FAIL reviews

You can read Rick Boettger’s thoughtful review of FAIL in Key West’s Blue Paper here.

Also, following is novelist Rosalind Brackenbury’s perceptive review of my novel, published in Konk Life:

“When I attended the 2014 Key West Literary Seminar on “The Dark Side”, I learned some things about writers of crime fiction. They know how to do plots and they are good at endings. Also, they aren’t gloomy as people – far from it, they seem rather cheerful. Perhaps it’s because they know that what they are doing succeeds. Rick Skwiot’s crime novel, “Fail”, set in St. Louis, Missouri, falls squarely into the genre, with its mean streets, its corrupt bosses and its flawed, only-too-human detective.

“But he’s hit several very contemporary nails on their heads, too. The victim here is not a corpse – although one washes up in the great Mississippi – but a system of education that lets down inner city kids and sends them, most of them African-Americans, out into the wide world unarmed, at least by learning.

“His likeable cop, a demoted lieutenant who has made some mistakes in his past, is Carlo Gabriel – black, divorced, not entirely cynical, a lapsed but not totally lapsed Catholic, a snappy dresser with an eye for women and a taste for bourbon. (Do demoted cops in St. Louis earn salaries that allow for cashmere overcoats and Ferragamo loafers, I wondered?) He’s set here between a corrupt mayor with Mob connections and an idealistic white college professor who has lost his job and his wife and may be heading for the morgue on account of what he knows. Gabriel walks an uneasy line between the two, but helped by a Jesuit priest, Saint Anthony, patron of lost people and things, the ghost of Mark Twain and some fairly smart women, comes out on the right side even if he hasn’t changed the system. Stone, the professor, hasn’t changed the system either – but who knows, things may improve incrementally – and he has become a little less squeaky-clean and wide-eyed in the process of staying alive.

“Skwiot has a good ear for dialogue and an appropriately noir sense of humor, and the action cracks along at a satisfying rate. “Fail”, with its literary allusions, hints of Catholic morality as well as Machiavellian game-playing, its sense of place – Skwiot grew up in St. Louis, and the action takes place not far from Ferguson, a place we have all, unfortunately, heard of by now – was a page-turner even for this non-reader of detective fiction. What we look for on the page, whatever the genre, is surely intelligence. This short novel has it in quantities. Rick Skwiot has found his niche in among the best of American crime writers.”

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Advance Praise for FAIL

“St. Louis noir…The slick prose readily entertains…Well-executed.”–Kirkus Reviews

“Rick Skwiot proves himself a master weaver who deftly knits the threads of this suspense tale into a compelling—and surprising—conclusion. In short, Fail succeeds, and does so with compassion.”–Michael A. Kahn, award-winning author of Face Value and The Flinch Factor

“Hardboiled and hard-hitting, Skwiot’s Fail delivers a gritty knockout crime story you won’t soon forget.”–Brian Wiprud, author of The Clause

“Chicago has Scott Turow, Boston Dennis Lehane, LA James Elroy. Finally St. Louis has its laureate of fiction, Rick Skwiot. His new novel, Fail, is a sheer success. Skwiot hits for the fences and stylishly touches all the bases — money, municipal politics, police corruption, infidelity, suicide, homicide, all rendered in crackling prose.”–Michael Mewshaw, author of Sympathy for the Devil: Four Decades of Friendship with Gore Vidal

“Fail is a riveting spellbinding tale with intricate characters that are depicted through carefully crafted imagery of iconic St. Louis landmarks bolstered by lucid vernacular accuracy reflecting the rich cultural diversity of the city.”–John Baugh, author of Beyond Ebonics: Linguistic Pride and Racial Prejudice and former director African and African American Studies, Washington University in St. Louis

“In Fail Rick Skwiot has written a story that will endure…[T]he flawlessly pitched voices, the intricate plot—tying academia and Mark Twain to the gritty streets of St. Louis—and the vividly realized characters are all as good as it gets in detective stories. Skwiot has squeezed himself into a spot between [Dashiell] Hammett and [John D.] MacDonald, and I suspect they would be happy to have him there.”–Michael Pearson, author of Reading Life—On Books, Memory, and Travel (2015)

“Skwiot’s finest. Set on the mean streets and back alleys of St. Louis, Fail is a big, two-hearted yarn of political corruption and moral decay. The unforgettable police detective Carlo Gabriel, who handles the investigation, must first grapple with his own transgressions before he can unravel the wooly skein of betrayal and depravity surrounding him. A tale that could well have been ripped from the front page of any city in the country.”–John Leslie, author of Border Crossing 

“The twisting plot and fascinating characters will keep readers turning the pages, but the underlying problem exposed by this vital novel is dead serious. In snappy, vivid, hard-boiled language, Skwiot lays bare the root cause of most of our societal woes: our failed education system. It is no mere coincidence the story takes place in St. Louis, the heartland city that has come to represent our greater national tragedy. Fail is a wake-up call.”–Kelly Daniels, author of Cloudbreak, California

“Reminiscent of Chandler and [Ross] MacDonald, of Phillip Marlowe and Lew Archer, Skwiot has created the flawed detective painted boldly and unflinchingly against the backdrop of a rusted, crumbling city. This is detective fiction at its finest.”–Ryan Stone, author of Best Road Yet

“Art imitates life in this prescient novel. Both crime fiction and a clarion call to rescue America’s underserved schools, Fail is also proof positive that the Ferguson, Missouri, uprising was inevitable.”–Terry Baker Mulligan, author of Afterlife in Harlem

“Not all the snow that blankets St. Louis city in Fail can begin to whitewash its political corruption and educational malpractice, but through all the darkness hope for change emerges. A cynical detective ventures far outside his comfort zone, risking everything to keep an idealistic teacher alive long enough to expose ugly truths. A microcosm for what ails society, Fail is an intelligent read that refuses to pass the buck, earning a classy A.”–Scott L. Miller, author of Counterfeit and Interrogation

“The rapid pace, seamless unfolding and well-crafted plot of this mystery … [are] balanced with the incisive depiction of two contrasting main characters—a crusading English teacher and [a] worldly-wise, battered cop. This tale is a trenchant reminder that the urban cocktail of poverty in the face of wealth, St. Louis’s famous segregated sprawl … and corruption in high places nationwide, is an explosive mix.”–Peter H. Green, author of Crimes of Design

 “Fail is much more than a story about the haves and the have-nots; it is a story about good triumphing over evil, greed, and corruption.”–The Book Diva’s Reads

 

“Key West Story” review excerpts

“Key West is beautifully captured in all its shallow, hedonistic glory, and Skwiot’s ability to reveal it and its citizens in subtle, amusing ways eases the reader into this unique world…”–Kirkus Reviews

“The book is a great read…Skwiot manages to capture some aspects of life in Key West that few think about (unless you live here.)” –FloridaKeysGirl.com

“…[Skwiot] has worked a little noir into the island setting rife with colorful characters, seedy hotels and smoldering women…Hemingway fans should be intrigued.” –examiner.com

“…the kind of book for which our island was once upon a time famed throughout the world. Hemingway…Havana…hurricanes commingling in a tale of love and redemption.” –Key West Citizen

“A fantastic book on the writer’s life…telling us an amazing story about Key West…but also carrying a deeply profound message about the writing life, about the writer’s mission and the mistakes that can be fatal to a writer’s career.”—The Right to Publish

“A witty, literate and wildly exuberant take on sex, writing and life in Key West. With a benign Hemingway as life- and writing-coach, how could Rick Skwiot’s hero fail to flourish?”–Rosalind Brackenbury, author of Becoming George Sand

“Having a protagonist who is a writer is not easy to pull off–writers are not known to be action figures after all–but Rick Skwiot does it beautifully in Key West Story…In the end, the appreciative reader will have gotten to know several unique Key West characters, many of whom have lost some rudder power in their own lives, and all of whom find their core, their heart and their destiny, some in unexpected ways, with a salty Atlantic breeze at their backs.–Susan McKinney de Ortega, author of Flirting in Spanish.

“This novel gives us a new personal insight into what it might have been like to know [Hemingway] and profit from solid advice generously offered from the master’s creative core.”–The Green Grapevine

“Beach noir.” Kirkus Reviews on “Key West Story”

“Key West is beautifully captured in all its shallow, hedonistic glory, and Skwiot’s ability to reveal it and its citizens in subtle, amusing ways eases the reader into this unique world… A destitute writer in the Florida Keys is visited by the reincarnation of Ernest Hemingway.

“Con Martens may only be scraping by, but in sunny Key West that’s not so bad. With plenty to drink, a job as a writing coach and two women absolutely crazy for him, Con seems to have it made. But as a former best-selling author, he’s unfulfilled, wanting to not only reclaim his former glory, but surpass it. When a jealous girlfriend takes a shot at him, the near-death experience shakes Con from his contentment, forcing him shirtless and shoeless into a familiar watering hole where he meets the accommodating and impossible Nick Adams. Nick claims to be the reincarnation of Ernest Hemingway, sent to help Con beat his writer’s block.

“Whether Con believes his companion is really a young Hemingway or just a look-a-like, their partnership injects his life with the excitement particular to the Florida Straights, complete with women, rum, hurricanes and a clandestine mission to Havana. Skwiot’s…novel is not unlike the work of Kem Nunn, though instead of “surf-noir,” “beach-noir” may be the better description. Babes, booze and plenty of dubious figures propagate the book’s tropical setting, where almost anything is possible, even the unexplainable or supernatural.”

What readers are saying about San Miguel de Allende, Mexico: Memoir of a Sensual Quest for Spiritual Healing

 I thoroughly enjoyed every page. The writing is, as expected, exquisite, but there is something new and powerful about this memoir… [It] builds a strong emotional core that pulls you in from start to finish… And then, there are countless characters that just make you laugh out loud… Like the land it depicts, this is a book of rare beauty, hope and possibility.”

“A sensual feast. Rick Skwiot gives us history, culture, and humor as he describes the beauty, poverty, and peculiarities of life in small town Mexico. His words will make you feel the warm sun and the lure of tequila, but are grounded in the reality of life struggles–his own, other gringos, and his Mexican friends…Excellent read.”

“…a man’s version of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love but without her fat checkbook and self-indulgence.”

“It is not about folk-art and being a clever expat artist living an unreal cocooned life in a Third World country, but about a man, a bit lost, who discovers things about himself through his interaction with people who really live there. If you want to know about the real San Miguel, and not the Tourist Guide version, then you will enjoy this book as I did.”

…The author’s elegant, evocative style demands that the reader slow down–as the American who would absorb and understand Mexico must–and relish each carefully crafted phrase, apt image and well-chosen word set before him. In an era when our neighbor nation to the south appears inscrutable, incomprehensible and dangerous, Skwiot lays it bare, picks it apart for our study and reassembles it whole in a love song to the land where he came of age, lived within his body and found his writer’s soul. Memorable and important, this slim volume is to be savored, reread and treasured.”

“I read it once and just had to go back and read it again–I was so fascinated–for it delves into the lowest and highest reaches of Mexican culture… [The] award-winning author has accomplished another masterful writing…”

“…a thoughtful, sensitive and sometimes funny memoir of the author’s personal journey to personal discovery… His transformation occurs through personal observation and deep understanding of the people he meets. People who live in the present, live in their hearts and most of all live in their bodies… Skwiot discovers that to become an artist requires all one’s ardor. And that is not bad advice for the rest of us.”

Novelist Rosalind Brackenbury’s review of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

[published in Solares Hill, October 31, 2010]

Memoir of a Sensual Quest For Spiritual Healing

Reviewed by Rosalind Brackenbury

“San Miguel de Allende, Mexico” 

By Rick Skwiot

Antaeus Books, $14

A memoir of a time, a place, the people in it and the young man he was 25 years ago, when he lived in Mexico, Rick Skwiot’s beautifully observed and written new book pleases at all its levels.

On repeated visits to Mexico, Skwiot takes us from a first, dazzled encounter with blue skies, bougainvillea, the smells of the street and the easy warmth of casual acquaintance into deeper realities: the poverty of the people, their intimate lives and crises, his own fears, the distance between languages, the complications of love relationships and friendships, fights and arrests on the street, death, sorrow, misunderstandings, all the events of life that will include you, in the end, if you decide to be more than a passing tourist in a place.

A memoir can benefit from being written some time after the events described. Here, the perspective gives the writer a chance to see what really mattered. The mature Rick Skwiot looks back on his younger self, in different times, and is able to see the wood for the trees.

Of course, to do this you need to have taken notes, and kept them. Memory fades over the years, but for a novelist (which Skwiot is) this can deepen the impact of the narration. The book has no real plot — well, life hasn’t either. But there’s a narrative tension that is quite rare in memoir, each story drawing you in to wait for the outcome, the denouement of a particular event.

It’s also quite rare in a memoir to find characters who are as real as the narrator. Here, they move and speak on the page: Licha and Adriana, the women with whom, at different times, he finds love; Ernesto his friend; Ramos the eccentric doctor; Lupe his landlady; the American Arnold Schifrin, and others.

Skwiot went to Mexico in the first place to cure a fit of the mid-30s blues. Is any time in our lives more agonizing than our 30s?

This was after a broken marriage and a sense of his life going nowhere. So far, so recognizable. He installs himself in San Miguel de Allende the way many dissatisfied, ex-pat Americans have installed themselves in foreign cities, from Hemingway in Paris and Havana to Paul Bowles in Morocco and on.

He is lonely, doesn’t know the language, goes through the inevitable throes of panic and homesickness as well as amazement at the beauty and kindness of the place. He sits alone, makes notes, is determined to become a writer. People begin to come to him with their stories, he receives them, gets involved, and this is what makes the book a joy to read.

As in Skwiot’s earlier novel, “Sleeping with Pancho Villa”– reviewed here some years ago — and as the place-name of the title suggests, it is the place and its people that are allowed to speak.

Skwiot doesn’t hide his feelings but neither does he dwell on them; the quest for spiritual healing through a sensual involvement in life is allowed to emerge from the events rather than being analyzed.

Yes, if you immerse yourself in life, life will pick you up and take you somewhere.

 Mexico offered him its insights: Money doesn’t matter that much, live for today, enjoy yourself, let your body take over from your mind, let go of anxiety. But it is the writer’s ability to let us see how this happened gradually, as well as a humorous irony that includes himself, that makes it a pleasure to read.

A memoirist needs to be sufficiently personal to be interesting, to connect the dots that are the random events of life, to make us want to go along for the ride.

Essentially, however, he has to get out of his own way and let life in.

Unsolicited Reader Comments on Christmas at Long Lake

“I have enjoyed Christmas at Long Lake hugely…It is beautiful and cleanly written, and I admire it not only for its use of language but as well fro the ways in which, within the framework of the narration of events of a couple of days, it works outward to create a larger thematic universe of boyhood, family and America as manifested at a particular time through particular place. As a writer, it meets for me the ultimate test: I wish I could have written it.”

“I hated for it to end; I cried at times as it brought back so many memories of my own childhood…I gave this book to my daughter as a Christmas present, which she too enjoyed. Thank you so much for returning me (for a while) back to a time when life was sweet and uncomplicated.”

“…masterful, deep and moving. We all enjoyed reading it. It has all the components of a classic work of literature.”

”I read it straight through. A very pleasant experience. This is a fine book.”

“I just finished reading your book and must say it brought back a lot of memories of my own childhood. I really enjoyed the warmth and the love you expressed.”

“I really enjoyed it…I was transported back to my childhood…You were really able to recapture the wonder and awe of a child’s experiences and yet also make tangible the joy of life despite (or because of) a lack of material possessions. The melancholy and inevitability of change also came across powerfully.

“A walk down memory lane. Having grown up in the 50’s, I was especially moved. A reminder of how times and family values have changed. Mr. Skwiot, thank you for sharing your life with us. God bless you.”

“How exciting that some teachers are using your book at the high school! What a great lesson, not only in such lovely literature, but in the history of our area as well. Your vivid recall of the many details of your life amazed me while I read the book, but I understand as I read those last pages this morning that because your life took such a dramatic change, you kept those sweet memories close to your heart all of these years. Beautifully written, bittersweet book.”

“I picked up the book last night, read it until bedtime, picked it up first thing this morning and finished it just now. So charming, so magical, earnest, so touching and evocative of some elements of my own childhood.”

“Christmas at Long Lake” is a wonderful book and excellently written. It made me get nostalgic…”

“I am recommending the book to anyone who lives in the Granite City area. It was a well written book and kept my attention the whole way through and that isn’t easily accomplished. I have a very short attention span. Thanks for the memories.”

“I read your book this week and wanted to tell you how touching I found it. Some of your memories certainly resonated with mine growing up on a small farm…But I was most touched by your sadness in leaving that place, and leaving behind the persons your mother and father were on the farm. I wish your lucky rabbit foot and letter to Santa could have spared all of you from the changes that followed…Thank you for sharing this memoir.”

“…[W]hat a wonderful book… Thank you for a walk down memory lane.”

“A quietly beautiful memoir…Despite living in an old fishing shack in the middle of nowhere, Skwiot regards this part of his life as near Eden, as he writes of old-fashioned pleasures in simpler times as well as of the hard work of daily living. This is the story of Skwiot’s last Christmas in the country as he wrestles with possible consequences of his father’s recent job loss, but there are plenty of meanderings back to other seasons and other times that fill out the picture of blue-collar life in the early 1950’s… This book is a little gem that will be a special delight to those who remember simpler times or life in the country, but for others the descriptive prose just might bring up shadowy memories that never were.”

“It’s not often you pick up a memoir these days about a functional family; a family steeped in Christian values and country ways, straight out of Norman Rockwell’s post-war Americana–and yet human and fallible enough in character to hold a reader’s interest…Christmas at Long Lake does exactly that, reflecting on a boyhood Christmas in 1953 when his father loses his job at the Granite City steel mill and the family is forced to move to the still segregated city of St. Louis…The wonder of this quiet, quick-reading memoir is not the action of the story so much as the beauty of the language, and all that Skwiot manages to encapsulate in character, setting, and emotion within just a few days’ time. Growing up in virtual poverty, this six-year-old’s life was rich and downright blessed in many ways. A great read for anyone familiar with the St. Louis region, urban or rural–and a beautiful little book to stuff in any stocking.”

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Critical Praise for Christmas at Long Lake: A Childhood Memory

 

“Rick Skwiot works his own magic…As usual, Skwiot’s writing is sure…And his tale has a gritty, blue-collar cachet…This is good reading.”—Kansas City Star

“Skwiot’s vivid descriptions of the physical and emotional landscape of this environment are poignant, entertaining, and instructional…There is magic in this depiction of a setting and a way of life that can be described only as Edenic.”—Library Journal

“Skwiot’s memories of the grandmothers are rich and poignant, and the descriptive detail shimmers.”—St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“A heartwarming, thoughtfully recalled, highly recommended memoir.”—Midwest Book Review

“Rick Skwiot has harvested his rich years of childhood in such a way that we can only enjoy, admire and wish for more.”—Solares Hill

“The memoir’s simple, elegant prose and eye for detail banish most sentimentality from the tale. Skwiot captures the magic of the moment…”—Portfolio Weekly

“…a memoir written with sure craft and true heart, a narrative of Paradise Lost, the story of a time when the details of an ordinary day appear to be magical.”—Michael Pearson, author of Dreaming of Columbus: A Boyhood in the Bronx

“…an elegant evocation not only of a particular time and place but also of the way childhood memories set up a permanent residence in our hearts. This a lovely, elegiac book.”—Robert Olen Butler, Pulitzer-Prize-winning author of A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain

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