Thursday, July 31, 2014

Memoir as Self-Punishment: My Dark Places by James Ellroy--Book Review

Photo: From the book's Wikipedia page.  This ain't the edition I read.  This cover looks terrible.  I get the reason for it, but there wasn't a better pic of him driving and investigating?

These are some very dark places, indeed.  This is a memoir / autobiography / crime procedural written in Ellroy's hyper, staccato style.  (Think of his Black Dahlia or L.A. Confidential, two classics of the crime genre--or of any genre.)  You'll learn more than you'd want to know about Ellroy as a young boy--and you'll be blown away by how honest it is.  These are things that even very honest people don't put in their memoirs, but I suspect that Ellroy likes the honesty of it, in a brutal, self-hurting, confessional kind of way.  I'm curious to know what he thinks he's punishing himself for.

The beginning portion chronicles his parents from a child's POV.  They get divorced.  His mother gets murdered.  His father becomes a useless drunk.  Ellroy becomes a nervous, high-strung, self-destructive kid who barely graduates high school.  After doing so, he learns how to B & E into his favorite girls' homes, and he doesn't do so to steal anything.  You can take it from there.  He later becomes an alcoholic / sniffer and homeless person.  He gets so bad that he develops an abscess on one of his lungs and almost dies from it.  This straightens him out.  Somewhat.

Fast-forward many years.  He becomes very successful and decides to re-open his mother's unsolved murder case.  He hires an ex-cop and they track people and things down.  Amidst all this is the most frank Oedipal writing you'll ever see, to the point that it made this reader a little uncomfortable.  Despite this, you can't help but marvel at the tremendous breath and energy of his writing, or the depth he plumbs of his feelings and thoughts.  It reads so fast, but so dense, that you wonder how he could top it with the author-read audiotapes advertised at the back of the book.  But I'll bet he does.

This book is not for the squeamish, for the crime scene descriptions, the murders detailed, and the psyche analyzed.  Ellroy doesn't come out of this especially likeable, but you'll be fascinated by his energy and writing--if you like the staccato style.  If you can't handle hyper people, you won't like his hyper writing, and you certainly won't like his hyper mind.  He comes across as a guy you'd love to have a beer with, maybe, or to talk to, because he's undeniably fascinating.  But you probably wouldn't want to be married to this guy, or to have to live with him for any reason.  I bet he'd wear ya down.  And that's me sayin' this--surprising, as I'm the most hyper and hyper-kinetic guy I know.

Anyway, his 50s L.A. is also fiendishly covered, as is the investigative process.  After the huge letdown of the unsolved JonBenet murder case I covered in my recent review of Perfect Murder, Perfect Town, this (still) unsolved murder was also a bit of a downer.  Seems like people are getting away with murder these days--literally.  (Or, in the late 50s and in 1996, anyway.)  But books like these show you what the cops are up against, and how easily a murder investigation can very quickly go to hell.  Most of the murders mentioned, covered and explained in Ellroy's book are all unsolved.  When a jury comes back with a guilty verdict for a guy from a 1950s cold case gone right, the 1996 investigators all have a party--and the reader feels like joining them.  This guy, at least, towards the end, is one that didn't get away.  But all the others do.

Ultimately, a reviewer from the San Francisco Chronicle said it best when he wrote that Ellroy's My Dark Places was "...Both a harrowing autobiography and a disturbingly fixated love story...blunt, graphic, and oddly exhilirating." 

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Perfect Murder, Perfect Town by Lawrence Schiller--Book Review

Photo: Paperback cover of the book (I read the First Edition hardcover) from

Incredibly dense and thorough chronicle of the JonBenet Ramsey investigation, from the POV of almost everyone involved, from reporters to DAs to police detectives--and everybody in between.  If you're interested in what happened to that little girl on December 26th, 1996 (Could it have been that long ago?!?) then this is mandatory reading for you.

Like the case itself, it is a complicated maze to read, and you may, like me, forget momentarily who somebody is.  There's a character page in the back to help you with this problem.

Schiller doesn't pull any punches and immerses you in everything for the sole purpose, as he says, to chronicle what happened for anyone interested in the case.  It reads like a 579-page report.  There are no writers' tricks here, and no embellishments.  Schiller does an amazing job of organizing all of this stuff into one (mostly) seamless flow.

What does it show?  Oh my goodness, it shows how very thoroughly and completely the D.A.'s office, the Boulder Police Department, the witnesses, the suspects, and the media all worked together to screw up this case beyond repair.  Like the research into AIDS in the early-80s, when American and French scientists fought each other over copyrights and egos and countless people died, so too did the Boulder PD and the D.A. office fight each other over supremacy, evidence and theories.

And we know what happened.


Nothing at all.  A grand jury failed to indict anybody in 1997, and here afterwards have we sat. (Though to be more concise, the grand jury found that there was enough evidence to proceed to trial, but the D.A. did not proceed.  He refuses to this day to give his reasons.)

As detailed in this book, this case never had a chance.  Evidence was immediately trampled upon.  Both Ramseys, and their son, Burke, took leave of the police for a very long time upon the arrival of the first cops.  The crime scene was not controlled and it became very, very compromised.  And the Ramseys somehow were allowed to not be thoroughly interviewed until four months after the killing.

And the police bungled evidence and interviews that anyone who's ever seen an episode of Law & Order could have done better.  The D.A. turned down help from the FBI, whose officers had investigated and tried tons of murder cases against children.  How many had the current D.A.'s office tried?  Zero.

You may imagine yourself, as I did, screaming at, and shaking, some of the well-intentioned but hopelessly inept people involved in this case.

And that's just the beginning.

But, sadly, there's nothing much to add since.

Patsy Ramsey has died.  Nobody's ever been brought to trial.  It may seem there's nothing more to say.

But there is.  Schiller takes pains to try to remain unbiased with his book, and largely he succeeds.  But his one-page epilogue gives him away a little bit, as does the preponderance of the evidence he allows the real people to supply here.

Ultimately the reader has to make his own decision about who did it.  Was it the Ramseys?  Any of them, in the murder and / or in a cover-up?  Was it an intruder?

You'll have to decide.  I have, I think, for the most part.  Maybe I'll write about it in my blog one day--keeping in mind, of course, that many of the people are still alive.  And able to file lawsuits for slander.

But still a riveting read.  If this case interests you, read it.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Deleted Comments---My Bad

Ummm...Yeah. turns out that when you delete comments from the published folder, you also delete them from the blog itself.  Didn't know that.  Doesn't make sense to me, because once you've posted them, why are they still tethered to the published folder?  Wish I knew that before I deleted the last 50 or so comments...

Well, anyway, I am working hard to find these comments again and re-post them.  I'm taking this very seriously, since if people are nice enough to take their precious time to read my blog and post a comment, they shouldn't get said comments deleted.

I especially apologize to Dreki, who has posted quite a few comments recently, and after a bit of a hassle.  I'm working hard to get those back.  And I apologize to Diane, who lost the most comments.  I'm sorry this happened.

So please rest assured everyone that I am working hard to resolve this problem.  If you have any advice to give about how I can do this, please leave me an email at sb[at], or leave a comment below.  I promise not to delete those, too.

If you've commented on my website since February 2013 (!!!), and if you still have a copy of it on your computer somewhere, please either send it to me and I'll take care of it (though I'd rather not have to do that), or just re-post it yourself if you don't trust my computer savvy.  I wouldn't blame you. If you don't want to do anything because you're as disgusted as I am with the whole thing, I wouldn't blame you for that, either.

The Road Less Traveled and Tough Choices

 Photo: It's got a long address, and I'm lazy, so I'll link it here.

Despite the high rating I'd give to this book, it's time to let it go.  By this, I mean it's off to the box for my yard sale, or the box to my used bookstore for credit, or yet to the box for donations to my local Salvation Army.  Probably in that order.

Why am I letting it go after all these years?  Why, if I'd rate it so highly?

Well, first, why I like(d) it.

It's got one of the all-time great opening lines for any self-help book: Life is difficult.

It is, indeed.  I also believe that life is often (though not always) supposed to be hard.  To not accept or expect this is to live a life of frustration and an inability to adapt.  That's me saying that, by the way, not Peck.  But he'd agree with me.

Peck was amongst the first of the popular self-help guys to really preach self-responsibility.  Or, at least to the point that he did so with popularity.

This is huge for me, philosophically and psychologically.  I've tired of the nature vs. nurture debate because it seems that many are trying to explain away self-responsibility.  It's not my fault, I have ADHD.  It's not my fault, I was raised that way.  It's not my fault, that's what I was taught to believe in.

He was the first to say that, no, everything was actually your responsibility after all.  Especially after a certain age.

I'm all for that.  I embrace that.  I live it and breathe it.  Nobody's more hyper and hyperactive than I am.  Yet I focus, accomplish much, balance my finances, control my emotions and treat others with respect.


Here's why I don't really like it anymore.  It's not just because Peck turned out to be an addict, a sex addict, and a very frequent cheater on his wife.  But keep those things in mind as we continue--and remember the phrase "traditional values" in his title.

I didn't realize before, when I read this in my teens, how actually preachy it is.  I don't mind, now, that it's religious.  But I do mind that a trained psychiatrist would use religion and God as self-help.  Is that belief, or is that maybe a little too self-serving?  Dubya bought into this sort of self-help religion, as many recovering addicts do.  Which is fine and good, but...for a psychiatrist to preach this so heavily in a self-help book?  That's blasphemy, in my opinion, but blasphemy for practicing psychiatrists and self-help professionals and religious leaders alike.

Is religion supposed to be so self-serving?  Can one get better psychologically if one doesn't believe in the Christian God? According to Peck, in this book...Well, no.  Kind of.

And don't even get me started on the phrase "traditional values" in his title.  A psychiatrist should really, really know better.

What if you, and your problems, aren't traditional?  Can you still benefit from psychotherapy?  Well, yes, but according to this book?  No...kind of.

He hedges a lot when it comes to this kind of thing, like his psychiatrist self and his televangelist self were warring for control.  When his psychiatrist self wins, this book is almost ingenious. When he writes about accepting responsibility, delaying self-gratification, the difference between neurotics and personality-disordered people, and overall personal self-responsibility, this book is a winner and deserving of the 10+ million copies it's sold, and its place for a number of years on the best-seller list.

Ultimately, for me it's time for it to go.  I have literally hundreds of books, and it's time to make some tough choices.  This is actually a tough decision for me, but many books simply must go, so...

In terms of a book review, I reiterate that I do recommend this book because of its heavy reliance on self-responsibility.  It made a huge impression on me when I was a teenager, and this book was partially responsible for my decision to also major in Philosophy, and to focus on Existentialism, if I could.  I could and I did.

So this was an important book for me, and it may also be for you.  Read it and learn from it, if you wish.  But don't feel badly if you don't keep it in your bookshelf.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

The Cockroaches (Harry Hole #2) by Jo Nesbo--Book Review

Photo: Jo Nesbo, from his official website

Extremely well-written follow-up to Nesbo's The Bat, this book takes Hole's character and adds a little more depth to him.  We see more of his sister, and we see the ex-girlfriend, Kristin--mentioned in the first book--even more here, to good effect.  The girlfriend from the first novel is mentioned frequently here, too, as is his compunction for alcohol--though he may have a new drug of choice by the end of this one.  But then, if I had to spend this much time in the traffic and heat and humidity of Bangkok, Thailand, I might feel the need as well.  (I'm a wuss; I need the central air.)

Anyway, the plot of this novel is quite intricate, though the reader shouldn't be hard-pressed to figure out who done it.  The "Why?" and the "How?" may throw the reader; however, when you learn the how, you won't feel badly about not figuring it out.  Nobody would, or could, have.  Except Hole, of course, who is so good at this kind of thing that two characters openly marvel at it.

Nesbo, the Raymond Chandler of Nordic Noir, writes a book that is a classic of its kind.  The bad guy is memorable, as well, especially in a scene right out of Titus Andronicus near the end.  (This has to be on purpose, because Hole finishes it all off with an instrument from Shakespeare's early play as well.)  I always saw the guy who plays Jaime Lannister in Game of Thrones as the villain, though I'm not sure he's described that way.  Weird.  At any rate, Nesbo varies the writing a bit here from his last: some chapters show the villain straight out doing his villainy, especially at the end; more chapters start off with a minor character's POV before quickly focusing on Hole once again.  A couple of chapters don't feature Hole at all, which is also different from the first book.  (I think only one chapter was without Hole in the first book.)

I read this book in less than 24 hours.  I'm on vacation, so I can do that.  You might not, but you'll read it quickly.  It's that good.  And as openly depressing as its predecessor, so be forewarned.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Bat, by Jo Nesbo (Harry Hole #1)--Book Review

 Photo: Paperback book cover, at this page.

The Bat is a very well-written and very different entry into the Nordic Noir genre.  It takes place in Australia, first of all, and its chapters differ in length and in substance, as some are there strictly for plot, while others show a quick glimpse into Hole's background and personal life.  Other quick chapters are thematic only.  The result is that you never know what to expect when you begin another chapter, and that's good for any type of writing, and in any series.

The plot plays second-fiddle to the characters and to the mood and tone, for the first half or so of the book.  It then takes off and shoots through its second half, with the body count (and the red herrings) piling up.  But it still manages to pause for some interesting characters, including a parachutist / homeless man, a beautiful woman, a serial killer, a transvestite clown, and other assorted eccentrics.  It's not so quirky as it sounds, and it all comes across very real.

There's a bit of info dump along the way--about Australia, about Aborigines, about the drug climate, about the city of Sydney, about clowns and the history of clown performances...but it never stops the flow of the narrative or of the plot, like in so many Dan Brown thrillers, or others of that ilk.  You learn as you go, and Nesbo is clearly interested in what he writes about.  It comes as close as info dump can to stopping the narrative cold--but it doesn't.  It works.

Two minor caveats involve the length of Hole's drunken binge (a little too long) and the sudden demise of two of its characters, an Aboriginal detective and a pretty barmaid.  The pretty woman especially is given short shrift at the end, but even this complaint is tempered by the mood of the book, as it shows other women in Hole's life who met quick, sad ends.

The book is certainly moody--both in an uplifting and in a sad way.  I found it more the latter than the former, but that's up to the reader.

The bottom line is that this is a welcome change from the harsh climate--both literally and metaphorically--of most Nordic Noir, and yet is similar to it in enough ways that it clearly belongs in that genre.  As one of the blurbs says, it takes on the cliches and starts new ones.

Definitely recommended.

Friday, July 11, 2014

The View from the Bridge by Nicholas Meyer--Book Review

Photo: Cover art of the book, from

A very interesting book, more about writing and directing in Hollywood than about just Star Trek.  Having said that, it would help mightily to be a fan of the series.  It's not that you have to be a fan to enjoy it; it's that Star Trek, in some way, takes up probably 50% to 75% of the book.

Still, there are other interesting things here:

--It takes about two seconds for directors to become nobodies in Hollywood.  I thought it was fast for actors...

--If you're not going to act, you'd better be able to write.  And fast.

--Meyer culled five or six screenplay drafts of Star Trek II and wrote Wrath of Khan by combining the best elements of those unfilmed drafts, plus his own ideas.

--And he wrote the screenplay for free. 

--In twelve days. 

--And didn't take a screenplay credit for it.

--I watched Wrath of Khan again last week, after finishing this book.  It holds up surprisingly well.

--He insists those are Montalban's real pecs.  Says so repeatedly.  I still don't believe it.

--And there's no way a genius like Khan doesn't get the twice-repeated "If we go by the book" coded message from Spock to Kirk near the end.

--The latest Star Trek movie is, of course, a parallel-universe version of this.  Abrams clearly liked Wrath of Khan and honors it constantly in his film.

--Which is in some ways better.  But mostly I don't think one is better than the other.  Just...different.  Each couldn't have been made in their respective eras.

--(Back to the book.  Sorry for the digression.)

--Nicholas Meyer somehow survived very successfully in Hollywood despite very powerful depressive and neurotic tendencies.  By his own frequent admission.

--He says the Trek movies he wrote and wrote / directed (II, IV and VI) were the best ones.  He is, of course, correct.  One had its moments; III was okay but too predictable and violent; and V was just plain awful.

--His first novel, one that made Sherlock Holmes meet Freud, was very good.  I haven't read his others, but plan to.  His books overall have done pretty well, especially his Holmes.

It's an easy read.  If you're a fan of movies, writing, Hollywood, and / or Star Trek, give it a shot.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Short Story Sale--"Everything's Connected" to Over My Dead Body! The Mystery Magazine Online

Just a quick self-serving note:

The rights to my short story, "Everything's Connected"--about a detective who catches a cheating spouse in the act, solves a kid's disappearance, and proves a little theoretical quantum physics--all in fewer than 2,000 words!--has been purchased by Over My Dead Body! The Mystery Magazine Online.  There are some pretty cool stories there now--lots and lots of them, in fact.  And they're all free!  So if you like quick and easy (and short) mystery stories, or stories of murder and mayhem, check them out at

This is awesome for me personally for two reasons.  The first thing is that Brad Foster, the main character of this story, is also the main character of a novel manuscript, Cursing the Darkness (Working Title), that is maybe 90% completed.  So Brad Foster will see the light of day.  Though it should be noted that the short story is very light, while the novel is very, very, very (many more veries) dark, gritty and brutal.  But his character is essentially the same.

The second reason this sale is awesome is because it's a mystery story in a mystery magazine: yet another different genre for me to be published in.  So far, the stories I've published, their location (and link), and their genre:

--"Everything's Connected," in Over My Dead Body! The Mystery Magazine Online.  Mystery.  Publication date TBA.
--"The Zombie's Lament" by Big Pulp.  Anthology due April 2015.  Horror.
--"So Many Reasons to Celebrate the Season," in  March 2012.  Contemporary / literary.
--"An Old Man."  Poem.
--"Someone To Come Home To."  Short nonfiction article about the benefits of adopting a greyhound.
--"Hide the Weird," in Space and Time Magazine, Issue #116 of Fall 2012.

It ain't Stephen King, but it ain't nuthin', either, I guess.

Look for a publication date soon for "Everything's Connected."

Click on the Published Work link above for more details.

As always, thanks for reading my blog, my stories, everything.  I always appreciate (and need) your support. 

Monday, July 7, 2014

Jaws and Me

What better way to remember the Fourth of July just past than to look at some Jaws pics and then watch the movie?

And so here are just a few pics of me at the Jaws section of Terror.con.

First, the Closed Beach sign, and a close-up of Spielberg's autograph:

And here's one with me standing in front of the yellow air barrels that didn't pull Jaws to the surface:

Remember the one-eyed dead guy who slumped out of the hole in his sunken boat and caused Richard Dreyfuss to drop the tooth?  (This caused the mayor to famously say that Dreyfuss's character wanted to see himself on the cover of the next National Gee-O-Graphic.)

And finally, one of Susie (Real name: Susan Backlinie), the memorable blonde victim who opened the film.  And some dorky-looking balding guy who really should've shaved:

That's it!  Hope you had a good Fourth!  If you'd like, leave a comment about your favorite line or part of Jaws.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Saving animals; TerrorCon, and Linda Blair

Photo: Linda Blair and an unshaved fan.  You can still see the little girl from The Exorcist in her face.

Not too much to say here, except that some time ago I was fortunate enough to go to TerrorCon and to get my picture taken with Linda Blair and a few others, as well as with many Jaws props.  (In blogs to come.)

In case you didn't know, Linda Blair was Regan in The Exorcist, still one of the best (and creepiest) horror films ever made.  (Though I am seemingly amongst the minority who sees Ridley Scott's Prometheus as a masterpiece.  I saw it again last night [or this morning, depending on your POV] and was still jolted a few times.  Every time I see it I get something new, important, and scary out of it.  How many films can you say that about?)  A blog entry to come will be about The Exorcist, as well, so stay tuned.

I don't have anything new to add about Linda Blair's filming of The Exorcist.  If you're reading this, you're probably a fan of the film, and if you're a fan of the film you already know that the really bad lines to come out of Linda Blair's mouth was over-dubbed by Mercedes McCambridge (though initially said by Blair), and that she didn't know the meaning of what she was saying most of the time.  She was a down-to-Earth kid (so much so that William Friedkin, the director, was a little surprised by the directness of her answers during their interview) and she had a good time during filming.  She did, and didn't, like the incredible attention she received afterwards.  And, of course, she was never able to repeat such a success.  (Though who could?)

And so I just want to take a moment and mention a cause she and I have in common, as I promised her I would, and I am a man of my word.  We talked a bit about adopting animals (I have a greyhound, as you may know, who was left in a cage for two years)...

...and she mentioned that she had just bought many acres of land to use to house and treat abused and neglected animals.  She takes in dogs and cats and other animals who have been abandoned, left to die, abused and/or neglected, and she gives them a safe haven and the best health care available.  It's her Worldheart Foundation.  Read about it at 

Give, if you can.  And report those who abuse and neglect animals.

Have a nice fourth, everyone.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King--Book Review

Photo: Book's cover art, from its Wikipedia page.

Mr. Mercedes is a much better book than King's last, the truly terrible Dr. Sleep.  (Is he starting a trend of putting titles in his titles?)  It is compulsively readable, as always--as is even his really bad stuff--but it is also better told, without author intrusion or author judgment.  He does not judge his characters here, and he even seems to go a bit out of his way to not let his characters judge each other, as well.  The result is a quick, satisfying read that's a bit skimpy on the supernatural--a pattern for King now as well, it seems.

It starts like an episode of Law & Order might, with a longishly short segment on some soon-to-be victims of a guy who purposely plows a stolen Mercedes into a line of people.  Soon we turn to a typical burned-out cop who's about to eat his gun--that is, until Mr. Mercedes (Get it?) sends him a taunting letter.  This revitalizes the cop, and the search is afoot.

It's told via differing limited-but-omniscient third-person POVs (another King staple) between the perp (who incorrectly refers to himself as the "perk") and the retired cop.  There's nothing in the perp's life we haven't seen before (including a sad little brother right out of "The Scarlet Ibis"), but it's told directly and honestly, and we believe it.  (If you've been watching Bates Motel, you already know almost everything there is to know.)  There's some good stuff about how this guy is all around us--that such people "walk among us," which is another common theme lately in King's work--and there's a bit of computer savvy here that almost is too much, but stops just short.  The peripheral characters in these guys' lives all ring true.  King took pains not to be as lazy with his characters as he was in Dr. Sleep.  Every single character rings true here.

The obligatory younger woman is here, just as she was in 11/22/63 and Bag of Bones, and it seems as real here as it did in those.  Which means, not so much.  This is one of the two minor caveats here: The protagonist's relationship with a woman almost twenty years younger (He's 62 and she's 44, but still...) is so unrealistic that almost everyone in the novel comments on it--especially the guy, who keeps saying to himself that he's unattractive, very overweight, and almost twenty years older than the woman, who's described as very pretty.  And she, of course, comes on to him.  Very, very directly, I might add.  This worked a lot better in 11/22/63 and in Bag of Bones.  As you read, you'll see why it's necessary for the plot, for the main character's motivation at the end, but still...It doesn't bother me too much, except that it's a pattern by now in his work, and it really sticks out in this narrative.  More of an itch than a problem, I guess.  The reader will roll his eyes and easily move on...

There's a lot to like here, especially with the minor characters.  King gets a bit maudlin with one of them, the way Robert B. Parker did with Hawk, and it works as well here as it did for Parker--which, again, means not so much.  This is the second minor caveat.  It could've been cut and nothing would've been lost.  Now that I write about it, I see that this bothers me more than the relationship did in the paragraph above.  But, again, it was easy for me to roll my eyes and move on.  I actually skipped those passages as they came.  You'll see what I mean when you read it.  Feel free to skip those spots as well.  You won't miss anything.

Anyway, this is a likeable read with mostly-likeable characters, except for Mr. Mercedes, his mom, and a certain aunt.  I read its 436 pages in a few days.  It's not his best, but it's far from his worst, which is sort of all I hope from King these days.  That sounds depressing, but I don't mean it to be.  It's like watching a Hall of Fame ballplayer in his last few years.  Good enough is good enough (exactly the opposite of what I believe for most things in life), and you smile as you compare what's in front of you with what used to be.  Not a bad thing, at least for me.

Though I'm still waiting for him to write something really scary again.  It's been too long...