Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Books I Couldn't Finish, April 2009 Edition

Bloodlist by P.N. Elrod (unabridged audio book read by Barret Whitener) — This first book in author Elrod's Vampire Files series begins well. Jim Fleming wakes up after his murder to find himself a vampire; he then sets off to find his killer. It's a classic plot (think D.O.A.) with a twist, and Elrod sets up the time (the 1930s — Dracula has just been released) and place (Chicago, the Al Capone era) with the proper amount of detail.

Fleming is a traditional vampire in some ways but not others, and the mix is interesting. Unfortunately, he has a tendency to talk more than do, and his nonaction eventually gets wearying. About a quarter of the way in, I shut off the audio (read by Barrett Whitener) of Bloodlist and never felt the need to start it again. Those more interested in vampires as characters may stick it out, but I was looking for more of the noir revenge tale.

The CEO of the Sofa by P.J. O'Rourke (unabridged audio book read by Dick Hill) — Humorist P.J. O'Rourke wrote perhaps the funniest piece I've ever read ("So Drunk" in Age and Guile Beat Youth, Innocence, and a Bad Haircut), and I was reading Give War a Chance when I met my wife, so I tend to give him more of an opportunity to make me laugh than I would give others of his ilk. But The CEO of the Sofa (at least the parts I got through) was pure disappointment.

This may be in part because of the date of publication: 2001. Timely humor can be terrific when experienced in a timely manner, but anyone who has watched reruns of Saturday Night Live knows that political humor especially grows quickly stale. The pieces in The CEO of the Sofa — including Bill Clinton jokes, a rundown of the presidential candidates of the 2000 election, and a rant on cell phones(?!) — are hardly interesting as anything more than history.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Bone Song and Black Blood by John Meaney (Donal Riordan series)

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2008–2009. Reprinted with permission.

Bone Song is the first volume of a new series from author John Meaney, a three-time nominee for the British Science Fiction Award. Originally published in the UK in 2007, this review focuses on the 2008 US edition (Meaney gives examples of the extensive rewriting required on his weblog).

Do you feel the song? Do you hear the bones?

Quintember 6607 — Lieutenant Donal Riordan of the Tristopolis police force has just been assigned bodyguard duty by his commissioner: the protection of a true "diva," opera singer Maria daLivnova, because someone has been killing performers and stealing their bodies. (The bones of dead artists allow the possessor to see the world the way the artist did — a prospect that is both irresistible and addictive.)

Tristopolis is truly a "city of the dead." Forty-six hundred years in the future, evidence of mortality is everywhere: "Death" stands in for most common curses ("What the Death?"), with "Thanatos" handy for names taken in vain ("For Thanatos's sake!"). The city's electricity is even produced by the burning of corpses in a "necroflux reactor."

This is not surprising, given the high relative percentage of walking dead in the general population. For example, Laura Steele, the commander of a federal task force investigating an underworld collective, is a zombie who's been unusually successful with her second chance at existence (called "paralife"). Her partner, Xalia, is a wraith whose near-invisiblity hinders her struggle to be treated equally. (Riordan even begins a sexual relationship with Steele, and much is made of their difference in skin temperatures — he practically burns her with his 98.6 degrees, and she is frigid, but only literally.)

The details of Tristopolis are so engagingly described throughout that it scarcely matters that the story isn't strong enough to fill 370 pages. But Meaney keeps the pages turning with action and suspense well delivered within his varied selection of genres: Bone Song should be popular with fans of nearly every genre: from gothic and horror to science fiction and fantasy to crime and mystery. There's even a tragic romance! And he, of course, leaves some loose threads for the expected sequels.

If Meaney is trying to be everything to everyone, he's done a remarkable job. Don't count on predictability, however. Meaney also makes brave, and often surprising, choices with his characters, including one particularly startling event near the end that will likely upset some readers. Bone Song is a flawed but strong beginning to a series that I was hoping would simply get better as it went along.

Unfortunately, its sequel Black Blood (at least the part I was able to get through), was a huge disappointment. (Readers who have not yet read Bone Song should not read any further as the mere act of summarizing the sequel reveals the "particularly startling event" I just mentioned.)

Donal is on the trail of a killer — his own. Alderman Kinley Finross was responsible not only for Donal's death but that of Laura, his love, and now Laura's zombie heart beats inside Donal's chest, keeping him alive (or at least undead, since breathing is now an act of will) until he can locate Finross and get revenge.

I was very excited about Black Blood as it seems even darker than Bone Song, since that was primarily a police procedural in plot, and this one at least starts out as pure vendetta. Sadly, it took me months just to get through the first 50 pages. The combination of dark suspense and gothic horror in Meaney's highly original world was novel enough the first time around to get through the flaws in the story. But this time it felt like the author was more in love with Tristopolis than his character's pursuit. He spends pages just describing what's around his protagonist while he walks from place to place, cracking jokes and only occasionally moving forward with his goal.

Eventually, I simply lost interest — if the author's not interested in seeing justice served, why should I be? However, I did skip ahead to the ending, and those who do make it through Black Blood will be rewarded with a darkly hilarious cliffhanger ending that leads right into the third book (current working title: White Bones).

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Murderer Vine by Shepard Rifkin (Hard Case Crime)

I avoided reading this book for the longest time, and I'm not exactly sure why. It may have had something to do with its being inspired by the same true-life event that Mississippi Burning, a movie I did not enjoy, was based on. I've been very timely about reading and reviewing all the other Hard Case Crime novels either before or soon after their publication date, however, so the fact that The Murderer Vine sat fallow on my bookshelf for nine months was an anomaly indeed.

The completist in me (and the fact that HCC has never published a purely awful book) eventually forced me to pick it up this past January instead of skipping over it again in favor of yet another book. This was also in part because the topic of civil rights was very much in the press following the inauguration of President Obama. But, even so, I opened The Murderer Vine with a marked lack of enthusiasm.

I shouldn't have waited.

When private investigator Joe Dunne takes care of a local heroin dealer, a referral gets him another job: to kill the five people responsible for the disappearances of three local boys who went down to Mississippi to work for civil rights. Dunne heads down South undercover with his attractive and capable assistant Kirby Jamison as a dialectologist and his wife, on a case unlike any he's handled before. For one, it takes a lot of planning to avoid the worst-case scenario:

"I wrote [the plot] out briefly as if I were a writer writing a screen treatment for a cynical film producer who had a superb sense of film construction. I wrote it as if a very critical film reviewer were to look at it when it became a movie. But there would be a big difference ... between a lousy review and winding up dead somewhere on a lonely country road in northern Mississippi."

Dunne is surprised by the duplicitous nature of the stereotypically "hospitable" Southerners: smiling to your face (so as to be perceived as good Christian folk) while gossiping and worse behind your back. (It was that way in 1944 [the setting of the 1970 novel], and it was still that way in the mid-1990s when I left for the less outwardly pleasant but more honestly antisocial people of New England.)

Dunne stands out but manages to get in good with local blacks by not treating them as inferiors. Kirby, a Southern native herself, endears herself to the rest with her open and charming ways. Author Shepard Rifkin has a talent for transcribing Southern dialect so that it reads much like it really sounds. Especially rich is Rifkin's characterization of Dunne, a richly complex individual with conflicting desires and a strong moral compass. Rifkin nearly allows Dunne to get out of favor with us in his pursuit of "fitting in" during a scene on a bus. Luckily, Dunne and Kirby have such chemistry with each other that their scenes together are a joy to read.

On the surface, The Murderer Vine is a private eye novel much like the ones Dunne picks up at an airport ("At least I would have pleasure picking holes in the heroes.... The novels were unintentionally funny"), but more accurately it's about the P.I. himself much more than the case. Rifkin's skill at creating believable characters (some of the supporting cast are truly remarkable) and his use of setting and dialogue — in short, his pure storytelling ability — make up for the fairly thin mystery, and the gut-puncher of an ending only serves to make it unforgettable.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Slocum and the Witch of Westlake (Slocum #362) by Marcus Galloway writing as Jake Logan (Western series)

While John Slocum was supposed to be guarding the herd of his boss at the Singer Moon Ranch, he was instead making time with Singer's niece Kelly. So, when some of the herd was taken on his watch, Slocum understandably felt a bit guilty and set off to retrieve them.

Confronting Singer's rival rancher Landry results in a surprising confession: "Well, it serves him right.... That son of a bitch hired a witch to curse my ranch!" A witch? Slocum wonders if the man is crazy. Then when more people talk about this so-called witch, he begins to think he's the only sane person left in the county.

Slocum and the Witch of Westlake is the first book I've read in this long-running Western series (nearly 35 years). I do not know whether the word Westlake is a reference to late crime author with that name, but its presence likely swayed my choice of purchase between this and another recent volume.

From the reviews I've read of earlier entries, Slocum and the Witch of Westlake is apparently a bit of a departure. Whereas Slocum previously has been described as cruel by some, in this 362nd novel featuring the character, he seems to have a very stringent moral code.

He refuses to be "hired muscle" and resists getting involved in personal quarrels until he can no longer avoid it. Even the obligatory three sex scenes focus on Slocum's pleasuring of the woman instead of on his own satisfaction. None of this should be construed as complaint, however. In fact, its rather refreshing to read about such a likable and charming fellow.

The story is quickly paced and action-oriented as is expected in this highly popular subgenre (one highlight in a fistfight in a jail cell). All the characters feel like real people where some series Western novels rely on ciphers and stereotypes. Minh, the witch herself, is especially well drawn, and the "curse" subplot is not overused in the place of a realistic narrative.

In addition, Slocum and the Witch of Westlake holds a rich vein of unexpected (and not unintended) humor in addition to some particularly snappy dialogue. I recently learned that it was author Marcus Galloway writing this time under the "Jake Logan" house name, and I am definitely going to seek out more of his work.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Cosmocopia by Paul Di Filippo and Jim Woodring

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2009. Reprinted with permission.

Frank Lazorg is a legendary artist of comics, book and album covers, movie posters, and more recently his own abstract ambitions. But since his stroke, he's done nothing new. Until one day he gets "a rather exotic foreign package with — an odd smell" containing a brick of red powder in the mail from an old acquaintance. This powder inspires Lazorg to begin painting again. But when he finds that things can never be as they once were, he has a "sudden impulse" that leads him into another world.

Author Paul Di Filippo has rather transparently used the career of another legend, Frank Frazetta as his model of Lazorg's career, but the similarities stop there (I hope). The fictional Walter Paisley (A Bucket of Blood) may have been another inspiration. But even as this synopsis summarizes the first few pages of Cosmocopia, Di Filippo's new 100-page novella offered in a stunning limited edition package from Payseur and Schmidt, it is only the beginning.

The novella hits the ground running — things are already really weird by page 16 — and Lazorg goes on a journey of highs and lows that lead him toward redemption. (These paths are so surprising and brilliantly original that I want don't want to spoil them by trying to lamely describe them.) Cosmocopia, like the best speculative fiction, offers a vision of another world while making strange-looking characters seem utterly familiar, especially in their personal struggles. And Di Filippo he has done a beautiful job creating a world in so few pages that is foreign yet familiar, and managed to place a love story — and a message of hope — at the center of it. (Interestingly, the title "Cosmocopia" is mentioned in DiFilippo's story "Science Fiction" from the 2003 anthology Witpunk, so this idea has apparently been percolating in the author's mind for some time.)

This terrific limited edition also includes two wonderful examples of the work of artist Jim Woodring. The centerpiece is a 513-piece jigsaw puzzle of Woodring's black-and-white surrealist painting entitled The Artist's Eye, but also of note is an 8" by 10" full-color print of a pulp-style magazine cover mockup showing the major catalytic event of the story (Lazorg's first venture into his new style). These two disparate items quickly and sharply showcase the range of Woodring's talent, as they do not appear to have come from the same hand.

The box has a complete image of The Artist's Eye, with a wraparound band signed by both Di Filippo and Woodring. The package comes to $65 USD, but it is such a beautiful presentation, worth revisiting dozens of times (with Di Filippo's novella alone being easily rereadable at least half that much, that it's really an investment. Payseur and Schmidt seem to be one of the few small presses actually offering products that are well worth the collectors' price tag.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Friday's Forgotten Story: "A First Blooding" by Max Brand (from The New Frontier edited by Joe R. Lansdale)

For more of Friday's Forgotten Books, visit Pattinase.

In 1987, an up-and-coming author named Joe R. Lansdale edited an anthology of Western short stories called The Best of the West, from which the Western Writers of America took all of that year's short-fiction Spur nominees. (If you're curious, Loren D. Estleman won for "The Bandit.")

A sequel was inevitable, and Lansdale served up The New Frontier two years later (dedicated to his "friend and favorite Western writer," T.V. Olsen). This follow-up had the same intention as its predecessor ("reaching for new horizons, new frontiers"), so it's interesting that it opens with a piece by Max Brand (née Frederick Faust), who died 45 years before its publication.

But "A First Blooding" is not a reprint; it's a 14-page excerpt pulled by Brand biographer William F. Nolan from Brand's unfinished Civil War novel, Wycherley (as yet still unpublished, since only 200 of its planned 600 pages were completed before the author's death). As one who has enjoyed all the Max Brand I've read to date, I leapt right into it.

"A First Blooding" consists of two connected vignettes wherein Yankee Lieutenant Allan Loring kills his first Rebel soldier then hears another executed. These two events are chronicled separately, and Brand seems to take two different approaches with them.

It doesn't feel much like a full story, but it is a very welcome look at the more serious writing Brand was doing before his death. In fact, the scene between Christopher Hodge and Major Acton was so effective the first time through that I went back immediately and read it again to see if I could discern how it was done.

This excerpt (only reprinted once to date, rather inappropriately in the Max Brand collection More Tales of the Wild West) certainly whets the appetite for more of Wycherley, and I, for one, would like to see it printed, however incomplete, as a testament to its author's continued ambition. (A master of the pulps, Faust deeply wanted to be taken seriously.) I'm as big a fan of his cowboy and Indian tales as anyone, but an author of Brand's stature should be appreciated for all facets of his career, and more writing like "A First Blooding" could help improve that.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Goodnight Trail by Ralph Compton (audio book read by Jim Gough) (Trail Drive series)

It took me a while to warm to the "Ralph Compton" style. When I first listened to the audiobook of Doomsday Rider, it seemed too much like the Western cliché for me to really realize what a good read it was, even though I had no trouble finishing it and instantly acquired its sequel, Vengeance Rider (which was even better). Compton's name stayed in my mind afterward, however, and when I was looking for another similar book to fill my commute, I picked up Rio Largo, and that was so terrific I was hooked.

The books carrying on Compton's "brand name" were enjoyable enough on their own, but it seemed time to try out the works of the man himself. Not long after, I came across a copy of The Goodnight Trail, the first in Compton's popular, long-running Trail Drive series. It was also Compton's debut novel and an auspicious one it seems.

June 1865 — Not long after the end of the Civil War, three men — Benton McCaleb, Brazos Gifford, and Will Elliot — hatch a plan to "make the gather" — herd the cattle that had gone maverick while the Civil War was being fought — and drive them up a new trail being blazed by Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving in what would eventually become known as the Goodnight-Loving Trail. (Goodnight invented that staple of the trail drive, the chuck wagon — not named after himself, as some people think, but because trail food was called chuck.)

But even herding cattle is action-packed for this crew under Compton's pen: they get involved in a family feud (Rebecca and Monte Nash against their father) and side with a Spanish-speaking Apache Indian named Goose in a continuing battle against "bloodthirsty Comanches". This adds three more to their team and offers Compton the chance to show his skill at mixing characters.

Not all of the characters become truly individual, because in general they aren't all that different from one another. They operate by the same code, and tend to react similarly to situations, but they have strong personalities if not necessarily separate ones. The most memorable ones are McCaleb, Rebecca Nash, and Goose. Compton inserts a few real people for variety, too. Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving play a fairly large role (not surprising, given the title), Judge Roy Bean even makes an appearance to dole out his particular brand of frontier justice.

The Goodnight Trail is a slice of life on the trail, and that's all it pretends to be. Don't expect any character arcs, or any real plot to speak of, and you'll be quite satisfied by this constantly moving combination of history and myth. Compton has an action-oriented style more than somewhat influenced by the pulps, and he makes time to throw in a little bit of a roughneck romance. I also enjoyed his insertion of useful tips on the trail. You will learn (among other things) how cauterize an arrow wound and the many alternate uses for grain alcohol.

If you have the chance, find a copy of the audiobook of The Goodnight Trail (with music and sound effects) read by Jim Gough. His authentic Texas drawl makes the story sound as if it was being told around a campfire, with coffee brewing and bacon frying. (If Gough had read my copy of Lonesome Dove, I may have actually been able to finish it.)

The Trail Drive series was originally conceived as a trilogy (and The Goodnight Trail leads right into the sequel, The Western Trail). But the series has grown (with help from modern writers) to around 20 books, contesting to the popularity of this subgenre. As of this writing, they are as follows.

By Ralph Compton:
1. The Goodnight Trail
2. The Western Trail
3. The Chisholm Trail
4. The Bandera Trail
5. The California Trail
6. The Shawnee Trail
7. The Virginia City Trail
8. The Dodge City Trail
9. The Oregon Trail
10. The Santa Fe Trail
11. The Old Spanish Trail
12. The Deadwood Trail
13. The Green River Trail

By modern authors:
14. The Dakota Trail by Robert Vaughan
15. The Alamosa Trail by Robert Vaughan
16. The Bozeman Trail by Robert Vaughan
17. The Abilene Trail by Dusty Richards
18. The Trail to Fort Smith by Dusty Richards
19. The Ogallala Trail by Dusty Richards
20. The Palo Duro Trail by Jory Sherman
21. The Ellsworth Trail by Jory Sherman
22. The Tenderfoot Trail by Joseph A. West
23. Trail to Cottonwood Falls by Dusty Richards

Friday, April 3, 2009

Hardboiled P.I. Quote of the Day (from The Big Kill by Mickey Spillane)

Sometimes you come across a passage that is just the perfect example of a particular type of writing. That's what I thought when I read this sentence from the third paragraph of page one of The Big Kill by Mickey Spillane:

She saw me sitting there with my stool tipped back against the cigarette machine and change of a fin on the bar, decided I could afford a wet evening for two and walked over with her hips waving hello.
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