Writing about Reading: 36 Yalta Boulevard

September 27, 2012 § Leave a comment

In Brano Sev, the hero of Olen Steinhauer’s novel 36 Yalta Boulevard, you can see hints of Milo Weaver, the hero of his later novel The Tourist. Both men are spies. Both are lonely men, isolated from their families and friends by the work that they do. Both know how to stand up to torture, and both have father issues.

But whereas Milo Weaver is an American spy working in Europe in today’s world, Brano Sev spies for his Communist masters, the Ministry of State Security — headquartered at 36 Yalta Boulevard — in 1967. Yalta, as the windowless building is known, is not a place you want to see the inside of — because most who go in never come out. After botching a mission in Vienna, Brano returns to his own country and finds himself inside Yalta, and this time he’s the one being interrogated, instead of the one doing the interrogation. Stripped of his rank, he narrowly avoids being sent to the work camps and is instead assigned a job in a factory. But soon his old boss comes to him with another mission, and a chance to redeem himself.

Redemption, however, does not come easily. As a State Security officer, Brano is hated and feared by most of the citizens of his county. His home town doesn’t welcome him back, his family isn’t particularly glad to see him, and even the local police distrust him. Only when he finally returns to Vienna does Brano find a modicum of happiness. The more he investigates what happened on that botched mission, the more his new life is threatened — until he is finally forced to choose between happiness and duty.

36 Yalta Boulevard is a mystery, and a good one. But like all of Steinhauer’s novels, it’s populated with real, flawed people — characters who come alive on the page, even if that page is the only time they appear in the book. I’ve praised Steinhauer’s writing so extensively in my reviews of his other books that I feel like I’m repeating myself, so suffice it to say that this book is every bit as rich and tense and perfectly tuned as all of the author’s other novels.

Steinhauer set five books in Brano Sev’s nameless Eastern Bloc country, and 36 Yalta Boulevard is the third of these. I have called the set a series in my reviews of Bridge of Sighs and The Confession, but it’s really just five literary mysteries with the same setting and shared characters. You could pick up any one of these books and start reading, without having to have read the books that come earlier. In that regard, it reminds me of the novels of Jonathan Carroll, who recycles characters constantly. It’s one of my favorite things about Carroll’s books, actually, and I do something similar in my own work because it’s fun for me as a reader. But Carroll’s books aren’t a series, and although Steinhauer’s Yalta books have more of a connection, they really aren’t a series either. They’re just really good novels with a shared setting and interconnected characters.

Next up is Richard Kadrey’s new novel, Devil Said Bang, and then it’s back to Steinhauer. I really cannot get enough of his books.


Whorebaggery, Part Deux

September 24, 2012 § 3 Comments

Vote for Pangaea!A few weeks back, I mentioned the StumbleUpon “Get Discovered” Writers Contest, and I asked for your vote.

Some of my friends told me they followed the link, but couldn’t view my entry to read it — they just got a blank screen. Apparently, this was not just my entry, and the folks running the contest shut it down until they could figure out a better way to do the voting. And they did:

Hello writers! Your work should be up here: http://www.stumbleupon.com/help/get-discovered-contest-entries/. If it’s not, please let me know as soon as you can. I saw all emails from people since yesterday and everything should be ready to go, but I’m only human. 😛

Here’s how to vote:
1) Click on an entry at http://www.stumbleupon.com/help/get-discovered-contest-entries. A new window should pop up with the StumbleBar at the top. You may need to become a StumbleUpon user first if you aren’t already.
2) Click the thumb-up button in the upper lefthand corner. It should turn blue. This means your Like is recorded and thus a vote in this contest!
Only one vote allowed per user. We have a very advanced spam-detection team, so let’s keep this a clean contest folks. Voting will last until Friday October 5th!
So the contest is now really really underway, and I’m asking for your vote again. Please follow the link above, give my entry (Pangaea) a read, and click that thumbs-up button if you like it.
And then, if you don’t mind, come on back here and let me know what you think — good, bad, what works, what doesn’t. I’m really interested in what you think.
Thanks, all!

Writing about Reading: Redshirts

September 22, 2012 § 4 Comments

Someone tells you a very funny story. You laugh several times — really laugh, not just chuckle — and when he finishes the story, he punches you in the stomach.

Ever had that experience? Then you know what it’s like to read John Scalzi’s novel, Redshirts.

Redshirts is a fantastic piece of writing. To continue the punching metaphor, it’s a rope-a-dope book; it seems like one thing, and when you least expect it, POW! It becomes something completely, powerfully different. Something beautiful and funny and sad and true.

Redshirts starts off as a hilarious send-up of Star Trek. I laughed aloud several times, as my wife can verify. Any other writer might have been satisfied with creating a pastiche, as so many writers have done in the past. But Scalzi is a master, and very quickly turns Redshirts into something bigger. It’s still LOL funny, but the punches start to hit a little harder.

And then, somewhere around page 200, Scalzi delivers the first blow that sends you reeling. You realize you’ve been had, and that this “funny story” you decided to read as a sorbet between Olen Steinhauer novels is, in fact, a novel with depth.

Just about the time you’re recovering from that initial wallop, he lands another, and another, and another.

There’s a roundhouse I can’t talk about, because it’s a potential spoiler.

There’s an uppercut for those coasting through life on autopilot, waiting for something to grab us and tell us this is why we’re here. To tell us our purpose in life.

And there’s the coup de grâce, which knocks you out with its beauty and humor and truth and heartbreaking sadness. It made me cry, which is something a “funny story” isn’t supposed to make you do.

I can’t tell you anything more about the Redshirts without spoiling it for you. I’ve probably said too much already, truth be told. Just trust me when I tell you that this is more than just a parody of a science fiction TV show; this is a great fucking book.

September 18, 2012 § Leave a comment

This reminds me of when Harlan Ellison used to sit in the display windows of bookstores and write short stories while people watched. I guess this is the modern equivalent. Would you open up your creative process to the world like this?

Writing about Reading: The Confession

September 17, 2012 § 3 Comments

The second book in a five-book series by Olen Steinhauer, The Confession is an interesting move by the author. Most series stay with the same point-of-view character (or characters, if there is more than one), so I was expecting The Confession to continue with Emil Brod, the hero of The Bridge of Sighs. But Steinhauer not only departs from that tradition, but also changes the narrative voice; where The Bridge of Sighs was a third-person narrative, The Confession is told in first-person, from the point of view of Ferenc Kolyeszar — a character barely mentioned in the previous novel.

The Confession begins eight years after The Bridge of Sighs. Kolyeszar’s marriage to his beautiful wife is in trouble, and he suspects her of infidelity. Distracted from his work as a homicide investigator for the People’s Militia, he brushes off his partner’s suggestion that an apparent suicide is something more sinister. Then another body turns up, and Kolyeszar finds himself splitting his time between murder, corrupt politicians, and his crumbling marriage.

While still a good book with a few twists and turns, The Confession nevertheless isn’t quite as good as Bridge of Sighs, and pales in comparison to Steinhauer’s newer books in the Milo Weaver series (The Tourist, The Nearest Exit, and An American Spy). I’m still eager to read the next book in the series, 36 Yalta Boulevard, which leaps another ten years and seems to focus on a new character. And even if this novel isn’t quite as good as the author’s other books, it’s still better than most novels on the shelves these days.

Writing about Reading: Bridge of Sighs

September 9, 2012 § 3 Comments

With The Bridge of Sighs, Olen Steinhauer cemented his place in my top five favorite writers. He joins Elmore Leonard, Neal Stephenson, Neil Gaiman, and Paolo Bacigalupi — all writers I can depend on for a great story well told.

I was a fan of Steinhauer after reading The Tourist, and the hook dug ever deeper as I read the sequels, The Nearest Exit and An American Spy.

From what I can tell, Bridge of Sighs is the first novel Steinhauer wrote. The edges are a bit rougher than his most recent trilogy, but they aren’t that rough. Bridge of Sighs is the first book in a series of five. Set in 1948, it tells the story of Comrade Inspector Emil Brod, the newest edition of the Homicide Division of the State Militia in a country Steinhauer never gets around to naming. We know it isn’t Russia, Germany, Yugoslavia, or a few other Eastern Bloc countries mentioned during the course of the novel. According to other reviewers, the country is something the author made up, a hodgepodge drawn from Steinhauer’s studies abroad.

Brod enters the Homicide Division fresh out of the Academy, but quickly finds it is not at all like his instructors described. His fellow inspectors won’t speak to him, and have left a threatening note in his desk as their only greeting to him. His boss, likewise, doesn’t seem to want Brod around, and only begrudgingly assigns him to a case after Brod demands it.

That’s when things begin to go very wrong.

Soon, Brod finds himself in over his head in more ways than one. As he slowly pieces together the clues to solve a murder, he becomes a bigger and bigger target of some very powerful and deadly people. I know that sounds like the tagline to half of the thrillers out there, but to say more would spoil the story for you.

Suffice it to say, Steinhauer keeps you turning the pages. Bridge of Sighs paints a vivid portrait of post-war life behind the Iron Curtain. The author’s knack for detail is incredible, and had me rereading paragraphs in admiration for his touch. There’s a fine line between creating an evocative setting and dumping in so much detail that it stops the story; Steinhauer knows how to stay on the evocative side.

Likewise, his characters are believably human while also being compelling heroes and villains. The book could have easily fallen prey to “Boris and Natasha” stereotypes, but it does not. Every character is unique, yet utterly realistic. I had no trouble believing their motivations, their actions, and their desires.

If you’re not reading Olen Steinhauer, you are doing yourself a grave disservice. He is a treasure, and I am very glad to have discovered him.

September 4, 2012 § Leave a comment

More on Richard Bach.


My Dad was in a crash yesterday when landing his airplane. 

He survived and is recovering in a Seattle hospital as I write this. 

When my brother Rob told me, I wanted details, and they were sketchy.  He crashed in Lake Whatcom, no, he crashed in a field in Eastsound.  He was alone, no, he was with another pilot.  He was in a coma, no, just sedated. 

I guess like everyone else, I wanted enough information to decide if he was going to be ok.  Maybe the sooner I knew he was going to be ok, the sooner I would know if *I* was going to be ok.

And that’s what many people around the world want right now with their well wishes and prayers for Dad.

Actually, they can find the answer at the heart of every book he has written.

“Am I going to be ok?”  Flip to…

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