips tend to lull many people to sleep, but there’s no time for sleep for trucker Ben Jones in James Anderson’s newest novel, Lullaby Road ($26, Crown). If you’re a reader along for the ride, you might find yourself staying up late, too.

 

Lullaby Road

Lullaby Road
James Anderson
$26, Crown
ISBN: 978-1-101-90654-5

From the moment he puts his truck into first gear, Jones is caught up in one conundrum after another, proving that life is like a road—full of twists and turns, stops and starts, peaks and valleys, and a slew of unusual characters. Jones and several characters—including motorcycle-loving hermit Walt and wooden cross-carrying preacher John—may be familiar to readers of Anderson’s first novel, The Never Open Desert Diner. But there are plenty of new faces to get to know, too.

 

Set along desolate Highway 117 in Utah,  Jones spends his days delivering anything and everything the big shipping companies send his way. But Jones’s latest pickup is his most bizarre yet: a young child and her protective guard dog, left at a fueling service station for him with a cryptic note: “Please, Ben. Bad trouble. My son. Take him today. His name is Juan.”

Jones could easily turn the child over to the police, but his complex code of ethics prevents his doing so, resulting in even more “bad trouble.” Add to the mix reports of a crazed driver looking to run others off the road, a hit-and-run that leaves John the preacher clinging to life, a convenience store owner ready to blow away anyone who attempts to rob him again, and a former flame who wants Jones to take care of her own daughter for the day, and Jones is left longing for the lonely, desperate life of the road he used to know all too well.

If that seems like a jumbled mess, isn’t that how life really is? Admit it, most events aren’t sorted out one at a time, but are heaped one upon the other as they each run their course. Somehow, Anderson manages to juggle all the plot threads and characters with ease as he keeps the lens sharply focused through Jones’s point of view.

Many readers may prefer a more focused, linear tale, but it’s easy to get swept away by Anderson’s colorful prose, evocative setting, and unusual situations.

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