Inhuman Swill : Reviews
            

Tuesday Funk for November 3, 2015
Greetings, Accidental Army! I haven't written a new poem in a while, but that subject line is almost a poem in its own right. But we have only 12 days left until the official release of The Accidental Terrorist and a lot to talk about before then, so let's get to it.

Review

First, I'd like to bring a terrific new review to your attention. Elena Colás reviewed The Accidental Terrorist last week for Chicago Literati, and while I hope you'll head over there and read the whole thing, I wanted to call out one paragraph in particular that I was very glad to see:

I felt his portrayal of his younger self was somehow more compassionate than I've read in other coming of age memoirs. When I finished this book, I was reminded of Joan Didion's advice that we are "well-advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be." Shunn resists the temptation to paint himself as either naive or savvy, opting instead for the kind of even-handed description that had me wondering pretty far into the book whether the author was still a practicing Mormon. [full review by Elena Colás]
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I've been making Stamps.com work overtime as I mail out a ton of advance reading copies of The Accidental Terrorist, and it's beginning to pay off. My little book—okay, okay, it's not so little—is attracting some crucial early bits of critical attention.

Most gratifying, the first actual review to be posted appears at the web site of the Association for Mormon Letters. The AML is a pretty important organization out west for promoting LDS-related titles, and with a book like mine I was rather nervous about what their reaction would be. But reviewer Richard Packham turned out to be a most sympathetic reader. You can read his review in full here.

I have a couple of advance quotes in hand as well, so the blurbs that will appear on the cover are beginning to take shape. They will likely consist of the three quotes below, though I'll have to do more compressing so the cover isn't overwhelmed by text:

“This just may be my favorite true-life amazing-but-true tale—never has threatening an aircraft been funnier or more thought-provoking.”
—Cory Doctorow, author of Little Brother and Homeland
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The Bone Clocks: A Novel by David Mitchell
This post about The Bone Clocks contains mild spoilers.

When grappling with works of genre fiction, most mainstream literary critics can be counted on to demonstrate a peculiar tone-deafness. Take the case of The New Yorker's James Woods, who calls David Mitchell's new novel The Bone Clocks "weightless," "empty," and "demented." So "frictionless" does Wood find it, in fact, that it prompts him to call into question the soundness of such earlier Mitchell works as Cloud Atlas.

Upon reflection, I have to admit that The Bone Clocks is probably my least favorite of Mitchell's novels (The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet being the only one I haven't yet read). But I found it for the most part extremely engaging, even thrilling, and I dispute Wood's contention that "the realism—the human activity—is relatively unimportant" when stacked up against the novel's science-fictional premise.

The Bone Clocks is built, like much of Mitchell's work, around a structural conceit that passes the duty of first-person narrator, like a baton in a relay race, to a new point-of-view character every hundred pages or so. Each of the book's six sections becomes, in essence, a novella of its own, conveying the overall narrative from its intensely realistic beginnings with a runaway teenager in 1984 to its apocalyptic, post-oil conclusion in 2043.

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raylan.jpg
Update: Since writing this little review, I've learned that Elmore Leonard gave the manuscript of Raylan to the writers of Justified a couple of years ago so they could "hang it up and strip it for parts." This answers some questions of mine but doesn't change my opinion of the book.
Let me say up front that I adore Elmore Leonard. Wait, rever might be a better word. Worship. Idolize. I've been working my way through his immense canon for years. When I bought my iPad, the first thing I did was load it up with his ebooks. His minimalist, dialog-driven prose conveys more than most writers' wordier, clumsy attempts at clarity. He's surely our greatest living writer of crime fiction, and I wish I could write like he does.

That said, Leonard has always had a problem with sequels, which is what his new novel Raylan essentially is. Whether bringing Chili Palmer from Get Shorty back in Be Cool or Jack Foley from Out of Sight back in Road Dogs, he simply seems to have trouble finding a story of equal weight to build around characters who've already had their perfect turn in the spotlight. I appreciate the fact that major characters from some Leonard novels often show up in supporting roles in others, but two major outings always seems to be one too many.

This, I regret to say, is the case with Raylan. U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens was a supporting character in Leonard's 1993 novel Pronto, then a more major character in 1995's Riding the Rap, but he probably enjoyed his finest role in the 2000 novella "Fire in the Hole." In that story Givens, who sees himself as a modern-day gunslinging lawman, is punished for his trigger-happy ways with a reassignment from Florida to Kentucky, where he grew up and mined coal as a teenager. He is drawn reluctantly but inevitably into a showdown with his former friend and colleague Boyd Crowder, who has gone the other way into a life of crime and violence.

"Fire in the Hole" was the direct inspiration for the FX series Justified, which is in its third season and is currently one of my favorite shows on television. Unfortunately Justified seems to have been the direct inspiration for Raylan, which is less a novel than three slightly overlapping Raylan Givens novellas smooshed together into one book. The first plotline, about a gang who steal kidneys and then try to sell them back to the victims, has appeared in slightly different form on Justified already this season. The second, about a mining company's attempts to intimidate land owners into selling, was the story underlying most of Justified's second season. The third features hookers coerced into committing dangerous robberies in exchange for oxycontin, a plotline that appeared in last week's Justified, and I think it's reasonable to assume that the high-stakes poker subplot will show up in a future episode.

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It used to be that when people would find out I'm a former Mormon, they'd ask me whether or not I watch Big Love and how closely it matches my experience of growing up in Utah. (Answers: "Yes" and "Not much.") Over the past year, though, that has changed. Now they ask whether or not I've seen The Book of Mormon.

The answer to that is yes. In fact, as soon as the Broadway production was announced, Laura and I started making plans to visit New York and see it. With my background, how could we not? We put together a group of friends that included my agent and got tickets for April 9th, about two weeks after the show's official opening. I bought our tickets early enough that it wasn't hard to get seats for a group of eight on our preferred date. But by the time we actually saw it, the hype had revved up to such a wild extent that people were asking us how on earth we'd managed to score tickets.

The Book of Mormon—from South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone and Avenue Q co-creator Robert Lopez—was the most celebrated new musical of the 2011 Broadway season, and it's easy to see why. It has everything an audience in search of some dangerous New York City titillation could ask for—dirty words, blasphemy, violence, Mormons, sexual innuendo, frequently all crammed together into catchy production numbers—all consumable from the relative safety of a plush theater seat. It's been a giant hit with crowds and critics alike, landing nine Tony Awards (including Best Musical), five Drama Desk Awards (including Outstanding Musical), and who knows how many best-stuff-of-the-year lists. It kicks off a national tour this August, and a Chicago production will take up residence in the Bank of America Theatre this December. People are falling all over themselves to tell you how good it is.

Is it really that good? I don't think so. Did I enjoy it? Yes, to an extent. Was it funny? Yes, to an extent. Was it anything like my experience as a missionary? Yes—but to a very small, almost irrelevant extent.

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Dead on wheels

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For a while there, AMC was a network that could do no wrong when it came to original scripted series. First there was Mad Men. (I don't watch it, but people I respect love it.) Then came Breaking Bad (which just closed out a stellar fourth season and is still my favorite show on television). And then there was Rubicon, a slow-building but hypnotic show about the lives of intelligence analysts that crescendoed into one of the most gripping shows of 2010. I was devastated when it wasn't renewed for a second season.

But AMC is losing me with its new crop of programs. The Walking Dead started out okay, but this second season is testing my patience. For a show that has the word "Walking" in its title, there sure doesn't seem to be any sense of forward momentum. I don't think it's much of a spoiler to say that I'm sick to death of everybody being stuck at the damn farmhouse. It's more like The Walking-in-Circles Dead. Yes, I'm sure we're building to something, but is it too much to ask that the characters exhibit some personality in the meantime, or that the pacing doesn't flag like a sailing ship in the doldrums? The show only comes alive anymore when there are dead people on the screen, and that doesn't happen nearly enough. Frank Darabont's episodes last year had their problems, but he is nonetheless sorely missed. The zombie apocalypse should be more exciting than this.

And AMC's newest show, Hell on Wheels, isn't exactly bowling me over yet. The characters on this please-call-us-gritty western at least have the advantage of being far more colorful than any on The Walking Dead, but I haven't yet gotten the sense of much humanity beneath the surface of any of them. There's something a bit remote about the acting. I feel a great distance between myself and most of the characters. Colm Meaney is the exception, but his railroad baron is so over-the-top that I really can't buy him, especially in the way that he cheerfully explains his evil plans to anyone who will listen. If you're going to have such a loquacious villain, it helps to fill his mouth with great dialog, like Ian McShane's on Deadwood. But no one on Hell on Wheels, cast or crew, is operating at that level. Not that that would matter if they didn't seem to be cribbing everything down to the seams and themes from David Milch. This show literally looks like a low-rent traveling production of Deadwood. But maybe they'll find their way. (I really hope they give Common something more interesting to do than just look angry.)

Anyway, AMC used to get the automatic benefit of the doubt from me, but those are days gone bye.

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Nice review

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Via the PS Publishing newsroom, here are excerpts from Peter Tennant's recent Black Static review of my collaboration with Derryl Murphy, Cast a Cold Eye:

This short novella does many things right. For starters, its setting is immaculately captured on the page, with a real sense of rural Nebraska in 1921 coming over thanks to a wealth of tiny details, such as the ins and outs of photography or a look inside the house of a wealthy widow. There's a strong emotional grounding too, for both Luke and the society in which he is placed, an aching sense of despair undercut with a feeling that perhaps the worst is past, so people can look to the future with hope, an optimism confirmed in its denouement. Characterisation is spot on, with no-one who can be considered either evil or a criminal, just ordinary men and woman with all the flaws and virtues that implies....

The supernatural side of the story is suitably understated, so that we believe but also take on board the possibility that the ghosts could only exist inside the hearts and minds of the people who see them. With a subtext suggesting that the spectral world is just another aspect of life, wishing us neither good nor evil, but just there, a case could be made for Luke as the 'I see ghosts' boy from Sixth Sense picked up, rather like a reverse Dorothy, and put down in rural Nebraska, but that might be stretching things. In any event, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and recommend it without reservation.

Order yourself a copy, without reservation, here.

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The phantom reviewer

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There's a good chance that you've seen this already, but if you haven't and you care about good, clear storytelling and you have 70 minutes to kill, you must watch this epic deconstruction of The Phantom Menace.

Aside from the pointless serial-killer subplot (seriously—the narrator of the review is supposed to be a delusional serial killer), this is a brilliant and funny dissection of why the Star Wars prequels suck so hard. It crystallized for me many of my own unfocused thoughts about the films, and gave me ten times as many new reasons to hate the them. The sequence where the reviewer asks friends to describe specific Star Wars characters is alone worth the price of admission.

Because of the 10-minute limit on YouTube content, the review is broken up into seven parts. (Part 7 doesn't always seem to play in its original configuration. If you have that problem, try this version of Part 7 instead.) Here's Part 1 to whet your appetite:

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Locus of power

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It was as straightforward as I had hoped to find the November Locus in Manhattan. I simply walked up to the usual place on the newsstand at the Union Square Barnes & Noble and picked up a copy. I'm trying not to be frustrated that I don't yet have the ability to pull off similar feats in the city of Chicago. But it will come.

Anyway, I was finally able to read the Nick Gevers review of my chapbook, which leads off his short fiction column. It says, in part:

William Shunn is one of those SF writers who, because they specialize in short fiction, are not given quite the recognition they deserve—no novels, no mass-market publication, so only the plaudits of the cognoscenti of the short form. Yet Shunn is a fine writer; ingenious, stylish, closely in touch with current global trends and expert in producing thought-provoking near-future SF, and at last he has a collection to show off that keen ability, even if it is only of chapbook length. [It] contains six stories, including two impressive original novelettes.

"Objective Impermeability in a Closed System" is an intense evocation of the ethical and emotional dilemmas of a scientist of whom idealism is expected but for whom compromise is easier.... A temporal paradox exists; AIs and a time machine become involved; but rather than the conventional circular narrative this implies, Shunn opts for an unusual, psychologically resonant conclusion, and a subtle questioning of the essentials of cause and effect. The implications run quite deep.

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Recommended

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I still haven't seen a copy of the November Locus, but I have learned that Nick Gevers put both new stories from my chapbook on his recommended reading list for the month.

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The Accidental Terrorist 30th Anniversary Sale

Signed editions
that even a
missionary
could afford.

Order yours now!

William Shunn

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