Book Review: Grey Cat Blues by J.D. Cowan

J.D. Cowan has finally answered the question of how to distill the sensibilities of a 1950s gang movie with interstellar, quasi-dystopian sci-fi, an 8- or 16-bit era beat ’em up, and dash of rockabilly music.

It doesn’t matter that no one specifically asked that question. All that matters is that we now know the result: Grey Cat Blues.

This is a really fun book that packs a lot into its pages. Imagine The Outsiders meets Double Dragon (complete with the game’s post-apocalyptic storyline) on a forgotten, colonized rain-covered planet straight out of a film noir.

Two-Tone is an ex-member of the Jet Boys, one of the most formidable gangs in Cordova City on the planet Achaea. On the wrong side of 25, Two-Tone tries to live a normal life with a normal office job, his violent past behind him. Until one day he gets a call from his old gang buddy A-Rail to come and have a few drinks. This is where things go haywire.

See, Cordova City is but one of many cities on Achaea, walled off from each other with little contact between them. Gangs are bad enough, but the weird mud-men who attack Two-Tone are something entirely different. They take A-Rail, and somehow Two-Tone ends up back in his apartment. Just a weird night out, right? Not to Two-Tone. There’s no way he’s going to leave his pal at the mercies of those mud-covered freaks. Armed with his chain and a sense of right and wrong–and aided by a mysterious woman who seems to know his phone number–Two-Tone is off on his mission of revenge, which might even include getting the gang back together. And who’s that mysterious dame hanging out at the warehouse where the shadowy mobster Sarpedon, Two-Tone’s target, is holed up?

If this sounds like your thing, I highly recommend Grey Cat Blues. It’s not just the plot which is entertaining–action-packed, full of heart, and hints of a larger world on Achaea–but Cowan’s style. He nails the tone, mixing high technology with sensibilities out of a 1940s hard-boiled crime story. The fights are brisk, the tough-guy patter is spot on, each character has memorable speech patterns and personality ticks, and the mystery keeps you engrossed until the conclusion, which arrives sooner than I would’ve expected.

This is not to say Grey Cat Blues felt rushed. I just wanted it to go on longer.

Continue reading “Book Review: Grey Cat Blues by J.D. Cowan”

Book Review: Praxis by Justin Knight

I’ve always enjoyed the “ordinary people get stuck in a horrific situation and have to survive” trope in stories. Whether it’s a disaster movie, a survival horror video game, or much of Stephen King’s ouevre, there’s something about ordinary people overcoming extraordinary circumstances that’s both entertaining and provides wonderful food for thought:

  • How would I react? What would I do?
  • What skills do I have that would be useful in a situation like this?
  • Would people work together, or turn against each other?
  • Would I have what it takes to make it?

Tales of superhumans with otherworldy abilities are always fun and have their place in my heart. But I equally enjoy seeing if the pre-school teacher or the accountant can survive the monsters that suddenly appeared in their town, or can evade the hostile army that’s invaded their nation.

And then, on the other hand, I also love classic 80s/90s action movies.

Along comes Justin Knight with his novel  Praxis. Described as “blue-collar sci-fi,” Praxis details the experience of warehouse workers from Vancouver, Canada whose company gets the contract to man the recently constructed titular space station.

Justin Knight (artist’s rendition)

Praxis focuses on Mickey Hemmings and his crew as they travel to the Praxis station with their families for a year-long stint. The station orbits Neptune at the farthest reaches of the solar system, and is meant to be a waypoint for intergalactic travel. Unfortunately, a group of hostile alien pirates fleeing justice decide to use the station to make their last stand, and the Earthlings get caught in the crossfire.

First, I love this concept: A varied cast of warehouse workers have to survive an alien invasion on a remote space station millions of miles from Earth. Though I have some plot-related questions that I didn’t see addressed–Why are there no security officers? Why doesn’t anyone have guns?–they didn’t detract from the white-knuckled action . . .

. . . when the action finally arrives.

You see, Praxis is a slow-burner. I have no problem with slow-burners, but I did notice that, according to my Kindle app, the action did not begin until 69 percent of the way through the book.

Now, Knight does something clever with all of this: He really sets the reader up to grow fond of these characters. And the competing narratives (the human’s travels to Praxis and settling in interspersed with our alien pirates being pursued by an alien police force) builds the anticipation.

And when these disparate threads collide, they make a big boom. Continue reading “Book Review: Praxis by Justin Knight”

Institutionalized Entertainment

Institutionalized: “to make into an institution . . . give character of an institution to . . . to incorporate a structured and often highly formalized system . . .”

Presented without comment:

The Walt Disney Company is so huge that, absent a formalized structure, it wouldn’t be able to get anything done. But Disney is just an example of how this idea institutionalizing everything, including the content, is a firmly entrenched part of nearly every form of entertainment or escapism that you partake in. This idea of gatekeepers giving a patina of quality to something that has gone through some sort of rigorous, formalized process is pervasive in nearly every facet of life, and not just entertainment.

After all, a doctor who went to Harvard for medical school is clearly superior to one who went to, say, one who went to the Sanford School of Medicine at the University of South Dakota, right? I mean, just on paper, it’s axiomatic, isn’t it? Who cares about the doctor’s actual history of results, you know?

And so it goes with what you watch, read, and listen to. It’s all been filtered through a big machine in order to get a big, fat, institutional stamp of approval. And everything without that stamp is clearly inferior.

It’s obvious, isn’t it?

Of course it’s not. As author Brian Niemeier is fond of pointing out, the gatekeeper-controlled model in publishing is a dying proposition:

The power of big New York publishers to hand out golden tickets capable of turning struggling authors into millionaires is an artifact of the 20th century. Now? As Moe Greene would say, they don’t even have that kind of muscle anymore.

If you were an aspiring author trying to break in prior to the 1980s, New York publishers were your best shot at the big time. Since 2006, indie has stolen tradpub’s thunder to the extent that you’re now four times more likely to make seven figures by going indie than by signing with a traditional publisher.

But old habits die hard, and industries that are still making money, without realizing that they’re surviving on legacies of past greatness, will continue to follow the old ways. Disney will keep churning out stuff with the Star Wars label slapped on it, year after year, heedless of the negative financial consequences due to viewer fatigue and failing product quality.

The music industry will keep reproducing the thing that’s selling records now ad infinitum for the next five minutes, until people get so sick of that cookie-cutter thing that they move on to the next cookie-cutter thing to fill the silence for the next five minutes.

The book industry, particularly in the science-fiction and fantasy realms, will continue pumping out massive doorstop-sized tomes of “epic” fantasy that will never be completed, as long as the stories are soaked in post-modernist thinking and contemporary political right-think.

As long as the wrong-thinkers get shut out. Because the stuff they make is bad. And it’s bad because it doesn’t have our seal of approval.

Continue reading “Institutionalized Entertainment”

Actions “Versus” Introspection: A Defense of Literary Fiction

Action! Adventure! Romance! Inner turmoil!

Wait, what?

Yeah, you heard me. These are things I personally like in stories. And I don’t think I’m alone. Otherwise, explain why one of the biggest tenets in prose fiction screenwriting is create conflict!

This seems self-evident. After all, what good is a story where everyone gets along and everything is perfectly fine? That’s the realm of children’s books, which serve their purpose.

And let me say, as the parent of a young child, the above description actually fits baby books more. You’d be amazed at how soon some form of conflict enters into kids books. Look at Dr. Seuss books, for example. The Sneetches were basically at war! The bitter butter battle was a battle! That dastardly Grinch was out to ruin Christmas!

Even kids need to see conflict be overcome.

Which brings me to an interesting conversation held with several writing friends on Twitter. It started out with Gitabishi’s excellent post about “hard” versus “soft” sci-fi and veered into both the introspective and the ridiculous before Jill Domschot said something that struck me:

I’m inclined to agree with her, hence the use of quotation marks around the word “versus” in the title of this post.

The upshot of the conversation was that everything is a writer’s tool, and the writer uses the appropriate tool for the task at hand. But that’s a bit wishy washy, so I’m going to do something a little against the grain when it comes to action-packed fiction writing, and stick up for a much maligned genre of novel: literary fiction.

Yup. I’m a fan. Take a guy like John Irving, for example. Sure, he has a creepy fixation with characters engaging incest, as well as characters losing limbs (including a certain male member), but it’s not just his prose I enjoy. His situations are crafted to come to a head at the critical point, and his set-ups are expertly foreshadowed and deftly executed in ways that only seem obvious in retrospect–including the unfortunate inadvertent amputation of a man’s body part (I’m looking at you, The World According to Garp).

Or a writer like Michael Chabon. There’s a bit too much affectation in his characters–Telegraph Avenue was particularly painful at times–but their inner dramas are exquisite, and I like how he makes them intersect with the plot’s external conflicts, in explosive and often hilarious ways. .

My goal when I write is to take this approach, and just have more sword fights and explosions. Continue reading “Actions “Versus” Introspection: A Defense of Literary Fiction”

Reset: Chapter 37: Tuesday, September 11, 2001 (2)

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Eyewitnesses report that Joseph Gallagher, eighteen, of Lowell, Massachusetts, burst into Logan Airport’s Terminal B running with his arms outstretched and shouting “ALLAHU AKBAR!” Other witnesses stated that Mr. Gallagher also let out a high-pitched ululation some likened to a cry of pain. Onlookers initially thought him to be a run-of-the-mill crazy person and didn’t react, mainly because very few travelers were aware of what typically followed shouts of “Allahu Akbar!” or what it even meant. However, most seemed well aware of the meaning of his next words and how they tended to affect those traveling by air.

“Bombs!” he is reported to have yelled. “Bombs on the planes! For the Glory of Allah, we will blow up your planes!”

Mr. Gallagher streaked around lines of passengers, focusing on the American Airlines service desk.

“We will fly planes into buildings! All across the country! I won’t tell you which ones! Allahu Akbar!” And he continued shrieking.

Mr. Gallagher dashed through the security line, pushing several customers and knocking over a guard who was manning the metal detector. He made it as far as Gate 23 before being tackled by two uniformed security guards and one concerned citizen.

The rest of what happened never made it to the general public, beyond vague assertions that a major terror plot was thwarted in the nick of time, thanks in large part to the Federal Aviation Administration showing great wisdom in grounding all flights nationwide. Shortly after Mr. Gallagher’s arrest, one Mohammad Atta, an Egyptian national, was arrested at Logan International Airport along with nine other accomplices.

At Dulles International Airport in Virginia, five men were arrested.

At Newark International Airport in New Jersey, authorities captured four.

None of the nineteen would-be hijackers had ever heard of Joseph Gallagher of Lowell, Massachusetts. Continue reading Reset: Chapter 37: Tuesday, September 11, 2001 (2)”

Reset: Chapter 36: Tuesday, September 11, 2001 (1)

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Nick Christakos spent Tuesday morning sitting alone in his dorm room, staring at the television. Six turned to seven, seven turned to eight, and eight turned to nine. Nothing.

Nothing.

Nick relaxed, surprised by how much his body hurt. He had clenched himself like a fist and had sweat through his t-shirt.

Nothing.

But why?

* * *

When Joe didn’t come back Sunday night, Nick had figured he had spent the night with that Gwendolyn chick. When he called her, she wouldn’t say any more except that Joe was really mad at him. No surprises there.

He checked with Jonesy and Carlos. Nothing. Same with Game and Quinn.

Amy told him he should call the cops, but Nick didn’t. He couldn’t. What would he say? That his time-traveling companion was going to stop the worst terrorist attack in the history of the United States and left without so much as a hug and a kiss? They’d be right back where they started.

He even called Zack Henderson. Miracle of miracles, Zack picked up the phone. He was terse, but not rude. “He came by, yeah,” said Zack. “He was pretty steamed.” But Zack had no idea where Joe might have gone.

So Nick waited, spending his time, as usual, with Amy. Things were going great in that department. They clicked; Nick literally felt a click when he started talking to her at Zeta Zeta Nu. Love was a beautiful thing. She was the whole reason for this adventure, the Helen that launched him back in time. Now he would be happy, would maybe finally have the courage to get some help and work through his issues without resorting to hookers and blow (though those things had been fun for a time).

Joe had to be on campus. He had to. He had no car, besides. What was he going to do? Thwart the attacks himself?

Sunday night rolled around, and still no Joe. Nick waited.

When Nick sat in class on Monday, listening to Delino drone on about how Bush was single-handedly destroying the Earth, he began to worry. Amy had noticed it, insisting that they go to the police.

The jig was up. It would be too suspicious if he did nothing about his missing friend. So they went to the Hollister PD, bypassing the campus cops who tended to stick to parking violations, and reported Joe missing. Continue reading Reset: Chapter 36: Tuesday, September 11, 2001 (1)”

Reset: Chapter 35: Sunday, September 9, 2001 (4)

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Joe stood in front of Zack’s door knocking loudly, a plastic bag full of NHU shirts and a jacket clutched in his other hand. He’d give it a five count, and if Zack didn’t answer–

Two seconds later, the door widened a crack and out popped Zack’s head. Anger flashed on his face, his mouth open with a rude word chambered and ready to fire, until he saw the source of the interruption. “What’s wrong?!” he said, his eyes wide.

“Hi Zack. Got a minute?” Through the crack in the door he could see a very attractive, very naked co-ed covering herself with a sheet.

“Uh, that’s, uh . . .” Zack flushed. He lowered his voice and spoke close to Joe’s ear. “I didn’t, um, we . . . you know, I didn’t–”

Joe held up a hand. “I’m not your father, Zack. I just wanted to say thanks for everything.”

“What’re you thanking me for?”

“What’s the problem?” called the girl.

Zack turned. Joe noticed he had no shirt on. “One second.”

“I can get going . . . .”

“No!” Zack stepped out, wearing nothing but his boxers. Joe admired his hard, muscular body, eighteen and already built like an action figure. “I don’t know what you got going on, man, but I’m going with you.”

“Not so loud,” said Joe, flapping a hand like the words were real and he could bat them away. “And no you’re not.”

“Come on, we’re in this together. Let me just get dressed and we’ll talk, get our plan straight–”

“No talking, Zack. That’s the point. I didn’t come here to talk.” He put a hand on Zack’s upper arm, resisting the urge to squeeze just to see how hard the muscle was. “I’ve messed things up enough without dragging anybody else further into it.”

“Come on, that’s not fair.”

“No!” He said it dad-stern, one of the few advantages of being a thirty-something trapped in the body of a teen–it lent him a certain gravitas unattainable for most college-aged boys.

Zack clammed up with an audible snap. Joe went on: “I came here just to say thanks, and to see you before . . . in case . . . you know. I figured I owe you that much.”

“The only thing you owe me is letting me help you.”

The door crept slightly open. “What’s going on?” said the girl, peeking into the hallway.

“Hi,” said Joe. “He’ll be with you in a second.” He caught a glimpse of the girl’s lovely mocha body and quickly turned away, feeling like a dirty old man.

“Shut the door,” said Zack. “Please.” The girl did as asked.

“You’ve got more than enough on your plate, Zack,” said Joe.

Zack waved a hand over his shoulder. “I don’t care about any of this, man. I care about saving those people. I couldn’t forgive myself if I just let it happen and did nothing.”

“You won’t have to. This isn’t your fight. You’ve got your whole life ahead of you, blank pages waiting to be filled. Play football–”

“I don’t care about that.”

“Play football,” said Joe, “get your degree, do all the things you never got a chance to do before you . . .

“Died,” said Zack softly. “You can say it: before I died.” Continue reading Reset: Chapter 35: Sunday, September 9, 2001 (4)”