Saturday, September 3, 2011

Book Review: Fun and Games by Duane

(It's the holiday weekend and, frankly, I don't have anything profound. I enjoyed Russel's post about the lack of men at book events and thought that I could post this review of the latest book by Swiercznyski, definitely an author men should read and talk about. So let's chat...)

Job I would not want: Person trying to classify a Duane Swiercznyski book.

Sure, “crime fiction” is a nice umbrella if you want to use it, but that doesn’t quite do justice to the types of books Swiercznyski writes. Okay, early books like “The Wheelman” are straight up crime-y things, but some of his more recent books—The Blonde, Expiration Date—are not. Put his newest hard-to-classify tale, Fun and Games, into the latter camp.

Charles Hardie makes his living an interesting way: he’s a professional house sitter. He’s also a former Philadelphia cop who is fleeing personal demons from the past. Only things he requires other than the paycheck are booze and old movies, preferably on DVD. His latest contract is the LA home of a musician who has been called away to Europe.

Lane Madden, B-movie actress and A-list druggie, is driving in the Hollywood hills. She, too, has demons in her past, as the tabloids are quite eager to exploit. Those headlights she sees following her? They’re getting closer. Thinking the driver will pass her, she stops (dumb move). She’s attacked, but escapes into the night.

Think these two stories tie in together? Natch. Hardie arrives at the musician’s home and the keys aren’t where they’re supposed to be. Long story short, he has to break in to said house only to be attacked by a woman who turns out to be Madden. She thinks Hardie’s one of Them. Notice the capitalization? “Them” are the Accident People, killers hired to off high profile celebrities and make the deaths look, well, accidental. Hardie doesn’t believe her, until some stuff hits the proverbial fan.

Job I would not want: People who clean up after bloody death scenes.

I’ve read enough Swiercznyski books now to know one of his patterns: many of his tales take place in a short timeframe. The Blonde, in book time, lasted about twelve hours, Severance Package even less. Fun and Games, if I had to count up the hours, maybe clocks in about a day, give or take. The brilliance of this technique—where a reader is halfway through a book realizing only then that only a few hours have passed for the characters—is the distillation of the action down to a science. Jumping in and out of characters’ POVs, Swiercznyski is able to describe the action with balletic grace, giving nuances to violence reserved only for slo-mo shots in action films. Speaking of action films, there’s a great moment when Madden, faced with her own death a few times, relies on all the training she did for her B-movies. Even as she’s kicking ass, she’s marveling (and thanking) all her hours of training.

I’m usually a slower reader, but reading a Swiercznyski breaks the curve. Fun and Games travels at such a high rate of speed that I was devouring this book in chunks, not chapters. And the pop culture references are a scream. It’s one of Swiercznyski’s trademark prose stylings to reference just about anything at a given point. Since he and I are roughly the same age, he knows what I know, and I love it.

Another fun aspect of Fun and Games was the setting. Swiercznyski’s a Philly guy, the City of Brotherly Love plays a vital role in his books. Fun and Games is a California novel. In the afterward, you learn the thing Swiercznyski experienced that triggered the germ of this story. I’ve only visited California a couple of times, but I seriously got the vibe from this book. Heck, now I want to visit again.

The Accident People. Now, this concept is scary, but, in Swiercznyski’s hands, they’re a little bit funny, too. Don’t get me wrong. They kill people, staging the deaths as accidents. But you get enough background here to want to know more about these guys. Best thing about the book: the cliffhanger ending. You see, Fun and Games is the first of a trilogy of Charlie Hardie stories. Usually, Swiercznyski’s characters are so beat to hell by the end of the book that any thought of a continuing series is moot. Well, Hardie gets his ass handed to him again and again, but he keeps getting up. Yeah, the book ends on a cliffhanger, but guess what? You get chapter one of Hell and Gone, the next book, as a bonus. (Checking the calendar) How long until October?

Classifying a Swiercznyski book: pulp fiction, pure and simple, just like they used to write back in the day. Guy and gal get into a bad situation and have to fight their way out of it. Are they gonna make it? Read and find out.

Job I do want: Reader of anything Duane Swiercznyski writes.

P.S. Once you are done reading, head on over to Do Some Damage's book club. We're chatting about Fun and Games this month.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Where Have All The Men Gone?

By Russel D McLean

Last week I attended a great event in Ayr. It was the second “reader’s day” I’d attended, and as ever it was great fun to mix with writers in other genres and styles as well as meet the readers and discuss not only my own books but those of other authors too.

More than usual, however, something struck me about this particular day:

There were no men.

Well, that’s a lie. There was one man. One man who’d booked a ticket maybe two days before the event after reading about it on my twitter stream (which perhaps in part provides another answer to the question – how do we reach men in the first place?). And all power to his elbow, because he had some great insights into both the book I’d chosen by another writer and my own novel, too.

Like my twitter friend, I’ve occasionally been the only man at a book event and it’s a strange sensation. As with Ayr, the women are all very welcoming, but there is a sense of being the other, of being oddly out of place. Of having different cultural references and touchstones.

And you wonder why there are no other men there.

The stereotype is, of course, that men don’t read. That’s what we’re all told. That we’re anomalies because statistically we shouldn’t read.

But I don’t think that’s true.

Put a group of men together and often we will talk about books. Not often the books, we admit, that are chosen for book clubs, but then I have to wonder if we are perhaps more solitary readers, if we shy away from “organised” talk of books.

Maybe, then, it is that we talk about books differently. That could explain the success of a few “men only” reading groups. The rules of social engagement are different. While I love attending book groups as an author, I have never done so personally because I find the idea of merely talking about one book odd. I prefer an organic exchange or recommendation and ideas.

Or perhaps it’s that we’re told so often that we don’t read that we might begin to believe it. After all, when I first started writing crime a person high up in the industry said, “don’t write for yourself because men of your age will never read crime.” Which seemed then, and still does seem, crazy. Because I was a crime reader at that age. Albeit, I realise now, not reading what that particular person considered to be crime novels.

As ever, I think it might a little from column and a) little from column b).

I do believe that many men don’t read or don’t attend book events because they are made to feel its not for them. We read in newspapers and we’re told by people that we are a demographic who doesn’t read so we start to believe that as a truism and we shy away from reading and book events because its “not for us”. This is a shame.

I also think we may not be being targeted as well as we could be. Again notice our man showed up at the event through following a twitter stream, rather than hearing direct through the library or – metaphorically speaking “instore”. And when I think about it, it’s the same way I hear about events. Through newsgroups, online and more “fannish” methods. I rarely “stumble across” an event.

But whatever the case, here’s something we should remember at all times:

Real men read. Real men talk about reading.

So let’s talk – come on guys, tell us why you do or don’t attend book events. Talk about whether you’d start or join a book group. Talk about the books you love and the books you don’t love.

Talk about what makes you read a book.

Talk about reading.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

It's Research Guv, Honest.

By Jay Stringer

Weird stuff happens all the time. It happens often enough that it's not weird. I remember sitting in my Grandads living room one night, when I was about ten, and seeing a man walk down the street wearing a balaclava and carrying a baseball bat. He turned down the driveway that our house shared with the one next door, and started banging on the neighbours front door. When I told my Grandad what I'd just seen, he said, "Is it Tuesday already?"

One of the fun things that writer-folk like to talk about is research. We've all done some strange things in the name of research, and we like to tell tall tales about it.

Wasn't it funny the time I did this....
Did I tell you about the time I almost became illegal in four countries?
The police look kinda funny at you when you ask this...
That time I talked to that hooker about the....

We've all got these stories. I once asked my boss at work how he would steal from the company if he was a criminal mastermind, and the following week the safe got robbed. A few interesting glances were cast my way. Yuk, yuk.

I reckon it's a fun way of spicing up our lives. It's better than finding a million different ways to say, yeah, so I sat at my desk for six hours, talking to myself, pulling faces, and grunting as I typed.

I say all this because I think it gets easy to miss a few simple points, as I've learned this week. We don't get away with the strange shit because we're writers. We get away with it because people get away with strange shit. The real conversation isn't, "what crazy stuff have we done in the name of research." Its, "what research have we used as an excuse to do crazy stuff." As cool as we all secretly want to be, there's nothing we can do that's cooler than real life.

This week a friends cat is missing. And I've spent a couple of nights out helping the search effort. The first night, I walked around a notoriously dodgy area of Glasgow, in the dark, in my black hoodie, with a torch. I peered into peoples gardens. I walked down the sides of peoples houses. I loitered outside people's front doors inspecting the shadows, and peered up at the eaves of the rooftops.

As the occasional person passed me by, I realised that the only way to describe the way I looked was criminal. And I thought, when the cops come, maybe I should say I'm a writer doing research? Then I thought, probably best to simply say I'm out looking for a cat. Not my own cat, officer, but a friends. No, she's not here with me right now, she's in the flat, looking in closets and whatnot. No, actually, I'm not sure what the cat looks like, other than it has four legs and a tail, because I've not met him yet, he's kinda young.

But then the cops never came. Nobody called them. None of the people who looked at me from their windows, none of the young women who saw me standing in their pathways, none of the people who saw me peering beneath their cars. Not one.

Last night I was at it again (which is one of the reasons my DSD post is running late today). The ante was sufficiently upped. Last night I was peering out over the roof of a building. I was climbing all over the roof in plain sight (actually, a less fictionalised account would be that I worked out how the roof could be explored, while leaving two more agile and expendable stunt-doubles to actually do it.) We spent a lot of time simply sat there, peering across the rooftops, looking at peoples sky-light windows. One of team cat hunt spent most of the evening in the attic of a building none of us live in, one we accessed simply by walking up the stairs and pushing open the loft hatch. I'm fairly sure there were people living in the flats beneath where he was walking. I spent the latter part of the evening walking around, in the dark again, with a ladder.

No cops. No alarm. No shouts of indignation.

Now If I'd been doing all this to research a crime story, I would probably have loved it, deep down, if somebody had called the cops. It would have made a much more exciting blog today. But I realised that it's just normal. Normal stuff. People see this all the time.

We don't really get away with crazy things in the name of research. We simply get away with things, just like everybody else. The only difference is that we pretend to write about it.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Fall TV – More 60’s

John McFetridge

We may have to wait until January for our Mad Men fix, but there are at least a couple of other TV shows starting this fall that will take us back to the 60’s; The Playboy Club and Pan Am. Interestingly, both are sort of crime fiction.

The Playboy Club is described as, “the early ‘60s, and the legendary Playboy Club in Chicago is the door to all of your fantasies — and the key is the most sought-after status symbol of its kind. Inside the seductive world of the bunny, the epitome of beauty and service, the clientele rubs shoulders with the decade’s biggest mobsters, politicos and entertainers. Nick Dalton (Eddie Cibrian, “CSI: Miami”) is one of the city’s top attorneys and the ultimate playboy, rubbing elbows with everyone in the city’s power structure. With mysterious ties to the mob, Nick comes to the aid of Maureen (Amber Heard, “Zombieland”), the stunning and innocent new bunny who accidentally kills the leader of the Bianchi crime family.”

Just when we’re told that period drama AND mob stories are out of fashion, we get both in one show.

I think the timing is just off for me. When I turned eighteen (late 70’s) the Playboy club seemed so old fashioned and phony. Far from the “door to all my fantasies,” it seemed like the place where has-been comedians made bad jokes about women who clearly didn’t want to be there.

Over the summer I managed to get my hands on the pilot script for Pan Am and right away I saw where with good CGI it’ll have some fantastic looking scenes; there’s a helicopter ride across Manhattan, scenes in European cities and even a Cuban rescue. There’s a lot packed into the pilot episode (at least the script), including a spy story.

Likely both shows will have scenes of women being measured and weighed and being reprimanded if they’re too “heavy.” I know Pan Am has such a scene in the script (and I think I’ve seen it in the promos, “Are you wearing your girdle?”) and it might be impossible for The Playboy Club to avoid.

This all seems like a kind of candy-coated nostalgia, but who knows, maybe both shows will be terrific. What I like to take from this is, don’t take advice about what’s ‘in’ seriously and just write what you want – period, mob, spy, whatever.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Getting There

It's a weird thing.

I've been banging away at this second draft of my novel for what feels like forever. I knew my first draft was a complete mess (as it should be), that I didn't know my characters well enough yet, there wasn't enough tension, and all the motivations didn't work well.

And, to me, knowing that is half the battle. I know where the problems are, and fixing them, while keeping the same skeleton, can be a problem. What makes these characters--which were originally just chess pieces--do what they do? What is coming off as false in the novel? What rings hollow?

And this book, well, this book has been a bitch.

Characters didn't feel realistic. Motivations felt like they'd been done before and some were way to complicated. In my head, the set-up was really simple. On paper, it was like I vomited ideas.

And, so, I started to bang away at the revisions. I started cutting, like I was pulling trees out at their roots. Characters became different, but better. More real.

But it felt mucky. I threw every trick in the book at the novel. Combining characters, cutting whole characters, eliminating ideas, outlining my revisions. But each day I tried to get closer to the ending. It's been hard. Blood from a stone hard.

But today I looked up and I was... at the biggest plot twist in the book. I was at the start of the 3rd act. I was... getting there.

And that felt really good.

I'm not done yet. Not yet.

But I'm getting there.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Generating Character Names in Fiction

By Steve Weddle

Cal Innes. Matt Scudder. Billy Lafitte. Angel Dare. Ray Dudgeon.

How do you come up with character names?

One way is to combine names of people you know. Kieran Holm. Sabrina O'Shea. Julie Donovan. Pop Culture Monkey.

Another way is to figure out when you character was born and hit the webernet. For example, if your character was born in the 1960s, you could hit the SSA's popular names for the 60s and come up with "Marc." But what about a last name?

You can always hit the Random Name Generator for some fun. Roxie Coltharp? Erik Altom? Florintina Abershams? Well, OK.

How memorable do you want the name to be? Steve? Dave? Jay? John? Scott? Sandra? Or something a little less ordinary. Joelle? Or Russel with just the one "l"?

If your story takes place in 1850s New England, you'll want to dig in a particular place, of course.

I'm working on some stories that take place round about now down in southwest Arkansas and northwest Louisiana. Where I grew up. Where my people are.

I'm fortunate in many ways, one of those is that I know who my people are. We're talking back centuries. See, Grandpa Micajah was born around 1725. My kinfolk have pieced together a substantial amount of genealogical information.

I have, in my possession, a hardback book of a couple hundred pages of everyone on my mom's side I'm related to. Yeah, pretty much every damn person. From Verdie Holt in Idabel to David Toms on the 18th green. I know that my uncle Aubrey went by "Pete" and that Cleo was called "Preacher." Emma Sue was buried at the Falcon Cemetery and Faye moved off the Bethel and had a mess of young 'uns.

Since the stories I'm writing now take place in this community, I essentially have thousands of character names just waiting for me to use. Averdale. Buck. Delsie. And last names, too. Vandiver. Cates. Lacewell. Most folks would probably come up with some clever way to use all of these names. Maybe they'd create their own random name generator.

Here's what I did. I wrote down a list of first names in one column and last names in another. Then, when I need a name, I pull from each. Who cuts hair in back of Mr. Womack's? Why, that's Mertis Boushank, it is. What son of a bitch was it that shot Hubert Buckner back in aught-three? Why, that was Obadiah Stokes. And the bitch was Viola Stokes.

This works because I'm working one place and I have a fantastic resource. When I need to pull a name from ye olden dayse, say the 1840s, I just thumb around to some folks who were born around then and I've got some names. Major Hugh. Monroe Jefferson. And then I can pull last names from anywhere in the book or -- more likely -- use the name of whatever family they fit with. I'm not sure I know anyone named Pribble, but in my stories, they're a nasty, brutish lot.

So that's how I came up with names for this latest collection, a set of stories taking place mostly in Columbia County, Arkansas, mostly about now.

How do you come up with your names? Or what are some cool names in stories, the kind of names that seem perfect for the characters?
Later today, I'll grab a name from the comments and send that person a copy of SOUTHERN GODS by John Hornor Jacobs. That sound cool?

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Great expectations

by: Joelle Charbonneau

More often than not, I choose not to read books that are given a lot of hype. Maybe it’s my contrary nature – I tend to avoid being one of the people that goes along with the crowd. I still haven’t read The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and it took me several years before I cracked the cover of the first Harry Potter book. (I admit that I have since read and enjoyed each and every one!)

A few months ago, a new book in a genre I have decided to dabble writing in was released with a great deal of fanfare. My husband knew I was experimenting in this genre and bought me this much hyped book. It wasn’t until last weekend, when I was done putting the final touching on my own manuscript, that I cracked the cover of the book and started to read.

Before I started writing, I read every book from coover to cover. Nowadays, my TBR pile is so immense that I find myself being much pickier. If the story doesn’t grab me in the first 30 pages, I put the book down and move on. In this case, the combination of hype and my own experimentation of the genre had me turning the pages waiting for the story to pull me in long past the point where I would have normally given up. I waited for the thriller aspects of the book I'd seen reviewed to begin.

It never did.

After almost 500 pages of reading, I reached the end of the book feeling unsatisfied with almost every level of the storytelling. The worldbuilding felt superficial. The character grown was either non-existent or rushed and the climax of the book felt tacked on and unimportant. And come to think of it, I’m not really sure I could define the main plot of the book.

So why the hype?

Got me. But this debut novel has racked up US sales, will soon be released in dozens of languages and has even sold the film rights. Now, I’ve read books I haven’t loved before – a few of them were hyped more than this one. Perhaps it is my fledgling attempt at the genre that has made me feel so dissatisfied with my reaction to this one. And I have to wonder if I'm the only one. So tell me - have you had this happen to you? Have you cracked the cover on a book the rest of the world loved only to find you hated it? Have you wondered whether anyone else read the same book you did? Did you ever go back and reread it later just in case you were wrong? And if you have read a book that didn’t live up to the hype, did you tell people that you didn’t like it or did you keep silent and assume you were the only one?