Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary ObsessionThe Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession by Allison Hoover Bartlett
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As both an undergraduate and graduate student, I had a penchant for spending time in the rare manuscripts rooms at both BYU and University of Wisconsin-Madison. While my studies in African History did require me to spend time there to peruse books for research, I enjoyed taking time to thumb through (with gloved hands, of course) everything from medieval manuscripts to pioneer journals to (my favorite) the entire selection of Yellow Book Quarterly, which had nothing at all to do with my research. But hey, I paid tuition (still am, thank you student loans), so I figured I could go in and read what I liked, so long as I left things undamaged and unsoiled by my grubby hands (hence the gloves). But I never once thought of stealing any of these books. Part of it was my conscience (I consider myself an honest person and I hate, hate, hate people who lie a lot), and part of it was security measures put in place to discourage temptation and crimes of opportunity. Now, having done a little writing myself, I know how much work goes into writing a book, let alone the outrageous consumption of time and materials that must have gone into books in the early modern era. Old books are treasures. They should be kept that way: safe and secure.

But there are people out there who will steal such books, usually, I am told, to resell them for profit.

But John Gilkey was is not such a man.

The title The Man Who Loved Books too Much would lead you to believe that Gilkey bought rare books with other people's credit card information because . . . well, he loved them. But the author shows that Gilkey stole rare books because he loved himself too much.

A few reviewers have rated this book poorly because they find Gilkey's acts reprehensible. Yes, they are. The man is a selfish slouch with a sense of entitlement that would give Ronald Reagan heart attacks. But I rate books solely on the book and whether or not it was successful. And here, I have to say . . . "meh".

Bartlett is a journalist. I'll admit to not having a very high opinion of most journalists (especially since I ran for local political office years ago and saw, firsthand, how they distort people's words to suit their own need for "the story"), but I thought I'd give her the benefit of the doubt. The whole schtick of the book - book thief, book detective, literary obsession - seemed very interesting.

And it was . . . until Bartlett decided to put herself in the book. I found the story of the book thief and his pursuit compelling reading. I was fascinated by the internal workings of the rare book industry.

But then . . . well, Allison, things got weird between us. You started wondering if you could get into the thief's head and went on and on about your involvement with the case. You forgot that there needs to be some element of objectivity in a journalistic piece and you questioned this very simple assumption. You did a layman's psychological self-examination of yourself and laid it all out for the reader. Only this reader didn't want it. The story was enough in itself. I loved the story. I don't know if the editor applied pressure, thinking it would sell more books or if you just needed the filler or what, exactly. But sometimes it's best to quit while your still ahead. Or, better yet, quit before you inadvertently shine the spotlight on yourself.


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Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Lost Boy

The Lost BoyThe Lost Boy by Greg Ruth
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm a huge fan of the game "Capture the Flag". I played a few times as a young man, but as an adult, I've become an aficionado. This is the result of several campouts as a leader of youth through BSA or being the leader of my church's youth group. I've played it dozens of times in a wide variety of areas. There's something thrilling about this game, especially if it's played over a wide expanse of forest. One tactic that I've used successfully involves teasing out the opposing players and noting their limits. While they might send out a couple of runners to go after your flag, chances are that there are at least a few of the opposing team who will stay close, but not too close, to their flag, tied by an invisible tether to its location. Once you work around and "pull" the opposing players out as far as they're willing to go, you can determine the whereabouts of their flag. You "pull" by intentionally exposing your position without being caught. The key is dropping hints that you are around, but not directly showing yourself. Rocks and sticks are best for this, if you have a good throwing arm. Or shaking a tree when you are certain you are out of the opposing team's direct line of sight tends to draw their attention. Throughout the course of several games, however, there will be times when you are seen and may be caught in the very act of deception. Sometimes you can still salvage the game, but you usually have to pull back and start approaching the enemy from a different angle. Once your cover is blown, your entire plan of attack can be ruined.

And this speaks to my only strong complaint about "The Lost Boy," by Greg Ruth. The artwork is amazing, the plot is stronger than many I've seen in graphic novels, and the characterization, for the most part, is good to great (more on that later). My biggest problem with the book is that Ruth plays his hand a little too strongly in a couple of places. Had he done so only once, I think this would be a strong contender for a five-star rating. But the mistake is made in a couple of places: foreshadowing becomes over-exposure, and the reader can easily guess key elements of how this is going to end up. Too easily. Toning down the foreshadowing would have done a great deal to push this graphic novel to near-perfection.

Back in the 1950s, a boy, Walt, disappears from a small town. In the present day, another boy, Nate, discovers an old tape player under the floorboards of his bedroom after he moves with his family into town. Nate listens to the tapes, which are narrated by Walt, so many decades ago, and begins to discover that Walt had learned of a fae world beyond the mundane in which dog-riding crickets and talking dolls are the norm. Nate's neighbor, Tabitha, seems to know something about this world, as well. The two of them team up to solve the mystery of where Walt disappeared and find themselves embroiled in events that will have consequences for far more than them or the small town in which they live. As the story progresses, we are introduced to more and more characters and slowly, a picture emerges of several factions vying for control of The Key, which will assure dominance in both the fae world and in the mundane world. Ruth does a masterful job of slowly introducing the different character's motives and intentions, but, in doing so, lets foreshadowing show a bit too much about future plot twists. In fact, what should have been a major plot twist is telegraphed far too plainly (and too early) by a conversation between the talking doll Tom Button and Haloran, an older man who serves as Walt's, then Nate and Tabitha's, guide to the other world.

All of the characters are strong and unique. None of them "bleed" into the others, as I've seen in too many graphic novels. I found the characters of Walt, Tabitha, and Baron Tick to be the most compelling and interesting. My one complaint is with Haloran, who becomes a sort of flawed messiah figure who knows his place in the worlds, but is not always sure how to act in them. While interesting, I felt that Haloran was flat, maybe a bit rushed. There are some deep, poignant moments, but the long stretches of silence, which were probably meant to imply an aloof wisdom, end up reading as a simple omission on the part of the writer.

Besides its flaws, "The Lost Boy" is a graphic novel that deserves your attention. It's not perfect, but it might have been. And the ending leaves the door open for possible future volumes, which I will watch for with keen interest.

It was a close game, this time. Maybe next time, Ruth will lure me out enough to sneak up, then rush in to capture the flag.

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Thursday, April 3, 2014

Free Books. Not E-books, but Real, Physical Books!

The publisher of my novel, Heraclix & Pomp, Resurrection House Publishing, is offering the opportunity to win a free book if you sign up for their mailing list. As one who HATES being on mailing lists, I can assure you that the intrusions are infrequent and always entertaining! And, in this case, you stand a decent chance of winning a Resurrection House book, even mine, if you so choose! Not an e-book, mind you, but a real life physical book. I think, in the case of Heraclix & Pomp, he'll be giving out the hardcover version. Here is the notice that was sent out by owner Mark Teppo. Please feel free to reblog/reshare/retweet to your heart's content. You'll find the mailing list sign up spot toward the bottom of the left column on the website (linked above). Enjoy and good luck!

"Let's fudge a bit and call this our six month anniversary. It's closer to seven actually, and we're five months away from the release of Chimpanzee, but the story is better if we call April 1st our six month anniversary. Halfway through our first year and halfway to our first new book. This seems like a milestone.  And actually, we just hit a nice round number on the mailing list, so double milestone. AND our new employee started today. TRIPLE MILESTONE. 

We should celebrate. Here's how we're going to do that: for every ten new subscribers to the mailing list, we'll pull one of their names at random and offer them a free book. It can be any existing Underland Press title or any of the four titles we've got planned for this fall. AND for every ten new subscribers we get, I'll pull a name from the existing subscriber list (in blocks of ten) and offer that person a free book as well. If we DOUBLE the existing mailing list in the month of April, I'll start over on the early adopters list again and give everyone another chance at a free book. Tell your friends! Let's grow that mailing list.

Welcome to April, my dear early enthusiasts. If this is a roller coaster ride, we're about to hit the top and start hurtling our way down the other side. Buckle up!"


Friday, March 28, 2014

RIP Dave Trampier

RIP Dave Trampier.

I feel like a piece of me has died. I'm more saddened by this than by the passing away of any of the other "old guard," as sad as I have been to see them go. Tramp's story is bittersweet, to say the least. His art informed so much of my imagination as a child of the late '70s and teen of the '80s. Truly mourning his passing . . .

Thursday, March 27, 2014

What I Ran Last Friday

The Ruleset: Lamentations of the Flame Princess, house ruled by your's truly, to allow for dual class players and half-elves. Yes, an abomination in LotFP, but what is LotFP without abominations?

The Cast: 2 specialists (one we will call TS for "Tinker Specialist," one we will call "SS" for "Stealth Specialist"), 1 cleric (Serbian Orthodox), 1 mage, 1 1/2 elf fighter-magic user (the abomination), 1 fighter. Each character was at 3rd level (or a combined 3 levels for the fighter-mage). Also, a linkboy descended from a dispossessed knight of yore (see "The History").

The Setup: SS (known also as Friedlich) has a rich uncle who owns property in a Serbian-speaking area on the edges of the Holy Roman Empire. The uncle's servants have discovered two doors, previously covered by grass overgrowths, in the side of a hill on the family property. The uncle has asked his weird nephew and his strange friends to investigate. He offers them 50 SP each, plus anything they find *if* said objects don't hold any value for the estate.

The History: Back in 1522, a nearby castle was laid siege to by Suleiman the Magnificent, Ottoman Sultan. The outlying population actually found this a relief, given that the petty noble who held the castle was rumored to be harboring a sect of anti-religious heretics who felt that magic and science were the surest way to elevate mankind, rather than religion. A group of warrior-monks of the Serbian Orthodox church had earlier tried to infiltrate the castle in order to kill off the heretics, but the noble's knights, though few, were able to hold them off. But they were unable to resist the Sultan's efforts and the castle fell after a several months of deprivations. The many staked bodies lining the road to the castle attested to the fact that Suleiman's men had found and disposed of many of these heretics. But historical accounts contradicted each other on both the number of heretics that were holed up in the castle initially and were unclear on exactly how many were killed. The castle was soon burned, then torn to the ground, but some of the nobleman's surviving knights (who were soon stripped of their rank and wealth) attest that some of the heretics were ushered out in disguise and survived the Ottoman purge. (A special shout-out to +David Blethen for leading me to the actual historical events that I cribbed off of for this scenario).

What the Players Don't Know: Yes, some of the heretics did make it out. They then established this dungeon laboratory hidden beneath the hill. But they aren't at home. Still, that doesn't mean they haven't left the alarm system on.

Causes for Concern?: Doors covered in spider silk, a four-armed adamantine-skulled skeleton, a room full of dead adventurers, a skeleton dressed in a robe and sleeping cap on a silken bed, an almost-finished flesh golem in a lavishly-equipped laboratory.

The Rewards of Valor:  A little silver, an ant encased in amber, a number of valuable books (including a copy of the mystical work Heraclix & Pomp), an adamantium-coated skull large enough to be worn as a helm, a vial of hydrochloric acid (among other potentially-entertaining chemicals), and an elegantly-carved dragon mouth flintlock musket with a rifled barrel.

Priceless: Ledgers and legal documents saved from the archives of the knights who protected the Serbian heretics, all of them proving that our faithful linkboy still holds the rights to the hill under which the present dungeon lies. The uncle will not be pleased.

Best Moments for the DM: Watching players squirm and worry over such harmless things as a room that had been melted and clawed by a no-longer-present dragon, a non-functioning flesh golem, and a corpse on a silk bed. "I think that's a lich, let's get out of here." "Maybe we should shoot it before it gets out of bed." (players proceed to pepper the corpse with scattershot). "Um, we just shot all these nice silk sheets full of holes". Also, having the cleric discover a book written by one "Acererak" and learning that this name was a key word used for diffusing traps. Unfortunately, the cleric didn't discover that this name was also a key word that would have awakened the flesh golem in the laboratory. Oh well. Win some, lose some.

What the Players Would Have Discovered if They Mapped Correctly: The dungeon was built in two "strands" of rooms connected by curved tunnels that alternately snaked above or below the tunnels in the other "strand". This gave the dungeon the overall appearance of a double helix.

Who Made it Through: Surprisingly, all characters made it through, but not without some permanent scarring and dinging of attributes (most notably a permanent loss of dexterity and charisma). There were several near-fatal near-misses, including the "opportunity" to be diseased by a very nasty mold. 

The Dice Rolled: The players' way.

What I Would Do Differently if I Did it All Over Again: Send a specialist in after the party, someone hired by the uncle to ensure that his interests were protected. Next time, next time . , .

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Atomic Robo and the Fightin' Scientists of Tesladyne

Atomic Robo and the Fightin' Scientists of Tesladyne (Atomic Robo, #1)Atomic Robo and the Fightin' Scientists of Tesladyne by Brian Clevinger
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It must be really tough to be a comic book writer/graphic novelist in this day and age. First, there's the proliferation of comics on the internet, which draws an attention-deficit society away from hard copy books in general, let alone graphic novels. Second, and intimately tied to the first, is the sheer volume of self-published graphic novels (in hard copy form, I mean), which makes it easier for your work to get lost in the crowd. And while there is a lot of dross out there, there is a lot of great material out there, both in the self-published vein and coming from "traditional" publishers. Some recent examples of such stellar work in the latter realm are The Manhattan Projects, Prophet, and the Fatale series.

That's some stiff competition and a not-very-friendly environment in which to find oneself as a graphic novelist.

But you can't blame people for trying. Heck, if I had half the artistic talent of Scott Wegener or the connections with artists enjoyed by Brian Clevinger, I'd take a shot at it myself. I love the graphic novel form, and I'm a decent enough writer. Alas, I am not a great artist. Not even a good artists.

Wegener is a good artist. Behind the front cover, his work is a little sparse and uncluttered for my tastes. I like details and a bit of organic roughness or a sense of aging and decay, if you will, a'la Moebius or Farel Dalrymple, so the artwork in Atomic Robo: Volume One was adequate to the task, but not stunning.

Clevinger is a good writer, too. The narrative stream in this work takes several bends, in the form of flashbacks, each of which adds to the cumulative knowledge about the main character, Robo.

But it's in the character of Robo that I find my greatest disappointment. The premise is very cool, a robotic man, built by Nikol Tesla in 1923, is brought up by scientists who train him to defend the world from psychotic ne'er-do-wells like the pseudo-Nazi Lord Helsingard. We watch Robo in a series of flashbacks as he fights giant ants, dogfights with a Japanese fighter during World War 2, lands on Mars and infiltrates one of the pyramids of Giza, which is moving toward Luxor, causing destruction with a Deathray as it crawls across the desert. Robo, despite being somewhat vulnerable to major explosions (but only somewhat), succeeds in everything he does, and does so with a snarky attitude that . . . well, that's been played a hundred times before in the graphic novel genre. In some ways, he's like a robotic Hellboy, but without the vulnerability that Hellboy shows, from time to time. And Robo's compatriots seem just as cocky. So cocky, in fact, that they lack humanity.

So, while I enjoyed Atomic Robo: Volume One, I feel that it lacks depth. Perhaps Clevinger and Wegener hit another gear with some of the later books. I know that Robo has a fairly loyal following out there. But I can't be counted among them . . . yet.

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Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Authors: "Independence" is Not Freedom to do Whatever You Want!

Lately, there has been an imbroglio in the book world. I don't want to get mired in details, so, in brief, the problem is that several "Indie" authors are claiming that they are being "bullied" by anonymous reviewers of their work. This has led to a petition to and others that, if heeded, would require that all reviewers have to give their full, real name when writing reviews. Anne Rice, among others, has signed on to and supported this position. Others feel that stripping reviewers of anonymity will lead to an overall drop in the number of reviews given as reviewers try to avoid being bullied themselves by authors who disagree with assessments of their books. Apparently, anecdotal evidence suggests that both of these things have happened, though it seems that this is a very limited problem.

Let me get this out of the way: In the name of authors and reviewers whose names are being sullied by attacks from either side, STOP IT! I'm an author and a reviewer and, frankly, I'm getting sick and tired of the drama. Grow up, people!

Yes, your livelihood as an author (ha, ha) or reviewer (chortle, snicker) is at risk. Right. Get over it. No one starts a business venture without risk. That doesn't mean that you just get to lord it over anyone who disagrees with your opinion. In fact, if you're not willing to receive criticism as a writer or a reviewer, you are simply not cut out for this business. I've been lambasted for my writing and chided for my reviews (especially when I give bad ones to books that I felt deserved them - as a warning to other readers). This has happened several times. I've been pegged as overly baroque in my writing, then too sparse, been told that my plots are too simple, then too complex, my reviews have received ranting comments from people who have liked books I've panned and who panned books I liked.

I'm over it. You should be too.

Most of the stink seems to be coming from the "Indie" crowd. Now, I've self-published a few pieces of my own, mostly novellas, but also a short fiction collection. The reason is that most publishers don't take novellas unless your name rhymes with Reevin' Ring. Same with short story collections. There is simply no money in these two forms. So I decided to self-publish them. One of the novellas had already been published in trade paperback form by a now sadly-quiet publisher. The rights had reverted back to me and I asked for permission to do an e-book version, which the publisher agreed to. All of the short stories in the collection but one had been published in juried venues such as Diagram, Exquisite Corpse, Gargoyle, American Letters & Commentary, and others. These stories had been rejected many times, some of them were reworked, all of them that had been submitted eventually found a home in a magazine (print or online) after having been critically examined by an editor or (usually) multiple editors.

In other words, I submitted (most) of these for critical review to another human being or human beings who judged that they were worthy of publication. Or not. I have a short novel (as yet un-reviewed!) that my agent thought was in good enough shape to send out to publishers, but it's not a good fit in *any* genre category, so it's been a tough sell. In fact, one publisher told us that "it's written too well". But I wasn't about to dumb down the writing for them. So after a long line of "we don't know how to market this" rejections, I self-published it.

I'll admit that two of my other self-published novellas had not been submitted and critically reviewed by an outside judge. Again, I published these because no one seems to be publishing the novella form unless you are a Very Big Name Author. Still, I've received reviews on these two novellas, some of them great, some not-so-flattering.

And I appreciate every one of them.

Here's the deal: There is no such thing as a bad review. If you don't understand this, you don't understand the craft of writing. Oh, you might have written a book and put it online for the world to see and force-fed tweets to people all day long about how marvelous your book is, but until you've received a bad review and dealt with it gracefully, you're not a writer. I've been there. I can think of at least one review that I responded to and should not have. If you dig around on the interwebs, I'm sure you'll find my response in some dusty corner of some server that hasn't fired up in the last ten years or so.

But I learned, and I repeat: There is no such thing as a bad review. The only bad review is the one you respond to badly. Think about it: You've got a bad review; you've just gotten free writing advice. Now, like any other advice, you ought not to take it all and apply it. But that reviewer might just have pointed out something you've missed or maybe a bad habit or two you've fallen into as a writer. Heaven knows I've had these things pointed out to me from time to time. Would it have been better to catch these things in an earlier editorial pass? Sure. But you're not going to catch everything. And if you can't afford a good editor, you're not going to catch every one of your errors. You're not. It's a pretty good idea to submit the piece to your writing group or at least have a friend who can be critical and honest in their reading of your work do a close reading for you. Even then, even with professional editing, you are likely to have an error or two creep in unawares. This happens in almost every book on the shelf. So if someone points it out to you, great! If it's in your power, go fix it!

Here's another thing: Controversy sells. Don't think it's true? Have you watched reality TV lately? Case closed. You want to generate interest in your work? Get disparate reviews, watch the sparks fly, watch potential readers shake their heads at the reviewers (both positive and negative) and buy the book so that they can read it and decide for themselves.

Did I mention that any mention of your book, good or bad, is a mention? No. I don't have the data easily at hand, but I *think* (I could be horribly wrong here) that in order to effectively stick in someone's memory, that person needs to be exposed to your product six times. That's why twitter is so cluttered with indie authors advertising their work (yes, I'm part of the problem). How much more pleasant for your "mention" to come in the form of a review, where a reader can make a judgement on the review on their own time, rather than seeing it flip past them at light speed on twitter.

You see, readers are smart consumers (after all, they're choosing to look at books rather than, say, tabloids or TV reality shows, at least for a little while). If they read a bad review, they'll consider it and carry on an internal debate about whether or not they should add your book to their wishlist or not. If the reviewer is someone they know and respect, someone with very similar tastes to their own, then, yes, they might not read your book as a result of that review. But how many readers (I'm not talking about author-readers or professional reviewers here, I'm talking about people who just read for the sheer enjoyment of it all) personally know reviewers or follow certain reviewers or even agree with everything a given reviewer posts? That number is very, very small. It's more likely that the reader will take the bad review into consideration, read the "blurb" copy, stare at the cover a while, maybe look up other pieces of your fiction (What? You haven't had a short story published online somewhere? You're not trying hard enough!), consider the price, then make a decision to walk away, put your work on their wishlist, or purchase your book. And if there is a bad review and a good review, the reader will weigh both. In fact, if there are ten bad reviews and one good review, the reader is likely to consider them all. The long and short of it is that no single bad review will condemn your book to ignominy. And if you have a plethora of bad reviews for your book, maybe it's time you pull it down (if it's an e-book), heavily revise that sucker, and re-publish. In other words, do the work you should have done the first time through. I know. I've been there.

Now a question for which I don't have an answer: What *EXACTLY* does "Indie" mean? I've heard the term bandied about a lot online lately. Some reviewers refuse to review anything that is not written by an "indie" author, while others refuse to review anything "indie". I've been told that I'm "hybrid," because I have books that are self-published, but I was published in the traditional manner before I ever self-published and I my newest novel is being published in the traditional manner. So am I indie? Would the reviewers who only review work by "indie" authors review my traditionally published work, only my self-published work, or none of it at all? Same with those who refuse to review "indie" work at all. Do you mean me, or just my self-published books?

On second thought, scratch all that.

I don't care.


I've written work that I love. I've published using whatever method seemed to work best for me, as the author, at the time. I love my work, warts and all. Yes, there are flaws, some of them still needing to be fixed. Readers and reviewers have made that known to me, for the most part, or publishers/slushpile readers/editors/my agent.

But just because I don't choose to become embroiled in the whole "he said, she said" BS that is peppering the internet at the moment, that doesn't mean I just get to do whatever I want to do. I get to publish how I want to, but once the deed is done, I'll let readers decide whether or not the work is worthy of further consideration. Of course, I'll try to reach out to new readers via whatever marketing tools I have available. But I refuse to ever get suckered in again to snapping on reviewers, like some authors who are behaving badly in the current environment.

Frankly, I'm just sick of the whining.

Give it a rest. I don't want to hear about how you are being bullied by reviewers anymore. Just shut up. If your work warrants it, it will eventually make it into my to-be-read pile. Or not. Why should you care? You wrote the book. Let me know about it however you like. Then, when I read it, get out of my way. Don't try to railroad my opinion by crying about the bad reviews you've been getting. That will make it much less likely that I even consider reading your book. I'm either going to like your work or I'm not. Either way, I'm going to let people know what I think about it. Get used to it.

And get used to letting readers decide whether your book is or was good enough for primetime.

Meandering . . . rant . . . done!