Saturday, September 29, 2012

Inherit the Stars

Inherit the StarsInherit the Stars by James P. Hogan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was introduced to this book in a college introductory archaeology course. I was a bit flabbergasted when I first saw the assignment. I'd read my share of science fiction up to that point, and didn't see what I could gain from a science fiction book that would benefit me in learning archaeology.

Well, after I read it, I saw.

A human skeleton is found on the moon, which is mysterious in and of itself. The more disturbing fact of the discovery, however, is not the simple presence of the remains. It's that the remains date back to the prehistoric era. The implications are staggering.

Inherit the Stars is thinking readers' science fiction at its best. The mystery pulls the reader in and drags him or her along on an intellectual ride. The unraveling of the mystery continues on in the book's sequels, but the first book in the series is by far the best.

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War of the Flea: The Classic Study of Guerilla Warfare

War of the Flea: The Classic Study of Guerrilla WarfareWar of the Flea: The Classic Study of Guerrilla Warfare by Robert Taber
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Taber's thorough examination of the (mainly Marxist) revolutions of the first half of the twentieth-century provided him the almost prophetic ability to foresee the United State's loss of the war in Vietnam as all but inevitable. He also correctly foresaw future troubles in South and Central America, though his details just missed the bullseye in the case of several countries. The most important tenant of this book, though, is not that revolutions are inevitable - they are - but that they can only be defeated by compromise, never by military might alone. In my own Master's Thesis on The Mau Mau War: Regional Rebellions and British Responses, 1950-55 (University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1999), I argued, along similar lines, that the British successfully waged a counter-insurgency campaign not by military force alone, but by conceding something to the population that the guerillas could not give: education. While Taber argues that the first concession to enable a successful suppression of guerilla activities is land reform, and that education only served to create revolutionary ambition in the lower middle class, the Mau Mau rebellion showed that the British colonial government used these two compromises in reverse order to great effect.

But I digress . . .

If you want to understand the anatomy of rebellion, along with the reason the United States fared so poorly in Vietnam, you must read this book. I have referred to this book often when trying to understand the morass that Afghanistan is now and promises to be in the future. I would love to see an update to this book, a re-visitation of its principle thesis. Apparently the military and the State Department learned something from Vietnam, but is it enough? Frankly, I don't like our chances.

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Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The White Hands and Other Weird Tales

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you're longing for Ligotti or pining for Poe, you should add Mark Samuels to your list of Most Desirable Authors. The works in this volume are dark surrealism at its brooding best. These are stories I wish I had written. Though one of them is more of a mood piece than a story, the remainder have enough plot to interest the most demanding page turner, while the rich prose will please the most discerning reader. All of them are thick with atmosphere - gray, lonely, and sinister. These stories are full of mystic tomes, a'la Lovecraft. In fact, one story, "The Search for Kruptos," partially takes place in a city full of books. Sounds enticing to a book lover, no? No! Oh, please, no, don't go there! You may end up asking yourself if you really want to keep reading at all after finishing Kruptos. "Black as Darkness" will have you fidgeting when you next view any number of experimental movies or, indeed, any movie done in monochrome. "The Impasse" is what Kafka would have written on a bad PCP trip. "Vrolyck" is one of the most intriguing of the bunch. With it, Samuels might have invented a new sub-sub-sub genre of "pseudo-meta-fictional-quasi-autobiographical-horrific-surreal-dark fantasy". You'll know what I mean when you read it. And you should read it. All of it. But beware: Once you've read The White Hands and Other Weird Tales, there's no going back. From that point on, you'll hesitate whenever you reach out to read a book, put a black-and-white movie in the DVD player, or see a mysterious bit of graffiti against a slum wall. And you should hesitate. In fact, you should just withdraw into a shell and not peek out. Ever. Don't trust anything!

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Monday, September 24, 2012

The Golem

The GolemThe Golem by Gustav Meyrink
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

While the story of The Golem alone deserves four stars as Gustav Meyrink's masterpiece, the Tartarus Press edition, of which I happen to be a fortunate owner, pushes the book-as-artifact into the five star category. This book is one of my most prized possessions, one of the books I'll reach for if the library ever catches fire. Everything about it screams "I defy you to find another book as cool as me". From the outstanding internal artwork to the silk ribbon marker to the weight of the pages themselves, this is a book of quality workmanship through and through. If I could own all of my favorite books in a Tartarus hardcover edition such as this, I might do nothing but read the rest of my life, starving to death in an easy chair under the light of a reading lamp.

As several reviewers have pointed out, The Golem is obtuse. It is clearly not the story of the golem as dramatized in the silent movies directed by Paul Wegener. This book is much less forthright in its horror, if it can be called horrific at all. I think that "unsettling" is a more accurate term. The heavy mysticism and symbolism Meyrink employs simultaneously draws in and distances the reader, making for an uneven read that sets up a disturbing cadence in the reader's mind. This can be aggravating at times, and absolutely captivating at others. One always feels that there's something just around the next bend, emotionally and intellectually speaking. I wonder if Meyrink didn't intend the book to read this way. In this way, he is much like Kafka, but on a more ethereal plane, if you will. Where Kafka creates unease with a sharp dose of uncaring bureaucracy, Meyrink plays hide and seek with shadows that may be interpreted as real demons or as the slow nightmare of a collective unconsciousness. It is because of this openness to interpretation that one reading is really insufficient to judge the work. The Golem, while not as hallucinatory as some think (those who haven't read it) or hope (those who were looking for an early surrealist Gothic tale) , is also not as incomprehensible as some reviewers complain. It is not an easy read, but, like many difficult reads, it is rewarding to wander Prague's streets in search of Meyrink's elusive creature.

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Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Life of Polycrates and Other Stories for Antiquated Children

The Life of Polycrates and Other Stories for Antiquated ChildrenThe Life of Polycrates and Other Stories for Antiquated Children by Brendan Connell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Full Disclosure: I co-wrote the story "The Search for Savino," which appears in this collection, with Brendan. I will refrain from any comments regarding the story.

Connell's collection, The Life of Polycrates & Other stories for Antiquated Children has strong roots in the decadent French writings and Symbolist writings of the 19th Century. These stories are biographical sketches-cum-stories of individuals who descend into decadence. They all start off with differing degrees of affluence, social acceptability, and sanity, but every one of them seems to dive headlong into the most banal lows of moral turpitude.

Brilliantly written, each story is a lesson in the writer's craft. At turns languid and shocking, Connell clearly has a deft hand for word-painting, with a special talent for understatement and the perfect turn-of-phrase.

Intentionally or not, some of the stories come off as emotionally suppressed, while others show an almost manic expression of emotion. Perhaps the occasional feelings of emotional flatness result from the work required on the part of the reader to dig the plot from underneath the documents, letters, conversations, and narrations that compose each story. This is not casual reading, but it is absolutely immersive, if the reader takes the time to slow down and absorb the litany of information inferred by context and the subtle nuances of dialogue that hide meaning between the lines.

To me, the most satisfying story was "The Chymical Wedding of Des Esseintes," perhaps because it struck me with the most direct terror, whereas the other stories festered "under the skin," so to speak. Overall, this is a brilliant collection, but not an easy read. Recommended to those for whom plot is secondary and the careful crafting of language is a spectator sport not to be missed.

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Friday, September 21, 2012

The Tunnel

The TunnelThe Tunnel by William H. Gass
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

WARNING: This review contains graphic content. I am not joking. If you are squeamish, please do not read this review!

Years ago, on my way home from Disney World, of all places, my wife and I came on the scene of a wreck on a rural California highway. The accident couldn't have happened but a few minutes before we arrived. The police had not yet made it to the scene, though some good citizens were directing traffic and approaching the victims. It appeared to be a single-vehicle accident. The car had rolled, if the dents on the roof were any indication (the car was upright on its three remaining wheels), and one of the passengers had been thrown through the windshield. He was quite dead: a river of blood a foot wide, coming from his neck, had already flooded across two lanes of traffic. We drove right through it, no avoiding it. The body was not all in one piece, I'll leave it at that. Another person, the other passenger from the looks of it (the body might have been his brother, I don't know) was aimlessly wandering around the middle of the highway in obvious shock at what had just happened. Thankfully there were people trying to slow traffic and make way for the police, who arrived just as we passed the body.

The feeling I felt then was akin to the feelings this book gave me inside. As an experiment in literature, it's brilliant. The formatting is incredible and intellectually stimulating. The language is superb, as one would expect from William Gass. I am a huge fan of his shorter work and have been in awe of his facile use of the English language. Academically, this book is a hit. An existentialist experiment in sentence construction, word usage, and visual arrangement.

That said, the book made me sick. I couldn't put it down, once I had picked it up, but I loathed picking it up at each reading session. There was an internal battle raging within me during the time I read it: Intellectual curiosity vs emotional revulsion. Ultimately, I hated myself for reading this book. But in the back of my mind, I admire it.

The narrator, Frederick Kohler, is attempting to write his forward to his life's work, "Guilt and Innocence in Hitler's Germany". He never finishes. Instead, the story follows Kohler's life, a failure in almost every sense, in a meandering, tedious narrative . . . well, tunnel. The sense of self-loathing in this work is powerful and depressing. Rather than making the book playful, the clever tinkering with formatting serves to disarm the reader into thinking she or he should be really excited about tackling this intellectual challenge, setting the reader up for a downward emotional plunge from which it is difficult to break free. I would not recommend this book for those who easily fall into depression. The Tunnel won't just let you fall into depression, it will forcefully push you there, face first. If you can distance yourself enough to enjoy the cleverness of it all, by all means, do so. But I couldn't distance myself enough. In the end, I found myself stuck in The Tunnel and it took a good few days to get out. Just like the feeling I had after witnessing the aftermath of that accident.

Four stars for intellectual bravado and inventiveness, two stars for internal yuck = 3 stars.

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No, not that movie (though I am rather fond of it, truth be told) . . .

Cloaks of Vermin and Fish, volume 1 in the Misadventures of Italo and Vincenzo, is back up on Smashwords! I am currently waiting for the robots on Amazon to do their mechanical editing, after which I will post a link to the book's Amazon page. UPDATE: The Amazon gods have condescended and Italo and Vincenzo are now appearing there.

As mentioned earlier, I took Cloaks down for a time, and it's time for it to go back up. I'm very excited, since Cloaks seems to have been rather popular with my readers. At least that's what the stat bots tell me. So, go see what all the fuss is about! I hope this doesn't come across as narcissistic, but I love these bungling thieves and I am hard pressed to think of a more enjoyable time writing than when I followed their escapades. Tell me what you think, honestly. I appreciate honest reviews!

Most of all - ENJOY!

Monday, September 17, 2012

My Man Jeeves

My Man JeevesMy Man Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It's P.G. Wodehouse, so why not five stars?

Well, here's the scoop. I love Bertie Wooster and Jeeves. One of the most clever duos to have ever graced the printed page. Between Jeeve's restrained resourcefulness and Bertie's self-admitted idiocy, there is a lot of potential for misadventure, and Wodehouse delivers it in droves.

Half of the short stories in this volume are Jeeves and Wooster material. The other half is from what I glean as earlier material, with a main character named Reggie Peppers. Now, Peppers is a fore-runner of Wooster, no doubt, but he is a bit of a homunculus, a shadow, a pretender, when compared to the sharp imbecility of Bertie Wooster. Peppers is . . . well, smarter. And more wordy. The clipped down anti-witticisms of Wooster are watered down in Peppers, which leaves the Peppers stories a little wanting. Peppers wants to be Wooster, but doesn't quite get there because, quite frankly, Peppers isn't dumb enough.

I am so glad that Wodehouse decided to stick with it and followed through to give life to Bertie Wooster. This isn't to say that Wodehouse missed here. Peppers made an adequate character, but Wooster, with Jeeves as his foil, is pure stupid genius. The Wooster stories in My Man Jeeves bear this out. The merry bungling of Wodehouse's longer works is apparent and the plot lines are as ridiculous and convoluted as one can expect in short fiction (though not as ridiculous and convoluted as his novellas/novels). Five stars for Bertie, negative one star for Peppers. Still strongly recommended.

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Keeping it Honest on Goodreads

Goodreads rocks! It is, by far, my favorite place for virtual sociality. I'm not much of a facebook guy (I prefer Google+) and while I like twitter, it doesn't allow for much in-depth, fulfilling conversation. Goodreads, though, allows me to connect with hundreds of other readers and, potentially, with authors whose work I might learn to appreciate and even love. I relish the conversations I can have there with readers who have similar tastes and I enjoy getting new takes on old favorites (or old books I despise) by people whose opinions differ from mine. I even like to read what others think about works that I am ambivalent about (and have changed my opinion on a few of these after considering someone's comments and giving the book a re-read).

That said, I don't read to review, necessarily. While I was an undergraduate student at BYU and a graduate student at University of Wisconsin-Madison, I learned how to sap the love of books right out of a person. Take a book, any book, and give it to the person with an assignment to read the book with a ridiculously short deadline, and require that the person apply a specific type of analysis to that book in order to squeeze out the sweet academic wine that must be in the book, if the student will only look hard enough using the correct tools.

I recall one of my sweetest summer breaks. Mind you, I usually took classes through the summer in order to graduate sooner. But one summer, as an undergraduate, I couldn't find the classes I needed, so I worked and read.  I read The Complete Sherlock Holmes, The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, and the three parts of the Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King - all in that order.  I read them because I didn't have to, and it was glorious. I'll never forget the feeling of lusty freedom. Thankfully, it was enough of a heart-lifting experience to free up my brain to think more clearly for the rest of my college career, rather than being bogged down by the chains of academic necessity.

It was after college that I decided to write my own works. I began by reviewing a little for Tangent Online, then did a few editorial gigs (including Leviathan 3 for which Jeff VanderMeer and I won the World Fantasy Award), then, I wrote. I'm still writing.

As a young, overly-eager author, I rated my own work rather highly. I wrote it, after all. But now, I see that this was a mistake. As a reader, the thought of an author telling me how great they think their work is seems incestuous, at best. So I went back and un-rated works that I had written at Goodreads. I'll let readers figure out if they like my work or not. I will retain the privilege of rating works I have edited, however, or anthologies in which I have a story appearing. For those anthologies I have edited, I truly feel that those stories I published were the best ones available to me when I edited the anthology. I make no apology for rating "my" authors as five stars. If I didn't believe that strongly in their work, as contained in these volumes, I wouldn't have included them in the anthology. As far as anthologies containing my work go, I'm unapologetic in my assessment of other stories in the volume, though I typically shy away from including mention of my own work, except by way of letting readers of my reviews know of a potential conflict of interest. I feel that this is honest.

Why the change of heart from the young writer/Forrest to this older one? I think it has to do with the disgust that I felt when I discovered the practice of authors buying reviews of their books. Pardon my naivete, but the thought just never occurred me that someone would, or even could, do such a thing. Now, I'm not above giving free copies of a book or e-book to a potential reviewer - this is how the business operates and I'd be an utter fool not to try to leverage the good praise of a legitimate, unpaid reviewer. Duh! In fact, I've done so recently, here and here (and am game, possibly, to giving away more free e-books to those who will review the work, pending a review of the potential reviewer's past reviews). And I always encourage the reviewer to give an honest appraisal of the work, whether it's flattering or flaming.

But I find it disingenuous to pay someone to review my work. The conflict of interest there is so reprehensible, that even the smarmiest businessman out there would cringe at the thought (well, okay, obviously they wouldn't or I wouldn't be typing this blog entry).

I think this dog has bitten me, too. Not too long ago, I was looking for something in the mystery/noir/crime genre, and stumbled across several 5-star reviews of a particular book. I thought "Wow. This sounds like a great read. So many people love it. How can I go wrong?" Well, things went wrong, alright. Horribly wrong. After reading this book, I felt cheated. Cheated of my time and money. Frankly, I was pissed. I'm all for allowing people to enjoy incorrect usage, tired tropes, poor grammar, flat characters, gross generalizations about specific ethnic groups and their bathing practices, and hideous inconsistencies. That's fine. But I had to ask, after reading this book, "Did any of those who gave the book five stars actually READ the book?" Even if some of them did, I find it hard to believe that so MANY had actually read the book from beginning to end and still saw fit to give it five stars.

Now, I'm not saying that the author paid reviewers (he did give away a few e-book copies and some reviewers were honest enough to acknowledge this). I don't know, either way. But I thought about the potential for abuse here, how an author COULD pay reviewers to give their crappy book a high star rating. It could happen, and that's a shame. Unfortunately, there's really nothing to be done to enforce honest, unpaid reviews. We really have to police ourselves.

For my part, I'm going to keep on giving my honest appraisals on the books I read, good or bad, and I'm not going to feed you with BS about how wonderful my work is. You judge it for yourself. I've often heard (and believe, to some extent) that nice guys finish last, but I'm going to be a snob, take the "higher road", and stick with honesty in my reviews. I hope that others do the same, because while I hope that readers will want to read my work, I go to Goodreads, first and foremost, not as an author, but as a READER! I like what I like, I dislike what I dislike, "I yam what I yam!"

So here's to keeping it honest on Goodreads. It's my favorite place to hang out on the internet, guys. Don't soil it by spamming people with your books (outside of groups and topics specifically designated for such activities) and please don't buy in to the paid reviewer game. I don't want that crap to interfere with good, clean fun and discussions about reading, nor do I want to be the sidelong victim of those who give authors a bad name by spamming goodreads with announcements. Save that for some place else. Just don't do it. Not in my backyard!

Thanks for playing nice and see ya in the stacks!

Also see:

Keeping it Honest on Goodreads, part ii

Keeping it Honest on Goodreads, part iii

Friday, September 14, 2012

Putting it Back Up Again

I have this magical gift. Years ago, when the then "funct" Surreal Magazine accepted and published my story "The Further Adventures of Star Boy" (still available in this collection), I had the privilege of bringing the death-knell to that publication. Well, maybe it had more to do with the publishers over-extending their reach, financially, but I like to think of Star Boy as the harbinger of that publication's doom. I believe my work was also primarily responsible for the untimely demise of the excellent magazines Whispers from the Shattered Forum, Flesh & Blood, and my favorite rag of all time, 3rd Bed. I can't tell you how many stories I've had accepted at various venues, only to see them go tits up before my story saw print. I've lost count.

So, surprise, surprise! What looked to be a very promising project is now dead. I'm not going to recount every convulsion of the fine small press who was considering my work, as I have a great deal of respect for them and their editors and hope for a speedy recovery. Suffice it to say that my action of taking my Italo and Vincenzo stories down from Smashwords was premature.

Therefore, in the next two to three weeks, I will be republishing the first volume of The Misadventures of Italo and Vincenzo: Cloaks of Vermin and Fish. I'll be sure to let as many people know as possible without making an ass of myself (I hate it when authors have no shame - seriously hate it) via twitter, google+, goodreads, smashwords, and this here blog. In the not-too-distant future (read: when I come up with cover art with which I am happy), I'll be compiling all three of the Misadventures of Italo and Vincenzo. For now, though, you'll have to be satisfied with only the first misadventure of the most bungling and lucky of Venice's Thieves' Guild apprentices. Soon . . . soon . . .

Afterword: "Soon" has come! Cloaks of Vermin and Fish is now up again!

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Black Gate #15

Black Gate #15Black Gate #15 by John O’Neill
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I spoke with editor John O'Neill about this issue of Black Gate at Wiscon this Spring (incidentally, John may be one of the nicest people you'll meet in the industry - a real gentleman and scholar and nerd, which is meant in only the most complimentary of ways). He told me that his intention for this issue was to compile as many stories written by women that he could. That failing, he wanted to present as many stories that featured female characters, both protagonists and supporting cast-members, as possible. What? Women in Sword and Sorcery that serve some role other than modelling chainmail bikinis and wrapping dragon tails around their hips in suggestive poses?

You betcha!

The opening story, "A River Through Darkness and Light," by John C. Hocking, was a great, if predictable story about the Archivist and his friend Lucella. I absolutely loved both characters, Lucella for her non-chalance and matronly patience with the Archivist, and the Archivist himself for his vulnerability and likeability.

I was also impressed by "The Lions of Karthagar," by Chris Willrich. The main characters in this tale, the Weatherworkers Blim the Damp and Miy Who Sing Storms, whose friendship develops against the background of an invasion of an incredibly rich country by their armies, each of which seeks to take possession of the golden land. Poetic and even touching, this story tugged at my emotions like most Sword and Sorcery does not.

My favorite piece of fiction in the volume was "The Shuttered Temple," by Jonathan L. Howard (author of Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, among others). Kyth the Taker, a brilliant and rather glib thief, is the heroine here. This was a very clever story whose strongest point is less the adventure than the philosophical underpinnings that drive Kyth and Tonsett, her foil. Witty, funny, and thought provoking, I found this the best of this excellent volume.

I have to admit, though, that a piece of non-fiction overshadowed all the fiction in the volume. "Art Evolution," by Scott Taylor, is an epic article that touched a soft spot in my heart and made me wax nostalgic for role-playing days of old. This was as thoroughly-researched an article on the subject of fantasy-art in role-playing as I've ever seen. Of course, I'm hard pressed to think of other articles that have even endeavored such an undertaking. From Jeff Dee to Matthew D. Wilson, Taylor traces the history of art in role-playing. It's an incredible journey that is worth the price of the issue alone.

If you like your Sword and Sorcery in short, smart doses, look no further than Black Gate.

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Saturday, September 8, 2012

Lost and Found: Three by Shaun Tan

Lost and Found: Three by Shaun Tan: Three by Shaun TanLost and Found: Three by Shaun Tan: Three by Shaun Tan by Shaun Tan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a beautiful book, full of wonder, but not completely wonderful. The artwork is spectacular and the stories are better-than-adequate. But I see this as a bittersweet collection. The stories end on a hopeful note, but if you're on meds, you may want to dose up before diving in. Not that the stories are depressing, just a bit gray, ironically. The vibrant artwork contrasts pretty sharply with the subdued voice of the stories, making the read a bit of a push-pull. Try this: have someone read the words aloud to you, but don't look at the pictures while they are reading. Then let yourself soak in the pictures, really dig in and try to read the texts used in the collages, look for fine details, find the red leaf on every page of "The Red Tree". It's easy to get lost in the magic of the visuals, which make all the difference in the world. A clear case of a book-as-artifact being stronger than the stories therein. I give the art a five, the stories a four. I have to wonder what it might have been like had Tan decided to go wordless with this one. It might have pushed this from full of wonder to completely wonderful. Still, this is one that any discerning reader of graphic novels or comics should have on their shelves.

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Fight Club

Fight ClubFight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I haven't seen the movie. I read the book.

I don't understand all the hype.

This is two stories: one about a dysfunctional relationship between flat characters and another an intriguing history of a movement that starts out as a drunken fight between acquaintances and ends up as a highly-regimented, carefully controlled cult of anarchy.

I liked the second story. Hated the first.

I've heard that this novel was an expansion of an earlier short story. Frankly, I can tell. Chapter 1 is promising, but chapters 2-5 are tedious, a real slog. Chapter 6 is where the real story begins. There violence, anti-commercialism, philosophy, and psychology all meld into a mind-bending maelstrom. Good stuff, if you can stomach the gore.

Of course, having finished the novel, one realizes that the two stories are intertwined and interdependent. I get this. But do the "relationship" sections have to be so bloody boring? Really? It's analogous to filling half of a pleasure-cruise ship with lead. At best, it's going to slow things down a lot. And it might just sink the ship. I feel like Fight Club barely lurched into the harbor, though it could have been a hydrofoil.

Oh, and repeating the same thing several times doesn't make you a compelling author or avant-garde or anything but dull and repetitive.

Maybe it's time I saw the movie.

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Friday, September 7, 2012

Regaining the Explorer's Edge in Madtown

As a young man (it wasn't so long ago), I prided myself on being an explorer. No doubt, this had to do with my being an Air Force Brat living overseas for much of my childhood. For example, when I lived in the Philippines, I was always very excited to get off-base to explore beyond the barbed wire. Alas, because I was so young, I was most often confined to exploring around the base.

As a result, I got to know the area very well. So well, in fact, that I made friends and was decorated from time to time.

This need to explore continued on through my teenage years which, I must admit, sometimes got me in trouble, especially when I lived in England, where my friends and I had a penchant for breaking into this 12th-Century priory and doing some primitive form of LARPing. 

But that was long ago. The eighties, I mean, not the 12th-Century, though . . . nevermind.

Fast-forward to a week ago, when I set off to buy my youngest son his birthday present. So he tells me about a gaming store downtown that I had never heard of: Netherworld Games. I thought I knew all the gaming stores in town: Pegasus, The Last Square, and Misty Mountain. How Netherworld escaped me, I can't fathom. I'm not hip-deep in roleplaying like I once was, but I try to keep in touch and occasionally go dungeon-delving with friends. It keeps me from getting in trouble like I used to!

As I spoke with one of the staff, I was impressed: Nice selection, an open area for gaming (at which one group was playing Magic and another, Pathfinder),friendly, knowledgeable staff. You know, everything you hope for in a gaming store. So I asked myself, “Self, how long do you think these guys have been in business?” Since Self didn't know the answer, I asked the guy who was special ordering my son's gift.

“Eight years.”

“Seriously? At this location?”


“I had no idea.”

“A lot of people don't.”

As I left, I looked back on the shop from the outside. Like a dive-bar, they had done a horrible job of advertising themselves. Besides the dragons and bikini-clad warrioress-types in the windows, there really was nothing that made the place stand out. It's on a side-street (but then again, so are many other gaming stores I've been to) and it simply melts in with the architecture, which is great if your the local assassin's guild, not so great if you're a merchant.

The funny thing is, it very much felt Madison. I don't know quite how to describe how Madison feels, but anyone who's lived here for any length of time probably knows what I mean. I pride myself on knowing the places that “feel” Madison. So how did I miss it?

I walked on, musing over my ignorance of the place, disappointed in myself for having lost the explorer's edge I had enjoyed so much as a child and young man, but quite happy that I had discovered this place that had been here for half the time I've lived in Madison. Everything looked just a bit different because I was looking at everything a bit differently. As I wandered, I walked past The Orpheum, an old theater in which I had first watched The Phantom Menace (take a look at the inside architecture and you'll know why this added a great deal to the experience. I noted, to my shock, that The Orpheum Restaurant, a favorite of mine and my wife, was closed. We exchanged sad-faces via text and I stared at the outside, probably looking like a homeless person longing for some glorious past in which I was a famous silent-movie actor.

Since I had my explorer's eyes on, I spotted, and will leave you with this, a shattered window, which looked like it had been struck by a bullet (there was a shooting downtown recently – makes me wonder if this is an artifact from that, though I think it was a couple of blocks away). Over the point of impact was a bizarre sticker. It was only after I took the picture that I realized that my reflection showed in the shattered glass, with the sticker superimposed over the spot where my head should be, like some ghost-turned-demon, haunting the old Orpheum. I'm still puzzling over the meaning of it all.

Monday, September 3, 2012

At the Mountains of Madness

At the Mountains of MadnessAt the Mountains of Madness by H.P. Lovecraft
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is as close as one will get to an epic adventure quest by H.P. Lovecraft. If you're an old role-playing game geek like me, this will appeal to the dungeoneer in you. Plenty of delving and mystery in this one!

If you're a fan of the movie Prometheus, you'd do well to hark back to the origin of many of the movie's tropes. They are similar, at least on the surface: An impossibly old alien race creates life on earth for the purpose of enslaving it, yadda, yadda. If you hated the movie Prometheus, you'd do well to hark back to the origin of many of the movie's tropes . . . need I go on?

The story begins with that rarefied sense of heroic antarctic exploration that permeated the accounts of Scott, Amundsen, and Shackleton's expeditions. At that time, such an expedition was fraught with danger, due to drifting ice, unforeseen logistical shortcomings, and, of course, the weather. Since the Antarctic was relatively unknown when Lovecraft wrote the story, it's easy to see why he would set his story in what appeared in that day to be an utterly alien place, though it was right here at home on planet earth.

Or was it "home," really? Whose home? And for how long?

Now, I'm a big Lovecraft fan. But there was one thing, stylistically, that drove me absolutely nuts about this story. It's a minor thing, but it prevents me from giving an unbridled five-star rating to the story. Frankly, I really disliked the use of shortwave reports between the narrator, William Dyer, and Lake's remote base. The choppiness of the language seemed correct and historically accurate to me, since shortwave radio had been in use for only a decade or so before Lovecraft wrote the story. The characters would, like Lovecraft, have been habituated to using short, choppy phrases because of the telegraph system that preceded the explosion of shortwave radio in the 1920s. But what didn't seem correct, and what threw me out of the rhythm of the story, was the use of flowery words and complex phraseology in the messages themselves. They aren't as blatantly ugly on paper as they are when read aloud. Try it sometime. It feels overwrought and contrived. Not to mention that these info-dumps could have been spread out and integrated into the story itself a little better.

But this is a minor complaint. All-in-all, I loved the slow escalation of the horror in the story. It begins with a lot of hyperbole and, indeed, engages in it throughout. Still, Lovecraft manages to build the sense of dread to a fitting crescendo. In several instances, I was surprised by a plot twist that I should have seen coming. Ah, Lovecraft, you trickster! You fooled me again!

One thing I really enjoyed was the narrator's ambiguous feelings regarding the Old Ones. Though his primary emotional reaction toward these beings are fear and revulsion, there is also a moment of pity and near-empathy that I found endearing.

This is not my favorite Lovecraft story. But it's not one of his lesser works, either. If you haven't had a crack at Lovecraft, it's not a bad place to start. And if you're a Lovecraft fan, as I am, you'll recognize many of the elements, though you'll be surprised by others, such as the narrator's conflicting feelings that I've outlined above. I'm no expert on Lovecraft's evolution as a storyteller, but I have to wonder if these surprises are indicative of a certain maturation in his writing. Someone smarter than me with more resources and time will have to determine that. For my own reading enjoyment, though, At the Mountains of Madness, though flawed, still reflects the writer's genius. Ia, Ia Lovecraft!

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Michael Moorcock: Death Is No Obstacle

Michael Moorcock: Death Is No ObstacleMichael Moorcock: Death Is No Obstacle by Michael Moorcock
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Hands-down the best book on writing I have read. You'll want to be familiar with Moorcock's work before jumping in, however. That doesn't mean you need to have read all of his work (good luck on that one!) but some familiarity with the Elric series and at least one or two others does help one to synthesize all the information. Read carefully, though, and you'll find that this is really a writer's manual cleverly disguised as a series of entertaining interviews. You won't find this one cheap,but if you can get a copy, it's worth the price.

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Elric at the End of Time

Elric at the End of Time (Elric, #7)Elric at the End of Time by Michael Moorcock
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'm a big fan of Michael Moorcock, but not a big fan of this book. Most of the pieces in here are immature, either in terms of when they were written in Moorcock's career, or in terms of tone. The title story is written as a mockery of the character Elric, and is interesting in terms of bringing together several of Moorcock's characters (Werther de Goethe, Duke of Queens, Una Persson, etc). This sort of cross-polination of characters works quite well in Moorcock's later works, but this one is silly to the point of distraction. I don't hate it, but I'd rather not re-read it, either. "The Last Enchantment" is my favorite piece in this volume. It uses a transitional style moving from the more traditional Elric story toward the playfulness and experimentalism of the Second Ether trilogy (which is some of my favorite writing from Moorcock). The Sojan the Swordsman section, begun early on in Moorcock's career, is downright banal and actually a bit clumsy. A couple of essays of interest to Moorcock aficionados round out the bulk of the book. But it's at the very end, with the purple-prose pastiche "The Stone Thing," that the collection hits it's stride. Unfortunately, it's a little too late to make the book anything better than average overall.

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