Sunday, July 19, 2009

Darwin's Origin of Species by Janet Browne (unabridged audio book read by Josephine Bailey)

Notable Charles Darwin biographer Janet Browne (Voyaging and The Power of Place) focuses on the evolutionist's landmark work in Darwin's Origin of Species, part of the Books That Changed the World series from Atlantic Monthly/Grove Press. Browne lightly covers the history and legacy of the work from Darwin's first inspirations to the controversy that followed the 1859 publications of On the Origin of Species to its effects on science to the present day. She only hits the high points, making it ideal for beginners to the subject.

Refreshingly, Browne is not afraid to cover some of the more embarrassing consequences of On the Origin of Species (like eugenics), making Darwin's Origin of Species a well-rounded "biography" and a perfect stepping stone into deeper investigation. Browne's prose is dry by necessity — after all, she's trying to cover a lot of information in a few words: about 200 years in the same number of pages. Reader Josephine Bailey does her best, but she still ends up sounding like a lecturer (though since Browne is a professor, perhaps that was the intent).

This year, the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species and also the 200th anniversary of its author's birth, would seem to be an ideal time to revive appreciation of both. Darwin's Origin of Species certainly piqued my curiosity, especially regarding some of Darwin's later works. The next one I intend to tackle is the particularly intriguing The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, Darwin's 1872 study tying human psychology with evolution.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Drood by Dan Simmons (audio book read by Simon Prebble)

Author Dan Simmons's novel Drood ostensibly tells the story of the last five years of Charles Dickens's life — focusing on the events inspiring his classic unfinished novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood — as told by his close friend and fellow author Wilkie Collins.

That summary is all well and good if you're a bookseller trying to move product based on a familiar author's name and work. But Dan Simmons has produced something much more intriguing than that little attempt at conciseness would lead you to believe.

Simmons's greatest achievement is his accomplished characterization of the true protagonist, Wilkie Collins. Simmons has allowed Collins plenty of room to breathe, and to stick his own foot in his mouth. Simmons shows all of Collins's facets, and even allows him to be mostly unlikable while still managing to retain the reader's interest and sympathy. Collins's narrative voice feels so true, it's as if you could try out Collins's own novels (like The Woman in White or The Moonstone) and it feel like revisiting an old friend.

Simmons also exercises his usual firm control over the setting — something he has excelled at since his debut, Song of Kali. In Drood, Victorian England is as much a character as its people, and Simmons's portrait is as detailed as a pointillist painting.

At first I was disappointed by the direction Simmons was taking. But I slowly realized that this was due to my own preconceptions. What had happened was the author had circumvented my expectation and was going in a different direction, taking me completely by surprise. I love it when an author sneaks up on me like that. from that point on, I was willing to let Simmons lead me where he wished, and it became much clearer what an astoundingly original novel Drood really is. Simmons uses history as a starting point but adheres closely only when it suits him. Yet at no point does Drood veer off into the unbelievable.

Audiobook reader Simon Prebble's embodiment of Collins is nothing short of phenomenal. Prebble's skill with various regional British accents adds depth to Simmons's characterizations (though he seems to have learned his Chinese accent from Ben Wright on radio's Have Gun, Will Travel). Prebble also gets the often-dry humor across that written text often does not. His reading of Drood is sure to be an award contender, and I'll be going immediately in search of other audios by him.

It takes time to travel the twisty, treacherous path Simmons has designed, but the destination is far more than worth it. Simmons's characterization of Collins transcends any interest in Dickens the reader originally had, leaving one with doubts and sadness along with a new insight into the antagonistic friendship between a greater and lesser writer. It's hard to predict these kinds of things in advance, but Drood feels like a modern classic.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Guest Blogger: Ridley Pearson, author of Killer Summer

Today, I have the honor of welcoming author Ridley Pearson to the pages of Somebody Dies. His latest novel is Killer Summer, the third in his series featuring Sheriff Walt Fleming. Below, Pearson has some very interesting things to say about the origins of the character.

When Real Life Characters Inhabit Fiction

It's interesting and challenging to write "about" a real-life character, especially one who has been a friend for the past twenty-plus years. I first met Idaho's Blaine County Sheriff, Walt Femling (the fictional Sheriff Walt Fleming in the Killer series) when recruited by him to serve on a board evaluating the need for a new county jail. At the time, I was an up-and-coming crime writer, with a (slightly) recognizable name in a (very small) local community. I think Walt believed my presence on the board might lend visibility to the goal of winning public support for a new county jail. (If so, I failed him in that regard — read on.)

Our county jail was in miserable shape. Built thirty years earlier, it had no means to accommodate privacy needs of female inmates, an "exercise" yard about the size of a picnic table, and — I kid you not — "hatches" between hallways that resembled submarine hatches that required, for instance, a stretcher (with the sick inmate on it) to be turned sideways in order pass through. The board, myself included, decided a new jail was the right idea given that we were constantly being sued by inmates that the current jail was not up to regulations — it was not, so those lawsuits were being won, costing the taxpayer unnecessarily.

The bond needed to fund the constructions of the new jail went to vote and was defeated (see above!). Then again, six years later — defeated. And, I believe, defeated a third time as well. But you get the picture: no new jail. The board was disbanded after the first election loss, but my friendship with Walt Femling had just begun.

When, a few years ago, I decided to write a series of suspense thrillers set in Sun Valley, it was clear to me that, if permitted, I would base the protagonist on the real-life Walt. Trained, in part, by the FBI, once the president of the Western Sheriff's Organization, known and respected nationally, Walt was both an avid outdoorsman, family man, politician (Sheriff is an elected office), and consummate investigator. What attracted me to the idea (of the series) was both the access I would have to Walt, the relative abundance of weird and unusual real-life crimes for such a small community (about 10,000 full-time residents spread between three towns), and the huge amount of personal wealth in the area. I mean, these people are rich. "Rich" with a capital R. Their millions have zeros after them, sometimes two or three zeros.

But this is fiction, and fiction requires conflict, both externally (story) and internally (character). If I wrote about Walt's real life (thinking: real crime) readers would either: 1) not believe it 2) lose interest. 1) because the real life Walt is smart, incorruptible, a terrific father and husband, and a true public servant in all the good ways; 2) because without conflict, fiction has no engine to drive it.

So my job, as creator/writer of the series was to fill the fictional Walt with foibles, a failed marriage, a strained relationship with his father, a brother who likely committed suicide (as yet unconfirmed, years later). A nephew who has lost his way. A sister-in-law who can't stop talking. And on and on. With Walt's cooperation and blessing (he'd been reading me for years, so I was lucky!), I got to work.

During the course of the first draft of the first book (Killer Weekend), I sent it off to Walt to review my police and legal work. What came back was a phone call saying that I'd handled the technical work well, but "What's going on with Walt? Jenny [Walt's real-life wife] is asking if you have it in for her or something?" (My portrayal of Gail, Walt's soon-to-be-ex was, to put it mildly, unflattering.) He was concerned about how I'd painted his father, who, again in real life, is charming, smart, and fiercely proud of his warm and wonderful relationship with his son the sheriff.

I had to walk Walt through the difficulties of trying to craft crime fiction — conflict; reluctant, flawed, "heroes." He's very well read and grasped immediately what I was up to, and calmly commented that he didn't mind the character — he liked the character, but maybe it shouldn't carry his name. We talked. I offered to change the name. In the end he graciously relented, and allowed me to keep it, lending the books a realism, at least for the two of us.

I teethed in series writing with Lou Boldt/Daphne Matthews series, a series I've continued in an anthology or two, and hope to return to in long form soon. Boldt and Daphne (yes, I think of them as living, breathing people; so sue me) have taught me some useful lessons — some of them hard lessons — about the challenges of series fiction. I've made series mistakes, some of which I've had to work around or even reverse, often time-consuming and difficult (creatively) choices/solutions.

Hopefully I won't make the same mistakes in the Killer series (now three books "deep," with a fourth to completed soon). But I will probably make others. When creating a series you are stretching character and plot developments over thousands of published pages; you are stringing together hopefully compelling and suspenseful events, again for both story (plot) and characters; you are constantly working to keep your protagonist both believable and larger than life — a delicate and often tricky line to walk.

The rewards are worth it: I enjoy writing both stand-alones and series; but in the end I think series characters are given a chance to live with you and the reader for a long, long time.

I hope Walt Femling feels the same. I always to try to provide a happy ending: Two years ago, after a 15-year effort, the jail bond was approved. The new Sheriff Offices and county jail opened a year ago — it's an amazing state-of-the-art facility and should serve the county well for decades to come.

— Ridley Pearson

Monday, July 6, 2009

Very Mercenary by Rayo Casablanca

Leigh Tiller, beautiful New York socialite and "billionaire fashionista" (remind you of someone?), is kidnapped by a bear, a monkey, a penguin, and a cat. By chance, she is later noticed in a penthouse window by one Laser Mechanic — ambitious head of the Strategic Art Defense, a group of guerrilla artists (yes, you read that right) — and he is instantly struck by her beauty.

Soon, the life's goal of Laser the asthmatic artist becomes to rescue Leigh and return her to her father, Kip Tiller, at his casino in Las Vegas. (While, of course, spreading his SAD agenda to a wider audience through the inevitable media coverage.)

Trouble is, Kip doesn't want her back. Always one to take advantage of an opportunity, he has therefore hired The Serologist, a sadistic doctor with an ultraloyal assistant named Olivier, to ensure he never has to deal with his daughter again.

What results is Very Mercenary, a road-trip novel of Gumball Rally proportions. Numerous groups, including Momma Gash's "girls" and a preteen street gang called the Black Sultans, eventually head West in pursuit, all rocketing toward an explosive finale that made me laugh and cringe at the same time.

Author Rayo Casablanca (6 Sick Hipsters) draws his characters with broad strokes so they're easily identifiable, and his novel manages to be both extremely clever and cleverly extreme at the same time. He lays on the happy ending a little thick, but everything in Very Mercenary is painted with a wide brush. It's not a great book, but it is a lot of fun, and sometimes that's all you want out of a novel.

Nitpicker's Note: If you want to "liven it up a bit," you want to add "flair." Only add "flare" if by "liven it up" you mean "burn it down."
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