Sunday, December 20, 2015

Star Wars Episode 7, or: What a Piece of Junk

When Jerry Seinfeld wanted to end his sitcom, many viewers protested. They wanted the show to continue. Jerry, though in a very condescending tone, responded by saying viewers really don't know what they want, and if you just give in to their demands, they will ultimately be less happy. It might be nice, he explained, for them to have one thing in their life that didn't go on too long and end up sliding into mediocrity.

That brings us to Star Wars.

I don't think I've ever been so let down by a franchise before. Maybe the current James Bond reboot, but even that hasn't left me as pissed off as Episode 7, and the prequels, and the Special Editions, have left me.

The original Star Wars films are probably some of the best examples of storytelling in modern history. Everything you need to know about pacing, structure, characters--it's all there. When Lucas and his cast were hungry and unknown, they produced magic. Now that everybody is a millionaire, we get a steaming pile of Bantha fodder. Problem is, the public seems to like Bantha fodder. A lot. We'll save that argument for another time.

Without going into spoilers, Episode 7 is like having the same Thanksgiving leftovers for a whole week. Eventually even thinking about turkey makes you sick, yet J.J. Abrams and his people have made a film that serves leftover turkey not for five days, but for a month. Instead of digging deep into their imaginations, and maybe even using current events (as the First Order could be a disguised ISIS), they instead mined the other movies (all six for hate's sake!) for ideas and re-used them with younger people playing different parts. Something bad happened in the galaxy a long time ago, AND NOW IT'S HAPPENING AGAIN ALMOST THE SAME WAY AS BEFORE!!!

We even get another whining emo sissy for a Dark Jedi. Do they come any other way?

I expected more. A lot more.

Heck, the Expanded Universe novels that started back in the '90s with Timothy Zahn's excellent "Thrawn Trilogy" were a better follow-up than the steaming pile in theaters now. That's the material that should have been mined. Instead they did the bare minimum and gave us what we've already had for decades.

They also negated everything that happened at the end of Return of the Jedi, and didn't explain how the galaxy wound up in such shambles after the defeat of the Empire. That would have taken thought and maybe a little imagination; all Abrams and his crew had on their minds was "pew pew pew".

What we're left with are a lot of neat visuals to look at, but nothing of any substance.

Worse, Lucas has all but made the unaltered originals impossible to get after "fixing" what wasn't broken. Luckily, I still have them on VHS.

Of course I'm in the minority. I suppose I'm a "hater" that's "gonna hate" or whatever the kids are saying today after somebody else tells them to say it.

But in going full circle with my Seinfeld introduction, there was a time when Lucas was aloof about Star Wars. Maybe he'd do more, maybe he wouldn't, the fans clamored for more, he gave in. And now some of us are less happy, because there was a time when Star Wars was good, and not having any more made what we had even better. Star Wars has completed the slide to mediocrity, and now it's in the hands of Disney who will continue producing Bantha fodder until who knows when.

A few other observations:

Harrison Ford. Dude, if you hated Han Solo so much, why did you agree to do this? You've crapped on the fans. And by the way? You look like a tired, washed-up Mr. Magoo. Yup, I noticed your hand shaking when holding your pistol. Die young, leave a good-looking corpse--that means you.

Carrie Fisher. What a trooper. She did what she could while having nothing to work with, but 90% of the nation's Botox supply is in her face.

Mark Hamill. Where to start? I suppose I can't blame him, per se, but why let your character be assassinated the way it was? You defeated the Emperor and Darth Vader and now you run at the first sign of you-know-who emulating Grandpa? Way to let you-also-know-who get killed along with a gazillion others.

The new actors. It might have been nice just to have the new people in this show and none of the regulars as they deal with the collapse of the New Republic under the First Order, and have to make it up as they go instead of having the "wisdom" of Solo and Leia to tell them what do to. The new characters are certainly worth spending time with, but they're caught in a vortex of repetition, and they're situations are less compelling because of it.

You're probably going to go see the show anyway, but if you must, wait for the DVD.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

My Top 5 Favorite Bond Novels

Having now seen SPECTRE, I’m on a kick of all things James Bond despite my continued dislike of the Craig era. Like Q’s balloon in Octopussy, the Craig era runs on hot air. The Broccolis don’t make James Bond movies anymore. There’s a guy on screen who says his name is Bond, but he’s not any Bond I recognize.

To take my mind off the agony, as one author once quipped, I got to thinking about my favorite Bond novels and came up with my Top 5 picks for the “Best of Bond”.

Feel free to add your picks in the comments.

5) Casino Royale. The first is last. I’ve never been shy of saying how much I love this book or how many times I’ve read the whole thing or delighted in certain sections, and while it’s excellent, it has flaws that don’t bring it close to the top slot.

4) For Your Eyes Only. Some great short stories here, and one that should be a classic--“Quantum of Solace”. It’s an amazing insight into Bond’s life and Fleming’s most complex piece of work.

3) From Russia, With Love. Here’s your spy story to end all spy stories, if only Fleming hadn’t chosen the ending that goes with it. If anything, the follow-up, Dr. No, ruins what was otherwise a great lead-in. “Dr. No and his Giant Squid” always leaves a poor taste in my mouth, and it’s hard to get excited about a book where the central plot hinges on literally a load of bird shit. Read Russia and the second chapter of Dr. No and call it a book.

2) The Spy Who Loved Me. I don’t care what anybody says, I like this book. It’s not only a change of pace, but an alternate view of Bond that really works. I’ve advocated elsewhere that this was the book where Fleming intended to kill off Bond, have him go over some version of the Reichenbach Falls, but that ultimately didn’t happen. The third section of the book is terrific and one I read often.

1) Moonraker. Fleming’s best is his third, one that is a better introduction to Bond than Casino Royale, ironically. Everything Fleming learned from the first two books comes to fruition here. Moonraker is Fleming’s most tightly-plotted, nail-biting novel. The climax is tremendous, with one of the best-written car chases ever. I wish the movie had been half as good. The BBC seem to be going through the Bond canon for radio plays. I hope they get to Moonraker soon as I can imagine how great it will sound.

Now this list doesn’t mean I don’t like the other books. I’ve read the series in and out of order so many times it’s not funny, it’s a sickness. Fleming is a wonderful storyteller, but I don’t need to go into that here. This list reflects the Bond books I’d want could I not have the whole set.

Maybe someday I’ll get around to picking my favorite Bond films.

Any movie with Daniel Craig won’t be on that list.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Interview with Stephen Mertz

I am very happy to present to you an interview with Stephen Mertz, probably one of the best action/adventure writers working the beat.

Stephen recently released a book of his short fiction, The King of Horror and Other Stories, and you need to get this one. Short punchy fiction is an art form; Mertz shines from beginning to end, and includes a personal essay where he retraces his career and provides insight into his fast-paced writing world. You may know him from his work on Mack Bolan, MIA Hunter, and a whole bunch of other books, including the new Blaze! western series from Rough Edges Press.

However, he can talk about all this better than I can, so. . . 

Brian Drake: Please tell us about your new story collection.

Stephen Mertz: This past year has been a busy and fun one for me. I wrote three novels and, including reprints, had six books published. The crown jewel is The King of Horror & Other Stories, a complete collection of my published short fiction. I’m proud of these stories. The collection is a distillation of my work in terms of genres and themes.
BD: When did you start writing, and when did you decide to make that a career?

Stephen Mertz
SM: Wrote my first story at age thirteen. Decided to make writing a career as soon as I found out that one could make it a career.
BD: What is something, other than reading great books, that fuels your imagination for your own stories?

SM: Women!
BD: Ha! The good ones and bad ones, right? Especially the bad. . . 

After being in the business for so long, do you find your level of enthusiasm has increased, or remained the same, from when you started? Did you ever consider an easier line of work, such as a high-wire act?

SM: Man, in this business if you ain’t enthused, don’t even bother showing up. From the writer’s perspective, there’s much to be enthused about. New markets opening up, avenues for getting our work to the audience, it’s like the dawn of television or the paperback original. Anything goes, and I work well under those conditions. I haven’t self-published yet but I certainly wouldn’t rule it out. The opportunities for writers, thanks to our digital age, are more abundant than any I’ve known since I broke in.

BD: When I was avidly reading The Executioner series in high school, I'd always look forward to a book with your name on the copyright page. Did you enjoy working on Mack Bolan? How did you come to write what many fans consider classics of the series, such as Day of Mourning and Dead Man Running?

SM: Thank you for the kind words. I had an edge in that Don Pendleton and I were personal friends, so I went into the Gold Eagle program with a solid knowledge of the character and series up to that point. I enjoyed writing a dozen titles about Mack Bolan but remember, that’s when I was just getting started. I felt like I was traveling on borrowed gas. I have my own stories to tell.

BD: Other Bolan titles, such as Beirut Payback and Save the Children, are terrific titles that elevated The Executioner above many action series of the day. Did you have a free hand with content, or did Gold Eagle force you into the formula that a lot of what you might have wanted to do got left out?

SM: I had a free hand. Again, my friendship with Don carried clout. None of the GE editors understood jack about what Don had created and sold to them. They were corporate suits filling slots in a publishing schedule. It was funny. When they flew me up to their HQ in Toronto for story conferences, all I needed to say was, “Well, Don always said…” and they’d all shush and start scribbling in their notebooks.

BD: Your MIA Hunter series is back in e-book form...are you surprised at the fan enthusiasm that still exists for this series? How do you see it fitting into the times we live in now?

SM: Not surprised in the least. With the current state of the thriller being primarily over-written, padded, top-heavy “doorstop books,” I’m happy to say that readers are embracing these shorter, faster, rough-and-tumble stories. As for the times we’re living through now, well, Mark Stone & Co. are alive and well and not just in reprint. I’m presently in the final revision phase of a new M.I.A. Hunter novel.
BD: What drew you to action/adventure? Or is that where the money was? If you weren't writing series books, would you have done your own action thrillers along the lines of Ludlum or Clancy?

SM: I’ve never made a career decision based on money. For me, it’s always about what I want to write. The same things drew me to the action/adventure genre as a writer that attracted you as a reader. Beyond my series work, I have written the standalone type of thriller you cite, starting with Blood Red Sun. These are available in e-book format. My complete bibliography can be found at James Patterson isn’t exactly looking over his shoulder yet, but reviews and sales have been favorable enough for me to continue in that direction.

BD: Other than Don Pendleton, which author taught you the most about the writing life?

SM: I’ve always enjoyed reading articles, biographies and interviews with writers even if I’ll never read their work. The process of writing interests me as much as the writing itself. Everyone and everything I’ve ever read has taught me something.

BD: Can you tell us a little about your relationship with Don?

SM: It started with a fan letter (from me to him, I hasten to add!), which led to me becoming his assistant while he was still being published by Pinnacle. Don recommended me to Gold Eagle when they took over the franchise, and we remained friends until his passing. Don’s widow, Linda, is one of my favorite people.

BD: Tell us about your western series, Blaze!, and where the idea for the series came from. What gave you the idea to bring in other writers rather than doing it all yourself?

SM: These are edgy, sexy, fast-action westerns. Try as I might I couldn’t think of any married, husband-wife gunfighter teams so I decided to give the genre a new wrinkle. The series is a ton of fun to write, and reader response has been enthusiastic. Rough Edges Press went with a bi-monthly release schedule. Since I cannot produce that fast, I was lucky in that some friends who also happen to be damn good writers agreed to contribute to the series.

BD: What are you working on next?

SM: A novel about Jimi Hendrix.

BD: Certainly sounds intriguing! Can't wait to see what you do. Thanks for stopping by, Stephen, and best of luck with The King of Horror and Other Stories.