Saturday, June 15, 2013

It's Superman! - A Book Review

(In honor of the new Superman movie released this weekend--I'm seeing it this morning--as well as the acknowledgement that I did not get to finish the piece I was writing last night about breaking down a favorite novel [tune in next week], I present this review of a Superman story you may not know about but might want to read. It's from 2011 and it's presented here without edit.)

I've always been a Batman guy. Even as a kid, I gravitated towards the Caped Crusader with his more outlandish villains, his humanness, and his tales that seemed just a bit more real. As a kid, I loved Superman, but I liked him best when he was with other characters. My Superman comic collection fits in probably one-and-a-half comic book boxes (approx 250/box). My Batman collection spans three boxes at least, perhaps four. Even as an adult, I still kept up with Batman while Big Blue just seemed to fade away.

So how to explain the sudden desire, about a month ago, to read a Superman tale? The author, to be exact. Grant Morrison's All-Star Superman is just about the best Superman story I've read in a long time. Not hard to do considering I've not read a Supes story in years. Morrison recaptured that whimsical Superman pre-1986, when DC Comics rebooted Kal-el's story from the beginning.

But I've always wondered about Superman's true beginning. Since his debut was in 1938, that makes him a Depression-era hero. For all the years of telling and retelling his origin, writers have always tried to update Clark Kent's story. Where was the tale that put Clark back in the 1930s? Tom De Haven must have had the same question, but he answered it with his novel, It's Superman.

When you get right down to it, some of the best Superman stories are, in fact, Clark Kent stories. A good friend of mine--a member of my little SF book club--commented that, since Superman is so strong and so invulnerable, the only good Superman story is an origin story. He might have something there. Case in point: TV's "Smallville" has stretched Clark's discovery of his alter ego over ten years. Jeph Loeb captured an excellent, modern retelling of Clark's story with "Superman: For All Seasons." But not since the Depression has there been a good, honest story about Clark Kent and Superman in the 1930s.

Superman, as created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, is an American story of the Depression. Tom De Haven captures the look, the feel, the smells, the sounds of the Depression with intimate detail. Not hardly a page goes by without some reference to how we lived in the middle of the 1930s. It served as a wonderful touchstone to the types of lives that Siegel and Shuster lived as they created the first, great superhero. To be honest, this tale is more pulp than SF. Heck, it's almost Steinbeckian in its slowness and non-action.

Not that that's a bad thing. De Haven allows all the characters to breath on their own. The story is the origin of how Clark went from a farm boy in Kansas to a reporter and superhero in New York. And, yes, De Haven sets the story in NYC, not the fictional Metropolis. It's yet another piece that makes the story of this alien more real.

Lois Lane and Lex Luthor play their obligatory roles. Lois is almost the most fully realized character in the book. She is not some modern 2011 woman trapped in the 1930s, complete with winks and nods to us 21st Century readers. She is a modern, 1930s-era woman. She wants to be taken seriously as a reporter--something the male reporters don't do--but, also, upon meeting one character, tries out his last name with her own first name, wondering about marriage and kids.

Lex is fabulous. This isn't the mad scientist of the Silver Age of Superman's history. Lex, now, is more in line with the post-1986 rebooting of the character: a rich, brilliantly intelligent man, an Alderman, and a gangster. He doesn't want to rule the world, he just wants to rule the organized crime groups in NYC. Unlike Clark, Lex knows that his intelligence makes him an outsider among the more "normal" people.

Lex's brains is a nice counterpoint to Clark's brawn, a usual aspect of Superman stories. But, in this retelling, Clark isn't very smart, constantly doubting what he should do. In fact, it is Clark's constant questioning of his powers that, depending on what kind of story you want, will sway you one way or the other. For those of y'all (like another member of my book club) who read the word "Superman" on the cover and wait for Superman to do something super, you'll be disappointed. For those of y'all (like me) who enjoys the human side of Clark's story, this novel will be right up your alley. In the world of 2011, if one discovers one has superpowers, we'd likely try to get a TV deal. For someone like the Clark Kent of the 1930s, he almost doesn't know what to do.

Superman, like Batman, James Bond, and various animated characters, has adapted as the decades have passed. With my reading of It's Superman coming around the 900th issue* of Action Comics--the comic where Superman debuted--and it's modern, super-smart, SF version of Superman, it's fascinating to read a novel that takes Clark/Superman all the way back to his beginning.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Entirely Coincidental

By Russel D McLean

One of the strangest stories I read over the last week was this one:

Scarlett Johanson suing an author for using her likeness in his works (or saying a character looks like her).

But it brings up an interesting point of where real life and fiction collide. After all, many authors use real life people as the basis for characters to varying degrees. I’ve certainly named a few characters after people I know (mostly it’s a private joke and they’ve asked or I’ve asked, and even then I’ve been careful about what I do to these characters). The character of “Sooty” Soutar in Father Confessor is loosely based on someone I know both in terms of name and his physical presence. I’ve been namechecked in a few works of fiction, once or twice by nicknames rather than my real name.

Once, I was even accidentally "cameoed" in a book by a writer I know who had a particularly horrific character work out of an address I used to live at. I knew it was a coincidence (the writer in question had no idea that used to be my address, and he certainly didn't intend for anyone to believe this character we in any way related to me) but people I knew didn’t, and had assumed it was a joke in bad taste. Its now become a joke in quite good taste, of course, and an object lesson in how despite your best efforts you’re probably going to wind up getting some people confused about real life and fiction.

And of course then there’s Peter James using a character by the name of Amis Smallbone as a stab at a public figure of words who rudely dissed him.

But where does the line end?

All characters in this work of fiction bear no resemblance to persons living or dead?

To what degree?

In American Psycho* there’s a scene where Tom Cruise shares a lift with our protagonist. There’s a dialogue between the two. Nothing particularly terrible. In fact it’s kind of bland** But it got me wondering, in light of Johansson’s case, what was Cruise’s reaction to the cameo and how did he feel to be associated with this kind of character, even in passing?

At what point do we pass into use for public domain? Without using celebrities and their public personas for comparison or even scene setting, how can fiction in any way relate to the real world as it is now? They become short hand for certain associations. In the same way that music, objects and brands can be used to say something, so can the association of a certain type of celebrity. To say that someone has a Tom Cruise smile, or Roger Moore eyebrows brings with it a cultural association that sets an immediate kind of mood.
Not only that, but it helps to ground works in a certain place or time. For example, set a book in the eighties or beyond and talk about Roger Moore eyebrows, it makes sense. But set that book in the mid-1700s and the comparison is not only anachronistic but it destroys any suspension of disbelief.

Hate on Dan Brown as much as you like, but he’s very clever in using celebrity shorthand for his character descriptions. By comparing Langdon to Harrison Ford “in Harris Tweed” he sets up a very immediate association in the reader’s head, especially given Ford’s associations with characters whom Brown would like the reader to identify his character with (Indiana Jones - - yes, Langdon isn’t a brawny kind of guy but he is a man who investigates the mysterious and by making that association, Brown is able to get readers to accept the kind of journey upon which Langdon embarks)

But how much can or should we use celebrity in our fiction? Tom Cain’s debut novel used the real life death of Diana Princess of Wales as a starting point, but refused to name her specifically, perhaps relying on the implication of her life as enough of a hint to readers as to what he was really talking about. And of course a number of authors have fictionalised famous people in often unflattering ways. Ellroy’s depictions of historical figures is often disturbing and unsettling. Is he using them fairly? Certainly he uses them to service his view of the world and the use of them helps us to believe that what he is writing about is plausible is not actual.

There are lines, certainly. Lines that should not be crossed. If American Psycho had for example implicated Cruise in some horrific act that was at odds with what we know him as a public figure then that would be a cause for him to complain, in the same way that I might complain if someone used a “Russel McLean” who was a no good piece of shit dog killer in their fiction and who lived at my address and shared my taste in clothes, music and so forth.

But what point are you public enough to be fair game for fiction writers? At what point can you not complain if you are used merely as a comparison or in a purely fictional sense where it is very clear that this is not the real “you”?

I understand why Johansson might be unsettled at the idea of being mention in a fictional work. But is it any different to appearing in the National Enquirer or a tabloid where rumour is reported as truth?

And more importantly, if we were not allowed to let elements of reality – specifically the mention and use of public domain figures such as celebrities – intrude on our fiction, how would that affect our storytelling and the way that it relates to readers? Its not a question that I have an easy answer to, but I suspect that were we not to use famous faces as signposts, were we not to include an element of the real in our fiction, then it would make it that much harder for readers to engage with our work as it would be unable to function as a reasonable simulacra of the real world.

*I know it’s a classic but I’m in the midst of it right now and finding it a bit of a slog

**Which is the point, of course.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Just add water, I'm disappointed

By Jay Stringer

I saw the last episode of THE FALL this week. The question about the treatment of women is something I've touched on before, and no doubt is an issue I'll talk about again. The finale left me with a different question.

I've been talking to people about mental health a lot this week. I won't go into details, because those people's stories are not mine to tell. Suffice to say I've had conversations with people who you could describe as being engaging and functional people, whilst struggling with serious personal health issues. People who are only ever one bad day away from not coming back.

Stephen Fry recently spoke out about an attempt to end his own life. He speaks the bleak truth that for many, it's not an issue of choice and not a matter of reason. To lift a quote from this Guardian piece, Fry said;

"There is no 'why,' It's not the right question. There's no reason. If there were a reason for it, you could reason someone out of it, and you could tell them why they shouldn't take their own life."
That's bleak, and honest, and important.

And we're not just talking about suicide attempts here.  I believe I'm right in saying that 1 in 3 of us -the wider 'us', the population- suffers from mental health conditions, either long term or short term. We're talking about depression, about bi-polar disorder, about anxiety, about stress. We're talking about schizophrenia. We're talking about everyone. We're talking about people who get up, get dressed and go to work, all the while coping with pain, despair and hopelessness that they work hard to keep from the rest of us. Some people want to go through it alone, some people are desperate for help.

In watching THE FALL I thought again of my disdain for serial killer fiction. A kind of fetish of the impossible. I can't speak to the quality of HANNIBAL, and I know it's been getting strong reviews, but the subject matter stopped me from developing any interest.

We read and write about mental health issues in very narrow terms in our field. It's a gimmick. An excuse. We want some death and some interesting mayhem, and a way to get there is with these impossible magical characters that we create, and then we throw in a suggestion of childhood trauma as if that is "paying the taxes" of examining cause and effect.

We like sociopaths as long as they serve plots, we like addicts as short-hand for failure, and people with extreme temper problems are good for sudden bursts of action. We like the moody protagonist with a fractured psyche. We like the killer who can live double lives. We like the self-loathing copper who is trying hard to self destruct.

But do we ever put these simple toys to one side to have a serious conversation about mental health? It would seem to me that crime fiction is the place to do it. We write about poverty and despair. We write about loss, we write about violence and identity.

In writing about mental health in the form of the "crazy," and in the form of the magical plot devices, we tell ourselves we're pushing boundaries. We say we're holding up a mirror, and we're telling uncomfortable truths. I wonder if crime fiction is ignoring a larger uncomfortable truth. That we are ignoring the real stories, the real people.

The mean streets we pretend to walk down are ones filled with people who are struggling to hold on, day to day. Every third person, everyone who manages to be functional while still suffering. People whose stories deserve to be told and people who maybe need to occasionally be told they're not alone.

Do we do enough?

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Ebook Sharing Services and Some Weirdness

By Steve Weddle

Back when we started this blog in 1937, we promised we'd entertain and inform by peeling back the scab of crime writing and showing you the bloody bits underneath. Something like that.

I've been working on edits for COUNTRY HARDBALL (Tyrus, Nov 13) the past week. You can pre-order it from links here and read about it in an interview I just did with Tyrus Books here.

I've found most of the edits to be just fine. Some past vs. past perfect tense stuff. A name I screwed up. That sort of thing. But then there's this one spot where an editor essentially asks, "Why would he do X when he did Y on pg 47?" And, reading through, my response is, "Shit. He did? Lemme look." Then I read it and I'm thinking, "Well, crap. Yeah. What the hell was I thinking." It's a minor thing, really. (I don't want to get into too many details, because if you find out that the three students in the book eventually defeat the dark lord by learning to love the vampire and the werewolf both, then you'll feel as if I've spoiled it for you. When, in fact, that entire 300-page opening is just a dream in the mind of the symbologist who is very handsome and wears turtlenecks.)

So, you know, that's kinda weird. You write this thing and then you write other things and time moves on and someone picks out this one little thing from the eight million words you've written in the last couple years and you're like, yeah, um, I dunno.

Anyway, that's weird. Maybe you've experienced it as well.

Oh, and you can add the book on Goodreads.


I was reading this interview with Barry Eisler and he's talking about these two book services.

One will alert you to cheap and free ebooks -- BookBub -- and one -- Ebook Booster -- will share your ebook with many of these types of services.

He said he'd found them useful for promoting his books. I figured I'd pass them along to you in case you wanted to sign up for cheap ebook alerts or use them for advertising your own On Sale ebooks. Hope it helps.


Oh, and if you're on NetGalley as a reviewer, go check out THE BIG REAP, just up from Chris F. Holm.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Private Eyes...


So, is there a Hall and Oates song in your head now?

For the past few weeks I’ve been meeting with TV producers and pitching a TV show idea I have about a private eye in Montreal.

The pitch meetings have been going well but all the producers have said the same thing:

Private eye shows aren’t in right now.

Of course, they probably just don’t like my pitch and are being polite, and that’s fine, but they usually then reminisce a little and talk about how much they loved The Rockford Files or Simon and Simon or Mannix or Tenspeed and Brownshoe (a favourite of mine) or Remington Steele or the Spenser TV movies or, well, you get the idea, there have been a lot of private eye shows.

But there aren’t many now.

The producers aren’t sure why, they just feel a private eye show is too much of a risk. When I ask why that might be no one knows, of course, that’s just the way it is.

Now, when they ask me why it’s a private eye show and not a cop show I say, oh well, that’s easy, and give my standard answer to that question: cops are people whose job it is to respond to a crime and to follow the rules and collect evidence that will be admissable in court and lead to a conviction.

Private eyes are trying to find the truth.

So far my answer hasn’t been going over that well, but I’m going to keep trying because I think private eye shows are due for a comeback.


Monday, June 10, 2013

End of Watch - stray thoughts

End of Watch is on Netflix so we were finally able to catch it.  And I'm glad we did because it's a hell of a movie.


 A couple thoughts & stray observations:

-A story like this needs one important thing to work. It's an important component to the visual mediums like TV and film. It's also not something you can force or recreate easily. And that is chemistry between actors. When actors have natural onscreen chemistry (Danny Glover and Mel Gibson come to mind) or have a pre-existing relationship  that seasons the roles (Donal & Karina Logue in Terriers, Jack Nicholson & Anjelica Houston  in The Crossing Guard) a little bit of that old movie magic happens. End of Watch reminds me in this respect of Man on Fire in that for the later parts of the movie to work a solid relationship foundation needs to be laid early on. The great chemistry between Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña is key to the movie's success. 

-I think that End of Watch borrows a little something from noir and uses it to great effect. There's a moment, that leads into the final act of the film, where Jake Gyllenhaal's character decides to step off the "normal" path and do something that he shouldn't do. The devastating ending of the film can be traced bacv to that single moment, that single decision. How many times have we seen noir characters make that same fateful decision. Let me be clear, End of Watch isn't a noir but I think it has a couple of noir elements. Maybe there's a lesson there.

-The obvious connecting theme of the movie is love but the overlooked one is communication. Communication is the through line theme that connects everything in End of Watch. In the world of EoW the key to successful policing is communication. You have to communicate with your partner at all times because you never know what a situation will bring. The better you are at communicating the better you will be at policing. Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña's characters are constantly communicating and it shows in their police work. There is another partnership, the asshole and the rookie, who don't communicate, and thus pay a heavy price in a stunning and graphic scene. Some of the best scenes in EoW are the ones in the car, where no action is happening, and they are just bullshitting with each other. Because they are good at their job, they are good at communicating, and because they are good at communicating it's muscle memory for them. They can't turn it off. It is though this action that we get to know these characters. That's the way it should be. 

End of Watch is claustrophobic, intense, wonderfully acted and ultimately devastating.Highly recommended. 

Sunday, June 9, 2013

It's time to finish the book!

by: Joelle Charbonneau

You have an idea for a novel.  You've either thought about it for a while or have started writing or are halfway into writing it.  Perhaps you have told people you are writing this book and now when they see you they ask if you've finished the book.  Perhaps you've kept the action of writing secret and aren't telling anyone because you don't want them to ask whether you've finished the book.  Maybe you've started writing then decided to scrap that idea for a new one that seems like it might be more like the books you have seen on shelves.  Maybe...


Okay, if you've a reader of this blog, you'll probably know what the rest of the blog post is going to say.  In the past couple of days, I've met several readers who are also writers.  All of them said they were struggling to find time to write or to continue with one story.  Most of them had started a book.  Stopped writing.  Then started something new.  Or three somethings new.  All the projects sit unfinished and they wanted my advice as to how best to write a publishable book.

Well, first of all, it's impossible to know which books will be publishable in the traditional sense.  (Self-publishing is a personal choice not a choice that is made by a third party so for this particular concept, I'm not going to talk about that route.)  Trends change.  Tastes change.  What is hot in the market today could be ice cold in twenty-four months.  Don't chase trends.  Don't try to guess what will sell and what won't.  Write the story that you want to tell.  Then worry about the rest.  Trying to decide whether an idea you have will catch the attention of an editor is pointless.  Worrying about query letters and which agents rep the kind of book you think you're going to write is a waste of time that you could be spend on writing the book.  Because--let's face it--writing the book is the first and most important step.  Without it nothing else matters.

Which, brings me to the only advice I really have to give new authors.  Finish the book.  Please.  Don't attempt one new idea after another hoping that one will inspire you enough to keep writing.  Don't give up on writing the book you're working on because it isn't as "fun" as it was when you first started.  Don't ditch the idea for the new bright and shiny one because the old one feels like work.

Writing IS work.  It requires focus and self-motivation and the ability to put your butt in the chair and get words on the page even when the sun is shining and you'd rather be outside frolicking in the great outdoors.  It also requires respect for the story you are telling and the desire to finish the task you have begun.  The story isn't always going to be "fun".  Writing won't always (if ever) feel easy.  Being a writer is a job like any other.  You show up and you make words happen even if you have to scream, cry, eat buckets of buttered popcorn and drink gallons of coffee.

For me, writing feels the hardest when I'm in the middle of a project.  The shiny, exciting beginning is in the past and THE END feels far in the future.  Pushing through that difficult middle (which EVERY author experiences) no matter the doubt and fear you feel is necessary.  Otherwise you will never finish the book. And you need to finish the book.

Let me say that again.  You need to finish the book.

Why?  Because finishing a book teaches you that you can finish a book.  You can climb the proverbial mountain and get to the other side.  Once you learn you can finish a book...well, you know you can finish the next one.  And the one after that.  No matter how difficult, you know you can push through the hard parts and get to THE END.  And let's face it, until you get to THE END, there is no story.  Because a story has a beginning, a middle and an end.  No matter which route you plan on publishing, you can't go about pursuing that goal until your story makes the entire journey.  And once you've made it, you'll be glad you did.

This year, I've reached THE END twice.  There is no better feeling than typing the final words on the last page.  There is relief and delight and a huge thrill at knowing you've once again accomplished what at times felt impossible.

For me, the only way to get to The End is to write every day.  No days off.  If I do take a day off, I find getting back into the story is harder than it would otherwise be.  This isn't true of all my writing friends, but it works for me.  Maybe it will work for you.  If your goal this summer involves writing a book, I challenge you to the 100 day 100 word challenge.  If you accept you have to write at least 100 words for 100 days without missing a day.  If you miss a day you have to reset the clock and go back to day one.  It's as simple as that.  100 words is a paragraph. You can make time to write a paragraph every day, right?

If you want to write a book, you first have to make writing a habit.  Which is why I encourage you to take the challenge.  If you do take the me on Facebook or Twitter so that I can cheer you on and provide encouragement if you need.  You can also send me your daily or weekly word counts if feeling accountable to someone helps you.

If you want to be a writer you have to finish the book.  The rest...well...worry about that later.

PS....Thank you to everyone for all your support during release week for THE TESTING.  It's been a really amazing week filled with incredible news.  Apple, Sony and Amazon named The Testing a top pick for June. The LA Times said it was a must read for teens this summer.  And perhaps the most surreal news was that THE TESTING was optioned by Paramount Studios.  I'm not sure what this new week will hold, but I am grateful, as always, to be able to share the ups and downs of this business with you.  Thank you for your belief in me.  It means the world.