Saturday, December 31, 2005

Getting Closer

Got a rejection from the Writers of the Future contest yesterday, but the good news is that I made it to the quarter-finals, as did Clarion 2005 alum Tom.

Thanks to this book, I'll probably spend way too much money in 2006. Posted by Picasa

Just What I Needed...

I didn't get it for Christmas, but I found a copy of Horror: Another 100 Best Books edited by Stephen Jones and Kim Newman at my local library.

Oh, it's dangerous.

The book is arranged chronologically from The Revenger's Tragedy by Cyril Tourner in 1607 to More Tomorrow and Other Stories by Michael Marshall Smith in 2003. Since I know so little of the horror genre, I figured it might be better to read about what's most current (and hopefully available) and work backward. So far, of the first five entries (or last, in this case), I must, I mean absolutely must read four of them:

More Tomorrow and Other Stories – Michael Marshall Smith (2003)
Since the cheapest price for this book on Amazon is $300, I was delighted to find it in a nearby library.

House of Leaves – Mark Z. Danielewski (2000)
After reading Jeff VanderMeer's essay, I must read this, and soon.

A Haunting Beauty – Sir Charles Birkin (2000)
May be tough to find at a good price, but I'll find a way.

Reprisal – Mitchell Smith (1999)
This one appears the easiest to find/purchase. Amazon has it used from 1 cent.

And I've got 94 more to read about. Plus this is the sequel to the original 1988 book, so make that 194 to go.

Stephen Jones and Kim Newman - why do you do this to me?

Now Playing = Paris, Texas Soundtrack – Ry Cooder
Just Finished Reading = "The Man Who Drew Cats" from More Tomorrow & Other Stories – Michael Marshall Smith

Friday, December 30, 2005

This is about the only thing I DIDN'T eat over the holidays. Posted by Picasa

Bullet's cousin Sammy Posted by Picasa

Back from Georgia

Spent Christmas in the North Georgia Mountains at Cindy's parents. I actually got about 2,000 words written in between extended episodes of eating like a crazed lawn mower. Got some good loot – mostly some much needed clothes. Music – Maiden Voyage by Herbie Hancock and Ragin' Live by Rhonda Vincent and the Rage. Two books – Storyteller by Kate Wilhelm (which is outstanding) and a book of Sudoku. (I thought I was doing pretty good at them until Cindy picked up the book and finished a puzzle in about two minutes.)

Here we are at New Year's Eve Eve – no resolutions to speak of, only to try to find a more consistent time for writing. I'm a morning person (I usually get up at about 5:30), so that seems the best and most productive time to work. I've just got to say "No email or Internet until I write." The worst feeling in the world is to realize at 11:00 PM that you haven't written anything the entire day. So mornings it is.

Speaking of which, I put down about 1,200 words today. All before 8:00 AM.

Now Playing = Maiden Voyage – Herbie Hancock
Just Finished Reading = "The Night of White Bhairab" from The Jaguar Hunter – Lucius Shepard

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Southern Comfort anthology available now Posted by Picasa

Southern Comfort Anthology Available Now

My story "Where the Vultures Feed" is now available in the Southern Comfort Anthology. You can order the print version or download it here. All proceeds go to Hurricane Katrina relief. Also check out Clarion bud Trent Hergenrader's story "Of Silver Bullets and Golden Teeth" in Animal Magnetism, another Katrina relief anthology.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

500 Greatest Albums of All Time

It seems like Rolling Stone Magazine revises their 500 Greatest Albums list about every three weeks, which is fine, but it's a real cop-out to include greatest hits discs. Even so, it's an interesting list.

I thought it would be fun to check a few stats. The Beatles, no surprise, have eleven albums in the Top 500. Heck, four of 'em are in the Top 10! But the honor is deserved. Dylan has ten (including one shared with The Band - The Basement Tapes), and the Stones have ten.

Now, let's take a closer look: The Beatles released twelve albums (UK – thirteen if you count the Yellow Submarine soundtrack), all of which are on the list except Magical Mystery Tour. Dylan has roughly thirty-seven (not counting greatest hits, compilations, or Bootleg Series releases), ten of which made the list. The Stones have roughly thirty-six releases, ten of which are on the list.

I'll agree that Exile on Main Street, Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed and Sticky Fingers are all undisputed classics. Okay, I'll even give you The Rolling Stones Now!. But Some Girls? No. Tattoo You? No way. Aftermath, Out of Our Heads, Between the Buttons are all fairly solid, but in the 500 Greatest ever? Don't think so.

Am I tasting sour grapes because Dylan doesn't have more on the list? No. He probably doesn't deserve to have more on the list. The ones on there are pretty worthy of Top 500 status. And I'll be the first to admit Dylan's released some real low-octane sludge in his time (especially in the 80's). But the Stones' most recent album on that list came from 1983. Both of Dylan's last two studio albums are on the list.

I firmly believe that when you speak of the greatest, most influential acts in rock history, there's only room for three: Elvis, The Beatles, Dylan. That's it, case closed.

Sure, the Stones produced some very good stuff, but they aren't in the top three. Ask yourself - Where would music be without Elvis? The Beatles? Dylan? If you think the inclusion of Dylan in a "most important" conversation is pushing it, just watch the No Direction Home DVD and see if you still feel the same.

(Having bashed Mick and the boys somewhat, I will say that their new release A Bigger Bang is their best work in...years? No, decades – like three of 'em.)

Anyway, check out the list. Happy holidays.

Now Playing = Solace - Xavier Rudd
Now Reading = "The Man Who Would Be King" – Rudyard Kipling

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Simon and Garfunkel's 1970 swan song - still a classic. Posted by Picasa

The Only Living Boy in New York

I'm still in the process of listening to all my CDs. (I won't even come close to finishing before January 1. But who's counting?) This morning I put on Simon and Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water (which still holds up well). As soon as the soft guitar strumming of "The Only Living Boy in New York" sounded, I was taken back to 1970 when the record came out. I was just a kid, listening to my older brother's records while he was at college. I thought "The Only Living Boy" was one of the most beautiful things I'd ever heard.

Like a lot of songs I heard as a kid, I didn't really think much about the lyrics. Years later, I discovered that the song was sort of a "good luck" send-off to Garfunkel from Paul Simon. During the late 60's, Garfunkel was getting into acting. (In fact the filming of Carnal Knowledge delayed the Bridge recording sessions.) At the time Simon wrote the song, Garfunkel (referred to in the song as "Tom" from the days when the duo were known as Tom and Jerry) was about to fly to Mexico to film Catch-22.

The song is a touching tribute. Garfunkel's single contribution to the song consists of the "Ahhh" backing vocals. I wonder if he even knew what the song was about? Maybe Simon planned it that way.

Aside #1 – I just watched Garfunkel in Nicholas Roeg's Bad Timing (1980), a very powerful and somewhat disturbing film co-starring Theresa Russell. Russell's performance is so strong that Garfunkel often comes across looking uncertain. Although in his scenes with Harvey Keitel, Garfunkel really holds his own. I don't know much about Garfunkel's acting career after this film, but I wonder if it was all he thought it was going to be. Just think how much more he and Simon could have done. Ah, the possibilities...

Aside #2 – A film with the title The Only Living Boy in New York will be released in 2006.

Monday, December 19, 2005

"Zora and the Zombie" by Andy Duncan: An Appreciation

"What is the truth?"

Those are the perfect words to open Andy Duncan's "Zora and the Zombie." Truth is exactly what writer Zora Neale Hurston is looking for in 1936 Haiti, any type of truth she can use as potential story material. When she learns of a woman thirty years dead wandering a local road, Hurston knows she's found her material. (Along the way, of course, she'll find a whole lot more.)

The stunning thing about the story is that it could all be true. We know from her non-fiction book Tell My Horse that Hurston did visit Haiti, did meet "zombie" Felicia Felix-Mentor, and did become the first person to photograph one of the living dead. As for the rest of the story, if it didn't happen the way Andy Duncan writes it, it sure feels like it did.

It feels true because Andy knows his setting and characters so well. Sure, all good writers know how to make setting and character come alive, but Duncan's stories don't feel researched, they feel lived in. For all I know, Andy Duncan has observed a drum-frenzied truth ceremony, has ridden in a crowded tap-tap bumping along a dusty, pothole-ridden highway, and has probably met a coven of red-robed cannibals on an abandoned moonlit road.

Duncan latches onto historical details, savors them, and sprinkles them in exactly the right places. Even if you can't find Haiti on a map, as you read the story, you know exactly what it feels like to be there. If Andy had been around in the 1940's, I Walked with a Zombie producer Val Lewton would have no doubt hired him as a consultant.

Duncan also understands the essential relationship between setting and character. The arrogant doctor, the frightened housekeeper, the temptress Erzulie – they're all perfect extensions of the Haitian setting. But it's Zora who's the stranger, and the story's most fascinating character. With masterful strokes, Duncan shows us Hurston's brazen confidence in the presence of the arrogant Dr. Legros, her boldness in standing toe-to-toe with a goddess, and her subtle use of sexuality to get what she wants. By the end of the story, you know this character.

Writing historical figures into fiction can be dangerous, but Duncan has previously done so in expert fashion with Abraham Lincoln ("Lincoln in Frogmore"), General George S. Patton "Fortitude"), and several others. With Zora Neale Hurston, the results are just as impressive. In the introduction to "Zora and the Zombie" in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror Eighteenth Annual Collection, Duncan states, "If this story inspires others to seek out her work, I'm happy."

Anytime a historical figure appears in a work of fiction and leaves the reader hungering to learn more, the writer has done his job. Duncan has done that and told a great story in the process. Thanks, Andy. And thanks, Ellen, for sharing it with us.

Read "Zora and the Zombie" here

Read appreciation on main site

Read other SCIFICTION story appreciations

Friday, December 16, 2005

A small sample. Posted by Picasa

15 Things about Books

Inspired by Clarion buds John, Trent, and Dr. Phil, here we go...

1. I love books. As goofy as that sounds, I really do love them. I can spend hours in libraries and bookstores, salivating over shelf after shelf of great reading. I remember loving books even before I could read them. I have vivid memories of picking up my older brother's science fiction paperbacks (the only size I could hold) and thrilling over the colorful covers and delighting in how I could fan the pages back and forth. There's just something right about the feel of a book in your hands. It still feels that way now.

2. Books are really simple, when you think about it. I mean every aspect of it is simple from inception to completion. Someone thinks up a story, some publisher prints the book, some store puts the book on a shelf, and someone buys it and reads it. It's really simple. (Until someone -- or some corporation -- makes it complicated.)

3. It's also simple – and amazing – that I can sit in my study and pick up The Iliad (or any classic) and read the thoughts of someone who lived centuries ago. Homer never dreamed that some clown in a place called Maryland in a country he'd never heard of was going to read his words and become captivated by them. And yet I can read a story from a collection by Dale Bailey (which I did last night), someone who's living right now, and email him about how "The Resurrection Man's Legacy" affected me. Books have an incredible power.

4. A book can be used, worn, ratty, falling apart -- and it's still valuable. CDs wear out. So do movies. But even if someone rips out every single page of my copy of Till We Have Faces and spreads it out on the floor, it's still going to be precious to me. Forever.

5. Having said that, I do treasure the few signed first editions I have from authors I deeply respect and admire. It's like having a bit of them with you always.

6. And the books that I treasure I put in Brodart protective covers. (You should too.)

7. I love hearing about books from people who are passionate about them.

8. I love discovering a book that someone else has led me to, a book that they've loved.

9. I love giving books.

10. Maybe it's the teacher in me, but there's nothing that gives me more joy than watching kids' eyes light up they buy a book or their parents/grandparents buy them books. That's magic.

11. There are so many of them. And so many types. Eugene Corporon, Director of Bands at the University of North Texas, has stated many times that programming music for the Wind Symphony is extremely challenging, not because there's not enough great music, but because there's too much of it. I actually heard him say once that he struggles with which pieces to record – he's concerned that he only has a limited amount of time on this earth and it's not enough to program all the great music that's already been written, much less the great new works that are constantly being written. I feel the same way about reading books.

12. Thank God for audiobooks. I can "read" twice as much now.

13. Whenever Cindy complains about my book addiction, I always remind her that I'm not addicted to drugs, booze or gambling, don't run around with other women, don't get arrested, and don't stir up (much) trouble. "I can't argue with that," she always says, as I step up to the bookstore counter.

14. I want to become close friends with someone who builds beautiful bookcases.

15. Books will never die. Never.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Best of 2005 Part Five: Novels

As usual, I didn't read nearly as many new releases as I would have liked, but I did run across several good ones.

Tor was responsible for two of my favorite reads of the year, Paul Park's A Princess of Roumania, the first in what promises to be a wonderful trilogy featuring gorgeous writing and complex characters. I didn't want Andreas Eschbach's The Carpet Makers (translated from the German by Doryl Jensen) to end, but when it did, I was blown away. Eschbach is one of the few writers who can successfully combine elements of sf and fantasy. Let's hope we see more of his works translated soon.

In horror, Tom Piccirili's paperback original November Mourns is an extremely creepy tale of revenge in the Deep South. I don't know how much time Piccirili's spent down there, but he knows the true horrors that can be found in backwoods areas you'd rather not visit. A lighter, yet effective read was first-time writer Cherie Priest's Four and Twenty Blackbirds, which is actually an expansion of an earlier novella. Priest is a writer to watch – she's got a great voice, the right mix of humor and tension, and the ability to keep the pages turning. The ending was a bit of a disappointment, but don't let that keep you from giving it a look.

I don't normally read Romance, but I'm glad I picked up Clarion buddy Marjorie M. Liu's first novel Tiger Eye. This paranormal romance is a great ride, full of fun, adventure, danger, and of course, romance. Plus the writing is fantastic. Keep 'em coming, Marjorie!

Jeffrey Ford's The Girl in the Glass came out this year and I liked it, but I loved his 2002 novel The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque. If you haven't read Ford, this is a great place to start.

I didn't read very many mystery/detective novels, but I did enjoy Michael Connelly's The Closers, even though 2003's Lost Light is a better book.

Some of the other books I enjoyed this year:

Motherless Brooklyn (1999) – Jonathan Lethem
The Plot Against America (2004) – Philip Roth
The Good House (2003) and My Soul to Keep (1997) – Tananarive Due (I don't know why more people don't know about Due. She's fantastic.)
Declare(2001) – Tim Powers
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (2004) – Susanna Clarke
Tainaron (2004) – Leena Krohn
Veniss Underground (2003) – Jeff VanderMeer
The Things They Carried (1990) – Tim O'Brien
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962) – Ken Kesey
Dracula (1897) – Bram Stoker
The Dying Earth (1950) – Jack Vance

Monday, December 12, 2005

Best of 2005 Part Four: Short Fiction

I'm afraid you won't find many stories on my list that were actually written in 2005. I wish I had more time and money to keep up with current stories. Yeah, I know, it's a lame excuse, but I do subscribe to F&SF and try to pick up a few magazines throughout the year. It's just easier to read a couple of the Best of the Year anthologies. (And I haven't even finished those yet!)

But of the stories that came out in 2005, I'd have to say my favorites are both by Kelly Link, "Magic for Beginners" and "Stone Animals," both of which are included in her collection Magic for Beginners. These are stories that I can't wait to read again, soaking up everything in them. (And there's a lot in them.)

Other stories I enjoyed:

"Coming to Terms" – Eileen Gunn (2004)
"Madonna of the Maquiladora" – Gregory Frost (2002)
"Singing My Sister Down" – Margo Lanagan (2004)
"Sergeant Chip" – Bradley Denton (2004)
"The Baum Plan for Financial Independence" – John Kessel (2004)
"The Voluntary State" – Christopher Rowe (2004)
"The Calorie Man" – Paolo Bacigalupi (2005)
"The Best Christmas Ever" – James Patrick Kelly (2004)
"The Revenge of the Calico Cat" – Stephen Chapman (2004)

And a few older ones:

"The Day Before the Revolution" – Ursula K. Le Guin (1974)
"The River Styx Runs Upstream" – Dan Simmons (1982)
"Salvador" – Lucius Shepard (1984)
"The Jaguar Hunter" – Lucius Shepard (1985)

Out of genre, I enjoyed several stories by T.C. Boyle, Ann Beattie, Kevin Brockmeier, and my absolute favorite Southern writer, Flannery O'Connor.

I read several good collections this year, the best of which are:

Magic for Beginners (2005) – Kelly Link
Attack of the Jazz Giants (2005) – Gregory Frost
Black Juice (2004) – Margo Lanagan
The Fantasy Writer's Assistant (2002) – Jeffrey Ford
Beluthahatchie and Other Stories (2000) – Andy Duncan

Next time: Novels

Saturday, December 10, 2005

At Clarion 2004 Posted by Picasa

Best of 2005 Part Three: Young Adult

I read more YA titles this year than I did in 2004 and most of them were very good. YA is a hot market right now, but it's also packed with some extremely talented writers.

The Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy for Teens (2005, Jane Yolen and Patrick Nielsen Hayden, eds.) was a very welcome volume featuring some great stories, but for some reason, Tor has decided not to continue the series (although apparently sales are very good.) Hey, Tor – WAKE UP! This is a book that's actually needed! Not only does the anthology introduce readers of all ages to some great spec fic, it also suggests further reading with each story. I just can't imagine not making this anthology an annual event.

Up until last week, Thirsty (1997) by M.T. Anderson was the best YA book I discovered this year. It's a very dark book, but does a great job of capturing the utter confusion and despair of adolescence. It was at the top of my list until I read another Anderson book, Feed (2002).

In the future, all children have a feed (sort of like a computer chip) in their heads. The feed is like a little computer – you can link with your friends to chat, you can look up information, shop, just about anything. Companies also use the feed to show you (based on your previous purchases and desires) what products you need when you need them. (Sound familiar?) Feed is an outrageously funny, yet terrifying look at where we as a society are going. Or maybe we're already there.

I've talked to some people that didn't like Feed because it's somewhat bleak and uses a lot of profanity, neither of which bothered me. Some teenagers' lives are bleak; it's the world we live in. That goes for language, too. Anderson really knows how kids talk and he's not afraid to present it.

Here are some other outstanding YA books that I enjoyed this year:

Growing Wings – Laurel Winter (2000)
The House of the Scorpion – Nancy Farmer (2002)
Midnighters 1: The Secret Hour – Scott Westerfeld (2004)
The Devil's Arithmetic – Jane Yolen (1988)

Now Playing = A Christmas Song – Russ Taff
Now Reading = Vellum – Hal Duncan (Hey, it's a long book, okay?)

Friday, December 09, 2005

Best of 2005 Part Two: Non-Fiction

My non-fiction reading is really all over the place. So many subjects grab my interest and there's so much written about each topic that it just gets frustrating. Sometimes I end up reading nothing about a particular topic because there's just too many choices (and not enough time).

As of this writing, I've read 80 books this year. 20 of them have been non-fiction. I don't know if that's a good ratio of fiction to non-fiction, whatever a good ratio would entail. Some of the non-fiction titles were about writing, some were about topics that interested me for only a brief time. Some I could have done without completely.

The most disappointing non-fiction book I read was His Excellency by Joseph Ellis, a short biography of George Washington. The problem: it was too short, too generic. Plus the writing wasn't very engaging.

Also disappointing was Frank M. Robinson's Science Fiction of the 20th Century, an over-sized history of sf/f magazines. The photos of the old magazine covers were fun to look at, but the text was pretty convoluted and often a downright mess. It seemed that Robinson tried too hard to cover the history of the century's magazines, stories, writers, artists, and publishing trends. When you try to cover everything, sometimes nothing comes out right.

I've really gotten into baseball over the past couple of years, but was embarrassed that I knew so little about it. To help correct my baseball shortcomings, I read and enjoyed Johnny Bench's The Complete Idiot's Guide to Baseball. So many of the Idiot's books I've seen aren't very helpful, but this one covers much more than the basics and actually makes you want to read more on the game. (Bench does, however, spend too much time lauding his beloved Cincinnati Reds. But hey, it's his book.)

Faithful by die-hard Red Sox fans Stewart O'Nan and Stephen King (Yes, that Stephen King.) was a pretty good chronicle of the Sox's 2004 championship season, but didn't convey enough of the excitement of the postseason (especially the ALCS) for me.

Oddly enough, the most enjoyable non-fiction book I read this year was Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don't by Jim Collins (author of Built to Last). Collins and his research team studied hundreds of U.S. companies over a period of several years and determined the ones that made the transition from a good company to a great one. Only eleven companies made the cut. What they have in common is fascinating and sometimes surprising. For me, the book was more about how you treat people than building businesses.

Next time = The Best Young Adult Books

Now Playing = Blue - Joni Mitchell
Now Reading = Vellum - Hal Duncan

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

The Best of 2005 Part One

First, I should qualify my list by saying not everything I read/watched/listened to this year was actually from 2005. Especially with reading, there's so much old and new stuff I want to read, it's tough to make choices. So you'll see quite a few things on the list that didn't come out this year, I just experienced them for the first time in 2005.

I wish I had time to see more films on the big screen, but I just don't. I only saw about a half dozen movies in the theatres. Of those, the best of the lot was Crash, overdone in some ways, but still powerful.

On DVD, I really liked two films from 2003 and 2004, respectively, House of Sand and Fog and a Korean movie recommended by my friend Kelly Shaw, Oldboy.

I've talked to several people who are indifferent towards Bob Dylan, yet were glued to Martin Scorsese's No Direction Home, chronicling Dylan's life and music from 1961-66. In the first few minutes, Scorsese delivers the acoustic Dylan and the electric Dylan, then shows you how they both came to be and how each changed music (and popular culture) forever. I've watched it three times and can't wait to see it again.

I don't buy a lot of new music and probably should expand my listening territory more, but here's what I liked in 2005:

Everybody Loves a Happy Ending - Tears for Fears (2004)
Like a lot of their stuff, it's very approachable pop, but miles better than most of what passes for "pop" these days.

Van Lear Rose – Loretta Lynn (2004)
Fans of Lynn and Jack White (from the White Stripes) probably never dreamed a collaboration would work, but this album has several great cuts. "Portland Oregon" is downright contagious and "Miss Being Mrs." is one of the loneliest country songs ever (and that's saying something).

Now Here is Nowhere – Secret Machines (2004)
Nobody I've talked to has heard of these guys. They're very loosely classified as an alternative Led Zeppelin, but that tag doesn't really fit. If they don't go too commercial, they should continue to produce more good stuff.

No Direction Home: Bootleg Vol. 7 – Bob Dylan (2005)
What can you say? All of the Bootleg volumes are great and this one's no exception, combining some of Bob's early stuff with some nifty alternate versions.

The Way Up – Pat Metheny (2005) Love everything the guy does.

As much as I enjoyed all of these somewhat recent discs, nothing blew me away like Kelly Joe Phelps' Roll Away the Stone (1997), featuring wonderful acoustic blues and powerful vocals that sound like Kelly's stood on the brink of disaster only to find the miracle of redemption. Man, this is good.

Next – Books and stories

Now Playing = Oscar Peterson Christmas
Now Reading = Four and Twenty Blackbirds - Cherie Priest (almost finished)

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Learning from Rejection

Got a rejection over the weekend that actually helped. The editor seemed to think "Fingerpaint" is a pretty good story, but passed on it because the setting needed a little more explaining. That actually helps tremendously. It confirmed something about the story I already suspected, so it was not a big surprise. Plus I know how to fix it...always a plus. Ain't life grand?

Now Playing = Sunday's Child - Phil Keaggy
Now Reading = Hmmmmmm....I have both The Iliad (Fitzgerald translation) and M.T. Anderson's Feed on CD from the library...I have a feeling which one Trent will recommend...