BookReview: Blacktop Wasteland

blacktopwastelandI don’t do a lot of reviews on this blog, but this reminds me that I really should do more.

I just finished reading Blacktop Wasteland by Shawn Cosby. I received a free electronic copy provided by the publisher (Flatiron Books) and this is my honest review.

I’ve known Shawn for only a short while. I first met him at a local “Noir At The Bar” event where we were both sharing readings for the crowd. I told my wife at the time I thought he was the best writer there. Now that I’ve finally read Blacktop Wasteland, I’m happy to report that my first impression was right on the money.

To say I liked Blacktop Wasteland would be an understatement. I loved it. The book is crime fiction and it is a gritty and realistic example of that genre. I write mostly mysteries. These two genres are cousins, and they both give the reader a peek at similar issues, but each uses a different focus. My experience with mysteries provided a good backdrop for enjoying this story because so many aspects of it were sub-mysteries of their own.

Cosby waltzes around plot structures in both standard and unique ways, the way Fred Astaire could dance an amazing solo, but then pull a mop into the mix and make you think the mop was dancing just as well as he was. Cosby makes effective use of flashbacks as well, and they weave in and out of the story the way Beauregard weaves in and out of the mess he has made for himself.

I am wary to share too many details because I in no way want to spoil this story for you, but in short, Beau has done his best to put a criminal past behind him and forge a family life on the straight and narrow. But the universal truth “life is hard” rears its ugly head and he figures just one more “job” might provide the easy money he needs to right his ship for clear sailing.

Then another more pertinent universal truth pops up: there is no such thing as “easy money.” It’s a deep well and Cosby effectively plumbs the depths of that well just until you think it can’t go any deeper, but you have to keep feeding the line because neither he nor Beau has reached the bottom yet.

Blacktop Wasteland is fast-paced and the plot employs a sinister intricacy that slides into your brain the way your feet can slide into a comfortable pair of old slippers. But don’t get too relaxed … you will need to strap on your reading comprehension hat real tight because even the tiniest of details may pop up to surprise you later. Cosby zinged me in this way several times and even made me laugh out loud more than once.

Be warned, the book is about lowlife individuals who lurk on the dark edges of society, so there is a bit a language, but I thought he used a measured amount that fit the dialogue. It’s a crime thriller so there’s violence too. If you are turned off by either of these I’d have to say, everything fits the story and this story is well worth reading on so many other levels. At the least, you should revel in experiencing this breakout novel of a gifted writer.

As a writer myself, I want to hate Shawn because I don’t need this kind of competition, but I can’t hate him, not at all, simply because I love his insight and skill so much. Look for Blacktop Wasteland in mid-July. If you can catch him reading at a bookstore or a local “Noir At The Bar” — catch him there, his readings are not to be missed. I’ll finish by just saying: WOW! Just WOW! A well-deserved Five Stars!

I’m sure it will be sold all over the place but an Amazon link is easiest right now … put this on your TBR list. Blacktop Wasteland.

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Thomas Fenske is a writer living in North Carolina. His most recent novel, THE HAG RIDER, is available at Amazon. Be on the lookout for his mystery thriller PENUMBRA, coming in August.

Two-Week Countdown

You've never read a Civil War tale like this! (1)If we were having coffee today, somehow, somewhere, I’m sure I’d mention the upcoming release.  My latest novel, The Hag Rider, is due out in two weeks!  Once all the writing and revisions are done, the editing and resulting changes are in, the copyediting and final review of the galleys are done, and the cover art is approved and ready … then an author must wait.  And wait.

If you self-publish, you can go ahead and push it out.  If you have a publisher, you wait for them to work it into their schedule.  It’s good, it teaches patience. It allows you to get a few pre-release reviews too, and in some instances gives you the ability to put in a few last-minute corrections your sharp-eyed early reviewers spotted.

So here we are … two weeks to go.  I’m working on some promotions but it is still just a tad early … I need the buy links to be in place.  I think that will be soon.

It’s got five good reviews now … check the book blurb and the reviews for The Hag Rider here: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/53125987-the-hag-rider.

Wait, what? What the heck is a hag rider?  Okay, we’re friends, so I’ll crack the door open a bit.  The entire story is loosely based on my great-great-grandfather, who enlisted in the 26th Texas Cavalry at the tender age of fifteen.  He listed his date of enlistment on his Confederate Pension application in the 1920s.  In fact, I think he flubbed his birth date (he was already in the initial stages of dementia at that time), but enlistment dates were checked against existing records (of which there were a surprising number).  If we took that date he would have been fourteen, but I prefer to use the birth date on his death certificate, which would make him fifteen.

I don’t know anything more about his service except his affirmation on his application that he never deserted.  There is, however, a very nice, if brief, sketch of the 26th Texas Cavalry written by its commander, Xavier DeBray, a French-trained military officer who relocated to Texas.  The 26th spent most of its time patrolling along the Texas coast and participated in the retaking of Galveston on January 1, 1863; it had been occupied by the Federal blockade fleet the previous October.  Later the 26th participated along with other forces trying to stop General Butler’s Red River campaign in 1864.

I read a lot of soldier biographies, where one gets a better sense of the war. So many people focus on the officers and the elites.  I then decided to scan for his name in an electronic version of The Official Records of the War of the Rebellion.  It is a huge work, comprising many volumes.  It usually takes up two or three shelves in the library stacks.  It has the records from both sides, action reports, orders, all sorts of stuff.  Officers from both sides participated in cataloging all of the information over a number of years.  Anyway, I searched for his name, John Benson, and got a single hit.  A John Benson, origin unknown, was released from Fort Lafayette in NYC in the Spring of 1863, for exchange at City Point VA, which was a common thing in 1863.

I knew it was almost certainly NOT my ancestor but still … I wondered to myself, “What if?”

As I did more research, I began to formulate a believable scenario … my problem: how to get young John from Texas to NYC so he could be repatriated to the South in the spring of 1863.  This was the spark that gave me the idea for the entire story.  I think my fiction works and is believable.

Anyone who has read my other books knows, I love to put a subtle bit of paranormal into all my stories and this one is no different. The Hag Rider is the person who helps John, who is usually known as Jack in the story. He is sometimes called Captain Jack — a nickname foisted upon him in jest by his mentor, an old man, a slave, who teaches him a lot about life in the early part of the story. The Hag Rider is an old woman, a mixed-blood with some Native American and white ancestry, but her black ancestry has kept her a slave. She’s a hoodoo trick doctor, and an aquaintance of the old man.

When young Jack is attracted to the hoopla surrounding secession and aspires to enlist, the old man falls ill with grief.  He hires Vanita, the trick doctor, to protect Jack throughout the war.  Her weapon of choice is called hag riding.  It was a folkloric explanation of the time for night terrors; people would assume they’d been hag-ridden by a paranormal entity sitting on their chest. In Vanita’s case, she uses it as a way to instill something akin to a post-hypnotic suggestion in an effort to aid young Jack.

It is written as a Civil War memoir.  Yes, Jack serves for the confederacy but he is no fan of slavery and is quite confused by the many issues bandied about. Once in the cavalry, he feels honor-bound by his duty to his fellow soldiers and his unit.  He is captured and transported to that prison in NYC (the details work themselves out logically), then makes his way back across the south to his unit. Along the way … he finds that Vanita is following him every step and coercing help as needed through her tremendous power.

All initial reviews are very positive.  People seem to really engage with the story. It is not pro-Confederate; if anything it is anti-slavery, although, in the context of the story, Jack admits there is nothing much he can do about that institution except treat everyone he comes across decently, as his mentor always taught him.

I tried to write through him and show the war as a product of the times, in a matter-of-fact style, just like many of the other memoirs I read during research.  As Vanita tells him, she’s looked ahead and seen the outcome and knows the South is going to lose and understands that this war is a necessary thing to get rid of slavery once and for all.  She tells him she’s helping because he is going to be fighting to lose. Word of caution: don’t mess with Vanita Valine.  Seriously. Just don’t.

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Thomas Fenske is a writer living in North Carolina. Keep checking his web page for information about The Hag Rider … this is a book everybody will want to read, it’s not quite like any other Civil War story you’ve ever read and is suitable for YA as well as anyone else.  http://thefensk.com

The Reviews are NOT In

reading the book

The third book in my Traces of Treasure series is coming out this October and I’m looking for new reviewers of this book and the other books in the series.

Why would anyone be interested in these books?

The answer is: I seriously don’t know.
I just write them and hope people find them entertaining.

But what I do know is this: the people who’ve read the first two books in the series really like them. But hey, not enough people have read them yet.  I also know that although the subject matter seems a bit male-oriented, seriously,  these books appeal to women as well as men. Check out the current reviews on Amazon if you don’t believe me.

These are mysteries centered on a sense of adventure,  with a good dose of obsession.  The hero of the series (so far) is Sam Milton.  He’s a bit of a loner and loser in the first book, The Fever.  He’s obsessed and he can’t help it.  He got arrested at nineteen and while in jail he helped a sick and dying wino who rewarded him with the riddle. It, the broken little man said, would help Sam find a long lost gold mine out in west Texas.

img_5454The Fever is a bit of a what-if scenario.  What if this happened to you?  Well,  you’d think about it, first dismissing it has hogwash. Then you might wonder to yourself late at night … what if? This is where the title comes in.  Eventually, you can’t help it. You catch the FEVER, gold fever.  When the book opens, a very tired and frustrated Sam is hiking out of the wilderness after yet another fruitless search. It’s dangerous terrain, the home of rattlesnakes and mountain lions.  He’s trespassing.  He sneaks in and out and drives the eight to ten hours back to his regular life, only to plot and plan his next trip. He’s careful. He has a set routine of procedures designed to keep him safe.

Then, after this latest trip, he stumbles upon the solution to the first clue in the riddle. It’s something he missed for years.  It was so simple. Yet, he’s at the end of his hiking season; or is he? The book is about his rush to get back into the field to check out his hunch, throwing out many of the safeguards he had built into his past searches.  Love? Family? Job? Who cares … this is gold we’re talking about.
A riddle and an obsession … what could possibly go wrong?
img_6739The second book, A Curse That Bites Deep, follows closely on the heels of The Fever.  Sam has relocated to the area, relieving himself of the strain of those long drives.  I’m trying not to add spoilers here, but suffice it to say, he’s much happier than he’s been in a long time.  He’s in love with a cafe owner who befriended him in the first book. Things are finally looking up for him, well, that is until people start dying.  One-by-one, people close to Sam seem to pass away.  Some deaths can be explained as accidents, but others are obviously murder.  As the situation continues to get even more complicated, he must take the initiative to confront the killer before the circle of death tightens around the love of his life.  Is it just a random homicidal maniac or is it the curse he had earlier been warned about?

LuckyStrike-WEBThe third book, Lucky Strike, due out in October, definitely proves that Sam’s lost gold mine is not the only treasure-oriented mystery in this small west Texas town. But our friends have a problem: something is definitely wrong but the details are not obvious.  They must claw and scratch their way through a bunch of muddled clues to put the pieces together. All the while they are facing a ruthless villain who seems to be everywhere at once.   It is a top-notch mystery, sure to entertain. This story is as much about Sam’s girlfriend Smidgeon Toll, as it is about him. See that image on the cover? That’s not blatant sensationalism–she does that more than once in this story.

I need reviews, so I am willing to provide PDF review copies of all three books to people who are willing to read and review them. Books 2 and 3 do have a bit of exposition so they could probably be read standalone. Of course, any review for Lucky Strike would be an advance review but if I get good taglines from an early review I can use that in the book. I have an early August cutoff for that.

I’m wanting to sell books, of course, so if there is a massive rush to the box office I might need to be selective.

So if you are looking for something to read, like to leave reviews on Amazon or even better … are a book blogger — help a guy out and drop me a line.  You can get more information on the books at http://thefensk.com — My email info is there as well.