The Best Books I Read in 2017

In my review of the best books I read in 2016, I mentioned that I had not read many good books during the year. I read a few really good books and a lot of mediocre ones. That’s not the case with my 2017 list. For me, 2017 was a very good year for books. But before I get to my list of the ten best books I read in 2017, let me complain a little bit.

Expectations can be a funny thing. If you’re expectations are low, it’s easy for a good book to surprise you. But the opposite is also true. If too many people tell you how great a book is, it can be hard for that book to meet your expectations.

So, maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that the two Harry Potter books I read this year—Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets—were disappointing. I had heard people wax poetic about the Harry Potter series for years. They loved J.K. Rowling’s books and the movies that were made from them. They dressed as Harry Potter characters for Halloween (and sometimes not on Halloween), and they made pilgrimages to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios in Orlando. These people were true fans. Me, not so much.

Author J.K. Rowling has had great success with her Harry Potter books, but I wasn’t impressed. I thought the writing was just okay, and there were big problems with the plots in both books. As you can imagine, neither book made my list for 2017.

I was also very disappointed in Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. Ishiguro is a Nobel Prize winning author who is highly regarded in literary circles, so I had high expectations when I read his 2005 novel. But it didn’t turn out that way. I found his writing on the sentence level to be competent, but his storytelling was far too slow and boring. There’s an old joke about literary writing: nothing much happens, but it happens in great detail. The reason the joke works is because there’s a great deal of truth to it. Ishiguro’s work (at least Never Let Me Go) is the truth behind the joke.

That brings us to this year’s list. Remember, these are books I read in 2017, but they may have been published years ago. Let’s do the list in descending order. Don’t skip ahead. Let the tension build.

10. Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk – Is it possible to like a book and be disappointed in it at the same time? That’s exactly how I felt after reading Fight Club, the popular novel first published in 2005. I had heard great things about it, but had never read it. I had heard great things about the movie version of the book, starring Brad Pitt, but had never seen it. So, I came to Fight Club with high expectations, maybe too high. I liked the book, and the psychological nature of the writing, but I can’t say that I loved it. I would definitely recommend Fight Club, but I won’t over-hype it. It’s a good book worth reading, but don’t let the book’s (and movie’s) popularity set your expectations too high.

 

9. Perfume River by Robert Olen ButlerPerfume River was published in 2016, and in 2017 was nominated for the Andrew Carnegie Medal. I had heard a little bit of buzz about the book, so I decided to give it a read. I’m glad I did. The book takes a look back at the Vietnam War from the perspective of Robert, a seventy-year-old history professor at Florida State (where the author is a professor). The Vietnam War split his family apart when his brother, Jimmy, chose to live in Canada rather than serve in a war he didn’t believe in. The family remains split up for nearly fifty years until the family patriarch, a World War II vet, takes ill and dies. The father turned his back on Jimmy when he went to Canada, and it’s up to Robert to try to reunite the family for the father’s funeral. In the meantime, Robert’s marriage to Darla is being strained, and Jimmy’s relationship with his long-time girlfriend becomes more and more complicated. Perfume River is a well-written, engaging story. Although it can be a little slow at times, it’s definitely worth the read.

8. Jimmy Buffet: A Good Life All the Way by Ryan White – This is one of two nonfiction books that made this year’s list. I’m a fan of Jimmy Buffet’s music, but even more, I’m intrigued by the lifestyle that has grown up around him. Buffet’s Margaritaville restaurants and hotels have become ubiquitous in resort areas around the country (and a few internationally). Margaritaville has even moved into the 55-and-over residence business. Buffet was behind the creation of Landshark Beer, now owned and marketed by Anheuser-Busch. He is an interesting fellow who has parlayed his easy-going, toes-in-the-sand lifestyle into a wealthy life. And his fans—who refer to themselves as Parrotheads—love him for it. The book chronicles Buffet’s early life in Pascagoula, Mississippi and Mobile, Alabama, his time as a struggling songwriter in Nashville, and his serendipitous move to Key West, where the Jimmy Buffet lifestyle was officially born. To be sure, Ryan White’s book is not a critical look at Buffet’s life and success. It’s more a biography written by an unquestioning fan. Even so, I enjoyed the book and the temporary escape to Margaritaville.

7. Train by Pete Dexter – I have been reading a lot of Pete Dexter recently, and the more I read, the more I appreciate Dexter’s writing and his ability to tell a story. Train is not a new book. It was originally published in 2003 and won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction that year. The book takes place in 1953 and follows Lionel “Train” Walk, a young black caddy at a San Diego country club, and his benefactor, Millard Packard, a tough San Diego police detective who makes his own rules, and seems bored with ordinary life. Train appears to be going nowhere in life until Packard shows up at the country club one day. Time and again, Packard intervenes in Train’s life, seemingly without ever asking for anything in return. Train doesn’t understand this white man’s interest in him. In fact, no one seems to understand Packard, who is fearless in any situation, to the point of recklessness. His wife, the victim of a horrific crime Packard investigated, loves him, but also doesn’t understand his unorthodox behavior. Eventually, she fears what she cannot understand. One criticism I have about the book is the ending. As any writer will tell you, endings are hard. In this case, as good a writer as Dexter is, I’m afraid he swung and missed at the ending. Even so, the book is still good enough to make this year’s list.

6. The Life We Bury by Allen EskinsThe Life We Bury was published in 2014 and was nominated for several fiction awards. The story is about Joe Tolbert, a college student who has to write a paper for his English class. The assignment is to interview a stranger and write a brief biography. He reluctantly trudges off to a local retirement home to find someone interesting, and he is introduced to Carl Iverson, a Vietnam War hero, and convicted murderer of a teenage girl. Carl has cancer. He was medically paroled to the nursing home and only has a few months to live. Joe has trouble reconciling Carl’s military heroism with the brutal murder he is accused of committing, but the evidence seems overwhelming. As Joe digs deeper, he becomes convinced that Carl is an innocent man. But can he find enough evidence to overturn Carl’s conviction before he dies? The Life We Bury is a fun, compelling read that kept me intrigued from start to finish.

5. The Heavenly Table by Donald Ray Pollock – Published in 2016, The Heavenly Table tells the story of the Jewett brothers, Cane, Cob, and Chimney, and their hardscrabble, murderous journey from the dirt farms of Western Alabama to bucolic Southern Ohio in 1917. As police close in on them, the Jewetts meet Ellsworth and Eula Fiddler, a hard luck couple who take in the brothers and show them a kindness they have not previously experienced. Pollock does a masterful job with his characters. They are flawed and loveable and abhorrent and forgivable. No one is perfect and no one is evil. Just like real people, they are a mixture of good and bad. What comes out depends on the circumstances each character finds themselves in. The Heavenly Table is a terrific book. I plan on reading more Pollock in the upcoming year.

4. Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus by Laura Kipnis – If you’re not on a college campus, or at least in occasional contact with academia, you may not know that there is a sexual assault crisis going on at universities across the country. Reports claim that 1-in-5 female college students will be raped or sexually assaulted during their time on campus. Yet, author Laura Kipnis, professor at Northwestern University and noted feminist, thinks that not only are the stats misleading (or flat out wrong), but that the focus on women in constant danger of sexual assault on college campuses makes victims of all females and ultimately hurts feminism. In the book, Kipnis lays out the case that not only are cases of sexual assault on campus overblown, but that there is a certain group of feminists who are weaponizing sexual assault claims for political purposes. The book is wonderfully written, meticulously researched, and quite eye-opening.

3. Bear Town by Fredrik BackmanBear Town has been included on many of the “Best of 2017” lists I’ve seen floating around the internet. And with good reason. It’s a terrific book. The village of Bear Town is a tiny community that has seen better days. A lot of the best and brightest have left town, but those that have stayed believe better days are ahead. And they may be right. The junior hockey team—the pride of the town—is on its way to the national championship, a heady honor for such a hard luck town. But carrying the weight of an entire town on such young shoulders is tough business, and when one of the players is accused of raping the daughter of the team’s general manager, loyalties are questioned and friendships are torn apart. I highly recommend Bear Town, not only for the terrific writing and storytelling, but also for the sensitive way the author handled an often-taboo subject. Any other year, Bear Town could have easily been the best book of the year.

2. Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan – Let me say up front that Jennifer Egan is one of my favorite writers. I was a big fan of A Visit From the Goon Squad, and I had high hopes for Manhattan Beach. Egan didn’t disappoint. The book begins in Brooklyn during the Great Depression. Twelve-year old Anna Kerrigan is the apple of her father’s eye, and is his companion when he goes to see Dexter Styles, a mysterious and powerful man who lives in a big house and has uniformed servants at his beckoned call. Years later, Anna’s father has gone missing, and Anna, now a young woman, is working in the Brooklyn Naval Yard, with most of the men in the area off fighting World War II. One night while out drinking with a friend, Anna runs into Dexter, and the chance meeting changes their lives in ways they could have never imagined. Like Bear Town, in any other year, Manhattan Beach could have been the book of the year.

1. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders – Saunders is well-known as one of the world’s great short story writers. Lincoln in the Bardo is his first attempt at a full-fledged novel. On his first try, he hit it out of the park. In fact, in a sense, Saunders created a whole new genre. I know that’s quite a claim, but if it’s not a genre unto itself, then at the very least, it is a literary journey like I’ve never experienced before. Lincoln in the Bardo imagines the conversations of the dead-in-waiting in a Washington, DC cemetery. The Civil War is raging, and President Lincoln’s young son, Willie, has died. Lincoln visits the cemetery to hold his young son’s body. The visit, and Lincoln’s grief, cause a stir among the residents of the cemetery, resulting in strange acts of penance, long gripe sessions, and reflections on lives lived and ultimately lost. I listened to the audiobook version of Lincoln in the Bardo and it was a wonderful experience. I suspect reading the book would be just as enthralling, but I can’t say for sure. Saunders humanity permeates the book and its characters. My guess is that this will come through in the print book every bit as much as it does in the audiobook. I can’t recommend this book highly enough. It is a true work of art.

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The Life and Times of Randy Lanier

“Racing makes heroin addiction look like a vague wish for something salty” — Peter Egan

When I was writing Driven: A Novel, I was inspired by the stories of several people. John Roberts and Mickey Munday, stars of the documentary Cocaine Cowboys, had a big influence on the story. So did Bill and Don Wittington, brothers who raced sports cars and indy cars, and paid for it all through their marijuana smuggling operation. The incredible story of another racer, John Paul, Sr., added to my knowledge of drug smugglers who used their ill gotten gain to pay for their racing addiction. But the guy who really influenced and inspired the book was an interesting and unassuming guy by the name of Randy Lanier.

Randy was born in Virginia and raised in South Florida. He fell in love with racing in the late 1970’s after attending a car show and stumbling across a booth for the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA). They were promoting amateur club racing, and Randy was an easy target. He loved the idea of pushing a car to it’s limits on a race track, so he signed up for an SCCA drivers school, where he received his competition license. Little did he know that his passion for racing would shape, and eventually derail, his life.

Randy drove a Porsche 356 in regional events, but he wanted to move up and race against better competition. He was having some success and making a name for himself, but his big break came at the 1982 24 Hours of Daytona. Famed racer Janet Guthrie fell ill, and her Ferrari team owner asked Randy to fill in for her. The car retired early with transmission trouble, but the effort earned Randy an invitation to race at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in France later that year.

It’s important to point out how unusual all of this was. Randy was a relatively low-level racer when he was invited to join the Ferrari team at Daytona. It was a fluke. He just happened to be in the right place at the right time. To then parlay that into a ride at Le Mans is amazing.

Randy’s finishes at Daytona and Le Mans were nothing to write home about, but his personal performance impressed people. This new guy was pretty good.  And the experience cemented Randy’s decision to be a professional race car driver.

In 1984, Randy co-founded his own team, which he called Blue Thunder Racing. His partners in the venture were brothers, Bill and Dale Whittington. The team had great success, even winning the IMSA GTP championship in their inaugural season.

Randy tried to translate his success in sports cars into open-wheel cars in 1985. He attempted to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 that year, but officials decided he was too inexperienced to take on the speedway. Randy would not be denied. He came back in 1986 and set the rookie record for qualifying, previously held by Michael Andretti. Randy ran a good race, finished tenth, and was named Rookie of the Year. Not a bad result for a guy who had only been racing professionally for three years.

Meanwhile, Bill Whittington and his brother Don were arrested on charges of conspiracy to distribute marijuana. It was alleged that the Whittington drug importing business was where they had gotten the money to fund Blue Thunder Racing.  Both Whittingtons eventually pled guilty, Bill receiving a fifteen year sentence, and Don got eighteen months. Randy wasn’t implicated, and he denied having any knowledge of the Whittington’s illegal business. But the Feds weren’t too far behind Randy. Eight months after the Whittingtons pled guilty, Randy was indicted on charges that he had smuggled 150 tons of marijuana into the U.S. When the government obtained a second indictment against him, Randy went on the lam. He left the country, eventually making his way to Antigua.

Randy was out in his boat on a bright, sunny day in the Caribbean when he saw a large ship blocking the entrance to the port, preventing him from entering. He had a feeling something was up, so he took a smaller boat onto the beach and tried to get back to his home. Law enforcement wouldn’t cooperate, instead chasing him around the island until he was caught and sent back to the United States. Randy was eventually sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole under the Continuing Criminal Enterprise (AKA: Drug Kingpin) sentencing guidelines.

It seems incredible that anyone could be sentenced to life in prison for importing marijuana. The drug is actually legal (or decriminalized) now in several cities and states. To be fair, Randy was guilty. He even agreed to spend a reasonable amount of time in prison, but the Feds weren’t in the business of being reasonable, not when it came to drug smugglers. So, Randy languished in prison until October 2014. It’s unclear why he was released, but the Federal Government agreed to release him after more than twenty-five years in prison.

I find Randy’s story endlessly interesting. I would love to talk to him in person, and it would be great to actually race with him in an amateur endurance race. I just bought a new race car. You never know, maybe it will happen.

If you’re interested in reading a fictional story with a lot of factual inspiration that explores the intersection between drug smuggling and sports car racing, I invite you to check out Driven: A Novel, now available on Amazon and other fine book stores.

 

 

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Blind Ambition: The Theme Behind Driven: A Novel

Have you ever wanted something so bad that you’d do just about anything to get it? That’s the question I had in the back of my mind as I was writing my new novel, Driven.

In the book, Alex Booth is a twenty-four year old living in South Florida who has a burning desire to drive race cars professionally. He has a little experience in low horsepower cars, but he wants to step up to the big, expensive, high horsepower cars, the ones at the front of the grid. And he wants to get paid for his efforts.

When he loses the opportunity to drive a powerful Porsche 935K, Alex is forced to pay to race a low horsepower car as a way to further prove himself. Problem is, he doesn’t have any money. He’s been barely scraping by, often relying on his brother, Jimmy, to help pay the bills. What’s a wannabe race car driver to do? Well, in 1982 in Miami, if you need to make a quick buck, you can always smuggle drugs. Jimmy thinks that’s a great idea. Alex isn’t so sure, but since he doesn’t have any better options, drug smuggling it is.

Thus begins Alex’s journey into the world of fast boats, faster women, and big-time drug running. Alex doesn’t view himself as part of the drug culture—he’s generally a straight-laced, by-the-book kind of guy—but when your dream is as big and expensive as Alex’s, you sometimes have to do things you normally wouldn’t do. And the deeper in you go, the harder it is to get out.

Driven is all about Alex’s hesitant entry into the world of marijuana and cocaine smuggling, and how that world can lead to big money and big trouble. But Alex isn’t the only one with dreams. Gina, Alex’s girlfriend, dreams of living a normal life with a normal guy, complete with a 9-5 job, a mortgage, and two-and-a-half kids. And even though her dream may not seem as big or as bold as Alex’s, she is just as determined to get what she wants.

Jimmy, Alex’s brother, dreams of owning the coolest, most popular nightclubs in South Florida. His rise from manager of a beachfront bar to owner of Rum Runners, Miami’s newest and trendiest nightclub, is a sight to behold, exceeded only by his sudden and spectacular fall.

Cristina comes from a famous, wealthy family. She loves her lifestyle, but hates having to rely on her family for everything she has. She wants to make her own way in the world. By all means, she wants to continuing to live a life known only to the wealthy, but she wants to be able to pay for it herself. What will she be willing to do to realize her dream?

Most everyone is a nice, normal person until they’re presented with an opportunity to do or have that one thing they have desired their whole life. Driven is about how people act in that moment. What are they willing to do or say, and how far will they push things, to get what they want? You might be surprised.

Driven: A Novel is available beginning Friday, December 8, in both ebook and paperback formats, at Amazon and fine book stores everywhere.

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A Passion for Passion

I love passion. I’m not talking about romantic passion (Although I like that, too). I’m talking about the enthusiasm and drive and single-minded focus that people exhibit when they pursue a goal or cause that is near and dear to them. Passion doesn’t exist when you like something (i.e. I like chocolate, dogs, and the beach). Passion only becomes involved when you love something, you can’t live without it, and you can’t think about anything else.

Over the years, I have shared stories of my friends who have followed their passion, and who are pursuing it with all their might, devoting their time, money, and energy to creating or accomplishing something that they feel compelled to do.

For instance, my buddy Randy Pobst has devoted his life to driving race cars, and now writing about races and race cars. His pursuits keep him on the move constantly. During the week, Randy can be found testing cars or creating videos for Motor Trend magazine. On weekends, this former professional race car driver can be found at one or another race track competing in amateur races. He doesn’t get paid to race anymore, but he still shows up because he loves racing so much. Randy spends twenty-five to thirty nights on the road each month. It’s a crazy lifestyle, but I don’t think he would (or could) live his life any other way. He absolutely loves what he does. He has a passion for it.

Grant Peele is another guy who is living his life based on his passion. Grant tried a lot of ways to earn a living. He owned rental properties, ran a used car lot, had storage units, even owned coin-operated games that he placed in bars and restaurants. He was chasing money. Today, Grant is a filmmaker, having worked on Emmy-nominated shorts as well as full-length documentaries. He tried to deny his passion, holding it at bay while he tried some other things to pay the bills, but he finally gave in. His passion for telling stories on film has taken him all over the globe, and he has shared his stories with millions of people. Becoming a filmmaker wasn’t easy. And maintaining the filmmaker’s lifestyle, traveling away from home all of the time, still takes its toll. But telling stories is what Grant was born to do. He has a passion for it, and feels compelled to do it, no matter the costs.

When I was writing Driven: A Novel, I was thinking about people like Randy and Grant and others who have devoted their lives to their passion. I wanted my main character, Alex Booth, to be the same kind of guy. Alex has a passion for auto racing. He eats, sleeps, and breathes the sport. What he doesn’t have is the money he needs to pursue his dream. So he makes the decision to smuggle drugs to get the money. It’s not the choice most (or many) people would make, but such is the power of Alex’s passion. He’s a generally well-behaved guy who always colors inside the lines, but his desperation to feed his passion leads him to make some decisions that allow him to pursue his dream. He  gets wealthy in the process, but his decision leads to some bad consequences he doesn’t anticipate.

Tomorrow, I’ll talk a little bit more about Driven. In the book, Alex isn’t the only one who has a dream. How each character reacts when their dream is threatened or when an opportunity to realize their dream presents itself is what really interests me about this story and these characters. More on that tomorrow.

Just two more days until Driven: A Novel is published. Things are getting exciting.

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Driven Cover Reveal

Here is the cover for my new book, Driven: A Novel. The book is the product of a lot of blood, sweat, and tears.* Tomorrow, I’ll tell you a little about the book. For now, I just wanted to introduce the cover.

The book will be available in just a few days, so don’t buy those stocking stuffers just yet. Driven is on its way.

*In the interest of full disclosure, I did not bleed or shed any tears as a result of writing this book. I may have sweated, but it was inadvertent and probably unrelated to the act of writing. Even so, I worked really hard on the book. That was the point I was trying to make by using an overworked but ultimately inaccurate cliché.

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Revisiting the American Dream

Three years ago today, author Brandon Sneed asked me what the American dream meant to me. Brandon was in the process of writing Behind the Drive: An Honest Story About What It Really Takes to Chase The American Dream, the biography of Kenny Moore, the founder of Hwy 55 Burgers, Shakes, and Fries, and he was asking various people how they viewed the American dream.

I’m internet friends with Brandon, so I appreciated him asking my opinion, but I didn’t think he would include my thoughts in his series. And yet, that is exactly what he did. I found it interesting to re-read my thoughts from three years ago. Perhaps most surprising, I still feel the same way now about the American dream as I did then.

Here’s what I had to say three years ago:

From Brandon Sneed’s blog:

There was a time several years ago when the American Dream for me was getting wealthy.  I spent my time chasing money, first in a corporate job and then in a business of my own.  At the time, self-satisfaction and self-expression took a back seat to making money.  This worked okay for a while, but I felt really empty.  I was making good money, but I envied people who were living life on their own terms.

These were people who were doing things they loved, but weren’t necessarily making much money.  I got to know some of these people and found out that with very few exceptions, they were happier than me.  These people had more freedom, lived a more adventurous life, and had stronger relationships with their loved ones even though they weren’t making as much money as I was.

It dawned on me, maybe I would be happier if I did something I loved rather than chased money.  When I did, I found I had much more freedom and could live the life I wanted to live despite the fact that I was earning substantially less money.

For me, this is the American dream.

Actually, I’m not sure it is uniquely American.  People from all over the world can benefit from this type of lifestyle, but I think it needs to be said that Americans tend to kill themselves earning a living even though they (we) have as many or more lifestyle options as people in any other country on Earth. We have a cultural expectation that values hard work, income maximization and poor lifestyle choices at the expense of health, happiness, and relationships.

I’ve chosen to abandon (or at least move away from) this American cultural expectation in favor of chasing my dream of being a writer, being healthier (a work in progress) and above all, being happy.  It took me a long time to come to this decision, so I’m starting a little late in life, but when it comes to living a happy, fulfilled life, it’s definitely better late than never.

 

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Getting Closer to a Completed Novel

This past week has been an exciting one for me. Last weekend, I finally finished revising my new novel, Driven. The book takes place in Miami in the early 1980’s, and is about a young man determined to become a professional race car driver. When money stands between him and his dream, he turns to drug smuggling as a way to make the money he needs. In the process, he wins races, falls in love (a couple of times), and becomes wealthier than he could have ever imagined. But not everyone wants to see him succeed, including his fellow competitors and the cops.

For some reason, this book was difficult to write. I had planned on it being finished several months ago, but as happens so often, life got in the way. I never gave up on the project, but I did have to attend to other matters from time to time. Despite the difficulties, I’m really happy with the book that resulted.

On Sunday, I sent Driven off to the editor, who promises to make it even better. He’s working on it now and should have it back to me in a few weeks. While I’m waiting, I’m having a book cover designed, and I’ve already started on my next book, a time travel novel. Once I get Driven back from the editor, I’ll need to make final revisions, finalize the book cover, send it to the proofreader, and get it ready to publish. I hope to have all of this completed by the end of October.

Finally, late this past week, I started the process of creating an audiobook for my novella collection, Road Stories. Right now, I don’t have a feel for how long the recording process will take—it’s more involved than I initially thought—but I hope to have it completed in the next couple of months. Once that’s done, I’ll start the process of recording the audiobook version of Driven.

I’m excited to complete these projects and send them out into the world. It really is a joy to create novels and audiobooks. The only thing better is to have you read them, listen to them, and enjoy them.

Happy reading (and listening)!

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Update on Driven

Wow! It’s been more than three months since I last posted on the blog. I hate to go that long between posts. Sorry for the long absence.

The good news is that I have been very busy on my next book, Driven, during the last few months. In fact, I completed the first draft of the novel a couple of weeks ago, and I am currently hard at work on revisions. At the moment, things are going very well.

To get you up to speed, let me tell you a little bit about the book. It takes place in the early 1980’s, primarily in Miami. The main character, Alex Booth, is an aspiring race car driver who is long on talent, but short on money. Alex reluctantly turns to drug smuggling to fund his racing dreams. In the process, he makes a lot of money, a few enemies, builds a racing career, but makes a mess of his life.  Is realizing his dreams worth the headaches and potential prison time?

In the next few weeks, I should be able to share the book cover design with you. In the meantime, I’ll be working on revisions and trying to make Driven as good as it can be

Talk to you soon.

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Three Stories from Bret Anthony Johnston

Bret Anthony Johnston 3Bret Anthony Johnston is one of my favorite writers. He is a former competitive skateboarder from Corpus Christi, Texas who went on to become the director of the creative writing program at Harvard. The reason I’m so attracted to his writing is because it tends to be sparse while still being detailed and evocative. Normally, that would be a contradiction, but in Bret’s writing, it’s not.

A couple of years ago, I studied with Bret as part of the Summer Writing Festival at the University of Iowa. One of the things I liked about him was his no nonsense approach to writing. A lot of writers—especially literary writers—treat writing like it’s something beyond our comprehension. It’s part imagination, part magic, part inspiration, and it’s all controlled by the muse. Bret pretty much blew that approach out of the water. His philosophy was that good writing had much more to do with hard work and time in the chair than it did with magic and inspiration. I tend to agree.

I wanted to share three of Bret’s short stories with you. The first is “Dixon.” There are two reasons that this story resonates with me. First, it shows a glimpse into Bret’s creative mind. He takes something relatively mundane (kid’s meals toys from Dairy Queen) and builds a complicated, yet easily understood, story out of seemingly nothing. I like that because I think that’s what our lives are like, mundane moments that, when taken together, become something much more. The old saw, “the sum of the whole is greater than its parts” definitely applies here.

I also like the way Bret uses place in the story. In fact, place is always important to me, and Bret does a great job of using his former south Texas home as a background character in the story. Much of Bret’s writing takes place in south Texas, and it’s obvious that he knows the place like a family member.

The second story is “To a Good Home.” Bret usually doesn’t get too political in his stories, and this one isn’t purely political, but it will make you question your preconceptions. I know it did for me. I’m not sure how I feel about the ending. I wanted more. More information? More resolution? Something. But maybe that desire for more is what a good ending does. If Bret was writing a mystery, this ending wouldn’t work well at all. But for literary fiction, maybe it does.

Finally, my favorite Bret Anthony Johnston short story is “Republican.” This was the very first story from Bret I ever read, and it remains my favorite. There’s a sense of humor in this story that I really connect to. It’s not a humorous story, but there’s humor in it. I just really like it.

Enjoy these stories and let me know what you think.

If you didn’t catch the links to the stories above, here they are again:

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The Best Books I Read in 2016

Best Books of 2016Ann Patchett is a terrific writer who has won both the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Orange Prize for Fiction. She also is co-owner of Parnassus Books in Nashville, a fantastic bookstore that is at the forefront of making independent bookstores not only successful, but indispensable. In 2012, Time magazine named Patchett one of the 100 most influential people in the world. High praise indeed.

So when Patchett wrote in a recent blog post that 2016 was a knockout year for books, I took notice. Her claim surprised me a little because I had just been thinking that it had been a long time since I had read a really good book. The kind of book I’m talking about contains excellent writing; a terrific, interesting plot; and characters that I care about, and who change (for better or for worse) during the course of the book. I didn’t read many of those kinds of books during 2016

As I read Ann’s blog post and took note of the books she read during the year, I was envious. I hadn’t read one book that she referred to in her list of the year’s best books. Thinking about the books I had read over the past year, I realized that I read fewer books than I have in past years, and many of the books I read were being consumed for research purposes, not for pleasure.

Even so, when I listed out the books that I did enjoy and would recommend, I still came up with an eclectic list of ten books. Not all (or even most) were written during the past year. I just consumed them during 2016.

Here they are:

Bob Honey10. Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff by Pappy Pariah (Available only on audio) – This is probably the weirdest book I have ever read. In fact, everything surrounding the book is weird. No one knows for sure who the author, Pappy Pariah, is. Actor Sean Penn has been making the rounds of talk shows promoting the book, but he swears he is not Pappy Pariah. He says his only connection to the book is that he signed on to read the audio book. The book is about a strange man named Bob Honey, a septic tank specialist by trade, who works for foreign governments by going around to retirement communities and dispatching the elderly with a firm thump to their heads with a wooden mallet. But that’s really not what the book is about. That’s the story that flows through the novel, but the book is also a political commentary of sorts. It’s smart, funny, well-written, and endlessly weird. If you’re looking for strange, this just might be the book for you.

Axis of Aaron

9. Axis of Aaron by Sean Platt and Johnny B. Truant– Authors Sean Platt and Johnny B. Truant are prodigious writers who churn out commercial fiction (mostly sci-fi and horror) most of time, but each year they set aside the time to produce one literary fiction novel. The duo admits that despite their literary fiction being their least profitable venture, it is also the favorite (and some would say “best”) writing they do all year. Axis of Aaron is Platt and Truant’s literary effort for 2016. The novel is a mind-bender that follows the protagonist, Ebon Shale, back to his childhood home on Aaron Island following the death of his wife. But things on Aaron don’t match his memory. In fact, Aaron isn’t even the same from day-to-day. Neither Ebon nor the reader are ever sure what is real and what is fantasy.

The Man From Primrose Lane8.  The Man from Primrose Lane by James Renner – This is one of those books that turned out to be quite different from what I expected. It was recommended to me by a friend, but he wouldn’t tell me much about it, other than to say that it was good and he thought I’d like it. I thought I was going to be reading a crime novel, and the first half of the book was exactly as I expected. But without warning, the book turned into a time travel adventure. To be honest, the change kind of irritated me, but I had already invested myself in the characters, so I kept reading. Normally, I don’t like books (or movies) with a split personality. I want the author (or director) to know what they want their story to be. In my experience, when you try to cater to too many different tastes, you end up disappointing everyone. Even so, I have to say that I enjoyed The Man from Primrose Lane despite my initial irritation. Renner’s characters are a bit stock, and his ending is a little schlocky (not to my taste), but the overall experience was still a good one.

Nobody Move

7.  Nobody Move by Denis Johnson – This is the worst book I have read by author Denis Johnson. Train Dreams, Jesus’ Son, Tree of Smoke, and The Laughing Monsters were all better. Even so, it still makes my top ten list for 2016. This should give you an indication of what a great writer Johnson really is. As I said, this is not his strongest work, yet it’s still very good. It reminds me a little of Elmore Leonard’s work, but with Johnson’s unique perspective of life on the street. In Nobody Move, Jimmy Luntz is a two-bit hustler who owes some bad people money. When he decides to fight back rather than pay his debts to a local crime boss, Luntz has to go on the run. As in all of Johnson’s books, his characters are terribly flawed and often in trouble. While his attempt at true crime noir falls a little flat, Nobody Move is still a satisfying read.

The Paperboy

6. The Paperboy by Pete Dexter – Many years ago, I picked up a book called Deadwood by an author I was unfamiliar with named Pete Dexter. It turned out to be a revelation of sorts. I fell in love with the book, and I vowed to read more of Dexter’s writing. It took me several years, but I finally picked up another Pete Dexter book. The Paperboy was first published in 1996 (better late than never), and was made into a forgettable movie starring Nicole Kidman, Matthew McConaughey, Zac Efron, and John Cusack in 2013. It tells the story of an investigative newspaper reporter in South Florida in the 1960’s who sets out to prove that a backwoods swamp dweller didn’t commit the murder he was convicted of. I can’t speak for the movie (I never saw it), but the book is terrific. I’m making the commitment to read more Pete Dexter. He really is a sensational writer.

Modern Romance

5. Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari – This is one of two nonfiction books that made the 2016 list. A friend recommended Modern Romance to me when I was going through a divorce. The book is Ansari’s take on dating in the Internet age. I was not particularly excited to read it. I didn’t feel I needed dating advice from Ansari–a comedian I thought was just okay–but it came so highly recommended, I felt I had to take a look. I’m glad I did. Modern Romance is a very entertaining book that talks about presnt day dating without stooping to giving dating advice. Ansari’s writing is humorous, but he never goes into one of his stand-up bits, something I feared when I bought the book. Whether you are out on the front lines of the dating scene or comfortably ensconced in a relationship, Modern Romance is a fun, entertaining, educational read.

Pirate Hunters

4. Pirate Hunters by Robert Kurson – To me, Pirate Hunters is exactly what a nonfiction book should be. It tells a terrific, compelling story without inundating the reader with the “inside baseball” minutiae that many nonfiction books get lost in. That’s not to say that Pirate Hunters isn’t detailed. It is, but the small details are revealed as part of the story, not as a history lesson. And it’s the story that is the strength of this book. Pirate Hunters tells the story of two men who risk their finances and reputation to find the Golden Fleece, the ship of the infamous Joseph Bannister, a former British naval officer turned pirate. It isn’t for riches that these treasure hunters seek Bannister’s ship, but for history, which somehow makes the story all the more compelling. A terrific, suspenseful, endlessly interesting read.

Eleanor

3. Eleanor by Jason Gurley – There’s a rather famous story about the publication of this book. The author, Jason Gurley had made a living designing book covers, but he wanted to write fiction. The problem was that he was a really in-demand cover designer, and he never had enough time to write. So he began scaling back his design business–losing money in the process–and wrote his first novel, Eleanor. When he was finished, he self-published the book to great success. In fact, his success caught the eye of an agent, and the agent eventually sold the book to Crown Publishing, an imprint of Penguin Random House. In some ways, Eleanor reminds me of Axis of Aaron (see above) in the sense that it is a mind-bender where reality is fungible. The story could have easily gone off the rails, but Gurley does a good job of making the unreality real for the reader. It’s weird, but it never gets so weird that it loses its audience.

Ready Player One

2. Ready Player One by Ernest Grimes – The year is 2044 and the world is not a very nice place. Society has largely broken down, and people spend their days in high-rise single-wide trailers called “stacks,” which often collapse, killing the residents. The one constant form of entertainment and distraction is an online virtual utopia called OASIS. When the creator of OASIS—the wealthiest man in the world—suddenly dies, his estate holds a contest in the OASIS world involving the creator’s pet obsession: 1980’s pop culture. The winner takes over OASIS and will become instantly wealthy. The protagonist, teenager Wade Watts, is up against powerful corporate interests and a rag tag group of other OASIS players. To win the contest, and perhaps save the world, Wade must overcome his dysfunctional family and the corporate minions determined to stop him. Ready Player One is an incredibly entertaining novel that combines a post-apocalyptic world with 1980’s video game culture. I enjoyed this book much more than I expected.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August

1. The First Fifteen Live of Harry August by Claire North – I enjoy novels that play around with time. Time travel interests me, but many of the novels I’ve read involving time travel concentrate too much on the time travel and not enough on the characters and the plot. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August gets everything right. The writing is great, the characters are complex and engaging, and the plot is solid, intricate, and well-engineered. I like the final paragraph of the book blurb on Amazon. In describing the book, it says, “This is the story of what Harry does next, and what he did before, and how he tries to save a past he cannot change and a future he cannot allow.” Sound interesting? Trust me, it is. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is not a perfect book, but it’s very good. And it was the best book I read in 2016.

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