Thursday, June 30, 2011

Forgotten Music: Peacemaker by Clarence Clemons

Most should know I’m a huge Bruce Springsteen fan. As a sax player, Mr. Clemons had a tone I envied. When Bruce’s music called for an old-school sax solo (a la “Born to Run”), the Big Man delivered in spades. But, to me, Clemons really shined with the slower pieces. Just as David Gilmour can “say” more with a single extended, held note than other guitarists can with fanatical fretwork, Clemons’s sound was luxurious and full. I’ll even namedrop Miles Davis because Clemons knew the value of silence in his music. For you Springsteen fans out there, I’m talking “Jungleland,” “Secret Garden,” “Back in Your Arms Again,” among others.

His 1995 album, Peacemaker, is a slow, peaceful, meditative offering. At its base, Clemons is merely soloing over soft percussion, mostly non-western in origin. This is night music, the kind free from worry and other noises, the kind that can mingle in the shadows of your house or apartment and breathe life into the mysterious places in your soul. In the spirit of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, this album is Clemons’s thank you to God for bestowing upon him the talent to play sax. I listened to it in a Barnes and Noble sixteen years ago and immediately bought it. Now, it is one of my Top 10 desert island CDs. That is, if I can only choose 10 albums to listen to the rest of my life, this makes the cut. Last weekend, when I learned of Clemons’s death, I put Peacemaker on and drifted to another place.

Here is a cut from Peacemaker: Into the Blue Forest

And here is Springsteen's eulogy for the Big Man.

Forgotten Music: June 2011

Welcome to the June 2011 edition of the Forgotten Music Project. As always, if I missed someone (or if someone joins in for the first time), I'll add you to the summary.


Bill Crider
Eric (Iren)
Jerry House
Randy Johnson
George Kelley
Evan Lewis
Todd Mason
Charlie Ricci
Richard Robinson
Paul D. Brazill

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Louis L'amour's Place on the Bookshelf

I went to four estate sales yesterday. The historian part of me drooled (and sweated a lot) at the treasure trove of magazines in one garage: Life, Saturday Evening Post, Time, among others. I picked up the issue of Life from 1971 with the cover story about the opening of Disney World (two words back then). I also found the first issue of Time after JFK's assassination. Cover: President Johnson.

While those were good finds, I was struck by something else. In two of these homes, the man of the house literally had shelves of nothing but Louis L'amour westerns. Mostly they were paperbacks, a mix of the Bantam titles (with the black spines) and the more recent white ones (with the westerny font on the spines). One house had what we now refer to as a man cave but was, probably, just the library. With all the stuff of a certain age, the L'amour westerns did not seem out of place. In fact, they seemed almost a requirement. I say that because, when I was growing up, my dad and his dad both had their collections of L'amour westerns on their respective bookshelves.

Which led me to this question: is there an author's work nowadays that is required reading for a man? In forty years, at estate sales in 2051, will some future buyer look at the bookshelves of men who lived in these early 21st Century decades and think: "Ah, right, it was altogether fitting and proper for a man to have read those books."

Monday, June 13, 2011

Collateral Damage - A New Anthology Inspired by Father's Day

Fresh off the Kindle presses is Collateral Damage, the second anthology written by the eight authors of Do Some Damage. I'm one of the eight, in case you don't know. We've spun a few tales inspired by the only holiday in June that doesn't involve a flag, Father's Day.

Here's the blurb from Amazon:
This collection boasts stories from Joelle Charbonneau (SKATING AROUND THE LAW, SKATING OVER THE LINE, the Paige Marshall mysteries), John McFetridge (LET IT RIDE, DIRTY SWEET), Dave White (WHEN ONE MAN DIES, WITNESS TO DEATH), Russel D. McLean (THE LOST SISTER, THE GOOD SON), Sandra Ruttan (THE FRAILTY OF FLESH, SUSPICIOUS CIRCUMSTANCES), Scott D. Parker (TREASON AT HANFORD: A Harry Truman Mystery, BEAT TO A PULP: ROUND ONE), Jay Stringer (OLD GOLD, SCORCHED EARTH), and Steve Weddle (NEEDLE Magazine).

As I was with Terminal Damage, our first collection, I am immensely proud of my collaboration with the other seven writers in this group.

Taking a cue from Steve Weddle, I'm including the first part of my story, "Anne Chambers and the Case of the Father's Day Murder."

In far southwest Houston stands a memorial to the Vietnam War. In the middle of a Vietnamese-American shopping center parking lot, a roped-off area contains a small plateau of nine, white steps. The peak of this plateau has a granite, oval block, about four feet high, with a bronze relief showing a scene from the war. Atop the oval, two bronze soldiers share a constant vigil. The taller man is an American, clad in late-60s fatigues, army belt with canteen, rifle at a high angle, ready to bear down on an enemy. Next to the American is a South Vietnamese soldier. He is a head shorter than the G. I. He, too, clutches a rifle, staring ahead with the American.

It was on the American’s rifle the body had been impaled.

Houston Police Detective Anne Chambers gazed up at the male victim. Limp, with clothes tattered, the body’s fluids had gathered around one side of the dais. They had run down and stained the white steps. His clothes, where they weren’t ripped, looked haphazard: one tail of his shirt was untucked, the suit jacket had a slash along the side, and the man wore loafers without socks. His hands were cuffed behind his back.

Resting against the base of the step was a crane, the kind city electricians use to repair traffic lights. The cage was a mere two feet from the victim. Anne circled the scene, piecing together what happened. The killer had cut through the chains surrounding the memorial, run the crane as close as possible, loaded his victim onto the pedestal, and thrown the victim onto the bronze rifle.

She turned and scanned the growing throng of onlookers. Men and women, hands over mouths or pointing at the victim, cell phones to ears or held out in front, snapping photos. Behind the crowd, the first news van was parked. She checked her watch: 3:34 a.m. Time to retrieve the body. Giving a thumbs up sign to the two medical examiners in the crane’s cage, Anne said “Any idea how he got up there, Gary?”

“We’ve already asked for the security feed,” Patrolman Gary Ward said. “Figured you’d want it.” He chinned the body. “You seen the front of him?”

Anne nodded. “They look like medals of some kind. They ours?”

Ward shook his head. “Don’t recognize them.” He pointed to the blood-stained steps. “One of ‘em fell off.”

In the center of the blood, a small military medal rested on the edge of a step while the silk ribbon and pin dangled over the side. Anne squinted her eyes. The medal didn’t look familiar.

Ward nodded to a man who stood facing the body. “How you think he’s taking it?”

Anne turned to look at her partner, Detective Harry Tran. “Probably not well.” She pursed her lips and watched as the body was lowered to the pavement. The two medical workers placed the body on a waiting gurney.

Walking up next to Harry, Anne said, “You doing okay?”

Harry’s lips were a thin, hard line. When he spoke, his voice was husky. “His name is Dat Nguyen. He is one of the giants in our community.”

Anne gave him a sidelong stare. “Listen, Harry, if you don’t want…”

He turned and strode to the gurney. Her mouth still open, Anne cocked her head, then followed him.

A coroner was examining the body. The suit jacket covered what looked like a pajama top. The slash on the arm had dried blood, darker than the blood on the chest. The mouth was half curled in a snarl of agony.

“Nothing unusual here,” the coroner said, “death by exsanguination caused by the impalement on the bronze rifle.” He turned the body on its side and examined the handcuffs. “The bruising and contusions along the wrists indicate he put up quite a struggle.”

“Time of death?” Anne asked. Harry stood, stone-faced, looking at the dead man.

“Pretty recent, I’d say,” the coroner said. “An hour or two.”

They all shielded their eyes as a vehicle entered the parking lot. It stopped nearby and a man emerged. He started running towards the crime scene. Two officers halted him. After a brief conversation, Ward walked over to Anne and Harry.

“That’s the guy who can get us a look at the security cameras.” He eyed Harry then Anne. She shrugged and head motioned for him to take care of the security footage. Ward nodded once and walked with the newcomer to one of the locked storefronts along the strip center.

With a grunt, Harry started walking towards their car. “Let’s go.”

Anne hurried to catch up. “Where?”

“Mr. Nguyen’s house.”

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Book Review Club: Ghosts of Manhattan by George Mann

(This is the June 2011 edition of Barrie Summy's Book Review Club. For a complete list of participants, click on the icon at the end of this review.)

Buck Rogers had one. Flash Gordon had one. Batman has had one throughout the years, especially in the always-entertaining Brave and the Bold cartoon. Tony Stark certainly has one. Heck, even James Bond had one back in 1964. Know what I’m talking about? Jet packs. For as much as we’re living in the future of Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein, we still don’t have jet packs or flying cars. But in the world of Ghosts of Manhattan, at least one person possesses jet-powered flight in an alternate 1926. That would be the heroic vigilante, The Ghost.

In George Mann’s novel, America is in a Cold War with Great Britain since the end of the First World War. Coal-powered cars, with their black effluvia, clog the atmosphere above Manhattan, where the air is filled with dirigibles and biplanes capable of launching upright because of rockets on their wings. In this environment, the police have their hands full not only with run-of-the-mill crime but also with a criminal boss nicknamed The Roman. Like any good villain, he leaves a calling card: two Roman coins on the eye sockets of corpses.

Into this justice vacuum swoops The Ghost. Black-clad, with a duster-length trench coat, fedora, and enhance red goggles, The Ghost, in the opening chapter, foils a bank heist using deadly force and flechette guns (tiny steel darts). If you’ve seen Batman Begins, specifically the scene where Batman first does his thing, you’ll love this opening chapter. I did. It grabbed me, and I happily went with it.

What’s fun about this adventure with a masked hero is the steps Mann deploys to keep the reader guessing The Ghost’s alter-ego. I’ll admit it didn’t take a huge leap of logic to surmise the truth, but he still made it interesting. Gabriel Cross is a bored millionaire, known for his parties and his ladies. One lady in particular is Celeste Parker, a singer at a night club and a necessary component in The Roman’s plans. Felix Donovan is a detective in charge of the investigation into the murder of a famous senator. It doesn’t take too long for Donovan to meet the famous vigilante. From there, they team up to battle strange things and, with any luck, survive.

The book is fast-paced, a true modern pulp novel in the spirit of The Shadow and Batman. The history of this alternate America is delivered piecemeal and mostly in shorter paragraphs and bits of dialogue, a helpful way to show the broader world without stopping the action for pages and pages of tedious world-building. The Ghost is a believable hero. He relies on his wits and his gadgets–he’s got jet packs on his legs, allowing him to fly!–more so than martial arts and fighting ability. He also adjusts his strategies along the way as he encounters adversaries who cannot be defeated using his conventional weapons. In fact, these particular adversaries almost overcome The Ghost in their first encounter.

The book isn’t without some flaws. I thought the lead-up to the big finale seemed to come out of nowhere. Unlike, say, Gabriel Hunt at the Well of Eternity or Dan Brown’s more famous novels, there aren’t a lot of clues that build upon one another, stumping the reader and the heroes along the way. It was almost as if Mann just needed a few action set pieces in order to build a larger story. True, the set pieces were good, and the down time wasn’t boring. I just felt a lot of drive to get to the end, even though I was not given a lot of clues as to what the end was going to be.

One of the things I liked about this novel is that Mann doesn’t feel the need to explain everything. Bi-planes have rocket packs for vertical lift-off. Okay. But there’s no mention of Robert Goddard or the history of the invention of the rockets. They just are. I’ve been told that this 1926-era world is the extension of Mann’s earlier, Victorian-era novels featuring Maurice Newbury and Veronica Hobbes. I’ve not read those books, so, perhaps there’s a longer explanation there.

Speaking of unexplained things in Ghosts of Manhattan, halfway through the book, I kept waiting for something science-fictional to occur. This novel is released by Pyr Books, a prominent publisher of science fiction and fantasy novels. I’ve seen the gorgeous covers (this cover art should stop people in their tracks) and read some of Pyr’s books, so I know what I’ve come to expect from them. Frankly, Ghosts of Manhattan is the exception. You take away the rockets, the coal-powered cars, and other paraphernalia decorating the scenery (including the big finish), and you end up with a book Lester Dent might have actually written in 1933 for Doc Savage. I don’t consider Doc to be science fiction. What’s so science-fictional about this book? Moreover, what’s so science-fictional about this type of alternate history?

When it comes to alt-history, I see two categories. There are stories like Harry Turtledove’s The Guns of the South, which has time travel. Obviously, that’s SF. But what about Turtledove’s other Civil War book, How Few Remain and its sequels, which take a “what if” question and answer it from a non-SF point of view? Same could be said for Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, which was nominated for an Edgar (mystery) and a Hugo (SF), winning the latter. There’s no SF trope in Chabon’s novel, just alt-history.

I posed this question to Pyr editor Lou Anders, and he gave me some food for thought. Citing a Norman Spinrad article from Asimov’s magazine, Anders wrote the following:

Basically, alt history has historically been maligned by at least a subset of SF culture as pretend “What if” stories that, as you point out with the Chabon, don’t have any other SFNal tropes/elements in them. But these days, when you have every physicist using the word “multiverse” and the most likely explanation for all the quantum weirdness is that we are in only one of a number of possible realities, while at the same time have people like Charles Stross debunking the idea that we will *ever* achieve human-crewed ships engaged in interplanetary travel, suddenly all the space opera starts to look like make believe wish fulfillment and the alt history like that which actually has some bearing in science.

But these are quibbles, hair-splitting when what is really important is whether or not the book in question is entertaining, moves you, and has something to say besides.

Ghosts of Manhattan is certainly entertaining, a true summer thrill-ride of a book. I’m looking forward to future installments of this character and his world. Do yourself a favor this summer: see Thor, Captain America, and all the other superhero films, and then head on over to a bookstore and pick up a copy of Mann’s book. In this day and age, you just can’t have enough heroes.

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