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Extended Memory: Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego?

Mexico city

Game: Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego - Enhanced (1989)
Developer: Brøderbund Software, Inc.
Original platform: DOS

I know this is not the intended lesson of Carmen Sandiego, but god help me, I’m considering a life of crime.

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Friday Five: 5 Jaunty Jolts of Joe R. Lansdale

Paradise Sky_A very specific Friday Five this week, to celebrate the release of Paradise Sky, the new Western from Joe Lansdale. Lansdale is the author of everything from the bizarro horror comedy Bubba Ho-Tep to the apocalyptic creepiness of The Drive-In to the steampunk hijinks of Zeppelins West to the rural noir of The Thicket to the long-running Hap and Leonard mysteries.

He is a personal favourite not only for his versatility, but for the incredible quality. Whatever Lansdale's writing, be it fun or somber, humorous or horrific, it is always a delight to read.

So... where to start? Or, if you've nibbled on a bit of Lansdale's writing, what to try next? Below, five of my favourites, all from different genres...

Savage Season (1990)

Hap Collins and Leonard Pine are one of the best detective duos in fiction, full stop. Imagine Sherlock and Watson, except without money, education, superhuman talents, a medical degree or any sense of Victorian dignity. So, really, don't imagine them at all. Hap and Leonard are both washed out West Texans ... general do-gooders, with day jobs that range from working at a deck chair factory to dubious 'security' gigs.

Hap thinks of himself as an ex-hippie pacifist (he's not, really) and Leonard is 100% pure hardness (except for his love of vanilla cookies) - as you'd need to be as a gay black man in rural Texas. Savage Season not only introduces the duo, but is an excellent example of one of their classic darkly comedic adventures, with betrayal, skulduggery, sleazebags and... a rather powerful emotional core.

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Fiction: "Where was Wych Street?" by Stacy Aumonier

Wych Street

In the public bar of the Wagtail, in Wapping, four men and a woman were drinking beer and discussing diseases. It was not a pretty subject, and the company was certainly not a handsome one. It was a dark November evening, and the dingy lighting of the bar seemed but to emphasize the bleak exterior. Drifts of fog and damp from without mingled with the smoke of shag. The sanded floor was kicked into a muddy morass not unlike the surface of the pavement. An old lady down the street had died from pneumonia the previous evening, and the event supplied a fruitful topic of conversation. The things that one could get! Everywhere were germs eager to destroy one. At any minute the symptoms might break out. And so - one foregathered in a cheerful spot amidst friends, and drank forgetfulness.

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Friday Five: 5 Literary Looks at Las Vegas

I've never been to Las Vegas, which I feel is some sort of failing as a man, an American and a consumer of pop culture. Television and cinema both tell me that I've missed out on a lot of character-building. Alas. Someday.

That said, I've always been fascinated by its portrayal in literature. This is especially true for genre fiction, which perfects suits the essence of Vegas: a place where anything can happen.

Here are five of the many books that explore the possibilities:

Cover_bigChoke Hold

I suspect Vegas literature is dominated by three things: the Mafia, gambling and prostitution. All of which we'll cover off below. But there's a distant - and compelling - fourth in boxing. Christa Faust's Choke Hold (2011) is an even more contemporary interpretation of the literature of blood sport, set in the fast-paced and brutal world of Mixed Martial Arts. 

Choke Holis the second mystery (Hard Case Crime, no less) featuring Angel Dare. In the first, Money Shot, Angel uncovers a murderous plot set in the adult film industry. In Choke Hold, Faust isn't sparing with the metaphoric comparison: she paints MMA is a world just as lurid, crippling, destructive and compellingly, pruriently visceral as porn. It is the retail - and slaughter - of highly-specialised human bodies for entertainment purposes. And, naturally, the perfect setting for violent crime. Faust's Vegas - a hub for both the sex and violence industries - as the crossroads: a place where people go to make bargains, to sell themselves, and, ultimately, leave in a tragedy.

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Underground Reading: Twilight for the Gods and The High & The Mighty

Twilight for the GodsErnest K. Gann was kind of a badass.

Born in 1910, he was a bit of a hooligan, but reformed in military school - eventually getting in to Yale where he studied drama and got some work in the film industry. He was making a documentary in the Rhineland when Hitler invaded, and Gann narrowly escaped the Nazi troops. Back in the US, he purchased a half-share in an aircraft with Burgess Meredith (!) and got his pilot's license.

During the Depression, Gann moved to California - and then back to New York - where he provided for his family with odd jobs flying and a bit of writing on the side. When World War II broke out, Gann volunteered, and flew cargo flights in all around the world, including the dangerous (and storied) 'The Hump' airlifts into China.

After the war, he returned to the West Coast, where he continued to fly, as well as indulge his love of sailing. His family life was fraught with problems and tragedies, but by the late 1960's, he was happily remarried and living in Washington State, where he continued to write - and act as a vocal advocate for local conservation efforts. He flew his last flight in 1991 - celebrating the 50th anniversary of being a captain for American Airlines - and passed away shortly after.

Also, according to Wikipedia, despite his prolific writing output (over two dozen novels - ten of which were made into films), Gann struggled with writer's block a lot - and used to chain himself to his desk. Literally.

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Review Round-up: Wolf Winter, Day Four and Five Others

Seven books from February that all got tagged for later consideration. Or, barring actual consideration, at least some sort of hastily-assembled round-up.

Read on for Wolf Winter, Day Four, Easy Death, and Don't Even Think About It!

Plus: The Trouble with Bubbles, The Tunnel Under the World, and Steampunk Salmagundi.

The new

WW-UKWolf Winter (2015) by Cecilia Ekbäck - Anne handed this one to me, saying, "this is one of those books that you call fantasy but no one else does. You'll love it.". And, she was right. (It also says something  about me. Of all the windmills to tilt at, this may be the silliest.) 

Wolf Winter is a historical murder mystery set in 18th century Sweden. It is shockingly intense: there's a palpable sense of abandonment that heightens the stakes.. The predators (human and otherwise) feel overwhelmingly, pervasively, inescapably evil. This is also the coldest book I've ever read - even more than, say Dan Simmons' Terror or other novels of Arctic misery. In Wolf Winter, the reader feels every icy droplet of shivering despair - the freezing temperature is exacerbated by the loneliness and isolation. It is less about life feeling cheap than death feeling inevitable, with every new dawn a triumph of survival.

The fantastic elements, a bit like Jenni Fagan's Panopticon, are - uh, well, are they even there? I'd argue (of course) that they are. Whether or not the reader, from our (cozy, cynical) modern position sees the supernatural - the characters certainly do. Witchcraft, visions, shades, these all exist for Maija and her daughter. Whether or not they exist 'objectively' (that is, within the confines of a work of fiction) is beside the point. It helps that Wolf Winter is, in no small way, a discussion about the very role of belief: be that the church, the government or witchcraft - all these systems built on faith come under scrutiny, if not outright attack. It isn't just that humanity (as little bags of quivering meat) has a fragile existence, but our structures do as well. A brilliantly dark, and oddly triumphant, book, and highly recommended.

(And, yes, that's the German cover. The UK and US ones are fine, but I think the German one nails it.)

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Fiction: "The Ransom of Red Chief" by O. Henry

Dead_letter_office

It looked like a good thing: but wait till I tell you. We were down South, in Alabama - Bill Driscoll and myself - when this kidnapping idea struck us. It was, as Bill afterward expressed it, "during a moment of temporary mental apparition", but we didn't find that out till later.

There was a town down there, as flat as a flannel-cake, and called Summit, of course. It contained inhabitants of as undeleterious and self-satisfied a class of peasantry as ever clustered around a Maypole.

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Breakout Kings (2011-2012)

Breakout Kings

There’s a particularly irritating kind of review out there – the kind that usually includes the line ‘if this sounds like the kind of thing you’ll like, you’ll like this thing.’ It’s irritating because it’s so fundamentally lazy. In reviews of this type, the reviewer will fill a few paragraphs with examples of what makes ‘this kind of thing’ before concluding, with a weary sigh, that if this kind of thing sounds like your thing, then this thing will be your thing.

But it’s not just lazy. It’s snotty. It boils down everything that makes a property enjoyable (if not unique) for readers who legitimately like them, and then tacks on the implication that the person who likes them has, you know, questionable taste.

The reviewer, we are given to understand, doesn’t really like this kind of thing but can see why someone else might. But not just any someone else: no, the kind of someone else who likes things such as this thing that the reviewer does not. You know. You and me.

All of which is unfair, given that ‘if you like this kind of thing, you’ll like this thing’ is a totally valid recommendation when it’s expanded upon. Do you like John Grisham’s books, with their action and noble lawyers and legal puzzles and moral quandaries? Then it’s reasonably safe for me to tell you that you’ll probably also like Brad Meltzer’s books. And I mean that as a legitimate recommendation! (I really do; The 10th Justice is good fun.)

All of which is a roundabout way of winding into today’s point: Breakout Kings is the kind of thing you’ll like if you like this kind of thing. And I mean that as a good thing.

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Review Round-up: The Five Star Books and Comics of January

Zita the SpacegirlLast year I tried to do a monthly round-up of my favourites and, er, un-favourites of each month. This had two goals: to get reviews off the blogging plate and to create some sort of personal 'record' that I could refer back to later in the year. 

That said, I felt a little guilty about un-favouriting things. And, as I was working on various awards ballots and best-ofs and whatnot, I realised my favourites list was equally inaccurate. So I'm going to try something a little different.

I think star ratings - be they Amazon and Goodreads - are pretty ridiculous. They're fun (crowd-sourced wisdom!) but frustrating as hell. If you're following me on Goodreads (and why would you? Is there anything less interesting?) you'll see that I do two ratings: 5 stars or ... not at all. That's not a 5 or zero - that's a 5 or abstain. Either I'm recommending a book for some interesting reason or not. This pretty much matches my reviewing 'approach' for Pornokitsch: I can either find something interesting to talk about in a book, or I can't. That's not the book's fault, of course - more an expression of my own privilege as an amateur reviewer. 

Anyway, I think it'd be more useful - certainly for me - if, instead of 'liking' and 'unliking' books, I turn this round-up into a list of books I five-starred, and why. As with all things, this is subject to change and whimsy. See "privilege", above.

With no further ado, the ten books from January - from spacegirls to the steam room:

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Underground Reading: Assembly by John O'Hara

AssemblyJohn O'Hara's Assembly (1961) is a collection of 26 short stories (including two novellas), all written during the summer of 1960. O'Hara is a genuinely fascinating figure in American literature: one of those quasi-commercial, quasi-literary best-selling giants that now seems, rather disappointingly, to be consigned to the second-hand shelf of history. Perhaps his two most famous works are his two earliest - Appointment in Samarra (1934) and BUtterfield 8 (1935), both of which were turned into film (the latter earning Elizabeth Taylor an Oscar for Best Actress in 1960). But O'Hara also wrote a dozen other novels and at least that many collections of short stories. He picked up the National Book Award for Ten North Frederick and was a regular columnist for Newsday and Colliers

That said, O'Hara was also a bit of a grump. Perhaps most interestingly - and this is something shown in his stories over and over again - he was incredibly class-conscious. Although a promising student, the death of O'Hara's father left the young man unable to attend Yale. Whether intentionally or not, this disappointment is deeply embedded in his writing career: story after story about the noble 'haves' and their orbiting 'have-nots'. Like Fitzgerald, O'Hara had a knack - perhaps even an obsession -  for describing the social elite: how they waft about, seemingly immune to the problems of lesser men and women. "O’Hara kept an unrelenting fist on the most trivial signs of social differentiation", says the New York Review of Books, and much of the pathos and the subtle drama of his stories comes from his descriptions of the daily life and micro-dramas of the 'four hundred', as well as their interactions with the middle-class rung right beneath him. Later in his career, and again based on his own experiences, O'Hara brought to life the parallels between the golden gods of the Old Rich and the new pantheon created by Hollywood.

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