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City of the Lost (Daw Book Collectors)
City of the Lost (Daw Book Collectors)
by Stephen Blackmoore
Edition: Paperback
Price: $13.50
66 used & new from $0.01

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Pure-grade noir with an irresistible, bloody twist, December 20, 2012
Joe Sunday is a mean son of a bitch. Thug, enforcer, murderer, he and his partner, Julio, bloody their hands for an L.A. crime boss. A local bartender calls Joe about Julio, who's acting weird at the bar. Shortly after Joe gets to the bar, Julio flips out, tries to kill the bartender. Joe pulls Julio off and they scuffle, Joe with a small knife , Julio with a broken tequila bottle. Before they can really get into it, Julio gouges his own neck with the broken bottle, nearly decapitating himself.

All of that happens in the first four pages of City of the Lost.

Stephen Blackmoore is not messing around in this book. It's his debut novel and it's one of Kirkus' Best Science Fiction & Fantasy of 2012. City of the Lost is pure-grade noir, from the twists and betrayals to the fluid morality to the femme fatale. Neither our anti-hero, Joe Sunday, nor any of the criminals or monsters he meets is the sucker at the poker table. A strange, egg-shaped stone is the McGuffin that turns the plot's engine over and over. The quips, banter, and patter between Sunday and his acquaintances buzz like bullets humming past your ear. When Joe tangles with the femme, the dialogue swerves into a hard-edged screwball comedy. The roots and bones of Blackmoore's story are pure genre, but I mean that as praise.

It's one thing to ape genre, to loosely sketch it out of laziness or ineptitude. Blackmoore is neither. He writes in short, staccato sentences, often in sentence fragments. City of the Lost is told from Joe Sunday's perspective, an uneducated, clever man who knows L.A. like a cop. It takes discipline to maintain such a strong, clear voice. There are moments when Blackmoore can't help himself, let's a little of his own literary education fall out of Joe's mouth. An occasional slip, but it reminds you of how well he's pulling this thing off. Craftsmanship like Blackmoore's should be admired and recognized. We read genre novels in part because we want the writer to hit certain beats. Noir is a well-worn path, so what's a writer who loves it to do? He tries his best to honor the genre, but with a fresh coat of paint. What's clever about City of the Lost is that by satisfyingly checks all of the noir boxes, it makes the reader comfortable (and receptive) for one hell of a twist.

That McGuffin? The stone? It's a magical talisman that's used to turn our guy, Joe Sunday, into a zombie. Not a shambling, gore-draped zombie, though. Well, not all the time. Blackmoore doesn't go easy on Sunday. Our thug looks somewhat normal (if pale and chilly) as long has he keeps himself fed every once in a while. With that knife in the back, Blackmoore propels Sunday through the story, looking for someone who can use the stone to reverse the curse. Stephen takes care to explore the implications of an enforcer who can't feel pain and heals from virtually any injury. There's a wider, hidden supernatural scene in L.A. and while he gives the reader enough metaphysical explanations to get by, I wish Blackmoore had spent a little more time fleshing out the rules of his magical world. Keeping things vague allows the story to keep its relentless pace, but I know that he could have (and maybe has) created some interesting metaphysics to get his characters into more trouble.

City of the Lost grabs the back of your jacket and hustles you through L.A.'s supernatural underbelly. Double-crosses pile up as you criss-cross the city with Joe. The chapters are short and merciless, building momentum until it's 2:00am and you finally exhale after a wild, wild ride. It's a grisly book, Chandler mixed with George Romero. You turn the last page, reach over to turn off your bedside light, and catch a reflection of your maniacal grin in the framed photo of your wife.

Old School
Old School
Price: $0.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This collection of crime fiction is a rough hug covering a knife between the ribs., October 7, 2012
This review is from: Old School (Kindle Edition)
You know when you're in the presence of someone who knows what they're doing. You lean forward a little in your chair. Your breath comes a little more quietly for fear of interrupting or missing a nuance. It's the feeling of watching a great close-up magician. His hand movements look natural and precise at the same time. The story he's weaving is effortless and smooth, but you know he's spent countless hours refining it. "Old School" is like watching a veteran close-up magician at work. It's a work of confidence, strength, and ease that only comes from someone who's put in the time.

"Old School" is a collection of short fiction and, at least once, micro-fiction (a brief scene or flash of time). Dan's a crime novelist and his short fiction mines the same black veins of the human heart. What all of "Old School"'s characters share in common is their age. Most have either started collecting Social Security or are on the verge of giving it up. This common trait is what gives the anthology its name and its strength. The world-weary savvy of a crime protagonist (the term "hero" often doesn't quite fit) can seem precocious. The protagonist is young, tough as nails, and has the world figured out after having seen it all? It's too pat. O'Shea's characters earned their jaded smarts after long, hard lives. Now, their bodies are failing them and they're wise enough to know it. The flesh is weak, but their grit won't let them quit.

Crime fiction is easy to parody and hard to do well. Cliches pile up at the start of the page and, before you know it, the author's writing a pastiche and the whole story rings false. From the first page, Dan let's you know that he's not going to fall into that trap. In a way, it's easy to apply the typical superlatives to his writing: flinty, hard-boiled, sharp. And it is those things. For the stories that O'Shea's writing, it has to be. What elevates Dan's writing is that his version of "hard-boiled" is more pure than most. It's the difference between seeing a reproduction of a Van Gogh and then seeing "Starry Night" in person. There's an immediacy, a power, to Dan's language that let's you know that you're in the presence of someone who knows his s**t.

The moment in "Old School" that dispels any doubt about Dan's talent is his Elizabethan piece: "The Bard's Confession on the Matter of the Despoilment of the Fishmonger's Daughter." In this story, O'Shea pivots effortlessly into an entirely different style of prose. It's a florid, fluid confession written by an unnamed (but strongly implied) Shakespeare about his encounter with a fishmonger's young daughter. Far from being a distraction, the tenor and timbre of this tale matches the rest of "Old School". The language is completely different, but the grimy spirit of the rest of the collection is here. This stylistic switch cements your understanding of O'Shea's talent. He's no fluke. His choices are conscious and deliberate. He's not aping the great crime writers of the past. If that was so, he couldn't pull off the wholly different style of "Fishmonger's Daughter". But he does and you suddenly realize that you're in the presence of a professional. You can relax, let this master magician take your hand, and show you the dark tricks of the human heart.

by Chuck Wendig
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: $7.19
26 used & new from $3.10

1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A grimy, gory, gripping delight, May 11, 2012
This review is from: Blackbirds (Mass Market Paperback)
I'm dying as I type this review. You're dying as you read it (not figuratively, I hope). It's an abstract notion for you and me in our daily lives. In "Blackbirds", it's a cold fact. Miriam Black, the novel's protagonist, can see the moment of your death when her skin touches yours. She almost lives it, watching a stranger's death like a dark phantom. The vision is over in a flash, but the memories linger in Miriam. Try as she has, Miriam's never been able to change the outcomes she witnesses. Whenever she finds herself on the scene of a death she's foreseen, it happens just as she saw it. Scraped and abraded to the bone by hard years living with this ability, Miriam stares into the nihilistic abyss every morning. Numbed and a little shell-shocked, she's wrapped herself in spiky emotional armor. She nurtures a small candleflame of hope, but it's guttering as the story begins. As "Blackbirds" begins, she foresees her own involvement in the death of a kind trucker who helps her out of her latest jam. This trucker suffers a very painful death in one month's time and Miriam will defy her instincts to try and deny Fate what it wants.

"Blackbirds" is a noir-horror tale. Miriam Black is an outsider, a drifter on the seedy fringes of society. She's a survivor and she's got something of a code of honor. Gory scenes and moments deliver large and small jolts of squeamish delight. Like all good horror, though, there's dread in the mix. Fate grinds each of us under the wheels of its shiny, black eighteen-wheeler. You can try to jump out of the way or just lay down on the macadam, but the truck's going to hit you. But noir and horror are Chuck's playgrounds. He's knows which of the swings is best and where the empty beer cans are scattered. You're in a master's hands. He's going to wrap this story around you like heroin-soaked barbed wire and you're going to thank him and curse him in turn. The degree of difficulty for a story like this isn't too high for a guy like him.

The bloody ace up Chuck's sleeve is that he's not just a noir-and-horror guy; he's an adventure guy. What I mean is that Chuck knows that a good story isn't just a function of inhabiting a genre (or two). A good story is about setbacks, twists, victories, defeats, change, damage, and uncertainty. "Raiders of the Lost Ark" is an adventure story (an adventure *movie*, technically, but you know what I mean. I'm trying to make a point here. No, you shut up.). Indy suffers cruel setbacks and dizzying reversals at almost every point in the movie. As a friend of mine once pointed out, Indy fails at nearly every task he attempts and yet we're riveted the entire time. Good adventure stories always feel like they're trying to break themselves in half. The protagonist loses a favorite tool, makes bad decisions, and just when you start to think that the whole thing's going to crash down on her head, she pulls hard on the yoke of a nose-diving plane and levels out just before smashing into a mountain. Reading "Blackbirds" feels just like that, which is to say that it's just a great story in which someone's eyes are gouged out with a fillet knife. Miriam goes from frying pan, to fire, to dinner plate, to dinner fork as you marvel at Chuck's sadistic impulses towards his characters. But none of the plot's rabbit-punches would land if Chuck hadn't already made you believe and like his cast of misfits. Wendig lures you into his house of horrors with a seductive breadcrumb-trail of language until you suddenly find yourself in the creepy, shadowy foyer as the door slams shut behind you and Chuck is standing there with his sharp pen and too-shiny eyes.

You'll read in other reviews that "Blackbirds" is profane, but I don't think that's quite right. It is dense with profanity, but it's not profane. "Profane" has a classy ring. It's a genteel way of hinting that something is vulgar. "Blackbirds" is vulgar, but not coarse. Chuck is a vulgarian, a man who knows when to swear and, when that moment is right, how to do it with delightful style. If swear words were all there is to "Blackbirds", it would feel cheap and sensationalistic; cussing for its own f***in' sake. Anyone who reads "Blackbirds", however, will know by the end of the first chapter that Chuck is in full command of the English language. He chooses his metaphors and similes with obvious care. If English was a gun, Chuck would be the type of guy who could disassemble it blind-folded in fifteen seconds while hitting on a beautiful woman. Each of Chuck's sentences and chapters are carefully constructed and if he's ended a sentence with some inventive cusswords, it just feels right.

"Blackbirds" sinks its talons into you. It's morbid, intriguing, and enthralling from the first chapter. You sense Miriam's decency and you're immediately on her side, even if you cringe as you watch her stumble through her life. She's been dealt a horrible hand and she's playing it the best way she knows how. She's hard as nails, a survivor, and you can't help but root for her even as she makes the wrong choices. Chuck surrounds her with a rich cast of supporting characters, a breakneck plot, and evocative prose. It's a short, sharp read that leaves you dirty, dazed, and completely satisfied.

Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative
Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative
by Austin Kleon
Edition: Paperback
Price: $6.46
195 used & new from $2.46

235 of 255 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Get out there and get busy creating., February 22, 2012
Verified Purchase(What's this?)
If you've been paying attention to certain parts of the Web recently, you may be familiar with a rising chorus of voices talking about creativity as "remixing." The broad thesis is that creativity isn't a mystical flash of insight in the mind of a lone genius, but rather a combinatorial, collaborative process in which artists and designers consciously and gradually combine existing ideas into novel forms. Books like "The Gift", by Lewis Hyde, and video series like "Everything is a Remix", by Kirby Ferguson, champion this burgeoning idea (and are name-checked by Kleon at the end of "Artist"). But if Hyde and Ferguson are the theorists charting the contours of these new ideas, Kleon is the practitioner, the man-of-artistic-action, bringing the means and the message to the people.

"Steal Like An Artist" began as a lecture given by Kleon at Broome Community College that later emerged as a viral blog post. Kleon makes no effort to hide the fact that the blog post forms the skeleton of "Artist". But even if you've memorized the post, Kleon layers enough muscle and flesh on it that you feel like you're encountering his core ideas all over again. The same rush of discovery and energy awaits.

Kleon describes himself as "a writer that draws," and "Artist" is proof of that. He designed the book himself and his voice and style shine through. "Artist" feels unified, innovative, balanced, and, above all, intimate. The book is small, like a big cocktail napkin. It's full of illustrations by Kleon and little flourishes that keep things brisk as you read. The small size makes the book feel approachable, ready to provide a quick inspiration burst if need be. Kleon describes ten basic principles to boost your creativity. He lists them on the back cover of the book (a choice that Kindle purchasers will miss) so that they're easily referenced. It's a small touch, but emblematic of the book's careful construction.

Most importantly, "Artist" is focused on practicality. Kleon has absorbed the lessons of Hyde and Ferguson, but he wants to do more than evangelize; he wants to transform. "Artist" is stuffed with practical tips that you can adopt. In fact, there's a section at the very end of the book titled "What Now?", in which Kleon gives you a long, itemized list of things you can do *right now* to prime your creative pump.

One recent book that Kleon doesn't reference is "Where Good Ideas Come From", by Steve Johnson. "Good Ideas" is one of the best new books about spurring creativity, but it's primarily focused on principles of creativity and their historical origins. "Artist" is a perfect companion to "Good Ideas". Once you've read Johnson's book and your head is full of theory, Kleon's book comes along and gives you a good, firm (and lighthearted) kick in the pants to send you on your way. You certainly don't need to read "Good Ideas" or any other book to receive the full benefit of "Artist". It's a short, heady blast of exuberance that's guaranteed to kick-start your imagination.
Comment Comments (9) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 20, 2014 10:44 AM PDT

Shotgun Gravy (Atlanta Burns Book 1)
Shotgun Gravy (Atlanta Burns Book 1)
Price: $0.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Like its namesake, it's a short, powerful blast., October 20, 2011
Verified Purchase(What's this?)
Atlanta Burns just wants to be left alone. Returning to her rural Pennsylvania high school after a traumatic incident, she's alienated from her classmates and just wants to coast to the end of the school year. Thanks to a moment of altruistic weakness when she rescues another teen from some bullies, Atlanta is drawn into a simmering battle with some very dangerous classmates.

Depending on your reading habits and preconceptions, "Shotgun Gravy" is either a crime-flavored YA novel or a YA-flavored crime novel. The primary and secondary characters are all teens, but the conflicts in "Shotgun Gravy" are a far cry from deciding who's going to be the Homecoming Queen. That said, the conflicts in "Shotgun Gravy" are recognizably "teen problems": bullying, sexuality, parents. With virtually no experience reading YA fiction, I approached "Shotgun Gravy" mostly as a crime novel.

As a crime novel, "Shotgun Gravy" succeeds. A good crime novel displays certain features. First, it keeps the scale small. The stakes are high, but the scale isn't. Atlanta and her buddies square off against a small group of high-school rivals. Atlanta's not dealing with a sophisticated gang of drug smugglers, which would strain credulity in a story like "Shotgun Gravy". Second, we see the protagonist's clever actions and thoughts in detail. A crime novel (anti-)hero lives by his or her wits. She's tough, but it's more important that she's smart and savvy. Atlanta is both, so those boxes are checked. Third, the protagonist is mortal, meaning she makes mistakes and pays for them. That's just good fiction writing, but it's important in crime novels where the stories are often bleak. No one should escape a crime novel unscathed and "Shotgun Gravy" gets that part just right. All told, "Shotgun Gravy" delivers as a satisfying crime novel.

Since I don't know much about YA, I can't be sure how well "Shotgun Gravy" does on that front. The story deals with adult situations that teens undoubtedly face and, from what I gather, that's a hallmark of YA. My secondhand impression is that YA commonly uses fantasy tropes (magic or vampires) as metaphors for the adult situations, but Wendig tackles them without adornment. This approach is a strength of "Shotgun Gravy", but I can see how it would be a hard sell to someone used to metaphor-based YA. The situations and dialogue faced by the teenagers in "Shotgun Gravy" feel (from my very limited perspective) authentic and a YA reader might find plenty to enjoy in "Shotgun Gravy".

As for the writing itself, it's great. What impressed me the most was the consistent, appropriate voice that Wendig maintains. A book like this needs a tone that matches the setting and characters. In a story set in white-trash Pennsylvania, you don't want your prose making classical references and allusions. Metaphors and similes need to feel grounded in the material and they do in "Shotgun Gravy". One character's extended metaphor about Ambien involving a baseball bat and a mailbox was sophisticated and pitch-perfect for the moment and the mood. Wendig's craftsmanship shines in every sentence and reassures you that you're in good hands. You trust the writing and that, in turn, leads you to trust the story. "Shotgun Gravy" will take you into some very adult situations, but you never worry that Wendig is going to fumble or exploit the moment.

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