Wednesday, December 31, 2008

World War II Ended 62 Years Ago...Today?

In a fascinating snapshot, today's Date in History from the New York Times is this headline from December 31, 1946: Truman Declares Hostilities Ended, Terminating Many Wartime Laws; Republican Chiefs Commend Action. Here is the link to the New York Times' archives.

The study of history is wonderful because you always learn something new. I never knew that many of the wartime powers that Franklin Roosevelt initiated were maintained more than a year after the formal surrender of Japan in September 1945. Don't forget that the Democrats lost big in the off-year elections of 1946. The year 1947 would be the first Republican-controlled Congress since 1930.

What's even more remarkable is this paragraph:
President Truman told his news conference the time had come when the Executive Branch should give up some of the powers exercised during the war. He then announced his proclamation, gave out a list of the laws affected, and read a prepared statement which emphasized that his action was "entirely in keeping with the policies which I have consistently followed, in an effort to bring our economy and our Government back to a peacetime basis as quickly as possible."
Read that first sentence again and marvel at it: Truman gave up power. Remarkable.

Just a last tidbit of history on New Year's Eve. Until next year...

Book Review: Best of 2008

I kind of did this already when I answered a meme earlier this month: List the authors that were new to you this year, regardless of year of publication. Here's the link to that original entry. This is the blog where I narrow down the list.

I've tossed and turned over who to give the number 1 spot. Two books shone brightly in my mind and I love them both. The #3 spot is secure. However, for book #1, as my original review stated, I'm going for the book that brought a tear to my eye.

1. The Dawn Patrol - Don Winslow
2. Money Shot - Christ Faust
3. Top of the Heap - Erle Stanley Gardner (Cool and Lam)
4. Severance Package - Duane Swierczynski
5. The Godwulf Manuscript - Robert Parker
6. Kiss Her Goodbye - Allan Guthrie
7. Somebody Owes Me Money - Donald Westlake
8. Die a Little - Megan Abbott
9. Cop Hater - Ed McBain
10. Sins of the Father - Lawrence Block

Honorable Mention: William Colt MacDonald's Mascarada Pass is the first western I've ever read. It's a fun story with a great character but the writing is slightly dated and that kept it off my Top 10.

I got to meet Winslow, Swierczynsk, and Bill Crider at Murder by the Book this year. Have to admit it was very cool to be thanked by Swierczynski for the review I posted. It was the first time an author had personally thanked me. And it was interesting to meet Winslow the week after Hurricane Ike hit Houston, what with no power at the store and the debris along the streets. A bit surreal. I hope to attend more author talks and signings in 2009. First up: head guru at Hard Case Crime, Charles Ardai.

I already have many books lined up to read for the next few weeks and months. Some are new, some old. But it doesn't matter. I'm going to have fun. And I hope y'all do, too.

Thanks to everyone with whom I discussed books in 2008. Let's keep up the conversation in 2009.

2008 Resolutions - The Summing Up

On New Year’s Day 2008, I jotted down some writing resolutions. One of them I met in spades: “I will blog, on average, once a week.” That’s at least 52 entries. By my count, I wrote about 250 entries. Yeah, I met that resolution.

My blog was the biggest change for my writing career in 2008. As the year progressed, it evolved into a review site, a place where I could share my self-education into crime and mystery fiction. Along the way, I discussed music, history, films, and a few other things that shot into my head. But, by and large, I kept the focus of this blog on books, authors, and the writing process. I don’t envision that I’ll change the focus of this blog in the future...but, then again, I didn’t think my blog would have exploded the way it did.

I met a second resolution: submitting a book review to my local Ft. Bend Writer’s Guild conference. Ironic, isn’t it, that on 1 January 2008, I wanted to write only one book review. I’ve written dozens (?). I’ll count later. And I won for that review. It was my review of The Dawn Patrol by Don Winslow.

The biggest deficit in the resolutions column is my second novel. I wanted to finish it. It had other plans. It’s not that I didn’t have the ideas or the story arc. I found it. But it took me too long to find that middle section. When I did, I failed to carve out the time and get that first draft written. And I bet too many chips on the manuscript being well received at the October writing conference. The judges didn’t like all that I had done and it knocked me off-track. But that reeks of an excuse. Can’t really blame anything other than my focus on reading crime fiction, reviewing it, and then repeating. The bad news is that I still don’t have a first draft of Book #2. The good news is that all I have learned in 2008 will go to make Book #2 that much better.

The second deficit I discovered only this month, when David Cranmer launched his new pulp e-zine, Beat to a Pulp: I don’t have any short stories in the drawer. I do have some; they just suck. With all the reading I did this past year, I cringe at reading my older work. I guess we all do. Shows we’re progressing as writers. But I realized that my lack of short stories just waiting to be submitted to Beat to a Pulp or any other venue meant that I wasn’t taking that part of a writing career seriously. I was too focused on writing my second novel. I need to do that which I read about everywhere: always have something out there.

That stops in 2009 (more in my 2009 Resolutions blog entry).

In summary, I didn’t meet all my 2008 writing goals. Fact. But I read a lot, wrote a lot, and learned a lot, much more more than I ever expected. Patti Abbott asked a question on her blog that I like: what's to like about 2008. You can read my extended answer over at her blog but what I’ll say here is this: I’ll miss reading classic authors for the first time. More often than not, when I posted a review of a classic book or author, the folks in the comments section would write that they envied me my “new” discovery, a discovery they made years or decades ago. Now, the number of New-to-Me authors has dwindled. But there are so much more.

For all that I read and learned, I’ll be a better writer and reviewer.

But more than anything, I developed regular readers to this blog. I developed friendships with a number of fellow bloggers around the country and across the oceans. You all know who y’all are. I love all the back-and-forths we do on each others blogs, seeing what y’all are reading or listening to or watching. The Friday Forgotten Books Project just makes my Friday. Ditto for Bruce Grossman’s Bullets, Broads, Blackmail, and Bombs column every Wednesday over at I love the old movie trailers Bill Crider unearths. I discovered The Louis L’amour Project just as I started to read westerns. The good folks at The Rap Sheet continue to be my go-to source for all things relating to literary crime fiction. (And I’m still new enough on the scene to be jazzed when Jeff Pierce picks up one of my reviews and links to my site. Thanks!) On a non-crime fiction note, SF Signal is still my go-to source for all things SF/F/H. And, now, Beat to a Pulp has set a high standard of excellent stories.

So, a BIG Texas-sized Thank You to all my regular readers and blog friends. Y’all help make my day better. May the new year bring us all continued blessings and flat-out fun as we read, learn, live, and enjoy each other’s online company.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Music Review: Best of 2008

Everyone loves lists. What follows is the list of my favorite music for 2008. Like my author/book list, I am including albums I heard for the first time this year, even if the album was released in a previous year.

The year in music started with Bruce Springsteen’s 2007 album, Magic, only three months old. And 2008 ends with the anticipation of another Springsteen CD hitting store shelves in January. Not a bad way to bookend the year.

In between my eclectic musical journey continued. The highlight was the official release of Stone of Sisyphus, Chicago’s lost musical treasure (my review). I had the album since 1995 but it was still good to have others exposed to some of the best music Chicago has ever recorded.

Here are some other albums, in no particular order, I enjoyed this past year. I noticed, in compiling this list, that I didn’t review much of the new-for-2008 music. I’ll fix that in 2009.

Vampire Weekend’s eponymous debut CD - One of the most enjoyable CDs in recent years.
Sheryl Crow - Detours
Coldplay - Viva la Vida
Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis - Two Men and the Blues (my review)
Alejandro Escovedo - Real Animal (my review)
Bill Champlin - No Place Left to Fall (my review)
Robert Lamm - The Bossa Project (my review)
Andrew Bird - Armchair Apocrypha
Iron and Wine - The Shepherd’s Dog
The National - Boxer
The Shins - Wincing the Night Away
Gnarls Barkley - The Odd Couple
Brian Setzer Orchestra - Wolfgang’s Big Night Out (my review)
James Carter - Present Tense
The Dark Knight soundtrack - In the track “Why So Serious,” I’ve never heard the use of one note be so effective in evoking menace and dread.

And I just picked up Miles...From India, a tribute CD of the music of Miles Davis by Indian musicians. I’ve only heard a few snippets but, from what I’ve heard, this CD will likely be a favorite for 2009.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Remembering Apollo 8

When I wrote some 40-year-old birthday thoughts on December 6th, I ended up with the 1968 Apollo 8 mission. Well, it was 40 years ago today that the three astronauts launched into space.

Jeff Jaboby, at, has a nice piece about the mission and the launch and what the men saw. Go take a read and marvel at NASA's brashness. It warms the heart.

For those of y'all who watched and/or remembered Apollo 8's broadcast, what was it like to hear a broadcast by humans from space? It must have been awe-inspiring. Share your thoughts...

Friday, December 19, 2008

Forgotten Books: The Man Who Invented Christmas by Les Standiford

(My latest addition to the Friday Forgotten Books project shepherded by Patti Abbott.)

The Man Who Invented Christmas by Les Standiford is not a forgotten book. Of that, we must be clear. It’s new—brand new, actually—having been published in November. I’m not sure how many people know about it yet and still more ponder why I am reviewing it today when I’m supposed to be writing about something modern readers have forgotten.

One reason, nay, the very reason I am reviewing Standiford’s book today is the anniversary that is celebrated today. What anniversary? Pray, let the sub-title inform you: How Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits. Need another guess? Okay, you guessed it: today is the 165th anniversary of the publication of A Christmas Carol. What better day, even if it is a Forgotten Book day, to celebrate a work devoted to one of the most beloved novels of the world.

Standiford, a novelist and popular historian, fully acknowledges that much of what he has compiled in The Man Who Invented Christmas is available in other works and biographies. The beauty of this little book is the prism with which Standiford examines Dickens. It’s only about the Carol and how Dickens came to write it, the influences, where Dickens was in his life when the inspiration for Scrooge, Marley, and Tiny Tim struck his imagination, the immediate aftermath of the book’s publication, and its influence on western culture.

The book opens on 5 October 1843. Dickens, aged thirty-one, is on a Manchester stage, part of a fundraiser for the Manchester Athenaeum. He is to speak but he is distracted. His current novel, Martin Chuzzlewit, was not finding the dazzling sales figures of earlier novels like The Pickwick Papers or The Old Curiosity Shop. Not a Dickens scholar I, this fact surprised me. I just assumed Dickens’s stardom, once attained, didn’t wane during his lifetime. It was up and down for Dickens and in October 1843, Dickens was down. With sales figures dropping, his own debt rising—including his parents’ debt which he took pains to absolve—and a new child, his fifth, due early in 1844, Dickens needed to do something extraordinary in order to get back on the financial horse.

After he gave his part of the fundraiser, Dickens walked the dark streets of Manchester and the germ of an idea planted itself in his mind. With the memories of a recent trip to a “ragged school”—a school for poor kids—fresh in his mind, Dickens did something fascinating: he examined himself, as an artist, a man, a husband, and found that he could improve his position. According to Standiford, “Perhaps he [Dickens] had let his disappointment with America in particular and with human nature in general overwhelm his powers of storytelling and characterization in his recent work—perhaps he had simply taken it for granted that an adoring public would sit still for whatever he offered it.” The Chuzzlewit sales and themes proved this to be true. He tried to beat his readers over the head with his earnestness and the readers let him know they didn’t like it. He needed a different method to convey what he wanted to convey. And he needed it to be entertaining.
A Christmas Carol was the result. We all know the story so I don’t need to retell it here. But what is utterly compelling when you stop to think about it is that Dickens went through a transformation not unlike Scrooge, just without the ghosts. At a time when he could have moved to Europe, contented himself with travel writing, and clear his debts, he chose to challenge himself. To do so, he needed to change. So he changed how he approached this book and its publication. I wonder how many of us have the courage to do that in our own lives to say nothing of something as public as a novel.

With numerous quotes from Dickens’ own writings and those of his contemporaries, Standiford shows us how excited Dickens became at his “little Carol,” how it cheered him, made his cry, and, presumably, warmed his heart as the book has done these past 165 years for the rest of us. The haggling, the negotiations, the business of writing, producing, securing the artwork, and all the other minutia needed to publish a book in 1843 is captivating. You realize that, in many ways, it’s the same then as it is now. The most paradoxical thing I learned was Dickens’ decision to publish A Christmas Carol on his own. You what that means, don’t you? A Christmas Carol was a vanity book.

As far as the claim that Dickens “invented” Christmas (Prince Albert also had a hand with his Christmas trees), Standiford goes into some good detail on how the celebration of Christmas had devolved to a holiday that was barely celebrated. He needs to do this and lay out for the reader where Christmas was in 1843 in order for the reader to understand the profound impact the Carol had on society. Christmas, for Dickens had the same enchanting power over him that his story has over us. That’s ironic considering the humiliation of his childhood—of having a father in debtors’ prison and being forced to leave school and work in a factory to help the family—made Christmas for Dickens not the overabundant thing it is today. The season of Christmas “accounts in large part for his development as an artist.” As Dickens himself wrote, “Any iron ring let into stone is the entrance to a cave which only waits for the magician, and the little fire, and the necromancy, that will make the earth shake.” There is a certain magic during this time of year and Dickens captured it between pages. It’s no wonder the story has thrived.

The Man Who Invented Christmas is a charming book, uncluttered with footnotes so it’s easy to read. (Standiford cites his sources at the back of the book.) The book contains just over 200 pages so it won’t take you many hours to read it. I recommend it for anyone with a little curiosity about how a great work of literature came about. It’ll remove the gauzy trappings that can sometimes surround a book—you know, the awe we writers and reader impose on great works of literature, how the author must’ve been touched by a literary god and the work just fell from the pen—and reveal a real man who experienced real worries but also created something special by means of his own imagination, sweat, determination, and perseverance. It’s a good lesson for all of us.

For all you writers out there, think about this. Where we you this year on 5 October? Imagine not having a word written in a new work. Imagine, now, getting that idea and you burn the midnight oil—you still have a day job, don’t forget—and finish a manuscript by the end of November and the book you just wrote is published today. Think you could do it?

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

"The Nightmare" by Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan)

I finally read something ten days my fortieth birthday that kids in elementary school read: a Tarzan story. Granted, I didn’t really read it; I listened to it via the incredibly talented voice of B. J. Harrison, the man behind The Classic Tales Podcast (more on this later). As a tantalizing preview of his reading the first Tarzan book (Tarzan of the Apes), Harrison recorded a short story, “The Nightmare.”

First off, Harrison gave us Tarzan novices a little background: this story takes place after Tarzan has learned to read but before he has met any other white men. Knowing Tarzan solely from a visual medium, I know enough of the basic story not to feel lost. In fact, I think that’s why Harrison provided the intro. Had he not, some listeners might’ve kept waiting for Jane or Boy. That stuff isn’t here.

“The Nightmare” is one of the stories from Jungle Tales of Tarzan, the sixth book published by Edgar Rice Burroughs in 1916. Based on a quick Wikipedia (the source of all truth!) search, it turns out the twelve stories from Jungle Tales occurs in the time frame between chapters 12 and 13 of the first book. Guess that’s why Harrison gave us a heads up.

The story itself is entertaining and not without humor. In this story, Tarzan experiences two things for the first time: eating cooked meat and the titular nightmare. Burroughs goes into detail on Tarzan’s eating habits, noting that he has never had cooked elephant meat. He doesn’t want to eat the cooked meat but he’s famished. Thus, after he overcomes one of the Mbongans, he grabs some elephant meat and gorges.

Now, at this part, Burroughs has a little fun with his readers. As a general rule, most of us prefer our meat dead and cooked. I’m right there, aren’t I? Anyway, Burroughs states the obvious: “Tarzan was, of course, unaccustomed to cooked food. He did not like it; but was very hungry and had eaten a considerable portion of his haul before it was really borne in upon him that the stuff was nauseating.” Now, for any of us, stranded in the woods, faced with death or eating raw meat, we’d eat. Ditto for The Ape Man, just the other way around.

He lies down to sleep and the nightmares commence. He gets himself captured by a big giant bird. This, of course, happened right before Tarzan was about to be lion food. In the dream—by the way, Tarzan doesn’t know it’s a dream—he stabs the bird and then falls to the earth…and lives to tell about. He wakes, figures out it wasn’t real, and goes on about his business.

Then, a real, live threat shows up, in the form of a gorilla. I think you can guess what happens: Tarzan thinks it a dream. Until he realizes it isn’t. He lives, natch, but questions reality. The last line is but a verbal rim shot: “No, he did not know what was real and what was not; but there as one thing that he did know—never again would he eat of the flesh of Tantor, the elephant.”

I enjoyed this little story and a peek into the literary Tarzan of the Apes. It will not be my last.

Notes on The Classic Tales Podcast: since late 2007, Harrison has been recording and making available—for free—his readings of, um, classic tales. He’s done everything from Arthur Conan Doyle (The Hound of the Baskervilles) to Lovecraft to Stoker to Conrad (Heart of Darkness). His readings are excellent. He usually gives a nice introduction and then reads the stories or poems. He’s certainly got that stage actor elocution and that’s a good thing for older tales like this. I can’t see him reading, say, Spillane, but, with classic tales of adventure, horror, and mystery, he’s excellent.

The podcasts are free from iTunes but only the newer ones. Archived podcasts are available from at nominal fees (less than $1). He’s making his reading of Tarzan of the Apes available for $5.53 (or $0.79 per episode). I’m going to download it and will have a review in January. Go on by his website and listen to some samples. I bet you’ll get hooked.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Christmas Music Review: Brian Setzer Orchestra

(Third in a short series noting my favorite Christmas CDs. Previous entries: Chicago; Bruce Cockburn.)

Brian Setzer loves Christmas. He’s released two Christmas CDs (not including the newer compilation CDs), he’s got a DVD devoted to live Christmas music, heck, he’s even got a Myspace page featuring just his Christmas material. I guess you could say the man likes Christmas.

And his music reflects that passion. Boogie Woogie Christmas (2002) and Dig That Crazy Christmas (2005) take some of the best—and unexpected—Christmas carols and gives them the jump blues and swing treatment. In addition, he writes some new songs that, while not destined to be standards, fit right in with the rest of the tunes. There’s not a bad cut among the twenty-five total songs across the two CDs.

The remarkable thing about these CDs is the bravado Setzer displayed in the song selection. He knows his strengths: retro-sounding guitar, kick-ass big band, and a warbly baritone that can challenge the saxophones of the Lawrence Welch Orchestra when doing vibrato. Setzer, however, takes some chances and the overall results are better for those daring choices.

His “Jingle Bells” is not all that daring but it’s a blast. The music soars out of the speakers like a 57 Chevy during a drag race in the LA River. Setzer’s guitar work is all but Chuck Berry on overdrive. This is a version that puts almost all other versions to shame, even with the lyric alterations. Ann-Margret lends her sultry voice to a delicious rendition of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” In “Sleigh Ride,” the saxophone section of the orchestra gives a distinct jazzy 60s-era spy movie vibe by means of the “Batman” theme song. “Santa Clause is Back in Town” here becomes a standard blues tune that would be quite at home deep in New Orleans. Setzer does his impression of Elvis Presley singing like Roy Orbison for “Blue Christmas” and it somehow works. Another track that works despite itself is “O Holy Night,” where Setzer shows that he can really sing straight when the need calls.

The standout, by far, is his big-band take on Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker Suite.” As I wrote in my review of Setzer’s latest CD, “Wolfgang’s Big Night Out,” on the face of it, this selection might cause every listener’s eyebrow to cock with the obvious question: “Really?” Trust me: just listen. It’ll knock your socks off with the intelligence and passion for the source material. The woodwind sections gets to break out a few non-standard instruments in a big band—bass clarinet anyone?—and the drummer gets to play the bells. And midway through the song, the sax section gets to shine and the bari sax player gets to blat his way through the Trepak sequence. I’ll always love the traditional orchestral version…but this version is what I listen to more.

“Dig That Crazy Christmas” continues where the first CD left off, although now, we have some female singers that give the band a distinct 1940s vibe. And if their presence weren’t obvious enough, Setzer pulls out “Getting’ in the Mood (For Christmas),” a reworking of Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood” with yuletide lyrics. It’s just…fun! Setzer pulls another carol out of left field. “Angels We Have Heard on High” is largely instrumental except for the choir in the middle section. Setzer’s guitar work provides the lead in this version. While it’s not as special as “Nutcracker,” it’s still a nice change of pace from the traditional church choir and orchestra. “White Christmas” is here, and Setzer definitely was inspired more by the Drifters than Bing Crosby. The band gives “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve” a good reading and it’s not too difficult to close your eyes and find yourself on the dance floor on December 31st.

In “’Zat You Santa Claus,” Setzer tries on the jacket Louis Armstrong found so successful. While Setzer’s voice is too smooth for a direct comparison with Armstrong’s gravelly delivery, he compensates by singing in his lower range and half-yelling the title. It’s a fun version but, really, I’ll still take Armstrong for this song.

If there was one song destined for the Setzer treatment, it has to be “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” Not really a carol but equally famous, Setzer digs into the funnier lyrics, walloping the listener with his vibrato so warbly you can just imagine his Adam’s apple goggling up and down life Goofy from a Walt Disney cartoon. For the guitar solo, he tunes his guitar down. The result is kitschy evil, all the while his band is jiving at the background. It’s a real piece of work.

If the Chicago Christmas CD ranks as one of the best modern Christmas CDs with their distinctive take on traditional carols and Bruce Cockburn provides the antithesis to all that sparkles false in December, Brian Setzer’s contributions are just flat-out fun. I’ll give one thing to critics of this type of music: yeah, it is over the top, much more over the top than Setzer’s bouncing hair. But it’s just so much fun, I dare you *not* to tape your foot. You’ll feel like a kid again with the ebullient spirit of these CDs. And, in this season that is centered around children and the pure joy and exuberance in their eyes on Christmas morning, isn’t that worth something?

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Beat to a Pulp: Debut Issue

It's here. Beat to a Pulp debuted today. BTAP is the brainchild of David Cranmner, the creator of The Education of a Pulp Writer blog.

And the trivia question for the future? Who wrote the first story published in Beat to a Pulp? That would be Patti Abbott, proprietor of the Friday's Forgotten Books project, over at her blog.

Here is the cool title page of BTAP. And be sure to check out the longer artwork bar when you click on the story.

Here is Patti's story, "The Instrument of Their Desire."

And if you need *any* incentive to head on over--right now--and read this story, just read the first paragraph and tell me you don't want to know more.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Forgotten Books: Holmes for the Holidays

There is one overriding reason why Sherlock Holmes is so popular over 120 years after his first adventure: we love the atmosphere of Victorian England. The sounds of the clip-clop of horseshoes on cobblestones, the sights of men and women dressed in late-Victorian finery, the smell of a crackling fire in a tavern, they all go together and form something special and unique. It’s a nostalgia for a time we’ve never known but, through the works of Arthur Conan Doyle, we can know and come to love.

With all the emotion surrounding Sherlock Holmes and his redoubtable friend, Dr. John Watson, it is no surprise that, of all the adventures, “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” is constantly mentioned as a perennial favorite. I re-read the story last week (review here) and I can find little to dislike about the story. One aspect of the story, however, always saddens me: it’s the only Christmas Sherlock Holmes story.

The editors of Holmes for the Holidays must have experienced the same sadness. Martin Greenberg, Jon L. Lellenberg, and Carol-Lynn Waugh, with the blessing of Dame Jean Conan Doyle, commissioned fourteen authors to try their hand at a Holmes and Watson story set during the last week of December. The results are all quite good.

And how could they not be? Just look at some of the names:
Anne Perry (famous for her historical novels)
Loren D. Estleman (see Kerrie Smith's review of Sugartown from last week’s FFB)
• Jon L. Breen (reviewer for Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine; interview here)
Bill Crider (author of the Sheriff Dan Rhodes series and a fellow FFB contributor)
• Carole Nelson Douglas (author of the Irene Adler series)
Edward D. Hoch (prolific short story writer whom we lost this year)

As you read these stories, take special note of the historical details about Christmas itself. Remember, these are stories written by authors in the 1990s about the late 1800s. Moreover, the 1880s are forty years after Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” the book credited with changing Christmas to what we know it today. Different authors focus on different aspects of the Christmas season, all with two men who are proper English gentlemen. It’s a telling trait, yet a fun one.

Speaking of Dickens, two of the better stories both concern themselves with Scrooge, Marley, Tim Cratchit, and a certain set of three ghosts. Loren Estleman’s “The Adventure of the Three Ghosts” concerns itself with Lord Chislehurst, a Member of Parliament, and in need of Holmes’ assistance. You see, three ghosts have visited the Lord, just like his father’s old boss. You see where this is going and the true identity of the Lord? Yeah, he’s the grown-up Tiny Tim who now owns Scrooge old counting firm. In this story, Dickens is real and is the man who “chronicled” the story of Scrooge, Bob Cratchit, and Tiny Tim. Watson’s read the book but Holmes knows nothing about it. In fact, Lord Chislehurst/Tim Cratchit doesn’t like the book. Holmes and Watson take the case and, in their usual élan, solve the case…although the ending is not entirely predictable.

Bill Crider tackles the same material but puts a different spin on the story. In “The Adventure of the Christmas Ghosts,” three ghosts are besetting the grandnephew of Ebenezer Scrooge, Franklin, as well. Holmes suspects foul play—natch—and lands his suspicion on Timothy Cratchit (i.e., Tiny Tim) who still works in the counting house. Crider highlights Holmes’ often eccentric qualities, including his acting ability, in this fun little story also with an ending that’s not entirely expected.

With any anthology, you don’t often have to read the stories in order. I’d recommend reading these two Scrooge stories back-to-back. You’ll get a sense of how the two authors both treat the same subject, how they see the original Christmas Carol tale, and how the perpetrators in each story use similar methods. Estleman’s story references other Holmes stories that’ll be sure to garner a smile as you read it. Crider’s piece is funnier in that, with a wink and a nod, he inserts famous lines that’ll pull a chuckle from somewhere inside you.
“Let us not get our stories out of order,” said Holmes. “Marley first. He died. Is that not correct?”
“Yes [Franklin said]. Marley was dead. There can be no doubt about that.”
Just as I have my Christmas music CDs that I store for eleven months out of the year, I have some favorite anthologies of Christmas stories that share space in the same box. Of all them, Holmes for the Holidays is my favorite. It evokes certain images, particular Christmastime feelings, that I, as Texan don’t always get to experience. Except last night. Last night was special. It snowed in Houston (yes, it really did). I could see it out my back door. I sat on the couch, a fire in the fireplace, the Christmas tree at my side, a cup of wassail steaming on the coffee table, and I re-read these stories about a couple of old friends. Why not find a copy and make a new tradition of reading these stories in December. You won’t be disappointed.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Best Book by a Dead Guy List

Patti Abbott has asked an interesting question:

What's the best book you read in 2008 that was either written before 1970 or by a writer no longer with us?

An interesting question for me considering probably half, if not more (haven't checked yet) of the book I read this year (and are reading) were written by writers are now dead.

Go on over and see what you think and add to the conversation.

SF Signal's Best of 2008 List

The good folks over at SF Signal (still my favorite and best source of all things SF/F/H) recently asked me to list some genre-related items I considered to be among the best of 2008. My answer, and others, are now online.

Go on over and take a look, see what you think, and comment away. Oh, and be sure to bookmark SF Signal and visit often. You really can't go wrong with all the material (including free stories) they post everyday.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Christmas Music Review: Bruce Cockburn - Christmas

(The second in a short series about my favorite Christmas recordings. Previous entry: Chicago.)

When I met my wife a decade ago there was only one singer by the name of Bruce. With apologies to Bruce Hornsby, when I spoke of “Bruce,” it was only Springsteen. My wife, however, introduced me to another Bruce by the last name of Cockburn (pronounced like James Coburn’s last name). Now, we have “My Bruce” and “Her Bruce” (although I pretty much still refer to Springsteen as “Bruce” and Cockburn as Cockburn).

Bruce Cockburn is a guitarist, singer/songwriter from Canada who has released twenty-nine albums in a career spanning forty years. If the casual fan knows any of his songs (I didn’t), it would either be “Wondering Where the Lions Are” (1980) or “If I Had a Rocket Launcher (1984). His songs are politically minded and his music is almost always acoustically based, all the better able to show off his fantastic guitar prowess. In 1993, he recorded “Christmas,” his collection of carols and obscure songs. He arranged all the songs to fit into his acoustic range and the results are remarkable for what they are not: the usual sounding songs at least one radio station per city plays 24/7 for a month.

In interviews in 1993 and in the liner notes, Cockburn expressed the desire only to sing carols and not the secular material so often heard at this time of year. It hearkens back to his childhood (born in 1945) where there was still an element of the spiritual associated with December 25. In some of the more obscure carols he selected and arranged, there’s also an element of mystery present. Not a bad thing, really, considering the event celebrated at Christmas was full of supernatural power.

Of the fifteen songs on this album, you’ll know at least seven right off the bat. “Adeste Fidelis” is an instrumental here while “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” come across as fluid tunes with enough space to allow you to hear, understand, and, most importantly, contemplate what’s being sung. As Cockburn himself writes in the liner notes, “"One of the guiding principles which I tried to hold to in making this album was that pieces as familiar as this one are still songs, written by songwriters, with lyrics that often make sense and are beautiful.” His arrangement of even the most traditional of carols, “Silent Night,” lets the meaning of the words float out and into our brains. In certain interviews, Cockburn laments that too often Christmas music is the aural wallpaper of December where we don’t really hear anything being sung.

The treat of this album are the obscure songs. I grew up in church and there were a couple of pieces I’d never heard before. “Riu Riu Chiu” is a Spanish song from the 16th Century. Sung in Spanish, the song tells the story of how God sent the shepherds to protect Mary from the wolves in the forest. The lyrics go on to be more Easter than Christmas. “Down in Yonder Forest,” as Cockburn writes in the liner notes, might win the prize for spookiest Christmas song and he’d be right. Musically, wind chimes and dulcimer evoke a stark, winter’s night while the lyrics drone about Mary, Jesus’ birth, and his death. Les Anges Dans Nos Campagnes (“The Angels in Our Midst”) is an eighteenth century song Cockburn sings in its original French. And a couple of songs (“Early on One Christmas Morn” and “Mary Had a Baby”) both benefit from a ragged, old-time gospel flavor.

All throughout this disc, Cockburn and his fellow musicians rarely plays any electrical instruments. He allows the acoustic qualities of his guitar, dulcimer, and the other instruments to lend their unique tonalities to the overall feel and spirit of these carols. Cockburn often uses different tunings on his guitar to bring about different base sounds. For example, in “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” you can hear the low E string rattle and ping the fret board, evoking a nostalgic quality, as if Cockburn himself were sitting in a pub in Victorian England and couldn’t afford a better instrument. The music and instruments on this disc stirs up a naturalist, earthy vibe. It’s a nice change from the often over-produced character of most Christmas CDs.

In all, Bruce Cockburn’s “Christmas” proves a nice antithesis to the stuff you’ll be hearing all season. Don’t get me wrong: I love that stuff with a passion that my family constantly finds surprising. Just look at last week’s review and next week’s. But in between, there is room for something different, something that will make you pause and think what the season is really all about.

Note: Cockburn's myspace page and The Cockburn Project are the best online resources. The Cockburn Project has links to news, interviews, and, most importantly, guitar tabs and tunings.

Monday, December 8, 2008

December 8, 1941 - New York Times article

The New York Times has many of their front pages on the web. Here is the front page and lead story from December 8, 1941. It's fascinating the detail Frank Kluckhorn, the author of the story, provides, including the precise time the war became if the bombs dropping on Pearl Harbor didn't count. A nice peek at a different time.

Movie Review: Foyle's War: Season Two

If Season One of “Foyle’s War” considered the emotional impact of the war on regular folks, Season Two emphasizes the war’s toll on the home front. (Here is my review of Season One.) Not that the four episodes of Season Two don’t involved emotion. We are talking about war, after all, the single most emotional event save love that can affect a person. Instead, Season Two focuses on something more fundamental: even in war, humans are still human. It may not matter that young men are laying down their lives for a cause, some people still want to make a buck, or a pound in this case. It’s absurd, it’s repugnant, it’s, well, human.

I have already reviewed Episode 1, “Fifty Ships,” (set in September 1940) in depth as it was the first episode I watched. Again, I want to stress that you should watch these shows in order. You will get much more out of them if you do. Needless to say, the end of “Fifty Ships” merely set a template for the rest of Season Two.

“Among the Few” (Episode 2, September 1940) finds Detective Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle and his driver, Samantha Stewart, driving back to Hastings when they see a fuel truck ram through a road block. Setting chase, Foyle and Sam avoid the flying bullets and watch as the truck crashes and the driver perishes. Foyle recognized him and starts his investigation, aided, as always by Paul Milner, now walking with only a limp and no cane (the result of a leg amputation from a war injury). When the Nazis invaded France earlier in 1940, the Germans merely used the fuel the French abandoned. The English learned from those mistakes and consolidated all the fuel at regional depots located throughout southern England. The problem, however, is the local depot seems to be losing fuel. When his superior suggests a raid, Foyle proposes sending in an undercover agent. Using all of his natural gifts at manipulation (gentle, to be sure, but thorough), Foyle allows Sam to volunteer for the assignment.

Meanwhile, Foyle’s son, Andrew, returns home for a spell after a fellow RAFer (Rex) and he survived a battle in the skies. In a quiet, yet sobering scene, the kind that really provides depth of these shows, Foyle asks Andrew why the young man is so quiet. Andrew comments on the new recruits and laments their lack of experience.
Foyle: “Whereas you’re an old hand.”
Andrew: “You don’t see it. I’m an experience pilot now.”
Foyle: “You’re twenty-two.”
Andrew: “You sit there as if nothing’s happened. It’s not conkers anymore. It’s a different world. There’s Rex, Douglas, and myself, and we’re the three oldest.”
Foyle: “Well of course you are. You’re the only ones left.”
Foyle goes on to solve the puzzle of the missing fuel as well as the death of a young woman who dated Rex, Andrew’s friend. Rex is a suspect and, by the end of the program, Foyle ends up at the air field. The air raid sirens clang and the pilots jump in their Spitfires and fly off into the sky, his son among them. I won’t give away the ending. Suffice it to say the final scene—and the choice Foyle makes—is one to remember and will stay with you after the credit roll.

“War Games” is certainly an interesting title for Episode 3 (October 1940) considering the war is anything but a game. Foyle is the referee in a series of Home Guard practices on the vast estate of Reginald Walker when two things happen: a burglary and an apparent accidental shooting during the war games. To make matters more interesting, two men from Foyle’s past reemerge. One, the German-born Stephen Beck, is a naturalized British citizen and a friend of Foyle’s; and the other, Jack Devlin, is Foyle’s former sergeant (Milner took his place).

A man named Harry Markham is the burglar, and Stephen Beck, a barrister, is his defense attorney. Beck got Markham’s sentence reduced and now has a favor: steal something in the Walker estate. This Markham does but is injured. Foyle and Sam visit the estate to investigate the burglary and why the Walkers didn’t report the crime. Foyle continues to investigate until a murder occurs during the war games. The dead man is Markham. One thing leads to another and Foyle learns of secret business negotiations between Walker’s company and the Nazis and Beck’s clandestined role in everything. Foyle has no proof and Walker and his son start burning paper to conceal their culpability. In a humorous sub-plot, Sam is “in charge” of four boys scouring the town for recyclable material that can help the war effort. They abscond some of the bound paper from the Walker estate and, inside, is an incriminating document but it’s still not enough to convict Walker. What can is the item stolen by Markham. Where other episodes end on an emotional note, this ending is, quite frankly, pure American. And Foyle’s reaction to what happens says a lot more than you’d expect.

Among other things, “The Funk Hole” (Episode 4, October 1940) is an odd title, all the more tantalizing in that the characters in the episode all know what it is except Sam. Foyle and Milner get to tell her but you’ll have to read the extra details on the DVD to know from where the term originated. In Hastings, there is a robbery at a food depot. The guards fire and hit one of the fleeing men but they still escape. In London the same night, the Luftwaffe are bombing the city and a man in an underground air raid shelter starts mouthing off about Churchill and the “truth” of the war effort. The next morning, Foyle returns from London and starts his new investigation: the food depot robbery and the search for a missing young man, Matthew Farley, The distraught mother points the police toward Brookfield Court, the funk hole, where the rich can buy their way out of any sort of war participation. Sam and Milner start poking their noses around but then a problem arises: James Collier, police Chief Inspector, arrives from London and suspends Foyle on the grounds that he uttered seditious comments in a bomb shelter while in London. Flabbergasted, Foyle has to comply but not before Michel Kitchen displays some of the more animated acting in his reading of Foyle in the series. Collier takes over the department, reassigns Sam, and questions Milner’s loyalty.

Meanwhile, Andrew has crashed his Spitfire in the Channel and has a week’s leave. Foyle’s happy to have his son around but Andrew just mopes. Foyle asks Sam to take him out and that backfires, too. The investigation continues and it’s really Milner’s turn to have the spotlight. We get a glimpse of how Milner really is without Foyle around. It’s a tad eye-opening. We also get to see “how the other half lives” in all of its distasteful glory. In a move so subtle it’s easily missed, Foyle puts all the pieces together. Nothing strange there but then you realize he’s never actually interviewed anyone or found clues himself. All the data has been conveyed to him by another person, including Sam. He’s pulled a Sherlock Homes or a Nero Wolfe just without the idiosyncrasies.

Again, with “Foyle’s War,” the little details are the main selling point, even beyond the superb mysteries. The accurate historical details—the bombing raids, the existence of funk holes, the racketeering of fuel or food, the plight of household pets during the war—make this series stand heads and shoulders above other mystery series. By the end of this season, you might start wondering how the Allies won the war when the greed of regular people seeks to subvert the war effort for personal gain. You don’t need to wonder long, however. All you have to remember is the very creativity folks used for self-indulgence also was put to good use to win the war. I’ll admit it was an interesting feeling watching the fourth episode on December 7th. It makes me all the more hopeful that the stories of future Foyle’s War seasons go long enough for the United States to enter the war. I’d like to see that.

Question for anyone who might know: In many scenes in “Foyle’s War,” you can see British soldiers and civilians carrying boxes on straps around their shoulders. These are literal brown boxes and they seem cumbersome. What are they called and what’s in them? I think its either food, first aid supplies, or ammunition. But I still wonder why boxes and not bags.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

New Interview: Faust, Abbott, and Unsworth

Via Patti Abbott's site (thanks!) comes a link to a new interview (at Bookslut) from Christa Faust, Megan Abbott, and Cathi Unsworth. I don't know Unsworth but I know the other two. Faust wrote Money Shot, one of my two favorite books of 2008 (my review here) and Abbott wrote Die a Little, a period piece written with underlying dread (my review here). If Unsworth is linked with Faust and Abbott, I'm going to have to Unsworth to The List.

My favorite answer is from Abbott. In response to the usual "What inspires you," she had this response:
Other than books and films, the biggest influence is probably the arcanea of U.S. history, the ephemera and “hidden” history. I’m a sucker for flea markets and antique stores and estate sales where I can find old movie-star exposés, tabloid newspapers from past decades, men’s magazines from the 1940s and '50s, police magazines, sleazy true-crime books, even old yearbooks and snapshots. All the lost things that we think of as transient bits of the culture -- to me (and this is clearly informed by my love of James Ellroy’s alternate histories), these bits and pieces are the culture, they are the history and they tell us so much more about the lived experience of past decades.
What I like about it most is she and I do the same thing when at a flea market or antique store. One of my favorites sources for the "ephemera" of history are postcards. They are rich with so much unsaid truth that stories just pop out, especially since we know what happened next in history and they didn't. I also love advertisements in magazines and newspapers. When I was researching my thesis, I constantly went down rabbit holes as I read the ads in microfilm newspapers. Those ads often say more about culture than the text of the news piece.

Go check out the rest of the interview and enjoy.

December 6th Thoughts...

Like I do every morning, I checked the historic happenings as posted by the New York Times. Here is today's listing. A lot of bad stuff happened throughout history on this day. But a look at the list of birthdays reminds you that a lot of good happened, also.

What makes today more special than most is that it's my birthday. Like Patrick Shawn Bagley, I, too, turn 40. With my birthday at the end of the year (and the end of a decade), I honestly forget sometimes how old I am. But when the anniversaries of 1968 start rolling around, I get constant reminders. None more so than this year when the 40th anniversaries of the tragedies of 1968 fall throughout the calendar. From the Tet Offensive in January to MLK's death (and the DC riots) in April to RFK's death in June to the Democratic convention in August, I always wondered what my parents must have thought back in 1968 as they looked at the global landscape and knew they were bringing a child into a world that seemed turned upside down. My own son was born in 2001 and I confess to similar thoughts seven years ago. In a world gone so crazy that terrorist fly planes into buildings, why in the hell are we bringing new life into this world?

But, then, my wife and I looked at our son and we knew it was all going to be okay. Yeah, the world could certainly go crazy at times. But it always has and it always will. I suspect my parents had similar thoughts back in 1968. You see, for every instance of horror on the Earth, there is an instance of joy. Children bring joy to our lives, as I brought to my parents forty years ago.

By the end of December 1968, there was another instance of hope. Apollo 8 astronauts became the first humans to circle the moon and see our world from a distance. "Earthrise" became one of the most iconic images ever taken. It made us all realize that we live on a fragile little bubble. The only real tragedy we can avoid is the one we make. We can't stop a meteor hurtling at us. But we can stop the hurt we inflict on each other. Earthrise is a reminder of our fragility and proof (by the mere fact that it was taken in a spaceship built by humans) that we have the power to help each other.

Another reminder is a newborn's face. It's so pure it makes your heart burst beyond its cells. It makes you want to change the world. It makes you want to shout to the world "I am a mom!" "I am a dad!" I had those feelings and, I bet, my parents did, too.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Preview of the New Pulp E-zine "Beat to a Pulp"

Head on over to David Cranmer's The Education of a Pulp Writer and check out the preview of his new e-zine Beat to a Pulp.

From David:
Ok folks, here’s a sneak peek at BEAT to a PULP. Only the home page and the guidelines page are available until the entire site goes live December 15th. Our new email address for submissions is given on the guidelines page. We are looking forward to hearing from you.

Forgotten Books: Pure Drivel by Steve Martin

(My latest entry into the nationwide phenomena, Friday's Forgotten Books, established by Patti Abbott)

If Steve Martin were a Batman villain, who do you think he’d be? The Penguin? Well, Martin does have the nose but it’s not long enough. Then there’s the question of weight. That’s okay; we’ll use a fat suit. The Joker you say? Yes, but only to a degree. You’d have to have Martin circa “The Jerk” for that role. Hmmm, Jerk -> Joke -> Joker. That might work. But there’s still the problem of make-up. Have you ever seen Steve Martin in make-up? Didn’t think so.

No, I think the best villain for Martin to portray is Two-Face. Why? Because his career has a certain duality to it. Triality, really, if you include the stand-up work he did early on. But now I’m just making up words. Okay, back to the point. Steve Martin on camera has gone from the “wild and crazy guy” to serene, older gentleman, almost reserved (British?) in his comedy. Younger viewers, those around twenty, have only known the serene comic Martin has become. They’d be amazed that he used to be, well, wild and crazy.

When Martin is not in front of a camera, he likes to write. Back in the 1990s, he was asked by New Yorker editor Tina Brown to contribute several short comedic essays for her magazine. They and some other pieces are collected in Pure Drivel. And it is in these essays where Martin’s genteel, droll, yet baroque comedy comes out.

There isn’t a one you can read without at least one audible chuckle. Most of the chuckles, guffaws, or eye-rolls happen with the strange juxtaposition of two, unrelated sentences thrown together, like oil and water. Take these two sentences from the Acknowledgments, referring to the essays in the book:
They are the offspring of an intense retrospection that enabled me to get back in contact with my work, to receive pleasure from my work, and to bring joy to my work. They also enabled me to repeat the phrase “my work” three times in one sentence, which brought me a lot of joy, pleasure, and contact.
Martin’s essays rarely go longer than four pages, if that. He riffs on L. A., New York, Lolita at fifty, relationships in the form of break-up letters, and the imponderables of Schrödinger’s Cat. What, you don’t remember Schrödinger’s Cat, the one who can be considered simultaneously alive and dead? Well, then, do you know about George Hamilton’s Sun Lamp?
George Hamilton is dropped into an empty rental space next to a tanning salon on the dark side of the moon. There is no way into the salon except through an exterior door, but if George exits, it could mean dangerous exposure to deadly gamma rays. George could open his own tanning salon by tapping the phone lines from next door and taking their customers. And yet George is cooked when he exits the rental space while using a silver-foil face reflector.
It’s almost like getting whiplash when reading some of Martin’s material. The punch line comes at the end (the foil face reflector) but the understated, sneaky humor comes in the previous sentence, the one about tapping the phone lines and stealing the salon’s customers. It’s the extra little details like that third sentence—the kind of sentence most all writers would never even think to include—that makes Martin such a creative and intelligent writer.

Speaking of writers, he does have some good tips for writers. It’s a craft he sums up in the essay “Writing is Easy.” Martin on writer’s block: “Writer’s block is a fancy term made up by whiners so they can have an excuse to drink alcohol.” Martin on writing dialogue: “Simply lower your IQ by fifty and start typing.” Later, in an essay on the side effects of a drug, he writes “You may find yourself becoming lost or vague; this would be a good time to write a screenplay.”

There’s also a winking absurdity to some of the selections. Take, for example, “Changes in the Memory after Fifty.” Martin gives the reader four steps to pass away thirty minutes.
1. Place your car keys in your right hand.
2. With your left hand, call a friend and confirm a lunch or dinner date.
3. Hang up the phone.
4. Now look for your keys. (For answer, turn to page 21 and turn book upside down.
Sure enough, you to page 21, there is a sentence printed upside down. It reads: “The car keys are in your right hand. Please remember to run the book right side up.” True, this essay isn’t laugh out loud funny but the mere fact Martin dreamed it up says a lot about the way his brain works. I’m glad I don’t live in it.

I could practically quote the entire book, there are so many funny lines. To be honest, they get funnier on multiple readings. Where I didn’t laugh the first time I read something, I’ll inevitably find myself laughing on the fifth reading.

Of all the essays, my favorite and the most inventive is “Times Roman Font Announces Shortage of Periods.” The essay, three-and-a-half pages, roughly a thousand words all discussing how the font is offering suggestions for other punctuation, uses only one period for the entire piece. On the page, you can see how Martin writes his sentences in order to fit his parameter. He even uses a backward period: “.period backward the in slip you while moment a for way other the look to sentence the getting is trick only The” Even when you get to the end, you’ll find yourself re-reading the piece just to verify he uses only one period. He does. Trust me. I’ve read the essay over a dozen times.

Even the blurbs on the back jacket of the book get into the act. Bruce McCall writes: “Steve Martin is the only comic performer today who genius translates intact to the printed page as in this hilarious collection. So writing a blurb for Steve is like pouring a drink for Boris Yeltsin—entirely unnecessary, but a considerable privilege.”

As a writer, I enjoy studying why these little comedic gems are so funny. But, usually, I just chunk that part of my brain and just read for fun and laugh. I think you will, too.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Elvis Costello's New Gig

I've grown to appreciate and love Elvis Costello's music over the past 20 years. I started with a CD many Costello fans skip over: The Juliet Letters with the Brodsky String Quartet. Elvis's vast curiosity and willingness to try anything once makes him a unique host of a show that delves into the influences of musicians.

Last night on the Sundance Channel, "Spectacle: Elvis Costello with..." debuted. It's an interesting format. Elvis performed Elton John's "Border Song" with his current band, The Imposters, and none other than Allen Toussaint playing piano and singing.

Elvis then put down his guitar, picked up a microphone, and introduced Elton John as his first guest. Thehe two men talked about Elton's influences during his formative years including why each man adopted a stage name (and you get to learn how Elton chose his name). He also dropped a fact about his relatioinship with Bernie Taupin that simply floored me. I'll admit that I didn't know all the acts Elton mentioned but the level of detail, complete with clips, was extraordinary. One of the best moments was when Elton explained what he took from these people lost to history by getting behind the piano and playing one of his own songs ("Burn Down the Mission"), all the while explaining notes, chords, and lyrical style. Having only seen one show, I'm hesitant to compare the show to anything else but Elvis's show seems to be the musical version of "Inside the Actor's Studio."

The coup de grace was the closing song, "Down River," featuring the first-ever television performance by Elton and Elvis. Toussaint got behind the B3 organ and there are few better players of that quintessential southern instrument. Fantastic.

This series, so far, has thirteen episodes. And some of the upcoming guests are interesting: The Police, Bill Clinton (yeah, really), Lou Reed, and his wife, Diana Krall. The Sundance Channel's website has clips from last night and upcoming episodes (including material not aired last night). Elvis's own website has additional information.

If you love music and the craft of creating music, this is definately a show to watch. I've got my VCR already set up.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Meme: First Time Meetings with Authors

I got tagged by J. Kingston Pierce over at The Rap Sheet. The rules are simple:

1) List the authors that were new to you this year, regardless of year of publication.

2) Bold the ones that were debuts (first novel, published in 2008)

3) Tag some people

The year 2008 was a year of self-education in crime literature for me. I tried a lot of material, most of it old but new to me. I wanted to learn as much as I could about crime fiction as I continue to write new fiction. Also, much to my surprise, my blog exploded into a review site. Didn’t see that coming. A lot of these books were published by Hard Case Crime. Here’s what I read.

Don Winslow (The Dawn Patrol)
Christa Faust (Money Shot)
Duane Swierczynski (Severance Package)
Megan Abbott (Die a Little)
Arnaldur Indridason (Jar City)
Ed McBain (Cop Hater [87th Precinct] and The Gutter and the Grave)
Ed Brubaker (Criminal [graphic novel])
Donald Westlake (Somebody Owes Me Money)
Harry Hunsicker (Crosshairs)
Robert Parker (The Godwulf Manuscript)
James M. Cain (The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity)
Erle Stanley Gardner (The Case of the Velvet Claws [Perry Mason]
E. S. Gardner as A. A. Fair (Top of the Heap [Cool and Lam])
William Colt MacDonald (Mascarada Pass)
Allan Guthrie (Kiss Her Goodbye)
Day Keene (Home is the Sailor and Guns Along the Brazos)
Ross McDonald (The Moving Target)
Lawrence Block (Sins of the Father; Lucky at Cards; A Diet of Treacle)
Mickey Spillane (Dead Street)
Pete Hamil (The Guns of Heaven)
Chris Matthews (Kennedy and Nixon)

I’ll write more about which books I enjoyed and what I learned later this month.

Here are the folks I’m tagging:

Patti Abbott
David Cranmer (The Education of a Pulp Writer)
Barrie Summy
David Thompson (Busted Flush Press)
Chris (from The Louis L’amour Project)
Doug Warren (Bombast and Thunder)
The Archavist
August West (Vintage Hardboiled Reads)
Jay Stringer

Note: yeah, this'll teach me to read my e-mail before spending time collecting links. Some of these folks have already been tagged and have tagged me. I'm keeping the list because, well, I took the time to find the links. Enjoy.

"The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle" - A Review

Of all the Sherlock Holmes stories, I have read three over and over. The novel The Hounds of the Baskervilles continues to entertain me. “A Scandal in Bohemia” is unique because Holmes is outwitted by a woman. But it is the sole Christmas story, “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle,” that I have read more than any other Holmes story.

I re-read it again this Christmas season, as I do most years, and enjoyed it as much as I always have. This time, however, I read it as a writer. I am no Sherlockian scholar by any means but I did observe a couple of interesting tidbits. I assume you’ve all read the story so there will be spoilers throughout.

The most obvious facet of the story is so obvious, it can be missed: the structure. Arthur Conan Doyle always gives the reader, in the form of Watson, all the facts of the case. Two days after Christmas, Watson stops by Baker Street “with the intention of wishing [Holmes] the compliments of the season.” The detective has been examining a hat and, after retelling how the hat came into his possession, beckons Watson to play detective. “Here is my lens. You know my methods. What can you gather yourself as to the individuality of the man who has worn this article?” I think Doyle puts this scene at the front of the story not only to propel the case forward but also to offer his readers more insight into the world first consulting detective. “Blue Carbuncle” was the seventh short story published and there might have been a few folks who were not attuned to Holmes’ ways.

The hat wasn’t the only thing brought to Baker Street. It also came with a goose. Holmes released the goose to the policeman who found both items but the story really gets moving when that same policeman returns to 221B with the blue carbuncle in his hand, the very same gem recently stolen from the Cosmopolitan Hotel. Now, Holmes’s little mental exercise pays dividends as he and Watson now must find the owner and trace the path of the carbuncle and exonerate an innocent man.

It is the path that I noted in this re-reading. Holmes and Watson follow the trail of the gemstone: from goose to the club from which it was given to Henry Baker (the hat’s owner) to the reseller to the lady who fattens geese for sale. What fascinated me was the logical progression. Nothing was coincidence, something I struggle with in my own writing. Oh, I think, I need Guy and Girl to meet so they’ll rob a bank together. I’ll just have them talking aloud at a street corner, they’ll hear each other, and then… Yeah. Not believable. Even train of thought and action in “Blue Carbuncle” is consistent and rational.

Doyle’s word choices in this story are also of note. They’re subtle but say a good deal about how Doyle sees his creation. On the first page, Doyle writes, “…he [Holmes] jerked his thumb in the direction of the hat…” It’s the word “jerked” that striking. Not motioned or pointed but jerked. Doyle’s showing us Holmes brain had already moved on past the problem of the hat—something that probably took seconds for him—until Watson arrived. Once he has an audience, Holmes frankly, to show off. I think he needs to demonstrate his prowess. How else can you explain all the times when he doesn’t even let Watson in on his plans?

I also appreciated how Doyle’s word choices allowed the readers to fill in the blanks. With space limited in a short story, Doyle didn’t have time to go on and on describing things. Watson noticing the ice crystals forming on the windows of 221B Baker Street allows the readers to create their own mental picture of what Victorian London at Christmas time. Undoubtedly, we almost all think of Dickens and Scrooge and you probably wouldn’t be far off. A little later, Doyle writes “…and the breath of the passers-by flew out into smoke like so many pistol shots.” Now, if that isn’t a great way to describe seeing people’s breath on a cold night, I don’t know what is. And then there is the use of the word “ejaculated” to describe a vocal utterance. Never understood that one.

As I turn my own writing attention to short stories, it is nice to return to a familiar and loved tale and dig deeper into what makes it a great story. It’s Holmes and Watson to be sure as well as the Victorian setting. The story itself, however, is the key. It’s a page-turner with few pages. The action propels you forward until you reach the end and Holmes’ Christmas pardon to the culprit. Doyle may have grown to dislike his creation but the man can still tell a good story. I hope to, as well.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Christmas Music Review: Chicago - What's It Gonna Be Santa?

(Part 1 of a short series highlighting my favorite Christmas CDs.)

Back in 1998, Christmas arrived in August. Well, it did if you were a Chicago fan, that is. You see, it was in that month, the hottest down in here in Texas, when the then-thirty-year-old band released their first ever Christmas CD. And wouldn’t you know it was numbered twenty-five?

When you stop to think about it, you had to wonder why one of America’s most successful rock acts never recorded even one Christmas song. Peter Cetera did a one-off, semi-countrified version of “Silent Night” and Robert Lamm recorded “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” but that was it. The closest the band ever got to a winter song was “Song of the Evergreens” off of Chicago VII.

Chicago 25, coming three years after Night and Day, Chicago’s CD of newly-arranged big band standards, the expectations among the Chicago fan base was quite high for the Christmas CD. What songs would they select? How would the band stamp their indelible sound on time-honored classics? And, honestly, how could they add anything new to the endless steam of Christmas music we hear year after year. And would any of these versions become definitive?

I could certainly give a track-by-track run down of Chicago 25 (and I have, to many friends and fellow Chicago fans) but I’ll point out a few high points of this CD. As I have mentioned before in previous reviews of Chicago records, the sheer number of instruments and vocalists in the band brings a multitude of possibilities to any one song. These seven musicians are professionals who can evoke any number of nuances from their instruments. Walt Parazaider brings all of his saxophones and his flute is featured on many songs. Robert Lamm’s piano playing, including electric piano, is a joy to hear throughout the fourteen songs of Chicago 25 but especially “The Christmas Song”. Bill Champlin’s vocal arrangements (“What Child is This?”) can give boy bands like N*Sync a run for their money to say nothing of his tickling the keys of his B3 organ. Keith Howland’s guitar embellishments interspersed in the songs evoke a jazz feel more than a rock sensibility. Back in 1998, trumpeter Lee Loughnane was undergoing a renaissance in the band as his trumpet playing markedly improved in the concerts and showed up on Chicago 25.

All the songs selected and arranged got the typical Chicago treatment. Some of the tunes are better for it. A few surprises do pop up. “Feliz Navidad,” as sung by Jose Feliciano, is one of the happiest Christmas songs out there. I dare you not to tap your toe when this song starts its inexorable march in your brain. Under Lamm’s reading, the song is a slow, moderately-paced song of beauty. In a nice touch, Lamm adds some xylophone and marimbas. It’s one of the unexpected yet understated songs on this record.

You can’t say Champlin’s bluesy “Santa Clause is Comin' to Town” is unexpected, however. To say that Champlin is soulful is to understate the obvious. But the rest of the band—especially Jason Scheff’s bass playing—really gets into the act. This is one of the funkiest cuts in Chicago’s catalogue and it gives the horns a chance to stand and just wail. What makes this rendition so much fun is Champlin’s lyrical riffs. “You better be cool\y’all gotta chill\you gotta behave\you all know the drill.” And the B3 just weaves in and out of this track. A highlight if you like your carols just a little bit dirty.

“Christmas Time is Here” is the Vince Guaraldi song from “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Lamm acknowledges his appreciation to Guaraldi with a delicate version of this newer classic. The horn arrangement is quite good as is Howland’s guitar licks. You'll love Lamm’s electric piano. He noodles in and out of the melody and his own vocals. Loughnane’s muted trumpet ends the piece, setting a lovely mood that can sweep you away back to your childhood.

The next track, however, will wake you up. Chicago’s secret weapon in 1998 was Lee Loughnane’s vocals. Yes, the trumpeter sang a few songs back in the 1970s (on Chicago VII, X, and XI) but had not stepped behind the mic since. So “Let it Snow” was a wonderful treat. In a version that would be at home down in New Orleans, Loughnane’s pulls a Louis Armstrong, singing and playing. This song proved so popular in 1998 that the band recorded a version in Spanish. “Let it Snow” even found its way into the summer tour set list. It was a little weird hearing this song in the heat but the feel of the song will melt snow or your margarita.

As good as these renditions are—Feliz Navidad” is a nice change and other songs, like “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" are my preferred versions—most of these songs don’t quite reach the level of definitive. One exception exists. Chicago’s reading of “Little Drummer Boy” puts all the other versions—and, yeah, that includes the Bowie/Crosby version—to the back of the line. The song itself, while nice, never had the heft of other Christmas songs, secular or sacred. Chicago changes the equation. In a fade-in, the drums kick up a shuffle beat, not fast, not slow, but just enough to get your toe tapping and to make you realize this is something different. As Bill Champlin’s soulful voice begins to sing the first verse, producer Roy Bittan’s (E Street Band) accordion colors the feel of the song, giving the song an acoustic quality underneath the main beat. Champlin makes it through the entire first verse with only the horns offering the answering counter melody. As you first listen to this version of the song, you’ll probably think “Okay, this is a great song and the horns are wonderful and discreet.” Then the chorus kicks in. And, in a first for Chicago, there is a choir: twelve additional singers to go with the three main Chicago vocalists. The result is somewhere between magical and sublime. Verse two brings in Jason Scheff’s high tenor, floating above Champlin and the choir. During this vocal onslaught, the horns continue to wail away and the accordion drones on and on. The horn charts are so stamped in my head that I hear them even when listening to another rendition. I consider this song one of the best songs in Chicago’s entire catalogue and a definitive version of "Little Drummer Boy."

Five years after Chicago 25, Rhino updated the disc with six additional songs and renamed the collection Chicago Christmas: What’s it Gonne Be Santa? It’s a testament to a band with vocalists growing out of the woodwork that five of the six new songs showcase a different lead singer. Again, the newer songs give that distinctive Chicago stamp on old classics. Lamm’s “Winter Wonderland” is pure Chicago circa 1973. In retrospect, “Winter Wonderland” provides a nice clue to the types of songs Lamm would release a year later on his excellent “Subtlety + Passion” disc. “This Christmas” has Scheff in full R&B mode while the acoustic “Bethlehem,” an original tune, provides a nice, acoustic glimpse of the three kings.

Just as “Little Drummer Boy” stood head and shoulders above the other tracks on Chicago 25, “Jolly Old St. Nicholas” is the best song from the extra tracks. Simply put, this is one of the flat-out most fun songs Chicago has ever recorded. The newest—and youngest—member of the band, guitarist Keith Howland, arranged this song and sings lead. It’s a fast, up-tempo song that brings to mind “When is This World Comin’ To?” off of Chicago VI. The horn charts are fantastic and, as is my wont, the bari sax all but blats its way out of your speakers. In the original lyric, the final verse lists the various toys that kids want. Howland tailors the final verse to instruments for his band mates. At the end, after he’s questioned Santa on what treat will be left for him, Howland shouts out “How ‘bout a shiny electric guitar?” and lets rip a guitar riff and solo that would have made Chuck Berry proud. It’s an exuberant ending to and exuberant song. It’ll leave you smiling and tapping your foot long after the song fades away.

Christmas is all about memories, usually from childhood. At times, it’s even about memories you never had but a nostalgia induced by music. Nat King Cole’s reading of “The Christmas Song” is definitive and no Christmas would be complete without hearing it at least one (fifty?) time. Ditto for Crosby’s “White Christmas.” But if you want something fun, occasionally different, but altogether satisfying, you can’t go wrong with inviting Chicago into your house for Christmas.

Monday, December 1, 2008

New Continental Op Website

Since today is the anniversary of the publication of "Bodies Piled Up," a Continental Op story (my review here), it's ironic that today I found a site devoted exclusively to the Nameless Op.

The Continental Op website has fun links, artwork, lists and synopses of stories. Go check it out.