Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Noir at the Blog

Stay with me for a minute. I do have a point. And it's about the appeal of noir and why author Joe Clifford rocks it.

I ran away from home at 17. No, I didn't head to the big city. I moved in with my rebel without a clue, a man whose main claim to fame was being the subject of one of the biggest pot farm busts in San Francisco history. My freaking hero. This daring foray came complete with a single-wide mobile home at the end of a gravel road on the outskirts of Sonora, California.

I discovered he was cheating on me when his paramour's husband burst down our front door screaming "You're fucking my wife," and proceeded to beat him to a pulp. Gary escaped serious injury only because the bravery-intoxication severely affected the cuckold's aim.

Yet, I stayed. Because the choice was going back to my father. Even when I got to see what the wrong end of a .22 pistol looks like, I stayed.

When my zero drank himself out of his job, we ended up in Sacramento where he got a job that was ripe for embezzlement and he used this boon to nurture a non-trivial drug problem. Always wanting to be part of the fun, I joined in. I was never a junkie, that required more commitment than I was willing to give to anything, but, much to Nancy Reagan's dismay, I rarely said no.

However, the first link in my backbone was forged when I was at my job as a gas station attendant. In the same year that Senator Tim Kaine was making a name for himself as a civil rights lawyer, I was on my back on the icy pavement under an RV pumping propane. That's when it dawned on me that there had to be a better way and I got my bad self back to school. It took a couple of years, but I also chewed through the restraints and got shed of Gary. His mother hauled him to rehab and within a week I moved without leaving a forwarding address. I shoved all the household shit into a storage unit, paid the 3-month special, and mailed the key to his mother saying it was his now.

It wasn't smooth or easy and it took too long, but it's not like I had anything else that needed doing. There is that one summer in the Sacramento Valley where it was still 95 at 3 in the morning. I had classes starting at 7:45 a.m. 4 days a week, and was waitressing 30+ hours a week. I lived on speed and gin that semester. And there's nothing like a borderline eating disorder to make a girl rock a pair of size 6 spandex jeans. After graduation, I went on a 10-hour bender with friends, went home, slept for 3 days, and never touched drugs again. I didn't need it anymore. What I needed was to be some place else and I had a job offer that would take me to Washington D.C. and Chicago.

That was the first day of running away from my small town past. Along the way, I added in a law degree, discovered that I am not a corporate animal, and ran to the east coast and back again. As I sit here in a small town in Kansas (we'll leave my second marriage for another time,) I can still taste fucking Sonora, California. It still drives me.

Okay, nice story. What's the frigging point and who the hell is Joe Clifford?

Along the way, I found my voice as a writer. I'm very pleased with my first novel, but the second one has come hard. As I seek to reconnect with that voice, I went back to the tried-and-true: read. And then read more. Read in the genre you want to write and in genres that might surprise you. Use other writers' words as balm and inspiration. See how they solved the problems you face and just bask in it. The answers have been there all along.

On Facebook, I've developed an amazing circle of writer friends and as I get to know them and appreciate them, I seek out their books. That is what has led me to my foray into noir. I write legal thrillers that devolve into big guns, fast cars, and broken hearts. The theme comes back to betrayal and the price of loyalty (nothing Freudian there, nosiree . . ) But, I have other ideas knocking around in my brain and headed away from Lee Child and John Grisham and into a genre that surprised me.

And, dammit, brought it home to me that you can leave the fucking town that made you, but it will never leave you.

Enter Joe Clifford and the Jay Porter books. That bastard.

In noir, the setting is a main character. In the first book in the series, Lamentation, Clifford sets up a small New Hampshire town that has a brutal heartbeat of its own. It is every bit as vital and alive as Castle Rock in the Stephen King series. And I have a feeling, that like Castle Rock, Joe would have to bomb Ashton to the ground to kill it.

As Jay Porter winds his way through the diners and dive bars of Ashton searching for his junkie brother and attempting to unravel what appears to be, on the surface, a small mystery, the book wraps you up in the funk and secrets that live behind the tidy mini blinds on the nice streets and the beach towels tacked up over the windows of the grubby apartments over the garages and cafes.

Secrets. It's what small towns do best. And inertia. The way your own history morphs into ennui that winds itself around your feet and slowly envelopes you like kudzu. Where a nicer double-wide or becoming shift supervisor is a satisfying goal. A place where you start to care about how you match up against the people you attended high school with.

I'll avoid spoilers, but, Jay Porter only thinks he "won" and escaped Ashton. Oh no. the winner was the town. Briefly laid bare, the hacked vines of  "this is our business" regroup and close ranks and the secrets are comfortably hidden again, until the next time.

That next time is the second book in the series, December Boys. Jay is adulting to the best of his ability. He's gained the stability and the middle-class normalcy he thought he needed to be happy and it is strangling him. And like true north, Jay is drawn back to Ashton. Suffice it to say, mayhem ensues. I'm not finished with this book yet, but I don't see Jay Porter's happily-ever-after surviving the series. If it does, it will be in a drastically altered form. Because that is the way of small towns.

Bottom line, noir is at its best when the setting is treated like a vital character. The beats of the street. The masks of everyone who lives there. There are no innocents. It's just a question of whether or not they are combatants at the moment.

Go get Lamentation and December Boys and see if you can't taste the bile of high school and your home town in the back of your throat as the story unfolds.

Hey, nobody said noir was pretty. If it was, well, then it would be something else.

Okay, sure, you've talked about dark mysteries in small towns, but I like my action in the city. The gritty sidewalks, the crowded streets, and dark alleys.

Good noir knows an essential truth. Cities are nothing but an accumulation of small towns. No matter how grand, no matter how bold, or no matter how dangerous, cities are nothing but a hive of microcosms. Even if you don't live there, when you walk the streets of any city, you can feel the change, like swimming through a thermocline. You may have just crossed the street, but you're in a different place, quite often a place you don't belong.

Another writer friend, Heath Lowrance, shows this beautifully in his book City of Heretics. Set in Memphis, Heath takes us through the neighborhoods, those places that people a block away never see. Where the rich folks live, where the poor folks hustle, the dope houses, and bars that don't much cotton to tourists. It's a fun, nasty, dark ride. You want happy endings, read a freaking Harlequin Romance.

My own writing style is fairly spare when it comes to setting. I tend to be more about the emotions and motivations of my two main characters as they drive and shoot their way through the crimes they find themselves involved in, all while navigating the complexities of their own very awkward love affair. But I see places I can darken things up. Make the backdrop richer. My heroine just found herself mixed up in a death penalty case. She's not there because she wants to be. The luminol is about to come out in the house where the murder occurred. Hmm, let's see what shows up when the lights go out . . .

Secrets. 

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

View From the Cheap Seats ~ Springsteen Sails The River ~ Part 2

I want to thank everyone who read Part 1 of this adventure and my thoughts on the Boss. Today, Max Weinberg's 65th birthday, seemed like a perfect time for Part 2, a discussion and review of "The River Tour 2016."

Through luck, happenstance, persistence, and being in the right place, I saw The River concert three times this tour. I was already going to be in Tennessee, so why not come home via Kentucky, then new tour dates, but, I'd better get tickets to Oklahoma City because I had an appointment on the morning that Kansas City went on sale, oh, my appointment was cancelled, well, it's right here . . .

It was worth every aggravating minute dealing with Ticketmaster and AXS. Although, I will say that AXS is a world more superior. I was able to choose my section and the whole system worked much more smoother. It is not as populated with scalpers as Ticketmaster. I had too many friends aced out of Ticketmaster for shows I know damn well weren't sold out.

Each night, I'd climb my way up to the upper deck and watch the crew do the final set ups. The best job in the world has got to be the guy who comes out carrying that classic guitar (you know the one I mean) and does a sound check, setting the crowd to cheering.

Then the signal to get your butt in your seat because the lights are about to go down:

If you're sick, if you're tired, if you're bored,
Then check the line, check the time, check the action, check the score,
Come and get me if I ain't right, but if I am . . . . 
Meet me in the city tonight . . . 

This rollicking anthem was a signal, a one way ticket back to 1980. As an introduction, Springsteen tells us that The River was his coming of age album. He'd been through a bruising lawsuit to recover the rights to his music and had lost that Turnpike Rebel aura of Born to Run. Now he was singing about life. He said he wrote the album that he hoped would get him closer to the home he was trying to find. Then the mighty E Street Band launched into The Ties That Bind.

Cheap romance, it's all just a crutch,
You don't want nothin' that anybody can touch,
You're so afraid of being somebody's fool, 
Not walkin' tough baby, not walkin' cool . . . 

Singing back to back, songs he wrote when he was only a bit older than his own kids, the tour is not about nostalgia. Bruce doesn't cover himself. He interprets every song according to the time, his mood, and the crowd. I got to see the same show, the same basic set list, performed three different ways.

Louisville Kentucky did have a vibe like a gathering of old friends. A lot of smiles and a lot of laughs, with plenty of groups at the microphone including his wife Patti. Yet, barely two months later in Kansas City, the show crackled with raw energy and the edges were much sharper. Going on tour with Bruce Springsteen is like stepping into a time machine, he gets younger with every show.

Most of the show is classic Boss, with nothing more than a one, two, three . . . FOUR between songs. However, in The River, there is some narrative where he talks about where he was in his head when he wrote the song.

For Independence Day, he talks about escaping from the perceived stifling conformity of his parents and how the young only see the compromises without seeing the blessings those compromises bring. When he wrote this, he didn't know it, but he was about to step onto a roller coaster, starting with super-stardom in 1984 and ending two marriages later in 1990 at the birth of his first child, a son, which I'm sure has had its own challenges and complications.

Now I don't know what it always was with us,
We chose the words, and yeah, we drew the lines,
There was just no way this house could hold the two of us,
I guess that we were just too much of the same kind . . . 

When he talks, you can hear the ironic humor in his voice like he's remembering just how young he really was . . .

The next interlude introduces I Wanna Marry You. It's, by his own admission, a song written by a very young man who had a very young man's view of love. That perfect love. That pure love.

Then a sardonic smile,

"A love that doesn't exist." 

And the part of the crowd that has grown up with him could laugh along, because we understood.

As a lawyer who has worked in criminal and domestic law since 1998, the title track, The River, has always resonated with me. Roll with me for a minute, I do have a point.

He could have written:  Mary got pregnant.

Instead, he wrote:  I got Mary pregnant.

One subject that is rarely written, or even talked about, is the devastation an unplanned pregnancy wreaks on a young man's life. I saw a lot of that in my practice where I'd sit across from a kid (who should be breaking free and growing up) and explaining the realities of a child support order.

There are reams written about absent dads, and deadbeat dads, and so on, but very little about the boy who is just as young and scared as she is, but tries to man up.

For my nineteenth birthday I got a union card and a wedding coat . . . 

That line played out with one of the characters in my novel Devil's Deal where he talks about being put to work in a sawmill the summer between his junior and senior year because his dad said if he wanted to play like a man, he'd better learn to act like one.

I've heard Springsteen perform this song before, but in the context of the entire album, it vibrated deeper than as part of a set or in the random shuffle on my mp3.

Aside from the music, which sounds as good as it ever has, this tour has one development that was expected, but still a wonderful surprise.

Jake Clemons.

Up in Narnia, I've heard tons of grumbling and grumping about the replacement of the late Clarence Clemons. Yes, it was a tragedy. But a bigger tragedy would have been the loss of the E Street Band and unless there is someone capable of delivering ripping sax solos, then it ain't E Street.

Jake Clemons steals the show.

He was superb during the High Hopes tour, but still finding his way. He had some enormous shoes to fill. However, in The River, he comes into full flower, a cool jiving swivel-hipped showman who owns his part of the E Street Legacy. More than once, during a solo, I saw Bruce look over with a wistful smile seemingly mixed with remembering his greatest friend and a father's pride in seeing Jake explode into his own potential. The chemistry is there. It's different. Nothing can bring back 1980, but it is unique and a joy to see.

In Oklahoma City, Jake provided one of the subtle, but great moments of the show. If you weren't watching closely, you'd have missed it.

I love watching the crowd surf during Hungry Heart. If I ever had a goal to score pit tix, it would be to participate in that. However, all crowd surfs are not created equal. Really people, if you are going to occupy the middle of the pit, you have to understand your responsibility. It's like the exit row on an airliner.

A couple of years ago, in Nashville, the crowd came perilously close to dropping him, he tilted almost 90 degrees before they grabbed him back up. Conversely, in Kansas City, they had it together. At the stage, they deftly rotated him 180 degrees and delivered him feet first onto the stage.

Unfortunately, Oklahoma City was unclear on the concept. They got him to the stage and had no clue where to go from there. Jake is not a small man. He played sax with one hand, hooked his other arm under the Boss, and hauled him out of the crowd without missing a note. The Big Man would be pleased.

The band has never sounded better. Anchored by Max Weinberg and Professor Roy, E Street shreds its way through the 3 1/2 hours and acted like they were ready to play for 3 1/2 hours more. In a superb interview with Rolling Stone at the beginning of the tour, Max said, 

"My job is to be observant, to make the transitions, to focus on what Bruce is doing — to be as commanding a percussive force as I can be, so he has the freedom to go where he wants to go."

Max also said that he trusts Springsteen to know when it is time to "walk off the stage for good."

In Kansas City, the Boss asked Little Steven if it was quitting time and the crowd roared "NO."

If The River is any indication, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band are still well in their stride. The current tour was just expanded into July. Then there is rumors of a new album. Well, you know what the best thing for a new album would be?

I already have my place in the cheap seats charted out.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

View From the Cheap Seats ~ Springsteen Sails The River ~ Part 1

Before I go into my review and experience with The River Tour by the Boss, I want to talk a little bit about the value of fandom.

As my tagline says, I am an unapologetic geek. That means I have interests I enjoy enough to learn about them and immerse myself in them. I've also reached an age where I don't have to justify my passions. As I've followed the river of my own life, one thing has remained fairly constant: the Bruce Springsteen soundtrack.

Yesterday, someone posted on Facebook that he wasn't a fan, but respected the man. Of course, suggestions came in about the "best" music by the Boss and where the original poster should dive in. And, of course, everyone was right. With a career pushing into its fifth decade, there is a body of work for everyone, something for every taste and life experience. Driving back from one of the concerts, I identified five phases of Springsteen's musical evolution. Disagree with me? Cool. I'm always up for discussion.

Born to Run - 1975
I - The Wild and Innocent. By 1975, the Boss had dropped two artistic, but commercially disappointing albums. I'm going to state it right now that Asbury Park and E Street Shuffle don't do it for me. It makes sense. In 1973, I lived in a hick town in upstate California and not a single radio station picked up on this skinny kid from Jersey. I was 13 and being raised on country music and the Osmond Brothers. The connection wasn't there. To steal from Jon Stewart, I was still too young to yearn.

On the verge of being dropped by his label in favor of some dude named Billy Joel, Springsteen was given one more chance. That chance turned out to be Born to Run. There's nothing to be said about this album that hasn't been said. I'll only point out the irony that Thunder Road, the epitome of adult angst, was written by a 25-year-old. Even then he could tap into the well of human emotion, romance, and experience. This album also penetrated the airwaves in podunk California and I, along with millions of others, was like, "Hey, this guy is good."

But like many other things in the Boss's career, it was short-lived.

Darkness on the Edge of Town - 1978

II - Darkness. Born to Run brought the fame, the fans, the tour . . . what it didn't bring was the money. At the end of the day it is about being paid for the work. His manager, Mike Appel, had signed Springsteen to a slave wage contract that took the rights to his songwriting. In short, Bruce had his own Colonel Tom Parker.

This is also the time when personal demons were whispering lies in his ear. The black dog always lies, but sometimes we listen. A lesser person, one less driven, might have succumbed, and like Elvis, ended up a self-medicating Vegas act.

But the Boss was made of sterner stuff. A lawsuit to reclaim his copyrights consumed most of 1976 - 1977 and kept him out of the studio for almost a year. In an industry that runs on "what have you done for me lately," that could have been career killing. The suit was settled on May 28, 1977. Bruce Springsteen was a free man. Forty years later, he still guards his intellectual property like it is dragons' gold. Because he understands.

Darkness on the Edge of Town in 1978, The River in 1980, and the raw acoustic Nebraska reflect this. Along with the scruffy rocker vibe, he also lost the innocence of the earlier albums. Staring down thirty, out of the spotlight, and battle-hardened in court, these albums are about the dark search. The wondering what the hell this is all about. In the narration of The River tour, Bruce talks about trying to write his way into clarity about the "home he was trying to find." The albums were praised artistically and commercially successful, but some people were wondering what happened to their Turnpike rebel. Life happened and it was a hard stop where a very young guy became a man searching for The Promised Land.

This is the era that started to vibrate with me. I was 20, on my own and heading into a marriage that would turn out to be bruising (mentally and physically) and soul-crushing. I still hadn't seen Springsteen perform, but I lived the music.

But, again, in a twist worthy of a novel, things were fixing to change . . . .

Born  in the USA - 1984

III - The King of Rock. Some fans don't know that Bruce made albums before Born in the USA in 1984. Purists sneer at this, but, in my opinion, there is no wrong way to Springsteen. We all discover the music that we need in our own way.

Success is often the confluence of talent, timing, and luck. With his stunning made-for-the-80s sex appeal, and songs of blue-collar loss coupled with pounding rhythms, USA sent the Boss straight to the top and made him the global superstar he is to this day.

And I will say, there are few things that make me happier than being in the car with the sunroof open, singing along with this album. If the critics don't like it, they can bite me.

He was everyman. The car mechanic in I'm on Fire, the mill worker of Glory Days, the kid in trouble with the law in Working on the Highway, the veteran who never quite made it home from Born in the USA. No matter where you lived, he was that guy you knew around town.

It also nearly destroyed him.

At the end of the epic tour and a picture-perfect stealth wedding to the picture-perfect Hollywood starlet, he woke up, in the words of one writer, "rich, married, and bored." Over-exposed in the press, a teen magazine centerfold, and many of the original fans wondering what had happened to their poet, this was not a recipe for success. This is where some rockers veer off into drugs and excess and become VH1 "Behind the Music" documentaries. Instead, Springsteen turned inward and consumed himself.

Caught in the middle was Julianne Phillips, the true innocent who was hurt in this journey. Yeah, a very big check and non-disclosure agreement cushioned the fall, but in the rare times Bruce will mention her, it is with regret over the pain he caused.

And it teed up the next phase.

Tunnel of Love - 1987
IV - Adulting and Compromises. By the late 80s, Bruce had gained the stars, but felt like he'd lost the sky. This is also my time of greatest resonance with the music, because things had pretty well tanked for me as well.

If I was allowed to only keep one Springsteen, it would be the 1987 Tunnel of Love. It was the soundtrack to the end of my horrific first marriage and would turn out to be prophetic 20 years later. If you've lived it, One Step Up is the song that you will feel like was written for you.

In 1988, fans noticed a change. Instead of crooning Elvis songs to the lovely Julianne, Bruce was torching it up on stage with his back-up singer Patti. 

It had to be done, but no wife should learn of her husband's infidelity on the cover of People magazine (I learned by a set of tire tracks and small footprints in the snow leading up to my own front door while I was at school.)

The music about "men and women" was a return to the poetry of the old days, but more spare and lean than the "passel o' verbiage" of his early work. If you've ever been hurt, then Tunnel of Love understood.

"It ought to be easy, ought to be simple enough . . . "

We all know the history. Bruce wrote a big check, moved on with Patti, and the first of their three children was born in 1990 (near his 40th birthday.) Two more kids followed quickly and Springsteen had the family that would sustain him for the rest of his life. It wasn't without rocks (boulders) in the road, including Patti telling him to father up or forget about it. This is also the era where Bruce finally faced his mental health issues and entered into serious treatment.

What followed was a semi-withdrawal from the spotlight. There was human rights work, acoustic sessions, small gigs, and a lot of introspection. Overlooked in this period is the album Lucky Town. Under-rated and often forgotten, three songs (including Living Proof about the birth of his oldest son) are more insightful than any biography. The jagged-edged lyrics are front and center in this hard look into a broken mirror.

Better Days

"Well, I took a piss at fortune's sweet kiss,
It's like eatin' caviar and dirt,
It's a sad funny ending to find yourself pretending, 
A rich man in a poor man's shirt . . . "

"Now a life of leisure and a pirate's treasure, 
Don't make much for tragedy,
But it's a sad man my friend who's livin' in his own skin, 
And can't stand the company."

From the title track, Lucky Town

"I had some victory that was just failure in deceit,
Now the joke's comin' up through the soles of my feet,
I been a long time walking on fortune's cane,
Tonight I'm stepping' lightly and feelin' no pain.

Well here's to your good looks, baby now here's to my health,
Here's to the loaded places that we take ourselves . . . "

Those last two lines haunt me when I think about my husband's crippling accident. He took himself there, to that loaded place, and lost.

But out of all this came happiness. The hunted edge seemed to leave his eyes as he was photographed with his children. Some of the photos of smaller gigs show a few extra pounds. Throw in the obligatory greatest hits and live albums. Bruce had grown up and mellowed out. In the narrative of The River, he mentions how the young man he was could only see the compromises, not the blessings living behind those compromises. It's easy to see that he understands those blessings now.


The Rising - 2002
V - Statesman and Social Poet. The seeds of the next and current stage of his career were sown in 1995 with The Ghost of Tom Joad, a somber narrative of "poverty, immigration and the brittle trouble of Americans and Mexicans in the Southwest."

In 2001, America changed and Bruce changed with it. The Rising was his tribute to 9/11 and his return to examining the social fabric. His fame also gave him a platform to comment on what was happening in this country. Who knew the motley rocker from the streets of Asbury Park would play at the inauguration of the first black president?

He'd returned to what Steven Van Zandt said years ago, "They don't listen to hear about your life. They listen to hear you explain their life."

This chapter is still being written. Tom Joad morphed from a ballad into an angry anthem for change in a duet with Tom Morello on High Hopes.

In Wrecking Ball, he wasn't just talking about the loss of an iconic stadium, he was daring age to bring it on . . . The album is threaded through with comments on contemporary America and the paradoxes of immigration and poverty.

This Bruce speaks to my social justice sensibilities. As a long time Legal Aid attorney and public defender, the strident calls for justice vibrate with me. Some scorn him and call him another limousine liberal who hates cops and veterans and America. Truly, "there's a joke here somewhere," because anyone who reads the lyrics and the poetry knows differently.

There is also a sense of fun and experimentation in the music. High Hopes toyed with the classic Phil Spector "wall of sound," with an elaborate back-up band and a touch of island in the rhythms. In 2016, he spontaneously drops a tour where he plays an album he wrote when he was his son's age from start to finish to near sell-out crowds from coast to coast. This week, he cancelled one of those shows in North Carolina to make a statement about discriminatory anti-LGBT laws. He has reached the point in his career when he can sacrifice money and risk criticism to make a stand. That carries weight and hopefully other artists will follow suit.

This new Boss is out of fucks to give and out of things to worry about. That makes for excellent music and even better live performances. That iconic guitar has earned its scars. It is the symbol of a passion well and truly lived.

brucespringsteen.net 

This was long and I appreciate anyone who has hung in to the end. I rang in 2015 newly widowed and faced with the physical and financial detritus of my husband's long illness. I also had to decide what's next for me because the river of life keeps flowing.

I have no clue where I'll be standing a year from now. I do know what the soundtrack will be and that every chance I get, I'll be in the cheap seats singing myself hoarse.

If you still have a few minutes left on your break, check out Part 2 and my take on The River Tour 2016.



Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Gray Man Cometh: Back Blast by Mark Greaney

Before I delve into my take on Back Blast, the latest book in the Gray Man series by Mark Greaney, I'll run a little backstory. I had a chance to meet Mark at Bouchercon 2015 in Raleigh and we had a great chat about the Jack Ryan books. If you run into him, he is funny and friendly on top of being a very talented writer.

With the announcement of Back Blast, I was able to secure an advance copy through his publisher in exchange for an honest review. So, Mark's not my cousin or anything, just a writer that I follow and occasionally argue politics with on Facebook. I am receiving no compensation or other consideration other than I got to read a great book before it hit the stands.

Back Blast (dropping in February 2016 and available for pre-order on Amazon) is the latest installment in the saga of Court Gentry, better known as the Gray Man. Code-named Sierra Six, or Violator, he's an elite operator in the US clandestine services. Ninjas look at Gentry and say, "Damn, Dude, you're good." 

However, Court is in the worst situation possible for someone like himself. He is under a termination order from the government that made him. 

The very brothers and soldiers that he served with are now ordered to shoot him on sight. 

And he doesn't know why . . .

Bottom line? He's back in Washington D.C. to discover the reason and clear his name or die trying. 

Back Blast taps into one of my favorite tropes, the Super Soldier. Whether it is the sci-fi worlds of Myke Cole's Gemini Cell, Star Trek and X-Files, or the gritty realism of Bourne and the Gray Man, governments create operatives trained, equipped, and programmed for one purpose - to kill on command. And then the government comes to fear them. And if they can't control them, that government then tries to destroy them. 

However, destroying Court Gentry is a notoriously difficult assignment.

Denny Carmichael is ensconced in his secured situation room at CIA Headquarters in Langley. Court Gentry is unarmed on the streets of Washington Highlands. In other words, the odds now are just about even. 

At least until Court is armed. It's the reason he chose this hood. When you need a gun, you go where the guns are. It doesn't take long . . .

I'm going to be very careful on giving up spoilers, but I will share one of the best lines in the book:

Court had learned long ago that in any gunfight, one does not rise to the occasion. Instead, one defaults to the level of ability he has mastered.

Well, Court's default level beats mine. And yours. And that guy over there's. And certainly the average street rat's. Any day of the week. Because of that, Carmichael has the entire might of the CIA and Gentry now has a low-rent gang banger grade pistol. In other words, the odds aren't even any more. 

This launches a cat and mouse game across the crowded streets of D.C., down the coast to Florida (where Court finds out that you can't go home again,) and the swamps of Court's old training ground, ending up at a CIA super-fortress. All as he searches out the answer to one question.

Why does his government want to kill him?

Mark does a great job dropping hints about a busted op that Court and Carmichael each remember turning out very very differently. As the mystery unfolds, we readers get a glimpse into the life of an elite soldier. Hunters now hunting one of their own. Orders are orders. The mission is what matters. 

Tech-heads (like myself) will feast on the weapons, surveillance systems, and a surprise or two (I had no clue on that bit of gadgetry at the end. Well done.) Mark's time in the district also shows through as the streets, buildings, neighborhoods, and subways come to life. You are walking the streets as the gunfights and chases drive Court tighter and tighter into a corner. The reader is also treated to what happens when ammo meets a deep fryer. 

I'm not giving anything up by saying that the SWAT raid on Court's bolt hole is as good as any scene of that type I've ever read. And it starts out with another masterful passage (slightly redacted to avoid spoiler):

A faint noise, something indistinct but vaguely familiar, grabbed his attention . . . Soft, but unmistakable. A slight scratching. . . he knew what it was now.

It was a plastic buckle, probably a FastTech, commonly used on tactical gear. Court had worn equipment adorned with FastTech buckles for the majority of his life, so he knew the sound they made when they touched other surfaces almost as well as he knew his own inner voice.

Warning, escalating tension, and a drip of backstory. All in a few sentences about a plastic buckle. That's why Greaney gets the big bucks.  

Suffice it to say that mayhem ensues. 

As the book thunders to its conclusion and the mystery is solved, all I can say is that the clues were there all along, pointing the way - just like a good mystery-thriller should.

Back Blast concludes this story arc for the Gray Man and opens up the next one with some tantalizing clues. In a series, the question is always, where can a reader jump in?

The answer is if you are a fanatical completist, you'll want to start back at the first book. You'll get to know the players and the story arc will be deeper and richer. However, it is not required. Mark includes enough of the backstory to make it self-contained. If you are new to this series (as in you are coming over from the mega-blockbuster Jack Ryan books,) you can read Back Blast and be right where you need to be for the next book in the series. 

Overall, I give it five snaps up and a can of convenience store greens with vinegar. Back Blast is available on February 16, 2016 from all major booksellers. Be there . . .





Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The "John Green Effect" and How Modern Feminism and I are Frenemies - Part I

I am a product of what cultural historians call "second-wave feminism." The generations that came before me secured my right to vote and broke down the first barriers to me being able to realize my own potential. Supreme Court decisions guaranteed rights to privacy in matters of home and family. By the time I was a young adult, birth control was readily available, women had the unquestioned right of self-determination over their own bodies, divorce laws were reforming, coverture laws were failing, and the post-reconstructionist laws like prohibitions on inter-racial marriage had been thrown on the scrap heap of history.


In my teens I had a front row seat to the battle over the Equal Rights Amendment and its failure to pass. Many justifications boiled down to, "Women aren't equal! They're special and must be protected in this cold cruel world!" Another big scare tactic used by opponents was the specter of women in combat. In the waning days of Vietnam, that vibrated.

But at the end of the day, it was about men wanting to keep women less and too damn many women enabling them.

In my high school, boys and girls were separated for career day. Boys heard from doctors, lawyers, engineers, and business men. Girls heard from nurses, teachers, and secretaries. My father's only stated goals for me was to not get pregnant before I was married and to wait until I was at least 20 to do that. He also added that unless I took Home Ec, "no man would ever want me."

This wasn't the 40s, or the 50s, or the 60s . . . this was the 70s.

After ducking out of the mainstream for most of the 80s in a horrible marriage, (the kind where the cops asked, "So what did you do to make him mad?") I got myself back in school with no help from my family. Suddenly, I was a newly minted student at a community college in California. Growing up, I'd wanted to be one thing - an astronaut. Star Trek and NASA shaped me from kindergarten. But, like many others, including candidate Hillary Clinton, well, I discovered that girls just weren't astronauts. Instead I decided to study engineering and embarked on my first two years which included 4 semesters of physics, 4 semesters of calculus, drafting, and my nemesis . . . chemistry. Luckily, the geek science community, male and female, welcomed me and I got through. But, let's chat a minute about chemistry.

This was not an ancient venerated school. The buildings were contemporary, most less than 30 years old, and generally the school was well-outfitted. A science building had been built across the open field known as the quad. It had been built with no women's restroom. None. When women had the temerity to start enrolling in science classes, a janitorial closet was converted into a dark single-stall ladies room. Let's just say that if your chemistry class was after lunch, you could count on being late to class.

Well, why not just go before you crossed the field! That's what I'd do!

That's not the frigging point. A science building at a public school was constructed without a bathroom for female students. Let that simmer for a minute.

As I was struggling through chemistry, a group of second-year women stormed the men's room. They told the guys to zip it up and move it out. Then they occupied the spacious sunny bathroom, planting ferns in the urinals until the college agreed to remodel the closet into a proper restroom. Yes, women had to protest that shit. Female members of congress didn't get a convenient restroom until two-thousand-fucking-eleven and then, some of the women chirped, "Oh thank you Speaker Boehner!"

When I transferred to a university, I was one of three women studying civil engineering. I didn't graduate anywhere near the top of my class, but I snagged a silk stocking, top drawer job with a major oil company.

Where a contractor, when I challenged him, called me . . . . missy.


Five years later I ended my career with said company after landing at a facility where it was made very clear to me that my promotions had come too fast in my early career and I was going to sit at the salary level I was at for a good long time. A few lovely experiences included:

Having a male subordinate report that I lacked "work ethic" because I cut his overtime and pushed him out the door to attend his child's school events. 

Get a lecture that wearing jeans and khakis really wasn't appropriate attire (it was a factory.) This came from a male manager wearing . . . wait for it . . . khakis. 

My next career move was law school. One place we've come a long way baby. Half of all law degrees go to women. But, come career time, unless you are a woman in the top ten, you'll likely end up in lower paying public service and family law. The high end and partnerships still belong to the old boys and a few selected women. 

Now, I'm a writer and selling antiques and collectibles. I can talk action figures with the best of them. I have really enjoyed seeing women take their place in nerd-dom and gaming, until, of course, the abusive culture that has erupted like an ugly zit on the ass of fandom. I can honestly say that in my early days of going to cons, I saw none of that.

I decided to lead off with my story, because I get it. The struggle is on-going and gains from the 60s and 70s are slipping away. The brick wall and glass ceiling still exist and too many women are keeping it bright, shiny, and polished while gazing adoringly at the men looking down on them.    

I'm going to wrap up Part I now, but I'll be back, so hold that thought, because . . .

A good solid chunk of what me and the generation before me fought for has morphed into pure bullshit. 

The Shifting of the Political Poles and Social Evolution

A short post today and the subject is political philosophy.

A common ploy by the extreme right wing is the howl about the racist roots of democrats.

Now, anyone with any kind of decent education in contemporary history understands how the political poles shifted during the Civil Rights era when the traditional southern democrats flocked to the republican party. This has been dubbed "The Southern Strategy."

As a life-long democrat, I'm willing to own my history. However, we also need to look at social evolution.

Here it is in a nutshell:

Democrats in the 1950s


Democrats in 2015 (you know, this century)


Republicans in the 1950s


Republicans in 2015


When the republican party wants to embrace its roots and return to the principles of Eisenhower, I'll be willing to talk to them. Until then, the tedious never-ending telling of the sordid "gotcha" past of the democratic party label, is just that . . . tedious. And dishonest. 

After all, this is a historical Christian . . .




And this is a modern Christian


Times change. Institutions change. However, whoever you are, whatever you believe, own your history . . .









Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The People of the Package . . . Smolderlicious Edition

Another regular feature that went on hiatus during . . . reasons . . . is my celebration of the many, the proud, the anonymous models who graced packaging in the 1960s and 70s. Their job was to make you want it. Some days it worked. Others? Not so much.

We don't know their names, but we know their faces:

Are you smoldering yet?
Like many low budget projects, choices had to be made. Here they blew the entire budge on cosmetics and there was nothing left for a hairstylist and root touch-up.

Package Person, we salute you!