Review: Flesh House By Stuart MacBride

If the crew from Monty Python had gotten serious long enough to crank out a Hannibal Lecter novel, the result would be Stuart MacBride’s DS MacRae series.  From the original Cold Granite to this year’s Blind Eye, MacBride has a knack for splicing the most horrific of crimes together with a sharp, witty fictionalization of Aberdeen, Scotland’s Grampian Police.

Detective Sergeant Logan MacRae returns in the fourth installment of the series.  This time, his boss, Detective Inspector Steel is relieving the female Scottish population of her advances as she is getting engaged.  His other boss, DI David Insch, is bordering on a heart attack, which should not surprise MacBride’s fans.  You can only eat so many sweeties before you collapse under the weight of your own bulk and ill temper.  And MacRae and PC Jackie “Ball Breaker” Watson are on the outs.

That’s all the good news.

The bad news is a mad serial killer named “The Flesher” has returned after twenty years to feed human remains into Scotland’s meat supply.  That’s right.  That sausage your eating today was probably your missing neighbor two days ago.  A butcher named Ken Wiseman is none too happy to be back under the spotlight.  He shouldn’t be.  He was convicted of the original slayings twenty years ago.  He got out on appeal, but his response to the renewed attention is as violent as his reputation.

Complicating all this is a producer from a BBC reality show following the Grampian Police around.   And as usual, the press are having a field day as MacRae’s cohorts stumble into one bad bit of luck after another.  It doesn’t help that Chief Constable Faulds has arrived from Birmingham to “assist.”

Flesh House marks a turning point in the series.  Anyone who’s read Broken Skin/Bloodshot should not be surprised that MacRae and Watson have split.  What does surprise is what’s happened since and where Watson is when the story begins.  Near the end, it looks as though MacRae might be leaving Aberdeen behind altogether.  He’s offered a plum job elsewhere in Britain with the chance for an immediate promotion.  But does he?

MacBride, of course, tosses in a monkey wrench and leaves that hanging.  In the meantime, we’re treated to his usual taste for the macabre laced with a dose of dry Scottish humor.  The cops in MacBride’s world aren’t always the brightest.  But they aren’t institutionally corrupt as in The Wire.  If anything, MacBride’s closest procedural cousin is the late Ed McBain.  MacBride is funnier, with a sharper sense of irony.

And, Aberdeen tourism, he did promise that Blind Eye would be a summer novel.  I have it on my stack, actually.  And it is a summer novel.

So stop whinging at the poor bearded writist.

I Don’t Believe In Zeus

If you really want to piss people off, tell them what you believe about God.  Actually, if you want to have some real fun, take an obnoxious Catholic who thinks Vatican II was demonically inspired (Say…  Mel Gibson?), an atheist whose life-long dream is to fellate Richard Dawkins, get them  stinking drunk, and say, “Hey, what about this God business, anyway?”  Then stand back and watch the brawl begin.  It’ll make Wrestlemania look like a kindergarten slap fight.

And after the carnage ends and the paramedics have taped up the combatants, tell them their dirty little secret.  Actually, tell them as they’re getting bailed out.  The Catholic fanatic doesn’t really believe in God.  The atheist doesn’t not believe in God.  They’re fighting over something else.

For lack of a better term, I’ll call it Zeus.

Zeus, if you’ll recall, was the king of the Greek gods.  He sat on Mt. Olympus judging man, hurling lightning bolts, and banging nymphs and mortal skanks behind his wife’s back.  Many people’s view of him is the angry old man with a body builder’s physique gazing down on humanity, ready to pounce.  Of course, he’s been (mercifully) stripped of the dirty old man proclivities the ancient Greeks seemed to love about their gods.

Hey, kids, Zeus is not God.  A lot of descriptions of God come off that way because, hey, if there’s an intelligence to the universe, it’s going to be hard to wrap one’s head around.  Even harder when you consider it’s a big ass universe.  It’s easier to say, “Well, there’s a man in the sky running everything.”

So people stick Zeus, sanitized for your piety,  in the picture to believe in.  Or not believe in.  They just call him “God.”  Trouble is, Zeus and God are two incompatible ideas.

Over the centuries, that’s generated some spectacular holy wars, terror campaigns, and obnoxious wannabe barroom intellectuals sniffing their own farts.  (“Okay, okay!  You’re an atheist!  Now shut up and drink your beer.  I’m trying to watch the game.”)  At least there are no Agnostic Witnesses, unsure why they’re waking you up early on a Saturday morning.

But if you want to understand what is (or isn’t) you believe in, you need to put things in perspective.

  • That holy book or philosophical tome might have the wisdom you seek.  It might very well have been divinely inspired.  But it’s got human fingerprints all over it.  (Yes, even the one you’re reading.)  Read between the lines well.  It’s probably saying something other than what you think.  For starters, it’s probably telling you to quit being a judgmental ass hat.
  • God is neither male nor female or even a person in the conventional sense.  Generations past put up that idea simply because they couldn’t quite wrap their collective heads around something that’s not male or female or even a physical creature they’ve seen or imagined.  Or they just dispensed with the idea altogether.
  • To paraphrase Douglass Adams, the universe is big!  Really big!  So, if you’re going to believe in God, you need to understand you’re dealing with something that would have to permeate every nook and cranny of the Universe.  And no, there are no mitichlorians involved.  George Lucas may have to burn in Hell for that one.  Or come back as a red shirt on the next incarnation of Star Trek.
  • So how, you may ask, can someone believe in evolution and the Big Bang and still have some sort of belief in God?  Well, kids, as a writer, I’m aware of this literary device called “a metaphor.”  If you take Creationism literally, you either have to toss out some glaring evidence to the contrary or say, “Well, they’re lying.”  Yonder lies madness.  And a really impressive tourist attraction in Northern Kentucky I refuse to visit.   On the other hand, if you look at it (and most other cosmologies) as a metaphor, suddenly it all makes sense.  At the very least, you understand that Moses probably couldn’t conceive of the idea of billions of years, let alone concepts like quarks, gluons, quantum entanglement, and the heat death of the Universe.  And forget about suggesting that great great grandpa’s many-greats uncle was a mastadon-chasing chimpazoid.  (For starters, there weren’t any mastodons by the time of Rhamses’ Egypt.)  Even if he could figure any of this out, remember, he was busy trying to corral a few hundred thousand shepherds into Ancient Palestine.  Try telling everyone in that crowd you’re pulling over to stop and ask directions.  (“But we’re making good time!”  “Good time?  It’s been forty years, you idiot!  Unless one of you geniuses would like to invent the GPS!”)  Now try explaining natural selection, the Big Bang, and the speed of light to them.  Not happening.  Not until they find a parking place so they can sit down and ponder things weightier than “Watch where you step.  Zebulun’s sheep are having a bad day.”
  • “What if I get all this and still don’t believe?”  Look, you’re human.  If you look at the universe and say, “There’s no way that’s the work of any divine presence, it’s too big,” knock yourself out.  Because guess what.  It’s a big ass universe anyway.  If that’s how you have to do the math, go work on your piece of the puzzle.  It’s what this is all about, anyway.
  • So what if you do believe, and not only that, you believe literally?  Many people do.  And they’re the kindest, most generous people you’ll ever meet.  But too many people claim to practice Christianity and swear the Bible is literal (as do many Muslims with the Koran), and yet they talk about a vengeful, hateful God.  “I want Old Testament!” I frequently hear, usually with righteous indignation over something that does not affect them in the least.  Funny, I never hear that from Jews, who get their spiritual guidance from that same Old Testament*.  On the other hand, I seldom hear the fire-and-brimstone crowd talking about Christ’s compassion, his care for the poor and the sick, his generosity, or his greatest commandment, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  Probably too liberal and socialist for them, but there it is.  Deal with it.
  • You’re human. You’re not smart enough to understand it all.  Hell, man started settling into towns and farming the land around 10,000 years ago, which is about when we started to think about this stuff.  We didn’t know the universe was a huge cloud of galaxies until the 1920’s, of which we are less than a speck.  What makes you think we’ve got it all figured out now?  We just opened up a whole new can of “WTF?”  Go, thou, and figure out some answers for yourself.  And if they differ from mine, well hopefully we reach one common conclusion:  Whether or not you believe, the most spiritual lesson you can take away from this is, “Don’t be a dick.”  A very wise man once said that.  OK, so it was Wil Wheaton, but Wil’s a smart guy.  He plays with Linux and hangs out with Patrick Stewart.

Hey, Beavis!  Pull my finger!

*Yes, I know there are some differences, but both a rabbi and Pat Robertson read Leviticus.  Your rabbi is keeping the traditions of over four millennia when he reads it.  Pat’s just looking for new reasons to judge people and squeeze the faithful for a few more bucks.  Somehow, he doesn’t realize the whole message of that book is also “Thou shalt not be a dick.”  It’s the oldest spiritual message in human history.

Victor Gischler’s Prices Are In-SAAAAANNNNEEEE!!!!

This just in from Victor Gischler, author, raconteur, failed mandolin player:

Hello directors, producers and screenwriters. Let’s talk film options. THIS IS A CONTEST.
Regular readers of this blog know that my novels Gun Monkeys and Go-Go Girls of the Apocalypse have been optioned for film, and as soon as I can let other various cats out of other bags, I might be able to announce other bits of news along these lines. I’m also into some screenwriting as I’ve mentioned before HERE. I love — LOVE — the idea of one or more of my novels being adapted for screen, love the idea of how a director or an actor or actress might interpret my story. Obviously, if these films were actually made, I’d pocket a nice bit of change, but more than that is the excitement of actually seeing it happen. So let’s do it. Let’s make a movie!
I’m not kidding when I say I am frequently approached (via e-mail) by people who would like an option or would like to write a screenplay based on one of my novels. I’m always flattered and always surprised, but I always seem to be turning them away which sort of bums me out. I hate to say no to someone who’s so excited about my work. But the fact is I make my living as a writer now, so I have to be careful with my most valuable commodities — the rights for my novels. Also, the simple fact is that most people ask about books which have already been optioned.
But I got a bunch of short stories that are just getting dusty. So here is the contest. Consider which of my short stories you think could be adapted to a feature film. I’m going to list a few of my favorites below, but any of my short stories is up for grabs. I actually toyed with adapting a few of them myself, but I’m seriously pressed for time these days. In fact, I did adapt one of my own short stories “Silent Harvest” which appeared in the anthology North Florida Noir. I fleshed out minor characters, added and expanded scenes, and viola I had a nice little indy feature screenplay. The script was optioned (and recently renewed) by an energetic producer in NYC.

Ebooks: What Do iWant?

Two weeks ago, I talked about how ebooks do not spell the end of print, only a reduction in its role.  So, did anyone check out the amazing number of printers, copiers, and faxes in your favorite paperless office?  Yeah, that’s a lot of paper and toner they’re using, isn’t it?

Anyway, I don’t think it’s a big surprise, though, that ebooks will become the dominant form of content delivery for publishers.  That day is not here yet, but it’s closer than ever.  Kindle, Sony, and, soon enough, Apple are all gathering traction.  The Amazon/Macmillan flap aside, I think we’re only a couple of years away from a viable universal ebook model.  Amazon’s laid some of the groundwork with Kindle.  Apple will likely bring lessons learned from iTunes to the table.  Rather than it being a battle, consumers will most likely drive what model dominates and what features of the others will be put into the mix.  Amazon is already adapting the Kindle to compete with the iPad, and it’s highly unlikely Sony will stand still.  Plus, have you ever met a media platform Microsoft didn’t like once it figured it out?

So what is it I, a consumer, want?  The list below are things I think will be important to long-term ebook adoption.  Your mileage may vary.

  • Universal format:  There has to be a standard file type for ebooks, one that will allow it to take advantage of everything these devices can potentially do.  Right now, Kindle, Nook, the Sony eReader are all text devices.  The iPad will bring the multifunctional capabilities of smart phones to this arena.  The others will follow suit, and then the fun really begins.  But the format should not be dependent on a single device or provider.  I pay for it, it should be mine to keep whenever and wherever I go.
  • Light or no DRM:  OK, let’s get something straight.  DRM does not combat piracy, only encourages it. In fact, I think it’s a moral obligation to hack anything Sony puts out on CD simply because they put spyware on their discs.  Sorry, Sony, by my computer is my property.  If I can’t bust into your house without a search warrant to find the hedge clippers you took last April, you can’t look at my computer without my permission.  And no, buying the disk does not constitute permission.  (I download my music from iTunes anymore, so this is not an issue.)  If this does not work for the music industry (which deserves every bad thing that’s ever happened to it for not getting ahead of the download curve), it will not work for publishing.  The customer needs to get to what he or she paid for quickly and with no hassle.
  • Cloud backup – Now DRM can work nicely here, because the DRM is tied to the consumer, not the company.  Cloud backup or storage of purchases are a great idea.  It can render content device-independent, and that’s the key.
  • Multifunctional devices – The iPad already promises this.  The next generation of Kindle will have it.  No one wants something that just displays books. Not in the long term.  In the long term, we’re going to want something that will give us our books, our music, our phone service, our web access, and anything for which there’s an app for that.  This is going to be a must have for any new media beyond ebooks.
  • Cheap or free wireless service – Check your cell bill lately?  Yeah, AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint are really sticking it to you, aren’t they?  Well, Apple wants to charge you more for the privilege, but Kindle has WhisperNet, which is carried by AT&T.  Which will win?  I think the iPad will force Amazon to put out a color touch screen and multiple-app capability, but Amazon will probably leave its fingerprints all over how wireless is handled, at least for media purchases.

As I said, these are what I want from ebooks in the future.  You may have other wants and needs.  Time will tell how it all unfolds.

Next week, I reveal my own hypocrisy and show off my Kindle!  I suspect after all the rude things I’ve said about Amazon recently, I got some ‘splainin’ to do.

MTM Cincinnati: Theodore Berry Park

East of downtown, next to the Montgomery Inn Boathouse, sits Theodore Berry Park, a tranquil 20-acre stretch of land along the former Eastern Avenue, now called Riverside Drive.

The above photo shows the entrance from the parking lot.  This was taken after the recent Snowpocalypse of 2010, of which Cincinnati sat on the edge.  The curved signs, all spiraled around each other, say “Theodore M Berry International Friendship Park,” the official name of the park.  The park is named for Cincinnati’s first African-American mayor.  Berry served as mayor from 1972 to 1975 and was a member of the city’s third pary, the Charterite Committee.  The park opened in May of 2003 in the shadow of Mt. Adams and Columbia Parkway (US 50).

The park is about half a mile in length and features winding walking paths and a bike trail that ultimately will be part of the Ohio River Trail.  Along the bike trail, you can see the town homes that prompted changing the street’s name from Eastern, which is identified with the deteriorated eastern leg of the street past Delta Avenue, to Riverside, which is the section being redeveloped into a quiet Riverfront neighborhood.

The park’s most prominent feature is its modern sculpture.  There is one composed of three concave mirrors between the bike trail and one of the walking paths.  (The flash in the picture is your humble narrator’s camera.)

There is a “woodhenge” in the park’s entrance of Bain St., which is really just an exit ramp off of Columbia Parkway.

At the far end of the park stands a fifty-foot tower that looks like  scale model of one of the new buildings going in at the World Trade Center.  It certainly would not look out of place next to the Freedom Tower and its sisters.  However, I’m sure someone can chime in below in the comments section as to what this particular sculpture is.

The park’s biggest attraction, though, is its proximity to the Ohio River.  Within walking distance of the Boathouse, Sawyer Point (another park I’ll visit in warmer weather), and Great American Ballpark and US Bank Arena, the park features a serpentine sitting wall where one can comtemplate the river slowly flowing by.  Below is a shot facing eastward, toward the bend near Dayton, Kentucky.

And this is facing west toward downtown at the Boathouse-side entrance. In the background is the “Big Mac” Bridge, carrying I-471 into Northern Kentucky.

I had hoped to catch a barge while I was in the park, but I didn’t see one until I was up on the Big Mac headed home.  (I parked across the river in Newport for an early morning hike.)  The barge, I think, captures the essence of the river.  It’s part of why one of the townhouse developments overlooking the park is called “Twain Point.”

More at the My Town Monday blog.

The Last Word On Tiger

Tiger Woods did not sleep with my wife.  And even if he did prior to when I started dating her, it would not matter.

Tiger Woods did not cheat on my wife.  He cheated on his wife.  This matters to only a handful of people, most of whom are named “Woods.”

So to the sports writers of the world who are apoplectic about this, let’s put it in perspective.

Tiger Woods does not owe you an apology.  He owes Mrs. Woods an apology.  Apparently, she’s already accepted it.  I could be wrong, and if I am, so what?  It’s nobody’s business but Mr. and Mrs. Woods’ and their children’s.  Not yours.  Not mine.

“But, Jim, he’s famous and has carefully crafted this good guy image.  We are betrayed!

If that’s your view, then here’s a little perspective.

The only thing Tiger Woods owes the sports writers of the world is a nine iron upside the heads of each and every sports writer who thinks this is important, dammit! Let’s get something straight here.  The press is not entitled to jack shit about anyone’s private life.  Just because TMZ says otherwise does not make it so.  The cult of celebrity is a blight on modern civilization and is only defended by losers with a strong sense of entitlement and a weak sense of self.  Were I Tiger Woods, I would have made the following statement:

“No, I am not sorry I had more freaky, mind-blowing sex than anyone in this room will ever have in two lifetimes.  I am only sorry my wife was not with me most of the times I had it.  To the press, who hounded my mother-in-law on the way to the hospital, followed my kids to school, and slandered and libeled my wife, let me just humbly say, ‘Go fuck yourselves.’  You are never getting another interview.  You are never getting a moment of my time ever again.  You have my PR rep’s contact information.  You may send your apologies to me and my family there.  In the meantime, go fuck yourselves.  This press conference is over.”

I know we’re in the lull between the Super Bowl and March Madness, by please, stop whining that Tiger let you down.

Review: Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded

In 1998, John Scalzi logged into his new domain and wrote the first entry to his blog, The Whatever.  He entertained maybe 15 people.  Today, Scalzi attracts upwards of 25,000 readers a day.  To put this in perspective, this blog lures maybe 200 non-spamming readers a day.

But I’ll catch up.  Then I can drive up to Darke County, knock on his door, and go, “Ha!  Ha ha!  And again, ha!  Take that!”  (By then, no one will be reading blogs anyway, so it will be a pyrrhic victory.*)

Over the years, Scalzi has informed, entertained, and infuriated readers.  Creationists, wingnuts, and Confederate sympathizers hate him.  Independents, science fiction fans, and The Official Ghlaghghee Fan Club all love him.  For the record, Scalzi has opined about…

  • Your politics.  They’re stupid.  Doesn’t matter what they are.  Your politics are stupid.  (Like my own post on the subject, only the libertarians thought this was funny.)
  • Being poor is not a choice.
  • The new Muppets suck
  • Journey apparently does not
  • Teen writers suck, but they’re supposed to or they won’t get any good later.
  • Sometimes an agnostic gets Christ better than a Creationist.  (Being an unorthodox Christian, I can attest to this.  Nothing can persuade me to go to the Creation Museum.)
  • Sweden has yet to answer for the atrocity known as Europe’s “The Final Countdown”
  • Fatherhood changes you, mostly for the better

Some of the posts I remember reading, especially “Being Poor,” a reaction to some post-Katrina comments that those trapped in the city were there by choice.  “I Hate Your Politics” called out the various political stripes in America on their various neuroses.

There’s no rhyme or reason to the order.  The book is simply the best of his blog, an online column about…


*Wow.  I got to use the word “pyrrhic” in a blog post.  Kookie.

Taking An English Class At 43

I’ll confess a little apprehension when I was told I couldn’t replace my final English Composition requirement for my degree with Technical Writing.  English Composition 3 was described as teaching students literary criticism.  Said the book reviewer…


I’ve always had a problem with literary criticism.  I’ve always associated it with people like Harold Bloom pompously telling me what I can or can’t read.  More annoying, LA Times critic Richard Schickel derided “mere reviewers” since they could not possibly be writing “even unto the ages.”

Yes, I have a serious problem with intellectual fart-sniffing.  So to find out that I was going to have to learn their trade secrets filled me with…

I won’t say dread.  I will say squick.  Yes.  Let us say squick and leave it at that.

So I plunged ahead.  Hey, guess what.  You can learn literary criticism and not have to slog through yet another creative writing grad’s annoying tale about a creative writing professor lusting over one of his nubile young students.  I also discovered a few things about myself as a writer and reviewer.

For starters, I have never been an active reader.  I basically read and react.  That works fine.  I review books, and the shorter ones require more of a knee-jerk response than a deep, critical analysis of a given work.  Anyway, that’s hard to do with, say, Janet Evanovich anyway.  She’s not writing to be compared to Steinbeck, and no one’s reading her for that as it is.

But it spills over into writing, too.  When you’re composing a long work, does it not make sense to be aware of how you are using the different parts of a novel or a short story?  Are there more subtle ways to get your vision of a story across?  Sure, there are authors who will say, “But we’re just entertainers.  Stop trying to be anything different.”

To some extent that’s true, but at the same time, shouldn’t a writer be better?

As it is, I’ve taken to this class with a bit of gusto.  I dread the section on poetry as it’s never been my strong suit.  I wrote a couple of poems when I was dating Nita.  In fact, she is the first woman to whom I’ve written poetry.  However, I’m not going to expose you to that.  I did get some positive feedback on “A Very Tom Waits Christmas” from Gerald So, who edits the crime poetry journal The Lineup.  But “Waits Christmas” is a bit of a novelty verse, based on listening to “I Pulled on Trouble’s Braids” during the holiday season one year.  It just sort of wrote itself.

Fortunately, I’m not being asked to write poetry, but I have been given the opportunity to write a short story.  One of our essay assignments is offers the option of rewriting Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” from a minor character’s point-of-view.  It’s been about 28 years since I read that poem.  I do remember the main character was a bit self-absorbed and wondered whether poor Fortunado was aware of the “thousand injuries” he’d apparently done to the vengeful schmuck.  Well, now I get a chance to speculate on that.  And the nice thing is I can turn around and sell the story, too.   “Cask” is in public domain, and this rewrite is a serious critique of Poe’s work, so why not?  The question is who would buy it.  Who’d buy a rewrite of a 164-year-old story?  We’ll find out.

What this class is not, thankfully, is a professor standing in front of a room full of hopeful writers telling them to eschew plot and reject genre and while we’re at it, just throw out everything that isn’t post-modern, cynical, or full of hard-to-read prose that only other creative writing students get.  Most of my classmates are students fulfilling a credit, as am I, actually.  We’re not training to be writers.

Since I am one, however, it’s definitely a good thing to learn what it is I’m actually writing.