Tag Archives: books

Guest Post: The lowdown on Pasadena, by Tom Gething

Undocumented workers, barrio punks with guns, high-tech strip clubs, grubby city politics, and a backpack full of dirty money—all play a part in the smart new crime novel, Pasadena Payback, by my friend and fellow indie author, M.L. Rudolph.  The action mostly takes place in Pasadena, best known for its Rose Bowl and festive parades, but it starts with a gripping scene on the Arizona border and inevitably leads back there for its life-or-death finale. Serious stuff, but it’s getting there that makes this a fun, fast-paced book.

Crispín, an undocumented landscaper, is at the center of the storm. Everyone is looking for him, or maybe it’s what he knows or what he’s carrying that they want. Poor Crispín has certain obligations he never asked for and family on both sides of the border. He’s just trying to keep a low profile like all those men who stand in front of the Home Depot looking for day jobs. But things go quickly awry.

Rudolph has lots of fun exposing the flaws of the people looking for Crispín, and for me it was this social satire that made the book so enjoyable. Everyone wants power—control really—over others. The ones with power are looking to keep it; the ones with money are looking to buy it; the ones without money are looking to steal it. Power, it turns out, is illusory and quickly vanishes because there’s always a price, or a payback, for getting it.

I enjoyed the West African setting of Rudolph’s first novel, Facing the Son, but this one is even better. It’s gritty, contemporary and right in our own backyard, with characters and issues that are all too real.

Pasadena Payback


The Secret History of the World: As Laid Down by the Secret Societies, by Mark Booth

2008. A stroll through history with an eye on the cryptic and hidden knowledge shared down the ages among initiates to secret societies.

I enjoyed the read but I’m not sure where I ended up at the end of the stroll.

Okay, knowledge is powerful and throughout most of history was carefully controlled – maybe still now? – and disagreeing with the men in power could cost you your life.

So there is/was samizdat circulated among the cognoscenti. There is more to heaven and earth than is dreamed of in our philisophies, Horatio. I’ll buy that.

History extends further back than we know. Our knowledge is incomplete. Intelligent resourceful humans existed prior to the invention of writing as a means to record and convey their knowledge. Man will strive to survive above all else and if that means keeping certain knowledge from those who will use it to kill you, then of course smart people will do that.

This study is an impressive and erudite work. Booth has pulled together many works and signs that support the existence of secret knowledge and secret societies throughout history. Why doesn’t it excite me that much? I’m impressed by his work, just not that excited by his conclusions.


Under a False Flag, by Tom Gething

2012. A gripping story of a rookie spy who played the role but never bought in with his soul.

Caught in the turmoil of the 1972 Chilean revolution, young and earnest Will Porter learns his trade by living and working undercover. He inserts himself into the community, makes friends, and even falls for a local girl. But his life is a lie, and to perform to his boss’s satisfaction, and to the ever-shifting commands from a Washington DC in Nixonian political turmoil, Will struggles to reconcile the demands of his job and his country with his needs as a young man in search of friendship and love.

Tom Gething has written an engaging story about the sorts of struggles all of us experience, albeit in far less stressful situations, as we balance our work with our family and personal lives.

Gething has obviously read widely from the newly declassified documents from this sordid chapter in American diplomacy. He balances fact and fiction to examine the human cost of patriotism, of career ambition, and of soulful integrity.

Under a False Flag


PASADENA PAYBACK published today

PASADENA PAYBACK, a crime novel, is the first in my series of Pasadena Crime Novels.

Crispín Gomez Diaz runs cash between Pasadena and Nogales to pay off his missing brother’s old debt. He has family in Los Angeles and in Sinaloa, and he does what he’s told to keep his family safe from retribution.

While Crispín is leaving on his final run for his Pasadena payer, joyriding barrio boys swipe his backpack not knowing that it carries a small fortune hidden among the contents. Crispín has thirty-six hours until his appointment in Nogales. If he shows without the cash he’s dead; if he doesn’t show, his family is.

Meanwhile, Crispin’s undocumented status becomes a behind-the-scenes issue in a local political contest. The gardener no one noticed suddenly becomes popular when he needs to remain invisible until he tracks down his backpack.

Dirty debts, raw ambition, and old loyalties collide in this fast-moving tale of honor and payback.


Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick, by Lawrence Sutin

1989. There are several ways to go about your discovery of PKD. You can read his best novels; you can read his best stories; you can scrounge around garage sales and on-line for old magazines with his earliest works; you can read essays and interviews by and about him in those old mags, and increasingly in the “mainstream” periodicals as his work caught on and the “mainstream” caught up; you can rent the movies made from his novels and stories then you can read the underlying works and compare them to the Hollyversions; and if you really want to go deep, you can read Exegesis, PKD’s eight-year, eight-thousand page hand-written quest to answer his two BIG QUESTIONS: WHY ARE WE HERE? and WHAT IS REAL?

Or you can read Lawrence Sutin’s excellent biography. Written within seven years of PKD’s death, this bio is smart, thorough, and close to the subject. Sutin read it all – over forty novels and two hundred stories, the then unpublished Exegesis, and a lifetime’s correspendence – no small feat. He interviewed Phil’s surviving family and friends and fellow writers.  Through it all, he exhibits honest respect for his subject, hairy warts and all.

NOTE: I just found this comment on Amazon from Tessa Dick and add it for perspective:

I have mixed feelings about this book. Sutin gives the impression that he interviewed me extensively, but he actually used quotes from other interviews and never met me, although I did briefly answer three of his questions by letter. Furthermore, I must disagree with most of his conclusions. Since I spent ten years with Phil, and those were the last ten years of his life, I believe that I know more about him than a biographer who never met him and simply read about him.”

Wherever you start, PKD is a literary journey worth taking.

Then there is PKD the man: an only son whose twin sister died at one month and who by his own admission spent the rest of his life looking for her replacement. PKD married five times, fathered a son and two daughters, fought money troubles most of his life, attempted suicide at least once, and abused pharmaceuticals to sustain his energy and alleviate his phobias and anxieties. He loved cats, loved his children, fell in love at the drop of a hat – especially with dark-haired girls half his age – and was often generous with his friends and family.

Coming of age in the SciFi boom of the 50’s when success accrued to the writer who could crank it out the fastest, PKD learned to write – and type – at break-neck speed, at one stretch composing on average fifty pages a day for weeks at a time. As he aged, the drugs which helpd him sustain that pace took their toll, and he learned as did everyone who enjoyed the synthetic highs of the 60’s, that drugs had their dark side. He called Through a Scanner Darkly his anti-drug statement, even writing to the FBI to volunteer as a spokesman for anti-drug PR efforts.

As successful as PKD was at SciFi, his first and abiding ambition was to break into “mainstream” literary fiction. His only such breakthrough during his life was Confessions of a Crap Artist, published in 1975 to modest success. My intro to PKD happened to be that book which I found in a dime store on a rotating book rack. I was a lit major and had suckled on serious stuff, ya’know, but I often supplemented my diet and fattened up on richer fare. Crap was rich, and I was blown away by its energy, its humor, and its honesty. Who knew reading could be that much fun? It’s like it wasn’t even work; the words flew off the page and the pages turned themselves. Who was that guy?

I’ve since read some of his better books, some of his better stories, and plowed through all of Exegesis. None of it has disappointed. Of course, I’m a fan. And at this stage anything with his initials is going to interest me.

PKD was a man of ideas rather than a man of action. He wrote himself into physical and emotional hell, or he wrote himself out of physical and emotional hell. You could look at it either way. However you choose, he left us with a body of work that is as unique and powerful as anything from the second half of the twentieth century.

After a visionary experience in Feb/March 1974, PKD spent the last eight-and-a-half years of his life writing to try to understand the two BIG QUESTIONS. Exegesis is interesting because of PKD’s fiction. Exegesis is an exploration that doesn’t arrive at any conclusions. It asks THE QUESTIONS and discards every answer to further test corollaries and opposites and take unexplored paths. He read deeply and widely, dreamed constantly, thought and argued with himself consistently, and talked for hours to friends who would listen. Who knows, he may have understood THE BIG QUESTIONS a little better at the end, and as only he knows, he may have been ready for death when it came.

PKD left us with a body of work that is entertaining, provocative, funny, and capable of skewing your view of reality just enough to perhaps help you perceive it a bit more clearly. If that’s not mainstream fiction, PKD, I don’t know what is.


Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

2005. Biafra. Famine. Distended bellies. Massacres. Rock concert to raise awareness. Overwhelming military force used to conquer a short-lived breakwaway republic. Somewhere in Africa. A faraway place. A natural consequence of post-colonial self-government.

Which of these impressions did you have of Biafra? If any. Find Biafra on a map. Which country did it break from and why? Who won and who lost? How many people died? Which European country was the past colonial master and how did it respond?

If you’re like me, even if you lived through the Biafran saga – when was that again? – your knowledge is/was incomplete. Yes there was a tragedy which involved those issues and images from the first paragraph above. But the genesis of the conflict? The outcome?

The beautifully narrated Half of a Yellow Sun filled in the many gaps in my knowledge of this sad chapter in African post-colonialism. Adichie follows up her impressive debut novel Purple Hibiscus with a richly nuanced story of the Biafran separatist effort told from the perspective of five main characters: the teenage houseboy, the academic revolutionary, the twin sisters from a powerful and corrupt trading family, and the ex-pat gone native after colonial rule. Each perspective illuminates a group that suffered and survived, but not without tragedy and loss.

With intimate understanding of her tribal and national culture, of her family history, and of the impact international diplomacy had on local events, Adiche creates a compelling and powerful narrative. The main characters come of age as does the newly independent country at a time and within an environment when self-interest among nations created a disastrous situation for the innocents on the ground.

These individuals caught in the vice of history first met when struggling to make their ways in the heady world of independence. Gradually, the forces that shaped their personalities made demands that pit the individuals against their native groups and in the struggle for survival no one was blameless for the suffering of friend, family, neighbor, and countryman.


GUEST POST – Bolaño’s expanding legacy, by Tom Gething

Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives is a comic masterpiece—a 21st Century Don Quixote. It pits young, rebellious would-be poets against a world of drugs and sex, literature and philosophy, pimps and whores, menial jobs and aimless wanderlust. Imagine two disenfranchised youths who actually believe poetry should matter, then imagine them searching for a surrealist poet in the Sonoran desert and you have the sad arc of the story. Told in a series of first-person narratives, many of them masterful short stories in themselves, the novel gradually records the protagonists’ inevitable loss of illusion. What starts with youthful exuberance ends in a desert landscape of existential despair and imminent violence, with the outcome already foretold in the middle section.

With this prize-winning book and his novellas By Night in Chile and Distant Star, Chilean-born Bolaño burst upon the literary scene at the start of this century. He was working furiously to finish what he hoped would be his magnum opus, 2666, when he died of liver failure at the age of 50 in 2003. Since his death, in addition to 2666, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award, his heirs have released a number of short story collections and several unpublished novellas and novels. The Third Reich is one of the latter.

The Third Reich possesses many of Bolaño’s addictive charms: his compelling narrative drive, his vivid and sometimes terrifying imagery, his biting sense of humor. It also contains themes that would later become obsessions: crime stories, people living in alternate realities that verge on the fantastic yet are mundanely detailed, unpredictable violence (real or imagined), and sublimated fascism (in people, games, literature).

The Third Reich is about a German tourist in Spain who is a champion wargamer (before the internet and World of Warcraft) of a board game that reenacts World War Two. Told in the first person—Bolaño’s favorite point of view—it is a suspenseful story that keeps you reading. While it lacks the thematic layering of his mature work, it is a mash-up crime story and mystery that still reads well twenty years after it was written. Odd and ominous things are happening in the Costa Brava resort town, and we’re not sure if they stem from the narrator’s imagination or are real. Meanwhile, the game must be played, and a disfigured novice gamer whom the narrator meets on the beach ends up threatening the champion. Bolaño plucks the dissonant chords of anxiety to keep the suspense going throughout. The ending is the most disappointing aspect—the story’s many threads don’t quite tie together.  At this stage in his career, Bolaño has not quite mastered his art but you can see the mastery coming. If you haven’t read Bolaño, start with his story collection, Last Evenings on Earth, or The Savage Detectives and you will likely be drawn to his lesser stuff like The Third Reich.

More by Tom Gething here.