Thursday, August 27, 2009

Great quote about simplicity in your (computing/writing) life

In my ongoing shift to a more minimalistic and simplified writing life, my Mac usage is also getting simplified. I ran across this great quote from Andy Rooney over at Unplgged.

“Computers make it easier to do a lot of things, but most of the things they make it easier to do don't need to be done.”
- Andy Rooney

I'll write more about how I'm changing my paradigm a bit later but I couldn't let this quote pass without commenting on it. I've discovered that bells and whistles, while nice and fun, are, in the end, distractions. I've eliminated just about all superfluous applications on my computer. It's streamlined now and my writing is more streamlined. I've also changed my office layout. Some might think this is merely procrastination. I think it not. I'm reworking my writing system and my office space and computer space is getting realigned. It's liberating, actually.

There is a great post about the cost of features over at the new Minimal Mac blog. This post is not Mac-specific, it creative-specific. Take a read and see if you don't also agree.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Me and President Obama are reading the same book

From a story here at the Christian Science Monitor:
The five books (all of which will undoubtedly see sales increases this week) are “The Way Home” by George Pelecanos, “Hot, Flat, and Crowded” by Thomas Friedman, “Lush Life” by Richard Price, “Plainsong” by Kent Haruf, and “John Adams” by David McCullough. It’s a good mix (one thriller, one global explicator, one novel set in a big city, one novel set on the prairie, and one biography) but taken together it means a lot of reading. As CNN points out, the president will have to read 300 pages a day if he really intends to finish all five books during his one-week vacation.
I'm reading Pelecanos's book right now (look for my review next week). And I've already read the John Adams book (excellent as pretty much everything McCullough writes). And Lush Life in on my long-term reading list. Always kind of cool when you learn the leader of the free world reads the same books you do, huh?

Monday, August 24, 2009

Great Charles Ardai Interview

Over at Killer Covers (J. Kingston Pierce's other blog when he's not curating The Rap Sheet), he posts a wonderful and in-depth interview with Charles Ardai of Hard Case Crime. There's a lot of information in there, including "side cleavage," some of Ardai's favorite covers, and tidbits about Gabriel Hunt. And, with Pierce's dozens of links, you will spend some quality time with your pulp heroes.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Forgotten Movie: Pi

Let's get one thing straight: Pi (1998) is one weird-ass mind trip of a film and it's not for everyone. However, it's one of my favorite indie movies and a dang good SF film.

And Chevy Chase can rest easy: there's really not a lot of math in this movie.

Max Cohen is a reclusive, paranoid math genius cursed with headaches who knows--just friggin' knows!--that there are patterns in nature that follow certain mathematical precepts. Here are his assumptions: 1. Mathematics is the language of nature. 2. Everything around us can be represented and understood through numbers. 3. If you graph these numbers, patterns emerge. Therefore: There are patterns everywhere in nature.

The thing he's trying to solve is the stock market. He's doing this for the joy of discovery, not for monetary rewards, as he yells at another character later in the film. To help him analyze patterns, Max has built a gigantic supercomputer, named Euclid, in his New York apartment. After a particularly trying day, Euclid crashes but not before spitting out a 216-character number and a single stock pick. Pissed off because the stock pick just can't be correct, Max throws away the printout of the number. Later, he meets with his former teacher and mentions the 216-digit number. The teacher, Sol, gets immediately interested. Max then learns that the stock pick Euclid predicted was accurate...but he can't find the printout.

Soon, he meets a Hasidic Jew, Lenny, who also is into number theory as it pertains to the Torah (remember the Bible Code from a decade ago? Same thing. Basically, every letter in Hebrew corresponds to a number. Thus, the Torah is both a written document and a large series of numbers from which patterns can emerge.) He wants Max's help and he agrees. Add into the mix some shady types (who may or may not be criminal or governmental) and Max is seeing spies everywhere he looks. In order to rebuild Euclid, Max takes from the shady types a new super microprocessor. He turns on the computer and starts analyzing the Torah. Again, Euclid crashes and again it produces a 216-digit number. Since the computer won't let him print, Max starts writing down the number...and finds a pattern.

Here's the key: according to tradition, the true name of God is a 216-letter word. Max's teacher, Sol, thinks that Euclid became sentient and, in that moment, the computer saw the Almighty. Lenny's Hasidic group wants the number because they want to reverse the code and find the true name of God. The shady types want Max to help them do evil things. Max just wants to be left alone.

Filmed in black and white, this is Darren Aronofsky's first film. Most of the tropes and film techniques he uses in subsequent films (Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, The Wrestler) are evident here. To be honest, the black and white noir touches make this film. The paranoia Max experiences is heightened by the shadows and the fear of what truly lies in the darkness. It's brilliant. And there are some genuinely weird moments in this film (a brain in a subway that seems to be connected to Max’s psychosis) that would make Salvador Dali proud. Another noir trait is Max's self destruction as he spirals downward into madness. I make it sound light--it really isn't--but in this film, I love it. The electronica score by Clint Mansell (in addition to songs by Orbital, Aphex Twin, Massive Attack, and others) adds to the weirdness. Coming out a year before the Matrix soundtrack, this was a major entry point for me to electronica and I've followed some of the artists in the decade since. Just this year, Mansell scored the music for the Duncan Jones movie, Moon (2009) and he captured the loneliness and isolation of the lunar surface using only a piano.

I originally saw this film when I was dating my wife. She hated the film at the time and has successfully resisted every time I've watched the DVD (yeah, I bought it and have watched the DVD about five times since). I think what really strikes home with me is the nature of God as portrayed in the movie and how we humans can get but a glimpse of the beauty and order of the universe (and God?) via mathematics. It's an awe-inspiring concept and is the touchstone for this great film.

Here's the trailer.
Here's the official site (oddly still active 11 years after the movie's release)

P.S. bonus points to you, the reader, if you noticed the time stamp on this post.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Mercury Men Trailer #2 - Now Online!

It's difficult to overstate how much I'm looking forward to the new web series, The Mercury Men. I've written about it on my science fiction blog, SF Safari, but I think it also has a place here, considering pulp fiction is one of the topics I address here in this blog.

The Mercury Men is a glorious throwback to the Cold War days and science fiction adventure from the days long gone. If you like the Republic serials of the 1930s, the movies of Indiana Jones, or the new novels of Gabriel Hunt, then you enjoy good, old-fashioned cliffhanger storytelling. That's exactly what the creators of The Mercury Men are tapping into and putting up on the web this fall. What caught my attention was the varied influences writer/director Christopher Preksta distilled into his work on the Mercury Men, especially the original Star Wars movie.

Take a read at the synopsis from the Mercury Men website:

Edward Borman, a lowly government office drone, finds himself trapped, when the deadly Mercury Men seize his office building as a staging ground for their nefarious plot. Aided by a daring aerospace engineer from a mysterious organization known as “The League,” Edward must stop the invaders and their doomsday device, the Gravity Engine.

The look and feel of the project are pure Outer Limits or Twilight Zone. This serial would have found a home right next to these 1960s seminal SF programs. Take a look at the trailer here. For an HD version (recommended), head on over to the Mercury Men website.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Movie Review: "From Here to Eternity" (1953)

Like James Reasoner is doing at Rough Edges with his Movies I've Missed (Until Now) blog entries, there are a ton of classic films I've just never seen. When someone looks at me aghast when they learn I haven't see [Insert Classic Film Title Here], I usually reply with "Yeah, but I've seen Star Wars a hundred times."

"From Here to Eternity" is the latest classic film I just got around to seeing this past weekend. All I knew about it was The Scene: the one with Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr laying down on the beach, kissing, the waves crashing over them. Now I've got the scene in context and my only bit of wonderment was that it didn't last very long. Surprising considering how iconic the scene is.

The film (and the book before it) tells the story of bored soldiers stationed on Hawaii in the six months or so before the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The main protagonist is Robert E. Lew Prewitt (Mongomery Clift), a soldier demoted to private and transferred to the island for, as Prewitt states, "personal reasons." We later learn those reasons and how they play in Prewitt's torment from his superior officers and his fellow soldiers. Frank Sinatra plays Private Maggio who befriends Pruwitt but has his own disciplinary issues (he can't stop drinking). Looking on is Burt Lancaster's Sergeant Warden, a hard-ass career man who runs the company while the ignorant and philandering Captain Holmes does his own thing.

Soldiers are not the only players in this human drama. Deborah Kerr plays the captain's wife and she and Sergeant Warden fall for each other. Donna Reed plays a lady (I think she's a prostitute although her actual role is a bit cagey in this 1953 film) for whom Pruwitt falls. Each lady wants something from their man but each lady wants their man to change. Of course, the Japanese change all of that and alter lives inextricably.

I thoroughly enjoyed the film. The actors all played their parts well, none more so than Donna Reed. In one of her best scenes, she tells Pruwitt why she won't marry him (note the word "won't" instead of "can't"). Her back is to him and her face is to the camera and she puts all the emotional turmoil of the character right on her face. Brilliant scene, especially when juxtaposed against the final scene and her final speech. Great stuff.

The depiction of army I found also quite interesting. I kept asking myself "Could I have done that, made a life out of being in the army?" Guess I'll never know. One other thing puzzled me and I'll have to go research the answer. I got to wondering something as the soldiers talked about being a thirty-year man (a man who made the army his life): in the day before the G. I. Bill, did joining the army constitute a job? With the G. I. Bill, soldiers would be paid to attend college or learn a trade with the intent of getting them out of the army and on to being productive citizens. Apparently, this was not the case pre-World War II. Anybody know any different?

And has anyone read From Here to Eternity and seen the movie? What are the differences, if any?

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Chicago Memorabilia

It's my wedding anniversary tomorrow (10 years!) and my wife surprised me with a fun little gift this morning. It's a bowl made from the melted LP of Chicago VII. For you Chicago purists out there, it's LP #2 with Side 3 in the base of the bowl. The four songs on that side of the LP (remember when songs were limited by the size of the LP?) are (I've been) Searchin' So Long, Mongonucleosis, Song of the Evergreens, and Byblos (a person favorite of mine).

Plus, for you western-loving folks, Chicago VII was the album cover designed to look like leather. The original album cover was embossed and all the leathery parts were raised. It was the band's last double album. Come to think of it, I haven't written a review of Chicago VII, one of my top 5 favorite Chicago albums. Think I'll need to do that soon.

My wife suggested I put candy in it and keep it at my office. I'll surely take it to the office but I'm reticent to cover the label. It's just so friggin' cool.

Just wanted to share this tres cool gift with everyone.

For folks in Houston, my wife, a jewelry artist under her business name of Betoj Designs (you'll have to click to her site to discover the fun meaning behind that name), bought this bowl from one of her fellow artists at OoLaLa in the Heights.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Music Review: No Place Left to Fall by Bill Champlin (2009 update)

(2009 note: coming on the news that Bill Champlin is leaving Chicago and that this CD has finally hit US store shelves, I'm reposting my review from last year. As I mentioned in my longer piece, No Place Left to Fall is one of the CDs I loaded on my iPod when I bought it in January 2008. It has never been removed since. Here's the original blog post for the record. You can buy the CD via links from Bill Champlin's website.)


Bill Champlin wears the mantle of a musician’s musician. He’s a studio wizard. He’s an in-demand vocal stylist and arranger. He shows up in places you’d expect—Toto CDs or on albums from other west coast musicians—and places you may not expect—from Amy Grant’s 1988 “Lead Me On,” Paulinho Da Costa’s 1978 album “Happy People.” He sang the theme song for the TV show “In the Heat of the Night.” He’s won Grammy’s for writing (Earth, Wind, and Fire’s “After the Love Has Gone” and George Bensen’s “Turn Your Love Around”). And he’s virtually unknown to the general public.

Well, except for his tenure with Chicago. And even then, folks might have a difficult time actually naming him. “Isn’t he the other guy singing ‘Hard Habit to Break’ with Peter Cetera?” Yes. “Is he the guy that sings ‘Look Away’?” Still yes. After that, most folks draw a blank. Even his first band—with the hint right there in the band name—don’t give folks a clue as to who Bill Champlin is. That band name? The Sons of Champlin.

Like many artist, Champlin explores other musical ideas in solo albums. And last week, after a thirteen-year absence, Champlin released a new CD of all-original material. Not that Champlin hasn’t been busy. He toured extensively with Chicago every year, played a large role in Chicago’s Christmas CDs as well as 2006’s Chicago XXX, and released a CD of new material with his first band, The Sons. With “No Place Left to Fall,” many of the musical influences that have percolated in his other musical endeavors come to surface and shine.

One thing you immediately notice with any Champlin-touched tune is the impeccable musicianship. These things are slickly produced. Some might argue that they are over produced but, when you consider all the things you can do in a studio, it’s Champlin’s restraint that is a hallmark of his work. The thirteen songs on this new CD have lots of elements to them. It really takes some concentrated listening with headphones to make out all the little nuances Champlin deploys.

A major presence of this album is Champlin’s B3 organ. For folks like me who discovered Champlin’s work via Chicago, Champlin’s B3 organ sound was gradually introduced, first in concert in the early 90s. It showed up on the 22nd album, Stone of Sisyphus but, then that CD was never formally released until 2008. It wasn’t until Chicago’s big band CD, Night and Day (1995) that the B3 organ got it studio premiere. And it’s there, right on track one and playing underneath most every track. Chicago 25: The Christmas Album featured the B3 on more songs, especially on what I now consider to be the definitive take on “The Little Drummer Boy.” The B3 is prominent on Champlin’s other 1990s solo releases (be sure to check out “Mayday,” the live recording from 1997) as well. You can tell when Champlin plays a real one, too. The organic, natural quality of a real B3 is heads and shoulders above anything a synth can produce.

All this is to say that the B3 shines on this new album. Literally, from the opening notes on track one, the B3 is spread like honey over all of these songs, sweetening and making it all just taste a little better. The coolest thing about the B3 is the judicious way most organists play the instrument. It’s little tidbits here, a riff there, a counter melody under a rhythm guitar, the syrupy foundation of a swampy blues song, it’s just there. The smooth, silky quality of the B3 and blue-eyed soul of Champlin’s voice just go together you wonder why he didn’t start sooner. Two highlights of the B3 on the new album is “I Want You to Stay” and the opening, funkified riff of “Tuggin’ on Your Sleeve.”

Speaking of riffs, this Champlin dude can tear it up on rhythm guitar. Not like Van Halen or any of those guys who play thousands of notes per minute. (Remember the Emperor in Amadeus: “Too many notes.”) I’m talking about a competent musician who knows the instrument, what it can do, and, most importantly, how it can compliment the song in question or his singing. I know Champlin collaborated with long-time friend Bruce Gaitsch (the iTunes download does not include liner notes) but I don’t know which songs on which he actually plays guitar. But any Chicago concertgoer of the past couple of years where Champlin got out from behind the keyboard and strapped on a guitar knows what the man can do. And he does it well here.

One interesting acoustic guitar-based piece on the new album is “Look Away.” Yes, it’s the same song that went to #1 in 1988 and was transformed into an acoustic rendition on the 1995 Night and Day tour. Champlin uses the acoustic version as a starting point but basically creates a new song. He takes the song—where the intent of the words can certainly get lost amid the trappings of a power ballad—and brings out its quite personal and painful message. It’s not too big a stretch to say that if Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young ever sang a love ballad, it would not sound too different that this version. Oh, and if you want to know the kinds of jibs and jabs the B3 can add to a song, check out this song after the whole band kicks in.

Another feature of a Champlin-created song or album are the vocal arrangements. The Chicago Christmas CD is infused with multiple voices, layer upon layer, creating a vocal mélange that is greater than the whole. The same holds true here. More often than not, Champlin sings the lead and the harmony. It works although I have to admit it’s always been strange hearing a lead singer being backed up by himself. The opening vocal ensemble on “Never Let Go” is a perfect example of this type of vocal stacking. This song reminded me of the neat experiment Champlin did in the 1990s with Jason Scheff and two singers from Toto. On the CD, “California Dreamin’,” the four vocalist cover famous rock songs a capella with a lead singer and the backup singers (each man takes a turn at lead) doing all the instrumental parts. How cool is it to hear “Hotel California,” complete with the ending guitar solos, all done with voices. It’s a little like Take 6 if you need a different avenue into your memory.

When it came time to ask Champlin to join Chicago in 1981, it seemed like a no-brainer because both Chicago and The Sons of Champlin had horns. All of Champlin’s CDs have at least one song that puts the horns up front and in your face. This time out, it’s the Fat City Horns from Santa Fe and the Fat City Horns. And when they say fat, they really mean it. “Stone Cold Hollywood” is that song on this album. Six horns, bleeting and blowing, complete with a nasty bari sax, man, it’s like a tune from the dirty side of town. Did I mention the bari sax? Man, throw on some headphones and just listen for it. It’ll make you grin like you just ate all the cranberry sauce before the Thanksgiving dinner was supposed to start. You know it’s wrong but, damn, it’s so good.

Bill Champlin emerged from the San Francisco scene in the late 1960s. In his outlook on life, making music, and the music biz, he’s never really left that time. You go on over to his webpage and the forum there—yes, he interacts with fans—and you can get a taste of what I’m talking about. He doesn’t say “thing,” he says “thang.” He doesn’t say “love,” he says “Luv,” drawing it out, nodding and winking, where you know how he’s meaning it. And he doesn’t mince words. There’s a great interview up on YouTube (here’s the link from my page) from earlier this year where Champlin tells you what he thinks and doesn’t back down from it. A nice quality from a member of a business that too often tries to please the suits and the audience with pablum and platitudes.

And it is this truthfulness—in the music, the lyrics, the spirit—of this CD that makes the thirteen-year gestation seem short. “No Place Left to Fall” is a consummate album of songs by an exceptional musician, lyricist, and singer. Bill Champlin may not be a household name but you get the sense that he doesn’t care about that stuff one way or another. Certainly he wishes mid-level artists who never get the recognition they deserve—while the talent-less phonies rake in the dough—and lends his name around. And other musicians know his reputation and bring him in for an assist. All that is well and good and part of what it takes to be a professional musician. But you can tell that it’s the Music that drives him. And it is through his music that he is known…even if you don’t know it.

Later update: I posted the link to this review on Bill Champlin's forum. The man himself read my review and wrote the following back on October 7:

Scott, I read your review and I thank you for the kind words. Not a lot of people get where my stuff's comin' from and you seemed to get it. People like it but not many "Get It". Thanks again, bill c.

Bill Champlin Leaves Chicago

"I read the news today..." Oh boy.

In case you haven't read about it or heard, Bill Champlin and the band Chicago are parting ways. Champlin wasn't a founding member but for many of us who discovered Chicago in the 1980s, he felt like it.

I'm one of the millions of people who started listening to Chicago in the 1980s. I didn't join the party until 1985, after they had released Chicago 16 (1982) and Chicago 17 (1984). It was only later I learned that Champlin was a newer member, having joined in 1981. He, along with producer David Foster and singer/songwriter Peter Cetera revamped the band's sound, making it sound of-the-era, and produced a string of hits. Arguably, this revamp allowed the band to endure for the twenty years since.

When I first started attending concerts, in 1987, Cetera had also left, to be replaced by Jason Scheff. Thus, for many of the 80s hits, Bill Champlin was the foundation of those songs that remained constant. He allowed us to ease into the Scheff era, an era that has lasted longer than Cetera and has produced some fantastic music. Back in the late 80s, Chicago was still a rock band. Champlin would get out from behind the keyboards, strap on a guitar, and, with then-guitar virtuoso Dawayne Bailey, rock the house down. No, really. Those late-80s shows were the best ones I ever saw the band perform.

After the Stone of Sisyphus debacle all but neutered the band's desire to make new music for themselves, Champlin continued to showcase his gifts. His songwriting and arranging skills are golden. Just listen to the big band CD, Night and Day, and the Christmas material. "Little Drummer Boy" is now my definitive version of the song. I can't hear any other version without hearing the Chicago/Champlin-arranged version in my head. It's that good. Champlin also introduced the B3 organ to the sound of Chicago. The 1990s concerts featured the B3 and Champlin's unique playing style and added a zest to the old classics that then hadn't been heard live since the mid 70s with original guitarists Terry Kath.

Speaking of Kath, Champlin took over the vocals that Terry used to sing. Champlin's baritone voice brought the soul back to the band that had lost it after Kath's death. True, Champlin often sang the songs his own way and, initially (back in the 1980s), I got annoyed. Gradually, I realized that Champlin was putting his own spin on the songs while staying true to the spirit of the songs. I grew to like Champlin's way of singing and his reading of "Colour My World" is the most soulful since Kath. Terry, I think, would be proud.

As an avid music listener, I got to the point that I'd buy anything that any member of Chicago played on. For Champlin, an exuberant musician and arranger and singer, that meant there was A LOT of music to be found and bought. He single-handedly introduced me to the West Coast AOR music. This is the music of Toto, Bruce Gaitsch, Tom Saviano, Champlin's solo material, and others. Most recently, it's Santa Fe and the Fat City Horns. Champin's participation in a project was a gold stamp of approval. If it was good enough for him, it was good enough for me.

Champlin's solo material is constantly evolving. His 90s albums (Burn Down the Night, Through it All, He Started to Sing; check'em all out at his website) is the man blazing his own trail when the band itself slowed it original album output. Even Robert Lamm put out two CDs of original material to the band's one. On his solo recordings, Champlin's blue-eyed soul is front and center but he can cut a ballad with the best of them. His latest recording, No Place Left to Fall, has been available in Japan, Europe, and on iTunes since last year. Just last week, it landed in hard copy here in the US. I reviewed it last year and I'll repost after this blog entry. It's one of those albums that I've never removed from my iPod. It's that good. Check it out.

But back to Chicago. I missed this year's tour stop in Houston as it was the day before my vacation. I had seen the Earth, Wind, and Fire/Chicago show in 2004 so I didn't think I needed to see it again. That I missed this year means the 2006 Chicago show with Huey Lewis and the News was the last time I saw Chicago with Bill Champlin. A great show it was, as the San Francisco-native Champlin came out (by himself) and played a song and jam with The News. For them, he was/is a local icon. They showed his deference. He proved that he's just one of the guys when it comes to making music.

I'll admit that the next time I see Chicago, I'll miss Bill Champlin. He was an essentail component to my Chicago experience. That he's now gone is, for people of my generation, a little like losing Terry Kath in 1978. Terry was the soul of Chicago for ten years. When there was a soul gap, Bill Champlin filled in and expanded the soul of my favorite band. In recent years, Robert Lamm has taken on that mantle.

But I'll still miss Champlin in Chicago. Damn. It's hard to lose something that's been with you for nearly thirty years.

For a taste of Champlin's ability to change up a song and make it better, take a listen at his acoustic rendition of the 1988 #1 hit, "Look Away" from 1995. From there, you can scour YouTube for some solo Champlin material.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Secret's Out! Hard Case Crime's Thirteenth Book of 2009!

Sarah Wineman, over at Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind, has revealed (along with Duane Swierczynski and Bill Crider) Hard Case Crime's mysterious thirteenth book this December. It's nice to know we Houstonians can keep a secret since Charles Ardai gave us this scoop back in January at his Murder by the Book signing. The thing is, I already have the novel in question (see how I'm purposefully not telling you the title; you'll have to visit my fellow bloggers's sites or Hard Case Crime's main site for that) but I'm absolutely going to pick up the new edition. It's Hard Case Crime, buddy. As if.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Finally! The Tarnished Star is here!

It took awhile but my copy of The Tarnished Star by Jack Martin (nee Gary Dobbs of the Tainted Archive blog) arrived in my mailbox today. I thought it was my next ARC from New Mystery Reader but no, it was The Tarnished Star. I'm finishing up Tobias Buckell's Crystal Rain for my SF Book Club (to be reviewed at SF Safari) but Martin's book will be read very soon.

Here's the synopsis:

All Sheriff Cole Masters wants is to raise a family with the woman he loves. However upholding the law in an era when gunfire speaks louder than words can be a risky business.Cole makes an arrest for the brutal murder of a saloon girl but the killer is the son of a wealthy rancher and it is clear the old man will do anything to see his son set free. Soon the peace of the small town is shattered with deadly force and Cole finds himself a lawman on the run for murder.The rancher wants Masters dead and the two deadly gunmen on his tail are sure they can do it. Soon blood will run as Cole Masters attempts to reclaim his tarnished star.

Two Reviews and an Inaugural Blog Post

My review of Jeff Abbott's Trust Me got picked up New Mystery Reader. You can find it here.

You can also find my review of Clyde W. Ford's Whiskey Gulf. After you read the review, head on over to Clyde Ford's website. It has a lot of good material including a neat map program that'll let you see where the events of Whiskey Gulf take place.

And be sure to head on over to Do Some Damage and read my inaugural post. I'm the Saturday guy. I hope I hold up the high standards my fellows have set.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Forgotten Books and Do Some Damage

I won't be joining the Forgotten Books party today. But there will be others. Head on over to Patti Abbott's blog for the complete list.

Tune in to Do Some Damage tomorrow for my inaugural post. Here's a hint for the piece I've been creating: When legends falter...

In the meantime, Russell D. McLean posts about Short People.

Enjoy your Friday.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Book Review Club: Trust Me by Jeff Abbott

(This is the August entry in Barrie Summy’s Book Review Club. For the complete list, click the icon at the end of this review.)

Sometimes, summer blockbusters don’t arrive in theaters. Sometimes, they show up at your bookstore. Jeff Abbott’s Trust Me is a summer blockbuster worthy of the name.

Like many a thriller, Trust Me starts with the bad guys. There are two men, one old and one dressed in a gray suit. They are in a park in London and they are discussing how many terrorists attacks they could unleash with the fifty million dollars the old man, a Middle Eastern prince, is giving to the man in the gray suit. Unbeknownst to them, a third party is there, a lady named Jane, listening in. Armed with this new knowledge, she telephones someone and says, “We start tonight. Rock and roll.”

Rock and roll is certainly one way of describing the intense action of the rest of the book. At the center of all this rocking and rolling is Luke Dantry, a twenty-four-year-old University of Texas graduate student. He’s a psychology major and has been helping his step-father—Henry Shawcross, his only living relative after his parents died in two separate accidents—conduct research into extremists groups on the Internet. Specifically, they want to find the radical folks online who may be the next Timothy McVeigh, people who will take their ranting to the next level. After a brief visit by Henry in which Luke delivers the latest reports on these online nut cases, Luke takes his step-father to the airport. On the way back to his car, Luke finds a gun in his ribs. Now, he’s kidnapped.

A desperate man, Eric, tells him to drive to Houston. Bit by bit, Luke learns that he is to be the ransom for Eric’s girlfriend. Chained to a bed in a cabin in the middle of the east Texas woods, Luke has to escape and stay out of the hands of the bad guys as well as the police who want him in connection with the murder of a homeless man, a man Eric shot and Luke witnessed.

The chase is on. From Houston to Chicago to New York to Paris, Luke has to stay one step ahead of the authorities and the members of the mysterious Night Road, the group of extremists whose sole desire is to inflict damage upon America. They’ve already started, too. An explosion near Houston is linked to other acts of terror across the country. Luke knows they are tied together and he must figure out a way to stop it while simultaneously clear his name.

As a writer, the structure of Abbott’s book was fantastic. In multiple POVs, we readers are privy to everything. We know the identity of the hired guns sent to the cabin to fetch Luke. We know what they’re thinking and what they don’t know. Later on in the novel, we know things Luke has to find out for himself. I usually write my stories with a limited POV, allowing the mysterious things to remain unknown until the main character learns about them at the same time as the reader. Abbott’s approach ups the intensity and tension. We know who is coming for Luke, even if he doesn’t. Armed with our omniscient viewpoint, we know the hired killers are bad, bad people and Luke best get out of whatever situation he’s in.

Luke is a regular guy. He’s not Jack Bauer or James Bond or Jason Bourne and he doesn’t have a name that starts with “J.” Abbott allows Luke’s logical brain to run through each scenario, putting together plans and contingencies, trying to find a way out of the nightmare in which he finds himself. It’s that normalness, that sense of This-Can’t-Be-Happening-To-Me, that grounds Trust Me. In the world of the fantastic, you get the sense that it could possible happen, even to you.

Luke’s progress throughout the book, from the young, innocent university student to what he becomes in the end, is evenly paced and believable. It’s not like, say, Catwoman in the 1992 movie “Batman Returns,” where one day she’s a secretary and the next she knows how to fight. Luke’s learns the hard way, usually with great pain and suffering. He’s put through the ringer and he’s damaged.

The pace of Trust Me is pretty relentless, an essential component in a thriller. The number one thing that propels the prose of the story is Abbott’s use of “Pulp Words.” You know what I’m talking about: one character “slithers” through mud; another has thoughts that “boom” in his head. Action words, words designed to punch the reader in the face at the same time describe non-stop action. I found myself smiling throughout the entire book as I would guess what sentence came next, the words I’d have chosen, and the better words Abbott chose.

A word about the audiobook. I listened to this story and the reader, Luke Daniels, did a great job of doing the different voices. The thing about audio books is that if the reader is good, the attributions (he said; she said) are not necessary. You can hear the difference. Part of the way through the book, a character says something. On the page, it’s just dialogue and you don’t know who said it. Abbott intended it this way. On the audio, however, the reader has to use the voice of the character. Thus, as an audio listener, when the identity of said character is revealed late in the novel, I already knew who it was. That’s my only con about audio books.

Trust Me is the first book I’ve read by Jeff Abbott. I’m a regular reader of his blog and have begun to put into place some of the writing habits he blogs about in his “Organized Writer” posts. Without a doubt, I’ll be reading more Abbott books. If you’ve got a hankering for a thrill-a-minute rush equal to or better than most things in the theaters this summer, Trust Me is it.

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@Barrie Summy

The Bourdain Quatrain

Every Monday night, I have sex with my television.

That's probably crude but it's the best way I can describe the visceral reaction I get when I watch Anthony Bourdain's "No Reservations" on the Travel Channel. Each week, the former chef and current author showcases a country or a city and finds those out-of-the-way places where truly good food lives. I could have just devoured a seven course meal and still be burping out the extra gases and I'd *still* want to eat whatever Bourdain's eating. The show (and the photography) is just that good.

During the intro of the show, you hear Bourdain's mission statement: "I travel. I write. I eat. And I'm hungry for more." I marvel at his ability to distill his life down to four sentences. Makes me wonder about the other parts of his life (wife? child?) that he leaves out.

And each week I start thinking about my own four lines. What would I write? I revel in being a husband and a father. What would those be? I husband. I sire(d). Not very poetic. The former sounds too much like taking care of farm animals and my wife definitely is not a farm animal.

I love listening to music and find a great deal of enjoyment and satisfaction from music. However, "I listen" is not very exciting and mostly something that's passive even if I do play steering-wheel guitar doing seventy along the tollway, windows down, music blasting out in the Texas summer heat.

I do write but my output in recent days/weeks has been anemic. However, I'm on the cusp of some major output. It's how I see myself (day job = technical writer; future job = published author) so I'll go ahead and keep "I write". No, I'm not copying Bourdain.

I read. A lot. So, I guess I'd better put that in there. Two down. One line to go.

Back to the husband/father thing: I love being a dad and a husband. It's one of the things that defines me so it has to stay. The one thing that cements these two different halves of my emotional output is love. It's the love that makes my days so happy and blessed. When it comes to life, I'm an optimist largely because I have a big heart. Okay, so I guess what I'm saying, cheesy though it may be, is that "I love" is likely the third part of this little exercise.

I love. I read. I write.

What about the last line? We writers always try for the trick ending, the Twilight-Zone-esque gotcha that leaves readers smiling, frowning, or hurling the book across the room. You know what I mean, right? I hated the ending of Heminway's A Farewell to Arms but I still remember it. And, yes, I did throw it across the room. Anyway, Bourdain's last line is a gotcha ending. It's his riding into the sunset moment. He's not content to sit and be. He's still searching. However, he uses the word "hungry," a word with dual meaning for him, a chef, a writer, and a traveler.

What could my closing line be? I could be corny and say "And I'll write my own ending" but that rubs up against some major theological issues. In that spirit, however, is this sentiment: I'm eager to turn the page on life, to so what's next for me. I know what I want but I'll accept what comes. So, to be writerly as Bourdain is chefy (is that a word?), I'll settle for "And I'm eager to turn the next page." Like any good page turner, I want to know what happens next. But I don't want life to go by too fast. I want to savor each day.

Thus, as of today, I'll sum up my life with this four lines: I love. I read. I write. And I'm eager to turn the next page.

So, what might your quatrain be?

Links for today:
Jay Stringer riffs on writer's block for his first post over at Do Some Damage, our new group blog. In case you missed it, Steve Weddle wrote about ebooks yesterday.

It's Two Sentence Tuesday at Women of Mystery. I'm not playing today but there's always something interesting happenings over there.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Do Some Damage goes live

The new group blog of which I'm a part, Do Some Damage, is now live. Head on over and check out the initial blog entry. Tomorrow, we seven will post short bios to get everyone on the same page. Starting Monday, regular columns begin with Steve Weddle. I start next Saturday. Check out the blog, leave a comment, join the ongoing conversation.

For those of y'all on Facebook, we have a page there, too.