Monday, December 17, 2007

Jordan Sonnenblick

by Steven Williams

Jordan Sonnenblick black and white photographJordan Sonnenblick is an eighth grade English teacher who has emerged as a writer of young adult fiction with a bite. Sonnenblick got his beginning as a writer in high school, actually Frank McCourt's creative writing class at Stuyvesant High School. McCourt, the author of Angela's Ashes, 'Tis, and Teacher Man, apparently recognized some potential in Sonnenblick because he was allowed to attend McCourt's already full creative writing class. Once there, Sonnenblick developed as a humor writer but McCourt prodded him to try his hand at deeper, more intimate writing. In the end, as a graduating senior, McCourt chose Sonnenblick as the winner of the school's annual creative writing award. For another fifteen years Sonnenblick would work on his writing as he attended college and went on to enter the teaching profession.

This includes ten years as a middle school English teacher at Phillipsburg Middle School in Phillipsburg, New Jersey. But Sonnenblick's entry into teaching came about through a less direct route than traditional college education training. Probably his first experience with kids was as a camp counselor. He also went on to work as a tutor in his mother's tutoring center. Because he had grown up around teaching and schools as part of his family life, traditional education courses seemed less useful than practical experience. The result of these experiences Frank McCourt black and white photographand this perspective is that Sonnenblick entered his first middle school classroom as a participant in the Teach for America program.

It required Sonnenblick's exposure to one student's trying to come to terms with the terminal illness of a sibling to set him firmly on the track of writing serious young adult fiction. Sonnenblick's first book grew out of his concern about one of his students. This girl had a little brother who was dying of cancer and at first Sonnenblick thought she seemed to be coping pretty well. Then he talked to the girl's mother and found out that what she was doing well at was hiding how things were for her from the adults. This set Sonnenblick on a mission to find a book that would speak to the girl's experiences in order to help her through it. When he found no such book, he then decided to write it himself.

Sonnenblick was determined to write a story that would not pander to kids, there would be no overdone or overused sentimentality but instead he would be truthful and accurate, even to the details of the disease. He felt he had to also incorporate the types of real experiences that a kid with a terminally ill brother or sister would really have. The Sick Child by Edvard Munch, fourth version color paintingThese include being complemented for heroically dealing with the situation when the complete opposite was true, trying to make a deal with God, the terrible reality of what undergoing chemotherapy is like, the strain everything puts on the family finances and relationships, and so on.

In the end, Sonnenblick was able to produce the sort of book he intended. When he had finished the book he found a publisher in a small literary press, DayBue Publishing, which went out of business just three weeks after the book was released. It turns out though that advance reading copies circulated to libraries and reviewers and initial orders for the book, about one thousand copies, had been enough to start a buzz about it. His first book, Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie (2004), was nominated for a Fall 2004 Book Sense Children's Award as well as an American Library Association 2005 Best Books for Young Adults Award just a few days after the original publisher closed their doors. In order for the book to remain eligible for these awards, it had to be available to bookstores and reviewers. Because of this, Sonnenblick arranged to have the book self-published under the publishing name Turning Tide Press. The growing critical attention the book received attracted Scholastic Books which initially picked up distribution rights for the book and then made the decision to offer a contract to Sonnenblick to reissue this book plus publish his next novel. Since thin Sonnenblick has written two more young adult novels, Notes From The Midnight Driver (2006) and Zen And The Art Of Faking It (2007).

Drums, Girls and Dangerous Pie by Jordon Sonnenblick DayBue and Turning Tide hardcover edition front cover

Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie (2004)
This book was of course Sonnenblick's debut novel, as noted above, and it had a less than typical publishing history. It is about a thirteen-year-old boy who is living a relatively average teenage life and who has a annoying five year old little brother. Everything changes for him though when his little brother is diagnosed with leukemia. The family relationships and finances are strained and the main character struggles to maintain so that no one at school will notice. The story honestly and creatively describes the progression of the young teen's anxieties as his brother's illness and the treatment for it go on. All while trying to deal with the more normal routine of school dances, drumming solos, and crushes.

Notes from the Midnight Drivey by Jordan Sonnenblick hardcover edition front cover

Notes From The Midnight Driver (2006)
Sonnenblick's second novel is about a young teenager having to come to terms with the breakup of his parents' marriage. At the beginning of the story his parents have separated and his father is dating his former third grade teacher. In a fit of frustration when his mother goes out on her first date after the breakup, he gets into his parents' liquor cabinet, gets drunk, runs off with his mother's car to go tell his Dad what he really thinks of him, and ends up wrecked in a neighbor's yard. The judge, for the criminal infractions, sends the young man out to perform one hundred hours of community service at a local nursing home. There he meets a difficult, crotchety, eccentric old man who, through their mutual interest in the guitar, becomes his mentor and friend. In the end, the friendship enables the young man to grow beyond the ways of a child and learn to take responsibility for his own actions.

Zen and the Art of Faking It by Jordan Sonnenblick hardcover edition front coverZen And The Art Of Faking It (2007)
His third book continues Sonnenblick's ascendancy to recognition as a writer of quality literary fiction for teens. The main character of this story is an eighth grader who has just moved into a new town. This has happened many times before and instead of struggling to make new friends he decides to create a new identity for himself. The initial question is what will he be? On the first day in the new school the idea comes to him in his World History class. When he answers too many questions on Zen in class, courtesy of a previous Ancient Religions class in a previous school, he decides that he should present himself as a Zen master. He then sets off to establish his Zen master identity by sitting 'zazen' on a rock near school each morning, passing on pieces of supposed Zen wisdom, and generally trying to get everyone at school to believe him. Things seem to be working and his life seems to be taking a major turn for the better when he becomes the friend of a folk-singing girl in his same grade. They set out to start a school project on Zen and become involved in some other after school projects, the result being that he falls for her in a big way. Unfortunately, lies have a way of catching up with you and in this case the result teaches important lessons about character.

Zen garden color photograph

Newer Article: Aliter Lenticulam (Lentils Another Way aka Lentils with Coriander)


Older Article: Alafiar Burke, an emerging author of legal thrillers

Creative Commons License
Jordan Sonnenblick, venturing into the deep waters of adolescence by Steven Williams is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available by contacting Steven Williams through Bookmarc's BookmarcsOnline.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Alafair Burke

by Steven Williams

Alafair Burke black and white photographAlafair S. Burke, daughter of acclaimed crime fiction writer James Lee Burke, is an author, law professor, and legal commentator born in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Alafair earned a degree in psychology before going on to attend and graduate from Stanford Law School. As a practicing attorney, she has served as a deputy district attorney in Portland, Oregon for several years before leaving to teach law in New York State. Three of her four published novels are set in Portland. Alafair has stated that her decision to move from practicing law to teaching was motivated in part by the difficulties she had setting aside the more unpleasant experiences as a prosecutor. She currently teaches criminal law at Hofstra Law School on New York's Long Island. Alafair is fairly well known from here guest commentary on Court TV's Catherine Crier Live, a show that has provided in-depth coverage of such high-profile legal news stories as the trials of Kennedy cousin Michael Skakel, Danielle Van Dam's convicted killer David Westerfield, Andrea Yates, and Rabbi Fred Neulander. Although the show ended in the spring of 2007, Alafair's contributions to the show were notable included a analysis of the Edgar Ray Killen case and the Michael Jackson acquittal. Beginning in 2003, Alafair also has been writing popular mysteries having written four books total as of 2007. She has openly described how her most frequently recurring character, the Deputy District Attorney Samantha Kincaid is actually her alter ego.

Judgment Calls, A Samantha Kincaid mystery by Alafair Burke front cover
Judgment Calls (2003)
Alafair Burke's first mystery, a legal thriller set in Portland, Oregon, introduces her recurring character, DA Samantha Kincaid. At the beginning of the story, after three years of waiting, Kincaid finally gets her chance at her first case for the Major Crimes Team, part of Portland's Drug and Vice division. A thirteen-year old runaway has ben found drugged, raped, beaten, and left for dead. Kincaid decides to go after attempted murder instead of the easier assault charge. Things become complicated when neither the suspect's alibi nor the victims story make complete sense. Kincaid finds herself pursuing all sorts of clues and in the process uncovers a very dangerous truth. The connections to the case include an earlier death penalty conviction, a teenage prostitution ring, and a possible serial killer. In the end Samantha's life and professional career are put at risk.

Missing Justice, A Samantha Kincaid Mystery by Alafair Burke front coverMissing Justice (2004)
Alafair's second mystery again features Samantha Kincaid. It begins with Kincaid having just joined the Major Crime Unit in the Portland police department. A prominent local judge disappears and not long after, her murdered body is found. Kincaid investigates possible suspects while at the same time learning about and adapting to her new work environment and especially the people in it. Evidence turns up revealing the murdered judge's affair with a politician as well as a labyrinth of financial dealings and contracts related to her judgments and which she had apparently accumulated in an effort to obtain control over the city's elite. When a poor black former drug addict is fingered for the crime by some circumstantial evidence, possibly motivated by the fact that one of the dead judge's rulings lost him his home and the custody of his children, Kincaid has difficulty believing he could really be the murderer. Despite the red herrings, Kincaid is convinced that the murder was not a crime of passion and that neither the dead woman's jealous husband or the angry black ex-addict is the murderer. Kincaid's decision to exonerate a man who she is convinced is innocent unknowingly makes her a possible target of whoever set the whole thing up.

Close Case, A Samantha Kincaod Mystery by Alafair Burke front coverClose Case (2005)
Samantha Kincaid returns in Alafair's third mystery. She is drawn into the investigation of the murder of a street smart and popular investigative reporter who has been pursuing a major story about a police shooting with racial overtones. Before she can discover much though, the cops come up with a suspect and then a confession. The pat solution bothers Kincaid and she finds that there seem to be some connections connecting back with the police. It turns out that the cop who coerced the confession might have wanted to cover up the fact that the murdered reporter was romantically connected with the cop's wife. To complicate matters, all the cops linked to the suspicious confession are also close to Kincaid's live-in boyfriend, a police detective. Plus the cop who coerced the confession is her boyfriend's partner. Even thought the confession is recanted, Kincaid is forced by circumstances to prosecute the case against the supposed killer and must do so in such a way that the real killer is uncovered without destroying her career or her personal life.

Dead Connection by Alafair Burke front cover

Dead Connection (2007)
Alafair's fourth mystery introduces a new main character in a new setting in the form of Ellie Hatcher, a female detective working in New York City. The story begins with her special assignment to a homicide task force headed by a rogue detective trying to find a serial killer apparently linked to a popular New York City online dating service. She enters the world of cyber dating set up with an identity that fits the profile of previous victims. The pursuit of the murderous sociopath brings up terrible memories for her. Her father was killed in the pursuit of a serial murder back in her hometown of Wichita, Kansas. Hatcher finds herself filling the roles of both hunter and prey as she stalks the killer, hopefully netting him before she becomes his next victim. To top things off, she uncovers a link in the killings to the Russian mafia which brings in the FBI to further muddy the waters.

Portland, Oregon skyline with Mount Hood in the background color photograph

Newer Article: Jordan Sonnenblick, venturing into the deep waters of adolescence


Older Article: Jennifer Lee Carrell, a skilled blending of history and literary fiction

Creative Commons License
Alafiar Burke, an emerging author if legal thrillers by Steven Williams is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available by contacting Steven Williams through Bookmarc's BookmarcsOnline.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Jennifer Lee Carrell

by Steven Williams

Jennifer Lee Carrell color photography by Lyn SimsJennifer Carrell Helenbolt, who continues to write under the pseudonym Jennifer Lee Carrell since her marriage in 2002, this fall published her debut mystery novel Interred with Their Bones. Carrell began her career as a writer beginning with a decision to attend graduate school to study English literature. Her decision was based on an expectation that the life of a professor would support, both financially and by its lifestyle, her interest in writing. She found that the life of scholarship and teaching was almost perfect for her. Unfortunately, a professional life in academe requires coming to terms with academic politics, something she learned to hate. A professional life teaching at the university level means earning tenure and earning tenure means focusing almost entirely on academic research, writing for publication in scholarly journals, and teaching. For Carrell this meant postponing her long time interest in more literary writing for ten years or more. While Carrell was on vacation backpacking in Arizona, she read a copy of Once They Moved like the Wind: Cochise, Geronimo and the Apache Wars by David Roberts. Intrigued to find out that Roberts lived near Cambridge, Massachusetts, she contacted him when she returned to work. From this bit of casual contact as a fan, a friendship developed. Eventually Roberts was able to help Carrell get some of her non-academic writings published.

Arizona twilight skyline color photographCarrell had earned degrees from Oxford and Stanford before she went on to attend Harvard to earn a Ph.D. in English and American literature. After receiving her degree, she went on to teach in the History and Literature Program at Harvard University, earning three awards for excellence in undergraduate teaching. At Harvard she also directed the university's Shakespeare performance troupe, the Hyperion Theatre Company. After four years teaching at Harvard, Carrell decided to leave in order to concentrate on her writing. She returned to her hometown Tucson and began to seriously work on a professional writing career. In the beginning she reviewed classical music and opera for the Arizona Daily Star and took on various freelance writing work for other publications including as a regular contributor to Smithsonian magazine. In 2003 Carrell's nonfiction book The Speckled Monster: A Historical Tale of Battling Smallpox was published. She has also done some work on screenplays that includes co-writing The Black Prince, a medieval war epic as well as an independent film adaptation of Shakespeare's play Macbeth, titled Come Like Shadows, co-written with Nick Saunders. It is interesting to note that her Ph.D. dissertation was about how, when modern fiction began to emerge in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, people expected to find greater truth in narrative that had previously been available through other literary forms.

The Speckled Monster by Jennifer Lee Carrell front coverThe Speckled Monster: A Historical Tale of Battling Smallpox (2003)
This is Carrell's first published book. It describes how, early in the 18th century Lady Mary Wortley Montagu in England and Dr. Zabdiel Boylston in Boston worked to uncover and implement a type of inoculation for smallpox. Called variolation, this type of inoculation actually exposed people to a mild form of smallpox causing them to exhibit relatively mild forms of the disease but also making them immune to it. Lady Montagu's discovery and promotion of smallpox inoculation as it was practiced in the Ottoman empire is placed in context to her own personal losses to the disease as well as the political ramifications of the high death rate, particularly where this disease affected the coming and establishment of the House of Hanover on the throne of England. Dr. Boylston became aware of Lady Montagu's discovery through reading her doctor's account of the inoculation of her children while they were in Istanbul with her and their father, a diplomat. Boylston also became aware, through the interests of Cotton Mather, of the knowledge and techniques of smallpox inoculation as it was practiced in sub-Saharan Africa at that time. This discovery came to Boylston through Mather’s enslaved African servant. Though it would be more than fifty years later before the safer process of vaccinia inoculation for smallpox became available, the efforts of Boylston and Montagu paved the way for the advances in immunology that would come later. Carrell's story of these events is notable for her use of novelistic techniques, including narrative, but based on thoroughly researched original documentation. This book does an excellent job of reconstructing the horrors as well as the social and political repercussions of smallpox as a disease, all within the context of the lives of the very real and very human participants in these events.

Interred with Their Bones by Jennifer Lee Carrell front cover
Interred with Their Bones (2007)
A literary mystery involving a Shakespeare scholar and theater director and the possible discovery of a lost Shakespeare play. The scholar’s mentor gives her a mysterious box. The evening of the very day she receives this gift, her mentor's murdered body is discovered in the fire damaged Globe Theater. Even stranger, the woman's body had been laid out in the theater in a way that mimiced the murder of Hamlet's father. It turns out that inside the box is a Victorian mourning brooch with clue that seems to connect with the character of Ophelia from Shakespeare's Hamlet. As the scholar begins to follow additional clues left by her dead friend, there are more murders and even she turns out to be at risk. It turns out that there is a Elizabethan era manuscript for a play titled Cardenio and that Shakespeare may have written it. In tracking down the play and researching the possibility that the play was actually by Shakespeare, the main character finds herself traveling as far as Harvard's Widener Library and then on to the American Southwest.

The Globe Theatre stage color photograph

Newer Article: Alafiar Burke, an emerging author if legal thrillers


Older Article: C. J. Box, a master of the outdoor mystery

Creative Commons License
Jennifer Lee Carrell, a skilled blending of history and literary fiction by Steven Williams is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available by contacting Steven Williams through Bookmarc's BookmarcsOnline.

Friday, December 14, 2007

C. J. Box

by Steven Williams

C. J. Box black and white photographC. J. Box, a popular American writer of outdoor mysteries, currently lives in the area around Cheyenne, Wyoming. He has seven published novels, all set in Wyoming, with another coming out in January 2008 and they have all been critically well received. His professional recognition includes winning the Anthony Award, the Barry Award, the Macavity Award, the Gumshoe Award, and the French Prix Calibre .38 award. He has also been a finalist for both an Edgar Award and a LA Times Book Prize. In 2007, Box was named Writer of the Year by the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers association. Box is a native of Wyoming and so it is not too surprising that his work experiences include such things as ranch hand, surveying, fishing guide, and local newspaper reporter and editor. Also, not surprisingly, he is an enthusiastic outdoor sportsman having hunted, fished, hiked, ridden, and skied all over Wyoming and the American Mountain West.

Wyoming Game Wardens Association logoBox uses the recurring character Joe Pickett in his mysteries. Pickett is a hardworking, stubbornly honest but error-prone Wyoming game warden. He is happily married with two daughters. Like many westerners, he does not talk much but is a hard worker, always tries to do the right thing, and aware of his own flaws. Box chose to use a game warden for his recurring character for a series of mystery novels because their responsibilities cover almost every situation involving the outdoors and the rural new west. Since Box lives in Wyoming and enjoys an active outdoor life there, he likes to give the western environment a major role in all of his stories. This also gives him an advantage in writing mysteries because in the new west, there are all sorts of possible conflicts over the land: economic, ideological, historical, and even theological.

'Open Season' by C. J. Box front cover

Open Season (2001)
Box's first novel introduced his recurring character, Joe Pickett, who works as a Wyoming game warden. This is a story about greedy business interests and local corruption. The story begins with the discovery of the body of a well-known elk poacher, with whom Pickett has previously humiliatingly tangled. To complicate matters, the body turns up on Pickett's own wood pile and the man had apparently been on his way to delivery a sample of unidentified animal scat to someone. Investigation leads to the discovery of a conflict involving the effort to save an endangered species and a scheme to develop an oil pipeline. Soon, the bodies of two more elk hunters turn up, also killed under suspicious circumstances. As Pickett investigates, the threat spreads, endangering his job and eventually even his family.

'Savage Run' by C. J. Box front cover
Savage Run (2002)
The second Joe Pickett mystery begins with Pickett being called to a crime scene where an exploding cow kills an infamous eco-radical. The man and his new bride had been spiking trees. The bizarre death peaks Pickett's interest, especially when the cow's owner seems to not have any questions even though this happened on his land and killed several other of his animals. The puzzle becomes even deeper when Pickett's wife begins receiving telephone calls from an old boyfriend who just happens to be the supposedly dead eco-radical. Then the bodies start to pile up as other environmental activists begin turning up dead in strange accidents, including one of Pickett's oldest friends. It turns that there are two hit men murdering the environmentalists and the trail leads back to a group of millionaire ranchers out for revenge on the environmentalists.

'Winterkill' by C. J. Box front cover
Winterkill (2003)
This is Box's third Joe Picket outdoor mystery. Suspicion for the murder of a much-hated forest service supervisor immediately focuses on events surrounding the manic slaughter of a herd of elk. Initially, the suspected killer seems to be a local falconer with connections to a local survivalist group living out in some nearby wilderness public lands. Unfortunately for Pickett, the killing of the supervisor draws in a special FBI investigative team determined to use the killing as an excuse to forcefully break up the survivalist presence. The situation becomes more complicated as well as personal for Pickett when his foster daughter is kidnapped by her birth mother who happens to be a member of the survivalist group. Fortunately for Picket, his investigation reveals the real killer of the forest service supervisor and the accused falconer is freed from jail. Luckily for Pickett, the now freed man may be able to help Picket rescue his foster daughter and her troubled mother.

'Trophy Hunt' by C. J. Box front cover
Trophy Hunt (2004)
Box's fourth Joe Pickett mystery brings in a modern-day Jack the Ripper to Pickett's Wyoming home area. While fly-fishing with his daughters, Pickett discovers the body of a moose mutilated in a distinctive, vicious way. The discovery of the similar mutilation deaths of a small herd of cattle and then the bodies of two men prompt the forming of a task force to investigate. Pickett becomes part of investigating team which includes a corrupt local sheriff who is inclined to take to take the easy way out by blaming the killings on bear attacks. Pickett suspects that the precision of the mutilations indicates a human cause and his investigation leads to an amateur cattle mutilation expert in the area. The mutilation expert exudes creepy vibes but Pickett pursues every lead, including those that seem to point to aliens as the cause. It turns out that Pickett is actually pursuing a modern-day killer.

'Out of Range' by C. J. Box front cover

Out of Range (2005)
This is the fifth Joe Pickett outdoor mystery by C. J. Box. Pickett's mother-in-law is getting married to a big local rancher and he has become a little caught up in events when he receives word that a fellow game warden and good friend has committed suicide. Picket is assigned to take on the dead man's district. Unfortunately, the district he takes over happens to be around Jackson and this area is both a major center of environmental extremist activity and an elite playground for the rich and powerful. Picket copes with the new pressures but also finds time to think about his friend's death and realizes that the pressures he is feeling might explain it. In the end, Pickett has to muddle through family problems, pressures from developers, and animal rights protesters while figuring out how to keep these troubles from taking over his life.

'In Plain Sight' by C. J. Box front coverIn Plain Sight (2006)
Box's sixth Joe Pickett mystery finds Pickett investigating the odd disappearance of a wealthy ranch owner. The contest between her two sons over control of her assets distracts almost everyone from the disappearance itself, but Pickett pursues his investigation suspecting the involvement of one of the missing woman's sons. As Pickett digs into the suspicious disappearance, he attracts the attention of a newly arrived stranger. This man was hired by one of the missing woman's sons to help manager affairs and Pickett is attacked and nearly beaten to death by this man. It turns out the violent stranger is an ex-con and the brother of a dead man who he holds Pickett responsible for killing. There follows a series of threatening messages and attempts to sabotage Pickett's career, all part of this very personal grudge. Meanwhile, Pickett's self-serving boss calls him off of the case of the missing woman. In direct violation of his instructions, Pickett persists in his investigation, in the end paying for this decision with his job.

'Free Fire' by C. J. Box front coverFree Fire (2006)
This seventh Joe Pickett mystery is set in Yellowstone National Park. Pickett, having recently been fired from his job, begins working on his father-in-law's ranch. Out of the blue he receives a call from the governor's office and is asked investigate a case involving the murder of four campers in Yellowstone. The man who committed the murders turned himself into the nearest ranger station but the location of the murders makes the case problematic what with overlapping jurisdictions, no resident population, and such. This quirk of the law sets the killer free and the angry and frustrated governor asks Pickett to investigate the murders with the added carrot that he will get his game warden job back if he takes the case. Pickett leaps at the opportunity but soon finds things much more complicated than he originally thought they would be. Apparently the murderer has been involved in some sort of highly lucrative illegal activity in Yellowstone. As Picket and his partner dig further into the case, they discover that the key to the murders is in the Yellowstone terrain itself in the form of competition for bio-mining rights in the hot springs there.

'Blue Heaven' by C. J. Box front coverBlue Heaven (January, 2008)
The next anticipated novel by C. J. Box has been described as a thriller that spans a period of just over forty-eight hours. A twelve-year old girl and her younger brother have fled into the woods of North Idaho after witnessing a murder. In pursuit are the four killers they saw. These men are ex-cops and the children's disappearance becomes a perfect cover for them when they offer their services to the local sheriff in leading a search for the missing kids. There one hope is local rancher in whose barn the children take refuge. He is a man who needs allies to protect the children and their mother but who has no one to turn to. He is an old-timer in the local community but most of his neighbors have sold out to developers and the area is now populated almost totally by strangers without any links to the sort of community that would have provided some aid in the past. A retired California detective appears on the scene investigating the original San Diego robbery that is cause behind the murder by the four ex-cops, complicating things.

C. J. Box circa Fall 2007 black and white photographBlood Trail (May, 2008)
C. J. Box's eighth Joe Pickett novel, Blood Trail, will be published by Penguin Putnam in May, 2008. In this story, Pickett has become a special agent reporting directly to the governor. Pickett ends up getting some help from his friend, Nate Romanowski, in the investigation of the suspicious deaths of some elk hunters. Elk in gunsight color photographIt is elk season and it appears that someone is actually hunting elk hunters. Complicating things is the presence in town of a notorious anti-hunting activist and his followers. Pickett finds himself caught between people on both sides of the issue at the same time he is trying to solve a string of murders.

Sunrise over the Teton Mountains, Wyoming color photograph

Newer Article: Jennifer Lee Carrell, a skilled blending of history and literary fiction


Older Article: Philip K. Dick, the film adaptations of a master of speculative fiction

Creative Commons License
C. J. Box, a master of the outdoor mystery by Steven Williams is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available by contacting Steven Williams through Bookmarc's BookmarcsOnline.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Philip K. Dick

by Steven Williams

Philip K. Dick color photographPhilip Kindred Dick aka Philip K. Dick, born in 1928, was an American author who is most frequently recognized as writer of science fiction novels and stories. PKD aspired to a career in mainstream literature but his stylistic devices and subject material prevented the quality of his writing and the importance of his ideas from being widely recognized during his lifetime and left him relegated, at least in the mind of publishers, to the ghetto of pulp-style low-paying science fiction. This did not mean that PKD did not receive some recognition. Even though Kurt Vonnegut's fictional character Kilgore Trout is based loosely on the science fiction author Theodore Sturgeon, a large number of readers feel that the character of Trout is actually modeled on PKD. This comparison is based in part on Trout's back-story. He was supposed to have written profusely and creatively within the science fiction genre but remained in obscure poverty in part because of the genre's low status and its publishers' corresponding low pay rates to writers. Despite this association with pulp-style science fiction, PKD is now recognized as an important American writer. This is reflected in the fact that in 2007 he became the first science fiction writer published in The Library of America series. The Library of America is a publisher established specifically to preserve America's literary heritage by keeping important American classics permanently in print. Obviously, an ongoing reassessment of the writings of Dick has been taking place over the last several decades for this to happen and there is a growing popular realization that PKD was much more than a pulp-style science fiction writer.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick front cover color illustrationThe ongoing reassessment of Philip Dick as a writer is based on part on the prescience of his main thematic ideas. Most of his stories and novels take place in socially chaotic if not actually dystopic alternative worlds or near future times where the lives of ordinary people are exploited and dominated by monopolistic corporations and authoritarian government. Within these settings, PKD's characters are usually led to question their familiar reality and then come to terms with implications this has for their sense of their selves. Questioning both reality and identity provide PKD's works with a strong flavor of surrealism at the same time that the his stories lend themselves to the greatest dilemma of late twentieth century, postindustrial society: what crucial factor or factors determine what it is to be human. Part of the attractiveness of PKD's work is that he offers no definitive answer to this question. His fiction consistently expresses an explicit distrust of heroes and heroics and seems to instead imply that it is simply the quality of character and human kindness by ordinary people that should be the standard for what it means to be human.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep cover illustrationIn addition to Dick's questioning of what is reality and what is 'human', his fiction also tends to have references and situations related to his life-long difficulties with mental instability and drug use. These experiences seem to have contributed to his tendency to place his characters in situations involved in or related to drug use, paranoia, schizophrenia, religious experience, and theology. Despite this fairly personal attitude, most frequently found in his later work, this tendency combination with his ideas about the nature of reality and humanity seem to strike a chord with growing numbers of contemporary readers and social critics. PKD's resurgence among readers was coincidently taking place at about the same time that 'cyberpunk' became widely recognizable genre label for dystopic fiction in general. Unfortunately this happened at the very end of Dick's life (he died 1982). Philip K. Dick continues to be an important literary figure though and his ability to describe and imagine postindustrial humanity's malaise and anxieties has made his fiction highly suitable, if only for its core ideas, in film adaptations. The most important films that have been produced based on Philip K. Dick stories and books currently include Blade Runner (1982), Total Recall (1990), Barjo (1992), Screamers (1995), Imposter (2002), Minority Report (2002), Paycheck (2003), A Scanner Darkly (2006), and Next (2007).

Blade Runner color movie posterBlade Runner (1982)
The film Blade Runner was developed from the Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? It was also the only significant film to be made from one of PKD's works during his lifetime. As it happened, he only saw a rough cut of the film before his death. Significantly, before he saw the film he was particularly critical of the adaptation. Ridley Scott arranged the rough-cut showing and a meeting with PKD. The result was that Dick was astonished at how closely the atmosphere of the film matched his own imaginings about his novel. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick US 1st hardcover edition front coverThough he and Scott differed on significant points in the story and character development, PKD became an overt supporter for the film. The novel is set in the near future after a world war has destroyed much of the Earth. The United Nations is actively encouraging human beings to emigrate to off-world colonies by offering a custom-built android servant to each emigrant. Most androids and emigrant humans live on Mars but there are some androids that return to the Earth in an effort to escape their slavery to humans. These androids are constructed from organic components making them very difficult to detect. Bounty hunters are used to track down and kill fugitive androids posing as humans. The plot centers around one bounty hunter and his pursuit of especially dangerous, advanced refugee androids in hiding. PKD uses his main character's applications of 'tests' on suspected androids to emphasize the inherent humanness of empathy.

Total Recall region 1 DVD color sleeveTotal Recall (1990)
The screenplay for Total Recall developed out of the PKD novella We Can Remember It for You Wholesale, originally published in the April 1966 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction April 1966 front coverThe story is about an ordinary man, Douglas Quail, who wishes that he could afford to vacation on Mars. Because he is unable to afford such a luxury, he goes to a company that provides a service in which they implant memories of taking such a trip. The planned implant memories are available in a more exotic version in which the customer is able to pretend he is a heroic secret agent. In the process of implanting these false memories, the service discovers that Quail actually is an undercover assassin who knows a lot of dangerous secrets. Initially, he finds agents of the government pursuing him but he is able to make a deal to have the recovered memories suppressed once more. In compensation for this loss of identity, he also negotiates to have this newest set of false memories be of the heroic wish-fulfillment sort. During this second procedure, the memory implanting service discovers that the supposedly false heroic memories are already in place and are actually true.

Banjo aka Confessions d'un Barjo VHS sleeve front coverBarjo (1992)
Barjo, aka Confessions d'un Barjo, is based on Dick's non-science-fiction novel Confessions of a Crap Artist (written in 1959, published in 1975). This novel is about a socially awkward factory worker, Jack Isidore, who is obsessed with science. Confessions of a Crap Artist by Philip K. Dick Entwhistle Books edition front coverAs an adult, he pursues this interest by cataloging old science magazines, collecting odd bits of junk, and subscribing to odd, even crackpot scientific theories, keeping notes on it all in his 'scientific' journal of his life. His inability to function in the real world leads to his sister and her husband taking him in. They live on the farm and Isidore happily takes on household chores and helps care for the livestock. He also observes the deliberate cruelties and hurtful behaviour of his hosts. He eventually comes to terms with his own obsessions when his sister and her husband's own tendencies almost destroy them and their marriage.

Screamers region 1 DVD color sleeveScreamers (1995)
Screamers is based on the PKD short story Second Variety originally published in the May, 1953 issue of Space Science Fiction magazine. The setting of the story is Earth at some indefinite but near future in which the planet has sustained an atomic war between the West and the Soviets. Space Science Fiction May 1953 front coverThe war continues as a ground war in Europe and the Americans invent a self-replicating blade wielding robot killer that is designed to go after the Russians on the ground. These machines are very effective but then they evolve into a variant that is able to modify itself, the so called 'second variety'. After this change begins, the killing machines begin to go after anything living, not just the enemy. Their evolutionary adaptations also include the ability to mimic humans and this has also made them so difficult to detect that humans are threatened with extinction.

Imposter director’ cut region 1 DVD color sleeve
Imposter (2002)
This film is based on a PKD short story of the same name and originally published in the June, 1953 issue of Astounding Science Fiction magazine. A scientist is working at a top-secret government project. The security services have learned that a humanoid robot has been sent in by the aliens to infiltrate the facility. The scientist ends up being accusedAstounding Science Fiction June 1953 of being the android and so he sets out to clear his name by discovering the identity of the decoy. To add to the tension, the android is also known to have a self-destruct mechanism built into it. The hunt ends up being a psychological goose chase with an unexpectedly twisted but typically phildickian ending based on the question: Am I human or am I just programmed to believe I am Human?

Minority Report color movie posterMinority Report (2002)
This film is based on the PKD short story of the same name first published in the January, 1956 issue of Fantastic Universe magazine. The main character is John Anderton, the founder of the government murder prevention department called Precrime. The basis of this department are the 'precogs', mutant humans who are deformed and retarded but whose precognitive abilities are identified, enhanced, and developed by the government. Three of them are strapped into special chairs in one room kept in perpetual half-darkness and their babbling is recorded. A computer analyzes the superficially incoherent babble producing reports or predictions. Fantastic Universe January 1956 front coverComputers compare the three reports and whenever at least two overlap, a 'majority report' is generated and the information is used to prevent a murder by capturing the potential murderer. Anderton is accused of a precrime and when he goes looking for the 'minority report' that would guide him to his alternative future, he discovers that there actually never are any majority reports, all the reports are minority reports. Anderton is accused of being the future murderer of a General who is trying to discredit the Precrime department in order to shift more funding for the Defense Department. In the end, Anderton actually ends up killing the man anyway in order to protect the existence of Precrime.

Paycheck color movie posterPaycheck (2003)
"Small and useless things, under the wise eyes of a time traveler, might signify a great deal more." Paycheck is a very loose adaptation of the PDK short story with the same name originally published in the June 1953 issue of Imagination magazine. It is about a man who wakes up to find that the past two years of his memory have been erased. Apparently he accepted this as part of the conditions for a job he took, but instead of a salary, he has apparently chosen to instead receive only a bag of what seem to be worthless objects that he apparently picked out himself before his memory was changed. It turns out that he is one of the world's most skilled electricians Imagination June 1953 front coverand he was hired for a project for which the employer required the memory erasure as a security measure. Not long after waking up with the memory blank, he finds himself being pursued by Security police and it turns out that he is caught up in a vast conspiracy involving a technology for seeing into the future. The items turn out to be critical keys to his finding out the truth and saving himself.

A Scanner Darkly color movie posterA Scanner Darkly (2006)
This film is based on the novel by the same name first published in 1977. It is about an undercover police agent, Bob Arctor, who is a narcotics agent investigating sources of a drug called 'Substance D', a powerful psychoactive drug. Eventually the effects of the drug make him useless as an agent and he ends up forced to go through a cruel group-dynamic program actually designed to exploit the effects of his drug A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick front coveruse and leave him brainwashed and living in a zombie-like state. At this point he is sent to one of the Substance D rehabilitation centers which keep the former addicts busy performing simple farm labor. It turns out that Substance D comes from little blue flowers that are grown on large farms, hidden between rows of corn, and tended and harvested by the very same former Substance D addicts suffering from gross neurocognitive deficits caused by their drug addition.

Next color movie posterNext (2007)
Next is loosely adapted from the PKD short story The Golden Man originally published in If Worlds of Science Fiction magazine in the April 1954 issue. The story is set in post-World War III The Golden Man by Philip K. Dick first hardcover printing front coverAmerica where human mutants produced in the aftermath are a source of massive public paranoia. In response to this pervading fear, a sort of government Gestapo called the DCA has been set up to maintain social order and stability by strictly controlling what most people see as menacing freaks. A young mutant named Cris Johnson is captured by the DCA and though he is obviously a mutant, he is something different because he is perfect, like a Greek god, a Golden Man. He has more than good looks though. He has the ability to see his own future and that combined with his unnaturally fast reflexes insure that not only will he survive but the DCA is unable to hold onto him.

Blade Runner movie color still photograph

Newer Article: C. J. Box, a master of the outdoor mystery


Older Article: John Updike part 1, The Rabbit Books

Creative Commons License
Philip K. Dick, the film adaptations of a master of speculative fiction by Steven Williams is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available by contacting Steven Williams through Bookmarc's BookmarcsOnline.

BookmarcsOnline BookBlog

Bookmarc's BookmarcsOnline web site uses strong security
measures, including 256-bit high-grade SSL encryption, to
protect the loss, misuse and alteration of your
personal information.

Bookmarc's encryption protection
is provided by Thwate through Chrislands, our website
hosting service. Thawte is a leading global certification
authority and their digital certificates are used globally
to secure servers, provide data encryption, authenticate
users, protect privacy and assure online identities
through stringent authentication and verification

BookmarcsOnline BookBlog

Bookmarc's Home | About Bookmarc's | Contact Bookmarc's | Bookmarc's Store Policies | Bookmarc's Privacy Policy | Bookmarc's Shipping Charges

Questions, comments, or suggestions
Please write to

***Click on this link to unsubscribe from the Bookmarc's BookBlog Newsletter***

Biblio Book Search

PayPal logo