Category Archives: Books

Book Review: THE LINEUP

It was cold this weekend in L.A. so I wore everything I own, causing my husband to say I looked homeless, but it was good because it made me stay in. I slept, read, drank lots of coffee, watched reruns of Fantasy Island without knowing why. And I finally wrote this review of The Lineup: The World’s Greatest Crime Writers Tell the Inside Story of Their Greatest Detectives, edited by Otto Penzler.

This is a collection featuring some of crime fiction’s most successful writers—Robert B. Parker, Laura Lippman, Lee Child, Robert Crais, among others—discussing the creation of their popular characters. Michael Connelly’s revelation that a real tunnel near his childhood home inspired Harry Bosch’s tunnel-rat background is both chilling and enlightening. Crais has a funny yet poignant conversation with Elvis Cole about their mutual fears and sense of hope, and gives a glimpse of Joe Pike’s inner world (it’s green!). Carol O’Connell’s badass ‘tude reminds me I gotta pick up another Mallory book. And though I’d heard most of Jack Reacher’s origin story at Child’s signings, it retains its charm in print.

Some of the other essays aren’t as successful. A few are too earnest and one outright creeps me out (not in a good way), but this is a great intro to the crime fiction world for those of you who haven’t taken the plunge. If you’re already a junkie like me, you’ll enjoy learning more about your favorite detectives while meeting those you’re not familiar with. I’m ashamed to say I’ve never read Ken Bruen, but after experiencing his blistering, profanity-laced piece (love his description of an Irish sport called hurling as “a cross between hockey and homicide”), I will rectify that situation.

I also want a hurly.

Nerd verdict: Insightful collection from great Lineup of writers

Books as Snapshots

In the movie Up in the Air (read my review here), George Clooney’s character, Ryan Bingham, repeatedly gives a speech about how it’s better to travel light through life. If you put all your belongings in a backpack and set it on fire, you’d be free. It’s easy to see why Bingham believes this since he’s constantly avoiding putting down roots and making meaningful connections.

I’ll admit I lived that way for years and found it liberating. As a kid, I left everything behind in Viet Nam to come to the States. Dogs, relatives, friends, shoes, books—my backpack was literally empty. But instead of refilling it as soon as I could, I left it bare. I’d learned I could survive on very little so why get attached to things again? (This didn’t apply to people, just objects.) When it came to spartan living, Jack Reacher and Joe Pike had nothin’ on me.

Eventually, though, I realized I had it backwards. Since I wasn’t destroyed by my losses, it must be all right to have things as long as I had the right attitude about them. I could probably set my backpack on fire like Clooney’s Bingham if I had to—it’s just stuff, right? As a mental challenge after seeing the movie, I looked around my home, thinking, “That chair’s replaceable, I don’t need that lamp, wouldn’t die without my TV.”

Then I got to my books. Could I live without them? What did they mean to me? And that’s when it hit me some weren’t just books, they’re snapshots of specific moments in my life. I could look at one and remember exactly where I was, what I was doing and how I felt while reading it.

When I was traveling by myself a lot for work one summer, a set of Harlan Coben paperbacks kept me sane by making me laugh through 10-hour flight delays and sleep deprivation. Joan Aiken’s Nightbirds on Nantucket makes me instantly think of my friend Maria Taylor from 7th grade, who introduced me to the Wolves Chronicles featuring Dido Twite, a plucky girl whom I desperately wanted to be when I was young. Maria moved away after 7th grade but every time I look at Nightbirds on my shelf, I remember her.

Mary Higgins Clark’s While My Pretty One Sleeps reminds me of standing in line in frigid weather back in 1985 to meet the author for my virgin signing experience. I was so excited, you would’ve thought I sighted Elvis. And that first successful foray encouraged me to attend other author signings, resulting in many autographed books by my favorite writers.

My Tintin books are the first things I remember being able to read on my own (though I read them in Vietnamese), and the first time I became obsessed with a series as a child, wanting to collect every adventure. A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh books have lifted me through difficult times because that bear of very little brain is actually very wise. My copy of The Red Balloon takes me back to the time in fourth grade when I fell in love with Albert Lamorisse’s classic film Le Ballon Rouge because I didn’t need to speak English in order to grasp its wordless beauty.

So, my question to you is: What are the books on your shelves snapshots of? What specific memories do they represent?

While I await your stories, I guess I won’t be lighting my backpack on fire after all.

Nerd Chat with Robert Crais Plus Giveaway of THE FIRST RULE

Though he’s busy gearing up for the release of The First Rule next month (January 12), Robert Crais generously took time from shopping for loud socks to do an e-mail interview with me.

If you’re already a fan, you know the basics. If not, visit his website for all the dish, then check out his tour schedule.

I’m giving away some goodies, with details below the interview. But first, read on as we discuss Joe Pike, who’s center stage in The First Rule. The novel is a blood-pumping, rocket-paced adventure with all the usual Pike-isms, but it also reveals an unexpectedly tender side of him that makes your chest clench a little.

PCN: Since there’s a heartrending twist in TFR that I don’t want to spoil, I’ll just ask vague, possibly irrelevant questions. Hopefully, this will entice people even more to pick up the book to see what the hell I’m talking about.

Pike goes where we’ve never seen him go emotionally and it changes him. How will that affect his future actions?

Robert Crais: Maybe it won’t. Pike has been Pike for a long time, so he’s good at repressing his feelings.

PCN: Does he repress his, um, urges, too? I don’t recall any girlfriends since Karen Garcia in L.A. Requiem and even she was in flashbacks. When’s he gonna get some again?

RC: You offering?

PCN: I’d ruin him. He’d start knitting me sweaters and calling me “Pumpkin.” Who would want that? Could he remain an interesting character if he were in a happy relationship?

RC: I doubt it. Part of Pike’s appeal is his “other-ness.” He’s a strange cat and readers like those aspects of his character. If he were “normal,” I don’t think people would find him as interesting. Could Pike be in a happy relationship? I don’t know. He probably wants to be in a happy place, but I don’t think he knows how to get there.

PCN: I could draw him diagrams but I don’t really want him to go there. Now, some actors do Method Acting. Ever do Method Writing as Pike?

RC: That’s how I write. I put myself in his place, feel what he feels, share the moments with him. If I don’t feel what Pike feels, if I’m not there in the moment, the scene won’t work.

PCN: What does putting yourself in his place entail? Knocking heads, eating vegetables, then running at night with coyotes?

RC: Pike does those things to put himself in MY headspace.

PCN: When he’s not on a case with Elvis, at the gun shop, working out or cleaning his Jeep, what does Pike do? Pottery? Watch Glee?

RC: Decorative macramé. It’s all the rage. And Pike loves Glee. You going to make fun of him for that? Go ahead—I dare you.

PCN: Nah, I like him more for it, especially if he does the “Single Ladies” routine to warm up before a run. You excel in showing how Pike feels about people and things through his actions so I’m happy with the third-person perspective. Hypothetically, though, could you write him in first person?

RC: Of course. I am the World’s Greatest Writer.

PCN: What kind of book would that be?

RC: Short. He doesn’t say much.

PCN: In TFR, Elvis goes to eat at the Sidewalk Café in Venice. I’d bet he’s there to sample the Robert Crais pizza. Why does your namesake pie have way more meat than the Cormac McCarthy pizza?

RC: Have you eaten me yet? I’m pretty good.

PCN: I have, and thought you were cheesy and meaty. And cheap!

RC: You should tell your readers the Sidewalk Café in Venice is a real place. They named a pizza after me, so I like them a lot.  Also, they make a dynamite pie.

PCN: I see you’ll be signing at a Costco on tour. Which aisle is your favorite place to sit?

RC: Big screen TVs. There’s something to watch after the crowd thins.

PCN: Right, once you tell people where to find hams and batteries. What’s the next book about? Is it an Elvis? Standalone?

RC: Another Joe Pike book. I want to write something else, but Pike won’t let me.

PCN: Have you publicly announced that anywhere else? Can I claim it as a world exclusive due to my intrepid scoop-breaking abilities?

RC: Probably, but you can tell everyone I’m announcing it here first. I won’t tell.

And that concludes my world exclusive scoopy interview. Deep, massive thanks to Robert for chatting and not telling. (To see and hear him read excerpts from TFR, click here.)

Now, for the giveaway…

Prizes and Rules:

Up for grabs is an ARC of The First Rule, which will come gift-wrapped from Lydia at Putnam, who has mad wrapping skillz. The winner will be randomly selected.

A second name will be randomly chosen to receive a set of four picture cards, autographed by Robert. (See closeups below.) They feature locations from the Elvis Cole and Joe Pike books—including Elvis’s house!—with text from the novels in which they were mentioned.

Robert Crais, happy to see me

These aren’t available anywhere else because I made them, then ambushed Robert at a restaurant and got him to sign. (If the pictures look familiar, some were used in the video “Elvis Cole’s Los Angeles,” which can be viewed here.) They can be used as postcards, bookmarks, coasters, refrigerator art, etc. I haven’t even offered them to my own mother but will give a set to one of you.

Temporary red arrow tattoos might also be included with the prizes if I can resist putting them all over myself first.

In The First Rule, Joe Pike goes to great lengths to defend the name and memory of his friend, Frank. To enter, answer the following question:

  • What’s the most heroic thing you’ve ever done for a friend? This includes acts big and small.

You must also be a:

  • U.S. or Canada resident
  • subscriber or Twitter follower

New subscribers/followers get 1 entry, current ones get 2, people who tweet about this giveaway (and let me know) get 3 entries. Giveaway ends Dec. 14, 5 p.m. PST.

Winners will be announced only here and via Twitter; no e-mail notifications will be done. If winners don’t respond within 48 hours, alternate names will be chosen.

Good luck!

Bookmark and Share

Subscribe to Pop Culture Nerd by Email


Sonoma © Pop Culture Nerd

I was in Sonoma most of last week for Thanksgiving and went more or less unplugged, lazing about in a tryptophan stupor and elastic-waist pants, catching up on reading and pie-eating. (I also saw G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra but prefer not to talk about that.) If you celebrate Thanksgiving, hope you and yours had a brilliant one.

Just got home, plane was delayed, it’s late, so I’ll make a few bullet points and call it a night.

  • I’ll be taking entries for the Precious script giveaway contest until 5 p.m. PST today so leave a comment here if you haven’t already. You’ll want to read it if the movie isn’t showing near you or if you’re an aspiring screenwriter and want to see how it’s done. For those who have already left comments, thank you for sharing your incredible stories about the precious people in your life.
  • Coming up this week, I’ve got book reviews of The Lineup and Sue Grafton’s U is for Undertow, and a movie review of Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones.
  • And a don’t-miss-post: an interview with Robert Crais and giveaway of an ARC of The First Rule, plus autographed postcards featuring locales from the Elvis Cole and Joe Pike books not available anywhere else!

Hope your week/post-pie-orgy diet is off to a good start and I’ll see you online soon.

Sonoma © Pop Culture Nerd


Rarely has a book impacted me on such a visceral level as Jon Krakauer’s Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman. While reading it, my heart was palpitating and my insides were roiling with dread to the point it gave me a stomach ache. I finished the book weeks ago but it’s taken me this long to fully process its effect on me.

As the subtitle says, this is the true story of the former NFL player who famously turned down millions to enlist as an Army Ranger after 9/11, only to be killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan. That alone is devastating enough, but another tragedy occurred afterwards when the truth about his death was knowingly kept from his family and the American public for weeks while he was used as a poster boy to bolster support for the war. To this day, the Tillmans don’t have all the answers.

Depending on whom you ask, everyone from high-ranking Army officials to top members of the Bush administration either engaged in a cover-up or made a series of phenomenally stupid mistakes. Why did a lieutenant colonel send a fellow Ranger to Tillman’s funeral to lie to the family when the Army already had conclusive evidence of how he died? Why did a captain order a young sergeant to burn the uniform and body armor Tillman was wearing when he was killed, plus a journal he kept in his pants, when protocol dictated the clothes be left on the body for forensic examination? You can decide for yourself if these and many other actions were sinister or simply boneheaded but either conclusion is greatly disturbing.

Krakauer’s research included trips to Afghanistan, interviews with Tillman’s family and thousands of redacted documents generated by numerous investigations, but the most striking details are in excerpts from Tillman’s own journals. (Krakauer received access partly because Tillman had a copy of the author’s Eiger Dreams in his backpack in Afghanistan.) They reveal a conflicted, imperfect but highly principled man who was constantly striving to better himself and the world around him. After returning from a tour in Iraq, Tillman had opportunity to be honorably discharged and go back to playing football for millions of dollars, but he turned down the offers because he had given the Army a three-year commitment. Despite his growing disillusionment with the war in Iraq, he wouldn’t even consider breaking his word.

Glory isn’t all good. Krakauer takes too long in the beginning detailing the history of the Taliban and how al-Qaeda was formed. I had no interest in reading about Osama bin Laden’s rise through the ranks; I picked up this book because the cover said The Odyssey of Pat Tillman. As long as Krakauer stayed focused on his cover subject, he had me by the throat. I was holding my breath and white-knuckling the book during the recreation of the firefight in which Tillman was killed. As with his previous works, the author has the uncanny ability to put the reader right in the thick of the action. When he recounts another battle in which U.S. planes dropped bombs on Marines they mistook for enemies, killing 17 friendlies within minutes, Krakauer practically gave me PTSD.


But the reason to read Glory is to get the real story behind the complex man who was reduced to war propaganda in the aftermath of his death, something he actually feared. Tillman wasn’t just a jock; he studied philosophy. He wasn’t a blind idealist; he knew what evil could do but tried to fight it anyway. He couldn’t be swayed by money and therefore was almost incorruptible. He made me re-evaluate my own values: How hard do I fight for things I believe in? How much am I willing to sacrifice for the good of others? Do I attack all injustices head-on, or do I sometimes turn a blind eye for the sake of convenience?

I was still pondering these questions as I wept, thinking about what more this man could’ve accomplished if he’d had more time. But then I realized he’s still spreading good in the world by inspiring readers like me to be warriors in our own lives, every day, however many we have.

Nerd verdict: A heart-crushing Odyssey

[Note: Pat Tillman’s family and friends established the Pat Tillman Foundation to give out scholarships and continue his dedication to leadership and civic action. For more info, click here. I’m not affiliated with the foundation in any way.]

The Art of Writing Bios & Acknowledgments

I don’t know if you’re like me but before I start reading a book, I love reading the author’s bio and acknowledgments. I think you can tell a lot about writers by what they include in their bios, who they thank and how they do it. Sometimes, I know right away if I’m going to like an author just from these things alone. It’s part of the reason I first became a fan of Harlan Coben and David Rosenfelt—they write hilarious acknowledgments.

But some authors barely include any details in their bios and their acknowledgments are nothing but a laundry list of names, resembling an acceptance speech an Oscar winner is reading from without any passion or enthusiasm. I think, Come on, these people contributed something so significant that you needed to mention them but couldn’t drum up the energy to say why? Would you send a thank-you note without mentioning what it’s for? And while you’re at it, isn’t there something interesting you’d like to say about yourself besides where you live?

To be fair, privacy could be a factor. Perhaps someone gave the author insight on living with venereal disease and would prefer that fact not be broadcast. Or maybe the writer would like to thank someone for bailing him out of jail but doesn’t want to include too many details about that rough time before he became a published author. Or it could be the reason he’s grateful to someone is so precious he doesn’t want to share it with the world (and shouldn’t have to).

Too much information is a turn-off, too. I once picked up a book with four pages of breathless acknowledgments of everyone the author had ever met since exiting the womb. By the time I got to top of page three and the mention of third cousin Jody’s brother-in-law’s unbelievable generosity in once giving the author a glass of water, I was considering seppuku. I never made it to the rest of the book.

I say all this knowing that being on the flip side isn’t easy. I’ve had to write bios and struggled with how to strike the right tone and how much detail to include without sounding like a pompous windbag or hermit with no life. I usually ended up with something random like, “Elyse likes soup and the Bee Gees, not necessarily in that order. Due to a childhood incident, she’s scared of walking over manholes, even when covered, and was once propositioned by a prostitute in Berlin.” (All true.) I hoped these personal details were more interesting than a dry list of accomplishments but it’s possible people just thought I’m a moron.

So I pose the following questions to you: As a reader, how much do you like to know? If you’re on the fence about trying a new author, is there something that person can reveal in a bio or acknowledgment that would push you over the edge? That s/he loves dogs? Knitting? Is an Ultimate Fighting champion? Knows Oprah? Conversely, could they turn you off by telling too much?

Am I the only nerd sitting around thinking about this stuff?