Thursday Reviews: Basket Case by Carl Hiassen

Basket Case

Carl Hiassen

Jack Tagger is a reporter. Death is his beat. Only this isn’t Michael Connelly’s The Poet. This is Carl Hiassen’s South Florida, and Tagger is a once-hot investigative reporter now exiled to the obituary page. He lives for two things: Needling his comely young editor Emma, whom he secretly has a yen for, and annoying the hell out of publisher Race Maggad III (“Master Race,” Tagger calls him, once to his face.) One day, Tagger is stunned by the death of James Stomarti in a diving accident. Stomarti is the legal name of Jimmy Stoma, an eighties rock star who led a band called the Slut Puppies. Tagger scores an interview with his sexy young widow, singer Cleo Rio, and writes an obit that briefly gets him onto the Metro page.

Only Stomarti’s sister shows Tagger how it wasn’t an accident. He convinces Emma to let him pull the thread and find out what really happened. He ends up meeting two Slut Puppies as really bad things happen to them, one before and one after. He witnesses the “depths” of Cleo’s talent when she “sings” at her late husband’s funeral. And he beats a man nearly to death with a frozen monitor lizard. I suppose that last more than makes up for the absence of Skink, Hiassen’s ex-Florida governor who wandered out of the statehouse one day and has lived a life of a swamp man in the Everglades. Let’s just assume Skink was in the bushes watching in a fight scene that takes place in the Glades.

Hiassen’s sense of the absurd is on full display here. The monitor lizard aside, one character dies when a truck runs over his head. Race Maggad is prevented from touching Tagger through the machinations of the paper’s previous owner, who happens to be Maggad’s company’s biggest stockholder. And the only reason the old man loves Tagger is because Maggad despises him. And Cleo?

I suspect Hiassen wishes all this happened to Mariah Carey early in her career. The 90’s would have been so much more bearable for him. I agree.

The Hard Sell

Cincinnati Bell is aggressively pushing its FiOptics service, which promises to give cable a run for its money. To pay for stringing all that fiber up and down our street, they sent out Dave (not his real name, but I’ll call him that, since Dave’s not here, man). Dave shows up Monday evening and proceeds to talk Nita’s ear off. His sales pitch involves talking really, really fast. It also involves copious amounts of badmouthing the neighbors. Nita is not happy. It’s 90 degrees at 7 PM. She’s sunburned. AJ is out of town, which is giving her the empty nest blues. Yours truly is at class. And the power’s been out for about an hour at this point. When Dave won’t shut up or take no for an answer, Nita goes blonde, giggles, and says, “Oh, my husband handles these things.” “Going blonde” is option 1. Option 2 involves the Louisville Slugger in the closet near the front door.

Night 2. Dave shows up, during dinner no less. It’s my turn to listen to Dave’s pitch. Dave runs down the rate (which is impressive) and the features. I’ll be honest. I never really paid attention to Time Warner’s speed. I boot my computer, and stuff loads fast. That’s all I care about. That, and I have Palladia on HD and HBO. On demand. In the meantime, Dave is acting as though I’ve already said yes. I simply answer him with “Yeah. Uh-huh. Sure. OK.” Dave talks at a mile a minute and just needs my information to get started. OK. I’ll bite. What information?

Email. Social Security number.

Um…

Email I could care less about. Gmail, Yahoo, outlook.com all have spam filters. It’s nothing I can’t handle. My social?

No.

My employer has that. My creditors and bank have that. My doctor has that. The government generated that. Dave? Sure, Dave. May I have one of your credit card numbers, the security code on the back, the expiration date, and, while you’re at it, your mother’s maiden name?

So I ask Dave about the specs. He assures me that I am not getting this performance out of my cable hookup. “By the way, sir, if you don’t mind my asking. What do you do for a living?”

“I am a web developer who doubles as a network administrator.”

“Oh. So you already know. Right?”

“Let me ask the authority.”

“Nita?”

“My son. The gamer.

“Oh! He’s a gamer? He’ll love it!”

“Then you won’t mind if I ask him about it.”

I go and consult with AJ, who, in fact, setup our new router not more than an hour before Dave interrupted dinner. I rattle off the specs. AJ is not impressed. I go back to tell Dave we’re taking a pass.

“Why?”

Dave’s hard sell has ceased to amuse me. “We’re done here.”

“Why? Help me out.”

“I said we’re done, Dave. Good night.” I close the door. As I do, I hear Dave yell. “God!

Well, that certainly changed my mind.

Not.

Bad Religion: The Kirtland Cult Murders

BadReligion-ebook600One of the early catalysts for Bad Religion came from a horrific event in 1989. East of Cleveland is a quiet little town called Kirtland. This small village has changed little since the 1800’s. It looks like a New England town straight out of Nathaniel Hawthorne or Stephen King. Kirtland is famous for being an early headquarters of the Mormons, where the original temple still stands. It also is the home of the Reorganized Church of Latter Day Saints (also called the RLDS for short). The town is heavily wooded and sits in sharp contrast to nearby Mentor, one of Cleveland’s largest suburbs and home to a nuclear power plant. One hardly knows they are in Ohio’s largest metropolitan areas when passing through Kirtland. Once upon a time, it was a stop along the drive to Geauga Lake Amusement Park and the former Sea World Ohio.

What happened in 1989, though, shocked this city of less than 7,000 people and rattled the RLDS itself. A former member of the church, Jeffrey Lundgren, broke away and formed a cult. Lundgren began preaching some bizarre doomsday predictions. The RLDS ousted him. On the day of his excommunication, a severe thunderstorm hit Lake Country (where Kirtland sits). Lundgren, in his delusional state, took this as a sign from God and moved his followers into a nearby farmhouse.

Lundgren and his family unsettled their neighbors. Police responded to complaints of gunfire, and Lundgren’s son warned neighbor children that, on May 15 of 1988, the ground would open up, allowing demons to emerge. Lundgren exerted tight control over his followers, forbidding them to talk amongst themselves, calling it the sin of “murmuring.” He would eavesdrop on their conversations to build the illusion that he could read their minds.

As authorities began asking some uncomfortable questions, Lundgren told his followers that God required a sacrifice. He selected the Avery family. The Averys were the only five followers who did not live at the farmhouse. In April of 1989, Lundgren lured them to the barn on the property he rented, where he and several followers shot them and buried them beneath the dirt floor. The cult then fled to an isolated mountain town in West Virginia. Lundgren became disillusioned with the cult of his own making and abandoned his followers, moving his family to California.

However, in 1990, police received a tip that bodies had been buried in the barn. They dug up the barn floor. Lake County deputies were sickened by the discovery of the shallow graves. Thirteen of the cult members, including Lundgren and his family, were hunted down and arrested. Lundgren himself received the death penalty and was executed in 2006.

The original idea for Bad Religion, before I switched to the televangelism angle, was based on the cult. Since I did not want to drop a literary bomb on Kirtland or run salt in the wounds of the survivors, I created the fictional town of Chamberlain, named for a Civil War hero from Maine. Still, the murders refused to stay out of the story, so they were grafted into the backstory of Chamberlain police chief Katherine Conway (named for a Cincinnati cop who took a bullet at point-blank range in her own cruiser and survived.) Without making the killings a focal point, it gave Conway a reason for being nervous about a bunch of private detectives shadowing one of the churches in her town.

The other part that made me shy away from cult angle was the ease with which Lundgren built a following and his ability to convince a dozen seemingly normal people to kill an entire family. I did not want to glorify that. Instead, I reduced it to background and let Conway talk about it in lines based closely on those of the first responders and deputy sheriffs at the original scene. Let him be the monster he originally was.

Next week, we’ll look at something a little more cheery: Calvin Leach’s spiritual ancestor, Robert Tilton.

Print | Kindle | Nook | Smashwords

Thursday Reviews: The Human Division by John Scalzi

The Human Division

John Scalzi

John Scalzi returns to the Old Man’s War universe. At the end of both The Last Colony and Zoe’s Tale, which had parallel plotlines, Earth found out that the Colonial Union was using humanity’s cradle as a farm for new colonists and soldiers. Well, you can imagine how well that went over.

Scalzi picks up the story in an unusual format. The story was released on ebook over a year formatted almost like a television series. The “episodes” alternated between the crew of the diplomatic vessel Clarke and happenings elsewhere in the universe. The main focus is on the Clarke, used by Ambassador Ode Abumwe and commanded by Captain Sofia Coloma. The main characters are Hart Schmidt, a junior diplomat who is often reduced to grunt duty assisting Lt. Harry Wilson, a technology specialist on loan from the Colonial Defense Forces. Wilson is green, super-enhanced, and came to the CDF as a 75-year-old man before they gave him a new body designed for the express purpose of kicking alien ass. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because Wilson was one of John Perry’s fellow recruits in the original Old Man’s War.

It’s a dark universe out there. Four hundred races have banded together into something known as The Conclave, sort of like the United Federation of Planets in Star Trek, only not as happy to be there. The Conclave is formed to control competition for planets, which has resulted in more bloodshed than any known civilization has experienced before venturing into interstellar space. The Colonial Union isn’t having it, but when Earth suddenly cuts off relations with the CU, Colonial officials estimate the human race is only thirty years from extinction. So Abumwe and her assistants have to walk a fine line trying to get Earth either back into the Union, or, at least, talk them out of joining the Conclave, and making sure the Conclave knows they don’t want a war. All this time, the Colonials are looking for allies.

But someone doesn’t want them to have those allies. They are using missing Colonial ships controlled in a bizarre manner and CDF weapons to fake attacks on anyone – Colonial Union, the Conclave, aliens looking to make a deal. Even Earth is in their crosshairs, and it’s up to Schmidt and Wilson, the real stars of this unusual story, to figure out who. Do they find out?

Oh, now why would Scalzi do that? Then there would be no season-ending cliffhanger or a second season.

Abandoning Books

I wanted to finish The Bonfire of the Vanities. I really did. I remember when it came out how much buzz it generated. I tried to read it back in 1988. I was out of work and had a lot of time on my hands. Why not?

I made it about 200 pages in and gave up. It bored the hell out of me. It was a culture I neither understood nor respected. Why did I care that a stupid bond trader and his mistress got themselves into trouble? I needed a job, and this asshole was one of the reasons I wasn’t getting a secure future from GM or US Steel. So I abandoned Bonfire. And Peter Fallow’s one redeeming quality seemed to be that he was drunk all the time. I did not even have any interest in the movie.

Years passed. I became more better read. Hell, I read Philip Roth for fun, and will turn right around and listen to a Harry Potter novel on audio. I also realized that I had no obligation to like a novel just because someone said I had to. For instance, when it came out, many people insisted I read Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. Already put off by Franzen’s pretentious antics, I started it reluctantly. Franzen writes in a style not too different from Cormac McCarthy. Only I finished The Road. And I regretted not seeing the movie. The Corrections?

The first eleven pages are an hour of my life I’ll never get back. I’m sorry. I know I’m in the minority, but the opening was just page after page after page of dull, plodding crap written purely for style. I could not read a page further.

But it had been over twenty years since I attempted Bonfire. Clearly, I was older, wiser, more mature. I knew a lot more about New York City, having been there a few times. Maybe it would resonate with me more.

Nope.

Wolfe’s New York wasn’t the New York I visited in the mid-2000’s. Larry Kramer was still one of those idiots too concerned with keeping up with the Joneses. Everybody, even the Reverend Bacon, was a self-serving racist. The mayor made Nixon look like a mellow hippie. And Sherman McCoy? Still in the audience when Gordon Gecko gave his “Greed is good” speech. This New York, which looked nothing like the New York I visited, would have made a good site for resumption of above-ground nuclear testing. There was not a single likeable person in this novel, not one I could connect with. Everyone of them, even McCoy’s put-upon wife, was someone I’d likely have to walk out on or risk punching them in the teeth.

Hannibal was like that. Yes, I get that Harris was trying to make Hannibal Lecter somewhat sympathetic, more Lestat than Dracula. At the same time, before abandoning that novel, I kept muttering “Would Hannibal hurry up and just eat these idiots already?” I threw the book across the room.

A book has to do two things for me as a reader: it has to tell a story. Literary writers often bemoan “the tyranny of the plot,” which tells me that they’re highly skilled at stringing words together, but really have nothing to say. Style for style’s sake is, to put it bluntly, a colossal waste of time. The second is that I have to connect. Hell, I even get Voldemorte in the Harry Potter series. I don’t like him and wish he’d been killed by a muggle, but I get him. If the cast of characters of Bonfire had gotten onto a boat that promptly sank with no survivors, I’d mourn the loss of a perfectly good boat in the disposal of so many oxygen thieves. It lacks a very basic principle of drama in all its forms: Everyone is the star of their own drama. There are evil people in the world, obviously, but even they have an internal calculus that justifies their actions to them. Even Milton got that when he wrote Paradise Lost. Satan might be the ultimate douchebag, but when Milton finishes with him, you get that he basically thought that he was Peter from Office Space.

Bad Religion: Now In Print!

BadReligion-ebook600Finally, at long last, Bad Religion is in print. Actually, all my novels will be going to print soon. Why didn’t I do this years ago?

When my original publisher folded in 2006, you didn’t have any options, really. There was iUniverse and XLibris, who told you up front that you’d be paying a lot of money to get books printed. What they did not tell you was that the bookstores wanted nothing to do with them. And bookstores were your only real option, despite what my now-defunct publisher insisted, to sell any books.

Then along came Kindle. And Nook. And Smashwords. Suddenly, not only did authors have an ebook option, but it took away some of the stench of self-publishing. You didn’t pay to play. You published. And if you published, the only money you might spend was paying for a cover and possibly formatting. Even formatting has become simple. If you can master Smashwords’ Meatgrinder – it is very unforgiving of poorly formatted Word docs – you then have a viable source document that can be tweaked for Nook and Kindle. (I still prefer to do those channels separately. More control, more royalties.) Covers…

Road Rules doesn’t look bad. Northcoast Shakedown doesn’t look bad. The Compleat Kepler actually looks professional. Never mind that it was done by an idiot* in his basement on PaintShop Pro. “A Walk in the Rain”? Um… Second Hand Goods? Meh. Thanks to some back-and-forth with Li’l Sis, we came up with not only a bad ass cover for Bad Religion, but a theme we could easily use on the first two Kepler novels. We’re still mulling a “keyhole” image for Second Hand Goods, which has been the runt of the Kepler litter for some reason.

So how did I go to print without going bankrupt? Simple. Amazon has offered CreateSpace for a while now. Take that ebook Word doc you made, add a header and footer for page numbers, and upload. It also has a tool for creating book covers, though in the case of Bad Religion, Li’l Sis came to the rescue again. You can digitally proof the book, which I did, but most authors I know recommend ordering a print proof. It costs very little. Mine would have been about $5 and some change. That’s it. Author copies are also inexpensive, less than 2/3 the retail price of the book (unless you set your price ridiculously high, like $12.99, which is stupid for a paperback. Nobody’s that good, and I know Ken Bruen. So I don’t say that lightly.)

Is it worth it? I’m out some time spent on formatting in Microsoft Word, and I owe Li’l Sis a detailed beta. When you’re not selling hundreds of copies a week, barter is your friend. Your best friend. Other than that, I’m not out anything. Yes, I’d like to sell it in bookstores, but bookstores and Amazon do not get along. Too bad. Because, speaking as a customer, that really limits my choices.

Which, indie bookstores and Jeff Bezos, is a major fail on your part. Fix it. Now.

Print | Kindle | Nook | Smashwords

*To quote Howard Wolowitz, that would be me.

Heavy Metal

Combine the classic power trio with distorted amps and a really loud singer, and what do you get?

Heavy metal.

But just what is heavy metal? How can Led Zeppelin, Metallica, Motley Crue, and your average death metal band all be of the same genre?

Metal is, in all its forms, FUCKING LOUD!!! It is in your face, brutal, macho in way that welcomes aggressive females to get their alpha chick on. It is an angry genre of music that, in a beautiful paradox, is also a orgy of hedonism and joy. Having a bad day? Plug in the earbuds, cue up Motorhead, and crank thy iPod up to 11.

It is Spinal Tap and yet it is Page and Plant blaring “Kashmir” in competition with an Arabic orchestra. It is the angry rant of youth against the establishment, and yet it is also one of the many voices of that most conservative of American pastimes, NASCAR. Yeah. NASCAR.

Heavy metal is three distorted chords on a Gibson or a Strat. It is Jimmy Pages mad, pagan-fueled genius over Robert Plant wailing, at the same time, pleas for peace and harmony along with an invitation for as many women as possible to debauch themselves. It is Lemy, the Brit who makes most Hell’s Angels look like pussies, growling about the “Ace of Spades.” It is Dave Mustaine of Megadeth plowing through a heroin haze to remind you that the world is a dark, dark place despite the chemical insulation. It is Cliff Burton and Jason Newsted and Rob Trujillo of Metallica deciding that the bass is another lead guitar in ways you were too scared to imagine.

It’s Lita Ford screaming in your ear about what she’s going to do to you, ripping your throat out as she does it to you, and having you lusting after her for leaving you bleeding on the floor. It’s Motley Crue saying we’re all gonna die, so why not party on the way down.

Heavy metal does not use keyboards. Ever. Except when it does. Then they go to 11. Everything metal goes to 11.

Heavy metal is a magnificent cannibal. It’s eats rock and roll. It ate psychedelia. It ate prog. It ate the blues. It ate punk.

Heavy metal is sex for the mind. And it’s great to have on during sex. Heavy metal is sex.

And like the act of sex, even when it’s bad, it’s still pretty fucking good.