Friday, January 27, 2017

A Smooth Read: A Review of Stuart Woods's Smooth Operator

If you love fast-paced joyride reads, you may well set a speed-reading record with Smooth Operator (Putnam, 2016, $28 Hardcover), the new thriller from the author of thirty-nine Stone Barrington novels, Stuart Woods. It is that hard to put down, and moves quickly with short chapters and snappy dialogue.

Stuart Woods is massively successful (at least thirty-nine consecutive best-sellers), massively prolific (five novels released this year), and gets help on Smooth Operator from veteran mystery writer Parnell Hall, whose out-of-print novels are now finding new life as eBooks. Woods is the author of several series of novels, with characters crossing over between the series.

In Smooth Operator, Teddy Fay, a character well-known to Woods readers, is given center stage for the first time, perhaps the start of a new series for Woods. Fay is a former CIA insider, a man of many disguises, and the capacity for the cold-blooded dispatch of bad guys who get in his way. He has assumed a new identity with a clean slate, though hardly a low-profile one, as a Hollywood movie producer. Called into service by Barrington, to whom he owes a favor, Fay finds himself entangled in a conspiracy wrapped in a terror plot and involving kidnapping and assassinations. He gets help from some great new characters. Millie is a young assistant working in the White House, whose skills, savvy, and persuasive guile make her almost as useful as Fay himself. Kevin is a hacker dragged out of his basement by Millie’s irresistible charms to hack into Washington’s most important computers and the cell phones of all the key players. In addition to Stone Barrington, familiar characters from other Woods novels also make appearances.

With Stuart Woods, you expect a fast-paced thriller with high-profile intrigue that you really do not want to stop and think about. Smooth Operator does not disappoint, and provides just enough conspiratorial puzzlement to keep you guessing until the end.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Nosy Novel: A Review of Kathleen Tessaro's The Perfume Collector

If you have been following my reviews, which mirror almost exactly the contents of my reading list, you may have noticed that I have been reading a number of books written by women, and that appeal mostly to women. I have also recently read a book I despise (not this one -- the review will almost certainly appear here at some point). My stack of books to read includes works of philosophy, neuroscience, thrillers, a bible, and my beloved Southern literature. Some people just read what they like: romances, detective stories, mechanics manuals. But I take to heart the advice of William Faulkner, which I found on the cover of The Reivers: “Read, read, read. Read everything – trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it is good, you’ll find out. If not, throw it out the window.” Thus, here is my review of another feminine novel.

Suppose you are in an unhappy marriage and oppressed by a social system that limits your ability to do anything of your own will. Out of the blue, you receive an inheritance from an unknown person in a different country. The terms of the will require your physical presence, so you go. And in going, you find a part of yourself that you never knew existed. This is the premise of The Perfume Collector, a novel by Kathleen Tessaro.

The Perfume Collector (HarperCollins, 2013, 456 pages, $24.99 hardback), now a best seller, is the fifth novel from Kathleen Tessaro. Her sixth and latest book is Rare Objects.

British socialite Grace Munroe almost simultaneously discovers her inheritance from an unknown woman in France, and an apparent infidelity in her husband. Both are good reasons for her to leave town for a while. In Paris, she is befriended by Edouard Tissot, the attorney handling the estate of her benefactor, Eva d’Orsey. Though Tissot is eager to complete the transaction, Grace insists on knowing more, and her journey becomes an investigation into the past of Eva and those who knew her. What she finds not only enlightens her, but transforms her as well.

Set in France, England, and New York, The Perfume Collector takes place in the first half of the twentieth century, and sweeps through the life of Eva d’Orsey, from her girlhood as a maidservant, when she is introduced to the perfumers, through her wild youth and wartime compromises, to her end and legacy. Sometimes a flashback structure can be confusing, but here it makes sense and intensifies the suspense. Tessaro is amazing in her ability to portray people and feelings, but especially in her description of scent:
“The layers of fragrance that unfolded were soft at first, darkly sensual layers of wild violet, amber, cedar, and bark . . . dry mossy woodland smells which then, very gradually, stealthily, gave way to raw musky richness; they had an intensity, a slightly damp, earthy density that was mesmerizing . . . and there was something else there too . . . sharp, almost acrid, yet hauntingly familiar . . .
‘I never thought I’d say this,’ Mallory frowned, ‘but I think there’s something almost obscene about it.’ She lifted the bottle to her nose and inhaled. ‘Then again, it’s rather more-ish, isn’t it? How much is it?’” (elipses in original)
Of course, perfume is important to the story, and scents trigger the turns in its plot. So descriptions like the one above add to the richness of this novel.
A story of nostalgia, romance, loss, and transformation, The Perfume Collector is an excellent novel worth reading. Women may especially enjoy it, but I recommend it to male and female writers keen on Faulkner’s advice, as well as people with interesting noses!

Friday, January 13, 2017

Book Review: Ice and Bone by Monte Francis

Meaning is found in understanding the un-understandable. Amid daily reports of the worst events in our society, we may feel tempted to just tune out. But now and again it is useful to venture deep into a story. Deep enough that it takes a thread of violence in all of its revolting detail, and instead of leaving the sensational facts to rot before our eyes, goes further, behind the cold facts to the passion, the heartbreak, and the brutal tragedy from its inception in the dark mind of a tortured soul. Ice and Bone (Wildblue press, Denver, 2016, $16.99 Paperback) is such a story. 

Monte Francis, also the author of By Their Father’s Hand: The True Story of the Wesson Family Massacre (Harper, 2007) and numerous radio and television stories, is not merely a hard-boiled journalist wielding facts. He knows how to tell a story. His research and interviews were extensive in preparation for this book, including interviews with victim families and friends, associates and family of the serial killer Josh Wade, FBI and police investigators, attorneys, and even correspondence with Wade himself. Francis weaves all of this information into a chronologically coherent and riveting tale.

The first two parts of the book outline the two murders for which Josh Wade was tried. In the first, Della Brown, an Alaskan Native, intoxicated, was brutally raped, tortured, and murdered. The details are gruesome. The killer bragged about the acts, saying they were motivated by his hatred of Natives. Despite this, prosecutors could not get a conviction of Wade of any crime except tampering with evidence. In Part Two, two years after his release, Wade kills and possibly assaulted sexually a white woman, petite psychiatric nurse Mindy Schloss. Francis outlines the series of events leading to Wade’s capture and conviction for the murder of Schloss, and how this eventually brought closure in the case of Della Brown.

Several murders of Native Alaskan women remain unsolved, some of which are attributed to Wade by the FBI. He admitted to murdering three men after he was sentenced to life in prison. The author also introduces speculation that there may be other murders, even dating back to Wade’s teenage years.

Certainly it is important that this story be told from the point of view of the victims, their families, and the community that was affected by the killer for many years. But Francis skillfully brings out a larger issue without ever addressing it directly. By the time Wade committed the murders described in Ice and Bone, he had been in mental institutions several times. He had been incarcerated and released. He had dealt in drugs and abused children. In spite of the terrible guilt of this man, society shares in it. Perhaps these crimes could not have been prevented. But being able to read a book such as Ice and Bone stimulates thought about the nature of abuse and mental illness, and our common responsibility to find ways to address them.  Now and again, we should do just that.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

One Year Anniversary

Springdale Airport across the street from my apartment
Feb 2016
It's hard to believe that I have been writing this blog for a whole year. It is even harder to believe that it has been viewed over 8,000 times in that year. I think it is a safe bet that many different people have been here to read my silly haiku and One Sentence Stories, view photos of the people, places and things surrounding my life, and to read my reviews of the wildly varying stories, books, and movies that I have consumed. If you missed any of the 97 posts of 2016, there is no time like now to browse and catch up.

Though I am not vain enough to believe you came here on purpose because you love my writing, I hope you were inspired, entertained, enlightened, or enraged by what you read. And I thank you. Being read by others is very important to me as a writer, however it happens.

This started out as a daily exercise. I was completely unemployed at the time, and had no excuse not to write at least one short poem or story every day. Then I became underemployed, which took a lot more of my time, got a bad case of the flu, etcetera. But after a brief hiatus in late February, I settled down to a weekly schedule and have been true to it ever since.

I really appreciate you, and if you like what you see you can follow me on Twitter (@davisfalkwriter), and Facebook (@davisfalk). Subscribe by email using the form on the right. And if you are really super-impressed, don't send money, just buy one or both of my eBooks The Spaceport Was Empty and The Philosophy of Suicide, available from And tell two friends.

My mother, ever the optimist, repeats the mantra "Today is a beautiful day." This is very true. Yesterday is gone and tomorrow never comes. And 2017 is a beautiful year. I hope to make this blog--and everything else I do--worthy of such beauty, and my wish for you is the same.