A penny saved is ridiculous.

A penny saved is ridiculous.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Brief Asides #4

Before this lovely month closes out, here are some quick observations about this and that.  Some of these thoughts are follow-ups on previous posts, or the first toe in the water on topics I may write about more fully later.

I wrote about the Amazon Prime cop show Bosch a while back, while I was still in the midst of watching the episodes.  Now that I’ve finished it, I’m still high on it.  While the plotting was sometimes a little basic and the dialogue sometimes a little too on the nose (more nuance and texture would have helped both those areas), I really liked the casting and performances.  In particular, I enjoyed how all the cops simultaneously cared deeply about each other but always seemed to be sick of one another, too.  I also liked the unusual character relationships.  For example, lead character Bosch is an L.A. detective trying, for the sake of his daughter, to get along with his ex-wife, a former FBI profiler who is now a professional poker player.  That set-up made for some unusual conversations and impromptu meet-ups.  The ten episodes of the show’s first season are still available to view on Amazon Prime.

On audio, I’m pretty immersed in Erik Larson’s Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania.  This is the latest in the author’s series of non-fiction works that he writes in a way to make them feel like page-turning thrillers.  Narrator Scott Brick does his usual polished job reading the book.  All this reminds me that a favorite writer of mine, Max Allan Collins, wrote a mystery called The Lusitania Murders some years back, which I somehow never read.  It sounds like I should hit that one as soon as I’m finished with the Larson, as it’ll make for a nice little companion piece.  Conveniently, the Collins is also available in both print and audio editions.

On Netflix, the 13-episode Marvel series Daredevil so far gets a big recommendation from me.  Based on the comic book about a blind superhero, the series is grim, gritty, and adult, which is a nice change of pace from the Marvel movies (though I’m generally happy with the overall upbeat tone of the movie stories).  And it’s great that the show has over a dozen hours to slowly introduce the character and what makes him tick, also a nice change from the movies, which- as well crafted as they are- have to do everything in two hours or so.  With strong movie and TV footholds, Marvel is really the king of popular culture these days, isn’t it?  Or maybe I should say Disney, because Disney owns Marvel and now also a little thing called Star Wars, which you’ll shortly be seeing all over the place again.

I’m also still enjoying Scandal on ABC, though with its frequent shootings, stabbings and torture sessions, the show is more like a Quentin Tarantino production these days.  But I guess it’s good not to be predictable, right?

Before I start getting in line for all the big summer movies very shortly, I managed to improve my mind by seeing a decent drama recently: Woman in Gold, starring Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds.  The film is about a woman’s efforts to get some famous artwork restored to her family’s possession after it was stolen by the Nazis during World War II.  The stolen artwork eventually fell into the hands of the Austrian government after the war, and despite the Austrians’ stated goal of wanting to return all the art to its rightful owners, it seems that they’re more than a little attached to some of the pieces, especially the ones that draw crowds to their museums.  This is a decent drama and offbeat legal thriller rolled into one, and well worth a trip to the theater to see.

That’s it for the time being.  Now get out there and enjoy the spring weather!

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Forward to the end

I continue to work my way through Isaac Asimov's classic Foundation novels, and recently finished book two in the series, Forward the Foundation.  Like the entry before it, Prelude to Foundation, this second prequel to the core Foundation Trilogy does a nice job relating previously untold details and vignettes that lead up to the way things stand in the classic trilogy (Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation).  Also like the other books in the series, Forward the Foundation is an engaging mix of lighthearted banter (usually involving human pettiness) and mind-blowing science-fiction concepts.

But as well as showing human flaws playing out against a cosmic backdrop, and advancing the Foundation storyline, Forward the Foundation also does another interesting thing: it tells a complete, well-developed story examining the theme of having to let go- to one's career, to one's friends, to one's sense of purpose- as age inevitably takes its toll.  This book is really about genius psychohistorian Hari Seldon having to make peace with the fact that saving the galaxy is a young man's game, and that he should get off the stage in a dignified manner while he can still make that choice on his own.  Anyone who has been at a job more than twenty years will feel a little of what Hari feels in this book, as he reluctantly sees that his colleagues are now the ones with the energy, drive, and focus to do what needs to be done.

Making things doubly difficult is the fact that Hari's mind is still sharp enough to see that he doesn't have the juice anymore to steer the ship, and to fully feel an encroaching depression caused by the many deaths (some natural but many otherwise) of his friends and colleagues, as he gets older and older.  Some have said that Dr. Asimov, who died shortly after writing Forward the Foundation, was really writing about his own issues as he sensitively outlined Seldon's.  There is probably some truth to that.

So, Forward the Foundation is ultimately both a decent novel in the Foundation series (it smoothly leads right into the next book, 1951's classic Foundation), but is also a sensitive treatise on mortality, every bit as moving and effective as any given film or literary novel on the subject.  I expected the former, but was surprised to also get the latter.

"Forward the Foundation" is available in print, Kindle, and audio editions.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Who's that stranger?

The literary gods bestowed a gift upon me some weeks back when an advance copy of a new novel by an author I regularly enjoy found its way onto my doorstep.  Well, it’s actually a book by two authors I enjoy, Max Allan Collins and the late Mickey Spillane, so it was kind of a double treat.  But, hmmm, the book was a western- cowboys and gun fightin' and cattle and all that, so would I like it as much as the several Mike Hammer novels these guys have shared a credit on in recent years?

The short answer is, sure, The Legend of Caleb York, Collins’ novelized adaptation of an unproduced screenplay that Spillane wrote for his buddy John Wayne back in the 50’s, is good fun.  A stranger wanders into town just as a turf war is heating up between gentle, blind ranch owner George Cullen and corrupt sheriff Harry Gauge, whose goal it is to swallow up every ranch in the region.  Ranch owner Cullen has a pretty and feisty daughter named Willa, who is fiercely protective of her father, and of course the sheriff and his equally shady deputy have a bit of a thing for the girl, too, even though they don’t in any way take her seriously as a threat.  Oh, the stranger who meanders into town takes a shine to Willa, too, but that takes a back seat to his making a general nuisance of himself with the sheriff, who has faced no real threat to his plans before the stranger’s arrival.

The main plot centers on Sheriff Gauge’s many indirect and direct attempts (they become more direct and deadly and the book progresses) to take over the Cullen ranch, and the quick responses of the visiting stranger to thwart those efforts and help the Cullens.  But who is the stranger?  Is he the killer for hire that George Cullen requested via telegraph (recklessly, in the view of his daughter Willa) to take care of his problem with the sheriff? Someone else who got wind of the situation? Or is he indeed just a stranger- a deadly one, as it soon becomes clear- who wandered into town just when someone like him was needed to balance the scales?  The stranger is stingy with answers on that score.

The book has all the familiar, entertaining elements of a western film of the 50’s (the alliances of decent folk against a shared threat, the backroom plotting by good guys and villains alike, the colorful supporting characters, the suspense of impending shootouts, the catharsis of same, etc.), but with one added element, and one that is unmistakably Spillane’s: bloody, gut-spilling violence.  Throughout what is otherwise a standard, even conservative example of the genre, heads explode, intestines spill out of abdomens, knives do all kinds of graphic damage to throats and bellies, and beatings- many beatings- are inflicted on the human form.

I didn’t mind those visceral elements, and most pulp-thriller enthusiasts probably won't, either. Heck, I’m all for bracing, even wince-inducing moments, if they ratchet up the drama and danger in a story.  But some readers may find those parts to be a bit much.  For me, though, the combination of a solid, enjoyable story with shocking, graphic violence was like indulging in a favorite, comfortably familiar cocktail, in my case a vodka martini, only one where the bartender substituted a Jalapeno pepper in place of the olives.  I think such a drink would be kind of terrific, and this story is, too.

The Legend of Caleb York is the latest collaboration between the late Mickey Spillane and his literary executor and posthumous collaborator, Max Allan Collins, a great and successful writer in his own right. In addition to frequently producing his own thrillers (this year's violent, sexy, and darkly funny Quarry's Choice was pretty great), Collins spends a lot of his time these days finishing up the many uncompleted works Spillane left behind upon his death in 2006.  Usually these collaborations are just that: collaborative efforts consisting of an unfinished manuscript or story fragment by Spillane- most about P.I. Mike Hammer-  that Collins enhances and completes.  This one is more purely Spillane, I suspect, as there was a complete movie screenplay by Mickey Spillane to work from when Max Allan Collins sat down at his desk to begin the adaptation process.

Having said that,  I’m still pretty sure that much of the final dialogue and story elements in the book are Collins’ own, as the adaptation process likely required story additions and well, adaptation, to keep things clear and moving along, and to convert the clipped descriptions of a screenplay into the richness of a book.  After all, novels need and encourage the kind of elaboration that screenplays don’t.  As usual, though, it's all seamless, the Spillane/Collins narrative voice once again strong, clear, and decisive.

In the end, The Legend of Caleb York should please western and thriller enthusiasts, followers of Collins and Spillane, and film fans alike. To that last point, Collins helpfully relates in his entertaining introduction the handful of actors in addition to John Wayne who might have played the lead role if the film had been produced, suggesting to his readers that, if they like, they could picture one of those actors in their imaginations as they turn the pages.  

Incidentally, if The Legend of Caleb York takes off, there are certainly possibilities for a follow-up.  So, to channel for a moment the book’s lovable drunk, Tulley, who often sleeps under the wooden planks in front of the sheriff’s office, “Get thinkin’, friend Collins, and spin me another tall tale with shootin’ and drinkin’ and rustlin’! And did I say drinkin’?”

"The Legend of Caleb York" will be available in print and Kindle editions on April 28.