Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Book Review: The Long and Faraway Gone

I don't write a lot of book reviews.

That's because there are far too many books I don't finish. I don't have a lot of casual reading time and I guard it like dragon's treasure. I'll drop a book like it's on fire if it isn't giving me what I need. I didn't put down The Long and Faraway Gone by Lou Berney.

In fact, I was so drawn in that I temporarily set aside Bruce Springsteen's stellar memoir Born to Run in order to devour this literary mystery. Any one who knows me knows that to come between me and anything Springsteen is something worth taking notice of.

It came well-recommended to me from friends I trust and they didn't disappoint me. I was captivated from start until almost finish (more about that later.) In fact, the end filled me with such melancholy that I had to come home and hug a puppy.

With a book like this, I can't give much of the plot without including potential spoilers. In a nutshell, there are three plot lines involving three crimes. Two are from long ago and one is happening in real time. It's the catalyst that brings the main characters together off and on, neither realizing they are helping the other. It's well handled. The memories and emotions are deftly interwoven and you never get that sense of the hazy camera cut to the "flashback sequence."

Okay, enough of that.

There are two inescapable themes driving the characters and the story. The first is the intractable gravity of your home town. It's encoded in our DNA. For some it is a launch pad. You make escape velocity and the place of your birth becomes either a nostalgic longing or a rock to rebel against. For others, it's an anchor around your feet. Every house, every business, every landmark carries the weight of memories of past glories and failures. It can also be a repository of hoarded grudges and unfinished business.

The second concept that threads the entire book together is the toxic nature of survivor guilt. Why am I alive and someone else is dead? What could I have done differently? What did I do wrong (or right?) Just what the hell actually happened?

Combine these two ideas and you have a potent brew.

The hometown theme is usually a small town, but Lou Berney uses Oklahoma City beautifully and exposes a fundamental truth. Cities, especially old ones like OKC, are a string of neighborhoods and small enclosed microcosms connected by exits off the interstate. I know enough about OKC (I went to school in Tulsa,) that I was comfortable in Berney's world.

The two main characters, Wyatt and Julianna, are anchored to OKC by great crimes that occurred in their teens. The kind of crimes that inspire and spawn true crime books, documentaries, and PTSD textbooks. And both of them, regardless of what they tell the reflection in the mirror, are wracked with survivor guilt.

Julianna, anchored to OKC by the weight of history, becomes obsessed with a cold case and stops all of her emotional growth dead in its tracks. She goes to school and has a successful career, but her secret heart is 26 years in the past, in that horrifying summer when her sister disappeared without a trace. And she is willing, even determined, to risk everything to answer the question of what happened and why. Like someone who swipes a razor blade over their own arm, Julianna keeps lancing into the wound, digging deeper to fan the flames of the pain, all in an effort to keep from moving forward in her own life. A psychic hair shirt to expunge her own guilt of being the "little sister of that poor girl from the fairgrounds . . ."

On the other hand, Wyatt ran. Actually, his family did, moving across the country a year after Wyatt, then Michael (he even ran from his name,) was the sole survivor of a mass murder in his sophomore year of high school. And he never stopped running. New towns, new jobs, new loves - one foot always out the door. He became a private investigator so he wouldn't have to commit to a day job. He could keep running, even when he was standing still. He would have never came back to OKC if not for a favor to a friend's sister. He agreed to look into a series of vandal attacks at Candace's bar. However, when he gets to OKC, the past threatens to well up and drown him in the way that only your home town can.

Wyatt and Julianna dance in their own orbits in OKC, crossing paths a few times, neither one realizing the other was riding the same pain train. Toward the end, a chance remark at a meeting in a trendy coffee house, gives the other a clue needed to solve their own mystery.

The book is literary and lyrically written. My only quibbles are a matter of taste. As someone who primarily reads and writes genre fiction, there were times when I could have gone for a little less talk and a little more action. I found a couple of the subplots and tertiary characters went on longer than needed (the Halloween parade sequence for example.) Once the mystery of Candace's bar was cleared up in spectacular fashion, I was ready to get to the resolution of Julianna and Wyatt's spirit quests. I needed the resolution.

The thread that finishes out Wyatt's storyline was brilliant and foreshadowed all along. It was one of those "duh" moments and a nice flashback/epilogue rounded it out perfectly. The "how" didn't completely clear up the "why," but it gave him a path to move forward. AND Berney avoided an obvious romantic trope and left it open and unresolved. I'm glad for that. Wyatt has what he needs to put his past behind him, but it wasn't going to be neat and pretty - he has a long way to go and a neat resolution to the chaos of his personal life would have felt like a cheat.

The Julianna storyline also resolved satisfactorily, but felt a bit pat and rushed. I just could not believe that she would get the answer she'd nearly destroyed herself - physically, financially, and emotionally - for and then just walk away from her own personal white whale without even asking "where?" Same with the flashback/epilogue. It felt a bit forced. I still want to know what really happened that early fall night. And the trip to the zoo? WTF was that about?

Understand, none of this lessens the book. I never had the urge to put it down. In fact, over lunch, I was willing to race the battery in my Kindle and finish on my phone if that's what it took to get the answers I needed.

That's some damn fine writing.

All in all, I give it 4-stars up and a bag of chips. Grab The Long and Faraway Gone by Lou Berney. You'll be haunted and isn't that the point?

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Circle X Ranch Update

Hi everyone! The website for the Circle X Ranch, located at:


is going dark to be reconstructed. It's never been right since I was hacked a couple of months ago (no customer data breached, it messed with the attached PayPal account.)

It is also sorely out of date. Goods that are sold out are still listed, as well as new stock never added. It's gotten to a point where it's just easier to start over.

I anticipate it being down for about 30 days.

If you are looking to place an order, you have several choices:

1. Email me at

2. Join the super Facebook group "The Marx Action Figure Collector."

3. Look me up on Facebook.

The CXR is just getting a desperately needed facelift. It will be back.

Thanks everyone!

Terri Lynn Coop

Monday, September 5, 2016

A Weighty Topic . . .

Today I am writing about change. This photo of a bunch of marbles is the most important thing I'll do today. Not the photo, but what it represents.

I come from healthy farm-folk, there is very little cancer, heart disease, or other maladies. Pretty much, the leading causes of death are complications of extreme old age. Also almost no obesity. Now, there is a thread of sturdiness running through the women. In those days, that meant survival. But overall, we are a tall lean lot.

I left high school at 5'7" and 118 pounds. Because of my youth and heredity, food was nothing to me. I ate whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. As a result, I knew ZERO about nutrition or food discipline.  Of course, the magazines still told me I was fat, but, overall, my genes rocked my jeans.

Fast forward to 2008. I was married, more unhappily than happily. My freshman 15 had hung on, but I still wore 32/32 Levis and was a size 10. A family business was in start-up phase and I'd been in court on an idiotic intellectual property lawsuit for 3+ years. But I only thought things were bad. The market crashed and the business just . . . stopped. Things spun out of control until November 2009 when I got the dreaded door knock with the four words that change everything, "There's been an accident." My husband's incipient drinking and prescription drug problem had finally rang lemons. In the next horrifying 12 weeks driving the 50 miles back and forth to the hospital during one of the harshest winters in years, food became a combo of comfort and afterthought. I'd bundle the dogs into bed, add on three blankets and eat cold hotdogs and potato chips because that was all there was.

I don't even remember much of 2009 through 2014. It was nothing but a grind of care-giving for a paraplegic, working three jobs, and wondering what the hell had happened to my life. I ended up living in a place with little heat and no kitchen, so, the corner diner became my haven. Add in the loss of my only brother and the suicide of my husband and I was out of fucks to give. But food didn't ask for anything in return, it didn't judge me, and it was always there.

I'd find myself sitting up eating donuts at 4 a.m. because that's when the nightmares came.

Let's just say I was fully in touch with the "sturdiness" of my farm heritage. I thought this was my lot in life. Just another one of the "People of Walmart." Someone who had given up because she was just tired.

Then the "thing" happened.

My business, the one that keeps the lights turned on, is to buy, sell, and trade antiques and oddball collectibles. That requires a lot of iron-butt patience at auctions and digging skills at rummage sales. I was at an auction and noticed the pain in my knees. By the time I'd made it to a big multi-story flea market, the pain was grinding and lancing. A two-step platform required me to hang onto the handrail. I was in danger of losing my mobility. That was unacceptable. I've lost weight before, 25 to 30 pounds, but it didn't stick for one reason.

I didn't change.

This time, with a year of therapy to deal with the PTSD, I am changing. Not just my eating habits. I'm changing my head and redefining my relationship with food.

Back to the photo at the top of the post. I'm visual and numbers-oriented. I'm an engineer, it goes with the territory. So, I set up a Pinteresty thing with two antique glasses and some colored marbles. I used a different color for every goal. Every Monday, when I weigh myself, I get to move a marble for every pound. The clear ones were the first goal. The brown one is the first pound in the next goal.

Overall, I've lost 21 pounds in five months.


*hand over mouth* Shut up and listen.

I'm not on a diet. I'm changing myself. Weight loss is the tangible dividend. I'm not eating cottage cheese and celery or juicing or drinking boiled bone broth. And for gawd's sake, I'm not paleo. I'm not doing any of the things that dieters loathe and can't wait to stop doing. If I want Chinese buffet, I go get Chinese buffet. My "diet" includes butter and chocolate and having breakfast out with my friends.

What I'm doing is asking myself why I want Chinese. Am I lonely? Am I bored? Am I trying to avoid work? Do I need a nap? What is the bottom line? When the answer is, "I want to sit with my book around other humans and enjoy myself with a heaping plate of Chinese food," then it's time to go. Otherwise, I need to do something different and be honest about my intentions. The honesty is the hard part.

Special food is an event. It's not a substitute for dark emotions or fatigue or loneliness. It's something to be savored and treasured and enjoyed. It is not something to feel guilty about or to wail, "I'm a failure, nothing matters, hey, is that cake?"

Even with my regular meals, I do not work. I might read or play a silly game or watch TV. My food is an event for my own benefit. It doesn't just sustain me, it fulfills me.

So, with no real dieting methods or obsessive calorie counting, I have been losing about a pound a week. Some weeks have been zero. Others have been as many as four pounds. I got some very bad news. It triggered a mild binge for a week. But the difference between then and now is that I could stop without beating myself up and get back on that horse that threw me.

So how am I doing it? I've had a few people ask, and I'll share what has worked for me. Obligatory PSA: no two people have the same health. None of this may work and only your doctor can advise you on what is or isn't safe for you. That said, here goes . . .

1. Above all, I eat reasonable portions of healthy food. Bacon is about as insane as I get. I alternate between low carb and low fat. You can't do both at the same time. It's unhealthy and won't work long term. I alternate because it changes the menu and keeps down the temptations.

2. Portions. Quit fooling yourself people. You probably eat too much. 12 ounces is 2-3 servings of meat, not one. 2 tablespoons = 1/8th cup is all the salad dressing you need. Stop with the Ranch geyser. These are all the utensils I use. The red is one fluid cup or about 4 ounces of ground meat. That's a quarter-pounder and all you need. Really. On other meat, I read the package. A pound doesn't get cut in half. It gets cut into quarters.  The white are mixing spoons that are an 1/8 and 1/4 cup. It's a lot more food than it sounds like. Read the labels on containers and portion accordingly.

3. Carbohydrates. The quickest way to get started is to cut carbs to the bone. Kick bread to the curb along with chips, noodles, rice, and potatoes. You can add them back in after you can naturally control your portions. Start at 20 carbs per day for a month. Then add a few more in depending on your weight loss and appetite. Your body has to work harder to burn fat, killing off the easy fuel makes your metabolism use more energy to extract the fuel and nutrition from your food.


4. Water weight. Unless you are extremely muscular, your first month or so is going to be losing the bucket of water you've been hauling around. This is primarily what was causing my knee pain. It is also a culprit in high BP. When you eat more carbs than you can burn, it converts and stores in tissue and muscles. Those stored sugars attract and bind water molecules. Imagine wearing this as a belt everywhere you go, every step you take:

This is 16 pounds and you probably have it stashed on your body.

Since offing my water load, my BP dropped from 128/90 to 85/63 and most of my joint pain has vanished. You'll know when the off-loading starts. Let's just say you don't want to be too far from the bathroom.

5. Get enough sleep. Your body needs time to process the water weight and re-adjust your metabolism. If you aren't sleeping, your body doesn't have the down time it needs to do this vital work. You know how after a short bad night of crappy sleep you feel puffy and bloated? IT'S BECAUSE YOU ARE PUFFY AND BLOATED. And fatigue is a huge trigger for binge eating.

6.  Carb Brain. This is a side-effect until your metabolism straightens out. Like anything addictive, carbs and sugars create and nourish pleasure centers in your brain. As you deprive them, the screaming begins. It can manifest in feeling foggy and tired and you may experience a hunger that is as profound as any you have experienced. If something protein-filled, like cheese, doesn't satisfy it, you'll need to feed the beast. It doesn't take much. But all carbs are not equal. Pizza is a huge trigger for me. The scale shoots up and it takes a good week to get stabilized. On the flip side, a couple of ounces of high quality dark chocolate doesn't even faze me. In fact, a few bites of chocolate feels like a damn shot of Demerol when the monkey on my back is howling. Make it an event. Don't gobble it down in the car. I make some fresh tea, put on a show or open a book, and break it into small pieces, savoring every nibble as well-being spreads through me.

7. Forgive yourself. Unless you've been ill, you didn't accumulate this weight overnight. You won't get rid of it and keep it off overnight. Even if it's flabby and unappealing and hurts, your chunky butt is the only body you have and deserves your love and respect. This is going to sound weird, but roll with me. When you decide to make this change, take a hard look at your body in the mirror. Squeeze and poke, and muddle. I couldn't bear to take the "before" pic. I am tagged in enough Facebook vacation pics to make myself cringe. The reason it is important to be self-aware, is that your body will begin to change quicker than you think and you deserve to enjoy it. Mine was the discovery of "Well hello there hip and collar bones, it's been too long."

The steps to forgiveness are:

1) Be honest about your weight gain and the reasons behind it. If you can change something like a bad relationship, a hateful job, or an untreated mental issue - do it. If not, call the past the past and move on. You can't uneat the ghost of pizzas past.

2) Be realistic. I won't see my high school body again and that is okay. What I want is health, mobility, and maybe an occasional cute outfit. I am acceptably single and have no desire to cougar or MILF, so well-fitting yoga pants and polo shirts are fine by me.

3) Be kind to yourself. You are going to fail. Make sure you fail big and enjoy every damn second of it, because you will be looking at sugar detox again. Then forgive yourself and move on.

4) Avoid quick fixes. Juice fasts, "detoxification regimes," binges on certain foods, etc. are nothing more than temporary fixes that can become permanent problems. Oprah Winfrey is brutally honest in her book where she finally confronted her weight. She permanently jacked up her metabolism with all of her goofy-ass protein fasts and made it next to impossible for her to keep weight off.

5) Read the damn labels. "Lite" "Diet" "Slim" and omg "Low-Fat" formulas use sugar to beef up the texture and flavor of everything. They don't work. Also watch portions. That "lite" sauce may show for a 1/4 cup portion and when you compare it to the regular 1/2 cup portion, the calories and carbs are the same. I use full fat butter and salad dressings in, you guessed it, moderate portions.


I'll finish this (too) long post with a quick overview of my typical day's menu. You can decide if it's icky or not.


Saute two cups mixed of onion, mushrooms, and garlic in butter and olive oil.
Scramble in 2 eggs.
Add one diced tomato and 1/8th cup cheddar cheese. Fold like an omelette or scramble.
Garnish with salsa.

If I am going low-carb, I add bacon or sausage. If I am in low-fat mode, I add an english muffin. One or the other, not both, and not neither.


Saute a mixed cup of vegetables (I don't like peppers, but feel free to go there) in butter and olive oil. Season to taste. I vary - sometimes soy sauce, or Frank's red hot sauce, or Zesty Italian dressing.
Cube up 4-5 ounces of lean meat (beef, pork, chicken, burger) and pan fry with the vegetables.
Shred up a 2-quart mixing bowl of Romaine lettuce (nothing magic, I just like Romaine)
Toss in 1/4 cup (4 tablespoons) of full-fat Caesar dressing.
Toss in the meat and vegetable mix.
Add 1/8th cup of real Parm cheese (not the grated sawdust)

Lemme tell ya, that's a salad. If you aren't counting carbs, add in a small handful of croutons.

Not a drop of cottage cheese. Real food in reasonable portions. The goal is to not be hungry. Either of these meals, you will not be hungry.

It may take me another four months to get to the next color of marbles in the glass. But that's okay.

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 . . .


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. 

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 . . .