shadow-manWhat I’m Reading – Shadow Man by Cody McFadyen




One of the benefits of attending NECon every summer is the goody-bag you receive.  What’s a goody bag?  Oh, it’s just a bag filled with books. Free books.


Anyway, I’ve been attending NECon since 2001, so as you might imagine, I’ve built up quite a collection from these bags.  I read in too many genres to read all the goody bag books, and so they accumulate, and every once in a while, I snag something off the shelf, most of the time years later, and read it.  This experience always feels like Christmas.

Recently, the book I snagged was Shadow Man (2006) by Cody McFadyen.  I knew nothing about Shadow Man before reading it, nor did I know anything about the author, but I was instantly interested in it because of its main character Smoky Barrett, an FBI agent who hunts serial killers.  McFadyen would go on to write an entire series featuring Smoky Barrett. I was instantly interested because I’ve been working on a novel the past year or so where the main character is also a female FBI Agent.

I enjoyed Shadow Man a lot, especially the lead character of Smoky Barrett.  It’s no surprise that McFadyen wrote an entire series for this character.


Smoky Barrett is an FBI agent who specializes in tracking down serial killers, and she’s the best the Bureau’s got.  However, when Shadow Man opens, Barrett is on leave as she recuperates from a devastating traumatic event.  One of the serial killers she had been hunting had broken into her home and in a vicious attack killed her husband and teen daughter, and nearly killed Smoky.

As Smoky returns to work, we meet her brilliant team, who are all experts at what they do. McFadyen does a tremendous job fleshing out these characters, presenting them as fully confident hot shots who are all veterans in the field and have seen it all, and then he goes about terrorizing the living daylight out of them.  The madman in Shadow Man sets his sights on Smoky’s squad and in a relentless onslaught brutalizes them and their loved ones, shaking them to the core.  This makes the novel quite scary, because as a reader, you’re thinking, if these guys are afraid—.

This new serial killer reaches out to Smoky personally and invites her to be the lead investigator on the case.  He grabs her attention by raping, torturing, and murdering her best friend.  He also claims to be a descendant of Jack the Ripper, and as such boldly taunts Smoky and her team, daring them to catch him, in effect saying that like the original Ripper he cannot be caught.

Shadow Man is a gripping novel that stays strong and fresh throughout.  I’m not really a fan of the serial killer story, but I liked this one.  What I liked best about the novel is McFadyen succeeds in making it very scary, and he does this by creating confident top-of-the-food chain FBI investigators, the type of folks who never lose a case, and then he puts them through hell as his serial killer methodically preys on them.  McFadyen excels at describing their fear.  It makes for a very unsettling novel.

Some of the crimes which occur in the story are downright brutal.  A pet dog is dismembered, a teenage girl watches her mother raped, tortured, and gutted, and then is tied to her mother’s mutilated corpse for several days until the police arrive.  As I said, it’s the type of stuff that shakes even the most hardened FBI investigators.  It’s not easy material to read.

McFadyen also does an outstanding job entering the mind of a female lead character.  Smoky’s thoughts and feelings come off as so genuine you’ll swear a woman wrote this novel.

If there’s one drawback to Shadow Man it’s that the identity of the killer, once made known, wasn’t a complete surprise, nor was it anything that made the novel better.

Shadow Man also suffers from a problem I find with lots of stories like this.  So much care goes into writing a formidable villain that it reaches the point where as a reader you almost can’t believe the guy is going to get caught, and when he does get caught, it’s a disappointment.  It seems too easy.

McFadyen is a victim of his own good writing here.  He created such a clever villain I had difficulty wrapping my head around his demise.

That being said, McFadyen does cover all the bases, and everything in the conclusion to this story makes sense.  It’s just a little on the predictable side.

Nitpicking?  Perhaps.

Then again, a different more sinister ending might have made the book too scary.


Thanks for reading!




Never Have Your Dog StuffedWhat I’m Reading – Never Have Your Dog Stuffed And Other Things I’ve Learned  By Alan Alda



I recently started re-watching the TV series M*A*S*H on Netflix Streaming.  I was never a faithful fan of this classic show during its eleven year run.  I watched an episode here and there, but that was it.

Watching— and enjoying— M*A*S*H on Netflix got me in the mood to read one of Alan Alda’s memoirs, and I selected his first one, Never Have Your Dog Stuffed And Other Things I’ve Learned, written in 2005.  He would follow this up with Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself in 2007.  Both of these books became New York Times bestsellers.

In Never Have Your Dog Stuffed And Other Things I’ve Learned, Alda, who played Hawkeye on M*A*S*H, recounts his early years in great detail and spends considerable time on his upbringing, on times well spent with his actor dad, and on the difficult years with his schizophrenic mother.  His childhood was a complicated one.  Alda adored both parents, but because of his mother’s mental illness, the times spent with her were tumultuous.  Needless to say, his childhood was more colorful than most.  Indeed, the first line of the book reads “My mother didn’t try to stab my father until I was six.” Alda describes dark moments in his childhood, yet he never deviates from his sharp wit which makes these sad events easier to digest.

Growing up around the stage was a hoot for Alda.  His father was a successful stage actor and bought young Alan Alda with him during the productions.   Alda shares lots of fun stories from this period in his life, and they provide a nice slice of life of what it was like for a child to grow up around stage performers and comedians.  Alda loved it and said early on, by the age of nine, he knew he wanted to become an actor.  In contrast, the years spent with his schizophrenic mother were difficult and painful.

Alda’s road to becoming a successful actor is full of interesting stories and anecdotes, like the time he agreed to star in a movie filmed inside the Utah State Prison using real inmates as extras.  Alda recalls the scary ordeal when two of the prisoners took him hostage in order to escape the prison.  It turns out it was joke, as they were put up to do it by the film’s director, only Alda didn’t know it was a joke, nor did a prison guard, and for a brief time, things grew incredibly tense.

Alda would meet his future wife, Arlene, a clarinetist at the time, and now a photographer and children’s book author, while he was working in Paris.  The two would be together throughout Alda’s career.

Alda almost said no to M*A*S*H.  He loved the script from the beginning, but he hesitated because he lived with his wife and daughters in New Jersey, and to do a weekly series in Hollywood would mean either moving or an awfully long commute, but his wife Arlene encouraged him to go.  In fact, Alda did commute, travelling back and forth from Hollywood to New Jersey during his years on M*A*S*H.


Alda also worried that the script might become too silly and make the war seem fun, which was something he didn’t want to do, but he decided to trust the producers and he signed on.  The M*A*S*H years are glossed over quickly in the book, filling just one chapter.

The book goes on to tell poignant stories of how he dealt with the deaths of both his parents, probably the most emotional sections in the memoir.  He also chronicles his year on the PBS science show SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN FRONTIERS, and he finishes with the harrowing tale where he nearly lost his life in Chile, South America when he had to have emergency intestinal surgery and nearly died.

Never Have Your Dog Stuffed And Other Things I’ve Learned  is filled with neat moments and memorable lines.  Early on, when writing about his dad working on the stage, Alda shared an insight into his dad’s philosophy that struck a chord for me and is relevant to those of us toiling in the entertainment industry.  Whether we’re acting or writing, we want the same thing:  for our work to be noticed.  Or, as Alda wrote of his dad’s belief, “And if you could capture attention, that was an accomplishment.  It was the accomplishment.”

I reflected on that thought for a time and realized that’s the key to an author’s success as well as an actor’s.  We just want to capture people’s attention.  We want our work to be noticed.  That’s what it’s all about.

Alda shares a humorous story of when he was acting in a movie being shot on an island in the Bahamas.  The director encouraged the actors to ad lib from the script to give the film a flavor of spontaneity.  To keep in the mood, one night, Alda recalls how he and another actor were in a bar, with folks who didn’t understand English, and so they decided to improvise and put on an entire show in gibberish.  It was a smashing success until they went too far and found themselves fleeing the bar for their safety.  Sounds like a scene from M*A*S*H!

Alda describes what it was like to be nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role in Martin Scorsese’s THE AVIATAR (2004).  He writes how he was showered with gifts, things like a cell phone designed specifically for nominees, a watch designed specifically for nominees, and even a trip to China.

And the title of the memoir, Never Have Your Dog Stuffed, comes from a story told early on from Alda’s childhood where his beloved pet dog died, and because he was so sad, his parents decided to have it stuffed for him, but unfortunately, the taxidermist did a terrible job, and Alda’s loving pet came back looking like murderous rabid beast, and frightened everyone who looked at it.

Never Have Your Dog Stuffed And Other Things I’ve Learned  By Alan Alda is a lighthearted witty look at both happy and dark moments in the life of a successful actor, writer, and entertainer, and like M*A*S*H, the iconic TV series Alda is famous for, it balances the light and dark with ease and makes for a captivating read.


MISSING REELS By Farran Smith Nehme Is Lighthearted Cinematic Fun


What I’m Reading – Missing Reels  By Farran Smith Nehme

Book Review by MICHAEL ARRUDAMissing-Reels - cover


I don’t usually read romances, even of the screwball comedy variety, but being a film buff, I decided to check out Missing Reels  by Farran Smith Nehme, a lighthearted story about a young woman living in New York City who happens to be a huge fan of silent films.  She discovers that she’s living next door to a former silent film actress who starred in a now lost silent movie directed by a controversial German director.

It’s New York City in the late 1980s, and young Ceinwein (pronounced KINE-wen) lives in an apartment with her two gay roommates, Jim and Talmadge and works a minimum wage job at a vintage clothes shop.  There she meets Matthew, an Englishman who’s a postdoc working with a Math professor at NYU.  He’s at the store shopping with his Italian girlfriend, but when Matthew shows an interest in Ceinwein, romance blooms.

Around the same time, Ceinwein engages her elderly neighbor Miriam in a conversation and learns that she once starred in a long lost silent movie.  As a silent film fanatic, Ceinwein takes it upon herself to search for this long lost movie, thinking that if she can discover a copy, Miriam would be thrilled to see it again, but this is a misplaced assumption since Miriam’s feelings toward the film and the man who directed it are much more complicated than Ceinwein ever imagined.

The search for this elusive silent movie serves as a backdrop for the romance, as Ceinwein enlists Matthew’s aid in tracking down the missing film.  The deeper Ceinwein looks, the more complicated her relationships become with both Matthew and Miriam.

I really enjoyed Missing Reels, mostly because the story centers more on Ceinwein’s quest to find the missing film than on her romance with Matthew.  I found the whole search for the movie, THE MYSTERIES OF UDOLPHO, fascinating and enjoyed the story the most whenever Ceinwein was actively looking for it.  It made for a satisfying detective story.

The numerous conversations throughout the novel about movies, old movies in particular, were engaging and thoroughly entertaining.

One of the reasons I wasn’t crazy about the love story is that I didn’t particularly like Matthew’s character.  When we first meet him, he’s with his Italian girlfriend, yet he’s romancing Ceinwein almost immediately after, with no mention to Ceinwein that his other relationship is over.  I thought he gave off a bad vibe from the get-go, and frankly I had a difficult time understanding what Ceinwein saw in him.

Likewise, the elderly Miriam is continuously rude to Ceinwein and is not supportive in her search for the missing movie in the least.  I couldn’t help but wonder why Ceinwein was so interested in finding the movie for this lady.  It seems to me she was more interested in finding the film for herself.

Unlike Matthew and Miriam, Ceinwein is an affable character, and I enjoyed reading about her.   She’s witty and funny, and she’s confident yet vulnerable, traits that make her very attractive.

I also liked her roommates, Jim and Talmadge, and whenever they’re in the story, the book livens up quite a bit.

The story takes place in the 1980s presumably to include an aging silent film star as one of its main characters.  Plus, others who worked on THE MYSTERIES OF UDOLPHO are still alive in the story, making them available for Ceinwein to interview.  This would not have been the case if the story had a contemporary 2015 setting.  Other than this, the 1980s time period adds little value to the tale, nor does the novel do much to recapture the feeling of that decade.

Missing Reels is an enjoyable light read, especially for fans of old movies.  Ceinwein’s search for the missing silent film and the discussions that go along with it provide satisfying material for the hardcore movie enthusiast.  Plus, a lot of the snappy dialogue between Ceinwein and Matthew is reminiscent of the dialogue in the old black and white comedies, films featuring the likes of Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn, and William Powell and Myrna Loye.

And for those of you who like love stories, Missing Reels satisfies as well, as Ceinwein is head over heels in love with Matthew, a man who by his own admission is not interested in leaving his Italian girlfriend, but as is the case with so many classic movie romances, the strong-willed heroine will not be denied.

A novel that hearkens back to the romantic comedies of yesteryear, Missing Reels provides both a lighthearted love story and a compelling account of one film buff’s quest to locate a long lost silent movie in one tightly written package that doesn’t miss a beat.


STATION ELEVEN By Emily St. John Mandel Provides Masterful Literary Science Fiction


Station_ElevenWhat I’m Reading – Station Eleven  By Emily St. John Mandel



Apocalyptic stories seem to be the rage these days.  Whether it be the threat of zombies or the world running out of food, the world as we know it is over and every day folks like us have to adapt and fight to survive.


In Station Eleven  by Emily St. John Mandel, it’s a deadly flu epidemic which does the trick, wiping out most of all of humanity, leaving only a few survivors to carry on.  That being said, Station Eleven is much more than just an apocalyptic story— much more.  It’s a literary novel written with flawless prose by author Emily St. John Mandel that tells its story so creatively you’ll forget you’re reading a science fiction tale because it all comes to life so genuinely.


St. John Mandel weaves her way through multiple storylines so effortlessly reading her prose is like enjoying a fine meal.  Every bite is a treat.  Indeed, for a story that jumps back and forth through time, includes as one of its main characters a person who dies in the opening pages, it’s amazingly easy to follow and not confusing in the least.  I loved every minute of Station Eleven and frankly didn’t want the book to end.  I wanted to keep reading and find out what happened to these characters next.


Famous film star Arthur Leander suffers a heart attack while performing Shakespeare’s King Lear on stages.  Sitting in the front row is a young man Jeevan Chaudhary who has been studying to be a paramedic, and he leaps onto the stage in order to perform CPR on Leander, but his efforts fail and Leander dies.  Watching this awful scene is child actress Kirsten Raymonde, who during her time on King Lear had grown close to Leander.


After this tragic evening, Jeevan is on his way to visit his brother when the story breaks that a global pandemic has struck, as a fatal flu is quickly spreading across the world.  In amazingly rapid fashion, people die in droves and those who are left face a dramatically different world.


Station Eleven  proceeds to tell its story through these three main characters, as well as some others, and the result is a richly written thought-provoking tale that kept me riveted from the first page to the very last.


While the story does jump back and forth through time, author St. John Mandel makes the wise decision to tell her story in clusters.  So, large chunks of the tale follow one character, and then when another character is referenced, the story logically moves on to that character.  Somehow, the story makes complete sense and seems to follow a perfectly logical order.


Through Jeevan, we learn of the initial days of the pandemic.  He spends the first few weeks holed up with his brother in his brother’s apartment.  They watch the news together, and witness the poignant and terribly sad scenes of newscasters performing their final broadcasts before all the TV stations eventually cease to exist since no one remains to operate them.


A running theme through the book during this time period is the expectation that at some point rescue would be imminent.  The government would send in the Marines or the National Guard, and there would be clinics set up to treat the sick.  But the sad reality hits that there is no rescue.  There simply are not enough people left alive.  The survivors face the grim reality that life as they knew it is over.  This includes things like the internet, electricity, transportation, everything that people knew dies because there are no longer people left to work them.


Kirsten’s story takes place twenty years after the pandemic, set in the apocalyptic universe of the post-flu world.  Kirsten travels with an acting troupe— safety in numbers—going about the countryside performing music and Shakespeare plays. She lives in a world where a generation of children has been born never having known the world as it was before.  They have never seen cars drive, airplanes fly, refrigerators, air conditioners, electric light.  It’s also a world where violence occurs, as there are no more governments or police forces to provide law and order.


One of the more suspenseful parts of the novel is when Kirsten and her acting troupe enter a town run by a religious fanatic who goes by the name of The Prophet.  When they make it clear they want no part of his town or his beliefs, and they leave, they soon find themselves being pursued by The Prophet’s forces, and one by one they begin to disappear.


Arthur Leander’s story is told through flashback, obviously, as he dies in the opening pages, but this doesn’t seem to bother author St. John Mandel, and Leander’s story is one of the best written stories in the novel.  It’s also the most important, as Leander is the glue that holds the story together.  Everyone in the story has some connection to Leander, including his former wives and also his best friend Clark.


The main story of Leander involves him looking back at his life and wondering how it all happened.  He never set out to become a famous film actor, and he never really grew accustomed to the fame that went with it.  The story follows his relationships with his multiple wives.  He has a son with his second wife, a son he never is able to grow close to, and in fact on the day he dies, he’s planning to make amends and finally spend time with his young son.  Leander’s story works so well because we know how it ends.  We see him die in the first chapter, which makes his plans to reunite with his son all the more painful because we know they never happen.  He doesn’t live long enough.


His friend Clark becomes a major character in the book, and he’s involved in one of the more memorable sequences of the story.  He had been travelling on the day the flu epidemic broke out, and his plane was diverted to an airport in the small town of Severn City.  Clark’s story follows the early days, as he and a small group of survivors set up a society in the airport as they wait for rescue, which never comes.  Years later they remain at the airport and set up a society there.  Clark also starts collecting items from their past life and eventually sets up a museum, which includes things like cell phones and other now useless electronic devices from the past.


Leander’s first wife Miranda plays a central role as well.  In fact, the title Station Eleven refers to an unpublished comic book series that Miranda was working on, one that she ultimately gave to Leander, who, not really appreciating them or knowing what to do with them, gave them to young Kirsten as a gift.  As a child, Kirsten loves the comics, loves the exploits of the main character Dr. Eleven in his science fiction adventures, and years later during the apocalypse, craves to know who wrote them and why no one besides herself seems to have heard of them.


Leander’s second wife and their son also play a central part in the story, as they happen to be on the same plane as Clark and find themselves stranded at the same airport, which leads me to one element of the story that didn’t work as well as the rest.  All the characters are so intertwined, that it becomes a difficult stretch of the imagination that all these folks who knew Arthur Leander would all find themselves survivors of the apocalypse and even more hard to believe at the same airport, which ultimately happens.  This is a minor quibble, because I absolutely loved this book but I did find myself having a difficult time believing that all these characters would be so connected with each other.


I also found similarities between the villainous character the Prophet and a comparable character from THE WALKING DEAD, the Governor.  Now, there are certainly enough differences between the two to keep the Prophet a fresh character, but the way he leads his group, the way he twists the truth, and ultimately the way he uses violence reminded me an awful lot of my favorite WALKING DEAD villain, the Governor.


I also would have liked a more dramatic ending.  That being said, the ending as it stands does fit in nicely with the rest of the novel.  It’s just not very exciting.


As a STAR TREK fan, I enjoyed the many references to the STAR TREK universe.  This begins with a tattoo on Kirsten’s arm with the quote “Because survival is insufficient,” which her close friend derides by saying “I’d be impressed if you didn’t lift the quote from STAR TREK.”  The phrase is a quote from the character Seven of Nine on an episode of STAR TREK:  VOYAGER.


Station Eleven  is a highly recommended read.  It’s the most satisfying novel I’ve read in a long while.





True Crime Tale LOST GIRLS – AN UNSOLVED AMERICAN MYSTERY By Robert Kolker Reads Like A Novel


lost girls - coverWhat I’m Reading – Lost Girls- An Unsolved American Mystery By Robert Kolker



I don’t usually read true crime, but Robert Kolker’s Lost Girls – An Unsolved American Mystery was on the shelf next to the biography section, and it caught my eye because it was about an unsolved serial murder case in New York and New England.

My favorite type of nonfiction is the type that reads like a novel, and Lost Girls- An Unsolved American Mystery does just that.  Author Robert Kolker recounts the stories of the five female victims in vivid novel-like detail.

Lost Girls- An Unsolved American Mystery tells the true story of five women who disappeared between 2007 -2010. Each worked as an escort/call girl/hooker, and each used Craigslist, which is most likely how their killer found them.  Their bodies were discovered in 2010 wrapped in burlap in the island community of Oak Beach, New York.  The killer remains at large.

The first half of the book details with great precision and care the lives of these five women, explaining their backgrounds and telling how they became escorts.  It’s this part of the book that is most novel-like.  We are privy to conversations they had with their family members, and we get to know each woman as we learn their hopes and dreams.  We follow them during their everyday lives all the way up to the moment they disappeared.  These accounts are quite chilling.

The book then switches to a comprehensive description of the Oak Beach community, the place where the bodies of these women were discovered.  Oak Beach is a private, closed community, and Kolker goes into great detail about the people who live there. One character, a local doctor, is even considered a suspect by the family members, although the police dismiss him as a serious suspect early on in the investigation.

Book Two is the most painful and frustrating part of the book, as it tells the tale of how the bodies were discovered.  Police searched Oak Beach because one of the women was last seen there, and as they searched for her, they found the skeletal remains of the other women.  Ironically, the woman who disappeared in Oak Beach was the last body to be found.

Lost Girls- An Unsolved American Mystery   is exhaustedly researched.  It’s evident that author Kolker conducted many interviews and did his homework.

There are many unnerving moments in the story, none more than when the younger sister of one of the missing women received a phone call from her missing sister’s cell phone, and when she answered and said “Melissa?” a male voice answered calmly and confidently, “Oh, this isn’t Melissa.”  She would receive several more calls from this man, and not once were the police able to trace the call.

A large part of the book covers the families’ frustration with the local police, as they felt the police never took these women’s disappearances all that seriously since they were prostitutes.  Autopsies are sloppily conducted, conflicting statements are made by different police officials, and one police official even suggested one of the women was not murdered but died an “accidental death.

Lost Girls- An Unsolved American Mystery has a lot to say about how prostitutes are viewed by society and how dangerous a living it is, especially today when prostitutes and johns get together under the shadowy protection of the internet.  The fact that this was a true story and that it remains unsolved makes the book all the more disturbing.

Lost Girls- An Unsolved American Mystery is a captivating read that I pretty much couldn’t put down.  It reads like a novel and draws you in to its frightening and tragic tale from the first page.

Highly recommended.


What I’m Reading: BUDDHA HILL by Bob Booth


BuddhaHill_COVERWhat I’m Reading –Buddha Hill by Bob Booth


 Necon founder Bob Booth made it clear on his various writers’ panels over the years that he saw the novella as the ideal format for a horror story.  Booth, who sadly passed away last year after a battle with lung cancer, thought it the perfect length to tell a terror tale.

And so it only stands to reason that Booth would choose to tell the story of Buddha Hill in the form of a novella.

Booth wrote Buddha Hill two decades ago, in 1986, when he was in his forties, and it was based on his experiences while serving in Vietnam in the 1960s, when he was in his twenties.  The manuscript sat in a drawer for twenty some-odd years before it was re-discovered by his son Dan, and upon Dan’s prompting, Bob finally decided to publish it.

I for one am glad he did.

Buddha Hill tells the story of a young 21 year-old American soldier from Rhode Island who is serving in Vietnam.  He quickly learns the ins and outs of how to survive on Bien Hoa Air Force Base located just outside Saigon.  His daily life on the base is stressful as horrific pandemonium and uncertainty surround him on all sides.  He also learns of the Buddhist Monks who inhabit a place known as Buddha Hill.  There is something strange going on there, and he is warned by his buddies in the know to keep away from the place.

The story of Buddha Hill follows this young soldier as he tries to survive in Vietnam.  In the process, he pursues a relationship with a young Vietnamese prostitute.  All the while, Buddha Hill looms mysteriously in the background, an ominous reminder that there’s something supernatural going on out there in the jungle, something frightening, and something very deadly.

With the ever intensifying war closing in around him, and the mystical monks manipulating in the shadows, the soldier begins to wither under the weight of paranormal pressure, struggling to tell what is real and what is imagined.

My favorite part of Buddha Hill is that Booth nails the atmosphere of wartime Vietnam.  Booth obviously takes from his firsthand experiences in Vietnam, and this novella is all the better for it.  He brings you into the heart of the jungle, into the heat of Vietnam, so much so you can almost feel the humid moisture on your brow.  Booth also captures the fear these soldiers felt serving in a foreign land and culture halfway across the world.  The story is frightening even without its supernatural elements.

That being said, Buddha Hill is definitely a quiet horror tale.  This is a novella of mood and atmosphere, not of spilled blood and violence.  As such, it works.  The mysterious monks at Buddha Hill remain spookily in the background, subtly affecting those around them, especially the impressionable American soldiers.

As a novella, Buddha Hill is quick and efficient.  There’s no fat on these bones.  Author Booth gets in, tells his story, and gets out.

Buddha Hill is a moving, chilling tale of the supernatural amidst the backdrop of the volatile jungles and cities of Vietnam during the Vietnam War.  It’ll get under your skin and will stay with you long after you’ve finished reading it.

Highly recommended.


THE GARNER FILES – A MEMOIR by James Garner and Jon Winokur Is As Easy Going As Its Star


the garner filesWhat I’m Reading –The Garner Files – A Memoir by James Garner and Jon Winokur



James Garner, one of my favorite actors, passed away last month on July 19, 2014 at the age of 86.

I’ve been watching THE ROCKFORD FILES, Garner’s hit TV show from the 1970s, on Netflix Streaming this year and I’ve been thoroughly enjoying it.  When THE ROCKFORD FILES premiered in 1974, I was just 10 years old and really wasn’t interested in a TV show about a private detective.  I was much more interested in the shows THE NIGHT STALKER and PLANET OF THE APES which also premiered that year.

But I remember my mom and dad watching ROCKFORD regularly.  THE ROCKFORD FILES of course went on to become a huge hit, and James Garner’s performance as the cautious, charming, often down on his luck yet tough and reliable private detective Jim Rockford is the main reason why.

With Garner’s passing, I decided to pick up and read his memoir The Garner Files – A Memoir written in 2011, to learn more about the actor responsible for creating the iconic Jim Rockford character.

James Garner did not set out to be an actor.  Garner grew up in Oklahoma during the Great Depression, and his upbringing was a rough one.  His mother died when he was four, and his father decided he was unable to properly care for Garner and his two brothers.  As Garner writes, “My father wasn’t bad.  He just wasn’t there.  He couldn’t handle the responsibility of raising three young boys.” 

 So Garner grew up living in various households and learned the value of hard work at an early age, working all sorts of different jobs.  He was drafted into the Korean War where he was wounded and received a Purple Heart, although he said it was just a minor injury. Garner explained,   You automatically get a Purple Heart if you’re wounded or killed in action against an enemy of the United States.  “Wounded” is broadly defined.  The little shrapnel scratches I got were the same as my more serious knee injuries for the purpose.  For that matter, a piece of shrapnel gets you the same medal for losing an arm.

After serving, Garner returned to California where he’d been living, and he hooked up with a friend who was a producer. Garner thought it was as good a job as any, and that’s how his career started.  He started on stage and worked his way into films.  After making some movies, Garner caught his break with the television show MAVERICK (1957-1961) which became a huge success and made him a star.  He repeated this magic with his second hit show, THE ROCKFORD FILES (1974-1980) in which he played private investigator Jim Rockford, who in James Garner’s words was pretty much the same character as Brett Maverick.

In addition to these two hit TV shows, Garner also enjoyed a long film career spanning from 1956 to 2007 in which he appeared in forty-six movies, including THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963), SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SHERIFF (1969), VICTOR/VICTORIA (1982),  MURPHY’S ROMANCE (1985), SPACE COWBOYS (2000), and THE NOTEBOOK (2004) to name just a few.

In The Garner Files, Garner writes that people often thought that he was playing himself when he played Brett Maverick and Jim Rockford, but he said that wasn’t true.  He said he played a part of himself.  For example he explains that he had much more of a temper in real life than either Maverick or Rockford, and he was notorious on the golf course for being very competitive and hard on himself.

Garner describes himself as somewhat of a rebel.  The stories of his battles with Jack Warner over MAVERICK are fascinating and serve as a reminder of the bizarre world of Hollywood, where producers and studio owners made their own rules and laws. Garner stood up to this insanity, and judging by his long and successful career, I’d say he made out just fine.

It’s also a nice love story, as he peppers stories throughout the book about his wife Lois.  They fell in love instantly and were married two days after they met, and they remained married throughout Garner’s career.  At one point Garner writes that their marriage survived not because it was perfect or without rocky times, but because they understood each other and supported each other through the difficult times, even surviving a separation because they were patient enough to see it through so that when the time was right they returned to each other.

There’s also plenty of name dropping, as Garner shares his thoughts and feelings about his fellow actors.  He holds little back.  While he had high praise for fellow actor Clint Eastwood who he’d known since their early TV days and for Marlon Brando who he called the greatest movie actor ever, he had mixed feelings about Steve McQueen, saying he thought McQueen always looked like he was acting in his movies.

He had this to say about Charles Bronson:  Charlie Bronson was a pain in the ass, too.  He used and abused people, and I didn’t like it.

 Bronson and Garner had an argument over a poker game, when Garner insisted Bronson pay a young Hollywood extra the money that he owed him.

After that, Charlie went around swearing he’d never work with me again.  Throughout my life, there have been a few guys who didn’t like me because I was outspoken.  Hell, I never thought I was outspoken, I just told the truth.

And while Garner does write about making movies and his experiences making MAVERICK and THE ROCKFORD FILES, he also spends considerable time in the book discussing his other passions, like car racing, golf, and politics.  While these chapters are interesting, I have to admit I wanted to learn more about his movies and television shows.

Still, the book does contain lots of memorable stories.  My favorite because it shows Garner’s tenacity is when Garner found himself in a scuffle with an aggressive driver.  The man got out of his car and physically attacked Garner, and in spite of Garner’s size and strength, the guy went to town on him and kicked the living daylights out of him. Garner said that to survive, he decided to play dead, but as soon as the man let him go, Garner jumped out of his car and went after the man again.

They (the man & his sister) started to leave, but I figured anybody who could hit and kick me so many times without killing me wasn’t that tough.  If he’d had any punch at all, he’d have knocked me out halfway through the first round.  So I got up and went after him.

 Only later did he learn that he was tangling with an ex-Green Beret.

Like the actor and the two famous characters he created, The Garner Files is an easy going read, one that has a lot to say about the entertainment industry and life in general.

I highly recommend this memoir.


THE ABOMINATION by Jonathan Holt Is Not So Abominable


abominationWhat I’m Reading –The Abomination by Jonathan Holt

If you like conspiracies, then The Abomination, a novel by Jonathan Holt, might be the book for you.

Let’s see, it features the CIA, the Catholic Church, the U.S. military, the Bosnian underground, the virtual world of alternative social media, and the Italian police force, all intertwined in various degrees of mischief, and just who is pulling the strings and for what reason is what the main characters in this one have to find out. There’s no shortage of questions in this mystery novel, but it’s the answers to these questions that don’t always satisfy.

The action takes place in Venice and begins with the discovery of a dead body, the murder victim a woman dressed as a Catholic priest. Taking the case is the seasoned and respected Detective-Colonel Aldo Piola and his new young assistant, the recently promoted Captain Kat Tapo. Kat is an ambitious young woman, and her methods immediately impress the older Piola, so much so, that they eventually have a romantic affair, even though Piola is married.

Meanwhile, young Second Lieutenant Holly Boland of the U.S. army arrives in Venice to work at the army post there. When she receives a request for information regarding the Bosnian war in the 1990s, she discovers that the files she is looking for have only just recently been destroyed. And then, when the woman who made the request turns up dead, Holly’s path crosses with Kat’s, as the two murder cases appear to be connected.

At the same time, a genius mathematician named Daniele Barbo is about to go to trial in a computer hacking case. Barbo is famous for creating Carnivia, a 3D mirror world of his home city of Venice, a popular online destination because of its ability to keep identities anonymous. Barbo becomes involved in the murder case when Kat and Boland discover that the murder victims were using Carnivia to hold secret meetings.

There’s no shortage of intrigue in The Abomination, the first book in a trilogy about the virtual world of Carnivia, and I enjoyed following both Kat and Holly on their investigative paths which led them into the shady dealings of the CIA, the Catholic Church, and the Bosnian underground. However, there’s just so much going on and so many players involved, I found it more and more difficult to buy into the conspiracy plot the more I learned about it. It was like being in a room where everyone was talking at the same time. It’s noisy. I would have preferred a tighter conspiracy story with fewer players.

I liked both Kat and Holly Boland a lot, and they were my two favorite characters in the book. It was refreshing to have not just one, but two strong female lead characters.

Barbo is also an interesting character if somewhat underdeveloped. I wanted him in the story more, and by the time he starts working with Kat and Holly, the novel is almost over. This was a compelling threesome and I would have liked to have read about their interactions in an entire novel.

I also really enjoyed Detective-Colonel Aldo Piola, but once it becomes clear that the novel is going to be more about Kat and Holly, Piola strangely disappears from the proceedings and hardly matters anymore as the story enters its final act, which I found disappointing since he was such a solid character early on.

The villains here aren’t bad, but no one really stands out either. The main player pulling the strings who will remain nameless to avoid spoilers plays so many different sides of the fence I’m still not sure I understand the character’s intentions.

The Abomination is entertaining enough. It’s an ambitious story and it’s well-written, with likable characters, but I never really got into it as much as I expected, and the biggest reason for this lack of enthusiasm was its conspiracy-filled plot which became so convoluted I found myself not believing it. I wish the plot had focused on a smaller more conceivable conspiracy.

And for a tale of lurid murder and intrigues, it never got quite as abominable as I expected it to.




What I’m Reading: DOCTOR SLEEP by Stephen King


Doctor SleepWhat I’m Reading – Doctor Sleep By Stephen King

I am not a Stephen King fanatic.

I know many fans who are avid readers of his work and seem to know more about his books than he does. I am not one of these people.

That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy King’s work. I do. A lot.

In fact, pretty much every time I read one of King’s books I like it immensely, and some of my favorite books have been written by Stephen King, but King has written so much, and I read from so many different genres, fiction and nonfiction alike, I just haven’t been able to keep up, which is why I say I’m not a Stephen King fanatic. I don’t know his canon of work inside out. I just read his books and enjoy them. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever been disappointed with anything he’s written.

I say all this because as I write this review of King’s latest, Doctor Sleep, I want you to consider the source, me, someone who doesn’t know the ins and outs of all of King’s fiction. I just read ‘em and move on. For instance, Doctor Sleep is a sequel to one of King’s most popular novels, The Shining, a book I haven’t picked up since it first came out back in 1977.

So for me, the experience of reading Doctor Sleep was as simple as learning about what happened to young Dan Torrance from The Shining, and what his life was like now as an adult. On this level, I found Doctor Sleep enjoyable.

As did a lot of other people, as Doctor Sleep won the 2013 Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in a Novel. The Bram Stoker Awards are awarded each year by the Horror Writers Association, a professional organization for horror writers, of which I am an Active Member. In fact, it was shortly after I joined the HWA that I had my first short story published back in 1998, so I can personally say that good things come from being part of this organization.

But I digress. Back to Doctor Sleep.

Doctor Sleep begins with “Prefatory Matters” in which we learn the details of what happened to Dan Torrance, his mother Wendy, and heroic chef Dick Hallorann shortly after the horrific events inside the hotel Overlook in the conclusion of The Shining, as well as what happened to them in the years following these events. We are also introduced the character of Rose, a witchy woman belonging to a race of beings known as the True Knot, who go around doing some not-so-nice things to some “special” children.

The novel then settles upon Dan Torrance, now an adult, and like his father before him, he’s dealing with alcoholism, a battle which up until now he had been losing. Dan finds himself in a small New Hampshire town where he meets a man named Billy Freeman who runs a small attraction, the Teenytown Railway. The two men strike up a friendship, and Dan soon finds himself working for Billy’s employer, Casey Kingsley, who eventually leads Dan to AA in order to help him take ownership of his alcoholism.

Dan also works at a nursing home where due to his ability, known as the shining, he is able to assist those elderly residents who are dying, helping them making the peaceful transition from this world to the next, an ability which earns him the nickname, “Doctor Sleep.”

During this time, Dan is contacted by a young fourteen year-old girl named Abra, whose own powers are remarkably strong and dwarf Dan’s. In fact he’s never met anyone with the ability as powerful as Abra’s. Abra sees a horrifying vision, a young boy with powers like herself, a boy she calls “the baseball boy” being tortured and murdered by a group of people led by a one-toothed woman. Abra reaches out and asks for Dan’s help. She knows these people kill children like herself, feeding off their essence, or their “steam” as they call it. Abra wants to get these people for killing the baseball boy.

These people are the True Knot, led by Rose, who also senses Abra and realizes that if they had her essence, the most powerful she has ever felt, they would be amazingly strengthened. And so the battle lines are drawn, as Dan and Abra and their friends work to take down Rose and the True Knot, while at the same time protecting Abra from Rose, a determined powerful woman in her own right who wants nothing more than to kill Abra.

Really, all you need to know about Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep is that it tells a good story. That’s always been my favorite part of King’s work. He can tell a story better than anyone, and Doctor Sleep is no exception.

I was drawn in immediately to Dan’s story and wanted to follow him on his road to redemption, as he beat back his alcoholism and helped Abra. Abra is a fascinating character, my favorite in the book, and King nails the 14 year-old persona. Rose is also a formidable villain, and the True Knot are a nasty group of baddies that you really enjoy rooting against.

Doctor Sleep isn’t really all that scary, nor even all that suspenseful. It works best as a drama, a tale of a man tackling both the demons of alcoholism and his new role as a mentor to a younger and more powerful version of himself, young Abra.

One drawback is as the tale goes along, it become clear and apparent that in spite of the ruthlessness of Rose and the True Knot, Dan and Abra and their friends really have the upper hand. While I feared for their lives somewhat, I really had the sense that they had things under control, and it was Rose and her friends who were in trouble.

As always, the writing is top-notch, the dialogue real and flawless, and the characterizations impeccable. I love the way King captures the way people speak, the dialect, accents, and personalities.

Like a lot of his recent works, Doctor Sleep is a hefty read, filling 531 hardcover pages. Not all of them are compelling, and there are slow parts, especially in the beginning, but I urge patience, because the story builds and the payoff while not completely unexpected is definitely satisfying.

My favorite sequence in the book isn’t even from the main plot, but a key event early in Dan’s adult life, where he’s sleeping with a young woman after drinking with her and doing drugs, and he wakes up and finds her young son in diapers reaching for the drugs which he thinks is candy, chillingly calling it “canny” – again, King nailing the dialogue. Dan shoos the kid away from the drugs, but since he’s struggling for money, he takes cash from the sleeping woman and her child and leaves them there. This act haunts Dan throughout the story, as he knows it was a selfish and awful thing to do. It’s the one event from his life that he can’t bring himself to talk about. It’s a brilliantly written scene, and King continually returns to it throughout the book as it’s a moment in Dan s life that won’t leave him alone.

King also makes Dan a very likeable character. I was eager to follow him on his journey throughout the book. The most compelling character in the novel however is young Abra, and she could have a novel written just about her. As a 14 year-old, the age when most young women are extremely volatile to begin with, combined with her powerful ability, she makes one potent adversary for the aged and seasoned Rose.

Doctor Sleep is not a perfect book. It’s long, and for a horror tale it’s really not that scary, but it is a very entertaining story from beginning to end, a worthy successor to The Shining, because it succeeds in answering the basic question— and really, it’s the reason we all wanted to read this book in the first place,— and that is, whatever happened to young Danny Torrance?

Now we know.




What I’m Reading: Z – A NOVEL OF ZELDA FITZGERALD By Therese Anne Fowler


Zelda FitzgeraldWhat I’m Reading – Z – A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald By Therese Anne Fowler

I often read in themes.

Last year, I taught a unit on The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald to a class of high school sophomores. This combined with the 2013 film THE GREAT GATSBY starring Leonardo Di Caprio, got me in the mood to read more Fitzgerald, and so I read Tender Is The Night  considered by many to be Fitzgerald’s most autobiographical novel.

Now comes Z- A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler, a fictional account of the life of Zelda Fitzgerald, the wife of F. Scott, who often is cited as being the ruin of her famous husband.

Z- A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald paints a sympathetic portrait of Zelda Fitzgerald, and in this meticulously researched work of historical fiction, author Therese Anne Fowler takes the stance that more often than not, it was F. Scott Fitzgerald who incurred the majority of the damage in their troubled relationship, and it was Fitzgerald who actually held his wife back and ruined her career.

Z- A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald opens with a teenage Zelda living in the Deep South—Montgomery, Alabama—with her large southern family, under the guiding hand of her patriarch father, the judge. When Zelda meets Scott, he is an officer in the army, on his way to serve in Europe in the Great War. Even during these early years, Scott is teeming with confidence and tells Zelda he’s going to be one of the greatest American authors. They fall in love, much against her father’s wishes, who sees life as an author as a poor career, one that will not be able to support his daughter. But they will have to wait, as Scott is about to be shipped off to Europe.

During these early scenes, Fowler really brings the courtship of these two young lovers to life. Take this scene, for example, where Zelda and Scott dance for the first time:

He danced as well as any of my partners ever had- better, maybe. It seemed to me that the energy I was feeling that night had infused him, too; we glided through the waltz as if we’d been dancing together for years.

I liked his starched, woolly, cologne smell. His height, about five inches taller than my five feet four inches, was, I thought, the exact right height. His shoulders were the exact right width. His grip on my hand was somehow both formal and familiar, his hand on my waist both possessive and tentative. His blue-green eyes were clear, yet mysterious, and his lips curved just slightly upward.

The result of all this was that although we danced well together, I felt off-balance the entire time. I wasn’t used to this feeling, but, my goodness, I liked it.


Fate intervenes, as the Great War is suddenly over, and Scott is spared going off to battle. In a state of jubilation, Scott proposes to Zelda, promising her a wonderful life, eager to whisk her off to New York City for a grand time, one that she could never have imagined before. Seeing this as a once in a lifetime opportunity to leave her southern rural life behind, Zelda agrees. She and Scott marry, and the next thing she knows she’s living in the greatest city in the world, New York.

Zelda and Scott begin their life together on top of the world. Zelda is absolutely flabbergasted by everything in New York City, and she and Scott are head over heels in love with each other.

The buildings, the people, the noise of engines and whistles and voices, the commotion of cars clattering past! I glanced at my sister; she looked frightened. I laughed and said, “I might never leave!”

But when the entry and front spires of St. Patrick’s came into view, my eyes filled with tears. I’d never seen a structure that was at once so ornate and so serene. The sight- the complexity of architecture, the graceful, intricately carved spires towering over the street, inlaid with smaller intricately carved spires, all of them topped by crosses- literally stole my breath. No wonder the woman at the station had looked impressed.

The thought of being married in this church felt overwhelming, but fitting, too; I was convinced that ours was no ordinary union. Scott was no ordinary fiancé. How, though, had he engineered this?


And Scott even manages to make good on his promise to support her through his writing. His short stories sell with regularity, to great critical acclaim, and even better, for top dollar. His early novels, This Side of Paradise, The Beautiful and Damned, and The Great Gatsby also sell well, and money is not a problem for Scott and Zelda.

In this scene, Zelda and Scott spot a display of his novel in Scribner’s bookstore:

The window display featured a number of books individually. Copies of Scott’s, though, had been built into a pyramid that dominated the display. In front of the pyramid was a sign:

At only twenty-three years of age, Mr. F. Scott Fitzgerald is the youngest writer for whom Scribner’s have ever published a novel.

I said, “Is that true?”

Scott nodded.

“This is my husband’s book!” I shouted, pointing to the display. Passersby smiled. I turned to Scott and said, just to him, “And this is my husband.”

They become almost drunk with success.

“Are we rich?” I asked.

“We are unstoppable.”

Not quite. Scott and Zelda live way beyond their means, attending one social event after another, spending money on whatever they want, living the highlife, and consuming alcohol, plenty of alcohol. Scott even receives offers from Hollywood, where the real money is, and it seems for a time that they will be unstoppable. Even better, they become national celebrities, trend setters, and it seems the entire nation knows Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.

But then the rejections start. Scott’s Hollywood scripts are turned down, and suddenly he finds himself suffering from massive writer’s block, as he can’t seem to finish his next novel. They move to Europe, where they socialize in a literary circle unheralded before this time. Scott meets Ernest Hemingway, who he sees as a younger author who he would like to mentor, but according to Zelda, he spends too much time helping Hemingway instead of his own works.

With Scott seemingly completely focused on Hemingway, Zelda begins to feel alone and ignored, and she seeks attention elsewhere. The pattern begins, an extramarital affair, depression, illness, Scott’s deepening alcoholism, and soon what was heaven is now hell.
Zelda tries her turn at writing, and she publishes several short stories, all of which she’s told by Scott and his agent must be published with both her name and Scott’s in the byline, as they wouldn’t sell without Scott’s name, even though Scott did not write them. Eventually, her name is dropped and only Scott’s remains, even though again, she wrote the story.

When Zelda is committed to a sanitarium, the doctors there tell her not to write anymore, because that will only upset her, and Scott agrees. She grows distant from her daughter Scottie, who grows closer to her father.

In this story, there are no happy endings. As Zelda fights to regain her mental health, she dreams of getting back together with Scott, who has professed to her that in spite of everything, he will never leave her, but at the age of 44, he does just that, dying of a heart attack, leaving Zelda alone. She lives the rest of her life in and out of sanitariums, and it is in a sanitarium that she dies, in a fire.

Z- A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler is a compelling read, mostly because Fowler has done such a masterful job of telling the story of Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald that it practically plays like fact. She captures the lives of these two flamboyant personalities so naturally and with such confident ease that it’s easy to accept these things as true.

The early scenes profiling Zelda’s infatuation with New York City are particularly effective. Fowler also does a fine job showing how much Zelda and Scott love each other, setting up the reader for the emotional toil of having to read the details of when it all goes downhill and falls apart. Then there’s Ernest Hemingway, portrayed here as a manipulative predator, who’s kind and accepting of Zelda until she rejects his sexual advances.

In an Afterward, author Fowler explains that she wrote this interpretation of the Fitzgeralds based on exhaustive research, and it shows, although she admits it’s difficult to find the truth, as the two sides, Scott’s on the one, and Zelda’s on the other, both blame each other for the other’s problems. Fowler writes that she based most of her story on what she found in the letters written by Scott and Zelda.

My favorite part is that Fowler depicts in Zelda and Scott a complicated relationship that at its core is held together by a love that neither one of the two ever wanted to see end. Through it all, the alcohol, the extra marital affairs, the writing struggles, the bouts with mental illness, Scott and Zelda never stopped loving each other, and it’s this central theme that Fowler keeps throughout the novel that makes the eventual ending all the more sad and tragic.

In spite of their problems, they truly loved each other.

Near the end, Zelda is devastated by one reviewer’s reference to her work as “the work of a wife,” that after all these years of trying to make it in the world on her own, she has never been able to get out of the shadow of her husband Scott, and that her legacy, how she will be remembered in the world, will be as the wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald. It’s at this point in the story that Zelda pretty much gives up.

Time magazine ran a review and had found a label for me: Work of a Wife, read the headline, and despite the praise that followed in the body of the review, I felt myself deflating.

That was it. W-I-F-E, my entire identity defined by the four letters I’d been trying for five years to overcome.

Why was it that every time I finally chose, every time I did, my efforts failed- I failed- so miserably? Why was I so completely unable to take control of my own life? Was there any point to it, for me? I’d thought it was Scott I’d been fighting against, but now I wondered if it was Fate.

When I was young, I’d believed that it would be awful to try and try and try at something only to find that you could never succeed. Now I knew I’d been right: I was not a sufficient dancer, or writer, or painter, or wife, or mother. I was nothing at all.

Z- A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler is a fascinating chronicle of one of America’s most celebrated literary couples, Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, seen through the eyes of Zelda. They lived their own version of Gatsby, fighting for a lost dream, and like Jay Gatsby, constantly struggled to repeat the past, to reclaim a past that they viewed as ideal, a battle that like the famous literary character they ultimately lost.

It’s a sad tragic tale brought to vivid life by Fowler’s sharp and insightful prose.

A highly recommended read.