Saturday, November 11, 2017

Get ON With It

Scott D. Parker

Twenty two chapters.

What does that mean for us this morning? That’s the number of chapters it took for the action to get started in Dan Brown’s latest novel, ORIGIN. Heck, I’m not even sure that’s the exact answer—it might have been twenty three or twenty one, but I just don’t care enough to toggle back in my Audible file to find the answer because it’s beside the point.

What happened for all that time up until Chapter Twenty Two? Talking. Lots and lots of talking. And even after the action gets started, there is more talking. Lots of talking. Mini lectures, actually. It’s almost like a Michael Crichton novel. I have a distinct memory of reading RISING SUN and, every now and then, I’d turn the page and there’s be wall-to-wall text and I knew I was in for a mini lecture. Heck, Crichton even had footnotes. At least Brown mostly put his lectures—but not all—in the form of dialogue.

I never disliked Dan Brown. I was one of those millions of readers who jumped on the THE DA VINCI CODE bandwagon. That was a thrilling book. Think about it. In that book, chapter one showed a murder and introduced the bad guy, chapter two introduced hero Robert Langdon, and we were off and running. I even diagrammed the first 100 pages of DA VINCI CODE to see how Brown made it work. It was an “aha” moment.

From there, I happily jumped back to ANGELS AND DEMONS and enjoyed it. In some ways, it was better than DA VINCI CODE. I read THE LOST SYMBOL (AKA, “Da Vinci Code in America”), but something must have happened because I completely bypassed INFERNO. For whatever reason, I felt the tug of ORIGIN and, with a new, long commute, I thought “why not?” With the audiobook clocking in at eighteen hours, it would certainly get me through a week or two.

I lasted for about twelve hours before I bumped up the speaking speed to 1.25.  At least then I’d be able to get through the novel in a shorter amount of time. I’m not even done (about three hours until the end) and I’m more or less still listening because I at least want to know the big reveal at the end.

But come on! If the book is supposed to be a thrill ride of a story, put some thrills in it. And speed up the pace. I’m not advocating Brown write a pulp fiction novel. He’s got something to say and has clearly done a lot of research—most likely, it all found its way into the text. But at least Crichton put lots of chases and escapes in his stories. They were exciting to read. Heck, DA VINCI CODE was an exciting and thrilling read. ORIGIN is simply dull.

Maybe the ending will be worth it. We’ll find out.

Coincidentally, in my science fiction book club, Frank Miller’s Dark Knight III: Master Race was selected. This is yet another sequel to his seminal 1986 work, The Dark Knight Returns, a fantastic graphic novel. I intentionally bypassed DKIII because I so loathed The Dark Knight Strikes Again (or whatever the second book was called). With that book, I got the distinct impression the good folks at DC Comics didn’t care what Miller produced as long as he gave them something they could sell. One might argue he didn’t really have an editor, because if he did, some of the stuff he threw in would have been chopped.

Same with Dan Brown, at least with ORIGIN. There’s a story here, but it is one that should have been tightened up, trimmed down, and streamlined. Maybe he’s of a particular stature now that he can pretty much write whatever he wants and it’ll get published. Maybe not, but if  you’re an author who writes a chase book, please start the action way before chapter twenty two.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Say It Ain't So, Joe (and Frank Hardy)

By David Nemeth

When reading interviews with a crime fiction writers and the questions lead to childhood influences, we inevitably hear about the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew. So I got this idea to begin reading the Hardy Boys series from book one, The Tower Treasure, to fifty-eighth entry, The Sting of the Scorpion, and review one per week over a year. I'd call it, "Fridays With the Hardy Boys" or something equally as trite.

But then I read The Tower Treasure and oh my god was it horrible.

For instance this:
By the time the Hardy boys and Chet had raced from the Mortons’ kitchen, the prowler was not in sight. Thinking he had run across one of the fields, the three pursuers scattered in various directions to search. Joe struck out straight ahead and pressed his ear to the ground to listen for receding footsteps. He could hear none. Presently the three boys met once more to discuss their failure to catch up to the man, and to question why he had been there.
Seriously? Pressed his ear to the ground to listen for receding footsteps? I can't believe this used to be a thing.

If you thought the parents in Stranger Things were no-shows and uninvolved than you haven't met Mr. and Mrs. Fenton Hardy. Maybe I'm too used to the helicopter parents of today, but even though their father was involved in the periphery of the case, the Hardy Boys' parents seemed way too hands-offish even when their boys were investigating a stolen car and a robbery. The Tower Treasure opened with this sentence, "Frank and Joe Hardy clutched the grips of their motorcycles and stared in horror at the oncoming car. It was careening from side to side on the narrow road." The opening of the book, the Hardy Boys almost died and it took until Chapter XI for their father to step in and send the boys home. In the Hardy Boys' second adventure, The House on the Cliff, their father hires them to spy on drug smugglers. That's some major-level Department of Children Services shit right there.

There is so much bad storytelling in this book, from Joe toppling over a railing and grabbing two spindles one-floor below to the boys tricking their father's competition into putting out a fire in a trash bin and missing his plane, I found myself groaning as I read. Trust me on this, the Hardy Boys are bad, really bad. If you don't believe me, then how about my sister?

Unknown to me at the time, she was reading the Hardy Boys to her son and she was asking me for some recommendations of other mysteries to read for her eleven-year-old. She texted, "Not the Hardy Boys. Been there and done 15 of those. They are pretty bad."

If I hadn't re-read The Tower Treasure I would have been surprised, but I had and I understood.

After thinking for a few hours, I recommended Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express because I figured they could see the movie afterward. A few days later my sister texted me, "Great idea. Brady is loving it!". I am pleased to say mom and son are now on their second Christie book, this time And Then There Were None.

Hopefully, the next generation of crime writers will not be influenced by the Hardy Boys, instead, they'll have the accomplished hands of J.K. Rowling world guiding them. And we will all be better off for it.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Murder and Mayhem in Milwaukee

I've wanted to go to Murder & Mayhem in Milwaukee since it was held in Muskego. I missed out by not rationing vacation days. My first was last weekend, and I assure you, I won't be missing the next one.

It's a one day convention now held at the Irish Community Center, which is a former church, so it is a literal shrine to crime fiction. The venue is now an event space that welcomes everyone, Irish or not, and I approve fully of the four taps of Guinness scattered across the building. They also serve Smithwick's and local craft brews, befitting Milwaukee's brewtown heritage. Run by Ruth and Jon Jordan, Erica Ruth Neubauer, and Penny Halle, with well-curated panels held on well-lit stage with pro audio equipment, the audience sits in pews with comfy cushions and no Catholic Aerobics are required. (I was raised in the church, and sit-stand-kneel-pray is a good warm-up before any athletic activity).
me and my panel mates
There's a pre-con party at the legendary Casa de Jordan, part of a city block the family has owned for 75 years, beginning with their historic machine shop. I was lucky enough to get a tour. I barely survived wood shop and while my old man was a carpenter and a mason (the bricklayer kind, not the ones who rule the universe) I try to stay away from drill presses and bandsaws if I want to keep all my limbs and palps. They have a machine that was once used to mill uranium for the Manhattan Project. And they've repaired and machined parts used all over the city, including the famous art museum.

But for those more interested in books, upstairs is like a library, toy store, and art gallery all in one. With a bathtub full of beers and ice, the party was the best time I've had with the crime fiction community. People talk about the Bouchercon Bar with awe, but it's stiff in comparison. Here you can relax and there are no cliques or hierarchies. Just people who love the same things, jawing and having a good time.

Me and F. Paul Wilson at Casa de Jordans

The con itself starts bright and early at 9:00 AM, and I was on a panel moderated by Shaun Harris, author of the hilarious crime novel The Hemingway Thief, which I recommend whether you love, hate, or don't give a tinker's damn about Ernest Hemingway. It's just a great yarn. Shaun made the mistake of telling me he drove to the event, so I mooched a ride off him and he found me in the lobby stuffing a coffee and bagel in my face to assuage my pains for over-indulging from the Bathtub o' Beer the night before. Milwaukee is a Beer Town. Maybe THE beer town. With thirteen breweries to slake the mighty thirsts of its people, who either work in industry or are descended from such workers, beer lovers simply must make a pilgrimage. Even if you don't like suds, you can have a blast on the Lakefront Brewery Tour, which is the most entertaining of its kind that I have endured.
Erica Ruth Neubauer organized the mass tour of the place, and thank you, Erica! Lakefront makes many great beers, from standards like River West Stein amber, to a wacky but delicious cocoa mint porter.

And most importantly they have the bottling line from the Schlitz brewery that was used in the opening credits of Laverne & Shirley, and let two lucky folks reenact the "glove on a bottle" gag while the rest of the group sings the theme song.

Erica Ruth Neubauer plays Laverne

Schlemiel! Schlimazel! Hassenpfeffer incorporated! We're gonna do it....

I surprised myself by remembering every stanza. I watched a lot of L&S as a kid. I had a crush on Shirl, laughed at Lenny and Squiggy, and it was nice seeing The Big Ragu on TV when most Italian characters were mobsters. Also, I explained to the tour guide what schlemiel and schlimazel mean in Yiddish...

But back to the con... I'm schlepping from Shaun's car with a bagel & lox in my mouth in the rain when we walk into the former church, fifteen minutes to showtime, when we find out how relaxed and casual it all is. No rush. Everyone chatting, setting things up, having a good time already. Eric and Christy Campbell of Down & Out Books were there with a table selling Killing Malmon, and the Mighty Malmons and the Honorable Hackbarths were there, rightly proud of the book. And I'm proud to be in it. (Disclaimer: Bad Boy Boogie and my upcoming story collection Life During Wartime are published by Down & Out Books.)

My fellow panel-mates were Danny Gardner, whose novel A Negro and an Ofay is getting well-deserved accolades from all over, David Krugler, author of the Cold War thriller The Dead Don't Bleed, and Kimmy Dee, author of Pussy Planet and Other Endearing Tales. Kimmy's attendance was a surprise to me, I know her from Facebook and was glad to finally meet her. She's a very funny writer, and if you dig The Bloggess you should grab a copy of Kimmy's book.

Our panel was on writing violence (I always seem to get on these... I hope my craft beer Nazi hipster cat cozy will get me on a bigger variety of panels). Maybe that's because I was teaching writers how to perform Krav Maga moves on me at the party Friday night? That's how I know when I've had enough beer, when I start teaching my friends how to kill.  What made Milwaukee famous almost made a fool out of me. Or did it? Reed Farrel Coleman was calling me "Krav Maga Pluck" the next day, but I still had both my eyes after I taught Mark Rapacz how to eye gouge, so to me that spells "resounding success." For those who missed the con, who want to hit me or poke my eyeballs, drop by Rock Solid Krav Maga sometime. I usually go to the weeknight KM and BJJ classes, and the Saturday morning ones. It's great exercise and a realistic defense system.

We had a lovely discussion and the audience brought some good questions. It's a friendly environment, and there were zero of the infamous "I have a question..." questions that are actually a five minute manifesto that makes no sense. So we had that going for us. (Hint to moderators: demand, like Alex Trebec would, that all questions be in the form of a question.)

Boswell's Books was the bookseller, and Daniel, the owner, is a great lover of books, everything a bookseller ought to be. I picked up Attica Locke's Bluebird, Bluebird , Chelsea Cain's My Feminist Agenda issue of Mockingbird, Nathan Singer's In the Light of You, and the first in Reed's new Gus Murphy series Where It Hurts. I've heard plenty good about Locke, and know Singer's short fiction. In the Light of You tackles extremist groups from both sides, neo-Nazis and anarchists, so how much more prescient can you get? Reed is a favorite of mine, with a natural, compelling voice that makes him the perfect choice to continue Robert B. Parker's Jesse Stone series. His Moe Prager novel The James Deans is one of my favorites.

The highlights for me were seeing F. Paul Wilson (The Keep, and the Repairman Jack series) interview by Nathan Singer, and Chelsea Cain (the Gretchen Lowell & Archie Sheridan series) interviewed by Ruth Jordan. The final Women of Crime panel was another fine conversation, and Reed's panel on craft introduced me to James R. Been, whose Billy Boyle World War 2 mysteries sound right up my alley. Not everyone goes to every panel, and there's plenty of friendly schmoozing going on. I met several new readers and AC/DC fan Keith and I talked for a while about my favorite subject, Bon Scott era AC/DC! One of these days I'll edit an anthology based on those songs.
Jon Jordan delivers unto us the pizza
After the con everyone headed to MobCraft brewing for the after party held by the mighty Jordans. Eating pizza among the mash tuns and brew kettles... how cool is that? MobCraft made my favorite Milwaukee beer of the trip, Clan MacDougall, a wee heavy scotch ale aged in Laphroaig barrels. I've had many a barrel aged beer and many a dram of Laphroaig, and this one tastes like sipping the scoosh while drinking a damn fine wee heavy. It's not canned, but if you can try some in the Milwaukee area, I can't recommend it more highly. If you also love craft beer, friend me on Untappd!

The Clan MacDougall beer by MobCraft
We experienced the legendary hospitality of the Jordans once again after the after-party, at the after-after-party at their place. Admiring Jon's Lego collection, the walls of books, the art and book covers and beer steins and just plain cool stuff while chatting with Jon and Ruth and readers and writers and everybody... it's like Christmas for Crime Fiction. Great people, one of the best genre conventions I've been to for a mix of business and reader enjoyment, in a great city that truly surprised me. I grew up in an industrial zone where we played in an abandoned paint factory, climbed on roofs, and on disused railroad trestles. So see Milwaukee keep its industrial bones as it metamorphosizes makes me want to move there.

No way, Garth! It's too damn cold! Ha. I lived for five years in Minneapolis. During El Nino. As soon as the real winter hit, I got the heck out of there. I give y'all credit for enduring those winters, but I'll come visit... no later than November!

So if you love crime fiction and live within driving distance of Milwaukee, this con should be on your radar. Me, I'll be flying there every year for a vacation with great friends. It's a can be more economical than Bouchercon hotel-wise if you choose the one closest to the convention itself. I splurged and stayed at the Iron Horse, which was amazing, and walking distance from the Jordans' and the after party. It's a boutique hotel, but compared to the big city hotels for ThrillerFest, Chicago, even Toronto, it was a bargain. Go if you can... you won't regret it.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Cognitive Dissonance

So, it's Election Day, and that means it has been one year since...

It also means it's a good time to quote Frantz Fanon's book Black Skin, White Masks, where the author says, “Sometimes people hold a core belief that is very strong.  When they are presented with evidence that works against that belief, the new evidence cannot be accepted.  It would create a feeling that is extremely uncomfortable, called cognitive dissonance.  And because it is so important to protect the core belief, they will rationalize, ignore and even deny anything that doesn't fit in with the core belief."

These lines were written in 1952, but somehow, just somehow, they seem dead on today.  

Monday, November 6, 2017

A Thought for Writers and Some Links for Readers

I guess I could get behind NaNoWriMo more if it was just about encouraging new writers to get their projects written. I'm not a big fan because I don't like the fact that it gives some people the impression that the typical novel is written in a month. (I used to tutor a creative writing diploma program so do not tell me that people are not that misled by NaNoWriMo. I know first-hand that some are.)

However, it may be the motivation some people need to get to work. If it provides motivation for you, great.

Until you've written it, all you have are ideas.

And let's face it - even the guy grunting and rubbing his hairy belly on the couch as he watches football who's thinking about getting up for another beer has an idea.

Time to get writing. For me, not for NaNoWriMo, but because it's what I do to pay my bills every day. Work beckons.

And for those of you looking for something to read, drop by Spinetingler for a teaser of Laura Ellen Scott's author snapshot in the upcoming issue of Spinetingler Magazine. We also have a teaser of our interview with author Leo W. Banks.

Look for more teasers throughout the week for authors Rusty Barnes, Mindy Tarquini and Con Lehane.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

A Victory for Books

Back in August, I wrote about the idiocy of a new California law that included signed books in legislation that cracked down on fraud in the autographed memorabilia business. I’m thrilled to report that books have now been exempted from this law.
Lawmakers started out trying to prevent fake autographs on sports memorabilia. Fine – I see why you’d want to make sure the signed football you’re shelling out hundreds of dollars for was actually signed by that star player.
But the law that went into effect earlier this year affected a lot more than sports. It required booksellers to provide certificates of authenticity for any signed book and say whether they were bonded or insured “to protect the consumer against errors and omissions of the dealer.” They had to keep copies of those certificates of authenticity for at least seven years. And when an author signed in the presence of store owners, the certificate had to specify the date and place of signing and identify a witness to it.
Ridiculous, right? Those requirements would’ve financially broken bookstores, especially independent ones that host numerous book signings and community events.
But now, I’m shocked – shocked – to report that cooler heads prevailed. The California Legislature recently passed an amendment to this law that specifically exempts signed books from any of these requirements.

“The bill would exclude, among other items, works of fine art, signed books, furniture, and decorative objects, from the definition of an autographed collectible.” (emphasis added)

Thank goodness. It’s difficult enough being an author – or a bookseller – without having to worry about extraordinarily unnecessary regulations. They’re needless because bookstores don’t sell signed books for more than ones that aren’t signed. Having an author sign a book adds no monetary value to it. A buyer pays the same whether it’s signed or not. Yes, an author and a bookstore will likely sell more books with a signing event than if there hadn’t been one, but that doesn’t mean each actual signed copy increases in value. It doesn’t.
The quick revision of this law is thanks to one of the best independent bookstores in the country, Book Passage in the San Francisco Bay Area, which hosts more than 700 author events a year among its three locations. The store and co-owner Bill Petrocelli sued the State of California, asserting that the original law violated the First Amendment because it harmed the ability of the store to provide a forum for authors and ideas, as well as the ability to disseminate signed books that contain those ideas. 
Book Passage bookstore, Bay Area, California: Hero to book buyers and book signers everywhere.
The lawsuit was filed on Petrocelli’s behalf by the Pacific Legal Foundation, which withdrew the legal action upon passage of the new legislation.
It isn’t often that I can type the phrase, "Common sense prevailed." I’m very glad I get to do so in this case.