Kwik Krimes Available Now

What a day!  I’m so sad to hear that Elmore Leonard has passed away.  He was one of the best crime writers of the 20th century, a legend in his own time.  I’ll need to write a longer post about him, but suffice it to say that one of the greats is gone.  A moment of silence…

But also today brings the very happy news that Kwik Krimes, a best-of-the-web anthology edited by Otto Penzler is now available.  This collection includes my own story “They’ll Call Me Whistlin’ Pete,” originally published by Flash Fiction Offensive a year or so ago.  Penzler contacted me out of the blue and asked if he could included.  I was thrilled, to say the least.  What an honor to be included in this collection.

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The Amazon description of this book has to be one of the most stunning things I’ve ever seen:

“Entire novels are often written about a single crime, detailing every gruesome, dark detail until the last drop of blood spatters across the page. Yet in this mystery anthology, renowned editor and author Otto Penzler weaves together to heart-stopping effect more than ninety tales of brutality, terror, and unexpected demise, with each story told in a swift one thousand words or less.

“These crimes may be fast in both form and fallout, but none lack the dark impulses that too often guide human hands to ill ends. Prepare to be transported into the diabolical schemes of criminal masterminds…into robberies and pranks gone horribly awry…into closets crammed with skeletons…into families bound not by love but wickedness.

“Authors include Peter Blauner, Ken Bruen, Rob W. Hart, K. A. Laity, Tasha Alexander, Patricia Abbott, Bruce DeSilva, Chuck Caruso, Gregory Gibson, Joe R. Lansdale, and many more.”

I can’t believe my own name is so casually included in that string of writers who I’ve read and admired for years.  Ken Bruen?  Joe Lansdale?  Wow!

We’ll see how people like the anthology, but the early reviews seem favorable.  My own copy hasn’t arrived yet, but I can’t wait to dig in.  This is a collection I would have been excited to read anyway.  And I’m in it.  Did I already mention that?

Anyway, just had to share the good news.  Can’t wait to hear what you think of it.

Review of Valhalla Rising

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To say that Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising (2009) is a quiet film is not to say that it lacks impact or even action.  There’s not as much action as a typical Hollywood film-goer has been trained to expect, but when violence erupts on screen you can almost feel the blows against your own flesh. Yet, I would still say the film is quiet. As the protagonist, Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen utters not a single line of dialogue during the film’s entire hour-and-a-half running time, and very few of the other actors say much more than that.  But even without much dialogue this film speaks volumes more than lesser films manage with their empty banter and their relentless if barely coherent plots.

Some will complain that this film doesn’t have enough of a plot, but again that all depends on what you’re used to seeing on the screen.  Valhalla Rising satisfies itself with a simple and almost plodding story. Ultimately, this film isn’t very concerned with that bare-bones plot; it has other things in mind.  The story, such as it is, follows Mikkelsen as One Eye, a stoic warrior who escapes from slavery as a gladiator and joins a somewhat confused Viking Crusade that sets sail from the Scottish Highlands and ends up in “Hell.”  Mute and half-blind, One Eye proves himself adept surviving through barbaric times with only his brawn, brains and unflinching willingness to use brute force against just about anyone and everyone.  But again, the action that strings this film into a somewhat puzzling story doesn’t begin to describe the visual experience of watching it.

This film compels with its beautiful cinematography.  Under a hypnotic soundtrack, we are stunned by shot after shot of the emerald green highlands, gorgeous evening skies, underwater blues and reds, bare skin speckled with crimson blood, hair matted with mud.  I suspect the problem for most viewers, and the reason this film hasn’t garnered more attention, is that Valhalla Rising is neither fish nor fowl.  The violence is far too shocking and graphic for those who enjoy art-house films but the pace is far too slow and the plot too confusing to hold the interest of those looking for action.  This movie seems sort of like Conan the Barbarian as filmed by Ingmar Bergman, if you can imagine such a thing.

For those who can stomach it, this film offers wonderful rewards, but it’s not for everyone.  After two viewings I’m still pondering One Eye’s final enigmatic action.  Personally, I found Valhalla Rising mesmerizing and powerfully moving.

Four out of five stars.

Science Fiction Summer Course

My online science fiction class at Marylhurst University (LIT215E/CMS215E) has gotten off to a lively start with another batch of great students this summer.  I teach this class pretty much every other year, and I’m always finding ways to tweak the syllabus.  This time around our main texts are Robert Silverberg’s excellent Science Fiction Hall of Fame: Volume One, 1929-1964 which we’re using in tandem with Volume One (the 2006 issue) of Jonathan Strahan’s annual Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year series.  These two volumes provide us with a nice variety of science fiction stories across the last century of the genre.  While we can’t read every story for the class, these two books allow us to hit most the high points in the Golden Age from Asimov, Bradbury, and Clarke to some of the standout newcomers to the field, like Ian McDonald and Paolo Bacigalupi.  We also read just three novels: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), which started it all; H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds (1898), which isn’t my personal favorite of his works but which introduces the important SF theme of alien invasion; and Ursula K. Le Guin’s Dispossessed (1974), which helps us tackle both utopian themes and feminist/gender themes.

To give the students time to read Frankenstein, our first week’s discussion taps into a discussion of the two most culturally prominent SF franchises by reading David Brin’s somewhat dated but still relevant 1999 article “‘Star Wars’ despots vs. ‘Star Trek’ populists”.  I like this piece especially since it allows even those students without much interest or experience with SF to jump right into the fray.  Also, I’ve found people tend to feel pretty passionate about both of these franchises.  We also do a bit of work exploring the line between SF and contemporary technology by reading an interview with noted futurologist Ray Kurzweil and a slightly paranoid rant against the merging of humans with machines by Eric Utne.

This time around I’m also including a lot more films than I have in the past.  This seems important since at least in film and television SF seems to have become accepted as virtually mainstream, whereas SF novels are still somewhat consigned to the genre ghetto except when authors who are already considered “real writers” employ SF tropes in their “serious” work.  This is the only way to account for the different cultural reception of Margaret Atwood and Ursula Le Guin for example.  Yes, Le Guin has achieved broad literary acceptance, but this is often presented as being “in spite” or her being an SF author.  Okay, I know, I know, saying that genre writing isn’t “serious” literature amounts to fighting words in some circles, but the (perhaps) disappearing divide between “high” and “low” art is probably an issue for another blog post.  Scratch that – it’s an issue for a series of blog posts.  I’ll get on that.

So, anyway, we’re watching the following films:

  • Metropolis (1927), dir. Fritz Lang
  • The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), dir. Robert Wise
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), dir. Stanley Kubrick
  • The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), dir. Nicolas Roeg
  • The Matrix (1999), dir. Andy and Laura Wachowski
  • A Scanner Darkly (2006), dir. Richard Linklater
  • Children of Men (2006), dir. Alfonso Cuarón
  • Moon (2009), dir. Duncan Jones
  • Hunger Games (2012), dir. Gary Ross

I know I’ve probably opened up a whole can of space worms by publicizing my selections here, but before you reply with your own suggestions (which I welcome), just remember that this list is not supposed to represent the “best” of SF film.  It’s merely a collection of some interesting films that span a lot of years (skewed toward the present, admittedly).  I also wanted to touch on a wide variety of themes and trends in SF.

As always, I’m reading and viewing alongside my students as the term progresses.  No matter how many times I read Frankenstein, I always find new things to ponder.  I’m also excited because as I wrap up my current project on Edgar Allan Poe, I’m starting to consider attempting a longer academic work about science fiction.  Specifically, I think it might be interesting to perform psychoanalytic readings of Golden Age stories and novels.  I plan to take copious notes this term and see where this idea leads me.

Digital Democracy & American Anti-Intellectualism, Part II

Last week I wrote a post about some of the challenges we face in a digital age where expertise and authority seem to be under constant attack, but I’d like to follow that up here by exploring this issue from a slightly different angle.

What I see as the crux of our current challenge is this: how can we ensure that the digital democratization of human knowledge does not become mired in the same anti-intellectualism that has for so long been a hallmark of our American democracy?

I know what some of you are thinking. How can I say that America is anti-intellectual?  Isn’t it true that we are home to many of the greatest universities in the world, schools that continue to draw the best and brightest from around the globe for graduate studies?

Yes, that may be true, but looking at our culture as a whole, the anti-intellectualist attitude that pervades our country is undeniable. Consider how casually and caustically our politicians and pundits dismiss “experts” and “authorities” when such learned wisdom (or book-learnin’) disagrees with their own cherished personal opinions. Witness how during last fall’s debates before the elections, senatorial candidate Elizabeth Warren’s opponent called her “Professor Warren” as a put-down. True, Professor-cum-Senator Warren still won in Massachusetts but that state prides itself on the prestige surrounding its academic institutions.

By contrast, there are plenty of regions in our country where Warren’s academic credentials would more surely have done her irreparable political damage. Throughout most of the country, American anti-intellecualism is a hard fact. And it’s one I’d guess more than a few of us eggheads had thumped into us in grade school.

This isn’t a new observation. From the 1940’s to the 60’s, historian Richard Hofstadter explored these ideas in his works of social theory and political culture. The most important of Hofstadter’s studies may be Anti-intellectualism in American Life (1964), one of two separate books for which he won the Pulitzer Prize. While Hofstadter saw American anti-intellectualism as part and parcel of our national heritage of utilitarianism rather than a necessary by-product of democracy, he did see anti-intellectualism as stemming at least in part from the democratization of knowledge. Not that he opposed broad access to university education.  Rather, Hofstadter saw universities as the necessary “intellectual and spiritual balance wheel” of civilized society, though he recognized an ongoing tension between the ideals of open access to university education and the highest levels of intellectual excellence.

Of course, important as his work remains, Hofstadter wrote before the dawning of our own digital age. He didn’t grapple with the new challenges presented by an online world where (for better or worse) communication is instantaneous, everything is available all the time, and everyone not only has a voice but has the ability to speak in a polyphony of voices masked in anonymity.

Still, we must be willing to admit that things may not be as dire as all that. As Adam Gopnik has pointed out in the New Yorker (“The Information: How the Internet Gets Inside Us,” Feb. 14, 2011), the World Wide Web is sort of like the palantir, the seeing stone used by wizards in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. It tends to serve as a magnifying glass for everything we view through it.

As such, it’s no surprise that many have viewed the dawn of the Digital Age as signaling the end of everything that made the modern civilized world great. Indeed, for years now, academics and public intellectuals have lamented the way our digital media has seemed to dumb down our discourse, but there are signs of hope.

In his 2009 article “Public Intellectuals 2.1” (Society 46:49-54), Daniel W. Drezner takes a brighter view of the prospects for a new intellectual renaissance in the Digital Age, predicting that blogging and the various other forms online writing can in fact serve to reverse the cultural trend of seeing academics and intellectuals as remote and unimportant to our public life. Drezner argues that “the growth of the blogosphere breaks down—or at least lowers—the barriers erected by a professional academy” and can “provide a vetting mechanism through which public intellectuals can receive feedback and therefore fulfill their roles more effectively”  (50).

Some views are not so optimistic, but it’s true that are great online resources for serious scholarly work and there are even smart people who are thinking amazing thoughts and writing about them online.

But let’s see what a vigorous online discussion can look like. I anxiously look forward to hearing what others have to say about the issues I’ve raised here.

This piece is cross-posted at the Marylhurst University blog:  https://blog.marylhurst.edu/blog/2013/03/26/digital-democracy-american-anti-intellectualism-part-ii/ 

Drowning in Digital Democracy, Part I

It’s become commonplace, and maybe even a little passé, to describe our own ongoing digital revolution as analogous the advent of Gutenberg’s printing press in the 15th century.  Indeed, some points of comparison do continue to seem remarkably apt.  For example, the role of printed documents in spreading new ideas during the Reformation looks a lot like activists using Facebook and Twitter to share news and schedule protests during the Arab Spring.  Both show how technology can be a powerful force for democratization.  (Apologies if I’m stepping on any toes by seeming to valorize the Reformation as a positively democratic movement on the blog of a Catholic university, but you know what I mean.)

However, critics like Adam Gopnik in his New Yorker piece “The Information: How the Internet Gets Inside Us” (Feb. 14, 2011) have been quick to point out that overly enthusiastic interpretations of such revolutionary possibilities not only tend to confuse correlation with causation – that is, did the printing press give rise to the Reformation and the Enlightenment, or did it just help spread the word?  The truth probably rests somewhere in between cause and coincidence, but we should be careful not to ignore the distinction.

Similarly, technology’s vocal cheerleaders seem all too ready to ignore the potential negative aspects of such improved communication technologies – like the inconvenient historical fact that totalitarian regimes have typically printed far more works of propaganda than they’ve destroyed in book burnings.  Dictators figured out quickly that it’s far easier to drown out the voices of opposition than silence them.  Pervasive misinformation can do far more damage than tearing down handbills.

Now, I’m not suggesting that our globalized digital community is a totalitarian regime.  At least on the surface it feels like just the opposite, though Jaron Lanier expresses some dire warnings about what he calls “cybernetic totalism” in his “One-Half of a Manifesto.”  I’ll plan to address Lanier’s thoughts more fully in a future post.  For now, it’s enough to observe that in this brave new world of online culture we’ve adapted to communication being instantaneous, everything being available all the time, and everyone having a voice.  Well, in such an environment, succumbing to the endless seas of unmediated information (and misinformation), the rule of the mob begins to feel like a real possibility.

We’re drowning in digital democracy.

Forgive me if I sound less than perfectly egalitarian here, but when everyone not only has a voice but has the ability to speak in a polyphony of voices masked in anonymity, we’re no longer looking at a lively exchange of ideas.  We’re looking at the well-known horrors of mob rule, and it doesn’t make the stakes any lower or the threats any less real that it’s happening online.

Even in the best of scenarios, when everyone has a voice the quality of the conversation can plummet very quickly.  I’m not talking about those annoying people who use their social media to tell everyone from Boise to Bangladesh that they’re making a batch of chocolate chip cookies.  Those folks are easy enough to avoid and to ignore.

No, my concern is that too many of our students and friends and journalists and politicians and, hell, all of us are relying on Wikipedia and Google.  Not only are we trusting crowd-sourced encyclopedias written by people who may have little or no education or expertise (and some of whom are hoaxers or pranksters), but we’re relying on logarithmically-driven and advertisement-enhanced search engines to provide most (or all) of our information, without pausing to question or to ascertain the authority of what we’re reading.

Not only that, but because of such ready access to information we’re hearing people who are smart enough to know better trumpeting the end of all cultural and social authority.  “The expert is dead,” such digerati claim.  And indeed throughout much of our irreverent, anything-goes society, many people do seem to be acting as if at last the king is dead.

But is it really true that we no longer have any need for cultural, political, and intellectual authority?

No, in fact just the opposite is true.  Greater freedom brings with it greater responsibility.  We now need experts in every field to exert their authority more powerfully than ever.  Reason must lead.  Functional democracies (even digital ones) still need organization and leaders.  Otherwise we’re left with the chaos of a shouting match.

Having a voice is not the same as knowing how to participate a conversation.  Access to information is not the same thing as knowing how to use it.  We didn’t close up schools because every home had a set of encyclopedias.  We didn’t tear down universities because people had access to public libraries.

All those online sources might be fine places to start looking for information, but we need to be constantly vigilant about verifying what we’re accepting as valid and credible.  We also need to get better about documenting and providing links to our sources (as you’ll notice I’m trying to do in these posts).

And finally, we need to make sure we remain very clear about the vital differences between having ready access to information and gaining an education.  Now more than ever, our students need us to teach them how to read, how to research, how to analyze information, and how to participate responsibly in this emerging digital democracy.

Of course, if the Digital Revolution truly lives up to its name, its effects will be further reaching and less predictable than any of us can imagine.  That’s the problem with revolutions – they change everything.

This piece is cross-posted on the Marylhurst University blog: https://blog.marylhurst.edu/blog/2013/03/19/drowning-in-digital-democracy-part-i/

“Hell Fire” Published at The Big Adios

I’m proud to have my new western noir tale “Hell Fire” published as the feature story this week on the new all-western e-zine The Big Adios.  The zine just launched earlier this month and it looks great!  The design and artwork are nicely done.  I’m joining some good company with the other authors there.  The very first story was a dilly called “Missing” by Edward A. Grainger (aka, David Cranmer), author of the highly regarded series featuring outlaw marshall Cash Laramie.  If it’s your first encounter with Cash, it probably won’t be your last.

My own story, “Hell Fire” is another western noir piece in a growing collection of tales set in and around Perseverance, Oregon.  I’m writing these stories in such a way that they inter-connect in various ways, small and large.  The idea is that major characters in one story appear as walk-on players in another character’s tale.  Events that drive one story have echoes or unforeseen implications in another.  The short story collection I’m working on here won’t be a novel exactly because it won’t have a single over-arching plot, but I’m hoping it will have a novelistic effect so that all the stories together can have an impact greater than the sum of the individual parts.

“Hell Fire” starts with a stranger at a campfire asking, “You ever have a woman get you in the God way?”

I hope you’ll take a few moments to stop on by The Big Adios and read the rest of this new story.  Your readership is appreciated and your comments are always welcome.

Review of Django Unchained

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American Director Quentin Tarantino’s latest offering, Django Unchained plays out as a spaghetti western revenge fantasy set in the antebellum Old South instead of the Wild West. Like Tarantino’s other work, this film seems to be primarily concerned with demonstrating its own coolness, from its sharply witty dialogue, to its everything-goes soundtrack, to its lovingly shot cinematography, to its slow-motion explosions of graphic violence.  As its several Oscar nods testify, the larger-than-life spectacle of Django Unchained represents precisely the type of film that puts butts in seats, even with a Christmas Day opening.

As always Tarantino puts his cultural obsessions on full display, with the result that this film will no doubt prove to be as thoroughly adored by his fans as it is reviled by his detractors.  Fellow American director Spike Lee, himself no stranger to making racially charged films, has famously refused even to see Django Unchained on the grounds that it is “disrespectful” to those who suffered slavery.  Even in the pages of Portland’s own cooler-than-thou hipster ragWillamette Week, Matthew Singer (“Unchained and Unrestrained”) has reluctantly admitted the film has super-cool cache before settling in to ask of its director: “But has he made a responsible film?”

That’s a hard question to ask about a mainstream American film.  But in fact exactly these types of questions have been at the core of discussions about art for centuries and have particularly vexed Americans at least since the antebellum era, the same historical period Tarantino views through his own anachronism-tinted lens.  Is the purpose of art fundamentally didactic?  That is, should art be “responsible” to teach us proper moral lessons?  Or must art exist essentially on its own terms representing simply art for art’s sake?  As you can guess without even going into the history of aesthetics, these questions of morality signal some very fundamental issues about art and its social functions.

We’re unlikely to sort through the myriad issues here.  But since the question of morality is one that viewers and reviewers keep asking about Django Unchained, clearly at some level the moral implications of this film need to be addressed.  But first, let’s take a slightly closer look at the film it’s being asked about.

In the title role, Jamie Foxx finds himself suddenly freed from slavery by a German immigrant named Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) who has turned from dentistry to bounty hunting.   Although he despises slavery, Schultz needs Django’s help to find three outlaws.  He pays off a pair of odious slavers, giving them money for Django, but then promptly gets him a horse and frees him.  Then after enlisting the former slave’s help on one job – a job that entails killing three white men on a Tennessee plantation no less – Schultz invites Django to partner with him and collect more bounties.  After Django accepts, Schultz teaches him how to read, how to shoot, and most importantly how to play the various roles he will need to take on as a bounty hunter.  In fact, in many ways this idea of play-acting drives much of the film’s tension for its central characters – the disjunction between appearance and reality.

Consider one of the film’s most brilliant and ridiculous images.  Schultz rides around the countryside in a horse-drawn wagon crowned by a big plaster tooth, an enormous molar that bounces around on a spring attached to the top of the wagon.  The absurdity of that bobbing tooth is one of the films most delightful touches.  It’s vaguely anachronistic and deliberately strange, just like Schultz himself who hasn’t practiced dentistry for years.  He’s gone from removing rotten teeth from people’s mouths to removing rotten people from society.  Schultz makes it a point that he doesn’t attempt to capture these criminals because doing so would presents him with too much personal danger.  Instead, he just kills them outright and turns in their bodies for cash.  Schultz goes about this brutal profession with a knowing grin and snappy patter worthy of a Raymond Chandler novel.  Not only does this demonstrate his unassailable cool in the Tarantino universe, but it also underscores his position as an outsider.

Schultz’s first name is telling here too.  King, like a king, recognizes that laws are essentially fiction but he’s a consummate manipulator of those laws to his own advantage.  Throughout the film, Schultz often makes a point of following the letter of the law, using such legalities and social fictions as a form of domination.  Clearly, Schultz does not respect the “law” of the South’s peculiar institution and this is precisely why he sets about helping Django to subvert it.

Django, on the other hand, despises even the appearance of such “law.”  He plays along only in so far as he must to save his own life and the lives of those he cares about.  Like Schultz, he recognizes that the “law” is arbitrary and cruel.  However, because one cannot finally work revolution from within the system, ultimately Django must become an “outlaw” to rescue his beloved and to enact his revenge.  This playing of roles has revealed to him, and to the viewer, the way in which even seemingly natural social orders are always essentially fiction because they are founded on imaginary constructs.  In order to liberate those oppressed by such ideologies, the entire edifice must be razed.

By playing out its fairly standard western revenge fantasy within the context of the antebellum South, Django Unchained achieves triumph for its hero, and by extension vindicates and cinematically avenges those who suffered under the holocaust of American slavery.  And it accomplishes this feat by subscribing to that same credo of racial empowerment that Spike Lee himself has espoused – “Uplift by any means necessary.”

But is Django Unchained moral?

Indeed, it is not.  To achieve its artistic goals, this film can’t accept such constraints because ultimately art that is deliberately “moral” always shades into the moralistic.  What we term “morality” in such contexts tends to refer to the unquestioning didactic support of the artist’s own social values.  This is why Triumph of Will, Leni Riefenstal’s masterpiece of Nazi propaganda remains the ultimate example of a moral film – it recites for its viewers the lessons they should already have learned so well.  For the same reason, many of Spike Lee’s films, such as Jungle Fever and Bamboozled can be seen as moral films.  They tell us how we’re supposed to think about race.  Of course, Lee is too smart of a filmmaker to make pure propaganda, which is why his best films continue to interest us and provoke important cultural discussions.  But the impulse, by Lee or anyone, to limit films to expressing pre-approved moral messages, whether those ideas are about race or American history or whatever, is frankly troubling.

This film shows us what was or should have been the cultural results of the Civil War – black heroes rising triumphantly against their white oppressors.  Instead, American filmmakers gave us such enshrined classics as Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind, films that have tended validate or whitewash America’s evil past.  For whatever historical inaccuracies it contains, Django Unchained stands as a corrective to such earlier apologia.  It might not beAmistad or The Color Purple but I agree with Bob Cesca’s assessment that this difference is why Django Unchained is one of the most important movies of the year – precisely because it will be seen by such a different audience than those which that saw either of the other films.  Instead, this film shows the ugliness and violence of our national conflicts in all their horrible majesty.  It pits the most treasured of American ideals, those embodied in the gun slinging western hero, against the of the most egregious of America’s offenses against its own notional identity, the institution of human slavery.

Django Unchained stands forth as a truly brilliant film, a deeply American masterpiece of contemporary cinema.

<<This review is cross-posted with the Marylhurst Blog>>

Review of Ready Player One

Ready Player One

Okay, so everybody’s trying to write genre-busting novels these days, but Ernest Cline’s first novel Ready Player One gives us a maniacally magical mash-up of dystopian cyberpunk science fiction, rousing action-adventure with a rag-tag circle of heroic friends fighting against the sort of dastardly evil villains you love to hate, and an expertly tangled mystery in the form of an old-school puzzle-based treasure hunt.  It’s Charlie & the Chocolate Factory meets Hunger Games in the Star Wars universe.

Seriously.   And we’re not done yet.

Take what you’re imagining now and add in a joyful mix of 80’s pop culture references from New Wave music to John Hughes films to the earliest beginnings of Dungeons & Dragons (played with paper and pencil and polyhedral dice) and videogame arcades where you played Joust for a quarter a game until your hands were tired and your pockets were empty.

Yeah, I know, what I’ve just described seems like an awful lot for a debut author to pile onto his plate, but what Cline serves up is a heaping helping of cross-genre goodness.  Ready Player One is truly special.  If you have even the slightest latent streak of 80’s nerdiness or techno-geekiness, I guarantee you’re going to love this book.

Set in a dystopian future not too different from the one we’re heading toward with our perfect storm of economic ruin, climate change, and accelerating digitization, this novel portrays a world where everyone lives in the used up real world but escapes as often as possible into an immersive virtual world called OASIS that’s like a cross between Facebook and the Matrix.  When James Halliday, the multi-billionaire co-creator of this virtual realm, dies he leaves his fortune to whomever in the world can first find and solve a complex series of puzzles he’s hidden in OASIS.  Halliday’s clues are cryptic but they set off a global treasure hunt that has our plucky heroes, led by trailer-park orphan Wayne Wade, competing not only with countless other would-be billionaires but also with nefarious corporations who see an easy chance to use their greater resources to cheat the game and claim Halliday’s fortune.

This baby’s got a tractor beam stronger than the Death Star.  Once you’re sucked into its orbit you won’t put it down until you finish it.  You’ll forget to eat, sleep, bathe or walk the dog.  You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll stomp your feet and scratch your head.  But most of all you won’t want it to end.  This novel is a delight from start to finish and not only because you want to figure out the puzzles but because you need to see what happens to these characters who have started to feel like your own band of best friends.

No joke.  I first read this thing about a year ago and when I picked it back up to recommend it as my favorite paperback novel of 2012, I got pulled back in and had to force myself to lay the book aside so I could write this for you.  So, are we done here?  You’re going to read this book, right?  Good.  Because I’m eager to read this one again right now.  And maybe this time through I’ll even be able to solve the secret puzzle hidden in the text for real world readers.   Cline even promised a tricked out DeLorean to the first person who solves it.  Sure, the contest was a gimmick and the prize has already been won, but this novel is awesome, so even if you don’t get to take home your very own Back to the Future car, you still win!

Five out of five stars. This was my favorite novel that came out in paperback during 2012.

Review of The Sisters Brothers

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Don’t get the wrong idea when you notice that seal on the cover saying that The Sisters Brothers was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.  Yes, this quirky crime novel dressed up in cowboy clothes may owe more to its high-falutin literary roots than to its “genre” kin, but it tells a compelling and character-driven story for all that.  Reviewers have waxed witty in describing this novel, and a number of them have been right on the money.  The LA Times compares this to something that could be written by the author of No Country for Old Men and The Road, that is “if Cormac McCarthy had a sense of humor.”  Esquire magazine describes this novel as “a kind of True Grit told by Tom Waits.”  Both these comparisons are pretty apt.  Sisters Brothers can be grim and violent at times but it wins you over with its strangely loveable characters and its infectiously funny narrative voice.

Our narrator is Eli Sisters, the more amiable of the two title characters, who are a duo of hired killers from Oregon City in 1851.  Hired by a ruthless boss known only as The Commodore, Eli and Charlie set out on a horseback trek to Sacramento, California, where they are to murder a gold miner named Hermann Kermit Warm.  Along the way, the brothers encounter all manner of colorful Old West characters, but I wouldn’t describe the novel as picaresque, as some reviewers have done.  The initial goal of finding and murdering Warm remains the primary motivation of action throughout the novel, even if Charlie and Eli get into other scrapes along the way.

Charlie Sisters is cold-blooded killer, and even if Eli is slightly less of a sociopath than his brother, he’s not above drawing his pistol when he sees red.  As you can well imagine, there’s plenty of brutal violence in this novel, some of it bizarrely casual.  While it’s never gratuitous, readers should still be prepared for some blood.

But any coarseness aside, this is a beautifully written novel.  The prose feels deliberately awkward, almost angular with its choppy yet poetic phrases.  If you’re at all curious about this novel, try reading the first chapter – it’s only two pages long.  That small taste will let you know if this is a book you might fall in love with because what ultimately draws you in here is deWitt’s gift for presenting Eli’s narrative with grace and clarity.  Through the oddly charming voice of this deeply troubled character, we begin to understand and to sympathize with Eli’s slightly off-kilter view of the world.  As readers, we find ourselves connecting with him as he begins to question this horrible way of life that he and his brother have chosen for themselves.  As we turn the pages, we cannot help but hope that the Sisters Brothers can find a way to escape this darkness of their own making.

Review of Big Maria

Last year signaled the arrival of an exciting new crime novelist.  Arguably the best first novel of the year, Johnny Shaw’s Dove Season didn’t get as much attention as it deserved, perhaps in part because Amazon published it as part of their new Encore line of trade paperback originals.  Whatever your feelings might be about Amazon’s business practices or their impact on publishing and bookselling, ignoring the novels they’ve printed and the authors they’ve introduced is a mistake.  And in the case of Shaw, you’re only hurting yourself.  So, if you haven’t read Dove Season, you should correct that error right away.  While you’re at it, you should also pick up a copy of Big Maria, Shaw’s second novel that came out earlier this week.

For as much as I enjoyed Big Maria, I still think Dove Season is a stronger book.  For all its moments of humor and clever turns of phrase, that debut novel allowed Shaw to explore the deeply human aspects of its characters in a more compelling and compassionate way, even if he did call it a “Jimmy Veeder Fiasco.”  Shaw’s approach in this new novel represents a dramatic departure.  Big Maria is a wild, wild ride of amazing proportions, a low-comedy crime caper that dredges the depths of human folly.  Think of the Three Stooges hunting for the Treasure of the Sierra Madre and you’ve got a pretty good idea of the direction this yarn takes.

In some ways Shaw’s writing is more polished and confident in this second novel, but Big Maria plays for laughs from start to finish, and despite a few truly touching moments – one in a church comes vividly to mind – this is a deeply silly book.  But that’s the whole point.  Shaw is actually breaking new ground here by pushing his “ridiculously awesome” aesthetic to its limits.  Those familiar with Shaw’s quarterly e-zine Blood & Tacos, now on its third issue, will recognize this terrain.  In both Blood & Tacos and now in Big Maria, the familiar, groan-producing tropes of men’s adventure fiction are lovingly and self-consciously parodied to expert comedic effect.  By the second half of the book, the bizarre turns become almost expected in their unpredictable way, but Shaw’s still such a talented writer with such perfect comic timing that you’ll keep turning the pages even as the gags get so thick you can barely keep track of them all.  I won’t say more because I don’t want to spoil any of the surprises.

As a minor note, I feel I should offer a warning for sensitive readers.  With Big Maria’s vast collection of gross-out moments and adolescent slapstick, some readers are going to be turned off for sure.  Before you buy this one, you might want to read through the first chapter and see if you’ve got the stomach for this novel.  Our hero, a not-quite-loveable loser named Shitburger awakens in a drunken stupor to find that not only has he passed out on the toilet in dive bar, but he’s vomited into his own underwear.  He ignores the pounding on the stall door and passes out again, this time to awaken next to the dumpster out back.  His pants have been pulled up, but they’re still full of cold vomit.  If you think this is funny, or could be, grab yourself a copy of this book and enjoy the romp.  But if you’re turned off by the first chapter, you should know it doesn’t get any more noble between here and the absurdist deus ex machina ending.

I loved Big Maria.  It’s page after page of rip-roaring action and gut-busting laughs; however, I also felt like some of the opportunities for real pathos, particularly around the character of Ricky, were forcibly shoved aside so we could get back to the comedy.  I know, it’s harder to laugh at somebody getting smacked in the balls when you too closely identify with them as a person.  But as a reader I like making that human connection with the characters in a novel, and I missed that here.  Still, that’s not where Shaw wanted to go with this novel, and the places he does take us are absolutely beyond compare.  My own favorite episode is the encounter with the mountain lion, but I won’t say any more about that or the rest the novel’s gold nuggets of comic action because you’ve really got to experience the splendor for yourself.  Johnny Shaw and Big Maria will show you a grand time!