Monday, December 30, 2013

A Year of Books

Books have always been a large part of my life. Always had my nose in a book, as my mother used to say, and usually spent my allowances on books. Near sixty years and I still have yet to get my nose out of books. People at school, in the Army, at work, always seeing me with at least one boom at hand (and a few more stuffed into pockets) would usually come around to the same question: how many books do you read in a year? I never really had a good answer, except, maybe, "Lots." In this digital age, when people have all but forgotten how to read an analogue clock, such answers are no longer acceptable. After all, we have websites and software to keep track of things like that. And since I belong to Good Reads, and regularly review books as I finish them, all my stats are regularly toted for me by the Great Machine:

Number of Books read -- 148
Number of Pages Read -- 35,739

Well, it's as impressive as it is appalling, I suppose, but even that does not tell the full story. It does not include all the magazines read, or, for that matter, all the anthology stories read from books piled around me all the time, or the odd book picked up and read simply because it was at hand and I had to have something to read. So, what did I read this year?

1888: London Murders in the Year of the Ripper revealed there was much more going on in London than just the Jack the Ripper murders, and the author drew uneasy parallels between that time and ours.

I enjoyed a score of articles about my beloved movie serials in Blood 'n' Thunder's Cliffhanger Classics, which introduced me to many silent serials of which I knew little.

The diminutive pundit Greg Gutfield skewered the "phony outrage" that is pandemic in our society. 

Arch-conservative and smartest-guy-in-the-room William F. Buckley Jr gave me a moving and insightful testament into the nature of faith in Nearer, My God.

One of the best books I read this year was Paperback Confidential, which studied writers active in the original paperback market in the mid-century.

Another highlight for me was Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, in which a German Shepherd puppy is found in the midst of battle by the right person at the right save them both.

I've always had a love for the Greek legends, so I was glad to accompany Ernle Bradford as he trekked about the Mediterranean in search of crafty Ulysses.

It's back to London's good old bad old days with The Victorian Underworld, and, again, it's disconcerting to see how much like our own world theirs was.

Also disconcerting was Pam Funke's fictional look on the Apocalypse and the Anti-Christ in her series of books, of which The World at War is the second.

The Memory of the Blood was just one of the several Bryant & May books I read this year. The two detectives are even older than me, and always present hidden aspects of London.

Although I enjoy my foreign detectives, nothing beats The American Private Eye, and in this book the author takes a close look at all the major ones, and most of the smaller important ones.

Because I enjoyed the Nero Wolfe books as written by Rex Stout so much, I made a concerted effort to steer clear of the series as carried on by Robert Goldsborough. However, when he wrote Archie Meets Nero Wolfe I just could not help myself...and I was not disappointed.

The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady has to be one of the most beautiful books I have ever read, with its lovingly detailed paintings of the flora and fauna or a year in the country.

I can't let a year go by without reading one of Clive Cussler's adventure novels, and 2013 was no different. Of the several I read, Crescent Dawn was one of the most thrilling.

Of all the mystery series set in the UK, one of the most endearing is MC Beaton's tales of Hamish Macbeth, a copper in the Scottish Highlands. In addition to the usual cast of characters, we have in Death of a Kingfisher two lovely children who make the "Bad Seed" look like a girl scout. Creepy.

I really can't let a year go by without finding some sleazy paperback I've never read before. While Fatal in Furs was not the sleaziest paperback of 2013 for me, it was still very satisfying.

The French has their own way of writing crime novels, especially when the Frenchman involved is from Italy. This book had crime, treachery, the Vatican and the Mob...who could ask for more?

This year saw a big return to the pulps for me. Stories which have been lost for decades are now finding new life, most because of the technology of print-on-demand which makes it economical to have a print run of even a single book. Lester Dent's stories involving airships and H. Bedford-Jones' tales of two adventurers in the Orient were just two of my forays into pulp fiction this year.

 And I finally got around to reading Zane Grey's The Rainbow Trail, sequel to his very famous Riders of the Purple Sage. Though out of step with modern styles and sensibilities, I enjoyed this western romance very much, and it was just one of several westerns for me this year.

It seems I cannot go a year without reading something connected to Sherlock Holmes, and of the SH books for 2013, Resurrected Holmes was certainly the most unusual. The idea behind the anthology was that notes for stories never written by Watson were given to other famous writers. The results range from perceptive to comic to bizarre. Most enjoyable!

The only disappointment in this anthology is that there were no noir stories set in my Chula Vista. Other than that, an admirable entry in the long-running series of geographically themed noir.

I only knew Donald Keyhoe through his popular writings about UFO's, so I was very surprised to find out he was a very prolific writer during the pulp era. These books were very enjoyable and revealed very strange aspects to the Great War.

In The Island of Lost Maps, we find a terrible sort of criminal, terrible at least to bibliophiles, for it centers on those who travel from library to library, ripping maps from rare books to sell to collectors.

Certainly not all the books I read in 2013, or even a fair representation, but just a few of the books I enjoyed most. And quite a few of them made their way to me through the Good Reads website in the form of suggestions made because of others books I read. If you don't already belong, you might want to consider it. It has suggestions, forums, giveaways...but more than that, it's fun.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Month of Writing Dangerously (& Fast)

Last year I participated in National Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo). The goal is to write a novel of at least 50,000 words beginning November 1, ending no later than November 30. I succeeded in doing so, and the result was Paws & Claws: A Three Dog Mystery, the first of the Paws & Claws series, in which the Three Dog Detective Agency fought the evil Feral Gang, a clowder of lawless cats determined to conquer the neighborhood. It was published just before the end of 2012. As you may imagine, it was rather stressful in that it demanded a daily writing regimen which is not usually followed by a writer of short stories. While the discipline helped me to write three and publish three more books in 2013, I did not think it likely I would once again throw myself into the meat-grinder known as Nanowrimo. As usual, I was wrong.

The morning of November 1st, I started writing K-9 Blues, the third story in the adventures of the Three Dog Detective Agency. Once again, the hardest task was sitting down each day and writing at least 1,700 words, the approximate amount you need to write each day in order to reach the goal by the deadline. I was handicapped by several things -- I am a terribly slow typist, I am easily distracted, I tire easily, and my right hand had recently lost an argument with a mandolin slicer. However, I had the whole plot in mind and I had my list of characters (one of whom had been nominated by a fan of the books), which gave me an advantage over others who either had no plan or did not know their characters.

Several days I managed to write more than 3,000 words, which helped to offset those days when I did not do nearly as well. I know, 3K words is nothing to a professional typist (the Wife could do it in an hour or less) but it's great for someone like me...I once calculated how many wpm I manage when working on a book, but it was so depressing I immediately hit "clear" on the calculator. The best place for me to write was at the Panera's in the Chula Vista Shopping Center. It's much easier to concentrate and stay focused when you think people are looking at you. Who knew paranoia could have an up side? Of course, the endless supply of strong coffee might have had something to do with it as well. Unlike last year, I did not attend any Nanowrimo get-togethers, but I still had writing buddies n the Nanowrimo website who would occasionally drop me a line of encouragement; and seeing their progress also buoyed me up. Now and then we would get a "pep talk" from established writers, but the only ones that really did encourage me were from Col Ralph Peters. The month wore on, and word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph I eventually completed my story, though it might be more accurate to say I was dragged across the finish line by three extraordinary dogs.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

"If you go down Suicide Hill, you'll find Harry Harrison"

Harry Harrison
12 Mar 1925 - 15 Aug 2012
I don't recall now the exact date I met science fiction writer Harry Harrison. I must have been in my first years of high school because one of the things he signed for me was the December 1969 issue of Analog SF magazine, which sported a Kelly Freas cover for In Our Hands the Stars (later published as The Daleth Effect), a serial which continued through the January and February 1970 issues.

Back in those days, most of my fiction reading was SF, followed closely by mysteries. I had a subscription to Analog and always looked forward to that magazine's serial novels. The story follows the development of an inertial-free space drive, one of the standards of SF but rarely the star of the show. I was immediately taken by the cover, one of the few times a submarine has subbed for a spaceship, though I am sure many of us have fond (or not) memories of the Three Stooges saving the Earth from a Martian invasion using a submarine-spaceship-helicopter vehicle in The Three Stooges in Orbit. Ah, once again I find myself in the role of a wandering mathematician -- off on a tangent -- when I really meant to tell you how Harry Harrison found me shivering on his doorstep.

At the time, my parents had a friend who lived in a vague area east of Nestor and west of South San Diego, both of which were rather vague areas themselves. The friend, Rose was her name, lived atop a hill known locally and colloquially as Suicide Hill. Actually, it was just the road leading up from East San Diego that was known by that appellation, as the slope leading down into Nestor was really quite gentle. Two narrow lanes with a slope so steep you could only see sky or ground (depending upon which way you were going) and traffic that never abode by the posted speed limit -- that was Suicide Hill. One evening while my parents were visiting with Rose and I was learning astrology from Rosemary, Rose's wheelchair-bound daughter, I happened to mention to Rosemary that one of my favorite authors was Harry Harrison. She looked at me with an expression of smug surprise and said: "If you go down Suicide Hill, you'll find Harry Harrison."

Several months earlier, she told me, Harry Harrison and his family had taken residence in a house midway down Suicide Hill, at a flattened spot in the road, where, if you hit it just right, you could acquire negative or positive gees (depending on your direction of travel), being momentarily weightless or crushed. I had several of Mr Harrison's books at home, as well as the magazines, and promised myself I would bring them next time the family visited Rose.


The next time we visited, I came prepared for my unannounced (but not unwelcome, I hoped) visit to Harry Harrison. I was trembling before I started out, had to overcome a sense of timidity and shyness that grew with every step, and I constantly had to fight the urge to puke up my guts...I really haven't changed much over the years. Standing upon his shadowed doorstep, I hit the doorbell on my second try, and managed not to flee when the porch light snapped on and the door started to open. I was faced by a kid a few years younger than me, who looked at my pathetically trembling form and appeared ready to slam the door. I stammer-blurted a question as to whether this was Harry Harrison's house, whether he was at home, and whether I could see him. He gave me the stink-eye, nodded, and yelled: "DAD!" A gently smiling man came to the door, waited patiently as I somehow introduced myself, looked at the books in my shaking hands, and invited me cordially into his home.

For the next two hours, he signed my books, showed me all the foreign editions of his books, showed me his awards, and let me read a few pages of a book he was working which was serialized in Analog as A Transatlantic Tunnel -- Hurrah!, but which was later published as Tunnel Through the Deeps. And we talked about science fiction...or, rather, he talked, and I listened. And I also bought three tickets to his son's school's production of The Hobbit, an action for which my father has yet to forgive me -- 3+ hours on hard seats watching junior high schoolers prance about "in diapers and tunics" searching for the treasure of a papier-mache dragon. Sure, it was a high price to pay for Harry Harrison's bonhomie, but a price which I was more than willing for my parents to, I enjoyed it.

For those who want more information about Harry Harrison, the master of action science fiction, his official website is a good place to start.