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Positively 14th Street

What It Was: A Derek Strange Novel by George Pelecanos (Reagan Arthur/Back Bay Books, $9.99, 272 pages)

I live a block off 14th Street, the setting for much of George Pelecano’s gritty crime novel, What It Was.   Set in 1972, it’s a fascinating read for anyone who likes books set in the Washington “beyond the monuments.”   Watergate is briefly touched on, but this book contains no Senators, no wacky Masonic conspiracy theories and hardly any politics at all.

What It Was concerns the lives of real people, mostly cops and criminals, in a city scarred by riots.   The popular conception of 14th Street is that it was a wasteland, from the disturbances of 1968 to the start of gentrification in the 1980s.   But life went on.   Pimps, drug dealers and hustlers of all kinds moved in.   And for a lot of them, and the cops that pursued them, it was a hell of a time, even a good one.

Red Fury wants to make a name for himself and is going on a crime spree across the city.   He wants to be remembered.   Hunting him is Frank Vaughn, a dinosaur in the evolving era, someone not afraid to bend the rules to get the job done.   Also mixed up in the case is his friend Derek Strange, a cop who has left the force to become a private eye.

Pelecanos has a great eye for the details of the time, from the tricked-out cars to the soul music of the 1970s.   He also resurrects a lot of old DC haunts, legendary bars and restaurants that are long gone in this gentrified city.   His knowledge of the city is encylopedic.   For example, Red hides out in Burrville, a neighborhood I didn’t even know existed.

I wrote my own crime novel about the city, Murder in Ocean Hall.   It’s set in many of the 14th Street neighborhoods of What It Was but during a time of rapid change.

What It Was is a fast, involving read.   Pelecano’s style is muscular, alternating perspectives as it advances towards an inevitably violent conclusion.   Interestingly, the novel is available on the Kindle for only 99 cents.   It’s a limited-time offer designed to generate new readers for this crime novelist.   Forward-thinking publishers are experimenting with new strategies and promotions to adapt to the world of e-readers.

What It Was is also the first book I’ve read on my iPad.   Using the Kindle app, set to sepia, it was a comfortable reading experience – though not as easy on the eyes as using an e-ink reader like the Kindle.   But the 99 cent strategy worked for me.   After dipping into the gritty crime world of What It Was, I’m primed to read the rest of Pelecano’s work.   Well recommended.

Joe Flood

 Joe Flood is the author of two novels, Don’t Mess Up My Block and Murder in Ocean Hall.   He is also a photographer and web content manager.   You can see more of  his writing – and his photographs – at: http://joeflood.com/ .

What It Was is available as a Kindle Edition or Nook Book download for $4.99.

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It Was A (Very) Good Year

The Year-End Literary Review

In my opinion, this was a good to very good year to be a reader; not as good as 2010 in terms of its offerings, and hopefully not as good as what’s to come in 2012.   Let’s look at some of the highlights and lowlights of 2011.

The rise (and fall?) of the e-reader

The e-book readers offered by Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Sony began to finally take off in terms of general acceptance.   Even a Luddite such as I am picked up a Nook Color tablet, as the issue of glare seemed to have been resolved with the fine screen manufactured by LG.   But just as e-readers were taking flight, the reading public received some very disturbing year-end news (“…rising e-book prices causing sticker shock.”).

It seems that publishers are about to kill their golden goose by raising the prices on e-books to levels that will match or exceed the print versions.   Yes, it appears to be a replay of what happened with the recording industry…  Music CDs first appeared with reasonable prices of $9.99 and then shot up to double that and more; and the industry then wondered what happened to their sales figures.   Duh.

Fine biographies

It was a good time for biographies, the two most notable being Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson and Robert Redford by Michael Feeney Callan.   Both were examples of treating famous people as more than living legends – turning them into three-dimensional figures with true strengths and weaknesses.   Callan’s book is such a fascinating portrait of the actor that you’ll want to see every film mentioned in it.

Intriguing debuts

It’s always fun to discover new writers at the start of their career, and both Proof of Heaven by Mary Curran Hackett and The Violets of March by Sarah Jio were engaging life and love-affirming debut novels.   Kudos!

Mixed memories

It was a mixed front when it came to personal memoirs.   Christina Haag produced a singular New York Times Bestseller with Come to the Edge: A Love Story, her entertainingly nostalgic account of the five years she spent as the girlfriend of John F. Kennedy, Jr.   If you’ve missed this one, it will be released in trade paper form in January – with a cover that’s sure to capture the female reader’s eye!   (Some will remember that JFK, Jr. was once named “The Sexiest Man Alive” by People magazine.)

A Widow’s Story: A Memoir by Joyce Carol Oates might have been a groundbreaking account of what happens to a wife after her husband dies suddenly.   But it was preceded four years earlier by Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking.   Oates’s account unfortunately read like a note-for-note  cover of Didion’s earlier account.   Oates and Didion are, no doubt, two of our best writers but only one of them could assemble a uniquely first tragic memoir.

A troubling trend

2011 was the year in which a few fictional works were introduced that I wound up calling “plotless novels.”   These were books whose plots generally centered around an ensemble cast of characters, occupying only a few days in time; time in which nothing noteworthy seemed to occur.   Reading one of these novels is like, paraphrasing Jerry Seinfeld, perusing “a story about nothing.”   A few misguided or mischievous critics made them popular by praising them as being clever.   Well, they were clever in getting a few unfortunate readers to pay money for a book without a beginning, middle or ending.

Hurry up, already

Another parallel troubling trend had to do with novels that took 90 or 100 pages to get to the beginning of the story.   Any story that takes that long to get started is, trust me, not going to end well.

Good and very good, but not necessarily great

While there were some good and very good works to read this year, it’s hard to think of standouts like we had in 2009 (Her Fearful Symmetry by Anne Niffenegger) or 2010 (American Music by Jane Mendelsohn, Imperfect Birds by Anne Lamott, The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris).   One novel that did receive plenty of attention was The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, which the average reader seemed to find either brilliant or meandering and tedious.   One hundred and sixty-eight readers posted their reviews on Amazon and these love it or hate it views balanced out to an average 3-star (of 5) rating.

Give me someone to love

Some were troubled by Eugenides’ novel because of the lack of likeable characters, a critique to which I can relate.   If an author does not give me a single character that I can identify with, trying to finish a novel seems pointless.   Why invest the time reading a story if you simply don’t care what happens to the characters the writer’s created?

In summary

This year was filled with unrealized potential.   Let’s hope for a bit more excitement in the publishing world in 2012!

Joseph Arellano

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Win Dark Deceptions

Thanks to Anna at Hachette Books, we have 5 (five) copies of Dark Deceptions by Dee Davis to give away.   This is a Forever novel, just released on April 1, 2010, and rated as a 4-star book at Amazon.   Here is a quick synopsis:

Covert operations expert Nash Brennon has spent the last eight years trying to forget Annie Gallagher, his former field partner and the only woman he has ever loved.   Annie betrayed him when he needed her the most, then vanished without a trace.   Now suddenly she’s back in the game – as a suspected traitor and threat to the national security.

Annie’s son has been kidnapped by political terrorists.   The price for his life?   The assassination of a U.N. ambassador.

This is a unique suspense romance thriller.   “…(a) page turning, white knuckle, romantic thriller.”   ReadertoReader.com  

Dark Deceptions was delightful!” wrote a reader at the Barnes and Noble website.

“Don’t miss any book by Dee Davis.”   Christina Skye

“Dee Davis is at the top of her game.”   Mariah Stewart

In order to enter this book giveaway, just post a comment here or send an e-mail with the heading Dark Deceptions to Josephsreviews@gmail.com.   Make sure to include an e-mail address where you can be reached in case you are one of the 5 winners of Dark Deceptions.   This will count as one entry.

In order to enter a second time, please tell us what you think about digital “e-books”.   Would you read a book on a Kindle (Amazon) or a Nook (Barnes and Noble) or a Sony Reader?   On an Apple iPad?   As a download onto your PC?   Why or why not?   Your answer will count as a second entry.

You must live in the United States or Canada to enter and have a valid residential address.   Books cannot be mailed to a P.O. box.   The deadline for entries is 12:00 midnight PST on Wednesday, May 26, 2010.   If your name is drawn by Munchy the cat as a winner, you will be sent an e-mail message and you will need to respond with your residential address within 72 hours.  

This is it for the contest rules.   Good luck and good reading!

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The Year of Fog

The Year of Fog by Michelle Richmond

With a few small reservations, I very much liked Michelle Redmond’s latest novel, No One You Know. I liked The Year of Fog, her preceding novel, even better.   For me, the story flowed much easier and more naturally without strange detours or author’s tricks.   I also was unable to predict what was going to happen at the end of the tale.   Perhaps most importantly, while Fog deals with the very unpleasant subject of a child’s abduction, Richmond’s telling of the story was uniquely calming.

In No One, the city of San Francisco comes off as part of the back stage.   In Fog, the city is an essential part of the story as main character Abby Mason wanders its streets looking for Emma (the child of the man she’s engaged to).   There’s even a cute scene included that involves the much-favored Dog Eared Books.

I so much enjoyed reading Fog that I will likely now go searching for the author’s first novel, Dream of the Blue Room. Remember how you felt about a rock band that you “discovered”?   Their first and second albums always seemed like their best work, but by albums three and four they either became sadly repetitive or seemed to annoyingly change for the sake of pleasing new-found (and late arriving) fans.   I’m not saying that this analogy applies to Michelle Richmond.   I am saying that, by virtue of fate or good luck, I’m glad to have found this intriguing writer.

Joseph Arellano

Note: As I was reading Fog, Sting’s CD The Dream of the Blue Turtles kept going through my mind.   But then there is a logical connection…   The book is about a very much loved child going lost with horrible consequences for the lives of those close to her.   Sting’s album focused on the love of children and the controlling desire to protect them from harm.   The Blue Turtles song titles eerily relate to what occurs in Fog: If You Love Someone Set Them Free, Love is the Seventh Wave, Shadows in the Rain, Russians (“I hope the Russians love their children too”), Fortress Around Your Heart and Consider Me Gone.   And then consider how close the album title, The Dream of the Blue Turtles, is to the title of Richmond’s initial novel, The Dream of the Blue Room!Fog (kindle)

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