Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Fantastic News! "Castle" renewed for third season!

Ausiello breaks the news over at EW.com. With "Lost" and "24" (which faded a bit this season but has come back strong) ending, "Castle" will be my undisputed favorite show on TV next year.

"Castle" has really picked up the momentum this season with good writing and an ever-increasing gelling of the main cast. The two-parter than just finished was among the best stories they've ever done.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Thirty year ago today...

...President Ronald Reagan was shot by John Hinkley. I was a sixth grader at the time. For some reason, I was in the library and they had the TV on, listening to the reports. I went back to my classroom and told everyone. I can't remember if an announcement was made over the intercom. I can remember really wanting the NBC Nightly News to come on at 5:30pm CST so I could learn the details. Two things struck me at the time. One, when viewing the video, everything happened so fast. The second thing was the sight of the Secret Service with small machine guns brandished.

Another that reverberated in my young mind was the stories of Reagan joking in the hospital. It was reported that he told Nancy that he forgot to duck. He also is said to have asked the doctors if they were all Republicans. To a young boy steeped in comic books and SF films and TV shows, Reagan had bravado to spare. Only later, as I studied history, did I learn how close Reagan came to death.

This was my first tragic event that I can still remember.

I can't believe it's been thirty years.

10 Most Influential Books

George Kelley started it. Patti Abbott did it. Now, it's my turn.

This isn’t a list of favorite books, although some of my all-time favorites are here. Here is a list of books I read that changed me or taught me something new.

The Bible - Read it piecemeal up until 2005 or so. Then, read the entire book straight through. Read the epistles multiple times. It's lessons and message form the foundation of who I am. I’ll specifically call attention to The Message translation as a new way of reading and understanding the ancient scriptures.

Mystic River - The one, single book that changed the trajectory of my reading and writing. Before Lehane’s book, I rarely read any mysteries or crime fiction (and didn’t realize there was a difference). After reading it in 2001, I knew what I want to write. Only now realizing that crime fiction of this nature may not be the kinds of books I write well.

The Shadow of the Wind - This is the way I will judge literary mysteries from now on. When I get around to writing one, I’ll have to write one like this.

Truman - As a degreed historian, I pull my hair out at everyone who hates history because they had a bad teacher in school (or a coach who didn’t care). History is about people who make decisions and do things and deal with the consequences. McCullough’s biography is as good as a novel but it’s all true. I wrote my first novel with Harry Truman as the main character as a result of this book.

Splinter of the Mind’s Eye - As a youngster, Star Wars was my big introduction to SF. Alan Dean Foster wrote this first literary sequel to George Lucas’s universe. This was before The Empire Strikes Back and all the stuff we learned then. This was my first fictional world that opened up my mind. Because of Star Wars, I read Splinter, then other Foster novels, and then other SF/F.

The Dark Knight Returns - I’m a lifelong comic book reader and a lifelong Batman fan. This series, in 1986, let me know that comics was something that could change the way you look at something familiar. It also told me, as a middle teenager, that I no longer had to justify my love of comics.

Legacy (James Michener) - Not my first Michener novel but the one that, arguably, led me in the direction of early American history as a focus of my Master’s degree. Oh, also, a darn good history lesson in the form of a novel.

“The Best Stuff Which the State Afford: A Socio-economic history of the 14th Texas Infantry in the Civil War, 1862-1865” - My Masters thesis. I read it over and over and over (x 100!) again until my professor told me I got it right. I learned the power of proofreading, thoughtful analysis, and what it takes to write something long, something I remembered when I wrote my first book.

Mascarada Pass - William Colt MacDonald’s book was the first western I ever read. It led to the creation of my character, Calvin Carter. I’m looking forward to seeing where we go together.

Perdido Street Station - Just finished reading this magnificent, engrossing, utterly unique fantasy/steampunk tome. I’ve told my reading group that I think this is one of those books where you draw a line in the sand. On one side, you haven’t read. On the other, you have. I’ve now crossed over. To describe it would require an essay. A review will be forthcoming. I’ve complained a lot about how world-building bloats SF/F books. China Mieville nails it. His world is believable, fantastic, and without peer. If Dickens wrote fantasy, he’d have written this book. It is the incredibly high bar that I’ll strive to touch in my fantasy/SF writing.

Honorable Mention: the classics and pulps I read last year: Treasure Island; Tarzan of the Apes; The Return of Tarzan; Gabriel Hunt at the Well of Eternity; Doc Savage #1 - They reminded me of just how friggin' fun reading can be.

Honorable Mention: Hard Case Crime - for reminding me that old school, hard-boiled stories resonate in any era. For the flat-out fun of Top of the Heap and Branded Woman to the gut-wrenching realities of Money Shot and Song of Innocence, this imprint is my favorite. If they publish it, I read it.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Poll: Who Uses Their Public Library?

I live in Houston, Texas, which is in Harris County. As such, I have access to two separate but very good library systems. A new branch just opened within biking distance. Boy, do I get my money's worth. I'm a power user, usually with my holds maxed out. I go at least once a week.

With my post about reading this past weekend, I am mulling over a follow-up post. One thing I'd like to know is do you use you local library to check out/read/return books or do you like to purchase the books you read?

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Forgotten Music: March 2010 - The Summing Up

Thanks to all who wrote today. A reminder: anyone and everyone can join. Just let me know.

Paul Brazill - Jayne Casey & Liverpool Punk and Post Punk

Martin Edwards - Burt Bacharach and Hal David: "The Fool Killer"

Randy Johnson - Rick Wakeman: Journey to the Centre of the Earth

George Kelley - Nico: Chelsea Girl

Evan Lewis - Fess Parker

Perplexio - Moody Blues: Days of Future Passed

Charlie Ricci - Tim Moore

See y'all back on 21 April 2010.

Forgotten Music: KISS - Unmasked (1980)

Let’s get one fact out there: KISS was my first, favorite rock band. In fact, they were my introduction *to* rock music. My nine-year-old self went from listening to the Star Wars soundtrack straight to 1978’s Double Platinum. They were the template of how I thought rock bands were supposed to act. When a friend of mine brought Foreigner “4” to show me, I wondered why those guys didn’t wear make-up. My parents didn’t like KISS at all and limited the number of albums I could purchase. The last one I was allowed to buy as a youngster was 1980’s “Unmasked.” My love of KISS waned during the eighties as they shed their make-up and became just another hair metal band. Even when I was old enough to return to buying their CDs, I didn’t. With 1991’s “Revenge,” my interest in the band returned. Then came February 28, 1996 at the Grammy’s: the original band, in make-up, stepped out on stage. KISS had returned. And I’ve been back in the KISS Army ever since.


I’ve been in a serious KISS mood in recent days after finally buying last year’s “Sonic Boom” (it’s really pretty darn good) so I thought I’d break out an old album I really liked back in the day and see how it held up. After leaning toward 1997’s Carnival of Souls, Unmasked won the lottery.


By 1980, KISS was almost imploding under the intense weight from two fronts. One was the marketing and merchandising. KISS dolls, KISS lunch boxes, KISS comics, KISS trading cards. KISS was everywhere. In a pre-Internet age, KISS was over saturated. (BTW, at the time, I didn’t care.) It got to the point where critics looked at the band and accused them of caring more for merchandise than the music.


Ah, the music. If I say “late 1970s,” you will likely think of one thing: disco. I don’t have a problem with disco, per se, especially from bands like Abba. The music was made for them. For other bands, however, disco could be unkind. KISS brought in some disco elements with 1979’s “Dynasty” to much derision from the hard rock crowd. They didn’t care that “I Was Made for Lovin’ You” was a darn good song. It was just too light and fluffy to be a KISS song. For the folks who hated Dynasty, they would hate Unmasked more.


But they shouldn’t have.


Released in May 1980 (thirty years ago!), Unmasked took the newly-altered sound of KISS--lighter, more pop oriented, easier to get on Top 40 radio and appeal to new, younger fans--to the next level. Almost banished from the album was any sense of a heavy metal band (not that they were ever really a metal band). Heck, you could argue that music wasn’t really hard rock either. Paul Stanley’s rhythm guitar had that constant eighth-note riff that would be such a trademark of hair metal in the 1980s. Gene Simmons’ bass, such an integral part of KISS’s sound for its melodic lines, was pushed to the back of the mix. Ace Frehley’s idiosyncratic lead guitar was tamed. And Peter Criss was gone, replaced by session drummer, Anton Fig (of David Letterman’s band now). Fig brought a fuller sound to his percussion work. At the control board sat Vini Poncia, who co-wrote eight of the eleven tracks. He smoothed the edges and produced something shiny and pretty. In short, Unmasked was KISS as a pop band.


So, how does the music itself hold up after thirty years? At the time, I didn’t get any of the musical distinctions I just wrote about. My only criteria for a song was simple: did I like it. And I remember liking every one of the songs. Ah, youth. So easily impressionable, so innocent. But my younger self was on to something.


“Is That You?” kicks off the album with Stanley singing lead. For his vocal stylings, Unmasked was crucial to him becoming one of the more powerful and melodic rock and roll singers of the 1980s (and of all time). Instead of yelling into the mics, he sings, carrying phrases in a way he hadn’t really done up until then. This song is fun pop. It may not be memorable five minutes after it fades away but you’ll move for its three minutes.


The second song, “Shandi,” did something to me that I’ve never tried to restrain. “Shandi” is an out-and-out ballad, pure late 70s sound, acoustic guitar, strings, soul guitar, and “ooo’s” all over the place. It’s a beautiful song and it was instantly my favorite of the album back in 1980. If I had to pinpoint the time and place where my love of ballads started, I’d probably point to this song over “Beth.” If Paul Stanley needed to prove his singing chops to anyone at the time, all he’d have to do is point to this song. Besides, it’s all in his range, unlike that horrible falsetto at the end of “I Was Made For Lovin’ You.”


In 1978, all four members released solo albums on the same date. Ace Frehley’s was the most popular and he parlayed his higher stature in the band into three tracks on Unmasked. “Talk to Me” is the best of the bunch. Ace’s guitar work has always been distinctive and you can hear it here in his solo. Never a strong singer, Paul backs him up with some good harmonies at strategic places. An aside: I’ve always been impressed with KISS’s studio recordings where you can hear every member sing backing vocals. I can’t stand it when producers overdub the lead vocalist to harmonize with himself. As much as I like 1980s Chicago, it got tiring hearing Peter Cetera sing with himself.


Gene Simmons finally makes an appearance on the fourth track (if that don’t show you how popular Ace was, I don’t know what does). While Gene leans on his demon persona in concert (and recent recordings), his studio work in the 1970s showed he could actually sing pretty good. “Naked City” is one of my favorite Gene songs in the entire discography. Not only does he bring up some cool imagery (All the victims have turned to stone\no one is happy, they're all alone; Street vampires in the night, young lovers and love at first sight\This is my flesh and my fantasy) but his nasty bass playing shows up. If someone were listening to this album and wondering where KISS went, he’d smile on this track.


At this point on the album, four tracks in, you have four distinct songs, each trying to do something different (largely well done), their coherence lacking. It’s still KISS, just a different KISS, a band experimenting with a new sound. It’s not bad. It’s just different. I’m not going to mistake the fact that I can still along with every tracks with my forty-one-year-old discerning ear. “What Makes the World Go Round” is “I Was Made for Lovin’ You” part 2. “Tomorrow,” as danceable (yes!) as it is, has friggin’ hand claps in the middle of the tune. Hand claps! And backing synthsizers. Now, Ace’s solo, brief as it is, brings some muscle to this song. “Two Sides of the Coin” and “Torpedo Girl” are Ace’s other two contributions. They are easily-identifyable Ace Frehley songs, so much so that they could have gone on an Ace solo album. I’d think you can use your imagination about what kind of words he uses to describe a torpedo. Oh, and it starts with some sound effects from a submarine captain ordering a torpedo run. Yes, really.


Gene’s “She’s so European,” is an eye roller from a guy who writes eye-rolling songs in his sleep. Put it this way: “She’s so European” makes 1991’s “God Gave Rock and Roll 2 U” seem like something Bob Dylan wrote. “Easy as it Seems” is the best of side two, a nice ditty that lays down a good groove, the synth notwithstanding. It’s a keeper. “You’re all that I want” ends the album. It’s really nothing more than the sequel to 1977’s “Any way you want it.” It does have cowbell.


The album sold well at the beginning but soon faded. A planned US tour was cancelled. Peter Criss officially left the band replaced by Eric “The Fox” Carr. He made his debut on German TV. While their popularity may have faded a bit in America, 1980 was the year of Kissteria in Australia. Unmasked was the album and tour of note when KISS invaded and took the country by storm. “Shandi” was a huge hit there and it’s pretty much the only place you’ll hear it live nowadays. Speaking of Australia, the video footage of the Unmasked songs live in concert show a band that have taken their new pop songs and given them the hard rock veneer. For all the studio magic on the album, the songs really rock in the live setting.


Unmasked has remained one of my favorite KISS album these past thirty years. It’s the middle record of a trilogy of albums where KISS experimented before returning to their roots with a vengeance (1982’s “Creatures of the Night). It’s a really good pop record and captured music at a crossroads. It’s a decent KISS album. Unmasked is nowhere near as good as “Destroyer,” “Rock and Roll Over,” or “Revenge,” and it’s not even in the same stratosphere as “Alive” (still my all-time favorite KISS album) but it remains in my Top 10.


Official Studio Videos:

Shandi

Talk to Me

She’s so European


Live Videos:

Is That You?

Shandi

Talk to Me


Shandi (with orchestra, 2003)

Forgotten Music: March 2010

Welcome to the March 2010 edition of the Forgotten Music Project. Inspired by Patti Abbott's Forgotten Book Friday series, here we examine music that has fallen off the public's radar or other music that never made a blip. We're doing this on a once-a-month basis, the last Thursday of every month. Aside from my own entry, here's today's line-up:

If I have missed your name or got the wrong address, let me know and I'll fix it here and for future months. Anyone can join: just let me know here in the comments section, by e-mail, or in the comments section of my entry that you'd like to join in next month and I'll add you to the list.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

CSI: Miami - "Dishonor" - Review

Last night's episode, "Dishonor," was, I think, one of the best of the season. I'm still thinking about it. It's proof that characters matter and what happens to them matters. My review is now posted at BSCReview. Have a read and let me know what you think.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Forgotten Music for March 2010: Reminder

This Thursday, 25 March, will be our third entry in the Forgotten Music Project. Anyone is free to participate. Just let me know and I'll get your name on the list.

Request: I was just compiling a list of e-mail addresses (so I could send out a reminder e-mail) but I don't have everyone's address. Here is the list of part writers. If there is a dash next to your name, I have your address. If not, please let me have your address. If you don't want to make said address public, e-mail me privately.

Until Thursday...

Paul D. Brazil
-Bill Crider
-Martin Edwards
Ray Foster
-Randy Johnson
George Kelley
-Evan Lewis
Todd Mason
-Perplexio
Charlie Ricci

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Meanwhile, over at Do Some Damage...

...I've posed some questions about why pulp heroes fade and then return. See if you can contribute to the discussion.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Forgotten Books: Gateway by Frederik Pohl

(This is my latest entry for Patti Abbott's Friday's Forgotten Books. See her blog for the list of other participants.)

I’ve joined a small, four-man reading group with a focus on science fiction and fantasy. We each pick a book and take a month to read it. The beauty of this arrangement is that we’re reading books we might not normally have picked up individually. The most recent book we read was Frederik Pohl’s 1977 book, Gateway. It’s one of those rare SF novels that won both the Hugo (fan-voted) and the Nebula Award (fellow-writer-voted) in the same year. Curious, we all charged into Pohl’s book.

The novel’s protagonist has an interesting name and he’s best introduced in his own voice: “My name is Robinette Broadhead, in spite of which I am male.” He lives in an undated future and he is a prospector. No, he doesn’t sift river sand for gold. Prospectors in this future hop a ride on an alien spacecraft and see where it goes and if there is anything of value at the other end. An ancient alien race, named the Heechee, took a huge asteroid orbiting our sun perpendicular to the elliptical plane, and made it a docking station for many of its spaceships. These ships have pre-programmed coordinates that they fly to and from without the need for additional steering. Humans discovered this asteroid and named it Gateway. Each ship is capable of faster-than-light travel. The catch is this: you don’t know how long the flight will be. Thus, the roundtrip may take longer than humans live or the entire trip may be a bust if there isn’t anything of value at the other end.

The book is structured with two interrelated storylines. In the present tense, Robinette is talking to his psychiatrist, an artificial intelligent computer he names Sigfrid von Shrink. He goes to weekly sessions with Sigfrid and they work through many of Robinette’s issues. The past tense story, also told in first person, Robinette describes his life’s history and how he came to be a prospector and his missions. This type of storytelling works well since each thread feeds on the other. The relationship between Robinette and Sigfrid is often contentious, a direct contract to Robinette’s sometimes milquetoast past history.

Those readers looking for descriptions of the spacecraft or the planets being explored better look elsewhere. As my reading group all commented, we don’t really have a good idea of the interior of the Heechee ships in which the humans travel. It’s just not that important and Pohl doesn’t waste time explaining it. Likewise, when Robinette arrives planet side, what he does there is glossed over. It’s not important and it’s not what the book is about. It’s about him, directly, and humankind, indirectly.

I found the first person POV sucked me in easily. In recent months, I’ve read Old Man’s War, The Forever War, and Starship Troopers, all told in first person. I think SF is served well with an intimate narrator. It makes the fantastic believable.

The verdict of the group was that we all liked it. I happen to be the one who, while I still enjoyed it, liked it the least. Now, if I were to grade the book, I’d give it a solid “B” so you can tell how low I rate the book and how high my three amigos rate it. They are intrigued to read the other three Heechee books Pohl wrote. I was curious enough to read the synopses online but I might not read the other three books. But I do think Gateway, as a stand-alone, is worth your time, both for the powerful writing and as a snapshot of SF in the mid-1970s before Star Wars hit the theaters.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

CSI: Miami - "Getting Axed" - Review

My take on this less-than-stellar episode of "CSI: Miami" last night is now available at BSC Review. I'm curious if anyone else agrees with me.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Book Review Club (March 2010): Sandman, Vol. 1 by Neil Gaiman

(This is the March 2010 edition of Barrie Summy's Book Review Club. For a complete list of all participants, click on the link at the end of this review.)

For the whole of his career, Neil Gaiman and I have never met. Not in person, not online, and not through his fiction. Recently, that’s changed. I started reading his Newbery Award winning YA novel, The Graveyard Book, and really like it. I’m listening to it, read by Gaiman himself, and it’s like having the author sit beside me and narrate the tale. Up until I started reading his latest novel, I knew enough to know Gaiman made a name for himself with his comic book writing, specifically the Sandman series for DC’s Vertigo line. All seventy-five issues have been collected in a ten-volume trade paperback edition. Sandman, along with other famous graphic novels I’ve actually read (The Dark Knight Returns; Watchmen; V for Vendetta) ranks among the most important products of the comic book world. Seeing as I’m a comic book devotee and with a new found appreciation for Gaiman’s storytelling (I’m also reading his short story collection, Fragile Things), I figured I ought to start where he started.

Hired to revamp DC’s classic Sandman character as created by Jack Kirby, Gaiman quickly earned the right to create his own title and character. Thus, he begat Dream, AKA Morpheus, the Lord of the Dreamworld. Dream is tall, lean, deathly white, with spiky black hair and pupil-less black eyes. In a nice touch, his word bubbles on the page are white script on a black background (as opposed to the typical black text in a white balloon). This distinction, along with his visage, lends Dream an “otherness” quality that sets him apart, visibly, throughout the issues.

Volume I: Preludes and Nocturnes, includes the first eight issues of the series. Issues one through seven constitute the first story arc. In a bizarre ritual in 1916 England, humans, who didn’t quite know what they were doing, yank Dream from his realm and imprison him in Linka glass orb. There he remains for seventy years, time passing for him at the same rate as for us. His three talismen—a ruby, a helm (gas mask), and a pouch of sand—are stolen. Obviously, he escapes and the remainder of the seven-issue arc is Dream’s quest to recover his stolen property and seek revenge.

Dream’s journey is, to say the least, trippy. The artwork—by Sam Kieth, Mike Dringenberg, and Malcolm Jones III—is often kaleidoscopic, just like our real dreams are. With it being an ostensibly mainstream comic, many of the more horrific elements are masked behind four-color comic art. A few of DC Comics’ more interesting characters make cameos along the way. The first people Dream seeks help from are the brothers Cain and Abel, the curators of the House of Mystery and House of Secrets, respectively. Later, he meets John Constantine, AKA Hellblazer, the character Keanu Reeves played in the movie “Constantine.” Dream searches for his “tools” and, in places, must duel mortals to regain what is rightfully his. I have to say that the sequence where the mortal—Doctor Destiny, enemy of the Justice League—uses the Dreamstone for his own sadistic pleasure is disturbing. Be warned: this is marketed as being for mature audiences and I would concur.

In early issues, Dream has his revenge against the people who either imprisoned him or had his tokens. In the battle with Doctor Destiny, Dream nearly perishes. His actions in the aftermath, given all that we have seen up until then, are interesting and lead directly into the last issue of this volume. Here, Dream talks with his big sister, Death, and accompanies her as she does her job. This issue is a sort of epilogue to this first sequence, and it’s where the bulk of the entire series seems to be headed.

I had no preconceived ideas about Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and I’m glad. I thoroughly enjoyed it. A friend of mine who has read the latter section of the series tells me it only gets better. As a writer myself, I understand how ideas form and how they can be shaped into stories. The groundwork Gaiman laid in this first volume of Sandman is something deep and epic. This is a journey and a story I fully expect to love.




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Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Monday, March 1, 2010

Writing Stats: February 2010

Not a productive fiction-writing month. Day job (tech writer) is a huge factor but not an excuse. I'll rebound in March.

Total Words Written: 13,630 (43% drop-off from January*)

Fiction: 4,841 (a 64% drop-off; Sheesh!)
-Story #3 (started in Jan.; Feb totals): 750
-Story #4 (collaboration; my part only): 1,000
-Story #5 (steampunk tale involving jazz; unfinished): 3,091

Blogs total: 8,789 (a 15% drop-off; not worried about this one)
-DSD: 2,535
-CSI Recaps: 2,644
-My blog: 3,610

*Assuming my math is correct.