Sunday, January 31, 2010

Kage Baker, 1952-2010

Kage Baker, short story writer and novelist, died today at age 57, far too young. I don't think it's hyperbole for me to say that, of all the science fiction and fantasy writers I reviewed during that awful decade from Jan. 1, 2000 to Dec. 31, 2009, Baker afforded me the greatest amount of unalloyed reading pleasure.

I tend not to get caught up in long-running sf/f series, like those by George R.R. Martin or Robert Jordan. As good as individual installments might be, most multi-volume sagas run out of steam or become so unwieldy with plot complications that it becomes a chore to keep up with them to the bitter end. Even Stephen King's "The Dark Tower," which amazed and delighted me for most of its 3,000 pages, wound up something less than I had imagined.

Not Baker's novels about The Company, though. She kept every damn promise she made in that first book, "In the Garden of Iden." She found a glorious new wrinkle in time-traveling immortal cyborgs, and she played fair with it across 10 volumes, adding complications and fresh faces with panache, but never betraying her premise or her characters or her readership. By the time she reached the final volume in the main sequence, "The Sons of Heaven," she had tied up all the loose ends and delivered a climax and denouement worthy of all the delicious build-up.

I came to The Company novels late, foolishly starting with "Mendoza in Hollywood." It didn't particularly grab me, so I'm glad I persevered with "The Graveyard Game." That did the trick, making me go back to the books I'd missed. From that point, I was hooked, and I eagerly awaited each new volume. None of them disappointed.

I saw Baker at the World Fantasy con in October. I'm not very out-going, and it often takes some real effort for me to introduce myself to a stranger. But I approached her and let her know how much I enjoy her work.

I'm glad I did. I had no idea her time with us would be so short. I'm just glad there will be a few more books and stories with her byline, starting with a new Company novel, "Not Less Than Gods," to be published by Tor in March.

If you haven't read any books by Kage Baker, start with "In the Garden of Iden" or the story collection, "Black Projects, White Knights." If you want just a small taste, Subterranean Press has posted a new story, "The Bohemian Astrobleme," online.

If you're already a fan, read Marty Halpern's lovely appreciation of her and her work.

A Superfluity of Neat Stuff

Somehow, I didn't expect the early months of 2010 to be filled with so many good books deserving my attention as a reviewer. In last week's column, I covered three recent science fiction/fantasy releases, including Peter Straub's "A Dark Matter," "Things We Didn't See Coming" by Steven Amsterdam and Barbara Roden's "Northwest Passages."

Straub's "A Dark Matter," scheduled to arrive in stores on Feb. 9, is the best of the bunch. A tricky tale of five high school friends revisiting a terrible event that occurred 40 years earlier, it's Straub's first novel since 2004's "In the Night Room," continuing his long string of literate and ambitious supernatural thrillers. You can watch book trailer/teaser above.

With that column behind me, I thought I would have a little breathing room, but that's not the case. February brings horror/fantasy novels by two heavy-hitters in the field, Owen Hill's "Horns" and Dan Simmons' "Black Hills." Not to mention two new books by Michael Shea: "The Extra" from Tor and "Copping Squid" from Perilous Press. Plus, "Blackout," the first half of Connie Willis's World War II time-travel epic, is due any day now and really ought to be considered. Charlie Huston's "Sleepless" occupies the borderlands between science fiction and crime, so it, too, is tempting to throw into the mix.

Finally, in March Tor will publish "Not Less Than Gods," Kage Baker's latest book about The Company. Baker is one of my favorite authors, and a new novel from her would normally be a cause for unalloyed celebration. She is, however, near the end of her struggle with cancer.

Which puts the problem of having too many good novels to read into perspective, doesn't it?

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Arts & Culture Junk Direct Marketing Mail

Because I occasionally buy tickets for plays, concerts and other artsy things, I wind up on mailing lists and receive more direct mail marketing pieces than I can stand. I wrote this goofy little piece a few years back as a reaction to all those earnest, yet somehow annoying, solicitations.

For its 2009-2010 season, the Symphony of Greater California has gathered the most innovative artists in the West to perform an exhilarating repertoire of international classics and exciting new music. Under the baton of Music Director Seiji Tilson-Williams, the symphony and its guest artists will deliver an unparalleled musical experience for anyone willing to pony up 75 bucks per ticket.

The season is sponsored in part by the Pecksniff Charitable Trusts and HyperCorp. International -- "We Know What's Good for You"

September 10 through October 15
Follow the progress of world music, from two wooden sticks struck together in a Paleolithic village to a Web page that plays an endless loop of "My Heart Will Go On." See how Darwinian theory applies to everything from the symphony orchestra to your local skiffle band. Discover how the wily and agile violin schemed its way to the top, while the slow-witted and awkward bassoon took a turn down an evolutionary dead-end. Witness a duel to the death between a harpsichord and a clavier. Program may be too intense for young children.

October 20 through November 15
A three-concert series, consisting of "Mostly Mozart," Basically Beethoven" and "Completely Weill."

November 26 through December 24
Our Children's Holiday Program
Does the thought of sitting through yet another production of either "Peter and the Wolf" or "The Nutcracker" cause you to break into hives and uncontrollable muscular spasms? Then you're in luck this Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa/Solstice season! Based on Gunnar Gunnarson's 15th-Century, 34-volume epic poem, this 45-minute program brings Scandinavian folklore to life, complete with live reindeer, on-stage ice skating and freakishly huge marionettes of Glinka the Frost Witch and the evil ice dragon, Frigidaire. With a lively score by Bjorg Bjorgenson and the Umlaut Quartet, "Babes in Iceland" is sure to entertain privileged children for generations to come. Special guest Robin Williams will perform the part of Snorri, The Annoying Troll Who Weeps and Grins Simultaneously.

January 5 through February 20
An evening of no discernible harmonies or melodies, using as few notes as humanly possible. Highlights include Bromffman's "Amplified Dripping Faucet" and Chayefsky's "The Sensory Deprivation Blues."

Here are just a few of the rave reviews this program has garnered.
Minimalist Monthly: "This music is good."
Tortured Intellectual Weekly: "Never before has a white-noise generator been taken to such rhapsodic heights!"
Elmer Hobart, long-time subscriber: "For the love of God, kill me now!"

February 28. One Night Only.
America's favorite sandpaper-voiced troubadour interprets tunes from "Oklahoma," "The King & I" "South Pacific" and "Carousel." The highlight of the show comes when Waits dons a wimple to sing "Sixteen Going on Seventeen" from "The Sound of Music." Special guest Lou Reed provides a touching rendition of "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair."

March 1 through April 15
You hear them on the radio, on TV, at the movies, even through your computer speakers. They're the songs that have been co-opted by giant, faceless corporations to promote their products, services and Orwellian ideologies. Now these tunes have been woven into a musical tapestry that will set your toes tapping and put your mind in a free-spending groove. Selections include "Rhapsody in the Public Domain," "Fanfare for the Common Consumer," "Sixties and Seventies Sell-Outs" and "The Music from That Volkswagen Commercial Where Everything's Moving to the Beat of the Windshield Wipers."

Tickets for all concerts may be purchased at the box office, online or through an antiquated and vaguely frightening voice-mail system. Subscribers will eventually be harassed with dinner-time telephone solicitations, while one-time ticket buyers will be left to contemplate their cheapness in ominous silence.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

RIP Robert B. Parker

I was saddened to learn of the sudden death of Robert B. Parker, author of "The Godwulf Manuscript" and 37 other mysteries featuring the Boston PI known only as Spenser. For a long while, Parker was one of my very favorite mystery novelists and, even if I haven't pick up a new book by him in nearly a decade, I still have a lot of respect for him and his prodigious output.

I started reading Parker in my late teens, probably around the time of "The Judas Goat." Part of his appeal for me lay in the fact that he was a "local boy," that he wrote about Boston, a city only an hour away from my hometown. But there was plenty else to appreciate about those early books -- their wit, the pared-down prose, the way Parker worked in, and reacted against, the traditions laid down by Hammett, Chandler and Ross Macdonald. Like two other literary New Englanders hitting their stride at that time, Stephen King and Gregory Mcdonald of "Fletch" fame, he was demonstrating that old forms of pop lit could be given fresh, interesting spins.

The first dozen Spensers are the best, and a few -- "Mortal Stakes," "Looking for Rachel Wallace," "Early Autumn" -- rank with the best crime novels of the 70s and 80s. "A Catskill Eagle" in1985 seemed to me to be a turning point, the book where the conversational byplay started to turn into shtick, where Hawk and Susan and the supporting cast grew more predictable, where Parker seemed to give in to the temptation to set his word processor on Cruise Control and just let the new installments roll out.

I continued to read new Spenser books as they became available, and some of them were enjoyable. I have vivid memories of parts of "God Save the Child," "Ceremony" and other early entries, but I don't think, however, that I can recall any individual scene from any novel post-"Taming a Seahorse." After "Potshot," I gave up. I could deal with the increasingly insufferable Susan Silverman, put up with the recycled plots, but it was Spenser's damn dog Pearl that finally did me in. The magic was gone, but I didn't particularly mind.

But I'm sorry he's left us. The reports indicate that he died at his desk, and that's as fitting a conclusion to such a durable and distinguished career as I can imagine.

Lots of others are weighing in with tributes. Check "Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind" for a thorough round-up.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

5 Writing Lessons from H.P. Lovecraft

Another reprint, a bit more tongue-in-cheek than the previous.


Howard Phillips Lovecraft is now regarded as one of the pre-eminent figures of twentieth century horror literature. Born in 1890 in Providence, Rhode Island, he wrote some of the genre’s most influential stories and novellas, including “The Call of Cthulhu,” “At the Mountains of Madness,” “The Rats in the Walls” and “The Dunwich Horror.” His vision of a hostile universe, in which humanity survives at the whim of terrible Elder Gods, still holds considerable power 70 years after his death from intestinal cancer.

Here are five writing lessons I’ve learned from H.P. Lovecraft:

1. Be polite to editors.

In March, 1923, Chicago publisher J.C. Henneberger and editor Edwin F. Baird inaugurated “Weird Tales,” a pulp magazine devoted to horror fiction. Lovecraft submitted a stack of material with a cover letter almost guaranteed to alienate its recipient:

“If the tale cannot be printed as it is written, down to the very last semicolon and comma, it must gracefully accept rejection. Excision by editors is probably the one reason why no living American author has any real prose style…”

To his credit, Baird didn’t tell Lovecraft to take a flying leap. Despite his bizarre sense of salesmanship, Lovecraft sold five stories to “Weird Tales” with that submission.

Kids, don’t try this at home…

2. Sometimes tone and mood are the most important elements of a story.

I defy anyone to read “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” my favorite Lovecraft tale, and not be creeped out by it. The prose is clunky, the characters stereotypical, the premise queasily racist. But Lovecraft puts you right in the middle of that haunted, decaying seaport and makes you believe that hideously devolved fish-men are going to rise up from the depths if you don’t watch out.

Although frequently overwritten and often repetitive, Lovecraft’s stories are unique in their ability to convey a sense of cosmic horror, that the universe is inhabited by beings whose enormity could crush the human mind. And that’s a good thing.

3. You really ought to learn how to write realistic dialogue.

Lovecraft’s attempts at dialogue are sometimes laughable. It’s almost certain that no one has ever spoken like Zadok Allen, “the half-crazed liquorish nonagenarian” who tells tales of old Innsmouth. A tiny sample:

“Them things liked human sacrifices. Had had ‘em ages afore, but lost track o’ the upper world arter a time. What they done to the victims it ain’t fer me to say, an’ I guess Obed wan’t none too sharp abaout askin.”

Lovecraft admitted that he didn’t much like people below his perceived social class. As he wrote in a letter, “I could not write about ‘ordinary people’ because I am not in the least interested in them.” In addition to being morally repugnant, this attitude prevented him from creating dialogue with any kind of verisimilitude to actual human speech.

4. A solid social network is crucial.

Although reclusive by nature, Lovecraft maintained elaborate correspondences with mentors and protégés alike, including Robert E. “Conan the Barbarian” Howard, Robert “Psycho” Bloch and Fritz “Fafhrd and Gray Mouser” Leiber. During his career, Lovecraft wrote more than 100,000 letters. Think of what he might have accomplished with Twitter.

5. You never know how you’ll be viewed by posterity.

It’s likely that Lovecraft held no hope at the time of his death that his work would be remembered by a general readership. But his friends August Derleth and Donald Wandrei formed Arkham House and published “The Outsider and Others” in hardcover in 1939. Other editions followed, and eventually Lovecraft’s work was reprinted in paperback and circulated around the globe. Many of the modern masters of horror, from Stephen King and Peter Straub to Clive Barker and Ramsey Campbell, have paid homage to him, and the Cthulhu Mythos continues to inspire novels, comics, movies and plush figures.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Is This Your Homework, Larry?

I saw "A Serious Man" over the weekend, did not enjoy it as much as I thought I would, but am still mulling over its implications. Here, however, is a reprint dealing with a Coen Brothers film that I unreservedly admire.


In the wake of the Oscars and the multiple achievements of “No Country for Old Men,” I’ve been thinking about the Coen Brothers a lot lately. Especially about what good writers they are. They do all kinds of things with dialogue and structure and symbolism that really shouldn’t work, but because they’re really good literary craftsmen, they pull them off with aplomb.

Over at Ken Levine’s blog, screenwriter Bob “Back to the Future” Gale instigated a brouhaha with a post about all the perceived lapses in logic in “No Country.” Some of the nitpicks I can agree with, but I think Gale is really misreading the movie. “No Country” only looks like a conventional cat-and-mouse thriller. Worrying about why Anton Chigurh chooses to carry around that cattle gun is like wondering why the eponymous protagonist of “Barton Fink” isn’t at all concerned about the inferno raging in the hallway outside his hotel room at that movie’s climax. There are bigger issues at hand.

If I had to choose a favorite Coen Brothers movie, I think I’d have to select “The Big Lewbowski.” For me, it delivers the highest ratio of laughs to lines of most movies I can recall. It’s a film that truly improves with each viewing.

I recently picked up “I’m a Lebowski, You’re a Lebowski: Life, The Big Lebowski and What-Have-You,” a book by the guys who organize LebowskiFest. It contains interviews with members of the cast, bits of trivia, a glossary of Lebowski-speak. It gets a little repetitive, but like the Dude himself, its heart is in the right place.

The best part of the book, however, speaks to why the Coens are such smart writers and where they find their inspiration. The authors investigate the origins of one of the movie’s signature sequences, when Walter (John Goodman) and the Dude (Jeff Bridges) interrogate Larry, a silent junior high school student, about a piece of homework found in the Dude’s car, which had been stolen and recently recovered. I can’t do justice to it in summary, but the scene starts in a suburban living room containing a man in an iron lung and ends with Walter destroying a sports car with a tire iron while screaming, “This is what happens when you f* a stranger in the a*!!!!” (Or as the censored version on Comedy Central would have it, “This is what happens when you find a stranger in the Alps!!!”)

It’s hilarious. Trust me.

What’s great, though, is that this scene is based on a true incident, at least according to “I’m a Lebowski…” Twenty-odd years ago, USC film professor Peter Exline had his car stolen, got it back and found some fast food wrappers and a kid’s homework assignment in it. He and a friend, private detective “Big” Lew Abernathy, tracked the kid down, visited him at home one night and tried to get him to confess. Just like in the movie. There was even an old man confined to a hospital bed in the living room, the boy’s father, elderly screenwriter Everett Freeman, author of “Larceny, Inc.” and “The Glass Bottom Boat.”

The Coens heard this story from Exline and, without telling him, vowed to use it someday in a movie.

The ultimate kicker is that the authors of “I’m a Lebowski…” contacted the “real Little Larry,” who was not a joy-riding delinquent and did not learn what happens when you find a stranger in the Alps. And as they report, “…until we called, he had no idea that the day in his living room when two strange men arrived with his homework in a baggie had been a pivotal inspiration for ‘The Big Lebowski.’” The interview with 32-year-old Jaik Freeman proves to be one of the book’s highlights.

I don’t know why this convoluted anecdote told from multiple perspectives tickles me so. I guess I just like the sheer improbability of it, the way the most absurd aspects of real life can be transmuted into — wait for it — art. With the Coens, there’s no use looking for logic, because what you’ll find in its place is a whole lot more interesting.

Monday, January 04, 2010

5 Writing Lessons Learned from Donald Westlake

I wrote this a few years ago for a blog that died a-borning. I'm re-printing it here as part of an effort to tidy up the various facets of my online presence, and also because Westlake has been on my mind recently. He passed away unexpectedly on New Year's 2009.


Donald Westlake, screenwriter of “The Grifters, author of “The Hot Rock,” “What’s the Worst That Could Happen?” and many other novels, is one of my favorite thriller writers. Pick up any of his books at random, and you can learn something valuable from it, as well as be guaranteed hours of first-rate entertainment.

Under the pseudonym Richard Stark, Westlake also writes about no-nonsense thief Parker. The character has appeared, always with a different name, in a handful of movies, some of them good (”Point Blank”) and some of them not (”Slayground”). There are currently 23 Parker novels, and many of them epitomize what their author does best. They’re fast, lean, gripping and darkly, darkly funny.

Here are five lessons I’ve learned from Westlake/Stark:

  1. Choose a strong title.
    Some of the early Parker novels have titles so terse that they don’t really stick in the memory: “The Score,” “The Outfit,” “The Seventh,” “The Hunter.” I have trouble keeping track of them in my head. But after a 24-year break from writing about Parker, Stark brought him back in “Comeback.” Which was followed by “Backflash.” Followed by “Flashfire,” “Firebreak” and “Breakout.” The titles are down to one word, but they’re evocative and the progression from one to the next is clever without being distracting.
  2. Waste no time getting the story started.
    In the early books, the first sentence always started with “When…”
    When the woman screamed, Parker awoke and rolled off the bed. He heard the plop of a silencer behind him as he rolled, and the bullet punched the pillow where his head had been. —
    “The Outfit”
    When he didn’t get any answer the second time he knocked, Parker kicked the door in.
    – “The Split”Even without that gimmick, the openings are always active and compelling.

    Parker jumped out of the Ford with a gun in one hand and a packet of explosive in the other. — “Slayground”

    These aren’t books that begin with long ruminations about the weather. There’s action on the very first page.

  3. Understand structure.
    Many of the Parker books are organized around a four-part structure. The first two parts are from Parker’s perspective. The third offers multiple viewpoints of a critical plot turn. The final portion wraps things up, again from inside Parker’s head.It’s a particularly effective technique. The third-person limited perspective keeps everything focused and leaves little room for extraneous business. The late-in-the-game breakout from the protagonist’s perspective allows the author to ramp up the suspense by dramatising conflicts that Parker can’t foresee.
  4. Don’t be afraid to change your style. Westlake has said that he once grew frustrated with a draft in which Parker kept losing the thing he was trying to steal. Rather than bull his way through a book that wasn’t working, Westlake decided to turn it into a comedy, thereby creating his long-running character John Dortmunder, who first appeared in “The Hot Rock.”
  5. If you don’t work to avoid obsolescence, you may wind up having to kill someone to keep working. Although not published with the Stark pen-name, “The Axe” is one of the bleakest novels Westlake has ever written. The tale of a middle-aged middle-manager who strikes back against downsizing by killing off his competitors, “The Ax” is cautionary tale for anyone who has become too complacent about their job security.