Meike reviews Last Woman Standing

MysteryPeople contributor Meike Alana has reviewed Amy Gentry’s new novel, Last Woman Standing. Gentry will be in the store Tuesday, January 22nd, at 7pm to discuss her book and sign copies.

Last Woman Standing Cover ImageAmy Gentry wowed us with her debut novel, Good as Gone, and her latest suspense novel is every bit as thrilling. Last Woman Standing introduces us to Dana Diaz, a Latina stand-up comic from Amarillo struggling to make it in a comedy scene dominated by men and rife with sexual harassment. Dana has recently returned to the Lone Star State from LA after a split from her childhood friend and writing partner. She’s grown accustomed to expect little from an industry where she’s continually reminded that a woman (particularly a woman of color) has little value, but her frustrations have reached a critical point. What she has told no one is the real reason she left LA—she was drugged and sexually assaulted by a well-known comic she idealized during a meeting purported to be about discussing her future.

One night during her set she aptly fends off a vulgar heckler. Computer programmer Amanda witnesses the encounter and offers to buy Dana a congratulatory drink. One drink turns to several, and the two women bond over their shared experiences of injustice and misogyny. Soon they strike a kind of Strangers on a Train deal—each will seek revenge on the other’s abuser. Revealing more would be crossing over into spoiler territory, but the ensuing plot twists make for a riveting tale of deceit and paranoia.

There is a definite #MeToo vibe to the book, and Gentry shines a harsh light on the myriad injustices that women face every single day. The novel examines the issues of sexual harassment and assault from a variety of angles, including the confusion that a victim can experience. Dana doesn’t even know how to put words to what happened to her—she knows it was “bad” but doesn’t initially realize that the episode qualifies as assault. When she describes her experiences to her male best friend, he’s dismissive and tells her she’s overreacting–an all too often experience for survivors of these encounters. As she comes to recognize exactly how deeply she’s been violated, she also realizes that a long-buried event from her past qualifies as rape. When she’s finally able to express her anger, Dana is shocked at the level of rage she feels as well as the violence she may be capable of. After all, there never seem to be any repercussions for the male perpetrators—so perhaps women need to take matters into their own hands.

Advertisements

SCOTT BUTKI’S INTERVIEW WITH CHRIS HAMMER

In Scrublands, Australian author Chris Hammer writes about a journalist, Martin, sent to a drought-ravaged town in Australia where the one year anniversary of an event is coming up: A year earlier a priest, minutes before a weekend service, stood on the church steps with a gun and shot several people before being killed himself.

Scrublands Cover ImageMartin finds things are not as it seems as far as the story told about the incident and, while investigating, there are fires, a fatal car accident and he falls in love with a local resident.

The old journalism rule about not becoming part of the story is broken repeatedly. This book has twist after twist including Martin publishing stories that seem accurate at the time, but soon turn out to be otherwise. This is great writing that will keep surprising you.

Hammer was a journalist for more than 30 years before becoming a full-time novelist with the success of Scrublands.  He served as an international correspondent, the chief political correspondent for The Bulletin and a senior political journalist for The Age. His first nonfiction book, The River, was awarded the ACT Book of the Year Award and was shortlisted for the Walkley Book Award.

As a lover of good mysteries and a former journalist myself, I recommend this book

Hammer agreed to let me interview him via email.

Scott Butki: How did you come up with this story?

Chris Hammer: I have no idea where large parts of the story came from. For example, mass shootings are rare in Australia – those that do occur are typically domestic murder-suicides. I know of no real-life basis for the homicidal priest Byron Swift, here or in the US.

I was a journalist for 30 years, including extensive stints as a roving foreign correspondent, so those helped inform protagonist Martin Scarsden – for example, I did report from Gaza.  But character-wise he is unlike me.

I travelled through large parts of inland Australia about ten years ago at the height of the ‘Millennial Drought’ – the deepest and most prolonged since European settlement – researching my non-fiction book The River. I visited towns where the river had literally run dry. So the setting for Riversend is based on that.

There was a case some years ago involving Australia’s most infamous serial killer, a man named Ivan Milat. He would pick up hitchhikers, torture and kill them. It’s likely one story line grew from that seed.

There are other bits and pieces that may have origins in real life but much of it has bubbled up from the imagination. Which is good – it encourages me to think I can write more books like this!

Scott: Which came first, the priest and other characters, or the plot?

Chris: The idea of the priest, Martin and Mandy came first. The plot changed and changed again, evolving over time. Entire plot lines and several characters were thrown away and new ones developed. I reckon I discarded more than 200,000 words before settling on the final manuscript.

Scott: The press release for your book states, in part: “The ever-growing popularity of Australian authors like Liane Moriarty, Hannah Kent, and Kate Grenville proves that American readers are hungry for stories about the land down under, a country that feels remarkably familiar while remaining a world away. Interestingly, it turns out that Australia has a wild west, too, and it’s strikingly similar to ours.” Do you think this is the case? Also, are Australians interested in America’s “wild west?

Chris: Australia is a large country, but our population is relatively small. In the past, we have been wholesale importers of culture: movies, tv, books, music, particularly from America and Britain. We still are. So Australians are far more familiar with American culture than vice versa. For example, my dad was a big John Wayne fan and his favourite movie was Shane. So yes, Australians are/were interested in the wild west, as they are with other aspects of American culture.

I’m not sure there is anything particularly wild about the west in either the US or Australia nowadays. Certainly not in the sense they are lawless.

I think Australia does capture the imagination of Americans, who might see it as simultaneously familiar and exotic. I have met Americans who hold an almost nostalgic view of Australia: they see it as a more innocent version of the US, like America used to be. They often warn me: “Don’t do this or that, or you will end up like us.”

Scott: As a former journalist myself, I found myself cheering along journalist Martin Scarsden. Is Martin based on journalists you have known and/or aspects of yourself?

Chris: Scrublands is certainly informed by my past as a journalist, although Martin isn’t based on any particular person(s), and certainly not myself. Certainly, much of the journalistic process in the book is familiar to me, as is the way journalists act and the way they view the world and their craft. However, Martin is no exemplar: he is constantly getting stories wrong! This was one of the ideas I had from the start; a protagonist who gets things wrong.

Scott: How has your career of journalism helped you when writing this novel?

Chris: The discipline of writing is there. While some aspiring writers may wait for inspiration and struggle with writer’s block, no journalist can tell their editor that they aren’t feeling inspired and may not file!

I don’t get too attached or sentimental about what I’ve written and I don’t get precious during the editing process. Particularly in television, editing material and parring it back is all part of the process.

For many years I made long-form television reports of around 30 minutes in length. I think this has helped me with pacing and structure and developing through-lines i.e. leading a reader through a story.

Scott:  Do you have any thoughts or questions you hope readers will take away from this book?

Chris: Not really. I hope they enjoy it and that it might fire their imaginations. There is a theme there of inter-generational trauma, but the book is not meant to be didactic.

Scott: Was it hard switching from non-fiction to fiction?

Chris: No, I found it liberating. Now I get paid for making stuff up. How good is that?

Scott: How do you feel about your writing being compared to Jane Harper and James Lee Burke?

Chris: It’s a compliment, of course. I guess it’s natural for debut novelists to be likened to established writers. That said, I certainly haven’t modeled my writing on any other author, at least not consciously. I hadn’t heard of Jane until I’d finished the first draft of Scrublands, but I’m honoured to be compared with her. And grateful. I think the success of The Dry has almost certainly helped other Australian crime writers, myself included, to find publishers and readers in the US and elsewhere.

Scott: Are you hoping this will be the start of a series?

Chris: Yes. I am well into the follow up to Scrublands (which was published July 2018 in Australia). We have a tentative Australian publication date of late 2019 for the next one. It again features Martin and Mandy. And there’s likely to be a third book as well.

Puja Guha on writing spy fiction

Puja Guha has just finished her Ahriman Trilogy that deals with a spy and assassin in love with each other as world events, government plots, and despots not only tear them apart, but often pit them against one another. Puja will be joining private eye writer Matt Coyle and police procedural author Patricia Smiley to discuss their subgenres at BookPeople January 9th at 7pm. Here she discusses what draws her to spy fiction.

Ahriman: The Spirit of Destruction Cover ImageWhen people first learn that I write spy fiction, I get two reactions. The first is surprise, bordering on shock. How could this five-foot-three Indian woman write something like spy novels? Once they get over the fact that I’m a writer, the question that follows is, wouldn’t I be better suited for non-fiction books about economics or international development? That question always makes me chuckle, since the thought of writing a book on that makes my stomach turn.

The second, and more fun one, is from those who know me a little better, or at least know about my travel schedule (especially if they know about my trip to Afghanistan a few years ago). That reaction tends to go something like this—“Oh, you write spy fiction – because you’re secretly a spy!” I have to admit I love that reaction. There’s something about their perception that changes, as if they start to see me as a lot more bad ass. I may not be a spy, but I certainly like to think of myself as someone who could be, at least in terms of the fun portrayal of what that life is like that we see in a lot of movies and books. Obviously, the reality is far from the action sequences of The Bourne Identity but it’s fun to think that there are people like that around the world.

Perceptions aside, I love spy fiction. I grew up reading all sorts of thrillers, devouring the books off my Dad’s bookshelf, including Tom Clancy, Frederick Forsyth, Michael Crichton, Robert Ludlum, and John Grisham. Spy fiction was a sizeable portion of that, offering action and adventure combined with mystery and investigation. Those books also gave me another opportunity to travel and explore nuanced characters, including the cost of deception on an emotional and personal level. I read so many of them I guess it’s no wonder I ended up writing in this genre. Sometimes I use it to explore new places that I haven’t gotten to visit yet, like Iran, in my first book Ahriman: The Spirit of Destruction. More often, writing spy fiction gives me an opportunity to showcase a place that I’ve already been—to bring readers to it, to see the sights and experience the culture, the sound, and the smells, all within a “web of intrigue”. That last phrase makes me smile, I love the twists and turns that greet me when I’m plotting out one of my novels. A lot of it takes me by surprise, when the characters draw me in a direction that I didn’t anticipate. Being able to share that journey with readers is something that I cherish.

In this day and age, I also relish the opportunity to expose bits and pieces of culture from the places I’ve visited and later write about. People have a lot of different ideas when they think of countries they’ve seen in the news like Kuwait, countries they often know very little about like Madagascar, or even places they may have seen a lot in TV or movies like Paris or New York. My parents gave me the travel bug when I was little, and I’ve taken it to a whole new level, having now visited 55 countries and counting. Certainly, a ton is different between each of these places, but at a human level, it’s more incredible how much is the same. I love being able to show that to my readers when I take them somewhere new, or to expose some endearing detail of a place or culture they might not have expected. Putting that into a mystery or an adventure just adds to it, they get to have as much fun reading it as I do writing when they go along for the ride.

That’s enough about me and why I write spy fiction. If you’re a reader in this space, I’d love to hear from you. What draws you to it? What keeps you coming back?

Scott Montgomery’s Top 10 Crime Novels Of 2018

Emotion was the consistent thing that made crime fiction great in 2018: whether the lead was a hard boiled detective or Brooklyn woman looking for redemption, the lead lived in the suburbs of New York State or Ancient Rome, each author mined what they were going through with their bruised hearts speaking to ours. Here are the ten I thought spoke the most clearly.

The Man Who Came Uptown Cover ImageThe Man Who Came Uptown by George Pelecanos

A truly humane hard boiled tale of a man fresh out of jail, blackmailed into going back to his life of crime, who finds solace in a job well done, books, and the prison librarian who turned him on to reading. Pelecanos aims for the quieter moments in this story to deliver real people and emotions.

Give Me Your Hand by Megan Abbott

Another piece of beautiful, dark prose poetry from the queenpin of noir set in the world of science a tale that female competition, friendship, and the burden of secrets. Abbott continues to push the genre in new directions without ever clipping off its roots.

The Lonely Witness by William Boyle

A former party girl who has retreated into a more enclosed life finds herself returning to her ways of the night when she witnesses a murder. A gritty crime novel that explores society, mind, and heart with eloquence and pathos.

Depth Of Winter by Craig Johnson

Sheriff Walt Longmire searches for his kidnapped daughter in Narco Mexico and a final confrontation with his nemesis Tomas Bidarte. Johnson proves he can retain the humanity of his hero, even when placed in the most inhumane of situations.

The Line (A Sergeants Sueño and Bascom Novel #13) Cover ImageThe Line by Martin Limon

Limon starts out with the best opening of the year with Army CID investigators Sueno and Bascome examining a murder victim on the demarcation bridge with North Korean and U.S. armies pointing rifles at each other, then unravels a mystery that examines the plight of women in both Korean and military society. This series has hit its stride with no evidence of faltering.

The Line That Held Us by David Joy

Joy gives us a rural noir set up of a poacher who has his friend help him bury the town tough’s brother he accidentally shot and sets us on an intimate tale of friendship, adulthood, and grace. Best introduction of an antagonist (who may be the protagonist) this year.

In The Galway Silence by Ken Bruen

Bruen somehow finds an even more harrowing rabbit hole for his Jack Taylor to go down, facing off against a killer who calls himself Silence out to take the remains of his shattered life. A crime thriller of style, wit, and madness that perfectly reflects our times.

What You Want to See: A Roxane Weary Novel Cover ImageWhat You want To See by Kristine Lepionka

In the second Roxane Weary novel, the Ohio PI tries to clear her client for murder and dives first into a real estate scam where the con artists have no problem with killing to cover their tracks. Lepionka brings all the goods for a great private eye read.

If I Die Tonight by Allison Gaylin

Gaylin weaves through the dark side of suburbia and social media in this thriller concerning a teen killed while supposedly saving a former teen pop star from a car jacking. Through a jigsaw puzzle of several perspectives, the reader puts together a narrative that questions how we interact with one another today.

Throne Of Caesar by Steven Saylor

Gordianus The Finder is confronted with another historical crime while dealing with the assassination of the emperor during The Ides Of March. An entertaining blend of well researched history that brings time and place alive and skillfully drawn characters (both historical and fictional) that does the same for the emotions.

MARK PRYOR SITS IN WITH THE MURDER IN THE AFTERNOON BOOK CLUB

The Blood Promise: A Hugo Marston Novel Cover ImageOn December 17th, the Murder In The Afternoon Book Club will be celebrating the holidays during  our discussion. We’re bringing snacks as well as our opinions this time. I’m planning on making my Golden Grahams s’mores. we will also be joined by Mark Pryor, author of Blood Promise, the book we will be discussing.

Blood Promise is the third book to feature Hugo Marston, head of security for our embassy in Paris. He is assigned to protect a U.S. senator brokering a treaty at a country chateau. After some odd occurrences, the senator disappears. Hugo finds his search tied to an antique sailor’s box and a secret that goes as far back as The French Revolution.

Come join us on BookPeople’s third floor, Monday, December 17th, at 1PM. You’ll meet some great people and a great writer. The book is 10% off for those planning to participate.

3 Picks for December

Atlanta Deathwatch Cover ImageAtlanta Deathwatch by Ralph Dennis

Brash Books is bringing back this acclaimed and hard to find series from the seventies featuring disgraced ex-cop Jim Hardman working the grimy streets of Atlanta as an unlicensed PI with former pro-baller Hump as back up. In this first outing Hardman looks into a murdered girl tied to both a street dealer and politician. Good gritty stuff, with subtle emotions, and lots of gunfire. These books partly inspired Joe Lansdale’s Hap & Leonard series.

 

Hearts of the Missing: A Mystery Cover ImageHearts Of The Missing by Carol Potenza

Winner of the Tony Hillerman prize, this mystery takes us into the Fire Sky tribe on New Mexico’s Tsiba-ashi D’yini reservation. Tribal police officer Sgt. Nicky Matthews’ discovery of a body without a heart leads to a history of other unsolved murders and a conspiracy on the reservation. Potenza explores the idea of identity in a well crafted debut that should hook any western mystery fan.

 

 

Nightfall Cover ImageNightfall/ Cassidy’s Girl/ Night Squad by David Goodis

Three fine books by one of the masters of classic noir. Whether the man on the run, the disgraced pilot-turned-bus driver caught between two women, or the shady cop torn between loyalties, all three of these intense tales show how no one captured the dark streets and lives of desperation like David Goodis. As crime writer Ed Gorman said, “David Goodis didn’t write novels, he wrote suicide notes.”  

REVIEW: ADRENALINE JUNKIE BY LES EDGERTON

When Les Edgerton asked if I wanted to read his memoir, Adrenaline Junkie, I jumped at the chance. The several times I’ve hung out with Les have always been entertaining, partially due to the stories he has told of his outlaw life. I strapped myself in for several wild rides when I opened the book, but even knowing what a master story teller he is, I didn’t expect the journey he took me on.

Adrenaline Junkie: A Memoir Cover ImageWe start out with anecdotes from a Huck Finn-style childhood in postwar Texas. Most of it was under the eye of his grandmother, a tough business woman who had as much affect on him as his parents. One of the first heart breaking moments is when his family has to move away from her.

After some time in the Navy that included a tryst with future international sex goddess Brit Eklund, and college, Les fell into a life of crime with very little need for encouragement. Some involved drugs, but most involved theft. Many of these recollections are funny, like robbing a laundromat, knowing a patrol car is out front, and a shoot out during a heist that has an only-in-real-life twist. Les and his cohorts are far from master criminals. They are mainly guys who don’t want to grow up, feeling that luck is in their favor.

Luck finally runs out and Les finds himself in the prison system. He avoids both portraying his incarceration with macho bluster or overselling the horror of the place. He presents it as existing in a society where both routine and adaptation become a daily part of life.

His avoidance of over dramatization is never more apparent than in the chapter he devotes to being raped by a fellow inmate. Just by recalling the the details he remembers and the feelings he had at the time, Les knows this moment is harrowing enough. He perfectly balances the personal and the subjective as we get the feeling that he is still processing the crime after all these years. By avoiding any grand declarations, he neither belittles the violation or other victims of it.

What completely floored me was how the wildest and most adrenaline fueled parts of Les’s life came in the 80’s as hairdresser who put Warren Beatty’s Shampoo character to shame. Learning the trade in prison, Les built a salon and a national name for himself in the business. The money and success bought him a life of sex, drugs, and dangerous romances that almost put him back behind bars. Les allows you  to laugh at many of these harrowing moments and feel happy they didn’t happen to you.

This part of the book, of bouncing between successful businessman and self-destructive hedonist, becomes more vivid since it embodies the theme Les seems to be writing toward. If there is an antagonist in Adrenaline Junkie, it is boredom. Les is often searching for peace then screwing  it up. His goal is to find grace, but the temptation of chaos constantly knocks at the door. It also reflects his life as writer, working to find order within those experiences. We root for Les, like we would a fictional character, for him to finally get it right, mainly because this colorful life  eventually becomes exhausting.

For a memoir to work, the writer must not only have a life worth writing about, but he must know how to examine it. Les Edgerton seems to be as astonished as we are sometimes, with bemused asides at many of its darker moments. He makes no excuses. If he holds himself up as anything, it’s as a survivor, mainly of himself. He gives us no moral to the story of his life, but shows us how he finally found his grace. As a friend, I’m happy he came out the other side. As a reader, I’m glad he lived to tell the tale.