Book in a Minute: Another Library Edition

Dr. Knox: A novelDr. Knox: A novel by Peter Spiegelman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A tale of human trafficking and refugees masquerades convincingly as an L.A. noir thriller in Dr. Knox, the latest novel from Shamus Award-winning author Peter Spiegelman. In three previous books featuring banker-turned-detective John March, Spiegelman pretty much created the genre of “Wall Street noir.” Now, he takes that same grim sensibility and applies it to Dr. Adam Knox, a man whose apparent death wish is constantly at war with his desire to save the world. These conflicting goals lead to lots of trouble, not only for Knox, but for his employees and the few friends he has.

In Dr. Knox, a woman fleeing Russian mobsters leaves her little boy at Knox’s shabby clinic in L.A.’s Skid Row. Rather than turn the child over to Social Services, Knox becomes convinced he can save both child and mother. He sets out to do so with the help of his buddy Ben Sutter, a former Special Forces operative. The vibe between these two was very reminiscent of the relationship between Robert Parker’s detective, Spenser, and his sidekick, Hawk.

Like that master of L.A. noir, Raymond Chandler, Spiegelman keeps much of the real story bobbing just below the surface throughout this tale. As Knox searches for the boy’s missing mother and runs afoul of mobsters and corrupt American business tycoons, readers get unsettling glimpses into Knox’s own messy backstory. It becomes clear that while the doctor’s heart is in the right place, his penchant for self-destruction could hurt the very people he seeks to help.

Fans of classic noir fiction and old-fashioned “hard-boiled” detective stories should enjoy Dr. Knox.

This review originally appeared at “Between the Covers,” the book review blog for the Baltimore County Public Library. For more great reading ideas, check out all the reviews there. We cover everything from fiction to nonfiction, children’s books to adult graphic novels. And if you’re in a spendy mood, here’s the buy link at Amazon.

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Book in a Minute: Library Edition

27246115-_uy400_ss400_ I’m doing book reviews for the Baltimore County Public Library‘s Between the Covers blog under my real life name now. At some point in the indefinite future, I’m planning to merge the “real me” website with this site. In the meantime, it seemed to make more sense to post a link to my first review for the library blog here, since this is where I’ve posted all my other book reviews. So here you go, a little review of Delia Ephron’s Siracusa. Enjoy!

Delia Ephron is best-known for her humorous writing and for lighthearted screenplays like You’ve Got Mail and Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. But her latest novel, Siracusa, displays a decidedly more cynical view of relationships.

Siracusa begins with Lizzie, who thinks a vacation in Italy is just what she and her husband David need to revive their flagging writing careers and their dwindling passion for one another. They’re joined on the trip by another couple — Finn, Lizzie’s fun-loving old flame from college, and his uptight wife Taylor. Dragged along for the fun is Snow, Finn and Taylor’s sullen preteen daughter. If bringing an old boyfriend and his family along for a vacation sounds like a bad idea to you, you’d be right. In fact, few vacation disasters can rival the nightmarish results when this group makes its way to the ancient island of Siracusa.

Each main character takes a turn recounting the trip’s gradual descent into tragedy.  Without exception, all of them are breathtakingly self-involved or delusional (or both). Thus none of them can see what the reader sees — the huge disaster heading straight for them.

Like The Girl on the Train and Gone Girl, Siracusa presents readers with difficult to like protagonists who never tell the whole truth. The crumbling city of Siracusa provides an excellent symbolic backdrop for Ephron’s well-written blend of dark domestic drama and deadly suspense.

And if you aren’t anywhere near the Baltimore County Public Library, find your own library here. Or if you’re in a spendy mood, here’s the Amazon link.

Book in a Minute: Through the Evil Days

Through the Evil Days: A Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne MysteryThrough the Evil Days: A Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne Mystery by Julia Spencer-Fleming

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Not my favorite in the generally excellent Clare Fergusson mysteries, but still an enjoyable read. The mystery in this entry focuses on a missing girl and a meth lab operation. You’d think that would lead to a roller coaster plot full of suspense. Eventually, it does take off and the action builds to a satisfying conclusion, but it takes Ms. Spencer-Fleming longer than usual to get there. The reason: a much greater focus on the personal lives of Clare & Russ and two supporting characters, Hadley and Kevin.

Indeed, I would say the mystery and suspense elements of the story are more like subplots throughout the first half of the book, which concentrates on the personal drama between newly married Clare and Russ. The shift to focusing so much on character development was unexpected and definitely slowed down the action.

That said, the twist in the kidnapping plot that comes near the end of the book was entertaining and definitely made for a dramatic climax. However, I wish the developments in the main characters’ personal lives could have been integrated more smoothly with the mystery. I truly respect that Ms. Spencer-Fleming does not want her characters to become static, cartoon cutouts, a la Miss Marple, but the lack of balance between the two stories made this a weaker entry in a generally wonderful series.

Every author is entitled to a stumble, though, so I’ll certainly be coming back for the next book. After all, I can’t wait to find out how the “new addition” to the team of Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne will affect their sleuthing abilities.

 

Note: Unlike most of my reviews, this one was based on an Advanced Reader Edition of the book provided to me by the author. Getting a free book did not affect my review in any way, but reviewers are now required to disclose this information to readers. (And I hope Ms. Spencer-Fleming appreciates the honest review and isn’t too upset about the number of stars!)

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Book Covers & the Law of Unforeseen Consequences

I try not to use the blog to self-promote, which is exactly the opposite of what you’re supposed to do with blogs. But I’m like that.

Nonetheless, this blog is mostly about my new/old book, Thirty-Nine Again, which was originally released over four years ago by a small indie ebook publisher. I’m sure they did their best, but small indie publishers nowadays seem like the worst of both worlds – you don’t get the kind of royalties you get when you self-publish and you also don’t get widespread distribution in bookstores. So Thirty-Nine Again, the original edition, sold maybe 250 copies. Since my other novel, Love Capri Style has now sold about 25,000 copies at Amazon, I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to move more copies of Thirty-Nine Again in its new self–published edition.

Poor distribution certainly hurt Thirty-Nine Again, as it does most other novels published by very small publishers. But there was another problem with Thirty-Nine Again that I hadn’t foreseen at all. It was this:

Now, I thought this was a pretty awesome cover, and I still do. It’s got the romance, it’s got the danger. The chick is grinning mischievously at the camera, so it’s got the humor of the story too. My biggest objection to this cover was that it looked more like the book should be titled Twenty-Nine AgainBut that’s where Lynn’s Law of Unforeseen Consequences comes into play. Lynn’s Law of Unforeseen Consequences states that the more enthused you are about an idea, the more likely it is that it will blow up in your face.

As it turned out, the age of the heroine on the cover was the LEAST of my troubles. And so I will tell all my aspiring author friends a little secret: It doesn’t matter if you like the cover. If the target audience doesn’t like it, you are going to have a hard time promoting that book. My target audience was, as evidenced by the title, forty-something women. There are two things most forty-something women have – kids and failing eyesight. The first reaction to this cover from even my most liberal, artsy, aging Bohemian friends was, “Oh dear God, I’ll have to hide it in a drawer so the kids don’t see it when they come home.”

The second and far more disastrous reaction was: “Is that two WOMEN?? I didn’t know you wrote erotica! Is this a Lesbian porn novel???”

Because it turns out that if you need reading glasses, but you’re on that threshold where you think you can see clearly enough so you keep refusing to wear them – well, then that slender guy with the longish hair apparently looks to you like HE is a SHE.

Now, I’m as liberal as they come when it comes to sexual orientation, so I have no problem with Lesbians at all. In fact, if Scarlet Johansson was a Lesbian, I – well, never mind. Anyway, the problem here wasn’t that I was morally offended. The problem was marketing. If you’re trying to sell middle-aged moms a chick lit suspense story, they get confused if the cover looks like Gay Fifty Shades of Grey. It also makes local libraries and businesses reluctant to carry bookmarks with the cover image on them. I had to have new bookmarks done that showed only the lower half of the book cover – the title with the gun and roses. Some websites agreed to mention the book in posts but refused to put up an image of the cover. Ultimately, after only three appearances, it made me lose all interest in doing any in-person signings or talks about the book.

When I decided to self-publish a new edition of Thirty-Nine Again, I knew I needed a cover that would more clearly reflect the chick lit nature of the story. I call Thirty-Nine Again “chick noir,” not because it’s bleak and dark (it’s not), but because it combines the self-deprecating humor of good chick lit* with guns and gangsters. I hope the combo works, and I hope you’ll buy the new edition with the improved PG-13 cover by the lovely and talented Rita Baker-Schmidt. Most of all, I hope you’ll be able to look at the cover (even without reading glasses) and know what sort of story you’re getting into.

Next time – we’ll talk about tempting fate by making bad things happen to your characters.

Or maybe the Mayan Apocalypse. It’s getting mighty close, folks, so we really do need to be prepared.

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