Saturday, October 8, 2011

What Does Your Book Sound Like?

Scott D. Parker

What do you hear when you read a book?

It's an interesting question for me, an avid audiobook listener. I'll freely admit that the stories I listen to are colored by the narrator. A good narrator can make a mediocre book decent, a bad narrator can hurt a good book, and when you get the perfectly matched pair of narrator and prose, the end result is greater than the sum of its parts.

The most recent book I finished via audio was the third Nikki Heat book by Richard Castle, Heat Rises (my take). Johnny Heller, the narrator for all three novels, does a superb job of the nuances with the the two leads, Heat and Jameson Rook, the two characters, for those of y'all that don't know, are the "stand-ins" for Castle and Beckett from the TV show "Castle." Heller reads the prose with a subtle wiseguy lilt that feels incredibly natural.

More than that, however, the prose itself reads as if the fictional character Richard Castle, played by Nathan Fillion, really did write the book. The word choice, the style of the prose, the similes were all something you'd easily imagine Castle saying on his TV show. In fact, back a couple of years ago when the first book came out, I was secretly pining for Fillion to read the audiobook. That might've been just a little too meta.

That's not the case for real authors, especially the ones I've met at book events at Murder by the Book. I think we all do the same thing when we either pick up a book by an author we've never met or, more to the point, never heard. We fill in the gaps, casting the various characters of a novel with the voices in our heads. But once you've met an author and heard the tone of voice or accent, do you transmit that voice to their books?

I do. I'm currently working my way through two books, one audio and one on my Nook. I met fellow DSDer, Joelle Charbonneau, last year for the first time here in Houston. At the author event, she read a passage from her first book, and, in conversation afterwards, it became quickly apparent that her real voice infiltrates her prose. Now, when I read a Charbonneau story or novel, I hear Joelle saying the words. I've had the same vibe having met or listened to Duane Swiercznyski, Russell McLean (another DSDer), Stephen J. Cannell, and Stephen King.

So, do y'all "hear" the author's voice in the prose?

CD of the Week: Tony Bennett: Duets II. I'm a casual fan of Bennett, owning only 4-5 CDs. This was on my radar as soon as I heard about it. While folks will likely remember this as the last recording of Amy Winehouse, the rest of the tunes are strikingly good. Not all ballads and such: see the off-beat arrangement of "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" with Michael Buble. What really gets me most is how good a singer Lady Gaga is. Singing "The Lady is a Tramp," Lady Gaga belts out her pure, clear voice that compliments Bennett's smooth, well-aged one. In her pop tunes, you can hear her talent, but in a venue like this, it really stands out.

Tweet of the Week:
Pres. Obama: There may be no greater tribute to Steve’s success than fact that much of world learned of his passing on a device he invented. -- Mario Batali (among others)

The iPod and iTunes did nothing less than change the paradigm by which I acquire and listen to music. That I've downloaded TV episodes on my Mac means my movie watching is moving in a new direction. My Nook--a cousin of Apple's touchscreen technology--is changing the way I acquire and read books. And my iPod Touch is, on most days, all the computer I need. And it fits in my pocket. Remarkable.

Friday, October 7, 2011

"There's a mole, right at the top of the Circus. And he's been there for years."

By Russel D McLean

Due to the fact that I'm working like hell at the moment today's post is neccesarily short and has pushed back my talk of three films of the eighties I loved. Hopefully next week we'll continues my SHADOWS RISING redux.

One of my favourite movies of the moment is TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY. Its a film that I know many people won't enjoy. Many people will, in fact, scratch their head and wonder how this movie is getting the acclaim it does. After all, its just a bunch of middle aged guys in suits talking cryptically for much of the movie, while the star, Gary Oldman, says as little as possible.

And yet its amazing film-making and an enthralling story. The story is tense, the threat palpable, the sense of realism absolute. This is spycraft at its most natural. Forget Bourne or Bond, the reality is that being a spy is a job like any other. And this movie - about the hunt for a mole in The Circus - captures that perfectly without resorting to the hystrionics or melodrama of most movies.


By relying on character and treating the audience with respect.

The other week The Literary Critic and I watched ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN. Again, a thriller with very little in the way off kiss-kiss-bang-bang, it was all about people and wrapping the audience up in the conspiracy unfolding on screen. It was a film done through implication and character rather than punctuated by car chases and explosions. It was the perfect starter course before the main course TTSS.

Both films made you work to get the rewards, but that was what made them feel special and made their journey worthwhile. Yes, you had to pay attention. You couldn't drift off thinking about that text you needed to send or that email you had to reply to. You lost yourself in the minds and worlds of the characters on screen. You started - like Gary Oldman's Smiley - paying attention to the details, to what characters said and what they actually did, looking for the tells that would implicate the liars, and genuinely caring about who would and wouldn't be found to be wrapped up in the conspiracy that so perturbed our point of view characters.

With TV show THE WIRE, David Simon said he wanted to re-educate us on how to watch TV. He wanted us to start paying attention to each scene, to each detail. TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY does this for the movies, now. The movies that used to - in the 70's - be superior to television have started more and more to rely on the same cheap tricks and easy manipulations that used to define TV shows. Films like TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY that reward the audience for paying attention , that remind us of the joy of actual engagement with storytelling, are hopefully a marker that we are moving away from this again and back to solid, intelligent entertainment. Turn your brain on - after having it had switched off for so long - and you might find that entertainment is even more rewarding than you might think.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Blood Meridian, Or, What Is That Ending?

"When this world was made, was never meant to save, everyone in kind.
I don't believe that God much had me, had me much in mind."

Today I'm doing something that Dave's spoken of before. I'm discussing the ending of a book. If you've not read Blood Meridian then you may not want to read on. I don't think knowing the journey's end ruins the book, but by the same token it never improves it.

Go, read the book. It's worth it.

Still here?

Okay. The ending of the book is something of an obsession of mine. I can put it away in a drawer for months at a time, but when it gets loose, it takes over my brain for days. It's one of my favourite books, and I reckon this obsession with the ending is one of the main reasons behind that.

Blood Meridian, Or The Evening Redness In The West, is an unapologetic and difficult book. It challenges you to read it, with a more dense and stylised prose than we see from Cormac McCarthy's later work. Just as the prose challenges us with its style, the story challenges us with its themes. And after a long brutal journey, some people can be thrown off by the ending. But I'm not one of them.

The plot of the book follows The Kid, a teenage runaway, and his journey into the heart of darkness. Sometimes the narrator seems to be The Kid, but at other times its far less clear. We follow him through brutality and violence, through some of the worst acts possible to mankind, but somehow there's something inside him that we root for. There's something very human about the kid. Contrasted against this is the antagonist, tormentor, mentor, companion and demon; Judge Holden.

The two characters don't come into contact often, but they circle each other across the narrative. If the Kid is our occasional guide on the journey, Holden is the lure that's dragging us both along.

He's a force of nature, large and hairless, capable of great violence and great mirth. When we first see him, he is inciting a townspeople to kill a preacher by claiming that the holy man had sex with an eleven year old girl. It's an accusation that Holden made up, just to sit back and watch the violence.

I remember watching The Dark Knight and seeing more than a little of Judge Holden in Ledger's Joker. As Alfred says in that film, "some men just want to watch the world burn." And as the clown himself says, "I'm like a dog chasing cars. I wouldn't know what to do if I caught one, I just do things."

Holden rises and falls above the plot, he dances around us like a demon around a campfire. He knows the hearts and minds of the people around him, and he seeks to own them completely. Many people read him to literally be the devil, but that's something I'll return to a little later.

The Kid encounters a number of other memorable characters, who each also cross paths with Holden. Each one has a doomed story to tell, each one carries a broken heart or is tainted by a compromise. Toadvine is one of my favourite characters, he's a scarred and branded outlaw, at times both friend and mentor to the Kid, he's not as depraved as some of the other characters, and he doesn't agree with Holden's world view. Ultimately, though, he is part of the violence, he is tainted and compromised, and he can't outrun his fate. There's David Brown, who is something of a more human version of Judge Holden; if Holden is a force of nature, Brown is a dark man who stands too close to the wind. Ultimately, he isn't the unstoppable force that Holden is, and his actions burn him. 

If those two characters mark the dark strings pulling on the Kid's heart, there are two characters who show the other side, something that could save him. Tobin is an ex-preacher, a man who has traded in a life of God for the harsh truth's of scalp hunting. Although, as with Toadvine and Jones, he has bathed himself in blood, he still holds onto his belief in God, and opposes the Judge. His fate is left ambiguous, he gets shot but it's never stated that he died. A man with a similar end (or lack of) is Chambers, a man who has fallen into the violent life of the scalping gang, but holds dreams of a better life. His death is ambiguous, we never see the body. I think your views on the fates of Tobin and Chambers will be informed by your take on the ending. Do you want to believe in a story of redemption? Or do you read a book in which nobody gets out alive?

"There must be a place, where this world and grace, are made to meet."

So what's all this hoopla over the ending? Why, I'm glad you asked.

The Kid, now an adult by the end of the book, encounters Holden one final time. In an outhouse, a "jake," the Kid comes across the Judge, who is large and naked. The narrative tells us that Holden takes the Kid "in his arms against his immense and terrible flesh." And that's pretty much it. We never see, nor hear, of the Kid again. All we know is that whatever fate he meets in that outhouse is so dark, so troubling, that when men come along later and witness the scene, they are stunned into silence and quickly leave.

So what happens?

"Drink up, drink up. 'Cuz tonight your soul's required of you."

The popular theory seems to be sodomy. The Judge doesn't want to simply kill the Kid, he wants to humiliate him, destroy him. That's why he's naked while he waits for him, and why he does it in such a public place.

Fair enough. There's enough evidence in that scene to support that, if that's the way you want to take it. But there's precious little evidence elsewhere of the Judge being a sexual creature. He's a force of nature, yes, but his appetites seem to lean more towards satisfaction through violence and manipulation rather than simply getting any rocks off. And his description seems to point to someone who is either more or less human, as if there's an effort to make his motives seem other-worldly. Why go 333 pages without showing any real sign of being a sexual predator, to then carry out such an act "off screen?"

Another argument is that the Judge is a supernatural figure. That he literally is the devil, as many allude to, and that he is taking his pound of flesh from everyone in turn and that, by the end of the novel, it's simply time for the Kid to be taken.

Again, there's evidence aplenty for this reading. But it seems too easy. The book is such a challenging exploration of human violence, and the dark heart of man, that it would seem to me to be too much of a simple answer to make the Judge into a supernatural being. The book is the horrors of humanity, not the horrors of demons. We can come up with far more depraved acts than any creature of hell.

Is the clue elsewhere in the book? The whole thing is about violence. It's about the extremes that the characters go to, and how they slowly make themselves inhuman, how they become desensitised to brutality, and wear necklaces made of earrings. Each character slowly becomes removed from humanity, from the "normal" people that they encounter, and those who fight against it, who take a stand against the Judge's world view, seem to die off screen.

Why would the book go to such length's to portray violence and darkness, only to draw the curtain across its final act? And what could be so nasty, so disturbing, that it can't be described?

I often try to get into the Judge's head. To figure out how he sees his role. Does he believe himself to be the devil? Is he acting out a role that he has chosen for himself, sitting in judgement of humanity around him, and figuratively taking the souls of people he can own, and killing those that he can't? He knows each character in the book. He can read their hearts and minds in a way that does border on the supernatural, which would lead back toward the devil theory. After the dark actions in the outhouse, we see him dancing, loud and free, the life and soul of the party. "He is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die."

If the book is about violence and our own darker places, then those are also the very things that "will never die." So does the Judge even exist, or is he a manifestation of the thing all of us have, but won't admit to? Is he a creation of the omniscient narrator, the voice who sometimes seems to be the Kid but at other times doesn't? Or are both characters creations? If the Kid and Holden seem to be circling each other, opposite ends of the same story, are we seeing the internal struggle of a war torn veteran? Is this someone losing the last vestiges of their humanity, of Holden's ID smothering the Kid's morals? Is this a Tyler Durden-style swerve?

Is Holden a throwback? Is he a creature from our dark past, a reminder that we've not come far? Or is he the future? Is he someone who has evolved beyond the constraints of humanity and morals? Is he, as the Joker says in The Dark Knight, "just ahead of the curve."

You know what?

I don't think it matters.

I think that, just as the Judge shows each of the characters something about themselves, he shows each reader something, too. I don' think the book is the journey of Kid, or Toadvine, or Tobin, or any of them. It's the journey of the reader. The characters are our totems, our spirit guides, and the Judge is, as his name suggests, the mirror that casts something of us back at ourselves.

We hold the book up and see what comes back at us. McCarthy doesn't tell us what happens in that outhouse because nothing does. Not really. It's a black space that we fill in. The judge is a blank face, he's a plot device. Whatever scares you goes into the space behind his eyes, and whatever small hope keeps you going goes into the Kid, and you fill that outhouse with your own world view.

Read the book, and see what it throws back at you.

And I'll leave you with a song. Ben Nichols -lead singer of Lucero- recorded a concept album a couple years ago that was inspired by Blood Meridian. Each song is a character study from the book, each tells a snippet of a character's life, their hopes, dreams and failures. Tellingly, the track dedicated to the Judge has no lyrics. It's dark and ominous, and let's you fill in the blanks.

The album was called The Last Pale Light In The West, and whenever my Blood Meridian obsession comes calling, so does the need to listen to this album on constant rotation. The quotes that I've been sprinkling through this post are lifted from the songs. Here's one of them, both to act as a soundtrack to this post and to try and convince you to buy the album.

"You wouldn't think that out here, a man can simply run clear, out of country but oh my, oh my, nothing but the light."

Steve Jobs

I'll have another post coming up a little later in the day. I've been promising to write up my thoughts on Blood Meridian for awhile, and check back for that in about three hours.

But as I write it, I've just been hit in the gut by the news that, by the time you read this, will be everywhere.

Steve Jobs has passed away. He's been clearly and visibly ill for awhile. First it was denied, then it was talked around, then it was admitted. And, you know what? That's fair enough. A person's health shouldn't automatically be everyone else's business.

I'm a mac user. Have been for over a decade now. In fact, the first computers I really used were macs, because the factory my dad worked in when I was little had them in the office. I don't go on preachy rants about why Mac products suit the way I think, though I have to put up with people feeling the need to tell me what's wrong with using a mac. A lot. Whenever they see or hear that I do. Whatever, that's fine. Find something that works for you, and use it.

But I really just wanted to take a moment to praise the guy.

He's one of the finest examples of what happens if a Dyslexic is given the room to run at an idea. So many people have "learning difficulties" or "disabilities" or "special needs." But you know what? Use your brain to the best of you abilities, and it doesn't matter how anybody else want's to define you.

We should have more people like Steve Jobs. We should have a world full of people like Steve Jobs. And we could. We could encourage every marginalised or struggling mind. We could tell all of these kids and adults that it's a good thing that they see the world differently, and encourage them to run with it.

So I'll be back later on with today's scheduled broadcast. But I wanted to say thanks to Steve Jobs, for showing what can be done if we let kids ask questions. If we let them break a few rules, and question the way things are done.

You can turn the world on it's head. Or you can be the person who encourages someone else to do it.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Well, it's a little anti-climactic now...

Yes, I'm taking a break from DSD. From posting, anyway, I'll likely show up in the comments.

I don't have any good reason to take a break. Yes, I'm still working on that pilot script for the cop show about narcotics cops. In fact, I delivered a first draft to the network yesterday and now I'm waiting for their notes. When I started this I thought there would be plenty of blogging material and I could rant about the stupid network and their stupid notes and the stupid producers and their stupid notes but the truth is so far everyone's been very reasonable and the project is slowly moving forward.

But slowly is the key word so there's not a lot to talk about.

And I've started to write a new novel set in 1970 which I thought would give me plenty of material to blog about - oh, those wacky 70's - but really, other than me and Peter Rozovsky how many people are really interested in Mac Jones' average or Bill Stoneman's no hitter?

But I did want to this opportunity to thank everyone for allowing me to be a part of Do Some Damage. I hope to be able to show up with guest posts from time to time. It's been a lot of fun, I've learned a lot and I'm certainly going to continue to read DSD everyday.


Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Changes coming for DSD

Tomorrow, John McFetridge will formally announce (we're told he'll wear pants) his intention to take a sabbatical from DSD while he works on some big projects.

Steve moves to Wednesdays. Sorry. We couldn't stop him. As long as he doesn't blather this much, we'll be OK.

Jay and Dave recently swapped their Tuesday and Thursday spots with each other.

Sandra will now have Mondays all to herself, except when Brian steps in.

By the way, there is no reason The Flash is on this page other than every third post on DSD now has to mention Detective Comics comics.

Oh, and while you wait for John's "Bisy Backson" post tomorrow, check out the new Best American Mystery Stories selected by Harlen Coben and Otto Penzler. The antho contains many of our friends and neighbors, including "The Hitter" from Chris F. Holm.

THE BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES 2011 (reviewed on October 15, 2011) 
Ranging from homespun to lush and tropical, this year’s crop of 20 stories offers a variety of tastes and textures.
...And although embarrassed by her profession, a Chinese mother helps her detective daughter in S.J. Rozan’s “Chin Yong-Yun Takes a Case.” An absentee father’s return challenges a wife who’s moved on in Joe R. Lansdale’s “The Stars Are Falling.” But Chris F. Holm shows in “The Hitter” that sometimes the greatest threat is to the dads themselves. Families don’t always grow through birth or marriage, as Beth Ann Fennelly and Tom Franklin reveal in “What His Hands Had Been Waiting For.” And of course, some families are just plain toxic, as Lawrence Block’s “Clean Slate” and Loren D. Estleman’s “Sometimes a Hyena” aptly demonstrate. But nasty behavior isn’t just a family affair. ... 

Monday, October 3, 2011

Will ebooks change the rules for cover design?

by Brian Lindenmuth

Yesterday I was cruising the rest stops on the information superhighway and pulled in for some respite on Twitter. I saw that someone said they were reading Christa Faust's new one, Choke Hold (where's the love Charles, you know I run a review website right! I'mjustsayin.). I didn't think it was out yet so I grabbed my Kindle to see if it was (tomorrow btw).

What grabbed my attention on the Kindle storefront page was the "We Suggest" section. There were four books listed: Carry Yourself Back to Me by Deborah Reed; Feast Day of Fools by James Lee Burke; The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach; and Blood on the Tracks by Cecelia Holland.

The suggestion area isn't one that I normally pay attention to but this one stopped me. I couldn't help but notice that:

-One of the covers jumped immediately out at me and I could clearly tell what it was.

-One cover I could read if I took a slightly closer look.

-One cover title isn't readable at all but the author's name is.

-The other cover is unreadable no matter how long I studied it. (I think this was done on purpose.)

-I have no idea what the color schemes of any of these books are.

-One image is practically non-existent.

All of these observations came to me pretty quickly so it got me thinking about ebooks and covers and how what works well in one sales venue (brick & mortar store) may not work so well in another (ebook store).

So this post really has nothing to do with aesthetics but instead the idea that one cover isn't a universal adapter.

The actual JAMES LEE BURKE* book is splashed with great colors and the name has good contrast with the background. This works well in real life and on devices that display color. In black and white (my Kindle) the entire effect is lost. There is no color, very little contrast and only Burke's last name pops.

Carry Yourself Back to me would have worked better on the Kindle if the font size had been a bit bigger. The author's name is basically invisible and all the details of the background imagery is lost. This book also presents another interesting dilemma; the front cover blurb is invisible and unreadable. In fact even looking at the cover on Amazon on my laptop I can't read the blurb. This blurb is there to satisfy only one distribution market, the brick and mortar store because anywhere else it's useless unless I can make it huge or hold it in my hands.

Sometimes when you see something you can process it right away. BAM!** you know what it says. There are different factors that play into this but certainly size and contrast are two of them. As soon as I saw The Art of Fielding I knew what it said. In fact of the four covers that was the one my eye went right to. It wasn't until I went to Amazon directly that I saw that the color scheme was actually blue and white not black and white. But nothing was lost by the color switch.

Then we come to Blood on the Tracks. On my Kindle I couldn't read the authors name or the title of the book. It wasn't until I saw the image on Amazon that I even knew there was a background image. From a thumbnail, black and white, appearing on the Kindle stand point this cover is basically a debacle. But. I had to click through to see anything about it. So of the four books it was the one that I did click through on, so there's that. But that's a pretty high risk strategy.

The four covers, on my Kindle, measured a half an inch wide and three quarters of an inch tall. On a phone they would appear even smaller.

Do the old rules that guided book cover design still hold sway or are new rules being written. Should different covers be designed for the e-book vs. the physical book to play to each of the respective strengths?

I dunno, but everything is food for thought these days.


Currently reading: Dove Season by Johnny Shaw and To Sleep Gently by Trent Zelazny

Currently listening to: Sara Watkins

*Because when you get to a certain level the title doesn't even matter as much as the author's name.

**Attorney's on behalf of Emeril Lagasse have advised me that ***! is a copyrighted phrase and that I should refrain from using it. I'm thinking of fighting them back so I told them "Let's get ready to rumble!"***

***Stupid Michael Buffer and his lawyers

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Crap shoot

by: Joelle Charbonneau

As you read this, I am in the upper peninsula of Michigan for the first out of town weekend on the SKATING OVER THE LINE book tour. Before I started writing, I thought book tours sounded so glamorous. The idea of people standing in line for hours waiting to get a book signed by an author was pretty cool. Of course, that is before I got to know the business a bit better and learned that those lines are the exception to the rule. More often than not, an author on tour hopes he or she won’t be sitting alone in the bookstore when the signing starts. You hope someone – anyone – will come, talk to you and hopefully buy a copy of your book. If not – well, that’s the way it goes sometimes. Even for the big names. Some days the line is around the block. Other days there are crickets.

So why do it? Well, in my case I am lucky that the stops on my tour will hit places where I have friends and family. Thus, I will just about guarantee that I will have at least one or two people to talk to in case a stampede of clamoring readers doesn’t arrive. (Ha! A girl can dream, right?) But besides visiting with family and friends, the tour will allow me to talk to and get to know booksellers.

Getting a bookseller to carry your book even if it is published by a big publisher is a trick. Some bookstores or chains don’t like carrying books by authors who don’t have a strong sales history with them. Well, if you are a debut, or in my case a sophomore, author you haven’t had a lot of time to develop a sales history. They only have so much shelf space. They want it dedicated to books that will sell. If you don’t have a sales history or you don’t live in the region – they don’t trust it will sell.

Tricky, right?

So paying a visit to the stores, meeting the booksellers and letting them know you are more than a name on a page is important. Since you can’t do this for every story in the country you have to pick your battles and know that most of the battles will never be fought. You can only hope that a reader who wants your book will go into those unknown stores, ask for your book and order it thereby getting your name in front of the person who places the orders for stock. Maybe they’ll decide to look your book up, think it sounds like something their other readers might like and order a few extra copies.

Or not.

It’s all a crap shoot. Physical touring, blog tours, advertising, tweeting, Facebook posts and everything else done to promote books are all crap shoots. Some might work some of the time. Others might not work at all. And no one can tell you when and where those things will work for you. Fun right?

That’s what’s nice about this blog where I can ask the authors reading this – what touring/promotional stuff do you do for your books. And for the readings – what book promotions draw your attention? I’m dying to know!