Thursday, September 21, 2017

TOP 10 THRILLERS OF THE '90S

Obviously every top ten list is subjective, however, the ‘90s was the decade that introduced some great authors who went on to wild success in their genre.  Lee Child and John Grisham just to name a couple.  The other aspect of this list is that I’ve read each one of these books so there’s no guessing as to the validity of their worth. I’m not just going by sales figures or popularity, although most of these books were bestsellers.
Here now is my list, in no particular order:

The Firm—John Grisham
Yes, technically this was his second book, but we all know this was the one which got him noticed.  There were courtroom dramas before this thriller, but Grisham took you out of the courtroom and into the family room.  He brought crime to an unsuspecting and na├»ve lawyer who had everything to lose.  The tension is taught all the way through and it’s a relief when it’s finally over.


Jurassic Park—Michael Crichton
This was a mixture of pure entertainment and wildly imaginative scenarios.  Crichton’s narrative is subtle and his explanations for the recreation of dinosaurs is so believable that you never have to suspend disbelief.  This was really a pure joy to submerge yourself into a world where humans become corrupt and animals behave like animals.

Gone Baby Gone—Dennis Lehane
This was a deeply twisted storyline that kept you guessing all the way through.  At one point I thought I had it figured out, but was completely wrong.  It’s a Good versus Morally Correct scenario and Lehane is a master at bringing the complexities of the human condition to the forefront of the narrative.

The Black Echo—Michael Connelly
The very first in the Harry Bosch series.  This also won the Edgar Award for mystery novel.  At its heart this is a mystery, but there are thriller elements to the narrative that can’t be dismissed.  Harry Bosch is a complicated character and Connelly spent painstaking time delivering that element to the reader.  Of course there’s a twist ending, but Bosch’s troubles are always on his shirtsleeve.  A fine debut.

The Killing Floor—Lee Child
This is a no-brainer.  Our introduction to Jack Reacher.  The first time I read this book I was taken back how the prose was so sparse, yet so detailed at the same time.  It seemed that Child would draw you into Reacher’s mind with such vivid imagery, you almost forgot about the great dialogue.  The story is probably the strongest in the series, because it was all new to us.  So glad there would be a jillion more Reacher stories to follow.

The Bourne Ultimatum—Robert Ludlum
The final book in the Jason Bourne series and quite possibly the best.  Carlos the Jackal is after Bourne and the storyline is complicated, but Ludlum masterfully navigates his way through the narrative.  There are bribes, assassins who guess wrong, double-crosses, and ultimately a satisfying ending for Bourne.

The Lion’s Game—Nelson Demille
My favorite of the bunch.  Yes, technically published January, 2000, but that’s close enough.  At first the New York detective John Corey character was too wise-guy for me, but I developed an affinity for it and by the third chapter I was engrossed.  The opening scene has a 747 landing at JFK Airport without contact from the pilot or crew while carrying a Libyan terrorist on board.  The scene goes on for several chapters and switches point of view from the terrorist to John Corey.  The book is 700 pages long, but that was way too short for my liking.  My first introduction to Demille and I grew to love his work.

LA Confidential—James Ellroy
Many books on this list are more popular because of the movie version, but this one needs the respect of the writing to be appreciated.  Ellroy writes with a unique style of giving you snippets without indulging you with all the facts.  Some writers tend to oversell the story, but Ellroy is just the opposite.  If you feel like you missed something, just keep reading and you’ll catch on eventually.  No matter where you are in this story, you’re going to enjoy the ride.

Into Thin Air—Jon Krakauer
Yes, this is nonfiction and therefore not considered a thriller.  However, this book told one of the most spellbinding stories I’d ever read.  The fact that it was a true story written by someone who actually summited Mt. Everest, makes it completely enthralling.  Krakauer follows a team of enthusiastic, yet inexperienced climbers as they battle ferocious hurricane winds, altitude illness and minus 70-degree temperatures.  Krakauer’s prose is powerful and honest and rips at your gut as confused climbers suffering from oxygen deprivation decide to sit down and pull off their clothes in uninhabitable conditions, expediting their demise.  Truly a mind-blowing ride.

Be Cool—Elmore Leonard
This guy is my all-time favorite authorUntil I read Glitz in the early ‘80s, I had no idea that dialogue could be so gritty.  It hadn’t dawned on me that certain seedy characters spoke in slang and didn’t speak in full sentences. Be Cool is the sequel to Get Shorty, which was also a great book, but there are some memorable scenes in this one that takes it over the top.  I’ve spent half my writing career trying to create a character as clever as Chili Palmer.  If only.   

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

HOW NICK BRACCO WAS BORN

It was the late 90’s and I’d received some critical acclaim for my short stories.  I felt like I’d proven myself as a writer and now it was time to take on the novel.  Now, what kind of book was I going to write?  Clue, I wanted to write something that I’d like to read.  I’ve always been a fan of thrillers.  It started way back with my penchant for Raymond Chandler’s mysteries.  His wise guy, Phillip Marlowe, character had me glued to the page.  I will never forget some of the lines Chandler wrote: “She had a voice like an angel and a body that would make a Priest kick a hole through a stained-glass window.”  Classic. 

So, naturally when it was time to create my protagonist, I decided on a law enforcement officer with a witty disposition.  I went back to my youth working in my father’s candy store in Brooklyn.  The characters in that store were full of . . .  well, character.  There was a special type of character who tended to linger around the store most of the day, in shifts.  They were friends of my dad.  They were dark-skinned, dark-haired and had names like Vinny and Joey and Max.  Yeah, the Mafia.  You see my father was Sicilian and because of that, these guys tended to protect the store while my father was gone and I was alone in the store.  I learned something about that dynamic.  Loyalty.

So, fast forward thirty years, and Nick Bracco was born.  Nick is a Sicilian FBI agent who has a cousin, Tommy, who’s involved in the Mafia.  Tommy ends up being the true wit in these thrillers and I get at least a request a month asking me to write a book with Tommy as the main character.  I had to do tons of research on the FBI and how they operated.  I even interviewed an FBI agent as part of my research.  But Tommy’s character I never had to research.  It seemed I knew at least twenty Tommy’s back in Brooklyn.  

True story, I never had any intention of writing a sequel to A Touch of Deceit.  It wasn’t until I’d sold over 50,000 copies over the first six months that a reader emailed me and asked when the sequel was coming out.  A sequel?  Well, I’m currently working on Nick Bracco #6 and hope to keep going as long as people want to read my stories. 

Writing is hard.  Research can be grueling.  But whenever I hear from happy readers, it makes everything else seem worth it.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

WHY YOU SHOULD SUPPORT AN INDEPENDENT AUTHOR


I wanted to title this post, “What is a Published Author,” but changed my mind when I realized there was a deeper issue I wanted to address.  When I received my acceptance notice from Potato Eyes Literary Magazine for my first short story “Saving the World” some twenty years ago, I had never been more excited.  Truth be told, even after selling over 100,000 copies of my Nick Bracco series, that’s still my favorite accomplishment.  And when I sold my stories to Potpourri and Evansville Review and Amazing Journeys and so on, the success gave me a sense of achievement.  It let me know my work was accepted within the literary community.

Then later, when I received my first Pushcart Prize nomination for the best short story of the year, it solidified the fact that I had some skill.  After a second Pushcart Prize nomination, I finally had the confidence to write novels.  All of these steps led me to where I am today. 

Fast forward twenty years.  Past the literary agent who kept my manuscript on the bottom shelf until a very kind assistant recommended I leave the agency or wait for a phone call that will never come.  Past the second literary agent who said my work was exceptional, but the industry was changing and new authors were pushed to the bottom of the pile.  Publishers were better off trying to sell the fifteenth novel from a somewhat known author than the first one from a fresh voice. 

Recognize this sequel strategy in the movie industry?

So, when I approach the subject of independent authors, I truly mean writers who are independent.  Writers who can choose their distribution method.  They can choose their editor.  They can approve their own cover design.  The independent authors I’m speaking of are not the rare ones who slipped past the gatekeepers by writing inferior work, then posting it on Amazon and hoping for sales.  I’m speaking about writers who chose to take on the industry by forging ahead with their career despite the odds.  Writers who could’ve been published with a legacy publisher but chose not to wait. 

Instead of wasting time railing against the traditional publishing companies who try to squeeze out independent authors, I’d rather stress the positive.  And here are just some of them:

John Locke, J.A. Konrath, Hugh Howey, Amanda Hocking and Jonas Saul, just to name a few.  Authors who decided to take their own path to acquiring an audience for their work.  Writers who weren’t told by a publisher they had to leave politics out of their story, or keep their idea more mainstream. 

So how do we encourage this outbreak of creative storytelling?  Support them.  Blog about them.  Write them.  Tell them what you liked about their stuff.  Tell your friends about their work.  Anytime you’re promoting their product, you’re boosting their chances to create more original work.  You’re giving someone an opportunity to spend more time writing and less time working their day job.  It sounds hyperbolic, but it’s true.  There are so many authors who need to find other means to produce income outside of writing.  It’s grass roots support that could make the difference.

So, if you like an author’s work, nurture it.  Blow on the flames slightly to get the kindle started.  Pun intended.  I will continue to support these fine writers and I hope you will as well.

Here are some other authors who deserve your consideration.  Some are hybrid authors who straddle the line of traditional and independent publishing, but their quality of work is worth your attention:
Robert Bidinotto, Cheryl Bradshaw, Luke Romyn, Lawrence Kelter, Jennifer Chase & Dean Lappi.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

5 THRILLER AUTHORS YOU NEED TO READ


There are so many books to read and so little time.  Over the past few years I’ve discovered a pattern in my reading habits: I’d read an author I’ve always liked— Lee Child and Elmore Leonard for example—then I would branch out to find someone new.  It’s during this branching out period that I found myself disappointed and returning to my shortlist of writers who I know would never disappoint.  How I wish I had a clone with my exact taste who could read books then make recommendations, like Pandora for authors.  So I thought I would try to accomplish something with this post—or at least open doors for some worthy writers who might be flying under the Vince Flynn-David Baldacci, radar.

First up, J.A. Konrath.  Even though he’s sold over two million books in twenty countries, it still feels like he doesn’t get the props he deserves.  His writing is succinct and chilling.  He has a very matter-of-fact way of squeezing your larynx and smirking simultaneously.  It’s a rare talent who could make you cringe and grin on the very same page, but Joe makes it happen on a routine basis.

https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01CW8BMA4?ref_=cm_sw_r_kb_dp_XqrMxbMVNX10Z&tag=kpembed-20&linkCode=kpe
Check out Joe’s webpage here: http://www.jakonrath.com/And if you’d like to read one of his more recent Jack Daniels thrillers, check out Last Call.

Next up, Diane Capri.  She began her career as a lawyer, but don’t hold that against her.  Think John Grisham with a sharp wit.  Her writing is simply impeccable.  She doesn’t waste time on narrative that’s unnecessary to the plot, yet you feel like the scene is happening right in front of you.  Her Judge Willa Carson thrillers are my favorite, but her Hunt for Jack Reacher series is probably more known.  I would recommend trying her latest Judge Willa Carson Mystery, True Justice:
https://www.amazon.com/True-Justice-Judge-Carson-Mystery-ebook/dp/B06X1FPNVZ/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1491146508&sr=1-1&keywords=true+justice
 

Now for Rick Murcer.  He began his writing career later in life, so his style is tight and to the point.  No wasted motions.  As if he only has so many books to write and he wasn’t going to waste time with superfluous storylines.  His Manny Williams series contain some tremendous thrillers.  Don’t believe me? Just read some of the reviews from the readers who’ve followed him along the way.  I would try out his latest, Cajun Fire.  Read the first chapter and tell me you aren’t hooked.
https://www.amazon.com/Cajun-Fire-Manny-Williams-Thriller-ebook/dp/B01GCZXRO2/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1491146648&sr=1-1&keywords=cajun+fire
 

Vincent Zandri is a photojournalist who travels around the globe to capture the feel of his settings better than any author on the planet.  While most writers delve into their imagination to portray the image in the reader’s mind, Vincent can actually paint it for you from memory.  He’s been there, spoken with the natives, and returned with a story that almost certainly was influenced by the adventure he witnessed during his research. Don’t believe me?  Check out his webpage here:  http://www.vincentzandri.com/ And as far as his books, he writes several series, but his Dick Moonlight is the creepiest and most interesting to me.  Try his Murder by Moonlight. This was the book that got me excited about his work.
https://www.amazon.com/Murder-by-Moonlight-ebook/dp/B0073I2PM8/ref=tmm_kin_title_0?ie=UTF8&m=AG56TWVU5XWC2
 

And Finally, one of my favorites, Claude Bouchard.  Claude is a Canadian businessman who got the writing bug and made it his fulltime job.  And I’m glad he did.  His dialogue-heavy thrillers keep you turning the pages while giving you plenty of chills discovering what his characters are up to.  I would try his latest Vigilante series thriller, Getting Even.  There is a cathartic thrill to watching an assassin exact revenge on people who do bad things.  And don’t we all want justice to be served?
https://www.amazon.com/Getting-Even-Vigilante-crime-thriller-ebook/dp/B01DI9X27W/ref=pd_rhf_se_p_img_5?_encoding=UTF8&psc=1&refRID=JRRCRY05MN3CMF8NH70R
 

I can assure you that I’ve read at least one book from each of these authors and wouldn’t recommend them if I didn’t find their work riveting.  Hopefully you’ll find someone in this group who will fill your days with nail-biting thrills.  They are definitely worth a try.    

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

SURPRISING SERVICE THE FBI PROVIDES TO WRITERS


When I first created my Nick Bracco character some fifteen years ago, I had very little knowledge of how the FBI operated outside of what I’d seen on TV and in the movies.  It was Nick’s Mafia cousin Tommy that I had a much better grasp of, since I was surrounded by Sicilian family members all the time during my youth.  But I needed to research the FBI so I could bring a reality to my character.  I read several books that were truly informational, including a great one by Ron Kessler titled, The FBI.  However, there were still questions that lingered in my mind that I needed answered.  Remember, this was pre-Google.

I picked up the phone and dialed the local Phoenix FBI field office and asked if I could interview an FBI agent for a book I was writing.  Now, here’s the important part—I didn’t tell them it was fiction.  I think that might have something to do with the fact that a moment later I was transferred to a gentleman who introduced himself as Agent Simpson (let’s go with that, since my memory is foggy.)  He was pleasant, even asking me if he could have my phone number in case we got disconnected. I knew, of course, he was staring at my number on his caller ID, so right away he was making sure I wasn’t lying.

After the guy answered a litany of questions for me, I was fascinated that someone would take time out of their busy schedule to do such a thing.  Until I discovered that was actually doing his job.  Each field office has a Public Affairs Specialist who’s there to work with the media, including writers who are working on articles or books about the FBI.

If you’re writing a thriller, it’s not a bad idea to make that call.  I remember asking things like: Does an FBI Agent have to use government-issued weapons or can they buy their own?  Does every shooting incident require a debriefing?  Do FBI agents get to choose their partners?  I can tell you that some of these answers were not what I expected.

I’ve heard of writers doing ride alongs with police and I’m not sure the FBI does that, but I promise if you call your local field office there is someone there who can answer some of your questions.  Hey, your tax dollars are helping pay for this service, so why not take advantage of it. 

Just don’t tell him your last name is Ponzo and your father used to help the Mafia run the numbers in his candy store back in the '70s.  I’m sure the statute of limitations has run out by now, but somehow I skipped that part during my interview.      

Sunday, January 29, 2017

ELMORE LEONARD IS ALIVE AND WELL


Elmore Leonard has had a profound effect on my writing career.  Anyone who’s familiar with my Tommy Bracco character knows what I’m talking about.  Before I began reading Elmore’s work, characters always seemed to have a stilted tone to their dialogue.  Like a 40's movie where everyone spoke in perfect English.  But Elmore, Dutch, Leonard came along and changed the game for good.  Suddenly, gangsters were talking in slang without explaining it to the reader.  Just follow along, Elmore seemed to suggest.  You’ll get it after a while.
 

Here’s a sample of what I’m talking about.  Below is the opening scene to Freaky Deaky. Chris Mankowski is a bomb expert summoned to Booker’s home.  Booker is a gangster who answered his telephone where the women he was dating told him to sit down. When he sat down, she told him the chair he was sitting on had a bomb in it and the moment he stood up he’d be killed:

"Man, be careful there," Booker said, bringing his hands off the chair arms to bunch the skirts of the robe between his bare legs, up tight against his crotch.

"You feel anything under you?"

"When I sat down it felt… like, different."

Chris slit open the facing of the seat cushion, held the edges apart and looked in. He said, "Hmmmmm."

Booker said, "What you mean hmmmmm? Don't give me no hmmmmm shit.  What's in there?"

Chris looked up at Booker and said, "Ten sticks of dynamite."

Booker was clutching the chair arms again, his body upright, stiff, telling Chris, "Get that shit out from under me, man. Get it out, get it out of there!"

Chris said, "Somebody doesn't like you, Booker. Two sticks would've been plenty."

It’s a thing of beauty.  The entire scene.  But this post isn’t about Elmore.  This post is about his son Peter.  You see, when Dutch passed away in 2013, it left an empty hole in my reading sequence.  I tended to give new authors a try, but once I finished that book, I would always resort to another Elmore book to get that flavor back in my mind.  Sometime in the past year I was groping for another book and realized that I’d read everything Elmore had written.  And that’s saying something, since he’d written over 50 novels.

That’s when I discovered that his son, Peter, was also a novelist.  Just on a lark I read the beginning to one of his books and realized very quickly that Peter was the spitting image of his father when it came to writing fiction.  The narrative and dialogue was a perfect replica of his father’s tone.  Now, don’t get me wrong, he’s not copying his father’s work, it’s his own style and his own imagination, but boy, it’s remarkably appealing to anyone who’s familiar with Dutch’s work.
 

So far, I’ve read Unknown Remains, Trust Me and Eye Closed Tight.  The first two were fantastic reads.  The third book jumped around a little bit too much for my liking, but the dialogue was so enjoyable, that I pressed on and finished liking the story very much.

I’m writing this to encourage anyone who’s an Elmore Leonard fan to give Peter’s books a try.  I think you’ll enjoy the experience.  Do yourself a favor and go to Amazon and read the beginning to one of his books.  Or go to a bookstore and pick it up.  You’ll know within a page or two whether it’s the style you would appreciate.  If it is--enjoy.

And you’re welcome.     

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

WHY WRITERS CONTROL THE ENTERTAINMENT INDUSTRY


There’s a famous scene in the 1992 movie, The Player, in which a young Hollywood executive played by Peter Gallagher tells the veteran executive, Tim Robbins, “Who needs writers, this thing writes itself.”
And honestly, there’s a segment of the entertainment industry who still subscribe to that theory.  We’ve all been to those movies too.  The ones that follow a familiar formula with familiar punchlines and familiar dialogue.  Battlefield Earth anyone?  But whenever there’s a hit, there’s good writing.  A great example is this year’s critically acclaimed drama, Manchester by the Sea.  This is by far the most depressing movie I’ve ever witnessed.  I wanted to go see Schindler’s List just to lighten my mood after this one.  However, the dialogue was so moving and the acting so superb, you ignored the fact that you’ve seen this movie plenty of times before.


If you think about your favorite TV shows, the one which makes you laugh, the one which made you relate to the characters, it was almost purely the writing that got you there.  I had this feeling leaving the movie Why Him? this past weekend.  It was a plot that seemed so typical that it would be easy to pass up.  However, the writing is done so well, that it’s almost impossible not to laugh. 

Think about some of the most iconic movies in the past fifty years and you’ll almost always have a line that brings it all back to you:

“You can’t handle the truth!”

“I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse.”

“There’s no crying in baseball.”

“Go ahead, make my day.”

You get my point.  The best actor in the world can’t deliver a crappy line and make it work.  However, a good writer can make an average actor seem extraordinary.

So the next time you’re enjoying something on TV, your phone, or the big screen, remember who drew you in and got you to watch the next scene.  It was that pimple-faced writer who spent his or her youth learning how to create a cogent passage with heart.  Writing may seem to be dissipating with advent of digital media, but believe me, those words are just as potent in your book or on your screen.  Writers make the world of fiction go around and I’m just glad to be a small part of that community who appreciates the effort.