Friday, August 31, 2007

HELP 8: Retro

The HELP has reached Estleman's 2004 novel about Detroit PI Amos Walker, which means I'm almost caught up -- only two more novels to go.

This is another Ross Macdonald-style plot, mixing a 1949 murder with one in the modern day. (And, of course, the two are very closely linked.) Neither of the murders actually take place in Canada, but there is a strong Canadian connection, which is required in the pure Ross Macdonald special.

Walker is hired by a dying whorehouse madam (retired) to deliver her ashes to her adopted son, who disappeared in the late '60s after getting caught up in an anti-government group and briefly appearing on the FBI's Most Wanted list. She dies, Walker gets the ashes, and the son turns out to be in Canada, not too far away and not too hard to find.

But then, of course, things get complicated: that modern murder I alluded to above happens, and both a county cop and a New York mobster get interested in Walker for different reasons. There's even an old-fashioned gangster's moll, who turns to Walker for help. (But, if you look at that title again, you'll see that Estleman is not unaware of what he's doing.)

The Amos Walker novels from Forge so far are not terribly ambitious, as if Estleman has decided that the audience for such "retro" books is minor and so he needs to conserve his energy. They're still pleasant mysteries, but there's now a self-consciousness in their old-fashionedness, as if Walker isn't really in the modern world at all, but is just pretending. I don't think Estleman needs to give him a wisecracking, computer-savvy sidekick (in fact, I'd strongly argue against it), but I do think Walker himself needs to engage in the modern world.

Walker is a PI much in the mold of Macdonald's Lew Archer: he has no apparent hobbies, family, or friends outside of work. It's not simply that we only see him at work; we see that work is all there is of him. I'm not saying that Estleman needs to completely break away from that paradigm, but...Walker has been around for nearly thirty years and twenty books, so it's high time for him to have something in his life besides the latest murder.

Blogalyization In Progress

This isn't quite a meme, since it supposedly is based on actual facts and numbers, but I got it from Neth Space:

The Blogalyser reveals...

Your blog/web page text has an overall readability index of 16.
This suggests that your writing style is intellectual
(to communicate well you should aim for a figure between 10 and 20).
Your blog has 11 sentences per entry, which suggests your general message is distinguished by complexity
(writing for the web should be concise).


male 'male''female' female
self 'oneself''group''world' world
past 'past''present''future' future

Your text shows characteristics which are 58% male and 42% female
(for more information see the Gender Genie).
Looking at pronoun indicators, you write mainly about yourself, then the world in general and finally your social circle. Also, your writing focuses primarily on the present, next the past and lastly the future.

Find out what your blogging style is like!

One Part Test, One Part Mindless Sheep

First: Blogger recently added a button to embed videos, and I haven't tried it yet.

Second: everyone else in the world is linking to "that Butt-Biting Bug song." So who am I to stand out from the crowd?

(Actually, I'm not even using Blogger's button, since YouTube gives me a nifty bit of code to embed it directly. But it still counts as a test, since I've never put a video up before.)

Quote of the Week

"Life is a lot like baseball. It's boring, takes forever, and, if you're not paying attention, you could get hit in the face with a ball."
- Warren Thomas

Star Wars: The New Essential Guide to Weapons & Technology

This is credited as "text by W. Haden Blackman; all new full-color illustrations by Ian Fullwood." It was published in 2004, so it's not all that "new" anymore; it was sitting in my pile for a few years. It's a large-format (about 8 1/2" x 11") guidebook to the weapons, defenses, and other random technological doodads of the Star Wars universe, each generally presented as a two-page spread with a big picture and a lot of in-story technological and historical details.

I generally like fake non-fiction, but this is steeped a bit too much in technobabble for my taste. It also almost seems like an artifact from the Star Wars universe -- which would be good -- but doesn't quite go all the way down that route by adding dates and fake references, which would be better. Or, if it went the other way, having references to the movies, books, comics, etc. in which these items actually appeared would also be useful. Without either kind of reference -- fictional-world or real-world -- it all seems somewhat detached.

Actually, The New Essential Guide reads a bit like a gaming reference manual without the numbers. I should add that it's very detailed and well-researched; this is the gold standard of media tie-in fake non-fiction. I just wish there had been a bit more in the way of specifics and references, and not quite as much bafflegab about blaster gas and power requirements.

This time around, the illustrations are nearly photo-realistic and seem to have been done with Photoshop. I'm afraid I liked the more illustrative look of the earlier versions much better -- these are good illustrations, but they just don't quite do it for me. Can the Uncanny Valley apply to physical objects? Because a lot of this stuff looks like video-game props -- well-rendered, believably solid, but not "real." (My complaints might not be entirely fair; I love schematics and that was the art style of the original edition.)

So, all in all, I found this just a bit disappointing, but it certainly does what it intends to do, comprehensively and seriously.

SFWA's Andrew Burt Shows His Worth Again

If you haven't read the Boing Boing story, go there first. (And then to Toby Buckell's place.)

Is it polite to ask why someone who doesn't seem to have very little (if any) professional writing to steal is so hotted up about piracy?

I do wish SFWA would stop re-arranging the lifeboats with a hatchet and start doing something constructive. They might help individuals, but they seem to be doing only bad things for the field and the reputations of SF/Fantasy people.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Welcome to the Land of Wishing-Makes-It-So

Background: Night Shade Books is launching a new original anthology series, completely unthemed, under the editorship of the fine Jonathan Strahan. Eclipse 1 will be published in October.

And, yes, I am surprised -- the original anthology has been dead as a dodo for a good generation now, despite several attempts to revive it, all of which tanked quickly. Doing something like this in the first place is a brave and quixotic venture in the name of short SFF...which, naturally, means that the response from the peanut gallery will be bizarre, hostile and utterly off-track.

So, then: this is the cover of Eclipse 1.

And this is the response by a certain segment of fandom.

I am gobsmacked by the idiocy shown in some of those comments.
"I thought Maureen F. McHugh and Gwyneth Jones were more likely to help sell a collection than Lucius Shepard or Jeffrey Ford."
No offense meant to any writer, but that is seriously out of touch with reality.
"But I am not going to assume there was definitely sexism involved. There could be many other reasons for chosing those names which might be perfectly innocent."
I hardly know what to say to such a ba-lamb. If a grown person doesn't realize that the point of a book's cover is to sell that book, and not to make the membership of the Eternal Floating Internet Wiscon feel warm and fuzzy, there's nothing I can do to penetrate such a very thick skull.
"I think the logic was probably "put the biggest names on the cover". Whether or not the names chosen are indeed the biggest names, or whether it might have been better to sacrifice one or two of them to avoid leaving half the audience feeling shut out, I leave as an exercise for the reader."
Half points for realizing the point of a book is to sell copies. Said points lost for implicitly assuming that men only read male authors and women only female. Also note that apparently any female author is as good as any other -- Anne McCaffrey or Jane Doakes, a girl is a girl is a girl.

A book is a commercial enterprise; it succeeds or fails based on its ability to get people to give up their own money for it. All authors are not equal, and their gender rarely enters into it. (Danielle Steel trumps most men this side of John Grisham. Matter of fact, the biggest fiction writers have tended to be female for quite some time now.)
"Depends on who I want my market to be. If I am me, I want to appeal to people looking for the cool new women writers, while still pulling in the folks who don't know who they are. So Beagle, Wilce, McHugh, Jones, and Nix."
Translation: it's not my money, and I know nothing about what writers are actually selling books to real people. Also note that Gwyneth Jones (born 1952, first published 1977) and Maureen F. McHugh (born 1959, first published 1989) are "new."

I won't even try to quote from the replies to Jason William's attempt to explain how publishing works -- he knows what he's talking about, and the commentors don't, but they refuse to accept that. There are quite a number of female writers, in this field, who would be better selling points than the names on the cover of Eclipse 1...but they're not in the book, so advertising them would be a Bad Thing.

And so Fan Entitlement raises its ugly head yet again. But it's OK, since the original anthology will die a lingering death yet again, and they can move on to complaining about how all of the important planets are named after men or something.

(Didn't I complain about something much like this before? Oh, yeah.)

I Think I've Just Been Insulted...

This meme I picked up from the rec.arts.sf.written Usenet group, so no direct link:

Which Fantasy/SciFi Character Are You?

Mischievous and self-interested, you are happy to take from others whatever matches your cunning interests.

Mind tricks don't work on me. Only money!

Watto is a character in the Star Wars universe. The Star Wars Databank has more information about him.

Movie Log: Puccini for Beginners

The Wife and I saw Puccini for Beginners last night, because it was short, available quickly from Netflix, and a romantic comedy. It's about lesbians in New York, and nothing makes boring suburbanites feel more cosmopolitan than watching movies about interesting quirky urban people (and twice yelling upstairs at the kids to go to bed along the way).

It's a quite short movie (an hour twenty-two, including end credits), and a bit fluffy, like the unacknowledged child of Friends and Kissing Jessica Stein. I can't see anyone getting terribly worked up about it, either for or against, but it's a pleasant film that looks like it cost more than it actually did.

Our main character is Allegra (Elizabeth Reaser), who breaks up with her girlfriend Samantha (Julianne Nicolson) early in the film. Well, it's Sam that does the breaking up, actually, because Allegra has a Problem Committing. (Several other characters, including Allegra's best childhood friend Molly and best ex-girlfriend friend Nina, also comment baldly about this element of Allegra's psychological makeup, in case we missed it.)

Allegra then separately falls into affairs with Philip (Justin Kirk) and Grace (Gretchen Mol), without realizing at first that Philip and Grace were previously a couple. (And there are plenty of things to nitpick about this movie, but the way that Allegra ends up involved with Philip -- a man, need I add? -- seemed quite reasonable to me.)

Allegra eventually learns what she's done, and then it all unravels -- well, we know it all unravels, since the unraveling takes place in the movie's first scene, before it flashes back to the rest of the plot. But, as this is a romantic comedy, all comes out all right in the end.

The main problem with Puccini for Beginners is that Allegra is a bit whiny and self-obsessed; one might wonder what Philip and Grace saw in her. (On the other hand, she's cute and apparently a lot of fun to be with, so it's not implausible while you're watching the movie.) Other than that, this is a fine movie -- the dialogue isn't quite as witty and pointed as it could be, but it's pretty good; and Justin Kirk has an odd manner as Phillip through most of the movie, but he is supposed to be a philosophy professor, so we expect him to be not quite right. As I said, there are things you can nitpick about it, but it's a small-scale, low-budget comedy about realistic urban people, and it does that pretty well. It could have used a little more room to breathe, and perhaps a bit more depth to the secondary characters, but it does what it sets out to do perfectly well.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Three Days of Links

Because I haven't posted nearly enough times today, here's what I've been doing at ComicMix this week:

The Players

I know I have plenty of readers in the business, so I hope I'm not the last one to see the Publishers Weekly/Livres Hebdo listing of the biggest publishing companies in the world (posted by Richard Charkin of Macmillan UK).

For those of us maniacally focused on the US trade business, it's interesting to note that Bertelsmann (parent of Random House) is #4.

HELP 7: Poison Blonde

The 2003 Amos Walker novel was the first from Forge, Estleman's current publisher, and sees the HELP project coming into the homestretch.

There are two problems with Poison Blonde from HELP's point of view: the minor one is that it recycles quite a bit of plot set-up from Sweet Women Lie. In Sweet Women, Walker is hired by a washed-up actress for a job that turns out to be a test to see if he can do the real job. And, in Poison Blonde, a sexy blonde Latina pop singer who is most certainly not Shakira (perish the thought) named Gilla Cristobal does the same thing. The plots diverge pretty quickly after that, so it's only a minor complaint.

The major complaint is, however, a huge plot hole. Gilla tells Walker that she has a Deep Dark Secret in her past, and she would be deported to Unnamed Carribean Island Hell-Hole if it comes out, and she would certainly be judicially murdered there.

I'll need to underline these next few points, and their connections:
  • She tells him this in Detroit.
  • Detroit, which is in sight of, and easy driving distance of, Canada.
  • Canada, the nation that would no more give up a beautiful fugitive to a brutal totalitarian regime than it would fail to say "Thanks, eh" to compliments about Tim Horton's donuts.
(And that all assumes that the US government would be eager to ship a rich, popular, successful, gorgeous singer off to a third-world hell-hole to her near-certain death, and that the public wouldn't be outraged. This book is set in February of 2002, so I'll grant Estleman that...but forgetting about Canada is unforgivable.)

Anyway, Poison Blonde (which should have been titled The Lincoln Question, but never mind that) gets tangled up with a new murder and a murder many years ago in a foreign country (Ross Macdonald Disease popping up again), and an old enemy of Walker's turns up as well. I kept expecting spies to pop out of the woodwork (as they did in Sweet Women Lie; another parallel), and I think I shouldn't say whether they do or not.

Other than that one unforgivable hole at the very center of the plot, Poison Blonde is a solid, twisty mystery novel, another strong entry in a consistent series. I've got three more of these to read, and I'm not tired of them yet.

Movie Log: Becoming Jane

My wife is not a big reader, as I might have mentioned. But she's a medium-sized Jane Austen fan, so we had to go see Becoming Jane this weekend. I'm not a big enough Austen fan to explain exactly how this movie was hogwash, but I could detect quite a bit of pig-soaping going on, so I'm sure someone already has done that, somewhere on the Internet.

(For just one thing, I'm pretty sure Austen didn't even start to write Sense & Sensibility until a good decade after this movie was set. And, while I in no way begrudge two hours looking at the radiantly lovely Anne Hathaway, I believe Jane was somewhat plainer and less outgoing.)

It follows exactly the well-trodden Period Movie path you expect it to, stealing widely but not well from Austen's best-known books, like the world's prettiest, best-corseted magpie. Every time it has a chance to make its own, idiosyncratic way, it slips back into doing exactly what you thought it was going to do. Every chance it has to try something interesting is studiously ignored.

(For example, Austen's great love -- the young, poor Irish lawyer Thomas LeFroy -- clearly is only interested in seducing her at first, and a cynical viewer like myself has no reason to believe that his protestations of deep and abiding love later on aren't simply another tactic to get her into bed. The real-world Jane Austen would be very familiar with that type, and would have something -- veiled and proper, yes, but cutting -- to say about it. In this movie, we're apparently meant to simply believe that Jane is so amazingly wonderful that his intentions are now purely honorable.)

(And, for another, her other suitor -- whom The Wife and I have taken to calling "Lurch," since we forgot the character's name -- is actually much more interesting, and seems closer to what little I know of the historical Austen's character. But he's not a great talker and doesn't like to dance, which means he's doomed in a Period Movie.)

This is a very pretty movie, and looking at Anne Hathaway for two hours is a very pleasant way to spend time. Serious Janeites will probably hate the liberties the plot has taken, but, for those of us married to people who love Period Movies in all their splendor, this is a decent example of that not-particularly-exalted form.

Wordless Growl of Frustration

All of my phone calls -- today and nearly every other weekday recently -- are bored telemarketers or chipper recordings trying to sell me a new mortgage (with one odd phone survey about wills from a local news organization thrown in for spice). These are not the people I want to call me...

HELP 6: Sinister Heights

And Sinister Heights was the last "Amos Walker" novel from Mysterious Press; I hope he moved on because he got a better offer from the new publisher (Forge), not because Mysterious dumped him. This was the new book for 2002.

The family of Commodore Leland Stutch, the fictional auto and petrochemical magnate whom Walker met (at the age of a hundred-and-something, soon before his death) in Downriver, makes a reappearance here. This time, Stutch's much younger widow hires Walker to find a bastard child of the old Commodore -- from long before her time -- and cut the bastard girl in for a small share of the family fortune. (The widow is doing this, she says, to forestall a potential suit for a large share of the fortune, as that side of the family keeps increasing -- the child has grown up, and has had a daughter who in turn grew up, married, and had a young son.)

Walker finds the bastard daughter without much trouble, but the next generation is a bit trickier to uncover -- and digging them up leads to car crashes, murders, accidental deaths, kidnappings, and a final exciting but unlikely confrontation on the site of an auto plant fortified like a castle.

This is one of the best of the Walker novels, even if the ending gets a bit large-scale for a private-detective story. If anyone out there is looking to try this series, I'd recommend this novel. Walker doesn't insult anyone for no good reason that I can remember, and there are interesting and varied female characters. It's got a great atmospheric cover, and one of the better plots of the series. If this book did get him dumped by Mysterious, that was a damn shame.

No Comment

Reuters on Bertlesmann's Direct Group.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Hopeless Savages by Jen Van Meter, Christine Norrie and Chynna Clugston-Major

Hopless Savages is a graphic novel written by Jen Van Meter, illustrated by Christine Norrie (with some flashback sequences illustrated by Chynna Clugston-Major), with original covers by Andi Watson. I really wanted to like this, partially because I went to college with Van Meter and partially because I want to enjoy the books I read. But it ended up being a bit too "comic-booky" for me in the end.

What do I mean by that? Well, in mainstream American comics, the way to solve a problem -- any problem -- is to hit somebody in the face. Fifty years of the increasing domination of superheroes has ground in the idea "comics = fight scenes" so deeply into our mental fabric that no detergent can get it out. (Forgive me, I'm doing laundry as I type this.) Hopeless Savages started out like a story about people with real lives, and ended up being about punching The Bad Guys in the face to solve all of the protagonists' problems.

Hopeless Savages is the story of the four children of punk superstars turned suburban middle-class homeowners Dirk Hopeless and Nikki Savage. The kids have the names Rat, Arsenal, Twitch, and Skank Zero. (The last engages in made-up pseudo-curses all of the time, as well.) So far, the self-indulgence level is high, but tolerable. But the plot is kicked off by the parents being kidnapped (for what turns out to be an utterly inadequate reason), and so the three younger children have to "re-program" Rat to be A Punk, so that they can go and beat up the people who took Dad and Mum. Oy. The plot is pretty generic "regroup the team and investigate the Deep Dark Secret in the Past that we allude to but never explain," with added punkitude for flavor.

The punk-ness of the protagonists strikes me as entirely being on the level of a pose -- they seem to be serious about their music, don't do drugs or engage in other self-destructive acts, live in what looks like a very comfortable suburban setting, and seem to have no discernible politics. The extent to which they are "punk" is entirely clothing and attitude -- and, yes, attitude does go a long way with punk, but I think this is a bit too far.

The short form: I didn't believe in these characters. They're supposed to be fun caricatures, yes, but they didn't work for me even on that level. And the whole face-punching thing struck me as a bad direction from the beginning, but that's my prejudices speaking. Sorry, Jen; I guess it just wasn't for me.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Movie Log: Cashback

Cashback is a pleasant movie about a young man who is a nearly complete wanker, a film which tries desperately to mask its mildly exploitative softcore heart under soulful narration and seriousness of purpose, and basically succeeds. It also has quite a lot of lovely female nudity in it (all absolutely necessary for the plot, luckily), which The Wife and I both appreciated. And it's the expansion of a short film -- from what IMDB says, the entirety of the short of the same name is embedded in the feature-length Cashback.

Sean Biggerstaff plays Ben Willis, a third-year student at an art college somewhere in the UK, who has just broken up with his girlfriend, Suzy (Michelle Ryan). Although he seems to have been the one behind the break-up, he's taken it badly. Very badly. Hard-to-believe-even-in-a-comedy badly.

He stops sleeping entirely due to his ennui and malaise, and mopes around (narrating intensely) for about two reels. (Luckily, this also includes some pleasant flashbacks and some scenes with Ben's best mate, Sean Higgins (Shaun Evans) -- who is the usual wacky best friend required for every soulful young movie hero -- so it's not unrelieved oh-woe-is-me.) Since Ben needs money, and has an extra eight hours in the day to waste, he takes a job on the night shift of a Sainsbury's supermarket.

There's the expected motley crew of misfits and oddballs working at the market, including the requisite megalomaniacal manager, Mr. Jenkins (Stuart Goodwin). There's also, apparently, only one woman, Sharon Pitntey (Emilia Fox), who is young and pretty and for whom Ben falls as quickly as you'd expect. (Ben should be about twenty or twenty-one in this movie, but he has the emotional maturity and steadiness of a particularly tormented twelve-year-old.)

But I'm getting a bit ahead of the plot (and the point). Ben's narration (which isn't as self-obsessed and moody as it could be, though there is a bit too much of it) points out that each of the night-shift oddballs has a way of dealing with the long stretches of boredom at night, and Ben's is...that he's learned how to stop time, to freeze the world around him. And he uses that ability to undress attractive women in the aisles of the market and sketch them. (So it's creepy, but, compared with all of the other things he could potentially do with that power, it's only mildly creepy. And Ben is such a sad sack that he doesn't come off as a predator.) And this is where the nudity comes in, as you may have guessed. This sequence -- about how everyone deals with their time at work -- is apparently the original short.

The plot of Cashback is a bit thin: Ben loses girl, Ben gets job, Ben discovers power, Ben falls for new girl, Ben eventually gets a girl after travails. Even the "travails" section is pretty standard, with some conflicts with a co-worker, the big (soccer) game against a rival store, and, finally, a big party with all of the characters present. But it's pleasant, and the actors -- none of whom I recognized from anything else -- are all solid.

There's only the one major montage of Ben sketching half-naked shoppers (from the original short), but there's a couple of scenes of strippers, and one of a Swedish exchange student from Ben's ill-spent youth, for those who like such things. (I see the British are still obsessed with the sexual availability of Swedes, for whatever reason.)

I wish the plot had a bit more originality to it, and that perhaps Ben had been allowed to have a more original personality. (Perhaps he could have been not so obviously a "nice guy" -- seeing as how his major leisure activity is taking advantage of unknowing women -- which could have given him scope for more interesting actions.) And the very obvious lesson at the end was unnecessary and corny. The movie is also puffed out by Ben's narration; you can feel that there wasn't quite enough story for a feature, but the filmmakers got around that by having Ben talk everything to death.

Still, this is the first feature-length film from writer/director/producer Sean Ellis, so you have to give him credit: it's an original idea, handled pretty well and turned into an entertaining movie. If he can get better from here, he could do a lot of great work. And this is a pleasant, entertaining romantic comedy with a new angle...and a lot of nudity. It could be a great date movie for the right kind of couple.

HELP 5: A Smile on the Face of the Tiger

2001's Amos Walker mystery was the fourth from Mysterious Press, and the first this century. It also marks the halfway point in HELP; I have five more novels after this one.

Downriver had a backstory involving the 1967 Detroit race riots, but Smile goes further back to the 1943 race riots, and a (I presume fictional) hero cop who emerged then. Walker is hired by a devastatingly sexy female book editor from New York (I fear he's indulging in the most obvious stereotypes here) to find a missing author. Eugene Booth wrote a bunch of pulpy paperback originals in the '40s and '50s, the best of which, Paradise Valley, was a fictionalization of the '43 race riots and which the sexy editor had a contract to republish. Booth apparently changed his mind, and then disappeared.

There's also a reformed Mafia hitman in the book; he turned state's evidence, ratted on his bosses, and is on tour with a book about his life and murders. Walker searches for Booth, finds the hitman, and then things get complicated.

This turns into another Ross Macdonald-esque novel, with a murder from twenty years ago in Canada fifty years back becoming entangled in new deaths. As always, Walker solves the various cases.

I don't know how many different ways I can say it: Estleman is old-fashioned, but in the best ways, like a big 'ol muscle car, all solid steel and gleaming chrome. He doesn't take the hardboiled idiom to the point of parody (like Spillane and his ilk), and doesn't exactly update it to the modern day, but he does set his stories in the real world, among real people committing real crimes, and uses that structure to probe the limits of what people are capable of under pressure. And A Smile on the Face of the Tiger is another darn good Amos Walker novel.

Movie Log: Happy Endings

The Wife and I are on a roll: we got two movies at the beginning of last week, and actually watched them both together! (Of such little triumphs is a life made.)

Wednesday night was Happy Endings time; it's an overly-narrated dramedy that has some good performances but takes itself a bit too seriously. It's aiming, I think, to be the gay version of Crash, with somewhat more humor.

Lisa Kudrow and Steve Coogan play step-siblings, and each anchor one of the three loosely related plotlines of the movie; it starts with a brief, surprising scene in the present day, and then flashes back for a couple of quick scenes in the mid-80s (when they were in their teens), but then returns to the modern day for the rest of the movie. Kudrow's character learns that a blackmailer has information on the son she gave up for adoption back then, and so she and her masseur boyfriend try to scam the blackmailer with a film project about the masseur giving rich women "happy ending" massages.

Meanwhile, Coogan's character, now gay and in a long-term relationship, suspects that a lesbian couple did use his partner's sperm to conceive their young child -- they claim that they tried it, but that it didn't work, so they went on to use anonymous sperm from a sperm bank. As one might expect, poking into such things makes more secrets spill out before long.

And the third plot centers on Maggie Gyllenhaal, a vixen who seduces a young gay virgin after getting a gig as fill-in singer with his band, and then trades her way up to the young man's father (Tom Arnold), a rich and successful businessman. Her story doesn't work out quite the way she'd like, either.

The three stories intersect a little, but not all that much; the movie mostly shuffles among them. This movie also seems to be scared to death of voice-overs; there are extensive explanatory captions on screen throughout the movie that could easily, and more gracefully, have been voice-overs.

Happy Endings isn't a great movie, and it isn't consistently a comedy (as it looks to be), but it has moments of drama and humor, and a large cast of good actors who all have solid material to work with. It's a bit diffuse, and requires more reading than you'd expect of a movie in English set in LA, but it tells its stories well and its worth a rental for people who like character-driven stories.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

HELP 4: The Hours of the Virgin

For the second time, I have a scratch: The Witchfinder, Estleman's 1997 book in this series (the second from Mysterious Press), wasn't easily available. So HELP 4 is instead the 1998 novel The Hours of the Virgin.

The title refers to several pages of medieval illuminated manuscript; as usual, there are no real-world virgins to be found in Amos Walker's world. This is also the novel in which, inevitably, Walker has to solve the murder of his partner, twenty years before. (And I think the late '90s was when my colleague Jane Dentinger started to complain that the plot of every other mystery novel involved a twenty-year-old murder, as if they were all mainlining Ross Macdonald at the same time.)

It's a solid mystery that moves well and features colorful, believeable characters; if I hadn't read another two Walker books since I finished it, I'd probably be able to give a better precis of it. It's just as good as all the others; Estleman writes the American hardboiled mystery as if it never went out of style.

Three Days of Links

My recent ComicMix link-posts:

Stately, plump G.B.H. Hornswoggler...

Another one of those memes everyone is doing -- in my case, I picked it up from James Nicoll:

You're Ulysses!
by James Joyce

Most people are convinced that you don't make any sense, but compared to what else you could say, what you're saying now makes tons of sense. What people do understand about you is your vulgarity, which has convinced people that you are at once brilliant and repugnant. Meanwhile you are content to wander around aimlessly, taking in the sights and sounds of the city. What you see is vast, almost limitless, and brings you additional fame. When no one is looking, you dream of being a Greek folk hero.
Take the Book Quiz at the Blue Pyramid.

Itzkoff on Gibson

Our Man Itzkoff returns to the New York Times Book Review this weekend, with a full-page review of William Gibson's new novel Spook Country. I haven't yet read Spook Country -- I still haven't read Pattern Recognition, and Spook is a sequel to that -- so I can't say if I agree with Itzkoff's judgments on it. But Itzkoff doesn't make any laughably sweeping pronouncements along the way, which I guess counts as a win for his side.

And we see once again that having been a SF writer is not necessarily a detriment to one's being seriously reviewed in the pages of the NYTBR, but one should have already given up the dirty genre stuff if one wants to be taken seriously.

A lesson for us all.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Incoming Books, Week of 8/25

There may be a couple here from two weeks ago, but the bulk of this is from a trip into the city on Wednesday, when I hit both the Strand and my usual comics shop. There are also a couple of publicity things that I hope to get to quickly; we'll see how that goes.
  • Gregory Frost's new fantasy novel, Shadowbridge, coming in late December from Del Rey -- I don't know Greg well (and I don't think I've read any of his books), but I did have dinner with him once at a Philcon, so I want to get to this one.
  • The Great Mortality by John Kelly, a history of the Black Death -- I was idly poking through the $1 shelves outside the Strand, ready to head on to my next errand and virtuously not spend two hours shopping inside, when I found this...and it was all over.
  • Millennium People by J.G. Ballard -- I've been waiting for so long for his latest novel to be published here that I found a remaindered UK trade paperback. That's good enough for me.
  • The Discomfort Zone by Jonathan Franzen -- I haven't read The Corrections (in part because of Oprah), and I'm not sure if I even have a copy of it. But I did read and enjoy Franzen's subsequent essay collection How To Be Alone, so I expect to also enjoy these autobiographical essays.
  • Chance in Hell, Gilbert Hernandez's new standalone graphic novel. I hope to review it soon.
  • Monkey Food by Ellen Forney, collecting her "I Was Seven in '75" comic strips. I was six in '75, and this was cheap -- and I've seen it and thought about buying it several times now -- so I finally got it.
  • The Complete Peanuts, 1965 to 1966 by Charles M. Schulz -- if you don't know about Peanuts by now, there's probably no hope for you.
  • Bound to Please by Michael Dirda -- a big, big book all about great books. I don't know if I'll be able to sit down and read many classics until my kids get older, but I'm stockpiling books just in case.
  • Tricked by Alex Robinson -- I've been vaguely thinking about buying this or Box Office Poison for ages, so, when I saw this for half-price at the Strand, I knew I had to try it.
  • Olive or Twist? by Jack Ziegler -- a collection of cartoons from the New Yorker, all about drinking. I love books of single-panel cartoons, I cannot deny it.
  • Is Nothing Sacred? by Gahan Wilson -- more single-panel cartoons by one of the all-time greats, featuring one of my very favorite cartoons on the cover. And for three bucks!
  • James Sturm's America, collecting three previously-published (short) graphic novels.
  • and Margo Lanagan's Red Spikes, her third short-story collection. I now have all three, so I'd better read at least one of them.
And what I've been reading this week has been a whole lot of Loren D. Estleman. Next week will be mostly the same, though the most recent books are a bit shorter, so I may speed up. After that, I dunno. Maybe back to the fields of SF and Fantasy.

Friday, August 24, 2007

I Can Give It Up Any Time I Want

Snatched from John Klima:

55%How Addicted to Blogging Are You?

Mingle2 - Dating Site

(Though I should admit it could have been higher if I was more honest about the "how many hours a day do you spend reading blogs" question.)

HELP 3: Never Street

Estleman had a big gap between 1990's Sweet Women Lie and 1997's Never Street, so it's appropriate that it took me five days (and a family vacation) to get to the end of Never Street, adding my own gap.

Never Street brought Amos Walker back after Estleman had spent half a decade mostly writing his big Detroit novels, and it began the second stretch of Walker books, of which there have now been nine, at mostly yearly intervals. (Since there were ten novels and a short-story collection in the first burst of Walker books, the series is almost but not quite symmetrical now.)

This is the point in the series where other characters start bluntly pointing out that Walker is an anachronism, and Estleman starts hanging his plots from that assumption. In this book, Walker is hired by the wife of a documentary filmmaker to find her missing husband, who has apparently taken his obsession with '40s film noir way too far, and may have lost his marbles. (Estleman even organizes the novel into four sections, using film terms that don't entirely correspond to the action of the book.)

Never Street is also notably longer than the previous books; it clocks in a bit north of 300 pages. Even given that I read it in mass-market, it's still about 25% longer than the earlier books. (And the narrative shows it; the first plot seemingly peters out at the end of the second section, to be replaced with a second, related case in what might be a homage to The Long Goodbye or might show that Estleman is struggling slightly to get Walker's plots up to the length his publisher wants.)

Walker is still a grumpy bastard, but his dialogue is all conversational at this point; the hardboiled non sequiturs that cropped up occasionally in the earlier books are now gone. (Oh, he's still a fifteen-minute egg -- that hasn't changed -- but he doesn't crack wise for no good reason any more.) And Estleman's plots are still detailed, intricate, and a joy to follow. There even is a strong, relatively positive female character in this one, though it looks like she won't be returning. (And Walker's main contact on the Detroit PD is switching from his old friend John Alderdyce, now an Inspector, to Mary Ann Thaler, his protege and a new Lieutenant -- she doesn't do all that much in this book, but she becomes a more important, and positive, female character in the subsequent books.)

I still would hesitate before recommending this series to female readers, but it's one of the very best traditional hardboiled PI series running in the modern day. And Walker is a real person with a real personality (along certain genre-accepted lives, given) who gets involved in some tricky, well-plotted cases. So I'd better go and keep reading the second half of my stack of Walker novels!

Movie Log: Hot Fuzz

The Wife surprised me by wanting to watch this -- I'd tried to get her to see Shaun of the Dead last year, but she wasn't interested. I guess cops are more mainstream than zombies?

Anyway, we both really liked Hot Fuzz. My only real complaint is that the DVD didn't support subtitles, and we could have used them, given some of the accents. (Also given that we had to keep running the volume down for music montages and up for dialogue scenes, and that we had children trying to get to sleep above our heads.)

The relationship between the characters played by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost is even more homoerotic than it was in Shaun of the Dead, possibly because (IMBD tells me) the character of a girlfriend for Pegg was eliminated during the script-writing, and her lines mostly given to Frost. But making it that blatant is actually a brilliant move, since these buddy cop movies are all about two guys bonding, pseudo-sexually, over gunfire and explosions.

Oh, right, the plot. If you don't already know, Pegg plays a ridiculously driven cop from London who is bumped up to Sergeant and sent off to a quaint village because he's making the rest of the metropolitan force look bad. The village, and its police force, are a very obvious (and very funny) collection of cliches...up until we discover a slightly different set of secret cliches underlying the whole set-up, just in time for the big ending. Frost is his new partner, the son of the local chief of police, who thinks or wishes that police work was all explosions and diving to the side while firing two guns.

It has exactly the sort of ending you'd expect, given the box cover (and given Frost's character's fascination with Point Break and Bad Boys 2). And that ending is great. The movie leading up to it is a lot of fun, too -- this is easily one of the best comedies I've seen this year. (Though the violence may be too much for some people.) It's the kind of movie with lots and lots of tiny details -- lines of dialogue, background music, shot choice, and so on -- done exactly right, and with lots of good actors in medium-sized roles playing it absolutely straight. I probably missed most of the film references, and I was still laughing out loud every minute or two.

Regular Blog Service Resuming

I spent the entire day yesterday at the Bronx Zoo with the family (the weather was great, and we'd never been there before), and the evening working on something that has a slight chance of getting me a job, so I'm afraid Antick Musings was completely neglected.

More posts will come today, I hope: I'm three books behind in the HELP project (despite the books taking about two days to read, instead of my projected one), and two movies in the hole as well.

Fingers, do your stuff...

The Annoyance of Uncommentable LiveJournals

Poppy Z. Brite misread the news the other day and thinks the recent poll showed that 25% of Americans did read a book last year. (It's the other way around: 25% of Americans didn't read a book, so 75% of us did.)

But she doesn't allow comments, so I couldn't tell her directly. And I doubt she reads this. Oh, well. At least she didn't write the long rant and go all Emily Litella on us.

Quote of the Week

The details of my lack of phone calls are very different, but I've been feeling a bit like this kid lately:

"Oh, son! Son, how many girls called you today? Zero? And how many girls called you yesterday? Lemme guess -- zero? Well, you know what they say, son. Zero plus zero equals fag! Zero times any other number always equals fag! Think about it, ya little mathematician."
- The Kids in the Hall, from the skit "Daddy Drank"

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

What's Making Me Grind My Teeth Today

Alex Remington in the Huffington Post:
Once upon a time (really just a decade or two ago), it seemed you could buy almost any title with any sort of wide appeal, no matter how hifaluting, no matter how thick, in a format called "mass-market paperback"...Nowadays, however, more and more literary books are foregoing the mass-market format for what's known as a "trade paperback,"
A) Despite what he thinks, 'twas always thus.

2) See "wide appeal," above. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: a mass-market paperback is an implicit contract between the publisher and the reading community. The former agrees to publish a cheap edition; the latter agrees to buy a lot of copies of it quickly. If the latter is unlikely to happen, the former won't, either.

iii) He can't spell "highfaluting," either.

And he goes on:
But this means that the democracy of the least expensive books, once a mix of high and low and the one place where Jonathan Kellerman and John Updike could sit side by side, is fast becoming the exclusive province of genre fiction. High literature now comes exclusively at high prices.
No, genre books come out in trade paper, too. But only the books that will sell well enough to justify the format come out mass-market. If you literary types don't like that, you need to get more people to buy the books you like.

Oh, and then he says this:
In other words, the only universal fiction is non-literary fiction. That is not necessarily a good thing. Nowadays, people of different backgrounds follow different books, different magazines, different websites, different cable news channels; where there is no common experience, there is no shared truth.
Right. Because, in the glorious days of yore, vast numbers of Americans read William Gaddis and liked him. Go and pull the other one; it has bells on it.

Universal fiction is only very rarely "literary" fiction at the time. It may be studied a hundred years later, and become literary fiction, but it wasn't at the time it was universal.

And he goes on from there, whining that $18 novels are out of the budget of poor downtrodden working folks. Since we just learned that the Americans who read books only read about seven a year, we can thus deduce that Mr. Remington thinks $126 a year is far more than those poor souls can afford. And that just over $10 a month is beyond the means of folks that typically spend $3 each morning on coffee drinks.

Do I also need to note that sales of hardcovers and trade paperbacks have increased over the last decade or so? (And that mass-markets have been stable at best?) And that there are plenty of ways to get books cheaply (remainders, used books) or even free (libraries)?

What we have here is a very large amount of whine squeezed out of very few grapes, with little in the way of facts to confuse the issue. I think Mr. Remington is really saying is that the books he wants to buy cost more than he wants to spend. And, for that, I have the world's smallest violin, playing a sad song just for him.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Play the Home Game!

I'm not sure if this is a meme yet -- I got it from Mike Sterling's Progressive Ruin.
Get your own Atari game pak at Labelmaker 2600.

The Ol' ComicMix Shuffle

My recent linkposts:

Movie Log: Starter for 10

Things I often enjoy in movies: small stories about people, British settings, coming of age stories, romantic comedies. (I'm also, I've noticed recently, quite fond of stories about people living lives very much like my own at the same point in time.) So Starter for 10 was inevitably coming my way.

It's an English romantic comedy, set in 1985, about a young man in his first year at the University of Bristol, trying to get on the University Challenge team and interested in the proverbial two girls (one blonde, one brunette). It's based on a novel I haven't read by David Nicholls, and I'd bet a substantial sum of money that it's at least partially autobiographical. And, as if to completely fill up the stereotype, it takes place almost entirely during that first year of university.

It's amiable but a bit lightweight -- it never gets really funny, or really romantic, or really dramatic, but doesn't try to do so, either. It does evoke its time and place well, from hair-styles and bad fashion choices to a lot of well-chosen (and footnoted on screen, for some odd reason) New Wave music. It's a movie that tries to do a lot of things decently -- with two romances for our lead and the main plot about the University Challenge team, plus sub-plots about coming to terms with his mother's new boyfriend and about his best friend left behind at home -- instead of doing any one thing very well. In the end, it's an appealing comedy with moderate aims and decent, believeable performances. Don't expect anything deep, and you won't be disappointed.

(Side note: the host of the University Challenge TV show has such an unlikely name that I knew it, must be the real thing. But I was slightly surprised to find that, though Bamber Gascoigne -- and, I have to say, only an English family of certain means would ever hang a name like that on an innocent child -- is real, and the long-time host of University Challenge, he was played in this movie by an actor, Mark Gatiss. Why? I dunno. Gascoigne seems to still be kicking around, and was credited on IMDB as appearing in a UC special in 2006.)

Those Whom The Gods Wish To Destroy...

This has not been my summer, and, to add insult to injury, my glasses broke this morning. Luckily, I'm in the middle of getting a new pair anyway, but damn! some supernatural entity seems to have it in for me this year.

So if there's anyone out there with pull in those areas, or a spare goat to be sacrificed to Poseidon, any help would be appreciated.

HELP 2: Sweet Women Lie

Both Silent Thunder (the 1989 Amos Walker novel) and General Murders (a 1988 collection of Walker stories, whose existence I hadn't previously suspected) are scratches; I couldn't get copies of them easily and quickly.

So day 2 of HELP is the 1990 novel Sweet Women Lie, tenth and last in the first sequence of Amos Walker novels by Loren D. Estleman. It continues in Downriver's footsteps, since the plot begins when not-Annette Funicello (ex-'60s beach movie star Gail Hope) hires Walker for a job...that turns out to be an audition for another job...which itself isn't what it seems.

The plot quickly gets complicated and runs away from the initial set-up, so I don't want to go into details (even on a seventeen-year-old novel). But I will say that we rapidly get into a Spy vs. Spy in the streets of Detroit, with various CIA guys (some of whom claim others of whom are rogue, and vice versa) engaging in clandestine meetings, shoot-outs, and other exciting stuff.

It's a bit out of the norm for a PI novel, and I wonder if market pressures to be more "thriller-y" pushed Estleman in that direction. (As I said, this was also the last Walker novel for several years.) The dialogue isn't quite as hardboiled as in Downriver, but Walker still persists in hiding evidence from cops, which never ends well. And as to the female characters...well, let me just point you back at the title.

All in all, it's a solid PI novel of its era -- searching around a bit for a new paradigm, but with a good narrative voice and a twisty, entertaining plot.

Monday, August 20, 2007

HELP 1: Downriver

Hornswoggler's Estleman Loren Project (hereinafter HELP) kicks off with Estleman's 1988 "Amos Walker" mystery Downriver. Amos Walker is a Detroit PI who first appeared in 1980's Motor City Blue; this was the eighth book in the series. I read it just over a week ago, and have read two-and-a-half more Walker mysteries since then, so let's see if I can untangle them in my head...

This is very much a mid-80s mystery; it's pretty short (just over two hundred pages) and concerns a very DeLorean-esque upstart car-maker. (Down to the gull-wing doors on his first model, in case we don't get the reference.) Walker is hired by a black man named DeVries -- just out of prison after a twenty-year stretch for arson during the '67 riots -- to track down the people who used him as distraction for an armored-car robbery. (Walker somewhat demurs on the second half of the job, which would be to retrieve the money and give it to DeVries -- but he does take the case.)

The white guy that DeVries insists incited his firebombing now works as a top executive for the DeLorean figure, and skulduggery ensues. Estleman is very readable, but he's pretty derivative at this point -- the dialogue is intensely hard-boiled, even when that keeps it from making much sense. Walker in particular is trying to live up to his own (or Estleman's) idea of what a real PI should be, and that's straight out of Raymond Chandler.

But the Chandleresque poses don't always fit the plot -- Chandler's Philip Marlowe dealt with intensely crooked cops; Walker with smart and mostly honest ones. But Walker still cracks wise in the same ways, and hides evidence as Marlowe would. Even for 1988, Walker was exceptionally old-fashioned; Downriver reads like a 1970s mystery. The role of women here make it feel even earlier than that -- I won't say all of the women in the early Walker novels were femmes fatale, but the archetype crops up a lot, and decent human beings who happen to be women are rare.

Still, I really like PI stories -- they've been my favorite kind of mystery since I was a teenager -- and Estleman has a detective who is Chandleresque without being a slavish copy of Marlowe, inhabits a real city with depth and nuance, and navigates his way through interesting, well-crafted plots. The male characters are all pretty well-drawn, and the women are each individually believeable -- it's just in aggregate that you start to wonder if Detroit really is inhabited only by hard-bitten, gold-digging dames. Surely there must be some women, too?

(I read Downriver in the original hardcover from my local library, as seen above. Byron Preiss's ibooks operation republished all of the Walker novels through Downriver before Preiss's fatal accident in 2005, and those editions are probably easier to find -- though ibooks itself is no more. There's not a whole lot of book-to-book continuity in this part of the series, so an interested reader could start anywhere in the first eight, and fill in as he finds the missing ones.)

The Heart of a Goof by P. G. Wodehouse

Wodehouse's second collection of golf stories (after The Clicking of Cuthbert) was originally published in 1926, which puts it just a bit before Wodehouse's best period.

There are nine stories here (naturally!), all of which are golf stories narrated by the Oldest Member. The O.M. is not quite as wonderful a storyteller as Wodehouse's Mr. Mulliner, but he's close. The stories here are all also boy-girl love stories, in which true love wins out in the end through the judicious use of a mashie-niblick, or something like that.

I know nothing about golf, so I can't judge the details as described herein. But the stories are entertaining, and the golf details are mostly in support of the stories being told. (And I suspect that golfing terminology has moved forward from the 1920s, anyway, so even really avid golfers might be as unclear as I was about the difference between a mashie and a niblick.)

Wodehouse has done better than this -- Clicking of Cuthbert, as I recall, is a bit stronger. (And, from Wodehouse's introduction, I suspect Heart of a Goof was rushed out because Cuthbert was successful -- publishing was ever thus.) But he wrote pleasantly breezy and entertaining short stories for a good fifty years, and these are some of them -- they may not be his very best, but they're better than a whole lot of the alternatives. And I very much doubt a more purely entertaining writer ever turned his hand to love stories about golf.

World Fantasy Award Liftetime Achievement Awards

Locus Online has the news that the winners of this year's Lifetime Achievement World Fantasy Awards have been announced early, in a one-time change in procedure.

The winners are Diana Wynne Jones, who will be unable to attend the convention, and Betty Ballantine, who will be there.

Both women are very deserving of the award; I'm slightly surprised that Betty Ballantine hadn't gotten it before now. And I'm particularly glad to see Diana Wynne Jones get this honor; she was on my personal short-list last year when I was a judge.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Movie Log: Underdog

Hey, my title rhymes...and that's very appropriate.

Underdog has gotten bad reviews, mostly because it's a live-action kids movie based on an old, beloved, badly-animated show (which was for kids at the time, but whose target audience is now all grown up and sophisticated). I'll admit, looking at the poster, that creature doesn't much look like the Underdog I know. But, on its own terms, Underdog the movie is fun and even witty.

Patrick Warburton, as Cad, the sidekick (he's prefer to be called "partner") of our villain, Simon Barsinister, continues his streak of being wonderfully funny in any project for kids he's cast in. Sure, he plays essentially the same part every time, but his voice is superb and his facial expressions wonderful. If he's in a movie for kids, you know it can't be that bad. (I also just learned from IMDB that he was born in Paterson, New Jersey, which is just down the road from me and also the birthplace of Lou Costello.)

Also good in this are Peter Dinklage (who I wish would work more, since he's great every time I see him) as Barsinister and Jason Lee as Underdog's voice. Oh, and the kid is decent, as well, though I spent most of the movie wondering "Is that the kid from Ned's Declassified?" (And it is.) Yes, it's got the plot you'd expect, and turning Underdog into live-action was an odd thing to do, and it is definitely designed as a movie for kids...but, on its own terms, it's quite entertaining. There are a lot of references to the TV show (down to "It's a bird, it's a plane, it's a frog"), so the people who made this knew what they were doing.

If you're the world's biggest Underdog fan, you'll inevitably be disappointed. If you vaguely remember the TV show fondly, and want to take some kids to a fun summer movie, you'll probably like this. Honestly, given the initial decision to make a live-action Underdog movie, this is probably the best possible movie that could have resulted. (My kids are already saying that they want it on DVD.)