Review - TUTT AND MR. TUTT, by Arthur Train

Early Bird Books puts out a daily email to promote various discounted ebooks, always including a link to a free ebook of an old work that's fallen into public domain. Sometimes these look interesting and I'll give them a shot.

TUTT AND MR. TUTT, originally published in 1919, was one such. Arthur C. Train was a lawyer who wrote on the side in the first half of the 20th century. His "Tutt and Mr. Tutt" stories, about two NYC lawyers, ran for years in the Saturday Evening Post, were collected into a number of volumes, and were apparently immensely popular in their time. Nearly a century later, I'd never heard of Train or his characters.


First, there's some racist language in the stories that might be off-putting, with references to "Chinks" and "niggers". I'll give that a pass for work written a century ago (historical mores, blah blah blah), but it was still jarring to encounter.

Second, the two Tutts don't just defend innocent people from being wrongly convicted, they work to see guilty people set free. Murderers both hot-blooded and cold-blooded end up walking the streets again. When one of the Tutts is maneuvered into a position where he's threatened with blackmail, he ends up paying off the blackmailer; the blackmailer strolls off with no consequences and I was left sitting there with my jaw dropped, thinking "No! That's not how you end a story!".

I worked in several law offices for about a year decades ago, so I recognize that "dubious morality" is an occupational hazard of the legal profession. But I don't want to see that in the fiction I read. I want protagonists, even if flawed, to be people I can respect or at least understand. ("Hey, Bruce, what about all those Parker crime novels by Westlake you enjoy so much? Whaddabout those, huh, huh?" "Shut up.")

I couldn't like or enjoy either Tutt. I found their behavior and standards off-putting and repellent. I read the first three of the seven stories in this collection; by that point I just didn't want to spend any more time in the characters' company.

Third and finally... wow, the writing style here is very heavily in a "Tell, Don't Show" manner, with long, long sentences and passages about the characters, about what's happening in the story, rather than showing by dialogue and action.

So, for me at least, this once-popular book wasn't able to inspire any appeal or a desire to read past the first few stories. In the near-century since its publication, society has changed, writing styles have changed, and I'm clearly not the same as the people who read and enjoyed these stories when they first appeared. C'est la litterature.


Review - The Girl At The End Of The World

THE GIRL AT THE END OF THE WORLD, by Richard Levesque.  Amazon (ebook & print),  Barnes & Noble (print only).

Originally published in 2013, I got it as part of the 2016 Immerse Or Die offer from Storybundle.

Post-apocalyptic (plague variety), sole (almost) survivor story, with a YA narrator. Scarlett Fisher is a 15 year old in Los Angeles when a fast-spreading fungal plague leaves her seeming to be the last person alive in LA, or possibly the world. Not quite, it turns out, but other survivors have their own agendas, ones that threaten Scarlett’s own life and freedom.

That’s a fairly standard storyline, but Levesque is very good at presenting Scarlett’s viewpoint and reactions, and depicting the plague’s swift progress and then the breakdown of society’s infrastructure and systems. Scarlett’s presented as a determined character, but not a super-capable one. When she tries to teach herself to use a bow and arrow, her skill only progresses from awful to mediocre. She makes mistakes, with consequences. She has crying jags, but eventually picks up and soldiers on.

I read it in one sitting. Been quite a while since I’ve done that with any book.


Getting Back In Print

Received word that my short story, "Beks and the Second Note" has been scheduled for the December 2016 issue of ALFRED HITCHCOCK'S MYSTERY MAGAZINE, on sale 11/15/16. As actual pub date gets closer, I will post reminders.

"Beks and the Second Note" will be my first story to appear in a mystery-specific publication, though several of my previous credits fall into the mystery genre. "The Rest of the Story" was my presentation of the Good Samaritan parable as a detective story set in first-century Judea. And my Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, "Clues" (well, duh) was very much a mystery story.

This will be my first publication since 2006, when "Labyrinth's Heart" appeared in the Scalzi-edited issue of SUBTERRANEAN. Then I stopped writing fiction (because Reasons) until the end of 2012. Being off-work for over half a year from that first shoulder replacement let me get a running start back into fiction writing, and I've been able to keep it up even after returning to work. I call writing my "fourth job", because the first three jobs -- the bill-paying day-job, being a caregiver, and getting enough sleep to cope with those first two -- take priority. I still manage to get a handful of short stories, and an occasional novelette or novella, done each year. There are about a half-dozen out on submission right now, and some others that still need a copyedit or revisions before I send them out.


Review - THE SCARLET CRANE by J.E. Hopkins

THE SCARLET CRANE, J.E. Hopkins. Available at Amazon. Current promotional price: free; usually 0.99.

There are certain expectations for genre books. The definitions of Science Fiction and Fantasy, and their differences, have been the subject of discussion and argument for decades. My personal version of that argument is "Science Fiction deals with the consequences of social and technological change; Fantasy deals with the presence of the miraculous."

Another popular genre is the Thriller. Thrillers are novels of action, of constant forward momentum. Here's a diagram from Thriller writer Matt Rees showing basic plot points for a Thriller novel: Plot A Thriller.

THE SCARLET CRANE takes a very, very interesting fantastical premise and tries to map it onto a Thriller framework. It doesn't quite succeed. I felt the (fairly standard) thriller elements overshadowed the (underdeveloped) fantasy element.

That fantasy element is a doozy, though. In the world of THE SCARLET CRANE, the beginning of puberty also brings a one-month long period known as Transition. During that month, your eyes turn lavender. And... IF you perform the appropriate ceremony/invocation/prayer properly... and IF your invocation/prayer/wish has "uniqueness", if it's something that has never quite been wished for in quite the same way before by anyone else... then your prayer, your wish, might be granted. You can perform magic. You can perform miracles, from something small and inconsequential to literally rewriting the past.

BUT... here's the catch... if that invocation ISN'T properly performed... if that wish DOESN'T have that ill-defined quality of "uniqueness"... then you die. Stone cold freakin' dead, instantly. And that death, almost invariably, is what results from trying to invoke Transition magic. Successful Invocations are rarities.

What are the consequences of such a world? Hopkins shows us some. Knowledge of the Invocation ceremony is kept widely suppressed, especially from young people. (But it's also findable, with some effort, on the Internet or from other sources.) Parents go to extremes to prevent children from attempting Transition magic during that lavender-eyed month, including constant surveillance or even sedating their children during those weeks. There are government agencies devoted to dealing with Transition issues.

That's okay, so far as it goes. But I couldn't help feeling there should have been much bigger consequences to the existence of Transition magic. If Transition has existed for centuries or millenia, it would have had major, major, effects on history and society. How was the proper form of the Invocation originally discovered? How differently would religion have developed in a world where everyone has the potential to be a miracle-worker, but if your first attempt isn't pitch-perfect a fickle murderous God will strike you dead? Wouldn't there be entire libraries filled with the writings of theologians, philosophers, alchemists, scientists, all trying to understand the reason for Transition's existence and how it works? Or, conversely, wouldn't those few who invoked magic successfully and tried to pass on their experience be decried as witches and warlocks (which, essentially, they'd be) and burned or drowned to protect future generations? What of the adult miracle-workers throughout history (Oh, hi, Jesus!); what's up with those guys?

But the action of THE SCARLET CRANE takes place in a world almost brick-by-brick identical to our own. There's very little deep background or history to show Transition's long-term effects on society or history. Looking at the book as fantasy or science fiction, I found that disappointing. There are some hints that further books in the series (there are several) might go a little deeper into Transition's history, or show the wider effects of successful Transition magic.

Viewed a a Thriller novel, it's mostly successful. John Benoit and Stony Hill are US agents for an agency missioned with not only trying to protect kids from trying to use mostly-fatal Transition magic, but preventing kids from being manipulated by malign adults or government into Invoking magic hostile to US (or world) interests. The action moves right along, bam, bam, bam, leading to a final battle at a secret Chinese base where experiments with kidnapped children are making progress in controlling and weaponizing Transition magic. (Kids still die, but fewer of them, and Transition magic is successfully invoked more often.)

But... the relentless action, the constant forward momentum of the plot, also seemed to leave little room for much character development. John Benoit's distinguishing characteristics are carrying a cane (mostly for show, and for the concealed stiletto inside it), and that he's still an active agent at age 70. (I haven't seen a senior citizen action hero this spry since Manning Coles' Tommy Hambledon was still shinnying up drainpipes in his 80's.) I would have liked some understanding or background of what continues to motivate Benoit to do dangerous field work at an age when most agents would be driving a desk or have retired.

So, overall, pretty successful as a Thriller, with some reservations. As SF or Fantasy, some bigger reservations. The predominant Thriller plot and pacing makes Transition magic a MacGuffin for much of the book. ("MacGuffin" -- the object around which the plot revolves, but as to what that object specifically is the audience doesn't care -- attributed to Alfred Hitchcock.) Benoit and Hill's race toward the final chapter might have as easily involved a stolen nuclear bomb or plans for the Death Star, rather than the kidnapped children and secret base; Transition magic isn't an essential element of their quest.

But like I said, that whole concept of Transition is a doozy of an idea, with some great potential. I hope Hopkins develops that potential in further books. I'll almost certainly read the second book in the series, THE SAFFRON FALCON.


A Catch-Up Post

So, over two months since writing the last post here.

Why? Various reasons. Overall, life has been leaving me in a bit of a funk since the beginning of the year. Shall we make a list?

1) My mother's death in January. Not unexpected; she was 88, and had been in declining health for several years. But our relationship was never completely comfortable, with some old issues going back to childhood that were never discussed and never resolved. And now they never will be. Doesn't stop me from thoughts or regrets, even now.

2) The Arm. My right arm, which has never been fully pain-free or as easy to use or as strong as it was before the joint replacement surgery in 2012, got worse again. Updated x-rays showed the prosthetic joint was shifting and starting to work loose from the surgical cement used in 2012. I had revision surgery on July 21st, replacing the original prosthetic with a different type (a "reverse shoulder arthroscopy", using a cup-and-ball joint instead of the standard ball-and-cup joint and working primarily from the deltoid muscle instead of the rotator cuff). Still in a sling 24/7 right now (my left-handed typing is getting fairly decent), with another three weeks before starting physical therapy to get strength back and maximize range of motion. Still won't be normal, but might get 75% use of the arm back, which would be better than I'd been doing.

3) The Smash-Up. On April 27th, in the middle of that period of trying to get paperwork and x-rays and pre-testing done before the new arm surgery, Some Asshole decided to make an abrupt left turn across traffic lanes without checking for oncoming traffic. My car got T-boned hard enough to spin me 180 degrees and leave me facing south in a north-bound lane. The frame damage to my Outlander resulted in it's being declared a total loss by my insurance company, which in turn meant several weeks of having to deal with paperwork and many hours online and at car dealerships trying to find a suitable replacement. (We ended up with a 2015 Nissan Versa Note, smaller and with less cargo capacity than the Outlander. Because it was a former rental car and because it had some minor hail damage, it was kinda sorta affordable; it still cost $2500 more than the insurance reimbursement. It's a nice enough car, but something I'd ordinarily have considered as a secondary vehicle, not our primary vehicle.) And I had to deal with all that while also dealing with medical consequences of the crash; getting flung around by the collision aggravated the right arm's problems, so I needed more painkillers and was even less able to use the arm for weeks afterward. I've turned the case over to an attorney to try and get compensation for that, and for the unexpected financial costs. I really, really, really don't want to end up having to carry additional debt for a couple of years; if I do, my plan to be debt-free and able to fully retire when I turn 66 in a couple years might have to be pushed back. That thought, it's probably needless to say, doesn't make me happy.

4) Trump. Ghaaaaack.... Can't look away from the trainwreck. Back during the Bush administration, I spent way, way too many hours online, horrified and jaw-dropped at what was happening to America. Trump is worse. Why do I do that to myself? Because I hope that someday, eventually, please God, I'll find that webpage I've been looking for, hoping for, the one that says HI BRUCE. YES, IT'S ALL BEEN A JOKE ON YOU. THE ENTIRE INTERNET, TELEVISION, RADIO, NEWSPAPERS, EVERYONE, EVEN YOUR OWN FRIENDS AND FAMILY, HAVE BEEN PUNKING YOU. FOR YEARS. IT'S ALL BEEN FAKE, ALL BEEN LIES. TRUMP ISN'T RUNNING FOR PRESIDENT. HE'S NOT EVEN A BILLIONAIRE. HE LOST HIS MONEY YEARS AGO AND WORKS AT A STARBUCKS NOW. AS A JANITOR. YOU'VE BEEN TRUMAN-SHOWED. PRETTY DAMN FUNNY, HUH? SINCERELY, ASTON KUCHER. And I'll say, "Oh, thank God."

Those have been the Big Bads this year. It's not all been doom and gloom, though.

I've continued to write fiction, and have gotten several short stories completed and out on submissions.

I haven't been completely inactive online. I've been making occasional tweets, and responding to others', on Twitter. The Twitter limit of 140 characters has been more achievable for me recently than the time or energy for 140 or 1400 words here. (Twitter is weird. Most posts get 40 or 50 impressions. But sometimes one will take off and gets hundreds or even thousands of views, not always for any clear reason.)

I've got a long list of books read and audiobooks listened to since February. I'll try to get some reviews written for forthcoming posts here. So, yeah, I'm hoping to write more here again.

That's probably enough words for now.