Thursday, December 01, 2011

Catching up

Not going to lie: with the release of Believe in Me on Nov. 29, it’s gotten extra tough to keep up with multiple blogs, etc.  So this time we’re going to go a little short on verbiage and long on linkage.  Focus of the moment is obviously promoting the book, so here we go…

Will hope to come back and add to this in the weeks ahead… as well as get back to book reviews, Giants baseball and other random nonsense.  In the meantime, thanks for paying attention.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Believe in Me: cover art revealed

When you've been working on something for as long as I've been working on my forthcoming novel Believe in Me (would you believe, I started the first draft in 2002?), you'd think something as simple as a peek at the cover art wouldn't rise to the level of thrilling. Yet there I was earlier this week, staring at the four-inch screen of my iPhone, thoroughly dazzled to see what my publisher Mark Doyon of Wampus Multimedia had come up with.  Leading up to that moment we'd talked at some length about what really constituted the essence of the story, and how to capture those ideas and emotions in a simple, immediately memorable image.  All I can say is, Mark nailed it.  In a single stroke, he made my characters' world real.  And I'm thrilled.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

So, here's the thing: I wrote a book

Now, that headline probably doesn’t come as a huge surprise.  As most who read this blog know, I’ve been writing non-fiction about music for 15 years now in the form of reviews and interviews for The Daily Vault; it was really only a matter of time before that became the nucleus for an attempt at fiction as well.

The end result is Believe in Me, a novel of “musical fiction” that will be published in e-book form by Wampus Multimedia on Nov. 29.  There is no physical book, at least not at this stage; instead, I’m joining my friend Wampus Creative Director Mark Doyon out on the electronic frontier.  Wampus has been publishing e-books for several years now, in between releasing some of the most imaginative, challenging, literate indie-rock albums out there.

I could go on with a whole lot of blah blah blah about the story and such here, but Wampus has already set up a couple of places for that to happen, so if you’re so inclined, please join me at and/or to learn more.  Bottom line: I hope you’ll enjoy the book, and that if you do, you’ll tell your friends. That’s how this stuff works circa 2011: it’s all about spreading the word, one e-mail, Facebook status, blog post and tweet at a time.

(Oh, and just for the record, I'm not abandoning this blog... it will be back at some point in the future.  After all, I have a lot of reading list left to explore!)

Take care and don't be a stranger.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Good reads: Life v. Art

For my birthday this year a friend gave me two books that were logical choices, yet books I wouldn’t have bought for myself. I ended up fascinated by both for very different reasons.

The common thread of the books is rock and roll in the ’60s and ’70s, kind of a natural for a guy of a certain age who’s written 535 album reviews and counting. That and the two narratives’ occasional brief intersections aside, though, this pair of autobiographical pieces could hardly be more different.

We’ve known for a long time now that Keith Richards is (a) a brilliant musician who co-composed some of the most memorable rock and roll songs of the ’60s and ’70s, (b) an incorrigible, unrepentant, world-class hedonist, and (c) possibly also kind of a dick. His massive, rambling, deliriously candid memoir Life reminds us of the first two and confirms the third. Richards’ memory is remarkable for having been at one time the most famous junkie on earth; other than the occasional blackouts, he seems to have registered and stored away most of what was happening around him even at his most debauched.

In the end—which takes a long time getting to in this 547-page tome—the clearest message offered by Life is that Richards is a man who regrets nothing, least of all his own regrettable attitudes toward women ("bitches"), gays ("poofters"), parenting (he made his young son his on-tour houseboy as he traversed the depths of heroin addiction), and even his musical other half and longtime frenemy Mick Jagger. Jagger, to his credit, has not responded publicly to the many jibes Richards throws his way in Life -- so a veteran rock journalist by the serendipitous name of Bill Wyman has done it for him, penning an absolutely brilliant imagined response by Sir Mick. It should really be required reading for anyone who completes Richards’ winding, entertaining-when-not-horrifying, largely amoral and deeply self-serving tome.

Standing in stark contrast to Richards’ celebration of self is Patti Smith’s exquisite memoir Just Kids, a celebration of two young artists’ drive to create and the complicated relationship they forged and re-forged within that charged environment. Smith deftly and inexorably draws the reader into her life as a sometimes literally starving artist in early 1970s New York City, all the while tracing her long, layered, sometimes fraught relationship with the “hippie shepherd boy” who would later become the noted and controversial photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.

Smith’s is a book I didn’t particularly expect to enjoy—my relationship with both her music and Mapplethorpe’s photography is one of detached respect, an admiration for their technique and execution rather than any sort of personal connection with their art. What Just Kids accomplishes through Smith’s gorgeously constructed sentences and vignettes is to expose the roots of their art even as it’s describing their struggle to create it. 

I’m not done with Just Kids yet, but am captivated by it, and in awe of the drive to create that lies at its core. Best known as a poet and musical visionary (the “godmother of punk,” some have called her), Smith’s only real misstep in my eyes is that she hasn’t spent more time working with prose over the years; perhaps now she will.  And of course, it doesn’t hurt my appreciation for Just Kids that one of the gigs Smith landed in her varied efforts to scrape together a living while working on her poetry was writing album reviews. Hope springs eternal.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Good reads: "The horror... the horror..."

After a long break from the genre, I read a couple of novels this past year that at least nominally fall into the horror category.

As a teenager, my favorite author was Stephen King.  ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining and The Stand remain touchstones of my early adolescence, and I still own a good chunk of the man’s catalogue, though I shed a few of his thicker and less memorable ’80s and ’90s novels in our 2009 move. I think even the ever-frank King would agree he hit a sort of rhythm in that period where his stories became somewhat formulaic. I’ve continued to enjoy his short-story collections—they’re always a kick, full of tightly-written bite-sized morsels and O. Henry endings—but I stayed away from the novels for a number of years until picking up the well-reviewed Under The Dome last year.

Under The Dome is not, strictly speaking, a horror novel, although a number of horrible things happen in it… it’s more like a mash-up of Our Town and Lord of the Flies, with a bit of ’50s B-movie sci-fi thrown in for seasoning. To wit: an entire small town in rural Maine is suddenly, inexplicably encased in a perfectly clear, almost impenetrable, mile-high dome that cuts it off from the outside world. This offers abundant opportunity for King to do what he does best—examine with a keen eye and ear how ordinary people react under the most extreme circumstances imaginable.

A few near-stereotypes are present—the instinctively heroic military veteran, the devious and megalomaniacal used car magnate, the straight-arrow small-town New England newspaper publisher—but King gives them depth and shading aplenty and comes up with one of his most convincingly horrific creations in the person of Junior Rennie, a small-town bully whose brain tumor turns him into a depraved serial killer even as his manipulating daddy gets him installed him as part of the town’s emergency police force. There were also a couple of twists that I didn’t see coming (although I might have “smoked out” one of them if I’d started watching Breaking Bad before reading the book), and King’s writing feels energized in a way it hasn’t for me in some time.  Under The Dome was a solid read and a keeper. Welcome back, Steve.

Mr. King also supplied a laudatory jacket quote that contributed to my decision to pick up Justin Cronin’s The Passage. Not that I have a constant jones for either post-apocalyptic survival stories or vampires, but when the author of two of the best novels ever written on those particular subjects praises a post-vampire-apocalypse novel, it might be worth a look.

And it was. Cronin, a writer once better known for the literary novels Mary and O’Neil and The Summer Guest (the former a PEN/Hemingway Award winner), dives into the genre with aplomb and recognizes instinctively how to drive this sort of narrative forward in a way that’s both captivating and satisfying. There’s always a necessary balance between answering all of the obvious what-if questions about a world-changing event, while at the same time keeping you engaged with and invested in the characters’ very basic struggles to survive in an extraordinarily hostile world.  Cronin’s insights about how a crumbling modern society might react, and what sort of physical and socio-cultural landscape that reaction might leave behind for the survivors a generation later, are sharp and feel remarkably realistic considering the sci-fi-with-hints-of-supernatural nature of the disaster that strikes humanity.

The ambitious Cronin has declared The Passage to be the opening act of a planned trilogy, and he structures his narrative well for that plan, delivering a finish that satisfies while leaving many more questions and possible directions unexplored for the forthcoming chapters in the story. Count me in.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Breaking Bad: an appreciation

So, I’ll get back to writing about my reading list—which keeps growing—very soon, but just this moment, my imagination has been captured by a TV series about meth dealers.

No, really.

Some of you know this already—one of you turned me onto the show, after all—but I’m speaking of Breaking Bad, the cable series on AMC starring Golden Globe winner Bryan Cranston (formerly best known as the dad from Malcolm in the Middle) and created/produced/often written by Vince Gilligan, who used to be one of the main writers on The X-Files. I never expected to become a fan of a show with such a dark premise, but the acting is terrific and the writing… the writing is completely brilliant.

As the series begins Walt, played with total erupting-out-of-the-middle-aged-doldrums conviction by Cranston, feels like his life has been a failure. Once a promising but congenitally passive scientist, the on-the-cusp-of-50 Walt has watched his former partner take his best idea and build a successful company around it while Walt has languished for 20 years as a barely-scraping-by high school chemistry teacher. He loves his wife Skyler—pregnant with an unexpected second child—and his son, Walt Jr., who is a typical 15-year-old in every respect except that he has cerebral palsy, but the rest of his life is one unending humiliation.

Money is already tight when Walt learns in the first episode that he has stage four lung cancer (ironic because he does not smoke), with a year, maybe two to live. The next day he goes on a ride-along with his DEA agent brother-in-law and sees one of his former students (the luckless, mostly well-meaning loser Jesse) escaping from the meth lab the agents are in the process of busting. He also sees the rolls and rolls of cash the agents recover at the house, and an idea forms… Walt may be doomed, but he can leave his wife and kids well off rather than destitute—be their hero financially if in no other way—if he can team up with Jesse to cook and sell meth.

Needless to say, complications ensue, not the least of which is that Walt is both an excellent meth chef, and smarter than almost everyone he has to deal with in that world. He doesn’t like what he’s doing, but he does like how it makes him feel—powerful and finally, for once, in control of his life.

What prompted me to write about the show this morning, though, was the brilliant episode I just watched last night, episode ten of season two, titled “Over.” At this point I’m going to put up a big

*********************** SPOILER ALERT ***********************

so that no one reads any further if they want to check out the series for themselves. (Seasons one and two are on DVD now, and season three should be coming out before long. Season four is scheduled to start in June.)

In the previous episode, Walt becomes convinced by the hacking cough he’s developed and the blurry shape he sees on his preliminary medical scan results (that the technician won’t talk with him about) that the end is near. So he calls Jesse and they go on a marathon four-day meth-cooking binge that’s full of comic complications, with Walt’s MacGyver-ish science abilities ultimately rescuing them.

The kicker, though, comes at the end, when Walt and his family sit down together in the doctor’s office and hear the scan results—Walt is in remission, the tumors have shrunk 80 percent and the cough and the blur on the scan were side-effects of the chemo and radiation treatments that have saved his life. He’s not dying, his family is delighted… and he slips off into the bathroom alone and pounds his knuckles bloody against the towel dispenser.

That’s the setup for “Over,” in which Walt tries to figure out what this means. At first, he calls Jesse for a meet and says, sell what we’ve got, we’ll split the money, and then we can both walk away. A big clue that this is far from over, though, comes when Walt continues to shave his head, even though he finished chemo weeks ago. Then his wife throws a celebration for him, at which Walt spends his time sulking, drinking and generally behaving poorly. When asked to say something to the assembled group of friends he will say only this: “When they told me I had cancer, I thought, ‘Why me?’ And then when they told me I was in remission, I thought the same thing.”

The next day he apologizes, telling his wife “That wasn’t me, that was, I don’t know, someone else.” And then begins furiously working on a home repair project, ultimately ending up on his back in the crawl space literally shoring up the subfloor of his family home (and you’d better believe that symbolism was intentional). But you can see he’s deeply frustrated, to the point of obsession. Now that he’s no longer dying, everyone in his life wants everything to go back to the way it was… but other than his wife and son, Walt hated everything about his life the way it was. He felt defeated and powerless and constantly a victim.

In the episode’s final scene, he goes to the local big-box hardware store to get some mold-resistant primer to apply to his house repairs, walks down the aisle with a can in each hand, and comes across a shopping cart filled with what he immediately recognizes as a large buy of the ingredients needed to cook meth. The cart’s sketchy-looking owner returns and Walt glares at him before launching into a whispered rant in which he tells him everything he’s doing wrong—wrong ingredients, wrong approach (buy different components at different stores, and never in quantity), etc.—until the guy wordlessly flees the store.

Walt then gets in line to buy his primer, but something has already clicked over in his mind and he leaves the cans on the floor, leaves the checkout line and marches out into the parking lot, where he finds the sketchy customer explaining what happened to his muscle-bound, biker-ish minder. Walt marches right up to the two of them and does an old-West staredown with Muscles, the sort of tough guy he would instinctively have run from three months before.

After a long face-off, Walt finally hisses out five words: “Stay out of my territory.” The other two back off slowly, get in their van and leave Walt standing alone in the parking lot. He won’t go back to his old life; he can’t. He’s become a different person… and for better or for worse, he likes it.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Return of Good Reads: Robert B. Parker redux & requiem

I don’t generally do New Year’s resolutions. Let’s face it; in recorded history, what percentage of them has lasted beyond February 15th?

But just for the sake of argument, let’s pretend I made some this year. Two of them would have been: read more, and write more. Nothing like a busy schedule and a touch of OCD to convince me I could more or less do both simultaneously by writing more about what I’m reading. And so… off we go, yet again. (There will of course be occasional interruptions for baseball, politics, etc. along the way, but that sort of thing tends to end up on Facebook these days and I’m not going to double post.)

So. Overall, 2010 was a solid year, reading-wise. I didn’t do that much heavy reading – a lot of comfort-food books, I’ll cop to that – but it was good stuff, and some interesting tangents developed along the way. Today’s entry is going to focus on the biggest loss for me as a reader this year: Robert B. Parker, who passed away quite suddenly in January at a robust 77 years of age.

Parker’s wisecracking yet wise Spenser and his memorable cast of supporting characters have been the focus of one of the most venerated and honored series in mystery fiction for nearly 40 years. Parker also successfully launched three other character-driven series in recent years, two mystery series focusing on small-town police chief Jesse Stone and Boston detective Sunny Randall, respectively, and a series of Westerns about quiet but deadly friends Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch. (The Stone books have been adapted into a series of successful TV movies starring Tom Selleck as a somewhat older but equally troubled Jesse Stone; and Appaloosa, the first of the Westerns, was made into a terrific feature film with Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen.)

Parker’s passing means the end of all four series, though he was so prolific in his later years that he was five or six books ahead of his quarterly publishing schedule at the time he died, so that new releases will continue through 2011. After gobbling up The Professional (2010’s typically engaging Spenser paperback) and the third in Parker’s terrific Western series (Brimstone), I decided to delve into some of his more tangential work to satisfy my craving for his lean, witty style. The Boxer And The Spy and Chasing The Bear are young adult novels, the former an original and the latter a story of Spenser as a teenager. Both were like small plates at a favorite restaurant—tasty but not substantial enough to be entirely satisfying.

Gunman’s Rhapsody, a retelling of the Wyatt Earp story, was oddly frustrating. In attempting to tell a true tale as faithfully as he could, Parker managed to muddy the waters in several directions at once, I think. The story doesn’t flow as you might wish because real-life events rarely take on the rhythms and plot-development pace of a good novel, and by virtue of the fact that the Earps’ entourage and approach to confrontation bear significant similarities to Spenser’s own fictional milieu, the whole exercise ends up feeling a bit like Spenser Gunfights at the O.K. Corral.

Let’s set the analysis aside for the last part here, though, and focus on the real world. The most remarkable thing that happened in the post-RBP world of 2010 was this: after decades of being known by readers mainly through references made by Parker in interviews, his wife Joan and sons David and Daniel chose to remember his life by starting a Facebook page in his honor and beginning for the first time to communicate directly with his many thousands of fans. The quality of the conversation on this page has been faintly astonishing, as family and fans have jointly mourned him as both an author and a man. Each camp, it seems, has been of considerable comfort to the other, and the family’s decision to share various old letters and funny anecdotes about RBP has made it feel at times as if he is still in the room, chuckling softly from the corner at all this fuss about a guy who could never abide pretension, and really just enjoyed spinning a good yarn, and being a father to Daniel and David, and being a partner to his beloved Joan.