Book review: Murder on Lovers’ Lane by Paula Graves

I bought my friend* Paula Graves’ novella, Murder on Lovers’ Lane, recently. It’s an “indie” novel, but Paula’s published multiple novels with Harlequin Intrigue. So what I’m saying here is that yes, this is an “indie” book, but Paula is a pro, and it’s obvious in several ways that you’re reading someone who isn’t just your ordinary “indie” writer.

Murder on Lovers’ Lane is partner romance—two cops thrown together because no one else really fits with them—of a type we’ve seen before, so Graves isn’t breaking any new ground here. In fact, one of the key audiences for Lovers’ Lane is the TV show Castle. As a big fan of Castle, I was looking forward to reading the book.

Cops Hannigan and Brody go back to college in order to find a serial killer who’s preying on amorous students. They find him—or he finds them—and hey, a new series is born. I’ve said Graves isn’t breaking new ground, but she doesn’t really need to. As long as she’s writing engaging characters (and she is) with logically built stories (and it’s mostly there), this can be a successful series.

A couple of things that make Graves’ work stand out: It’s clean. Even in the best “indie” books, there are typos or misspellings or just flat-out horrid syntax. There’s none of that here. The story comes out smooth and whole, and I think most readers’ complaints will be that the story feels a bit too short. I’d agree with that to an extent. I think Hannigan and Brody probably deserve a larger canvas on which to play.

I can see the comparisons to Castle, and I think they’re apt. You have two people here who adore one another, who are fighting against their attraction with everything they have, even though it’s a losing battle. There’s no doubt that Graves can tell an intriguing story, and I think the characters are worth exploring more from a reader’s standpoint.

My quibbles: I believe in Elmore Leonard and Robert B. Parker, who each believed in using no other word than “said” to carry dialogue. Other dialogue tags catch too much in my ear now. Graves is a gifted writer, and I’d love to see her be confident enough to let the dialogue stand on its own, without trying to help it out with overblown verbs.

Also. telling the reader that Brody has a “perfect, perfect face” a couple of times throughout the book didn’t do much for me, either.

But other than that? The novella is good, a light romance/suspense story that’s worth spending a little time with. I especially appreciated the creepy American lit professor and her banter with both main characters. At 99 cents right now, Murder on Lovers’ Lane is worth picking up. If I were the kind of guy who gave star ratings, I’d drop 3.5 out of 5 on this one. It’s enough to make me want to see what else Paula Graves has written.

*I want to point out that I bought my own copy of the book, and that regardless of whether I’m friends with an author, my reviews are 100 percent my opinion, whether for good or bad, and I try not to pull any punches.

Short Fiction: The Holdout

The Holdout

Short Fiction by B.W. Mathews

They might as well have been the only two guys in the bar, two thick blocky white men who looked like exactly what they were: a couple of working stiffs who’d gotten off jury duty early and weren’t planning on heading back to work.

The bar was called the Alcove, a hole-in-the wall place just a couple of blocks from the new courthouse. It was quiet, the long bar backed by an equally long mirror. They could look in the mirror and talk to one another, never have to turn their heads.

“I’ll have an old fashioned,” the first one said to the bartender, who didn’t say anything. He lifted an eyebrow at the second one.

“That sounds good,” he said. “Make it two.”

The bartender went away to make the drinks, and the two men did what anyone who’s ever served jury duty do—they talked about the case. Continue reading

I’ll never win Wimbledon

I think I’m going through a midlife crisis.

No, I haven’t run off with a younger woman to Aruba. I haven’t ditched my responsibilities with my wife, my children, or my job–although my wife has had to talk me out of buying a motorcycle a couple of times. I haven’t gambled away the mortgage payment. I haven’t gone off on a week-long drinking spree. I haven’t bought a shiny red convertible. I haven’t done any of those things.

Yet.

I don’t know why this is so hard to take. I’m closer to 50 than I am to 30. Think about that for a minute. By the time you hit your 40s–and I still qualify (barely) as my EARLY 40s–your life is pretty well set. You’re not a ball of potential anymore. You pretty much are what you are. You’re … well … you’re grown up. Set in your ways. Your identity is pretty well static.

There are things now that I know I’ll never do:

I’ll never win Wimbledon. I’ll never be the editor of The New York Times, or The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. I’ll never catch that touchdown pass and win the game. I’ll never make one of those “40 Under 40″ lists. I’ll never pitch the Braves to another World Series title. (In my defense, it doesn’t look like anyone else will do that, either.) I’ll probably never have that Porsche roadster. (Where the hell would I put the kids’ seats?) This midlife crisis–mine, I mean; I can’t speak for yours–is all about what might have been, and what will never be.

I’ll never be that young hotshot reporter, editor, or writer again.

Of course, I’m also a better reporter, editor, and writer than I used to be. Experience does make a difference. But the thing is that I’m no longer “potential.” I am what I am, and every fiber of my being fights against that. I’m dying for open roads and vast stretches of countryside no one has ever explored. I look into the distance and wonder what else is out there. And then I look at my close surroundings and see my family: the wife, the kids, the house, the cars, the dogs.

I’ve trapped myself. It’s a trap of my own making, and its bonds are fragile. I know–KNOW–I could break them if I wanted to. But I’ve also changed a great deal in the last few years. At the very least I understand now what it means to love someone else more than I love myself. And that means that I stay in the trap–singing in my chains like the sea.* (50 points if you get that literary reference without having to look it up.)

My wife tells me not to worry about it, but I do. She went out of her way yesterday to remind me that I really am getting better as I get older.  “You are a lot more things than middle-aged,” she said. “You are a daddy and a husband, a friend and a brother, a son, a PR flack. And you are actually starting to hit your stride in those things, I think. You are a better friend and son than you were 10 years ago … you are a better husband than you were five years ago … you are a better daddy than you were three years ago.”

So there are positives to aging, I suppose. But there’s a part of me–a small, but LOUD part–that misses those days when I was wild and blue and young, when I was simply a mass of potential rather than an early-40s middle-aged man with responsibilities and regrets.

I’ll never win Wimbledon, but let’s be honest–I was never going to do that anyway. But it would have been fun as hell to play on the grass.

Short story: Six Rounds

Editor’s note: This is the first fiction writing I’ve done in quite awhile (which is one of the reasons the blog posts have been so sporadic lately). It’s not a perfect short story, but after going back and doing some editing, I’ve come to realize I like it very much. Fair warning: It’s long, especially for something to read on the Internet. Hope you enjoy it.

Six Rounds

By B.W. Mathews

You wanna blame somebody, blame my corner. They coulda thrown in the towel anytime. But they didn’t, so there I was, swinging away with Johnny the Jet. Johnny was supposed to fight for the title next, right? And now he’s not fighting anyone ever again. That poor sonofabitch. I fucked up his career and mine, all at the same time.

What I said before, about blaming my corner? Don’t do that. There’s enough blame to go around. Start with me. I ain’t much anymore. I fought my way up from a no-name prospect all the way to a fight for the cruiserweight title. When the champ laid me out clean with a left hook in round three, I shoulda learned my lesson right there. But I didn’t. Instead I went down to light heavy, and won a couple of fights. Even though I’d been KO’ed once, I still had some name value. They put me in with Harley MacGregor for the light heavyweight title, and I did a little better. I lasted seven rounds before MacGregor turned my lights out.

That’s how I came to fight Johnny the Jet—Johnny McDaniel, if you don’t follow the fights. I’m still a name, right? “Black” Jack Harrison, but everybody calls me Blackjack. Two-time world title contender. But now that I’m past thirty and on my way down the ladder, I’m just a name. That’s what they call me behind the scenes—a name opponent. In other words, I’m a guy the up-and-comers get to face before they go on to fight for the title. A guy who won’t ever fight for the title again; a guy they expect to lose. I still got a little pride, though, and that’s why you can blame me for what happened. The Jet pissed me off—and that’s why he ought to take some of the blame, too. Continue reading

The Problem with Diversity in Books

A notable readers’ convention, BookCon, has come under scrutiny for its lineup of children’s writers. Thirty of the featured authors are white. A coalition of bloggers, publishing professionals, and authors came together to create #WeNeedDiverseBooks to protest BookCon’s whitewashing (forgive the pun!) of children’s fiction.

First of all, let me say this: I believe in and support good writers. Period. I don’t really care what background an author is–whether they’re people of color or LGBTQ or a different ethnicity or faith than me. I’ve often thought of myself as kind of a blank slate for writers, judging each on the merits of their work.

But it doesn’t work that way. I’m wrong when I think that, and I’ll tell you why.

I can’t be a blank slate when the book industry doesn’t publish people of color. I can’t be a blank slate if a LGBTQ writer gets a smaller ad budget than an equally (or lesser) known straight author. I can’t be a blank slate if white authors aren’t inclusive with other characters. My only caveat is the writing, right? Well, if that’s so–why are my shelves lined with 80 percent white male authors? Why are there only a few dissenting voices on my bookshelves: Khaled Hosseini’s brilliant novel The Kite Runner, Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby, and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man?

That’s not enough.

Do I read white guys because I am a white guy? Do white guys largely tell the stories I want to read? Is it nature, or is it nurture? I don’t really know. This is a multifaceted topic that makes me question authors, the publishing industry, convention organizers, and my own motives. As a guy who writes, and who wants to be inclusive in his own fiction, I think about this a lot.

One of my literary idols, Robert B. Parker, was very good about being inclusive in his fiction. Forgive Rob, if you can, for being an old white guy. His novels were filled with blacks, whites, Asians, gays, bisexuals, racists, bigots and sexists. In other words, he pretty much had the American experience down pat. Sometimes the “other” that Parker wrote about was the villain. Sometimes the “other” was not. The type of character played no role into defining the character as good or bad. It depended instead upon the story he told. He shaded his characters as individuals, and did it very well. It probably helped that both of his sons were gay. He had an intense understanding of what the “other” in his life was, but it didn’t matter to him. He loved both of his sons dearly, from all accounts, and their sexual orientation did not matter to him. They were simply his sons.

I found Parker to be inclusive in his fiction. It’s a wide world out there, and there are millions of unique voices crying out to be heard. There are writers who deserve the chance to tell their stories–to encourage others like them that they are not alone in their experience. That’s important, and the organizers of BookCon should have seen that to begin with. No one should have had to call them out on this.

As a writer, I try to set aside my ethnicity. I try, but I can’t do it completely. I’m currently writing a novel about a black moonshiner in 1931 Alabama who reluctantly begins a love affair with a married white woman. It’s incredibly challenging to write, but I think the challenge is worth it. The hardest part is to be true to all of the characters.

So this is the author’s problem. Sometimes we forget to put in other viewpoints than our own. We reset to the things that are like us. If we’re white, we often write about white people. And because white authors are published about 10 times more frequently than people of color, white characters–main ones and supporting ones–abound. That troubles me and reminds me that I would rather be more like Robert B. Parker. I can’t say Parker celebrated diversity, because I didn’t know the man. But I knew him through his books enough to know that he was inclusive of people who weren’t always exactly like him.

I wish BookCon could say the same thing.

Goodbye, Rodney

I met Joseph Rodney Evans–or Rodney, as I knew him–while I was editor of The Weevil Eye, the Enterprise State Junior College student newspaper. He was a reporter for the paper, and a character from the beginning. He was as round as he was tall, with slick black hair and thick, dark-tinted glasses, continually wearing a black canvas duster.

That’s how I still see him, because that’s how I saw him nearly every day for three or four years, I suppose. After ESJC, we each moved on to Troy University, where we lived on the same hall in the same crappy dorm. I kept on with the newspaper thing, but Rodney had other interests. Still, we saw each other every day, and often hung out several times a week. I can tell you that Rodney was a good man–one of the kindest and most genuine people I’ve ever met.

Rodney died last Friday. I still can’t wrap my head around it. We’d reconnected several years ago on Facebook, and I was startled to learn that he was in bad shape physically. Rodney had won the kind of genetic lottery you never want to claim. His eyes were bad–I think he even lost one of them later on–and he was morbidly obese, on dialysis, and had heart problems. I find that last part terribly ironic. He had one of the biggest hearts I’ve ever known. There shouldn’t have been any damned problems.

Here is the difference between Rodney and myself: I am a bullshitter par excellence. Even today, I BS with the best of them. But back then I was all-world at bullshitting, and pretty insufferable because of it. Rodney was not like that at all. He was, as far as I can tell, completely anti-bullshit. He often made me uncomfortable with his naked vulnerability, because I’d learned to be something of a chameleon, to disguise my hurts and my pain–to put up walls and not let anyone in.

He was also one hell of a talented writer. Twenty years from now, some lucky editor is going to dig up old manuscripts of Rodney’s and go “Holy shit–who is this guy? He’s GOOD.” He was smart, and I had/have a healthy respect for the intelligent choices he made in his stories. He was, in many ways, ahead of his time. He wrote a lot of speculative fiction early on, about 15 years too soon. I think he would have been right at home in the new crop of magical realism writers that have come along recently.

I called him last year. Or maybe the year before. He’d posted something to Facebook that was sad, and I knew he was essentially homebound and might like to talk to someone. He didn’t pick up, so I left a voicemail. I didn’t follow up with another call. I know how it is with depression. Sometimes you’re hurting so bad and you want someone to reach out to you–but you want it to be the right someone. I figured I wasn’t it, so I let it go. I wish I hadn’t. I wish I’d called him back again and again, wish I’d annoyed him enough to answer the damned phone.

God, he was funny. Sarcastic without ever really being mean. And despite all of his physical challenges, I never saw him bitter. I saw him hilariously angry many times, but never bitter.

I want to tell you that at his core, Joseph Rodney Evans was a good man–a better man than I was, and better than I ever will be. And yet I’m the one with the house and the cars and the wife and the kids. I’m the one here still breathing. He’s not. And that’s a damned shame. He deserved every happiness, but got damned little of it. And now he’s gone.

I wish I could tell him thank you. Thank you for being my friend when I was so full of myself that I didn’t have many. Thank you for forgiving me when i was being an asshole. Thank you for making me laugh. Thanks for letting me be one of the legion of people who were able to call you a friend.

Rest in peace, Rodney.

Short story: Sarah Loved the Rain

Author’s note: This is a story I wrote before I’d ever been to Paris. It’s a short-short, and my take on a romantic story. I think it’s pretty good. Not great, but pretty good. It’s definitely something I wrote to get out of my comfort zone, so it works for me on that level. Other than being seen by a few friends, it hasn’t been published before. I think. Enjoy.

Sarah Loved the Rain

Short fiction by Bobby Mathews

The city was made of silver, or at least that’s the way it looked to us. The rain came down and washed the gray streets and streaked the tall slate buildings until they looked strange and mercurial in the twilight. Everything was tinged with magic, and why not? Two Americans in the city of light, walking along cobbled streets that were ancient when Ernest Hemingway walked along them nearly a century ago.

We walked along, our heads and shoulders protected from the soft, fluid chill of the rain by the large black umbrella I carried. Sarah was taller than me by a couple of inches, and self-conscious about it. She never wore high heels. She shortened her stride to match mine, and we meandered everywhere, watching flower vendors pack up petals and plastic wrap and dyes. In the gutters where they dyed the flowers, riotous color ran and mixed in a greasy rainbow. Continue reading