Thursday, May 29, 2014

Pulp Fiction is a McDonald's Cheeseburger

I almost never eat traditional "fast food". In a city with over 300 pubs, bars, and taverns, the most common fast food is really pub food, but I've noticed over the years that traditional chains like McDonald's and Burger King are becoming increasingly rare. About the only time I'm ever inclined to eat from one of those chains is when I'm on the road, because they are the kings of interstate rest stop food establishments.

This past weekend, while stopping at one such rest stop, I had a terrible craving for a McDonald's cheeseburger. I eat one maybe once a year, so I figured now was as good a time as ever. I bought it (it cost me $1.19) and scarfed it down in about two minutes, mostly because I was taking the time to check my email on my phone.

Back on the road, I began to think about what makes those crappy little cheeseburgers so appealing. I won't say "so good", because they're not "good" in any real sense of the word, but there is something that draws you to them. I came up with a few reasons:
  • They're cheap (under two bucks)
  • You can eat them fast and on-the-go
  • The bulk of their ingredients aren't terribly special, but there's a them that makes them tasty. For the McDonald's cheeseburger, the ketchup and mustard combined with those little chopped onions and the pickles, contrasted with the sweetness of the sugar-laded bun, makes for an interesting flavor combination.
  • They're bad for you, but in moderation, they can be a "guilty pleasure".
It occurred to me that the qualities that make these little bundles of joy attractive are the same things that make pulp fiction attractive. They're cheap, fast reads that you can take and consume anywhere. The basic ingredients (overall writing proficiency, characters, plots) might not be that dazzling, but they're always something special in each series that makes them appealing. I mean, even a series as often disturbing as the Death Merchant wouldn't have lasted over 70 volumes if people didn't read it, right?

And just as there are a myriad number of different fast food burger joints, there are a bunch of different pulp fiction types and styles, from edgy hard-boiled crime to flashy swords & sorcery, to action-packed men's adventure fiction, and within each of these, different series and authors lend their own special flavors that some people find better than others. And, while I wouldn't recommend a steady diet of nothing but pulp, they can make a great break from some door-stopper of a history book, or never-ending epic fantasy collection.

As for me, although I've had my McDonald's cheeseburger for the year, I'll keep snacking on pulp fiction - at least it doesn't increase the waistline!

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: The Assassin's Prayer by Mark Allen
Click the Cover to Visit on Amazon
Mark Allen was a "slow burn" indie writer who put out a number of short stories and novellas in the beginning of his indie career, most of which sold a very modest amount of copies. However, with his first full-length novel, THE ASSASSIN'S PRAYER, Allen's success as an indie writer took off in a very impressive fashion. Now, although his sales have slowed slightly since the book's initial release, Allen's novel of bloodshed and redemption is still going strong.

THE ASSASSIN'S PRAYER is the story of Travis Kain, a killer-for-hire who once worked for the CIA, but now most often sells his services to organized crime. He lives in a state of almost constant melancholy after the death of his wife several years ago, using violence to dull the pain of his loss.

When we meet him, Kain is contracted to kill off another organized crime "made man" of some considerable status, and while the job goes mostly as planned, there are complications involving some innocent witnesses. Kain has vowed to never harm innocents (part of the "prayer" which gives the book its title), and so walks away from tying off these loose ends, an act that has serious consequences for him later on.

Kain also runs into an old flame from years gone by, and this kindles some old passions he thought were long-dead. There's a lot of conflicting emotions going on, as Kain tries to sort out his feelings for this old flame while still hurting from the loss of his wife.

To further complicate matters, the CIA - who never drop a grudge - sends one of their top "operators" after Kain, because apparently his departure from the Agency was less than mutually accepted. The operator who goes after Kain is a real sumbitch, and he's got a whole cadre of other sumbitches along with him.

All of this comes together to create a pretty action-packed, dramatic novel. Allen is a big fan of the action genre, and heaps it on with gusto. The violence is bloody and unforgiving, and some of the fights are spectacularly gruesome. If you're not into vivid depictions of violence and gore, this may not be the book for you.

Taken as a whole, TAP is a solid debut novel. There are a couple of major coincidences that form plot points in the story, and they'll either make or break a reader's enjoyment of the novel; either you'll accept them and move on, or you'll lose your suspension of disbelief and fall out of the story. I was willing to carry on and swallow the coincidences, but I'm sure it'll be a deal-breaker for some readers.

There is also a lot of emotional conflict, most of it tied to both the death of Kain's wife and the rediscovery of his long-lost flame, but there's also some deep-seated angst regarding his former best friend, whom Kain now despises. There were several times I just wanted Kain to cowboy up and quit weeping into his whiskey. If I wanted to be cheeky, I'd refer to Kain as an "Emo Assassin", but since the story moves at a pretty brisk clip, the maudlin moments don't slow the story down, and I think it helps distinguish Kain from the legion of near-robotic Grim Hired Assassins out there. Some other reviewers clearly liked a more complicated, emotional protagonist, while others found it annoying. As usual, your mileage may vary.

So if you're interested in a cool Hired Killer Thriller, consider picking up THE ASSASSIN'S PRAYER. And if you're such a cheapskate that you don't want to invest $2.99 on the book, check out some of his other works, such as "The Killing Question" and "Resurrection Bullets". Allen has quite the collection of varied short stories, and I'm sure there's something for everyone.