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

August 27, 2009

Judging panel is complete.


If there are as many people who actually enter this contest as there are offering to help judge it, the Water Grave Invitational could turn out to be a keeper for this blog. At any rate, the judging panel is complete and consists of yours truly (hey, it was MY idea!); the inimitable Dave Zeltserman (long may he prosper, but may his Patriots falter frequently); and rounding out the panel is the notorious Aldo Calcagno, who handles the Powder Burn Flash and Darkest Before the Dawn e-zines.

It's a real relief to know that if all goes well, I get all the credit. If things go badly, I now have two scapegoats.

August 26, 2009

Here come the judge, y'all!

Out of the blue, an incredibly generous offer arrived in my email today. Without even a vestige of extortion on my part, no less a personage than Dave Zeltserman stepped in to offer his services to help judge the short story submissions from the ten invitees to the Watery Grave Short Story Invitational. That Dave: talented, generous and classy.

Before Dave started getting glowing reviews from the likes of NPR's Maureen Corrigan for his novels, such as Small Crimes and Pariah, for five years he ran what was arguably the finest crime fiction web-zine around, Hardluck Stories, as it attracted some notable guest editors and contributors (Ken Bruen, anyone?). Dave has seen a lot of short crime fic, so I expect everyone to up their game. It's not just me you have to impress now.

The real reason this is such great news is that for the invitees, those ten stories are going to be looked at and evaluated by an author who knows of whence he judges, and not just by some blogger whose opinion carries only cash value. I'm no writer, but if I were I would rather have my work approved by Zeltserman than a $25 check. And one of you invitees, whoever you are, is going to have both. Such a deal!

August 23, 2009

Presenting: The Watery Grave Invitational

I may be crazy. I have a sneaking suspicion that if I am not now that I will be when this is all over.

Yep, I've thought about it and thought about it and the more I think about it, the more needlessly complex it becomes, but that's how it is when the word 'invitational' gets attached. But I like to think that is what will make this writing competition a little different from the rest.

The Drowning Machine is proud (and petrified) to host the first ever Watery Grave Short Story Invitational. (BTW, isn't that a terrific photo? Brought to you courtesy of the generous author/photographer at Toledo Perspectives.)

The competition will have three phases. Phase One will be deciding which authors to invite, and this is going to be the part that will give me acid indigestion. I have no idea whether I will be swamped with entries or get none. Assuming seppuku does not occur, Phase Two will be the issuing of the invitations and accepting entries. Regardless of the number of applicants, I will issue only ten invitations to submit an original crime fiction story of no more than 2500 words. If I don't receive as many as ten applicants, I will supplement invitations based on my web reading this year. Phase Three will be the judging and announcement of the winners. The winner will receive $25 US; second place will receive $15, and third place will get $10.

Here's how (I hope) this will work, the rules thereof, the details, the caveats, and general what-have you:
1. In order to apply for an invitation the author must have a crime fic story of no more than 2500 words already published (as in posted for the public to read) in an e-zine before twelve noon EST, September 8, 2009. Your story posted on your own blog does not qualify.

2. From twelve noon EST, September 1, 2009, until twelve noon EST, September 8, 2009, applications for an invitation may be submitted in the following manner:
Email a link to your short work of crime fic (the link must connect to the e-zine posting of your story) to drowning.machine@gmail.com. Please don't submit your entry early or late, they'll go to spam and die there. Your subject should simply say FICTION SUBMISSION, and the body of your email needs to contain only your name, the name of your story, and the link to your story. Do not send original material unless and until you are invited to do so.
3. An author may submit only one link. Not one at a time, just one link per author. So choose your best work, as long as it's not longer than 2500 words, because you only get one shot at an invitation. I reserve the right to close submissions early if, by some bizarre twist of fate, there are more than 100 applications. I can only read so much in a reasonable span of time, after all.

4. I will, repeat, I WILL read every story submitted, given that all the rules have been followed. Worthy - and I am the Sole Arbiter of Worthy - authors will get their names dropped into a hat. No rankings at this time. From the hat I will randomly select and invite ten authors to compete for the first ever (notice I don't say annual) Watery Grave Invitational.

5. Since I have no idea how much time will be consumed reading the submissions, I cannot be certain of the date that invitations (and apologies) will be sent. I'm shooting for October 15, but I'll post an update when I have a better idea.

6. Authors should not expect any feedback on their linked stories. I don't have time for it, and I'm not an editor. Anyway, you're only doing this for the money and the publicity (assuming there is any), right? Besides, you won't know whether your name went in the hat to be randomly chosen. You could have the written the finest story on the web to date and still have Lady Luck give you the cold shoulder. So if you don't get an invitation, don't assume I didn't like your story.

7. Once invitations are extended and accepted, the invitees will have two short weeks to submit an original work, never before published. Again, less than 2500 words. If an invitation is declined, another name comes out of the hat. If you're optimistic about your chances of having your name drawn from a hatful of who knows how many, go ahead and start writing because:

8. There is no theme. The only requirements are that the story be an original, previously unpublished work of crime fiction, and be less than 2500 words.

9. Invitees should then submit those stories via e-mail, as an attachment. I use OpenOffice so I should be able to open and read most word processing applications but if you have any doubt, use Word. Be sure to include your name and email address on at least the first page of your story. Formatting? Follow your usual format. Remember: wait for an invitation!

10. Once I have all the submissions from the invitees, I'll need another two weeks to read, ponder, evaluate and generally see if I can't get some of you to work up a few nerves. At any rate, I'll post an update on the blog as well as e-mail you about the date winners will be announced. When winners have been announced, they should e-mail me with a mailing address so that I can send the prizes out.

11. When I post the winners' names, I will actually post the names of the top five entrants. That's so that if I ever get another wild hair and decide to do this again, the top five will have automatic bids to that Invitational. The above procedure would be repeated (with time frames adjusted according to my experience with this venture) to get another ten invitees, so there would actually be 15 invitees in any future competition. (Dream on!)

12. I insist on being allowed to post the winner's story for a period of at least 30 days. Whether 2nd and 3rd place entrants want their stories posted on this blog will be entirely up to them. I'm happy to do it. Anyone who wishes to have his story removed from my blog, no problem, as long as the winning entry has been posted for at least 30 days. I'll leave your story in place forever unless you ask me to remove it. If you want your story removed, just send me an e-mail. Other than the 30-day posting of the winning entry, all rights are your own.

13. Criteria for judging? You should tell me a good crime story, don't make me wade through crap prose, use your spell checker (or better still, a dictionary). I disapprove of writers who don't use quotation marks for dialogue; single or double is your choice, but don't make me work at distinguishing dialogue. I don't care if your story is noir, hardboiled, cozy, traditional, metaphysical, science fiction -- whatever, just so it's crime fiction, right? Entertain me.
See, didn't I tell you it was needlessly complex? Okay, ready, set -- go look at your web stories and decide which to send me a link. BUT NOT BEFORE 12:00 PM EST, SEPTEMBER 1, 2009. Good luck and good writing!

August 20, 2009

REVIEW: THIS WICKED WORLD by Richard Lange

SYNOPSIS: Former Hollywood bodyguard and now parolee Jimmy Boone is working as a bartender as well managing a small apartment complex, and generally just trying to keep his head down. No more bad decisions like the one that caused him to beat a man Jimmy incorrectly mistook for a child molester. Just stay squeaky clean and do nothing, nothing to violate his parole and get sent back to prison. When Robo, the bar's bouncer, asks Jimmy to tag along while Robo talks to an old man whose illegal immigrant son died of infected dog bites, Jimmy is supposed to do nothing but look like a cop. For $80, Jimmy figures he can do that. Jimmy didn't know his own curiosity and compassion would mix him up with drug-dealers, a crazed ex-stripper, a toothless pit bull, a no-nonsense ex-cop with a great figure, a dog-fighting ring, a desperate-to-make-a-score petty crime boss, and a whole bunch of counterfeit money. At times, going back to prison starts to look like a pretty good option.

REVIEW: Tell Michael Connelly and T. Jefferson Parker to just shove over and make room for Richard Lange. When it comes to making the sprawling city of Los Angeles a character and not just a setting, Lange has done it here as well as anyone ever has. The streets of Hollywood and of South Central have never felt more sun-baked and alive with the scents and the scurrying of human activity.

Adding to the "you are there" atmosphere, Lange has populated his story with unforgettable characters, starting with a brief encounter with Oscar Rosales, a young man so filled with fear that he will not even seek treatment for his infected wounds. Lange doesn't just paint a desperate picture of Oscar's swan song, he gives you Oscar's dreams for the future and the motives that continue to drive him even through his fear. Every character has his own story and motives and mannerisms, and it is at the intersections of these people where the author seamlessly blends their personalities into actions.

Another example of the brilliance of Lange's characterization is the crime boss, Taggert. In lesser hands, Taggert would be just another example of a vicious, violent, no-holds-barred psychopath. Lange's deft touch maintains Taggert's base nature; he is despicable but he is also human, and though the reader never stoops to sympathy for him, Taggert's insecurity and his genuine affection for his girlfriend, Olivia, make him interesting and unpredictable. Olivia is even more unpredictable. She's clever and ambitious and she's pushing Taggert very hard to be made not just his sleeping partner, but also his business partner.

The story's pacing is remarkable. It's like climbing a steep hill, downshifting and and becoming more and more anxious about your vehicle making it to the top when suddenly you're there and then on the down slope, engine racing - and your friggin' brakes have failed. Like that.

If I have a quibble about this book, it is that the Chandleresque noir feel is almost undone by the unexpected hope extended to Jimmy at the story's end. But that's just me. I like an ending where everybody loses. I think most people will prefer Lange's ending. I'm looking forward to his next beginning.

August 18, 2009

REVIEW: THE NINTH CONFIGURATION by William Peter Blatty

SYNOPSIS: Twenty-seven Marines, housed in a Gothic mansion, are either mentally disturbed or they're faking it. When standard treatment fails to provide either progress or evidence, a new psychiatrist is brought in, Col. Hudson Kane. Kane's methods are unorthodox but at least he is gaining the inmates' trust. But Kane has his own issues, heavy baggage from his past. Can he resolve his problems without betraying the men who need his help?

REVIEW: I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Michael over at Lazy Thoughts From a Boomer for sending this book to me. Published in 1978, it's a slender volume compared to today's novels, clocking in at a svelte 135 pages. That's good because I had to re-read it right away, that's how much I enjoyed this story.

Because the story is relatively brief, no words are wasted in an attempt to be lyrical or poetic. Yet somehow there are moments of utter poetry in the exchanges between doctor and patients, and in Kane's own introspective reasonings.

The hospital is populated with men who are well-educated, bright, witty, and pitifully disturbed, and they come at Kane over and over again with questions and challenges right out of left field. Most prominent is the unofficial leader of the men, astronaut Captain Billy Cutshaw -- imagine Hawkeye Pierce with a religious fixation -- but there's also Lt. David Reno, formerly a B-52 navigator, now busy adapting Shakespeare's plays for dogs; and there's also the hospital's medical officer for physical ailments, the presumably sane Dr. Fell, who claims he was misassigned, that he is a pediatrician. But the rapid fire banter between the patients and their minders is less like the sparring in M*A*S*H, and closer to, oh, say the verbal tennis match in Tom Stoppard's classic play, Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. It's okay for the reader to laugh, but that doesn't mean he shouldn't carefully weigh what is being said.

Amid the constant chaos of his characters, Blatty addresses issues of mistaken identity, faith and spirituality, and the nature of love and sacrifice. The story is tightly woven, deeply moving, and wonderfully thought-provoking. The ending is both reassuring and yet will tear the heart out of the reader.

In this excerpt, Dr. Kane has just arrived at the hospital and been shown to his office by the medical officer, Fell, when Billy Cutshaw interrupts them and begins testing the newcomer now in charge.
Kane heard heavy breathing. Cutshaw was standing inches away, his eyes staring madly, shining and wide. "Okay, now I'm ready for my ink-blot test," he said. He swooped to the chair, dragged it over to the desk, sat down, and looked expectant. "Come on, let's go."

"You want an ink-blot test?" asked Kane.

"What the hell, am I talking to myself? I want it now while you're fresh with all those roses in your cheeks."

Kane wiped his face with a handkerchief. "We have no Rorschach cards."

"Like hell. Take a look in the drawer," Cutshaw told him.

Kane pulled the desk drawer open and removed a stack of Rorschach cards. "Very well," he said, sliding into the chair behind the desk.

Fell ambled toward the desk to observe.

Kane held a Rorschach card up and the astronaut leaned his head in close, his eyes scrunched up in concentration as he studied the ink blot.

"What do you see?" asked Kane.

"My whole life rushing past me in an instant."

"Please."

"Okay, okay, okay: I see a very old lady in funny clothes blowing poisoned darts at an elephant."

Kane replaced the card with another. "And this one?"

"Kafka talking to a bedbug."

"Correct."

"You're full of shit, do you know that?"

"I thought it was Kafka," Fell interjected, studying the card with interest.

"You wouldn't know Kafka from Bette Davis," Cutshaw accused him. "And you, you're a mental case," he told Kane.

"Yes, maybe I am."

Cutshaw rose and said, "Ingratiating bastard. Do you always play kiss-ass with the loonies?"

"No."

"I like you, Kane. You're regular."

Cutshaw tore the medal and chain from his neck and tossed them on the desk. "Here, take the medal. I'll take a book." He snatched How I Believe by Teilhard de Chardin.

"And now you'll be good for a week?" asked Kane.

"No. I'm an incorrigible liar." Cutshaw walked over to the door and threw it open with such force that again the crash loosened plaster from above. "May I go?" His voice had a childlike earnestness.

"Yes," said Kane.

"You're a very wise man, Van Helsing," said Cutshaw in an imitation of Dracula, "for one who has only lived one life." Then he loped out the door and disappeared from view.

Still playing catch up...more overdue reviews.

I finally got around to reading one of Andrew Vachss' books, thanks to the interview of him by Craig McDonald in Rogue Males: Conversations & Confrontations About the Writing Life. Vachss recently published the 18th and last novel in his Burke series, while I finished FLOOD, the first of the Burke books, now almost 25 years old. Being entirely objective about the novel, it has some flaws: a lot of movement without action, some outdated ideas about women. But in Burke, Vachss has created a memorable character. First and foremost, Burke is an urban survivor. He is all about low-profile self-protection, but manages not to become a recluse. He's nobody's idea of Superman. He's afraid to the point of paranoia. And he's no moralist or do-gooder; there aren't too many scams he can't see coming, or work if he wants to. But he also knows how the criminal justice system does and doesn't work, and when called on to help a woman bring down a child rapist and murderer, Burke will do all he can to help her but he will also make sure of his own survival. He has some interesting friends in low places to help him. I'll be reading more in the Burke series as the stark agony and realism of Vachss' focus - child abuse - means that no matter when these books were published they remain tragically, socially relevant.

Coming on the heels of Vachss' bleak tale about the search for a child killer, debut author Sophie Littlefield's A BAD DAY FOR SORRY at first seemed a bit too lighthearted for the topic of spousal abuse. Turned out though that Littlefield does treat the topic with respect, and I have no doubt at all that she is going to have a huge success with what would seem to be the first in a series. Her heroine, Stella Hardesty, is no Stephanie Plum - thank God! - but is a middle-aged, energetic woman whose own lifetime of experience with spousal abuse has led her to become the blood-chilling bane of existence for wife-beaters in her small community. In some ways, Stella is like Burke except that she doesn't pay as much attention to self-protection either as she should or as she thinks she does. Don't get me wrong, she's not as moronically defenseless as Stephanie Plum, but she does sometimes act more on impulse than judgment, and this forces the author to rely a shade too much on luck and the goodwill of law enforcement officials to mitigate the consequences of Stella's actions. But Littlefield captures the dialogue and attitudes of the small-town Midwest to perfection, and again, I think this series is going to be a big, big success for Littlefield.

36 YALTA BOULEVARD is the third book in Olen Steinhauer's series set in a post-WW2 Eastern Bloc nation. This time around the book shifts from police work to espionage, and Brano Sev, that mysterious figure from the previous books, takes front and center. As a result of a botched job in Vienna that left him with amnesia, Sev is demoted and sent to work in a factory. But even that simple statement has an astonishing amount of intrigue behind it. It's cross, double-cross, and triple-cross, as Sev tries to find the truth and still remain ideologically pure. One of the wonderful things about these books is that the author never tries to pigeonhole characters into behaving in Western ways. One may not always like his characters, one may struggle to understand their worldviews, but they are always fully developed and interesting.

August 16, 2009

Backtracking

Only two things are expected of book bloggers: that they read and then write about the books they read. I've been keeping up my end of the bargain on the first of those expectations but have been avoiding the latter the way a biker avoids a skunk. Time to make amends, but only up to a point. Here's a brief sample of what I've been enjoying recently. More titles to come, as and when I get my act together.

MIXED BLOOD by Roger Smith. This book was recommended to me by a favorite author, Dave Zeltserman. Sometimes, a person may recommend a book to me and I find myself going, ugh, why? Relax, that wasn't the case here. Dave hit this one right on the money. Smith's debut novel is a gripping narrative about an American bank robber running from his past only to find that his future in South Africa will feature a home invasion, and more danger and pitfalls than he could have dreamed when he went on the run. The finely drawn characters are so far from stereotypes, so fresh and original (even the ever-popular corrupt cop) that you can look for other authors to start reworking Smith's creations into something of their own. The ending is suitably noir-bleak, inevitable, and breathtaking. Here are the first two chapters. Take five minutes and at least read the first chapter. You won't want to stop.

Another recommendation came from Seth Marko over at The Book Catapult. EVERYTHING MATTERS! by Ron Currie, Jr., is not crime fiction - my usual fare - but is an engaging novel about a man who was born with the knowledge that the earth would be destroyed on his 36th birthday. Given that knowledge, would anything you do matter? What could have been a depressing tale instead is something altogether wonderful. Take a minute to read Marko's review here; he says it all much better than I could.

DARK END OF THE STREET by Ace Atkins. This is the first Atkins book I've read, and it won't be the last. I've already added one of his standalones to the TBR stack. Dark End of the Street is the third book in a series, but never mind. I didn't need the earlier books to appreciate this one. In this story, music prof and ex-NFLer Nick Travers agrees to help a close friend find her long-lost brother, Clyde James, a mentally disturbed soul singer. But there are a lot of very strange, very violent people taking an interest in Nick's search. The story references many great blues and soul songs, to my great delight. Case in point: the book's title is that of a classic soul song, co-written by Chips Moman and the immortal Dan Penn. The song has been recorded by many artists, most notably the late James Carr. And the troubled character of Clyde James bears more than a passing resemblance to James Carr. Atkins also paints a clear portrait of what the gambling industry has done to northwestern Mississippi.