Category: genre

Best Reads of 2016

9780812987232Managed to read over a hundred books and view about the same number of movies in 2016.

You’ll find my list of favourite films over at my blog, Cinema Arete.

Read slightly more non-fiction than fiction last year, a bit of a worrying trend. I’ve really cut back on my genre fiction in the past while; I’ve found the suspension of disbelief rarely works for me any more. The last horror novel I read, by Peter Straub, struck me as completely implausible and I barely finished it.

More and more, I’m looking for quality reads, books that are innovative, literate and unique.

And, more and more, contemporary fiction just doesn’t meet that criteria.

 * * * *

Best Books Read in 2016

Fiction:

Fortune Smiles (Stories) by Adam Johnson

The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson

The Execution by Hugo Wilcken

The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald

Everybody’s Fool by Richard Russo

The Heavenly Bible by Donald Ray Pollock

Today I Wrote Nothing (Stories) by Daniil Kharms

Billy Liar by Keith Waterhouse

The Reflection by Hugo Wilcken

The Adulterous Woman (Stories) by Albert Camus

Honorable Mention:

Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams

The Power of the Dog by Don Winslow

Poetry:

Without by Donald Hall

Felicity by Mary Oliver

Non-fiction:

Why You Should Read Kafka Before You Waste Your Life by James Hawes

Ghost Wars: Secret History of CIA, Afghanistan and Bin Laden by Steve Coll

Contrary Notions by Michael Parenti

When the Facts Change by Tony Judt

Disaster Capitalism by Antony Lowenstein

Young Orson: The Years of Luck & Genius by Patrick McGilligan

We Learn Nothing (Essays) by Tim Kreider

Gulag: A History by Anne Applebaum

Istanbul by Orhan Pamuk

Honorable Mention:

The Idea of Communism by Tariq Ali

Goebbels: A Biography by Peter Longerich

My Life & Travels by Wilfred Thesiger

Hogs Wild (Essays) by Ian Frazier

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An essay on why I love westerns

As previously mentioned, I’ve been asked quite a few times why I decided to write a western.  Even old pals were left scratching their heads. Not only a western, a traditional western, featuring a gunslinger who might have been played by Gary Cooper or Randolph Scott.

Well…

As some of you know, I also keep a film blog. I spent most of the last couple of days composing a lengthy personal essay on my love of western movies. I think the piece perfectly sums up my attraction for the genre and I hope you’ll click on this link, pop over and give it a read. I don’t often write non-fiction of this length but I’m really pleased by how this piece came out.

Don’t be shy about contributing your thoughts, opinions and reminiscences, perhaps offer your own roster of all time faves.

Always looking for tips on great films…

Pursuing the Ideal Reader

Another birthday rolling around, my 48th, and, natch, the critical, self-regarding mind casts its gaze backward, forward, hither and yon, seeking a pattern, a design, some semblance of order.

Usually in vain.

I’ve described my writing “career” as something of a train wreck and I don’t think that’s an exaggeration.  I lurch from project to project, with absolutely no conception of how to “market” or promote myself, zero interest in shilling for my work, peddling it around like an itinerant vacuum cleaner salesman.  My writing doesn’t comfortably fit any niche, veering from genre to genre, encompassing everything from radio plays, to short films, ambient music and spoken word pieces.  My last two novels were supernatural thrillers, my latest is an old fashioned western.  Huh?

But that’s the glorious thing about the new technologies that have sprouted up in the past few years. They allow creative types to try their hand at a variety of disciplines, expressing themselves through different media.  I don’t discriminate between my various projects, no matter what form they take.  They all reflect my interests, fears, fixations and dreams.  They all originate in the labyrinthine depths of my mind.

* * * * * *

Thanks to one and all who have stuck it out thus far.  Popped in to this site for a quick look…and then lingered, read more and more of the entries, downloaded big swathes of my writing or tuned in to some of the weird music I’ve made available for free listening and downloading.

Through this blog I’ve become familiar with good folks and sharp thinkers.  Thoughtful, intelligent people who love the printed word as much as I do.

And I believe that somewhere among the tens of thousands of curious types who’ve visited this blog in the past 4 1/2 years there is at least one ideal reader, someone who has followed my career, read the lion’s share of my oeuvre and eagerly looks forward to each new release.  That’s the gal/guy who brings me back to my desk, morning after morning, my raison d’être, my secret admirer, number one fan and staunchest defender.  Every day I sit down and create purely for the purpose of entertaining, surprising and intriguing my I.R., presenting them with a narrative or tune or spoken word piece that startles them and causes them to re-appraise my work (yet again), examining it in a wholly different light.

I am prepared to go to any extent to unsettle and shake up my Ideal Reader.  I don’t want them getting complacent, taking me for granted.  For that reason, my work must never fall back on tried and true formulas or reinforce commonly held beliefs and preconceptions.

I have to to believe my I.R. would be very disappointed in me if I resorted to such tactics.

My Ideal Reader is as courageous and aesthetically demanding as I am.

And they’d know if I wasn’t giving them my best work…

* * * * * *

It’s become something of a custom for me to either release new work or make some kind of announcement around my birthday.

First, please note to “self-portrait” that accompanies this post.  A couple of Christmases ago, Sherron and my sons gifted me with a big fat scrapbook that I was supposed to play with; included among my tasks was executing a self-portrait on canvas.  Last month I finally got around to it and, well, see for yourself.  I have absolutely no acumen for visual art, couldn’t even figure out how to mix pigments—that’s why my picture is in black and white.

Okay, so I’m no threat to Vinnie van Gogh.

How about another strange, spacey, ambient tune, created a couple of days ago.  “Lapse (II)” clocks in at over seven minutes and I think it’s a worthy addition to my odd musical catalog.

Play…Lapse (II)

And, finally, a couple of updates:

Edits on my western, The Last Hunt, commence soon.  Looking forward to knocking that little beauty into shape.  Anticipating a March, 2012 release date.  I’ll keep you posted.

My science fiction novelette, “Eyes in the Sky“, should be up on Amazon/Kindle in the coming days.  It’s dedicated to “the Golden Age” and I think fans of the genre will understand what I mean.

No plans for my birthday, just another work day.  Forty-eight years old and maybe a tad wiser.  Still a long way to go and enlightenment continues to tease and then elude me.  Every time I think I’m getting close to some kind of meaningful insight into the human experience, something truly ghastly and horrific happens and I am forcefully reminded of the Alain Finkielkraut quote:

“Barbarism is not the inheritance of our pre-history.  It is the companion that dogs our every step.”

Amen.

WTF? Where did this sci fi tale come from?

Montana fading in the rearview mirror and I’m looking at fairly substantial revisions to my western, The Last Hunt.

My meetings and the research I conducted while in the Livingston and Yellowstone area proved invaluable; I’ve found numerous inaccuracies that have to be addressed, many details that can be woven into the narrative to give the novel far more authenticity and impact.  There’s a small box of books to go through, a mountain of notes and photocopies, and I’m about to dive in, head first—

Instead, my Muse decides to bushwhack me and, like the worst blindside hits, I never even sensed this one coming.

I’ve had the notion for a science fiction story for a couple of years.  I’m a huge fan of the genre, grew up devouring everything space-related I could lay my hands on.  Three early efforts that had a big effect on me were “A Walk in the Dark”, a tale by Arthur C. Clarke, and two short story collections, Ray Bradbury’s The Golden Apples of the Sun and a youth-oriented anthology titled Tales of Time and Space (edited by Ross Robert Olney).   The latter included “Birds of a Feather” by Robert Silverberg, which is still a fave.  I spotted an edition of Tales of Time and Space at a library book sale a number of years ago.  Immediately recognized it (even after an interval of thirty some odd years) and snapped it up.  I treasure that book; both my sons have read it as well.

My tale, I’ve known from the start, would have a “retro SF” feel to it:  like it could have been written back in the late 50’s or early 60’s by someone like Alfred Bester, Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, A.E. van Vogt or, yup, Robert Silverberg.  Nothing state of the art or high tech.  A small story about a lonely, little man.  Some alternative history thrown in, a universe with some important differences from our own…

All very nice.  But eight days ago I’m cleaning up my desk, sorting through papers and I come across a contest for novelettes and novellas, fiction between 7500-15,000 words, and all at once I’m overcome by this notion that my SF idea would be perfect for that length and I could use the contest, which has a decent payday, as my motivation.  Poking a finger at the prize money:  that would just about pay off your Montana trip, laddie.

Going after my conscience, my on-going worries over finances here at Casa Burns.  My Muse has no sense of propriety or shame.

One things leads to another and, heh heh, eight days later I’m done, presented with a 37-page, 10,000 word tale called “Eyes in the Sky”.  It came in a rush and would not be resisted.  Any gal who’s given birth knows exactly what I’m talking about.  The piece arrived just about fully-formed and its creation was so effortless, it made me suspicious that the bloody thing was no good.  But Sherron has reassured me.  She read a printed draft last night and gave “Eyes in the Sky” high grades. So I’m relieved.

But still perturbed to get yanked away from my western novel with no warning, no explanation.  I guess it’s an object lesson.  Something this control freak had better get through his thick head:  I am not in charge.  I am merely an agent, not the Source.  I am servant to a difficult, mercurial taskmaster.  I may grumble and groan but am compelled to obey; no rest for the weary and, as I should know by now, there’s always another story, waiting to be told…

“The Last Hunt”–Coming Soon!

Well, gang, I can’t keep it secret any more.  My next book is coming along nicely and I’m anticipating a late October release.  Right around my birthday.  I’m working hard to make that happen.

But here’s the thing:  The Last Hunt is a western.

You heard me.  I’m talking about hard-bitten gunslingers, tall, wide vistas, ornery horses, evil black hats, the whole bit.

Oh, sure, you say, but it’ll be like some kinda weird Cormac McCarthy hybrid, right?  A whacked out, modernistic take on the Wild West, standing the entire genre on its head.

Nope, nope and…nope.

Y’see, I happen to love westerns. I don’t look down on the genre, relegate it to second-class status. I grew up watching Clint Eastwood and John Wayne movies.  I enjoy reading the novels of Elmer Kelton and Richard S. Wheeler.  They’re superb writers, regardless of categories and classifications.

I’m saddened by the cinematic decline of the western—the last truly great cowboy flick I saw was “The Long Riders”, made back in 1980. “The Unforgiven” (1992) was a decent movie but far too earnest and over-long. “The Long Riders” was the shit.

And since then there’ve been remakes and abominations like “Young Guns”—westerns by people who’ve never been near a horse in their lives and whose knowledge of the Old West is, put kindly, superficial. Hollywood has tried to update westerns, reinvent them with big name stars and budgets that would make even Michael Cimino swoon…but they’ve lost the spirit.  Sam Peckinpah and John Ford had a real grasp of those who pioneered the land west of the Mississippi, their contrary natures, the sort of valor and resolution Alan LeMay refers to in a quote that precedes his classic novel, The Searchers:

“These people had the kind of courage that may be the finest gift of man:  the courage of those who simply keep on, and on, doing the next thing, far beyond all reasonable endurance, seldom thinking of themselves as martyred, and never thinking of themselves as brave.”

In the course of writing The Last Hunt, by pure chance I happened across a reproduction of a William R. Leigh painting called “The Warning Shadow”. It was another one of those too-amazing-to-be-a-coincidence moments (and I should know, I’d had a few of them).  The image was perfect for my book—but I had a dickens of a time tracking down who owned the rights.  Finally, I was put in touch with the Rockwell Museum of Western Art (in Corning, New York) and Bobby Rockwell helped me secure permission to use the painting.  Mr. Leigh’s artworks are highly prized, very collectible and I’m honored to have “The Warning Shadow” on my cover.

The cover accompanying this post is, I hasten to say, a mere mockup…but it gives you a fair idea of what to expect.  Once our designer, Chris Kent, has a crack at it, the cover will look even better.

As for plot details, er, I think I’ll keep that to myself for now.  When it gets closer to publication date I’ll be more forthcoming.  Hoping the novel will be popular with fans of the western genre as well as people who just love a fast, entertaining read.  Like my last two novels, I think The Last Hunt has a lot of cross-over appeal, the potential to draw a wide variety of readers.

I’ve spent the past three weeks going through the second draft and I like what I’m seeing.  It’s a short novel, around 50,000 words, and it moves along at an exciting clip.  Good, solid protagonist and memorable supporting players.  By the time this book is released in the late fall, it’s gonna hum.

So stay tuned, check in every once in awhile for updates and further developments.  Maybe even an excerpt or two, just to whet your appetite.

Yeah, I know, a western.  But, trust me, it’s a helluva tale…

Listen to my work on audio

imagesWith the help of the tireless Anthony, a support staff member with WordPress, I’ve figured out how to add a special “Audio” page to my blog.

You’ll find it by looking to the right hand side, under the “Stories” widget.  Just click on “Audio” and you’ll discover a large selection of my stories, poems, commentaries, even an excerpt from my novel So Dark the Night. All available for free listening and downloading onto whatever device (iPod or cell phone) you currently favour.  Many of these pieces are accompanied by music, which provides dramatic highlights, a soundtrack that is either pleasing or provocative (or both).

The most recent offering is a six-minute chat about “indie” writing I recorded because I’ve received a host of questions, both here and in various forums where I hang out.  People want to know what it means to be an independent writer…and I want to do what I can to dispel this notion that one goes the indie/self-publishing route because your work can’t cut it with traditional publishers.  Hey, kids, I chose to go my own way because after 20+ years of dealing with inept, sociopathic, moronic editors, I’d had enough.  New technologies like blogs, podcasts and print-on-demand put more control into authors’ hands, a situation I welcome with open arms.

For the record, here’s what I said–

Indie Writer

–and after giving it a listen, I hope you’ll have a clearer understanding of what I’m trying to accomplish with this blog.  And please check out the rest of my audio releases, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the production values and the power and intensity of the work.

Theatre of and for the mind…

“Who the F*** Are You?”

kunderaRecently, Milan Kundera raised a few hackles in the Czech Republic by refusing to return to his home and native land to attend a conference devoted to his work.  Mr. Kundera stated that he did not wish to contribute to a “necrophile party” made up of academics and scholars, discussing and debating his work.

He also said, even more provocatively, that he considers himself a French writer and writes exclusively in that language.

Take that ye cultural nationalists!

It has long been my belief that a writer is a stateless citizen, an individual who inhabits no country and is beholden to no particular culture, gender, creed or race.  To identify oneself as an “American author”, “Czech author” or what have you, is to fly in the face of the kind of universality true authors seek to achieve through the power and originality of their work.

audienceWhen I make my rare public appearances I often have to provide a short bio so I can be introduced to an audience or gathering and I struggle mightily to compose something that isn’t embarrassing or misleading.  Earlier this year my wife adapted a couple of my short stories into theater pieces that were performed at a function here in the small city where we live.  I think the M.C. at one point called me a “local author” and I shrank down in my seat.  Is that all I am?  A local author?  A Saskatchewan author?  Even a Canadian author?

Christ, I hope not.  After twenty-five years of beating my brains out and destroying my fingers and shoulders and lower back, I’d like to think  I have higher aspirations for myself than that.

Nossir, I want to be read not only locally, not only nationally but around the entire fucking world.  I want my books and stories and essays to be devoured and enjoyed by future inhabitants of the Martian colony.  I want my collected works taken on the first flight to Alpha Centauri.  I want my prose to survive long after places like “Saskatchewan” and “Canada” cease to exist.

Isn’t that what all artists of worth strive for?  Immortality, an appeal that persists centuries after their bones have turned to dust.  And that is also why I struggle so hard to preserve the integrity of my work, not allowing some bowdlerized or aesthetically gutted version to supersede and supplant the real thing.

knoxI honestly wouldn’t change places with the likes of James Patterson or Stephanie Meyer for all the filthy lucre in the vaults of Fort Knox.  Their work won’t survive the next twenty years, let alone the uncounted eons that lie ahead.  No, let them choke on their money and watch as their books go out of print in their own lifetime.

It’s funny:  this past week I commented on the on-line site for CBC (our national broadcaster), responding to a short feature devoted to Robert Charles Wilson.  Mr. Wilson has managed to secure something of a reputation for himself as a SF writer, even snagged a Hugo Award for one of his novels.  Frankly, I find his prose merely workmanlike; he is yet another SF scribbler (like Jack McDevitt and Robert Sawyer) who has cashed in on a modest talent for stretching neat ideas into over-long novels and, in the process, made a tidy living for himself.   It’s a situation that’s pretty much endemic in SF but those guys are more guilty of that particular sin than most.

The folks who responded to my initial post comported themselves like typical, moronic SF fans.  They made all sorts of assumptions about me and indulged in numerous pointed, personal, ad hominem attacks, opining that I was merely jealous of Mr. Wilson’s commercial success.

pittWelcome to the Western world, where we equate achievement with how much money we make and how often our picture appears in the news (and our names show up on the ballot of worthless genre awards).

Jesus Christ.

I made the mistake of trying to debate with these “minions of fan-dumb” and earned more vitriolic attacks for those efforts.  Fuck it, I thought, and signed off without posting the really nasty parting shot I had composed.  It would have been a waste of time.  These are the same vacuous shitheads who are lining up in droves to see “Star Trek XXIV: The Quest For Profit” and the latest comic book adaptation, wearing out their thumbs on their game consoles.  The only heads they have on their shoulders are blackheads from all the junk food they cram into their maws so they can stay up all night watching the “Lord of the Rings” movies back to back and wrapping “Fallout 3”.  Fuck them.  No way I’ll lie down with those pigs.

No, I’m bound for the stars.  I write for posterity and to preserve a literary legacy that I hope will last as long as there’s a single, discerning reader out there who longs for something off the beaten track, a work that reminds them what it means to be human, the attendant hopes and accompanying foibles.  A man or woman lonely, isolated, seeking the companionship of a long-dead author whose devotion to the printed word transcends time and vast distances and alien, hostile farscapes.

Keep your trophies, baubles and bullion.

I serve a higher calling…and make no allowances for those whose lack of courage and faith causes them to choose low roads and demean the gifts they have been so generously granted.

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