Friday, August 31, 2007

Stuart MacBride's "Bloodshot/Broken Skin"

After you've been a reviewer for a few years, it's hard to be taken by surprise. You hear the advance word about books, and you know what to look out for. Sometimes, though, you find a new author and a great book through sheer serendipity. And there's nothing sweeter than that.
I hadn't heard of Scottish writer Stuart MacBride until I picked up a paperback edition of his first novel, "Cold Granite," in a bookstore in Ashland, Oregon. Because I'm inundated with ARCs, I don't pay full price for many paperbacks, but I do like to shop for books while on vacation. A tale of child murders in Aberdeen, "Cold Granite" caught my eye, and I took it back to the Bay Area with me.

And it was great! One of the best first novels I'd read in a long while. Gruesome, funny, suspenseful, different. I ran to the library and found MacBride's second book, "Dying Light." It, too, did the job with wit and precision.

Now comes "Broken Skin," or as it's known here in the U.S., "Bloodshot." Which is a crap title, I must say. The book is about the hunt for a serial rapist and includes a major subplot about a BDSM enthusiast who is, um, sodomized to death. So maybe St. Martin's is justified in being skittish and choosing the less-squicky title. But still...

MacBride seems to have studied the lifework of another illustrious Scottish crime writer, Ed McBain. (Kidding...) These book have the flavor of the best "87th Precinct" novels. Instead of Steve Carella, MacBride gives us Logan McCrae as the nominal protagonist, but there's a well-drawn cast of supporting characters who pursue various lines of investigation.

What I particularly like is McCrae's fallibility. He's an experienced professional, but he makes horrible mistakes, ones that lead to disastrous consequences for innocent bystanders. For all the banter and comic business, these book can be deeply disturbing.

Although I have plenty to occupy myself with in science fiction and fantasy, I sometimes wish that I could cover crime fiction for the San Francisco Chronicle. MacBride's books are ones that I would like to introduce to a much wider audience. So, go read them, you!

Oh, and Amazon offers big savings if you order "Broken Skin" and "Bloodshot" simultaneously.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Stoppard Escapes Being Nicked

Last Wednesday, Tom Stoppard planned to attend a sub rosa performance of Edward Bond's "Eleven Vests" by the Free Theater of Belarus but cancelled at the last minute. Good thing. Armed police raided the performance and hauled away the actors and the audience. An outcry has been raised.

Stormtroopers are unlikely to interrupt "Rough Crossing" at Shakespeare & Company, now in repertory with "Antony and Cleopatra."

If you'd like to see three of Stoppard's early TV plays performed live, you'd better get to the Boomerang Theatre Company.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Harlan Ellison's "Shatterday"

To indulge in a little bit of understatement, Harlan Ellison is a polarizing literary figure. He evokes only the strongest reactions in those who encounter him, on the page or in person. Poke around the web a bit, and you'll find a number of recent anecdotes that don't present him in a flattering light.

I should say up front that, in the few times I've had personal dealings with him, Ellison has been nothing other than utterly gracious. One of my treasured possessions is a recording he left on my old, analog answering machine after I reviewed "Angry Candy" back in 1989. His gratitude at my having both praised the book and not referred to its contents as "sci-fi" seemed to know no bounds.
Now, though, I want to urge everyone to read "Shatterday," available in a new trade paperback edition from Tachyon Publications. I think it may be Ellison's best fiction collection, and that's saying a lot, when the other contenders are "Deathbird Stories," "Love Ain't Nothing but Sex Mispelled" and "Strange Wine."

It was "Strange Wine" that ripped my skull open and shot a thousand volts into my cerebral cortex that summer between high school and college. I'd never suspected that anyone could write fantasy or science fiction stories like these or reveal so much about themselves in their introductions. But Stephen King has already waxed on and on about that collection in "Danse Macabre," so why should I?

"Shatterday" contains 16 stories, many of them major award winners, each with an introduction. The highlights include "Jeffty Is Five," "In the Fourth Year of the War," "All the Birds Come Home to Roost" and the title story. They're raw, funny, frightening, angry, visionary. They do everything good short fiction should.

It's been 10 years since Ellison's last collection of fiction, "Slippage," was published. In the meantime, he has had health problems and embroiled himself in a couple of lawsuits. So who knows whether there will be another volume of short fiction from him.

Love or loathe him, Harlan Ellison won't be around forever. Many of the selections in "Shatterday," though, will endure as long as there are adventurous readers.


For those who wish to experience Ellison via the magic of multimedia, here are two items:

Tomorrow night, ABC's "Masters of Science Fiction" presents an adaptation of Ellison's "The Abnormals," co-written for television by the man himself.

Sometime later this year, "Dreams with Sharp Teeth," a documentary about Ellison, will be released. You can watch a bunch of clips from it at the Creative Differences site. Film Threat ran a lengthy early review.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Cancelled Check

What's wrong with this picture? Not much.
You know your comic strip has run off the rails when the parody of it is only slightly more ridiculous than the original.
What's really interesting is the way Johnston is desperately attempting to ret-con her Foobs. Granthony's hilarious pornstache? All his evil wife's idea!
Here's a prime example of a writer losing control of her characters and forcing them to behave irrationally. You can find my musings about this situation at my other blog.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

From Humbert Humbert's To-Be-Read Stack

Unreliable narrators get their say in three novels I reviewed for the San Francisco Chronicle. The protagonist of "Crooked Little Vein" by Warren Ellis might be telling the outrageous truth, but the main characters of Matt Ruff's "Bad Monkeys" and "A Good and Happy Child" definitely can't be trusted.

On a related note, everyone is linking to this New Yorker article about the not-always-reliable Philip K. Dick. Gopnik gets off to a shaky start with nutty arguments like the following:

Since genre writing can support only one genius at a time—and no genre writer ever becomes just a good writer; it’s all prophet or all hack—the guy is usually resented by his peers and their partisans even as the establishment hails him. No one hates the rise of Elmore Leonard so much as a lover of Ross Macdonald.
The essay improves after that point.

Of course, we all may be living in a vast computer simulation, so what does it matter?

Friday, August 10, 2007

"Rock 'n' Roll" Has an Official Site

In preparation for the Oct. 19 opening, the site for the New York premiere of "Rock 'n' Roll" is up and running. Lots of good background information in this PDF file. Pre-sale of tickets to American Express cardholders started on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, in the Wall Street Journal, Terry Teachout reviews a Shakespeare & Company production of "Rough Crossing."

At the Telegraph, Gillian Reynolds reflects on the recent BBC Stoppard radio retrospective.

By many accounts, an uncredited Stoppard labored on the screenplay for "The Bourne Ultimatum." Go and see if you can pick out any lines that might be his. I favor "Jesus Christ, it's Jason Bourne!"

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

What the Heck I've Been Doing for the Past Three Weeks

Sorry for dropping out of sight so abruptly. I had my reasons.
1. Took a trip to New England
It had been more than a year since I last saw my parents in Portsmouth, NH, so we were overdue for a visit. All in all, it was a good trip, with plenty of opportunities for communing with family and friends. Managed to do most of the things that traditionally define a trip back home for me: swam at Wallis Sands beach, bought taffy at The Goldenrod, bought tax-free shoes from my pal Bert at George & Phillips, played skee-ball at York Beach's Fun O Rama (Nothing guarantees a good time like the syllables "O Rama."), ate seafood at Warren's Lobster House, ate lobster rolls prepared by my mother, ate Italian sandwiches from Moe's, played carpet golf in 90-degree heat (not really recommended) and strolled Portsmouth's scenic downtown.

2. Saw "The Simpsons Movie"
The rest of the world has made up its mind by now, but I thought it was perfectly fine. Not mind-blowingly brilliant, but solidly constructed and executed. For some reason, though, the folks at the CAP Movie Ministry don't agree with that opinion.

3. Spent way too much time fixing a glitch in my DVD drive
All I wanted to do was watch the third season of "Deadwood" without my kids having to hear profanity spewing out of the living room speakers. So I took the disc upstairs to the computer, only to begin spewing profanity myself when nothing would work as it should. Three days of posting frantic notes on the Dell tech forum and downloading various drivers and diagnostics finally did the trick. Cripes.

4. Suddenly realized that a new Chronicle book review was past due
But now it's done and submitted to my grateful editors. Look for coverage of "A Good and Happy Child," "Bad Monkeys" and "Crooked Little Vein" on August 19.

5. Was physically nauseated by the month-long Foob Wedding Flashback
Seriously, do any sexually functioning people in their twenties go romping around a country club and spout drippy declarations of mild affection like Granthony and Liz? No, usually there's some liquor involved, and reunited couples wind up thrashing around in the shrubbery in various states of undress to the horrified amusement of their less-drunk friends. Good thing Granthony already has a child. Now Liz can avoid the messy reality of reproduction and never have to sabotage her partner's birth control plans like her sister-in-law did.

More catch up later!

Touring "Spook Country"

William Gibson's new novel, "Spook Country," is now in stores, and it's well worth your time and attention. Nobody takes the measure of the zeitgeist (pun intended) more presciently than Mr. Gibson.

You can read my full-length review (which ran on the front of The Chronicle's Datebook section for a change) at