Monday, May 31, 2010

In Defense of Westerns

Yesterday on Ed Gorman’s blog, Ed published an excerpt from a blog post by novelist Richard S. Wheeler. You can check out Ed’s blog here, if you haven’t seen it already, and Wheeler’s full post is here.

I’ve known Dick Wheeler for 25 years, like him a great deal personally, and admire him as a writer. I’ve read a number of his books and every one of them was excellent. But that doesn’t keep me from being in complete disagreement with him on this issue.

His main point, as I see it, is that the traditional Western novel is dead, and good riddance. He says:

Even as the traditional western story has all but vanished, a new regional literature has replaced it. That is all to the good. The sooner the genre western vanishes, the better. The world has had its fill of crack-brained males wandering through unsettled country butchering one another.

To address these two points in order:

It’s simply not true that the traditional western story has all but vanished. While fewer publishers have Western lines these days, they still exist. Pinnacle, Berkley, Signet, and Leisure all have robust Western lines publishing multiple new titles every month. Five Star and Avalon in the U.S. and Robert Hale in England still publish multiple new titles every month aimed at the library markets, as do several large print publishers. Overall, several hundred new Western novels continue to be published every year. No, sales aren’t as good as they once were. Advances are lower. But here’s the important thing about that: it’s just as true in almost every other genre. The numbers for all of mid-list publishing have dropped in the past twenty years. The typical mass-market paperback original Western sells just as well as the typical mass-market paperback original mystery or science-fiction or horror novel. This isn’t a matter of perception, it’s a matter of numbers, and they don’t lie.

Where perception comes in is that mysteries and science-fiction and horror have their big success stories, the authors in those genres whose books regularly crack the bestseller lists, so they’re still perceived as successful genres. Westerns don’t have that “big name” anymore since Louis L’Amour died. Robert B. Parker’s Westerns have been successful, but only because he was Robert B. Parker and his mystery readers followed him over to the Westerns. However, even that perception isn’t strictly true. More than two dozen William W. Johnstone Westerns have appeared on the USA Today bestseller list in recent years, and earlier this year one of them was on the New York Times bestseller list.

Moving on to the description of traditional Western novels as “crack-brained males wandering through unsettled country butchering one another” . . . has this ever been true about the vast majority of Western fiction? Not based on what I’ve read. Certainly, there have been bad Western novels published, but most of the ones I’ve read over the years – and that’s a lot – featured well-rounded characters, moral and psychological complexity, and even some social commentary. That was true in the pulp era, and it’s still true today.

I consider it a shame that Westerns have to be defended. I feel the same way when I hear or read an attack on romances or horror novels or noir or cozy mysteries. Here’s what it all boils down to for me: It’s all just words on paper. No genre is inherently better or worse than any other genre (which includes literary fiction). Yes, there are genre conventions. A good writer can work within those conventions and still produce excellent work. I’m saddened, though, that this latest attack on traditional Westerns comes from someone within our own community. I know that Dick Wheeler is sincere in his complaints – he’s been making them for a long time – but I think he’s wrong. I hope the readers do, too.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Lazarus Project

THE LAZARUS PROJECT starts out like it’s going to be a hardboiled crime yarn that might have been published as a Gold Medal novel: Ex-con Ben Garvey is a decent guy with a wife and a little girl, who’s trying to put his criminal past behind him. But then his brother, also an ex-con who’s recently been released from prison, shows up and tries to convince Ben to join him on one last heist. Well, you know as well as I do that “one last heist” never works out, and sure enough, things go terribly wrong.

So, yeah, THE LAZARUS PROJECT starts out like a Gold Medal . . . but it doesn’t really finish that way. From that point in the plot, the movies turns into a creepy psychological thriller, one of those movies where nothing is what it appears to be and the plot keeps taking unexpected twists and turns. I can’t go into detail without possibly spoiling it for those of you who haven’t seen it. The final twist is one that many of you will probably see coming, but it’s still pretty satisfying.

I like Paul Walker and think he makes a good action movie hero, but he’s okay in a more leisurely film like this one, as well. You can’t help but like him and root for him to get to the bottom of all the mysterious things that keep happening. The script doesn’t quite wrap up all the plot threads as tightly as one might hope, but that doesn’t keep the movie from being pretty entertaining. I’d never heard of THE LAZARUS PROJECT before, but I think it’s worth watching.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Longarm and the Deadly Flood

This one just came out, and if you're interested in how writers' minds work and where ideas come from . . . LONGARM AND THE SAND PIRATES had a lot of sand in it.  A very dry book, at least as far as the setting goes.  LONGARM AND THE DEADLY FLOOD . . . well, you can do the math.

Forgotten Books: Kingdom of Blue Corpses - Brant House

I’m not sure the Secret Agent X novels really qualify as Forgotten Books, since they’re being reprinted regularly by several different small press publishers, but hey, in the minds of the general public, they’re not exactly front and center.

“Kingdom of Blue Corpses”, from the December 1935 issue of the pulp SECRET AGENT X, is one of the more oddball entries in the series. It’s very comic-booky (if that’s a word), with a master villain who calls himself the Blue Streak and wears a blue rubber suit, somewhat like a frogman’s outfit, emblazoned with a lightning bolt. His minions – every self-respecting master villain has to have minions, of course – wear black rubber suits that look even more like frogmen and drive around in a sinister black hearse. The Blue Streak’s weapon in his campaign of terror is an electrical cannon that fires lightning bolts, and as a side effect, the corpses of the people struck by it turn bright blue. No explanation is forthcoming for this side effect, but that’s all right. This yarn isn’t very rigorously plotted, even by pulp standards.

Which doesn’t mean it’s not a lot of fun, as Secret Agent X tries to bring the Blue Streak to justice in a series of extremely fast-moving, action-packed confrontation. As usual, “X” employs several different disguises, and his girlfriend/assistant, beautiful blond reporter Betty Dale, even gets in on the act this time, as “X” disguises her so she can take the place of a young woman he suspects of being involved with the Blue Streak.

The actual identity of the author behind the “Brant House” house-name on this one hasn’t been established, as far as I know. The first part of the story reads like it could be by Paul Chadwick, the creator of the Secret Agent X character and the principal author in the series in its early years. The style changes somewhat during the course of the story, becoming more terse and action-oriented, which has led some readers to speculate that maybe Chadwick started the novel and from some unknown reason, another author finished it. This seems possible to me as well, but at this point, we just don’t know. Whoever wrote “Kingdom of Blue Corpses” did a good job of keeping things moving, even if they don’t always make complete sense. An affordable reprint will be available soon from Beb Books, and if you’re a Secret Agent X fan, or just a fan of over-the-top pulp yarns, you’ll want to read this one.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Forgotten Music: That Thing You Do Soundtrack

Making a movie set in a particular time period and using actual music from that era to help capture the feelings of the period is one thing, and I suppose like everything else about filmmaking, it can be a challenge to do it right. But it seems to me that coming up with new music that sounds just like it really is from another era would be even more difficult. That’s exactly what Tom Hanks and a number of collaborators did with the music for the movie THAT THING YOU DO, which was also written and directed by Hanks.

Set in the early 1960s, the songs from THAT THING YOU DO are a near-perfect blend of the musical styles from that era. The soundtrack begins with the Mitch Miller-like “Loving You Lots and Lots”, then follows up with the title song and several others performed by the fictional group from the movie, The Wonders. “Mr. Downtown” is a jazzy, noirish tune reminiscent of the theme from PETER GUNN, while “Hold My Hand, Hold My Heart” sounds like it could have been performed by any number of girl groups from that era. “Voyage Around the Moon” captures the same instrumental sound as “Telstar” and other hits inspired by the Space Age. “My World is Over” is a sad ballad, “Drive Faster” a hot rod song, and “Shrimp Shack” another instrumental from a fictional beach movie within the movie. (I can imagine Candy Johnson shimmying to “Shrimp Shack” without any problem.) The soundtrack wraps up with a long, smoky piano jazz song and a “live” reprise of the title song.

“That Thing You Do”, the song, was written by Adam Schlesinger from one of my favorite groups, Fountains of Wayne, and in fact to me The Wonders sound a lot like Fountains of Wayne.

It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost fifteen years since THAT THING YOU DO came out. It’s a fine film, and the soundtrack does a beautiful job of capturing the era in which it’s set. And it’s just great fun to listen to, especially if you lived through those days and heard songs like these all the time.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Signing in the Waldenbooks - Parnell Hall

Most of you have probably seen this video already, but if you haven't, it's very funny.  Take a look.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Marvel Masterworks: Fantastic Four, Volume 2

The second trade paperback volume in the MARVEL MASTERWORKS: FANTASTIC FOUR series reprints FF #11 – 20, along with the first FANTASTIC FOUR ANNUAL. It’s a mixed bag of stories, to be sure, opening with the introduction of the Impossible Man from FF #11. Stan comments in the introduction to the volume that this story is considered a failure, but I never felt like that. Yeah, it’s offbeat, but it’s pretty funny, too. Not much really happens in #12, which features the first meeting between the FF and the Incredible Hulk. (The next meeting in FF #25 and 26 is much better.) The story from #13 is notable because it features the first appearance of the Watcher, as well as the introduction of the Red Ghost and his Incredible Super-Apes. (Yes, super-apes. I thought this was pretty dumb even when I was a kid. The Watcher was cool, though.)

Some other characters pop up for the first time in these stories: the Mad Thinker in #15, the Super-Skrull in #18, and Rama-Tut, the Pharaoh from the Future (who I believe eventually turned out to be Dr. Doom, as did Kang the Conqueror) in #19. I don’t recall if the Yancy Street Gang had turned up prior to these issues, but they’re mentioned quite a bit and always welcome.

For me the highlights of this volume are the stories from FF #16 and #17, both of which feature Dr. Doom as the villain. In #16, the FF are shrunk down into a microverse (shades of Ray Cummings’ THE GIRL IN THE GOLDEN ATOM, among numerous other SF novels and stories) and get some help from Ant-Man, and in #17 they battle a series of traps set for them by Doom. Now, these stories may not actually be any better than the others from this time period, but they’re special to me because they were the first issues of FANTASTIC FOUR I ever read, indeed the first Marvel superhero comics I read, on that Christmas Day, 1963, at my aunt’s house in Brownwood. (I’ve written about that day before.) Reading them again really took me back to those times.

Also, the story from FF ANNUAL #1, which features Sub-Mariner finally locating his lost kingdom of Atlantis and declaring war on the surface world, is pretty good, and at 37 pages was a real epic in those days.

Still, this is all prelude. Starting a few months after these stories were first published, with the brutal Thing/Hulk battle in FF #25, FANTASTIC FOUR would start a three-and-a-half year run that for my money is the best sustained sequence in the history of comics. (AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #1 – 33 comes close but can’t quite top the FF, at least for me.) If Marvel continues to come out with these Masterworks trade paperbacks, I’ll continue reading them and reliving those days. Highly recommended.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Spy Next Door

In this family-oriented action comedy, Jackie Chan plays an agent of the Chinese Intelligence Service who’s on loan to the CIA. That’s a little far-fetched, I suppose, but it pales next to the fact that his boss is played by George Lopez and one of his fellow agents is Billy Ray Cyrus. Chan’s character wants to retire from spying and marry the beautiful single mom who lives next door to him with her three kids, but he keeps getting drawn back into dangerous assignments. None of this, however, prepares him for the job of playing babysitter to the kids when their mother has to go out of town unexpectedly.

Obviously, this is pretty mild, lightweight fare. Chan is charming, as always, and does a few nice stunts, although age has scaled back what he even attempts anymore. (That’s true for all of us, I expect, even those of us who don’t do fight scenes in movies.) Ah, but the first few minutes of this movie are great, as action-packed clips from some of Chan’s earlier movies play out to the accompaniment of Johnny Rivers singing “Secret Agent Man”, one of my all-time favorite songs. (When it began to play, one of my daughters commented, “I’ve had this song stuck in my head for ten years.” It’s more like forty years for me!)

Whether you watch the rest of the movie is up to you, of course. It’s a pleasant enough way to spend an hour and a half.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Tales of Granton City: A New World of Pulp Heroes

This looks like a fine new series from my friend Calvin Daniels. According to Calvin, the special signed and numbered edition of the first book, METAL MONSTERS OF DOOM, is already sold out, but the regular edition is still available, with more to come. Check it out. I plan to.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Forgotten Books: The Sun Smasher - Edmond Hamilton

The opening of this novel reminded me a bit of the sort of set-up that Cornell Woolrich used in many of his stories. A young man named Neal Banning, who works as a publisher’s rep in New York City, pays a visit to his Norman Rockwell-esque hometown in Nebraska – but when he gets there, he finds a vacant lot where the house he grew up in should be. Not only that, but the neighbors are different and insist that there was never a house on the lot, that they don’t know Neal, and that the aunt and uncle who raised him never existed. Naturally, with his world upended like this, Neal goes to the police and tries to get to the bottom of what he thinks is a conspiracy, only to be locked up because everybody thinks he’s crazy.

Of course, in the hands of the master of space opera, Edmond Hamilton, things play out a lot differently from there than they would in a Cornell Woolrich story. Veteran readers won’t be surprised when a mysterious man shows up, breaks Neal out of jail, and tells him an incredible story about how he’s really the Valkar, the former leader of a galactic empire whose enemies captured him, had his brain wiped clean, and implanted false memories of his life as Neal Banning. Neal’s rescuer is one of his former followers who has finally tracked him down and now wants to return him to his home planet so his memory can be restored and he can lead a rebellion against the New Empire and restore the Old Empire to power. How’s he going to do that, you ask? Simple. Even though he can’t remember it at the moment, Neal is the only one in the cosmos who knows the location of a super-weapon called the Hammer of the Valkar, which will give whoever possesses it the power to rule the galaxy.

If all that doesn’t get your heart pounding . . . well, then, you probably didn’t grow up reading and loving this kind of stuff like I did. There were few authors better at it than Edmond Hamilton. Super-weapons, beautiful haughty empresses, spaceships with fins . . . sure, there’s a certain degree of silliness to it all, but I don’t care. I hadn’t read this novel before, and I found it highly entertaining. Hamilton was never much of a stylist. His prose is simple and direct and very fast-moving, although there are definite touches of poetry here and there, especially when he’s describing things like the vastness of space. This novel rockets (no pun intended) along to a twist ending that probably won’t surprise very many readers but is still quite satisfying.

The thing is, they still write stories like this, only now it would be a 500,000 word trilogy stuffed to the gills with back-story, angst, political intrigue, sex, and realistic-sounding science. Hamilton spins his yarn in less than a tenth of that wordage. You pays your money and you takes your choice, and I know that many modern readers would rather have the fat trilogy than the 110-page Ace Double. As for me, I’m gonna go smash some suns with Ed Hamilton.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

World Explorer Magazine

My friend Chris La Tray sent me the latest issue of a magazine I didn’t know existed: WORLD EXPLORER. It features a fine article by Chris about the Gabriel Hunt series, and there are plenty of other reasons to recommend it as well. WORLD EXPLORER and its associated website focus on historical and archeological mysteries, as well as the fascinating field of cryptozoology. In addition to the articles featured on the cover, there are numerous columns and departments such as “News From the Frontiers of Natural Science”, with subjects ranging from speculation about the actual construction of Noah’s Ark to the possibility of finding water on Mars, and “Crypto Corner”, which leads off with a story about the search for the Malaysian version of Bigfoot. Whether or not you believe in such things doesn’t really matter. WORLD EXPLORER is a very well-written and attractive magazine, and even though I’m pretty skeptical about some of the subject matter, I had a great time reading this issue.

There’s also a long section on new books about ancient science and technology, lost cities, and archeology, many of which might make good research books for authors of adventure fiction, horror, SF, steampunk, etc. Check it out, and don’t be surprised if you find yourself considering becoming a member of the World Explorers Club. I know I am.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Spartan Gold - Clive Cussler and Grant Blackwood

Every so often I get in the mood for a big, globe-trotting thriller with a lot of historical background. SPARTAN GOLD, the first book in a new series by Clive Cussler and Grant Blackwood, fits the bill quite nicely.

Almost like a Harry Stephen Keeler novel, this one starts out with a lot of seemingly unconnected elements – Napolean making a startling discovery in an ice cave in 1800; a German mini-sub sunk for sixty years in a Delaware river; a Ukrainian gangster originally from Turkmenistan who believes himself to be a direct descendant of the ancient Persian emperor Xerxes the Great – and weaves them all together into a coherent story. The protagonists responsible for untangling all of this and staying alive through an assortment of dangers are husband-and-wife scientists and treasure hunters Sam and Remi Fargo.

If you’re thinking this sounds a little like a Gabriel Hunt novel, you’re not far wrong in some respects, that is, if Gabriel were married. Sam and Remi are even independently wealthy and have the Fargo Foundation to finance their adventures. SPARTAN GOLD is much longer than a Gabriel Hunt novel, though, and lacks the breakneck pace. Which is not to say that it doesn’t have considerable appeal of its own.

Whoever did the bulk of the writing in this book (I suspect Blackwood, although I should stress that I have absolutely no knowledge of whether that’s correct) does a good job of making Sam and Remi very likeable characters who are easy to root for. Likewise, the frequent infodumps are easy to follow and not obtrusive. The plot is complex but winds up making perfect sense, at least as far as I could tell. My biggest complaint is that the ending doesn’t quite reach the dramatic heights I would have preferred. Anybody who’s read very many of my books knows my motto: If you’re going over the top anyway, you might as well go ’way over.

I get bored easily with long books, but I didn’t have any trouble staying with SPARTAN GOLD. It’s worth reading, and I won’t hesitate to pick up the next one in the series when it comes out.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Guest Blog by Frank Loose: The Book Fumigation Tank

(This is a problem I run into fairly often, and I suspect most book collectors do, too. Thanks to Frank for sharing his method of dealing with it. I haven’t tried it yet, but I certainly intend to.)

Have you ever bought a book that was a real stinker? I don’t mean the story and the writing, but rather the smell. Paper is porous so it can be damaged by cigarette smoke, mold and mildew, and other unpleasant odors. I had one old book that smelled so bad I couldn’t read it. So I went on the hunt for a way to make the book-reader friendly and discovered the healing power of cedar.

Specifically, cedar chips. The cedar does two things: it absorbs the bad odor and replaces it with a nice, subtle cedar smell that fades as you read the book. To build your own fumigation tank:

Buy a plastic tub that can be sealed with a top. The size depends on how many books you want to treat at one time. Mine is 1’ x 1’ x 2’ and works well for six books.
Cover the bottom with cedar chips – an inch or so deep. I use cedar packaged for pet bedding and litter.

Stand the offending book upright in the tub and fan open the pages. It is important to expose as much of the book as possible to the magic of the cedar. I have not discovered any ill affect from having the book in direct contact with the cedar shavings, but if you’re hesitant, I suggest placing the book in a secondary container on top of the cedar. A Tupperware container or even a plastic plate works well.

I find that hardbacks fan open and stand upright pretty easily, either in the cedar or on a plate, but paperbacks need help because they want to stay shut, so I fan them open into four or five sections and wedge cedar in between the exposed pages. I even sprinkle cedar on top of a particularly egregious book.

After you have your books in place, put the lid on top and walk away. The amount of time necessary to restore a book depends on the degree of the smell. Two weeks handles most of the books I’ve treated. When I remove a book, I flick through the pages several times to eject cedar chips and dust, and then head for my favorite reading spot. You will need to change out the cedar in your chamber every so often, or add more and stir it up. The fresher it is, the faster it works.

As for a book whose story stinks, well . . . I’m afraid cedar won’t help there.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Forgotten Books: Outlaw Canyon - Lewis B. Patten

This is another fine early novel by Lewis B. Patten. It opens in the middle of the action, as Matt Springer, the foreman of the vast Fortress Ranch, is about to lead his men into the dreaded Outlaw Canyon in an attempt to recover a herd of rustled cattle. What makes this even more difficult than it would be otherwise is the fact that the rustlers were led by Wes Knudson, the son of Fortress’s elderly owner Chris Knudson – who also happens to be like a father to Matt.

Other than Ed Gorman and H.A. DeRosso, no Western author puts his characters through more emotional torture and turmoil than Lewis B. Patten. In OUTLAW CANYON, after setting the scene Patten launches into a series of flashbacks that establish why Wes Knudson hates his father so much that he’ll lead a gang of outlaws against him. The plot, which involves adultery, murder, and general mayhem, is gritty to say the least, and as is often the case in a Patten novel, there are some sex scenes that are pretty graphic for the era, since OUTLAW CANYON was published in 1961. All of it leads up to the expected big showdown at the end.

Veteran Western readers probably won’t be surprised at any of the plot twists in this book, but odds are they’ll be entertained. Patten’s prose is tough and fast-paced and there’s plenty of action. Despite the fact that his books always have relatively positive endings, his vision of the West is a consistently bleak one, and the characters who manage to achieve happiness usually pay a high price to do so. Most of his books are well worth reading, and OUTLAW CANYON certainly falls into that category.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Crazy Heart

As I’m sure you’ve all heard by now, Jeff Bridges is great as a washed-up country singer/songwriter in CRAZY HEART. Looking like a cross between Kenny Rogers and Kris Kristofferson, he really throws himself into the part. I’ve always liked Bridges ever since I saw him in THE LAST PICTURE SHOW all those years ago, and he certainly doesn’t disappoint here. The supporting cast is good, too, with nice bits from Robert Duvall and Colin Ferrell. I really enjoyed the music, too. As in THAT THING YOU DO, another music-related movie, the people responsible for the music in CRAZY HEART have some up with a lot of new songs that sound like they could have been authentic hits. Beautiful photography, too, with a lot of stark southwestern scenery.

That said . . . boy, not much actually happens in this movie. It just meanders along, and yes, eventually changes does come to some of the characters, but at a glacial pace. I thought there were several places in the script where the conflicts could have been ramped up a little and made for a more interesting film, especially in the relationship between the characters played by Bridges and Ferrell. Maybe that’s just me, though. I’m a plot guy, no doubt about that.

I think CRAZY HEART is worth watching for the performances and the music. I wouldn’t recommend watching it when you’re already sleepy, though. It won’t do much to keep you awake.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Movies I've Missed (Until Now): Empire of the Sun

We hadn’t seen a big, epic historical drama for a while, and this is one from the Eighties that we never watched. My fondness for war films is well-documented, too, so we gave EMPIRE OF THE SUN a try and I’m glad we did.

Based on an autobiographical novel by British SF author J.G. Ballard, the story centers around his childhood in Shanghai during World War II. The character, called James Graham in the film, is about twelve years old when the war begins and the Japanese attack and occupy Shanghai. Separated from his parents, young Jim is forced to survive in the devastated city on his own for a while until he falls in with some Americans who are somewhat shady characters. Eventually they’re all captured by the Japanese and forced to live in an internment camp for British and American prisoners until the end of the war.

Boiled down, that’s the plot of the movie, but it’s rich with characters and incidents that fill up its two-and-a-half-hour running time. There’s plenty of spectacle, as you’d expect in a film directed by Steven Spielberg, and yes, while some of it is a little hokey and overblown, it’s also pretty effective. When he tackles big historical dramas like this, Spielberg reminds me a little of David Lean (a director whose films I need to revisit someday soon).

A young Christian Bale plays Jim and does a good job. John Malkovich, eccentric as always, is the American who befriends him and saves his life more than once. The supporting cast is uniformly good, including one young Japanese actor who does a great job as a would-be pilot. (The internment camp is right next to a Japanese airfield, probably to discourage Allied attacks on the field, a strategy that doesn’t always work.)

EMPIRE OF THE SUN is an old-fashioned yarn that I enjoyed a lot. If you like historical dramas and/or war movies and haven’t ever seen it, you ought to check it out.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Frank Frazetta, RIP

Word is getting around that Frank Frazetta passed away earlier today from a stroke. A lot of people will be posting about him, I'm sure, including some who knew him. I didn't, but over the years I've bought a lot of books with covers by him, including this one, which had quite an impact on my life because it introduced me to the work of Robert E. Howard. It was the Frazetta cover that caught my eye first, though, that day in Barber's Bookstore in downtown Fort Worth. A great artist who will be missed.

The Killing of Mindi Quintana

THE KILLING OF MINDI QUINTANA is attorney Jeffrey A. Cohen’s first novel, and not surprisingly, it’s a legal thriller – sort of. But it’s also a psychological thriller and a commentary on society and the justice system.

For the first half of the book, the focus is on Freddy Builder, the manager of the china department in a downtown Philadelphia department store. Freddy is an aspiring writer, and when he reconnects with Mindi Quintana, a woman he dated briefly in college who is now an editor for a literary magazine, Freddy is convinced that it’s fate. Not only is he going to be published and become famous for his writing, but he’s also going to make Mindi fall in love with him.

Well, of course things don’t work out that way, and since the title itself is a spoiler, it comes as no surprise when Freddy winds up murdering Mindi, although Cohen generates some decent suspense by making the reader wonder when and how the murder is going to take place.

Once it does, the legal thriller part of the book kicks in. Freddy is arrested quickly for the crime and prosecuted by a politically ambitious young assistant district attorney. The public defender assigned to Freddy’s case becomes the central character in this portion of the novel, as he struggles not only with the legal part of the case but also its ethical ramifications, because Freddy, while in jail awaiting trial, starts to write about what happened and becomes what he always wanted to be: a famous author. All he had to do was kill for it.

As a first-time author, Cohen sometimes has a little trouble keeping his plot moving along at the sort of pace I enjoy, and some of the book is so bizarre and almost surreal, especially the department store scenes, that they didn’t really work for me. However, he’s created some interesting characters and come up with enough plot twists and the occasional really good line that I was happy to keep reading. And the final resolution of the case is pretty satisfying, too. THE KILLING OF MINDI QUINTANA is a solid debut novel that promises even better things to come from Jeffrey A. Cohen.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog

I had vaguely heard of this but wasn’t really sure what it was. My daughter had a DVD of it, though, so we gave it a try and I’m glad we did. DR. HORRIBLE’S SING-ALONG BLOG originally appeared as a series of webcasts and has some top-flight talent behind it, including writer/director Joss Whedon. It’s a musical spoof of superheroes and supervillains, with an excellent cast headed by Neil Patrick Harris, Nathan Fillion, and Simon Helberg. The songs are catchy, the dialogue is funny, and the ending is surprisingly poignant. This is another movie with a niche audience. You’ll probably either think it’s great, like I did, or you’ll be utterly bored. But it’s short (less than an hour), so you won’t have to spend much time finding out. Recommended.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

The Chain Story Project - Stackpole, Mariotte, Vardeman, and Long (so far)

Check this out: a series of connected short stories by Michael Stackpole, Jeff Mariotte, Bob Vardeman, and Nathan Long, authors whose works I've read and enjoyed many times in the past. It's a great concept that allows for different types of stories, including cross-genre yarns. I'm supposed to contribute a story to this effort in the weeks to come, as soon as I can find -- or manufacture -- the time to write it, so I'm going to be following the Chain Story Project with great interest.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Forgotten Books: A Great Day for Dying - Jack Dillon

Frank Loose recommended this book to me, and I’m glad he did. I’d never heard of it and probably wouldn’t have if he hadn’t read it first and liked it. As far as I know, it’s the author’s only crime novel, although he wrote a few other novels about the advertising business. Jack Dillon was a successful ad executive, responsible for, among others, the series of TV commercials for Polaroid that featured James Garner and Mariette Hartley. Those of you of a certain age are bound to remember those commercials, since Garner was so affable and charming and Hartley was, well, so beautiful. Still is, for that matter.

But to get back to A GREAT DAY FOR DYING. Don’t pay any attention to that Hemingway comparison on the cover. The only similarity I see is that the protagonist of this novel, Jimmy O’Niel, reminded me a little of Harry Morgan from TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT. Jimmy is a friend and former associate of mobster Red Christian, but he’s trying to live a respectable life and start a charter boat business in Puerto Rico. People don’t want to believe that he’s no longer involved in anything crooked, though, but the only shady thing Jimmy’s mixed up in is running guns to anti-Castro revolutionaries in Cuba.

Unfortunately for Jimmy, he gets drawn into one of his former boss’s schemes and winds up on the wrong side of the Syndicate. From there, things just get worse for Jimmy, up to and including several murders and a hurricane.

The clipped style of the prose and the realistic dialogue remind me more of Elmore Leonard, although Leonard started writing crime novels about the same time as this book came out, so I don’t think his work was any influence on Dillon. A GREAT DAY FOR DYING also reminds me a little of a James Patterson novel, because the chapters are short and there’s a mixture of first person chapters from Jimmy’s point of view and third person chapters featuring other characters. That’s a technique I normally don’t care for, but Dillon makes it work fairly well. I don’t know if he was the first to do it, probably not, but this novel surely has to be one of the early examples of it. The pace is fast, even though there’s really not a lot of action except for an occasional short burst, and there are a lot of good lines.

A GREAT DAY FOR DYING is a fine book, worth seeking out, and it’s certainly good enough to make it a shame Jack Dillon didn’t write any other crime novels. Recommended.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Medical Update (Not for the Squeamish)

Some of you are aware that I’ve been having some minor medical problems for the past few days. To be precise, every time I eat something, the side of my face and my neck swell up and hurt. I thought I was having an allergic reaction to something I was eating, but when it continued to happen no matter what I ate, that put me on the trail of a different diagnosis. (Hey, we’re all doctors now, since the invention of the Internet, right?)

A visit to a real doctor this morning confirmed what I had already figured out. I have an obstructed right parotid duct, which in turn has led to a minor infection of the duct and the adjacent parotid gland. This is the big salivary gland that curves around in front of and below the ear. So when I eat, the gland produces saliva as it’s supposed to, but there’s no place for it to go because the duct leading out of it is blocked somewhere, probably by a stone, leading to the swelling and hurting.

Now, the treatment of choice for a blocked salivary duct is not what you might think it would be. I’m supposed to suck lemons or eat sour candy (I’m opting for the candy) and drink lots of water. This will cause the gland to produce even more saliva and either dissolve the stone or force it on out of the duct. Should take a week or so. In the meantime, I’ll also be on antibiotics to knock out the infection. If that doesn’t do the trick, I’ll have to go to an ear, nose, and throat guy and have him locate and remove the stone. The doctor really seemed to think the situation would resolve itself and wouldn’t come to that, though. I’m hoping that’s right. Eating candy and drinking water sounds good to me.

So if I’m even more full of, ah, spit than usual for the next week, now you know the reason why.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Alien Trespass

This is another movie I’d never heard of. The description of it on Netflix makes it sound like a comedy, a parody of so many Fifties science fiction movies. The prologue reinforces that idea, setting up a framing sequence about how this is actually a movie made in 1957 that was thought to have been lost for the past fifty years. A little silliness ensues, and then the movie itself starts.

And as it plays out, you come to realize that although it has considerable humor in it, ALIEN TRESPASS isn’t a parody at all. Instead, it’s an affectionate, pitch-perfect homage to those low-budget sci-fi epics from the Fifties, complete with overacting, crude special effects, and a guy in a rubber suit playing a monster. If you watched those movies in the theaters or on TV growing up, you’ll recognize all the elements: the small town in the desert, the UFO crash-landing in the hills, the teenagers who are the first ones to see the monster, the skeptical cops, the local scientist (doesn’t every town have one?) who figures out what’s going on.

Now here’s the strange part: even though you know this movie was made a couple of years ago, it’s hard not to get drawn into it and start taking it seriously, or at least as seriously as you’d take the same sort of movie if it had actually been made in 1957. It does that good a job of capturing the era. There are a few tiny details wrong, but blink and you’ll miss them, and they don’t really have any bearing on the plot.

The biggest names in the cast are Eric McCormack from WILL & GRACE and Robert Patrick from THE UNIT and a ton of other stuff. Everyone does a good job, though, and they all seem to be having a wonderful time.

ALIEN TRESPASS strikes me as a movie with an extremely narrow target audience. If you’re a viewer of a certain age and a certain temperament, there’s a good chance you’ll love it and find yourself grinning all the way through it. I did. I think it’s a wonderful film. But if you fall outside that range, you’ll probably start watching this and go “Huh? What is this?” So consider yourself warned when I recommend this one highly.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Too Much Fiction?

This may sound odd, but bear with me. I'm starting to wonder if the brain can overload on fiction. Now, I've been a huge reader for fifty years and the vast majority of what I've read has been fiction. But I've noticed that the more I write, the more difficult it is for me to find books I want to read. This has been going on for several years now and has gotten worse recently. And even when there are plenty of books I want to read, need to read, I do my pages during the day and then find myself watching TV, playing games on the computer, reading blogs . . . almost anything except opening a book and immersing myself in plots and characters. Can the human brain only process so much of that stuff and no more? I can't help but wonder. I may have to start reading more non-fiction.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Sherlock Holmes

I’m not what you’d call a Sherlock Holmes purist, although I’ve read all of Conan Doyle’s novels about the character and most of the short stories. And I tend to like Robert Downey Jr. But when I heard that Downey was going to play Holmes, my first reaction was a dubious “I dunno about that.” The more I heard about the movie, the more skeptical I was.

Now that I’ve actually seen it, though, I have to admit that Downey’s eccentric portrayal won me over. No, he doesn’t match any physical image I ever had of Holmes (who in my mind will always look like Basil Rathbone, which tells you what movies I grew up watching on TV), and yes, I think the scriptwriters took some considerable liberties with Doyle’s version of the character. They also introduce a new villain, Lord Blackwood instead of Professor Moriarty, and the movie plays more like a Victorian-era James Bond adventure than a story of crime and detection. But despite all the action scenes and the occasional silliness, there’s quite a bit of detective work going on, too, as Holmes makes clear in several summations of the evidence late in the film.

I also liked Jude Law as Dr. Watson and thought the character was actually pretty close to Doyle’s version, a man of action who’s not as brilliant as Holmes but not exactly a dim bulb, either. Rachel McAdams’ performance as Irene Adler was panned by most people, including those who liked the movie overall, but I thought she was okay in the role, and Mark Strong made a good villain as well.

This is obviously the first movie in a series, so the set-up for the sequel is pretty blatant at the end. I enjoyed SHERLOCK HOLMES quite a bit and will certainly watch the next one. If you haven’t seen this one yet, I’d recommend giving it a try. You might hate it, but I found it very entertaining.