Monday, October 28, 2013

The Real Deal

Last week I made an informal announcement regarding the sale of my novel, Heraclix & Pomp, to Resurrection House publishing. Here is the text of the announcement at the Resurrection House website. Writing Heraclix & Pomp was a joy - one of the most fun writing exercises of my career. I learned to love these characters, in a strange sort of auctorial way. They're  . . . well, there's no sane way to say this, so I'll just blurt it out - Heraclix and Pomp are good friends who live in my head. Needless to say, I am very excited to share their story with the rest of the world. Here's the formal announcement or, if you want all the clever graphics and such, go here:

"Now that we’re done sucking all the helium out of the launch balloons and the white doves carrying our message have all fluttered off to the ends of the earth, it’s time to get down to business. It’s one thing to talk about books, but it’s another to actually get them into your hands, and so we’ve taken the first steps in getting that done: buying some books and getting distribution lined up.

We’re happy to report that Resurrection House and its imprints will be distributed by Publishers Group West (PGW) and its various affiliates.

On the acquisition front, we’ve purchased a couple of books. HERACLIX & POMP by Forrest Aguirre, and CHIMPANZEE and TOTEM by Darin Bradley. HERACLIX & POMP and CHIMPANZEE will be part of our Fall 2014 schedule, and TOTEM will be out for Fall 2015. We’ll get catalog pages up for them when we get the art squared away, but here are some brief descriptions of the books to whet your appetites in the meantime.


Heraclix was dead and Pomp was immortal. That was before Heraclix’s reanimation (along with the sewn-together pieces and parts of many other dead people) and Pomp’s near murder at the hands of an evil necromancer. As they travel from Vienna to Prague to Istanbul and back again (with a side-trip to Hell), they struggle to understand who and what they are: Heraclix seeks to know the life he had before his death and rebirth, and Pomp wrestles with the language and meaning of mortality. As they journey across a land rife with revolution and unrest, they discover the evil necromancer they thought dead might not be so dead after all. In fact, he might be making a pact to ensure his own immortality . . ."

PS: My writing fez actually makes an appearance in the book. Well, many appearances. And not as my writing fez, but as a symbol for something far more sinister. 

Friday, October 25, 2013

Great News!

Now that the ink is dry on all the contracts, I can announce that Resurrection House publishing has bought my novel Heraclix & Pomp for publication in Fall, 2014. WOOt!

This weekend is insane, so I'll post more details early next week. In the meantime, I'm going to have to wind down to get some sleep. Busy days ahead - my middle son runs Cross Country sectionals tomorrow and will very likely run at State next weekend, then I'm immediately off to Mexico for the day job.

I am so pumped! I don't quite know how I'm going to get to sleep . . . maybe when the adrenaline wears off, I'll crash. More later! I promise!

Friday, October 18, 2013

Roadside Picnic

Roadside PicnicRoadside Picnic by Arkady Strugatsky
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Another gem introduced to me by my friends at Goodreads. This short novel is a "how-to" on sidelong insinuations, information gaps, and inferences that make for a wholly satisfying story. The main character, Redrick Schuhart, starts out as an entrepreneurial collector of alien artifacts, and becomes a hardened, curmudgeonly, but effective artifact hunter searching for (view spoiler). The Strugatsky brothers use multiple Points-of-View, switching from first person to third person, moving in and out of people's thoughts as they go. I tend to like stories done in this way, when it's done well, and it is done well here. In this case, the shifting viewpoints allow the authors to focus in or telescope out on events and attitudes, as needed. The result is a very rich narration, especially for such a short book.

The premise is simple. Aliens have left some things behind. They reside in "The Zone," a contaminated area from which the government is trying to protect its citizens. "Stalkers" go in and collect the artifacts, then resell them. No one quite knows the full functionality of the artifacts, and no one understands the full dangers of "The Zone". This makes for some intriguing and intense moments throughout.

The tone of the book is akin to that of some noir works, dark, gritty, getting darker and grittier as the tale wears on. I suspect that many of the discussions and plot line centering around the artifact trade are reflective of the Soviet-era underground economy (i.e., Black Market). I have no proof of this, but I wonder. Some friends of mine in high school traveled to the USSR in the late '80s. They had heard rumors about what a pair of American jeans could buy over there, so a few took over extra pairs, in case opportunity presented itself. One came back with one less pair of jeans and one more Soviet "bear hat" from one of the border guards that "inspected" their bus. Crazy, and true. But I digress.

Like many great books, the meaning of the ending is left up to the reader. Is this novel about triumph over existential angst? Or is it about the inevitability of our naivete conquering our logic and good sense? I don't know. But the fact that I am left meditating upon these questions shows clearly that Roadside Picnic was no mere picnic.

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Friday, October 11, 2013

Solos and Outros

Those of you who follow me on twitter or who know me in real life know that I have very eclectic tastes in music. My MP3 player is schizophrenic, to say the least, ranging from modern classical works to electronic trance to death metal to swing jazz. But I'm not gonna lie to you. At heart, I'm a rocker. The first two records (yes, I'm that old) I bought as a kid were KTEL's The Rock Album and Black Sabbath's Master of Reality. I could have bought an Earth, Wind, and Fire LP just as well and been fully satisfied, but, as fate would have it, I was corrupted enlightened by a bevy of rock musicians, at least one of whom (Tony Iommi) I was privileged to talk to on the phone and thank for making those teenage years a little more bearable. By the way, Iommi is a gentleman's gentleman. Would love to meet him in person and sit down and just talk life and music with him for a while. But I digress.

If you gather a group of old rockers together in a room, given enough time, the conversation will quickly turn to "who is the best guitar player (insert state of being here: alive, dead, undead)?". Those of us who have gone through what is surely going to explode into a full-blown brawl have wisely learned to turn the conversation to a question that's a little (very little) less likely to progress to fisticuffs. That question is: "What are your favorite guitar solos or outros?" Thus, we avoid the contentious debate on who is "best" and turn the discussion toward "which is best for you?" So, in an effort to facilitate future conversations and in the name of peace among middle-aged rockers, I present my five current favorite guitar solos. I reserve the right to change my mind and excuse it as early-onset alzheimer's. I also make no apologies. These five solos may not be the best in the world, these five (actually there are seven) guitarists may not be the best guitarists in the world (in fact a couple of my all-time favorite guitar players are absent from this list), but they are my current top five. When I really want to blow the tubes, these are the solos and outros that I crank up. I present them in no particular order:

Glen Tipton and K.K. Downing - Judas Priest: Turbo Lover

Yes, this solo has two soloists. It's difficult enough to separate these heavy metal conjoined twins when they are playing rhythm guitar. The "solo" to Turbo Lover must be seen as one solo between two guitarists. Definitely the least technically savvy of the five solos, there is something about K.K. Downing's melodic interludes contrasting against Glen Tipton's raw animalistic power that propels this dual-solo into the highest ranks for me. This is a bare-bones, headbanging solo of ripping simplicity. Beware of the official music video version of the song, which is stripped of Downing's beautiful (and equally simple) intro to the solo. If you'd like to see the song live, I recommend this video.

Brad Gillis and Jeff Watson - Night Ranger: Don't Tell Me You Love Me

Another dual-solo. The best description of Gillis and Watson's co-masterpiece is "face melting". For the longest time, I thought that this was a solo by a single guitarist. It took a while for me to figure out that the strange (and utterly cool) warbling in the middle of the solo was actually Brad Gillis signing off and letting Jeff Watson take over. Now, from what I can gather, both guitarists claim to be the lead guitarist for Night Ranger, but with Brad Gillis continuing to tour with the band and Watson having left the band just a little embittered, only Gillis can claim that role now. But I prefer going back to a happier time when both of these geniuses (geniui?) were shredding together. Can't we all just get along? After all, this solo wouldn't be as great without both players.

Buck Dharma - Blue Oyster Cult: Veteran of the Psychic Wars (Live)

Buck Dharma may be one of the most under-rated guitarists of all time. The problem, I think, is that most people haven't seen him play live. His studio albums are, of course, great. But his true prowess can only be seen in a live performance. The video I've linked above shows the song Veteran of the Psychic Wars being played live in Hollywood in 1981.This solo is so incredibly complex that it's hard to know where to begin in praising it. It begins innocuously enough, then slowly sneaks its way into a jaw-dropping fireworks display of total heavy metal awesomeness. I love the way he occasionally strums (if you can call killing your guitar "strumming") above his pickups to get more "bite" into the sound. I wonder how many boxes of bandaids he had to go through to soak up the blood that must have been streaming from his fingertips by the end of the concert. Talk about a guy giving it his all. This is the only solo for which I would reserve the word "Epic". It truly is a long journey through Buck Dharma's breadth of talent. And then, at the end, the mad calliope of shredding stops and drops into the lilting melodic outro, Dharma, being who he is, then humbly, and literally, steps out of the spotlight to let his band-mates steer, as if in zero-gravity, the rocket he has launched into space.

Zakk Wylde - Ozzy Osbourne: Mister Crowley (Live)

Purists will, no doubt, point out that this solo was written and created by the immortal Randy Rhoades. And, while I would argue that Randy Rhoades is/was one of the greatest guitarists of all time (sorry, had to get the plug in), I am stunned by the feat that Zakk Wylde pulls off here, something I thought impossible: Wylde not only stays faithful and true to Rhoades' original solo, he actually makes it better. Yes, I said it! Better! Don't believe me? Watch the video. Now, if you want to start another argument, get in the middle of a bunch of old rockers and ask "Who was the best guitar player for Ozzy Osbourne?" then step out of the way! I think that the proper answer is "all of them". From Tony Iommi to Randy Rhodes to Brad Gillis to Jake E. Lee to Zakk Wylde to whomever else is the guitarist-du-jour for the metal madman, Ozzy seems to always be able to get the most incredible showboaters out there. But watch and listen carefully to the live performance of these various guitar players, especially when they play each other's work, and it becomes apparent that Zakk Wylde seems to be able to trump them all. I could just have well put Wylde's rendition of Bark at the Moon as the contender here, but I have to defer to Rhoade's greatness. Still, I never thought a guitar player would be able to out-Rhoades Rhoades, but Wylde has done it here. Try listening to the song with the visuals off if you need further convincing. Your ears will tell you that it's true: this is one of the greatest solos of all time.

Tony Iommi - Heaven & Hell: I (live)

While I am a fan of early Black Sabbath, I feel that Tony Iommi really hit the height of his career during the time that Ronnie James Dio sang for the band, whether during their first stint together, reunited for the Dehumanizer album, or in their last incarnation, before Dio's death, as Heaven & Hell. "I" is one of his more obscure offerings, or was until Heaven & Hell released their Live at Radio City Music Hall DVD. This solo made even the most hardened of hardcore Sabbath fans look at each other afterward and ask "What just happened? I think I was just hit by a planet." Dio's "Whoa!" at the end of the song is really the only appropriate response to the outro, which shows Iommi's prowess as a technical guitar player of astounding ability. No more muddy bass-amp fuzziness. This solo can't be hidden under a wall of distortion. It is pure guitar playing at the highest level, something that any professional guitar player would be proud of.  If the other solos on this list are "face melting" and "epic," this solo, along with the outro, will rip your head off. "Whoa," indeed.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Shadows & Tall Trees 5

Shadows & Tall Trees 5Shadows & Tall Trees 5 by Michael Kelly
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I owe my writing career to the small press. My first story published in print appeared in the February 2001 issue of Indigenous Fiction. Since then, my work has appeared in over 50 venues, some of them prestigious or popular, but most of them in the small press universe (both literary and speculative). So, feeling nostalgic, I bought a copy of issue 5 of Shadows & Tall Trees. The cover art is amazing, and the submission guidelines rang a happy bell in my head, the kind that says "you just might like this".

Now, I've done a little editing here and there. I'm pretty keen on having a unifying theme or at least a unifying sense of atmosphere in the anthologies I edit (or have edited - it has been a while). Still, I understand that most anthologies and magazines are mixed affairs. As Stepan Chapman once said, remarking about Leviathan 3, "there's something for everyone to hate".

While I didn't truly hate any of the pieces in this (let's call it what it is) short anthology, it was a bit of a roller-coaster ride, in terms of quality. I was a little worried, at first, as the introductory story really didn't do it for me. "New Wave" gave too much away early on. Today, on NPR, I heard the writers of Breaking Bad extol the virtues of telling a story by what is not said. I tend to agree with them. Give the audience 2+2 and let them figure out it's 4. Unfortunately, this story seemed like it felt the need to explain everything. It gave me 4 - I'm giving it a 2, as in 2 stars.

"Casting Ammonites" was much more moody than the first piece. It left enough unsaid, building the skeleton of a story around the bones of dialogue between two characters, but leaving the meat of the narrative up to the reader's imagination. This helped create mystique that added to the brooding nature of this 4 star piece.

"A Cavern of Redbrick" telegraphed the ending way too early. Still, it was a decent story; 3 stars worth, at least. One note: A lot of these stories had children as either protagonists or narrators. Long ago, I was given advice by Jeff VanderMeer, with whom I was editing Leviathan 3, at the time. He said, in essence "never include children in your stories - it's too easy to rely on sentiment to get a response from the reader". I've only spurned that advice a few times (all of them here). It's good advice for you writerly types. Writing about children often slips into child-like writing, which is not good if you're not writing a children's book.

"Laudate Dominum (for many voices)" continued in the same sombre mood that pervades the earlier stories. Again, the author "telegraphed" a bit too much for my liking. As soon as the narrator stated that his milk was sour, the gig was up - I had a pretty good idea of what was coming. The surreal central conceit of the story, however, knocked me back on my heels. So, despite knowing (view spoiler), I found this an enjoyable, very creepy, 4 star story.

"Moonstruck," by Karin Tidbeck, was the jewel of the anthology. It is a brilliant piece of speculative absurdism that avoids becoming silly. I was reminded of one of my favorite authors, Italo Calvino, which is some of the highest praise I can give to a story. The main child character in this fable is held in check by her staid, logic-driven mother. By far the best story in the volume, and possibly worth the cover price alone. 5 enthusiastic stars!

"Whispers in the Mist" is a ghost story set on its head, a'la The Others. At least that's how I read it. It was more emotive than most pieces in this volume, but not super compelling. I liked it, didn't love it. 3 stars.

Interestingly, this volume of Shadows & Tall Trees contained a non-fiction piece entitled "A Woman's Place". This essay examines Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper in the context of fin-de-siecle feminism. It was an intriguing take on Gilman's story, with little substantiating evidence (in the form of cross-referenced sources). The reader in me enjoyed it, the trained historian bathed it in red ink. Still 3 star worthy.

"The Other Boy" continues in the child-as-central-figure vein. I really enjoyed the characters in this family ghost story, but it was a very slow read. 3 stars.

The volume closes out with "Widdershins," the story of an American expatriate in Ireland who finds himself enmeshed in the local scene a little more than he would have liked. This story is an excellent example of giving 2+2 to the reader. I give it 4 stars.

From a rough statistical viewpoint, the anthology rates a 3.44. But, given the absolutely stunning cover art and the fact that editor Michael Kelly can keep a theme (children) and an atmosphere (brooding and a touch sad) running strong throughout, I have to "cheat up" to a 4 star.

Seriously, you've got to read Tidbeck's story. Wow.

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