Friday, August 31, 2012

Human Osteology

Human OsteologyHuman Osteology by Timothy D. White
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Why would a fiction writer and reader write a post about a book on osteology? Two words: Reference, inspiration.

As an undergraduate at BYU, I took a Human Osteology class from Dr. Dale Berge, a wonderful man who fanned my flame for academic curiosity. I'll never forget the final for the class. We had to identify, sex and age around 120 random bones, as well as noting and explaining the source of any unusual ulcerations, scoring, arrow wounds (yes, you read that right), etc. One of the more difficult and rewarding tests I've taken. Dr. Berge threw us all for a loop by including a bone that looked *sort of* like a human pelvis, maybe an infant pelvis, but . . . not quite. It wasn't until none of us could figure out what it was that he revealed that it was a whale vertebrae. Now, if I ever encounter a whale vertebrae on the beach, I'll be able to identify it. It's good to have skills . . .

So I use this book as my bible of bones. It is a fantastic reference, with hundreds of black and white photographs, carefully diagrammed, and some text that helps explain some of the features. If you want to know bones, get this book.

It's also served as inspiration, specifically for my story "The Bones of Ndundi," which appeared in Notre Dame Review and which is reprinted in my collection Fossiloctopus. Human Osteology has also spurred other fictions, though none so directly as this.

In any case, it's good to know your bones.

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Fatale Volume 1: Death Chases Me

Fatale Volume 1: Death Chases MeFatale Volume 1: Death Chases Me by Ed Brubaker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A couple of months ago I had a sudden hankering for noir. Now this isn't a subgenre I have much experience with. I've read a few short stories in the genre, but if I've read a noir novel, I can't remember (well, in the case of one, I don't want to remember it - see my previous reviews). Still, I had the fever, the fever for more noir. So I poked around the interwebs to do some research and stumbled on a few very positive reviews of Brubaker's Fatale that I felt I had to investigate (no pun intended, really).

I knew, from both the reviews and the cover art, that there was something Cthulhoid going on here, which is almost never a bad thing. I like tentacles and red cowls, they're just my thing. So I figured that this had potential.

Still, I was a bit hesitant. I don't like to read bad books. Really can't stand my time and money being wasted on what I consider to be trite or poorly written. But I gambled on this one, a hedged bet, yes, but still a gamble. I put my money and my time out on a limb for this.

And I WON! I won BIG! I feel like I cheated the house, I won so big!

I'm in literary/graphic novel love. I cannot wait for the next collection to come out. I'm sold.

Even without any deep history in noir, I knew some of the main tropes. Damsel in distress, investigator being played by his client, crooked cops, etc. And, yes, Fatale has all of this, and more. But the way Brubaker and Philips introduce and develop the plot and characters is sheer genius. They've taken what could have been trite and made it a thing of utter, horrific beauty.

There's a certain darkness, a fog or mist, that overlays the mood of this graphic novel. It's like walking on the edge of a slow-motion nightmare of conspiracy and entrapment. And, just when you are about to sink and give in to the gritty depression of the story, you are awakened only to discover that the reality behind the dream is more terrifying than you had imagined. There's also a certain complexity to the characters that I don't often see in graphic novels. Their motives are believable, even if their stories are fantastic. I am amazed that the writers could pack this much complexity and subtlety into a book of this size. Pound for pound, this is the best deal on criminals and tentacles that money can buy. Don't say I didn't warn you.

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It's in the Air

While others hail the oncoming season of NFL football, watching preseason games and studying for their Fantasy Football draft, I'm giddy over the NFL farm league: The NCAA.

I'm a huge college football junkie. Since my undergraduate days at BYU watching Steve Sarkisian hurl the pigskin to my graduate school days at University of Wisconsin-Madison, where I saw some kid named Ron Dayne obliterate Stanford's defense, I've been hooked (incidentally, Dayne cuts and imposing figure when you and he are trying to pass through the same doorway, as  found several times while he was leaving his Hausa class and I was entering my Swahili class. Super nice guy, though, even when you meet him in the doorway day after day.). I watch the NFL for one reason: to see how the college kids are doing. I keep track of high school football for one reason: so I can see potential recruits and where they end up in college.

College football is where dreams are realized and hopes are dashed, where the real athletes show that they are real athletes. There's a certain precociousness to the whole thing. These kids have a lot to prove. Millions are riding on their performance. Millions that might lift mom and dad out of poverty. And for the majority who don't make millions, the educational opportunities, if taken advantage of, will change some young man's life. It's so contrary to the NFL - contract negotiations, strikes, and so forth. I half expect NFL players to line up with a lawyer, briefcase in hand, standing next to them.

Yes, the NFL has the elite of the elite, no doubt. And their precision playing, gargantuan size, and strength are wonderful to behold. But there's nothing quite like watching Boise State beat Oklahoma with a pair of trick plays from someone's neighborhood pickup football game, or seeing an under-rated Utah throttle the monster, Alabama, in a game that everyone expected to be a snoozer.

So here's to the undersized walk-on who explodes in his sophomore year and becomes the talk of the town, whose need to win overshadows any hype, and who proves to himself, to his family, to his school, and to the nation that he CAN!

On Wisconsin!
Go Bucky!
Jump Around!

Friday, August 24, 2012

Swans Over the Moon

For those interested in an updated e-book version of my novella Swans Over the Moon (originally published by Wheatland Press), you can find it at:

You'll find this version ever-so-slightly different from the original print version. Nothing drastic, just some minor touch ups.

Plug over and out.

For Nothing

For Nothing (An Upstate New York Mafia Tale #1)For Nothing by Nicholas Denmon
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I tried. Really, I tried. This book broke me.

The best thing I can say about "For Nothing" is that the machinations of the Buffalo mafia were interesting. It seems that the author has done his homework. The tone is about right, but there my praise (if you can call it that) abruptly ends.

In short: I've read this book so you won't have to. You have been warned.

The novel was written, obviously. But it was not crafted, also obviously. The characters were wooden and the prose was simply atrocious. Four or five edits later, I could see this being a good book. But the writing really got in the way of enjoying the story. The plot itself moves ahead in spite of the characters, but reading through this is like running up the side of a mountain over a half mile of scree. I know. I've done both. Neither experience was very pleasant.

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The Silmarillion

The SilmarillionThe Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Though I had many near-misses with The Silmarillion throughout the years (having been introduced to Tolkien's universe by discovering The Hobbit in my school's library in 5th grade), I finally slogged my way through it during the summer after my sophomore year of college. The first two years of my undergraduate degree were rather gruelling, and I wanted, more than anything else at that time, to just read a bunch of books I wasn't required to read. After making my way through The Complete Sherlock Holmes, I decided to revisit Tolkien.

I had read The Hobbit twice before and the Lord of the Rings once (and a half). As I've stated, I dipped my toes in The Silmarillion, but never let myself dive in. This time, in the interest of reading something other than required reading, I jumped in with both feet.

It was cold. And deep. And dark. It took a while to feel my limbs. It took even longer to get my arms and legs moving, but I soon found I was OK: Still breathing and able to dog paddle.

As I worked my way into it (and it was work!), I discovered that certain tidbits in the myths and legends of middle earth rang familiar. I knew that much of The Silmarillion had been "back-written" after the fact, which might strike people as some sort of disingenuous act on the part of the Tolkiens. I was thrilled. Here I learned who Elrond was, the significance of the fall of Saruman, and the true nature of and relationship between Gandalf and the Balrog. This was a revelation.

I plugged my way through and finished. No, I didn't remember everything and I probably never will. That summer was a unique opportunity for me, to read almost interrupted for such a long stretch. I followed up by reading The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in succession, immediately after finishing The Silmarillion. Then, and only then, did I appreciate the full magnitude of Tolkien's brilliance. It was a whole new world. I had already visited it, but now the scales fell from my eyes and I saw it in a whole new light. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were transformed, for me, from great books to epic.

Rather than being caught up in complaining about how difficult The Silmarillion was, I felt richly rewarded. I had worked for the glittering prize and it was even more beautiful than the time when I first laid eyes on it in that musty school library in Nebraska. Can nostalgia be forward-looking? It was for me that summer. I was caught in some sort of blissful time-loop that only released me when the urgency of school set upon me again that fall. But something joyful was sparked in me that hasn't ever fully left, thanks to The Silmarillion.

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Monday, August 20, 2012

Ill Met in Lankhmar

Ill Met in Lankhmar (Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, #1-2)Ill Met in Lankhmar by Fritz Leiber
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Whatever sword and sorcery book you happen to be reading at the moment - throw it across the room, sneer at the author's petty attempts at greatness, and go pick up one of Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar books. It doesn't necessarily have to be the edition I'm reviewing here. But if you have one ounce of love for sword and sorcery in your veins, you must read Leiber's work. And before you shout out "I don't need your stupid wizards and bare-chested barbarians!" read on!

I have just finished the White Wolf edition of Ill Met in Lankhmar, which collects Leiber's original Lankhmar volumes 1 and 2, Swords and Deviltry and Swords Against Death.

Rather than giving a blow-by-blow or even focusing on the story arc of these connected short stories and novellas, I'd like to point out the two most compelling reasons for snatching up a copy of this book: character and language.

Fafhrd and Gray Mouser are some of the most compelling characters in all of sword and sorcery literature. They have complex motivations and reactions to varied circumstances. They are, at turns, brilliant and stupid, competent and bungling, all tempered by a good bit of luck. Among their many talents, they are rogue thieves, amateur wizard (Gray Mouser) and bard (Fafhrd), and, most importantly, accomplished swordsmen. Circumstances dictate their initial meeting, but mutual respect, a sort of chivalry, a shared sense of dark humor, mutual loss, and a desire for revenge cause them to become inseparable. Even after their past literally stops haunting them, they remain compatriots and fellow-adventurers. It's difficult to relate the subtleties of their interaction, their wit, and their banter. You simply must read it for yourself.

The prose is, at turns, playful and a touch archaic, though never as whimsical as Wodehouse nor as purple as DeCamp’s “translations” of Conan. The tone strikes just the right balance between funny and serious, not straying too far toward silliness or darkness, though both elements can be found threaded throughout these tales. On a side note, Leiber sticks with earlier notions of sorcery, established by Howard and others, that magic is not something you really want to dabble in unless you absolutely have to. Messing about with the natural order of things carries heavy consequences. Though magic can help your cause, there is a price to be paid for forcefully upsetting the balance of the universe.

The setting of the city of Lankhmar seems overdone only because so many more recent works of sword and sorcery are derivative. It's hard to seem original when everyone who's followed has copied your styles, customs, and tropes. So put your D&D books away for a little while, read this, then come back and see what all Arneson and Gygax incorporated from Lankhmar. The early AD&D works are saturated with the stuff.

I could go on about Leiber's influence on roleplaying, but one need know nothing about roleplaying games to enjoy the wonderful characters that are Fafhrd and Gray Mouser. One need not even *like* the sword and sorcery genre to appreciate Leiber's beautiful, but not overwrought prose. One need not be a grammar snob to enjoy the yarns Leiber has spun in these stories. In essence, Ill Met in Lankhmar is a book's book, approachable on many levels by readers of widely varying interests and backgrounds.

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Friday, August 17, 2012

A Visual Dictionary of Architecture

A Visual Dictionary of ArchitectureA Visual Dictionary of Architecture by Francis D.K. Ching
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am not an architect and now I don't need to be. I bought this book purely as a reference for my writing craft, and I am very glad I did so. This is the Gray's Anatomy of architecture, if you will, presented in an easy to digest visual manner. It takes some digging to find exactly what you want, because the book is organized so that taxonomic categories and theoretical ideas are interspersed in a way that doesn't always make sense, but, if it's architectural in any way, it's in there. An extremely useful resource when trying to figure out exactly what it is your heroine is dangling from beneath the tentacled monster shambling toward her over the roof.

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A Murder most Fowl

A good friend of mine named Dan recently began to practice origami. Knowing my tastes, he offered to do up an origami raven, just so he could practice folding one. He was kind enough to do up a raven using paper with some indistinct script on it, the sort of thing that looks like it should say something, but it really doesn't (a.k.a., Asemic Writing). It came out beautifully. Dan knows me.

Then, I had an idea. I knew of my friend's hankering for paper to fold (apparently, this is very addictive), so I called him up from my local Hobby Lobby and offered to buy a whole bunch of paper, if he'd do up some more ravens for me. I'd buy 12" X 12" sheets, he could use one 6" X 6" quadrant of each to do up a bird, and he could keep the rest of the paper to use as he wanted. Done deal.

Then I thought. "I should buy a bird cage". There just so happened to be one on sale for half-off (those who shop Hobby Lobby already know that they have half-off sales on almost everything almost all the time. I wonder how they stay in business.), so I snatched it up.

A few days later, Dan texted me a photo of the birds-in-progress. It ended up that there was enough paper, when one included the two pieces of double-sided paper with the other single-sided sheets, to do 13 ravens. 13. That's a murder. How cool is that?

Here's how cool it is:

And as cool as this . . .

And here's a bird's-eye view (sorry, couldn't resist) . . .

So, now I have pets (other than Cthulhu and some martians, not pictured) in my writing area. And, yes, that is a World Fantasy Award with a Pinocchio nose attached to it in the upper right corner of the bottom picture (my mash up of HP Lovecraft and A Clockwork Orange). And, no, I didn't intentionally catch Flight, volume #3, in the background of the second photo. I just noticed that.

I am, as you might imagine, rather pleased.

Pardon the tacky stuff. If any of you brilliant crafters out there can think of a better way to get these birds to stay on, do tell. I had a bugger of a time of it, but, all-in-all, it turned out pretty well.


Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Observatory Mansions

Observatory MansionsObservatory Mansions by Edward Carey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Francis Orme may be one of the greatest characters in literature, not because he is warm and lovable (quite the contrary) but because of the way he draws strong emotional reactions from the reader. This reader is no exception. I went from feeling suspicious about him to really wondering about his motives to loathing him to fearing him to admiring his quirkiness (an understatement, to be sure) to feeling a bit of sympathy for him to feeling a flood of pity for him to hating him to loving him - in that order. I'm sure that the flow of emotions is different for different readers, but I've spoken to others who felt the same evocation of emotion drawn out of them and into the book. Observatory Mansions is a bit of a game, a tug-of-war of the heart and mind between the antipodes of love and hatred. There's no strength of plot, and some are quick to point out that they grew bored of the book at the beginning. I say, stick with it. The book is full of rewards and will pull at your inner-self for years afterwards. It's a bit like working with a complex recipe. You'll need time to put it all together - it's not overpowered by any one ingredient, but forms a subtle mix of setting, plot, character, and atmosphere seasoned by Carey's supple style. I would rate this near the top of my favorite books of all time. If I were to use all the superlatives I wanted to in describing how great this book is, you'd think I was engaging in hyperbole. But I wouldn't be. Please read this book.

PS: Important safety tip - I wasn't nearly as impressed by Carey's "Alva and Irva," which was a good book, but nothing of the caliber of Observatory Mansions. Observatory Mansions is one of those "perfect storm" books that every writer wishes he or she had written, but which pours forth out of an author's pen only once in a lifetime. Yes, it's that good.

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Friday, August 10, 2012

What's so Punk about Steampunk?

Years ago, William Gibson made a splash in the speculative fiction scene with the advent of cyberpunk with the publication of his novel Neuromancer. Fast forward to 2011, when Marcus Wohlsen published Biopunk: DIY Scientists Hack the Software of Life (which I review here). Somewhere in-between, Steampunk was bred, born, and raised. Yes, the precursors have been around for a long, long time (HG Wells, for example), but it was only fairly recently that Steampunk began to bathe in the spotlight of the popular media. And this is my problem with the “punk” submoniker given to Steampunk.

When I was a young dandy, I was really into the punk scene. Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, X, Circle Jerks were on my regular playlist. I was a Repo Man geek. The scene has shrunk, but there are still some signs of renaissance . I particularly loved the self-effacing humor and self-destructive subversiveness of punks everywhere.

 Yes, there were and are those who take the ethos so seriously that it frankly gets in the way of Life. But, by and large, the punks I knew could laugh at themselves. They were intelligent, pretty well centered, and fun. For example, a friend of mine is a part-time singer in some local bands. At one point one of his bands played a Dead Kennedys tribute show. Jello Biafra was in attendance. My friend, after repeatedly mocking Biafra onstage, went into the audience to give him a pat on the back. What Mr. Jello didn't know was that this conciliatory gesture was really an excuse to plant an American flag sticker on the singer's back.

Biafra was pissed.

Now that's punk.

There's no doubt that the punk ethos is represented in Steampunk literature. There are uppity DIY scientists who network in backrooms to subvert authority and change society with all kinds of steam-powered hijinks. I'm not calling the attitude into question. What I do question is the delivery method. As a young 'un, I recall a lot of word of mouth, cheap zines produced in someone's house, and handmade posters stuck to telephone poles to announce shows. The record stores that specialized in punk music were invariably dives more reminiscent of a side-of-the-road fish-selling operation than a slick media outlet. Sometimes they even smelled like fish.

Now, we have $82 million budgets for movies like Sucker Punch (truth be told, I liked Sucker Punch for what it was) and a string of Steampunk titles put out by major publishers (and, to be fair, many small presses, as well). That's not a bad thing! I'm a big fan of some books that fall in the subgenre, like James P. Blaylock's Homonculus.

But I ask again, is the big spotlight being placed on Steampunk going to take the punk right out of the movement? Has it already? Has Steampunk sold out? And, frankly, do we really care? Or is the opportunity to laugh at ourselves for allowing the subgenre to be pulled into the mainstream just another subversion of the subversion?

Kind of reminds me of a song: "We're so pretty, oh, so pretty . . . pretty vacant!"

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Dark Chocolate

There's really only one reason I run and exercise: Dark Chocolate.

I love the stuff. I wish I could eat it all the time and never suffer the caloric consequences. Twenty years ago, that worked, but now I have to work for my food - or run because of my food. So I gladly submit myself to the tortures, ah, joys of exercise in order to pay the price for my sinful lust for dark chocolate.

I'm always in the market to try new darks, so I recently picked up a Scharffen Berger 82% and a Newman's Own 70%. I must admit some hesitation in picking up both. I had heard mixed reviews of the Scharffen Berger and I have a hard time picturing Paul Newman as anything but a capitalist swine-celebrity-food snob. Don't ask where that idea came from, it's just one of my quirks. Sorry, Paul.

Now, I'm not the best at describing chocolates and why I do or don't like them. If you want to hear some more professional opinions on the matter, you should check out One Golden Ticket. These guys know chocolate!

I do know, though, what I like when I taste it. And the Scharffen Berger isn't it. I like bitter chocolate, but the Scharffen Berger just had no subtlety to it at all. It wasn't . . . unique. If I want a really dark bar, I'll go with a Cachet Uganda 80% bar, which has some interesting undertones.

The Newman's Own Super Dark was a pleasant surprise. Funny thing is, it doesn't look all that dark at all. In fact it looks more like milk chocolate (icky!). But the taste was pretty amazing. Nice long flavor, smoky, earthy, definitely recommended. Nothing overpowering, but with enough bite to keep your attention. Not my absolute favorite pure chocolate bar (that would be the Santander Columbian Single Origin 65% bar), but I'd buy it again. For the price, it's tough to beat.
ADDEMDUM: If you're ever in Madison and you call yourself a chocolate fan, you must stop at Gail Ambrosius Chocolatier and try their nibs bar. It is to die for. Or to kill for, if you prefer. Or you can just buy several and eat them. But they won't last very long. They're like heroin for the chocolate lover. Seriously addicting and some of the best chocolate you will ever, EVER eat!