About Ron

Rockabilly guitarist, writer, library technician, Ron fills the daylight hours with dreams of reading, well-behaved pets and the perfect dark beer. Reading interests range from humor to mystery, steampunk to travel writing, historical fiction to surrealism.

I Didn’t Expect the Spanish Inquisition!

In one of the greatest Monty Python skits, Cardinal Ximinez of Spain pontificates, “Amongst our weaponry are such diverse elements as fear, surprise, ruthless efficiency, an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope, and nice red uniforms…”

Perhaps this bit of comedy has influenced my books-to-read list. I find myself thinking, “Amongst my reading objectives are forays into such diverse categories as non-fiction and YA, ruthless non-stop reading, an almost fanatical devotion to new books, and snazzy high tops…”

And then I forget everything and read another Perry Mason novel.

Dave BarryBut slowly I am expanding my choice of reading materials. After compiling a list of non-fiction titles I would like to attack, I promptly ignored it and read Live Right and Find Happiness (Although Beer is Much Faster): Life Lessons and Other Ravings from Dave Barry. By Dave Barry. As I ponder the world of non-fiction, it seems odd that humor is classified as part of it. One can certainly write a true story in a humorous style, but conversely, humor can just be made up stuff. This sometimes bothers me at night, interrupting much-needed sleep, but Dave Barry is funny and seldom bothers me (since the restraining order). And sure, there’s not much new under the sun in his approach to writing, but each of his books makes me laugh out loud, which is no mean feat. This collection of essays, ranging from teenage insecurities that never go away to the stupidity of refrigerating mustard and ketchup, kept me figuratively on the edge of my seat rolling on the floor with laughter, and then signaling for help up off the floor.

TinseltownTinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood by William J. Mann
I don’t seek out true crime unless it is exceedingly well-written (In Cold Blood by Truman Capote), educational and fascinating (Breaking Blue by Timothy Egan), or both. I chose to read Tinseltown because I’m starry-eyed about early Hollywood, a time when southern California was still a bit rural, when the status of movie stars and the content of movies were being defined. Here we find the true story of the murder of William Desmond Taylor, president of the Motion Pictures Directors Association. Not a household name in this day and age, nor perhaps during his lifetime, but an important person in Hollywood none the less. This tale is as vivid as any well-penned novel, bringing century-old events to life. We learn a tremendous amount of history, of the growth of the film industry, the control that studios exerted over theatres, and the extreme power wielded by Adolph Zukor. And, somewhat surprisingly to me, of the drug and sex-crazed lifestyles of many of the early movie stars, which of course brought backlash from conservative religious groups. Be warned, this crime remains unsolved. I was looking forward to a nice wrap up with the detective in charge solving the crime some 30 years later, but it was not to be. The author does offer a solution, and it is plausible, but it is still guesswork rather than closure. However, that aside, this is one of the most entertaining, educational and enjoyable non-fiction books I’ve ever read!

AtlantisMeet Me in Atlantis: My Quest to Find the 2,500-Year-Old Sunken City by Mark Adams surfaced next on my random unplanned reading list. I have no particular interest in Atlantis, but this book seemed to be about the people who are interested in Atlantis. Now that I’m nearly finished I find that it’s also about theories, possible locations of Atlantis, and whether or not it was a real place. Amazingly, the only ancient reference to Atlantis was an extensive one made by Plato in two of his later works. As a kid watching cartoons, fictional shows and even documentaries, I thought that Atlantis was a widely documented lost continent, even though its authenticity was in doubt. Now I find out it was mentioned by one person in all of antiquity! Adams interviews philosophers, scientists, and Atlantis enthusiasts in an attempt to find out what’s the hubbub, bub? The author seems to vacillate in what he believes as he encounters one plausible theory after another.

After a year trapped in fiction I am excited to re-encounter the world of reality. The breadth of topics is astounding, and if one can find a good writer, learning becomes fun. I’ll be posting more new non-fiction reads as I continue my quest, so stay tuned!

Terry Pratchett Remembered

There are plenty of opportunities to read about his life, so I thought I’d share how Terry (as I called him in my head) affected me.

I was raised on Monty Python. Their brand of humor is somewhat unusual, and when they more or less ceased to function as a group there was a hole in my humor reserves. I’m not sure exactly when I discovered Mr. Pratchett (as he required me to call him), late 80s or early 90s, but I do remember the moment of discovery.

WitchesIt was a day like any other day, except that it was unique, and I was making my weekly pilgrimage to the Everett swap meet. There amongst some books I spied Witches Abroad. The cover art was silly and the book’s description was, well, extremely silly, and I was immediately taken by this post-modern fairy tale and the amazing character of Mistress Granny Weatherwax.

Discworld, where many of his books take place, is sort of a sideways version of Earth, mostly focused on a semi-pre-industrial quasi-Europe. The planet’s inhabitants face the same problems that we do, and Pratchett, amongst non-stop wet-your-pants hilarity, offers precious daubs of wisdom. Describing this fantasy world in brief is just not possible, but it is a place I think of fondly, much as one might of Oz or Hogwarts or… well, nowhere else I can think of.

MonstrousIt would be impossible to choose a favorite, but Monstrous Regiment is a Discworld novel that stuck with me. The general premise is that there’s a war, a girl’s brother goes off and does not return so she impersonates a man and enlists (wait, this is sounding familiar…), her regiment of misfits becomes notorious, and, well, read the book! But amidst all the belly laughs and borrowing from Shakespeare, Pratchett makes deep and insightful points about war. And this sums up his best books: gut-wrenchingly funny and poignantly wise.

I will miss anticipating the latest Discworld novel, but I revel in the knowledge that there are over forty of them to read and read and read again. And so I leave you with the final tweet from Sir Terry Pratchett’s Twitter feed, released after his death.

[Death speaks]: “AT LAST, SIR TERRY, WE MUST WALK TOGETHER,” it stated. Terry took Death’s arm and followed him through the doors and on to the black desert under the endless night. The End.

Terry Pratchett

 

 

Science Fiction – No Longer Just For Nerds

I’m in a rut, in a rut, in a rut rut rut root, rutabaga!

Ah, blessed escape.

As much as I enjoy pulp mysteries, I feel that 2015 needs to be a year of expanded reading interests. Books written in 2015, non-fiction, plots or genres I don’t typically pursue – these will be my (alleged) focus for the year. But for the moment I am returning to my sordid past. You see, I am a recovering science fiction nerd.

For years, the only books I read were sci-fi. I have a couple of theories as to the why of this, but one definite appeal of the genre is that literally anything can happen. Not so in most fiction. Your average book about a lawyer suing the greedy corporations that are destroying her home in Alaska is not going to feature the Loch Ness Monster as a key witness (although that would be way cool and probably improve the story). There are laws of reality that most stories need to obey. Sci-fi, however, creates its own laws.

chalkerThe Well of Lost Souls series, written by Jack L. Chalker, is one of my favorite examples of what science fiction can be. Chalker was not an outstanding writer, but he was incredibly imaginative. For this series he created the Well World, a planet which serves as a testing ground for potential species, sort of a cosmic petri dish. Each species has its own hexagonal region (1,560 regions total) that serves the needs of its inhabitants – temperature, atmosphere and so on. As the main characters travel the planet they pass through many regions and the reader is introduced to a stunning array of unique creatures and environments. No other book or series I’ve encountered is packed full of such diversity.

dhalgrenDhalgren by Samuel R. Delany
Dhalgren is on my soon-to-be-read list. As far as I can recall, I’ve never read anything by Delany, but he is one of the names uttered with a hint of reverence in the sci-fi field. This book’s description is mesmerizing, and I’ve read several reviews that refer to it as one of the most important science fiction novels. How can one resist this summary?

In Bellona, dead centre of the US, something has happened. The population has fled; madmen and criminals wander the streets. Strange portents appear in the cloud-covered sky. Into this disaster zone comes a young poet, lover and adventurer, known only as the Kid.

He had me at “centre”.

man in the high castleThe Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
Philip K. Dick is probably best known for writing Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, the novel that Blade Runner is based upon. While this movie might be complex, his books are beyond difficult to describe. Perhaps visualize a mix of reality and fantasy and hallucinogenic drugs, and then throw this psyonic kaleidoscope into a hyperbole tornado, replete with fevered visions and tapioca (the tapioca is for me; I like it), swirling at the speed of sound through an uncertainty transmogrifier. Dick’s books are challenging, even bizarre, but extremely rewarding. The Man in the High Castle features an alternate history wherein the Allies lost WWII. Germany controls most of the United States, but Japan runs the west coast. These two superpowers, though allies in war, do not trust each other, so espionage, intrigue and budding conflict become part of everyday life. While this description sounds fairly straightforward, the story is anything but. Ultimately, it’s a tale of day-to-day life in a United States that never existed and an examination of the eternal what’s-it-all-about. From a local interest standpoint, Amazon recently created a pilot for a series based on the book, and most of the filming was done in Seattle, Monroe and Roslyn (home of Northern Exposure).

City of Truthcity of truth by James Morrow
You can read about this classic in a previous blog. I’m finally getting around to reading it, and it’s even better than expected!

Like any genre, sci-fi can be trite, repetitive and boring. But its cream is amongst the best literature flung from a pen. So stroll the Science Fiction aisles at EPL and prepare to BLOW YOUR MIND (mind-blowing clean up gear not included).

Spies Like Them

It’s a new year, time for a clean start and all of that. 2014 was my year of the hard-boiled detective. And so I wonder what 2015 will bring.

One book I’m currently reading is The Saint and The Fiction Makers by Leslie Charteris. The Saint is a spy, sort of in the mold of James Bond, excepting that he predates Bond by some decades, which would actually make Bond a spy in the mold of The Saint. At any rate, Charteris introduced Simon Templar, also known as The Saint, in 1928 and thereafter wrote a series of books featuring his indestructible hero. In the 1960s a TV show based on the character (starring a soon-to-be-Bond Roger Moore) ran, and a variety of authors novelized some of the teleplays. Altogether there are nearly 100 books featuring this dynamic savior of the free world.

The Saint and The Fiction Makers is difficult to describe without giving a bit of the surprise away. It begins as a typical spy story: Super-villain attempting to kill Heroic Spy with ingenious killing devices, Spy narrowly escaping attempt after attempt, Scantily-Clad-Woman adding sex appeal. As events continue to unfold we discover that Simon Templar is actually watching this spy movie, seated next to the actress who was somewhat clothed in the movie. Thus begins a post-modern romp through the spy genre.

Further into the story, a crazy man takes on the persona of the movie’s super-villain and re-creates his hideout and gadgetry in exquisite detail. Then, thinking that Templar is the author who created this fictional genius, he kidnaps The Saint and his “assistant”, the woman who is the real author. What a convoluted and fantastical plot!

While EPL does not (yet) boast any of The Saint catalogue, we do provide ample opportunities to enter the undercover secret world of spies.

39 StepsThe 39 Steps by John Buchan
This book is an early spy story, written in 1915 and centered on The Great War. An “ordinary” person is caught up in an effort to thwart a plot against the British war machine. Alfred Hitchcock made a classic movie based on this book in 1935.

 

North by NorthwestNorth by Northwest
Speaking of Hitchcock and unwitting heroes, in North by Northwest, one of my favorite movies, Cary Grant becomes a pawn of uncaring government spies who sacrifice him in order to bring their plans to fruition. Oh, and there’s a beautiful woman and people climbing Mt. Rushmore’s presidential faces, as well as human crop dusting, so all bases are covered.

Secret AdversawryThe Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie
Tommy and Tuppence, two of Christie’s lesser known heroes, first see the light of day in The Secret Adversary (written in 1922), where the pair accidentally become entangled with post-WWI spies who are still looking to rearrange the European balance of power. In their second book, Partners in Crime, our heroes have married and now run a detective agency. So they see both sides of the coin, spy and detective.

George WashingtonGeorge Washington’s Secret Six: The Spy Ring that Saved the American Revolution by Brian Kilmeade
One topic that has intrigued me since hearing about it in a documentary is the spy ring that George Washington put together during the Revolutionary War. Now I gotta say, when we learned history in high school they left out the good parts like this tidbit. I would’ve been all over a spy ring! These spies were very important to the war effort, and this book is firmly planted on my to-read shelf.

Harriet the SpyHarriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh
Finally, so as not to leave out the kids, we have Harriet. She is perhaps a different kind of spy, not in the overthrowing nations mold, but rather in spying on her friends and writing down what she observes. Here’s a lesson kids, which is a good one in this day and age of computers, cell phones and abacuses: Don’t write down stuff you don’t want other people to see. Harriet’s notebook falls into the wrong hands and her friends read what she has written about them. It’s then up to Harriet to repair the damage and rebuild her friendships.

Will it be a year of spies? I hate to speculate, but I think I can safely say they will at the very least turn up in my reading every now and again. Perhaps one is sitting next to me at this very moment, looking through the eyeholes cut in that newspaper, poisonous lipstick, bedazzling pouty lips, a sultry dress encasing curves in just the right places … Yes, a year of spies.

Year-end Roundup 2014

Meatloaf sandwich, fried chicken and mashed potatoes. Mmmmm. Comfort food. As I look back at 2014, I realize that I indulge in comfort books. So many books I want to read but dang it, Perry Mason is so entertaining. And comforting.

And so I overindulge in Mr. Mason.

I decided to do something at the end of this year that I’ve not done before, to list every book that I read over the past 12 months and to analyze my reading trends for the year. So prepare for the post that was one year in the making: Year-End Roundup 2014!

Mysteries, mysteries, mysteries
I read many mysteries. Surprisingly many. Almost exclusively.

Serious Series
Most books I read were part of larger series.

Ring in the old
Typically I try to read recently-written stuff, but this year found many pre-1960 books on my virtual nightstand.

May I have pulp with that?
I’ve long enjoyed pulp fiction, but this year I discovered heroes of old that I’d not heard of before.

Here are some of the titles I enjoyed.

Perry MasonPerry, Perry, Perry
The Case of the
Velvet Claws (1933) (#1), Sulky Girl (1933) (#2), Curious Bride (1935) (#5), Caretakers Cat (1935) (#7), Half-Wakened Wife (1945) (#27), Vagabond Virgin (1948) (#32), Cautious Coquette (1949) (#34), Fiery Fingers (1951) (#37), Moth-Eaten Mink (1952) (#39), Fugitive Nurse (1954) (#43), Long-Legged Models (1958) (#56) all by Erle Stanley Gardner

As an interesting side note, I’ve enjoyed all the Mason books tremendously except for The Case of the Fugitive Nurse. It is very poorly written, not at all the quality of the others. This leads me to wonder if Gardner farmed it out to a hack writer.

Spicy MysteryI’d like some pulp with that
These titles were previously obscure but are now being reissued as ebooks, mostly not available at the EPL yet, but we can hope…

Fast One (1933) by Paul Cain
Junkie (1952) by Jonathan Craig
Super-Detective Jim Anthony: Dealer in Death (1941) by Victor Rousseau
The Quick Red Fox (1964), and The Scarlet Ruse (1973) by John D. MacDonald
The Uncomplaining Corpses (1940) by Brett Halliday
The Dream Girl (The Hilarious Adventures of Toffee #1) (late 1940s) by Charles F. Myers
The Best of Spicy Mystery Vol. 1 (1930s) edited by Alfred Jan
Satan’s Daughter (1936) by E. Hoffman Price

Black CountryVarious mysteries
Love them mysteries. All of the titles listed are part of a series. My great author discovery of the year was Alex Grecian. Check out his books about the birth of Scotland Yard.

The Secret Adversary (1922) by Agatha Christie
Antiques Roadkill (2007), Antiques Slay Ride (2013) and Antiques Con (2014) by Barbara Allan
The Yard (2012) and The Black Country (2013) by Alex Grecian
Murder with Peacocks (1999) by Donna Andrews
The Spellman Files (2007) by Lisa Lutz
The White Magic Five and Dime (2014) by Steve Hockensmith
The Invisible Code (2013) by Christopher Fowler

One SummerNon-fiction
I’m never a big non-fiction reader, but this year was exceedingly sparse. However, One Summer was one of the best books I read this year, focusing on a few months in 1927, the important events that occurred during those months, and showing how seemingly unrelated happenings influenced each other.

American Pickers Guide to Picking (2011) by Libby Callaway
One Summer: America 1927 (2013) by Bill Bryson

RogueYA
It was a slow year for me in the YA category as well, but I predict a comeback in 2015. And Rogue was a highly satisfying conclusion to Damico’s trilogy on grim reapers.

Rogue (2013) by Gina Damico
Waistcoats and Weaponry (2014) by Gail Carriger

Garden on SunsetOther Stuff
Not too much read outside of the mystery/pulp genre this year, but The Garden on Sunset, a presumably self-published ebook, was one of my favorites. While the writing is not absolutely top-notch, the subject matter of regular folk living in early Hollywood and rubbing noses with stars of the golden age is intriguing.

Shada: The Lost Adventures of Douglas Adams (2012) by Gareth Roberts
Bombshell (2012) by Max Alan Collins
The Garden on Sunset (Hollywood’s Garden of Allah novels Book 1) (2014) by Martin Turnbull

And there you have it, my reading year in a nutshell. Help! I’m in a nutshell! How did I get into this nutshell? Look at the size of this bloody great big nutshell! What sort of shell has a nut like this? This is crazy!

Heavenly Pulp

It’s become a habit, a sleazy late-night habit, when the stars are out and the ladies are tucked away between chenille and damask sheets. But then we’re not dealing with ladies here are we? Broads, dames, happy cha-cha marimba girls in twirling sequined dresses and little else if you know what I mean and I think you do.

Pulp.

What with a tsunami of ancient pulp novels and short stories being reissued as ebooks, I’m discovering authors and characters I’ve never heard of, brave adventurers I crave to read about again and again. This is not frilly prose filled with multisyllabic words such as “anglepoise” or “asymptomatic” but rapid-fire, clipped writing featuring gats and hooch and stiffs.

Over the past few months, I’ve read little other than pulp and blogged about the same. One of my discoveries this month was Super-Detective Jim Anthony. Let me say that delicious name again: Super-Detective Jim Anthony. Written in the 1940’s before the U.S. entered World War II, Anthony is often described as a Doc Savage clone (no time to go into Savage today), sharing similar characteristics and cohorts. He is a perfect physical specimen, superior athlete, supergenius, inventor, engineer, chemist, and on and on. No time for ladies, duty calls! In Dealer in Death, Anthony must defeat the ultravillain Rado Ruric who is trying to bring down the U.S. in a bloody revolution. If you can imagine a Flash Gordon serial as a novel then you understand the concept.

As with many stories from this time period there are racial stereotypes that we no longer consider acceptable. And of course, women are, well, window dressing, underlings, dames, broads … Well, you get the picture. Dickens it ain’t, but I thoroughly enjoyed Super-Detective Jim Anthony (I could not resist saying it again) and his gang as they saved our beloved nation.

The library does not have a lot of pulp titles as they are long out-of-print, but you can find a few collections of short stories, as well as a book filled with pulp author profiles. Here are some titles worth (wait for it) checking out.

Pulp ActionThe Mammoth Book of Pulp Action ed. by Maxim Jakubowski
A collection of crime stories written in the 1930’s and beyond, this book features pulp authors such as Erle Stanley Gardner, David Goodis, Hugh B. Cave, Lawrence Block, Frederic Brown, John D. MacDonald and Ed Gorman.


Paperback Confidential
Paperback Confidential: Crime Writers of the Paperback Era by Brian Ritt
This title contains profiles of important pulp authors including Gil Brewer, Paul Cain, Lester Dent, Brett Halliday, Orrie Hitt, Elisabeth Saxnay Holding, Day Keene, Richard S. Prather, Harry Whittington and Cornell Woolrich.

 

Hard-boiledHard-boiled: an Anthology of American Crime Stories ed. by Bill Pronzini and Jack Adrian
An anthology of crime stories written from the 1920’s to the 1990’s by Raoul Whitfield, Frederick Nebel, James M. Cain, Chester Himes, Leigh Brackett, Jim Thompson and others.

 

Perhaps it’s hard to compare beautiful prose to pulp writing, but it’s the very hit-or-miss quality of metaphors and similes, the unlikely turns of phrase, the clichés, the “churn-it-out-if-you-wanna-get-paid” quality that makes pulp stories endearing to me. The stories in these anthologies are a good starting point, so find authors that grab your roving eye and then explore their writing further. Strangely, these long out-of-print tales are getting easier and easier to find.

And who can resist writing like this, a statement made by Dolores, the woman in love with … Super-Detective Jim Anthony?

 “Jim, don’t you realize that a killer as shrewd as that might have deliberately switched cars, knowing of your gelatine process?”

That, my friends, is pulp.

Seriesly

One thing that I spend far too much time thinking about is the psychology of television. For example, TV watchers can be more attracted to television programs than to interacting with real live people. And, watchers tend to like specific shows and to watch those shows repeatedly. So my inquiring mind wonders, Why?

In the past, I was one of those TV watchers. Perhaps this is why I’m fascinated by the topic. And one thing I figured out all by myself is that the characters on a particular show become like friends or family. And yes, I know this sounds pathetic. I particularly remember watching The Mary Tyler Moore Show 5 nights a week from start to finish in college, and when the series ended, even though I’d seen the entire run when it originally was on, I was very sad. My friends were gone.

As I said, pathetic.

But what this shows is that people like familiarity, characters they know. And obviously this translates into books as well as television. I am stunned by the number of series that are currently being written. It seems to me (without actually researching this) that in the past most books were standalones, and now most are part of a series. And one can see in the library how popular these series are.

2014 will be remembered as the year that I read series. Or at least parts of series. Focusing mainly on mysteries and detective pulps, I have spent 365 glorious days (pro-rated) with my literary friends and family. And today I share some of those series with you.

Meg LanslowMeg Langslow mysteries by Donna Adams.
Meg is a blacksmith in Caerphilly, Virginia. Her quirky family includes a professor husband, computer whiz brother, doctor/animal activist/mystery enthusiast father and renowned biologist grandfather. As with most cozy mysteries, an inordinate amount of murders happen in her small town, and Meg becomes the local crime solver. This series is a cut above most cozy mysteries.

Perry MasonPerry Mason mysteries/court dramas by Erle Stanley Gardner.
“The DA was Burger, the cop was Tragg, Della was the secretary, Drake sat on the desk with Perry…” ~ lyrics that The Blues Brothers set to the Perry Mason theme

Mason, one of the best lawyers in the country, is also a fair crime solver. While these stories are not filled with much character development, we still grow close to Perry and the gang. And Erle Stanley could write one mean story I must say.

Richard JuryRichard Jury mysteries by Martha Grimes.
Jury is a British police inspector or superintendent or whatever British coppers are called. His partner in crime, Sergeant Wiggins, is a professional hypochondriac. His non-professional crime fighting brother-in-arms is Melrose Plant, a filthy rich earl who cares nothing for money and has renounced his title. Plant’s village of Long Piddleton is filled with quirky characters and murders. But Jury is based in London, so the whole of England is fair game in this wonderful, and often dark, series.

Scotland YardScotland Yard’s Murder Squad by Alex Grecian.
This wonderful series looks at the infancy of crime solving in Scotland Yard. A very small number of detectives, with limited tried-and-tested crime solving techniques, are responsible for all of the murders in London, a huge amount to be sure. Fortunately, they have a Sherlock-like doctor who helps them along the way.

Spellmans

 

The Spellmans by Lisa Lutz.
A quirky, dysfunctional family of detectives. Imagine working in close quarters with your parents and/or siblings.

 

AntiquesAntiques mysteries by Barbara Allan.
Small town, mother and daughter antique sellers, both with psychological issues. Many murders, both mother and daughter narrate, interrupting each other in the narratives to make corrections. Cute and funny.

 

Travis McGeeTravis McGee, detective of a sort, by John D. MacDonald.
McGee does not call himself a detective, more of a person who helps others find things. He lives on a houseboat in Florida and would just as soon spend a lazy day in the sun as work. He is hard edged, but not without sympathy, and lands his share of the ladies. Excellent hard-boiled writing.

And this is just scratching the surface of my 2014 series. Here are a few other series you can find in the library that might be of interest.

A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin
Joanna Brady mysteries by J. A. Jance
The Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde
Horatio Hornblower by C. S. Forester
All the Wrong Questions series by Lemony Snicket

Of course the list goes on and on. The only thing left is to ask, what’s your favorite series?