READING ROUND-UP: February 2019

Continuing the monthly summaries of what I’ve been reading and listening to:

BOOKS

To keep my numbers consistent with what I have listed on Goodreads, I count completed magazine issues and stand-alone short stories in ebook format as “books.” I read or listened to 18 books in February: 12 in print, 4 in ebook format, and 2 in audio. They were:

1.       Lightspeed Magazine #105 (February 2019 issue), edited by John Joseph Adams. The usual fine assortment of sf and fantasy short stories and novellas. This month’s favorites for me were Carrie Vaughn’s “Marlowe and Harry and the Disinclined Laboratory,” Ashok K. Banker’s “Oath of a God,” KT Bryski’s “Ti-Jean’s Last Adventure, as told to Raccoon,” and Kat Howard’s “Hath No Fury.”

2.       The Thing: Liberty Legion, by Roy Thomas, John Buscema, Sal Buscema, Frank Robbins, Don Heck, and others.  This hardcover collects stories from Marvel Premiere, The Invaders, Fantastic Four and Marvel Two-In-One to tell a time-hopping story involving some of my favorite tertiary-level Marvel characters. The art style varies greatly between the four main artists and that might be a turn-off for some folks (I personally miss both Frank Robbins and Don Heck’s work.) I still own all of the original monthly issues these stories appeared in, as well.

3.       The Terrifics Vol 1: Meet The Terrifics, by Ivan Reis, “Doc” Shaner, Jeff LeMire, and others. DC brings four unlikely characters together as a team: the long-existing Mr. Terrific, Plastic Man and Metamorpho and a new version of Phantom Girl, in a loving pastiche of that other fantastic foursome published by Marvel. The characterizations are solid and make me want to pick up the second volume when it comes out, but there’s a feeling towards the end of the volume like the story has taken a jump that never really gets explained.

4.       Check, Please! Year Three, by Ngozi Ukazu.  Bitty’s junior year on the Samwell hockey team is full of secrets, revelations, supportive friends and more than a little drama. I’ve enjoyed the three volumes of this so far, and might just have to catch up on Year Four on the webcomic rather than waiting for the next Kickstarter.  And I am way out of practice reading regularly-updated webcomics.

5.       Scrum by P.D. Singer. Picked this very short novella up because I’ve suddenly grown an interest in reading gay sport romances (see Check, Please! Above), it popped up as a free Kindle read and I’m not really familiar with the sport of rugby so a story told from the POV of a guy who also has no familiarity with the sport should have been an easy sell. I left the story feeling like I knew a little bit more about rugby, but the romance angle didn’t work for me. Too much “creepy-stalk the hot sports star” for me.

6.       Brothers Keepers by Donald E. Westlake.  Another of Westlake’s more fun crime thrillers, this one involving the impending shut-down of a monastery in the middle of Manhattan thanks to a real-estate deal / land-grab that involves a theft from the monastery, family secrets, and one Brother going way outside his comfort zone to save the day. A fast, fun read.

7.       The Spark by David Drake. The first in a new “Arthurian SF saga,” recommended by a friend. The first half doesn’t feel particularly Arthurian but sets the stage and main characters well enough so that when the familiar Arthurian tropes do appear, it becomes obvious you’ve been reading about a futuristic Sir Percival/Parzival the whole time. (His name is Pal, so yes, that should have been a give-away right off….)  Really enjoyable read, but lots of hand-waving to explain the future tech and this world’s versions of the Mortal World, Faerie, and the spaces in-between.

8.       The City Beyond Play by Philip Jose Farmer and Danny Adams. A really wonderful SF novella about a small city-state that cuts itself off from modern times and lives “as the medieval times should have been lived.” There’s a bit of romance, a lot of derring-do and a ton of interesting world-building. You can find a longer review of this book if you page back through my blog to HERE.

9.       Isola, Chapter One, by Brendan Fletcher, Karl Kerschl and others.  A powerful queen has been cursed to live as a tiger, and her bodyguard must find a way to reverse the curse and get to the truth of what’s behind it all. Very solid world-building and character-building in this first trade collection. The art is a mix of manga and Chinese influences, I think, that give it a particular kind of beauty.

10.   Bedfellow, by Jeremy C. Shipp.  Shipp’s second novella from Tor.com is as eerie as his first (“The Atrocities”). A mix of physical and psychological horror that works on all levels and doesn’t necessarily provide easy answers.

11.   The Voyage of Argo, by Apollonius of Rhodes, translation by E.V. Reiu.  I’m almost ashamed that I never realized there was an actual epic poem that served as the basis for the Jason and the Argonauts movies and stories I loved so much, until I tripped across this. The classic 60s movie took a lot of liberties with the sequence of events from this original and was the more exciting for it. Reiu’s translation is interesting as source material, but kinda lifeless in many ways.

12.   Legion Vs. Phalanx: The Epic Struggle for Infantry Supremacy in the Ancient World, by Myke Cole. My first non-fiction read (as opposed to listen) of the year was way outside my wheel-house. I’m not a student of the military or military history, and most of what I remember about the Greeks, Romans, and associated empires is thanks to mythology. But Cole’s intent with this book was to make the discussion understandable to people like me, and he did a great job. I still can’t quote times and names to you, but I could probably give you a decent idea of the differences between a legion, a phalanx, and who Cole thinks the clear winner is.

13.   The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyburg, by Mark Twain.  Another classic I don’t think I’d ever read before but have thanks to my subscription to Melville House’s series “The Art of the Novella.” And I loved it, as I love so much of Twain’s work. There’s snarky humor, of course, but also social commentary that is as pertinent today as it was when the novella was written. And I love the fact that we never really find out who the aggrieved man is who manages to corrupt and incorruptible town.

14.   Scratchman (A Doctor Who novel), by Tom Baker. What a fun, nostalgic read. Apparently this is adapted from a movie script Baker co-wrote. The first half feels absolutely like ClassicWho; the second half feels very meta and drops a few comments about the Doctor’s “future” (for him, anyway). I think there was even a little Clara Oswald cameo (tying to her “Impossible Girl” status from NewWho). And listening to Baker read it was an extra treat. He’s a great storyteller.

15.   Diaries: The Python Years 1969-1979, by Michael Palin. Interesting to hear Palin read, unexpurgated and emotionally raw, his diary entries from Python’s heyday. A very different feel from the Idle and Cleese memoirs I read late last year.

16.   Section Zero Volume 0, by Karl Kesel, Tom Grummett, and others.  It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of 50s-60s-era “adventure team” comics: give me the Time Masters, the Sea Devils, the Challengers of the Unknown, Cave Carson’s crew, the original Secret Six, and I’m all in. Kesel and Grummett hooked me from page one with this mysterious “group-of-usually-four” that ages in real time and has a lot of backstory to be revealed. Grummett is also one of my favorite comic artists. I love his clean, open, expressive style.

17.   The Problem of Susan and Other Stories, by Neil Gaiman, P. Craig Russell, Scott Hampton, Paul Chadwick, Lovern Kindzierski and others. Dark Horse Comics continues to publish Russell’s adaptations of Gaiman stories and books, although this time the artist has some help. The title story, drawn by Russell, is Gaiman’s rumination on what happened to Susan after the Narnia books and it’s quite good, but I was also happy to see how well “October in the Chair” converts to graphic form.

18.   At Home in the Dark, edited by Lawrence Block. A great anthology of very dark short stories – mostly crime but a few sf/fantasy/western to keep the reader on their toes. A longer review will be forthcoming in about a week or so on this site, but for now the individual stories are listed below, and I can easily call out the Joe Hill, Joe R. Lansdale, Elaine Kagan and James Reasoner stories as favorites.

So eighteen books in February, which Goodreads told me was a few ahead of goal for the month/year.

 

STORIES

I have a goal of reading 365 short stories (1 per day, essentially, although it doesn’t always work out that way) each year. Here’s what I did read and where you can find them if you’re interested in reading them too (with some short notes for stories that really stood out to me). If no source is noted, the story is from the same magazine or book as the story(ies) that precede(s) it:

1.       “Life Sentence” by Matthew Baker, from Lightspeed Magazine #105 (February 2019 issue), edited by John Joseph Adams.

2.       “Okay, Glory” by Elizabeth Bear

3.       “The Incursus By Asimov-NN#71” by Gord Sellar

4.       “Marlowe and Harry and the Disinclined Laboratory” by Carrie Vaughn

5.       “The Perpetual Day” by Crystal Koo

6.       “Ti-Jean’s Last Adventure, As Told To Raccoon” by KT Bryski

7.       “Oath of a God” by Ashok K. Banker

8.       “Healing Benjamin” by Dennis Danvers

9.       “Hath No Fury” by Kat Howard

10.   “On The Side” by Seanan McGuire, on the author’s Patreon page.

11.   “Hot Pants” by Elaine Kagan, from the anthology At Home in the Dark, edited by Lawrence Block

12.   “The Eve of Infamy” by Jim Fusili

13.   “Night Rounds” by James Reasoner

14.   “The Flagellant” by Joyce Carol Oates

15.   “The Things I’d Do” by Ed Park

16.   “Favored to Death” by N.J. Ayres

17.   “Rough Mix” by Warren Moore

18.   “This Strange Bargain” by Laura Benedict

19.   “The Senior Girls Bayonet Team” by Joe R. Lansdale

20.   “If Only You Would Leave Me” by Nancy Pickard

21.   “Giant’s Despair” by Duane Swierczynski

22.   “Whistling in the Dark” by Richard Chizmar

23.   “O, Swear Not by the Moon” by Jill D. Block

24.   “Nightbound” by Wallace Stroby

25.   “The Cucuzza Curse” by Thomas Pluck

26.   “Cold Comfort” by Hilary Davidson

27.   “Faun” by Joe Hill

So that’s 27 short stories in February, leaving me still slightly behind for the year so far. (February 28th was the 59th day of 2019.)

 

Summary of Reading Challenges:

“To Be Read” Challenge: This month: 0 read; YTD: 0 of 14 read.

365 Short Stories Challenge: This month:  27 read; YTD: 52 of 365 read.

Graphic Novels Challenge:  This month: 6 read; TYD: 10 of 52 read.

Goodreads Challenge: This month: 18 read; YTD: 29 of 125 read.

Non-Fiction Challenge: This month: 02; YTD: 02 of 24 read.

Read the Book / Watch the Movie Challenge: This month: 0; YTD: 0 of 10 read/watched.

Complete the Series Challenge: This month: 0 books read; YTD: 0 of 16 read.

                                                                Series fully completed: 0 of 3 planned

SUNDAY SHORTS: A Time to Scatter Stones

The “Sunday Shorts” feature is dedicated to reviewing short stories and novellas, two forms I absolutely love.

time to scatter stones cover.jpg

 

 

TITLE: A Time to Scatter Stones (A Matthew Scudder novella)

AUTHOR: Lawrence Block

153 pages, Subterranean Press, ISBN 971596068933 (Hardcover)

Disclaimer: Although I bought the Subterranean Press edition, the author also sent me a free e-ARC in exchange for a fair review.

 

DESCRIPTION: (from the cover flap): More than 40 years after his debut and nearly a decade since his last appearance, one of the most renowned characters in all of crime fiction is back on the case in this new novella by Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Lawrence Block.  Well past retirement age and feeling his years – but still staying sober one day at a time – Matthew Scudder learns that alcoholics aren’t the only ones who count the days since their last slip. Matt’s longtime partner, Elaine, tells him of a group of former sex workers who do something similar, helping each other stay out of the life. Burt when one young woman describes an abusive client who’s refusing to let her quit, Elaine encourages her to get help of a different sort. The sort only Scudder can deliver.

 

MY RATING: 4 stars out of 5

 

MY THOUGHTS: It is not usually a good idea to too closely conflate a series character with the author who created them. But I’m going to do it: Lawrence Block and Matthew Scudder are both, in my opinion, living proof that getting old doesn’t necessarily have to suck. Block’s regular Facebook posts and newsletters about jaunts around his beloved New York City and new international publishing endeavors give me hope that maybe I’ll be as physically mobile and mentally sharp at that age. And based on this novella, his possibly most-famous character, Matthew Scudder, has aged just as well alongside him.

Scudder is Block’s only series character to age in real-time, since debuting in The Sins of the Fathers in 1976. He’s grown older, he’s grown wiser … and he’s grown more sedate. He’s happily ensconced (and at this point, probably common-law-married) to his longtime companion Elaine in a nice NYC apartment. They have dinner visits with friends, take slow walks around the neighborhood, enjoy local restaurants, don’t grudge each other time apart pursing their own hobbies and twelve-step-group participation, and banter like an old married couple. Oh, do they banter. One of the things I love about Block’s writing is his ear for conversational dialogue that sounds authentic without being quite as awkward as real life, including the tangents we all go off on where we kind of lose track of what our original point was. Only Block’s characters’ conversational tangents are almost always more pertinent to the plot than they at first seem.

The plot is as straight-forward as it sounds: happily retired PI comes out of mothballs to help a friend of his friend. The difficulty comes in how little the endangered woman knows about the man stalking her; Scudder’s rusty (by his own admission), not sure that his investigative skills are still up to the task of finding a man whose name he doesn’t know and face he’s never seen. Of course, he’s back to Classic Scudder by the end of the book, because how could it be otherwise and have the story feel satisfactory – but he’s also feeling the physical toll in a way we haven’t seen him feel it before. Getting older doesn’t have to suck, but it’s still not easy to accept that we can’t do all the things we used to do with the same ease.

I would say the book is only half about this latest case, and half about how easily we lose track of people as we get older. There’s a very nostalgia-heavy tone to this novella; conversationally, Scudder and Elaine bring up just about every major supporting character in the 40-ish year history of the 18-book series. Some of those characters actually appear in the flesh, but most are mentioned in passing. I enjoyed the tone of these reminiscences because it mirrored conversations I’m having even now, in my early 50s, with the people who have been in my life since elementary school about the people who haven’t stayed in our lives.  But don’t let this scare you out of picking the book up: I haven’t read most of the Scudder books (when it comes to Block’s series output, I’m more of a Bernie Rhondenbarr man than a Scudder or Keller man), and I never felt like these conversations about old friends threw me out of the story. Rather, they made me interested in reading the rest of the series to find out more about the characters I didn’t already know.

The hardcover edition from Subterranean Press might be close to sold out at this writing, but Block has self-published it in ebook, audio, and paperback formats.

LAWRENCE BLOCK, Author - Interview

This week I get to interview one of my heroes. What can I say about Lawrence Block that hasn’t already been said elsewhere?

In his own words: “Lawrence Block’s novels range from the urban noir of Matthew Scudder (A Drop of the Hard Stuff) to the urbane effervescence of Bernie Rhodenbarr (The Burglar on the Prowl), while other characters include the globe-trotting insomniac Evan Tanner (Tanner on Ice) and the introspective assassin Keller (Hit and Run). He has published articles and short fiction in American Heritage, Redbook, Playboy, Cosmopolitan, GQ, and The New York Times, and 84 of his short stories have been collected in Enough Rope. In 2004, he became executive story editor for the TV series TILT. Several of his novels have been filmed, though not terribly well. His newest bestsellers are Hit Parade, his third Keller novel (July 2006 in hardcover), and All the Flowers are Dying (April 2006 in paperback), the sixteenth Matthew Scudder novel. Larry is a Grand Master of Mystery Writers of America, and a past president of both MWA and the Private Eye Writers of America. He has won the Edgar and Shamus awards four times each and the Japanese Maltese Falcon award twice, as well as the Nero Wolfe and Philip Marlowe awards, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Private Eye Writers of America, and, most recently, the Cartier Diamond Dagger for Life Achievement from the Crime Writers Association (UK). In France, he has been proclaimed a Grand Maitre du Roman Noir and has twice been awarded the Societe 813 trophy. He has been a guest of honor at Bouchercon and at book fairs and mystery festivals in France, Germany, Australia, Italy, New Zealand and Spain, and, as if that were not enough, was presented with the key to the city of Muncie, Indiana. Larry and his wife Lynne are enthusiastic New Yorkers and relentless world travelers.”

Lawrence Block

Lawrence Block

ANTHONY: I have to admit I’ve been dragging my heels on this interview because I’ve been a bit daunted. Everyone has those folks they’re just star-struck around. I’d be equally as tongue-tied if I had the chance to interview John Glover (even after having met him twice), or Neil Gaiman, or Michael Emerson. So that got me to wondering: who gets Lawrence Block star-struck?

LAWRENCE: Hmmm. There must be someone, but I can’t come up with anyone offhand. I think age is a factor here, along with life experience. You reach a point where you don’t have heroes anymore, and no longer get star-struck. I’m not sure that’s a good thing, but it happens.

ANTHONY: Part of my problem was in trying to come up with questions you’ve never been asked before. And then I realized with a career like yours there probably aren’t any questions you’ve never been asked. I don’t have to be original, I just have to be interesting! Is there any single interview question you just dread hearing? And am I about to ask that question in this interview?

LAWRENCE: I don’t like hypothetical questions about my characters. “What would Bernie do if he met a werewolf?” That kind of crap. I also don’t like to be asked what I’m going to write next, because I don’t know.

ANTHONY: You’ve covered a lot of genres in your career: the light, comedic mysteries of Bernie Rhodenbarr, the more noir-ish Scudder books, Jill Emerson’s lesbian erotica and literary novels. I’d even go so far as to categorize Killing Castro as alternate history. Is there any genre you haven’t tried yet that you’d like to take a crack at?

LAWRENCE: No, I’m not really looking for new worlds to conquer—or to be conquered by.

ANTHONY: In Afterthoughts, you talk extensively about the reasons for using pen names and how your career has really moved beyond that now. Last month, you brought the “Jill Emerson” name back for Getting Off. Any chance that your other pseudonyms will make similar comebacks?

LAWRENCE: I wouldn’t think so. The others were just names of convenience. Jill has been something rather more than that, though I’m not sure I can put my finger on it. (And if this were one of those LB/JE dialogues, she wouldn’t let that last line pass without a comment.)

ANTHONY: Do you think there’s more of your early pseudonymous work still out there “undiscovered?”

LAWRENCE: Well, not undiscovered. In fact, people are forever discovering books that weren’t mine at all, convinced they’ve unearthed a previously unacknowledged pen name. Lots of luck.

But there’s old work I haven’t brought back yet, and probably will sooner or later, avarice and ego being such powerful motivators. In fact, two old books of mine, 69 Barrow Street (as Sheldon Lord) and Strange Embrace (as Ben Christopher) will be Hard Case Crime’s #69 sometime next year, produced in hard cover by Subterranean Press as a double volume, bound back to back or belly to belly, as you prefer.

ANTHONY: Getting Off is the first hardcover book from Charles Ardai’s Hard Case Crime imprint, and along with new work by Christa Faust and Max Allan Collins the book is the face of the HCC relaunch. Was there any extra pressure associated with that?

LAWRENCE: No, hardly that. Charles really got Getting Off, and his unqualified enthusiasm was a key factor in my decision to do the book with Hard Case. If there was pressure, it was temporal; I had to hurry it in order to be done in time for his fall list.

ANTHONY: What is it like working with Charles? How does the relationship differ when you’re re-issuing an old title versus publishing something completely new?

LAWRENCE: It’s a pure pleasure. I’ve had good luck with editors over the years, esp. in that the right editors have often been linked to just the right books. Joe Pittman edited the Burglar books at Dutton, and had such a feel for them that I wasn’t surprised when he went on to write London Frog. Many fine folks have edited the Scudder novels, and John Schoenfelder was a joy to work with on A Drop of the Hard Stuff. I worked particularly closely with Charles, and showed him work as I went along, which is something I never do; it would seem to indicate a high level of trust, and it was in this instance justified.

ANTHONY: Okay, last HCC question, I promise: If Charles ever decides to bring Gabriel Hunt back for another set of books, would you consider writing one? I’d enjoy seeing your take on Gabe’s womanizing, globe-trotting, modern Indiana Jones ways.

LAWRENCE: No, I don’t think so. I like the books but I don’t want to write one.

ANTHONY: You make it clear in Afterwords that you’re not really a fan of going back and rereading your early work to prepare it for re-issue. Between HCC and the e-books, there’s a lot of older material available again, but certainly not everything. Has there been, or will there be, any kind of organized “roll-out” of older titles? You’ve come close to refusing re-issues for a few titles, I know — are there any that are on the “absolutely not” list?

LAWRENCE: The only books I know I don’t want reissued are ones I didn’t write in the first place, books that were ghostwritten under a pen name of mine. With that exception, my feeling is a paraphrase of an old T-shirt: “Publish ’em all and let the readers sort ’em out.”

ANTHONY: Okay, time for some questions about craft. (Maybe I can learn a thing or two?) You’ve said that you rarely know what you’re going to write next, hence not being able to predict when a new Rhodenbarr or Scudder or Keller book is going to come out. Does that mean you’re also a “seat of your pants” writer once you’re into a project, or do you outline heavily before beginning?

LAWRENCE: Haven’t outlined in years. How much I know about a book before I begin is variable. Sometimes quite a bit, sometimes next to nothing. And I’ve always liked a maxim I’ve heard attributed to Theodore Sturgeon: “If the writer doesn’t know what’s going to happen next, he needn’t fear that the reader will know what’s going to happen next.”

ANTHONY: Have your writing habits changed over the years, other than changing writing locales?

LAWRENCE: Oh, probably, but I’m not sure how. Very early on I’d put on a stack of records, jazz or classical, and have music playing while I wrote. Now I cannot imagine why anyone would do something like that.

ANTHONY: Do you approach the creation of a short story differently than that of a novel?

LAWRENCE: I don’t think so.

ANTHONY: What’s your self-editing procedure? Do you edit as you write, or do you put out a full draft and then go back and tear it apart?

LAWRENCE: Well, I try to get it right the first time. And when I type THE END, I mean it.

ANTHONY: Okay, this one’s a little morbid, but I have to ask. Mickey Spillane left instructions for Max Allan Collins to complete his unfinished manuscripts. You once put the finishing touches on an incomplete Cornell Woolrich mystery. How do you feel about other authors completing any work you leave behind?

LAWRENCE: Well, if I keeled over fifteen words from the end of something, I wouldn’t mind if someone supplied the fifteen words. But I would hope that any old crap lurking in the corner of my office or some back room on my hard drive will be allowed to decompose.

And I certainly hope no one comes along and writes about any of my series characters. Just because readers would like to have another book about this one or that one is no reason to pander to them. Fuck ’em, I say.

I’m quite certain Bob Parker would find a continuation of his series by other hands perfectly appalling, but the man’s dead, and the living can almost always find ways to rationalize acts that bring them money.

OTOH, who cares what the dead want? Being dead means it’s no longer any of your business. Personally, if there’s no afterlife, what do I care? And if there is, am I really going to spend it giving a rat’s ass what happens to some moldering old books down here on this godforsaken planet? What kind of an afterlife would that be?

ANTHONY: Getting Off is out in hardcover. The Matt Scudder short story collection is available. What releases do we have to look forward to in the near future?

LAWRENCE: There’ll be a new novel from Mulholland sometime next year if I ever finish the damn thing. I told you about HCC #69. I’ve got 20+ sex-fact books by John Warren Wells waiting in the wings, and might bring them out as eBooks. I’ve got two years worth of my monthly column for Linns Stamp News, enough material for a book if I think anybody might want to read it. What else? Beats me.

ANTHONY: And my usual final question: What is your favorite book, and what would you say to someone who hasn’t read it to convince them that they should?

LAWRENCE: I don’t know that I have a favorite. For many years I’ve acknowledged John O’Hara as my favorite author—so many years in fact, that I have to wonder if the statement’s still true. But all I’d suggest to anyone is that they pick up one of the books and read a few pages. Either they’ll like it or they won’t—which, come to think of it, is true of just about anything, isn’t it?

ANTHONY: Thanks again, sir!

LAWRENCE: You’re welcome!

You can find more of Lawrence Block’s discussions of his writing on his website, his blog, his facebook and his goodreads discussion group. You can also follow him on Twitter as @LawrenceBlock.