The above illustration, "Blowing Bubbles," has been adapted for use here by generous permission from the artist, Cyril Rolando.

October 23, 2014

Discussion Questions

My book club recently read THE COLD COLD GROUND, by Adrian McKinty. I led the discussion as the book was my choice, but as I could find no discussion questions on the Internet for this book I had to devise my own. Here are those questions for the use of anyone who feels the need. (And I'm happy to say that the general consensus on this book was positive, and some members have already sought out the next book in the series.)

  1. The story is set in the mid-1980s, during The Troubles in Northern Ireland. Were you able to relate to this setting or remember any of that situation? What kind of details did the author include to remind you of the time period?
  2. What is the meaning of the title?
  3. Is there a theme to this book? Discuss the dualities that are juxtaposed throughout the story.
  4. What did you think of the prose? Overblown? Poetic? Visual?
  5. What kind of character is Sean Duffy? Were you able to relate to him? How is he different at the end of the story than when the book began? Are the minor characters as well defined as Sean?
  6. The reality of living with years of random violence and death must have taken a toll on those who survived it. What do you think Sean would be like by the time the worst of The Troubles ended? What do you think would be the most common effect on the people of NI as a whole?
  7. Were you surprised by this book or was it predictable? In what way? Did the ending satisfy you? If not, how would you change the ending? The murders are solved by book's end, but did you still find the ending ambiguous? In what way?
  8. Did you enjoy the humor in this book, or did it not amuse you? Did it seem out of place, TV-like, or true to life? What lines or situations struck you as particularly amusing?
  9. The author wove historical facts and perhaps his own memories into the story. Did any of the history he included surprise you?
  10. Did you come away from this book wanting to read more (or nothing ever again) by this author?

February 17, 2014

CAPTURE and DUST DEVILS by Roger Smith

I'm excited because February 20, marks New Pulp Press's release in PRINT, in the USA, for the first time of Roger Smith's novels, CAPTURE and DUST DEVILS. I highly recommend both of these books, or any book written by Roger Smith, really. I'm so happy that these books finally going to be available here in print format. Here are The Drowning Machine's previous reviews of both books:

South African journalist Robert Dell, his wife and two children are all headed off on a holiday, when a black pickup truck runs them off the road. Dell's family is killed and he is framed for their murders.

If that sounds anything like a typical thriller, please, just hold the phone a sec. Because you haven't read anything like this book. No, you haven't. No, it's not like that book or that one or any of the thrillers you'll recall right offhand, and that's because Roger Smith isn't just any writer. In the span of just three books, his prose has gone from spare and evocative to darkly lyrical. His characterizations are masterful, his POV treatment is impeccable. And thematically, where once he was just pretty damned good, he now soars.

DUST DEVILS is a brilliant work, revolving around five major characters: Dell, a pacifist wrought by his grief and also by his sense of justice in a world that has none, into waging personal war on the men who killed his family; Inja, a corrupt, murderous cop and Zulu chief, a man dying of AIDS and looking to superstition instead of science for help, he will kill anyone who gets between him and his 16-year-old bride-to-be, Sunday, because he believes that sex with her will cure him. Sunday wants only not to have to marry Inja. She, as much as anyone, knows him for the cold killer he is. And then there is Disaster Zondi, an ex-cop as a result of having principles in a time and place where those things have no cash value. The author spins these characters and more through a space-time continuum where personal interactions go repeatedly nuclear. Oops, I said five characters, didn't I? South Africa is the fifth one. The varying cultures, the extremes of power and wealth matched again helplessness and poverty, places where AIDS harvests one out of three people thanks to neglect, superstition, and ignorance. Where news events don't begin to tell the depth of the stories.

Along the way, the reader gets a mini-education in the behind-the-scenes politics of South Africa as that country moved from apartheid to... whatever one calls it today, because freedom hardly seems the right word. Unless one is remembering the old song lyric from Me and Bobby McGee: "Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose."

Thematically, where other authors would simply push the characters examining their past sins toward a search for redemption or atonement, Smith takes his characters beyond and into a stark cultural landscape where the wages of sin don't include the possibility of redemption, and where careful preservation of innocence is futile because innocence was long ago the first victim of sin. Harshly violent, the book is a broken window onto the cultural indifference to massive suffering, but more pointedly -- and poignantly -- Smith highlights the effect of the neglect by those powerful enough to relieve such suffering, who make such suffering more intense and widespread through corruption and indifference. The story's end is a sorrowful angel, breathtakingly cinematic on one level, and on another so personal that the reader's heart bleeds. A brilliant work.


Somewhere on the Internet recently I came across a discussion about what constituted or defined neo-noir. This book is my idea of what neo-noir is all about: the same sick, twisted, desperate, going-down-the-tubes characters found in original noir plus the faster pace and action usually found in thrillers. In this latest release, Smith somehow manages to conjure up a character, Vernon Saul, who is evil incarnate. What kind of man can sit back and watch a child drown, his inaction solely for the thought that he might find an angle to gain some kind of power over the grieving parents? And yet the reader cannot help but sympathize with the abused child that preceded the man Vernon became. There is a line delivered by William Peterson in the 1986 Michael Mann film, MANHUNTER, that perfectly sums up my feelings toward Vernon Saul:
My heart bleeds for him, as a child. Someone took a kid and manufactured a monster. At the same time, as an adult, he's irredeemable... As an adult, someone should blow the sick fuck out of his socks.
CAPTURE is bit more of a psychological character study than Smith's previous novels, but the tension ratchets up, chapter by chapter, to a shattering and satisfying denouement.  


Note: Okay, then. The publisher told me the print editions were due out the 20th, but apparently amazon has had both books available for the past week. Doesn't matter. Do yourself a favor and read a Roger Smith book.

February 12, 2014

Sonnet For a Writer

Will plagiarists ever grasp the glory?

Far rather would I search my chaff for grain
And cease at last with hunger in my soul,
Than suck the polished wheat another brain
Refurbished till it shone, by art's control.
To stray across my own mind's half-hewn stone
And chisel in the dark, in hopes to cast
A fragment of our common self, my own,
Excels the mimicry of sages past.
Go forth, my soul, in painful, lonely flight,
Even if no higher than the earthbound tree,
And feel suffusion with more glorious light,
Nor envy eagles their proud brilliancy.
Far better to create one living line
Than learn a hundred sunk in fame's recline.
                                -- James A. Emanuel (1921-2013)

A Conversation With James A. Emanuel. (Video by Joseph Langley.)

February 7, 2014

"They're just the same as they was before they was."

'It was 50 20 years ago today / Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play..."

On February 7, 1964,  The Beatles landed in America for the first time. Two days later, they made the youth of America sit up and pay attention when they played for the first time on The Ed Sullivan Show. From that time on, the Fab Four made my life better, or at least different, in ways so numerous that most of them I don't even remember. From music to fashion to film to politics to poetry, and yes, to religion, there hardly seems to have been any aspect of culture where I, and so many others, did not feel their influence. The price of their records hardly seems like thanking them properly for all I got in return.

Over at the Schumacher Gallery, at Capital University in Bexley, Ohio, there is an ongoing exhibit of photographs taken by Bill Eppridge, a Life Magazine photographer. The photos were taken over a six-day span beginning fifty years ago today.

I grabbed at the opportunity to see the exhibition on opening day, January 20. I was a little early but the nice folks at the gallery let me in anyway. And although it afforded me some small pleasure to have a quiet visit with The Lads, and muse on my own remembrances of those early days of Beatlemania, overall I found the exhibition disappointing. One reason is because of the photographs themselves, heralded as "mostly unseen." Maybe Eppridges's pictures have been "mostly unseen," but in general the pictures are so very similar to photographs that have been very much seen (think Topps 1964 Beatle cards) that any first-generation Beatlemaniac would be bound to ask herself, "Is that it?" No one who has seen Robert Freeman's photographs of The Beatles will be overly impressed with these "mostly unseen" pictures. Freeman, though, had the luxury of posing The Beatles and not having to fight a horde of competitive photographers.

The second reason, and to me the major reason, the exhibit was a disappointment is the failure of the gallery to place the photographs in any kind of context. The text-bearing plaques, besides having typos and too often being assigned to the wrong photos (when not falling off the wall), did little to help today's non-Beatlemaniacs understand the full impact of that first visit to the U.S. The text was so basic, mostly describing what's happening in the photos, that I was a bit insulted. Anyone who did not experience that time would be forgiven, after absorbing the text, for thinking that there was nothing in the least controversial about The Beatles' appearance or their music, that in fact here was just the first in a long string of innocuous, popular boy bands. No mention that here were the beginnings of the generational and political divide that was going to play out on college campuses and evening newscasts over the next decade. No mention either that The Beatles represented a light at the end of a dark tunnel of national mourning for our murdered President. Nope, just tags like: "John, in an exuberant mood..." That's the best they could come up with, when the fact that John, Paul, George and Ringo talked different and looked different, made every kid who felt different believe that it was not just okay to be different, it was good to be different. And that, I believe, is a sociological impact worth noting.

Accompanying the photos was someone's random playlist of Beatles' tunes. It's a bit of a disconnect to see a photo of the young, unsophisticated Beatles rehearsing at the Deauville Hotel in Miami, them dressed in swim shorts and cover-ups, while 'The Ballad of John and Yoko' is softly playing in the background. 'The way things are going / They're gonna crucify me...' Ah, gee. (And don't get me started on the young woman working at the gallery who referred to the Miami photos as 'them rehearsing in their underwear.' She had no idea how close she was to a smack on the back of the head.)

It would have been nice to have had the actual footage of The Ed Sullivan Show appearance on view. And/or the Maysles brothers' documentary, The Beatles: The First U.S. Visit . Both are available, at some cost no doubt, but available.  Would have been nice to have had some other tangible symbols of the madness that seized both Madison Avenue and the youth of America as a result of Fab Four's visit in 1964: wigs, lunchboxes, coloring book, bubble bath, stockings, etc. This city has plenty of collectors who would have loved to be even a small part of an exhibit lauding the Fab Four. And of course, nothing like the event held at Duquesne University in 2011, which attempted to place The Beatles' first appearance on American television in historical context, climate and importance, has been planned to accompany this exhibit (so far as I know), and that's a shame.

To the good folks at the Schumacher (which, I must say, has a very nice collection of Inuit art on display), I can only say the idea was good, the timing was right, but the execution left everything to be desired.

NY Daily News: Beatles arrival 50 years ago