December 31, 2010

Champagne for the Soul ***

*** Champagne for the Soul, Mike Mason, 2003

This is what I'm talking about. Vintage Mason. It takes a few pages to get going, but there's real gold in here. The subject is rediscovering joy. Highly recommended for those having trouble finding joy.

December 30, 2010

Publishing your first draft

Yo, writers out there, would you publish the first draft of your novel?

That's what multi-published author Adam Palmer is doing, via Twitter, during 2011.

I assumed he would write something first and then publish it in tweet-sized bites. Nope. He's composing in Twitter. It will be compiled (and edited) for a more conventional book in 2012. He posted his self-imposed rules for the project here.

In my humble (but completely accurate and independently verified) opinion, Adam is stark-raving mad. [You say that like it's a bad thing.]

For me, the thought of putting my first draft out there for public consumption is mind-numbingly, soul-crushingly, spirit-suckingly, gonad-witheringly horrific. I'd rather pose nekkid for Field & Stream.

And yes, I'm already following on @AdamAuthor.

Zany things from Marcher Lord Press, who are not averse to batshit crazy stuff, evidently.

December 29, 2010

Writing dialog

Here's an overheard conversation between brothers, 4 and 5, in bed in the dark. I wish I could write dialog like this.

J: Remember when we were driving back from Papa and Grandma's after opening presents?
C: Yeah
J: You fell asleep and I saw Santa. He was going back to Papa and Grandma's house. But they don't have a chimney! And no one can unlock the chimney, not even Santa.
C: But God can unlock the chimney, cause he's special.
C: I wish it was gonna be day in 3 minutes.
J: Me, too.
C: I wish it was always daytime.
J: When we go to heaven, it will always be daytime.
C: And we can't even bring our house up to heaven. Not even our furniture.
J: And not even our guns. There won't be anyone to fight in heaven.
C: Yeah...but we can hit Daddy.
J: I can jump off the roof of our house.

December 27, 2010

The Lost Hero ***

*** The Lost Hero, Rick Riordan, 2010

The first book in the Heroes of Olympus series opens with three new heroes in the lead and a several familiar faces in supporting roles. Riordan has a way of finding new ways of engaging the gods, demigods and monsters of mythical times. But this time, the Roman counterparts come to the fore.

December 23, 2010

The Sign of the Book **

** The Sign of the Book, John Dunning, 2005

I hate to say it, but this Cliff Janeway didn't stand up to the rest of the franchise. At least not for the first 150 pages. Cheesy on-the-nose dialog, tedious exposition-laden backstory with cheap emotion, and utilitarian scenes that tell us what we already know or drag on too long dominated the first quarter of the book.

It finally took off when Janeway staked out the house on the mountain and followed the guys he found there, but it lacks the sophisication of his earlier efforts. If you're going to read the Janeway novels, and I suggest you start at the beginning.

December 20, 2010

Inbound Marketing ***

*** Inbound Marketing, Halligan and Shah, 2009

If you're looking to use social media for marketing, this is the book to read about it. Otherwise, never mind.

December 16, 2010

The White Tiger ***

*** The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga, 2008

Another book recommended by The Learned One, this time by a guy from India. It's kind of Slumdog Millionaire meets Horatio Alger. I was not a fan at first, but it grew on me. The chapters of his youth in The Darkness are a bit slow, but it picks up when he gets to Delhi.

Worth reading.

December 13, 2010

Blood Work ***

*** Blood Work, Michael Connelly, 1998

I rewatched the movie Clint Eastwood made of this, with Jeff Daniels and Angelica Huston, before I read the novel. I found the movie unsatisfying, largely because of the poor casting, particularly of Daniels, who was OK in the first two acts, but couldn't carry act three, and because of other cardboard, two-dimensional portrayals. However, comparing the screenplay to the novel, the screenplay was a nice, tight storyline, very integrated, collapsing characters and plot points into a neat package, right up to the climax scene, which unfortunately descended into a Hollywood cliche' showdown action set piece complete with villain monologue and in my humble but accurate view blew whatever goodwill the story had built to that point.

As far as the novel goes, it's my least favorite Connelly to this point chronologically in the canon. It's still worth reading, but it doesn't have the brooding texture that I've come to love in a Bosch story and it lacks the every-chapter high-voltage tension that characterizes the first six Connelly novels. It gets bogged down in the middle in procedural investigation. There are seeming rabbit trails that feel tedious and eventually tie in, but seem gratuitous. (However, this might be a by-product of having experienced the streamlined screenplay story first. YMMV.)

However, Connelly definitely upped the stakes on this one, beyond my expectations from the movie, so good-on-ya-mate for that one. Even if you watch the movie, you're in for some surprises in the second half when you read the novel, which is a nice discovery. The final 130 pages or so were quite satisfying, enough so to bring the read back into the three star realm.

In this project of reading the entire Connelly canon extant, there are only two or three volumes I haven't read, so I can say with some confidence that you can pick up any Connelly novel and be assured of a satisfying read, and most of the time a great read.

December 12, 2010

Quotes from Stuff I Like: Davies Part 3

As Calvin said that mankind was divided between the Elect, chosen to be saved, and the Reprobate Remainder of mankind, so it seemed to be with knowledge; there were those who were born to it, and those who struggled to acquire it. With the Scholarly Elect one seems not so much to be teaching them as reminding them of something they already know. -The Rebel Angels, p. 46

It is easy to find eccentrics in universities if your notion of an eccentric is simply a fellow with some odd habits. But the true eccentric, the man who stands apart from the fashionable scholarship of his day and who may be the begetter of notable scholarship in the future, is a rarer bird. These are seldom the most popular figures, because they derive their energy from a source not understood by their contemporaries. But the more spectacular eccentrics, the Species Dingbaticus, as I had heard students call them, were attractive to me; I love a mounteback. -The Rebel Angels, p. 47

People are said to be drifting away from religion, but few of them drift so far that when they die there is not a call for some kind of religious ceremony. Is it because mankind is naturally religious, or simply because mankind is naturally cautions? -The Rebel Angels, p. 84

As for energy, only those who have never tried it for a week or two can suppose that the pursuit of knowledge does not demand a strength and determination, a resolve not to be beaten, that is a special kind of energy, and those who lack it or have it only in small store will never be scholars or teachers, because real teaching demands energy as well. To instruct calls for energy, and to remain almost silent, but watchful and helpful, while students instruct themselves, calls for even greater energy. To see someone fall (which will teach him not to fall again) when a word from you would keep him on his feet but ignorant of an important danger, is one of the tasks of the teacher that calls for special energy, because holding in is more demanding than crying out. -The Rebel Angels, p. 87

"Odd about skepticism, you know, Simon. I've known a few skeptical philosophers and with the exception of Parlabane they have all been quite ordinary people in the normal dealings of life. They pay their debts, have mortgages, educate their kids, google over their grandchildren, try to scrape together a competence precisely like the rest of the middle class. They come to terms with life. How do they square it with what they profess?"

"Horse sense, Clem, horse sense. It's the saving of us all who live by the mind. We make a deal between what we can comprehend intellectually and what we are in the world as we encounter it. Only the geniuses and people with a kink try to escape, and even the geniuses often live by a thoroughly bourgeois morality. Why? Because it simplifies all the unessential things. One can't always be improvising and seeing every triviality afresh. But Parlabane is a man with a kink." -The Rebel Angels, pp. 99-100

December 11, 2010

Quotes from Stuff I Like: Davies Part 2

"Very nice, I grant you," said Cobbler, "but I agree with your wife. The Vambrace girl has something very special. Mind you, I don't mind 'em a bit tousled," said he, and grinned raffishly at Miss Vyner, who was, above all things, clean and neat, though she tended to smell rather like a neglected ash-tray, because of smoking so much. "This business of good grooming can be carried too far. For real attraction, a girls' clothes should have that lived-in look."

"I supposed you really like them dirty," said Miss Vyner.

"That's it. Dirty and full of divine mystery," said Cobbler, rolling his eyes and kissing his fingers. "Sheer connoisseurship, I confess, but I've always preferred a bit of ripened cheese to a scientifically packaged breakfast food." -Leaven of Malice

"Music is like wine, Bridgetower," he had said; "the less people know about it, the sweeter they like it." -A Mixture of Frailties

During the first day or two she attempted to get on with War and Peace, but found it depressing, and as time wore on she suffered from that sense of unworthiness which attacks sensitive people who have been rebuffed by a classic. -A Mixture of Frailties

He was conscious also, and for the first time, of why Domdaniel was regarded as a great man in the world of music. He conducted admirably, of course, marshaling the singers and players, succoring the weak and subduing the too-strong, but all that was to be expected. It was in his capacity to demand more of his musicians than might have been thought prudent, or even possible(to insist that people excel themselves, and to help them to do it (that his greatness appeared. With a certainty that was itself modest (for there was nothing of "spurring on the ranks" about it) he took upon himself the task of making this undistinguished choir give a performance of the Passion which was worthy of a great university. It was not technically of the first order, but the spirit was right. He had been a great man to Monica, for he could open new windows for her, letting splendid light into her life; but now she saw that he could do so for all these clever people, who thought themselves lucky to be allowed to hang on the end of his stick. Without being in the least a showy or self-absorbed conductor he was an imperious, irresistible and masterful one. -A Mixture of Frailties

His reply had that clarity, objectivity and reasonableness which is possible only to advisors who have completely missed the point. -A Mixture of Frailties

Moral judgments belong to God, and it is part of God's mercy that we do not have to undertake that heavy part of His work, even when the judgment concerns ourselves. -A Mixture of Frailties

But the character of the music emphasized the tale as allegory (humorous, poignant, humane allegory(disclosing the metamorphosis of life itself, in which man moves from confident inexperience through the bitterness of experience, toward the rueful wisdom of self-knowledge. -A Mixture of Frailties

December 10, 2010

Quotes from Stuff I Like: Davies Part 1

It seems quaint to those whose own personalities are not strongly marked and whose intellects are infrequently replenished. -Tempest-Tost

The Forresters, as they told everyone they met, had "neither chick nor child". Their failure to have a chick never provoked surprise, but it was odd that they were childless; they had not sought that condition. -Tempest-Tost

He had allowed his daughters to use his library without restraint, and nothing is more fatal to maidenly delicacy of speech than the run of a good library. -Tempest-Tost

The thought which was uppermost in his mind, when at last Griselda stopped and turned to him, was that his mother never went to sleep until he had come home and that her displeasure and concern, issue from her rather as the haze of ectoplasm issues from a spiritualist medium, filled the house whenever he came home late. -Tempest-Tost

His key seemed to make a shattering noise in the lock. And when he entered the hall, which was in darkness, maternal solicitude and pique embraced him like the smell of cooking cabbage. -Tempest-Tost

And because he had been born to this lot, he accepted it without question; as children always do, and as some adults continue to do, he invented reasons why he should be as he was, instead of seeking for means by which he might be delivered from his fate. -Tempest-Tost

The borborygmy, or rumbling of the stomach, has not received the attention from either art or science which it deserves. It is as characteristic of each individual as the tone of the voice. It can be vehement, plaintive, ejaculatory, conversational, humorous(its variety is boundless. But there are few who are prepared to give it an understanding ear; it is dismissed too often with embarrassment or low wit. -Tempest-Tost

December 9, 2010

Robertson Davies: Man of Myth ***

*** Robertson Davies: Man of Myth, Judith Skelton Grant, 1994

This sucker has been on my bookshelf for years, travelling around the globe from TX to AZ to CO to HI and finally back to TX. Then it sat on my elliptical trainer for months as I worked my way through it. At 654 pages of biography and another 130+ of end notes, it garners a BLCS rating of rat, and possibly cat.

I discovered Davies in the early 90s and he quickly replaced Graham Greene as my favorite author. I've been saving a few other Davies gems to savor because they're not making new Davies stories anymore and I've read almost everything.

The biography was instructive and entertaining, but I doubt anyone but the most avid Davies fan would take the trouble to read the monster.

Instead, for the next three days you can read some quotes from four of his novels that I read in the 90s.

December 7, 2010

Do The Math

The Value Proposition: Movie vs Book.

Let's be honest. When it comes down to it, most decisions are about the bang for the buck.

Most people don't think twice about throwing down admission price for the latest blockbuster movie of their flavor of choice. In my area, that's $10 a head for prime time. Of course, the movie experience isn't complete without some kind of concessions, soda, popcorn, candy, hot dog, whatever, at loan-shark prices. Now you're up to around $20 for 2 hours of entertainment, or $10 per hour.

Now let's take a novel. The Passage has been hot this year.It's $16 in hardcover at Amazon.com right now, running at 784 pages. Let's say you read a page a minute (which is pretty fast). That's 13 hours of entertainment, or $1.23 per hour. A movie costs eight times more per hour. Eight times. You can get The Passage in paperback or Kindle at $10, running you $0.77 per hour. A movie costs thirteen times more per hour. Are you getting this?

You can have 2 hours of movie and only get half of Deathly Hallows for $10 plus rapaciously-priced popcorn in a chair next to a stranger who hogs the arm rest, or have 13 hours of book and get all of Deathly Hallows for $7 plus any food your heart desires at sane prices in the most comfortable chair in your home.

Here's the funny thing, the psychology of it. At the movies, you step up to the window and the girl says, "Ten dollars," and you don't blink. At the bookstore, you pick up a book, you see the $16 price tag, and you think, "Really? Sixteen dollars?" and you put it back down.

Does anybody else think that's weird?

December 6, 2010

Trunk Music ***

*** Trunk Music, Michael Connelly, 1997

Back to to Bosch and some interesting twists. Although I did see the first twist from a long way away. But Connelly is still the king of maintaining tension. I wonder if he gets tired of making Bosch always choose the adolescent, self-destructive way of dealing with things. I kind of felt that when he does something particularly juvenile and his new boss, Billets, asked him "Why don't you grow up and quit these little pissing wars?"

But still good stuff.

December 2, 2010

The Road **

** The Road, Cormac McCarthy, 2006

As you know, this book won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction in 2006.In 2010 the London Times ranked The Road first on its list of the 100 best fiction and non-fiction books of the past 10 years.

That's nice and everything, but I never really got McCarthy. I read All the Pretty Horses in the 90s and didn't get it, either. I guess I'm not sophisticated enough for critically acclaimed stuff. He's often compared to Faulkner, who I also don't get.

The writing was good, but the story didn't grab me. Well, it did, at first, but after a couple hundred pages of a man and a boy walking through a post-apocalyptic wasteland, looking for food and encountering 3 or 4 other humans during that span, I had gotten enough to last me for the next decade.

If you're the type who loves McCarthy, great. Enjoy it. I'll enjoy something else.

November 29, 2010

The Poet ***

*** The Poet, Michael Connelly, 1996

The first non-Bosch novel Connelly did. Rachell Walling from the first novel surfaces, along with a new character, Jack McEvoy, a Denver journalist. I'm not as enamored with Jack as with Bosch, but Connelly still deals from the arm with finesse.

Here's the thing about Connelly:

Opening a Michael Connelly novel is like opening a bag of potato chips. It's very difficult to stop.

With chips, you can fill a bowl, close the bag, and put it away. With a novel, the next chapter is only a page away. Several after-midnight sessions with this one.

November 25, 2010

Levi's Will **

** Levi's Will, W. Dale Cramer, 2005

I got this book a long time ago because Cramer was chewing through the Christy awards. I thought Bad Ground was OK, but everyone was raving about Levi's Will, so I had to check it out. It's a decent book, but too much front-loaded back story, exposition and on the nose narrative for my liking. YMMV.

November 22, 2010

The Last Coyote ***

*** The Last Coyote, Michael Connelly, 1995

Great, as usual. However, I detected a small chink in the otherwise flawless armor of the Bosch novels. There were two spots, a few pages apart, where I came across one of the things we all love to hate in whodunits.

You know that thing where the protagonist sees something that could be worriesome, but then dismisses it? Yeah, that thing. Where you say, dang, I'm no cop, but even I know better than to ignore a guy changing his tire right next to my car late at night in an abandoned parking lot, and turn my back on him. Especially when powerful men are looking for me to kill me. And here is a guy who just happens to be next to my car, holding a tire tool.

So, that's one page out of hundreds and no reason to write off Connelly. It mainly serves to let me know he's human after all.

November 18, 2010

Treasure Island ***

*** Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson, 1883

I made a reference to Treasure Island in my current work-in-progress and thought there might be multiple parallels the protagonist, so I zipped through it in a few nights. It's 127 years old and still a quick and entertaining read.

November 15, 2010

The Concrete Blonde ***

*** The Concrete Blonde, Michael Connelly, 1994

The third Bosch novel serves to demonstrate Connelly's ability to start off at high tension (Bosch the defendant in a trial that could destroy his career) and continue to ratchet it up for hundreds of pages. I practically ripped through this one, reading much later into the night than is proper for a man of my stature in the community. It also ratchets him higher up on the pedestal in my view. Three home runs in a row. From a writing standpoint, he deserves the success he has enjoyed. I heard him speak at the Texas Book Festival last year and he seemed like a great guy, also. Good for him.

November 11, 2010

The Help ****

**** The Help, Kathryn Stockett, 2009

This book was left lying around by a cousin and I finally got around to reading it. Incredible, moving, captivating. It was so good that I actually pulled it off the elliptical and read it between workouts to find out what happened.

Highly recommended.

November 8, 2010

The Black Ice ***

*** The Black Ice, Michael Connelly, 1993

Connelly's second Bosch novel proved he wasn't a one hit wonder. Every bit as good as the first. Maybe better. If you haven't read these, then get with it. Now.

November 4, 2010

Something Nasty in the Woodshed **

** Something Nasty in the Woodshed, Kyril Bonfiglioli, 1979

Yet another entry in the Books Sent To Me By The Learned One series. Total change of venue from the first two in the trilogy. Set on the Isle of Jersey with the story line moving from international crime and intrigue to trying to catch a brutal serial rapist who is using pagan/satanic paraphenalia/symbols. The bulk of the story is taken up with a bizarre scheme to hold a black mass to intimidate the bad guy into stopping. Then, at the end, it just blows up.

Bonfiglioli has an entertaining style, but no clue about story structure.

November 1, 2010

The Black Echo ***

*** The Black Echo, Michael Connelly, 1992

Trying to get The Woman hooked on Connelly, I dug around and found the first few books in the Harry Bosch series, and of course, I had to read them. Now I'm hooked again and will probably read the whole thing from the beginning.

I'd forgotten how good of a writer Connelly is. Dang.

October 28, 2010

After You With The Pistol **

** After You With The Pistol, Kyril Bonfiglioli, 1974

And more in the Books Sent By The Learned One series. More clever writing, even less of a coherent story line. The action is driven by the wife telling Mortdecai to do all these random things like assassinate the Queen of England and make a heroin delivery from Kwonloon to London. While talking like Bertie Wooster. Amusing, but not riveting.

October 25, 2010

Bridge of Sighs ***

*** Bridge of Sighs, Richard Russo, 2007

In the first few chapters I thought, oh no, Russo has finally lost it. And it does start of slowly, overburdened with back story. The first half of the book is told from two points of view, Lou and Noonan. Lou's narrative dominates in page count but Noonan's is by far the most interesting. It took several chapters before I was really invested in the story. The thing is, Russo is good enough to keep a reader engaged from the first page, like he did in Straight Man, so it's disappointing when he takes longer to do so.

He adds Sarah's POV about halfway through the story, and it becomes even more interesting. B then, Lou's perspective has finally kicked in, so it's a great ride to the finish and a good read.

As usual, highly recommended.

October 21, 2010

Don't Point That Thing At Me ***

*** Don't Point That Thing At Me, Kyril Bonfiglioli, 1972

Another in the series of books sent to me by The Learned One. Imagine if PG Wodehouse wrote about a corrupt art dealer in London in the 1970s, with raw stuff like torture and assassination and sex scenes, but all in the flippant Bertie Wooster tone. Only also imagine that Wodehouse lost all his complex story construction skills and instead things just kind of happened as they went along.

That would be Don't Point That Thing At Me. Clever writing, amusing voice, train-wreck of a story. The ending suddenly changes tone, gets very serious and brutally realistic and then disintegrates into delirium. Very strange.

Worth reading, but not for the prudish.

October 18, 2010

Plot & Structure ***

*** Plot & Structure, James Scott Bell, 2004

I read Bell's Writer's Digest books in reverse order of publication date. Not on purpose, just what happened. I don't think it matters what order you read them, as long as you read them. Assuming you want to develop the craft of writing of course. Otherwise, read the book of your choice.

Plot & Structure is a comprehensive work on building the framework of a good story. It's filled with tons of practical tips for developing a storie and getting past dead ends and blocks. Good stuff. Also check out Revision & Self-Editing, The Art of War for Writers.

October 14, 2010

The Island of the Day Before *

* The Island of the Day Before, Umberto Eco, 1994

It really, really, and I mean really, pains me to give this book one star. I loved his first two novels, The Name of the Rose (1983) and the resulting movie with Sean Connery and Matthew Broderick, and the ultimate consipracy theory novel, Foucalt's Pedulum (1989).

I snagged this monstrous 500+ page volume years ago and have hauled it around on various moves. I finally broke down and subjected it to the Elliptical Test. It failed miserably.

The issue is that there is no plot. Eco is a brilliant writer, but not even he can sustain my interest for 513 pages without a plot. I read to page 257 and skimmed the rest to verify my suspicion. It's a sad day in Mudville.

October 11, 2010

Freezer Burn **

** Freezer Burn, Joe R Lansdale, 1999

I picked up a couple more Lansdale books to continue my exploration of his writing. This one was not a whodunit in the Hap and Leonard series. It's rife with the trademark Lansdale trenchant phrases, dissolute characters, and graphic language/sex/whatnot.

It was a fascinating read with great promise for one such as I, a sucker for a story of redemption. Alas, despite a classic setup of transcendent good vs inherent evil and the everyman caught in the middle, it was not to be. Transcendent good is exposed as naivete and everyman as sucker. Both lose out to inherent evil. A great story with an unsatisfying ending for this possibly naive reader.

But filled with great similes and turns of phrase, such as these.

Opening line: Bill Roberts decided to rob the firecracker stand on account he didn’t have a job and not a nickel’s worth of money and his mother was dead and kind of freeze-dried in her bedroom.

P 6. She smelled like a sixteen-year-old boy on his way to this first date.

P. 18. “He ain’t got a prayer and a sandwich, now.”

P 18. The moon’s image lay full and huge on the swampy water, as if God had dropped a greasy dinner plate.

P 24. It felt odd now not to be bossed about by an overbearing woman. He had grown so accustomed to it, he thought it was natural, like trips to the bathroom.

P 27. Bill’s lips were swollen and his face wasn’t feeling all that good either. It seemed as if his skin was a sack of light bulbs someone had stepped on.

P 31. He was weak and hungry and hot and his head hurt all over from the mosquito bites. He felt as if he had been beat in the face with a rake.

P 37. It was slightly warmer away from the riverbank, and Bill could see the late evening sun hanging low in the sky like a cracked fertile egg, leaking gold and yellow and blood-red chicken all over the horizon, seeping through the trees.

P 39. He rolled his head to the side and smelled the drying grass, and from that angle he could see the last of the sunlight hanging between the trees, as if a giant with an inflamed hemorrhoid was mooning him.

P 45. When he awoke it was dark in the room except for one light that was by the door, and it was a weak light. It made a pool on the floor like dirty melted cheese.

P 84. Her gold hair held the moonlight and it fell butter smooth over her skin, delighted to be there.

P 85. He had less grease on his hair than Phil, but he certainly had enough up there to do him and still deep-fry a chicken.

P 106. It was hot with a constant savage wind blowing, the air so brittle a wave of your hand might knock a crack in it.

P 106. Conrad would be sleeping, as content as a baby in a wind-up swing.

P 107. The whole thing made Bill lonely as the last pig in a slaughterhouse line.

P 109. A woman like that, like Eve, like Gidget, she could make you set fire to an old folks home and beat the survivors over the head with a shovel as they ran out. A woman like that damn sure wouldn’t have to do much to get some guy to steal an apple.

P147. He felt he had truly become friends with Conrad, and he liked the feeling. He had never had a real friend before, just people he could do small crimes with.

P 150. Gidget looked at Bill as if she had just discovered his head had been hollowed out with a spoon.

P 180. There was a crescent moon. It was like a single cat eye, partially open, waiting for a mouse.

October 10, 2010

Muffin Man Research

Took a little road trip this weekend to check out county courthouses, jails and sheriff departments for my work in progress, Muffin Man. We spent Friday night in San Antonio. On Saturday we hit five small county seats:

  • Hondo, Medina County
  • Uvalde, Uvalde County
  • Leakey, Real County
  • Bandera, Bandera County
  • Kerrville, Kerr County

We had lunch in Utopia due to my conversation last month with Karen Valby, author of Welcome to Utopia. We capped the day off in Fredericksburg at the Lincoln Street Wine Market for wine, cheese, fruit, a cigar and live music. Highly recommended.

Then a late night drive home to sleep in our own bed. Over 300 miles in 15 hours on Friday, with stops to take photos and such. Over 400 miles in 30 hours for the whole trip. Check out the map to see where we went. View Muffin Man Road Trip Oct 2010 in a larger map

October 7, 2010

The Scene of the Crime ***

*** The Scene of the Crime: a writer's guide to crime-scene investigations, Anne Windgate, Ph.D, 1992

From the Writer's Digest Howdunit Series, dated, but good. I picked this up in a used bookstore years ago when I was toying with the idea of writing whodunits. I got over it, but never ditched the book. Lots of solid content in here, but if you're writing in this area, you'll need a more current reference book.

Writer's Digest Books are typically very good, like Jim's books on craft, and most of the Howdunit Series books. A book I read a few years ago, Malicious Intent, was a notable exception. So notable that even now, years later, I remember how horrific it was/is, as the reviews at the link show. Fortunately, it's a one-off. He hasn't come out with a series of rantings and unsubstantiated opinions presented as facts. I'd like to hear the story of how that one slipped past the Writer's Digest Books editors.

October 4, 2010

Mohawk ***

*** Mohawk, Richard Russo, 1986

This is Russo's first novel and it's a clear indicator of themes reflected in his novels. Not as accomplished as his later work, but how often does an author write their best work first?

One thing that intrigued me was the switching between present and past tense. I didn't detect a pattern, such as certain tenses for certain characters or settings or time frames, but there might be one. I didn't study it that closely, as I was more interested in following the story.

There were lots of characters, like twenty, but it easy to keep track of them, which is a good trick to learn how to do. There was only one time when I wondered, "What, who was that person?" for a minor character who was absent for a long stretch, which is not bad for 400+ pages.

If you haven't read any Russo, you need to. Here are links to my reviews of Empire Falls and Straight Man, and some quotes from The Risk Pool.

September 30, 2010

Wonder o' the Wind **

** Wonder o' the Wind, Phillip Keller, 1982

This is not the kind of thing I would normally read. In fact, you can pretty much figure that anything that has o' in the title will not make my reading list. I may be extending that to include authors with o' in their name. (Sorry, Flannery.)

The Number One Son indicated that this book might have relevance to the backstory of the protagonist in my latest work in progress, so I read it. It turns out that at least one of the 243 pages did have relevance. Maybe even as many as three pages!

September 27, 2010

The Furniture of Heaven **

** The Furniture of Heaven, Mike Mason, 1989

The cover says "Parables for Pilgrims" and that's accurate. I've also seen it mentioned as "fiction" and "short stories" which sets the wrong expectation. That being said, Mason is a good writer for this genre, but it's not a genre I enjoy. Those who like this sort of thing will like this. ;-) I'm a much bigger fan of his non-fiction stuff.

September 23, 2010

Mucho Mojo ***

*** Mucho Mojo, Joe R Lansdale, 1994

Lansdale was recommended to me a couple of years ago by Zane. (Speaking of Zane, check out his very cool short movie, Wake Up, at the link. Shot in Austin, all effects done by Zane.)

So I kept the scrap of paper with Lansdale's name on my desk for a couple of years before I actually broke down and got a copy of Mucho Mojo. This guy's a good writer, whodunit style. The real draw for me is 1) his great way with the language and similies and 2) interesting characters. The story is pretty good, too, but you know who did it about halfway through. There is a twist, but I saw that one coming, too. And the scene where the preacher and the sidekick lock horns about homosexuality got a little tiresome.

But overall, a very entertianing read and I'll be checking for Lansdale on the shelf in the future.

September 20, 2010

Goodbye Hollywood Nobody ***

*** Goodbye Hollywood Nobody, Lisa Samson, 2008

I've put off reading this book for a long time, because it's the last of the Hollywood Nobody books and I didn't want it to end. But finally the time came. I broke out a Punch and an 11-year-old Bowmore and read the thing in one sitting, finishing around 2 a.m.

It may seem a little strange for a guy at half a century to be reading a book targeted toward teen girls, but when I find a good writer, I stick with them. Sorry to see this series come to and end, but she's writing other books, so, hey. I'm just saying.

September 16, 2010

Literary Lone Stars

Occasionally I emerge from my bunker and venture forth into the metropolis to engage other citizens on matters of great import. This evening I attended the Writer's League of Texas event called Literary Lone Stars, primarily to hear Joe R. Lansdale, whom I recently began reading. In the course of the evening, I heard three other authors, Doug Dorst, John Phillip Santos, and Karen Valby, read and talk about their work.

Valby started off and got my attention with Welcome to Utopia, a book about a small Texas town relatively isolated form popular culture. I was seeing all kinds of parallels and contrasts with Welcome to Fred, although Utopia, small though it may be, is much larger than Fred. Then Dorst read some selections from Surf Guru about reptiles that were hilarious and riveting. I'm aching to get to his book, but it goes in the To Be Read shelf along with dozens of other worthy candidates for next book to pick up. Johh Phillip Santos read a selection that opened with a sentence that nailed me to the wall: "The mind and the heart leave no fossils." Wow.

Lansdale completed the evening with some readings and extemporaneous stories of his childhood in East Texas, a resonant chord for a Fred, Texas ex-patriot. Reviews of his books I've read this year to follow in the coming months. Mucho Mojo.

The takeaway for me was the sheer joy of being able to hang with writers, not just the presenters, but other writers at all stages of development, and just soak up the vibe, something I didn't have access to in Honolulu, paradise thought it may be. I dropped $100+ in retail-price books simply because I wanted to support what these people are doing. I also got autographs on them. Maybe they'll be worth something one day after I read them. Heh.

Programs like this give me a reason to excavate my gnome-like frame from the bowels of my solitary unibomber isolation and inflict myself upon the greater population. Joy abounds. Woohoo.

Tribes ***

*** Tribes, Seth Godin, 2008

Permission-marketing guru, publishing revolutionary. If you're trying to promote anything in this century, this book is a must read.

September 13, 2010

The Blue Umbrella

The Blue Umbrella, Mike Mason, 2009

When I sat down at a table at the Christy Awards this year, mainly there to hear Lisa Samson speak, I skimmed through the list of finalists and read, with fear and trembling, in the YA category, the title The Blue Umbrella by Mike Mason. I immediately scanned the room, wondering if he was there. Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to have a chance to shake his hand and tell him how much his writing has touched me, particularly The Mystery of Marriage, which exploded my brain when I read it, and The Gospel According to Job, which was invaluable when I was writing Escape from Fred.

At that moment Donna Kehoe, the force behind the awards, happened to walk up to my table. I jumped up, pointed to the entry, and asked if this was the Mike Mason. She confirmed that it was. I then asked if he was present. Sadly, he was not.

I didn't even realize Mason had written a novel and immediately upon returning home I ordered a copy, along with some non-fiction books by Mason that had escaped my notice.

If you've never heard of Mason, you owe it to yourself to get a copy of The Mystery of Marriage post haste, regardless of whether you are married or never even plan to be married. In the mid 80s I ran across it in a bookstore and read the preface. I was so astounded I bought it on the spot. The rest did not disappoint. In fact, on my first website, constructed way back in the 90s, I posted selected quotes from The Mystery of Marriage to convince others that they should read it immediately. Obviously it worked, because it's sold over 200,000 copies and has been translated into 20 languages. Need I say more?

Regarding The Blue Umbrella, I'm not sure what I think at present. I'd like to hear the thoughts of others. Give it a read and drop me a line.

September 9, 2010

The Cure ***

*** The Cure, Athol Dickson, 2007

Athol's a very good writer, an award-winning writer, in fact. Three Christy awards, finalist two other times, and other stuff. I found the premise of The Cure to be intruiging. I loved the account of the protagonist finding and savoring a bottle of Scotch in Chapter 4. Some of the descriptions went on a little long for me, more elaborate than is my taste, but the story is solid. The twist at the end is just right.

September 2, 2010

Rebel Island ***

*** Rebel Island, Rick Riordan, 2007

I somehow failed to review this book when I read it a while back, and just now noticed it when writing the review for The Red Pyramid.

Much to my sorrow, Rebel Island is the last Tres Navarre novel. At the Texas Book Festival three or four years ago I attended a panel discussion on writing whodunits because Riordan was on the panel. He mentioned then that he had lost his zeal for the series and that he would be pursuing his YA novels going forward, as indeed he has done with five Percy Jackson books (so far), the opening tome in the 39 Clues series, The Maze of Bones, and the first of the Kane Chronicles, The Red Pyramid.

That being said, it is a worthy end. Riordan has a knack for posing new problems that shed more light on the Navarre family history, which is as intriguing as the main plot. This book is no exception. It has a bit of a Key Largo vibe to it, which makes it even more entertaining.

Perhaps, like Doyle, Riordan will relent in future years and bring us some more tales of his memorable detective. Please?

August 26, 2010

The Red Pyramid ***

*** The Red Pyramid, Rick Riordan, 2010

It's unusual for me to read a book in the year it was released. I usually put off buying them to assuage my guilt for buying yet another book when there are 20+ unread books on my To Be Read shelf. I got this in the year it was published because The Woman brought it home from somewhere.

As you can note here, here, here and here, I'm a big Riordan fan, mainly of his Tres Navarre detective stories, but also of his YA novels. The Red Pyramid is basically Percy Jackson, but using Egyptian gods instead of Greek gods. But even when Riordan is doing a "second verse same as the first" gig, the writing remains top notch.

August 19, 2010

Sh*t My Dad Says ***

*** Sh*t My Dad Says, Justin Halpern, 2010

As Head Trickster, I feel compelled to mention that StupidInternetTricks.com was one of the early followers of Halpern's Twitter feed about his dad's aphorism, getting in during the first month at around follower number 219,473. He's now up to 1.5+ million followers, a #1 NYT Bestseller book (released four months ago), and an upcoming TV show on CBS staring William Shatner as the senior Halpern. Not sure how they're going to keep it authentic and within FCC guidelines at the same time.

Regarding the book, it's funny as hell and well worth the $9 at Costco. I read it in one afternoon. Lasted three times as long as a movie at the same price. Halpern senior may have a potty mouth (actually, there's no question, he definitely has a potty mouth, the book is marbled with profanity like a good steak) but is also a font of practical wisdom and human decency.

Here's an interesting site, songs the senior Halpern likes and the reasons why.

August 12, 2010

Revision & Self-Editing ***

*** Revision & Self-Editing, James Scott Bell, 2008

I've been stockpiling books on writing for a while and now I'm working through them. Bell knows about writing. Not only does he have a couple of dozen books out, but he took over Lawrence Block's column in Writer's Digest and has done three books on writing for Writer's Digest. I've already read The Art of War for Writers and am currently working on Plot & Structure.

This book is a great tool. It has two sections, self-editing and revisions. Last month I used the last chapter - The Ultimate Revision Checklist - as I worked on draft three of my current project, Endless Vacation. Very helpful.

August 5, 2010

Out Stealing Horses ***

*** Out Stealing Horses, Per Petterson, 2003

I received three novels in the mail from The Learned One for my edification. They went into the (alarmingly) growing To Be Read shelf. I started this one since it was a slim volume at 238 pages. It was on the New York Times Book Review Best 10 Books of the Year list.

It is decidedly literary, meaning very well written, heavy on character, voice and sense of place and light on plot. The Learned One said the feel was reminiscent of the Fred Books. That's quite a compliment and I'll take his word for it.

Speaking of the Fred Books, they are officially out of print, but signed copies are still available through SignedByTheAuthor.com.

July 29, 2010

Passage **

** Passage, Connie Willis, 2001

It is with a heavy heart that I give this book two stars, having been so taken with To Say Nothing of the Dog. I was prepared to like this book, expected to like it. But pretty much all it had going for it was a very clever premise. At 780 pages, it is at least 400 pages too long, if not 500.

It's kind of like this. What if someone wrote a book in which:

The first 250 pages describe someone trying to remember where she put her car keys, and then when she finally figures it out, the next 300 pages describe her trying to remember why she wanted the car keys. Mixed in with all this are hundreds of trivial details irrelvant to the stakes of the story, many of which are cyclical or maddeningly repetitious events.

Then 20 pages of frantic attempts to locate a person to tell him why she wanted the keys, with a rehash of all the distractions and dead ends that have been going on for 550 pages, culminating in a shocking event that seems like it should end the book, but on a completely unsatisfying note. But it doesn't end. There are still 220 pages to go, enough to make a decent, if small, novel.

And what happens in the last 220 pages? The second person tries to reconstruct the movements/ideas the first person did/thought during the middle 300 pages in an effort to figure out why she wanted the car keys.

Sounds ridiculous, doesn't it? Exactly.

July 27, 2010

Writing on the Air

Occasionally I am a guest on a program called Writing on the Air on local radio station, KOOP. (Listen at 91.7 FM or koop.org.) I'll be on tomorrow, Wed 7/28/2010 from 6-7pm CDT, reading excerpts from some works in progress and talking about writing stuff, in general.

I also discovered they have my last appearance in the archives. Also, I sat in on Daniel's appearance on Jul 7.

July 24, 2010

Poncho and Lefty

When are you going to cover it?

Townes Van Zandt

Willie and Bobby

Steve Earle

Hoyt Axton

July 22, 2010

To A God Unknown **

** To A God Unknown, John Steinbeck, 1933

I have two authors for which I keep a steady backlog on the To Be Read shelf - Dickens and Steinbeck. Occasionally I dip into the reserve and read one. Thus To A God Unknown arrived on my nightstand.

It is one of his earlier novels and definitely not my favorite, but was an interesting read and held together well. I'm not a big fan of Steinbeck's depressing novels (The Red Pony, The Pearl) and this falls in that category. But some good characterization.

July 17, 2010

I Write Like

Kelly hipped me to I Write Like, a website that applies a Bayesian classifier algorithm to the text you key in to match it to text from the 50 writers in its database. It's mainly based on vocabulary, sentence length and punctuation and doesn't account for style, voice or tone, so it's basically useless, but entertaining.

I pasted in Chapter 0 of my current work in progress that is in need of a good title. It came back with Stephen King. Interesting. Chapter 1 came back as David Foster Wallace. Hmm, never heard of him.

I went back to Endless Vacation draft 3 and analzyed each chapter separately, all 46 of them. (Yes, I know I have no life. So sue me.) It came back with 15 authors: Arthur Conan Doyle, Chuck Palahniuk, Dan Brown, David Foster Wallace, Ian Fleming, Isaac Asimov, Jack London, James Joyce, JK Rowling, Kurt Vonnegut, Mario Puzo, Raymond Chandler, Stephanie Meyer, Vladimir Nabakov, and William Gibson. The winner was David Foster Wallace, for 17 of 46 chapters, Brown and Chandler trailing with 8 and 6 chapters, respectively.

Then I went back to where it all started, Welcome to Fred, again all 30 chapters. This time only 9 authors, but a couple of good ones that weren't on the EV list: Arthur C Clarke, Chuck Palahniuk, Dan Brown, David Foster Wallace, HP Lovecraft, Raymond Chandler, Stephanie Meyer, Stephen King, and William Gibson. But Wallace was still the winner with 11 out of 30 chapters, Lovecraft trailing with 6 chapters. Evidently a third of my work uses the same vocabulary and sentence length as Wallace. I guess I'll have to check him out.

I wish he had the list of authors in the database. I'm guessing PG Wodehouse isn't in there, or Christopher Buckley.

July 15, 2010

Wry Martinis ***

*** Wry Martinis, Christopher Buckley, 1997

Since my discovery that what I've been writing the last few years is much in the vein of Buckley, I've been gradually acquiring his backlist. This one landed the upstairs bathroom reading slot because it's a collection of essays, most of them short and suitable for situations where a few minutes is appropriate.

Buckley is clever, but we knew that. This collection also gives us some insight into his history. It's a good read. Probably good with martinis, although I didn't try, given its location.

July 8, 2010

Mere Churchianity ****

**** Mere Churchianity, Michael Spencer, 2010

I've been following Michael Spencer aka the Internet Monk, since early in the milleniuim. I was even, for a few brief delusional months, a Boar's Head Tavern fellow, recommended by Jack.

This is the first 4-star book of the year. I don't recommend it for the brilliant writing, although Michael is a gifted writer. I recommend it for the content. Michael wrote this book to those who have left the church, or who are about to. It's not an admonision to get your butt back in the pew. It's a call to finding, in his words, a Jesus-shaped spirituality, whether you stay or go.

If you want to get a flavor of Michael's writing, you can check out some of what I consider his best stuff from InternetMonk.com

Michael was a remarkable guy. This is his first and last book. He died of cancer before it was released. A lot of folks are still pissed off about that.

July 1, 2010

The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable ***

*** The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, 2007

I was hipped to this book by a day-job client, Sean O'Toole of ForeclosureRadar.com. (By the way, incredible software those guys have. Just amazing.) I was so intrigued, I grabbed a copy for reading while working out. It passed the elliptical test with flying colors.

It's a book about prediction and how completely inept we are at doing it, even experts. Especially experts. It's about how watching the news actually makes you less informed. It's about the various ways in which we convince ourselves that "evidence" and "history" and "narratives" allow us to know what's going to happen, when it's impossible for us to know.

Here's an early example (page 40):

Consider a turkey that is fed every day. Every single feeding will firm up the bird's belief that it is the general rule of life to be fed every day by friendly members of the human race "looking out for its best interests," as a politician would say. On the afternoon of the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, something unexpected will happen to the turkey. It will incur a revision of belief.

He points out the futility of paying attention to predictions regarding things like the stock market or social phenomena when we can't even get basic construction estimating right, such as the astounding case of the Sydney Opera House.

While Australians were under the illusion that they had built a monument to distinguish their skyline, what they had really done was to construct a monument to our failure to predict, to plan, and to come to grips with our unknowledge of the future--our systematic under-estimation of what the future has in store.

The Australians had actually built a symbol of the epistemic arrogance of the human race. The story is as follows. The Sydney Opera House was supposed to open in early 1963 at a cost of AU$ 7 million. It finally opened its doors more than ten years later, and, although it was a less ambitions version than initially envisioned, it ended up costing around AU$ 104 million.

There's tons of good stuff in there, but that's enough to give you the idea. In case you're wondering, it does have a happy ending:

I am sometimes taken aback by how people can have a miserable day or get angry because they feel cheated by a bad meal, cold coffee, a social rebuf, or a rude reception. Recall my discussion in Chapter 8 on the difficulty in seeing the true odds of the events that run your own life. We are quick to forget that just being alive is an extraordiary piece of good luck, a remote event, a chance occurrence of monstrous porportions.

Imagine a speck of dust next to a planet a billions times the size of the earth. The speck of dust represents the odds in favor of your being born; the huge planet would be the odds against it. So stop sweating the small stuff. Don't be like the ingrate who got a castle as a present and worried about the mildew in the bathroom. Stop looking the gift horse in the mouth--remember that you are a Black Swan. And thank you for reading my book.

And here's a nice quote from the acknowledgements: Standardizing editors have an uncanny ability to inflict maximal damage by breaking the internal rhythm of one's prose with the minimum of changes.

June 24, 2010

Alphabet Juice ***

*** Alphabet Juice: The Energies, Gists, and Spirits of Letters, Words, and Combinations Thereof; Their Roots, Bones, Innards, Piths, Pips, and Secret Parts, ... With Examples of Their Usage Foul and Savory, Roy Blount, Jr, 2008

Over a year ago I got a chance to chat with Roy Blount, Jr at a Writer's League fund raiser, where I bought this book and had it signed. The next day I ran into him at the airport and we chatted some more. He was headed to FL on an annual fishing trip he's been doing for several decades and I was headed to a film festival/conference. And I noticed he was wearing olive-green Crocs, a detail I found very amusing.

So, I've been working through this book (364 pages) during the ensuing year. It's particularly suited as a bathroom read due to the dictionary-like nature of the contents. It was in the downstairs bathroom and I only read two pages per session, which explains why it took me a year to finish it.

It was a very enjoyable read. Lots of interesting tidbits and quotable stuffs in there. I highly recommend it.

June 17, 2010

Velocity **

*** Velocity, Dean Koontz, 2005

I was headed to Port A and Mustang Island for a well-deserved break and picked up The Outlook instead of Echo Park, a mistake I didn't discover until I was slathered in 50 SPF sunscreen, kicked back on a lounge chair under a canopy on the beach, watching the gulls dodge waves and seaweed while fighting for the crabs in the sand.

So I trekked back up to the condo and dug through the cabinets and found two likely candidates for my beach read, Walking in Circles Before Lying Down by Merrill Markoe and Velocity by Dean Koontz. I gave Markoe a shot, first, but after three chapters in I still didn't care what happened to anybody, so I switched over to Koontz.

The first chapter was very engaging and funny, something I didn't expect. I've read one other Koontz novel back in the 80s, The Watchers, which was far from amusing. Knowing the premise of Velocity, I was surprised at the humor. I was curious to see how he would sustain humor as seeming random people were murdered based on the decisions/actions of Billy the bartender. The answer was, it wasn't sustained. The first chapter was the only funny one.

But it was still an entertaining beach read with an interesting moral dilemma. Billy finds a finds a note on his windshield telling him that he has a choice: go to the police and a lovely blonde schoolteacher dies. Do nothing and an elderly woman active in charity work dies. It gets worse from there. Much worse.

But there's a happy ending for you, so it all works out. But the middle is not for the squeamish. But then, what Koontz novel is?

June 9, 2010


Seriously. Except it's not just ukulele. The songs are arranged in various styles, including reggae, pop, blues, with the intruments appropriate to the style. Each is performed by a different artist, but arranged and produced by David Baratt and Roger Greenawalt with accompanying essays by various individuals. As of this post there are 70+ songs in the catalog, all available for free download.

My picks for the playlist:

  • While My Guitar Gently Weeps
  • Here There and Everywhere
  • Come Together
  • Because
  • Lady Madonna
  • Blackbird
  • Don’t Pass Me By
  • Getting Better
  • Across The Universe
  • Revolution (Live)
  • I Am The Walrus
  • The Word
  • Mother Nature’s Son
  • Day Tripper
  • Love Me Do
  • Hey Jude
  • Get Back
  • Honey Pie
  • We Can Work It Out
  • Back in the USSR
  • You Can’t Do That
  • Old Brown Shoe
  • Yesterday
  • Golden Slumbers
  • Love You Too
  • Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey
  • Here Comes The Sun
  • She Said She Said
  • Nowhere Man

June 8, 2010

Back in Action

I completed the 3,000+ pages of screenplay reading last weekend and am back to reading actual books. I'm in the final pages of three books. We'll see which one crosses the finish line first. Also working on the novel projects, Endless Vacation and Muffin Man. And doing a lot of remodeling. And the day job. My, where does all the time go?

May 26, 2010

Distracted Again

It's that time of year, again. I'm buried under a mountain of screenplays as first reader for a little screenplay competition of note. And also working on my latest novel project, Endless Vacation. I've got some good stuff in the queue to finish reading, when my time frees up.

In the meantime, here's a bit of flash fiction I wrote about 20 years ago, back when cell phones were a new thing. I call it . . .


The cellular phone gripped tightly, he pulls his BMW to the side of the road as he hears the phone ring on the other end. His breath catches at the familiar, loving voice answering, "It's your nickel." Panic closes a hand around his throat and he can't speak.

"What's the matter, cat got your tongue?" the nasal voice brays through the wires. He tries to swallow but his mouth is too dry. "Hey, Pa, it's for you. It's Marcel Marceau."

"Ma . . . Mom," he blurts out in his panic. "Don't call Pa. It's you I want to talk to. It's me, Beamish!"

"Beamish! Where have you been? We've been keeping your supper warm for you, but after a year-and-a-half the gas bill is getting ridiculous."

"I know, Ma. I meant to call but I was so busy."

"When are you going to get home? Our pyramid act doesn't get as many laughs with only two on the pyramid."

"Look, Ma. I'm in a bit of a hurry. I've got to see a client, but I just wanted to let you know I was O.K."

"What do you mean, a client?"

"Ma, brace yourself. You know I never did like the circus. I mean, it was O.K. for you and Pa, but it just wasn't for me."

"How could you say such a thing after all we did for you? You know Pa was going to pass the family nose on to you."

"Ma, please, don't make this any harder for me. I've got my own life, now." He pauses, afraid to break her heart with the truth. Suddenly, it all comes out in a rush. "Ma, I'm a C.P.A. You know it's what I always wanted. I tried to be a clown, but my heart just wasn't in it. I've got to follow my own dream."

"It'll kill your father."

The digital clock on the dash swims before his eyes as his tears overflow. "Ma, I've got to go. Don't try to call me, please. It'll cost me 1.78 a minute and besides, I'm expecting an important fax. Bye."

May 13, 2010

The Beekeeper's Apprentice ***

*** The Beekeeper's Apprentice, Laurie R. King, 1994

How did I miss this? An excellently written 10-book (and counting) series of extra-canonical Holmes stories starting 16 years ago. The first book is set in Holmes' retirement as a beekeeper in Sussex. If you like Holmes stories, this is a must read. That's two reviews of Holmes stories with a female protagonist in two months. Strange.

May 6, 2010

Walker Percy: A Life **

** Walker Percy: A Life, Patrick Samway, 1997

Back in the 80s I heard Bill Bennett say that Walker Percy was his favorite novelist, so I decided to give him a shot and eventually read all his novels and one non-fiction book.

Percy studied to be a physician, but got TB during his residency and never practiced. He eventually became a novelist, publishing six novels from 1961 to 1987:

  • The Moviegoer (1962 National Book Award winner)
  • The Last Gentleman
  • Love in the Ruins: The Adventures of a Bad Catholic at a Time Near the End of the World
  • Lancelot
  • The Second Coming
  • The Thanatos Syndrome

and was a bit of an amateur philosopher, writing such books as:

  • The Message in the Bottle: How Queer Man Is, How Queer Language Is, and What One Has to Do with the Other
  • Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book

Though I read all his novels, he has never been a favorite of mine. Too much of a braniac, too buried in philosophy, I guess. Maybe if I read them now, 20 years later, I might find them interesting. Maybe not. My To Be Read shelf is much too full to find out now.

Unfortunately, the biography had the same failings, plus a tendency to focus on details that had little interest to me. Did I really need to know which courses he took every semester in medical school and who were his instructors? I didn't think so.

My interest perked up when it turned to writing and publishing, but it was interlarded with long sections on his philosophical pursuits and Catholic interests, so it made for slow going, even more so since it was an elliptical trainer book.

Anybody need a copy of Walker Percy, A Life?

May 3, 2010

Quotes From Stuff I Read - Percy

This topic is usually called Quotes From Stuff I Like, but I wasn't that crazy about this biography, hence the slight tweak in title. I'm pulling this quote out because of the seeming contrast between it and an earlier quote from Gardner I found interesting.

Walker Percy: A Life, an excerpt from a letter:

p. 223. Actually I do not consider myself a novelist but a moralist or a propagandist. My spiritual father is Pascal (and/or Kierkegaard). And if I also kneel before the altar of Lawrence and Joyce and Flaubert, it is not because I wish to do what they did, even if I could. What I realy want to do is to tell people what they must do and what they must believe if tghey want to live. Using every guile and low-handed trick int he book of course . . .

The problem which all but throws me all the time is this: how does a Catholic fiction writer handle the Catholic Faith in his novel? I am not really writing to get your answer because I think I already know it--that you don't worry about it--do what Augustine said: love God and do as you please. But this doesn't help much. (Actually the only reason I can raise the question now is that I can see the glimmerings of an answer.) Dosteovsky knew he answer.

But to show you that I am not imagining the problem: The Moviegoer was almost universally misunderstood. Its most enthusiastic admirers were preciesely those people who misunderstood it worst. It was received as a novel of "despair"--not a novel about despair but as a novel ending in despair. Even though I left broad hints that such was not at all the case.

May 1, 2010

I'm not a musician . . .

I just play one on CD. The CD and EP are finally released. I played bass on both. Other people played stuff, too. This is extremely good stuff. Give it a listen.

April 29, 2010

Selling Your Story in 60 Seconds ***

*** Selling Your Story in 60 Seconds, Michael Hauge, 2006

If you're planning to attempt to pitch a screenplay, or even pitch a novel, this is a great book to get. Loaded with great information. If I ever decide to sell a screenplay, I'll read this sucker again, you can bet.

April 22, 2010

The Overlook ***

*** The Overlook, Michael Connelly, 2007

Holy freaking cow, Connelly is still the master of criminal disaster! This book is vintage Harry Bosch, great writing and a killer plot. But it kept referring to something to do with Echo Park and I'm wondering, "What did I miss?" Turns out, what I missed is that I pulled the wrong book from the shelf and read them out of order. Now I have to read Echo Park to see what they were talking about.

If you like detective fiction and you've never read Connelly, you need to run, not walk, to your latest bookstore and get yourself a Harry Bosch novel. NOW!

April 15, 2010

Zoo ***

*** Zoo, Ogden Nash, 1987

I liked this one even better than Food. Here's some of my favorites.

The Cow

The cow is of the bovine ilk;
One end is moo, the other, milk.

The Shrimp

A shrimp who sought his lady shrimp
Could catch no glimpse,
Not even glimp.
At times, translucence
Is rather a nuisance.

Note: I love this invented singular form of glimpse!

The Clam

The clam, esteemed by gourmets highly,
Is said to live the life of Riley;
When you are lolling on a piazza
It's what you are as happy as a.

Note: Exactly! I never understood why clams would be so happy.

The Termite

Some primal termite knocked on wood
And tasted it, and found it good.
And that is why your Cousin May
Fell through the parlor floor today.

April 11, 2010

Before After

This afternoon.

A few hours later.

Don't you just love before/after pictures?

April 8, 2010

Kastis Automotive Repair in San Antonio

Gordon Atkinson, aka RealLivePreacher.com, says that Kastis Automotive Repair in San Antonio is the best guy you could take your car to. And if Gordon says so, it's good enough for me.

Supreme Courtship ***

*** Supreme Courtship, Christopher Buckely, 2008

Still on the Buckley kick. This was a quick read, very enjoyable. Buckley is very literate and articulate. He has an extensive vocabulary and can spout Latin and French and whatnot with the best of them. But occasionally he steps outside his depth. In this book it was cattywampus that got him. Evidently he missed the notation in the dictionary indicating it is an adjective. He used it as a noun 3 or 4 times, saying, "I'm a cattywampus" instead of "I'm cattywampus." Amusing.

In Thank You For Smoking, his gaffe was having a right-wing, conservative evangelical describe something as a mortal sin. Unlike the Catholic and Orthodox churches, evangelicals don't have an official heirarchical taxonomy for sin. Officially, all sins are equal. Unofficially, some (abortion, homosexuality) are much worse than others (lying, gluttony, greed).

April 5, 2010

Quotes From Stuff I Like - Russo

The Risk Pool, Richard Russo

As indicated in earlier reviews here and here, I'm a big fan of Russo. I read this book before I resumed my annual book list. Here's two quotes that give you the flavor.

-And so began the final stage of my boyhood in Mohawk. Adult, I would return from time to time. As a visitor, though, never again as a true resident. But then I wouldn’t be a true resident of any other place, either, joining instead the great multitude of wandering Americans, so many of whom have a Mohawk in their past, the memory of which propels us we know not precisely where, so long as it’s away. Return we do, but only to gain momentum for our next outward arc, each further than the last, until there is no elasticity left, nothing to draw us home.

-“A Midwesterner,” she said. “And a midwesterner you will be until the day you die.” Actually, F. William Peterson was from Pennsylvania, but this fact did not, to her mind, invalidate my mother’s point. He was from the western half of Pennsylvania, “practically Ohio,” and you couldn’t grow up that close to Ohio without being Ohio. Ohio was that pervasive. Next to Iowa, she couldn’t think of a worse influence.

April 1, 2010

Food ***

*** Food, Ogden Nash, 1989

I read Marriage Lines last year and enjoyed it, a surprise for one like me, who has little use for poetry. So when I saw a couple of slim volumes of Nash, I grabbed them. The thing I like about Nash is that his stuff is very bite-sized. You can nibble on them at your leisure instead of sitting down for a feast like with a novel.

The problem is, like other nibbly bits, they're so easy to consume that you find yourself binging anyway, and this book was no exception. Here are a few of the tasty morsels.

Further Reflection on Parsley

Is gharsley.

Reflections on Ice Breaking

Is dandy
But liquor
Is quicker.

The Cantaloupe

One cantaloupe is ripe and lush,
Another's green, another's mush.
I'd buy a lot more cantaloupe
If I possessed a fluoroscope.

March 31, 2010

NetFlix Queue 2010Q1

NetFlix 5-star rating
  1. Wee Bit O' Revolution ***
  2. The End *
  3. The Black Dahlia **
  4. Who Am I This Time? ****
  5. Best in Show ***
  6. Treasure of the Sierra Madre ***
  7. I'll Be There *
  8. The Producers ***
  9. Walk, Don't Run **
  10. The Caine Mutiny ***
  11. The Limits of Control *
  12. As It Is In Heaven ***
  13. The Jane Austen Book Club ****
  14. Cold Comfort Farms ***
  15. Overnight ***
  16. The Closet *****
  17. Johnny Dangerously **
  18. Eddie Izzard: Glorious ***
  19. District 9 ***
  20. One True Thing ***
  21. Flawless **
  22. Adventureland **
  23. The Taking of Pelham 123 ****
  24. Nine Lives **
  25. Captain Ron ***
  26. Lady Windermere's Fan **
  27. Grey Gardens: The Movie ***
  28. The Dark Knight ***
  29. Sin Nombre **
  30. The International **

March 25, 2010

Thank You For Smoking ***

*** Thank You For Smoking, Christopher Buckley, 1994

Second in my Buckley roll as I try to assess how close his stuff is to the direction of my new projects. The answer is, "pretty darn close." There are some good lines in this one, but the ending gets a little convoluted, unlike the movie, which changed things up drastically from the book and kept it simple, as Hollywood is wont to do.

There's more Buckley in the queue, so stay tuned. I haven't found a copy of Little Green Men, yet, which my sources say is very good.

March 18, 2010

Songwriters on Songwriting ***

*** Songwriters on Songwriting, Paul Zollo, 2003

At 700+ pages with interviews with 60+ songwriters, this book approaches the rat-killing category. I've been gnawing on it for six months and finally got free of it. It covers interviews from 1987 to 2000. There are some amazing interviews in this book, the Leonard Cohen interview being one of my favorites.

Subjects include icons in the field (Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Randy Newman, John Hiatt), quirky songwriters (Tom Lehrer, Frank Zappa), old school guys (Pete Seeger, Willie Dixon, Burt Bacharach, Hal David), folks you don't think of as songwriters (Madonna, Yoko Ono) and folks you've never heard of (Meshell NdegeOcello). Also there are folks you would expect to be in there who aren't (James Taylor, Marc Cohn, Cat Stevens, Bonnie Raitt).

I'd say 4 stars for songwriters and 3 stars for the general populace.

While reading this book, I was trying to think of a great songwriter under 30 who is a significant force in the market. Who would be the James Taylor, etc. for this generation? The closest I could come to was John Mayer, but he's over 30, now. Any ideas?

March 11, 2010

Florence of Arabia ***

*** Florence of Arabia, Christopher Buckley, 2004

I've eyeballed Christopher Buckley books for a couple of decades, but never picked one up. I did see Thank You For Smoking, the movie that is, and enjoyed it. And I'm a huge fan of his father's Blackford Oakes novels. Read them all, got them all in hardback on the shelf.

I got to see Buckley speak at the Texas Book Festival last year. Very funny, very articulate. Should have grabbed a book then, but didn't. I'm recalcitrant that way.

A comment from a first reader of my new project got me off the bubble to finally plumb the depths. I picked up a handful of his novels and cracked this one first because it was the shortest.

She was right. If this sampling is any indicator of the larger work, this is pretty much the style I'm going for with my new project. If I can do it even half as well, I'll be pleased.

Very entertaining reading. Recommended.

March 8, 2010

Quotes From Stuff I Like - Moore

Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal, Christopher Moore

In honor of Columbus Day, a quote from a Christopher. Not much I liked from this book, but this one sentence spoke to me. I'd be proud to have this sentence in any novel I wrote.

p. 39. He put his big paw on my shoulder and rubbed, leaving a dusty circle of affection on my shirt.

March 4, 2010

Good Night, Mr. Holmes ***

*** Good Night, Mr. Holmes, Carole Nelson Douglas, 1990

It's been a while since I've read an extra-canonical Holmes novel I liked this much. While this is not really a Holmes story, since it's the story of Irene Adler, it does involve Holmes in very important, if occasional, ways. In addition, the style fits very well with the canon.

Douglas's writing is excellent. There were one or two words in the 400+ pages that I would have changed if it were me, but that's just plain being picky at this point.

The story is engaging and well paced, characters are brilliant, well, there's just not much more to say. It's great.

Highly recommended (4 stars) for Holmes fans, recommended for everyone else.

I have a couple more in the series on the shelf. Can't wait to read them.

February 25, 2010


Not a big fan of poetry, but here's a nice litte poem with translation.



Waka waka bang splat tick tick hash,
Caret quote back-tick dollar dollar dash,
Bang splat equal at dollar underscore,
Percent splat waka waka tilde number four,
Ampersand bracket bracket dot dot slash,
Vertical-bar curly-bracket comma comma CRASH.

February 18, 2010

In Dubious Battle **

** In Dubious Battle, John Steinbeck, 1936

In the interest of full disclosure I'll say up front that I'm a big Steinbeck fan. I was turned onto Steinbeck by a cab driver in San Francisco who took The Woman and me from the city to the Oakland airport in the mid 80s. My favorites: The Winter of Our Discontent, Tortilla Flats, Cannery Row, Sweet Thursday.

There, that's done. The other thing is I have another 3 or 4 Steinbeck novels on the To-Be-Read shelf that I'll get around to one day.

So, I read the back jacket of this Penguin paperback version and found this:

In Dubious Battle cannot be dismissed as a 'propaganda' novel - it is another version of the eternal human fight against injustice. . . It is the real thing; it has a vigor of sheer story-telling that may sweep away many prejudices. -New Republic

When the New Republic tries to convince you that this isn't a propaganda novel, it becomes pretty clear that where there's smoke, there's a Red. !!!

So, I began the novel with some misgivings and discovered that it was a bit of a polemic. And, as a veteran of a fiction industry rife with propaganda and agendas, I can spot this kind of thing.

Here is where the New Republic is right. It should not be dismissed as simply a propaganda novel. It's more a very well written propaganda novel with fully realized characters and a decent plot. Much different. Ha!

I enjoyed it, but did have to power through some of the invested-capital-interest vs the-poor-working-stiff verbiage. YMMV.

Update: I wrote this a few days before Joe Stack decided to fly his Piper Cherokee into the Austin IRS office. As I read his inane rant of blame of everyone else for his own choices*, I was reminded of some of the dialog in In Dubious Battle. Stuff I read and thought, "People don't think like that anymore." Turns out, they do.

*Stack joins the tax revolution of the 80s to escape paying income tax and is hit with penalties for tax evasion. What a shock! He takes a premature distribution from his IRA and is surprised that it must be counted as income. Read the fine print, Joe. He files a return prepared by a CPA that doesn't report $12,700 of income, doesn't check it for accuracy before filing, and is hit with penalties for underpayment, and he's surprised? [Last year my CPA missed $9K of income I clearly told him about. I made him redo the return and and then found another CPA. It seemed like a better idea than flying a plane into a building.] And this is all somehow other people's fault? The only bright spot in this nightmare is that he didn't achieve the high "body count" he wanted, although even the one casualty being reported at present is an unacceptable cost.

February 11, 2010

A peek into the process

On this blog I mainly talk about what I'm reading, not what I'm writing, and almost never about the process of writing. But I'm powering through the first draft of my next novel and I thought one or two of you, or maybe even all three of you, might like a peek behind the plywood barriers into the construction zone. If not, move along. Nothing to see here.

When people find out I'm a writer, many of them say they want to be a writer. My response is, "All you have to do is write." It's really that simple. If you write on a regular basis, you're a writer. You may be a bad writer, but you're a writer.

But what most people mean when they say they want to be a writer is that they want to be published. That's another thing, entirely.

As James Scott Bell said a few days ago, "Many people say, I have a book inside me! Usually that's the best place for it." I would have stopped there, content to discourage the competition, but he continued with, "Learn the craft and write more than one."

I'm going to explain some of the mechanics I go through. This is not really part of the craft of writing, but it's something I use to keep track of my level of productivity, which is important when you're working on a deadline.

When I'm in first draft, I keep a log of hours and word count. It looks like this.

The first column shows the number of words in that session, then the date, start and end times, total hours, words per hour, then word count and hour count per day and per week.

You can see that in this period my words-per-hour ranged from 182 (on what evidently was a particularly bad day) to 500+, which is where I like to keep it. (I once got up to 800+ words per hour in the final chapters of the first draft of Hell in a Briefcase. Oh, those were the days!) Most serious novelists have a word count target for for the finished work and a daily word count target.

My routine is to set aside 2 nights a week and a significant chunk of the weekend when I'm working on a novel. As you can see from my journal, I'm not all that consistent, but I track my progress and if it gets low, like those two weeks where I only worked one day each, I kick myself into gear the next week. My goal is 8 weeks to a completed first draft. I started this novel on 12-18-09 with a 1-hour session of 330 words. My target is to be done by 2-18-10. I will cut myself some slack if I don't make it since I had to take some family time for the holidays.

I recently read a biography of P. G. Wodehouse, who wrote 90+ novels in his 90+ years. He was always very aware of word count and productivity. He did a daily 2,500 words or more during the bulk of his career, and when he was in his 80s and 90s, he still averaged 1,000 words a day.

When he was 69, he had a day where he produced 27 pages while working on Barmy in Wonderland, beating his previous record of a 26-page day while working on Thank You, Jeeves, noting that "there is life in the old dog, yet." Figure 250-300 words per page and you can see he hit around 7,000-8,000 words that day, which beats my top end so far for this novel of 4,332 for an 8-hour day on New Year's Eve.

I also track information on each chapter to try to get consistency in word count when possible, to make a note of what happens in each chapter, and a color-coded indicator that helps me in various ways depending on the project. Here's the chart for the first 16 chapters of EV. (The first chapter is numbered zero, so Chapter 15 is really the 16th chapter.)

I like to keep chapters under 2,000 words because it creates frequent stopping points, making the book more convenient to read without losing track of the story. This project is in third person with multiple viewpoints, so I'm using color coding to keep track of which character perspective the story is being told from to get a sense of where gaps might exist in the narrative. You can see in the sample above that the first 10 chapters are told from 10 diferent points of view. That's kind of risky, but I think I can make it work.

In the sample below, you can see that the rainbow we had going earlier in the book has become less variegated. For nine scenes in a 3-chapter stretch, from 29-31, we only get two points of view. That's 5,000+ words, 17-20 pages of the novel. If I didn't have this chart, I would have to read through the entire book to get a sense of where I might need variety to break up long sections dominated by one or two characters. With a chart like this, I can see potential problem areas in a glance.

When working on my first four novels, I color coded plot lines rather than POVs, but for the same reason. If I saw a long gap where a particular subplot was not addressed, I knew I had to work in a scene to keep the plot going in the mind of the reader so they wouldn't see it pop up 100 pages later and think, "Wait, what was that about? Who is this guy?"

There. That was a bit long, but perhaps a few found it of interest. It also shows you how much of a writer geek I am and how much I obsess about this stuff. Yep, I'm a geek and I own it.

February 8, 2010

Quotes From Stuff I Like - L'Amour

In 2007 I read the entire L'Amour Sackett canon, all 19 books, as research for a writing project which got back-burnered in 2008.

To give you an idea of how unorthodox this project is, I also read the entire Wodehouse Jeeves canon, all 19 books, for the same project. That's 38 books I read for a single project which got as far as the middle of Draft 2 before being shelved. The moral lesson for wanabe writers is left as an exercise to the reader.

That being said, as I read I collected quotable lines as fodder for a character in my project. Here they are. The Sackett Brand evidently was particularly good ground for gleaning said quotes.

“See her, Sakim?” I said, half-turning. “That is why I dream.” “I see, I do indeed. But she is not to dream about, my friend, she is the dream!” –Barnabas Sackett in Sackett’s Land, Ch 12

. . . then I was through the curtains and found myself facing a burley fellow with more confidence than is usually permitted a man. – Kin Sackett in The Warrior’s Path, Ch 13

. . . judging by the size of his stomach, he was a very important man. –Echo Sackett in Ride the River, Ch 4

“How many are there? Of the Sacketts, I mean?” “Nobody rightly knows, but even one Sackett is quite a few.” –Echo Sackett in Ride the River, Ch 19

. . . who, judging by disposition, was sired out of a Missouri mule by a mountain lion with a sore tooth. –Tyrel Sackett in The Daybreakers, Ch7

“Boys,” Pa used to say, “avoid conflict and trouble, for enough of it fetches to a man without his asking, but if you are attacked, smite them hip and thigh.” Pa was a great man for Bible speaking, but I never could see a mite of sense in striking them hip and thigh. When I had to smite them I did it on the chin or in the belly. –Tell Sackett in Sackett

“You have been led upon evil ways, “I explained, “and the way of the transgressor is hard.” –Tell Sackett about to correct a wrongdoer in Sackett

Drusilla looked slim and pretty as a three-month-old fawn. –Tell Sackett in Sackett

If he was killed I was going up to that town and read them from the Book. –Tell Sackett in Sackett

She was medium tall, with a way about her that set a man to thinking thoughts best kept to himself. –Tell Sackett in Mojave Crossing

She was beautiful . . . taller than most girls . . . and shaped like music. –Nolan Sackett in Mustang Man

He’d fight anything at the drop of a hat; he’d even drop it himself. –Nolan Sackett in The Sackett Brand

I’d tackle hell with a bucket of water. –Tell Sacket in The Sackett Brand

She was little but she was doing her share where it counted, judging by the way she shaped out her clothes. –Tell Sackett in The Sackett Brand

Over half the country stood on end, and it was crags and boulders, brush and fallen trees. – Tell Sackett in The Sackett Brand

She was young, all right, maybe not more than 17 or 18, but there was a kind of wise look about her eyes that made me think that, girl-wise, she’d been up the creek and over the mountain. –Tell Sackett in The Sackett Brand

The men who hung out there were hard cases, men with the bark on. There were men who came into that place so rough they wore their clothes out from the inside first. – Tell Sackett in The Sackett Brand

I wanted a horse whose color would fade into the country, not one that would stand out like a red nose at a teetotal picnic. –Tell Sackett in The Sackett Brand

Many a time a man with whiskey in him is apt to talk too much, and suddenly realize he wished he was somewhere else. –Tell Sackett in The Sackett Brand

It was rare to find two such beautiful girls in one area. Yet, on second thought, that wasn’t unusual in Texas, where beautiful girls just seemed to happen in the most unexpected places. –Milo Talon in The Man from the Broken Hills, p 144-145

February 4, 2010

Two O'Clock Eastern Wartime ***

*** Two O'Clock Eastern Wartime, John Dunning, 2001

This may be my favorite John Dunning novel, ever. I really like the Janeway books, and taken together I guess I like them better. This one started slow, but when it gets to the power of the old radio serials and the sheer intoxicating of writing, I was sold. And the thriller part of the story is not bad, either.