Monday, August 30, 2010

Sea Fangs by L. Ron Hubbard (unabridged audio book performed by a full cast)

Bob Sherman, one-time land owner and boat captain, had his dreams taken away by Herbert Marmion, who commandeered Sherman's property for the U.S. government's use. Trying to get to the bottom of things, Sherman hires himself out as a sailor on Marmion's ship, the Bonito. A hurricane then tosses them about, bringing forth the captain's ineptitude and Marmion's daughter Phyllis, a black-haired beauty.

The ship eventually anchors, but on the Island of Death, the headquarters of Venezuelan pirates from whom Sherman just escaped after an 18-month imprisonment. ("It would be just like the sea to bring me back where I least want to return.") It looks like Sherman is destined for recapture, but the Bonito puts up a good defense when attacked, with eight full minutes of shells and bullets making "the air ... alive with lead" on this fantastic audio adaptation of author L. Ron Hubbard's novella Sea Fangs.

Sea Fangs is a relatively early short novel from Hubbard, appearing first in the June 1934 issue of Five Novels Monthly, so it's not as skillfully crafted as works like Six-Gun Caballero and Under the Diehard Brand that were published only four years later.

The cast of Sea Fangs is, as usual for these Galaxy Audio productions, generally first-rate, with Firesign Theatre alumnus Phil Proctor tackling three relatively prominent roles and director Jim Meskimen juggling five other supporting parts. The only real fault in the production lies with the lead actress. The heroine, Phyllis, as written by Hubbard, goes through numerous emotions from devotion to grief to fear, but Kristen Proctor never gives anything more than the same flat line-readings.

Miss Proctor's performance actually detracts from the story instead of adding insight to the character. She is never once believable as the clever, strong-willed woman of action Hubbard imagined. Protagonist Bob Sherman fares considerably better, though this is due more to narrator R.F. Daley's reading of Sherman's thoughts and actions than to Shane Johnson's effort with the dialogue. That said, the audiobook of Sea Fangs is still a fine way to pass two hours, especially if you're commuting and you'd rather be on the high seas than stuck in a sea of traffic.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Blue-Eyed Devil by Robert B. Parker (unabridged audio book read by Titus Welliver)

Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch have quite a history together. They kept the peace as deputy U.S. marshals in a town called Appaloosa, where Virgil fell in love with a woman named Allie. Then Everett left Appaloosa (for the obvious reason) and settled in Resolution, where he kept the peace in town on a less formal basis for basically the only local businessman. Virgil came along later on (after Allie left him) to visit and help out. Eventually the duo was aided by another pair of gunmen known as Kato and Rose.

Subsequently, the pair moved on to Brimstone, after hearing that Allie's last beau hadn't worked out and she'd gotten herself involved in prostitution. There they worked as deputy sheriffs until they rescued Allie from herself, in addition to helping out a young girl, a selective mute who will only choose to talk to Virgil, much to Allie's chagrin. At the end of Brimstone, the gang is headed back to Appaloosa.

Blue-Eyed Devil, the first novel in the series not to be named after the town in which it is set, begins on their third day back in Appaloosa, when chief of police Amos Callico lets them know in no uncertain terms that he is the one in charge. But he also offers them jobs working for him. When they decline Callico, they know he'll be trouble, and he is because Callico is running a "protection" racket, and those who don't want to pay look to Cole and Hitch for help.

Author Robert B. Parker approached Westerns in the same way he did his other novels: with long strings of dialogue and short chapters. This makes them not only fast reads -- though the laconic delivery of the characters can make them seem longer -- but also highly accessible to readers who may think they don't like Westerns. Actually, Virgil and Everett have a similar friendship as Parker's mystery heroes Spenser and Hawk: Everett is the narrator and main filter for the action, the relatable one, but Virgil, like Hawk, is the more mysterious and therefore more intriguing character.

Virgil Cole's skill with a firearm is legendary, and Parker gives it a mythic spin. Always calm and relaxed, Virgil's draw looks leisurely, but it is always faster than anyone else's. But my favorite aspect of the characters is that Virgil is well-read while Everett is well-educated. (Virgil regularly refers to Everett's time at West Point.) Neither is both, which means they often share knowledge with each other, and consequently with us. From the philosophy of Rousseau to the viability of the Macedonian phalanx in modern warfare, there is a lot to learn in Parker's Westerns in addition to terrific reads.

Blue-Eyed Devil is likely the final Parker Western, and that's too bad because these four novels have been some of my favorite reads of his. They are also some of the most readable modern Westerns available, and when an author of Parker's stature publishes a Western, it gives the genre some much-needed attention. The story as told comes full circle with new beginnings and old familiarities, but I wouldn't mind seeing the series continued by other hands.

The first name that comes to mind is that of Robert J. Randisi. Parker and Randisi share a skill with dialogue that says more than it seems to, and Randisi has also written his fair share of private-eye novels. Also, they both seem to follow the popular Strunk and White dictum to "omit needless words," resulting in the abovementioned brevity of dialogue and chapter. Because of these similarities, I think Randisi would be able to take over the series with little disruption, and I hope the publisher (and the author's estate) will consider this option to continue the Cole and Hitch stories.

Blue-Eyed Devil and the other three books in the series are read on audiobook by Titus Welliver, probably best known to Western fans as "Silas Adams" on the series Deadwood. Welliver has the perfect voice for these intelligent, confident, understated men: he stays out of the way and lets Parker's hardboiled Westerns speak for themselves and shine just like they do in print. Welliver's reading reminds me of that of the prolific Scott Brick's signature dysthymic delivery (see Vendetta), and he should translate well to other genres in the same way Brick does.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Twilight and New Moon by Stephenie Meyer (unabridged audio books read by Ilyana Kadushin)

Curiosity gets me every time. I often feel compelled to try to understand the appeal of popular literary and cinematic phenomena. I've read and seen many things I was not actually interested in, just for that reason.

Many of them proved to be major disappointments, such as Forrest Gump, The Da Vinci Code, and The Dark Knight. But some have led me to a long-lasting appreciation of their respective merits, like The Crying Game and the Harry Potter novels.

Despite its apparently huge success, I had never even heard of the Twilight saga until the fourth one, Breaking Dawn, was being published, but with all the unavoidable hype surrounding the release of the film adaptations, I decided I needed to see what the big deal was. I started with the first one, Twilight, read on unabridged audiobook by Ilyana Kadushin (You've Been Warned) — and I was completely drawn in.

In case you don't know, Twilight begins the story of Bella Swan, who leaves her soon-to-be-remarried mother to move in with her father, the chief of police of Forks, Washington. Bella is a clumsy teenager who is inevitably drawn to the pale and mysterious Edward Cullen, one of a "family" of vampires who abstain from human blood. (Their patriarch, Carlisle, is even a doctor devoted to saving lives.)

Author Stephenie Meyer draws the complicated relationship between Bella and Edward with affectionate detail as they navigate the multiple conflicts inherent in a vampire–human romance. And don't think for a moment that Twilight isn't a romance — fans of the brutal variety of bloodsucker should stay away. But I was completely absorbed by Meyer's easy prose and Bella's engaging narration enough to go straight on to the next book.

New Moon begins with the Cullens' moving away from Forks to avoid putting Bella in more danger after a birthday celebration for her goes horribly awry. But Bella can't stand being away from Edward. She gets pretty whiny and mopey here, and I almost stopped listening, but reader Kadushin fully embodies the feeling in the text to the point that I began to feel genuine sympathy for Bella, so I stuck it out.

Bella even begins to do reckless things simply in order to hear Edward's advising voice in her head. This includes buying a couple of motorcycles, something her father would be extremely against. So, she hides them at the home of her childhood friend, Jacob Black. Anyone who has seen the trailer to the New Moon film will know that werewolves are a part of this story, but none show up for ten chapters. So, as with vampire aficionados, lycanthrope lovers may be bored.

In the meantime, Meyer fills the space with the deepening friendship between Bella and the two-years-younger Jacob as he slowly falls in love with her. This will lead to the triangular conflict so often discussed by fans of the series as Bella sees the benefits and drawbacks of each individual, and they both fight to stay uppermost in her mind.

References to Romeo and Juliet abound, both subtle and trite (the first book was reportedly styled upon Pride and Prejudice), and New Moon is generally a weaker offering than Twilight, but it presents information and relationship development that is built upon later in the series, and it is still an absorbing, if not particularly well-written, read.

I only got about four chapters into the third book, Eclipse, before putting it down in favor of other books, but it does attempt to draw me back into its thrall occasionally. Luckily, it's not a complex story, so it is easy to exit and reenter with little loss of comprehension. But at this point, I feel I know enough about the draw of the series through Twilight and New Moon to not have to see it to its conclusion.

At least not right now....

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Corpse King by Tim Curran (#21 in the Cemetery Dance Novella Series)

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2010. Reprinted with permission.

In a city of filth, the dead are for sale. Samuel Clow and his partner Mickey Kierney are traders in mortality, spending their nights digging up the freshly dead for the benefit of science and their wallets. One night they get lucky and come across a shallow mass grave of cholera victims — 30 in all.

Clow and Kierney are off to cash in at old Dr. Gray's when they see something strange — and for these blokes to call something "strange" is saying a lot. The mythical Corpse King is rising. The lord of the dead, bane of resurrectionists everywhere, has struck again, laughing its hysterical laugh.

The Corpse King is the twenty-first in Cemetery Dance Publications' popular series of limited-edition hardcover novellas. It has ultra-creepy cover art by Alan Clark and intensely disturbing, almost photo-realistic interior illustrations by Keith Minnion.

Author Tim Curran paints the Irish slums of Edinburgh, Scotland, with a muddy brush, "a mud swimming with the filth of ... seepage from backed-up sewers ... emptied privy pails, offal from the slaughteryards ... a seething organic brew of feces, urine, blood ... a ripe and heady breeding ground for contagious disease." (Must be hard to sell real estate with a ringing endorsement like that.)

In fact, there's so much illness that the cemeteries are overflowing. Bodies just pile up — as hidden from sight as possible (or convenient) — while Clow and Kierney take advantage to get funds for their nightly imbibitions.

At first, the pair take a brave tack: they simply refuse to believe in the Corpse King's existence, diving back into their ghastly work. But a thing that eats corpses cuts into the livelihood of enterprising individuals trafficking in the freshly dead. So, the duo take it upon themselves to bait and destroy the culprit, whatever it may be.

This chase takes up a good portion of the plot of The Corpse King — and it is a frightening, suspenseful ride — but the main draw of the novella is the partnership of Clow and Kierney themselves. They've obviously been working together for some time, as they have an easy-going, mildly competitive manner with one another.

Their verbal jousts over who had the worst childhood — Four Yorkshiremen–style — are a highlight. They're wickedly witty and uproariously rude as they engage in a sort of "one-downmanship":

"Me old man used to beat me severely about the ears with his fists and I think he knocked something loose up there, he did."

"Cor, he only used his fists?"

"Unless a fire poker was near, you see."

"Me old man was the same way. Used a barrel stave on me, he did.... The old sod. I used to wake each morning with a stream of his vile piss in me face, except on me birthday when he'd dump the entire chamber pot on me as a gift. It's with great love and respect that I remember me father."

"Aye, enough then, Michael Kierney. If you were to peel an onion beneath me nose I could cry no more."

"You're a kind man, Samuel Clow."
Curran seems to have a quiver full of remarks, retorts, and ripostes layered with humorous hyperbole and gallows humor (literally, during the hanging of a fellow graverobber) that engenders an affection for these companions that grounds the abnormal goings-on in a relatable reality. One begins to care about the filthy buggers, especially when compared to the people around them.

As a result, The Corpse King is more than just a horror tale. It's also a tragic portrait of friendship. When Curran began leading the story toward its inevitable end, I just held on because I knew I was in the hands of a master.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Guest Blogger: James Mowery: EBooks in Today's Online Market

James Mowery is a computer geek who writes about technology and related topics. To read more blog posts by him, go to led tv.

Books are generally considered “old media”: they are not very current, don’t update very easily, and are generally an antique way to transfer and store knowledge. However, technology is infiltrating the book market, just like everything else, and is changing the way we read books. The idea of storing large amounts of text digitally is not particularly new or innovative, but storing and reading whole books digitally is a recently new trend.

The development of eBook readers is what has really allowed this. Digital book readers, which have special screens that don’t cause eye strain, are the recent innovation that has allowed for eBooks to really become popular and penetrate the market. Amazon has reported that it sells more eBooks than hardcover books, which is a huge indicator of just how big the eBook market is.

Apple iPadMost eBook readers use a special eInk screen which is black and white and doesn’t refresh very fast. This limits the display on those devices to traditional text-only books. However, newer devices like the iPad have full-color displays that have the potential to allow for other types of content.

Right now, most eBooks are books that are published primarily in print form and simply copied into eBook form. As eBook readers become more popular, it may be possible to design eBooks specifically with the device in mind.

New features could include embedded photos or videos that accompany the text, or even how-to guides or applications that could help you do something else on your reader. Social media integration seems almost inevitable in the future of eBooks. The digitization of books provides a promising feature filled with new technology.

This article copyright © 2010 James Mowery.

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Tilting House by Tom Llewellyn

When the real estate agent shows the Peshik family Tilton House, she is honest about the flaws: the floors tilt at a three-degree angle, and they were designed that way; the walls and floors are covered in script and drawings of a scientific and artistic nature. But the wood is gorgeous, and the price is certainly right — especially when the agent (desperately, it seems) shaves $20,000 off the asking price — so, they take it.

Then weird things start happening, and not just the kleptomaniacal leanings of the mumbling neighbor known only as Purple Door Man. I mean, weird things like the brutal murder of a Rattus rattus, resulting in the victim's father (Mr. Daga by name) getting so peeved he gives Mr. Peshik a talking-to then sells off his rare coin collection (the rat's, that is) so he can buy the house next door and relocate his remaining family.

Oh, and let's not forget the pair of undertakers who go around town, delivering their business cards, one at a time, to the person who'll die tomorrow. Author Tom Llewellyn's debut novel, The Tilting House, continues in this mostly episodic fashion, telling various stories presented as the events of the day, with the next day (or thereabouts) bringing on the next story. This not only makes it easy to find a stopping place if you need to put the book down for a spell, but it also makes the strangeness a little easier to take instead of all at one.

The Tilting House is geared toward readers in the 9-12 age group, but this much older reader found himself swept up in the linearly presented vignettes. There's a little of everything here: suspense, humor, adventure, horror, mystery, and a lot of heart. Llewellyn's story is imaginative and just weird enough to keep the reader interested, but it is also grounded in the realities (such as they are) of a family trying to get used to a new house.

What does Grandpa's leg share with their dining-room set? Why does the dimmer switch bring reporters around? What are the "deadly" consequences of the mysterious "grow powder" found inside the box in the attic? Who was the mysterious F.T. Tilton, and why did he write all over his house? The answers to these and other questions reside in The Tilting House. The result is a sort of House of Leaves for the grammar-school set. One thing is for sure: you'll never see moss the same way again.

Monday, August 2, 2010

The Trouble with Tramps: An Orrie Hitt Homage by Michael Hemmingson (Black Mask Books)

"You wanna know what the trouble with tramps is?" he said to me.

"Sure," I said. A good bartender always listens.

"A tramp is always a tramp. They try to fool you, they may even fool themselves. They think they've changed and maybe they want to, they say it's all behind in the past, but deen down, down their rotten cores, they're still tramps. They are born tramps and will die tramps."

Upon finishing author Michael Hemmingson's recent story collection This Other Eden, I was very interested in other works by him. But after reading such serious stuff, I was surprised to come across a romp like The Trouble with Tramps -- a pastiche of the work of author Orrie Hitt, the "Shakespeare of sleaze" who made a career of chronicling the foibles of ne'er-do-wells in his paperback originals of the 1950s and '60s.

Hemmingson is a bit of a Hitt scholar. He runs the blog Those Sexy Vintage Sleaze Books, where he has made a study of this kind of feverish writing over the past year, focusing primarily on the work of Orrie Hitt and the early years of Robert Silverberg. So, the man knows his stuff.

The Trouble with Tramps is the story of Jack Card — resident of Hittsville ("Just a stone's toss from Port Jervis") — and how he juggles his relationships with three women: his lush tramp wife Kay, his pregnant underage tramp girlfriend Lucy, and his new tramp lover Eve, who wants Jack to kill her important-businessman husband, while trying to write pulp stories in whatever free time he has.

Jack's two-hour lunch with Eve has cost him his job, which brings his problems into sharp focus. "It was the spring of 1957 and I had $52.50 to my name, with a frigid wife to support, a teenage lover to keep, and I was falling for a married woman who spent more money in a day than I did in a month."

To go into much more of the plot would ruin the fun of the reading, and The Trouble with Tramps is indeed a great deal of fun. It reads like it was written in one long burst of inspiration, but the prose is so sharp and pointed that there must have been a great deal of craft involved.

Hemmingson's skill with dialogue and character shines through, and the "sleaze" aspect is deftly handled. It's sexy without being silly and racy without resorting to raunch. Even the ending, obviously meant to shock, is done as tastefully as possible.

Plus, there's the fact that The Trouble with Tramps is so obviously a labor of love. Since most authors copy their favorite writer at some point, that Hemmingson's has been published for us to read is special indeed. I know it's made me curious for more of the work of both Hitt and Hemmingson. So, in that way, it's a good read and a terrific promotional piece.

Nitpicker's Note: For those who care about such things — and I know many people do not — this book could have really used another set of eyes to look it over. There are at least a dozen typos that are blatantly obvious — and one missing S from the beginning of "He lay down on top of me" changes the whole meaning of the sentence.

Now, I'm not saying it's anything on the scale of the story of Jose Saramago's The History of the Siege of Lisbon, where an inserted "not" effectively changes history. But, as one who instantly notices such details — that's how I became a copyeditor in the first place — it tended to take me out of the story somewhat, and The Trouble with Tramps deserves better.
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