Tag Archives: book

Bandits by Elmore Leonard

Bandits by Elmore LeonardPublished: April 10th, 2012 (Audio version)
Publisher: Harper Audio
Genre(s): Crime, Thriller
Format: Audiobook
Length: 8 hours and 35 minutes

Reading Raylan got me in the mood for more Elmore Leonard, and in fact I’m now on my third Leonard book in a row. The second, Bandits, first published in 1987, tells the story of a convicted thief named Jack Delaney who works at a funeral home with his brother-in-law. Jack doesn’t much like driving a hearse, but he’s trying to make ends meet and stay on the straight and narrow after a stint in prison.

That all changes one day when he goes on a job to a leprosy hospital to pick up a body and discovers that the patient – a girl named Amalita – is still alive. It turns out that Amalita is on the run from a murderous Nicaraguan colonel named Dagoberto (Bertie for short). Aiding her on her journey is a young, beautiful nun named Lucy who immediately fascinates Jack and ends up having a huge impact on his life.

Lucy tells Jack that she isn’t actually a nun any more; among other things, she saw a massacre at the hospital where she worked, and decided it was time to get out of the country. More importantly, she brings Jack a proposal for a different kind of job, one with more serious implications than the thrill of sneaking into a hotel room to steal jewelry while the guests are sleeping. Dagoberto isn’t just in America to hunt down a girl, it seems; he’s also in the States to raise money for the fight against communist Sandinistas in his country. Lucy suggests they steal the money from Dagoberto, and the ball gets rolling. Jack recruits a few friends he knows from prison, and they start planning the heist.

Where Raylan had crisp dialogue but flat characterization, Bandits finds Leonard at the top of his game, firing on all cylinders. The book is full of wonderful, fully drawn characters who practically leap off the page. My favorite by far is one of the colonel’s henchmen, a man named Franklin De Dios who is simultaneously likable and dangerous. Spending time with him and other characters quickly reminded me why I loved Leonard so much in high school.

The other way that Bandits excels is the sexual tension between Jack and Lucy. Leonard draws out their scenes in a way that reminded me of the incredible flirtation scene in North by Northwest. Dialogues between Jack and Lucy are thick with tension and longing, skillfully intercut with descriptions and observations that are stunning in their simplicity. At his peak, Leonard has an economy with words that rivals Hemingway.

My only criticism of the book is that the heist feels a bit anticlimactic. It’s not a big problem, though, because at its heart this book focuses on the characters. I loved Bandits, and especially recommend the audiobook version narrated by the late Frank Muller, who is an ideal choice for Leonard’s style.

LOVED IT
LOVED IT

Amazon | Audible | BookPeople | Indiebound

The Massive Vol. 1: Black Pacific by Brian Wood et al

The Massive, Vol. 1: Black Pacific - Brian Wood & Kristian Donaldson & Garry Brown & Dave StewartPublished: April 2nd, 2013
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
Genre(s): Graphic Novel
Format: Paperback
Length: 176 pages

The Massive tells the story of the Ninth Wave conservationist force ship The Kapital as its crew tries to survive in a post-apocalyptic world and find their missing sister-ship, The Massive. The Kapital’s crew is an odd group of misfits and environmentalists; the captain, Callum Israel, previously worked for a Blackwater-style outfit until he grew tired of killing and rededicated his life to pacifism and environmentalism. Along for the ride is another former mercenary, Mag Nagendra, who is still more than willing to use violence to protect the ship and its crew, and a mysterious woman named Mary who may not be what or who she seems.

As for the apocalypse, it was more of a gradual world-wide collapse than anything more cut-and-dried. Water levels have risen, half-burying cities around the world. Huge parts of America lost power and never got it back. A series of environmental disasters crippled world commerce and decimated local populations. All of it has added up to a world where The Kapital spends its time searching for supplies, bartering with criminals and running from pirates.

In fact, there is very little plot to this first volume of The Massive that doesn’t concern The Kapital’s efforts to resupply. We are given small glimpses of back-story as well as hints of supernatural events later in the book, but for the most part the story focuses on the dry minutia of survival. Scenes of fighting off pirates and searching for supplies alternate with flashbacks explaining the disasters that added up to a sort of slow, creeping end of the world.

The introduction to the book emphasizes that life goes on after a disaster, and explains that part of the idea behind The Massive’s story was to talk about a different kind of apocalypse, where people just keep living in spite of the world falling apart around them. It’s an interesting concept, but unfortunately the result feels more like an environmentalist lecture than a compelling story.

Character development is limited, and what plot there is concerns itself with fairly mundane occurrences. There’s a good amount of discussion about the missing ship, The Massive, which clearly has some significance to the overall storyline, but I didn’t get a sense of where the series was going from the first volume. It felt like the author spent most of his time establishing a number of plausible environmental disasters, but neglected to offer interesting characters or a compelling storyline.

The one strong point is the art, which favors striking realism throughout. Unfortunately, however, that isn’t enough for me to recommend this book, which I ultimately found dry and uninteresting.

DISLIKED IT
DISLIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

Amazon | Indiebound

Raylan by Elmore Leonard

RaylanPublished: January 17th, 2012
Publisher: Harper Audio
Genre(s): Crime, Thriller
Format: Audiobook
Length: 6 hrs and 15 mins

When I was in high school, I watched Out of Sight and Get Shorty and became intrigued by Elmore Leonard, whose books were turned into such crackling crime thrillers. I quickly took it upon myself to familiarize myself with his work. I actually read the first two Raylan Givens novels, Pronto and Riding the Rap, back then, so when my book club suggested we read Raylan, I was curious to see where Leonard would take the character. From what I remembered of the first two books, Raylan wasn’t actually the primary focus; instead, he was a big part of an ensemble cast, and shared equal billing with other characters. Raylan, on the other hand, focuses entirely on the titular marshall’s adventures.

The first thing you should know about Raylan is that it apparently covers a lot of the same ground as the TV show. I haven’t watched it yet, so I don’t know for sure how similar the two versions are. Most of the one-star reviews complain that Leonard must be “riding on the coattails” of the show’s success with this book, when I believe the actual story is that they asked him to write another book as a sort of tie-in to the show, and he gave them pages to use as they pleased.

The second thing you should know is that this is a book made to be read aloud. On the page, Leonard’s writing seems affected at first glance. Words and punctuation are missing, and it’s hard to get a sense for the rhythm without hearing it. When I switched to the audiobook, the book immediately came alive for me and was much easier to follow. In fact, Leonard’s writing began seeping into the way I spoke and wrote, which is one of the surest signs you’re dealing with a true master of the craft.

Unfortunately, despite the fact that Leonard’s spare, crisp writing is in full effect throughout, Raylan is clearly one of his minor works. It doesn’t read like a full novel; instead, the story feels episodic, as if several short stories were stitched together to create a novel-length work. The book comes in three loosely defined parts. First, Raylan tangles with weed dealers who steal body parts and sell them back to the victims. Next, he works as a bodyguard for a coal company woman who works in “disagreements”. Finally, he chases down a young female card shark who may be mixed up in a bank robbery scheme.

The first section has the most tension because it feels like Raylan is in the most danger, but even still, he drawls his way through most encounters, always impeccably cool and quick on the draw. If the book had ended there it would have been an excellent novella. The real problem is that it never really feels like the disparate stories add up to much of anything. I also got the impression that the book was relying on the reader’s likely familiarity with the TV show, and the characterization suffered as a result.

It really is a shame that Raylan doesn’t quite deliver, because I enjoyed the book while I was listening to it, loved the rhythms of Leonard’s writing, and was immediately drawn to get back into reading his stuff as soon as I finished. I read the book with my book club and I don’t think any of them had ever read any of his other works, and I have to wonder if they’ll seek them out now, because most of them came away disappointed.

Ultimately, Raylan is a quick read worth checking out, but not the best place to start with Leonard’s work. If nothing else, it reminded me that Leonard is one of my personal heroes. I’m planning on reading more of his work as soon as possible (I’ve already started Bandits), and I’ll have to be careful that I don’t start writing all my stories to sound like him.

LIKED IT
LIKED IT

Amazon | BookPeople | Indiebound | Audible

Horrible Author Thinks Libraries Are Outdated Concept

LibraryEarlier this week, Terry Deary, author of the popular (in the UK) Horrible Histories series, started quite the shit-storm when he declared that libraries “have been around too long” and are “no longer relevant”, among other things. Apparently Deary just wants people to buy his books instead of getting them for free. Never mind the fact that he also says library use is declining in the UK, which would seem to lessen the impact on his bottom line.

First off, something I wasn’t aware of is the fact that UK authors are paid a small fee every time one of their books is checked out from a UK library, with the total amount capped at £6,600 annually. That sounds like an awesome idea that I wish was feasible to implement in the US. I have a feeling that it wouldn’t fit into library budgets, however. Even still, that payment wasn’t enough for Deary, who feels entitled to the sales he thinks he would have made if those were books bought instead of checked out.

Deary’s rant, focusing as it does on his need to get paid, manages to come off as petulant, greedy and classist to boot. In one gem of a quote, he declares that “this is not the Victorian age, when we wanted to allow the impoverished access to literature” because I guess poverty is no longer a worldwide epidemic, right? Poor people who want to read should just skip a meal and pay for books instead, and when physical books go the way of the buffalo, they should start paying for e-readers and internet access too. (But that’s a whole other issue.)

Never mind the fact that books are more than just commerce. A good book is food for the soul, and libraries make readers. Readers buy books. Just because it’s possible to get books for free from the library doesn’t mean people stop buying books as well, and it never has. I’ve always got a good half-dozen books checked out from the library, but I still spend $50-$100 a month on new and used books.

Also, it’s a fallacy to assume that if libraries went away that people would buy as many books as they borrowed. I buy a lot of books as it is, but I’d probably have to double or triple my budget to buy as many books as I check out from the library. It’s just not going to happen. It’s the same fallacy record labels use to claim that every pirated mp3 equates to a “lost sale”. When people can get things for free – from the library or by piracy – they tend to pick up more than they would ever buy.

Of course, libraries are about more than “free books”. They’re one of the few public spaces where you can sit and work or read and use the wifi without having to buy a cup of coffee. They provide easy access to computers and the internet for people who wouldn’t have access otherwise. They offer community events, meeting places, educational programs and more. Also, librarians do more than shelve books. They’re skilled researchers, talented educators, and passionate evangelists for great books. Every librarian I’ve ever met is a huge book-lover, and you don’t want to get on a book-lover’s bad side.

Ultimately, you have to wonder what exactly Deary was thinking when he decided to air his complaint. I suppose he felt like an iconoclast declaring a subversive opinion, but mostly he just came off like an avaricious, tone-deaf idiot. It’s bad enough that bookstores are closing by the dozens; if libraries started closing down at the same rate, I’d consider us lost as a species.

To paraphrase John Waters: “If you go home with someone, and they don’t like libraries, don’t fuck ‘em!”

Hold Me Closer, Necromancer by Lish McBride

Hold Me Closer, NecromancerPublished: October 12, 2010
Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.
Genre(s): Young Adult, Fantasy
Format: eBook
Length: 352 pages

In Hold Me Closer, Necromancer, Sam LaCroix is a college drop-out with a dead-end job at a burger joint. He just coasts along, hanging out with his friends/coworkers Ramon, Brooke and Frank, never quite satisfied with his lot in life, but not exactly unhappy, either. That all changes one night when he accidentally smashes the headlight of a sports car while playing potato hockey behind the restaurant.

It turns out the owner of the car, Douglas, is a dangerous man with a chip on his shoulder, and when he comes into the restaurant to complain about the smashed headlight, he sees something in Sam that puts him directly in Douglas’ crosshairs. Apparently Sam has been hiding in plain sight his whole life, but Douglas is suddenly able to sense his powers and demands to know what he is doing in Seattle. Sam blows him off, but finds out very quickly that this is a huge mistake.

First, Sam is attacked by one of Douglas’ henchmen, a man who somehow manages to slice up Sam’s back without using a weapon. Sam makes it out of the encounter alive, but Douglas isn’t done with him. The next morning Sam wakes up to discover his friend Brooke’s decapitated head in a box… and then she talks, and explains that she was sent as a message. Things only get weirder and more dangerous for Sam and his friends after that.

For whatever reason, this book took me a long time to finish. I started it about a month ago, but put it down for weeks before finally plowing my way through most of it in one sitting. I ended up enjoying it overall, but there were definitely a few plot holes and strange choices throughout that didn’t bother me while I was reading but felt a bit more problematic once I finished and let the book sink in.

First off, the book jumps back and forth between first person and third person. The first person scenes are told from Sam’s point of view, and take up most of the book, but the third person scenes are both longer and more common than I was expecting. There are several scenes from Douglas’ perspective as well as some from a girl named Brid whose connection to Sam’s storyline isn’t immediately apparent. These scenes do eventually come together with the main storyline, but in retrospect I think part of what bogged me down for so long was getting stuck in one of those third-person scenes without understanding its purpose.

Also, Douglas’ motivations don’t entirely makes sense. He tells Sam that he needs training and can either die or be his apprentice, but never even tries to gain Sam’s confidence. It’s clear to both Sam and the reader that Douglas only means him harm from the outset, so there’s never really any danger that Sam might be tempted towards the dark side. It’s kind of a shame, really, because if Sam had been presented with more of a moral quandary, it might have ramped up the tension a bit.

That said, I enjoyed the book enough that I immediately bought the sequel when I was done. I like McBride’s writing style, and I enjoyed the setting and characters. I’m curious to know what happens next, even if this book started unravelling a bit after I let it sink in. I think there’s a decent chance this is a series that will actually improve as it goes on despite my criticisms of the first book. Worth a read.

LIKED IT
LIKED IT

Amazon | BookPeople | Indiebound

For Sale: Used Ebooks, Electrons Slightly Creased

"Used Books And Vinyl"Amazon raised eyebrows in the publishing world last week with news of a patent they received for reselling used ebooks. Several authors I follow on Twitter expressed immediate concern, including Chuck Wendig, who wrote a hilariously foul-mouthed blog post and began tweeting jokes about used ebooks.

Now, it’s possible that the patent is just Amazon covering their bases. Apple is known for patenting technology that never sees the light of day, and I’m sure they aren’t the only one. It’s also possible that the patent isn’t exactly what it sounds like at first blush.

However, it’s hard to imagine how reselling used ebooks would work any better than piracy does for authors. Authors don’t actually receive royalties when you walk into a used book store and buy their book second-hand, so would that still be the case if you buy a digital version of their book “used”?

Also, what exactly does it mean for an ebook to be used? It’s not like the files degrade, after all. It’s generally understood that used books are cheaper than new books in part because of wear and tear. Would it make sense, then, to discount a used ebook? Amazon’s currently system involves selling new and used books side-by-side, sometimes with a fairly prominent one-click button to buy the book used, so would they also start displaying cheaper “used” versions of ebooks?

Along those lines, I can definitely understand why the immediate reaction from authors was disbelief and concern. A form of this business model already exists on a website called ReDigi, which bills itself as a “pre-owned digital marketplace” and lists “used” and “new” prices for MP3 files right next to each other despite the fact that the files are probably identical. The whole thing just feels sketchy, and if Amazon goes down the same route, they’ll do nothing but alienate authors and other content creators.

However, I do think there is a counter-argument to consider. After all, as more of the content we consume starts existing only in “the cloud”, what exactly does it mean to own something digital in the first place? In most cases, companies make a clear distinction between owning the “license” to content and owning the actual content. A license is something that can be revoked, and digital rights management means that you can’t circumvent that license.

If I’ve spent hundreds (or thousands) of dollars on digital books and music, what happens to those licenses when I die? Do they just evaporate into the ether, or should I have the right to hand them down to my heirs? What if I read and enjoyed an ebook and would like to give it to a friend to read at her leisure?

If you start thinking about license transfers on the personal level instead of the corporate level, they start making a bit more sense. The problem to solve is finding a way to allow someone to give an ebook to a friend without also making it possible for a corporation to sell thousands of copies of that book without paying royalties.

It might actually all come down to branding, really; the concept of “used ebooks” is patently absurd because calling something “used” is irrevocably tied to its existence as a physical object. However, if you reframe it in terms of digital content, transferring content licenses starts sounding a bit more reasonable.

Ultimately I think there needs to be a legitimate way for content licenses to be transferred between people, and if Amazon has figured out a way to do it, it might not be such a bad thing.

A Selection of Scary Stories

I’ve never been a huge fan of horror, but over the years I’ve gained an appreciation of scary stories. They aren’t necessarily the same thing, either. As I see it, horror is a genre with a few common tropes, one of which is that the story may or may not be scary. For example, I’ve never really thought that slasher movies were scary. They’re mostly just gratuitous. I’ve read a bunch of Stephen King, but few of his books are truly scary and most feel more like dark fantasy than outright horror. Evil Dead 2 isn’t particularly scary, either, but it’s definitely a horror classic.

Scary stories, on the other hand, can exist in almost any genre. I think a good author can wring a bit of terror out of something entirely realistic and/or mundane. However, it’s pretty rare that I read something that genuinely freaks me out. When it does, it’s the sort of thing that sticks with me forever, which is definitely something to strive towards as a writer. I’m certainly drawn to writing scary stories myself.

LullabyWhen I think of scary stories, one of the first that springs to mind is Chuck Palahniuk’s Lullaby, which tells the story of a man who discovers an African culling song in a children’s book. Unfortunately for him, he only discovers the song’s powers after he’s read it to his wife and child and accidentally killed them both. Then, of course, the song gets stuck in his head, and if he inadvertently thinks it at someone, they die. Needless to say, I found the concept of a deadly thought virus completely and utterly terrifying.

CoralineNext in line is Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, which is probably my most favorite of all his books. The funny thing about the book is that I’ve heard it tends to scare adults far more than children. Apparently a young girl exploring a frightening alternate universe full of terrible danger tends to freak out adults but sounds like an adventure to kids. Go figure! Gaiman skillfully uses surrealism and an omnipresent menacing atmosphere to keep the reader constantly off-kilter, and the tension just keeps building. Coraline isn’t the only work of Gaiman’s that I’ve found creepy and/or disturbing. Some of his short stories are particularly chilling as well.

The End of EverythingI’d also argue that Megan Abbott’s The End of Everything fits in this category. The narrator, Evie, is a teenage girl in the 1980s whose best friend suddenly disappears one day. Was she abducted? Did she kill herself? Panic in the community builds as the disappearance drags on and on, and Evie takes it upon herself to investigate what happened. Part of what makes the book so terrifying are the uncomfortable parallels between Evie’s crush on an older man and the increasing likelihood that her friend was abducted by a pedophile. Nothing in the book is black and white, and even though it’s one of the best books I’ve read in a long time, I hesitate to recommend it to anyone simply because it filled me with such a palpable feeling of uneasiness throughout.

I hope to someday tell a story that manages to convey the same sense of dread and uneasiness I felt when I read those books and others. Until then, I’ll continue on my quest to read truly frightening books wherever I may find them.