Book Trailer Rantiness and the “Black Feathers” Video

I don’t like book trailers.

Conceptually, I find them absurd. It seems completely obtuse to slap together sound and imagery to sell a book.

I don’t even mean this in a luddite way. I have an e-reader on which I read books. I don’t even bother to call them e-books, generally. As Eddie Izzard says, “I don’t have techno fear; I have techno joy! I LOVE technology!”

My issue with them, conceptually, has been simply that I don’t believe books lend themselves well to being explained through any medium other than words, whether written or spoken. Of course, if a book trailer was nothing more than a book’s author giving viewers a thumbnail sketch of why he or she believes you might should read their work, then I’d probably be interested in that.

The grown-up approach to things I don’t like has long been to just largely ignore things I don’t like. At some point, I realized it was a pretty adolescent thing to attempt to identify oneself by shouting loudly how much I found certain things distasteful. Certainly, in the battleground that is the high school years, there seemed to be some survival-based strategy to rolling the eyes at the mention of, say, Bon Jovi and then spending ten minutes bloviating over the myriad reasons any reasonable person would completely loathe Bon Jovi and on and on it goes until you feel fairly secure you’ve impressed everyone around you that you’ve outwitted the masses by seeing right through the relative inanity of Bon Jovi and, hence, establishing your superiority and worthiness as a peer.

How that didn’t seem completely transparent to me at the time, I think, fairly illustrates why I didn’t get into Princeton.

Now, I DO just ignore. I find it incredibly easy to avoid all the pop culture phenomena I assume my teenage self would have wanted to loudly distance himself from at any and all opportunities. I would have had to carry a podium with me to school just to deal with reality television and Twilight, I’m certain. Now, rather than needing to have an opinion on such things, my response is frequently that I have no opinion whatsoever as these things do not interest me, from what I do know, to the point of investigating to the point of me being able to offer a somewhat-informed position statement.

All of which is an incredibly lengthy way to say, “Yeah, I know I can just NOT watch them and move along, leaving them for everyone else to enjoy at their own discretion.”

Yet…I got lured and am feeling self-righteous about it, so I rant.

Oh, calm down. Only maybe six people will ever click this link, and none of them will bother to get this far.

Because I get their newsletters, follow them on Twitter, and dig what they do, I’m generally aware of whatever Angry Robot Books is publishing.

Because my TBR pile has long been holding up its end in contributing to the American obesity epidemic, I tend to not read the descriptions of all the new stuff too closely. Angry Robot, for those not aware, largely deals in what they call “genre fiction.” You know; it’s those books not about wealthy east coast families with deep, dark secrets and issues communicating or relating.

Unless, of course, the family secret is that they’re shapeshifters or something like that. Then, yes that.

Additionally, Angry Robot’s e-books are DRM-free. You either know that is a good thing, or you’re mystified at what I typed, in which case I could have just as well said they’re made of magic.

Ultimately what I’m saying is that for my particular tastes in story, it’s very easy to read book synopses at Angry Robot and think, “Oooh! That sounds fun.” This is not a problem except that I read only about one book a week, which is about how many they publish and, well, there’s a whole world of other publishers, current and past out there who’ve also put interesting books in my path.

Despite trying to largely avoid too much window shopping that leads to a growing TBR pile, one of the recent offerings jumped off the page into my conscious.

Does it jump out at you, too? Then maybe we should be friends because I’m a sucker for this kind of thing!

Of the three new releases touted in the April newsletter, I was already aware of two.

The third, however, stuck out not only for being the one I didn’t recognize, but also for a nifty-looking cover. “Black Feathers” had just enough to suck me in a little bit closer.

Further inspection of the nifty-looking cover revealed a Stephen King blurb praising author Joseph D’Lacey.

Now that I think about it, they could totally have some dude on staff named Stephen King who is not at all the man who single-handedly spurred my own personal interest in reading for pleasure, rather a guy who is paid to put together pithy bits of praise to put on Angry Robot books with his name attached and to otherwise keep his mouth shut about what he does in the publishing industry.

As I’m not generally one for conspiracy theories, I’m moving forward with it being the only Stephen King that would really be relevant to the conversation.

A click on a link delivered unto me a bit more information with the word “apocalypse” figuring prominently.

I’m a sucker for those post-apocalyptic stories. I blame Robert McCammon. “Swan Song” remains an all-timer for me.

Additionally, there is mention of “environmental apocalypse,” which brings to mind Paulo Bacigalupi’s “The Windup Girl,” which is another book for which I have deep feelings. Though, I sort of wish I hadn’t read it because with all the Monsanto stuff going on…it’s a little bit harrowing.

Top it all off with the fact Angry Robot prices their e-books below my psychological ceiling on the price I’m willing to pay for what is, essentially, an electronic document. This one, brand new, was listing at £5.49 which is…carry the one…do some fiddling…something like 83 cents?

Not really a numbers guy.

Ultimately, I was pretty much “in” on this book. All that would be needed at this point is the opening in my reading schedule.

All of this I have written to explain just why I bothered to watch a book trailer when I KNOW full well I generally am annoyed by them.

This morning in the inbox was a message from the good folks at Angry Robot with the subject “The best book trailer you’ll ever see – Black Feathers.”

Low bar to clear for me, of course, because I have seen but a few.

But they were talking to everybody, weren’t they? So my response was more along the lines of , “Pfffttt…come on. EVERYONE thinks their trailer has set a new standard, I’m sure.”

Opening the message, I noted they had already accounted for my skepticism, remarking that they realized their claim would sound ridiculous before going on to be a bit disparaging about the early days of book trailers.

All of this disarmed me JUST enough to then realize that, HEY, “Black Feathers” is that book you were thinking about getting!

Well, if I was willing to spend 84 cents pounds sterling quid British money Thatcher thingies, I could spare a few moments to watch the BEST book trailer ever, yeah?

And, quickly, I’m back in “I hate these fucking things” land.

This trailer starts with some vaguely industrial-sounding music for atmosphere. My immediate impression is “Nine Inch Nails” if they had really crap equipment and lack of imagination.

Between the music and the fairly dark image of a factory of some sort on an otherwise-barren landscape serving as foreground to a HUGE full moon, I figure they’re delivering an opening pitch like, “You’re kinda gothy and like the same dark imagery everyone else who shops at Hot Topic digs, yeah? But not like those Twilight kids, mind. No…not you. YOU are truly gothy!

To me, feels a bit condescending.

The imagery shifts to a few other things (A squawking crow! Dark, I tell you!), with some text. I’m not going to re-type the text because that would take too much effort, but it’s likely from the book as it’s written in what would seem to be a voice of a character delivering important information to other characters. The word “Satan” appears. Shortly thereafter there is mention of the “Crowman.”

At this point, about one minute in, maybe I have a vague impression of what the story is about, though I also read a few sentences about the book a few weeks ago, so…there’s that. But I’m a full minute into this trailer, and all I can think is that with a full minute of undivided attention, I could have read several paragraphs of information about the book rather than someone trying to deliver visuals and atmosphere to me, which I don’t fucking want in the first place because, when I read, that’s MY job!

Ultimately, I stopped watching not far beyond the minute mark when what appeared to be our “Crowman,” sporting an Abe Lincoln-style hat, stood up from the ground and raised his arms, primarily because I was still interested in the book, but was getting to where I was starting to second-guess it. That’s a loser of a prop for all, so…I bailed out. The stated length of the video is 2:11, which is hardly any time at all, unless you’re watching a video you’ve been told is the best in its class and, as such, you are expecting said video to get you fired up for a book. Then, it is an incredibly long time.

I’m certain the people who were involved in making this video put a lot of work into it. I’m similarly certain there is a plenty-large audience for such book trailers making the effort worthwhile. In all likelihood, I’m the lone crank spending part of his day bitching about the whole using-video-to-sell-a-book thing using the “Black Feathers” trailer as a launching pad. Clearly the publishers were excited enough by it to deliver it to me with some punchy hype attached. I hope it moves some units and everyone gets to raise a glass in celebration. I like pulling for books as a thing, which means pulling for them individually, which means pulling for all the emerging tools being used to promote them.

Just…don’t float something in front of my face telling me it’s the “best ever” and then have it be fairly ordinary (I’d find it hard to believe it’s much more than ordinary, even pigeonholing it into a category as narrow as “gothy trailer for post-apocalyptic story”), and I won’t waste an hour-plus of my day being all angsty about it. Cool?

And, Angry Robot and Mr. D’Lacey…I’m still buying the book, so we’re good, yeah?

Randall Reads: John Dies at the End, but the Story Dies Much Earlier Than That

February 6, 2013 Leave a comment

And, really, I’m not sure John does die at the end!

The first few days I was reading this, it seemed destined to land in the rare air of 4- or 5-stars. Using Goodreads’ tags for star ratings, those numbers are reserved for “really liked it” and “it was amazing,” respectively. I don’t say either of those things about books (or movies, or songs, or much of anything for that matter) lightly. Hence, when we’re talking about a work that is tagged as being “genre fiction, it was really shaping up to be quite the coup.

Unfortunately, the novel is split into two connected books, with “Book II: Korrock” not holding up to the promise and pacing that makes “Book I: They China Food!”

I first came across David Wong’s (a.k.a. Jason Pargin) novel through a list of “The 25 Best Horror Novels of the New Millennium.”  My relationship to horror writing is somewhat responsible for my love of reading, in general, as Stephen King was the man who motivated me to pick up a book and read it of my own volition (WAY back in the early 1980’s when I was actually young.

THIS cover!

I realize fully this is far from a unique story.

30 years and a degree in English Language and Literature did little to keep me closely connected to my first literary love. The list was serving to remind me that I once preferred horror novels to all others.

Hopefully, nobody has walked away already thinking I’ve ever thought of horror (or fiction of any genre, for that matter) as less worthy of readership than anything else. I don’t think that in the slightest.

I DO think, however, that the style of writing in much of what falls into some genres could simply be better. It turns out that, while I love a good, fun story, my enjoyment of it is exponentially increased when the use of language to tell it is considered.

I also tend to want deeper character development than I often see, but that’s not as important to me in these situations.

So…where was I? Yes, the list.

Who doesn’t love a list? Even when you get mad at the injustice of your favorite potential list member being excluded, you still love the list. This seemed like a good resource for finding a book to help me reconnect with a somewhat-lost love.

“John Dies at the End” was the first book in the list at #25. Between the quirky title and cover photo, I was already pretty much sold. Hence, my chuckling at the inclusion of terms like “penis doorknobs” and “demonic wiggers” in the description was just so much drawing a design into the frothy milk atop the latte: nice, but not necessary.

You’ll get immediately that this story is told in a humorous voice. I mean, did you miss the mention of “penis doorknobs.” In a sense, the voice makes this a bit less a horror novel than what I’m used to, which is as good an illustration as to the completely daft nature of trying to slap a label on everything in the first place.

Then again, what scared me when I was 10-years-old is unlikely to scare me now, eh?

It would be a mistake to dismiss the book due to a bit of immature humor, however. While it’s there, I wouldn’t say it’s too pervasive other than in a few moments. Without giving too much away, when John (of the title) essentially attacks captors with the feces being sprayed from a dog’s rear end, it doesn’t seem slapstick-y; it actually works in context.

The problem here is more one of structure.

“They China Food!” moves at a great pace, heavily seasoned with action scenes and comedic moments. When it ended, I was completely satisfied with pretty much everything about it. The author did a great job of developing a mythology around his two protagonists—John and David (the purported author of the book)—while setting things in motion at a quick clip with several memorable scenes that will undoubtedly be excellent scenes in the upcoming film of the same name.

Unfortunately, you don’t get too far into “Korrock” before realizing that the author had a great, fun story to tell, but then needed to scramble the characters into another scenario to get to novel length.

The book’s afterword, in which Pargin tells the story of how the novel was hatched as a part-time online venture that caught fire via word-of-mouth recommendations, would seem to indicate that converting the online product to a novel necessarily created unique challenges. As tight and fast-paced as the first part of the book is, the second part is at least equally as sprawling and dragging. My overall impression of the book on the whole likely suffers from the comedown from the first part, which is vastly superior, in my opinion.


That being said, I look forward to the recently released sequel: This Book is Full of Spiders, because even with the structural issues I had with John Dies at the End the final accounting leaves you with a fun, new voice working the under-served confluence area of horror, comedy, and science-fiction. The adventures of John and David are unlikely to appeal to all comers, but for the right audience, this novel hits a lot of the right notes.

Plus, Wong knows a little something about covers and titles, yeah?

My 2012 in Reading: Lists

January 22, 2013 Leave a comment

The 25 Novels I Read in 2010, From Favorite to Least

  1. City of Bohane by Kevin Barry
  2. Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward
  3. State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
  4. Canada by Richard Ford
  5. The Devil in Silver by Victor LaValle
  6. The Dead Do Not Improve by Jay Caspian Kang
  7. Some Kind of Fairy Tale by Graham Joyce
  8. The Stupidest Angel: A Heartwarming Tale of Christmas Terror by Christopher Moore
  9. Deadwood by Pete Dexter
  10. Storm Front by Jim Butcher
  11. Kill the Dead by Richard Kadrey
  12. The Cold Dish by Craig Johnson
  13. Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey
  14. Open City by Teju Cole
  15. A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs
  16. Skagboys by Irvine Welsh
  17. Mockingbird by Chuck Wendig
  18. Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig
  19. Carpathia by Matt Forbeck
  20. The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers
  21. Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper
  22. Empire State by Adam Christopher
  23. ?
  24. ?
  25. Lightning Rods by Helen DeWitt

So…I guess I read only 23 novels. I probably counted a Sherman Alexie short-story collection the first go. I’ve no idea where the other one went. Maybe something I started and refused to finish. No, maybe the twitter thing Jennifer Egan did? Whatever the case, I think it’s funnier to have a list of 25 with only 23 elements to it, so I’m not editing it now.

Actually, I’m adding place-holders in two spots because I want to call “Lightning Rods” out for being the 25th best book of the 23 I read. THAT at least begins to touch on how awful I find that particular piece.

I don’t know I need to explain more than that. It’s a list. Obviously, everything is relative, but I think I could find something to recommend in at least 19 of these books. If you need more than that, for some reason, holler at me.

Categories: Books, Literature Tags: ,

My Open ‘Dear John’ Letter to the Tournament of Books

January 15, 2013 Leave a comment

It’s not me; it’s you.

Like all hot-and-heavy romances, ours was fated to burn brightly, if only briefly.

But now, I fear it is over.

When I first saw you, I was stunned by the sheer audacity of combining something I adore about sports—the head-to-head, single-elimination tournament—with discussion about books. It would not be too much to say I was simply awestruck and immediately knew we were a perfect match.

As one does in such situations, I dived in without reservation or consideration, wildly throwing 16 titles into my Seattle Public Library queue with bold disregard for whatever any information available about the books themselves, allowing infatuation to set-aside book-selection processes that had served me relatively well over the course of a reading lifetime. If you loved it, then I wanted to love it, too. 

It’s easy to see now how this was bound to lead to this, but isn’t it always thus?

Then, you put “Lightning Rods” in my hands. 

I admit, I wondered whether something wasn’t up right then and there. There was no waiting for the book from the library, which is never a good sign. Nor is it favorable when I’ve not somehow read about or heard of the book, considering how much book-centric media I absorb on a daily basis. 

BUT! We only work if we trust each other, yeah? 

So I read.

It were as if, on the first time you cooked dinner for me, I thought I saw you not wash your hands after handling raw poultry and, rather than thinking that maybe I need to slow it down for my own benefit, I tried to dismiss it as over-thinking the situation and happily eat.

We know now, of course, that I got really, really sick after that meal. Can I blame the hand-washing incident explicitly? Maybe not, but…here we are.

Don’t get me wrong; we had some great times. “The Sisters Brothers,” “The Art of Fielding,”  “The Tiger’s Wife,” and, of course, the lovely March romp of book-battle discussion.

We’ll always have March!

Eventually, I wrote-off the “Lightning Rods” incident and the slightly less-offensive failure of “Open City” to meet my tastes to the point where it all still seemed as fresh and exciting as day one by the time I was faced with a long stretch apart from my new crush.

This year, you came along a little earlier than last with even more titles than before. I didn’t ask myself “Why?” you felt the need to tart it up a bit. Rather, I was simply happy to see you here, and it was January 2012 all over again. 

And, truly, it was the same thing all over again, except that, this time, maybe my eyes were open just a wee bit more.

Like “Lightning Rods” last year, I managed to get one of the entries this year almost immediately due to it being sold at a deep-discount as an ebook on the day I heard the titles announced. Again, I jumped to the “buy” button, not reading the description of “Song of Achilles,” nor any reviews or discussion around it. 

This time, however, it felt like true deceit, even with all the disclaimers about how the final list of competitors are not ever meant to be definitive of the best 16 (this year, 18) books from the previous year. I wanted desperately to be wrong about the novel, but no matter how I looked at it, I felt I had been conned into reading a glorified romance novel, once you looked past the obvious appeal of a retelling some great Greek mythology with a contemporary prosaic style. 

And the realization stung.

Stung enough that I went back to re-examine things more deeply.

Suddenly, the new play-in round in which three novels will compete for a place among the final 16 didn’t seem like such an innocent little quirk, when considering the unlikelihood of the three novels in question all being set around the same topic (war in the Middle East) having been the three novels between which a panel could not decide for the final seat at the table.

Then I take a quick count of author gender and see a nearly even split between women and men, and, rather than thinking it sheer happenstance, wonder whether the panel didn’t tinker to make sure the tournament didn’t find itself yet another target of those who’ve questioned loudly the last few years the dominance of male-written pieces in some forums. 

And, if such politically correct tinkering is taking place, how on Earth did you end up with such a predominantly white collection of authors?!

Maybe it IS my fault for not looking beyond the surface before charging in, but I’m always going to resent feeling manipulated. While trying to remember only the good times, I probably don’t really want to know what you were doing, what your real motivations were. 

But, it’s over. I have been shocked back into remembering who I am. 

We can still be friends, though. Cool?

Mired in the Brogue of “Skagboys”

October 10, 2012 5 comments

Despite a fondness for the works of Irvine Welsh, I admittedly was slightly dreading my start of the recently released prequel to Trainspotting. 

My wife pre-ordered Skagboys as a birthday gift to me. I am a big fan of the film version of Trainspotting, which has led to also following the careers of several of those involved in its making.

  • Danny Boyle has become one of cinema’s premier directors, scoring an Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire. I’m sure I was not the only person watching the Opening Ceremony from the London Olympic Games in anticipation of the Trainspotting-esque moment, not realizing until mid-point that the entire ceremony was a bit Trainspotting-y. There’s nothing on his resume I’ve watched and not thoroughly enjoyed.
  • Jonny Lee Miller has been around long enough to be a bit of a household name, particularly now that he’s in the new major-network take on the Sherlock Holmes story.
  • Ewan MacGregor is probably even more well-known, having worked in a good many major films including the role of Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars prequels.
  • Robert Carlyle is also a regular on American network TV, portraying Rumplestiltskin in (largely unwatchable) Once Upon a Timebut I still dig him. He’s also tackled Adolf Hitler and King James I! Pretty sure Begbie kicks all their arses, but…
  • Ewen Bremner was a treat (for me, anyhow) in Black Hawk Down 
  • I admit that most of the reason I watched Nanny McPhee was because Kelly MacDonald was in it.
  • My wife tells me that a doctor on Gray’s Anatomy is played by the same guy who was Tommy.

It might be said I have an unhealthy relationship with the film, though it led me to read Welsh’s book (and then books, plural) rather than to score some dope, so…healthy enough, eh?

Anyhow…trying to circle back to the point…the slight dread I experienced managed to survive an overwhelming adulation for the characters Welsh created and the world in which he has them muck about.

It’s just that the books are so incredibly difficult to read!

If you’ve read them, you likely nod your head in agreement.

If not, I’ll just say that ah dinnae ken what tae tell yae!

Actually, I DO know what to tell you, but I was just trying to illustrate the point, which is that the dialogue, both internal and ex-, is written in a highly stylized brogue. While it definitely adds, overall, to my enjoyment of and submersion into the world of the novels, it greatly slows my progress through it.

Generally, I will make my way through a 300-page novel in 4 to 6 days, depending on how many of those days include an hour-plus sitting on the bus between home and work. I opened Skagboys for the first time 11 days ago.

I’m on page 158.

In fairness, I spent four extra days I’d normally be going into the city instead working from home. Definitely had some impact. Still, I can actually feel myself reading slower than what I’m used to and it’s driving me crazy, especially as the “to read” pile expands rapidly as some favorite authors all are publishing new works (Zadie Smith, Michael Chabon, Justin Cronin, Victor LaValle, Junot Diaz, Chuck Wendig, etc.), not to mention it was already a bit of a bloaty list.

This should not, however, register as a complaint. It really is part of what I love about Welsh’s writing and why I am quick to return to this particularly story.

“Wir gaun doon thaire tae have a wee fuckin blether wi this Hong Kong Fuey cunt!”

That’s fun!

I just wish I could pick up the dialect a bit more quickly. As of now, I still have to read the dialogue aloud to myself in my head to even hope to make sense of much of it.

Otherwise, it’s pretty interesting to watch these characters move through their pre-addiction lives knowing how it eventually runs for them. Because I declined a re-read of Trainspotting before starting Skagboys, my memories of the characters are probably closer to the film versions, which I’ve seen several times. Whatever the case, the characters all seem to be pretty much on-point right now, which makes me feel good about the book. I’m not sure whether there are any charges of “cashing-in” to be hurled at the appearance of the prequel, but I’m definitely getting a sense Welsh was more motivated by his feelings about the characters than by some cynical cash grab.

Now that I’m nice and irritated after watching baseball for the last few hours, I guess I’ll go wrestle a bit more with the brogue.

Randall Reads: “The Dead Do Not Improve” by Jay Caspian Kang

September 13, 2012 Leave a comment

Jay Caspian Kang does some writing for sports site Grantland.

I should say, he does some very good writing for GrantlandI like his style and voice. There is a complete dearth of quality sports writing these days, in my opinion, especially longer-form writing.

It would seem Grantland was founded at least partially in the interest of reviving what appeared to be a bit of a dying genre in the fast pace coverage of sports on the web.

While Grantland is only too happy to stray from the path of serious sports discussion, it’s usually toward the realm of reality television. Hence, when I heard one of the more notable writers for the site was publishing a novel, I was immediately intrigued.

Further, it appeared the novel was going to have nothing to do with sports, much less reality television, making it even more of a rare bird.

Because they’re two of my favorite things, I feel like literature and sports should naturally appeal to people. I’m mystified at how, generally, fans of either are not fans of the other. In fact, most of the time there’s a bit of an antagonistic attitude toward the other. I’ve been told this is rooted in the social strata of American public school where the jocks are commonly jerks toward intellectuals.

In my experience, that’s definitely the case in films and television, but I don’t remember ever seeing it manifested when I was in school. Does it really exist outside the exaggerated memories of those who perceived offense?

None of which is relevant to reviewing the book. This is likely among the reasons I don’t get paid to review books. I tend to wander.

What I was getting at was the idea that I mentally embraced Kang as a kindred spirit. There was some advance buzz on the novel which led me to believe the author had an appreciation for the craft of fiction writing. I already knew he was into sports, though he appears to be an NBA junkie first and foremost, which is completely outside my sports scope.

Anyhow…close enough.

The style I enjoy from Kang’s work on Grantland can be found throughout “The Dead Do Not Improve.” There is some deft work with words that made me pause and reread passages for enjoyment, rather than the dreaded “Wait…what?” I sometimes get when the story drags and I lose focus or when the author forgets that the reader is not as knowledgeable about the story and characters as they are and forget to fill in some of the blanks.

Also, there is a lot of humor in the telling of the story. It’s a little dark, I suppose, but I’m never bothered by that. You’d think that means I’ve a dark nature, but I don’t! People who know me would laugh at such a suggestion, I assure you. There are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments. My wife can attest to this as I constantly stopped to read her passages I knew she’s agree were funny.

I was even right about that a few times.

All the dark and funny is woven into a bit of a strange noir-ish crime/mystery thingy. Maybe. It’s not really a genre with which I’m horribly familiar, but I remember thinking Raymond Chandler was cool when I was in college, so I may know just enough to declare it to be there.

What I do feel I know a bit about, and found entirely lacking here, was depth of the characters.

The two main players are Philip Kim and Siddhartha “Sid” Finch. Kim is a young, urban San Fransican who finds himself in the middle of a crime spree. Finch is a SFPD detective working the case. The narrative alternates between parallel stories centered on the two men moving toward a conclusion in which you’d presume they will both figure prominently.

Seemingly, the development of either character is set aside for social commentary (internet/social media, gentrification, Korean-American culture) while moving the plot along at a decent pace. Kang keeps it fun by introducing some intriguing elements (a pornography magnate, a cult, a surfing Chris Isaak, etc.). Unfortunately, I’m a reader who wants to get to know the principals very well before I can really invest in the events surrounding them.

On top of that, as long as I’m delving into my own personal problems that won’t necessarily reflect in your reading experience, the name Sid Finch is a direct nod to a George Plimpton piece written for Sports Illustrated as an April Fool’s Day joke. “The Curious Case of Sidd Finch” detailed the discovery by the New York Mets of a guy who could throw the ball over 165 mph and pitched while wearing a hiking boot on one foot with the other foot bare. I’m sure this reference sails harmlessly over the heads of a lot of people, if only due to it being someone aged and semi-obscure, especially among literati, but I was a devoted reader of sports magazines in the mid-1980s and was horrified at the idea that the Mets would have both Doc Gooden and this guy. (Not fair!)

I was a bit naive back then…

Anyhow, every time Finch’s name appeared in the novel, I was immediately unable to stay immersed in the story. I was simply too hyper-aware of the reference.

Speaking of references…all the hip-hop references land like lead balloons with me. No clue. No impact. Not interested enough to look it up.

Hence, I’m torn. I enjoyed the style and voice Kang delivered (pop culture-isms excepted). I also found a lot of the elements of the setting to be interesting. Just very let down and uninterested in the characters. In other words, the elements that worked for me really worked, but I could not get over the things I found disappointing.

My general sense is that the average reader is going to really enjoy this debut novel, so I’d have to recommend taking a look at it, with the only reservation being that if you’re the type of reader who wants to really get to know the characters well, you’d need to at least need to put that aside for this one.

Randall Reads: Empire State by Adam Christopher

August 22, 2012 Leave a comment

I fully wanted and expected to really enjoy this novel.

When I decided to read “Empire State,” all I knew about it was that there was a science-fiction angle as well as superheroes in a noir-ish story.

I also knew it came from Angry Robot Books, an imprint with which I’ve had mostly positive experiences, and that the sample I read of author Adam Christopher’s upcoming book, “Seven Wonders,” had me hooked nearly instantly.

Further, two of my favorite reads of the last few years have been very successful in layering detective/mystery/noir story elements into genre-type novels.

China Mieville’s “The City & The City” remains among my all-time favorite novels, having very successfully set a murder mystery in a world with a very interesting sci-fi (is ‘speculative’ a better word?) angle.

Low Town” by Daniel Polansky features more of a fantasy world (you know, medieval England with magic and dragons and all that?) in which the protagonist moves while trying to figure out who’s doing some murders.

“Empire State” actually has some interesting parallels with the Mieville work, particularly in that there are parallel worlds at the center of each novel’s setting.

It would be unfair to wish that Adam Christopher were as tight a story teller as Mieville, primarily because I feel very few writers I’ve read even come close to that level. However, I do feel like Christopher would have benefited from more-stringent editing or plot outlining. The fact of the matter is, there’s so much going on in this novel, that it’s hard to find the focus.

Off the top of my head, here are some of the things floating around a little too freely in “Empire State”:

  • Prohibition-era gangsters
  • superheroes
  • steampunk-like technology
  • prototypical noir detective
  • alternate/parallel worlds
  • religious cult activity
  • robots
  • war
  • male bonding/friendship
  • political power manipulation of information to citizenry
  • gay rights
  • split-personality disorder/duality of a personality

There’s likely some things I’m forgetting, but you get the point. That’s a lot of stuff to juggle. Ultimately, it leads to a lack of clarity as to what the story is about.

I would promise to not ruin it for you, but I am still fairly unsure myself. Even after three consecutive climactic scenes at the end of the book, you’re still unclear as to what the motivations behind the book’s initial conflict were in the first place. It’s not giving much away to say the two superheroes of the story have a big fight, which is crucial to the creation of the world in “Empire State.” The Space Pirate and the Skyguard were once a cohesive unit in fighting crime, but split. Why? Several people in the novel wonder this as well, which would lead a reader to think you’ll learn why.

Along similar lines is the issue of the extreme thinness of the characters in this story. Even Rex, the story’s protagonist, is little more than an archetype with a few personal issues thrown in to flesh him out a little, but it’s so very little that you don’t get a real sense of who he is.

I should admit here that there is a convention in the story that somewhat explains why the characters might seem half-formed, at best, but I think that would be a little cheap an answer as to why you don’t get a good sense of anyone in this book. Several characters have fairly large roles in the important events in the story, but their motivations are a complete mystery because they’ve not been developed much, if at all. All of which leads to a general lack of interest in how the dramatic conflicts ultimately resolve.

There is certainly enough action in “Empire State” that it is bound to have a more-receptive audience available out there somewhere than the one it found when I cracked it open (or whatever the ebook equivalent to ‘cracking a book open’ is).

I’ve had many a discussion with other readers who, like me, enjoy genre fiction but are frustrated that the level of writing falls often far behind the level of great ideas and stories. This is only a real problem when the result is a story that goes in too many directions with characters not well-enough developed to see it though.

It pains me to say that this is the case with “Empire State.” I will hope for better luck with “Seven Wonders” when it’s released next week (because it really does sound good!)

West Seattle Living: Crossing the Bridge for Bar del Corso

August 21, 2012 1 comment

I desperately need for the first thing you read here to be: Just GO try the Polpettine. For $7 you get a little bowl of house-made meatballs in tomato sauce. I think there were five meatballs, all-told. I’m a little hazy on the entire thing because they were mind-numbingly good. You can go in there, sit at the bar, and just have the meatballs. If that doesn’t convince you you’re in the hands of people who know what they are doing…I’ve concerns about your soul.

Okay, moving on.

If I’m honest, we didn’t leave the peninsula specifically to finally try Beacon Hill’s shining light of a restaurant atop the promontory visible to the east every time any of us leave our neighborhood via the high bridge. We were actually returning from a big loop of a day which took the entire family to the Sounders game Saturday afternoon before heading north to Lynnwood so Owen could have a sleepover at Grammy and Pops’ house (which also means adult time for the Missus and I).

Full disclosure: A former coworker is now a co-owner of the restaurant. Read into that what you will.

Bar del Corso has been open for over a year. At least, I’m pretty sure it has. I know it seems like it’s been at least a year that many of my coworkers with great palates have been asking me regularly whether I’d yet had food there and then looking astonished that I’ve continued to neglect trying it.

Did I mention the Polpettine? Good gravy…

We had heard enough about Bar del Corso to know it was bound to be busy on a Saturday night, even a little before dinnertime (it was near 6, but not quite there). Even so, I didn’t expect to see a good-size huddle outside the front door of the restaurant awaiting their turn to pick at the menu.

I’m admittedly bad at waiting in line for anything, much less food. However, the Missus had her heart and mind set on finally dining here.

Plus, even when not in a third trimester of pregnancy, she has a well-established reputation for an appreciation of pizza.

We were going in, line be damned.

Shockingly, when we told the greeter/hostess-type at the front door we’d need seating for two, we were immediately offered seats at the bar.

Now, I have always liked sitting at the bar for dinner. It may not be for everyone. Despite having the word “bar” in the name, the bar in Bar del Corso, at least during dinner rush, was packed with diners rather than drinkers. You can just bar the concept of “bar” from your head when considering the bar in Bar del Corso.

That was annoying, no?

Let’s just get to the food.

First, the Polpettine are simply marvelous (not entirely) little spheres of…

What? I already mentioned the meatballs? You sure?


We decided to go with a few small plates and a pizza. We asked the bartender (server working the bar?) whether that would be enough food for two. She seemed to be leaning toward “maybe, but probably not.”

I assure you, it’s enough.

Not that I would have been unable to wolf down an entire pizza on my own. I’d gladly do that. In fact, I may just do that some night I’m on my own for dinner.

But, in general, one pizza supplemented with a few appetizers should suffice for two people.

There was/is a seasonal menu on the wall. I love seasonal cooking. Apparently, so too does Jerry Corso (owner and executive chef?).

Among the “little plates” available seasonally was three wedges of cantaloupe draped with thin-sliced prosciutto with a few fresh figs on the side. Some of you have likely already tried some version of this dish in the past and know how good

I’d eat this every day for lunch for a week, easily.

it is. I wouldn’t sell this as hard as I would the meatballs (Have I said to try the meatballs, yet?), but it is a worthy order, especially if sitting at the bar where you get to see the big hunk of prosciutto shaved a few feet and mere moments from where you’re dining.

The dish brings out the best overall praise I have to offer from my dining experience: simple, seasonal, fresh, and delicious.

Of course, it’s only fair to note that the third appetizer we ordered was a bit of a let-down.

I grew up watching my grandfather eating canned sardines and wondering just how he was managing the trick. All these years later, my wife wonders the same when I bust out a can of sardines and crackers as a snack.

Hence, there was no chance I was going to pass on the zucchini blossoms stuffed with anchovies (and maybe other things my age-addled memory has omitted). Each order is only one of the stuffed blossoms, but they’re only $2.50 each. Unfortunately, for me, they just tasted like batter-dipped-and-fried just about anything else in the world. I didn’t get much out of it otherwise. It may be my palate, of course, but I was hoping for a lot more flavor, while all I got from this in particular was texture. On that angle, they were executed beautifully. Flavor-wise? Not much to offer, I’m afraid.

If you want something fried, steer to the Suppli al Telefono. Described as “Roman street food,” these are fried balls of risotto packed around mozzarella cheese.

“Croquettes by Phone?”

They’re even better than they sound.

They’re even better than they look.

Luckily, there are just three to an order. I could easily eat a dozen without blinking. I can see why they’d be street food in Rome. After a night out imbibing in the appreciation of the oenological arts, you’d be only too happy to stumble over cobbblestone streets dodging mopeds while munching on them.

Can you tell I’ve never been to Italy?

Finally, we went with the seasonal pizza on offer, which I know had zucchini and pesto on it.

Realistically, if I am going to bother to post about these things, it might make sense to write stuff down and all that, but I was too busy stuffing my face. Besides, you have enough information to figure it out if you’re going to go, yeah?

Who would NOT want a pizza baked in such a gorgeous oven?


The wood-fired oven and the pizzas prepared in it are the stars of the show here.  While there is plenty to enjoy all over the menu, it is a small menu with pizzas featuring exclusively in that whole main dish area.

Unless you’re one of those people who just want a salad on your night out. You’re not one of those, are you?

It is Seattle. I try to not judge, but…don’t be that person. Not tonight.

Here is where I preface commentary with the admission I am part of a mixed marriage. I prefer thin-crust pizza. The Missus prefers thicker crusts.

Somehow, we manage to make it work.

The pizzas here are, predictable, on the thinner side, so I was bound to be happy with it.

And, I was.

The Missus, however, took the opportunity to clarify that, while she does not generally prefer thin-crust pizza, she is always happy with this particular style of thin crust. After which she took a full, two-handed whack at the pizza restaurant I grew up enjoying in my small-town Michigan childhood.

Fair enough.

What was put in front of us was a beautiful disc of dough dotted along the edges with the brown spots familiar to those who’ve enjoyed pizzas prepared in a wood-fired oven and topped with plenty of color surrounding the numerous melty pools of cheese.

Or, simply, a damned good pizza.

DAMNED good, I tell you.

I mean, good enough to leave the peninsula on the weekend. THAT good!

And that really is all I meant to say here. I am particularly fond of getting back to West Seattle from work Friday night and doing whatever I can to not leave the ‘hood until Monday morning, so I would understand those hesitant to venture away from our part of the city.  But going over to Beacon Hill is about as painless as it gets in this regard as you just cross the high bridge there and back. Consider it an adventure, if you must.

Besides, you have to try the meatballs.

Randall Reads: The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers

Like many, I was captivated by the hissy fit thrown by Christopher Priest with regards to the nominees for the 2012 Arthur C. Clarke Award.

You know how whenever anyone ever publishes a “Top X” list of any nature, some are quick to discredit the list entirely because so-and-so was left off, showing that anyone connected to the construction of the list is a complete idiot? Well, Priest took that fairly common article comment and expanded it to a blog post, first listing a few novels he thought were easily more worthy of being on the “short list” than those that actually made it, then taking shots at the nominees before calling for the sacking of the entire panel of judges and/or scrapping the 2012 edition of the awards altogether, which he ultimately called a “modest suggestion.”

Because asserting your assessment of a pile of books is so incredibly superior to that of those charged with the assessment that they should just cancel the awards altogether is “modest.”

Same scale as a presidential candidate casually suggesting college students should just borrow $20K from their fathers upon finishing school to launch their business ventures.

Hey…it’s just a modest suggestion…no biggie…

Anyhow, in Priest’s semi-scathing take-downs of the shortlist, only the ultimate winner came out relatively unscathed.

“Of the six shortlisted novels, I can find only one which I think is something we should be proud of. I refer to The Testament of Jessie Lamb, by Jane Rogers ”

As much as I otherwise wanted to be dismissive of Priest’s opinion as he was of China Mieville’s “Embassytown,” which I rather enjoyed, I couldn’t help but wonder how Rogers’ work alone survived the angry scatter-shot of the post. Had it not then won the award, I’m not sure whether I’d have followed up on it, but it did and I did.

Had I only paid slightly more attention to a criticism Priest included later in that same paragraph as the quote cited above: “It is not to my mind a wholly achieved novel: it is written with real style, excellent characterization and a lot of genuine emotion, but to be fully realized as a work of speculative fiction it needs a wider canvas, a sense that larger events are mounting in the background.”

Sidebar: If you ever run into Christopher Priest on the street, for whatever reason, and he pays you a complement on something, I think it’d be best if you brace for what’s coming next.

Because something’s coming next and, hurtful though it may be, it may also be spot-on.

He absolutely nailed this one, for sure.

“The Testament of Jessie Lamb” is not to my mind, also, a wholly achieved novel. The style is there. You can certainly say the characterization is excellent, even if you can’t find anything likable about the protagonist. Plenty of genuine emotion…well, I assume it’s genuine, but it’s hard for me to accept the annoying protagonist as being a little over-the-top captive to the whims of her emotional state from minute to minute.

Jessie Lamb is a teenager at a time when some really heavy world events are playing out, the progenitor of which is a disease that essentially makes procreation impossible. Hence, without some creative workarounds, the human race can see itself being extinct in the very near future.

That little piece of information alone would be more than enough to suck me in. It may be I’m a sucker for the whole dystopia thing, but I was immediately interested in what that world would look like.

Unfortunately, other than being mentioned as happening, you learn little to nothing about the terrorists, suicide bombers, gangs, roadblocks, religious cults, trafficking of kidnapped children, spiking suicide rates, and new social divisions between men and women including a new acceptance of homosexuality.

Or, all the stuff that would make this a vastly different book and of a great deal more interest of me than an intent focus on the thought patterns of a single teenage girl coping with the world around her and trying to find a way to contribute to its betterment in some significant and tangible way.

It’s a little unfair to review the book this isn’t as opposed to the book it is, but the entire time I was reading it, I couldn’t help but continually wish for Rogers to step back several paces and allow me to see just how crazy things have gotten from a perspective a bit removed from that of a fickle teenage girl. Though I don’t care to think of myself as necessarily needing to be able to identify with a protagonist in order to connect with a book, it would have greatly helped in this case. The best I could do was to sympathize with her father, which is more than just a gender thing, but I’d not care to give away the plot points in this regard for anyone who may seek this out.

And, maybe you should. I seem to be among the (very) few who do not have a generally positive response to the novel.

Just know that despite the intriguing setting, the book is really about a girl and her thoughts and how she perceives things. Once you are set with that, you’re much more likely to read the award-winning novel seeming to be enjoyed by many, rather than wishing for the book I thought I was going to be reading when I picked it up.

Randall Cooks: Smoked Salmon Chowder

June 10, 2012 3 comments

Bacon, smoked salmon, potatoes, cream, wine…there is pretty much no way this wouldn’t be good, right?

I’m sure had I followed the recipe from April Bloomfield’s “A Girl and Her Pig” more closely, it would have turned out even better, but I didn’t have smoked haddock; I had smoked salmon.

Fancy cookin’? Of course not!

It might be a disservice to Chef Bloomfield to simply call my dish a Pacific-Northwesterner’s take on her “Smoked Haddock Chowder,” but I didn’t stray too far from what she wrote other than type of fish used and the obvious skill gap between her and I in all things culinary.

1.25 pounds potatoes (I was trying for 3/4 pound, but ended up having a rather heavy hand at the farmers market. Get a firm potato that won’t fall apart too easily when cooked.), peeled and diced

1 pint whole milk

1 pink heavy whipping cream

Put these three items in a saucepan over medium-high heat and bring to a boil; cook until the potatoes are cooked through, but don’t fall apart too easily when you pinch them. Cooking time will depend on how large you dice the potatoes. Remove the pan from heat.

1/2 pound smoked salmon

Submerge the salmon in the milk mixture and let steep among the potatoes off the heat while you do the next few steps.

1/4 olive oil

1/4 pound bacon ends (again, purchased at farmers market and suggested by farmer as ideal for my purpose), diced smallish

2 carrots, cut into thick matchsticks

2 stalks celery, cut into thick matchsticks

1 yellow onion, diced

1/2 cup sauvignon blanc (Monkey Bay is what I used. Tasty!)

2 cups fish stock (also made with an April Bloomfield recipe, also found in her new book)

Heat the olive oil in a stockpot to smoking over medium heat. Fry the bacon in the hot oil briefly, just until the fat begins to render, 2 to 3 minutes.

Obligatory hipster bacon appeal…

Add the carrot, celery, and onion; keep cooking until the vegetables are tender, no more than 10 minutes more.

Pretty, non?

Deglaze with the wine. That is, pour the wine into the pot and scrape whatever you can from the bottom of the pot with a flat edged implement of some sort. I’ve some lovely bamboo spoons I got with some woks at one time that are perfectly suited for this move. Pour the fish stock into the pot; stir. Let the mixture simmer until the liquid reduces by about half.

Okay, NOW you can remove the salmon from the milk. Scoop about half the potatoes from the milk mixture and add to the stockpot. Puree the remaining half either in a blender or with an immersion blender (If you don’t have one, get one! They’re brilliant!). Add the pureed potatoes to the pot. Bring the mixture to a simmer. Break the salmon into chunks and add to the soup; stir. Cook until it’s all hot, about 5 minutes more. Garnish with some chopped fresh parsley.

Better cook than photographer


See? Wasn’t that hard. Not too fussy for having originated from a pretty accomplished and talented chef.

No, not me…HER!

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