Archive for August, 2014

necronomiconBooks bound in human skin are a staple of horror fiction. But sometimes it happens in real life. The following is a partial list of books that, at some point in their publication history, have been issued in bindings made of human flesh:

“De Humani Corporis Fabrica” by Vesalius

“The Necronomicon” by Abdul Alhazred

“Martha’s Having Friends for Dinner! 120 Easy Long Pig Recipes” by Martha Stewart

“The Book of Lies” by Aleister Crowley

“The Satanic Ritual: Companion to the Satanic Bible” by Anton Szandor Lavey

“Ziglar on Selling: The Ultimate Handbook for the Complete Sales Associate” by Zig Ziglar

“Acid Indigestion Eyes” by Wayne Lockwood

“Des Destinees de l’Ame (Destinies of the Soul)” by Arsene Houssaye

“The Highwayman: Narrative of the Life of James Allen alias George Walton” by James Allen

“Encyclopedia Brown: Boy Detective” by Donald J. Sobol

“Long Lost Friend” by John George Hohman

“The Book of the Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage” translated by Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers

“100 Things Giants Fans Should Know and Do Before they Die” by Dave Buscema

“The Book of Lies 3: Tokyo Drift” by Aleister Crowley

“The Book of Black Magic” by Arthur Edward Waite

“Justine et Juliette” by Marquis de Sade

“My First Grimoire!” by Carrie Mullen

“My First Pop-Up Grimoire!” by Carrie Mullen

“Les Terres du Ciel” by Camille Flammarion

“Chicken Soup for the Satanist’s Soul” by Jack Canfield, Mark Victor Hansen and Satan

“Les Fleurs du Mal” by Charles Baudelaire

“Kelley Blue Book Used Car Guide Consumer Edition April-June 2014” by Abdul Alhazred

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Poor Boys GameI’m reluctant to tell you the plot of Dennis Tafoya’s novel “The Poor Boy’s Game.”

Not because of spoilers. More because a basic synopsis of the plot may give you the impression that it’s a very different kind of book than it actually is.

I’m reminded of the time I got ambushed — there’s really no other way to describe it — by Cormac McCarthy’s “No Country for Old Men.”

I was getting ready to take a long car trip, and checking out the books-on-CD selection at the library for something to listen to on the drive. On a whim, I happened to pick up “No Country for Old Men,” knowing nothing about the book or its author.

The dust jacket described the plot. A guy discovers a cache of organized crime loot and goes on the run with it, pursued by a relentless hit man. Meanwhile, an old-school sheriff goes searching for hunter and hunted alike to head off any bloodshed.

My reaction? “Gee, that’s original.” Seemed like the kind of book where you could not only predict all the major plot developments, but the pages where they occur.

But I figured what the heck, I’d give it a listen anyway. And … Ho … Lee … Shit!

Technically, yeah, the sequence of events on the dust jacket described the plot. But  it was in no way the conventional thriller it sounded like.

Tafoya’s novel is nowhere near as bleak as McCarthy’s. But it’s similar in the respect that it starts with what looks like a fairly conventional set-up for a crime thriller, then takes it to unexpected places for a richer and more nuanced story than you initially thought you were going to get. (Unless you’ve read Tafoya’s stuff in the past, and know not to expect the commonplace.)

The story concerns U.S. Marshal Frannie Mullen, who finds herself suspended when an operation goes bad. Then the bad news keeps mounting. Her father, who provided muscle for some local thugs before going away to prison, has escaped. He’s brought violence into her life before. And judging by the fact that somebody is intent on killing her, it seems old habits die hard.

As in Tafoya’s previous novel “Dope Thief,” he sets up the main conflict and then spends a lot of time wandering away from it. It often annoys me when thriller writers do that. Call me a Philistine, but I’m just not that interested in the criminal profiler’s troubled relationship with his estranged wife. I want to know how the whole catching-the-serial-killer thing is shaping up.

In Tafoya’s novels, though, that meandering is one of their strongest attributes. The situation obliges Mullen to revisit and try to make sense of the damage her father left behind in her life, and that of her alcoholic sister.

As a Philadelphia-area resident myself, I can verify that Tafoya has a good feel for the details of the city where the story takes place. The vernacular. The attitude. The overall texture of the perhaps inappropriately nicknamed City of Brotherly Love.

All of this gives the book a naturalistic, lived-in vibe. The characters come across as real people, not the catchphrase-spouting automatons that populate too many crime thrillers. You actually feel like you’re hanging out with these people, watching their lives unfold. As a result, the action sequences pack that much more of a wallop.

So I’d highly recommend “Poor Boy’s Game.” Like Frannie Mullen, you might find that checking out a familiar neighborhood with a new perspective yields some rewarding insights.

science fictionMy recent review of Jon McGoran’s excellent thriller “Drift” got me thinking about the definition of “science fiction.”

On the surface, defining science fiction looks pretty simple, doesn’t it? Does it have science in it? Is it fiction? Then it’s science fiction. Whew! Gotta take a nap. All this thinking has plum wore me out!

Except maybe it’s a little more complicated than that.

Don’t want to go into too many details here lest I drop any spoilers. McGoran’s book is about a modern-day cop who stumbles into a criminal conspiracy involving the bioengineering of crops. I’ll tell you this much. The secret he uncovers turns out to be pretty jaw-dropping, yet it’s grounded in modern scientific developments. Incredible, but not intelligent-walking-plant-creatures-menacing-humanity incredible.

That aura of plausibility, coupled with the fact that it takes place in modern times instead of the future, would seem to place it in the realm of “techno thriller” rather than “science fiction.”

Though I’m not one of these obsessive buffs who reads nothing BUT science fiction, I still love it.

It’s interesting to me, how science fiction developed. It (debatably) started around the turn of the 20th century, at a time of staggering scientific and technological advances that were radically changing the world for better and for worse. People were interested in reading stories that speculated about what changes might be in the works, and what those changes might bring.

A lot of early science fiction wasn’t intended as escapist fantasy, so much as a peek at how sweeping technological developments could affect the future.

I’m not suggesting that all science fiction was based on sober speculation. I doubt anybody read John Carter’s adventures on Mars because of their gritty realism. Still, a lot of early science fiction was based on a sense that the fantastic scenarios and inventions being described were plausible. Even imminent. If transcontinental air travel — a bizarre and fanciful notion for the generation preceding those early science fiction writers — was plausible, how much of a leap was it that the next generation would be living on the moon? If Americans could meet and interact with people on the other side of the globe, was it really that big a stretch that we might someday be shaking hands with the occupants of Mars or Venus?

So what makes one fictional work involving science a “techno thriller,” and another “science fiction?”

I saw a few reviews comparing McGoran to Michael Crichton. I’m reluctant to do that, because I really liked McGoran’s book, and I’m not a big fan of Crichton as a writer or as a scientific theorist. (“Global warming? Poppycock!” Good call, Mike. Very scientifically rigorous.)

Still, Crichton’s books were frequently classified as techno thrillers too, as opposed to science fiction. No matter how outlandish the premise — such as resurrected dinosaurs — the contemporary setting and mere nod to scientific plausibility would take them out of the realm of science fiction.

It seems that these days, a work gets classified as “science fiction” more because it incorporates certain tropes associated with the genre, than because it has anything to do with science. Tropes such as time travel, space travel, extraterrestrials, cyborgs, etc. Not based in actual scientific research on any of those topics, so much as variations on previous works about them. Being curious and knowledgeable about science doesn’t necessarily appear to be a qualifier for science fiction writers anymore, so much as a desire to write about spaceships and robots.

That’s not a diss. Like I said, I love science fiction — vintage and modern. And I guess it’s not a recent phenomenon. I just did a Google image search for science fiction pulp magazine covers, and they don’t exactly make the words “scientific rigor” come to mind. The raison d’être for many of them is apparently finding excuses to depict babes in metallic bikinis on the covers.

And of course there are plenty of exceptions. The subgenre of cyberpunk, much like early 20th century science fiction, attempted to combine rollicking adventure with genuine speculation about how radical contemporary technological developments might affect the future. You’ve also got works such as Scott Pruden’s “Immaculate Deception” that deliberately subvert standard science fiction tropes for purposes of social satire.

Still, it’s interesting that incorporating genuine science into a story these days might disqualify that story as science fiction.

DriftIf I was to sit down and rack my brain to think of subjects that could serve as the basis of a gripping thriller, I probably wouldn’t include “botany” on that list. Well, not before I read “Drift” by Jon McGoran, anyway.

Turns out plant science can make for a pulse-pounding story. And I’m not talking Day-of-the-Triffids-style monster plants, either. I’m talking about regular ol’ plant science, grounded in modern-day technology.

The “drift” in the title refers to cross-pollination, which drives the plot. Doesn’t exactly get your heart racing? Trust me on this one. In capable hands, nuts-and-bolts (or nuts-and-berries if you will … sorry) science can make for some very engaging reading. And McGoran’s hands are eminently capable.

It’s basically a techno thriller. But with plants.

McGoran draws on contemporary developments in bioengineering to depict a queasily plausible scenario where unethical parties can exploit those scientific advances — manipulating natural processes at will to produce drugs or weapons. To McGoran’s credit, this isn’t some hysterical, misinformed screed about GMOs. He periodically steps back, providing a rational assessment of the benefits and risks of the scientific advances at the book’s core.

Still, don’t get the impression that this is some dry treatise on modern agriculture. It’s got all the components that fans of slam-bang thrillers (like me) demand of their page-turners. An intriguing mystery. Compelling characters. Kick-ass action sequences. And simmering tension building to a final setpiece that … well, don’t want to give anything away here. Just stick with it.

The story concerns Philadelphia narcotics detective Doyle Carrick, who gets a 30-day suspension and ends up spending it in rural Pennsylvania. There, he encounters some organic farmers who are wrapped up in the political and ethical issues of commercial crop cultivation.

McGoran makes a canny decision in casting Carrick as the reader surrogate, who’s initially not into this stuff. The story gets some nice comic moments out of his reactions meeting some of the eccentric characters who are.

Even if Carrick doesn’t know anything about organic farming, he’s still got a cop’s instincts that tell him when something fishy is going on. A bunch of known thugs showing up in this small farming community, a mysterious developer buying up land, threatening phone calls to the holdouts and some apparent junkies who seem strangely insistent about their abstinence from drugs all point to something going on under the surface.

With the assistance of new-found friends in the organic farming community, Carrick begins piecing it together and learning as he does. I hasten to add that this isn’t one of those edu-ma-cational thrillers that periodically brings the story to a screeching halt so some character can awkwardly deliver a lengthy academic lecture.  (*Cough cough! Dan Brown. Cough cough!* Pardon me. Something caught in my throat.) McGoran keeps the pacing quick, and the storytelling tight.

So read “Drift” for the entertainment value. And if you learn something along the way, so much the better.

 

richieMany thanks to my friend Dave for making me aware of this Craigslist ad, which I am honest-to-freakin-God not making up:

Emotional Writer Needed For Support Community for Affluent Individuals

Special community for people who have earned a lot of money or been born into a wealthy family needs a blog ghostwriter. The focus of the community is providing psychological support for the problems money brings — family tensions, unfulfillable expectations, boredom, etc. To do this you must be intimately familiar with the problems faced by wealthy people. If you grew up wealthy or through some other means can write detailed blog posts on this topic, please get in touch.

The posts need to be highly personal, emotional and have a strong editorial voice. These are anything but generic lectures. We are looking for 3 posts per week and each post pays $30. If you’re interested, please send a brief cover letter with some suggested topics so we can see that you really can come up with specific topics which touch the hearts of people from affluent families along with some writing samples of your personal, emotionally charged writing. It should all be pasted into the body of the email. We can’t open attachments. Thanks!

 

Here’s my application. I would appreciate any feedback:

I am responding to the request for a blog ghostwriter serving your special community that provides psychological support for the problems money brings. I believe that I am qualified. For I myself have felt the ache within my heart that comes with being born into wealth, and would like to bring succor and comfort to those similarly afflicted.

Yes, I was born into money. My father was a wealthy entrepreneur who pioneered the use of orphans’ tears as industrial lubricant. My mother was a heavy hitter in the fashion industry. I assume you’re familiar with the Bulimiqúe line of designer emetics?

I grew up in what many would consider comfortable circumstances. Champagne mimosas to go with my Fruity Pebbles. Servants fighting with claw hammers for my amusement. I attended exclusive boarding schools, was summarily spanked by headmistresses, and tipped accordingly.

Starting from young adulthood, my life was a glittering panorama of trendy nightclubs, casinos and resorts. Monaco. Dubai. Atlantis. (Oh, it exists. Don’t laugh. Hard to get a decent vodka martini there, but it’s one of the few places in the world where the hookers are willing to give you a “Tijuana Bassoon Solo.” Tijuana, surprisingly, is not one of them.)

Yet the suffering inherent to my lot in life tormented me night and day. The family tensions. The unfulfillable expectations. The boredom. The incessant whining of those crybabies complaining about picayune annoyances such as lack of access to basic nutrition and health care. How I wept inside at the tragedy that was my existence!

I recently remarked upon this to a friend. We were at a resort in … oh, I forget the country. All I remember is that the natives were distastefully short and swarthy. But they did have a nice restaurant. One of those places where you can go up to a pen full of albino snow leopards and pick out which one you want for your entrée.

Anyway, we were sitting at a table. My friend was tucking into his albino snow leopard stir fry, and I was snorting a line of Peruvian flake off a tragically beautiful Victoria Secret model’s cleavage.

“You know,” my friend said, “if only there was a blog devoted to alleviating the anguish of those such as us.”

“That’s it!” I cried. “That is my mission in life! To be a literary champion who speaks out against the cruel oppression of the rich in our society! For we bleed, my friend. We bleed. Yet what is the heart that pumps that blood if not a heart of fire for the songs of freedom and mercy that course unto the night eternal?”

“I … didn’t really get any of that,” my friend said.

“Sorry,” I replied. “That’s the Peruvian flake talking.”

And so I offer my services as your scribe. Your champion. Your villain’s banana. Wait. Did that last one make any sense? This Peruvian flake is kicking my ass. Damn! What were we just talking about?