Sunday, July 9, 2017

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist

On November 30, 1999, officials from 125 countries convened in Seattle for the World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference, several days of meetings intended as the launch of new multilateral trade negotiations. Intent on thwarting their efforts were more than 35,000 protesters—“masked anarchists” according to initial news reports—who marched through the downtown area, condemning the free trade rules as harmful to both the environment and animal welfare.  Unrest quickly ensued. And the severely outnumbered police force, at the behest of its chief, responded with callous and aggressive tactics in an attempt to force the protesters to accede. Seattle police officers fired rubber bullets and concussion bombs at the protesters, clouded the streets with tear gas, and made arrests in the hundreds.

This is the tableau for Sunil Yapa’s masterful debut novel, “Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist.” The stark yellow cover features a mélange of blurbs from literary heavyweights, and their bolded proclamations, as lofty as many of them are, only give a hint at the fierce power of Yapa’s tale. He is indeed a “raw and rare talent.” The novel is surely “acutely hopeful” and “forcefully alive” and “wrenching, beautiful” and “visceral, horrifying, and often heroic.” You get the picture. Yet, again, Yapa’s prose is so poetic, so deeply wrought, so rooted in honesty, to attempt to sort through its many sterling qualities with just a few words of praise is, I’m afraid, a losing proposition.

The winning title alone makes Yapa’s debut worth a look. Closer inspection, happily, reveals an artist with a full complement of brushes at hand—brushes with differing purposes and specific textures. Setting is rendered with tender strokes. The failing of many writers is including too many details that blur a reader’s visual acuity of the story. When Yapa writes, “For five hours now the tear gas had been falling. The streets swarmed with smoke…” he includes just enough detail to place you, dear reader, there on the streets of Seattle during this harrowing event.

What of character?

Here Yapa provides several close range camera angles. There is Victor, an intentionally homeless teenager who happens upon the protest in hopes of selling as much weed as possible. There is his estranged father, Bishop, who as police chief is charged with easing the growing strife. There are two diehard protesters, King and John Henry, struggling to uphold their nonviolent perspective. There are two very different police officers, Ju and Park, with their boots firmly planted on the street, in the thick of the mess. And there is Dr. Charles Wickramsinghe, a financial minister from Sri Lanka, and a man determined enough to walk through a rain of rubber bullets and clouds of deadly chemicals in order to change his country’s economic fate. These characters are fully realized, with tangled histories and kaleidoscopic perspectives. They are at turns impulsive. And violent. And compassionate. And thoughtful. A gumbo of physiognomies that offers them no outlet other than a leaping vault from the page.

The tension between the police and the protesters is certainly the through line for this magnificent novel, but Yapa layers in enough personal conflicts and shifting character arcs to further season his delicious story. His ambitious novel also explores issues of race, love, and, perhaps most importantly, enduring hope in our desperately wicked world. When I pause to consider Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street this late-90s tale of Seattle in turmoil seems particularly relevant with the timbre of today. Upon further thought, perhaps this wonderful novel can be summed up with just a few words. I believe Colum McCann has it right when he deems this “a literary Molotov cocktail.”

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Word Association Best Books of 2015

Below are my favorite crime fiction reads from 2015. Each novel is followed by the word or phrase that first came to mind when I considered the book for this list.

Devastatingly poetic

Justified blockbuster

Ending that lingers




Coyote attacks

Enduring characters

True to life


Mind games


MWA Grand Master for a reason

Black sheep

Politics and murder

Don't make him

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Books I've Read in 2015 (all highly recommended)

Michael Wiley
“Blue Avenue”
Michael Kardos
“The Three-Day Affair”
Tim Johnston
Benjamin Whitmer
“Cry Father”
Paula Hawkins
“The Girl on the Train”
Stephen King
Cormac McCarthy
“The Gardener’s Son: a screenplay”
James Sallis
“Others of my Kind”
Sebastian Rotella
“The Convert’s Song”
Mason Cross
“The Killing Season”
Wiley Cash
“This Dark Road to Mercy”
Harper Lee
“To Kill a Mockingbird”
Tom Bouman
“Dry Bones in the Valley”
Ann Rittenberg and Lauren Whitcomb
“Your First Novel: A Published Author and aa Top Agent Share the Keys to Achieving Your Dream”
Dennis Lehane
“Live By Night”
Matt Burgess
“Uncle Janice”
M.O. Walsh
“My Sunshine Away”
David Joy
“Where All Light Tends to Go”
Dennis Lehane
“World Gone By”
Richard Price writing as Harry Brandt
“The Whites”
Olen Steinhauer
“All the Old Knives”
Stephen King
“Doctor Sleep”
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
“We Should All Be Feminists”
Owen Laukkanen
“The Stolen Ones”
Walter Mosley
“This Year You Write Your Novel”
Stieg Larsson
“The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo”
Jo Nesbo
“Blood on Snow”
Stieg Larsson
“The Girl Who Played with Fire”
Gregg Hurwitz
Toni Morrison
“God Help the Child”
Eric Jerome Dickey
“One Night"
John Ridley
“Stray Dogs”
Greg Iles
“Natchez Burning”
Craig Holden
“The Narcissist’s Daughter”
T.C. Boyle
“The Harder They Come”
Attica Locke
Craig Holden
“The River Sorrow”
Ron Rash
“Saints at the River”
Ron Rash
“My Father Like a River”
Paul Doiron
“The Precipice”
Cormac McCarthy
“No Country for Old Men”
Victor Gischler
Sarah Leipciger
“The Mountain Can Wait”
Michael Harvey
“The Governor’s Wife”
James Scott Bell
“Super Structure”
Brian Panowich
“Bull Mountain”

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Favorite Crime Novels from 2014

My favorite crime novels (in no particular order) from 2014

“The Big Finish” by James W. Hall

“The Ways of the Dead” by Neely Tucker

“The Forsaken” by Ace Atkins

“Windingo Island” by William Kent Krueger

“Man Down” by Roger Smith

“Fourth of July Creek” by Smith Henderson

“Cop Town” by Karin Slaughter

“Suspicion” by Joseph Finder

  “Kill Fee” by Owen Laukkanen

 “The Son” by Jo Nesbo

“Hangman” by Stephan Talty

“Rose Gold” by Walter Mosley

  “The Bone Orchard” by Paul Doiron

“Deep Winter” by Samuel W. Gailey

Saturday, November 22, 2014

12 Questions for Roger Smith, author of gritty South African crime thrillers

"Smith is Charles Willeford via James Ellroy – proof that noir is alive and flourishing."


WAKE UP DEAD, MIXED BLOOD & ISHMAEL TOFFEE are published in eight languages and two are in development as movies in the U.S. His books have won the Deutscher Krimi Preis (German Crime Fiction Award) and been nominated for Spinetingler Magazine Best Novel awards. He also writes horror under the alias Max Wilde.

CLINTON GREAVES: In your novels, you delve into the dark side of human nature by chronicling brutal and surprising violence in a way that is profoundly poetic. Personally, I love the gritty aspect of your novels. But I wonder: have you had any resistance to the violence in your books? This could be from your publishers, or your agent, or readers.

ROGER SMITH: No. There is a particularly South African brand of violence and savagery and the general consensus is that my books reflect it accurately. I have one guiding principle: if people do it, I’ll write about it.

CLINTON GREAVES: I first became aware of your work with the publication of WAKE UP DEAD, but I didn’t first read you until DUST DEVILS. To say it was a revelation for me would be an understatement. I’ve since read every crime novel you’ve written and so has my wife. When you publish a new book I can honestly say that my needs and desires are secondary to my wife’s reading. I know in the competitive landscape of publishing that sales and reviews matter. What has been the response to your writing from readers?

ROGER SMITH: Thank you. I’ve been very fortunate that my books have received an overwhelmingly positive response from readers and the media in Europe and the States. What’s been interesting for me is how both European and American readers have embraced my writing. During the apartheid years there was a great awareness of South Africa in countries like the UK, Germany and France where, happily, my books have been praised for tackling the harsh realities of post-apartheid SA. There is a general misconception that Americans are only interested in reading books about America. My experience couldn’t have been more different. American readers have been fascinated and sometimes (understandably) appalled by the stories that I tell.

CLINTON GREAVES: Your first two releases, WAKE UP DEAD and MIXED BLOOD, were released through Picador, a division of Macmillan. Now I see you’re published with Tin Town. I’m interested in your publishing journey. How difficult was it for you to see that first novel published and the novels since? 

ROGER SMITH: I was very lucky. The first book I wrote, Mixed Blood, attracted my agent, Alice Martell, who landed me a two-book deal with Henry Holt/ MacMillan in the U.S. On the back of that came a string of deals with international publishers. 

CLINTON GREAVES: Now let’s get on to current business. Tell me about MAN DOWN, your latest thriller.

ROGER SMITH: Man Down is different from my previous books in that it is set in both contemporary America and South Africa ten years ago. At the start of the book John and Tanya Turner and their nine-year-old daughter, Lucy, have been living in Tucson, Arizona, for nearly a decade after fleeing violence-torn South Africa. Their life appears comfortable and peaceful: John has prospered by selling automatic pool cleaners, Tanya is a college law professor and they live in a large house outside the city. One night three gunmen invade the house and terrorize the Turners, exposing the fault lines in their marriage and triggering a series of flashbacks that reveal that the John Turner of a decade ago was a very different creature: a small-time drug dealer in Johannesburg who got in over his head and was involved in the kidnapping of a rich man’s teenage daughter. As the night spins into an orgy of bloodshed John is forced to confront the truth about his complicity in that brutal crime and ask himself a question: is it payback time?

CLINTON GREAVES: I believe some of the best writing is happening in genre fiction, crime novels in particular. What drove you to write within the genre?

ROGER SMITH: Since I was a kid I’ve been crazy about crime fiction and always wanted to write it. But during the apartheid years in South Africa writing crime fiction seemed to be beside the point: there was a far greater crime to talk about. Then one day in 2007 I said to myself, “Okay, this is it. Time to see if you can write that crime novel.” So I sat down and wrote Mixed Blood. I had very few expectations and no sense at all that I was doing something that would completely transform my life.

CLINTON GREAVES: As you sit down to start writing a book do you let the story come to you? Or are you a careful plotter with file cards and charts and an extensive “story bible”?

ROGER SMITH: I always start with an image, a fragment, which is often—but not always—the opening scene of the book. These images arrive unprompted and making sense of them is the start of the writing process for me: identifying the characters and their predicaments. I like to keep things loose. No cards and charts. I’d find that too sterile and stifling. I need to be surprised as I write or I’ll become bored and walk away. Once my characters have me by the throat I work pretty quickly, writing a first draft in six to eight weeks. Then I spend many months revising and honing the book.

CLINTON GREAVES: In previous interviews I’ve talked about my writing process and some of the peculiarities in it. What is your writing routine like? And what are some of the quirks in yours?

ROGER SMITH: Nothing weird or quirky about my routine. I sit down at my computer and write for five hours a day, six days a week. One thing that I’ve learned after eight books is that writing is a job like any other: you have to show up and get the work done. Some days are good—a little muse-like thing flutters down from above and kisses me on the forehead and the words flow like honey—but most days are tough and if I had to sit around waiting for that muse I’d have a bunch of unfinished books on my hard drive.

CLINTON GREAVES: I love to read as much as write. Do you have much time for reading yourself? What are some crime fiction books that you think should be on everyone’s bookshelf (or Kindle, Nook, etc.)?

ROGER SMITH: I have always read voraciously. You can’t be a writer without being a reader. Some of my favorite crime novels:

The Hunter (1964) by Richard Stark (the pseudonym of Donald E. Westlake) A tight piece of gutter existentialism it follows Parker (no first name, no morals, precious little backstory) an ex-con out of prison and out for revenge.

Glitz (1985) by Elmore Leonard ushered in more than a decade of classics. It is Leonard at his best: a multi-viewpoint narrative that moves like hell. Great dialogue (of course), a tough-but-vulnerable hero, a sick and nasty villain, with a good-looking woman thrown in.

No crime collection is complete without The Ripliad—the series of five Tom Ripley novels by Patricia Highsmith: The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955) Ripley Under Ground (1970), Ripley's Game (1974), The Boy Who Followed Ripley (1980) & Ripley Under Water (1991) featuring the most seductive anti-hero series fiction has ever produced. What makes the books so compelling for me is the cool, matter-of-fact attitude toward murder and mayhem that Highsmith maintains: Tom Ripley is never brought to justice and is burdened by no long-term guilt.

Whenever anybody trots out the old saw that protagonists have to be sympathetic, I point them in the direction of Jim Thompson’s string of dark and subversive novels. My favorite is The Killer Inside Me (1952). A Thompson classic. His characters aren’t nice, but they’re damn interesting.

CLINTON GREAVES: In the previous question I mentioned the electronic reading devices. The emergence of eBooks has probably been the most ballyhooed change in publishing. Then, of course, you have these protracted battles between Amazon and large publishers like Hachette. What are your thoughts regarding the publishing industry these days? Encouraged or discouraged?

ROGER SMITH: This is an exciting time to be a writer. Sure, there are no certainties and the publishing landscape resembles the Somme, but despite the bombardment of other media (movies, games, some really sensational TV—all that great stuff on American cable—and the endless riptide of the internet) people are still reading fiction. I think the impulse to actively engage the imagination by reading a story is hardwired into us. I really don’t care if people read my books on paper, on an e-reader, on a tablet, a phone or the back of a toilet door—just as long as they are reading them.

CLINTON GREAVES: Okay. What’s one question you wish an interviewer would ask? And go ahead and answer it.

ROGER SMITH: I’m often asked about crime writers I admire me but I’d like to mention a so-called literary author who has influenced me: Ian McEwan. He uses suspense masterfully—at moments of peak intensity McEwan slows time down (take a look at the hot air balloon accident in the opening chapter of Enduring Love) a form of torture that readers enjoy despite themselves. Of this technique McEwan says: “A high-value, rich experience, can mean that two seconds are worth 1,200 words.” He can teach most genre writers a thing or two about ratcheting up the tension.

CLINTON GREAVES: As I mentioned, my wife and I are both tremendous fans of your work. What are you currently working on and when can we expect to read it?

ROGER SMITH: I’m busy with a new novel but I don’t want to jinx it by talking about it. Should be out next year some time.

CLINTON GREAVES: Thanks for agreeing to this interview. Any last thoughts?

ROGER SMITH: Just a big “thank you.” This was fun.

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