Friday, March 30, 2012

3 Starred Reviews

DON'T EVER GET OLD has earned coveted starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Review and Booklist.  These are three of the four major trade publications which review most trade releases. Only about one out of every ten to twenty books reviewed gets a star, so this kind of early critical consensus is really exciting. 

Friedman’s excellent debut introduces a highly unusual hero, 87-year-old, politically incorrect Buck Schatz, a former member of the Memphis PD, who’s become a living legend. Schatz’s memory is less and less reliable, and his physical decline is making his world “a gradually shrinking circle.” That circle becomes a good deal larger after he agrees to a request to visit Jim Wallace, a soldier he served with in WWII who’s on his deathbed. Wallace reveals that Heinrich Ziegler, the SS officer who ran the POW camp where both Schatz and Wallace were imprisoned, survived the war. On top of that shocker, Wallace reveals that he facilitated the Nazi’s escape in exchange for a gold bar. Schatz’s furious reaction accelerates Wallace’s demise and sets off a frantic search for Ziegler and the treasure he still possesses.

Friedman makes his limited lead plausible, and bolsters the story line with wickedly funny dialogue.

A geezer cowboy who’s been retired from Memphis Homicide longer than he served there is thrust into the middle of a murderous hunt for Nazi plunder.

What a shame that when Jim Wallace was on his deathbed, he asked his old comrade-in-arms Buck Schatz to come see him. The two had never been friends, and they don’t bond now over Jim’s revelation that he’d accepted a bar of gold in return for letting the supposedly dead Heinrich Ziegler, the SS commandant of the POW camp where both GIs languished in 1944, pass through a military crossing and out of history. As if Jim’s confession weren’t bad enough, Buck soon realizes that Jim blabbed to everyone he could reach from his hospital bed. Now Jim’s daughter Emily and her repellant husband Norris, Baptist preacher Lawrence Kind, Israeli agent Yitzchak Steinblatt and casino debt collector T. Addleford Pratt are all convinced that Buck is on the trail of Ziegler and his gold, and they’re all determined to cut themselves in for a piece of the action. Worse still, someone doesn’t trust natural causes to eliminate his competitors. Since he’s 88 years old, Buck’s clear mandate is to go back to watching daytime TV. Instead, he pokes Det. Randall Jennings with a stick and, when that fails, enlists his grandson William, aka Tequila, to spend his summer off from NYU Law School helping him track down Ziegler. The real prize here, however, isn’t Nazi treasure but Buck’s what-the-hell attitude toward observing social pieties, smoking in forbidden venues and making life easier for other folks. As he battles memory loss and a host of physical maladies, it’s great to see that he can still make whippersnapper readers laugh out loud.
A sardonically appealing debut for a detective who assures his long-suffering grandson, “I care about people. I just don’t like them.”

The title of this knockout of a book is misleading. Ninetyish, retired Memphis homicide cop Buck Schatz makes coot-dom look like a riot. Buck is an abrasive old party with not an ounce of codger cuteness. He has trouble remembering, his skin has grown papery, he can’t push his lawn mower anymore. But his cop’s watchfulness is intact. He keeps his .375 Magnum close by. He’s a death-camp survivor—his real name is Baruch—and right off, he learns that the sadistic guard who brutalized him is likely still alive and the possessor of much stolen Nazi gold. To honor the Nazi’s victims and maybe grab the gold, Buck and his chatterbox grandson go on a quest. But who are these people who suddenly come out of the woodwork—a loan shark, a scholar, a pretty Israeli soldier? And why does everyone start dying? In prose as straightforward and tough as old Buck, the plot reveals its secrets with perfect timing. It’s a shock when the killer’s identity is revealed. But, then, we think eventually, who else could it be?

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Did This Con-Artist Trick The Big Six Into Publishing Him?

Mitchell Graham's mugshot
Via Ann Crispin and Victoria Strauss at Writer Beware, comes the fascinating tale of Mitchell Gross, a.k.a. Mitchell Graham.

Graham is the author of five books; three fantasy novels and two mysteries.  HarperCollins publishes his fantasy series and Tor/Forge put out his mysteries.  Graham is also a felon. He swindled women he met on Jdate for millions of dollars.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution story linked above describes how Graham persuaded his girlfriend to "invest" over three million dollars with a nonexistent financial manager, how he sent her fake tax forms, and how he used her life savings to support his lavish lifestyle and pay off his ex-fiancee, who he'd bilked out of $1.4 million using a similar scheme.

But, years before he duped his lovers, he may have conned a literary agent into representing him, and HarperCollins into publishing his book.

In 2002, Graham "won" the gold medal for fantasy and the overall grand prize in the prestigious third-annual Delmont-Ross writing contest.  There was no fourth-annual Delmont-Ross writing contest, and there was never a second or a first.

Writer Beware is the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers' of America's scam-watching task-force.  The Delmont-Ross contest came to their attention because writers who had seen publicity about Graham's book asked SFWA about the contest, and how they could enter it.  Writer Beware found that Borders and Merrill-Lynch, the purported sponsors of the contest, had never heard of it, and there was no trace of any Delmont-Ross foundation.  Prominent sci-fi writer Ben Bova who was hired to judge the contest, told Writer Beware that Graham's manuscript was the only "finalist" submitted for his consideration.

The Delmont-Ross award was fake.  Graham made it up, so he could give his manuscript a "grand prize."  Then he sent out fake press releases, ostensibly from a Merrill-Lynch trust administrator, announcing his victory.  He also placed an announcement about the award in Locus magazine, a legitimate sci-fi/fantasy publication.

In interviews with the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and the online journal Writers Write, Graham claimed that he was inundated by requests for the manuscript from agents and publishers after his Delmont-Ross announcement. If he's telling the truth (which he almost never is), this con man actually got literary agents to query him!

I'm not going to muck up his agent's Google results by putting her name in this post, because she did exactly what an agent is supposed to do.  She got him a 3 book deal.  But I wonder if the agent really reached out to him based on his phony press releases, or if she was persuaded to offer representation by his grand prize in the prestigious Delmont-Ross competition.

There's no way a con like this would work today.  Agents are inundated with too many submissions to chase down the winners of writing contests they've never heard of.  And there are so many contests these days that  even legitimate awards don't carry a lot of cachet with agents.  But agents were a lot harder to get in touch with a decade ago, queries were only accepted by snail-mail, and the slushpiles were a lot smaller.  Maybe agents ten years ago were subjected to a lower concentration of insanity.  A completely phony announcement could have looked very credible, in those days, if it was placed in a legitimate publication.

Anyway, for bonus Mitchell Graham hilarity:

In this interview he claims to have corresponded at length, over a period of many years, with both C S Lewis and J R R Tolkien.

And, in this article, which Writer Beware fished out of the deep recesses of the Internet, Graham claims that Stephen Spielberg personally called him on the phone to option his books for film.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Being Times Square Elmo

Let’s assume, for purposes of keeping me from getting sued or arrested, that Elmo is my name.  Like, my actual name.  I’m just some guy who happens to be named Elmo.  Elmo is a name that people have, sometimes, so this is a fact that could, conceivably, be true.  There was a saint named Elmo.  All similarities to well-known media properties are entirely coincidental. 

"I've got something you can tickle."
No, I don’t have any identification to back that claim up.  I’m wearing a fuzzy, red costume.  It’s got a round, orange felt nose, big googly eyes, and no pockets.  I don’t carry a wallet.  I have a cloth sack with the word “TIPS” stamped on it with plastic bedazzled rhinestones.  There’s no driver’s license or passport in my sack.  No credit cards, either.  Men with sacks don’t tend to have credit cards.  So you’re just going to have to trust me.

The costume is unrelated to the trademarked Muppet characters, the Childrens’ Television Workshop or the Sesame Street program.  Any similarities are, like I said, coincidental and unintended.  The costume is made in Taiwan.  According to the tag, it’s called “Tickles,” and it should be machine-washed on a gentle cycle or dry-cleaned.  I almost never do either of these things, so the suit is usually rank and filthy.

“Oh my God,” says a teenage girl, to one of her stupid friends.  “It’s a hobo Elmo.  It’s an Elmo hobo.  It’s Elbow.”

“You should totally tweet that,” says her fatter, oilier little sidekick.

“I will,” says the first one, and then she takes a picture of me with her iPhone. She’s not even sneaky about it.  The flash goes off, and everything.  I wave my “TIPS” sack at the girls, but they just giggle and run off.

People who take photos of me and then don’t tip are the worst people in the world.

If you see me on the corner of 42nd Street at Seventh Ave., and your kid hugs me and you have your picture taken with me, just remember I’m not that Elmo.  I’m another, unrelated, entirely coincidental Elmo. You have no idea who I am, underneath this.  I could have a tattoo of a pentagram on my neck.  I could have oozing, dripping sores on my face.  I might be missing an eye.  If your kid asks why Elmo smells funny, it’s definitely not because I just burned a J in the backseat of somebody’s Bentley with the guy who valet-parks cars at the W Hotel. 

Maybe I am Elmo Gutierrez; just a guy who does this job because his immigration status is questionable, and he can’t get a straight gig. 

Maybe my name is Elmo Yoder, and I came here two years ago, on a Trailways bus out of Des Moines.  I was the best singer in the church choir and the best dancer at the hoedown, and I thought I could make it on Broadway.  Maybe this is as close as I got.

Maybe I’m Elmo Johnson; a man who spends an hour every morning on the train to get down here from Yonkers; a man trying to keep his nose clean and put in an honest day’s work in a tough economy.  Think about that, and about how you call yourself a progressive, while you don’t punish your pampered, Park Slope private-schooled ten year-old for sticking his chewing gum in my fur.  I know you saw him do it.  Don’t just walk away like nothing happened.  I didn’t spend all that time bedazzling this sack for you to not put money in it.  It says “TIPS” for a reason, asshole. 

Maybe I’m Elmo Schmitt, convicted felon.  Try not to think about how there are no schools within five hundred feet of Times Square while I’m tickling your kid.  Parents will let anyone in a cute costume touch their children.  It’s really kind of amazing and terrifying.

Ever taken your child to visit a department store Santa?  That is a man who was in need of seasonal employment; a vagrant of some kind.  Think about it for a second, and try to calculate the odds of whether the department store Santa has a substance abuse problem. If you roll up Santa’s velveteen sleeve, will you find needle tracks and prison ink?  Go ahead and let your first-grader sit on his lap.

You can’t even roll up the sleeves of the Elmo – excuse me, the “Tickles” costume.  The gloves are attached to the sleeves.  I can’t get out of it unless somebody unzips the back for me, and helps me take off the head.  When you’re taking a photo and then not paying me, don’t think about how hot this gets in the summertime.  Don’t think about how difficult it must be for me to deal with having to take a piss.

Psychookie probably just pees right in his suit.  “Psychookie,” by the way, is what I call the psychotic Cookie Monster who hangs out by the flagship Toys R Us store.  I don’t even think he bought a Taiwanese knock-off suit.  His costume looks like it’s made out of blue dryer lint.  His googly eyes are just ping-pong balls krazy-glued to the head of his suit.  The pupils are just drawn on there, and not even with, like, a sharpie or a magic marker.  I think he scribbled them on with a ballpoint.  His sack says “COOKIE” on it, but he still wants tips, and if you take a photo and don’t pay him, he will chase you down the street.