Friday, February 27, 2009

Forgotten Books: Star Wars by George Lucas

My latest contribution to Patti Abbott's Forgotten Books project. Go to her blog for all the rest.

If you watched "Star Wars" back in 1977, Jabba the Hutt didn't exist, there wasn't an Emperor, and Red Three (Biggs Darklighter) was just some guy with a mustache who seemed to know who Luke from sometime before our heroes boarded X-wings and attacked the Death Star. That's the way of movies: subtleties can be missed. If you were one of those newly born (hatched?) Star Wars geeks who devoured everything you could get your hands on, you knew the truth. And there was no better fount of wisdom than the novelization of the first movie.

There wasn't any of this "Episode IV" business. As far as we were concerned, this was the real Episode I. "Star Wars" opened up an entire galaxy of potential stories and adventures, aliens beyond our wildest dreams, and rouges and heroes we wanted to be. And for all the books about the concept art or the models being built, GeorgeLucas's novelization was the Bible. Everything was in there...including the scenes that didn't make the movie. And, to be honest, these scenes give the story arcs of Han and Luke much more resonance than just what we saw on the big screen.

Take Han Solo for example. In the book, the Jabba the Hut scene is present and accounted for. And, no, I didn't misspell "Hut." In the original novel, there was only one "T," not the usual double consonants in typical 70s SF (including that of ghost writer Alan Dean Foster). Except here,Jabba is humanoid. A fat, slothy humanoid but a biped nonetheless. He's surrounded the Millennium Falcon with him and his goons and Han and Chewie show up. They work out a deal: Han takes his new charters to their destination and, in return, Jabba gets an extra twenty percent. If you've seen the footage Lucas inserted in the 1997 special edition (SE), you'll know that Han talkedJabba down to fifteen percent. I can't remember if there were sub-titles for Jabba's dialogue in the SE but what you get in the book is Jabba threatening Han: "If you disappoint me again, if you trample my generosity in your mocking laughter, I'll put a price on your head so large you won't be able to go near a civilized system for the rest of your life, because on every one your name and face will be known to men who'll gladly cut your guts out for one-tenth of what I'll promise them." Wonder whatBoba Fett's cut was?

In little snippets like this quote from Jabba, you get that sense of wonder that only good SF can deliver. In this novelization, Lucas wrote a prologue. It's only a two-pager but it gives a brief history of the Republic and her protectors, the Jedi Knights. You could almost call it a query letter for the prequels. Here is the first mention of SenatorPalpatine , a man who became President of the Republic, then declared himself Emperor. Soon thereafter, in another difference from the three prequels,Palpatine becomes a recluse, ruled by "the very assistants and boot-lickers he had appointed." These soon-to-be tyrants exterminated the Jedi Knights "through treachery and deception" and set about controlling the galaxy. Lucas could have just written this prologue and be done with it. What he did that helped the sense of wonder was to attribute this text to the Journal of theWhills. That little subtlety also helped to make this novelization something special. It made it historical.

But it was Biggs Darklighter and his relationship to Luke that most moved Luke at the beginning of the story and the end and gave the novelization an added emotional impact lost in the movie. Many Star Wars fans were chagrined when Lucas did not reinsert these scenes in the special editions. I still don't know why. They speak so well to Luke's character.

From the ground, Luke sees the space battle above Tatoonie. Excited, he rushes to Anchorhead, the small town where his friends gather. While he's trying to get the gang outside, two things happen. One, they call Luke "Wormie" and, basically, deride him and his flights of fancy. Lucas gives the reader a clear sense that Luke is alone and has more acquaintances than real friends. Two, their old friendBiggs is back in town. Biggs and Luke were best friends until Biggs applied and was accepted to the Imperial Academy. The gang take a look and see nothing. They drift away.

A few scenes later, Biggs and Luke are swapping war stories when Biggs tells Luke the real reason he returned to their homeworld. He and some fellow students plan to join the Rebellion. Biggs can't tell his parents but he wants someone to know the truth if he never returns. Their exchange, back and forth, Luke incredulous that his happy-go-lucky friend has turned allserioius, Biggs exasperated that Luke had to withdraw his application to the Academy, illustrate the isolation Luke feels without his friend's constant presence and his longing to go where the action is. Without this scene,Biggs' death during the Battle of Yavin is without meaning. Biggs becomes just another red shirt, to borrow a Star Trek phrase.

One can choose to believe or not Lucas' claim that he had it all in his head from the get-go. Me? I tend to think he thought of Darth Vader and Anakin Skywalker as two different people and changed as the movies and stories wore on. One clue in the novelization was right before the final battle sequence when we do seeBiggs and Luke reunited. An older pilot, Blue Leader (Blue Leader in the book; Red Leader in the movie) approaches Biggs and Luke. "One of them he recognized. 'Aren't you Luke Skywalker ?'" Don't know about you but when I re-read that, I thought "Whoa! Did Luke's reputation precede him?" Apparently so. Take a read at this statement from Blue Leader. "I met your father once when I was just a boy, Luke. He was a great pilot. You'll do all right out there. If you've got half your father's skill, you'll do a damn sight better than all right." Again, I stress that little nuances like these lines bring so much more depth to the story than the two hour movie. There's history here, another sense that you're in the middle of something that's already started and will continue after you've stopped reading.

Back in the day, there was one other source for these scenes: the comic book adaptation. They illustrated the novelization, not the movie. Thus, we did get to "see" the deleted scenes withBiggs, see Jabba in a weird orange spacesuit and bizarre visage, and the rest of the deleted and extended scenes. The novelization, however, was where the imagination soared. It was the "first step into a larger world." You could smell the "hive of scum andvillany," you could feel the heat and sand of Tatoonie on your face, and you could, like Luke Skywalker, gaze at the setting of the dual suns and just dream....

A guy has recreated the critical Biggs scenes and put them up on YouTube. Here they are. The music's a bit loud but it's all there.

The original Jabba scene, with a human actor reading Jabba's lines is here .

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Playing Detective

Facebook can be a time suck. That's a fact. But it also is a great application to have at your disposal.

In January, I joined Facebook at the behest of my high school friends. It was great connecting with them after many, many years. Along the way, one friend, A, and I started talking about our elementary school years together. A and I reminiscenced and decided to find another mutual friend, C. C was not on Facebook so we took our search to Google and elsewhere. We looked up college yearbooks and technical societies. Finally, we found a phone number. All evidence indicated that the number belonged to C. In fact, it did.

We three are having lunch today.

Just a short little something letting y'all know that it really is fun playing detective. And it's nothing like the movies or books. It wasn't dangerous (thanks!), no one shot at me (double thanks!), and this one had a happy ending.

The long story about this exercise is that the real world life of a detective is something no one would want to read. So we have to make it exciting. How many other professions do we glamorize to make it entertaining for us readers?

Monday, February 23, 2009

The Undiscovered Country

Sometimes, two vastly different things can converge in your mind to bring you to one idea. It happened to me this past weekend.

I live in Houston, born and bred here. Out in west Houston, there is a reservoir. It's part of George H. W. Bush park. An earthen dam borders the east side of the park and it runs along one of the major north/south roads in Houston. The dam is not large but it is large enough to keep the park hidden from the passing cars and the drivers from the park visitors. That is to say, a passing motorist might look at the hill and wonder what's on the other side. To find out, you have to park, get out, and walk up the dam and look over.

I did that on Sunday, arguably for the first time in my life (or, at least, my adult life). I was surprised. Intellectually, I knew what was probably on the other side: trees, water, grass. But I never really knew for sure. I took my bike and wove in and around the trails. A couple of large ponds allow us city folk to practice our casting, couples can sit on benches and just be together, and birds are everywhere. I saw cranes and woodpeckers to name but two. There are a few places, deep amid the leafless trees where the sounds of traffic can still be heard but not seen. The sky was cloudless and the only thing above me was air and space.

What does all this have to do with writing? Everything, really. As I peddled up the dam, it was like a movie, with the reveal slowing expanding before my eyes. Before yesterday, I never knew what was over the dam. It took me getting out of my car, on my bike, and me peddling up and over to know what was there. One of my first thoughts was "How come I've never been here before?"

I’ve been pondering if the books I like to read are really the books I like to write. Still working on that answer. But one of the things I always think about is the business aspect of it. Not to disparage romance novels (aren’t they always the butt of jokes?) but a friend of mine and I agreed once that if we could make a living writing romance novels, we’d do it in a heartbeat. We love the writing life.

There’s a part of me that wants to write only those books I know has a good chance at selling: romance novels, easy-going mysteries, taut thrillers. But I read hard-boiled stuff, noir novels, and a rediscovered love of SF. Heck, I’ve even written my first western short story and I think it turned out okay. It was good enough that I, as the writer and first reader, want to know more. But it's all become discombobulated in my head. There is so much that I want to write that I find myself paralyzed about where to go first. (This is true of my current to-read stack but that's another blog entirely.)

Last thread before I get to the point: I read Dan Simmons’ writings on his blog. Recently, he’s discussed a how-to writing book, James Wood’s How Fiction Works. I have not read any how-to books other than Stephen King’s On Writing. Part of me thinks I can learn a lot by reading and writing and having my work critiqued by my writing group. But in the excerpts Simmons quotes and in my own short reading of Wood’s book, I wonder if there isn’t more I can learn. I don’t want to spend my time reading about how to write. That’s not productive. But I think I can learn from a few how-to books.

One of the things Simmons points out in his latest “Writing Well” essay is just how difficult the craft of writing really is, to say nothing of the business side. He points out some genre cliches that many successful authors use and that I’ve found myself using. Why? Because they’re easy. Simmons’ claim is that many modern readers have become lazy and writers have adjusted to this laziness. The end result is sloppy writing and sloppy reading, the literary equivalent of a eating a candy bar when you’re really hungry. Pretty soon, it’s like you never even ate the candy bar because you’re still hungry.

I’ve always had a clear-eyed acknowledgment of what a writing life would be like. It ain’t all muses and inspiration and stuff. It’s work. I learned that when I wrote my first book. Later, when a friend of mine complained that she got some negative reviews of her book, I would look at her, straight-faced, and say “But they bought the book. Who cares what they think?” Sure, you’d like for them to like the book enough to come back for the next and the next but that’s ultimately out of our control as writers. Basically, I thought, write pablum if the masses want pablum. As long as they buy it, who cares?

After reading Simmons’ essay and a few excerpts from Wood’s book, I stopped and realized something: I care. Why settle if I don’t have to? Whose to say that me or any of my fellow not-yet-published bloggers aren’t the next Dickens, Leonard, or Chabon? No one, other than ourselves. Up until now with my writing, I’ve been like the driver who never gets out of his car to walk up the dam and see what’s on the other side. Why not walk up that hill and see what’s on the other side? Why not strive to put the best on paper and see what comes of it?

What am I really saying? With my writing, I’m going to walk up the hill and see what’s on the other side. Unlike the hill I climbed on Sunday with its nice, smooth paved walkway, I don’t see my writing hill as smooth. It’s rocky, sandy, grassy, and, if it rains, slippery as hell. I’ll fall. I’ll slip. I’ll get muddy and discouraged. But I’m going to keep climbing and I’ll do it with my best work (my take on Dickens or Leonard or Chabon or _____). I'm going to look over the hill and see something I've never seen before.

Those of you still reading might start questioning my sanity: “Why *wouldn’t* I put my best work forward?” Well, if it isn’t called for, why go through the effort? I think I’ve realized that the effort is what makes writing a worthwhile craft. Leonard put forth the effort, Dickens, too, and all the others. How the heck can I stand with them if I don’t do likewise?

I never considered myself great. I’m no Dickens or Leonard or Chabon or _____. But I’ve never tried to be so how the heck do I really know? I don’t.

And I want to find out.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Forgotten Books: Gotham Central, Vol. 1 by Ed Brubaker, Greg Rucka, and Michael Lark

If Ed McBain wrote a comic book, it would probably have been a lot like Gotham Central: In the Line of Fire. You'll recognize the city name of course. It's Batman's stomping grounds. And, aside from Commissioner Gordon or the occassionally detective, you never really see the boys in blue from Gotham unless they are cleaning up after Batman has taken care of business.

That ends here. Ed Brubaker (before he bumped off Captain America) and Greg Rucka (before he wrote Catwoman) teamed up to create what amounts to the 87th Precint in Gotham. Batman is in this book, of course--we are talking Gotham City, you know--but he's rarely on stage. The focus here is the detectives, the blue collar guys and gals who punch a timecard, cash a measly paycheck, and try to earn some respect in a town with a superhero.

Detectives Driver and Fields, off duty, get a hot tip about a kidnapping case they're working. They knock on the apartment door, a scared weaselly guy opens it, and who else but Mr. Freeze is inside. He ices Fields completely and then ices Driver's shoulder and gun to a wall, purposefully not killing him. The ice man then proceeds to question Driver using Fields as leverage, leverage he begins to chip away at, literally. Injecting a bit of humor at this grim stage, Freeze actually gets annoyed that the detectives were not after him, nor even looking for him. Needless to say, Freeze escapes, Fields dies, and Driver burns with a desire for vengeance, a feeling the rest of the detectives in the squad room share.

The biggest question is this: how is Mr. Freeze connected to the kidnapping case? Or is he? Handing the kidnapping case off to the FBI, the Gotham detectives fan out over the city, searching for Freeze and clues to his whereabouts. And they have a deadline: dusk. They know that, come dark thirty, Batman will be on the prowl. In honor of their fallen friend, they want to nail Freeze before the Dark Knight Detective does.

In these panels, Brubake, Rucka, and artist Michael Lark really provide a good feel for real police work. They show four or five pairs of detectives, each team searching for some clue. Every so often, a clock, with time moving forward, appears in the left hand pane of the artwork. They work the street thugs, jewelry dealers, and the convicts behind bars, trying to glean some useful bit of knowledge that can lead them to Freeze. All the while, the hours trudge onward. Some of the detectives riff on "the Bat," whether he's good or bad. In a telling moment, late in the day, Driver realizes Freeze's target and tells the commissioner (not Gordon) to use the signal. When the commissioner questions Driver's turnabout, Driver replies, in a panel showing obvioius resignation, "There're too many lives involved now, sir. It's too big for us."

Realism like these scenes is what sets Gotham Central apart from other police comic books (not that there are many). These detectives are real people with issues, some they can solve (guilt over a fall friend), some they can't (there's a guy who dresses up like a bat and does your job better than you). The dialogue feels real as well, with the authors throwing in things like this ($*&$) to stand in for four-letter words you can't print in this type of comic book. The artwork infuses the pictures with its own type reality. Most of the coloring is subdued earth tones, giving the entire book a sort of sepia toned quality, like its real but it isn't.

Driver is the featured player throughout the interconnected stories of this first collection. He wants to be better than Batman, to prove to the caped one that the GCPD can do their jobs without his help. The final scene, with Driver and Batman, is poetically humorous but stops short of being laugh out loud funny because of the perspective. Batman is The Other in this book, as are the costumed villains. You get the sense from Driver and his fellow detectives that they'd rather just collar regular criminals rather that dealing with the costumed crazies, Batman included. It makes me wonder what they'd do against a truly insane criminal like Joker or a mastermind like Ras al Ghul. Mr. Freeze is a guy with a special gun. He, like Batman and the rest of the Rouge's Gallery, isn't superhuman.

You know, if Driver really thought about it, being a cop in Gotham ain't that bad. Imagine being a cop in Metropolis where superhuman bad guys constantly show up to try and take out the local superhuman good guy. Talk about your bad jobs. However, with all the destruction to the buildings in downtown Metropolis, I bet the construction industry always has job openings. If Driver hates being in Batman's shadow so much, maybe he could move to Metropolis and become a construction worker.

For other forgotten books, head on over to Patti Abbott's blog.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Forgotten Books...

...alas, not today. Too many things going on around here.

But, I will be reading all the reviews over at Patti Abbott's blog. You should, too.

I'll be back next week with one of two books, both involving police. One is set in a fictional place and the other isn't as cold as you think it is...

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

February Flash Fiction Challenge

(This story is part of the flash fiction challenge organized by Patti Abbott. The rule are simple: we each wrote an opening paragraph and sent it to her by January 10. Three days later, she shuffled them all around and gave us someone else’s opening paragraph, not naming the original author. From that, we were to write a story. Mine went a little long. For the rest of the stories, head on over to Patti’s blog or Gerald So's blog. Thanks to Patti and Gerald for all the coordination.)

Construction Paper Camelot

Wilson lay on the ground, watching the first flakes of snow fall around him. It reminded him of childhood, the first snowfall he'd ever seen--Lincoln's birthday, 1961. The second-graders had traded Valentines at school that day--it was a Friday--and then gone home to play in this wonderful snow. By Sunday, it was mostly melted, but they'd had fun while it lasted. Now 48 years later, the snow was still beautiful, but he knew the cold was deadly and he needed to get up and get moving.

Her name was Ida Lynn Bailey. She was the new girl in town. Came up from the South. That’s why she had two first names. Her dark brown hair reminded Wilson of the new First Lady. He had seen pictures of her and the new president in Life magazine. Mrs. Kennedy’s smile and Ida Lynn’s smile were one in the same.


Wilson turned over and managed to get on all fours. His knees hurt. He shivered. He saw his breath huffing out of his mouth like a steam engine.

Get up!
The snow looked so beautiful, gently falling amidst the pines. The flakes lighted on the pine cones the same way the flakes had flittered on Ida Lynn’s brown hair that Valentine’s weekend of so long ago. They had played together that Friday afternoon, laughing and running, amongst the trees.

Get up!

Wilson got his right foot underneath him. He rose and wobbled. He put more weight on his right leg. Gingerly, he put pressure on his left. The thick pines smothered his cry.

“I can’t go on like this,” he said to the air. He scanned the ground, looking for anything to help him walk. That stick looked stout enough. He hobbled over and picked it up. Now, he had a cane.

Ida Lynn’s father walked with a cane. Old war injury sustained at Anzio. Wilson remembered how he had stood on his front porch and watched the two of them frolic in the snow. Even from a distance, Wilson could see her father’s smile. Wilson had found it strange. He so rarely made grown-ups smile.

Ida Lynn had her father’s smile. Her image floated in front of his eyes now. Her mouth moved. She was saying something to Wilson. He heard her voice in his head.

“You’d better get going.” Heaving a rackety breath, Wilson got going.


They had all passed out Valentine’s to every student in the class that day but Wilson had made a special one for Ida Lynn. She smiled her thanks when he gave it to her after the final bell. For a moment—a long moment—she said nothing. She just stood there, staring at him. His heart pounded and his mouth went dry.

Slowly, her smile widened. Wilson saw her fine, neat teeth, one gap on the top. There was a small pop when her lips parted. She reached in her bag and pulled out a special card and gave it to him.

Wilson and Ida Lynn, smiling for reasons they didn’t quite know, read their special Valentine’s cards. He opened the card she had given him. She had made it out of construction paper—red, white, and pink—with some of that white paper lace. In neat block letters written in red crayon were the words “Wilson, thank you for being my friend. Will you be my Valentine?”

Wilson stopped. He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a plastic bag. The blood on his fingers smeared on the bag. He didn’t want to smudge the forty-eight-year-old Valentine’s card so he kept it in the bag. The ends of the card were frayed with age and too much Scotch tape. The crease had long ago separated the two halves of the card. He traced his finger over the heart-shaped paper and bit back tears.

“Yes, I will.”

He slipped the bag back into his pocket, gritted his teeth, and moved forward.

The hills, low and rolling, all looked the same. The monotony crept into his thoughts, made him doubt the wisdom of his choice. Was he going the right direction? The sky, a gray mass—not unlike the human brains he’d operated on—hid the sun and prevented proper orientation. He knew where north was but the fall down that last hill made him doubt.

Wilson’s legs gave out. He slumped. The limb slipped from his frozen and unwieldy fingers. He lunged but it was already halfway down the treeless hill. He didn’t have any more strength.

He pulled the plastic bag out again and put it on his lap. He broke the seal of the bag and withdrew the Valentine's card. He fingered the edges of the paper. The old construction paper nearly matched his red pants, the special pair he always saved for Valentine’s weekend. He gazed at the card, lost in time.

“I’m sorry.”

Wilson laid down and closed his eyes.


“An amazing story this evening,” the television anchor said. “Wilson Burka, brain surgeon and amateur pilot, and his wife, Ida Lynn Burka, feared lost for the past two days, were rescued late this afternoon. Their single-engine airplane lost power and crashed in the Hutchinson Forest. Mrs. Burka was injured with a broken leg and couldn’t walk. Dr. Burka set out to find help. He had traveled for over ten miles on foot before his own blood loss caused him to pass out.

"It was Dr. Burka’s red pants that saved him. With the snow all around him, Dr. Burka’s red pants stood out like a…”

Ida Lynn Burka switched off the TV in the hospital room. She looked across the room at her husband. He looked back.

And, knowing exactly the reasons for it, they smiled.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Forgotten books: The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton

“Once upon a time there was a Little House way out in the country. She was a pretty Little House and she was strong and well built.”

Published in 1942 by Virginia Lee Burton who wrote the words and created the art, The Little House tells the story of industrialization and urban sprawl. The Little House sits on a country hill surrounded by apple tree and green grass. The seasons pass, she looks up at the stars, the children grow up and move away, and The Little House wonders what it would be like to live in the city. One day, the city comes to her. A road is built, then houses, then buildings, then subways. She falls into disrepair. After a while, The Little House realizes she doesn’t like living in the city. Then, one day, the great-great granddaughter realizes The Little House belongs in her family and she has the house moved back to the country.

The artwork is the key. Yeah, I know I’m a wordsmith but it’s true. The Little House is anthropomorphic, with two eyes and a smile. You can always tell what she’s thinking. But its the stages of urbanization as shown by the vehicles that really make this book shine. Two-wheeled carriages lead to four wheels to cars. There’s even a steam shovel that looks like the title character from Burton’s Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. The story ends in the 1940s. I can only imagine what Burton would have drawn had the book been written in the 1960s, the 1980s, or the 2000s.

This is a book that I had truly forgotten about. I rediscovered it when I helped my parent wade through some old storage boxes of my childhood stuff. I started reading this book to my son and we both like it. I know why I like it: this is a history book disguised as a children’s book. It makes history come alive in an entertaining and visual way. Better than a textbook, that’s for sure.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

My Twenty-five

Since this meme is going around the blogosphere, I thought I’d answer, too. I did the short list over on Patti Abbott’s blog but here’s the deluxe expanded edition.

Dennis Lehane - The single most important reason I am now interested in writing and reading crime fiction is his 2001 book Mystic River. I heard him on NPR and the book sounded fascinating. It friggin' blew me away. The power, the majesty, the intimacy of pain, all in one book. Immediately, I sought other Lehane books and read the first Kenzie/Gennaro book A Drink Before the War. Having read very little crime fiction since the last Hardy Boys book, I had no idea that crime fiction could be so real and profound. That's pretty much all she wrote. I was hooked.

George Pelecanos - After I discovered Lehane, I wanted to discover some of his crime fiction brothers. Pelecanos was the first guy I came across and his first Derek Strange book, Right as Rain, found its way into my cassette player (the audio book). If Lehane hadn't hooked me, Pelecanos would have. He was the string on which was fastened the hook that brought me into the crime fiction world. The three Strange present-day books were magnificent but it was Hard Revolution and Drama City and solidified Pelecanos' must-read statue in my mind. I strive to be as effortless as he.

Charles Ardai – Once I landed in the crime fiction world, it was only a matter of time before I found Hard Case Crime. I knew the reputations of Block, McBain, and others published by Hard Case Crime but only from a distance. Again, my eyes were opened by Ardai’s two books under his pen name, Richard Aleas, that drew me in. Little Girl Lost and The Songs of Innocence are tragically brilliant. The lead character could be me (John Blake is not a brawny guy with a gun but a frail guy with glasses). The influence Ardai has on me right now is the main reason why I see my second novel as a tragedy rather than a light-hearted affair.

David McCullough – As a trained historian, I cringe at the ignorance Jay Leno finds during his Jaywalking segments. I want people to know how exciting history really is. It’s about people who make decisions and we all have to live with the results. McCullough (and Joseph Ellis, to name another) writes books that read like novels. You know Truman is going to win the Democratic nomination in 1934 (how else does he become senator and VP and president) but McCullough makes you wonder. This book influenced me so much that my first novel features Harry Truman as the main character. This is history in the guise of novel writing.

Stephen King – simply one of the greatest storytellers America has ever produced. What I really liked about King, from the beginning, is the realness he infuses in his work. Characters don’t sit and talk about the “hometown baseball team” while drinking a soda, they talk about the Red Sox while drinking Dr. Pepper. His ability to make things real made the supernatural believable.

James M. Cain – after I read the first two pages of The Postman Always Rings Twice and realized he set up the entire novel in two pages, I knew I was writing too many words. But I can’t emulate Cain. I’m a flowery wordie. I love long sentences and words. But I just love Cain’s style.

Ken Bruen – ditto the Cain comment. So, so easy to read; so very difficult to emulate. So, I stopped trying. Now, I just revel in his poetic prose.

Michael Chabon – Speaking of flowery writers, Chabon is a modern word Picasso. This is a guy who just loves what words can do and how they can be arranged and rearranged. And he’s a comic book/SF/mystery geek, just like me. What’s not to like?

Dan Simmons – I just finished reading Hyperion and it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. Mind-expanding in its scope and ancient in its storytelling style, Simmons writes some of the more gorgeous prose out there. And his career has demonstrated that he will write what he wants to write, marketers be damned. That’s the kind of career I want.

Charles Dickens – Come on, who in the English-speaking world can’t learn from or be influenced by Dickens. The man is a master at description the way Miles Davis is a master of silence. You read any single description of any character in any book and that person walks off the page, shakes your hand, or steals your wallet. The fact that he wrote the most nostalgic Christmas book published to date—one I never tired of reading and re-reading—says more about Dickens’ style and imagination than anything else.

Arthur Conan Doyle – If the Hardy Boys and the Three Investigators were my first foray into crime fiction, Doyle’s stories are where I made my home. Doyle’s ability to evoke a time I never lived in so completely is a remarkable feat. That 56 of the 60 stories in the canon are *short* stories is even more amazing. Holmes and Watson are like old friends, no matter what story you pick up and read. The structure of each story is perfect: set up, investigation, solution. That Doyle was able to do it over and over and it never got tired is a mark of genius.

That’s eleven. After this, the list is just authors I like an whose books surprised me.

12. J. D. Robb – Naked in Death (so this is romantic suspense; not bad at all)
13. Wade Miller – Branded Woman (to show that women can be strong and vulnerable at the same time; and how about that last sentence?)
14. Don Winslow – The Dawn Patrol (quite simply the most entertaining book of 2008)
15. Christa Faust – Money Shot (taking me out of my comfort zone with great relish)
16. Robert Caro – Master of the Senate (this is what in-depth, engrossing history is like)
17. Mark Pendergrast – Uncommon Grounds (the history of the world via coffee)
18. Don Westlake – Somebody Owes Me Money (so this is what humorous crime fiction is)
19. Duane Swiercznski – Severance Package (so this is what it’s like to write a new-pulp novel with a pace so fast it leaves you breathless)
20. J. K. Rowling – Harry Potter books (completely engrossing with enough emotional content to shed tears)
21. Megan Abbott – Die a Little (to prove that slow-burn fiction can still be published and be as good as the fast-paced, shoot’em ups)
22. Timothy Zahn – The Thrawn Trilogy (Star Wars) (all the magic of the first trilogy about characters (Luke, Han, Leia, etc.) we actually care about)
23. Anthony Bourdain – Kitchen Confidential (for making me realize I should never eat fish on Monday)
24. David Brooks – Bobos in Paradise (for helping me to identify who and what I am)
25. Carlos Ruiz Zafon – The Shadow of the Wind (for showing me how good and profound great literature can be)

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Book Review: Hyperion by Dan Simmons

(This is part one of a new Book Review Club started by Barrie Summy. We write about books on the first Wednesday of each month. For a list of all participating authors, go to Barrie's blog or click the graphic over on the right.)

“Out of Africa” meets “Pretty Woman.” “Ghost” meets “Manchurian Candidate,” the psychic cynical political thriller with a heart. Remember those fake pitches from the opening segment of the movie “The Player”? They probably made you chuckle until you realized that all books or movies start with a pitch. An attention grabber, something that would make the potential buyer go “Yeah, I wanna read that.”

Try this: “Canterbury Tales in space.” Don’t laugh. It’s been done. And it’s phenomenal.

Hyperion by Dan Simmons, published in 1989, is one of those books that has always been on everyone’s list of best SF. I’ve heard people compare it to Frank Herbert’s Dune, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, and, from the fantasy world, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Yes, it’s that good. And I have three more books to go.

Set 700 years in the future, Hyperion tells the story of seven travelers on a pilgrimage to the mysterious planet Hyperion. War is imminent between the descendants of the humans from Earth (the Hegemony) and the humans who have rejected the Hegemony’s advanced technology (the Ousters). It is with this backdrop that seven travelers set out on the last pilgrimage to Hyperion.

Upon arriving at the planet, they have to make their way from the spaceport to the Time Tombs, a portion of the planet surrounded by anti-entropic forces that allow the Tombs to travel backward in time. Trippy, I know. The Tombs are guarded by The Shrike. Now, in the pantheon of SF literature and movies, the T-1000 Terminator (the one played by Robert Patrick in T2) is one of the ultimate bad-ass villains, a machine so insistent that its very tenacity (“Can’t you just kill it?”) is what makes it so terrifying. The Shrike makes the T-1000 looks like a child’s plaything. The Shrike is all metallic, covered in razor-edged spikes, and can manipulate time. Friggin’ scary.

The seven travelers are an amalgamated lot. You have Father Lenar Hoyt, Catholic priest; Colonel Fedmahn Kassad, a soldier; Martin Salinas, a poet; Sol Wientraub, a scholar; Het Masteen, a starship captain; Brawne Lamia, a detective; and the Consul, a mysterious man whom we see first and in whose POV the present-day action take place. As they journey, they question why they were chosen for this last pilgrimage before war. They devise an intriguing strategy: they each draw lots and tell their story. This is where the Canterbury Tales aspect comes into play. With each passing tale, new aspects of Hyperion and The Shrike emerge.

As an author, Simmons must have had fun writing these tales-within-the-larger-book because each story is written in a different style. The Priest’s Tale is largely epistolary and tells of one man’s research on Hyperion. The Soldier’s Tale is a war tale that explains how The Shrike can stop time--or, rather, that it can stop time--in a story of love and battle. The Poet’s Tale is biography-as-fiction and describes how Hyperion was colonized by a group of artists and the strange relationship between the poet and the Shrike. The Scholar’s Tale is an agonizing story of a father trying to cure his daughter of a seemingly incurable “time disease.” The Detective’s Tale gives a good history of the Hegemony (all done in a Chandleresque, first person POV style) and how the WorldWeb and artificial intelligence computers help run this arm of the galaxy. And The Consul’s Tale is a time-lost love story, presented in a mixed up chronology (like “Pulp Fiction”) and reveals that even though humans have spanned the stars, they are still human and still make the same mistakes.

In re-reading this review up to now, I realize that I’m not capturing the sheer magnitude of this imaginative accomplishment. I haven’t read SF in a long time (SF that wasn’t Star Wars or Star Trek), preferring instead the relatively mundane crime fiction. I wasn’t quite prepared for the level of detail Simmons throws into this story. I can’t help but wonder if he has all the details mapped out in a timeline or if he just throws in random statements. Hard to tell.

As I wrote in last week’s Two Sentence Tuesday, Simmons’ prose is simply gorgeous. At times, it’s put-down-your-pen-and-stop-trying-to-write good. There is subtle grace and magnificence, mind-expanding ideas and realities. And it’s so fully realized to come across as our own existence. It’s familiar yet foreign.

The one thing that got me off the fence was the audio version from Audible. I’m an audiobook enthusiast (I listen to more books than I read) and I’ve rarely experienced an audio presentation as good as this one. Six actors, including one woman (for Brawn Lamia), read. The narrator reads all the prose and Father Hoyt’s lines. Every line of dialogue by a particular character is read by the corresponding actor. And when it comes time for a character to tell their tale, that voice actor takes over the entire recording. It’s brilliant and really sucks you into the head of that particular character.

The ending is abrupt. I’ll admit it. But Hyperion and the next book, The Fall of Hyperion, are more like two books of a larger volume than two individual books. In fact, Hyperion ends and all but compels you to seek out the next book Right Then.

I could go on and on about the little things that make this book so good but I won't. That's for another day. Try this: Hyperion is a book I’ll be re-reading someday. I want to make sure I got everything and I know I didn't. But what I did get was an wonderful story that is without parallel.

I can already tell that there is a new demarcation line in my development as a writer. In the crime fiction world, for me, there is BMR (Before Mystic River) and AMR (After Mystic River). If I am destined to write SF (my first love anyway), there is a new line: Before Hyperion and After Hyperion. It has changed me. Isn’t that the mark of a great book?

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Music Review: Working on a Dream by Bruce Springsteen

What if Obama lost? That’s the intriguing question we need to ask when listening to Bruce Springsteen’s sprawling new CD, Working on a Dream. Think about it: all the reviews, including this one, can’t help but look at the music and lyrics of this CD from the prism of an Obama presidency. But the genesis of the songs started in the late stages of the Bush presidency.

According to Springsteen’s notes to fans, the new album started in the last days of his previous record, 2007’s Magic. “We recorded a song called "What Love Can Do." It was sort of a "love in the time of Bush" meditation. It was a great track but felt more like a first song of new record rather than something that would fit on Magic.” Producer Brendan O’Brien encouraged Springsteen to write more songs for a new record and, while initially hesitant, The Boss churned out an additional six songs before 2007 left us forever. They made demo tapes and agreed that they’d work on the new songs over the next year, while on tour, in an effort to catch the E Street Band at its creative and musical peak (as if they ever have a valley).

Here’s where my historian’s curiosity comes into play. Can you imagine The Grapes of Wrath without the Great Depression; or film noir without World War II; or even Springsteen’s own “Born in the U.S.A.” without Vietnam? No. You can’t divorce history from creativity and artistic expression. The first few songs written and recorded for Working on a Dream ("This Life," "My Lucky Day," "Life Itself," "Good Eye," and "Tomorrow Never Knows") are all, save one, grouped together in the track listing of the new CD. Coincidence? Probably not. What was Bruce thinking about and feeling when he wrote these songs?

For one thing, the waning days of 2007 was, for Bruce, a bleak time. How about these few random couplets from “What Love Can Do,” the first song written:
Well, now our truth lay shattered you stood at world's end

As the dead sun rose in view

When the bed you lie on is nails and rust

And the love you've given's turned to ashes and dust

Or how about these lines from “Life Itself”:
Why do the things that we treasure most, slip away in time
Till to the music we grow deaf, to God's beauty blind
Why do the things that connect us slowly pull us apart?
Till we fall away in our own darkness, a stranger to our own hearts 

Needless to say, pessimism holds sway in these songs. But that’s not to say the he was overly pessimistic. In the guise of relationship songs, Springsteen offers the remedy for the world’s ails: love, relationships, and friendship. As he writes in “My Lucky Day,” When I've lost all the other bets I've made/Honey you're my lucky day

The optimism is there. It’s just buried in the reality as Springsteen saw it back in 2007. And the optimism is always present in the music. It’s one of Springsteen’s best gifts as a songwriter: to be able to couch downbeat lyrics (“Dancing in the Dark,” “Born in the USA,” “Hungry Heart,” or “Badlands”) in upbeat music.

“This Life” is one of the most gorgeous songs Springsteen has ever recorded. Picking up where Magic’s “The Girls in Their Summer Clothes” left off, you get a distinct early 70s sensibility with a heaping helping of Phil Specter’s wall of sound. Like many established singers (David Bowie, Elton John, Elvis Costello), Springsteen’s vocal range is expanding, making a song like “This Life” much easier on the ears than it would have been twenty years ago. Taking a cue from Patti’s Scalfia’s latest album, Play it as it Lays, Springsteen layers the wah-wahs in the background chorus just like a great 1960s pop song would have. Toward the end of the song, as the chorus has the stage to themselves, the music could almost have been the soundtrack to a 1970s Coke commercial. And then Clarence Clemons’ sax blows heavenward with a radiant solo to fade out. Stunning.

But that’s nothing new for the E Street Band. These guys are the epitome of musical professionals. Clarence Clemons is no John Coltrane but the man plays whole notes on his sax like David Gilmour does on his guitar or k.d. lang does with her voice. There’s much more than meets the eye. Max Weinberg is not Neil Perth but he doesn’t need to be. I have always marveled how Max just lays down the beat, never flashy, but just, well, professional. And who can’t love Roy Bittan’s piano underneath everything, hearkening to memories of 1992 or 1984 or 1975? And the addition of Soozie Tyrell (violin; vocals) to the band since 2002’s The Rising is a nice, and welcome addition. But the most bittersweet quality of the album is Danny Federici’s organ playing. This album proved to be his last recording before he died of melanoma last year. And it is to him Springsteen dedicated the album.

So what about the songs Springsteen wrote during the 2008 election year? When you look at just the lyrics, the 2008 songs are a mixed lot. “Outlaw Pete,” with its eerily similar theme to KISS’ “I Was Made for Lovin’ You,” tells the story of Pete who “At six months old he'd done three months in jail.” Oookay. The song, however, is a lovely western anthem around which a nice book or movie could be made. It’s got everything you need for a western legend song: strings, plaintive harmonica, and Springsteen trademark Glockenspiel. And the ending, where the legend is formed, is quite evocative and visual. Besides, this is a song that seeks to answer one of humankind’s most fundamental questions: can the true nature of a person ever be changed? Thankfully, Springsteen lets you answer the question yourself but he gives a peek into his own thinking.

Just like he did in 2004, Springsteen hit the campaign trail in 2008. Bruce’s actions rubbed many fans the wrong way, in 2004 and 2008. If you know anything about his background and lyrics, you always knew from whence he came. Now, he's just more overt about it. Which makes the title track of Working on a Dream a particularly interesting song. When did Springsteen write it? He debuted it at a late October Obama rally in Ohio and I, like many who first heard it, took it to be an Obama song. Might be. The song is pure optimism with lyrics buttressing the magical music coming out of the speakers. You tweak a few musical touches here and there and you get Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons (without the glass breaking vocals, however).

There’s a buoyancy in all the songs of Working on a Dream that speaks to this moment in time, never mind when they were written. Just as presidents get the credit or blame for events on their watch, albums get tagged with the year of release. Working on a Dream was released in 2009, the very month in which our country’s leadership changed with a palpable a sense of optimism. For Springsteen and millions of Americans, hope has returned to this land. And it’s with these eyes and ears we listen to this new album by one of America’s greatest rock musicians.

Springsteen has chronicled America as he’s seen it and held up a mirror for us to gaze in and contemplate where we are. He did it in 1984 with his sing-a-long anthems reflecting our malaise of the 1970s. He did it via his own personal struggles and redemption in 1988 and 1992. And he helped us all cope in the aftermath of 9/11. Along the way, he’s told us stories about the folks left behind on the dust heap of history. Now, for those who rejoice in the opportunities an Obama presidency can bring, there is another anthem.

What if Obama lost? Makes you wonder if Springsteen would have released the album, doesn't it? Likely he would have but it certainly would have been received differently. The song "Working on a Dream" will be prophetic or ironic no matter what happens in the next few years. Who knows if we’ve hit bottom with this economic strife and persistent bad news. Who knows what larger conflicts will surely greet us. No matter what, we can look to the songs and music of Bruce Springsteen to help us through and make us smile even on a bad day. Think about it: given his political views, if even he was optimistic when he wrote and recorded the songs on Working on a Dream as the bottom began to fall out, there’s hope for us all.

Two Sentence Tuesday: 3 February 2009

I'm reading Jar City by Arnaldur Indridason, a beautiful yet somber murder mystery set in Iceland. The prose in translation in not Dostoevsky nor even Chandler but its evocative of the weather, the gloom, the somber cadence of a main character who seems to be walking under his own personal gray cloud.

However, there is, so far, one laugh-out-loud funny line at the end of one of the chapters. It surprised me and helped me to realize that every story needs a laugh or two, especially one with such dour characters. Sigurdur Oli is the main character's partner and he's trying to question a man in connection with a murder.
At this, Sigurdur Oli redoubled his efforts, arched himself and stood on tiptoe and shouted at the top of his voice at the very moment everything fell completely silent and his words echoes in all their glory around the walls of the gigantic warehouse and out into the yard:
For my own two sentences, something different. The crime scene in this story involves a statue, here in Houston, memorializing the collaboration of the armies of South Vietnam and the US. Of my two police detectives, one is Vietnamese-American and this is how he verbalizes his distaste at what he sees:

“This monument honors all the brave ones who stayed behind and held off the Viet Cong when there were no more rafts or boats to get people off the beach after the US chickened out. And now it’s desecrated.”
For other Two Sentence Twofers, head on over to Women of Mystery.