Sunday, February 25, 2007
I just broke below 1400 in rankings at Amazon.com this weekend. It's the closest I've been so far to the coveted TOP 1000 reviewer ranking I've wanted to achieve for the last three years.
If you have some time and want to help out, pop over to Amazon via my AMAZON REVIEWS on the links and gimme a couple votes. I'm not begging. Not...yet.
My good friend Don has a blog spot that is full of wit and satire. He's genius. Check out his beaver problems on his blog.
Tell him Mel sent you!
Saturday, February 24, 2007
After upstaging her fellow officers in the war game, Honor is reassigned to the armpit of the known universe. At least, one of the armpits. Stuck out at Basilisk Station where the Royal Mantacorian Navy doesn't really bother to enforce all the rules and turns a blind eye to some of the black market dealings there that are extremely profitable to corporations who have the ears of the royal courts, Honor feels doomed to a career of mediocrity. Fate intervenes, though, and the main flagship and the captain return for new fittings. Everybody knows, however, that the ranking officer just wants to log some downtime and leave his newest officer abandoned with the impossible and hopeless task of policing the area. Honor is left behind and placed in charge with a ragtag crew that hasn't yet learned to work together.
But no one expects Honor to attempt the impossible. She seizes opportunity by the throat and begins mounting her own campaign to be the best royal naval officer she can. And her first order of business is to emphasize the Navy’s presence in the area and shut down smugglers’ routes. She meets immediate resistance on part of the smugglers as well as local business and corporate trade ships from Haven, another star system that’s bent on reaping as many profits legally and illegally as they can.
David Weber is an accomplished military science fiction author. He's written the Honor Harrington books as well as other series and novels with John Ringo. The Honor Harrington universe has even spawned a sister series that concentrates on other characters from those worlds.
The book reminded me a lot of a Horatio Hornblower novel, and the movies put out by A&E. The same kind of political and military problems got in Honor's way, as well as similar crew problems. But Weber intentionally designed the series to echo that. The Star Court of Mantacore is basically Great Britain while the People’s Republic of Haven takes France’s place. Even the feel of the navy, the pomp and procedures, is a lot the same. But the Napoleonic War still captures the attentions of readers, and these books make the conflict enjoyable all over again.
But Weber excels in worldbuilding as well as military strategy and science fiction hardware. His military, his worlds, and his struggles felt real all through the book. Despite the fact that he based so much of his future on our past, I was hooked by the familiarity as well as the detail of his space battles and political and military jockeying. I'm looking forward to reading the other Honor Harrington books.
Another area where Weber excels so naturally is in the characters. Honor Harrington “feels” like a real person. So does her XO, McKeon. The troubles she has with her crew, figuring out what to do with them as well as how to win them over, are real and natural. Although McKeon doesn’t warm up to Honor at first and the reader will dislike him for a time, when he reveals his motivations for being so distant make him believable and likeable. Other abrasive personality conflicts, like the one with the ship’s doctor, aren’t resolved in a win-win manner. The crew, and the reader, discovers that Honor doesn’t mind playing the bad guy or getting a little blood on her hands.
Later, in the final acts of the book when Honor is dealing with every sordid and underhanded thing that her enemies and political rivals can throw at her, I was delighted to watch her calmly and precisely pull the teeth of those serpents and kick them in the butt on the way out the door. Honor isn’t just an action heroine. She’s also a thinking reader’s ideal warrior. Even when the conflict didn’t involve lasers, assault rifles, or long-range missiles, but instead focused on political powers of privilege and vulnerable political positioning, I was drawn in through those encounters and simply couldn’t stop reading.
If you haven't read any of these books, then -- like me -- you're about to find a treasure trove of good reading material. But start here with On Basilisk Station. This is where the action begins and Honor takes up the greatest challenge of her career.
Thursday, February 22, 2007
Death Is In The Cards
Texas Hold’Em style poker took the world by storm a few years ago, and the attraction the viewing public has for the sport isn’t showing any signs of waning. Poker even featured prominently in the remake of the James Bond film, Casino Royale. Vince Van Patten, the charismatic host of World Poker Tour, the heavily syndicated weekly television show, raises the table stakes by writing a new book with professional author Robert J. Randisi.
Billed as the first Texas Hold’Em mystery, The Picasso Flop unveils an interesting cast of characters amid luxurious Las Vegas. The book focuses on Jimmy Spain, a poker player who had his streak toward greatness cut when he got sent to jail for murder. Fifteen years in prison has blunted his game, but a vicious turn of events puts Jimmy back on the firing line with the table stakes higher than he’s ever faced before.
Spain is a likeable character, with enough presence and history to hold his own in the world of high-stakes poker. I enjoyed his easy-going approach to poker as well as the investigations he makes into the murders. Despite the poker and prison backgrounds, Jimmy is the kind of guy you really get to know and root for as a reader. He feels solid and real, and he’s easily understood because he’s vulnerable and maybe a little scared of losing it all again. That’s the kind of hero I go for time after time in these kinds of books.
Fresh out of prison, Jimmy tries to get back in the poker game. Unfortunately he doesn’t quite have the bankroll to manage a buy-in. And, truth to tell, he’s not sure if he’s got his old game back. The skills have gotten rusty and the nerve is a little more frayed than it was. Not only that, but the face of poker has changed now that the game attracts millions of viewers to the green felt tables.
While he’s practicing his game at a few low-end places, Jimmy gets a phone call from an old prison cell mate. Landrigan is a powerful criminal with money to burn even while in prison. Landrigan tells Jimmy that he wants him to look out for his estranged daughter, Kat. Kat Landrigan is totally into poker and wants to be the next female superstar. She turns out to be a 22-year-old hardcase with moxie, attitude, and a vocabulary she culled from the poker tables. I found her character really offensive and obnoxious, but she grew on me.
At first Jimmy doesn’t want any part of the deal. Even after Landrigan offers to pay Jimmy’s buy-in at the next world poker tournament in Las Vegas, he’s pretty certain he’s going to turn the man down. Then Jimmy meets Kat and he sees that she is sharp as a poker player. He gets to know her and plays against her, and decides that she has promise.
More than that, though, Jimmy wants to be back on the Vegas tables playing for the kind of stakes he’s used to. When the authors write about this, even though they play it low-key, you can feel it. It’s kind of like a Rocky movie, only at a poker table instead inside a boxing ring. The challenge won me over in a heartbeat.
Reluctantly, Jimmy agrees to the assignment. In Vegas, though, the heat turns up quickly. Jimmy’s fight to stay alive at the tables is complicated by trying to keep Kat under control and alive in the game. Although the book starts off a little slow, the pace quickly increases as Jimmy has to put out fires all around him. I got wound up in just watching Jimmy try to sort out and get a handle on his life while he tried to take care of the various responsibilities he’d set up for himself.
Then the first murder occurs.
One of the high-rolling poker players ends up murdered in his hotel room. Not only that, but the killer obviously left calling cards: a jack, a queen, and a king. All three of them are face-cards (bearing pictures of individuals instead of numbers) and are known collectively in Texas Hold’Em as a Picasso Flop, a group of three portrait cards.
It doesn’t take long before the Las Vegas police find out about Jimmy’s past as a convict. As soon as they do, they immediately focus on him. To make matters worse, Kat and another female poker player both claim they spent the night in question with Jimmy, using him as their alibi. Jimmy wasn’t with either of them, and he doesn’t know why they would lie. Wanting to protect Kat, Jimmy lies for her, but he can’t help wondering where she was that she had to lie about it. Or what he’s getting himself into.
Before he can figure that out, the second body falls. Literally. Into the hotel swimming pool. When the body is fished out, another Picasso Flop is found. Someone is definitely sending a message, but no one knows what it is.
The Picasso Flop is a great read. The prose sails along so smoothly you forget you’re reading and start seeing the “movie” in your head. Randisi never intrudes as a writer, and strives to simply spin the tale he and Vince Van Patten have concocted.
For the WPT aficionados, there’s a ton of name-dropping. Mike Sexton and actor James Woods both put in signature appearances. The backdrop of Vegas comes across well. And during the poker play, you can almost hear the cards hitting the felt in the final hands.
I hope that The Picasso Flop just marks the start of a series. Jimmy Spain is a great character to kick back and watch.
Sunday, February 18, 2007
I Love This Series!
The second season of Hustle just hit the stores this week. I fell in love with the first collected season just a few months ago, and now I can’t wait till season 3 is released on DVD.
Hustle features the trials and struggles of a professional long con crew, but with the British flair for tongue firmly rooted in cheek. The long con requires an investment of time and money from the confidence men and women working it. Usually the schemes are elaborate and require extensive research, but the shows are so well put together that you don’t realize you’re getting educated as well as entertained.
Each season, so far, consists of 6 hour-long episodes (a full hour, not the 42-minute versions of hours we get on American television). The episodes have truly wonderful writing, brilliant acting, and a sense of familiarity. Every time I pop a disc into the player, I feel like I’m sitting down at a family reunion to catch up on new stories with old friends.
The ringleader of the group is Mickey Bricks. His real name is Michael Stone, but everyone calls him Mickey. Played by Adrian Lester, Mickey is suave, cool, and super-competent. He’s the con artist who always plays with every angle covered and at least two backup plans.
Jaime Murray plays the beautiful and eloquent Stacie Monroe. She’s the banker for the team, meaning she usually handles their finances—and that figures into one of this season’s shows in a dramatic way, but also takes part in most of the cons.
Albert Stroller (Robert Vaughn) is the father-figure of the group. He serves as the roper, the man responsible for pulling a mark (victim) within range of the rest of the team. Vaughn’s portrayal of Stroller is outstanding. He’s so smooth onscreen I just love watching him pontificate, argue, or play to character.
Robert Glenister stars as Ashley “Ash” Morgan. He’s the team’s fixer, the man responsible for finding sites they can use to run the con, and the man who has to fabricate the objects necessary, and their electronics specialist.
Danny Blue, the young short con artist taken on by the team in the first season, is played by Marc Warren. He and Mickey are always bumping heads over work and over Stacie.
Even though the episodes are fun, filled with action and suspense, it’s the characters that really deliver the draw. After an episode or two, I just dropped into their world without any hesitation. I knew I was in good hands because the stories were clever and character interaction came from actors who knew their onscreen persona intimately. When the characters argued, it came out of their nature, not an encumbering plot hook or artificial twist. The season is as honest and forthright as it is fun and endearing.
The first episode, “Gold Mine,” re-introduces the viewer to the team and exactly what the art of the long con is. Mickey and the others are motivated to get revenge for a con man they all know who was taken down by a property manager who had been conned in the past. The interaction between the differing styles between Mickey and Danny really come to the forefront, as well as the rivalry the two have.
“Confessions” starts out when Albert blows a operation after learning about the sad death of an old associate. He’s out of sorts but manages to land another mark. The new mark is a reformed criminal turned into a chef who’s become the owner of the hottest restaurant in London. Danny ends up posing as the man’s son and gets too involved emotionally.
“The Lesson” is absolutely the best episode in the bunch. I loved it so much I watched it twice just to sort out all the diversions, red herrings, and feints. Even as versed as I was in the episodes, this one caught me by surprise. I was blown away by how everything came together in the end, including Stacie’s revenge against a bank manager who was an absolute jerk.
In “Missions,” Mickey has the crew actually pay for a comic book cover, laying out 110,000 pounds of their own money to purchase it. As it turns out, Eddie—the club owner where the crew regularly drinks—is getting squeezed by a crook cop. He tells her about Mickey and the others just as their newest con is about to come together. This episode was really well done with an elaborate set-up.
Part of Stacie’s past returns to haunt the crew in “Old Acquaintances.” Her husband, never an ex because he disappeared and never signed the papers, has turned up in London as a poker player Albert has roped in for a con. Even though Stacie and Mickey have a history with the guy, the crew decides to take him on. Part of it’s for the money, but it’s mostly about revenge for Stacie. However, the con turns awry when exposure to her husband rekindles old feelings.
Although the Crown Jewels of London have reportedly never been stolen, Mickey decides to make that the goal for the crew in “Eye of the Beholder.” This episode is an absolute stunner with all the breaking and entering they had to do, as well as how they get out of trouble with the police after having been arrested.
Hustle is one of the best television shows out there at the moment. Season 3 has aired, and Season 4 is getting ready to start airing in England. However, Adrian Lester has left the show. He’s been replaced by Ashley Walters, so it’s going to be interesting to see how the dynamic changes.
But if you’re a fan of British crime dramas and haven’t yet discovered this crown jewel, you’re in for a treat. The acting, the writing, and the sheer verve of the series make it outstanding. There’s even a wonderful music score. Hustle is a great addition to the home DVD home library or as a gift to someone you know who enjoys television that truly enterains.
Robert B. Parker's New JESSE STONE novel
Just had the opportunity to read the new Jesse Stone novel by Robert B. Parker. Jesse Stone is the police chief of a small Massachusetts town named Paradise. Stone battles alcohol and his obsessive love for his ex-wife while solving murders. The series has slowly grown on me, and I like Tom Selleck's portrayal of the character in the recent made-for-TV movies (now if they would just come to DVD!).
Anyway, pop over to Amazon.com for a short review if you'd like.
Thursday, February 15, 2007
Currently in my classes I'm discussing plotting. One of the things I've pointed out to students is that the best way to learn plotting is to put their hands on the plots of other people. Keep a journal of the books you've read, the movies you'ves scene, episodes of your favorite television shows, and even the action in video games you play.
All of those mediums have plots. Some are more apparent than others. Some television shows, such as a favorite of mine, HOUSE, are similar from week to week. HOUSE is especially formulaic, and the writers have even poked fun at it in different episodes. The thing is that the plot works each and every time.
As you read through the books, watch movies and television, and play your video games, make notes of where the action starts. What does the character have to achieve in the beginning? How does it become worse as the story progresses? Does the resistance the characters face increase? It should. Do the stakes grow ever higher? They should.
Map the plots you find in your entertainment. Make yourself aware of how the writers boosted your interest level (or lost it!).
You might be surprised at how many plot devices are similar. Most people worry that they're being predictable, but some stories have to head in certain direction and cover familiar territory. The trick is to do some sleight-of-hand, offer surprises, and create characters the reader cares about.
Learn plots, then figure out how to be innovative. It's hard to be innovative when you don't know what's gone on before.
Help! I've been stuck on the same number of votes at www.amazon.com for three days. Something's gotta give. It's weirding me out. Blame my OCD.
If you have a couple minutes, go to Mel's Short Reviews on my links and gimme a couple of votes. Just to break the logjam.
Tuesday, February 13, 2007
Chandler, my 9-year-old, thinks outside the box more than anyone I know. Including me. And I get paid for it.
Tonight, on the way home from martial arts, it was so cold we could see our breath. Chandler borrowed a Dry-Erase marker from my school bag and uncapped it. I had no clue what he was doing.
He started waving the marker in front of his face while he was breathing out. I said, "What are you doing?"
"I'm trying to color my breath," he said.
I laughed at him, not believing it.
"Hey," he griped at me. "It was a science experiment. I wondered if I could color my breath."
Only my child.
*Addendum: Just to redeem myself and prove that I CAN think outside the box, I figured out a way to color Chandler's breath. In the morning I'm going to have him breathe out while I sprinkle colored chalk dust into the path of his breath. His breath will pick the color up and swirl it around. Taaaa-daaaa!
Don is a friend and fellow writer. But he's also got one of the most cutting senses of humor I've ever seen!
I read an earlier posting of his about the goose invasion of his neighborhood (http://atomiczebra7.blogspot.com/2006/12/how-i-lost-great-goose-war.html), but that looks like merely Nature's pre-emptive strike. Terror is once more loose in Don's backyard. Read about Big Angry Beaver here!
Monday, February 12, 2007
Years ago, after I just got started in the writing business, I was invited to speak at OU's writing retreat. At that time, the "Professional Writer's Short Course," as it was known then, attracted a large group of interested writers from all over the state. The talks featured writers, agents, and editors from around the United States.
I went to others over the years. I enjoyed them all. During that time I got to meet writers and editors I eventually worked with on various projects, and my agent, Ethan Ellenberg (www.ethanellenberg.com).
Somewhere in there, though, the Short Course disappeared. Its absence has left a huge hole in the Oklahoma writing scene. Many writers came up through the Professional Writing program at the University. As of this semester, I'm an adjunct there.
This past weekend, I met Will Prescott and Jocelyn Pedersen. Together with Elizbeth Childers, Will and Jocelyn are pushing to ressurect the Short Course back into the area.
If you're interested in more information or possibly helping making this happen, check out the Professional Writers Annonymous at http://oupwsa.blogspot.com.
The next PWSA meeting will be Saturday, February 24 at 2:00 pm in the PW lounge in Copeland Hall. They will plan bringing back the PW Short Course and starting the first book club.
If you have any questions they've generously provided phone numbers:
Check it out. The Short Course was awesome. Those few days provided a ton of opportunities and chances to meet working professionals.
Monday, February 05, 2007
The song has haunted me for a couple weeks now. Caught my attention and just wouldn't let go. The line, "Her face is a map of the world," just filled up my thoughts.
So I did what writers normally do when they find a new passion. I researched her, found out what her name was, discovered she was just as cute as could be, and got her newest CD. Fell in love with the song all over again.
K T Tunstall provides cuts of R&B, bluesy riffs, and some slower ballady stuff that just washes over me while I'm working. I love music I can work to.
If you haven't heard of her, listen for the "Suddenly I See" song on the rock/pop stations. If you get truly curious, check out her site at http://www.kttunstall.com.