Friday, August 30, 2013


ShoedogShoedog by George Pelecanos
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A drifter named Constantine winds up back in DC after more than a decade of drifting and finds himself entangled in a plot to rob two liquor stores at the same time. But can he keep his mind on the job when the girlfriend of the man bankrolling it has her sights set on him?

Shoedog is a departure from Pelecanos' first couple of books featuring Nick Stefanos. This one features a larger cast and a different writing style. Instead of a straight up detective story, this one is more like a heist by Richard Stark or Elmore Leonard. Probably more on the Leonard side of things. It's written from multiple viewpoints in the third person, much different than the Stefanos books.

Constantine, like Stefanos, is kind of a screw up but of a slightly different breed than our beloved Nick. He's a drifter, running his whole life. Things start coming unglued for him when he winds up back in DC for the first time since he was 17 and hooks up with another screw up named Polk. He and Polk get involved with a gangster named Grimes and things immediately spiral out of control.

Even though the writing is different than in the Stefanos books, it's still Pelecanos and still pretty damn slick, complete with music references. The heist seemed flawed from the beginning and was doomed to come unglued, as did the fledgling relationship between Constantine and Delia. Parker never would have worked with a crew like this.

I did like the way the dual heists were written, though. It felt like a sequence from a Guy Ritchie movie. An early one, like Snatch or Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, not anything after that.

That's about all I can say without giving anything away. It's a quick and exciting read. Not my favorite Pelecanos by any stretch but not bad either.

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Monday, August 26, 2013

Respect Yourself!

Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul ExplosionRespect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion by Robert Gordon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Respect Yourself tells the story of Stax Records, from its founding to its rise and eventual demise.

I got this from Netgalley. Thank you, Netgalley!

If I had to pinpoint the moment I initially got interested in soul music, it was probably in 2007 when the CD player in my car shot craps and I was stuck listening to the radio. The only station that actually played music instead of obnoxious chatter when I was driving to work played a lot of soul. Pretty soon, I was hooked on Sam & Dave, Wilson Pickett, and Otis Redding. When I saw this on Netgalley, I jumped at the chance to review it.

Respect Yourself covers the life and times of Stax Records. Formed by Jim Stewart and his sister, soon joined by Al Bell, it started out as a tiny operation in Memphis with less than 10 employees. By the time of its demise less than 20 years later, it was a multi-million dollar company.

Stax launched the careers of Booker T and the MGs, Sam & Dave, Otis Redding, the Bar-Kays, Isaac Hayes, and many others. I found it amazing that most of the musicians and staff in the early days also had day jobs. While producing a lot of Stax's early hits, Isaac Hayes worked at a slaughterhouse and Steve Cropper worked in a grocery store, for instance.

The label went through a lot of hard times, suffering setback after setback, like horrible relationships with partner labels like Atlantic and Columbia, the deaths of Otis Redding and most of the original Bar-Kays in a plane crash, to Atlantic stealing Sam & Dave shortly after Otis' death, Stax losing it's top two attractions in the span of months, only to keep on kicking until crooked bankers and debts finally brought it down.

Far from being a dry historical tome, Respect Yourself has tons of quotes from people who lived through it, like Willie Hall, Donald Duck Dunn, Isaac Hayes, and many others. As I read the book, I couldn't shake the urge to bust out some of my older Stax stuff for the commute to work, which shows how well a lot of Stax stuff has held up, 40 years after it was initially pressed.

If you're interested in the soul music of the 60's and 70's, Respect Yourself is a must-read. 4.5 out of 5 stars.

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Monday, August 19, 2013

Wrestling with the Devl

Wrestling with the Devil: The True Story of a World Champion Professional Wrestler - His Reign, Ruin, and RedemptionWrestling with the Devil: The True Story of a World Champion Professional Wrestler - His Reign, Ruin, and Redemption by Lex Luger
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Wrestling with the Devil details the life of professional wrestler Lex Luger, from his early life to his wrestling career to his abundance of post-career drama.

I got this from Netgalley. Thank You, Netgalley!

As I've confessed in other reviews, I was a huge wrestling fan from my larval phase to around 2003. While I was aware of Lex Luger, he was never one of my favorites. Not unlike Billy Gunn or Test, both of which came years later, I always thought he got huge pushes because of his look and potential despite never really doing much for me. Anyway, on to the review!

Wrestling with the Devil starts with a lot about young Lawrence Pfohl, the boy who would be Lex Luger, and his early athletic talents. Lex seemed like a typical jock in high school, complete with vandalism. Once he got to college, things picked up a bit, especially when he went to the CFL after getting kicked off the team for trashing an apartment. After bouncing around for a while, he gave wrestling a shot and never looked back. Sadly, this took up 30% of the book according to my Kindle.

The wrestling chapters, which I was hoping would be the meat of the book, wound up taking up about 40% of the book. While I found Lex's training with Hiro Matsuda and his early days in Florida and later Jim Crockett promotions interesting, I wanted a lot more. I wanted to hear about the infamous steel cage match with Bruiser Brody and road stories. I did think it was cool, though, that Lex was honest about his limited repetoire of moves and how he was a shrewd negociator when it came time to get paid.

Like I said, too much was glossed over. His days with the NWA were glossed over and barely anything was mentioned. He spent more time on his motorcycle accident after leaving the NWA than he did his entire NWA tenure. The WWF run was similarly glossed over apart from the Yokozuna bodyslam challenge on the USS Intrepid. His jump back to WCW was also skimped on.

Once his wrestling career was over, things really got interesting and brought the book up from being a solid 2. Lex doesn't paint himself in a great light, getting deeper and deeper into drugs and pills and alcohol and having a long affair with Elizabeth that saw his marriage dissolve and led to her death. He keeps sliding downhill until he winds up in jail a number of times and meets a preacher who turns his life around...

... just in time for him to need two hip replacements and have a spinal cord injury that leaves him a quadraplegic. Lex eventually recovered and seems to have his act together now, working as a motivational speaker and running a gym.

I'm giving it a 3 for now. There were some moments near the end that were surprisingly emotional and overall, the book kept me entertained while I was reading it. It's a middle of the road wrestling book with not enough time spent on the wrestling portion.

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Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Troop

The TroopThe Troop by Nick Cutter
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When a scoutmaster takes his troop of five boys to a remote island, he has no idea the horror that is about to befall them in the form of a mysterious starving stranger that can't stop eating and the parasitic worms ravaging his innards...

I got this from Netgalley. Thank you, Netgalley!

I initially dismissed this book because of the boring cover. It almost looks like a stock photo someone found for a DYI cover on Createspace. However, the Netgalley newsletter touted it as being pretty horrific so I gave it a shot. I'm very glad I did.

The Troop, as the publicity blurb says, is part Lord of the Flies, part 28 Days Later. This is a very apt description. Tim, the Scoutmaster, takes his troop of five very different boys to Falstaff Island, fifteen miles off the coast of Prince Edward Island, setting of Anne of Green Gables. Anne of Green Gables has nothing to do with this, I just wanted to show off some trivia.

Anyway, a stranger in a boat shows up, starving yet ravenous, and pretty soon everything is circling the drain. The Scoutmaster gets infected by the worms, and then the infection spreads. Good thing they're on an island, huh?

The scouts are an interesting mix. Newton is the brain, Ephraim is a hothead who barely stays out of trouble and Max is his bestie. Kent is a jerk but possibly doesn't realize it and the leader of the boys. And Shelley is the oddball.

Once the scoutmaster died, it didn't take long for everyone to go Lord of the Flies on one another. I wasn't sure any of them would survive the worms or one another. Aside from getting infected by the worms, most of what they did was understandable given the lack of food and rescue.

The book could have easily been a three but Nick Cutter (aka Craig Davidson according to the copyright notice in the front) brought home the bacon. Cutter supplied horrific detail after horrific detail and also had a lot of nice character moments, like the incident with the sea turtle and Newton's and Max's feelings about it in the aftermath. Shelley turning out to be a sociopath really gave the horror that personal touch. Parasitic worms that devour you from the inside while making you ravenously hungry are scary enough but the sociopath in the midst made it even creepier.

Interspersing the narrative with post-game interviews and news clippings from the scientists responsible for creating the worms and the military personnel responsible for cleaning up the mess added a lot to the narrative and did some nice foreshadowing and misdirecting. Again, thank you, Mr. Cutter.

That's about all I have to say. Four creepy writhing wriggling stars!

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Thursday, August 15, 2013

Angels and Demons

Angels & Demons (Robert Langdon, #1)Angels & Demons by Dan Brown
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When a physicist/priest is murdered, the word Illuminati branded into his chest, and a quarter-gram of antimatter stolen, it's up to renowned symbologist Robert Langdon to find the goods and the murderer. But can he stop someone from using the antimatter as a weapon, even with hot physicist Vittoria Vetra in tow?

After all the hype, I managed to dodge this bullet for over a decade but when my girlfriend caught me in a vulnerable moment between books, I knew the time had come.

Overall, it was a fun read. It reminded me of a high tech Indiana Jones a lot of the time. However, at the end of the day, it was pretty much a by the numbers thriller, complete with forced sexual tension.

Like I said, it's pretty Indiana Jones-ish, except instead of an archaeologist who has crazy globe-trotting adventures, Langdon is a symbologist who has crazy globe-trotting adventures.

As much as I want to hate on this book, it's a page turner; Short chapters, nearly all of them ending on a cliffhanger. However, even for a thriller of this type, the plot seems a little overly complicated. A centuries old secret society is going to use some stolen antimatter to blow up the Vatican? Wouldn't it be easier to get a surplus nuke from the former Soviet Union?

The writing is so cheesy and over-dramatic I can't help but be amused. It's really pulpy but not in the good Raymond Chandler way. More like an early Doc Savage. Seriously, Langdon could have said "I'll be super-amalgamated" and it wouldn't have felt that out of place. It almost feels like Brown was trying to do a Black Dynamite-style commentary/spoof on conspiracy thrillers.

One thing I didn't enjoy is that the book suffers from "I did a bit of research so I'm going to cram it all in the dialogue" syndrome. There are infodumps galore and lots of redundant information, mostly about symbology. I'm not going to touch on the things that weren't researched and are erroneous since most movies have equally shitty fact checking.

I guess I'll rate it 3 stars. It's not well written or to any degree believable but it's a fun and exciting read, like a pack of Skittles for your brain. Not good but definitely entertaining. Not only that, Dan Brown's milkshake brings all the boys to the yard. Any book that gets so many non-readers reading gets a little slack from me.

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Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Failure is Fun! - An Interview with Justin Sewell of

Today's guest is Justin Sewell of, author of the Lose Your Own Adventure book, Who Killed JFK?

What made you found
The three of us who founded Despair (Lawrence Kersten, my twin brother Jef and myself) formerly worked together at a Dallas Internet Service Provider. We'd joined in '94, when there was only a handful of employees, about a year before the dotcom gold rush started. At the time, the cash poor founder of the company was offering promises of stock in the company for early employees willing to work the crazy hours for little pay. Long story short- after the dotcom goldfish started in '95, the founder had investors throwing money at him left and right and retroactively changed his deal. He gave real stock to friends and overpriced stock options to the rest of us. But then company was acquired in '98 by a national ISP planning an IPO. We figured, "Well, at least we'll get to participate in the public offering…" But once again, the founder changed the rules, and forced stock option holders to sell their options to the company before the IPO. The IPO made the founder a deca-millionaire. The average payout for non-stock holders was four digits. 

Somewhere in the middle of all that double-dealing, I, as the Marketing Director, ended up on a Successories mailing list. And when I got a catalog of motivational posters, talking about Success, Teamwork, and Integrity, I showed it to Jef and Lawrence, and we all started riffing on how inappropriate all the topics were for a workplace like ours. It wasn't long before we'd grabbed a stock photo book, scanned in images, and started printing out negative versions that applied to our own workplace. Failure, Mediocrity, Burnout. Coworkers and friends encouraged us to start a company. When we got our payout checks a couple years later, we decided we could either all buy ourselves nice Vespas, or pool our money and start a company. So we decided to start

What was your favorite Choose Your Own Adventure as a kid? 
Oh, that's a tough one. I've several favorites, all of them by Edward Packard, who really kept pushing the genre boundaries of the series and the CYOA format. I'd probably say "Hyperspace", which has all kinds of zany, kid-mind-blowing stuff– like a plot that has you actually ENCOUNTER Edward Packard himself, or a plot with a CYOA-book-inside-a-CYOA-book. File under: Teaching-Young-Readers-To-Meta. (Plus, it sees the return of Dr. Nera Vivaldi, one of the few recurring companion characters in the series. We, of course, had to include a veiled-reference in our book for the hardcore CYOA readers.)

But I'd have to add- the illustrations in "Hyperspace" are a real letdown. Lead series illustrator- and under-appreciated genius- Don Hedin (Paul Granger) didn't do this particular title. And it suffers greatly as a result. It looks like a kid illustrated it. And not a particularly talented one.

What made you begin the Lose Your Own Adventure series?
That's funny. If you can believe it, we pitched the LYOA series idea to Simon & Schuster books in New York in the year 2000! They thought it was funny conceptually but were pretty skeptical of its chances at retail. "If it looks like a Kid's Book, adults won't even pick it up." Fair points.

But we still strongly felt that a resurrection of the CYOA format- with all its attendant corny retro-touches- aimed at once bright-eyed, now cynical adults would just be hilarious reading. So many of us Gen-Xers used to dream of being astronauts, spies, scientists, rock stars (and there's a CYOA for every one of those fantasies) and we now find ourselves, as adults, just trying to scrape by. Cynical about our politicians, the economy and just "The American Way" in general. So the books are meant to tap into that feeling of unease most of us have. 

In the case of JFK, the subject is American history. In the next planned book, the subject is workplace sexism, a topic our female customers have asked us to address for over a decade.

Who killed JFK?
Robert Kennedy, Jr. (son of John Kennedy) told Charlie Rose earlier this year that the Kennedy family had always been skeptical that Oswald acted alone, if he acted at all. But it was a touchy subject then, obviously profoundly painful and fraught with unimaginable geopolitical consequences. My own view, after spending a few hundred hours on this book, is that the best case is, in RFK, Jr.'s words, "Rogue CIA". That doesn't mean Oswald was lily-white, or unconnected to the assassination. 

But I'd like to emphasize, though we tackle a lot of different theories in our book, it's really meant more to be experienced as a Choose Your Own Adventure parody, the best we could create, and not a JFK assassination research book. It's our jaded take on "Who Killed Harlowe Thrombe" (though with thrice the text and twice the illustrations).

What's your favorite JFK-themed book or movie?
 For those interested in the assassination topic, I'd strongly recommend the book RFK, Jr. endorsed heartily, "JFK and the Unspeakable", by James Douglass. The author, a non-violence activist, is about as far as you could get from the tinfoil hat wearing conspiracy theorist. And his book, with its twin narratives of the doomed Kennedy and Oswald, presents the most coherent view I've read of an assassination theory.

How many books do you have slated for the Lose Your Own Adventure series?
Well, we've been kicking around "Lose Your Own Adventure" titles and plots since 2000- so as you can imagine, we've got a ton of them queued up! We've worked up covers for the first four. The second one we've planned, "The Glass Ceiling", tackles workplace sexism. The pitch quote from the cover is "You're the best person for the job. But you've got one big problem. YOU'RE A WOMAN!". It puts the reader in the shoes of a perfectly qualified, gifted job applicant at "Whyte, Mann & Partners". Frustrations ensue.

Book 3 is called "You Are A Dumbass!". It's a bit of a formula experiment and critic of mindless consumerism, and obviously, a parody of "You Are A Genius!".  

The hook with that particular book is that, as a dumbass, your choices are always frustratingly selfish and idiotic. 

And so on. 

What made you decide to go with Kickstarter for funding?
Well, we have a planned Kickstarter for "The Glass Ceiling" on September 4th. Because the truth is, we spent about $30,000 to bring "Who Killed JFK?" to life. Most of that was spent on the gorgeous and hilarious illustrations in the book (70+). The irony is we're spending a fortune to try to recreate the style that Don Hedin was probably paid comparatively little for, and certainly several times what any new CYOA book spends on illustration! But it's *really* important to us that anyone who reads one of our books feels like it's the best CYOA parody ever imagined. Hilarious, engaging, full of interesting moral and ethical dilemmas, unintended consequences for decisions, and hopefully a lot of insight into the given topic. 

So far, our customers have been rapturous in their praise of the book, and THEY had to wait three years for us to scrounge the money together and crack the JFK nut:

But we're not super-connected in the publishing world. We don't have "Who Killed JFK?" in bookstores, don't have the marketing budget or publisher backing to push the book to the four corners. So the Kickstarter, if it's a success, is our way of trying to accelerate the production on books we feel very strongly about, but can't easily afford to produce since we don't yet have a big readership.

Any demotivatioal speeches for anyone reading this?
Ha! No, I'm depressed enough as it is. I don't want to spread it any more than Despair already does! 

Where can people learn more about, or buy the book?
The best place is right here. ( We're also selling it on Amazon, but most people are buying it directly from us. 

Will an ebook be available? 
YES. We're wrapping it up this week. We're going to launch it on Amazon at the temporary price of $3.99 in hopes that we can crack into the top ranks of JFK Kindle books. Nothing would make me happier than dislodging Bill O'Reilly's turgid, poorly-researched tome "Killing Kennedy" from the top spot. It's a long shot, but everyone needs a goal they can fail to reach. If we do, we've got a few thousand "Failure" posters laying around we can console ourselves with.

Special Bonus Question That I forgot to ask in the initial barrage:  How much research did you guys do for this?  This is the first Choose Your Own Adventure type book that I'm aware of that has endnotes.
To the research question: It sounds absurd, but we spent a few hundred hours on it- split between JFK research and CYOA book read-throughs and illustration scanning. We didn't really need to do that much, but it's notoriously fascinating material. There is so much contradictory evidence, and so many plausible narratives. 

For us, the biggest motivation for going overboard was that we wanted our Texan Encyclopedia Brown protag to be weaving through the events in Dallas in something like realtime, in spirit if not the letter. So we had to know things like when did Dan Rather see of the Zapruder film at KRLD studios? Or when did Helen Markham's notorious police line-up with Lee Harvey Oswald take place? 

Incidentally, for those curious about this kind of stuff, one of the most riveting things we listened to was Mark Lane's debate presentation in a 1964 debate with Warren Commission staff. The entire thing is incredible- Lane devastates the three others so handily. The Helen Markham segment is particularly rich. (

Because so many of the historical events in our book seem pretty outrageous, we also included an EndNotes section, so people understood we weren't making things like that first police lineup. Because it otherwise seems like farce. The bruised Oswald, in his dingy t-shirt, was handcuffed between two suited Dallas cops, with the Jailer beside them. In spite of this, Helen Markham still couldn't state that Oswald was the person she shot J.D.Tippit without being prompted! Witness coaching would've tainted that evidence, had it gone to trial. 

And of course, Arlen Specter and his Freemasonic buddies used secret magic to get seven wounds with a single, undamaged bullet. That was important to note, as well. Otherwise, who'd have believed it?

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Who Killed John F. Kennedy? (Lose Your Own Adventure #1)

Who Killed John F. Kennedy? (Lose Your Own Adventure #1)Who Killed John F. Kennedy? by Justin Sewell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As the young son of Dallas's inept police chief, you take it upon yourself to solve JFK's murder. Can you?

No, you cannot, for this a parody of the Choose Your Own Adventure books you read as a kid, put out by the sick bastards at Despair.Com, makers of such hilarity as the Demotivational posters, like this one:

The book is written in a style that mimics the old CYOA books perfectly while still managing to mock it. I was gripped with nostalgia from the onset and it captivated me for a couple lunch breaks.

Attempt 1: Joined a group dedicated to revealing government conspiracies, wound up dead at Area 51 after stumbling upon the fake moon landing.
Attempt 2: Got into trouble after wetting the bed during a vivid dream and not hiding the evidence before going back to the police station.
Attempt 3: Wet the bed again, hid the evidence, but was ratted out by my nemesis/girlfriend Jenni Mudd.
Attempt 4: Made it to Area 51 again only to be mauled by a polar bear.
Attempt 5: Investigated the CIA connection to the assassination, only to be publicly branded a homosexual at a press conference.
Attempt 6: Investigated mob ties which led to David Ferrie, which led to me finding out crucial conspiratorial evidence, which led to me dying via a CIA suicide coin.
Attempt 7: Investigated Oswald, made a deal with J. Edgar Hoover, teamed up with Jenni Mudd, and wound up being a brainwashed assassin that killed RFK. This one was my favorite.
Attempt 8: Almost joined Altair (from #1), teamed up with Jenni Mudd, wound up getting lobotomized in Springfield, Missouri.

After 8 attempts, there were still a wealth of possibilities judging by me flipping through the rest of the book. I never met Dan Rather, for instance.

For a Choose Your Own Adventure type book and a parody at that, this thing seemed really well researched. There are even endnotes!

For what it is, I'm giving it a four. It should not be measured against other 4's on my shelf but was really entertaining while I was reading it.

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The Thicket

The ThicketThe Thicket by Joe R. Lansdale
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When his grandfather is murdered and his sister kidnapped by outlaws, young Jack Parker goes looking for vengeance. With a four gauge wielding man named Eustace, a midget sharpshooter named Shorty, and a hog named Hog, he goes hunting for Cutthroat Bill and his gang. Will he survive long enough to find his sister?

I got this ARC from Netgalley. Thank you, Netgalley! Although it only took two damn months for my request to get approved...

Here we are, the 36th Joe Lansdale book I've read. The Thicket is part True Grit, part coming of age tale, and all Joe Lansdale.

The plot of The Thicket is simple enough. It's a tale of a young man's coming of age and quest for vengeance. In the wake of his parents' death from the pox, Jack and his sister Lula are traveling with their grandfather until they run afoul of some outlaws. Jack survives and meets up with Shorty and Eustace and the tale kicks into high gear.

The usual Lansdale mojo is in full effect. The dialogue is a kind of redneck poetry of profanity and clever similes. Lansdale's ear for dialogue always surprises me. I could easily hear the same dialogue coming out of people down at the local Wal-Mart. And the violence, oh, the violence. There's a steady stream of violence, dolled out like appetizers, until the main course, the bloody shootout at the end.

The characters Jack meets on his adventure are a colorful bunch, from Eustace, the man of mixed blood that wields a damn cannon, to Shorty, the educated little man who is a crack shot, the scarred sheriff Winton, to Jimmie, the whore with a heart of something resembling gold that teaches Jack a few tricks, both in and out of the bedroom.

Since it's a Lansdale book, no one gets out unscathed. The gunfights didn't feel like Hollywood gunfights at all, more chaos than anything else. The entire cast was changed, either by the carnage or by becoming dead.

That's about all I have to say. It's one of the better Lansdale books in recent memory so just read the damn thing!

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