Friday, August 29, 2008

Texas Historical and Literary Blogs at Texas Blog Notes

Recently, former librarian and life-long Texan, Will Howard, e-mailed me with a neat invitation. It seems someone had read my blog and recommended that Howard include my blog on his new bibliography of Texas-related literary and historical blogs. Needless to say, I was quite surprised and honored, especially when you consider some the other Texas author sites Howard chose (Bill Crider or Rick Riordan) are full-blooded professional writers with long careers. At that point, I was honored and humbled. Now, I have to step up.

Howard has compiled this bibliography and its available at a new website: Texas Blog Notes. If you are interested in Texas, history, or literature with a Texas slant, I encourage you to go on over and check out Howard's list. As a historian, a writer, and a Texan, this bibliography is a wonderful way to spend some great hours reading and learning and just having fun.

Friday's Forgotten Books

Next week--assuming Hurricane Gustav allows me power for my Mac--I will start contributing a book review most Friday's for the Friday's Forgotten Books. FFB is a collaborative effort started by Patti Abbott and it includes authors far and wide recommending books that the general public have lost sight of and, well, forgotten.

I am in an interesting position. Now that I am in the middle of my own self-education on all things crime fiction (and pulp fiction) related, many of these 'forgotten' books will, for me, be brand-new. I hope that unique sensibility will give reader a different take on all the books I read and review.

In the meantime, head on over to Patti's website and read up on the reviews for today.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Treason at Hanford: A Harry Truman Mystery - Chapters 9 and 10 online

Chapter 9 and Chapter 10 of Treason at Hanford: A Harry Truman Mystery are now available over at Texas Pulp Writer.


Three Speeches

Tonight, Barak Obama will deliver his acceptance speech on the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. But there is another speech that needs to be recounted: that from Lyndon Johnson in 1965. Robert Caro, Johnson's modern biographer, has an excellent piece in today's New York Times. Go on over and read it and be reminded that history is not dry and dusty but alive, vibrant, and important. And history is not just dates and events. It is people. People who made decisions, acted upon them, suffered, and triumphed.

A friend of mine laments the general malaise that seems to permeate our country nowadays. And there certainly is a lot of it. But history can help to assuage our worry. How worried were we Americans when the Civil War began? More than any of us can imagine but we prevailed. How worried were we Americans when World War II began, knowing in our heart of hearts that we would eventually get involved? Quite a bit but we prevailed. How worried were we when JFK or MLK or RFK were killed, when it seemed the very fabric of our country was being torn before our eyes? A lot but we prevailed. How about the days and weeks after Watergate led Nixon to resign or the oil crises of the 1970s or the Challenger or, for all of us, 9/11? We prevailed. That's what Americans do. Prevail, even when we seem to be in the bottom of the deepest, darkest valley.

Regardless of what they think about Barack Obama, Americans should at least be proud of themselves, their country, and the opportunities that enabled him to get where he is today. Regardless of what they think about John McCain, Americans should at least be proud that a decorated and brave soldier, who held the line in darkest despair more than most of us would, is where he is today. In America, these stories are part of our fabric. It's what makes us unique in the world. It's what makes us Americans.

It's okay to worry, fret, and bite our collective nails when we look out at the world or inside our borders and see all the bad things. We're human, after all. But never forget that, for every bad thing out there, there is also something good, a silver lining. Both qualities--the dire circumstances and the silver lining--exist together. You can't have only one.

And we have history behind us, reminding us that we will prevail. Read Caro's piece in the New York Times and remember history. The outcomes may not be exactly what everyone thinks should happen but we'll prevail. Don't get caught up with worry. As one president told us, it's morning in America. Even if it is still the gray dimness of dawn where you don't quite know what kind of day its going to be, it's still another, brand-new day. We have, within us, the power to make it whatever kind of day we want it to be. That the American heritage.

And, don't forget: as another president and a civil rights leader also told us, "We shall overcome."

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Book Review: The Overlook by Michael Connelly

Like most everything I review on this site, I came late to the Harry Bosch party. The first book I read by Michael Connelly was The Poet...and I read it ten years after publication. When I finally got around to reading The Poet, I knew that a sequel already existed, The Narrows. I read The Poet anyway and then The Narrows. Thus, was my introduction to Harry Bosch.

Later, I went back and read Bosch’s first book, The Black Echo, and then the next two. Somewhere in the mix of all those, I started following Connelly’s story in the New York Times, The Overlook. For various reasons, I stopped reading the weekly installments back in the fall of 2006. Later, Connelly revised the story, making it more the novel it wanted to be rather than sixteen sections of equal word length. I read the novel and quite liked it.

In The Overlook, Bosch is with a special unit of robbery homicide and he gets the call around midnight. Like many times throughout his books, Bosch is asleep in an easy chair, fully dressed, ready for a case. He gets one, a murdered man out on the overlook over Mulholland. He’s breaking in a new partner, a kid half his age, and the crotchety self of Bosch comes out. That’s the least of his worries as FBI Special Agent Rachel Walling, old flame and fellow adventurer of previous books (including The Narrows), shows up and pulls federal rank. Bosch doesn’t like that--natch--and the case is on.

The Overlook is short, unlike nearly all of Connelly’s books. That feature alone makes it a nice introduction to Bosch. He’s all there, at least as I can tell from the four previous books I read. Knowing some of the detail that Connelly brings to his books, it’s a nice break to have a lighter book with a straightforward plot. I can only imagine how many readers first read the story in the New York Times and proceeded to buy more Bosch books. He’s a great character. He ages in real time. He gets hurt and, well, it hurts him. He’s not above it all, although he thinks he is some of the times.

Connelly’s writing style is, to me, of the Elmore Leonard School of Writing. Leonard, like Connelly, gets out of the way as much as possible when he writes. You actually forget that Connelly is the one writing the book. Unlike, say, Don Winslow or Ken Bruen--you read a few sentences and you know, right off the bat, who the writer is. That’s cool for them. Connelly’s different. You take any one paragraph out of any of his books and, chances are, you’d be hard pressed to name the writer. That is a great trait to have, in my opinion. It does not get in the way of the story.

Another aspect of Connelly’s style that more obvious to me is what I like to call the Put-Every-Detail-In way of writing. Leonard has stated that he likes to start a scene as late as possible and get out before the scene ends. Connelly writes everything: what the characters eat, how they dress, every detail is laid out, scene by scene. I do think this is an effective way to write and I tend to be of this variety more often than not. My critique group likes to excise stuff that, upon re-reading, I see I don't need.

A word about the audio: Len Cariou is a good reader for the older Bosch. Dick Hill, the reader for a lot of the other Bosch books, is a good reader, too, but Cariou was especially effective for The Overlook. Cariou's gravelly voice gave Bosch's dialogue readings an edge to them especially when Bosch was irritated with the youth and inexperience of his new partner.

What I Learned As A Writer: The Overlook provides a unique opportunity to learn from a professional writer in his prime. That is, if you have access to the novel as well as the original New York Times version. I have both and I read a few chapters, side by side, and made comparisons. It was fascinating. Things Connelly left out of the NYT piece (because of word count constraints) he fleshed out in the novel proper. There were passages where only one word was changed. I actually got the impression that the NYT version was a rough draft. Much like Springsteen does in his concerts, he sometimes considers the album versions of his songs to be rough drafts. If anyone wants to compare the two, go on over to the New York Times website and conduct a search for it. It's still there. Put both versions side by side, examine and study the differences, and ask yourself why Connelly made certain changes. It's a wonderful insight into the mind of a professional author and it's surely will help you become a better writer. It has for me.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Lyndon Johnson's week

I put this under the auspices of history and not politics. As most of you know, I have a passion for history. I already knew that Barack Obama's speech on Thursday will be the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963. What I failed to remember is that Wednesday, 27 August, would have been Lyndon Johnson 100th birthday. A great Texan despite all his foibles, he, as a southerner, was able to have the courage to risk his legacy on something he knew to be right: equal rights. His reward? Ostracization.

There's a good article at the New Yorker's website by George Packer about Johnson and his legacy and how three events--Obama's speech, MLK's speech, and LBJ's birthday--are all coinciding this week. Whether or not you intend to vote for Obama or even like the man, the symbolism of this week is inescapable. And it makes this American very proud to be an American.

Star Wars Must Die*

*That's the title of a blog entry today over at SF Signal. For my part, I am a lifelong Star Wars geek. Like innumerable of you, something changed in me the day I watched Star Wars back in 1977. I grew up with Star Wars and I will always love Star Wars.

But I have almost no interest in the new Clone Wars movie. In fact, when the wife asked "When are we going to see it?" and I told her I'd rent it on DVD later on, she was shocked. This was, of course, while waiting in line at Mickey D's to get my son a Happy Meal and a Star Wars toy.

For me, the post-Return of the Jedi years are much more interesting than the pre-Star Wars years. The Thrawn Trilogy by Timothy Zahn is fantastic. You simply must read it. Everything you loved about the original trilogy is in there plus more.

But go read the essay at SF Signal. It's worth reading and I agree with most of its thoughts.

Movie Review: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

I watched Kiss Kiss Bang Bang again over the weekend mainly because I wanted to watch a movie we owned and that the wife would also watch. But I also wanted to see it again because it gets referenced a lot when talking about modern noir on film. So it was with this in mind that I watched it, looking for those things that make it noir.

That is, I looked for those noir elements only when I wasn’t laughing my face off. I mean, this movie is flat-out hilarious. It makes you want to have a half dozen movies with Robert Downey and Val Kilmer just riffing off the original script. I loved the constant grammatical references throughout the film. It brought a tongue-in-cheek literary sophistication to a paperback-original-type movie. Honestly, however, some of the plot points important for the average viewer (or first-time viewer) was buried in dialogue so quick that it’s easily missed. That’s a downside to the film

As far as the noir elements, they’re all there: private detective, Hollywood, hot chicks that may or may not be who they seem, old loves, complicated mysteries, duplicity, nighttime locales complete with shadows, men with guns. You can’t help but wonder how many Gold Medal paperbacks the director, Shane Black, read back in the day because he distills all the elements down into a wonderful homage.

But it’s not just noir elements that Black uses. KKBB is a buddy film. Black, the creator of the Lethal Weapon series, still has the knack of making you laugh even when you know the character types he presents. I mean, Downey and Kilmer are not Mel Gibson and Danny Glover but the archetypes are there: uninitiated rookie and seasoned veteran. You know it going into the movie but there’s still enough of the "new" in KKBB that you go along for the ride and laugh anew at recycled jokes. It’s just a fun film.

KKBB is one of those films that breaks down the fourth wall, the wall between the movie’s participants and the viewers. Downey does the voiceovers and, at the beginning, actually ‘stops’ the film and takes us back to some crucial point. He’s self-aware but that’s nothing new in crime fiction. I mean, honestly, every first-person POV book is, in effect, self-aware. The main character, the “I” in the story, is telling you the story. The “I” is telling you what he wants you to know and when. And, of course, the "I" has to live through the book because he is, uh, telling you the story.

Speaking of crime fiction, this movie is a loose and updated adaptation of Brett Halliday’s “Bodies are Where You Find Them,” one of Halliday’s Mike Shayne stories. I have never read any of the Halliday books but he is on my list. And, after I’ve read the first Shayne book (I always start with book one if I can help it), I’ll probably read this one soon thereafter.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang wears noir and hard-boiled fiction on its sleeve. It’s a loving tribute and an update. It’s a funny, funny movie, one I can recommend highly.

What I Learned As A Writer: Don’t be afraid to hurt your hero or other characters. Downey’s character—a robber turned actor who poses as a real PI in order to impress a girl—gets hurt, brutally: shot, beat up, loses a finger, tortured, shot again. And while most of this is played for laughs, he still suffers. Downey’s portrayal of his character being tortured is quite believable. But Downey's character was determined to make things right and the suffering was part of it. There are times in books and movies where the hero’s journey is pre-ordained and he’s rarely scathed. One of the best things about coming to a stand-alone movie or book is that the reader doesn’t know who will live through the book. Sure, if the dust jacket puts forth the names of the lead characters (like Sean, Jimmy, and Dave from Mystic River), you, as a reader, can expect them to live through the book. What’s great is the unexpected, like what you had in Mystic River. Ditto for the movie “The Departed.” That’s why stand-alone movies and books are so much fun as a writer. And pain is part of it. I’m keeping that in mind as I write my second novel, making sure my heroine is put through her paces before she gets to the end that I think is in store for her.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Role of Bloggers and Book Reviewers

Patti Abbott, at her blog, poses some interesting questions on the role of bloggers and professional reviewers. I gave my take over there. It's an interesting discussion. Check it out.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Thursday, August 21, 2008

On Flushing My Cell Phone

(Found this little ditty this morning in a "My Writings" folder on my computer. Don't know why but I feel like sharing.)

So, I’m in the bathroom stall, having just finished up #2. [No, don’t stop, it gets better] I stood and pulled up the trousers and my cell phone, a small Nokia one in a case clipped to my belt, fell on the floor. With my right hand holding up my pants, I reached down with my left hand and retrieved the phone. My belt still hung loosely on my waist. I clipped the phone to my left side (it’s usual place) and I activated the flush with my right foot. Can’t be too careful with germs, you know.

So, I brought my left hand around to the front of my pants in order to start tucking in my shirt and complete the redressing process and, as fortune would dictate, it hit my phone. Now, you can debate whether or not the phone was 100% clipped to my belt or not but, nonetheless, something happened. My phone disengaged from my belt and sailed into the basin. Thankfully, at this point, all of the ‘stuff’ was gone and the ‘afterflush’ was now proceeding.

My phone didn't hit the seat, the rim, or even the inside walls of the john. It landed directly in the center and bottom of the bowl. And, to make matters more perfect, it didn't land askew, with one side up on the ‘rim’ of the center bowl, thus, making it easier to grab. No, it landed directly into the center of the bowl, in a nearly perfect perpendicular direction to the wall. This also had the benefit of being in the perfect position to have the afterflush, forceful as all public toilets are, force it up into the porcelain tunnel and over the hump that all toilets have.

Instinctively, I thrust out my left hand (my right was still holding up my trousers don't forget, my shirt still only half tucked) directly into the rushing water, grabbing vainly for my phone. It never occured to me that, were I successful, the phone wouldn't work. Perhaps it was my added pressure or the readjustment of the water because of my hand but my phone began to move upward, slowly, over the hump. My hand followed and I could, with about two fingers and my thumb, grab the base of the phone. Plastic and neoprene, the material of my phone case, can get quite slippery when it gets wet, ironic considering those kinds of cases are supposed to evoke beaches and surfing. Moreover, the case itself must have filled with water, making it a ‘torpedo’ and better able to glide through water. As a result, the phone tipped over the porcelain hump and into the great beyond.

I stood there in disbelief, with a dripping left hand, wet pants, and waited for the phone to return to my side of the hump. Perhaps it was only in an alcove that my hand couldn,t find, I thought, as I got some toilet paper to wipe my left hand. It was contaminated, after all. Perhaps the phone would somehow be too heavy for the usual contents of these pipes and be vomited back into the john like a cellular case of heartburn.

Alas, it was not meant to be. And I now have a new phone. The number’s the same so give me a call. ;-)

Treason at Hanford: A Harry Truman Mystery - Chapters 7 and 8 online

Chapter 7 and Chapter 8 of my novel, Treason at Hanford: A Harry Truman Mystery, is now available over at Texas Pulp Writer.


Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Another regular Wednesday blog to visit: Independent Crime

If y'all haven't already got in the habit of checking Bruce Grossman's regular Wednesday column "Bullets, Broads, Blackmail, and Bombs" over at Bookgasm, you're missing out.

But I also check out another regular Wednesday feature over at Independent Crime: "The Wednesday Paperback Cover". Every Wednesday, Nathan Cain posts a Wednesday paperback book cover usually with a pithy comment. It's great to see these old painted pulp covers. On ogther days, he reviews old pulp fiction and writes about the state of crime fiction and movies. Earlier this week, he wrote about the difference between mystery and crime fiction. Check him out if you haven't already.

Bill Champlin Interview

Everyone knows how much I love Chicago. Here is a five-part interview with Bill Champlin, the 'new guy' who has been with Chicago longer than three of the original members. For those who don't know, Champlin is old-school, a guy for whom the spirit of the 1960s never left him, especially in the way he talks. It's a nice breath of fresh air. The interview is from Paris and the video creator put the questions for you to read.

Here is talks about his new CD (parts 1 and 2), various takes on Chicago (throughout), his take [extremely entertaining] on "Stone of Sisyphus" (part 4), and his work with Michael English (part 5).

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

[Technical tip: click on the first one here and then you can find the other four parts on YouTube. I just put all five clips for a complete record.]

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Book Review: The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland

One of the best things about how Heath Ledger and Christopher Nolan portrayed the Joker in The Dark Knight was the lack of an origin. They don’t tell you who this guy is, why he wears make up, and how the heck did he get those scars. The Joker himself tells at least two variations on the origins of his scars. In one version, his dad carved up his son’s face. In a second, Joker tells Rachel that he did it himself to help his depressed wife.

I liked it that The Dark Knight didn’t bother with an origin of Joker. But, if you’re going to tell where the Joker came from and how he came to look like he did, Alan Moore’s the man to do it. The writing genius behind Watchmen, V for Vendetta, From Hell, and others in 1988 wrote the definitive take on the Joker (in comics) with The Killing Joke (1988). I have the original book stashed away in my myriad of comic boxes but I reread it after I picked up DC Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore trade paperback at Half Price Books. And its uncanny how similar The Dark Knight (TDK) and The Killing Joke (TKJ) are.

TKJ opens with Batman going to Arkham Asylum and sitting down opposite The Joker. Brian Bolland does the art and it is a series of nine frames per page without dialogue. The Joker is playing with a deck of cards and Batman speaks. He wonders how it will end between the two of them, questions whether or not death is the inevitable conclusion. Only when Batman grabs Joker’s hand (to get the clown to listen to him) that Batman realizes the Joker is an impostor (because white make-up smears on Batman’s glove). Once again, the real Joker is out and once again, Batman must bring him back.

But TKJ is unlike other Batman comics. Batman himself is a secondary character. This is a story about the Joker and how he came to be the Joker. You get back story here. You learn a little about the man, that he had a pregnant wife, and was a failed stand-up comedian. One thing Moore never does is name the man who would become Joker. He names his wife, but that’s not nearly the death knell as naming the Joker would have been. To do so would be to eviscerate the character and reduce him to human size. I mean, can you imagine knowing that the man who kills for pleasure was born as a Ralph?

The central theme in TKJ is fate and insanity. We all know the story of Joker’s origins in the comics. He was breaking into the ACME chemical plant dressed as the Red Hood (literally, a red hood), Batman shows up, the Red Hood falls into a vat of chemicals and voila: green hair, white skin, red lips, and that smile. Tim Burton’s Batman took that approach sans the hood. It works in the comics. But in TKJ, we learn that Future-Joker’s wife died the day of the break-in, taking with her their unborn child. The goons who hired Future-Joker pinned him in, forcing him to continue the heist. Future-Joker was scared, stammering all the way. Then, after the fall, the swim in the chemicals, he emerges, takes stock of his life (now a criminal, a widower), his garish appearance, and snaps. Joker starts to laugh at his circumstances and the panel by Bolland is one of the best in Joker history: Joker, both hands in his new green hair, with the word “HA” filling the panel behind him.

The present day story is Joker kidnapping Commissioner Gordon, shooting Barbara Gordon (Batgirl), paralyzing her, and taking photos of it all. There is also an implication of rape. The Joker’s goal is to make Commissioner Gordon go insane. To the Joker, there is a fine line between sanity and dealing with all the crap life throws at you and insanity, where you make your life whatever the hell you want it to be. In an abandoned amusement park, Joker tortures Gordon with the photos and other things, all psychological. When Batman arrives, Gordon commands him to bring Joker in by the book. It’s not what Batman wants but it’s proof that Gordon, like all of us, takes the crap life throws at us, deals with it, and moves on. We’re damaged, sure, but life is life. You don’t get to just throw up your hands and make your own rules, like Joker did.

The criticism I have with TKJ is Joker’s snap from sanity to insanity. It seems, well, trite. No doubt learning your wife and unborn child died in a freak accident would send someone down the tubes. No doubt participating in a botched heist would ruin your credibility. No doubt seeing your permanently changed face would send you over the deep end. But insanity? I’m not completely sold. But that’s just me. One glaring omission in the DC universe is Joker: Year One. We’ve got Batman: Year One (the book largely responsible for the look and feel of Batman Begins) but we have yet to get Joker: Year One. If Moore’s take on Joker is true, then how did a failed comedian go from inept crook to criminal mastermind. You’d think that Joker would go after the bosses of the guy who hired him. Or, to take a riff from TDK, you’d expect Joker to coerce the thugs in Gotham to his side using whatever means necessary. Unlike the TDK where you don’t want to know where Joker came from, in the comics, you do. And I want to know more. What happened the day after? Where did he go? How did he consolidate his power?

A note on the violence in TKJ. Back in 1988, when I first read this book, it was two years since Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. There was violence, sure, but Miller’s look and feel was so different that it didn’t really register. The Killer Joke was different. It looked like a comic, felt like one, and here you had the shooting of a prime character in the Batman family. You had the implied rape. It was brutal, and it still is. Later that year, the storyline A Death in the Family started. It was in this story arc that Joker brutally beat then killed Jason Todd’s Robin. Again, with Jim Aparo’s art, you had violence, overt and on the page, in a comic book. I know violence happens all the time in comics but it was jarring in the pages of Batman. I don’t know why but it was. And it still is today.

What I Learned As A Writer: Narration. It’s key to storytelling. It’s so fundamental, it’s almost a joke discussing it. But Moore’s narration of TKJ, specifically Joker himself, is what makes this work shine. Joker, in present day, constantly harangues Commissioner Gordon with tales of insanity and how it’s the only way to live in this screwed-up world. He even pins insanity on Batman. Why else would a man dress up as "a flying rat"? But with the narrator being Joker, you can’t help but wonder if the back story we’ve just read is true. Sure, it pulls our heartstrings (a tad) but is it true? At one point, Joker himself even wonders what is real, the story or the truth. Ditto the last scene, a great and iconic last scene in the Batman oeuvre. How the story is told is essential to the readability (or entertainment value) for the reader. If Moore simply wrote a chronological story, we’d be bored. But he pieces the back story at just the right moments to bring light to the present-day story, much like the TV show "Lost" does. It’s an effective way of presenting a story. Moreover, it allows the reader to draw his own conclusions about the truth.

We now live in a dichotomous world. On the one hand, entertainment nowadays is merely a medium to spoon feed pablum to the masses, to leech out every last nuance out of a story. We don’t have to ponder anything about a story because it’s obvious what the creators want us to know. Our brains atrophy because we stop using them. On the other hand, in a geek boy-filled world, many readers want to know every last detail of a story or an imagined universe. As a writer, I need to know those details…but I don’t have to write it down. Details like that bloat a book. Just look at the bookshelves of SF an fantasy (not to diss those books because I am a geek boy and love the details). I’m an intelligent person, I can fill in the gaps. I am allowed to have my own opinions. As a writer, Moore was brave enough to leave his take on the relationship between the Joker and Batman ambiguous, including the ending. What really happened in those last frames? I need to be brave enough to know when too much is not better. It’s a challenge. One I intend to overcome.

Monday, August 18, 2008

George Pelecanos on "Behind the Black Mask"

Just up last Friday, the latest entry in the wonderful Clute and Edwards excellent podcast, "Behind the Black Mask." This time, one of my favorite authors: George Pelecanos.

If you haven't already, subscribe (its free) to this podcast and listen every month. As a writer, I've learned some good lessons. As a reader, it's great to go in-depth into an author's book and writing process.

Music Review: Lucky Town by Bruce Springsteen

I came late to the party. I'll admit that right now. During the heyday of Bruce mania (1975; 1984-85), I not only missed the boat, I didn't even want to get on. I couldn't stand him. I was too young for the "Born to Run" craze and was too enthralled in other 1980s-era Top 40 music to care about that guy who sounded constipated when he belted out "Born in the U.S.A." I mean, come on, the video juxtaposed live concert footage with the album-version of the song...and they didn't match. How dumb was that?

Cut to 1989, the year after the release of "Tunnel of Love," and my then-girlfriend gives me a copy of ToL. I listen and I pause. Hey, this ain't bad. Granted, it's not your typical Bruce cassette (yeah, cassette) what with its talk of love and stuff, but it's good. I get to thinking: hey, maybe Born in the USA was actually okay. I bought it, listened to it, and liked it. Another influence in my Springsteen awakening was the books of Stephen King. There was a stretch there where ever book had at least one character comment on Springsteen. I listened to more records, bought more, liked more. When he disbanded the E Street Band, I was so unaware of Bruce's history (that he'd record his own songs sans band) that I worried that I'd never get a chance to see him live, much less get a new CD (yeah, now it's CDs) from him.

Then 1992 happened. As a new fan, I was beside myself that Bruce released not one but two CDs of music. Twenty-four songs. I was in heaven. As a result of this tortured route to Springsteen nirvana, the CDs that long-time fans think of with only a passing thought are the same CDs that have a special place in my heart. In the sixteen years since their release, Human Touch and Lucky Town have gone everywhere I've gone. But only one of them has aged particularly well.

Lucky Town is the most Springsteenian of the two CDs. Sonically, Human Touch is a direct descendant of the Born in the USA sessions with a focus on love more than any previous CD. Normally, listeners get the 'falling in love' CD and then the heartbreak CD. Look at the last two Sheryl Crow CDs for a taste of that. Not so Springsteen. Tunnel of Love was the cheating record, questioning his feelings and the efficacy of love itself. Then, Bruce falls in love, deeper than before, and writes a collection of songs about it. That's the bulk of Human Touch.

But Lucky Town shows the old Bruce reemerging, the disillusioned one, the one who doesn't want to believe in love--because the world is just too damn hard--but does so anyway. "Better Days," one of the two singles released in 1992 ("Human Touch" was the other) kicks off the CD with a rim shot and power chord you could put down in the rock-and-roll Bible, if there was one. What makes Springsteen unique when it comes to love songs is the types of couplets he chooses. This ain't some 70s-era flowery, string-laden love song. This is the real world, and the real world brings with it bumps and bruises as well as the redemptive power of love. Witness the first verse (and there's a lot there):
Well my soul checked out missing as I sat listening
To the hours and minutes tickin' away
Yeah, just sittin' around waitin' for my life to begin
While it was all just slippin' away.
I'm tired of waitin' for tomorrow to come
Or that train to come roarin' 'round the bend
I got a new suit of clothes a pretty red rose
And a woman I can call my friend
Who among us can't admit that there have been times when we've thought life was moving along underneath us while we're sitting still? I don't see any hands. But does Bruce mope? No. He gets his new skin ("suit of clothes"), a new lease on life ("pretty red rose"), and a friend with which to walk down the road of life. He takes control of his life, sloppy though it may be, but tells us all that he couldn't have done it without his wife.

It is this kind of sentiment that resonates throughout the music and words of Lucky Town. When it comes down to it, we are each responsible for ourselves. We can't blame anyone or anything for our choices because we all have choices to make. Some are good, some bad, but we have to live with the consequences. Four tracks later, the song "Leap of Faith" bursts out with a riff on the same theme. At first, Bruce sings "Oh heartbreak and despair got nothing but boring/So I grabbed you baby like a wild pitch" and then breaks into the chorus: "It takes a leap of faith to get things going/It takes a leap of faith you gotta show some guts/It takes a leap of faith to get things going/In your heart you must trust." Springsteen leaped...and landed on solid ground. And he brings with him the stories from both sides.

This isn't to say that there aren't challenges to overcome or a few you can't. Springsteen laments gang violence in his adopted hometown of LA in "Souls of the Departed." In fact, his response ("Tonight as I tuck my own son in bed/All I can think of is what if it would've been him instead/I want to build me a wall so high nothing can burn it down/Right here on my own piece of dirty ground") garnered some ire back in 1992. Sure, Bruce is rich enough to build those walls. How about the rest of us?

The highlight of CD is his most personal song, "Living Proof." And it's one of the greatest examples of Bruce adopting Gospel-tinged lyrics in his music. He talks about prayer, life, God, and everything else. His incorporation of religious-themed lyrics proved essential when he wrote 2002's "The Rising" in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11. But they work well here, too. After his leap, after finding the right woman, he was still unsure. Like he sings, "In a world so hard and dirty so fouled and confused," he was "Searching for a little bit of God's mercy." He was searching for living proof. What was Bruce's problem? The same that many of us can related to, I expect.
I put my heart and soul I put 'em high upon a shelf
Right next to the faith the faith that I'd lost in myself
I went down into the desert city/Just tryin' so hard to shed my skin
I crawled deep into some kind of darkness
Lookin' to burn out every trace of who I'd been
You do some sad sad things baby/When it's your you 're tryin' to lose
You do some sad and hurtful things/I've seen living proof
What's the answer? Get up. Stand up, with the help of a friend, if you need it. But someone (or some way) to do this:
You shot through my anger and rage
To show me my prison was just an open cage
There were no keys no guards
Just one frightened man and some old shadows for bars
Brilliant. And the live version (which you can find on his 1992 CD "MTV Unplugged: In Concert"--highly recommended for all versions of his new 1992 songs) blows your speakers out with its power.

What do you get after all of this suffering and self-awareness? The mountaintop. Having just come through the valley of darkness, through all the tribulations of his life since his career began, Springsteen tells of his "beautiful reward." His character is searching for his beautiful reward but Springsteen has found his: a loving wife, children, a house, and a good job. It don't get much better than that.

Lucky Town may not the best Bruce Springsteen CD out there, but it is worthy to stand alongside the great ones. Give it another listen or listen for the first time. And think about your own life. I'll bet you that at least one song from this collection will resonate with you. Find that song and add it to you Life's Playlist. You won't be disappointed.

New Duane Swierczynski Interview at Bookgasm

Go on over and check it out. Swierczynski's talks about his writing process and the movie version of The Blonde.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

More news on Gabriel Hunt and the Hunt for Adventure series

Head on over to Independent Crime for a little blurb with new details on Hard Case Crime's cool take on old-school adventure with its series Hunt for Adventure, featuring Gabriel Hunt. Just check out the art at the main website . The good news is Charles Ardai named some of the initial authors. Included in the list is Christa Faust.

Man! This is going to be great.

Addition: James Reasoner, one of the contributors, gives his take at his website.

Addition #2: Check out Bill Crider's blog for more updates on Hard Case Crime.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Star Wars Nostalgia: Richard Pryor at the Star Wars Bar

There was a time, back from 1977-1980, where Star Wars dominated everything. It showed up on Saturday Night Live, it showed up on the Muppet Show, it was everywhere. But my recollections of those times does not remember the blatant pandering that we saw during the prequel era.

Take this funny take on Star Wars by Richard Pryor from The Richard Pryor Show. The costumes look authentic, like they actually raided the Star Wars soundstage. You think Lucas would allow that now?

(Thanks SF Signal)

Friday's Forgotten Books

Patti Abbott has started something, something quite helpful for someone like me who wants to learn more about the history of crime fiction. She has started Friday's Forgotten Books where authors and bloggers write a short book review about books the general public may have lost sight of and sold to a used book store. It makes someone like me (and others) jump in their cars and start scouring used book stores looking for these rare gems. And it's not just crime fiction. That's what makes this endeavor so much fun.

I read these reviews every Friday. And, starting in September, I will be joining their ranks. Ms. Abbott asked if I wouldn't mind contributing a review and I will start three weeks from today, 5 September, the first Friday of September. I'm looking forward to joining the party.

Friday Links of the Week (15 August)

Duane Swierczynski's good news (thanks Duane and congrats!)

New Christa Faust interview (thanks Chuck Palahniuk)

FREE Fiction by Cornelia Reed from "Hell of a Woman" (Busted Flush Press) (thanks Patti Abbott)

#20 in the ongoing Best TV Crime Drama Openers (thanks The Rap Sheet)

A New George Pelecanos Convert is Made (Thanks Noir Soapbox)

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Swierczynski's "Severance Package" Optioned for a Film

Having recently vastly enjoyed Duane Swierczynski's Severage Package (here's my review), word came today that Severance Package has been picked up by Lionsgate. Head on over to the Secret Dead Blog to find out all the juicy details.

Way to go! Oh, and Children of the 80s Unite. Check out Swierczynski's choice of end-credit song at his blog.

Thursday's Novel Writing Tip: Tell Someone Your Writing a Novel

Just last week, a co-worker of mine asked me about my progress with my writing career...and he didn't mean my technical writing career. Back when I was writing my first novel, Treason at Hanford, I told him (and everyone else) that I was writing a novel. The cool thing was that most of those people asked about my progress. And I let them know what chapter I was on, when I expected to finish it, and so on. It was a fantastic rush. Most people were in awe that I was writing a novel and marveled at my accomplishments. Another spur was my finite deadline: I was going to pitch the book to an agent in a June conference. I was told to have the manuscript complete so I had better had that manuscript complete. And I did, partly as a result of all the enquiring minds.

Cut to last week when my co-worker asked me about the progress of both podcasting Treason at Hanford and the progress of my second novel. The podcasting will come later this year. But the embarrassing part was having to tell him that...Justice in H-Town, my second novel, is still unfinished. Frankly, it was embarrassing...and I only have myself to blame. I tried to couch the reason for my unwritten second novel in structural issues ("I was writing the book this way but then I realized that it needed to be this other way.") and they are valid issues. The structure and tone of a book has got to be right, especially for its first reader: the writer. If a book sounds false to the writer, everyone else will pick up on it and stop reading.

So, I was telling my co-worker these things, true though they were, and it sounded hollow in my mouth and my ears. Embarrassing. And I hated myself for not having a better answer. Or for allowing this second novel to languish for so long. I decided to do something about it.

That was Friday. Saturday I met Duane Swierczynski and that was an inspiration. Now, I'm on the path to completion. Now, I'm back on the horse and will complete Justice in H-Town by Christmas. There, I'm telling everyone out there so y'all can ask about it.

Summary: By letting other people know you are writing a novel/short story/whatever, you give yourself some accountability. When you are on track with your book, telling people who ask is thrilling. It gets you excited and back in front of your keyboard that much faster. Heck, it'll make you want to write even more so than normal. When you are off track, however, it's embarrassing to tell people of your lack of progress. Both feelings can spurn you on. I just prefer the former over the latter.

Treason at Hanford: A Harry Truman Mystery - Chapter 6 online

For your Thursday enjoyment, Chapter 6 of Treason at Hanford: A Harry Truman Mystery is now available over at Texas Pulp Writer.


Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Happy Birthday Bookgasm

The good folks over at Bookgasm are celebrating their 3rd birthday today. If, for not other reason, you certainly have to click on over to their site for the fancy new masthead. It sums up everything they do nicely...and without words.

Bookgasm has become essential reading for me when checking up on the latest in SF, fantasy, mystery, comics, and horror. And, of course, it is the home of the feature I read each Wednesday: Bullets, Broads, Blackmail, and Bombs.

Go on over, take a look around, and then put Bookgasm in your Google Reader. You won't be disappointed.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Excellent The Dawn Patrol Review

Cameron Hughes, over at January Magazine, has an excellent review of Don Winslow's The Dawn Patrol. He covers things I don't--and he's a native of San Diego--so go check it out.

While you're there, check out the rest of January Magazine. I usually frequent only the crime fiction section but, if the quality of the material in the crime section is any indication, the rest of the magazine should also shine.

Book Review: The Dawn Patrol by Don Winslow

Epic macking crunchy.

That is the term, in Surfbonics, a character in Don Winslow’s The Dawn Patrol uses to describe the big wave that is approaching the beaches of San Diego. It’s a once-per-twenty-years ocean eruption that makes and breaks careers and that every surfer worth his weight in sunscreen comes to So Cal to experience. And it’s all Boone Daniels wants.

Except Boone, a PI who works just enough to pay some bills, has a new case. It’s a case he doesn’t want. He’ll happily get to it after the big swell. But his client—drop-dead gorgeous Brit Petra—is having none of it. So, Boone has to stow his board and wave bye-bye to the other members of the Dawn Patrol—a group that meets every morning to surf—to go look for a lost stripper who needs to testify in an upcoming trial.

From that seemingly inauspicious beginning, Winslow throws the reader into the world of southern California. And what a tour it is. I happened upon The Dawn Patrol (TDP) because I vacationed in San Diego and wanted to read something criminal in nature and local. I decided against TDP largely because I didn’t have time to buy the book. It’s a good thing, too, for Winslow as Tour Guide permeates this book like the smell of sunscreen at a beach. He gives you the experience of surf culture in So Cal without having ever been there. Folks as far away as Iceland are going to want to chuck off the parkas, pick up a board, and cut through the waves. Having visited the locations of TDP in June, I thoroughly enjoyed Boone and his friends traverse the locales I did. But the beauty of TDP is that you don’t have to know what the Pacific Coast Highway is to enjoy the story. It is a rush. It is like a wave, an epic macking crunchy one, powering its way into your brain.

The style of Winslow’s writing propels the story forward using the present tense and short chapters. I really liked that style and found it way too easy to just read (or listen, as I did) to a few more chapters. Every now and then, Winslow stops the action to give a brief history of a portion of San Diego. Those really make the book, especially his short dissertation on what constitutes a wave. There are books where the author does his best to get out of the way and just present the story. That’s the Elmore Leonard School of Writing. It works. But TDP was like Winslow himself telling you the story, sitting across from a beach bonfire from you, the waves lapping the beach a few yards away, the sun a distant memory, the stars the only other listeners. And it worked brilliantly.

The members of the Dawn Patrol—Hang Twelve, Dave the Love God, Johnny Banzai, High Tide, and Sunny Day—are priceless. Each member gets his or her own bio at just the appropriate time in the book. Hang Twelve, a young surfing fanatic, has his name bestowed on him by Boone for the very reason you’d suspect. Ditto Dave the Love God, a lifeguard on Pacific Beach who, according to Johnny Banzai, has been “spread over more tourist flesh than Bain de Soleil.” Banzai, a SDPD detective, is Japanese-American and if you’re a Japanese-American, according to Winslow, who is “a seriously radical, nose-first, balls-out, hard-charging surfer, you’re just going to get glossed either with ‘Kamikaze’ or ‘Banzai,’ you just are.” High Tide is Samoan and I’ll give you one guess as to his size and his sobriquet. Sunny Day, the lone female of the bunch, is “a force of nature—tall, long-legged—Sunny is exactly what Brian Wilson meant when he wrote that he wished they all could be California girls.” With a group like this, who wouldn’t want to go along for an adventure.

Except the adventure in question gets deadly, and in a hurry. And the choices certain characters make puts them at odds with other members of the Dawn Patrol. As a reader, I didn’t want Character A to do something because Character B would have to fight it. But as a writer, I realized that all the actions of all the characters are precisely correct. These folks are real people who make real, yet sometimes, difficult decisions. They live with the consequences but their choice, based on their character, was perfectly aligned. That is a good lesson in storytelling.

The benefit of the quick, short chapters that Winslow uses is that the action can jump from once set of characters to another in the space of half a page. I liked it, while some other readers may prefer longer chapters. But the quick cuts eliminates the painstaking ‘recap’ where an author has to write something like this: “Just as Bob was blasting through a door, half a city away, Jane woke with a start.” It’s just easier Winslow’s way.

The quick cuts also allows Winslow the flexibility to juxtapose sad scenes with happy scenes, or scenes of calm with scenes of high anxiety. There is a sequence of events, late in the book, where something good and exciting is happening and something bad and exciting is simultaneously happening. I could give all sorts of excuses—it was morning, I was tired, I hadn’t had a complete cup of java yet, the rising sun hit my face at just the right time—but I’ll just confess to the obvious: I felt the sting of tears and goose bumps at a certain scene. Winslow had set a pace of actions and expectations that overcame me at a certain moment. The tears didn’t leave my eyes but my contacts certainly felt more comfortable. I’ll not say if it was tears of joy or sadness. You’ll have to read to find out.

I’ve spoken before about audiobooks but this is one you simply must listen to. Ray Porter gives a fantastic performance. For most of the men, he adopts a surfer voice that puts you right there next to them. For Petra, the British gal, he adopts a lilting English accent. It was spectacular.

Early on the in the book, the Dawn Patrol have an ongoing List of Things That Are Good. Included are such topics as double overheads, free stuff, fish tacos, and all-female outrigger canoe teams. You have to read the entire list and scene because it’s quite hilarious. In crime fiction, there is also the List of Authors That Are Good. I’m compiling my own list, two actually. There’s the Classic Authors That Are Good (familiar names: Hammett, Chandler, Miller, Keene, Block) and then there’s the New Authors That Are Good (new names: Lehane, Pelecanos, Faust, Swiercznski, Bruen, Guthrie). Guess what? Winslow just got himself on the list. Read The Dawn Patrol and tell me if that book isn’t epic macking crunchy.

What I Learned As A Writer: I can be obsessive about POV. For some reason, I keep thinking that POV is set, structured, and shouldn’t change in the middle of a chapter. Leonard does it, J. D. Robb, too, and it’s sometimes distracting. Winslow did it all over the place, but, for some reason, I could follow it. Moreover, it all made sense. With so many characters (The six members of The Dawn Patrol plus something like six or seven more characters) it could have been confusing. But Winslow gives you little cues that alert you to a POV change. It’s not confusing at all. In fact, as the pace picked up, I found myself wanting the POV change just to see how a certain character was reacting to events on the inside. I’m not sure I can make a wholesale change in my thinking—copying some other author’s style is only a way to learn—but I’ll certainly incorporate some of the technique in my second book, Justice in H-Town.

New Christa Faust Interview

Christa Faust, via her website, has linked us to her latest interview. Always entertaining.

Money quote regarding a writing career (re: her novelizations of movies):
You can spend the rest of your life going to writing classes and critique circles, tweaking and polishing your great American novel that no one will ever read, or you can bang out 95,000 words in six sleepless weeks and make your bones as a pro. That was the best education I ever had.
On research:
Forget the damn internet, the best research for any writer can be achieved simply by being a good listener. If you're respectful and willing to listen, you can get almost anyone to open up about almost anything.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Music Review: Chicago Transit Authority

First albums can be tricky and they usually come in one of two forms: fully-formed or the first step to something else. Take Bruce Springsteen, one of my favorite rockers. While his first two records (Greetings from Asbury Park and The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle) are good records for what they are, you could argue that it was only with his third record, Born to Run, that Bruce arrived. That is, he got on record what all the fuss about his live shows was all about. The same holds true for David Bowie, Genesis, Peter Gabriel (solo), and other rock acts throughout the years.

In the former category, certain acts spring from the speakers fully formed. The Beatles come to mind. Hendrix of course. The Doors, the Police. The first records by these bands grab you by the collar and force you to reckon with them. This is what we are. We hope enjoy it. But if you don’t, get out of the way because someone else behind you does.

This attitude is what is brimming over during the 12-song sequence that is Chicago Transit Authority (1969). Regardless of all the changes that have occurred in the past forty years, the eponymous Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) was, and still is, a force to be reckoned with. Some long-time listeners hear CTA now and lament the loss of one of the tightest bands in rock history. The seven members of Chicago, all in their early twenties, excelled at their instruments but, combined, created something greater than the sum of its parts. It created something magical. And it’s all there for the listening.

When one thinks of Chicago, the one differentiator is the horn section. When the seven guys met, they had one mission: create a rock band with horns. Sure, other bands had horn sections but they were usually relegated to playing riffs in the background. Not so the trio of Walter Parazaider (saxes), Lee Loughnane (trumpet), and James Pankow (trombone). Together, they made up the fourth “voice” of Chicago, alongside Terry Kath’s soulful cry, Robert Lamm’s smooth-as-silk voice, and Peter Cetera’s clear-as-day tenor. Together on CTA, these four voices take you on a whirlwind tour of what is possible in music. And it all starts with an introduction.

“Introduction” is my favorite Chicago song. Period. End of story. And it’s the first track on side one of CTA. It’s a biography song, sung by Terry Kath, that lets the listener know who Chicago is and what they are all about. This one song almost has it all (the only things missing are Lamm’s and Cetera’s vocals). After two verses, you get this great syncopated rhythmic bridge by the horns over Danny Seraphine’s wildly improvisational drumming. After a short break, the song segues into a nice ballad with the lead “vocal” handled by Pankow and his trombone. Loughnane’s trumpet picks up where Pankow ends, melodiously taking the listener through an imagined summer landscape. And, lest you think Cetera is only a good singer of ballads, just listen to his moving and melodic bass lines throughout this slow section. All of this is merely prelude to Chicago’s ace in the hold: Terry Kath’s frenetic guitar work. This is where words like blistering and scorching come to mind as Kath gives the listener merely a taste of what’s to come on the rest of the record. The rest of the song returns to a last chorus and then, the coup de grace: all seven instruments (including keyboards) join in on a final chord. The essence of Chicago is really all there, in one song. The cool thing is Chicago gave you 11 more ‘bonus’ tracks.

Lamm’s piano skills are featured in the intro to “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?”, a concert staple since the 60s and one of the most fun songs Chicago has ever recorded. “Beginnings” is next, with Lamm’s silky vocals hovering over Kath’s 12-string guitar strumming. Beautiful as a California beach. “Questions 67 and 68” establishes Cetera’s tenor as a counter to Lamm and Kath and demonstrates, again, how the horns form the fourth voice.

The twofer of “Poem 58” and “Free Form Guitar” are a one-two punch in the gut at the brilliance of Terry Kath’s guitar playing. “Poem 58” is a ten-minute guitar jam surrounding a Lamm-sung love song. The background vocals of “I Do Love You” stayed in their subconscious, reemerging on the next record in “In the Country.” “Free Form Guitar.” What can you say about that? It’s six minutes of Kath, a guitar, and amp, and noise. It’s a shot over the bow at the rock world saying that Hendrix and Jimmy Page, as brilliant as they were, were not the only guitar gods out there.

“South California Purples” is a straight-ahead blues jam, here featuring Lamm’s improve skills on the electric organ. After you have listened to the album version for awhile, check out the 15-minute versions on the fourth album, Chicago at Carnegie Hall. Back in 2003 when they remastered the Carnegie album, Chicago added a fourth disc of bonus material. There’s a second version of “South California Purples,” also clocking in close to fifteen minutes. It’s a treatise on guitar soloing and band cohesiveness. Chicago’s Latin-tinged cover of Traffic’s “I’m a Man”—complete with a 64-measure drum solo—shows off their ability to take someone else’s song and make it their own.

The track “Someday,” the second-to-last song, shows off a side of Chicago that was prominent in the early days but has gone by the wayside in the years since: political commentary. Yes, the band that sings about inspiration, hard habits to break, and big surprises used to talk about bringing down the system. Don’t think so? How about this quote from the liner notes of Chicago II: “With this album, we dedicate ourselves, our futures and our energies to the people of the revolution. And the revolution in all of it's forms.”

“Someday” starts with a recording of the chants outside the Democratic convention in Chicago 1968. The chants—“The whole world is watching”—has its own rhythm which seamlessly blends into the opening drum beats of the song. The chanting reemerges later in the song, giving the listener the impression that Chicago the band agrees with the spirit of the black militants outside the convention hall getting beaten by the police. Some modern listeners will be sad that spirit died in Chicago. But look around. That spirit, the spirit of openness, of change, of the belief that the young really can change the world, died everywhere, not just in a band that now frequents the adult contemporary charts rather than the college music charts. The world changed, but Chicago persevered. (The chanting reemerges in the song "All the Years," on their just-released album, Stone of Sisyphus. Here in this song, Lamm mourns the loss of that late-60s spirit and the opportunities lost.)

The last track is the coup de grace of CTA. “Liberation” is a 14-minute guitar jam. And I don’t use that word “jam” lightly. If Kath’s guitar work throughout the album teased at his prowess, if “Poem 58” and “Free Form Guitar” was a one-two punch, “Liberation” is the knock-out blow. Just listen. You'll hear Kath going everywhere, trying different things, and Serephine’s drumming, Lamm’s keyboard riffs, and Cetera’s fantastic bass playing going along for the ride. The horns are mostly absent from this tour de force. But that’s okay. This is Kath’s time to shine and boy, does he shine brightly. As the song ends and you exhale, only then realizing you were holding your breath, read the liner notes about this song and you’ll find a whole new meaning of awe: This track was recorded entirely live. The performance embodied in this recording is complete and uncut.

One note on the recording itself. I don’t know recording technology at all but the sound quality is such that you get the impression all seven guys were in the same room at the same time recording these songs. It’s a quality that isn’t there starting with Chicago II and onward and it certainly isn’t there in modern music. You get the organic listening experience with CTA. It’s one to cherish.

If you have one Chicago CD in your collection, don’t let it be a greatest hits compilation. You can hear all of those songs on the radio. Buy Chicago Transit Authority. Buy it for the great songs, the great vocals, the soaring horn charts, the frenetic guitar work. Buy it for the spirit of the times that wrapped up seven guys and made something special.

In an age where we all make lists (favorite movies, TV shows, books) and those lists often change and vary, Chicago Transit Authority has been my favorite Chicago album for years now. Once I was old enough to understand what they were trying to put down on tape—magic and time in a bottle—I realized how special CTA really was. And is. You just can’t escape the feel of this record. I was alive, barely, when this album was released but the spirit of the times lives on through this recording.

I have attempted to write my impressions of CTA but, honestly, the liner notes of their producer, James William Guercio, do a much better job of it. I’ll end with his quote:

The purpose of this commentary, however, is an attempt at documenting the complete rejection of any name label, title or verbal reference relative to the performance contained herein. Corporately as well as individually, this artist endeavors to be judged in terms of contribution alone rather than through the tag affixed upon it. The printed word can never aspire to document a truly musical experience, so if you must call them something, speak of the city where all save one were born; where all of them were schooled and bred, and where all of this incredible music went down barely noticed; call them CHICAGO.

Footnote: Once you’ve listened to CTA a few times, head on over to Wolfgang’s Archive and take a listen to a 17 August 1969 recording of Chicago at the Fillmore West. It’s a gorgeous soundboard recording of the tunes from CTA as well as “new” songs they’re still working on for their next album, including “25 or 6 to 4,” still the epitome of a rock band with horns. What you can also discover with the new songs is the band still working out the kinks and arrangements. For example, “Poem for the People” at the Fillmore is sung by Cetera. The official album version a year later has Lamm singing his own song.

SF Signal: Updated web page

The good folks over at SF Signal have updated their web page's look. Go on over and let'em know what you think. I have them in my Google Reader and they are my source for daily SF news and tidbits.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Duane Swierczynski and Bill Crider

Bill Crider, local Texas author, also attended the Duane Swierczynski talk at Murder by the Book. He shot a few minutes of video and you can see it here, at his blog.

If you want humorous stories, usually with a Texas twist, and really cool old movie trailers, plug in his blog address ( to your Google Reader. You'll enjoy it every day.

Duane Swierczynski and Inspiration

I went to see Duane Swierczynski Saturday at Murder by the Book. I got to talk with him a little before his 4:30pm talk. Fan Boy Moment: when I introduced myself to him, he remembered me from my comment on his blog. Moreover, he thanked me for the review of his book, Severance Package, I posted on my regular Tuesday book review feature. That was, to say the least, quite cool.

Then, David Thompson of MBTB, came over and the three of us chatted for a few minutes. Since I was wearing my Chicago tee shirt, David mentioned that he’d read the first page of the short story I write back in 1998 about incorporating Chicago songs into a story. All in all, a good experience.

Swierczynski’s talk was good. He riffed on the differences between mystery readers and comic book readers (mystery readers are much nicer), what it’s like to write novels with your own characters and write comics with established characters, and the other exciting opportunities he’s had with his writing. I don't know his entire bio but it seems like he's now able to write his own material full-time since he mentioned quitting his day job at a Philadelphia magazine.

I've met a few writers at MBTB and there's something about meeting writers during book signings that is simply neat. It's visible proof that they are regular people, just like you and me. Sure, big-time movie stars are people, too, but writers don't usually have entourages. Writers are just folks, happy that you turned out to meet them and hear them talk, gracious that you're holding one of their books. Swierczynski is just like that: nice, kind, gracious.

When I mentioned that I was working on my second novel and that my first book, although agented, has yet to find a publisher, Swierczynski commiserated. His first novel, Secret Dead Men, gestated a long time before it was published. Eight years I think he said. But here's what really struck home and is the reason I'm sitting at my computer on a Saturday night writing instead of watching the Olympics: Love What You Write. After he wrote that first book and it didn't sell, he wrote more books, books about what got him jazzed up: a mute getaway driver, a businessman whose drink has been poisoned, or a public relations guy who discovers his boss wants to kill him. Swierczynski enjoyed the stories, wrote the books, and, guess what? They got published. He didn't care about what might sell. He wrote for the first reader: himself.

Which brings me to my writing career, to date. I wrote Treason at Hanford, my Harry Truman story, and I loved it. Each night, when I sat down to write, I was excited about it and I wanted to know what happened next...and I *knew* what happened next. I fell in love with my book. And the folks who have read it (not all family or close friends, mind you) have commented on the passion of the story. There's a part of the book, 3/4 of the way in, when all different groups of characters are starting to put two-and-two together. I got butterflies in my stomach *writing* it and I still get them every time I read those chapters. They may not be great, but they darn sure satisfied me.

What am I trying to say, to myself or any wannabe writers out there? Don't over think the story. That's been my problem with book #2, my own sophomore slump. Just friggin' write the thing. Write it because you love it. If I don't love it, it'll show in the prose and no one else will care about it.

Thanks to David and McKenna and the good folks at Murder by the Book for making their wonderful store the place where writers and reader can meet. Thanks to Mr. Swierczynski for coming down to Houston and giving some Texans a chance to meet you. And thanks for helping me off the mat. You probably didn't even know it but you gave me the kick in the ass I needed to fine-tune the focus on my second book and finish it.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Hugo Awards Announced

The good folks over at SF Signal have posted the Hugo Award winners.

Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union won for novel. But the work I enjoyed more was Ted Chaing's "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate." This novelette has got to be one of the best time travel stories I've ever read or seen. You can read it online via the link above OR you can get the audio here at Starship Sofa. I listened to it and the reader is quite good.

Please do yourself a favor and listen or read this story. It's fantastic.

Olympics Opening Ceremony

Not crime related but who cares. Did y'all see those opening ceremonies on NBC Friday night? Holy Cow! They were gorgeous. My favorite moments were when all those folks popped of of the boxes, revealing that it was human timing and coordination not mechanical programming that made those kick-ass shapes. When the LCD 'scroll' appeared. When the dancers with the lights on their uniforms did their thing. And when Li Ning 'ran' around the stadium. Tres cool!

Most moving moment was when Yao Ming, Chinese flag bearer, came out with that little boy, Lin Hao. Hao crawled out from the rubble of his school--where half his class perished--but then crawled back in to rescue two more classmates. When asked why, he said he was hall monitor and that was his job. Very somber yet heartwarming.

Biggest issue I had was no female commentator. It was Bob Costas (always good at these things) and Matt Lauer (always good, too). But during the parade of nations, with all the cool clothes, NBC needed a female voice.

This morning, I got to show the boy what the Olympics are all about. Mariel Zagunis won the gold medal in fencing. I showed the boy what happens: you get a medal, your flag is raised, and your national anthem is played. Zagunis obliged by tearing up (who wouldn't?). Not sure it registered with the boy but I have 15 more days.

Man, I dig the Olympics!

You can go over to MSNBC for some video links. Check them out.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Duane Swierczynski at Murder by the Book, 9 August

In case y'all are in Houston this Saturday, Duane Swierczynski will be stopping at Murder by the Book at 4:30pm. I'm looking forward to meeting him and hearing him talk about his two latest projects, the novel Severance Package and his interactive mystery, Murder at Wayne Manor. I'm most interested in hearing how he made his breaks and got the gigs he now has.

I'll recap the talk later this weekend.

Friday Links of the Week (8 August)

Some good readings from this week. Enjoy.

When Google Owns You (thanks Boing Boing)

Stephen King on his new online story, "N" (thanks SF Signal )

Lessons Learned about Superheroes during the Summer of 2008 (thanks SF Signal)

The Dystopic Earths of Heinlein's Juveniles (thanks Boing Boing)

Top Steampunk novels to read (thanks SF Flare )

Update on CrimeWAV (thanks The Rap Sheet)

Interview with Michael Connelly (thanks Crime Fiction Dossier)

Some news from Christa Faust (from her website)

A Short History of SF Pulps (thanks Solar Flare)

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Treason at Hanford: A Harry Truman Mystery - Chapters 4 and 5 online

I don't have a novel writing tip today so, to compensate, I've posted two chapters of Treason at Hanford: A Harry Truman Mystery.

Here is Chapter 4 and Chapter 5.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Yet Another George Pelecanos Interview

It's from Philadelphia City Paper (thanks Crime Always Pays, Declan Burke's great blog).

Here's a quote from it:

CP: One of the things I've always been so impressed by is your ability to use space and render D.C. almost like a character. In reading the work of some of your peers, I'm struck by how important place is to the success of a book. How much of your D.C. is real and founded in the streets and how much is created in your mind?

GP: Of course the characters are fictional and they're sort of walking through this fictional world, but as far as the grid goes, it's all pretty much real. I go out and check stupid things like, Is there a T in that alley behind Otis Place NW? I have to go to the alley and make sure that there is. In the historical books like Hard Revolution, if a character is walking down the street in April '68 in a particular week of that month, and the movie theater marquee says Guess Who's Coming to Dinner or something, it was playing in that movie theater on that day. I can guarantee you that. I don't make shit like that up. Even where it's crippling. In other words, [in The Turnaround] when Alex walks into the diner for the first time when he's a kid and the James Brown song is playing, and it's June in the book — if that song was released not until September of that year, I don't put it in there. It wouldn't have been coming through the radio. It's a long-winded way of saying I'm trying to leave a record.

I can relate to Pelecanos's comment about historical novels. When I was writing Treason at Hanford, my characters walked past a movie theater and they went to see a movie. I made a point of doing some research and finding out what films were playing in the spring of 1944. It's a fun way of writing but, like Pelecanos says, it can be a pain...if you care about getting things correct.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Writing for Comic Books:

From Bill Crider's webpage comes a question: If you could write for the comic books, what would you want to write and why? Check out Crider's page for the link to his answer, as well as those of other crime writers.

For me, I'm into realism. But, I'm also an historian. Thus, I'd like to write an espionage story set in World War II and starring Batman who needs the help of the Justice Society to foil the bad guys. And, given the war, I'd have Batman's foes (Two-Face, for example) actually help Batman against the Nazis or the Japanese.

Book Review: Severance Package by Duane Swierczynski

From all indications, we seem to be in the midst of a noir/pulp renaissance. Hard Case Crime, established in 2004, has been publishing and re-introducing out-of-print pulp novels to the 21st century. In the case of yours truly, it is an introduction, not a re-introduction. New technologies (podcasting, online magazines) have, ironically, replicated the delivery methods of old-school pulp magazines back in the golden age of pulp fiction. The climate of this first decade of the 21t century has a shadow over it, the shadow of two burning buildings that no longer stand. When those towers fell, new things emerged (wire tapping of American civilians, memos on how to redefine torture, Abu Garib) that have brought with it a certain sense of paranoia. These factors, and more, have created a climate where authors, new and old, have tried to put in print and words the zeitgeist of this decade. And one of those trailblazers is Duane Swierczynski.

Swierczynski is the author of three previous novels, Secret Dead Men, The Wheelman, and The Blonde, as well as some titles from Marvel Comics (Cable, Iron Fist) but Severance Package is the first novel of his that I have read. And it's a doozy. First off, the cover. I love old-school painted cover art, the kind that graced the covers of pulp fiction long ago and the kind that Hard Case Crime is bringing back. Severance Package, a trade paperback, has that neat textured paper, the kind that you'd find in an art store. Not coincidentally, the cover art looks like a comic book. The synopsis and the About the author section are basic type font but the other lettering, the teaser, and the blurbs all appear to have been inked by Jack Kirby. That's a cool vibe to imbue and it is a tantalizing entry to this novel.

The vibe continues throughout the book. Here's the basic premise: the company that Jamie Debroux works for is, in reality, a front for a black ops unit. They've been outed and, as such, they all have to die. You have a choice, the boss man says: drink a mimosa and fall asleep or get shot in the head with the gun my assistant is now holding. With that in mind, the novel is interspersed with a list of the employees' names. With each death (yeah, there are some deaths in here), that name is crossed off. What's fascinating as a reader is you don't know who is the person crossing off the names.

The action, as you would expect, starts off with a bang. On his Secret Dead Blog, Swierczynski posts a running feature called "Opening Shots" where he transcribes the first paragraph of certain novels as a way to get a reader hooked. I'll give you the opening sentence of Severance Package and see if you don't want to read more:
His name was Paul Lewis and he didn't know he had seen minutes to live.
This opening chapter also has one of a half dozen or so illustrations, done in black-and-white comic book style, by Dennis Calero, that depict a scene of the book. Well, we get to see, as well as read, what happens to Paul Lewis. Let me just say this: considering all the damage other characters endure during this book, it's one of the more peaceful ways to go.

(Speaking of opening shots, here is the opening line of dialogue from Swierczynski's The Blonde: "I poisoned your drink." Dunno about y'all but that makes me want to read more.)

Swierczynski, who lives in Philadelphia, gives the kind of detail to his town that I hope to give Houston. That is, he knows his town and writes little tidbits throughout the book that give the non-Philly reader a taste of the town not found at the touristy locales. It's the same thing Pelecanos does for DC, Lehane for Boston, Connelly for LA, and Wislow for San Diego. It brings the city to life.

The prose is quick but not dirty. I found myself flying through pages, looking up after an hour and finding out that I'd read more than 60 pages. That's quite fast for me, usually a slow reader. But the pace is pedal-to-the-metal, pell-mell into a brick wall. It's breezy in its way, rapidly jumping into the heads of all the characters, even one unnamed character late in the book. It's a good feature, breathing life into characters that, usually, only have minutes to live. As the story progresses and you witness the various violent actions, it's kind of fun to guess how the next character's demise will come. Believe me: there's one you won't see coming. Moreover, there's a certain time shift going on in places. Swierczynski will follow one character through an entire scene then jump into another character's POV. That second character likely was a silent witness to the actions of the first character, thus, we get a second opinion on certain actions. It's a neat way of giving certain scenes depth.

The Ending: I can't tell you about the ending. A good ending to a bad book or movie can salvage my opinion of the work. A bad ending to a good book/movie can ruin the entire experience. I'll say this about the ending of Severance Package: I loved the book...and the ending kicked me in the crotch. I didn't see it coming...but I should have. You might. But try not to think too much. This is a fantastic book. Just enjoy the hell out of it half as much as Swierczynski enjoyed writing it.

What I Learned As A Writer: As I mentioned before, the POV jumps in and out of his characters. I am usually the type of author that sticks to one POV per scene, allowing all the action and reaction to be from that one POV. If I need another, I'll change at a chapter break. And there are certain characters I never jump into. Not so, Severance Package. All the characters get their time to stand on stage. All the characters get a certain amount of time for a brief back story. This background helps the reader understand the actions of certain characters. You know how in horror movies, the characters never do the logical thing? Well, these back stories are Swierczynski's way of inculcating the reader as to why a character makes a certain choice. It's effective and I might try it in a future novel.

The list of names to be killed--and the growing number that get crossed off--is a great way of creating suspense. It's the ticking time bomb, a cadence you hear in the back of your head as the pages go by. Who gets it next, you ask, and how? The New York Times review states that Severance Package "plays like an extreme edition of “Survivor,” starring Uma Thurman and directed by Quentin Tarantino." It's just a fun, fast book, to be enjoyed in a rubbernecker, visceral kind of way. It has the kind of vibe that I want some of my fiction to be infused with, the literary equivalent of a summer blockbuster.

It's pulp fiction, pure and simple, just like they used to write in the old days. Rest assured Hammett, Keene, Spillane, and Westlake: the future of pulp fiction is in good hands with folks like Duane Swierczynski on duty.

P.S., Swierczynski will be stopping at Murder by the Book this Saturday, 9 August. If you're in Houston, come on by and say hello. And pick up some of his books. You won't be disappointed.

Monday, August 4, 2008

The Dark Knight: A Second Opinion

I got a chance to see “The Dark Knight” again this weekend. And, unlike my first time (in Houston, in an IMAX theater, complete with awesome and visuals), I saw it the second time at the Majestic Theater in Wills Point, TX. It’s a tiny town in northeast Texas where there is one theater showing one movie at one time (7:30pm). The Majestic itself is a restored theater dating back at least 30 years. The floors were wooden with carpet down the aisles, the screen was set back, just behind a stage where local folks likely produce plays, and the walls were close. Heck, even a train roared through town during the film, rattling the walls and adding a bit of impromptu reality to the story on the screen.

But that is the point. Many folks who see The Dark Knight will see it in shiny movie multiplexes with cement floors and state-of-the-art sound systems and soundproofed walls keeping reality away for 150 minutes. But The Dark Knight is a film with the feel of the 1970s, both in tone and in its hues. It felt natural to see this brand-new film in a theater where The French Connection was shown. Or Dirty Harry. It was a little like going back in time. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and then questions arose about our own time.

This is a movie that asks us questions about our reality circa 2008. Don’t think I’m going to slip into some political discussion here. It’s been done elsewhere and everywhere. In fact, a fellow blogger from the UK has written his own review of The Dark Knight that asks some serious questions. Go on over and get another perspective from across the pond.

Suffice it to say that Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, as they are, could not have been made in any other decade. They are distinctly post-9/11. As a historian, I enjoy watching old SF movies of the 1950s and seeing what they say about life in that decade when the Cold War was coldest. I wonder, in the present tense, which films will be the examples of life in this first decade of the 21st Century. I now have two candidates.

Seeing the film again, I got the chance to focus on the many nuances in the film. (BEWARE: SPOILERS abound).

A obvious one is this: The Joker robbed a bank. Plain and simple. How many superhero movies do you know of where the main villain just robbed a bank. Loved it.

In previous movie incarnations, I really got the sense that Bruce Wayne was the real guy and Batman was the mask. In this film (as in Begins), Christian Bale puts a firm answer to the question: which is the mask and which is the true self? Wayne is the mask and Bale lets you see it only for a fraction of the film, that being in the restaurant and at the fund-raiser. The rest of the time, even when he’s not in a mask, Bale is Batman. Bale is Batman when he and Alfred stitch up Batman’s wounds and when they are getting ballistics from a brick. He is Batman when he’s posing as a civilian in Hong Kong taking pictures. The one place where he’s conflicted is the short scenes with Rachel during the fundraiser. It’s the first chance you see Bale as Batman hoping he’ll have a chance to shed the Bat mantle but Rachel, just as in the first film, see through it. Bale/Batman knows the truth about himself: just watch him during the restaurant scene. He gets uncomfortable being Wayne. Another telling scene is in Begins when Wayne meets Rachel after he has swum in the fountain with the models. He doesn’t know who to be and tells her so. This, to me, is brilliant acting because you can see it on Bale’s face.

The Joker as mob boss. Certain adjectives come to mind when you read and see Joker in the comics: insane, sadistic, cunning. What Ledger brings to the role is vicious. There’s the scene, late in the movie, when Joker burns his half of the money, when he turns a knife on the Chechen and asks about loyalty. Joker says something like “Why don’t we cut you up in little pieces and feed you to your pooches and then we’ll see how loyal a hungry dog is.” There is so much redefinition of who Joker is in that one line. Joker in the comics is sophisticated. Ledger’s Joker is base, dirty, somewhat slimy. Joker the comics would never say “pooches” even though he’d likely still cut up the Chechen. But I got the impression that Ledger’s Joker really did cut that guy up. How else do you explain the fact that he had the dogs in the final showdown? Joker in Comics wouldn’t see the humor in it. Ledger’s Joker just doesn’t’ care. And that’s what makes Ledger’s Joker scary as hell. You just don’t know what he’s going to do.

Gordon’s tears. When confronting Two-Face at the end, there’s just enough light in the scene that you can tell Gary Oldman’s Jim Gordon had started crying when he feared Two-Face would really shoot Gordon’s son. I caught it the first time around but it’s still impressive. And I don’t care whether or not Oldman did it himself or a prop person applied eye drops. For Christopher Nolan to go to that detail really made the scene.

Eckhart’s Dent: My favorite scene with Eckhart is still the scene when Dent is interrogating the captured Joker henchman. Eckhart lets Dent’s rage loose. It helped me buy Dent’s fall later in the film. And this time, I caught Dent’s manipulation with the coin. He said, “Heads you live, tails you die.” Of course it landed on heads. Loved it.

Gyllenhaal’s Rachel: Katie Holmes was not altogether bad in Batman Begins. But I don’t think she could have pulled out the convincing performance during Rachel’s death. Maggie’s voice is what did it. It broke because the character knew she was about to die. And she was scared. It came across and made the scene heartbreaking.

One final note: on my previous review of The Dark Knight, I was so enthralled that I felt like I didn’t want them to make Movie #3. I write 'them' because even if Nolan chooses not to make Movie #3, the suits will. You can feel it in your wallet. It’s just a matter of time. But I am now less reticent. Seeing the ending again, the great Oldman/Gordon voiceover, explaining to his son why Batman has to flee and why GPD has to chase him sets up Movie #3 on very dark ground. And, if Gordon followed through and blamed Dent’s murders on Batman, there is ample and fertile ground to plow.

It is here where Ledger, as an actor, will be missed. He took the Joker template and made it his own. But Joker survived the story. In Movie #3, he will be the elephant in the room. Along with all the other roles Ledger will never be able to fill, it would have been nice to see his take on Joker after three-plus years in Arkham.

I think the Joker still has something to say to us. It’ll be a different era when Movie #3 comes out. The earliest will likely be 2011, three years into the administration of the next president, a few months before the 10-year anniversary of 9/11. Depending on who the president is, the world will look different. Batman will be different, especially if he will have been hunted (or disappeared) for three-plus years. I’d almost like to see Nolan wait four years but that’s not economically feasible considering the boffo business The Dark Knight is churning. Movie #3 will arrive and I’ll echo what Jay over at the Noir Soapbox wrote: “…are we on our way to getting the first truly consistent film trilogy?”

I think so. I just wonder what it’s going to say about us.