Saturday, February 20, 2010
We Are the World and Losing Our Voice
The greatest thing about chain stores is that you know exactly what you’re going to get every time you walk in the door. Whether you are in Houston, Los Angeles, New Orleans, London, or Moscow, a Big Mac is a Big Mac. It’s still my favorite burger from a fast food franchise. And there hardly is a place anywhere in America or the world where you can’t see the golden arches. It’s comforting, to some degree. But it also can get monotonous. Since every suburb has a Mickey D’s, a Chili’s, an Applebee’s, etc., it genericizes the American landscape. Gone are many of the local burger joints. Yeah, it’s just the way of business but it’s still sad that it’s more difficult to find a unique burger joint. My wife calls it Generic America, the amalgamation of different elements into a pangea of commonality. I go for the combo word: GenerAmerica.
Last weekend, when I heard the new version of “We Are the World,” I come to the conclusion that, to some extent, the same thing has happened in our music.
The original version, released in the spring of 1985, was a milestone in the lives of many a teenager, like myself. All that talent, in one room, singing an immediately memorable chorus, it was (and still is) magical. I can remember there was a time where the song was simulcasted across multiple radio stations, including the classical station here in Houston. Who’d have thought Willie Nelson and Mozart would be heard on the same station?
“We are the World: 25 for Haiti” was recorded a few weeks ago by many of today’s famous singers. The catastrophe that prompted the remake was the earthquake in Haiti. The new version is good and I very much appreciate and enjoy the rap section added in. My biggest criticism of the effort is that it tried to mimic too closely the original. When Cyndi Lauper does her thing in the original, it was unique and thrilling. When Celine Dion sings the same part, it comes across as karaoke (despite her very powerful and beautiful voice; she’s the only one who could have done it).
Here’s my observation: Back in 1985, I *heard* the original before I saw the video but I could identify every single vocalist. Not so the new one. I realized, as I watched the video for 25 for Haiti, I *needed* the video to identify the singers. Sure, some I know and can identify them right off the bat: Streisand, Jennifer Nettles, Josh Groban, LL Cool J, Adam Levine. But the others, to my ears, sounded similar to each other. As good as Jennifer Hudson and Mary J. Blige are, I can’t tell them apart. Yeah, I know that Kenny Loggins and James Ingram (original) sound pretty darn close but the new version doesn’t have a Springsteen, a Steve Perry, a Bob Dylan, a Tina Turner to take a vocal cue and soar.
It got me to wondering: have we lost our uniqueness? In the age of globalization and mass music, have we created a generic voice?
Friday, February 19, 2010
I’ve talked about this before on me main blog, but again I’m thinking about covers. Following my reading recently of Barry Eisler’s “open letter” to his French publishers (and all publishers) I’ve found myself thinking about covers. And its true that covers affect the way I think about a book.
One of my favourite series of covers, as anyone whose heard me wax lyrical on the subject will know, was the sequence of covers that Serpent’s Tail did the early books of George Pelecanos. Indeed, it was the cover of the sublime King Suckerman that persuaded me to get into Pelecanos in the first place.
The immediately recognisable reminded me just a little of the old Elmore Leonard covers I used to buy my dad when I was a kid. They were two tone, simple designs, and absolutely striking. Strange as it sounds, one of my main memories is me and mum trying to decide which Leonard to buy him based on the colours of the covers (we couldn’t have told you the titles – I was too young and mum, well, she wasn’t a Leonard reader). I’ll be honest with you, much as I love Leonard’s books, the covers have never really been as striking since.
I love the idea of branding in that sense. Not every Leonard book is the same inside, but outside you knew you were getting a Leonard. Same with Pelecanos – an author who, despite some hiccups, has generally had his own branding from the brilliance of Serpent’s Tail through to the simple “crime tape” tagging of a couple of years back to the stark white and blue covers that predominate his current incarnation. And I couldn’t go without mentioning the old Richard Stark covers – the ones with the bullet hole in the front and the tagline: “A novel of violence”. Everything you need to know, believe me.
I also love the whole-series branding that is happening in the Hard Case Crime Line-up. Not every cover painting stands equal (some I like less than others), but again you are hard pressed* to mistake them for anything else.
Interesting aside note – I managed to grab an early copy of one of HCC’s first books – Allan Guthrie’s excellent Two Way Split – which was actually part of print run that was somehow damaged. The cover wore easily, cracked and peeled. But the strange thing is that given the nature of the HCC design, this really looked right and the edition now stands proud among the real old pulps that clutter my bookshelf, looking like it belongs, like it was truly part of the era it is echoing.
But I digress. And to return to covers, let’s boil it down like this: I like strong images. I like an uncluttered feel. I like something original. Something that says: this is what’s going on. So in one sense, myself and Mr Eisler agree on that: a cover should not only be strong, it should vibe what’s inside the book.
Where we disagree of course, is over his choice of cover preference. While Eisler prefers his UK covers, I find them overly busy and muddy. The French cover – while, perhaps, not capturing the mis-en-scene of an Eisler novel, is less cluttered and more clear to my eyes. Which goes to show that sometimes, cover art is in the eye of the beholder.
So how would one convey an action cover well?
I do like the cover to Sean Black’s recent thriller, Lock Down. The cover is busy and explosive, but the focus is on the title and the central explosion, unlike the Eisler covers where the eye is not drawn to any one thing in particular (other than the title, but beyond that? I just see a morass of colours).
One of the best covers I’ve seen in ages plopped its way into my inbox recently – the cover for the upcoming Busted Flush anthology, Damn Near Dead 2. It’s an absolute doozy, and conveys precisely the tone of the anthology while managing to stand out from the crowd effectively. In fact, I’d say that as BF are continuing, their covers are getting better and better. Simple, clear and effective. Not branded in an HCC sense but perfectly adapted to their authors.
And I think that’s the key – so many covers fail to create a proper sense of the book inside through sloppy design or inappropriate imagery. There is more to cover design than you might believe, even if so many houses seem to believe that copying another author’s style may be the key (step forward the Da Vinci Code Rip Offs and the Lee Child Alikes, please). Those that get it right create mini masterpieces. Does it tell you anything that I have a collection of old paperbacks collected not for the stories inside, but for the love of the covers, of the moods and ideas they represent?
And, of course, inkeeping with this week’s theme, I give unto you the cover of a book by a guy who’s a hell of a writer… oh, yes, we warned you it was McFetridge week here at DSD…
*was that a pun? It was nearly a pun.
Thursday, February 18, 2010
I'm on Winter Break this week. I'm taking it easy and relaxing, hoping we don't get too much snow. (Got two inches or so on Monday, but nothing really since.) But since I've been home, I've had a lot of time to catch up on my reading about reading... and books.
So I'm gonna link you to 'em, and give you some really cool stuff to read:
First off, you know about John's Let It Ride. It came out this week. Check it out.
Another great article: Jason Pinter writes about why this is the most exciting era for book lovers.
Sarah Weinman wrote a great review of a book called The Poisoner's Handbook.
Congrats to the 2010 Hammett Nominees!
Can Fred save his job? (Sorry, just thought I'd sneak that one in here.
And finally, Maureen Johnson, professional writer talks about daring to suck and getting an agent.
Okay, I'm going back to being lazy.
Wednesday, February 17, 2010
Dirty Sweet Words
By Jay Stringer
(Pulled a bit of a switch on you again this week, eh? What can I say. We’re sneaky like that.)
So, you’ve heard McFet’s latest book SWAP was released -after being processed through the babel fish for those of us who don’t speak Canadian- as LET IT RIDE in all good U.S. bookstores yesterday (that’s me making with the funny again) and to the online outlets such as the amazons.
If only there were some way you could link to things on a website.
With the new book hitting shelves, I thought I’d continue the theme and take a look back at his first two, Dirty Sweet and Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. There are song references in both of those titles, for those keeping score at home.
I’ve been trying to think of the best way to start for the past week, and failing each time. Then Joelle gave me the answer with her debut DSD post on Sunday; voice.
John’s books have plots. Very good ones. And I’ll get to them in a minute. But the plots are not what made me pick up another of his books as soon as I’d finished my first one. It was that vital element, the thing that separates your favorite authors from the rest; voice.
Voice is a tricky sell in fiction. Especially if your tastes match mine, and you want your author to be as close to invisible as possible. You don’t want their opinions their sarcasm or their accent getting in the way. You don’t want their worldview beating you round the head, even if it’s a view you agree with. What you’ll find in a John McFetridge book is that perfect balance. The characters do the talking, the plot does the moving and the book does the reading. You’re never in doubt who the author is, but he never steps in to talk to you.
I know the easy trick is to mention Elmore Leonard, but I don’t really see it the way the other reviews do. It’s not really there in the dialogue, and, okay, it’s urban crime so yes there are crossovers. But where it does hold true for me is in the same way it holds true of any number of top writers; The work is addictive. So I could also reference folks like Lawrence Block, Scott Phillips or Charles Willeford. You wouldn’t really say these guys write alike, but they all have that same power in their writing, that same Laid back confidence. When you start reading the first line, you won’t be aware of time passing until you’re a few chapters in, and by that point you know this is a book you want to finish.
And I better mention the dialogue. This is probably something that’ll make one of Dave White’s hit lists one day. Every reviewer wants to tell you how their guy has the sharpest, crispest, most believable dialogue. There was a meeting about it somewhere, I think, and it was made into law. I don’t know, DSD don’t get invited to those meetings.
So all that aside, what am I going to tell you about the dialogue in these books? Well, I wasn’t aware of reading ‘dialogue’. I wasn’t hit with crispness, sharpness, or realism. All I noticed was that these characters could talk, and I never for a moment doubted that they would say those things. It just flows, and never waves at you to look how cool it is. That set a new standard for me to try and aim for. In fact, it was one that stopped me writing for a little while. I started a couple of projects straight after finishing Everybody Knows.. and found myself writing in McFets voice and not mine.
Now that was a good trick.
Okay, the books themselves. First up is Dirty Sweet. If William Goldman had written a Toronto crime script instead of a western, it may have been something like this. It’s got a Russian criminal who secretly wants to be a businessman. A Canadian businesswoman who secretly wants to be a criminal, and a guy who makes porn who…well…he doesn’t really know what he wants to be.
It’s not giving away anything that has been mentioned on this site before to say that the story starts when the woman, Roxanne Keyes, witnesses a major crime that involves the Russian, Boris. And rather than report him to the cops, she decides to see how she can make money out of it. This has been a running theme in the books so far, and one true of all cities; everyone’s just looking for ways to make a buck. To try and find an angle, she hooks up with Vince, who runs an Internet porn company. He might not know what he wants to be, but he thinks maybe he’ll find the answer somewhere beneath Roxanne’s skirt. So the three of them enter into the game, circling each other, and being circled by the cops, waiting for one of them to figure out the perfect scam.
The following book isn’t a direct sequel. But what it does to is expand the same world. All of these stories are taking place in the same city, the characters move round each other; they probably drink at some of the same places. It reminds me of the old school marvel universe, in the days before publishers wanted to take money from you through crossovers, they just let the characters all hang out in the same space.
So Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere both expands on the first book and also ignores it, in all the right ways. Many of the cops who were supporting characters in the first book step up here to carry the book. A gang war that was bubbling away in the background of Dirty Sweet picks up apace, and a major investigation by the RCMP bridges the two. But none of that is important to reading the book, they’re just fun easter eggs. The book starts with a dead body –to say anymore than that would ruin one of the best openings I’ve read in ages- and the follows both the cops and the criminals as they plot coups, murder and profit.
There is the same sort of game as in the first book, with a bunch of people circling each other waiting to find the right way to make some money, but it plays out in a fresh way. I’ve seen a few comparisons to The Wire and, though they’re doing different things, I think I can see that comparison. This is a crime novel that’s not so much telling you a single story as it is giving you a bit of a city, showing how things work and how the pieces are put into place. You come out of it not wanting to know more about a couple of characters, but wanting to know more about everyone, about the whole city and where all of the political maneuvering leads to next.
Let It Ride I’ll be with me in a couple of days, and I’m looking forward to it.
Tuesday, February 16, 2010
Let It Ride
As my friend Declan Burke says, "All three regular readers," of the blog will know, today marks the publication of Let It Ride in the USA and I'd like to take this opportunity to thank everyone.
When my first novel was coming out the publisher asked me if I wanted to put in some acknowledgements and I said, of course, and started to make a list. Very quickly I realized the list was going o be as long as the book. We all know it takes a lot of people to make a movie or a TV show, we see all the names in the credits and now I realize that for me it takes justas mny to write a book.
My family, my friends, co-workers, friends I've made online but never met in person -- I've been helped by so many people, given support in so many different ways by so many people.
So to everyone, I say thank you.
And we'd like to give away a copy here at Do Some Damage. So, if you leave a comment we'll put all the names in a hat and pick one out.
And if you're curious about the book, here's a little something from Chapter One:
The on-ramp to the Gardiner Expressway was closed; a fire truck, an ambulance, and a cop car blocking the way, and uniformed men and women from all of them standing around smoking.
McKeon popped the siren a couple times and flashed the headlights to clear a path in the traffic and pulled right up to the ramp on Lake Shore, under the expressway.
One of the uniformed cops, a guy in his fifties, said, “McKeon, you’re going to love this.”
She was already out of the car walking towards the scene saying, “I am?”
The uniform, Dixon, said oh yeah, this is a good one.
“Guy was driving up the ramp, see?” The car, a brand- new Dodge 300 with the big front grille and the little windows making it look like a thirties gangster car, had gotten halfway up the ramp, stopped, and rolled back, turning sharply so its back end was against the left side and its front end against the right, blocking the road.
Dixon said, “And pow, somebody shoots him in the head.”
Closer now, McKeon and Price could see the passenger window covered in blood splatter and the driver’s head flopped onto the steering wheel.
McKeon saw the woman’s body, waist up on the passenger seat, the rest of her on the floor, like she was kneeling and slid off, as Dixon was saying, “Then they popped the chick.”
Price said, “Holy shit.”
Dixon was laughing. “You know it, detective.”
McKeon walked around to where the driver’s side door was open and said, “His pants are down.”
“And,” Dixon said, “get a load of her outfit, love the fishnets. Getting a little road head, eh, couldn’t wait to get to the room.”
Another uniform cop standing beside the car, younger than Dixon but otherwise looked just the same, said, “Or getting his money’s worth on the way.”
McKeon said to Price, “Great.” She looked at the uniforms. “What’s the id say?”
“You sure they’re dead?”
“VSA, detective, that’s what the pros tell us.” He pointed to the firemen and ambulance guys leaning against their rigs drinking coffee. Vital Signs Absent.
McKeon said, You’re really working hard tonight, and the younger uniform said, Hey, it’s a crime scene, detective.
“Once they said they were dead we didn’t want to disturb anything.”
McKeon said, “Right,” and leaned into the car. She didn’t see a gun anywhere, but thought, you never know.
She picked up the woman’s white leather purse from the floor of the car, had to pull it out from under the woman’s butt, miniskirt slid up, nothing on underneath but a garter belt. Close up like this McKeon saw the woman was older than she thought, had to be mid to late forties, in good shape, showing off a very nice body in her miniskirt and expensive silk top, push-up bra, little leather boots, at least five-inch spike heels.
McKeon stood up, opened the purse, and said, “Jesus Christ.”
Price, walking back from checking the computer in the unmarked, looked over her shoulder and said, “Yeah, that’s it, registered to a Michael Lowrie, Mississauga.”
McKeon, looking at the driver’s licence from the purse, said, “Sandra Lowrie. Wife?”
“Looks like it. Guy’s got no record, nothing outstanding, not even a parking ticket.”
The tech guys arrived and went right to work. McKeon — it was her turn, she was the lead, what they called the major case manager, trying to make it sound like a normal day at the office—watched them get started. She said, Hey, to Cruickshank, the senior guy, and let him do his job.
Then she flipped through the wallet. Credit cards, video store card, library card, pictures of the kids.
McKeon said, “Oh shit.” Two kids, teenagers, a boy and a girl, and another girl, maybe six. Pictures taken on a beach somewhere, the five of them. Then a couple more pictures on a ski hill.
McKeon said, “Domestic? Murder-suicide? Kills her, then himself?”
Price said, “No man would kill his wife while she’s doing that.”
“Yeah.” McKeon looked around at the line of cars inching along Lake Shore, looking for the next on-ramp, all the people straining to see the crime scene. “And I don’t see a gun.”
Cruickshank, the tech guy, said, “Sorry to disappoint, detectives, but the shots were fired from outside the car.”
Price said, Come on now, Shanks, “You know we can make the evidence say anything we want.”
Cruickshank kept taking pictures, walking around the car, saying, “Right, forgot about that, detective.”
Price walked up and down the ramp, the few feet from the car with the victims in it to the police car. He stopped and said, “So they come up the ramp here, heading out for the suburbs, someone comes alongside and pops them. Why?”
McKeon asked Dixon and the other uniform about witnesses, and they both shrugged.
Dixon said, “Kids called it in,” pointing to an SUV at the bottom of the ramp. “Said it was like this when they got here.”
Price said, “This is one of the busiest streets in the city, ramp to one of the busiest expressways. No one saw it happen?”
“No one who stuck around. We got here like a minute after they called it in.”
“You were so close? I don’t see a Tim Hortons around here.”
“What can I say, we’re good.”
McKeon said, “Look, people live under this express-way, someone must have seen something.”
Dixon said, “Nada, detective.”
McKeon said, “Ask again.”
When he was gone McKeon said, “Road rage?”
“There’s some traffic cameras around here, we’ll see what we can find.” Price shook his head. “But it doesn’t look like there’s any damage other than hitting the wall
after the shooting.”
“So,” McKeon said, “guy’s driving home, the wife’s going down on him, and somebody kills them?”
“Maybe it’s personal, affair or something.”
“Happened pretty fast, guy knew what he was doing. Doesn’t look like he wasted any shots.”
“How do we know it’s a guy?”
McKeon said, “Shit, the kids. I’d like to keep the details out of it.”
Price said, Yeah? “What are the chances?” He motioned to where Dixon was standing beside a van with a tv station logo all over it, some kind of Action News.
Price said, okay, first thing, get the scene cleared up.
“And we better go see the kids.”
McKeon said yeah. Then she said, “What about Anjilvel’s thing?”
“What about it?”
“You want to do anything about it?”
Price had the passenger door to their car open and he said, Slow down. “Let’s just have one big giant crappy thing on our plates at a time.”
McKeon said, “Okay, sure. If that’s all you want.”
• • •
So, thanks again everybody, I really appreciate the support.
And here's a trailer for the book. This is the Ambassador Bridge to Canada:
Monday, February 15, 2010
By Steve Weddle
If you’re like me, Valentine’s Day means your neighbors went away to one of those bed and breakfasts for the weekend and asked you to watch their dog and you ended up finding some cash hidden in their liquor cabinet. So you have some money to spend and need a spot for it.
OK. Assuming you already bought the Kindle version of CrimeFactoryfor a buck, you’ve still got some cash.
First, lemme give you a freebie. (Hahahaha. Shaddup.) Over at theTuesdays with Tyrus podcast, Alison Janssen chatted up Victor Gischler. Two great tastes, right? (You got your chocolate on my bacon. You got your bacon on my chocolate.) They chat about his new book THE DEPUTY coming out soon, as well as The Masters, BSG, and the Saints.
Speaking of new books (How do we do that now? “Typing of new books”?) have I reminded you recently that John McFetridge’s LET IT RIDE comes out TOMORROW, FEB 16? Head over to your favourite (Hahaha. The “u” because he’s from Canada.) bookstoure and get a copy. Probably cost you about $15. A bargain of a great story about cops and crime and Canada. McFet’s book is a story of place, a story of people who get caught up in things bigger than they are, things that bang them around and won’t let go. Kinda how you’ll feel when you’re reading the book. If you want a taste of the story, check out the last couple of DSD podcasts in which McFet reads pieces of the book. As Ken Bruen said, “McFetridge channels Elmore Leonard at the height of his powers, with dialogue Quentin Tarantino would kill for.” I wouldn't lie to you about this. If you've been diggin John's posts here on Wednesdays, you know what a clever guy and top-notch writer he is. Go buy his book. This is how you tell the world you enjoy this kind of writing -- by buying it and reading it and telling people how great it is. Wanna know why they put that generic crap at the front of the bookstore and you have to special order McFet? Because people buy that generic crap. So let's help McFet sell out his first printing. (Seriously, how cool would that be?) Buy a copy and tell a friend. (Or, if you're like me, just write McFet's website addy on the edge of your soapbox.)
And if you’re looking for another good read, you should pick up ONE TOO MANY BLOWS TO THE HEADfrom Eric Beetner and JB Kohl. Megan Abbott put it better than I can when she said simply that the book “feels like a long-lost pulp you find in a favorite bookstore.” Kinda like an old Hard Case book. Lunch counters. Boxing. Kansas City in 1939. If you like your books quick and brutal, you’ll dig this one. Check this out: “A blood vessel had burst in her eye and it bloomed red on one half, making the tiny sliver of white the only thing on her body that wasn’t black or blue.” I don’t want to spoil any of it, but there are plenty of crooked players, cops and boxers, slugging their way through this quick read. Oh, and there's some good David and Bathsheba stuff in there, too.
But it ain’t all novels around these parts. There’s poems in them thar hills. Gerald So and company have put together the next installment in THE LINEUP, a collection of crime poems. This go-round features Patricia Abbott, Reed Farrel Coleman, Anne Frasier and many others wrapping verse around a steel pipe. From police ride-alongs to damp basements, this one has you covered. Oh, and it’ll give you even more reasons to stay out of airport bathrooms. Or airports, at least.
Speaking of which, the Do Some Damage short fiction is coming together, folks. We themed it up with some airport trouble. Our original title was THE DAMAGE DONE, but Hilary Davidson threatened to throat punch each one of us for stealing her book’s title (Fall 2010) so we’re going with TERMINAL DAMAGE, or something along those lines. We’ll have that for you in the next little bit.
And while we’re going all round-up style today, I should mention that my recent reads include two Reacher books from Lee Childs. Seriously, why didn’t you people tell me? These are good books. And Jay Stringer sent me FLETCH with a fairly strongly worded limerick suggested that I should read it. So I did. Nothing like the Chevy Chase movie. Great book in a whole different way than the movie. Oh, and this Sean Chercover dude can write. TRIGGER CITY is fantastic, a great follow-up to the first Ray Dudgeon book.
And finally, JT Ellison’s next Taylor Jackon book, THE COLD ROOM, is hitting shelves in your area. Do yourself a favor and grab this one.
OK. I’m sure I’ve missed some great stuff you should spend your money on, but our neighbors also had liquor in their liquor cabinet. Something called “Famous Grouse,” which sounds like ground-up bird, but smells delightful. So, you’ll have to take over here for a bit. What other books should folks be buying?