Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Needful Things: Comics Code Authority Cufflinks

Here’s a find for the well-dressed comic book lover: Comics Code Authority cufflinks.

Custom-made cufflinks from Etsy seller Jon Turner.

Jon Turner, a craftsman in Manchester, England, makes clever custom cufflinks from glass cabochons and vintage Comics Code Authority logos. These babies just might make it worth getting some shirts with French cuffs. I’ll happily trade in a ball gown for a tux—at least until these are available as a statement necklace.

Any true comics fan is familiar with the code, introduced by the Comics Magazine Association of America in 1954 as a response to public outrage over sexual innuendo and horror elements in comics. Comic book publishers voluntarily submitted their works to be screened, though to opt out meant doom for sales, as hardly anyone would stock material without the logo, and even fewer parents would let their kids have it.

Spider-Man comic with Comics Code authority logo in the upper-right corner. Marvel would abandon the code in 2001.

MAD magazine famously morphed itself from a comic book format to a magazine in order to avoid the issue completely. The code existed as recently as 2011, when the last two publishers to hold on to it, DC Comics and Archie Comics, let it go.

Now the Comics Code Authority is just a piece of history, and good riddance. The rules were so strict as to not even allow the word “crime”, “horror,” or “terror” in the title of a comic, which effectively killed titles like Vault of Horror and Crime SuspenStories

Horror comics were big sellers before the code disallowed the use of the word "horror."

For kicks, take a look at the complete list of Comics Code Authority regulations. The level of detail is insane. That anyone creative managed to work under these rules without losing their mind is surprising.

I’m glad the Comics Code Authority is a relic now, and I’d much rather see the logo on wrists than on comic books.


Monday, January 13, 2014

The Free Bin: How to Write a Bestseller Edition

A collection of links gathered while doing something besides writing or reading books. Take a look, then get back to reading or writing. We all should, right?

Can word choice really determine a book's ability to become a bestselling classic? (Ruth_W/Creative Commons License)

  • Some computer scientists have developed an algorithm they say predicts a book’s commercial success with 84% accuracy. After downloading tons of books from classics to crap (you’ll have to read the article to see where they put Dan Brown), they’ve come up with a number of factors, including word choice, that can affect sales. Alas, they admit that luck still plays a huge role. 
  • We live in a culture that seemingly celebrates creative thinking. The truth is, people like the idea of creativity, but will fight against it. From Slate:  “Online job boards burst with ads recruiting ‘idea people’ and ‘out of the box’ thinkers. We are taught that our own creativity will be celebrated as well, and that if we have good ideas, we will succeed. It’s all a lie.”
  • E-readers have made it easier for people to read surreptitiously, which may be how this 1925 title has become a surprise bestseller in digital form.
“When the author’s agent initially asked the author who he thought the readers of his proposed book would be and he defensively replied, ‘Everyone,’ do you think the author should have immediately realized that there is a thin line between everyone and no one?”

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Thursday, January 9, 2014

Favorite Books Read in 2013: Psycho-Noir, Grifters, and All-Around Bleakness

This year was a big transition year for me, with leaving my job at the bookstore to freelance full time. My routine is drastically different, and I’m still not used to it, which may be why I only completed about sixty books this year. Much like my life, the choices were all over the place. There was a pretty big emphasis on old-school crime and noir, but I also read some classics, plenty of non-fiction, and I even managed a few books actually published in 2013.

Regular readers might notice that I haven’t reviewed any of my favorites on the blog. It’s because of something I’ve mentioned before: I have the greatest difficulty writing about the books I love most. If they’re good enough to affect me in some big way, I find that hard to articulate. My goals for the coming year are not only to read more books and to read more books published in this century, but to better learn how to write about great writing. Luckily, I have some fellow bloggers who are modeling that for me.

These, then, are the books I read in 2013 that I enjoyed so much that I couldn’t find the words to tell you about them in any detail, but I’m going to try.

Last year’s round-up included McCoy’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, and I liked it enough to seek out more from this underrated noir writer. After reading Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, I daresay Horace McCoy may be the best noir writer you’ve never read (if you haven’t). The book opens with Ralph Cotter making a prison break, assisted by Holiday, the sister of a fellow inmate. As soon as he’s free, Cotter is scheming, and the cons escalate as he attempts not just to make more money, but to climb socially, as he believes he is above … well, just about everyone. Cotter’s superiority complex is fascinating, as he can’t even walk down the street without feeling intense loathing for humanity, describing the noon-day crowd:

“ … girls and women with as many different shades of red gashes in their faces, through which teeth occasionally showed, as you have fingers and toes; and guys in linen coats and seersucker coats and shirtsleeves, all fetishests too, lip fetishes—cigars and cigarettes and toothpicks, these are the fetishes that could be seen and God knows how many that couldn’t, the most sinful of which was probably mediocrity: cheap, common, appalling people, the kind a war, happily, destroys. What is your immediate destiny, you loud little unweaned people? A two-dollar raise? A hamburger and a hump?”

“She was less than human, and aren’t we all.” - Joseph Downs in Corrosion.

I recently reviewed this psycho-noir from independent publisher DarkFuse for Hellnotes, where I agreed with others who have called Bassoff a cross between Jim Thompson and David Lynch, though I threw in Flannery O’Connor for good measure. The truth is, no string of literary comparisons are going to tell you enough, because this debut author has a singular voice, and he’s written a hell of a disturbing novel—one that digs down into the roots of depravity, violence, and obsession. (It’s just occurred to me that I could make an additional comparison: to Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory, another book that grows more unsettling as history is revealed.) The book opens with Joseph Downs, a war veteran with a horribly-scarred face, having vehicle trouble in a small town he’d meant to pass through. Who Downs is, how he got that way, what he’s done, and what he will do, are all things that reveal the very origins of evil, and the repercussions of growing up damaged.

Zeroville by Steve Erickson (2007)

I’ve got to start noting why I purchase a particular book, especially if it’s a long while before I get to it. Sometimes I’m unsure if I nabbed an e-book because it was free, I read a great review, or it came up as a suggested read for fans of ___. I don’t know how Zeroville ended up in my hands, but I’m glad it did.

Film-obsessed Vikar Jerome arrives in Hollywood in 1969 at the same time as the Manson Murders, his shaved-and-tattooed head (bearing the images of Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor on opposing lobes) bewildering to people at a time when only bikers and circus freaks have tattoos.  Vikar is somewhat of a mystery, and it’s hard to tell at times if he’s brain-damaged. He has a tendency to blurt out bits of things at odd moments: quotes, pieces of film trivia, things he’s heard other people say. At times, they’re interpreted as genius, and there’s some resemblance to Kosinski’s Being There. The thing about Vikar is: he might be a genius. An insane one, but a genius nonetheless. There’s a good reason his friend refers to him as a cineautistic.

Like one of my favorite books, Theodore Roszak’s Flicker (perhaps a clue to how I found this novel), Zeroville turns the entirety of film history into a conspiracy of sorts, finding the connections between seemingly unrelated films and people. It’s crammed with film facts, but they’re fascinating rather than show-offish, dropped in wherever they make sense. (“ … he orders a chicken pot pie at Musso & Frank, where Billy Wilder used to lunch with Raymond Chandler while they were both writing Double Indemnity, both drinking heavily because they couldn’t stand each other.”) Real celebrities drift in and out of the book, some named, others as thinly-disguised fictitious versions of themselves that led me to want to find out more (Soledad Palladin, it turns out, is Zeroville’s version of Jess Franco’s muse Soledad Miranda). What have I left out? The birth of punk rock at CBGB’s, weird sex, the rise of independent film and the decline of the big Hollywood studios: all the things Vikar encounters as he goes from being a strange and difficult set designer to an acclaimed film editor, spanning the ‘60s through the ‘80s in what’s almost a crash-course on popular culture history. Add Zeroville to your to-read list, and after you’ve read it, you’ll end up with some things on your to-watch list.

 I’ve read quite a few books under the Hard Case Crime imprint, but I aim to read them all. Grifter’s Game is the very first, and it’s a knockout. It’s a reprint of a classic crime novel originally titled Mona, and I’m pleased that the title was changed, because it allowed for more surprise. (The book’s second title is one I won’t even tell you, if you don’t know it. It’s practically a spoiler.) I was expecting something more along the lines of a traditional con story, which makes the book sort of a con in itself. It’s got all the trappings of a typical con: stolen heroin, piles of cash, fake names, and a super-sexy blonde. It’s also got some of the snappiest writing around. What takes this cool crime story into noir territory is what happens after the deal goes down, and anyone familiar with the genre will realize like I did about mid-way through: this is all going a bit too well. When things go wrong in Grifter’s Game, they go wronger than I believe I’ve ever read. The ending is a doozy, and one that kept me awake at night thinking about it. I think there’s a reason this book has never been filmed. Hollywood wouldn’t touch an ending like this with a ten-foot pole. Too bad, because no one would ever forget it.

A lot of high praise exists for the second book of Ellroy’s L.A Quartet, but my favorite blurb about it is from the The Detroit Press: “It’s Hieronymus Bosch between hard covers.” Imagine a triptych in stark black-and-white, painted with a noir brush, encompassing every bit of fear, filth, and seediness in 1950: jazz clubs, sex murders, the Red Scare, The Zoot Suit riots, police corruption, drugs, despair. Bosch painted nightmares, and that’s what this is. Ellroy wields language like a weapon, and holy smokes does he know how to use it. Real-life characters like Howard Hughes and gangster Mickey Cohen mingle with fictitious ones, and they make for nice distractions while Ellroy prepares a series of twists that feel like gut punches.

I wrote about this book as part of my Halloween round-up in October. I’ll quote myself.

“It takes a special writer to make something that is both frightening and beautiful at the same time. Like Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal or the movies of David Lynch, Maistros’ The Sound of Building Coffins manages to find what’s lovely in life, while simultaneously, as Eliot said of John Webster, seeing the skull beneath the skin. The book takes place in New Orleans in 1891 (before jazz, if you can imagine the city without it), and deals with murder, possession, decay, infant death, prostitution, crime, and disease. The fact that there’s beauty in these things is due to Maistros’ writing, plus his ability to see the larger picture of death and birth. “

Some other standouts this year were Stephen King’s Joyland (2013), which got some grief for not fitting the Hard Case Crime imprint so well, but it still a nice novel, full of bittersweet nostalgia and some genuine creeps. It reminded me of the best of M. E. Kerr’s writing. Zola’s The Fortune of the Rougons did all of the things Zola usually does to me (ripped my heart out, stomped on it some, wouldn’t stop until I cried). Christa Faust’s short “Cutman” was the most fun thing I read on a plane this year, and is largely responsible for my new-found boxing obsession.

Quite a cocktail of dark stuff, but that’s what I like. If you do too, consider subscribing to my blog, via RSS or one of the other options to the right. You can also like Book Dirt on Facebook (also to the right).

What kicked you in the gut in 2013?

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Stephen Booth's Black Dog Is .99 for Kindle

It's not typical for me to make a post solely to tout a Kindle deal, but if I come across more that are this good, I won't be able to help myself.

Stephen Booth's Cooper & Fry series is one of my favorite British mystery series of the last ten years. Black Dog is the first of the series, released in 2001, and I knew when I first read it that I'd found something right up my twisted alley. Booth's mysteries are dense, dark, atmospheric, and smart, reminiscent of the works of Val McDermid or the better writing of Peter Robinson.

Click photo for additional information.

I'm not sure how long Black Dog will be bargain priced it, so nab it now, if you're intrigued.

Click to buy Stephen Booth's Black Dog for Kindle.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Book Review: Corrosion by Jon Bassoff

I’m moonlighting at Hellnotes—a review site for horror media. Some of my regular readers might appreciate my review there for Corrosion, a psycho-noir from DarkFuse press. I namedrop Jim Thompson, Lawrence Block, David Lynch, and Flannery O’Connor in the short span of 500 words. Those are big names, but Corrosion was one of my favorite reads of the year.
Jon Bassoff's Corrosion: one of my top picks for 2013. Click the image for more information.

Check out the full review. I’d love to receive some comments there, as I’m a newcomer to the Hellnotes gang.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

10 Worst Typos of the Year for 2013

There are two things that go through most writers’ heads when they spot an egregious typographical error: first, a feeling of superiority, followed in many cases by relief. (Whew! It wasn’t me!) Here are ten of the past year’s worst errors to make it into print, or— in at least one case—into mint.

#10) A football player by any other name …

Whoever made the jerseys for Mississippi State managed the correct spelling for players like Siddoway, Mordecai, and Bohanna, but it must have been close to lunch break when they got to the shirt for Artimas Samuel. (And thank goodness they didn’t have to include his first name.)

Samuel fared better than Washington-based Indoor Football League wide receiver Steven Whitehead did in a TV interview, though:


#9) Barry Bonds is dead.

Rumors of baseball MVP Barry Bonds’ demise have been greatly exaggerated—at least by the Associated Press. An article mentioning Bonds’ December, 2003 grand jury testimony reported that “Barry Bonds died in August of that year.” Deadspin caught the error before it was corrected, remarking, “Well, at least he got to time travel before he died.”

#8) Lance Armstrong: big fan of Persian carpets.

Via Sports Mole.

A Canadian news network made a startling revelation about Lance Armstrong. Or not-so-startling. It rather depends on how you feel about floor coverings.

#7) First, worst. To-may-to, to-mah-to.


Democratic PAC Emily’s List endorsed Massachusett’s Attorney General Martha Coakley in her gubernatorial bid … sort of. The site read: "We've just endorsed Martha in her race to be the worst woman elected governor in Massachusetts."

#6) Newspaper wins big awards, loses spelling bee.

Via Poynter.

The problem with tooting your own horn is making sure you spell “horn” correctly. A Halifax, Nova Scotia newspaper managed to misspell its own name in a headline proclaiming its many awards.

#5) West Virginia spills their guts.

Via Larry Brown Sports.

According to the Weirton Daily Times, West Virginia University lost more than just the game when they were defeated in the Pinstripe Bowl. Of the 38-14 loss to Syracuse, Larry Brown Sports said, “When you get smashed that badly by a 7-5 team, you deserve a typo like that.”

(Note: this typo appeared at the tail-end of 2012, just after the posting of that year’s typo review.)

#4) Americans like to put Velveeta where?

The worst thing about this Livestrong article isn’t the fact that it asks a question even a child could probably answer correctly. No, look more closely. I’ll give you a minute if you’d like to spot it yourself (right click "view image" to enlarge). Got it? “The gooey product has a permanent home in many Americans’ panties.” The error was around for almost two years before it was pointed out by Boing Boing last January. Unlike Velveeta’s home in my panties, online errors don’t have to be permanent.

#3) Somebody was L-bent on painting this sign.

Via The Big Lead.

Players in the College World Series in Omaha may have been proud to be there, but probably weren’t as proud to sit in a dugout with the word “college” misspelled on it. There’s something about an error in huge painted letters that seems far worse than a mere typographical error. It’s easy to type too quickly and miss something, but how exactly does that happen with paint? (And is it called a painto?) 

#2) A high school athlete has a new nickname.

Via Reddit.

Somewhere, a yearbook staff member is switching to Home Ec. (More here.)

#1) Copy editors: not infallible.

Via The Telegraph.

When the Vatican issued a new coin to commemorate the first year of Pope Francis’ papacy, a few were sold before someone noticed a pretty serious misspelling: Jesus was rendered as Lesus. Said The Atlantic: “Ludge not, lest ye be ludged.”

Bonus entry: worst layout of the year.

Via Breaking News.

Empire magazine’s interview with Michael Fassbender suffered from a rookie design mistake. Fassbender himself appears to be reacting in embarrassment.

If you missed last year’s typos of the year, check them out. They’re still plenty funny.

What’s the worst typo or error you’ve spotted recently? Or, if you’re not too ashamed to tell, what’s the worst one you’ve made?