Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Genre Fiction Sale! 36 "Summer Reads" for $2.00 from Dorchester Publications through July 30th.


Friday, June 18, 2010

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace (unabridged audio book read by the author and others)

This audiobook is read by Bobby Cannavale, Michael Cerveris, Josh Charles, Will Forte, Malcolm Goodwin, John Krasinski, Christopher Meloni, Chris Messina, Max Minghella, Dennis O'Hare, Lou Taylor Pucci, Ben Shenkman, Joey Slotnick, Corey Stoll, and David Foster Wallace.

The first story on the audiobook of author David Foster Wallace's short-story collection Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, "Death Is Not the End," seems to have been designed as a test to see if the listener is truly prepared for Wallace's fiction. The late author reads, but his narrative is so robotic as to be obnoxious. This is only intensified by the story's merely being a series of digressions (including the author's signature footnotes) with no real destination.

"Forever Overhead" is more successful, primarily because it covers a longer period of time: a 13-year-old's birthday spent at a public pool with his family. Wallace's incisive observations are keen, but his reading once again detracts from the piece -- or maybe it was because a glitch on my copy has caused most of track 5 on disc 1 to be a duplication of a later part of the story that shouldn't have played yet and that I therefore had to listen to twice.

Then there are the titular "Brief Interviews," in which we hear only the answers to a series of unheard questions. (These would be great for audition monologues.) There's the guy who shouts, "Victory to the forces of democratic freedom" upon orgasm; the guy whose "proclivities" originate from his father's need to be restrained from his own violence; a very personal interview with the questioner's boyfriend, who is tired of the questioner's insecurities....

Wallace's talent lies in showing everything, leaving nothing to the imagination, and punctuating it with wry humor and intensifying surprises. (Except in one special case where the final surprise is left up to the listener to figure out.)

...the pot grower who professes to know the difference between a great lover and a great lover; the guy who calls his shriveled arm "the asset"; the son of a washroom attendant; the fellow who argues that rape broadens the mind; the military brat whose supernatural masturbatory fantasies originate from a childhood fascination with Bewitched....

Wallace's fiction oozes pretensions, though Brief Interviews with Hideous Men is never unlistenable. Sometimes it's overlong and feels too much like hard work, but it's entertaining. And every so often there's a true gem, a piece so complete that it's like being rewarded for the effort of the rest. Even the title of "Suicide as a Sort of Present" adds to instead of just summarizing the experience.

...the man who loves everything about women; the duo arguing over how difficult it is to deduce what women want, given what you're working with; the guy who finds a "flake" more fascinating when he hears her rape story. The mere breadth of hideousness contained here is remarkable.

This new, unabridged edition of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men — the portions read by Wallace are taken from a previous, abridged recording — has evidently been produced to tie in with the recent film version adapted and directed by John Krasinski (best known as Jim Halpert from The Office). It includes several cast members performing their roles from the film.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Rio Desperado by Gordon D. Shirreffs (Western novella)

Burke Dane had to cut down his lynched younger half-brother Charley Mayo. Not he's on the hunt for the sidewinder that did it. The only thing Burke has to go on is the braided rawhide rope that Charley was hanged with.

Looking for more evidence, he comes across a fellow in danger and saves his life. His name is Jesse Lester, and he and Burke become tenuous friends. At least until Burke finds out that Jesse was in his predicament because he was looking for something: "a damned good rawhide reata" borrowed by an amigo who lost it.

Author Gordon D. Shirreffs is a little-remembered name now, but he was once a Western powerhouse, producing over 70 novels during his 40-year career, including the classic Quint Kershaw trilogy of mountain-man novels, The Untamed Breed, Bold Legend, and Glorieta Pass. Modern Western writers like Robert J. Randisi, James Reasoner, Jory Sherman, Mike Linaker, and Peter Brandvold list him as a major influence in their interviews on Western Fiction Review.

Those who like a mystery in their Westerns will enjoy Rio Desperado as Burke goes "undercover" to find the one(s) responsible for Charley's death — and find the $5,000 he was last seen with, to deliver it to Charley's wife and children. The book shows how there are some things that can't be done alone, and deals that must be made and followed through on.

The edition of Rio Desperado I read was packaged as a novel, but at 120 pages of relatively large print, it is little more than a novella. I was not surprised to learn that it was originally published as one half of an Ace Double, along with Voice of the Gun, also by Shirreffs.

But genre-fiction readers know that the novella is often the peak of storytelling. I often prefer novels, but the novella lets the story set its own length and pace, without concession to sales potential. Of course, once complete, its only usual option is to be collection in a book with others of its kind, unless, like Shirreffs' was even in 1988, your name is draw enough to sell one on its own.

Rio Desperado is fast-paced but does not stint on character. Dane is nicely complex, and Shirreffs keeps the mysterious nature in most of the supporting cast until it is their time. Shirreffs also doesn't shy away from the honesty of life in the Old West, like how Lester's sister "likes nice things" but hasn't "got a dime," so she uses what she does have. ("'I've got some stock-in-trade.' She looked down at her lovely body. 'Something Clete Hinch is mighty interested in.... I'm free, white and over twenty-one. You do your type of mankilling and I'll do mine, Jesse.')"

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Merkabah Rider: Tales of a High Planes Drifter by Edward M. Erdelac (weird Western novella collection)

I've recently developed an appreciation for the "weird Western," defined generally as a Western with supernatural elements. The first one I remember reading was Joe R. Lansdale's early novel Dead in the West, which features a zombie attack on a small settlement. Lansdale later wrote for the legendary comic Jonah Hex and is known as one of the main progenitors of the subgenre, along with the astonishingly prolific and influential Robert E. Howard.

Recently, I reviewed Paul Green's Encyclopedia of Weird Westerns, and it really opened my eyes to all that has been and can be called a weird Western, from Star Wars, Avatar, and Firefly to Edgar Rice Burroughs's John Carter series, Lynne Reid Banks's Indian in the Cupboard books, and TV's The Wild, Wild West. I have since spent a good deal of time pursuing new reading.

Merkabah Rider: Tales of a High Planes Drifter is a quartet of connected novellas set in 1879 by author Edward M. Erdelac. When the Merkabah Rider comes into town, he is unmistakable as a Jew with his black clothing, long beard, flat-brimmed hat, and curly payos (forelocks). But this Hasidic gunslinger is a mystic who can leave his body and kick ass with his Volcanic pistol on the astral plane — actually better than he does on the terrestrial plane. (Merkabah refers to the prophet Ezekiel's vision of an angel-driven chariot.)

Erdelac does a fantastic job threading Jewish mysticism and otherworldliness into what is otherwise a very authentic traditional Western. Merkabah Rider contains four "tales of a high planes drifter," each of which stands on its own yet tells a continuing story that builds as it progresses.

Obviously inspired by the television series Kung Fu, Merkabah Rider showcases a lone figure — the last of his order — traveling with his onager (as unshorn as The Rider's own payos) on the search for his teacher. He stops in various locales in the Arizona Territory and, like a Hasidic Mike Hammer, helping people by taking on responsibilities that aren't his because of a powerful sense of right and wrong. Then he stoically continues on his way. This conceit leaves a lot of room for varying kinds of stories, and Erdelac takes advantage of the flexibility.

The first "episode," "The Blood Libel," sees The Rider entering the town of Delirium Tremens (I said it was good; I didn't say it was subtle) in the midst of a rash of child kidnappings supposedly perpetrated by the residents of the nearby Jewish settlement. The Rider learns of idol worshipers and must confront the leader in the way only he can. Erdelac keeps the suspense high, especially after the Rider transcends his physical form and must finish his task and get back before some pissed-off locals lynch his unresponsive body.

In "The Dust Devils," a dust storm sends the Rider and his onager seeking shelter in nearby Polvo Arido ("dry dust"), where a bandito jefe and a brujo negro rule with evil intent. The magic man's demonic dust storm was supposed to keep people out, so the pair knows they need to get rid of this powerful intruder before he discovers their secret. But The Rider has help, too, and he's ready for a supernatural showdown.

"Hell's Hired Gun" finds The Rider stopping at a mission for water and instead finding all the residents brutally murdered -- the handiwork of one Medgar Tooms, whom the cerdos malos follow. An old priest with a heavy sin on his head is on hand to help. And "The Nightjar Women" sees The Rider in Tip Top, where demon babies are born dead and no children survive. It is a place where a lovely lady can be both a joy and a horror.

Merkabah Rider manages a wonderful balance of physical, intellectual, and spiritual conflicts, providing plenty of action on multiple planes. Visits from the demon Molech, legendary first woman Lilith, a future Mrs. Wyatt Earp, and even Robert E. Howard's "Kelly the Conjure-Man" heighten the experience.

In each episode, the reader learns more details about the history of The Rider and his master, who is difficult to locate because even The Rider only knew him as Adon ("Lord"). Knowing one's real name gives someone power over you, so when The Rider meets an entity who knows his, he knows he's in trouble. We also learn why the Rider is looking for Adon and what the master did that was so bad along with our hero's real name.

The stories contained in Merkabah Rider: Tales of a High Planes Drifter are intelligent and gripping, with enough action to escape and enough history and mysticism to educate. The four novellas combine to create a fully engrossing cycle that combines research and fiction skillfully; the facts never feel "pasted in." Erdelac show himself to be a potential new addition to the ranks of Howard and Lansdale, and I look eagerly forward to further adventures of this last Son of the Essenes so I can follow this thoroughly engaging and original character on even more astral adventures.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Wilderness by David Robbins writing as David Thompson (mountain man series of Western novels)

The first of David Robbins's Wilderness novels (published under the pseudonym David Thompson) that I read was number one: King of the Mountain, which tells of Nate King's journey west (accompanied by his uncle Zeke) away from his old life to begin a new one in the mountains in 1828. The next one I read was a lot more recent. And I've got to tell you: skipping around in a series is asking for confusion.

Fifty-nine books later, a lot has happened. At first, I was confused and thought that the character of Zach that plays the main role in The Outcast (#60 in the series) was the uncle from King of the Mountain — Zach, Zeke: you see the problem — but it turns out he is Nate's grown son by his wife Winona. (In fact, Nate is not even in this book, except by mention.)

Since Winona is full-blooded Shoshone, Zach's half-breed status lends him a notoriously hot temper. So, when his own (pregnant) wife, Louisa, is kidnapped by a Blood Indian cast out from his tribe for an "unthinkable" act, somebody's going to die! Meanwhile, a small band of Tun-kua (Heart Eaters) are on the hunt for vengeance, and Shakespeare McNair nurses his Flathead wife, Blue Water Woman, back to health after she is injured trying to rescue Louisa.

Author David Robbins's Westerns have a devoted following of both male and female readers, which is surprising for a genre believed to have a primarily male fan base (older-male judging by the sheer number of large-print titles available). Some suggest Robbins's more balanced readership is because of the genuine emotion his characters show for one another, and this may be true, but a good story also simply transcends gender.

The Outcast has characters that are devoted to one another, and this speaks to the traditional (some would say "old-fashioned") expectations of couples: the man wants to protect, and the woman wants the security of protection. At the same time, the action rarely lets up, with another conflict arising as soon as the last one has been surmounted.

The saga of the King family (plus McNair) is now almost 20 years old, and Robbins / Thompson shows no signs of slowing down. (In addition to his Wilderness books, he is also the primary writer for the Trailsman series of action Westerns published under the house name Jon Sharpe, as well as others under his own name.)

I was already looking forward to reading my next Wilderness, wherever in the series it took place, when I learned that #62, The Tears of God, was inspired by one of Robbins's favorite writers, Robert E. Howard. As Howard is also one of my favorites, I instantly knew that one had to be next. Interestingly, the cover of Tears of God was previously used on a Trailsman novel, Colorado Carnage, which was also written by Robbins.)

On a search for his daughter Evelyn, Nate King and his friend Shakespeare McNair (so nicknamed for his predilection of quoting the Bard at opportune moments, and otherwise) find she's been escorted by Jeremiah Blunt, who is taking supplies to a group of Shakers in the Valley of Skulls — a "no man's land" so desolate, dangerous, and "evil" that even the Indians avoid it.

Nate sends Evelyn home with Shakespeare and offers to guide Blunt to the Valley since he knows the area and its dangers. But it's Nate's presence that endangers them first because they run into Kuruk, a Pawnee whose uncle Nate killed in self-defense, and Kuruk and some of his friends want revenge. The Shakers don't know what they're in for, though they believe everything is "God's will" even as one of their number is eaten by a grizzly. And Nate tries to encourage them to stay safe, even as he continues to defend himself from Kuruk's attacks.

I definitely see the Robert E. Howard influence in the Valley of Skulls, and though everything can be given a natural explanation, there is a definite air of the supernatural throughout The Tears of God, which would also put it firmly in "weird Western" territory. (Paul Green, author of the Encyclopedia of Weird Westerns, would no doubt file it under the "weird menace Western.")

The Tears of God takes up the story after #61, The Scalp Hunters, but my enjoyment of it did not diminish from not having read that book. One of the main draws of the series is how Robbins/Thompson captures both the adventure and danger of life in the wilderness. He does not shy away from the realities. When the hungry grizzly attacks a Shaker woman, we see the aftermath fully. It's a shocking, even horrific, scene and one that does not judge the bear or the woman. That kind of even-handed writing is rare, and is one reason I'll continue to seek out these books.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Big Rock Candy Mountain by Wallace Stegner (unabridged audio book read by Mark Bramhall)

When her widowed father marries her best friend Sarah, Elsa Norgaard, disgusted, moves from her Minnesota home to her uncle Carl's house in Hardanger, North Dakota. There she meets Harry "Bo" Mason, and they begin a life that covers the early years of the 20th century.

Author Wallace Stegner's novel The Big Rock Candy Mountain focuses on the couple in a connected series of vignettes, broken by gaps in time but told chronologically from the characters' points of view. At first, these are primarily Bo and Elsa. Then, when they get older, their sons Chester and Bruce take the stage.

Bo is a rolling stone with an itch to make it big whatever the risk and wherever he can find "the big rock candy mountain": the "land of milk and honey" where "rivers run gold" and gambles pay off in spades and not just frustration. (The book's title comes from a song describing a hobo's idea of heaven.) To that end, he runs a series of blind pigs (places that secretly sold liquor during Prohibition) and other projects that take him and the family to different locations.

Bo tries to find the balance between security and predictability, and having the wanderlust and a fiery temper. This has both immediate and long-ranging consequences for him and his family that culminate in the fallout of a tragic event near the end of the book. Stegner reportedly based The Big Rock Candy Mountain on his own family, and long, detailed digressions from the main story into family history lend the book the feel of a saga.

At the end of the book, Bruce (Stegner's representation of himself) tries to understand the motives of his father and the actions he took, and The Big Rock Candy Mountain is a testament to his success at this. Fictionalizing the characters allows for separation that lets him get deep into the thoughts of these people and creates a novel of lasting impact.

Blackstone Audio has recently produced a selection of Stegner audiobooks. Mark Bramhall reads The Big Rock Candy Mountain. With just a slight change of voice, he manages to capture each character's individuality and brings gravity to the narration. All of this results in a literary experience that I found unexpectedly engrossing, as I could not seem to spend much time away from these people and wanted to get back to them as soon as possible.

Even now, having completed the book, I find myself thinking about its characters now and again as if I actually knew them. The fact that this was Stegner's second novel, published when he was 34 (with portions written even earlier as short stories), makes it all the more impressive.

Wallace Stegner has written a novel that will please fans of literary fiction and historical fiction (including longer Westerns). And I think it would be especially well recommended to those who enjoyed the Little House on the Prairie series but would like something a little more grown-up. The Big Rock Candy Mountain is all of that and more.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Crossroads by L. Ron Hubbard (unabridged audio book performed by a full cast)

These days, the name of L. Ron Hubbard is largely connected with Scientology and the antics of some of its more "outspoken" members, overshadowing the fact that the man really knew how to tell an entertaining story and did so professionally for many years. All 150 of the short stories and novels Hubbard wrote for the pulp magazines of the 1930s and '40s are being rereleased in paperback and audiobook under the evocative title Stories from the Golden Age.

I'm focusing on the audiobooks. They are a professionally produced combination of traditional narration (deftly handled primarily by R.F. Daley) and old-time radio, with skilled actors playing the characters (often multiple roles) and genre-specific music and sound effects rounding out the experience.

The Crossroads contains three novellas. In the title story (originally published in the February 1941 issue of Unknown), Farmer Eben Smith is paid by the government for not growing crops during the "acute economic situation." But he's not paid enough, so he decides to take a load of vegetables to the city (where he's read people are starving, despite the official cries of "surplus") to see what he can get in trade.

With little idea where to go except "south," he packs up his horse Lucy's wagon and heads off, leaving wife Maria to mind the home. As night overtakes Eben and Lucy, they come to a crossroads with no clue which road to take. One road is concrete, one is full of boulders, one is shiny metal, and one simply continues the dirt road that they came on.

Perplexed by the choices, and by the fact that the sun is suddenly overhead (which he blames on the government), Eben settles down to eat lunch, take a nap, and wait for someone else to come along. And, boy, do they!

Corey Burton excels in his performance as Eben, and director Jim Meskimen once again shows the breadth of his talent by tackling five very distinct supporting roles, none of which are recognizable as the same actor. "The Crossroads" is also quite funny as Eben uses his shrewd business tactics to read each visitor and get the best deal ... for a while, anyway. Even a head for business doesn't do much against a break in the space-time continuum.

In "Borrowed Glory" (which originally appeared in the October 1941 issue of Unknown Worlds), Tuffaron the mad genie hates humans; Georgie the angel loves them. Among the angel's powers are her ability to give everything someone wants for 48 hours, after which it is all taken back except the memory of it. She believes that this is enough to impart lasting happiness, while the genie scoffs that is will only make for more misery.

They, of course, make a wager, and Georgie soon visits Meredith Smith, and aging spinster with nothing to show for her years -- no good or bad memories, just years of work and loneliness. The next 48 hours are like a fairy tale with riches, luxury, and everlasting love ... just not the way you think.

Director Tait Ruppert tackles the role of Tuffaron and four other supporting roles, while Jennifer Darling has the daunting task of having a conversation with herself as both Georgie and Meredith. R.F. Daley narrates, and Edoardo Ballerini makes for an appealing love interest as Thomas Crandall.

The final story is "Devil's Rescue." Bucko mate Edward Lanson (who was captain for 5 days after the rest of the crew died) has been floating on the open seas for 21 days. Having barely overtaken the urge toward cannibalism, he's beginning to wonder if continuing life is the right decision.

Then he is rescued by a ship that is strangely unmodern. Its captain, Vanderbeck, shows nothing but admiration for his survival skills, and Lanson is about to finally relax when a mysterious stranger comes on board, there to claim Lanson for his own.

Hubbard combines the sea adventure with the ghost story (and shades of The Seventh Seal years before that movie was released) to produce quite a ripping yarn in "The Devil's Rescue," though the ending is a bit anticlimactic. The audio is terrific, with realistic (and unobtrusive) sound effects and solid acting from the whole cast.

Narrator R.F. Daley carries the first half by getting into Lanson's head. Martin Yurchak delivers Lanson's dialogue unremarkably, but that is right for an everyman character like this. Director Jim Meskimen uses his skill with accents as Vanderbeck and two others, and Enn Reitel is suitably intimidating as the character referred to in the text only as He. His voice is an excellent combination of the debonair quality of Stephen Fry and the resonance of Christopher Lee, making Him very easy to visualize ... and fear.

All in all, The Crossroads is another fine collection of audio adaptations from the Stories from the Golden Age collection. Fans of pulp fiction and/or old-time radio will find this a highly diverting listen.
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