Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Books I'm Looking Forward to in 2012

SFGate.com has already posted my list of the Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of 2011. So, what books  am I eagerly awaiting in the coming year? Here's a short list, a mix of crime and sff/horror:

1. Liminal People by Ayize Jama-Everett (January)
Small Beer Press seems to be pushing this one hard, and Jama-Everett is currently local to the Bay Area, so I'm intrigued. A mix of thriller, science fiction and superhero saga, the novel doesn't seem to lend itself to easy description.

2. The Chalk Girl by Carol O'Connell (January)
O'Connell's feral cop Mallory was kicking ass and taking names long before that girl with the dragon tattoo arrived. Glad she's coming back for further adventures after a brief hiatus in the series.

3. The Mirage by Matt Ruff (February)
Ruff's "Set This House in Order" is one of my favorite novels of psychological dissociation, and I like his "Bad Monkeys" quite a lot. His latest sounds mightily ambitious and is set in an alternate Middle East after Christian fundamentalists have flown jetliners into the Tigris & Euphrates World Trade Towers in Baghdad. Yikes.

4. The Troupe by Robert Jackson Bennett (February)
Bennett's "The Company Man" was my most pleasant surprise of 2011. I've described it as similar to an "X-Files" episode written by Clifford Odets. I can't wait to see what he's up to next.

5. Hide Me Among the Graves by Tim Powers (March)
Powers never fails to surprise and amuse. Details are unclear, but this new novel seems to be about vampires and painters in the mid-1800s. We'll see.

6. Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway (March)
Harkaway's first novel, "The Gone-Away World," was smart and ambitious, but didn't seem to take off in the U.S. as I thought it might. Now he's back with a book about clockmakers, doomsday devices and superspies.

7. Point and Shoot by Duane Swierczynski (March)
The conclusion of Swierczynski's paperback-original Hollywood trilogy. Should be a blast.

8. Poison Flower by Thomas Perry (March)
Perrry is one of the most consistent crime writers in the business, and his Jane Whitefield novels are always good to great.

9. The Wind through the Keyhole by Stephen King (April)
Another chapter in the Dark Tower sequence, this time featuring a tale-within-a-tale. 

10. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century 2009 by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill (June-ish)
It's been a long time coming, but the concluding installment of the third series promises to be suitably apocalyptic. 

Monday, December 05, 2011

What I Learned from NaNoWriMo 2011

The big take-away: I SUCK at this.

That may sound unduly harsh, but it's the truth, so I might as well put it out there. And it's nothing to be ashamed of, I guess. It's just that I now have empirical data proving that I'm not the kind of writer who can extrude 50,000 words of fiction in a 30-day period. Especially not a 30-day period that includes: a cross-country family vacation; the preparation of college applications by a stressed-out offspring; a national holiday that encourages, nay, demands time away from the keyboard; three-and-a-half  work weeks filled with International Auto Show goodness; multiple freelance deadlines; a suddenly unpredictable water heater that mocked my limited do-it-yourself skills (it's fixed now); and assorted annoyances and distractions too penny-ante to mention here.

Not to mention the pre-Yuletide funk that arrives with the realization that another year is ending and that, no, you're not going to write that 50,000-word piece of fiction.

Ah, well. It was worth a shot. I did accomplish some useful outlining, fleshed out some characters in my mind, got a handle on the setting. And I did post some nifty writing-related and/or inspirational links that I and others found interesting. Here are most of them, all in one place.

Write a novel in three days, the Michael Moorcock way
Write a novel in two months
Paradigm shifts in publishing
Practical writing tips from 23 "brilliant" authors
Brutal tips for breaking into comics
How to be a sideshow talker
Carny Dog
The Cult of Done Manifesto
Cut your word-count by 10%
Try something new for 30 days
Adventures in self-publishing
Why should anybody care about your novel?
Kurt Vonnegut is told "No, thanks" for early Dresden article
Research a novel the Greg Rucka Way

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Why I'm Participating in NaNoWriMo 2011

Being the cynical cuss that I am, I generally look askance at online group activities such as National Novel Writing Month. I mean, c'mon. Who honestly thinks they can write a publishable 50,000-word novel in 30 days? I'm not some precious urban hipster who has the time to don his pork pie hat and clear-lensed horn-rimmed glasses and spend the day noodling around on his Apple Air at the local Starbucks. I'm a writing professional, man!

But I've had a change of heart this year, and I've signed up for NaNoWriMo (*shudder*), as it's known. Why?

1. Whatever I produce will most likely not be 50,000 words long or a novel or publishable. And I'm cool with that.
I'm trying to get over worrying about what kind of writer I'm "supposed" to be and instead just explore what kind of writer I actually am. I know -- how Zen of me. But I can see the value of charging through a first draft, letting the proverbial chips fall where they may, not stressing about where I'm heading but going as far as I can as fast as I can. Even if I only complete 5,000 words, that's more than I've got right now.

And if I do succeed in finishing a real manuscript at some unspecified point in time and I'm sufficiently pleased with it to send it off into the world, it will be published, even if only on the Kindle or the iPad or whatever device the cool kids are using in the future.

2. NaNoWriMo has a better track record than I do.
Number of years NaNoWriMo has been in business = 12
Number of novels I've produced in the past 12 years = 0

3. I have a workable idea for a short book.
What I have in mind isn't particularly innovative or grandiose. But it's intriguing and unusual and fits within the parameters of existing marketing categories. It's not like I'm striving to one-up Nabokov's "Pale Fire" over four consecutive weekends. Gotta have perspective.

4. I want to have some fun.
 Remember what it was like to roll a fresh sheet of 20-pound stock into a vibrating electric typewriter and let your imagination run free while your stubby little sausage-fingers struggled to keep up, so intense was the outpouring of sprightly prose? Yeah, neither do I. But there have been plenty of times when I've enjoyed the creative process, from the grubby mechanics of grammar to the endorphin high of watching plot points snap together with a satisfying 'Snik!' And I want some more of that, please.

5. The world could use a novel entitled "Squidface."
Need I say more?

So there you go, boys and girls, my plan for the month of November. It's not perfect. The month is short already, Thanksgiving is in there somewhere and I've got a kid applying to colleges right now. Whee!

But each day, I'll endeavor to post on Twitter and Facebook links to sites that I'm finding particularly inspirational or germane to the task at hand. You can follow along and imagine what I'm constructing, as well as read enticing synopses and excerpts (one hopes). I'll also post my running word-count, so that you can cheer/jeer as you see fit. Carpe deum. Que sera, sera. And all that.

Happy (*grits teeth*) NaNoWriMo!

Monday, October 24, 2011

Mommas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow up to Be Book Critics

I used to write a lot of fiction. I didn't publish a lot of fiction, but I wrote it. I even finished a horror novel in the late 1980s, one about voudoun in the San Francisco Bay Area. That's right, I was 20 years ahead of the Shambling Dead Curve, all you zombies-come-lately!

Too bad the novel wasn't very good. A couple editors and a handful of agents looked at it and politely passed. They knew what they were doing.

And then a funny thing happened. I started writing lots of book reviews and other non-fiction pieces and got paid for every single one of them. This was on top of my 9-to-5 job as a marketing copywriter, where I wrote in-paper ads, sales collateral and TV and radio spots, plus edited a weekly automotive section.

Then I had kids. The fiction output dwindled down to nothing and finally dried up entirely.

Correlation is not causality.

There are plenty of writers out there who manage to raise a family, work a day job and produce a steady tide of novels and short stories. I guess I just ain't one of them. This used to cause me a fair amount of distress, but not so much anymore.

I've come to the conclusion that the biggest drag on my fiction writing isn't the kids, isn't the day job, isn't the crippling ironies of a godless universe. It's just that, as I've become more confident in my critical abilities, I've become less sure of my talent as a storyteller.

Thanks to a quarter-century of reviewing, I now have a better grasp of what it takes to produce a good book or story. And how much more it takes to be noticed for having published said piece of fiction. I sit amid piles and piles of ARCs and finished books and know that I won't crack the spines of ten percent of them. And they aren't even a tenth of the other unread books stacked in the basement.

The book critic that lives in my own head asks, "Who the hell are you to think about writing  a novel? Do you know how much work that takes? Do you really think you have the chops for it? And if you do publish anything, why do you think anyone would notice?"

I'm making more of an effort these days to shut that guy up. He's become a bore, even to me. In recent months, I've completed a short story and a one-act play.

It's a start. I've got plans for more projects.

The great thing about the web is that there is such an abundance of good advice about storytelling to be found on it, if you know where to look. If you're interested in science fiction, fantasy, horror and fiction in general, you should check out Making Light. It's always worth a look and often features truly invaluable advice, such as this four-item formula for turning story into fiction.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Books You Oughta Read -- Sondheim & Co.

My son is currently performing in a youth theater production of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's musical, "Merrily We Roll Along." Parental pride aside, it's a first-rate show, with strong leads, a lively ensemble and a truly excellent orchestra. See it, if you live in the East Bay and have a spare couple of hours. Tickets are available through Brown Bag Tickets.

The real point of this post, however, is to spotlight one of my favorite books about Sondheim in particular and musical theater in general. The second edition of Craig Zadan's "Sondheim & Co.," published in 1986, follows the career of the legendary composer/lyricist from "By George," the school musical he wrote with two classmates, through the first steps toward "Into the Woods." It's smart and thorough and dishy, written by an insightful show-biz insider. Zadan began his career as an investigative reporter but served as Director of Theater Projects for Joe Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival and co-produced "Sondheim: A Musical Tribute" on Broadway. He also co-produced the original film version of "Footloose." He knows what he's talking about.

"Sondheim & Co." has plenty of anecdotes about "Company," "West Side Story," "Follies" and so on, but it's unusual in that, in addition to the usual chronological account of successes and failures, it also contains chapters on the aspects of professional musical theater that are sometimes overlooked. Zadan details how casting, musical direction, orchestration and poster art each add to or detract from a production as a whole. It's easy to think that a show is only about its songs and libretto, but Zadan expertly punctures that myth.

The book's chapter about "Merrily We Roll Along" is a good case in point. It's a sobering account of how even seasoned professionals like Sondheim, Furth and director Harold Prince can persist in making one mistake after another and ruin what looks like a sure thing. "Merrily" ran only 16 performances in its original Broadway production. Audiences and critics hated the costumes, the scenery, the dancing, the eager-yet-unseasoned cast, the modular score and the way the plot moves in reverse. Zadan methodically recounts how every wrong turn was made.

"Merrily" has been significantly revised since 1981. Even if there probably aren't many people out there who rank it as their favorite Sondheim musical, the score is lovely and clever and the story can be quite affecting in the right hands. (See above.)

Either edition of "Sondheim & Co." is hard to find these days, but copies are well worth hunting down. I wish Zadan would take time out from his big-shot Hollywood producer duties and produce a third edition bringing Sondheim enthusiasts up to date with "Bounce."

One caveat about the second edition: my hardcover copy seems to have been bound with sparrow spit or something. It lasted only one gentle reading before splitting into 200 individual sheets. I plan to keep it no matter what, but it's insanely difficult to browse through.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Off-the-Cuff Review: "Satori" by Don Winslow

As I noted in my last "Books You Oughta Read" post, Trevanian's thriller "Shibumi" is not a novel that cries out for a follow-up. It's been more than 30 years since the book's publication, and the narrative arc of its protagonist, master assassin and Go player Nicholai Hel, ends quite decisively in its denouement.

Now, however, there's "Satori," "based on Trevanian's 'Shibumi'" and written by Don Winslow. Winslow, author of "Savages," "The Dawn Patrol"  and other well-regarded crime novels is not the first name to pop to mind as a natural successor to Trevanian, aka Rodney Whitaker, the film studies professor who wrote "The Eiger Sanction," "The Summer of Katya" and other best-sellers. "Satori" is not a sequel, nor even a prequel, to "Shibumi," but is set within the quarter-century of Hel's life that his creator did not choose to dramatize.

"Satori" opens in 1951, just as Hel is released from the Japanese prison where he has spent three years in near-total isolation after killing his mentor/father-figure (an act of mercy, rather than of malice.) The CIA chooses to spring him with the proviso that he travel to Mao's China and assassinate the Soviet commissioner. Hel takes the assignment, falls in love his beautiful instructor Solange and adopts the identity of a French arms dealer. Once in Beijing, he discovers that his target, Voroshenin, has connections to his own childhood back in Shanghai, which makes the mission slightly more palatable.

The ingenuity of the original "Shibumi" lay in its being simultaneously an edge-of-your-seat thriller and a satirical commentary of the very same thing. It's a difficult mode to master. While taking a much some straight-forward narrative strategy,Winslow does a pretty good job of it. His version of Hel, about 25 years younger than in the main action of "Shibumi," isn't quite as standoffish and world-weary, but there's a good measure of cynical humor at play. Most of the call-backs to the earlier book work well, although the character who will go on to become "The Gnome" in "Shimbumi" oddly has the speech patterns of another supporting character in that novel.

I can't decide how I would feel about "Satori" if I came to it cold. Even without his full back-story, Hel is a fun character, adept as he is at hoda korusa, "the naked kill," and employing his extraordinary "proximity sense" to locate danger in total darkness. In Winslow's hands, "Satori" has good character work, a twisty plot and some excellent scene-setting.

It's clear that more installments of the Hel saga will be forthcoming. For the moment, anyway, I'm along for the ride.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Comics Review -- "iZombie: Dead to the World" by Roberson and Allred

At this point, the living and/or walking dead hold almost no interest for me. Over the past five years, I've received more zombie and vampire novels, comics and pop cultural detritus than I can deal with, and still it keeps coming.

There are a few writers, however, that do I trust to do something interesting with the tired old tropes, and Chris Roberson is one of them. I've enjoyed his science fiction, including the novels "Here, There & Everywhere" and "End of the Century." So, when he comes along with a new DC/Vertigo zombie-starring monthly, my interest is piqued, especially when the art is by Michael Allred, the creator of "Madman."

"iZombie" focuses on Gwen Dylan, a gravedigger who also happens to be a zombie, and her friends: Ellie, a girl-ghost stuck in the Sixties; and Scott, aka "Spot," a "were-terrier." Gwen needs to feed on brains, otherwise she'll become a mindless, shambling husk. The trouble is, after a meal she is overwhelmed by the thoughts and emotions of the recently deceased, spurring her to resolve their unfinished business.

There's a very cool "Groovie Ghoulies" vibe about this whole project, and Roberson's dialogue and Allred's art mesh perfectly, creating a welcome balance of humor and horror. Unfortunately, "Dead to the World," which collects only five monthly issues, is mainly set-up. The characters are introduced, including a pair of monster hunters, a pack of female vampires and a resurrected Egyptian mummy. Some plot complications are set in motion, but nothing gets resolved in this initial collection.

Which is fine, given the narrative potential on display here. It's a fun start, and Roberson and Allred have the chops to ferry this story through many more volumes.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Books You Oughta Read -- "Shibumi" by Trevanian

When I was a college sophomore, I had a conversation with my faculty adviser about popular fiction. She said something like, "Oh, yeah, I have a friend who writes spy novels. He uses the pen name 'Trevanian.'"

Rather than saying, "Holy crap! Tell me more!", I kind of blew her off. Nobody knew the identity of Trevanian, the author of "The Eiger Sanction," "The Loo Sanction" and "The Main." Surely my adviser didn't know what she was talking about.

Well, it's a good bet she did, and because I was a callow dope, I missed any opportunity to be introduced to one of the most secretive best-selling novelists of the past 40 years.

Trevanian was the pseudonym chosen by University of Texas, Austin film professor Rodney Whitaker when he published his first novel, the spy spoof "The Eiger Sanction." Most readers failed to see the satirical nature of the exploits of Jonathan Hemlock, art professor and master assassin (despite villains with names like Yurassis Dragon), so Trevanian upped the ante and made its sequel, "The Loo (think British toilet) Sanction," even more ridiculous. "Loo" proved even more popular with the reading public, and when Trevanian returned to espionage fiction with "Shibumi," he kept but muted the satirical edge and added historical detail and philosophical content that elevated the novel well above the aspirations of its predecessors.

"Shibumi" is an oddly structured thriller. Its protagonist, retired assassin Nicholai Hel, doesn't appear in the first 50 or so pages, and doesn't become an active part of the present-day action for almost another 200. The early chapters are concerned with either exposition provided by the antagonists or flashbacks to Hel's early life in Shanghai and in Japan before and during World War II. Then, there's a long sequence involving Hel mucking around in underground caverns in the Basque mountains. Eventually, as in Go, the classical Japanese board game that Hel has mastered, all the pieces are set in place and the plot moves to its inevitable conclusion.

This narrative strategy really shouldn't work, but it does. Somehow, Trevanian manages to build suspense in unexpected ways, orchestrating set pieces filled with remarkable characters, dazzling action and elegant wit. There's no other spy novel like it.

Rodney Whitaker died in 2005, having published three other novels -- a historical psychological thriller, a revisionist Western and an autobiographical novel about growing up in Albany, NY -- under the Trevanian monicker. In a few weeks, Don Winslow, author of "Savages" and "California Fire and Life," will publish a "prequel" to "Shibumi," and I'll post a review of it. In the meantime, track down the original.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Oscar Predictions 2011

It's that time of year again, when Hollywood goads me into seeing more movies in a month than I see in the other 335 days. In previous years, I was spurred to make predictions by the thought of winning the Oscar pool at my local, independently operated video store. But now they've gone the way of the local blacksmithery and dry goods emporium, so it will be no more free credits for me!

However, I somehow managed, without really thinking about it, to see eight of the 10 contenders for Best Picture. Armed with that many opinions, how can I possibly refrain from voicing them? So, here goes:

Best Supporting Actress
Melissa Leo
I think it's likely to go to Melissa Leo for her work in "The Fighter." It's a brassy, yet nuanced, performance. I don't think Amy Adams from the same movie will be strong enough to split the vote. Leo always comes across as smart, dedicated and personable in her interviews. Besides, she was Kaye on "Homicide"! She therefore deserves whatever fresh acclaim comes her way.

Best Supporting Actor
Christian Bale
Bale is really good as the punch-drunk/cracked-out brother in "The Fighter," another strong performance in an only-so-so picture. He looks like death on toast, and big fluctuations in weight always impress the Academy. Plus, he isn't doing that annoying Batman voice. I don't think there are any other significant contenders in this category, although Geoffrey Rush and Mark Ruffalo both did stellar work in their respective films.

Best Actress
Natalie Portman
I have not yet mustered the energy to see "Black Swan." Just can't seem to generate the necessary enthusiasm for an ornithological ballet freakout  with lesbian overtones. But Portman is the front-runner, and she's cute as a button and pregnant, so she's likely to snag the Oscar.

I did see Annette Bening in "The Kids Are All Right." The movie was alternately entertaining and annoying, but I thought she was spot-on in every scene. If not Portman, then definitely Bening!

Best Actor
Colin Firth
No one's betting against Firth, and with good reason. Not even James Franco will come close, even after chewing off his own arm. (That is what happens in "127 Hours," right?) Firth's performance as "Bertie" is impeccable and quite moving. If I had to make a second pick, I would choose Jeff Bridges, but he's not going to take the Oscar two years running.

Best Director
David Fincher
My money's on David Fincher for "The Social Network." C'mon, who really thought that would work so well as a major motion picture? Perhaps the award will go Tom Hooper for "The King's Speech," but I would definitely pick the innovative veteran over the competent newcomer.

Best Picture
The King's Speech
The Academy eats up stuff like this: period pieces about royalty, especially royalty with physical disabilities. It's a fine movie, but "The Social Network" was the film that most entertained and impressed me -- more than "True Grit," more than "Toy Story III." But I'll be shocked if "The King's Speech" doesn't take Best Picture.

Some of the other categories about which I have an opinion include: Best Original Screenplay, "The King's Speech"; Best Adapted Screenplay, "The Social Network"; and Best Documentary, "Inside Job" (because it's the one documentary I've seen this year).

That's it. Now I can go back to ignoring nine-tenths of the upcoming theatrical releases!

Monday, February 14, 2011

Books You Oughta Read -- The Hog Murders by William L. DeAndrea

That has to be one of the best-designed paperback mystery covers of the Seventies. Look at it. That is one bad-ass swine in a business suit.

William L. DeAndrea made a big splash in the crime genre when he won back-to-back Edgars in 1979 and 1980: a Best First Novel for "Killed in the Ratings" and a Best Paperback Original for "The Hog Murders."  DeAndrea went on to publish nearly 20 other novels and won another Edgar for his non-fiction "Encyclopedia Mysteriosa." He died of a rare form of brain cancer in 1996.

Set in upstate New York during a bitter winter, "The Hog Murders" opens with a horrific traffic accident, in which a freeway sign falls on a carload of young women, killing two of them and leaving one badly injured. Within a short span, an old man dies from a fall down a staircase, and small boy is nearly decapitated by a falling icicle. The deaths seems unrelated and accidental -- until the local newspaper starts receiving taunting letters from someone who signs his name as HOG, has information only the killer could know and claims responsibility for each of the murders.

DeAndrea was an enthusiastic fan of Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe books, and "The Hog Murders" is very much a homage to The Great Detective and his ilk. In this case, the eccentric detective is one Nicolo Benedetti, an elderly professor of philosopher who enjoys flirting with women of a certain age, is a notorious cheapskate and demands as his fee the right to interview the culprit alone for two hours.

As the body count increases, Benedetti and his right-hand man, private investigator Ron Gentry, work with the local cops to catch the killer. At times, it seems as if everyone in the town of Sparta is somehow connected to the deaths; at others, the crimes seem utterly impossible.

"The Hog Murders" isn't a book that rewards re-reading. It's designed to work once and deliver a short, sharp shock at the end. It does so with cleverness and precision. The final line is a stunner, so don't peek.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Comics Review -- "Daytripper" by Fabio Moon & Gabriel Ba

Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba are twin brothers from Sao Paulo, Brazil, with more than 15 years of experience in comics. I wasn't familiar with their work until I picked up the two collected volumes of "The Umbrella Academy," written by Gerard Way. Their ability to depict hyperkinetic surrealism adds a lot to that gonzo superhero series. So I was intrigued when I received the non-superheroic "Daytripper, both written and illustrated by the brothers.

"Daytripper" is a much more somber affair. When we first meet Bras de Oliva Domingos, he's 32 years old, unenthusiastically composing obituaries for a daily newspaper. His stand-offish father is a revered and best-selling writer, and Bras finds it difficult living in the older man's shadow, especially since he wants to write a book of his own. On the way to a black-tie tribute to his father, Bras walks into the wrong bar and comes face-to-face with death in its most concrete form.

The subsequent chapters of "Daytripper" shuttle back and forth in time, presenting a day in Bras's life at 21, at 11, at 38. He falls in love for the first time, loses his best friend, awaits the birth of his son. But each time, the day ends with an unforeseen, often utterly capricious, tragedy.

I'm not sure I would have stuck with "Daytrippers" had I read it as a monthly pamphlet. Across ten issues, ending each chapter with a version of Bras's death begins to feel gimmicky by about Chapter Four. But as the clues begin to pile up, and Bras's continuing encounters with mortality hint of a possible resolution, the narrative becomes clearer and compelling.

"Daytripper" is a trippy, thoughtful piece of Latin-flavored magic realism, serious in intent, but joyous in its details. I'm hyped to see the next Umbrella Academy limited series, but this graphic volume was a welcome side-trip.

Monday, February 07, 2011

First SF Column of 2011 -- Walton, Rickert & Bear

Always happy to see my byline in The Chronicle or on SFGate.com. This one covers two novels and one story collection: "Among Others" by Jo Walton, "Hull Zero Three" by Greg Bear and "Holiday" by M. Rickert.

All three are worth seeking out, but the real stand-out is "Among Others." I am a big fan of Walton's alternate-World War II thrillers, but her new book is even better. If you love reading -- and reading science fiction and fantasy in particular -- it's a marvelous mix of fantasy and memoir that will remind you of how powerful fiction can be at the right time in your life.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Warren Zevon Should Be 64 Today, Goddamn It

Note: Warren Zevon's date of birth was 1/24/47. This post went up a day early. Stupid typing fingers. Carry on.

I'm not a big fan of Judd Apatow, and I'm no fan at all of Adam Sandler, but there's a moment in their movie "Funny People" that really moved me. It's when Ira Wright, played by Seth Rogen, is flipping through an iTunes playlist he's made for dissipated comedian George Simmons, played by Sandler. At this point of the movie, George believes he's terminally ill. The two are bantering back and forth, joking about the inappropriateness of Bob Marley's "Three Little Birds" and a selection from "Dirty Dancing."

Then Warren Zevon's "Keep Me in Your Heart" comes up. And suddenly, nothing's funny any more, not in the face of that beautiful song written while Zevon was dying from mesothelioma, a kind of lung cancer he believed might have come from playing among the carpet remnants in his father's store when he was a child.

With no dialogue, Rogen and Sandler play the moment perfectly. Faced with Zevon's croaky baritone and poignant lyrics, they're overwhelmed by the song's urgency and with just a few glances convey how it cuts too close to the bone.

OK, boys, now you've got my respect.

I don't think there's a late 20th-century American rock singer/songwriter who speaks to me as deeply as Warren Zevon. He lived hard, screwed up, made a comeback, died too young and was always underrated. I've written about him before,  and I don't intend to get all "I bought 'Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School' on vinyl, man!" today.

But if you're unfamiliar with the man's work or know him only from the fun-but-overplayed "Werewolves of London," there's a huge catalogue of great songs by him, just waiting for your discovery. If you're a long-time fan, you know exactly what I'm talking about.

Either way, check out some of the clips below.

Excitable Boy

Lawyers, Guns & Money

 Part #1 of Zevon's Last Appearance on Letterman

My Shit's Fucked Up

Keep Me in Your Heart

Friday, January 21, 2011

Books You Oughta Read -- "Set This House in Order"

I'm a sucker for a good story about multiple personality disorder. Or, as I've learned that it's now called, dissociative identity disorder.

The best non-fiction account on the subject that I've read is "When Rabbit Howls," by Truddi Chase and the Troops. The best depiction of the disorder in a comic book has to be in Grant Morrison's "Doom Patrol" (whose super-heroine with MPD, Crazy Jane, really kindled my interest in the topic).

The best novel I've read about MPD/DID has to be "Set This House in Order: A Romance of Souls," published by Matt Ruff in 2003. It's a marvelously constructed book: smart, heartfelt and full of surprises.

"Born" only two years before the story begins, Andy Gage is the alternate personality that deals with the outside world, with more than 100 other souls hidden away in the imaginary house he's constructed within his head. Through his workplace, he meets Penny Driver, another multiple, one who doesn't quite suspect that she has any alternate personalities. When some of her souls ask Andy for help, he finds himself vulnerable to his own long-suppressed secrets, ones that threaten to destroy the safe interior landscape he's built for himself.

It's hard to write about something as complicated and as emotionally fraught as DID, which usually has its origins in horrific childhood abuse. But Ruff manages to suggest the impact of Andy's and Penny's backstories without letting them become grotesque and exploitative when finally revealed. The novel's subtitle marks, I think, an important distinction. "Set This House in Order" is ultimately a hopeful book, one that overrides the seeming outlandishness of its premise and reveals something true about identity and love.

Ruff, by the way, is also the author of "Bad Monkeys," another twisty tale of identity, which I reviewed favorably in my Chronicle column back in 2007. If you haven't yet discovered him, you're missing out.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Review -- "Mr. Toppit" by Charles Elton

I have a soft spot for novels about adult children who have been screwed up by the artistic legacies of their famous fathers. Jonathan Carroll's "The Land of Laughs" is one of the best of that bunch, and I'm now enjoying "The Unwritten," the Vertigo Comics series written by Mike Carey.

So when I saw "Mr. Toppit" by Charles Elton, I figured it would be right up my alley. And it is, mostly. Although I can't recommend it without reservation, this first  novel does have its charms.

When semi-successful children's author Arthur Hayman is run over by a cement truck on a London street, the first person to offer him comfort is Laurie Clow, an awkward American tourist on a break from all the domestic drama back home. Before Arthur's family -- wife Martha and offspring Rachel and Luke -- have a chance to convene at the hospital or to even learn that Arthur has, in fact, passed away, Laurie has begun taking control of Hayman's posthumous career.

Largely through Laurie's manipulations, "The Hayseed Chronicles" become a multimedia phenomenon, inspiring new illustrated editions and a BBC miniseries. Of the Haymans, it is unstable Rachel who most enjoys the spotlight, while irritable Martha retreats from it completely. Luke, who shares his first name with the series' young protagonist, can most clearly see celebrity's alluring double edge.

Elton, a former literary agent, worked for the estate of A.A. Milne and knew well the story of Christopher Robin Milne, perhaps the ultimate ambivalent literary inspiration, who eventually grew tired of answering questions about Winnie the Pooh and that damned 100-Acre Wood. In Luke Hayman, Elton captures what it might feel like to be famous for nothing more than being the apparent namesake of a character beloved by children worldwide.

Unlike "The Land of Laughs" or "The Unwritten," there is no supernatural aspect to "Mr. Toppit." The eponymous character is a shadowy figure who haunts "The Hayseed Chronicles" without appearing until the last page of the fifth, final volume. And "Mr. Toppit" itself feels incomplete, somehow lacking the narrative cohesion that would make it succeed completely. Elton creates interesting characters and writes individual scenes with a sure hand, but "Mr. Toppit" ultimately measures as a near-miss.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Late to the Party -- 5 Neat Things I Only Recently Discovered

One problem of being a critic is that you can lose sight of interesting material that doesn't conform exactly to your expectations. There's so much stuff out there that it's often impossible to keep track of books, comics, movies or TV shows that are not right in front of you but that you would really enjoy if someone would simply push you in the right direction..

The folks at the AV Club offered their own take on this dilemma a little while ago, but I have my own selections and undoubtedly thought for this article idea first. Ahem..

The Umbrella Academy
I would normally be wary of any comic created and written by a rock star, since most such books would reek of "vanity project." But "The Umbrella Academy" by My Chemical Romance member Gerard Way, with art by Gabriel Ba and covers by James Jean, is actually pretty great.

Imagine the X-Men crossed with the Doom Patrol, add you've got some idea of what the Umbrella Academy is all about. There's time-travel, an approaching apocalypse, hit-men who dress as cartoon characters and a disbanded group of superheroes with a lot of excess emotional baggage. "The Umbrella Academy" has the weird whimsy of Grant Morrison at his most accessible but manages to remain true to its own hinky vision.
So far, there are only two collected volumes, "Apocalypse Suite" and "Dallas," though a third arc, "Hotel Oblivion," has been announced. I hope it comes to fruition soon.

I've grown tired of bad-ass bald guys in Vertigo books, but the shaven-headed protagonist of Jason Aaron's "Scalped"  isn't a retread of Grant Morrison's King Mob or Warren Ellis's Spider Jerusalem.

Dashiell Bad Horse returns to South Dakota and starts working for Chief Lincoln Red Crow, the local crime boss obsessed with opening a new casino that will supposedly improve the lot of every Oglala Lakota on the rez. Turns out, though, that Bad Horse is working for the FBI, and his superiors aren't above blackmailing him into stepping outside the law for their own purposes.

This is American noir of the bleakest sort, and Aaron keeps everything off-balance by continually upping the stakes and revealing new depths to his characters. After a while, it's easy to lose track of who the good guys really are, but that's rather the point.

It's unclear how long Aaron plans to spin this story out, but there are six collections available and seventh due in February. You can read the first issue of the series here.

Hark! A Vagrant!

Kate Beaton's online comics are a marvel, and I can't recommend them highly enough. They're literate and silly, knowing and well constructed. Favorites to sample include "Wonder Woman," "Dude-Watching with the Brontes," The Great Gatsby," "Mystery Solving Teens," and, especially if you're a Bowdoin College grad, "Henson and Peary."

Beaton has started selling to Harper's and The New Yorker, and now she has a book deal with Drawn + Quarterly, which is the best news of the year so far. And don't ignore her Twitter stream, upon which she posts links to sketches that are more personal but just as amusing as her more polished offerings.

Everybody thinks they can do a new twist on Robert Louis Stevenson's "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," but few adaptations add anything really fresh to the endeavor. Watch the cold opening of the 2007 BBC six-episode series written by Stephen Moffat and starring James Nesbitt, though, and I defy you not to want more.

The whole series is clever combination of  conspiracy thriller and horror with a comedic edge. The ending doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but I guess they were hoping for a second series. "Jekyll" is hard to find at your local video store, but it's easily available through Netflix.


Yeah, they're the cute, almost twee, couple in those Holiday Season Hyundai TV ads, but they've been around YouTube for a couple of years now. Good originals, clever covers, joyful videos and Nataly Dawn is freakin' adorable. And they've gathered more than 60,000 book donations for the Richmond School District, so don't be hatin' on them. Their covers of "Mr. Sandman" and "September" are especially good and worth checking out.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Gores Is Gone

I haven't read deeply into the body of work produced by Joe Gores, the Bay Area crime novelist who passed away this week. But I liked the few of his novels I did try. Oddly, I believe only one of them, "Contract Null and Void," was from his signature "Daniel Kearney Associates" (DKA Files) series.

Two stand-alones from the mid-90s have stuck with me, though, both of them clever tales of revenge. "Menaced Assassin" combines murder and paleontology, as a college professor seeks justice for his wife's killing. "Dead Man" also features a bereaved husband, one who rebuilds himself after the death of his wife and children to infiltrate the Mob as an accountant.

Although he won an Edgar for his first novel, "A Time of Predators" and wrote scripts for many detective TV shows, including "Kojak" and "Magnum PI," Gores is probably best known for his association with the quintessential hard-boiled detective, Sam Spade. In the Eighties, Gore wrote, "Hammett," in which the author of "The Glass Key" himself becomes embroiled in murder mystery. In 2009, he was authorized to pen a "prequel" to "The Maltese Falcon," "Spade & Archer."

Gores was a writer who understood the everyday realities of the private detective game but still managed to find deep wells of humor and suspense in it. His clear-eyed vision of the trade will be missed.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Ten Books I'm Looking forward to in 2011

There are always plenty of books out there that I would be happy to read, had I enough time and energy. But a handful of upcoming titles fill me with genuine anticipation, whether I'll have the chance to review them or not.

Started Early, Took My Dog -- Kate Atkinson
I'm already nearly a 100 pages into the latest by "Case Histories" and "When Will We Have Good News?" An impulsive purchase at a mall, the rescue of a small dog and a search for a client's natural parents lead to violence and other unforeseen complications. According to Atkinson, this is likely to be her last Jackson Brodie book for a few years, so enjoy him while you can.

A Drop of the Hard Stuff -- Lawrence Block
Lawrence Block is among the last of the great  crime fiction traditionalists, and he's returning to Matt Scudder after a long hiatus. This new entry in the series jumps back in time to when Scudder was still struggling with his alcoholism. That strategy worked well in "Before the Sacred Gin Mill Closes," so we'll see whether Block can construct another satisfying flashback.

Satori -- Don Winslow
You wouldn't think that Trevanian's "Shibumi" calls out for a follow-up after 30+ years, but Winslow, author of "California Fire and Life"  and "The Death and Life of Bobby Z," has decided to resurrect Nicolai Hel. Will Winslow be able to emulate Trevanian's tongue-in-cheek tone in the midst of all the super-assassin hugger-mugger? I'm certainly intrigued.

The Wise Man's Fear -- Patrick Rothfuss
Rothfuss's "The Name of the Wind" was one of the most intriguing fantasy debuts of the mid-2000s. Fans have been impatiently clamoring for more ever since, and finally a new installment is ready. Middle volumes are notoriously tricky, but Rothfuss managed to sidestep many of the high fantasy pitfalls with his first book, so perhaps he'll be able to beat the sophomore slump.

Flashback -- Dan Simmons
After three big historical novels, Simmons returns to science fiction with a near-future thriller. A new drug allows users to re-live their favorite moments from the past, and one ex-detective strives to break his addiction while investigating a murder. Simmons does "hardboiled" well, and this book might given him a welcome chance to stretch those muscles.

Fuzzy Nation -- John Scalzi
The author of "Zoe's Tale" channels H. Beam Piper, for reasons that aren't quite clear but which will undoubtedly prove amusing. Note: Ewoks and Fuzzies are not related.

Listener -- Warren Ellis
Few details are available about the second novel by the co-creator of "Planetary" and "Transmetropolitan." His first novel, "Crooked Little Vein," didn't quite live up to its promise, but Ellis knows his way around a

Other Kingdoms -- Richard Matheson
Matheson's recent output hasn't matched the standards of his early classics, but I keep hoping that he'll muster some more of the mojo that powered "Hell House" or "I Am Legend." This latest novel is set in England after World War I and involves fairies, witches and the like.

Embassytown -- China Mieville
Mieville is hit and miss for me. I lost patience with "The City and the City" but really enjoyed last summer's "Kraken." "Embassytown" promises more "New Weird" weirdness, so I'm eager to see what Mieville has come up with this time.

iZombie -- Chris Roberson with Michael Allred
I'm done buying monthly pamphlets, but I liked the sample first issue I received of this on-going Vertigo series. Allred's art is always awesome, and I trust Roberson to do something interesting with the overworked "The dead are back!" scenario. The first collection will be available later this spring.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Books You Oughta Read -- The Rat on Fire

When I travel, I often like to take along a book with some connection to my destination. Back in November, I was headed to Boston, so I read "The Rat on Fire" by George V. Higgins while I was shuttling between Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine.
If readers today remember Higgins at all, most know him for his first novel, 1972's "The Friends of Eddie Coyle," and the movie adaptation starring Robert Mitchum and Peter Boyle. It's truly a great and game-changing crime novel – grimly honest, bleakly funny and eminently quotable. (My favorite line: "This life is hard, but it's harder if you're stupid.") In contrast to "The Godfather" with its sleek and confident Mafiosi, Eddie Coyle is an unlovable, small-time Irish mope who barely comprehends the forces he's set in motion against himself.
Before he became a novelist, Higgins was an attorney and a journalist. Some critics called "The Friends of Eddie Coyle" an overnight success. Higgins would reply, "That was one hell of a damned long night, lasting seventeen years..." He wrote 14 unpublished novels in those 17 years and eventually destroyed them all.
Dialogue was Higgins' forte, and he wasn't afraid to employ it in huge swathes of rhetoric that run for pages at a time. His 1981 novel "The Rat on Fire" is as good as example of this strategy as any of his books. The book runs a little over 200 pages in paperback, but I'd bet there's not more than 25 pages of descriptive narrative in the whole thing.
Lawyer/talent broker/slumlord Jerry Fein wants to get rid of the buildings he owns, because most of the tenants refuse to pay rent and keep damaging the apartments. The tenants won't pay rent, because the buildings are rotting away and full of rats. The only way to break this impasse might be to hire someone like arsonist Leo Procter, who isn't adverse to setting rodents on fire and sending them up through the walls to spread the flames. What Procter doesn't know is that agents from the attorney general's office have him under surveillance, hoping to catch the fire marshal Procter has been bribing.
Now that we're in the middle of another recession, "The Rat on Fire" seems more relevant than ever. Everyone in it – cops, crooks, politicians – worries that they don't have enough money and is convinced that the System is irredeemably broken. There are no good options anymore, and all you can do is tell stories about how unfair it all is.
Higgins's dialogue is often described as realistic, but it's really not. Nobody, short of Shakespearean actors, spouts the kinds of soliloquies that Higgins constructs. But Higgins knew exactly how Bostonians spoke in the Seventies and Eighties, and there's never a false note in his characters' diction and their references to local customs and landmarks.
 In 1999, Higgins died of a heart attack just short of his 60th birthday, but he managed to publish 27 novels. As a Chronicle reviewer, I have covered only one novel by Higgins, "Sandra Nichols Found Dead." It was a good later work, but not great. But having read "The Rat on Fire," I'm looking forward to going back and discovering more of them.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

2010: Look Back in Peevishness

What did I write in 2010? Not many blog posts, that's for damn sure. As far as book reviews went, I probably contributed one or two fewer to The Chronicle than usual.

Round-ups are supposed to appear every six weeks, but there were some extended gaps, due to a frequent lack of space on the newspaper's part and sometimes a lack of concentration on mine. Here are the titles covered the past year:

January 24 -- Peter Straub's "A Dark Matter"," "Things We Didn't See Coming" by Steven Amsterdam and "Northwest Passages" by Barbara Roden.

March 7 -- Dan Simmons' "Black Hills," "Horns" by Joe Hill, "The Extra" by Michael Shea and Kage Baker's "Not Less Than Gods."

April 25 -- "Expiration Date" By Duane Swierczynski, "Blockade Billy" by Stephen King, "Darkness: Two Decades of Modern Horror" edited by Ellen Datlow, and "Planetary: Spacetime Archaeology" by Warren Ellis and John Cassaday.

June 27 -- Christopher Farnsworth's "Blood Oath," "I Am Not a Serial Killer" by Dan Wells, "Stories" edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio

August 8 -- "The Loving Dead" by Amelia Beamer, "Kraken" by China Mieville and Matt Kindt's "Revolver."

October 3 -- "Shades of Milk and Honey" by Mary Robinette Kowal, Charles Yu's "How to Survive in a Science Fictional Universe" and "The Fuller Memorandum" by Charles Stross.

December 5 -- "Dreadnought" by Cherie Priest, "The Dead Path" by Stephen M. Irwin and Catherynne M. Valente's "The Habitation of the Blessed."

I summed everything up in a "Best of the Year" column, although I prefer to think of it as a "Notable Books I Happened to Read and Like" list.

I also wrote a handful stand-alone reviews for The Chronicle:

"Known to Evil" by Walter Mosley
"The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets Nest" by Stieg Larsson
"The Passage" by Justin Cronin
"Zero History" by William Gibson
 "Skippy Dies" by Paul Murray

What's up for 2011? I've almost finished reading the next batch of books for my January column, and I've got dibs on a stand-alone for Kate Atkinson's "Started Early, Took My Dog." I'm also going to make more of an effort this year to pitch to other markets. I'll let you know what happens.

Monday, January 03, 2011


Tharn: Stupefied, distraught, hypnotized by fear. But can also, in certain contexts, mean "looking foolish," or again "heartbroken" or "forlorn."Watership Down

Turning 50 didn't just kick my ass. It kicked my ass, hit it with a tire iron, dumped it into the trunk of a Chevy Impala, drove it out to the desert, made it get out and dig its own grave, then pulled a gun, grinned and said, "Hey, just screwin' wit' ya."
Maybe you could have deduced my midlife malaise from the utter lack of entries following my birthday in January. Wait, there was one, a rumination on the death of Kage Baker, one of my favorite writers, who died of a brain tumor in her mid-fifties. After that, I kind of threw in the towel, blogging-wise.
What was up? Well, the details don't really matter. Let's just say that I've worked nearly my entire adult life in an industry currently undergoing cataclysmic change. I've got aging parents and kids in college and high school. I've got gout and I've got a mortgage. Sometimes I feel like I've got plenty of nothing, but nothing is definitely not plenty for me.
It got to the point, almost exactly midway through the year, when I simply "went tharn," as Mr. Richard Adams might put it. Like a bunny caught in the headlights, I froze – creatively, emotionally and nearly physically. At least inside my own head, I couldn't move forward, and I definitely couldn't move backwards. I just stayed still and hoped that nothing would run me over or swoop down on me from a great height.
I started re-reading "Watership Down" this summer, partly spurred by Sawyer's fondness for it on "Lost" and partly because it was a book from a time when I pretty much only read for pleasure, when there were few deadlines, when I took the adventures of Hazel, Fiver and Bigwig at face value. I bought a used copy of the mass-market paperback, my preferred reading format, and reacquainted myself with the rabbits and their quest for a safe home.
Did you know that Richard Adams was 52 when "Watership Down" was published in 1972? He was civil servant for most of his private career and created the story as an entertainment for his daughters on long drives. The "Watership Down" manuscript was rejected by seven publishers before the small firm Rex Collings took it on, but it soon sold more than a million copies worldwide. It won the Carnegie Medal, and now its sales total more than 50 million copies.Adams went on to write "Shardik," "The Plague Dogs" and other well-regarded, best-selling books.
Adams turned 90 in May of 2010. He published a new story, "The Knife," just this year, in "Stories," edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio.
I haven't quite finished "Watership Down" this second time around. I don't particularly feel like rushing it. I can pick it up and put it down without losing the thread of the tale. In a lot of ways, it's simple story, but it says some important things: about perseverance, about friendship, about self-reliance.
I've begun to feel a lot better since this summer, and I've started to write more. It wasn't just Richard Adams and "Watership Down" that gave me a renewed sense of perspective about myself and my career at age 50. There were definitely other, more important factors. But the novel helped, not only through the wisdom of its story but by the example of its author.

Novelists can start their careers after 50. They can publish into their 90s. The Black Rabbit won't ever stop chasing you, but you can still give it a run for its money.
Move. Run blindly, if you have to. But move.
Don't go tharn.