Saturday, June 17, 2017

Book Review: It's Superman by Tom De Haven

(I've been thinking about Superman here in June 2017, the 79th anniversary of his debut. I remembered reading this book back in 2011 and thought I'd share my review with y'all today.)

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.

*Don't let the news-making storyline of Superman renouncing his American citizenship rankle you too much. It wasn't a part of the main story and, frankly, I'm wondering if this little short story isn't truly canon. Another thing about the actual citizenship story: the end panels show Supes flying away after standing in the plaza of Tehran (I think) for a day. As he flies away, leaving only the protesters and the soldiers, one protester gives one soldier a flower. The one soldier lowers his weapon. It's almost as if the author is saying Iran 2011 equals USA 1970. It's really ironic that everyone's so up in arms over this one, potentially uncanonical story that, in the end, symbolizes American ideals anyway.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Branching Out

Things have been hectic in my household, and I've come down with a hardcore summer cold just as it's impossible to get through the day without kicking on the AC. What's there to do in the face of such adversity than sit down and read?

I've been trying to expand my horizons a little and read things I wouldn't normally read. I use the Scribd app, which makes listening to audiobooks and reading ebooks easy and relatively inexpensive. I sampled Liane Moriarty's The Husband's Secret after the show based on her novel, Big Little Lies blew me away (I mentioned this a couple weeks ago). When trying to find a way to describe it to my husband I landed on "Suburban Mom Noir." I enjoyed it, though admittedly it took me awhile to get in the groove compared to the more action packed stuff my fellow crime fiction writers are putting out, and some of the similarities to the mommy wars I see were chilling. At the center - a murder mystery unravels. It was a fun book, sometimes touching.

I moved on to The Hand That Feeds You by AJ Rich (Amy Hempel and Jill Clement writing together, which I didn't know when I started). This was a little closer to the average crime fare, littered with references to cool places in Brooklyn I've never been, and perhaps a culture I wouldn't enjoy. But the story was compelling, and I enjoyed making guesses at what was really going on as the protagonist unraveled the mystery of her now-dead fiancé and the several other women he'd been engaged to. I dictated the twists and turns to my brother, who despite not reading it as well, was shocked and interested in how things turned out.

Right after that, I dove back into a book I had put aside a few months ago, The Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll. This book would probably fall somewhere under "contemporary fiction" as the crimes that take place are the kind we don't revel in. Knoll's protagonist is a survivor of a horrific school shooting/bombing at the hands of a boy she considered a friend, intent on having the "perfect life" to make up for the horror she felt after being gang raped by the boys who were targeted, and the hatred cast on her when another survivor falsely accused her of being a part of the shooting. The book was tough to get into because the protagonist is quite hard to empathize with in the first few chapters, but as more and more of her story makes it on the page, it's an all too recognizable set of defense mechanisms. I quickly found myself on her side, hoping she would get what she needed, and realize what she wanted would only bring more harm.

I like to branch out from time to time, and it helps keep the worries of accidental influence out of the way. I didn't even plan to focus my reading on women writers - just planned to take some chances on books I wouldn't normally pick for myself. I'm glad I did. I'm now listening to the audiobook of Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn, which I already knew I'd enjoy, based on Gone Girl and Dark Places. After this stint, I plan to get back to all the wonderful and brutal crime fiction my friends and colleagues are putting out, but taking a short break has been fun as hell, and hopefully I won't wait as long next time.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Best Books of 2017

Gabino Iglesias over at LitReactor came up with the best books of the year so far.

See what you think.

Best of 2017

At the start of every year, I take a look at what books will be published and think "Man, it's gonna be a great year to be a reader." Then, every single year, I'm blown away by the quality of the books I read. This year has been no different, and despite having half of 2017 to go, there has been more than enough outstanding literature to make a decent list. Keep in mind that I read crime, horror, bizarro, poetry, nonfiction, and literary fiction, so what you're about to read brings together a plethora of genres. Let's get started. >>>>

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The Magic Medicine Worked!

Guest Post by Angel Luis Colón

Humor is magic medicine.

I’m not saying it cures diseases wholesale—that’d be naïve and a little Patch Adams-y. No, it’s all about that mental health. Sometimes a little laughter clears the gnarly gunk that builds up between all those brain folds.

I got back into writing thanks to Hurricane Sandy. You may have heard about the intense damage to Moonachie, NJ (a little background). That second town mentioned in the article? Little Ferry? That’s where I lived and still live. We were lucky enough to not be evacuated but we were flooded, lost both our cars, had to replace our heating, and I was treated to a severe bronchial infection that left me bed-ridden and with jacked up guts thanks to some STRONG antibiotics—seriously, I was a mess for a solid year.

Soon after things calmed down, the panic attacks happened. It’d be the dead of night, I couldn’t sleep and boom: heart palpitations, that adrenaline burst when you’re feeling trapped, a few moments of cold water panic talk—gibberish even.

I needed an outlet and apparently the planets aligned because soon after since I found myself reconnecting with a buddy who was making waves in his writing community. I read an excellent novella he put out and was inspired to write again.

And dude, I fucking wrote like a beast. I wrote because my brain depended on it. I workshopped and submitted. I actually put myself out there. At first, it was all the lofty shit I always wondered about—literary or genre tripe that was only cool in my head. The process was helping, but it wasn’t helping enough. The real change would come when I read another book and found out I could write with MY voice. That voice wasn’t lyrical or flowing. It was stilted, dark, and with a little bit of acid. I could be funny and still mean something.

I started getting published. Got nominated for a Derringer within a year. Got an agent within two (still working on getting a novel out, though, so I ain’t that amazing). At this time I’ve got nearly thirty pub credits to my name. I made handshake deals with folks to publish my insanity and garnered a reputation. There are people acknowledging that yes, this weirdo writes (next step: convince them that the writing is good, but hey!).

Still, there were bumps. All the while I was writing, I avoided something I needed to get off my back—Sandy.

But I didn’t want to write a treatise about trauma. I hadn’t gone through what a quarter of what some did. I didn’t have a kid shell-shocked to the point of hiding in his cubby on his first day back in daycare (one of my son’s friends) because he’d been evacuated by fucking jet ski before he and his family drowned in swamp/river water.

I felt weak. Who the fuck was I to act like my trauma was something to be addressed? Besides, I’m from The Bronx where we internalize and lash out at the worst possible time. That was working great for thirty-two fucking years, why stop then?

And then I read a stupid fake news story about black market semen.

See? Humor?

I got to plotting a silly short story that grew into a silly novel that shrank back into a novella. I created a lead based on me that became a woman that became Fantine Park. The plot went from gonzo garbage to heist to anti-heist to the story of a father and daughter (conveniently as my daughter was on the way).

And then I found myself bringing Sandy into the mix.

Spoilers: the finale of NO HAPPY ENDINGS takes place in front of the Battery Park Tunnel as the worst of the storm came. There was a generator station that exploded near there that was visible from my house (I know this because I saw it). There was such flooding that cars were abandoned and left almost floating in brackish river water. This was an opportunity for me to take a lot of the internalized fears driving my issues and yank them out by the short hairs. I took that fear, those memories, and that helplessness and I put it all into a fucking sperm heist novel because fuck those fears and memories. Fuck that helplessness. It didn’t deserve gravity or emotional purity. That was already what it had.

That helplessness can go live in the absurd like it deserves to. The humor can hold the bad feelings and maybe kill them slowly. I can get a glimmer of hope, maybe even get an award nod that validates all this hard work—win or lose.


Angel Luis Colón is the Anthony and Derringer Award-nominated author of NO HAPPY ENDINGS, the BLACKY JAGUAR series of novellas, and the upcoming short story anthology; MEAT CITY ON FIRE (AND OTHER ASSORTED DEBACLES). His fiction has appeared in multiple web and print publications including Thuglit, Literary Orphans, and Great Jones Street. He’s repped by Peter Steinberg at Foundry Literary.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

From Darkness to......Dark Comedy?

I had an interesting Facebook exchange the other day with a friend of mine. He'd posted a still from the 1974 conspiracy thriller The Parallax View, commenting that it's an apt movie to watch during these shaky and uncertain times.  And no doubt, Alan Pakula's film is a remarkable one.  Of all the 70's era paranoia movies, none are more disorienting.  The extended film within a film, where Warren Beatty sits and watches an array of ever more violent and extreme imagery flash before him, is itself one of the most unsettling sequences I can remember seeing from a mainstream Hollywood movie.  The final minutes of the film attain an almost Kafkaesque status, where the murkiness of the cinematography matches the utter darkness of the political situation being presented.  And then we get a finality that comments on the action we've just seen;  it suggests that the public will never ever know what truly happened, nor should it.  Will the committee that investigated the assassination at issue take questions from the press?  No. What happened and why will go into the vaults of secret history forever.

End of movie.

It's a nightmare scenario, but it's one that reflects its own era. We're talking the 1970's and the period of Richard Nixon. For one thing, scary as the movie becomes, it accomplishes this in large part because the Parallax Corporation (the group that masterminds what goes on in the story) is so competent. They can do cover ups, and with organizations like this one running things behind the scenes, how can the public ever learn what shenanigans are actually going on?  The true sources of American power are impregnable, and the people who compose these upper echelons can close ranks and present a united front against anyone foolish enough to try to infiltrate their sanctum.

None of this reflects the world we live in today, and to be honest, I can't think of a film or TV series I've seen yet that does reflect it.  Of course, we haven't had our current president that long.  At the same time, ridiculous as he is, he alone isn't responsible for the state of things. So how precisely do you capture the essence of right now?  To start with, you have to grapple with social media, with all that entails from all involved. There's the fragmented newsscape, the different news sources telling conflicting narratives. During the 70's, if you said, basically, that there is one reality and we can agree on what it is though we disagree on what to do about it, you wouldn't have been met with scorn or incredulity. Now we've got the ongoing battles over what exactly the nature of the reality under discussion is. Then there's the certain knowledge of shady deals and private talks and what have to be betrayals of the homeland, but unlike in The Parallax View, there are leaks coming from everywhere. Indeed, the revelations spring from nowhere more, apparently, than from the central point of government power, the White House. Competence? Can you imagine? What a concept!  It's portrayed in the shadow forces working in The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor and many other 70's political thrillers, but it's something that, by any objective standard (though in 2017, quite clearly, there are no objective standards), is difficult to perceive in those operating the levers of power today.

Anyhow, at some point, we'll start getting the films and TV shows that capture the current peculiar environment. I look forward to these works, and I wonder what the predominant tone will be.  The 70's paranoia films, with one or two exceptions (like 1979's Winter Kills) don't often try to be funny. Through their tense and suspenseful plots, they generally aim to provoke anxiety.  It's not like anxiety doesn't exist anymore, but it seems inconceivable to me that a person could make a 1970's conspiracy thriller equivalent for now and not have loads of absurdity and comedy. Albeit, it might be comedy of the darkest sort, where the smile on your face, when the joke ends, turns into a painful rictus.

Let's see what comes.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Joe Clifford. Author. Mentor. Mensch.

“Nobody (my dear mother excepted, of course) felt so positively sure of the future before me in Literature, as Dickens did.”

William Wilkie Collins (The Woman In White, 1859) on his former friend and mentor, famed author, Charles Dickens.

Let’s say you have the chops. You’ve got the talent. Editors and readers like your writing. You even have a few published stories under your belt. Still, you haven’t made it over the big hill. Yet.

It might be time to consider a mentor. Someone schooled and tested in the world where you’ve planted your dreams. A person who knows who to talk to and who you may want to avoid. They can be honest with you about your weaknesses and properly, effectively push your strengths to even greater heights. They also want you to succeed.

Luke Skywalker had Yoda and Ben. Daniel had Miyagi. Harry had Dumbledore. If you have been submitting stories you may have already met your Yoda. Editors can turn out to be your greatest secret weapon. Careful, clear edits with understandable explanations from a seasoned editor can be like a master class.

If you’re really lucky you’ll find the editor that takes a liking to your work then goes that extra mile and becomes a teacher. What makes for a good mentor? That’s what we’ll explore today and for this we’ll look to a great example.

Author and editor Joe Clifford has helped countless new writers, many of whom are now published and mentoring others.

Joe, whose new book BRING OUT THE DEAD was released this past week, is acquisitions editor for Gutter Books and producer of Lip Service West, a "gritty, real, raw" reading series in Oakland, CA.

His bestselling Jay Porter Thriller Series (Oceanview Publishing) has received rave reviews from Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, and the San Francisco Chronicle, among many others. The third in the series is the above mentioned, GIVE UP THE DEAD.

Joe is also editor of Trouble in the Heartland: Crime Stories Based on the Songs of Bruce Springsteen and the forthcoming Just to Watch Him Die: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Johnny Cash. Currently Joe teaches online writing courses for LitReactor and around the country at various conferences and retreats.


Even with his crazy schedule, Joe finds time to work with new talent. He has an energetic willingness to share his knowledge and expertise, even if that information stems from his own difficult past. He is committed to using his journey to guide others and that is essential when considering the personal and intimate nature of writing.
Author Beau Johnson, whose first collection of short stories (A BETTER KIND OF HATE) sees publication this summer through Down and Out Books, remembers a particular instance when Joe’s colorful past played a part in the publishing of one of Beau’s first stories.

“Joe was considering a particular story of mine called A Patient Man.  If memory serves, he was on the fence about this tale set in the Big House.  He asked if he could have a little more time with it, to let the new guy at the Gutter (Out of the Gutter Online), Tom Pitts, have a look. 

Low and behold, and along with an apology, Joe comes back saying he would be accepting it for publication.  He didn’t have to explain his reasoning or why he needed more time with the story, didn’t owe me a damn thing to tell you the truth, but he chose to explain.

The reason he took extra time with A Patient Man was because he’d been to jail (not prison mind you) and believed it was his own hang-ups about this which had been preventing him from accepting the story.”

Joe is very open with most of his life and history and if he thinks it will serve a positive purpose he’ll revisit his troubles to help teach someone, this personal commitment is key to the mentor mentality.


Authors on the Air producer and host Pam Stack thinks of Joe as her go to guy when looking for new writers to explore. “He takes his writing seriously and he is very generous with his time with other writers and with us mere mortals who love to read.”

A good mentor has a knack for pushing writers to develop their own strengths and talents, but also realizes honest and constructive criticism is necessary. The talented Nicky Murphy, Daddy’s Girl (2012), remembers her first experience receiving edits from Joe.

“He gave some invaluable advice regarding another story, In All Innocence. This was over 3 years ago. His advice was to cut the first paragraph which was, admittedly, exposition with a bit of back story thrown in. He recommended that I cut that paragraph right out and start with the actual story. I loved that paragraph. It was beautiful. But it worked, dammit. And I've remembered that particular advice ever since.”


A good mentor will be in your corner even when you’re unsure of your future. Joe has been one of my biggest cheerleaders. He’s read and edited several of my shorts, even those not for Out of the Gutter. Dear readers, when I found out that All Due Respect would be publishing my first novella Joe jumped into action and provided me a list of the things I needed to get done. New bio. Amazon Author Page. Facebook. So many things. We even talked on the (gasp) phone.

During the talk, Joe asked how far I wanted to take this writing thing. After that he understood my goals and knew how to help. From there he hooked me up with folks who needed stories like mine and started conversations for me with professionals and readers who might be able to open new doors. That helped me develop my own plan of action.

Ask questions of your favorite editor. Talk to other authors. Get yourself a big brother or sister to help knock down doors and climb big hills. Develop new and exciting ideas. Take over the world, but don’t forget to pay it forward. If you’ve been helped please return the favor. Like Joe Clifford.

To learn more about Joe and his catalog of work please visit his website ( and his Amazon author page.

Special thanks to Nicky Murphy and Beau Johnson. Please visit the links below to read works from these two great authors.

Last but not least...
Please check out Authors on the Air. Pam Stack will introduce you to some great new writers and probably interview those you already love. It's what she does.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

The Innocent

Last week, I talked about a murder case that I covered as a newspaper reporter (read that post here). A Bay Area man killed five people as part of a deluded scheme to acquire the money he said he needed in order to bring about Christ’s Second Coming. It’s those five people I want to talk about today.
Selina Bishop. In the summer of the year 2000, Selina was a 22-year-old living on her own for the first time in a little studio in the Marin County town of Woodacre, just north of San Francisco. She worked as a waitress at a local café, hung out with friends, dated a new guy, and generally enjoyed the unencumbered life of someone that age. She was quiet – people had to strain to hear her voice when she talked. But leaning in to listen was worth it. She had a great sense of humor and a playful, bubbly nature that would light up a room. She also had a passionate loyalty to those she loved, especially her best friend – her mother. 
Selina Bishop in 1999.
Jenny and Selina in the late 1970s.
Jenny Villarin. Selina’s mother raised her only child alone. In a sometimes bumpy life, the two of them were the only constant. And they adored each other. Jenny had moved up to Marin County when she was with Selina’s father. She stayed after the relationship ended in the early 1980s, but kept in close contact with her sprawling family. She was the sister who made sure to call on birthdays, who always sent cards, who brought a smile to everyone’s face. In the summer of 2000, the 45-year-old was tending bar at the Paper Mill Saloon in the Marin County hamlet of Forest Knolls. One night in early August, a dear friend stopped by the bar to see her.
Jenny Villarin
Jim Gamble. A big bear of a man with a kind smile, the 54-year-old Jim had known Jenny for decades. He’d even journeyed back to Pennsylvania at one point to help her move back to California after her relationship with a man there failed. He was semi-retired by then after years in the computer industry. He now dabbled in mining, owning claims in Nevada and Oregon with his brother. He traveled a lot to see friends and family, including his two sons. When his mother divorced a husband who had never liked him, Jim showed up on her doorstep with a bottle of champagne. “Now I can visit my mother whenever I want to.” Eventually, he moved in with her to help out, and because he enjoyed her. They loved to take cruises together, where Jim loved spinning ladies around the dance floor and learned to scuba dive during off-shore excursions. The pair had another cruise planned for that fall. 
Jim Gamble.
Annette and Ivan Stineman. Annette Callender met Ivan Stineman in 1945, when she was a USO hostess and he was a U.S. Coast Guard quartermaster second-class. They were married three months later and settled in Southern California. They had two daughters they adored and the home was always a happy one. Ivan always kept everyone smiling with silly jokes and his penchant for bringing home all manner of finds from garage sales. Annette kept everything running smoothly, but never could resist taking in animals. Throughout the years, the family had dogs, cats, turtles, guinea pigs, a chipmunk, and even a spider monkey. They both worked for Standard Oil and when the company consolidated operations in the Bay Area in the early 1970s, they decided to take the transfer. They moved to Concord, a quiet suburb in the East Bay. Ivan took an early retirement a few years later and became a real estate agent. Annette stayed with the company until the mid-1980s before she retired as well. And that was when they really started to have fun. They took cruises all over the world, had time-shares in several different places and a motor home to get them anywhere else they felt like traveling. Ivan was diagnosed with diabetes in 1990, and Annette started caring for his health just as she had everything else so efficiently for so many years. She was in fine health and after he had a gimpy knee replaced in 1998, he felt better than he had in years. There was more of the world to see, and they were ready to do it.
Annette and Ivan Stineman in 1945.

The Stinemans on a trip to Hawaii in 1997.
On July 30, 2000, Annette and Ivan Stineman answered the door to find their former stock broker standing on their porch. Friendly and gracious as always, they invited him and his brother inside. They were then held at gunpoint, kidnapped from their own home, and forced to write checks from their retirement accounts. They were then drugged and killed. The checks turned out to be uncashable.
On August 3, 2000, Selina Bishop was invited to her boyfriend’s home in Concord. He had started dating her a few months earlier with the sole intention of using her to unwittingly launder the money he planned to steal from the Stinemans. She knew nothing about his true aims and happily agreed to visit his home, which he’d never before invited her to visit. Once she was there, the two brothers – panicking because the funds weren’t accessible – killed her to cover their tracks.
Before dawn the next day, Selina’s “boyfriend” decided he had one more loose end to tie up. He’d avoided all of Selina’s friends while they were dating, but had accidently met her mother. He knew she was staying at Selina’s little studio. He got the gun, drove across a bridge from the East Bay to Marin County, burst into the apartment and shot Jenny and Jim to death.
All five people continue to be missed and mourned by those whose lives they touched. 
A Marin County memorial, including the carved bear, to Selina, Jenny, Jim, Annette and Ivan.