Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Aaron's Book of the Week :: All My Lovers by Alan Marshall (Donald Westlake)

All My LoversCompleting our tribute to Donald Westlake, the Book of the Week is All My Lovers (1959), from notorious sleaze publisher Midwood Books. This book is believed to have been written by Donald Westlake under his pseudonym Alan Marshall, which he used for dozens of soft-core pornographic novels.

There is a significant collectors' market for sleaze paperbacks published in the 1950's and 1960's. These books were created purely for titillation and are devoid of literary merit, yet part of their charm today is how innocent most of them are by current standards -- the sex is less explicit (sometimes thanks to hilariously creative euphemisms for body parts) than in many of today's romance novels. Few modern readers would be offended by the sex in these novels, although they would be disturbed by the misogynistic attitudes in many of them.

One of the reasons these sleaze novels have become collectors' items is that so many of them were writen for a quick paycheck by very talented authors who went on to successful careers, including Donald Westlake. Westlake admitted to writing 28 of these smut books under the Alan Marshall name, although some believe his count was over 40. It is all but impossible to determine for certain which Alan Marshall books were really written by Westlake, since he often lent the pseudonym to friends in need of a writing gig; however, multiple sources have listed All My Lovers as one of the Alan Marshall books Westlake wrote himself. Sometimes Alan Marshall wrote in collaboration with the pseudonym of another famous mystery writer, as we will see in a couple weeks -- but first we must determine if John Updike could ever be accused of writing science fiction or fantasy.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Amy's music :: Glasvegas - Glasvegas

GlasvegasContinuing my count-up, as opposed to a countdown, of NME's top albums of 2008, at #3 is Glasvegas.

I bought this album soon after its September release because NME was calling Glasvegas the best new band in Britain.

Glasvegas are a Scottish alternative rock band from Glasgow. The band consists of James Allan (vocals and songwriter), Rab Allan (guitar), Paul Donoghue (bass) and Caroline McKay (drums). All the photos I've seen of Glasvegas show them wearing black. Even their album cover is black.

Glasvegas is their eponymous debut album. They released several songs earlier as limited edition singles. In 2007 Glasvegas received critical acclaim from NME for their single "Daddy's Gone".

Glasvegas play guitar based music. There are shimmering and reverberating guitars, bass, pulsing drums and tambourine. Backing vocals feature oohs and aahs. Their music is melodic and atmospheric.

The vocals are distinctive. James Allen sings in a Scottish accent which at times is difficult to decipher. Yet he uses his voice as an instrument to add poignancy and emotion to the songs. The lyrics often tell stories from working-class lives.

Notable tracks off the album are "Geraldine", "Daddy's Gone", "Go Square Go" and "Flowers & Football Tops".

"Geraldine", the first single off the album and NME's #2 track of the year, starts with these lyrics:
When your sparkle evades your soul
I'll be at your side to console
When you're standing on the window ledge
I'll talk you back, back from the edge

There are explicit lyrics, something I usually frown at. In "Go Square Go" the line "Here we fucking go!" is rousingly repeated.

This is an excellent album, in my opinion and NME’s, definitely one of the best of 2008.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Aaron's Book of the Week :: Anarchaos by Curt Clark (Donald Westlake)

AnarchaosContinuing our tribute to Donald Westlake, the Book of the Week is the paperback original edition of Anarchaos (cover art by "Lynch"), a science fiction novel published in 1967 as by Curt Clark, a pseudonym used by Westlake on much of his science fiction.

Like many mystery writers, Westlake dabbled in science fiction, usually SF with some mystery elements. Probably his best SF is contained in the collection Tomorrow's Crimes, published under Westlake's real name, but Anarchaos is a more fun collector's item, because of the obscure Curt Clark pseudonym, which did not appear on any other Westlake book. And if you're wondering whether Westlake ever regretted his forays into pulp science fiction, wait until you see the pseudonym he used for a far more embarrassing genre next week.

Incidentally, that will be our third different Donald Westlake pseudonym, but there are at least eight other known Westlake pen-names that I don't have in my collection. But don't worry, I am holding in reserve for some future BOTW's a marathon of other books in my collection under different pseudonyms all written by a single, now very famous, author.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week :: Night of the Living POTUS by Adam-Troy Castro

The story recommendation for the week is "Night of the Living POTUS" by Adam-Troy Castro, a short story first published on-line in the Winter 2008 issue of Helix.

"Night of the Living POTUS" is the perfect story for this week of Inauguration Day. It is a very funny yet thought-provoking account of a newly-elected president's first night in the White House. He is confronted by apparitions of his predecessors, who take rather a more hostile attitude toward the new occupant than one might expect.

Unfortunately, for now you will have to take my word for it that "Night of the Living POTUS" is a terrific story. Helix has ceased operations and wiped its archives, which is a shame, since it was one of the most reliable places to find good fiction on-line, notwithstanding its senior editor occasionally making an ass of himself. The mostly-defunct Helix site still has links to some of the stories published there, and others are available at Transcriptase, but for now you won't find "Night of the Living POTUS" either place. Let us hope that the author elects to post the story at his own site.

Adam-Troy Castro has been writing successful short fiction for years, garnering two Hugo nominations and five Nebula nominations. Last year saw the appearance of Emissaries from the Dead, his first full-length original novel (he has previously written media tie-in books). It is a murder mystery set far in the future in a somewhat horrific artificial ecosystem. The sequel, The Third Claw of God, is due out next month, and both novels look well worth checking out.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week :: Labyrinth by Joyce Carol Oates

The story recommendation of the week is for "Labyrinth" by Joyce Carol Oates, a neat little piece of flash fiction you can find on the rear endpapers of McSweeney's 29. The story is printed in a blocky spiral, circling in toward the center of the page. I am usually not one for flash fiction, especially when it proceeds from such a gimmick, but Oates uses the odd format very effectively.

"Labyrinth" is a low-key horror story about a young man obsessed with the fear of being buried alive. And of course, since the days of Poe, such an absurd phobia can come to only one end. Because the tale is printed in an inward-falling spiral, the story forces the reader to turn the book over ever more quickly, cleverly reinforcing a sense of dread and claustrophobia.

While many mainstream authors dabble in science fiction, Joyce Carol Oates is one of the few writers with mainstream cachet who likes to slum in the horror field. (Similarly, McSweeney's is less biased against SF/F/H than most mainstream mags, as we know from their genre-oriented anthologies edited by Michael Chabon, McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales and McSweeney's Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories.) Horror readers who haven't read Oates should check out "Labyrinth," and if you like that then try some of Oates' other works with horror elements, such as Zombie and many of the stories in The Collector of Hearts. Conversely, you Joyce Carol Oates fans out there who don't mind when she moves into spooky territory really ought to try some of today's other literary horror authors like Dan Simmons and Tom Piccirilli and Glen Hirshberg.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Aaron's Book of the Week :: The Damsel by Richard Stark (Donald Westlake)

The DamselContinuing our tribute to Donald Westlake, the Book of the Week is the first paperback printing of The Damsel, a hard-boiled noir thriller first published in 1967 as by Richard Stark.

Richard Stark was by far the most successful of Donald Westlake's many pseudonyms. The Richard Stark novels were a hit with readers and fellow writers, at times overshadowing Westlake's work under his own name. Many of the film adaptations of Westlake's work are based on Richard Stark books, including Point Blank/ Payback. Colorado author Dan Simmons dedicated the first of his own hard-boiled mysteries, Hardcase, to "Richard Stark, who sometimes writes under the wussy pseudonym of Donald Westlake."

The protagonist of most Richard Stark novels is the shadowy antihero Parker. Parker sometimes operates with an associate named Alan Grofield, an actor who moonlights as a criminal to fund his theatrical projects. The Damsel was the first of four Stark books to feature Grofield on his own.

The Richard Stark novels were central to the success of Donald Westlake's career, but some of his other pseudonyms were not so enduring. One of Westlake's less successful pseudonyms was the pen-name he used for his science fiction, which you will see next week.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Amy's music :: TV on the Radio - Dear Science

TV on the RadioCounting up, as opposed to a countdown, NME's #2 album of 2008 is Dear Science by TV on the Radio.

I'd heard mention of TV on the Radio, but hadn't actually heard them until recently. Given the critical acclaim they are getting from not only NME but from Rolling Stone, Spin, and Entertainment Weekly, I decided to give them a try.

This album falls in the alternative genre, but I'd call it experimental rock funk.

TV on the Radio are a band from Brooklyn, New York composed of Tunde Adebimpe, David Andrew Sitek, Kyp Malone, Jaleel Bunton and Gerard Smith. Dear Science is their fourth release. TV on the Radio released an EP in 2003, followed by albums in 2004 and 2006.

Notable tracks on Dear Science include "Golden Age" and "Dancing Choose" (not Dancing Shoes).

The optimistic chorus of "Golden Age" was memorable from first listen:
The age of miracles
The age of sound
Well there's a Golden Age
Comin' round, comin' round, comin' round

The chorus of "Dancing Choose" includes these interesting lyrics:
I've seen my palette blown
to monochrome
Hollow heart
clicks hollowtone

This album has synths, rhythms, bass, funky vocals and often horns and strings. There are diverse sounds and lots of production. Songs have pop bits, experimental bits, and extensive lyrics I couldn't always catch. Vocals on songs such as "Golden Age" reminded me in a good way of Prince.

Do I like the album Dear Science? Maybe. I will say that it's challenging stuff, worthy of a listen.

As a side note, according to NME, the album title Dear Science is "a name taken from a note left in the studio saying "Dear Science, please start solving problems and helping people or shut the fuck up"." Not sure I care for that attitude.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Aaron's Book of the Week :: The Hook by Donald E. Westlake

The HookReturning to BOTW's obituary function, the Book of the Week is The Hook by Donald E. Westlake, in honor of Mr. Westlake, who passed away last week at the age of 75. This is a signed first edition (with a cool recursive cover that for some reason was not used on the paperback), yet easier to find than some of the beat-up Westlake paperbacks you will see starting next week.

Beginning in 1960, Donald Westlake published over a hundred novels. He wrote in many genres, but was best known for his mysteries. Three times he won the Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America, which named him Grand Master in 1993. At least 16 of his novels were produced as films, notably Point Blank (1967, starring Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson), remade as Payback (1999, starring Mel Gibson). Westlake also wrote original screenplays and adaptations of other authors' books, and was nominated for an Oscar for his screenplay of the 1990 film The Grifters.

Westlake was a favorite of fellow writers for his crisp prose and his blend of humor and suspense. And he was a favorite of collectors for his use of multiple pseudonyms. Westlake liked to match his pseudonyms to different styles. The novels under his own name were usually comic mysteries, although some, including The Hook, were psychological thrillers. But most of Westlake's mysteries under pen-names were in a much grittier noir style. Next week, we will start our survey of Westlake's alter egos with by far his most successful pseudonym.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week :: Crystal Nights by Greg Egan

Interzone April 2008My story recommendation of the week is "Crystal Nights" by Greg Egan, a novelette from the April 2008 issue of Interzone.

From what I have read recently, I am not sure that Interzone is quite as strong overall as it was a few years back. Still, the occasional presence of Greg Egan, the leading hard science fiction author of this age, is more than enough reason to keep an eye on the magazine.

"Crystal Nights" is a modern updating of Theodore Sturgeon's "Microcosmic God." A very wealthy man corners the market on an advanced form of crystallized processor, which allows computations at such tremendous speeds that he believes he can use it to evolve artificial intelligence through an electronic version of natural selection. Hopefully it is not too much of a spoiler to say that after some false starts the system succeeds, but the resulting digital beings are not as deferential to their creator as he might wish.

"Crystal Nights" examines moral issues surrounding the creation of artificial intelligence -- for example, is it all right to alter or erase a computer program that is showing signs of becoming self-aware? -- issues that may not be so far in the future as you think. By drawing his title from the terrible persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany, Egan lets us know that he does not regard these as trivial concerns.