Sunday, 17 February 2019

One Man's Opinion: DON'T SKIP OUT ON ME by WILLY VLAUTIN


Don't Skip Out On Me

Don’t Skip Out On Me (US) is a story. It’s lots of stories. It’s lots of stories about lots of people who are just getting by living their lives. They’re stories that will be familiar to everyone who ever grew up or moved on or got old, and may be just as familiar to anyone who did none of those things.


The novel focuses on two main characters.


Horace Hooper is a farm hand who handles horses and dogs with a confidence he can’t quite manage with other people. His dream is to become a boxing world champion, which means he needs to move on from the world in which he’s comfortable. Part Irish, part Paiute, he’s keen to shed both of those identities and wants to be known as a Mexican. He has the looks to get away with that ambition, but his poor understanding of Spanish, his dislike of spicy food and his aversion to extreme heat prove to be something of a hindrance.  In his favour, he possesses a number of assets in relation to his boxing dreams. He can hit hard as hell and he can take as many punches as any opponent can throw. With a fair wind and a good trainer, he has the potential to go far. This being a Willy Vlautin book, the hard edge of reality isn’t going to make that easy. Finding a trainer who’s not out to make a buck is a tough job, as is entering the boxing world without any reputation to fall back upon. 


While Horace struggles to make it through the early stages of turning pro, his mentor in life and father figure (Mr Reese) continues to try and keep the farm going without its star man. Horace’s departure has sent ripples through everything. The dynamics between workers and between Mr and Mrs Reese are all shot. Joy has left the world and the notion of struggling to simply carry on isn’t an attractive option. Thankfully, Mr Reese has experience in spades. He’s one of those rare wise characters in fiction that actually makes sense. His own thoughts on how to live a life are more powerful even than the philosophies Horace has crafted from an old book he once found. As their worlds weave together and fray, the old man’s patience and words seem destined to help out the young pretender and the further the story goes on, the more I was rooting for Horace to pay heed.


Don’t Skip Out On Me is a superb read. It generated the kind of awe and wonder that rarely catch me these days, the sort that leaves most of us when we stop believing in such things as Santa, fairy tales and happy endings. 


I’m going to say it’s a boxing story and, like the best of the genre, it’s far much more besides. The pace of the read is generally slow and thoughtful, though it ramps up when Horace enters the ring. For a boxing tale, this one did something unusual - had me hoping the protagonist might lose a fight and have his dreams killed. The journey he faces on and off the canvas is so difficult to observe that I found it impossible to remove my eyes and could hardly bear to watch.


What I think Vlautin does is this. I think he manages to fill your heart up with warmth and life while at the same time he’s breaking that same heart and emptying it of everything. That’s the constant of the book for me, the experience of having these two actions in balance at the same time.


As in all balancing acts, things can’t stay in equilibrium forever. In the end, either the happiness or the sadness is going to tilt the scale. I won’t say which way it tips in this case, I’ll just tell you that when you finish your journey, you’ll have white knuckles and a realisation that you actually need to draw breath before you pass out. 


Bottom line is I loved this. A real kind of love. The kind Horace may have found in the back of the cinema while the sun burned outside. If you’ve read a Vlautin before, you’ll have a good idea of what I mean. If you haven’t, then it’s time to do something about it.

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

There Might Not Be an ‘I’ in TEAM But There is a ‘Cool’ in Collaboration


https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07KTFWB9F
A Grifter's Song


So I caught up with myself recently at the perfect place to talk about teamwork, a hockey game.



Q:  Who’s winning?

A:  They are, but we’re outnumbered.



Q: They have more players?

A: No, it’s us against them and the refs. The calls in this game are brutal so far.



Q:  Yeah, huh? Well, I wanted to ask you about collaboration. Specifically, the different writers you’ve collaborated with over the last seven years or so –

A:  Save it. I’m on a panel at Left Coast Crime about this same topic. Just sit in on that. It’ll be fun.



Q:  Well, that’s not until March, and it’s in Vancouver, so….

A:  It’s no worries. They’ve got hockey in Vancouver.



Q:  Maybe just a preview?

A:  [focused on the game] Come on! Did you see that? Obvious hooking penalty. Hey, Ref! Check your voicemail! You’ve missed several calls!



Q:  Let’s try this:  any of your co-authors like hockey?

A:  [waves a hand dismissively] I don’t think so. Even though there are perfectly good hockey teams right here in Spokane, Colin Conway is a football fan. Well, a Cleveland Browns fan. Is that still football?



Q:  Technically. I think.

A:  Well, then there you go. You know, Colin was the first writer I ever collaborated with on a novel. We wrote Some Degree of Murder way back in 2005. It was finally published in 2012, and Down and Out Books is re-issuing it in March of this year.



Q:  How was that experience?

A:  Great. Colin and I are the same wavelength, but we see things differently enough to bring our own contributions to the project. Mostly, though, I think what makes our partnership work so well is that we both subordinate our own ego to what’s best for the book. It’s a team approach. [points to the ice] Like them.



Q:  So just the one book with Colin?

A:  Oh, hell no. We’ve got Charlie-316 coming out in June of 2019. Might be my best book yet. It’s the first of a four-book arc that will be released each June.



Q:  Sounds like a good thing you’ve got going there.

A:  It is. I invited him to be part of A Grifter’s Song, too.



Q:  That’s a great segue, actually, because I wanted to ask you about that project.

A:  [stands and yells something I can’t print]



Q:  What happened?

A:  Another missed call. They just boarded our best player.



Q:  Boarded?

A:  That’s when –



Q:  Never mind. A Grifter’s Song?

A:  Oh, yeah. Well, it’s a serial novella anthology featuring a pair of grifters, Sam and Rachel. They are devoted to each other, but everyone else in the world is up for grabs. They tried to rip off the Philly mob, so they are on the run from them. Each episode has a complete story arc to it – a con that gets resolved – but there is also a meta-arc throughout the entire series.



Q:  How long will it be?

A:  Two seasons of six episodes each.



Q:  You talk about it like it’s a television show.

A:  That’s been our approach. It’s like a short run Netflix series, something like Ozark. I wrote the first episode and will write the last one, too. But in between that, ten other authors will each write an episode apiece. I’m editing.



Q:  Who are we talking about here?




Q:  And readers just buy whatever episodes they want?

A:  They can. Or they can subscribe to the season.



Q:  This is digital only, right?

A:  Just for the initial release dates. Each episode drops at the first of the month, starting with my own The Concrete Smile in January. After the season ends, the stories will be collected into a pair of paperbacks, too.



Q:  So why subscribe?

A:  Easy.  Subscribers get a price break that equates to one episode for free, automated delivery/free shipping, and a subscriber only bonus episode that takes place between the two seasons.



Q:  Where do I sign up?

A:  Down and Out Books. Eric Campbell created the subscription model and I think some other projects are going to use the same model.



Q:  When you rattled off those names, I noticed a pattern. Almost every author you’ve collaborated with has an episode of A Grifter’s Song.

A:  True. But I think it’s important that we help each other out in this community.



Q:  So you’re helping out your friends?

A:  Or they’re helping me. Probably both, really.  Look, in hockey, everyone gets excited about the goal. But most of the time, the puck does not go into the net unless a lot of people on the ice make it happen. Sure, there are spectacular players who make amazing plays once in a while, but other times, it is the assist that makes the play successful. And that’s not even counting the important things that people on and off the ice do that never make it on the score sheet.



Q:  You lost me…

A:  I’m saying a lot goes into making a book a success. Yeah, the writer does a lion’s share of the work. But so does an editor. So does a publisher, and the cover artist, and other authors who blurb, and reviewers who give an honest review, and readers who talk up the book…you see what I’m saying? These are like the coaches, athletic therapists, scouts, GM, mascots, fans…capisce?



Q:  Got it. So I noticed Jim Wilsky on the list.

A:  You did. Jim and I have written four books together in the Ania series: Blood on Blood, Queen of Diamonds, Closing the Circle, and the prequel that just came out in December, Harbinger.



Q:  You must like the guy, if you’ve written four books together.

A:  Hate him. But the guy can write.



Q:  You hate him?!

A:  No, moron. That was a joke. Jim’s awesome. But I meant it when I said he can write.



Q:  Another good experience, I take it?

A:  Absolutely. Different is some ways from working with Colin but that it was a smooth, great time was much the same. Jim has great ideas, and came up with three of the four titles.



Q:  Eric Beetner was in on A Grifter’s Song, too.

A:  Yup. That’s ‘cause he’s the hardest working man in crime fiction.



Q:  I don’t know what that means.

A:  Go to his website. Follow him on Twitter. You’ll figure it out. The guy is relentless.



Q:  You two wrote the Bricks & Cam Job series together.

A:  Yeah, though we sometimes call it The List series.



Q:  Because…?

A:  The Backlist, The Short List, The Getaway List. Notice a pattern?



Q:  I see it now. What was it like working with Eric?

A:  Fast. The man writes at Mach 70 or something. And the first draft is so clean.



Q:  Why do you think that is?

A:  He hates to edit. Which makes sense, given his day job as an editor.



Q:  Besides fast, how would you describe your work with him?

A:  Easy. Eric is quite possibly the nicest guy out there. Strong in his convictions and driven, but still nice. Funny story – for the longest time, we’d only ever corresponded via email. Something like four years of that. I used to call him the nicest guy I never met.



Q:  You’ve met, though, right?

A:  Oh, yeah. I was on his podcast, Writer Types, and he came on mine, Wrong Place, Write Crime. We finally met in person at Bouchercon in 2018.



Q:  That seems more and more common. Long distance, digital friendships, that is.

A:  It is. I’ve not met Jim in person yet. Nor Larry.



Q:  That’s Lawrence Kelter?

A:  Yeah. He and I teamed up for a couple of books.



Q:  How’d that happen?

A:  We’d crossed paths a few times with different projects, and he knew I’d done several collaborations before, so he approached me and we started talking. In my books with Jim and Eric, and Colin, too, at that point, we’d always used the format of a dual first person narrative with alternating chapters. Each of us took one of those two characters and essentially wrote our half of the book that way. But when I told Larry that, he was like, “Oh, that’s cool, but I don’t want to do it that way.”



Q:  What did he want?

A:  A straightforward first person procedural called The Last Collar.



Q:  Did it work?

A:  I was afraid it might not. With two writers penning the same character in the first person, my concern was that our different styles would bleed through and the protagonist would seem schizophrenic.



Q:  But he didn’t?

A:  No. Mocha’s voice was all his own. Some from me, some from Larry, and some from the mixing of the two. I think it worked out that way because we both heavily and mercilessly edited the book, regardless of who wrote any particular segment. There are large place of the book now where I couldn’t tell you if I wrote it or just edited.



Q:  You did the same for the other book with him?

A:  No, for Fallen City, we went with a third person, ensemble cast. There was no other way to tell the story the way it needed to be told.



Q:  Lawrence Kelter is from New York.

A:  He is.



Q:  So he’s got to be some kind of a hockey fan.

A:  You’d think so. I can’t remember if I asked him. Hopefully he’s not a Devil’s fan. [puts pitchfork fingers on top of head and wags tongue] Blah! Devils! Blah!



Q:  Wait. That’s Seinfeld.

A:  I think so. Larry would know. I think he’s a big Seinfeld guy.



Q:  What about Bonnie Paulson? She into hockey?

A:   She’s more into outdoor stuff, I’d guess. Hunting, fishing, camping. [points at a player on the ice] That guy camps, too. Right in the crease.



Q:  The…uh?

A:  The blue paint near the net. Get your mind out of the gutter.



Q:  Well, I read The Trade Off, your book with Bonnie. There’s some gutter scenes in that one.

A:  Give me a break. It’s set against human sex trafficking. There’s going to be a little bit of sex references in it.



Q:  I’m talking about a two-chapter sex scene.

A:  Exaggerate much? The sex scene isn’t two full chapters. It starts near the end of one chapter and finishes at the beginning of the next.



Q:  Well, it’s pretty graphic all the same.

A:  What’re you, the FCC? Besides, it wasn’t just sex for the sake of sex. It was important for both characters.



Q:  If you say so.

A:  I do. [smiles evilly] You want something to really freak out about? [thumbs toward self] I wrote the female character in that one, and Bonnie wrote the male.



Q:  That seems…different.

A:  I like trying different things. Maybe it sounds pretentious, but that’s how you grow your art. Writing from a female perspective in the first person is one way. The format of A Grifter’s Song is another. Trying new things is how we challenge ourselves.



Q:  Why isn’t Bonnie on the roster for A Grifter’s Song?

A:  The Trade Off was her one foray into crime fiction. She writes westerns, romance, and post-apocalyptic stuff. You should check it out.



Q:  What’s on the –  [buzzer sounds] Wait, what was that?

A:  Intermission.



Q:  So it’s half-time?

A:  Don’t make me punch you. [stands]



Q:  Where are you going?

A:  Bathroom, beer, and bopping around to say hey to other hockey friends here at the game. You wanna come along?



Q:  No, I think I’ve got enough. Just one last thing – what’s next for you?

A:  Books, books, books. A couple more installments of River City and my Kopriva series. Another season of A Grifter’s Song. A couple of projects that are still top secret that I’m contributing to. And then a few things outside the genre.



Q:  Like?

A:  A fantasy novel, for one. And a mainstream, sorta literary, musical novel.



Q:  That sounds interesting. Tell me about –

A:  I gotta go, man.



Q:  Just a few more questions.

A:  No, I gotta go, as in numero uno?



Q:  Oh, okay. Thanks for the interview, Frank

A:  Catch you further on up the road. [Exits. Rapidly]

A Grifter's Song #2

Wednesday, 30 January 2019

One Man's Opinion: THE DEATH AND LIFE OF BOBBY Z



Tim Kearney is a loser. Always has been, and a three-time loser at that. When we meet him, he’s just screwed up big time, killing a biker with a sharpened number plate within the prison walls.

Enter DEA agent Tad Gruzsa.  He’s a happy bunny. Now Kearney is up the creek and has burned his paddles, he won’t be able to resist the deal that’s about to be put on the table. 


For once in his life, Kearney is given a lucky break. Sure, it’s a poison chalice of sorts, but when you’re desperate you’ll take anything. His good fortune is that he’s the spitting image of the legendary Bobby Z. Z, surf-bum turned international dope dealer, is the polar opposite to Kearney. He floats on the natural rhythms of life and everything he touches blossoms and grows. Problem is, he’s dead and Gruzsa needs him for leverage in a hostage deal with Mexican cartel boss, gentleman scumbag Huertero. 


Kearney can’t refuse his new offer. He trains up on the details of Z until he knows them inside out. And then comes the hostage exchange. Unsurprisingly, it goes pear-shaped. Kearney has a new aura about him since he’s become Z. He winds up in a safe house in the desert waiting for Heurtero to arrive, then finds out Huertero’s main goal in life is to kill Z with his own hands. Kearney/Z also discovers he has a son, a sad and lonely boy at the mercy of murderers and sex-mad drug lords. There’s a woman, too, an ex-lover who has a strong desire to rekindle a relationship. 


Though life is on the up, Kearney/Z knows his only change is to get the hell out of Dodge. Fortunately his Gulf War experience and military training means he has the ability escape, so he does. Along the way, he decides to take along the young boy, Z’s son. They go on the run, hiding in the desert and having to cope with the chasing armies of Hell’s Angels, DEA agents and Huertero’s personal army. 


What follows is one hell of an adventure. The twists and turns are complicated, but always remain believable due to the excellent plotting and attention to detail. The action scenes are gripping and the writing always immediate as it’s written in the present tense. The characters are sublime and each and every one of them has strong motivations as well as a barrel load of flaws. When it’s time for battle, the scenes are vibrant and heart-pounding. When it’s tense, it’s nail-biting. When it’s sexy, it’s hot. When you need to root for anyone, you’re feeling every moment of their pleasure and pain. When it’s brutal, you may have to look away. When it’s funny, it’s laugh out loud.


If there’s a flaw, to my mind it’s this. The point at which he takes the boy with him into the desert didn’t ring true for me. That would be okay, but there were reminders of this during their interactions and efforts to stay alive. Kearney resorts to games to keep his new son switched on, but they felt a little sentimental and contrived. The boy’s presence is an important part of the plot and it’s a jigsaw piece that couldn’t be removed without major change, so I understood its importance. I guess I also felt a little manipulated by this particular turn of events (I know we’re always been manipulated by authors, it’s part of the job description, but I much prefer it when I don’t notice it). 


This gripe aside, it’s a really strong and entertaining read that will make any long journey pass in the blink of an eye. It may not have the scope and complexity of Mr Winslow’s more recent work, and there’s a less of the poetic cadence, but it carries a similar intensity and flow that will carry you along from start to finish.


THE DEATH AND LIFE OF BOBBY Z (US)