Friday, May 22, 2015

Cayman Is Breezy, Beachy Fun

Note: No matter the author, no matter the title, I always acquire books out of my own resources. Review copies are verboten on this blog, and that goes double for ISLF friends—which Eric Douglas most certainly is.

The term “beach read” sometimes carries a pejorative connotation in fiction circles, which is really a shame. There’s nothing wrong with a novel that puts enjoyment on a pedestal, and that’s exactly what Eric Douglas does with Return to Cayman, the sixth installment in his Mike Scott series. A journalist with a yen for adventure that would do Indiana Jones proud, Scott has a way of landing in trouble as much as reporting on it. It’s been years since he returned to his one-time home of Grand Cayman, and this time he has no plans but to party. Old chum Kelly has been married to Tanya, the girl of his dreams, for a decade. Mike has come to this island paradise with a bunch of friends to help them celebrate and to dive the surrounding reefs. But the proceedings take a dark turn when an anchoring mishap with a cruise liner obliterates a stretch of protected coral, nearly killing Mike and Kelly in the process. Something sinister is afoot on Grand Cayman, a cyber plot that will soon ensnare the entire island in a global conspiracy.

If you tossed a shot of Carl Hiaasen’s eco-consciousness into a tall tumbler of Clive Cussler’s action, it would taste a lot like Return to Cayman. After a slightly slow start (which will feel more like a reunion for those who have read any of the earlier Mike Scott books), Douglas kicks the proceedings into high gear. There are gun-toting paramilitary thugs, secret surveillance drones, improvised explosive devices, and lots of near-drowning incidents. The diving bits—of which there are many—are the best parts, but even readers who’ve never donned a scuba mask will find the proceedings enjoyable. Much like Andrew Klavan did in The Identity Man, Douglas pens archetypal characters then shoves them right in danger’s way. Not all is perfect, though. The extremities of the main villain’s narcissistic evil strains credibility, and the ending resolves itself too quickly to really satisfy. Still, Cayman contains plenty of breezy, beachy fun.

(Picture: CC 2010 by Max Elman)

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Music To Write By: Blindside’s “Sleepwalking”

Why Listen? To hear art incarnate its subject matter; to tread the fine line between order and chaos; to hear aural sandblasting settle into something soothing.

“Sleepwalking” is one of those songs that smacks you in the face from the word go. Simon Grenehed’s guitar work alternates between rumbling riffs and screeching, palm-muted feedback, bassist Tomas Näslund and drummer Marcus Dahlström set up a syncopated beat, and over it all vocalist Christian Lindskog howls, “Words so secure screaming like an alarm! / Are you trying to wake me up?” Wake me up, indeed. Everything about the introductory verse of this Swedish post-hardcore band’s 2003 single seems calculated to jar listeners. It alternates between consonance and dissonance, melody and cacophony, teetering right on the edge of chaos. Then comes the chorus where the aural sandblasting settles into something almost soothing. The rhythm smooths into a steady cadence. Guitar chords follow suit. And Lindskog drapes the whole thing with angelic harmonies. How appropriate for a song about spiritual blindness and recovering a clear perspective. Blindside understands that art should incarnate its subject matter.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Bono Busking and the Business of Artistic Fame

Last week, Jimmy Fallon posted a video that shows what happens when you take a legendary band like U2, put its members in disguise, and set them loose on the New York City subway to busk their own music. At first, only a curious few spare them a glance. But when the faux facial hair comes off ... well, watch for yourself:

I’m sure viewers with an artistic bent will find themselves torn between disgust and envy at the way in which disinterested passersby metamorphose into a bobbing sea of smartphones. The premium that fame commands in our society is perversely powerful. Take, for instance, what happened when J.K. Rowling decided to write a detective novel entitled The Cuckoo’s Calling under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. Initially, the book only sold a measly 1,500 physical copies despite receiving lavish praise from critics. But when her identity got leaked, sales grew by 150,000%. Stephen King has noted how his once-rejected stories found happy homes at the very magazines that snubbed them before his name commanded cache. And as for the example of our Irish rockers, the irony lies entirely in their appearance. The super-scraggly quartet of apparently starving artists only looked different than the boys from Dublin; the songs were the exactly the same.

Of course, that’s the point. The songs were the same—and that encourages me.

A lot of creative types get down in the mouth about this business of artistic fame, complaining about how the vagaries of capitalism mean that only the flashiest and most fashionable get noticed instead of the truly talented. And though I’m very much a proponent of free markets, I understand where they’re coming from. It would be nice if my strange little stories garnered as many kudos and as much cash as, say, writing the website copy for a Craigslist-meets-local-gardening startup. They don’t, though, and that’s okay: I’m going to tell them anyway.

Why? Well, once you get beyond the basics of living, aren’t applause and pecuniary compensation really secondary matters? They don’t get the narrative wheels turning. They don’t mold new melodies. They don’t staple blank canvas to the frame or help you compose a fitting anapaest or teach you the fingerings for that alternate tuning. The song is the same whether you’re busking by yourself at the 42nd Street station or on a stage at the Super Bowl.

So sing no matter the circumstances. Paint. Perform. Play. And know that I’ll be writing right along with you.

(Hat Tip: Matthew Fray)

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Terrible and Terrifying, The Troop Is a Great Read

Freshly minted literary awards fascinate me. They put flesh on the bones of an idea, pair an abstract notion with an extant work of art. That’s why I was quick to scoop up Nick Cutter’s The Troop, the first book to win the James Herbert Award. Now Herbert penned horror novels, so I wasn’t surprised to see a blurb from Stephen King adorning the dust jacket. Nor did it shock me that combustible phrases such as "unspeakable torment," "far more frightening than any ghost story," and "a bioengineered nightmare" graced its inner flap. No, what caught me off-guard was Cutter’s intentionally oblique biography: "Nick Cutter is a pseudonym for an acclaimed author of novels and short stories. He lives in Canada." Why in the world would an author take such obvious steps to hide his identity?

Then I started the book and understood exactly why.

The plot of The Troop is textbook high-concept. Five scouts and their scoutmaster are about to embark on their last solo-scouting jaunt on Falstaff Island, a tiny place near better-known Prince Edward Island. The quintet of kids shakes out into the expected archetypes. The nerd. The jock. The angry one. The normal one. The one who's a little off. The situation itself, though, soon goes sideways when a strange man arrives on the island in the middle of the right. Rope-thin and sweat-sheened, the man simply looks wrong. Plus, he's hungry, so very hungry—and it's catching.

You don't need an extensive education in horror to know that the hungry man's illness will spread in horrible ways. In fact, Cutter lets you know that from the get-go, interspersing chapters with sensational news articles and chilling court transcripts. He makes great use of Hitchcock's famous bomb theory, creating nigh-unbearable tension by cluing in readers to future plot points without explaining how the characters will wind up there. I won't spoil the details, but understand that grisly body horror abounds. Flesh wastes away within hours of infection. Minds shatter under the strain of paranoia with violent results. One patient starts losing his teeth as his gum recede, "yet they remained connected by ... braces, gray teeth linked like charms on a gruesome bracelet, clicking and clacking in the dark vault of his mouth." Yeah, this isn’t the sort of content you want to be discussing at the next PTA meeting.

However, some of this terribleness is mitigated by Cutter making it clear that more is at work here than just the machinations of an unfeeling universe. Man’s megalomania, greed, psychosis, and simple evil carry the lion’s share of the blame. In that sense, it’s profoundly moral. No wonder multiple allusions to William Golding's Lord of the Flies appear. Cutter also knows how to write a grab-you-by-the-throat plot and liberally sprinkles the proceedings with metaphors (“Fear stole into Kent's heart like a safecracker”) and vivid descriptions (“Coin-bright wedges of light ... shafted through apertures in the roof”). The Troop is equal parts terrible and terrifying. It also happens to be a great read.

(Picture: CC 2006 by Bruce Tuten)

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

"Not One Stone Upon Another"

The vista would’ve made Bosch cringe.

To the south, the smoke of Charleston ascended in a pillar up to heaven. To the north, the horizon writhed with borealis light. Cindered earth stretched west and east in an unbroken plain, the hills thrown down and the valleys thrust up, a zaffre-tinted hue coloring the blasted soil. But here—right here—a 21-acre plot in Sissonville sat untouched by the devastation, its grass green, a loop of road paved with unbroken black, a red-sided barn still standing.

Inside, a trio sat. They didn’t know Bosch from Beethoven or Bart Simpson. Two were deep in animated conversation, and the third was eating.

At least until a fourth joined them.
Dear readers, I have a confession to make: I’ve had a difficult time writing fiction lately. I mean, I have been writing. Clients’ articles. Website copy. Term papers. But that's not narrative. You know, something funny happens once you’ve been away from the fiction world for a while. You start to see other’s stories in a strangely abstract way. Authors’ effortless transitions just appear. Their various secondary characters acquire symbolic import that you’re positive is intentional. You comprehend that they arranged their chapters according to an intricate thematic plan. And you despair of replicating such skill in your own work.

Or maybe that’s just me.

“Not One Stone Upon Another” represents a conscious effort on my part to break this narrative dry spell. When ISLF friend Elizabeth Damewood Gaucher issued an open call for 1,000-word stories based on a picture of a picked-clean ribcage dangling from a street sign, I decided to bite. On the story, not the carrion. One could charitably call its composition kaleidoscopic. Add an apocalyptic setting, self-consciously silly dialogue, tons of technical verbiage, and a sense of impending doom. Shake, scatter, and see how the pieces land. Elizabeth seems to have enjoyed the resultant tale, and I hope you do too.

“Not One Stone Upon Another” appears at Esse Diem. You can read it here.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Dean on the Positive Effects of Anger

Over at PsyBlog, Dr. Jeremy Dean discusses some of the unexpectedly positive effects of anger. Excerpt:
There are all sorts of good sensible, civilised reasons to avoid getting angry.

Not only does it make you feel bad, it makes you do stupid things without noticing the risks and it can be self-destructive.

As a result civilised people do their best to suppress, redirect and mask their anger. Most of us treat our anger as though it’s unreasonable, unshowable and unmentionable.

But like all emotions anger has its purposes, which can be used to good effect. ...

You sometimes hear people talking about using anger as a motivating force by ‘turning anger into positive energy’. In fact anger itself is a kind of positive energy and a powerful motivating force. Research has shown that anger can make us push on towards our goals in the face of problems and barriers.
Read the whole thing. It probably surprises no one who has read this blog for any length of time that I’m pretty much a private person. Though I’ll own to having deeply seated convictions about politics and theology, aesthetics and morality, I don’t like going all scorched earth over them, particularly here. Ditto for my own personal life and its concomitant internal emotional acrobatics. There’s enough of that stuff online if you want to find it without me sullying my virtual street corner with it. But today I’m going to bend that self-imposed standard a little, because several things in the past few days have made me rather angry.

No, I’m not going to tell you what they are. Don’t ask.

So why am I bringing it up? Because I think it can have a practical impact on one’s writing. Like Dean says above, we all know anger can have really deleterious effects. If I don’t manage it, I find myself stuck in a seething slump, accomplishing absolutely nothing. Think of it as the emotional equivalent of a hot tar pit. But one’s anger doesn’t necessarily need to cause you to lash out at others, to do things you ought not do and neglect things you should. Freud sits on the ash heap of history, true, but I think it’s could be wise to appropriate his idea of sublimation. With a little effort and perspective, perhaps we can transmute our anger into something valuable—maybe even a story or two.

(Picture: CC 2005 by Etienne)

Friday, April 24, 2015

Carbon Alters the SF Formula With an Infusion of Fun

As I obliquely alluded to in my previous post, the world of science fiction isn’t a happy place right now. I won’t bore you with the details about the recent hullaballoo over the Hugos, arguably the most prestigious award in the field. Suffice it to say that one camp thinks the Hugos have been co-opted by a politically correct clique while the other claims such protests are actually an attempt to hijack the nomination process. For my part, the controversy is mostly academic, because I’ve read less and less SF as I’ve aged. It’s not because I’ve fallen out of love with the genre. Rather, the field has seemed obsessed with disseminating obscure theses and experimenting with artsy styles. Telling solid stories seemed far from its authors’ minds, at least most of them. If they wrote like Richard K. Morgan did in his far-future-meets-hardboiled debut Altered Carbon, maybe I’d be reading more in the field.

Takeshi Lev Kovacs has had a ... distinguished career. Once a U.N. envoy, a super-specialized soldier capable of acclimating to any culture across the galaxy, manipulating any mark, and assassinating almost any target, Kovacs has been called up for everything from police actions to full out war. Then he died. Well, he actually died several times. It’s easy to do when your personality is digitized on a chip implanted in the back of your head. Once your body—or “sleeve”—perishes, you can be resurrected in a clone of yourself if you’re wealthy, in someone else’s sleeve that’s in storage if you’re normal, or in a creaky synthetic if you’re really down and out. Murder is now dubbed “organic damage,” and instead of the death penalty, offenders face time in the stacks, carrying out hundred-year sentences in electronic isolation. Kovacs knows a bit about that. Envoys have the same skill set as career criminals, and he has just gone down after a robbery on his home of Harlan’s World, a slug blasting clear through his chest during a police raid. Then he wakes up on earth in a Caucasian body with a quest. Rather than be consigned to the stacks for a century, he’s now in the employ of one Laurens Bancroft, a three-hundred-year-old tycoon who was recently found dead in his own study. The police say he committed suicide. A freshly reanimated Bancroft believes differently, and Kovacs has six weeks to get to the truth.

Morgan has obviously drunk deeply from the well of William Gibson’s mid-eighties cyberpunk imaginings. Altered Carbon is full of the Gibsonian tropes. Poison-laced needleguns. Clandestine medical clinics. Hallucination-throwing goons. Lots of drugs. But the book is something other than mere pastiche, drawing more from the twisty plots of Raymond Chandler than Neuromancer’s navel gazing. Indeed, at times the action in Altered Carbon gets a bit too tangled, but everything more or less makes sense in the end. Plus, the stupendous speculative setting and jaw-droppingly good action more than make up for any muddled bits. A.I.-managed hotels adopt the personalities of long-dead celebrities (Jimi Hendrix, in the case of Kovac’s temporary abode). Computer viruses and suborbital bombing mix in the middle of a planet-wide war. The final confrontation combines fisticuffs with thermite grenades. And like great SF of the past, it doesn’t fail to ask big questions, musing over human identity and wondering about the nature of love. Would that more authors noted Carbon’s composition and infused their own weighty works with a measure of fun.

(Picture: CC 2010 by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center)