Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Hardboiled Wonderland's Narrative Music Series

I wrote up a piece for Hardboiled Wonderland, the kick-ass crime blog of kick-ass short story and screenwriter Jedidiah Ayres.

The article is part of Jed's guest-blogger series "Narrative Music." Bad motherfuckers like Patrick Shawn Bagley and Craig McDonald have offered up some awesomeness for it in the past.

Mine is on a song by The Mamas and The Papas, but don't let that shit scare you off (though your fear is understandable).

You can find that shit HERE.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Crime Factory Vol. 2 No. 1

Editors Keith Rawson, Cameron James Ashley and Liam Jose have joined forces to revamp the shit out of Crime Factory, the crime zine originally created by David Honeybone.

The first issue of volume two was just birthed and you can find it kicking and fucking screaming right HERE.

I've got movie reviews of Ulu Grosbard's Straight Time and Daryl Duke's The Silent Partner on pages 24-6 and a book review of Russel D. McLean's The Good Son on pages 96-7.

When you give that shit a gander, you'll notice that yours truly is in some amazing company. My words are literally fucking sandwiched between those of two of my personal heroes, Scott Phillips and Ken Bruen for fuck's sake!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Catching Up #51: Tokyo Year Zero by David Peace

There’s no getting around that David Peace is a great storyteller and prose stylist, but there’s also no denying that you have to psyche yourself up to read his shit. Tokyo Year Zero is an especially tall order, what with the chanting, repetitive prose style and incessant Japanese names, places and phrases (there’s even a glossary at the back of the book and a map of Tokyo in the front), but it’s also very rewarding and - when you’re up for it and with the rhythm - it’s a visceral, mind-fuck experience like few books you’ll ever read.

Tokyo Year Zero is based on the true story of the Kodaira Yoshio, a serial killer and rapist who carried out his particular brand of nasty in the year following Japan’s defeat at the Americans in WWII. Our narrator is Detective Minami, a desperate man with debts to the local mob boss, a sleeping pill addiction, a mistress, a near-starving wife and kids, and a shady past. While Minami investigates the strangling deaths of numerous young women in and around Tokyo, he’s also trying to keep his affairs and life in order, with often violent, hair-raising consequences.

Now, seeing how I just told you who the fucking killer is, you might be thinking of telling me to go fuck myself first, vowing to never read this book now that it’s been spoiled for you second. But I assure you, dear reader, that shit is not spoiled. They figure out and catch Kodaira PD-fucking-Q, and then it’s merely a matter of working through the limited resources and infuriating bureaucracy to connect him to other bodies and missing person reports. The real mysteries and thriller-ish aspects of the novel come from Minami’s affairs outside of the investigation involving the local mob boss and a shady fellow detective on the force.

And what really makes this shit sing is the world Peace establishes. His depiction of U.S.-occupied Tokyo post-firebombing is basically fucking hell on earth. Evidence of destruction and chaos is on every street and within the hearts of every citizen. It’s a world where you can’t afford not to be corrupt, where rice and jewelry are worth more than money, where prostitution and thievery are often the best – if not the only – options.

Hell, the book's worth it just for the insight into how the Tokyo police department conducts business. There’s a fantastic discussion early in the book where the brass bitch about how the Americans are forcing them to adopt their western interrogation tactics, complaining about how they now have to have evidence and a charge before they arrest and beat the shit out of a suspect. The book is just packed with kick ass lore and commentary like that.

But as I said, this shit can be hard to read at times. When you’re ready for it and you just fucking get it, you’re flying through the pages and completely in tune with Minami, reeling at every twist and turn just like he does. But it’s hard to keep up such a grueling pace, to speed through such a dense and complicated story, and the names and fucked-up style and Japanese phrases and glossary-checking can slow your ass down and make the reading feel like a chore. But then you’ll hit your stride again and burn through a section like you’re on meth and the book is your dirty carpet that can’t seem to get clean no matter how much bleach and elbow grease you dump on that motherfucker.

So basically I’m saying you should fucking stick to it, dear reader. Don’t read this while in the middle of another novel because when the going gets tough and you haven’t picked up Tokyo in a while, it’ll be fucking daunting-as-shit to get back into it. Like an Ellroy novel (I’m required by law when reviewing a David Peace novel to mention James Ellroy’s name at least once), you have to bring a lot to the book itself, but your careful reading and investment no doubt pays off in fucking spades.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Catching Up #50: Sons of Anarachy: Season One by Kurt Sutter

When Sons of Anarchy first aired in the fall of 2008, I gave the pilot a shot only to roll my eyes and decide that that shit wasn’t for me. My main problems, I recall, had to do with the main character, Jackson “Jax” (God fucking help me do I hate that nickname still) Teller, as played by pretty little English boy Charlie Hunnam.

In case I haven’t made it perfectly clear, I’m a huge Sopranos fan and a big part of the success of that show was the casting of a bunch of gritty, interesting faces. Now Sons of Anarchy has a bunch of great believable-looking mugs in it like Ron Perlman, Katey Sagal and Mark Boone Junior, but it seemed like sub-par TV safeness to have a main character (in a post-Sopranos world, I’m saying) that was blindingly-matinee-idol pretty.

To add to my hesitancy, dude has a chance to kill a character in cold blood and prove he’s going to be a badass, ambiguous character but ends up killing in self-defense instead. Like I’m saying, in a post-Sopranos world, I don’t need my TV to puss out on me when the story dictates that no pussing-out is necessary. There was also a lot of obvious Hamlet overtones in the pilot that made me fucking yawn as well.

But a friend of mine has been bugging me to watch this shit for some time, eventually shoving the first season DVD set into my clenched, unwilling fists (that sentence could have gotten weirder). After a week of it sitting around on the coffee table, I popped it in…and watched all thirteen episodes in one weekend.

But for those unfamiliar with the show, let’s get your asses up to speed toot-sweet.

Sons of Anarchy is the story of Jax (not getting over it anytime soon) Teller, a new father and vice president of the Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club, Redwood Original (SAMCRO). His widowed mother Gemma (a kick ass Katey Sagal), a wily hell bitch, is married to the club president, Clay Morrow (Ron Perlman). SAMCRO runs a mechanic shop as a front for their vast gun-running enterprise. A gone-straight ex of Jax’s returns home a doctor and she and Jax rekindle the flames, much to Gemma’s chagrin, seeing how she wishes for Jax to become president of SAMCRO once Clay is too old, Gemma figuring a straight-laced girlfriend won’t help him reach such a goal.

Jax has been butting heads with Clay lately, in part due to his new son and yuppie girlfriend but also because of Jax’s discovery of his late father’s manuscript, a book that outlines how SAMCRO went astray into violence and criminal activities when he had originally intended for it to be more a hippie commune instead of a gang. The arc of the season essentially becomes whether or not Jax will follow in his dad’s footsteps or descend further into the underworld as his mother and stepfather hope.

The show starts out pretty rocky, as lots of good shows do. The episodes feel too, well, episodic - not serialized enough - for the first half of the season. It’s almost like the writers are imagining that people will catch the show late and they need to keep the action sort of stagnant and the episodes individualized for a while before making it a serialized, have-to-watch-every-episode powerhouse. The first season of The Sopranos suffered from this same problem, as did the first two seasons of The Shield. It’s not a bad show by any means for the first few episodes, just not what you come to expect in a, say it with me: post-Sopranos world. But around episode eight, the big storyline really takes off and bam-bam-bam, you’ve marathoned to the bitter end.

But the first episodes are pretty good at bringing you into an exciting world. You get some cool biker gang shit and a whole mess of funny, nasty characters whose lives are easy to get wrapped up in. Yeah, Jax is forever too much of a pussy to really get my nerd-boner raging and for a while the show never seems to go “full-dark” as they say, but you’re invested anyway. It’s funny and violent enough to keep you going, after an episode or two you’re interested enough to overlook the flaws and keep going.

Then, like I said, the show eventually turns into serial-cliffhanger goodness, even managing to get wonderfully, shockingly dark in the home stretch. I’m not totally in love, but I am completely invested, ready to watch the second season and probably even keep up with the third as it airs.

I still have many problems with the show, granted. Jax’s relationship with the doctor strains believability a good deal of the time, the actress who plays her never making me fully believe that she would risk her brilliant new life and career for a full-fledged criminal like Jax, pretty as he may be. Also, the soundtrack is often crazy-shitty (as was The Shield’s), littered with source music that is obvious and often stupider than a 14-year-old “modern rawk” fan’s ipod playlist (okay, maybe that fits for a show about bikers and maybe my music tastes are elitist, but still, it’s annoying). Also, music pops up way too often when diegetic (gotta use my film studies terms every now and then, right?) sound would be more powerful. I hate when filmmakers don't trust the power of their scenes to the point that they have cloying music every fucking second.

And I get that these guys are proud to be in a club and that’s why they wear their "cuts" constantly, but there are too many scenes of them talking to corrupt cops in wide-open or public locations, their SOA patches right on their back for any Fed to photograph. And if you’re going into enemy gang territory and told to keep a low-profile, why-oh-fucking-why would you ride your loud-ass Harley to get there? Also, while the show got plenty dark and exciting in the end, I still don’t feel this show is one where I feel like “anything could happen.” But that said, I never felt that way about The Shield until probably season five or so, and I love that show for sure.

But like I said, while I have reservations, this is still a helluva good time. It’s not as good as Breaking Bad or Mad Men, but if you only watch near-perfect-pitch shows all the time, let’s face it: you’re not gonna watch much TV. Besides, according to my fanboy friend, shit gets darker and rawer in season two - no-fucking-doubt.

You know the Nerd is down for some of that.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Fifty Grand by Adrian McKinty

My review of Fifty Grand by Adrian McKinty is up at bookspot.

Because I'm such a helpful fucker, I've provided a link.

Is THIS it?

No. But THIS is.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Catching Up #49: Train by Pete Dexter

Pete Dexter’s Train will surprise you. You keep thinking you have a handle on it, then you realize soon afterward that no, you actually have no fucking idea where this shit is going. If he wasn’t such an effortless storyteller, this would be a huge problem. For pretty much the entire second act of the novel (if any sort of three act structure can even be imposed on Train, that is), you are simply following along with characters, knowing that at some point they have to meet up again, but what exactly will become of that, who the fuck knows? And when you do finally reach the climax, guaranteed you didn’t see that shit coming, dear reader.

But like Nerd favorite Scott Phillips, though you may not know where this wild historical novel is heading, the journey is hilarious and dark enough to keep you skipping on down the road, The Wiz-style (there’s a reference we didn’t need…).

Train is the story of three characters in 1950’s L.A. who come in and out of each other’s lives in both violent and funny ways. Lionel “Train” Walk is a young black man who caddies at an all-white country club called Brookline. One day one of his totes, a cool cop named Miller Packard, takes notice of Train’s natural skill for the game. Miller Packard later comes to the rescue of Norah Rose, a victim of a brutal rape aboard her husband’s yacht. These three characters will all collide into one another’s lives in unexpected ways, ways that I wouldn’t dream of spoiling that is.

Like a Sopranos episode, Dexter seems intent on subverting the reader’s expectations at every turn. There are pay-offs and connections made, just not the ones you thought were gonna happen. Also like The Sopranos, when the violence lands in this beast, it lands fucking hard. The yacht scene is almost too much to take, the scene scars your brain like a hot poker through your temple, lingering and singeing you throughout the rest of the book.

And we need that scene to resonate because for much of the rest of the book, there’s not a whole lot of crime shit going down. Shit’s happening and a story is being told for sure, but not in some whiz-bang thriller type of way. Luckily Dexter’s character work is sharp enough, his prose clever enough, and his dialogue hilarious enough to carry you through. The attention to historical detail is pretty damned sly too (Norah’s Beverly Hills home is still being fixed after Howard Hughes plowed through it with his plane).

But what is most remarkable about Train is Dexter’s handling of race and gender issues in regards to the time and place of the novel. There is no preaching to be found in this novel, nor cloying revisionism neither. Dexter simply presents the characters and their situations in all their complexity and the rest is up to you. Well, that’s not entirely true – the handling of a certain character and his girlfriend trying to get an integrated golf course/housing development is sort of brutally satiric, but everywhere else (wow, totally subverted my own point there, but onward we go!)…

And speaking of characters, there's a minor feat in this novel that many readers may miss. Miller Packard is certainly the hinge and main draw of this novel, yet we really know very little about him. There's a few passages at the beginning and end of the novel that let us into his head somewhat, but overall what we know about him is through how other characters perceive him. This choice is very much in keeping with Packard's cool and detached demeanor and makes him all the more interesting, but few writers would allow for such ambiguity in such a major character.

So if you’re up for a dark, funny period novel that raises challenging gender and racial issues and defie expectations, Pete Dexter’s Train ought to float your boat…or steam-power your train (sometimes you write something so lame that it just has to stay in the draft – Gene Shalit has jack-shit on me).