Monday, March 21, 2011

Game 7: Dead Ball

By Allen Schatz
$2.99 at

There may be other novels featuring baseball umpires as lead characters, but I haven’t read one. It sounds almost like an exercise in a creative writing class: Set the person who is supposed to remain invisible at the center of a story involving love and hate, success and failure, excitement and tragedy. Author Allen Schatz has done that and done it well.

For a good portion of Game 7: Dead Ball, protagonist Marshall Connors knows he’s in the middle of a life-or-death situation. He just doesn’t know whose or what to do about it.

Chosen to umpire the World Series as a surprise replacement for the crew chief who apparently suffered a heart attack, Connors must call balls and strikes on his boyhood friend Terry O’Hara, the ace of the Philadelphia Phillies pitching staff, and Terry’s former USC teammate Nik Sanchez, catcher for the Tampa Bay Rays.

Terry and Nik’s relationship was ruined long ago and now is defined only by animus. A third Trojan teammate, AJ Singer, had an affair with Terry’s mother, and when her husband discovered it, things got very ugly for all involved.

As the Series bounces between Florida and Pennsylvania, millions of fans watch the games on television unaware of the real drama swirling around Marshall Connors. Notes are surreptitiously delivered to him at home plate; meaningful looks are thrown by league security men, and an old-fashioned baseball “message” is delivered by catcher Sanchez – a fastball allowed to blast Marshall in the facemask.

Between games, though, Marshall manages to work in a little romance and tries to help his friend Thomas Hillsborough, an ex-CIA spook who is sort of a law-enforcement-stud-without-portfolio, figure out what’s going on.

You might expect a mystery involving a baseball umpire in the World Series to center on fixing games. Schatz happily has chosen to go in a less obvious direction.

Without giving away the plot, the crimes here include serial murder, kidnapping, extortion, and felony battery. Throw in the inter-generational adultery and some unpaid gambling debts, and you’ve got lots of reasons for people not to like each other.

Game 7 has a huge cast of characters – FBI agents, Major League Baseball officials, ball players, bad guys, innocent victims, and umpires among them. It is to Schatz’s credit as a writer that they’re reasonably easy to keep straight.

If you like baseball and thrillers, Game 7: Dead Ball is a must read. Even those who are only so-so on the national pastime but enjoy complicated plots with well-drawn characters will find Game 7 most satisfying.

Click here to link to Game 7: Dead Ball.

Bill Furlow

Dragon Lady

By Gary Alexander
Available in early April at

In Gary Alexander’s vision of The Great Beyond, the big questions about life never get fully answered.

Joseph Josiah Joe IV doesn’t know whether he’s in Heaven or Hell, and he doesn’t waste time trying to figure it out, simply referring to it as The Great Beyond. “Thanks to the psychological games They play with me,” he tells us in the satirical Vietnam War book Dragon Lady, “one day it’s one, the next day the other.” Wherever he is, it’s got San Diego weather and non-stop elevator music.

Important to the reader is the perspective that living in The Great Beyond gives our storyteller, who long ago was Private Joe of the U.S. Army, serving in the relative safety of Saigon. The year is 1965, a time when big-wig Americans (at least fictional ones) were naïve enough to think they could pinpoint the very day the North Vietnamese would be forced to capitulate, sending home the relative handful of GIs in-country before too many were killed.

Private Joe’s youth had not been dominated by worship of baseball players, rock stars or astronauts. Rather he was fascinated by the comic strip Terry and the Pirates, and his lingering boyhood crush had been on its mysterious femme fatale, the Dragon Lady. In Saigon, Joe comes across a beautiful woman who, in his still-boyish mind, becomes his real-life Dragon Lady.

Positioning the narrator in the afterlife gives Dragon Lady a third dimension that lifts it above a simple boy-meets-girl story. Mai is a prostitute and possible Viet Cong spy who consorts with Joe’s superior officers. Whatever she is, Joe is smitten with her and, all logic aside, wants to take her home. We know from the biography he’s given us from The Great Beyond, that’s not going to happen. But his love-sick pursuit of his impossible dream is entertaining.

Along the way, Joe and his sidekick Pvt. Zbitgysz lead a life of high-jinks, performing “alternative materiel” requisitions for their incompetent bosses. In that way and others, Dragon Lady aspires to be the Catch-22 of Vietnam. But it’s less ironic, and it’s no put-down to say its humor is more like that of the movie Good Morning, Vietnam or the TV version of M*A*S*H.

As a mortal, it takes Joe a long time and considerable growing up to learn the apparent truth about Mai. In The Great Beyond, new questions about her arise, enlivening Joe’s hum-drum existence and giving him something to live (?) for.

Until recently, I had not read a Vietnam book in decades. Now I’ve read two this year, the gripping Matterhorn, which takes us into the brutal world of a Marine combat unit, and the wistfully humorous Dragon Lady. Other than sharing a complete disdain for the mid-level officers whose egos and ambitions cost many American lives, the two couldn’t be more different. But both have something to say about the folly of war and, particularly, our Vietnam misadventure.

Click here to link to Dragon Lady.

Bill Furlow

The Meteoric Rise of Simon Burchwood

By Scott Semegran
$2.99 at

Why anyone would care about Simon Burchwood’s meteoric rise I’m not sure, but I certainly did. I couldn’t stop turning the pages to find out what amazing, stupid, or appalling thing Simon might do next. It’s true, as Simon, our narrator, says time after time in his memoir, The Meteoric Rise of Simon Burchwood.

Simon has always wanted to be a famous writer – not just a writer, but a famous one – yet fate has him working a dull job at TechForce, in Austin, Texas. Actually, he does as little for his employer as possible, preferring to use his company computer to work on his great novel, It’s true.

Simon is not an appealing man—not in appearance as he describes himself, not in his personality, and not in his behavior. Yet we are hooked on his adventures and what comes out of his mouth.

He is supposed to be flying to New York to read a passage from his soon-to-be-published novel, The Rise and Fall of a Titan, at Barnes & Noble’s flagship store, but he stops off in his hometown of Montgomery, Alabama, to visit his best friend, Jason, whom he hasn’t seen since he was 16. They have stayed in touch through, amazingly enough, letters.

Some of the best scenes in the book come when Simon interacts with strangers. He inevitably starts out thinking a person is nice, clever, a genius even, then ends up hating them—all in one short encounter.

As an example, here’s part of his encounter with an airport bartender:

Bartender: “That drink’s on the house," he said, pointing to my cocktail.

Simon: “Thank you for your generosity." Can you fucking believe it? Wow, he was a professional, a real topnotch bartender. I have known many bartenders in my time but he was one of the slickest.”

And later in the conversation:

Bartender: “Being that I work in an airport, I meet lots of famous types. Singers, actors, politicians, reporters, disc jockeys, athletes, porn stars, you name it. But I ain't never met no writer before. Come to think of it, I don't even know what writers look like.”

Simon: "That's a shame. Writers should be like rock stars in our society. They should be revered," I said. And I meant it too.

Bartender: "That's funny. That's like saying everyone should recognize chess masters or cyclists or physicists or inventors. Nobody cares about writers just like nobody cares about those other types. No offense."

Simon: "None taken." Actually, that really pissed me off. I mean, who the fuck did he think he was anyway? I was the one with a publishing deal. He was stuck in an airport bar serving swill to his high-class clientele, the nose-picking barflies.”

And his encounters continue with his about-faces: the ticket agent, the flight attendant, a friend from high school, Jason’s wife, the girl he had a crush on in high school; not even Jason escapes his excoriation. It’s true.
And did I mention that he was cheap and a shameless self-promoter? For example, he passes out his business card to just about everyone he runs into and tells them: " . . . you can leave me a tip by going to my web site at and clicking the Submit button on the gratuity web page." He takes all major credit cards. It’s true.

Simon is such a character that I couldn’t wait to find what he did next.
But I wasn’t at all prepared for the surprising conclusion.
It’s true.
Click here to link to The Meteoric Rise of Simon Burchwood.

Davilynn Furlow

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Lethal Play

By Loretta Giacoletto
$2.99 at

Francesca Canelli never was the stereotypical soccer mom, even though the center of family life was son Matt’s aspiration to play for the top club team in St. Louis. She had zero feel for the game and, if possible, even less interest in schmoozing with the other parents.

But when Matt’s soccer-nut father Ben is fatally struck by a van on an early morning jog, Francesca tries to pick up the slack, doing everything she can – and that turns out to be an outrageously big “everything” – to support her son.

The team, Pegasi, is coached by Rex Meredith, and no more loathsome individual ever walked a sideline. He uses his team’s success to extort everything from medical services to appliances to sex from the soccer parents, and even players.

When Rex’s body is found hanging from the soccer goal crossbar, naked but for socks, not even his widow is heartbroken. Was it suicide? It’s possible but unlikely. Francesca Canelli, who may have had ample reason to murder Rex, certainly couldn’t have put him in that position by herself. But with an accomplice…? Disaffected players cannot be overlooked. And what about the Canelli family friend who took over the team after Meredith’s death?

Det. Guy Winchester and Lt. Sam Reardan, assisted by Juvenile Officer Quinella Armstrong, are on the case but seem to find no one who has a credible story. (I don’t know whether Giacoletto thought through the fact that Armstrong is typically referred to by her first name, while the male detectives are identified by their last.)

Eventually the case appears to be nicely wrapped up, ending a little more cleanly than one might desire. Thankfully, though, that conclusion is no more satisfying to Reardan and Winchester, so they continue to probe.

Lethal Play has plenty of complexity to keep readers off-guard. Giacoletto has created characters the reader can pull for or against and also recognize. It’s a good read, and we look forward to seeing other books from her.

Click here to link to Lethal Play.

Off Track

By Michael J. Hultquist
$3.99 at

Off Track is a classic story of a guy getting out of the joint and trying to go straight in the face of circumstances and people who conspire against him.

In this case, though, the ex-con is only 16 years old. Gary Sanderson had been in an Illinois juvenile facility called Radcliffe for four years after having killed his father in a morally justifiable, if illegal, shooting.

Now he wants nothing more than to make a decent life with the nice young foster parents whose decision to take him in shaved two years off his sentence. Oh, and he also wants a relationship with the neighbor girl whose father has forbidden him from coming anywhere near her.

Gary’s legal status leaves him vulnerable to those who enjoy preying on the weak, from an over-familiar male guidance counselor, to schoolyard bullies and an arrogant, tone-deaf cop.

Inevitably, Gary must make a decision that – again, even if morally defensible – could land him back in juvenile detention or worse. Readers may think they understand the alternative ways the situation could be resolved, but author Michael J. Hultquist has thought of a few more.

Hultquist lets the book unfold in its own time. He said he was seeking “a slow boil that bubbled to the surface in one final crescendo.” And that’s pretty much what it does. It’s a good story for readers who don’t require instant gratification and can find satisfaction in considering Gary’s various ethical and practical dilemmas along the way.

Click here to link to Off Track.

Make a Move

By Stephen Gaskin
$2.99 at

Freddy Mossman is too young to be washed up as a British SIS agent, but that’s essentially the situation he’s in because of a major screw-up on an assignment in Mexico. As a way to stay in the agency, he’s agreed to manage a safe house lodged in a small-time Parisian porn theater.

While Freddy ponders whether he’s got the right moral code for his chosen career, across town his former girlfriend Holly Henderson tries to fit in with the French company that acquired her former employer and moved her to the home office.

Stirring the pot is Freddy’s friend Jay McFarlane, a talented but not over-ambitious photographer who already has found his niche in life – causing as much trouble as possible for those he thinks deserve it. Invited to Paris to lighten his friend’s mood, Jay has attracted his own set of government operatives.

Jay’s idea of fun is to steal the neighborhood pimp’s classic car or to put Freddy in a position in which he must fight a celebrity’s two bodyguards. He’s not even above insulting the wife of Holly’s boss at the party she hopes to use to salvage her career. In a way, this is a high-jinks book. There is lots of violence, but most of it takes place off-stage.

As expected in a well-written thriller, it’s usually unclear who’s doing what to whom and why. When Freddy’s former mentor Thomas Veil shows up to offer him a way out of his dead-beat job, all the loose ends – Mexico, the spy shot dead in the theater by a gunman wearing a clown mask, and the head and hands of another spook left in Freddy’s fridge – all come together in a very satisfying denouement.

Make a Move
is breezy, well-crafted and doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Click here to link to Make a Move.