Thursday, December 22, 2016


On balance, it’s been a top-shelf year for reading (and some re-reading), most of it centered on novels, biographies and historical books related to—or of an era close to—a current writing project of my own.

This year’s round of reading took me through swaths of excellent books by Mary Doria Russell (the Doc Holliday novels), Charles Portis (all of it), Larry McMurtry and some revisited Cormac McCarthy, among others.

Crimespree Magazine, for whom I write a regular column, recently asked for my top five reads of the year for an online feature, so that effectively pre-empts my annual round up of same in this space.

Instead, I thought I’d expand on what I regard as my single most enjoyable read this year.

CEREMONIES OF THE HORSEMEN: The Ranch & Reata Essays (Alamar Media Inc., ISBN: 9780989070157, 336 pages), is a terrific collection of writings from Tom Russell.

The criminologist/singer-songwriter/painter and now essayist gathers a stunning array of prose pieces on topics ranging from the history of tequila, to filmmaker Monte Hellman, to Tex Ritter, to Georgia O’Keefe, to Hemingway and the neglected novels of the aforementioned Charles Portis.

At once erudite and occasionally raucous—but always gripping—it’s a bit like reading lyrical, deep-dive Americana pieces penned by Sam Groom’s “The Stranger” from THE BIG LEBOWSKI.

In his introduction, Russell sums up the terrain thusly:

“These essays are my own Moveable Feast (to borrow from Hemingway) of a time spent mostly in The West. Bill Reynolds never altered a word, that I can recall, and also allowed your reporter to stumble, headlong, down grammatically innocent back roads at my own peril and pleasure, with a snorting distaste for the semi-colon. As the legendary Anton Chekhov stated: ‘It’s not so much what I have see as how I have seen it.’ The job.”

You don’t have to know Russell’s music to gulp down or savor these essays as they’re presented.
This is an author who has a particularly lyrical way with words who is writing about his passions and sharing his own lifetime’s earned wisdom on the subject of the West, art and the often unexpected or previously unexplored intersections between.

A sample: “In the early 1960s Johnny Cash used to roam out here, kicking at cow skulls and digging up old bottles and bones — communing with the desert spirits. Talking to himself. Something was gnawing at him. What happened to the old-time cowboys and prospectors? Where had the Old West gone? The Indians who’d painted on these cave walls? What was their story? Johnny was acrawl with nerves back then. Fidgety. Restless. He’d trek deep into the Western outback. Disappearing for days. Hearing voices. Talking to the ghosts inside his skull.” — excerpt from the essay, “Bitter Tears & Mean as Hell: Johnny Cash in the Wild West”

This volume joins a rich and diverse collection of other great Russell books, including earlier tomes on his painting, on Charles Bukowski, a collection of songwriting quotes, a recent volume collecting the lyrics to many of Russell’s most noted songs, and a fine little book tied to his most recent studio release, The ROSE OF ROSCRAE.

Highly recommended, and a book I’m sure I’ll be dipping back into, often, in the coming New Year.

—Craig McDonald
Dec. 22, 2016
(& a hearty Merry Christmas!)

Sunday, December 18, 2016


A little over a week ago, Entertainment Weekly provided the world reveal of the HEAD GAMES graphic novel coming Oct. 24, 2017 from First Second (Macmillan) Books.

Now, First Second and Macmillan have posted eight pages from the coming graphic novel on the official book site. You can see those right here.

Thursday, December 8, 2016


There it is, illustrated by Kevin Singles who also executed the brilliant interior art.

Entertainment Weekly made the big worldwide reveal of the HEAD GAMES graphic novel in the early morning hours of Dec. 8. The book will be available on Oct. 24, 2017, from First Second Books (Macmillan).

I wrote the script from my 2007 debut novel that went on to be an Edgar and Anthony awards finalist, among other honors, including some in Europe.

If you liked the novel, I really think you're going to love this take on the tale.

More to come, soon.

Until then, here's what the top dog at First Second told EW about the HG graphic novel:

“From Craig McDonald, who’s an award-winning thriller author, this is a hardboiled kind of [story]. It has a bit of a Chandler vibe, but it’s in the Southwest, and you find yourself on the set of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, and you meet Orson Welles and Marlene Dietrich and Ernest Hemingway, and there’s like this Skull and Bones society, and an early Bush dynasty character, and there’s a missing head. It is kind of a caper but with this Philip Marlowe vibe to it. … And Kevin Singles does remarkable work on the artwork as well. … It’s in two colors, black and yellow, and it’s just really, really striking.”

Learn some more about First Second (a recently minted 10-year-old) right here.

Sunday, December 4, 2016


Every time I sit down to write a book, I find myself constructing a kind of "soundtrack" for that particular work.

As I've said before, in most cases, it's just a playlist I put together and play over and over in a bid to stay in place and in form while composing a first draft.

For THREE CHORDS & THE TRUTH (now available via Betimes Books), and set against the 1958 (G)Nashville music scene, many of the songs I was listening to in order to keep in period and in mood went straight into the final text.

Last time, I offered up a playlist of those songs that actually are named or spotlighted in the final novel.

This time, an offering of some songs that informed the book, but more in the manner of other "soundtracks" I've put together for previous works. These tunes helped keep me on track in painting a picture of Nashville and the singer/songwriter scene, but weren't of the novel's era and so didn't find their way into the final text.

Call these songs, THREE CHORDS & THE TRUTH, "The Invisible (or Inaudible) Soundtrack":

First up, a favorite tune about the songwriter as scuffling up-and-comer. Kris Kristofferson pens the ultimate songwriter's anthem, set against the Nashville scene of the late 1960s to up around 1972 0r '73, when Nashville was a bit like Paris in the early 1920s—a nexus for inspired, new and daring voices...a southern U.S. "Left Bank" that came and went far too fast. 

Another Kristofferson tune about putting it all on the line to chase a dream and vision, but this one darker, much more haunted with self-doubt and even a bit of self-contempt. 

It resonates still more when you know Kris' mother sent him a blistering letter more or less disowning him for trashing a promising military/educator's career to be a recording studio janitor in Nashville in an attempt to make critical songwriting career connections.

This one by Willie Nelson is from an obscure film I love called SONGWRITER. (An essay on same I penned way back for a site shared by Megan Abbott and Sara Gran can be found here.) 

If you actually know the film, you might recognize this character played by Willie Nelson, "Doc Jenkins", hiding between the covers of THREE CHORDS.

This tune is also sung by Willie Nelson and crops up in SONGWRITER. In this version, Waylon Jennings duets. 

(Listen closely for a certain line similar to one often used to describe Mr. Lassiter by many of his critics and readers.)

Lacy J. Dalton had a hit with this song about aspiring songwriters many moons ago:

This is, hands down, my favorite song of old Nashville and one written and performed by the late great Mickey Newbury

This next one was listened to countless times while writing THREE CHORDS & THE TRUTH and is a virtual walking tour of old Music Row and the landmarks to be found in the new novel.

We also get oddly resonant references to vintage Chervolets (the ONLY car a man should consider owning and then only Bel Airs or Impalas) and a fella named Bud. 

"Do you remember the old town here yesterday? The walk from the Ryman...?" 

THREE CHORDS' title was originally, "Gnashville, Mon Amour" and that G in front of Nashville was owed to Mr. Newbury who ruefully coined that spelling way back in the bitter day. 

The album from which this one comes bears the same name as this tune, and has some other great pieces about Music City U.S.A. and the songwriter's life, making for a kind of singer-songwriter's "naked lunch at the end of the fork" musical memoir.

Lastly, every book requires an anthem as I pull it together. 

This one had this rather bitter but winningly defiant song penned by the great Tom Russell:

ONE TRUE SENTENCE: Paperback/eBook/audio


TOROS & TORSOS: Paperback/eBook/audio


ROLL THE CREDITS: Paperback/eBook

THE RUNNING KIND: Paperback/eBook

HEAD GAMES: Paperback/eBook/audio

PRINT THE LEGEND: Paperback/eBook/audio

DEATH IN THE FACE: Paperback/eBook


Thursday, December 1, 2016


Every novel I've composed has a kind of "soundtrack."

In most cases, it's just a playlist I put together and play relentlessly to help set and sustain a mood across the composition of a full first draft. 

But for THREE CHORDS & THE TRUTH (now available via Betimes Books), set against the 1958 (G)Nashville music scene, many of the songs I was listening to in order to stay "in period" and in mood went straight into the final text. 

Here's an opening tune by its original artist from THREE CHORDS. This song by Conway Twitty is playing in an all-night diner down South near the novel's opening. This particular version was recorded not long before Mr. Twitty passed, but it's done in 1950s style, and I kind of dig the passion he brings to this version:

Next up is the Everly Brothers and another song popular during the period in which the novel unfolds. Hector, a certain returning sidekick from HEAD GAMES, and company, hear this one in a Nashville watering hole:

In that same bar, we get some classic Jim Reeves (We also learn Hector himself does a mean cover of another song Reeves made famous, "Distant Drums.") Here are both tunes featured in THREE CHORDS, as sung by the man himself.

Next up is Marty Robbin's '58 tune, "The Story of My Life." Though Marty's been mentioned before in the Lassiter novels (HEAD GAMES comes to mind), this song's lyrics seem particularly apt for a novelist who (in)famously lives what he writes, and writes what he lives.

"Stop the World and Let Me Off" is an old (G)Nashville classic. Strictly speaking, this isn't the cut Hector and Bud Fiske and company would have heard back in real-time in fifty-eight, but, hey, I just far prefer Hag's version. (Waylon Jennings recorded a great cover of this one, too.)

This Johnny Cash classic sets up some critical plot aspects of THREE CHORDS & THE TRUTH. The Man in Black's late-1950's prison visits, and Hector's tagging along for a few of those gigs, drives much of the climax to the Hector Lassiter series, and certain racial tensions there-in. 
(Those last are sadly much more timely now than they were when I wrote CHORDS nearly a decade ago, in Nashville and in Gatlinburg, also tragically recently in the news.)

We conclude the soundtrack "in print" with this Roy Orbison tune. 

HEAD GAMES made a rather provocative time jump that became a talking point for many readers and critics. Some loved it; some not so much. 

But a similar leap happens in CHORDS (got to have the courage of your convictions!), one I tried to help finesse/telepgraph by subtly referencing this tune by the Sun Records recording star who bridged so many decades ala stablemate Johnny Cash. 

This likely would have been one of the last tunes old Roy recorded...

Next time: The "invisible" or "inaudible" soundtrack.

ONE TRUE SENTENCE: Paperback/eBook/audio


TOROS & TORSOS: Paperback/eBook/audio


ROLL THE CREDITS: Paperback/eBook

THE RUNNING KIND: Paperback/eBook

HEAD GAMES: Paperback/eBook/audio

PRINT THE LEGEND: Paperback/eBook/audio

DEATH IN THE FACE: Paperback/eBook