Posts Tagged ‘Fate of the Union’

Books on Sale at Amazon & The Last Word on Reviews

Tuesday, April 16th, 2019

Perhaps to celebrate the release of Girl Most Likely – which is still on sale as a Kindle title and as a “real” book – Amazon is having a sale till the end of the month on my other thrillers for their Thomas & Mercer line. This includes What Doesn’t Kill Her and the Reeder and Rogers Trilogy, Supreme Justice, Fate of the Union and Executive Order.

For all the talk about Girl Most Likely being my take on Nordic Noir, the first attempt was What Doesn’t Kill Her, which was meant to be an American twist on The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, minus the social comment.

Matt Clemens co-wrote all four of those, though he only got cover and title page credit on Fate and Order. I had to push for that, but you should know that he was fully the co-author of the other two.

A very astute reader of mine told me he thought some of the pushback against Girl Most Likely (more on that later) had to do with my describing it in terms of an American version of Nordic Noir. For what it’s worth, that was never the intention or the plan. It just came up in the first interview I did about the book and it kind of took hold.

Not that it wasn’t an aspect of how the book came to be. I really liked such Scandinavian TV series as The Bridge, Wallander, Varg Veum, and The Killing, and wanted to do something in that vein. No thought of tying my wagon to somebody else’s star was in the mix, although obviously the “Girl” in the title followed that particular trend. Attracting some female readers makes only sense in a marketplace where the fairer sex outnumbers us loutish male readers something like ten to one. That kind of math I can do.

So, reviews. I’ve talked about them here quite a bit, more than anybody wants me to, but I am going to take one last (hooray) swing at it. Let’s start with professional reviews.

Understand that I have been writing fiction a long time, and am rather set in my ways, and arrogantly feel that I know what I’m doing. But to be honest I never did pay much attention to the advice I was given in professional reviews. Almost from the beginning, I had enough faith in my work to believe in it, and me, more than the opinions of others. I mean, once you’ve been schooled by Donald E. Westlake, Mickey Spillane, Walter Tevis and Richard Yates, who cares what anybody else thinks?

No, to me the professional reviewers are all about marketing – about libraries and booksellers seeing good comments from Publisher’s Weekly, Library Journal, Booklist and the irascible Kirkus, and then ordering books. Editors and publishers like to have good reviews from those sources to blurb on covers, fore and aft, and on the first page or two of reprint editions. This is not to say I don’t enjoy reading a positive review from one of those sources. But for me, it’s strictly business. A marketing tool or, if a review is bad, a marketing obstacle.

Now and then, particularly in a newspaper or a really good blog (like The Rap Sheet), I get a glowing review that is really, really smart. Where the reviewer understands what I was up to. Now and then a positive criticism actually does take hold with me, too. Mostly, though, I love it when somebody gets it.

This is often true of the magazine reviews in Mystery Scene, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Crimespree, and Deadly Pleasures, among others. These tend to be written by smart, knowledgeable people, and they are a great source for quotes, and often are positive and give me a nice little ego boost. When I do get criticism worth listening to, it’s frequently here. EQMM’s Jon Breen practically discovered me.

What’s interesting to me is how seldom reviewers notice the weaknesses in a book of mine that I knew were there. This may be because I know how to hide such things, through sleight of hand or sneaky execution. Let’s take Girl Most Likely. A major flaw about it drives me crazy – I did my best to figure out how to fix it or avoid it, and instead I merely had to finesse it largely through pace.

But the two things that the reviewers – mostly amateur ones – have complained about were done by me with full knowledge of the risks. It was absolutely intentional that I did a lot of clothing description, and the occasional brand names were on purpose, too (I’ve already said why in previous updates). The abrupt ending was a choice as well, very much in the Spillane tradition – story’s over, time to get out, let the credits roll. A good number of people hate that. I’m sorry – not really – but I felt it was called for. My book. My way.

Let’s get to the amateur reviewers, who specifically rule at Amazon, where a good deal of misbehavior is tolerated by Amazon itself, which ironically is the publisher of Girl Most Likely.

First, let me get this out of the way – the amateur reviews, overall, have been great. We are sitting at four-stars. The Associated Press review was, again overall, a fine one, and appeared all over God’s green earth. Of the pro publications, some of whom didn’t love it, Booklist was a near rave. So my difficulty with the reviews on Girl Most Likely has almost exclusively to do with the Amazon ones.

Now, if you follow this blog, you know that I encourage Amazon non-pro reviews – I give out books to readers specifically to increase the number of such reviews, and since people reading this weekly update tend to be longtime readers of mine, I can pretty much count on mostly decent reviews being generated by the book giveaways.

The negative reviews of Girl, among the many nice ones, fall into two camps. One appears to be young and female, and an unbiased reader named Barbara Collins thinks I am being punished for writing about a woman when I am apparently a man. (Lots of nice notices from the young women with book review blogs, though.) But I also see an occasional nastiness that reflects a certain breed of progressive that sees something sinister in a daughter who is a professional woman having respect for a father who is a longtime professional in that field himself. The worst of these criticized me for being “a white man.”

Now Amazon is supposed to reject reviews that are hate speech. Yet even the “white man” thing is okay with me. End of the day, it doesn’t bother me much because it’s the kind of review that reveals itself and its maker. Matt Clemens and I got a lot of those ugly reviews from alt-right nincompoops in regard to the Reeder and Rogers Trilogy. Certain early reviews of Supreme Justice were clearly written by people who had not read much if any of the book. Our sin? Of our two leads, one was a liberal, the other a conservative – and they got along!

The other negative reviews, and this reflects an almost surprisingly small number, are those from longtime readers of mine who don’t like the change of pace. For example, the book is billed as “a thriller,” although I have personally characterized it as a hybrid of thriller and mystery. And some have said that this novel – which includes three vicious butcher-knife murders, a street brawl, and the protagonists getting chased through the woods by a maniac – isn’t “thriller” enough. Perhaps this reaction comes from the world of Girl Most Likely not being the criminal one of Quarry, Nolan, Mike Hammer and Nate Heller. A new, more everyday milieu apparently jars some readers.

One particular review is a rather vicious attack on me by a self-professed longtime fan who claims to have read almost all of my stuff, some novels several times. But he is appalled by Girl Most Likely for all kinds of reasons. And you know what? That’s just fine. Everybody has a right to an opinion and to express it.

Of course, when he suggests I am selling out for “the sake of building a nest-egg to retire upon,” I have to wonder – does anybody who really follows my work think I look like I’m planning retirement soon?

Authors these days live and die on Amazon. Please support not just me, but all of your favorite authors – write positive reviews (again, even a line or two is fine), click on “helpful” on the more detailed reviews when you agree with whatever insights they provide.

Amazon is the biggest bookstore in the world. Go in there and support your favorite authors. If you read a book, particularly one you buy there, that you really like, tell the world about it, in a brief (or an extended) review. It’s a way to pay your favorites a favor, and to keep them in business.

Authors are real people, trying to make a living out of entertaining you. Any time you can express your satisfaction with a positive review at Amazon and other sites, you are helping the writers whose work you enjoy stay in business. If they disappoint you, you have every right to say so in a review.

Just don’t be a dick.

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Check out this very smart review of Girl Most Likely.

This reviewer has an interesting take or two on the novel.

Finally, here’s a very nice look at the Nathan Heller series.

M.A.C.

On Kevin Spacey, Bobby Darin and Al Capp

Tuesday, November 14th, 2017

I’m on a Bobby Darin group on Facebook, where several people have talked about throwing away their DVDs and CD soundtracks of Kevin Spacey’s 2004 Darin biopic, Beyond the Sea.

I get it. While I am at times queasy over the witch hunt feel of today – whose career will be ruined tomorrow? – seeing the creepy Roy Moore defend himself by attacking his attackers (the women accusing him, the Washington Post, Democrats in general, the media at large) reminds me that a verdict in a courtroom isn’t always necessary. Sometimes a legitimate verdict can come from the courtroom of public opinion, if the allegations have been vetted by journalists with the credentials of those at the Post. When the number of allegations grows to critical mass, as with Cosby and Spacey, that verdict has the ring of truth.

I can only say that Kevin Spacey – whose love for Bobby Darin’s work was deeply felt – was very kind to my wife, son and me when he performed his Darin tribute concert at the House of Blues in Chicago in December 2004.

Beyond the Sea

Spacey and I had a connection through Sam Mendes, who directed both American Beauty and Road to Perdition. When Barb, Nate and I went to the House of Blues, I brought along a signed copy of Road to Purgatory to send backstage to Spacey. I had ordered tickets for the event the day they went on sale, but when we arrived, we found most of the main floor was reserved for some special party. We were sent high up to nosebleed seats. The atmosphere created by Hell’s Angel type bouncers/ushers was decidedly unfriendly.

When I went downstairs to try to convince someone with the House of Blues to send the book backstage, I was treated harshly (I will never return to that venue). By bribing one, I finally got the book accepted, having the strong feeling it would be tossed in the trash as soon as I was out of sight. Upstairs, we crowded around a tiny table with a bunch of strangers and my family studied me with the cold-eyed “What have you gotten us into this time, you incompetent fool?” expression that I know so well.

Then, over the intercom, I was called to come downstairs to the front of the club. I went down and was told that Mr. Spacey wanted to meet us after the show – there was a scheduled meet-and-greet – and that we were to be given special seating. Chairs were set up for us (by some of the same crabby biker types who had treated us so badly) right in front of the sound board, dead center, best seats in the house.

Spacey came on and did a fine show. Afterward, he greeted us warmly and he and I talked Bobby Darin for about five minutes. He was friendly and articulate and I thanked him especially for making me look good in front of my family (something that rarely happens).

Which brings me to the today’s topic, as Bob and Doug McKenzie would say: Is the work of an artist suddenly invalid because bad conduct is revealed? And is there any coming back from a scandal like this and the behavior it represents?

I’m really just asking. With someone like Cosby, I think the body of work is so large and so at odds with his actual wrongdoing that it’s hard to imagine sitting down now with one of his comedy albums or TV shows. I love the movie Hickey and Boggs but haven’t watched it since Cosby’s fall from grace. I can’t imagine I’ll ever look at my complete DVD set of I, Spy again.

On the other hand, I am a huge fan of Al Capp and Li’l Abner. I have said numerous times that it’s not only my favorite comic strip, but in my opinion the greatest of all comic strips. It had everything – sharp satire, slapstick humor, adventure, suspense, great art, and…beautiful girls.

Capp’s women were outrageously sexy, and a hidden sexual content – the frequent use of the number 69, phallic mushrooms clustered around trees with vagina-like knotholes, the positioning of Shmoos also with phallic intent – was enough to encourage Capp’s former boss, Ham Fisher, to try to get his ex-assistant thrown out of newspapers by going around showing editors examples of supposed pornography smuggled into Abner. Unfortunately, Fisher doctored the examples to make them look worse, and got kicked out of the National Cartoonists Society for it, which led to Joe Palooka’s daddy committing suicide. (See my novel, Strip for Murder, for more.)

Late in his life, when longtime liberal Capp had suddenly gone right wing (as some old rich white guys do), he became a sexual predator. On college campuses, where he gave lectures, he would arrange to meet with coeds and came onto them; he did the same for young actresses who were supposedly interviewing for parts in various Abner TV series. No reports of rape, but plenty of obnoxious behavior, which eventually was exposed (shall we say) in the press. Capp didn’t kill himself, like his old boss, but he killed his strip and died a few years later.

Still, I love Li’l Abner. I have a number of Capp originals framed and on my wall. Is that wrong? Am I supposed to banish his lifetime of brilliant work to the scrap heap of history because he was, in his later years, a dirty old man? Also, am I supposed to be surprised Al Capp liked sexy young women?

Do we think Frank Sinatra would have held up to this kind of scrutiny? How about rock ‘n’ roll stars? Does anyone really want to turn over the rock that is Mick Jagger, much less Keith Richards? Did those lads from Liverpool have their way with some underage groupies? Would you be shocked if they did? Shine the spotlight on rock ‘n’ roll and it’ll be the sexual apocalypse.

The Millennials did not live through the Sexual Revolution, which created a climate of carnal activity for a generation who’d been brought up innocently in the fifties. Beaver was the last name of a kid named Cleaver; then suddenly it wasn’t. I don’t excuse the behavior of any of my generation, but I’m not sure we should have to sit for a jury of kids who didn’t live through it. Free Love and feminism were brewing at the same time, and brother was it a strange brew.

During those years, when things were loosening up sexually, homophobia went on unabated. Closeted gays lived an outlaw life style by definition. Like a lot of straight guys, I had gay men come onto me – the first time freaked me out. Later I realized that they were as uneasy and even more afraid than I was. Roy Moore still wants gays thrown in jail or worse. Might someone like Kevin Spacey or George Takei make a mistake, a misjudgment, a misreading of another male, living as they did in a world of shadows? How harshly should we judge gay men and women who grew up in the second half of the Twentieth Century?

Not excusing anything. I certainly abhor what these famous men, straight and gay, have been getting away with, almost always operating from a position of power. But I wonder – is there any chance for redemption for somebody like Kevin Spacey or Louis C.K.? Can they come back from this? Should they? Can I watch Baby Driver with a clear conscience, or ever revisit House of Cards? Spacey’s scenes are being cut and re-shot for the soon-to-be-released All the Money in the World – should his entire cinematic legacy be similarly snipped away? Must I forget the kindness he showed me and my family?

Can I listen to Frank Sinatra without thinking about Sam Giancana?

I really am wondering.

But I do know plenty of great art has come from terrible people. It’s a subject I’ve been wrestling with, and discussing, for years – long before the daily exposure of this star or that one as a sexual predator.

* * *

The new Murder on the Orient Express isn’t bad. It’s quite sumptuous looking, and is faithful enough to the Christie source material to receive an approving nod from me. True, some action scenes – including questionable heroics from Hercule Poirot – seem like pandering to an audience dumber than anybody who would likely go to a movie called Murder on the Orient Express. But it’s a good, old-fashioned (in a positive way) movie. It’s just not as good as the 1974 original – actually, not even close.

Refresh your memory and look up the cast of the ‘74 version, and see names like Connery, Bacall, Guielgud, Widmark, Redgrave, Finney and on and on. Such giants no longer walk the earth – well, a few still do. This Murder is committed by a cast about half of whom are names – Cruz, Depp, Gad, Dafoe, Jacobi – but hardly the superstars of old. Depp, for example, is quite good…until you compare his performance to Richard Widmark’s. In ‘74, Albert Finney made an oddly cartoonish Poirot (though it worked), while director/star Kenneth Branagh has to compete with David Suchet’s definitive Poirot. In fairness, this one is better than Suchet’s Murder on the Orient Express, a rare misfire for that wonderful series.

Barb and I also took in Thor Ragnarok, which is very funny while retaining the expected spectacle and superhero heroics. Marvel seems to have learned a lot from the Guardians of the Galaxy movies.

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Here’s a nice review of Fate of the Union.

And check out this look at Mike Hammer and Mickey Spillane.

M.A.C.

Today’s the Day! (Later is Good, Too.)

Tuesday, April 26th, 2016
The Big Showdown
Hardcover:
E-Book:

The Legend of Caleb York
Paperback:
E-Book: Amazon Google Play Nook Kobo iTunes

Antiques Fate
Hardcover:
E-Book: Amazon Google Play Nook Kobo iTunes

The day this appears (April 26) is the pub date of the second Caleb York novel, THE BIG SHOWDOWN, in hardcover, and also of THE LEGEND OF CALEB YORK in mass-market paperback (co-bylined with the great Mickey Spillane). On this same big day, the new Trash ‘n’ Treasures mystery, ANTIQUES FATE, appears in hardcover. A week from now (May 3), the new Nate Heller will be out: BETTER DEAD (more about that next week).

These are all books I’m pleased with. I think THE BIG SHOWDOWN has one of the best, moody scenes of action/violence – a shoot-out in a rainstorm – that I’ve ever come up with. ANTIQUES FATE may be my favorite of the Brandy and Vivian Borne novels, with its faux-British setting reminiscent of MIDSOMER MURDERS and Miss Marple’s St. Mary Mead. It’s also very funny. No brag, just fact, as we western novelists are wont to say. Or is that want to say?

You may think that novels are flying out of my computer as if it were haunted. Actually, last year was one of my least prolific ones, due to the health problems that turned up in May. The only book I wrote during that period was MURDER NEVER KNOCKS (a Hammer, as usual working from Spillane material), and I also managed to do the short story “A Dangerous Cat,” which appears in the current Strand Magazine. The novel was written in the weeks after the treatment in which my heart was jump-started like an old Buick, to get rid of the irregular heartbeat that had turned up with my condition – for maybe a month I felt a lot better.

I wrote “A Dangerous Cat” later, feeling fairly shitty actually, but the story needed writing. It represented the last Hammer fragment that I’d set aside for short story purposes, and writing it would give me a Hammer collection (eight stories) – Otto Penzler is publishing it later this year as A LONG TIME DEAD.

The books that are coming out today (if you’re reading this on the day it appears) predate the health problems, and give something of a false impression about my apparently prolific 2015. But I am happy to report that I am back at work here in 2016, and in fact Barb and I have already delivered the next Trash ‘n’ Treasures mystery, ANTIQUES FRAME. She had been working on her draft throughout the medical adventures during which she was my incredible support system – the last bits of it were written by her in my hospital room. The rapid comeback my right hand made allowed me to get to work after two or three weeks at home.

Currently I am working on the third Reeder and Rogers political thriller. My cohort Matt Clemens is wrapping up his draft while I start mine. So far it looks like SUPREME JUSTICE and FATE OF THE UNION will have solid company. By the way, SUPREME JUSTICE recently hit the 100,000 books-sold mark. This does not count 175,000 books generated in the Kindle First program. Most of those copies were e-books, a fact I have trouble caring about.

Much of this year will be dedicated to getting back on deadline, as much as possible. I have no way to know how quickly the recovery will go, although so far – at nine weeks – I’m told by doctors and physical therapists that I’m doing very well. The biggest obstacle to getting my work done are the essential twice-weekly occupational and physical therapy sessions, which last 80 minutes. Or I should say the biggest obstacle is my reduced stamina and increased fatigue – after the physical therapy, I invariably have needed a nap of an hour or two. Takes a bite out of the writing day.

But things are improving. I had my first band practice (Crusin’) last Tuesday – an hour was about all I could manage, but I managed. We’ll practice again soon and play a two-hour gig in June. This weekend son Nate and his bride Abby visited with our incredible grandson, the criminally cute Sam Collins, in tow. Nate and Abby – currently living in St. Louis – are exploring coming back here to Iowa.

Realtor Suzi Webb (great name) – a good friend from my high school days – arranged a tour for us of half a dozen houses. I went along and, despite a lot of stairs, held up fine. Okay, I took and hour and a half nap after – but just a few weeks ago that adventure would have been out of the question.

For those of you who haven’t stopped reading yet, let me say that I never expected to discuss these health issues here. But my son has always encouraged me to look at behind-the-scenes stuff, and me reporting on how the writing is going seems pretty basic.

* * *

a ten minute interview I did at the last Bouchercon (in Raleigh), specifically focusing on B’Con memories and my general attitude about the annual event.

Here’s a fun review of TWO FOR THE MONEY, the Hard Case Crime omnibus of BAIT MONEY and BLOOD MONEY.

And here’s a list from a lawyer selecting 10 “Great Novels About the Supreme Court.” One of them is SUPREME JUSTICE!

M.A.C.

Political Correctness

Tuesday, December 1st, 2015

“Politically correct” is a term I wouldn’t mind seeing junked. Also the concept. What makes it worthless is that both the right and the left are abusing it.

Take Donald Trump (please). He is making a political campaign out of saying outrageous, offensive things and then hiding behind the notion that being politically incorrect is an attribute. Many voters who are lining up with him see the Donald as a straight-talker who is not afraid to offend. He tells it as he sees it and doesn’t care what you, or the facts, or human decency, might think.

How did we get to a place where being against political correctness could be seen as a plus? Whose fault is it that political incorrectness has become a badge of honor? I know whose fault, since you asked – the left. Right?

At a time when major political candidates are gaining followers by putting down minorities, women, the afflicted, and any religion that isn’t Christianity, many on the left spend their time complaining about people who say the wrong things. Who have the “wrong” attitudes. How many celebrities or other public figures have had to “walk back” innocuous things they said because they’ve been taken to task by the self-appointed arbiters of what is and isn’t acceptable? God help us if any of us are offended by the opinions or remarks of others. It’s now our responsibility to make sure the Facebook posts and Tweets of the famous reflect only what we consider proper and, well, nice.

Since this is the Christmas season, I want to spread the joy around, so I’ll point out that the right can gang up on somebody for trivial, stupid reasons, too, such as the tempest in a teapot over the holiday coffee cup at Starbuck’s. It’s the war on Christmas! Some people really, really need a hobby. Ironically, of course, Starbucks was just trying not offend anybody. Good luck with that.

I have run into this kind of thing in reviews – both professional and amateur – for many, many years. In my case, it’s mostly a byproduct of writing historical fiction. More times than you’d think, when a character in one of my period pieces uses a word like “colored” to describe a black person, or “girl” in reference to a grown woman, I have been taken to task.

It’s a tricky position for a writer to be in, as when I’m dealing with Mike Hammer in a manuscript I’m completing that was begun by Mickey Spillane in the late ‘40s, ‘50s or ‘60s. Attitudes toward homosexuals, for example, are a bitch to deal with. I usually sort of split the difference, and have the character reflect attitudes of his or her times but not emphasize them, and avoid words (like “faggot”) that come off as painfully harsh to modern ears.

But modern ears need to cut a writer of historical fiction some slack. When I write about Nathan Heller, the format is an old man writing his memoirs about things that happened a long, long time ago. He should not be expected to reflect current attitudes. In fact, if he does to much of an extent, I’m doing a bad job as his Boswell.

Would you like to know what offends me? Thanks for asking. I’m in the odd and somewhat enviable position of having my older novels come back into print. These date as far back as the early ‘70s. Recently (as you probably know) Hard Case Crime has been doing new editions of the original five Quarry novels, four of which were published in 1976 and 1977 (the first novel, QUARRY, was started around ‘72 and completed in ‘74). This week I got a lovely review of that novel, one that pleased and even flattered me. I want to make that clear right now, because this reviewer was not only complimentary, but also very smart in discussing the anti-hero aspects of the character.

But he raised a point that frankly made me close my eyes and count to ten (incidentally, about the extent of my math abilities). Here is what the reviewer said:

“Unfortunately, the book does suffer from its age, specifically when it comes to homosexuality. Boyd is a homosexual, and this fact is brought up several times during the story. While Quarry insists that he doesn’t have a problem with Boyd’s sexual orientation, the fact that he constantly brings it up puts his assertions into question. Now, I don’t think that Collins is homophobic, or even that Quarry was, but it does definitely stand out and is out of place with modern sensibilities.”

A couple of things. That in a novel written in the early ‘70s, I chose to give Quarry a gay partner, and that Quarry himself had no problem with that, is something I’m proud of (and that other modern reviewers, looking at this decades-old book, have commented favorably upon, as something fairly innovative and forward-thinking). But more troubling is the notion that a book written over forty years ago has a responsibility not to offend “modern sensibilities.”

When the early Quarry novels were being prepared for re-publication, Hard Case editor Charles Ardai gave me the opportunity to revise any passages that might offend the delicate ears of today. I declined to take advantage of the opportunity, because the books are the books. They were written when they were written, and I’m not going to spend the rest of this lifetime updating them to please the opinions of new generations.

This reflects a special aspect of political correctness that I would guess drive any writers who’ve been around long enough to see early works of theirs described in the present say as “dated.” I think, in the critical lexicon, the word “dated” should be stricken or at least used very carefully. Of course my novel QUARRY is dated. Read the first few chapters of FAREWELL, MY LOVELY and check out Marlowe’s now racist attitudes and vocabulary. All books that weren’t written yesterday are “dated.” Shakespeare is so dated, his language so difficult to penetrate, that he’s considered to be the greatest poetic playwright of all time.

This mini-rant was sparked by the paragraph I quoted (in which the word “dated” does not appear), but in fact this reviewer is very smart and generous, and you should read the other things he had to say here.

Speaking of Quarry, I am delighted to report that J. Kingston Pierce has selected QUARRY’S CHOICE as one of his ten favorite crime novels of 2015. As always, I deplore such lists unless I am on them.

And I’m pleased to say reviews for FATE OF THE UNION (what a wonderful Christmas present a copy of that would be for your family and friends!) have been rolling in. Check out this terrific one.

Finally, as a sort of sidebar to this week’s discussion of political correctness, here is a mini-review from a conservative reviewer who has no problem with the hero’s “leftish politics.” Those of you who remember how some conservative Amazon reviewers objected to SUPREME JUSTICE will understand why I’m so gratified by this write-up.

M.A.C.