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Archive for August, 2008

Interesting Kafka news.

READING: Mikhail Bulgakov – THE MASTER AND MARGARITA
HEARING: Sun Kil Moon – GHOSTS OF THE GREAT HIGHWAY

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Here’s some info on Masuji Ibuse, author of BLACK RAIN, the book I’m reading now. So far the book is excellent.

ALSO: Words of wisdom from agent Janet Reid regarding the (mis)use of modern society’s most diabolical device. I’ve never understood why writers have this irresistible urge to call up people in the publishing business, especially given that they’re all hoping to become known for their writing skills. Impatience, perhaps? Laziness, more likely. Of course, my perspective is a bit skewed since I’m hearing impaired; I have to be prodded with hot coals to pick up a telephone. The only reason I even own a cell phone (something I resisted for years) is because my girlfriend and my mother got tired of not being able to reach me. We have a land line at home that I never answer, and I vastly prefer email for contacting people, so the idea of calling up an agent who isn’t even representing you yet is a concept I find mystifying indeed.

Since we’re on the subject of missives from Janet Reid’s blog, here’s some more wisdom regarding things to avoid doing. “Less is more” is excellent advice not just for writing books, but writing correspondence as well.

Before I retire for the evening, I’d just like to say that the snare in “How Soon Is Now?” is one of the greatest things ever recorded in the history of western music.

READING: Masuji Ibuse – BLACK RAIN
HEARING: The Smiths – MEAT IS MURDER

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a random observation (i)

I just finished Lee Child’s WITHOUT FAIL earlier this evening. After reading six of his books in a row, it occurs to me that there’s a really easy way to distinguish “literary” fiction from “commercial” fiction. The “literary” novel is one in which the writer aims to impart some valuable insight regarding the human condition, or to provoke a thoughtful reaction, or even to demonstrate what can be done with language and style. The “commercial” book is one whose sole (or major) purpose is simply to entertain. Probably not an original thought, but a useful one.

I’ll elaborate on this (well, maybe) later, when I’m not falling asleep in my chair. Plus it’s time to eat.

HEARING: Ruins of Beverast – UNLOCK THE SHRINE
READING: Nick Tosches – HELLFIRE

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a wee bit o’ link-fu

Parker comes around.

Phoebe Gloeckner and murder in Juarez.

HEARING: Monster DVD – NO TITLE # 1-6
READING: Lee Child – TRIPWIRE

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I recently discovered the joys of Lee Child and the Jack Reacher series. For those not already hep to the series, it revolves around an ex-military policeman named Jack Reacher who is now an itinerant civilian with a knack for ending up neck-deep in violence and intrigue. These are thriller novels, and in the best thriller tradition, they are designed to keep you turning pages one after another, even if you end up staying awake until two in the morning to find out what happens next. Child is a master of the form; I have the occasional quibble with his writing style, but those quibbles are minor, and overall I’m immensely impressed with his grasp of the genre and his talent for building labyrinthe plots. The one constant among the books (outside of Reacher himself) is that nothing is ever what it seems — just as you think you’re getting a handle on where everything is going, some new piece of information changes everything. It takes real talent to do this, especially over the course of more than a dozen novels, and it’s even more impressive when you consider that Reacher is American and the series takes place in the United States, despite the fact that Child is British. (He now lives in NYC, but that’s a relatively recent development.)

The Reacher series is considerably different from most modern investigative thrillers for several reasons. First, Child deliberately chose early on to make the books stand-alone novels; which solves a major problem that plagues the average series, which is that keeping track of all the backstory turns into a hassle after several books. By the time an author has reached the fifth or sixth book of a series, he (or she) has to decide how much of the backstory to insert in each new book, knowing full well that people who have been reading all along will be irritated by all this unnecessary exposition, while newcomers who know none of it will be mystified by certain events if the backstory isn’t there. I’m a huge fan of Andrew Vachss, and the Burke series in particular, but the later books in that series sometimes get bogged down in recitations of earlier plots and characters who have some bearing on current events; this has also sometimes been a problem in Lawrence Block’s Scudder series. Child solves this problem neatly by making Reacher rootless and constantly on the move, so there are no recurring locales or sidekicks to deal with from one novel to the next. Occasionally someone from a previous book will show up again, but not often, and then the backstory is dealt with as efficiently as possible.

Second, Reacher is not the teeming mass of neuroses and bad habits that form the character of your average modern investigative dick. He’s not an alcoholic (he drinks a lot of coffee, though; he’s serious about the ongoing search for excellent coffee). He’s not a current or former criminal (although some of the things he does from time to time in the course of any given book are not always legal). He doesn’t treat women like dirt — in fact, he’s arguably the first postmodern feminist detective, in a perverse sort of way, and the women in the Reacher novels are all strong, successful, intelligent, independent women, not the helpless, ditzy gals that have become a cliche in so many other thriller novels. (This probably has a lot to do with why the series has an unusually strong female following, especially for a series as violent as this one.)

Third, Reacher may be ex-military, but he doesn’t act like it; to him, the military mindset is forever. Child’s big stroke of genius was to make him not just an officer, but a military cop, which means not only is he well-trained in investigative techniques, but he’s equally well-trained in the art of violence. If you can imagine how tough, resourceful, and well-trained soldiers like Green Berets and Navy SEALs are, then you can guess that Reacher — who used to be one of the people responsible for arresting such dangerous people — is pretty tough himself. It doesn’t hurt that he’s six-five, but most of his fighting technique is grounded in a philosophy very different from the fighting seen in most thriller novels. He’s big on head-butts, for instance. (From personal experience I can attest that they work really well, too, although you have to be at least face to face or taller than your opponent for the move to work best.) He knows all sorts of arcane ways to subdue people, even several people at a time, which makes the fight scenes (and there’s at least one or two in every book) more interesting.

One of Child’s more interesting decisions regarding the series is the near-absence of profanity. To hear him tell it in interviews, Reacher’s training as an officer in the military is part of what makes him less likely to spout dirty words than most investigators, and for the most part what little profanity exists in the books comes from the mouths of bad-guy dirtbags. After years of seeing characters drowning in dirty words, this is actually refreshing. This is probably another reason, too, that there are so many female readers of the series.

The one thing I wonder about the series is how much longer Child can keep doing it. The risk you run with a series like this is that after a while the whole concept starts to get faintly ridiculous. You start to wonder, can’t Reacher go anywhere or do anything without getting sucked into fantastic conspiracies that force him to beat up (and sometimes kill) lots of people? I’m a big fan of Jonathan Kellerman’s ongoing series about child psychologist Alex Delaware, but I haven’t read many of the recent books in the series because at some point I read yet another one where Delaware gets into some life-threatening jam only to have his buddy Milo save him at the last moment, and — to borrow a bit of parlance from television — the series kind of “jumped the shark” for me at that point.

I don’t know if or when that will happen with the Reacher series, but if it does, I hope it doesn’t happen anytime soon.

HEARING: Gallhammer — ILL INNOCENCE
READING: Lee Child — TRIPWIRE

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I started writing at the age of nine. I was reading a lot of science fiction at the time — hefty hardback books from my father’s reading library, most of them purchased through the Science Fiction Book Club, by the likes of Isaac Asimov, Fred Hoyle, Cordwainer Smith, Frederick Pohl, and other old-school SF writers. At some point it dawned on me, “Hey, I can do this too.” So I did, although those early efforts were nowhere near as brilliant as the stories that spawned them, to put it mildly. My enthusiasm for science fiction was equally matched by my lust for bad monster movies, and the stories I turned out as a result were a mad mishmash of questionable science in service of defeating fifty-foot spiders and invaders from Mars. Writing these stories was fun, though, and you have to start somewhere, nu?

Four years later, I discovered Stephen King when THE SHINING came out in paperback. (Trivia tidbit: I originally owned the first-edition paperback, which came out with a shiny mylar cover, a marketing gambit that was abandoned for subsequent editions because mylar doesn’t retain ink well and the books buffed in shipment, resulting in books with unreadable cover printing — not exactly useful from a selling standpoint.) Reading his earlier books and numerous interviews with the man led me to H. P. Lovecraft, at which point I became a serious horror fanatic for the next couple of decades.

I spent the seventies and eighties reading endlessly in every genre imaginable, with a particular fascination for the lurid, trashy paperbacks that were a staple of the sixties and seventies, back when paper was cheap and paperbacks only cost a buck or two. I can’t remember when I got interested in thrillers and mysteries, but it was almost certainly sometime in the seventies, an era that coughed up one of my favorite books of all time, David Lippincott’s THE VOICE OF ARMAGEDDON. Despite the wide variety in what I was reading, I remained fixated on writing science fiction and horror.

By the end of the eighties, I was out of college and competent enough to land an agent on the basis of a lurid (and mediocre, in retrospect) serial killer novel. The agent in question represented V. C. Andrews and this was around the same time Skipp and Spector were making waves with a series of ultraviolent “splatterpunk” novels, which may have influenced her decision to represent me based on such a dubious literary offering. The book didn’t sell; it was making its way up the decision-making ladder at one publishing house at the same time the Bret Easton Ellis novel AMERICAN PSYCHO was in manuscript form and causing a considerable flap at Simon & Schuster, and the adverse reaction to that violent novel caused many publishers at the time to pass on equally violent novels (of which mine was definitely one).

I spent the next several years writing what must be one of the least commercial books ever written, a bleak and avant-garde novel ending in murder and suicide whose structure resembled the literary equivalent of a series of Chinese boxes. The book also had almost no dialogue, a perverse and often bizarre cast of characters, a disturbing view of religion, and a host of other eccentricities that made it a poor candidate for commercial success. The agent sent it to publishers anyway, and the reaction of the editors who saw it was divided into two camps: they either completely hated it, or found it compelling but had no idea how it could be successfully marketed. Eventually she gave up and the manuscript went into a box, where it remains to this day.

The book after that was bit more straightforward, but just as bleak, with a schizophrenic homeless man for a narrator and a plot involving an escalating series of violent events culminating in a city-wide riot. The agent declined to represent the book in question, and we parted ways, at which point I took a long sabbatical from writing fiction for various reasons. For the next decade or so, I ran a record label, started playing in bands, and began publishing a music-related webzine, among other things. I still wrote fiction from time to time, but only in a sporadic fashion, and strictly for my own amusement.

Which brings us to the here and now. I’ve decided to start writing novels again, and hope to finish one within the next year and ideally find an agent to represent it. This time, however, I’m writing crime fiction. Once I decided to start writing fiction again, I spent a fair amount of time debating where and how to focus my energy. It’s obvious to me that weird, bleak, arty novels are going to be tough to sell as a first novelist (and in today’s publishing environment, maybe tough to sell at all). I haven’t been a serious reader of science fiction (outside of books by William Gibson) for a long time now, and I don’t have the chops or interest to write one myself these days. The horror market has become largely moribund, and it’s almost impossible to come up with a new and exciting subject in that genre anyway. Since I’ve been reading a lot of crime fiction for the past several years, that genre seems an obvious choice. (There are other reasons I settled on writing crime fiction, but that’s for a later post, perhaps.)

With all that in mind, I’ve begun writing a new novel, one featuring a criminal on the run who is forced to come out of hiding to seek revenge for a friend’s murder. We’ll see how it goes.

HEARING: Public Image — FIRST ISSUE
READING: Lee Child — TRIPWIRE

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