Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Return of the White Orchids

From the "it's the little things that make me happy" department, I bring you this photo.

I started keeping orchids after plowing through a few dozen Nero Wolfe mysteries, and by mid-summer they were all gone (I started pretty early in the spring). I'm told to just keep them in light and keep watering them, and they'll come back. We have very little direct sun at our house, so I decided to "winter" my indoor plants at work (even though it's mid-summer), where there is plenty of light. They sit there, naked stalks on my window sill.

Monday morning I got a surprise to see my white "yellow lime" orchids are back already. I picked them up in mid-June. They were died blue (an Independence Day thing, I think). I brought them up here with a few flowers still in bloom, but they fell off soon after. I don't know when they started coming back, but I just noticed them Monday. I never thought I'd be thrilled over the sight of flowers, but I was. Three beautiful bright white orchids (apparently the blue dye is not perennial, heh) have been keeping me enchanted all week long - and that big bud in the foreground looks like it's going to bloom soon. Edit: I came in a day later to find that last bulb popped - now there are four!

Like I say, it's the little things.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Funeral Train & Other Stories

Pharaoh Publishing USA has released our second book: Funeral Train & Other Stories by Colin Lee Campbell: you can (and should) order it right here. It's a collection of eight short stories, all in the realm of speculative fiction, ranging from contemporary fantasy to horror to science fiction. My personal favorites are "The Abels," "Horror Vacui" and "The Looking-Glass Planet," but they're all good.

Colin has published his work before, in Atomjack Magazine, Big Pulp and The Absent Willow Review. I think he's got an imaginative but straightforward writing style, with strong characterization. The plots of these stories are all "classic" - not in the sense that we've seen them before, but in that their core idea is always essential to the action of the narrative - that's pretty much the defining element of speculative fiction.

Colin is hesitant to be compared to other writers, and his voice is pretty unique, so that's hard to do. But I'd imagine that fans of the short fiction of Ray Bradbury or Philip K. Dick would enjoy Funeral Train & Other Stories. Needless to say, we're pretty proud of it.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Wax Houses, Pt. 1: ZZZ Records

I have to travel about 2-4 times a year for work, so I've decided to hit the most prominent used record stores in every town I visit. Every time I do, I'll cover it here. My first trip? To exotic West Des Moines, Iowa.

There, I found ZZZ Records. I'll start with a gripe: I purchased the Shaft soundtrack here, only to get home and open it up and find Black Moses. That's a great album, but it's not the Isaac Hayes album I wanted. This means whoever is taking in new records isn't even looking at the labels. This overall sense of shoddiness extended to stacks of uncategorized vinyl, haphazard decor, and a sense of it being more of a flea market than a collector's store.

That being said, I did come away with a decent haul: Physical Graffiti (one of two Led Zeppelin albums I consider essential), complete with all the original overwrought packaging; the first two Huey Lewis & the News albums (the first one is relatively unknown, borderline punky, and may be their best); Herbie Hancock's Jazz Africa, and Cheap Trick's At Budokon, among others.

The real treasure here, though, is one of my new favorite albums, a classic I'd never heard: Something/Anything? by Todd Rundgren. This double-album, packed with four sides of diverse music ranging from sugar-sweet pop to bombastic rock to out-and-out weirdness, makes me wonder why Rundgren didn't become the biggest pop star of the 1970s. It's worth a post in itself and will probably get one here eventually. I listed to all four sides twice in a row one night, exploring all the subtleties (and there are many). This is headphone music for recording/songwriting geeks at its finest. A real winner, and worth the trip. I'm actually kind of embarrassed I'd never heard it before, but if there are still great classic rock records out there that I've missed, I guess that bodes well for the future.

So, while it may be a bit dingy and disorganized (but after all, I'm spoiled by having one of the best record stores in the Midwest right here in Kansas City, which sets a very high bar), ZZZ Records is worth a visit, and from the word-of-mouth I got about it, is fairly highly regarded by many Des Moiners.

That Black Moses in my Shaft still rankles, though.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Nero Wolfe: My Favorite Detective

For a little over a year, I've been reading Nero Wolfe mysteries by Rex Stout. I'm still not finished and I haven't repeated any: that should give you some idea of just how prolific Stout was.
With a few notable exceptions like Gordianus the Finder and Inspector Banks, (not to mention Sherlock) I'm not a huge fan of the mystery genre (though both Encyclopedia Brown and his more realistically smart-ass 1970s successor, Jack McGurk, played huge parts in my childhood). But there's something about the world Rex Stout has created that keeps me coming back and back and back.

It's not even the plots of the mysteries. These are by and large fairly simple, without too many twists and turns. What makes these books special is the characterization. Imperious, arrogant, gormandizing, misogynistic, lazy, beer-swilling, orchid-loving Nero Wolfe is one of the most sharply drawn and consistently realized characters I've ever read. And of course, the narrator of the books, Wolfe's wise-cracking legman Archie Goodwin, is hands-down the most flat-out likeable narrator I've ever had between my ears.

Stout's writing is simple, crisp, uncluttered, and rolls off the page. For me, the best writing is the kind that makes me forget I'm reading and get completely lost in the fictive dream. In this, Stout delivers, and between 1934 and 1975 he cranked out about 75 Nero Wolfe mysteries - that's far more than one a year.

I was introduced to Nero Wolfe through the A&E Network's short-lived and much lamented series A Nero Wolfe Mystery, with the late (and vastly underrated) Maury Chaykin as Wolfe and evergreen good-guy Timothy Hutton as Goodwin. I can say without reservation this series is the most true to the source material of all the book-to-TV-or-movie adaptations I've ever seen. The show is a bit old-fashioned, but in the timeless, not dated, sense, and uses an ensemble cast to play different roles in different episodes (only Chaykin, Hutton, and a few other regulars don't rotate between roles).

So if you ever want to get lost in a rat-a-tat-tat whodunit, you could do much worse than picking up any Nero Wolfe mystery. You can start anywhere - one of the charms of the books, for me, is that from 1934 to 1975, the outside world did, occasionally, intrude into the lives of the characters, but the bulk of the action takes place in Nero Wolfe's home office (he refuses to leave the house on business), which is as timeless a place as I can think of. No matter how crazy or upsetting real life ever becomes, I will always know a place where I can sit back in the red leather chair, order a beer from Fritz (Nero's chef/caretaker) and see my old friend Archie. Wolfe's office in his New York brownstone is refreshingly comforting.

I'm a big fan of the original Sherlock Holmes mysteries, but I'm not so sure Nero Wolfe couldn't out-fox and out-detect Holmes any day of the week. The difference is that Wolfe needs Goodwin far more than Holmes ever needed Watson. But in almost every way that counts, Nero Wolfe is the American Sherlock Holmes.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Wow (new Cosmos trailer)

I won't get into my love of the original Cosmos here, now. I think this new one looks incredible, at first glance. It captures the right tone. I have high hopes. Seth Macfarlane, of all people, was instrumental in making this happen. Inspirational/educational programming, in prime time, on a major network, may or may not fly, but I'll watch.

I'm not sure I like Neil Degrasse Tyson's new Spaceship of the Imagination as much as I like the old one, but Tyson himself is one of the few people I can think of who can personalize and popularize science the way Carl Sagan did, and with Ann Druyan (Sagan's collaborator and widow) on board, this is as legitimate a re-vamp as it could possibly be. All I needed to see in this trailer was the dandelion seed...

By the way, the screen is black for about 15 seconds at first. That threw me off initially, but it's intentional. 

Monday, July 22, 2013

Slow Summer

Actually, that's not true. It's a busy summer. I'm acting in a movie, getting Pharaoh Publishing going, finishing the Manifesto RPG, starting the Dearth of the Red Sun RPG, conducting amateur mold remediation, and switching bedrooms, and, of course, working. So very little blogging is going on.

I realize the entire internet is waiting, but it will have to wait awhile longer. As soon as life returns to some sort of normalcy I'll be back.