Tuesday, December 30, 2014

And a Happy New Year to All

Thriller Guy was considering what his last blog of 2014 would be, or maybe it will be the first of 2015, and all the usual suspects came to mind with the most obvious two rising to the top: best books he’s reviewed in the past year, worst books he’s reviewed in the past year, both of which struck him as pretty boring. Sure, it’s fun to tear an author a new butthole for writing a crappy book, but even Thriller Guy grows weary of this sacred duty. So let’s just say that in the past year TG has read some good books, some bad books, and some mostly in-between books. These books were written by some well-known writers, some total unknowns and, you guessed it, some in-between writers. Along the way there were disappointments, and unexpected pleasures. Kind of like life itself.

On that unremarkable observation, let’s turn the blog over to TG’s alter ego, Allen Appel.

Thanks TG. Apropos of your mundane musings above, I had a thought myself the other day. I’ve spent part of the last two years working on a new book in my Pastmaster series, which readers of this blog are heartily sick of hearing can be found here for Kindle purchase. Book number two, Twice Upon a Time, featured Mark Twain as the buddy of series hero Alex
Balfour. Together they traveled to the west of 1876 and down the Mississippi on a raft. Reading all of Twain’s work and many bios of his life so I could write not only about him, but in his voice, gave me great pleasure and a pretty good working knowledge of a man who became one of my all-time heroes, second only to Abraham Lincoln. (See number Five in the series, In Time of War where Lincoln is the buddy.) So when the opportunity rolled around to use Twain in my new book – working title: One More Time -- I, as they say, leapt at the opportunity, not only because I love the man, but because I’d already read most of his books and owned pretty much everything he’d written and all the biographical material I could ever need. While paging through the complete works, I was struck by an uncomfortable thought: along with the great novels and stories, Twain wrote some real crap. This was overwhelmingly evident when I had to read his story, The Mysterious Stranger, searching for a particular piece of information. It was a real struggle to get through.

All right, I see you yawning out there, asking yourselves where the hell this is all going. The thing is, I would just like to point out to Thriller Guy and everyone else: even the best writers among us can’t be good a hundred percent of the time. Everyone writes crap on occasion. The great ones simply do so less than we normal folk, to say nothing of the people who are pretty terrible almost all of the time. Maybe it’s the end of the year funk, or maybe it’s just a gloomy day down here in the basement, but I, Allen Appel, would like to make an effort to lighten up a bit when deciding what books are crap and what books are gold. That’s my new year’s resolution.

If all this sounds like TG has weakened and grown mellow, don’t believe it for a minute. He’s just gathering his strength for a whole new year of kicking ass

As a last gift for the year, here’s the first part of the New York Times obituary of Mark Twain, who died on April 21, 1910, at the age of 74. I would recommend reading the entire obit, but it’s too long to put it up in its entirety. Here are the last hours of the great man. And a happy new year to all.


Mark Twain is Dead at 74

End Comes Peacefully at His New England Home After a Long Illness

Conscious a Little Before

Carlyle's "French Revolution" Lay Beside Him -- "Give Me My Glasses" His Last Words

SURVIVING CHILD WITH HIM

Tragic Death of his Daughter Jean Recently did Much to Hurry his End

Danbury, Conn., April 21 -- Samuel Langhorne Clemens, "Mark Twain," died at 22 minutes after 6 tonight. Beside him on the bed lay a beloved book- it was Carlyle's "French Revolution" - and near the book his glasses, pushed away with a weary sigh a few hours before. Too weak to speak clearly, "Give me my glasses," he had written on a piece of paper. He had received them, put them down, and sunk into unconsciousness from which he glided almost imperceptibly into death. He was in his seventy-fifth year.
For some time, his daughter Clara and her husband, Ossip Cabrilowitsch, and the humorist's biographer, Albert Bigelow Paine, had been by the bed waiting for the end, which Drs. Quintard and Halsey had seen to be a matter of minutes. The patient felt absolutely no pain at the end and the moment of his death was scarcely noticeable.
Death came, however, while his favorite niece, Mrs. E. E. Looms, and her husband, who is Vice President of the Delaware, Lackawanna & amp; Western Railway, and a nephew, Jervis Langdon, were on the way to the railroad station. They had left the house much encouraged by the fact that the sick man had recognized them, and took a train for New York ignorant of what happened later.

Hopes Aroused Yesterday

Although the end had been foreseen by the doctors and would not have been a shock at any time, the apparently strong rally of this morning had given basis for the hope that it would be postponed for several days. Mr. Clemens awoke at about 4 o'clock this morning after a few hours of the first natural sleep he has had for several days, and the nurses could see by the brightness of his eyes that his vitality had been considerably restored. He was able to raise his arms above his head and clasp them behind his neck with the first evidence of physical comfort he had given for a long time.
His strength seemed to increase enough to allow him to enjoy the sunrise, the first signs of which he could see out of the windows in the three sides of the room where he lay. The increasing sunlight seemed to bring ease to him, and by the time the family was about he was strong enough to sit up in bed and overjoyed them by recognizing all of them and speaking a few words to each. This was the first time that his mental powers had been fully his for nearly two days, with the exception of a few minutes early last evening, when he addressed a few sentences to his daughter.

Calls for His Book

For two hours he lay in bed enjoying the feeling of this return of strength. Then he made a movement asked in a faint voice for the copy of Carlyle's "French Revolution," which he has always had near him for the last year, and which he has read and re-read and brooded over.
The book was handed to him, and he lifted it up as if to read. Then a smile faintly illuminated his face when he realized that he was trying to read without his glasses. He tried to say, "Give me my glasses," but his voice failed, and the nurses bending over him could not understand. He motioned for a sheet of paper and a pencil, and wrote what he could not say.
With his glasses on he read a little and then slowly put the book down with a sigh. Soon he appeared to become drowsy and settled on his pillow. Gradually he sank and settled into a lethargy. Dr. Halsey appreciated that he could have been roused, but considered it better for him to rest. At 3 o'clock he went into complete unconsciousness.

Later Dr. Quintard, who had arrived from New York, held a consultation with Dr. Halsey, and it was decided that death was near. The family was called and gathered about the bedside watching in a silence which was long unbroken. It was the end. At twenty-two minutes past 6, with the sunlight just turning red as it stole into the window in perfect silence he breathed his last.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Elf

Thriller Guy is going to pass along some holiday cheer, but first he’d like to discuss the elf
on the fucking shelf phenomena. Who comes up with this crap? And why do so many perfectly reasonable parents fall for it? Thriller Guy readily admits that he has come late to this phenomena, alerted to it only by certain Facebook friends complaining that they have to get up in the middle of the night to move the damn elf because they forgot to do it before going to bed. Who is this elf, TG wondered, who was as pushy and demanding as TG himself? For those of you who aren’t aware of the gimmick, TG will give you the short version. For those who want a more detailed explanation, Wikipedia,as always, has an interesting article about it. 

Short version: You buy a little stuffed elf toy, put it somewhere around the house (a shelf is a good place) tell your kid that the elf is going to watch him/her and every night he flies back to Santa and reports if the kid has been naughty or nice. Every night after the kid goes to bed the parent moves the elf to a new place to prove to the child that the elf has gone to tattle to Santa and is now back, ready to spy on the kid for another day. The main rule is that the kid can’t touch or play with the elf in any way. (WTF?)

It may surprise some of you out there that TG is an actual parent of three children, now all grown, and who was and is an active participant in many Christmas traditions. Every year he puts the Goddamned Christmas Lights on the bushes in front of the house, goes to the nursery to buy the Goddamned Christmas Tree with the wife and kids, struggles to put it in the Goddamned Christmas Tree Holder while Mrs. Thriller Guy endlessly moves it a half an inch this way and that while TG lays on the floor cursing while screwing those goddamned holder things into the trunk. Later on TG sits on the couch and drinks (heavily) as Mrs. TG puts the lights on the tree and berates TG for not helping to hang the millions of ornaments that have accrued over a lifetime of summer vacations to locations who all seem to have one common element, a Goddamn Christmas Store somewhere nearby.  So who says TG doesn’t have beloved Christmas traditions?

But the elf on the goddamned shelf? Are you kidding TG? Not in TG’s house. Ever.

Wikipedia says the whole thing was dreamed up by a couple of writers, Carol Aebersold and her daughter Chanda Bell, back in 2005 when they self-published a book telling the tale of the elf. You got a small elf doll when you bought the book. TG is always happy when a writer, any writer, makes some money, and it appears that these two have done very well. Maybe not as well as the lady who wrote the Fifty Shades of Grey books, but… wait a
minute!…TG ‘s fertile brain is banging on the front door of some sort of a mashup between an evil elf and a bit of light bondage, the phrase “naughty but nice” springs to mind; TG will reluctantly put this million dollar idea away for the time being so he can finish this blog entry. At any rate, kudos to the writers who came up with this scheme and snookered deluded parents into paying them money and going through an absurd ritual simply for the sake of the kids who probably understand what bullshit it all is, but are going along with it anyway figuring is it makes their parents happy then that’s all to the good, especially at gift giving time.

So where’s that holiday cheer TG promised at the beginning of this rant?

Looking at his stats, Thriller Guy sees he’s been writing this blog for several months more than five years, turning in 220 entries in that time. In the blogosphere, where most blogs have the life span of the proverbial mayfly, that’s an eternity. TG would hope that over those years, amidst all the bullshit he’s slung around, that he’s passed along some useful advice about good books to read, how to go about being creative, writing in general, and how to survive the Writer’s Life. During this time TG has made some friends and pissed off a lot of people; TG would have it no other way. Also in those years, Allen Appel has sold some books, and he and TG would like to thank those of you who have bought them. TG says every time you buy one of Appel’s books, an angel gets his wings, so we can only encourage you to continue this tradition. In fact, heading over to The Appel Store right now is a good idea if you have any last minute purchases for holiday presents or would just like to unwind with a pretty good book.

In the past five years Appel has read and reviewed almost 800 books. One surprising finding is that books, thrillers in particular, are getting better every year. When Appel started out, there were many terrible books, unoriginal, poorly written and just plain bad. And many of them went on to become giant bestsellers. It is very rare these days when a truly terrible book comes across his desk. Of course this gives TG less to rant about, but rest assured, in the coming year (years) he’ll find plenty of vineyards to trample, buffoons to stick pins in and books to ridicule. So from all of us here at appelworks, TG would like to wish his readers a Merry Goddamn Christmas and Happy Goddamn Holidays. And if you have one of those stupid elves, throw it in the trash after Christmas and never mention it again, your children will never miss it, trust me. If you want to start a tradition, buy a copy of Appel’s The Christmas Chicken and read it to your kid or get the audio version and listento the great Brad Wills act it out. And who says Christmas is too commercial. Not me.



Monday, December 15, 2014

Art Camp and A Christmas Message

On the grounds of art camp
Allen here. I recently did 19 days at an art camp down in Virginia. That makes it sound kind 
My writing studio
of like a short jail sentence, which in a way it is. You get three hots and a cot and all that is expected of you is that you use that time to work on your art. In my case I was working on my Kickstarter novel, the latest in my Pastmaster series. The fact that the art camp is in a magnificent setting and there are plenty of other prisoners there, most of them interesting, is an added bonus. There are, as I have slowly learned, many of these facilities around the world. They’re called by different names -- artist’s colonies, artists residencies, fellowship programs, etc. -- but art camp is how I think of it. Thriller Guy wasn’t invited because as regular readers of this blog know, he can be an obnoxious asshole, and well, let’s be honest, a real prick when it comes to interacting with others, particularly artists, especially writers. So if he ever went to art camp, there would be fights. Particularly dangerous, at least for TG, would be the Lady Poets. (LPs) TG has faced down a lot of bad hombres over the years, but none of his enemies -- Viet Cong, Taliban, ISIS, Columbian drug lords -- have ever equaled the ferocity of the riled up LP. This is particularly true when they band together and roam the night, looking for hapless prey to eviscerate with their creative knives. You know who you are, the two Barbaras, and your other poetical gangsta sisters.

Scary.

Art camp is full of a variety of artists: painters, photographers, writers – fiction and non-fiction, poets – and composers. I’m particularly interested in the composers because their art seems the most different from mine, and perhaps the most difficult. I know a little about music (I have for years been planning to write an opera, The Last Castrato) but the idea of stringing notes together into some sort of coherence completely baffles me, so it has been fascinating to lurk around the composer’s studios at art camp and listen to them work their way through the same sorts of problems that writers have to work through only using a piano instead of a word processor. This last stint at art camp, I met a wonderful composer, 
Andrew Rudin
Andrew Rudin. He’s about my age, so we share a relatively similar worldview, and because he’s a composer/teacher he has a huge fund of fascinating -- at least to me -- stories that I’ve never read or heard before. At dinner, and breakfast, he would regale us with anecdotes of the “And then Hindemeth said to Schoenberg…” variety, which left us in stitches. Andrew is a musician of some note (see what I did there?) who is well known for his early, pioneering work with Robert Moog. His continuing composition work has resulted
Andrew at the Moog synthesizer back in the day
in new and old pieces being performed all over the world.

Now, many of you are probably by now asking yourselves what is all this in aid of? as the Brits say, and what does it have to do in a writing/book blog? I’m getting to it.

Andrew is a “modern music” composer. That’s probably the wrong term, but most of you will understand what I mean by it. Rather than abide by the rules laid down by mostly old white classical composers in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, his spirit roams over newer explorations of 20th and 21st century music. Meaning it can be difficult to listen to one of his pieces if you’re looking for a catchy tune to whistle, but putting in some effort will offer any number of interesting rewards. For those of you, my more avant-garde brethren, here’s a website where you can listen to some of his music.  

Be advised that Thriller Guy, the cranky, opinionated troublemaker who usually roams these pages, probably wouldn’t be a fan, but I have found much beauty in this sometimes fierce, intellectual music, even when I have to work at it a bit.

While talking one evening, Andrew said something I thought has as much to do with writing books as it does with writing music. He said, and I’m paraphrasing, (sorry Andrew) that after some years as a young musician working in electronic music and other advanced forms, he came to the realization that people just naturally “liked to hear a tune.” And so he decided to incorporate tunes – melodies – into his work. “But rather than being one of those guys who rummage through Bach’s wastebasket to come up with tunes, I decided to do it my own way.”

That’s when the nickel dropped. Rummage through Bach’s wastebasket. Brilliant.

As Thriller Guy has said, many times, humans seem to have a natural affinity, a need, for stories. From the days when early humans gathered around the proverbial fire eating their meal of roast mastodon, there was (probably) always a guy who recounted the story of the hunt, who told the stories of hunts past and the hunters and warriors who performed their glorious deeds. These were the proto-writers, the entertainers, the storytellers. When writing was figured out and printing presses invented, the need for stories could be fulfilled for everyone, once they learned to read. It seems to me that this need for stories is the same as the desire for melodies, tunes.

I am aware that this is not a particularly new or original thought, but we need to remind ourselves of it from time to time. Andrew’s next comment, about rummaging through Bach’s wastebasket, struck me particularly because, as a professional reviewer, I have read many, many novels that sound as if the author has spent his time, rather than coming up with a new and original premise/plot, rummaging around Dan Brown’s wastebasket, or Brad Thor’s or Larry Bond’s or Clive Cussler’s, instead of doing the hard work of thinking up and hammering out something ingenious, imaginative and remarkable in its own originality. Yes, it’s very difficult to do. TG has many times talked about strategies for coming up with new ideas – most of them involving gin – and there are many blogs and books out there that have their own methods, none of which are particularly easy or foolproof.

Or even necessary. Originality, that is, if your goal is simply making money. Consider the hundreds, thousands, of Da Vinci Code knock-offs, many of which have done extremely well in the marketplace, if not critically. And let me assure you, critics eventually become tired and dispirited writing reviews that sound mean-spirited and carping about how a book lacks originality when such books regularly climb the best seller lists and fly into the hands of readers, usually genre readers, who want more of the same stories, the kinds of stories that they love so much they’ll read various versions of it over and over and be perfectly happy. Maybe not as happy as if they had a book that gave a truly original spin on what they love, but they won’t know what they haven’t got unless they get it. Now there’s a convoluted sentence for you, but I think you understand my point.

Thriller Guy is always raving about certain writers, people who come from a life or career where they have some expertise that appears would lend itself to novelizing, who then pick a genre (usually mystery or thriller) and write a book (how hard could it be? they ask themselves) that ends up on my desk to review. This is seriously annoying for a number of reasons, but primarily because they haven’t read deeply in the canon and thus don’t know what’s already been done, and how not to break the rules that have been established by those who have gone before. The result is unoriginal stories littered with genre clich├ęs. If they have a big enough platform – if they were “famous” for some reason -- they can usually get away with fooling publishers and convincing readers to read their books. But this doesn’t mean their work is any good, and I remain unmoved by their howls of pain when they read my lacerating reviews.

So, writers. Take my friend Andrew Rudin’s advice: get your heads out of someone else’s wastebasket. Think. Be original. Work harder. We want tunes and stories that are new. Always remember Thriller Guy’s mantra: Sit down, shut up, get to work.

Note to Dan Brown: please, put a lock on your dumpster.





A Christmas message from Thriller Guy: For those of you looking for a present for that special someone, or looking for something that will be much better than the usual crap you’re probably going to get, you could do far worse than journeying over to The Appel Store and picking up a novel, novella or an audio recording of one of Allen Appel’s books. Of special note is a download of the classic holiday tale,The Christmas Chicken. If this doesn’t move you to tears, of both laughter and emotion, Thriller Guy will send you your money back. Word, bro.