Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Year Zero by, Rob Reid

Human beings are the most musically advanced civilization in the universe. Even our crappiest earworm brings rapture to any alien species who listens to it. This is why aliens have been pirating our music since 1977. It turns out, however, that this piracy has racked up a giant royalty bill that would bankrupt the galaxy if the Earth ever tried to collect it. A group of aliens decides it would just be easier to destroy the earth. A second group of aliens enlists the help of a copyright attorney named Nick Carter to find a way out from under the crushing debt.

A lot of the press about Year Zero mentions it in the same breath as The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. I'm convinced that the only people who make that comparison are those who know HHG2G is funny sci-fi, but who have never actually read Guide. The concept of Year Zero is good fodder for a funny book, but the execution was lacking. Here are a few writerly tips about what went wrong with this book.

1) Weighted more heavily toward summary than scene. A scene is showing what happens when two people go on a date. Summary is having a character say "I went on a date last night and this happened". A vast majority of the book is told via summary. You're in the middle of a scene when a character we haven't seen in a while comes on the page and explains what they've been doing while they were away. Some of this is fine, but too often it drags the story to a halt. There were even times where the narrator tells another character what he was up to between chapters. Why not just show it?

2) Over-explaining things. Science fiction is tricky. You come up with an alien species or sweet piece of technology and you have to communicate to the reader enough information so they're not lost. However, you don't need characters sitting around and reading the whole wikipedia entry about the topic. Think of it this way: if a visitor from 1600 shows up at your front door, could you explain how planes fly? Or how the internal combustion engine powers your car? Most likely not. And does the information further the plot? Do you really need five pages to describe X if it doesn't move Nick from point A to point B in the story? If the answer is no, give the reader enough to go on and then move on.

3) Appropriate reactions. This is more of an advanced tip. Early on it's good. Hey aliens show up! Holy crap, what's going on? But at a critical juncture in the story, an ally Nick recruited to help him out vanishes into thin air when it shouldn't be possible. Nick and the other characters shrug, say he/she is probably OK, and continue. Don't be afraid to have your characters freak out if a freakout is called for.

There were other things that annoyed me, but those are more likely a matter of personal preference.

This probably makes is sound like I hated Year Zero, but I didn't. There were parts that worked and parts that didn't. I would have liked to have seen the story handled by a more talented writer, but the book served its purpose.

Your mileage may vary.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Song of the Week: Can't Find My Way Home

This week's song is an acoustic version of the Blind Faith classic "Can't Find My Way Home".

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

The Wrong Side of Goodbye by, Michael Connelly

Harry Bosch is back and working two cases at once. In his capacity as a private investigator, he is hired by Whitney Vance, an aging billionaire, to find any possible heirs. It's a family saga worthy of Ross Macdonald with lots of twists and turns that I never saw coming. The second case has Harry uncovering a serial rapist while working as a reserve detective for the San Fernando Police Department. This is a straight police procedural and provides the opportunity for some gunplay. The PI case appeals more to my sensibilities, but both were good and riveting.

Another stellar book by Michael Connelly.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Song of the Week: Handle With Care

This is another one circling in my head. I like how the Traveling Wilburys is a complete band, but you can hear all the distinct parts. You've got George Harrison's verse that's fast and in a limited range next to Roy Orbison's soaring falsetto.

Who is your favorite Traveling Wilbury? Is it Jeff Lynne?

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

The Gatekeepers by, Chris Whipple

The Gatekeepers is a fascinating inside baseball account of the Presidential administrations going back to Richard Nixon. You learn a lot about the inner workings of the White House and how major policy things were done. With all the quotes from the principals and some background staffers, Chris Whipple must have spent hundreds of hours in interviews. In some places it's a bit surface and his political biases show through, but overall it's well written and engaging.

Recommended for political junkies of any stripe.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Monday, May 14, 2018

Song of the Week: Hey! Baby

This week's song comes from Jimmie Vaughan's latest album - Live At C'Boy's. It's a trio album featuring Jimmie on guitar and vocals, Mike Flanigin on the Hammond B-3 organ, and the late Barry "Frosty" Smith on drums.

Here's the classic sing-along "Hey! Baby".

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Last Call by Daniel Okrent

Last Call:  The Rise and Fall of Prohibition is a large, sprawling book that inspired a Ken Burns documentary and the American Spirits Smithsonian exhibit that I got to see while in Pittsburgh last week. The book is full of lots of interesting historical tidbits. I marvel at ingenuity of some of the ways people skirted the laws.

The temperance movement grew out of some very real concerns. During the 1800s, American consumption of alcohol grew faster than the population grew. Many Americans were literally drinking themselves to death and religious and other groups wanted to take steps to curb the use of alcohol. In this regard, Prohibition did its job. In the first few years of Prohibition, alcohol consumption dropped 70% and didn't reach pre-Prohibition levels until 1973 (and dropped again in the 1980's). But in every other aspect, Prohibition was a failure.

Rather than dwell on the aspects most of us know about (the open disdain for the rule of law, the rise of organized crime), I'd like to mention some of the other points author Daniel Okrent makes. The push for Prohibition and the 18th Amendment drastically changed politics in America. For the first time, many different groups worked together because they agreed on one issue:  they were dry. Aside from the ultra religious, the other main group in support of Prohibition was women. But as they lacked the right to vote, their power to make change was severely limited. That's why many people banded together to promote women's suffrage. They reasoned that if women had the right to vote, Prohibition would soon follow.

Another reason Prohibition took a while to gain traction was the taxes collected on alcohol. From the early days of the republic (first instituted by Alexander Hamilton) to the Civil War to the Spanish-American War, the government would raise the liquor tax to pay for the war, ,then lower it when the war was over. If alcohol was made illegal, a great source of income would be removed. But after the 16th Amendment created the income tax, another domino fell.

You can conceivably trace women's suffrage, the income tax, single-issue voting, and rallying of minority groups toward a cause to the temperance movement. Okrent fairly presents these items and the issue of wet vs dry without taking sides. His narrative is politically balanced except for his unbridled disdain for Calvin Coolidge.

Overall, it is a great and interesting book on a turbulent time in American history

Monday, April 23, 2018

Song of the Week: Blues All Around Me

I've seen clips of Tommy Castro playing with other blues guitarists I like and I was not impressed. The other guys always seemed to blow him away. But I like what I've heard on XM's Bluesville channel. For example, this week's song, with it's smoking horns and tight groove bass line.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Protect And Defend by, Vince Flynn

When Mossad executes a daring plan to take out Iran's newest nuclear facility, the Iranian government spins up its propaganda machine and blames America. CIA Director Irene Kennedy attempts a back-channel negotiation with her Iranian counterpart, but is kidnapped shortly afterward. It's up to our hero, Mitch Rapp, to save her before time runs out.

I've been a fan of Vince Flynn for years, but don't read him as regularly as I used to. He knows how to craft exciting stories and Protect and Defend is no exception to the rule. You know what you're getting from a Mitch Rapp book and that's what you get from this one. It's a tight story that's well told. I really liked the opening gambit that destroyed Iran's nuclear facility.

Another solid entry in the Rapp series.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Song of the Week: Ironic Twist

This week's song is from bluesman Jimmie Vaughan. He has a new trio album out, but this song is from his 1998 album Out There. It's got a nice tight groove, some stellar guitar by Vaughan, and the distinctive sound of a Hammond B-3.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Song of the Week: Photograph

For some reason this Ringo song has been in my head for a couple days. He co-wrote this song with George Harrison. I thought I'd share.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Song of the Week: Christo Redemptor

What does the blues have to do with Easter? Probably not much, but this week's song is "Christo Redemptor" by Charlie Musselwhite.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Chicago by, David Mamet

Mike Hodge is a WWI vet and a reporter for the Chicago Tribune. Prohibition-era Chicago is a rough place with the war between the Irish, Capone's mob, and the Feds. Hodge's ingenious idea of getting the inside scoop is to hang around flower shops because people always send flowers to a wake. This is where he falls in love with the daughter of an Irish shopowner. Their love affair is cut short and Hodge spends a good chunk of the book piecing together why.

David Mamet is known for the rhythmic quality of the dialogue in his plays. It doesn't quite translate onto the written page where the sentences have numerous dependent clauses and start and stop many times. It could work if one character spoke like that or if there were moments when a character did, but almost all the characters do it all the time and the narration follows the same pattern. It causes the characters to sound unnatural and as if they're pontificating on life, the universe, and everything.

Mamet does craft some good sentences, though. There are multiple chapters whose first lines could easily serve as a great first line of a novel. For example, Chapter 4 starts with this line: "Jackie Weiss, Mike wrote, had died of a broken heart, it being broken by several slugs from a .45."

Ultimately, the early pacing problems and the florid language drag down what could have been an outstanding book.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Means of Ascent by, Robert A. Caro

Means of Ascent is the second book in Robert Caro's extensive biography of the 36th President of the United States. This volume picks up where the Path to Power left off and takes us through the 1948 Senate campaign that saw LBJ become the junior Senator from Texas.

As in the first book, Johnson's character is put under a spotlight. He remains abusive to his staff and wife. He's an outright lair. He spread falsehoods about his opponent Coke Stevenson in an effort to destroy his reputation. He lied about his wartime record, which amounted to flying an observer for 10 minutes on a single bombing mission over Japan.

Johnson pioneered many modern campaign techniques in his 1948 campaign. While his opponent traveled via car, LBJ traveled across Texas in a helicopter, allowing him personal contact with many more potential voters. He outspent his opponent nearly 10 to 1, shattering records for the most expensive Texas campaign ever. And he blanketed the state with radio broadcasts three times a day, fake newspapers with negative stories about his opponent, and used the modern technique of repetition to drive his points home and make people believe his lies. And this all that, he still had to resort to stealing the election by stuffing ballot boxes and modifying already filed returns.

Means of Ascent has the same strengths and weaknesses as Path. It is deeply researched. It also suffers from lots of repetition. The long biographical digressions remain. The first volume contained a complete biography of Sam Rayburn before he met Johnson and this one contains a full biography of former Texas governor Coke Stevenson. They're both interesting and could be books on their own, but I'm not sure if that much detail is necessary here.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

The Salmon of Doubt, by Douglas Adams

When Douglas Adams died in 2001, he left behind millions of books sold, millions of fans, and scattered bits of writing on Macintosh hard drives. The Salmon of Doubt culls together numerous essays he wrote, interviews, a couple short stories, and bits of an unfinished novel. The essays range from autobiographical to musings on technology and all contain his trademark whit. Adams himself mentions how much he was influenced by Monty Python and you can definitely see their shared sense of humor.

The most tantalizing bit of the book for Adams fans is the unfinished Dirk Gently novel, The Salmon of Doubt. Through the assembled chapters, we join Gently on an investigation where he doesn't know who hired him, so he decides to follow somebody at random because he figures he was hired to tail somebody. It's a great start to a story that this fan wishes Adams could have finished.

The Salmon of Doubt is probably only for hardcore Hitchhikers (is there another kind?). It's a fun visit with Adams and a reminder of how this world could sorely use his brand of mayhem.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Song of the Week: California Soul

This week's song is a good example of the West Coast soul sound from the 1960's. Soaring lyrics, tight groove, and a laid back feel. Just sit back and enjoy.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

William F. Buckley, Jr.

Today marks the 10 year anniversary of the death of William F. Buckley, Jr. On this anniversary, there is a great piece by Rick Brookhiser in National Review about Buckley, the conservative movement, and Trump.

Looking back, it's easy to lionize your heroes and to overlook their faults, but in many ways, WFB was truly a genius. His television show Firing Line wasn't a collection of pundits yelling soundbites at each other, but a one on one debate between Bill and someone of an opposing viewpoint. He actually let the left bring their best arguments and their best debaters onto his show and give them an audience they otherwise wouldn't have gotten. His motives weren't altruistic because he truly wanted his ideas to win, but he created a level playing field where serious ideas could be discussed seriously.

Brookhiser also correctly diagnoses the problems with the current conservative movement. Many conservative commentators have thrown aside their principles in order to support someone who "wins" and "fights". How, after three (or seven) more years of a Trump presidency, can we take them seriously again? Lord Acton's quote about power corrupting is typically interpreted as the person in power being corrupted by it. But the original intention was to describe the willingness of some to bend their beliefs to gain favor of one in power.

One of the great strengths of the conservative movement since its beginning is the willingness to challenge its own dogma. There have been numerous arguments between conservatives, neo-cons, paleo-cons, libertarians, Buckleyite conservitives, etc, that have clarified positions and made the intellectual underpinnings of the movement stronger. But the Trump era has polarized the Right in almost the way the right and left have been polarized in the Bush 43 and Obama eras. Trump supporters echo their icon and hurl epithets and demean those who dare to, not just criticize, but question anything he says.

What's mainly forgotten in the modern age is that politics is about persuasion. Buckley was not without his faults, but he understood this basic fact and put in the work to persuade people that his ideas were right. We could use more like him today.

Requiescat in pace.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Song of the Week: Jamming at Sankei Hall

This week's song is from a 1971 concert B.B. King gave in Tokyo, Japan. I think I'll have to track down a copy of this album.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Cancel Your Own Goddam Subscription by, William F. Buckley, Jr.

Great collection of the Notes & Asides feature from National Review. It's a reminder of the zest for life that Bill Buckley had and how, once upon a time, there could be humor and camaraderie between those of differing political ideologies.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Controlled Burn by, Scott Wolven

I don't remember when I first heard about Scott Wolven, but I remember getting hooked by his stories. A number of years ago, they just started popping up on all the crime fiction zines and each one was brilliant. Wolven didn't have his own blog or website and wasn't part of the crime fiction community like a lot of other writers, but he had an avid following due to the strength of his writing. Unfortunately, we haven't heard much from him in a while.

I finally tracked down a copy of Controlled Burn, his collection of short stories. Every story in this collection is great. He portrays characters at the fringes of society - convicts, ex-convicts, and people who work in cash only businesses because they're hiding from their pasts. His spare, muscular prose is engaging. And yet, like in stories like "Tigers", his language is poetic.

My favorite stories are probably "Tigers", "The Copper Kings", and "Vigilance".

If you're a fan of good writing, you should track this collection down.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The Game by, Ken Dryden

Engaging book by one of hockey's legends. This book is part memoir and part hockey history. Dryden draws a number of character sketches of his teammates from the Cup winning teams of the 1970's (In Dryden's 8 years with Montreal, he won 6 Stanley Cups). He also waxes about his reasons for retirement. One particular passage stood out to me. Dryden says in your early 20's, you work and fight and scratch to get better at what you do. Once you hit your 30's, you work and fight and scratch to not lose what you once had. While the ages for professional athletes are earlier, it's a profound insight for the rest of us.

Towards the end of book, Dryden talks about how hockey changed over the century since it was first played. He talks about the introduction of the forward pass, the lines, off-ice training, and the influence of the Soviets and each one of their influences on the game. He also gives his ideas on how hitting, fighting, and the violence we take for granted grew to be part of the game.

If you're a fan of the game, it's worth tracking a copy down.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Song of the Week; Uptown Funk

I like the concept of The Song Society. Jamie Cullum and his bandmates find a song they like by someone else and learn it to record in under an hour. This version of "Uptown Funk" is pretty sweet. I love the rising bassline in the chorus.

If you liked it, you should check out some of the other Song Society posts by Cullum and his band.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Down the Darkest Street by, Alex Segura

Pete Fernandez didn't see the kick coming.

Set roughly a year after Silent City, Pete Fernandez has hit bottom. He gained some minor celebrity from stopping the Silent Death, but drank it, and most of the goodwill of his fellow man, away. After one especially bad night, he decides to clean up his act and it works out pretty well for him. He's got a job at a local bookstore and his ex, Emily, is moving in with him after a separation from her husband. But when Pete gets involved with a case of a missing girl, the kicks just keep coming.

Alex Segura is a writer who needs to be known. He paints the neon lights and the dark shadows of Miami in such vivid detail and has created a wonderful character in Pete Fernandez. From page one, you empathize with Pete and root for a happy ending for him. Since this is noir, every happy ending has a dark cloud behind it.

The Pete Fernandez series is highly recommended. I look forward to reading Dangerous Ends.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Song of the Week: So Fresh, So Clean

The year is a week old, so it's still pretty fresh and squeaky clean.

Also, there ain't nobody dope as me.

Friday, January 5, 2018