Saturday, August 30, 2014

Last Day to Enter to Win a Signed ARC of Heraclix & Pomp!

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Heraclix & Pomp by Forrest Aguirre

Heraclix & Pomp

by Forrest Aguirre

Giveaway ends September 01, 2014.
See the giveaway details at Goodreads.
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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Deadpool Killustrated

Deadpool KillustratedDeadpool Killustrated by Cullen Bunn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The world's biggest superhero-killing douchebag is back, this time to eliminate your favorite characters of classic literature from the "Ideaverse". Not satisfied with killing off all the Marvel superheroes, Deadpool sets off to kill the very nascent idea of a superhero from the psyche of the universe in his striving to find and kill "The Progenitors" in an effort to end his eternal torment. The string of homocidal ultraviolence is . . . well, pretty funny, actually. But there's an aspect of this graphic (and I do mean graphic!) novel that tickles the intellect, as well, an existential question that is left unanswered, but on which the entire fate of reality rests: can Deadpool ever *really* die? This question emerges from the midst of the crimson-splattered chaos, and provides a nice foil to all the killing and admittedly hilarious madness of Deadpool himself. This is the sort of thing that philosophies can be built on, or at least it's good grist for some philosophy student's senior thesis. It's not quite PhD material, but neither is Deadpool. Still, there's a lot of thinking to do in the midst of all the craziness, an island of "what if?" amidst the "who cares?" It is a delicious little conundrum, worth your time and your brain, or perhaps a piece of Deadpool's self-regenerating brain.

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Spritzerville,…Ohio?Spritzerville,…Ohio? by Jason R. Koivu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Seems like you're using more than your fair share of Rs in your name. Just know that these things are not going unnoticed.

-The Vowel Laden-

This was the grave warning on the envelope in which the book Spritzerville,...Ohio? arrived. Nevermind the fact that the title contains more punctuation than a child's cursive primer. The left-handed and (self-admitted) "naturally pompous" Jason R. Koivu supposedly penned this tale, but I have my doubts. I think it much more likely that this was "ghostwritten" by the departed soul of P.G. Wodehouse himself. Or, at least, that said Koivu channeled the erstwhile English humorist while writing the book. Lemony Snicket might have also been present in the room, in ectoplasmic form or otherwise, so far as I can tell, at least for the last tale of the book, which is, to be blunt, downright spooky.

Now, who is the audience for such an odd writer about such an odd town as Spritzerville? Well, if you are looking for high culture, you will kindly sod off. If you seek the deeply philosophical, you are bound to be disappointed, but you will likely be disappointed by anything you read, regardless of how well-researched or well-presented such a treatise might be and . . . oh, just go bugger yourself.

If, however, you are looking for laughs - not stupid laughs, mind you, but the smart kind, the kind with hidden messages by Megadeth, the kind with awful alliteration of the intentional kind, a work seething with mutant pastries, vampiric senior citizens, and gaseous toads, and a book with potty-humor elevated by clever turns of phrase and punny wit, then this is your book. Yes, even stoic old me (or is it "I"?) found myself laughing aloud and having to explain myself to bystanders. I recommended the book, highly, and I do so now, to you . . . I recommend this book highly.

See what I did there?

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Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Incidents in the Night: Volume 1

Incidents in the Night: Volume 1Incidents in the Night: Volume 1 by David B.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It's complicated.

I looked at Incidents in the Night: Volume 1 from afar and thought I liked what I saw. The book smiled at me, and I think it might have winked, too. But that might just have been the lighting in this dark place. I made my way closer, slowly, asking a few of my friends what they thought of it. It seems that a lot of people admired it, maybe even felt something much stronger than admiration. A few gave me dark looks, as if I was an idiot for asking, though I'm not sure whether these looks askance were meant to warn me or to show jealousy that I would dare approach such a prize. Finally, after some internal debate, I screwed up my courage and went in close.

Maybe it was the mole on the book's face, maybe a bit of a cold streak in its eyes, I don't know. Something just didn't set right with me. I could see how many would be fascinated by it, even physically attracted in a strong way. But my sense of . . . art, I think it was, yes, my sense of art prevented me from engaging in anything more than casual conversation. I just knew that if I got too involved, I would regret it. Yet still, still . . .

The dreamlike sense of something hidden just around the corner was titillating. And I appreciated the quirky sense of dress in the details, though the overall picture didn't really appeal to my sense of style. But again, there was something behind the eyes, something . . . hidden . . . maybe a slightly-veiled agenda, that bespoke danger.

We talked, we shared an uncomfortable laugh, we drank our drinks and looked around the room. I thanked it for its time, white-lied my way out of the conversation with an "it was nice to talk with you," and walked away. Just walked away.

I still just don't know . . .

It's complicated.

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Saturday, August 9, 2014

I'm Giving Away Heraclix & Pomp Again!!! Come and Get It!

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Heraclix & Pomp by Forrest Aguirre

Heraclix & Pomp

by Forrest Aguirre

Giveaway ends September 01, 2014.
See the giveaway details at Goodreads.
Enter to win

Waltz With Bashir: A Lebanon War Story

Waltz With Bashir: A Lebanon War StoryWaltz With Bashir: A Lebanon War Story by Ari Folman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As the current ('14) conflict rages on in Gaza, I am reminded that, in this war, there are only victims. This is also true of the Lebanon conflict of the early '80s, which is the subject of this graphic novel. Yes, there are aggressors, mostly politicians who already enjoy power, goading on the common men and women who actually fight the wars. But on the ground level, where the fighting itself is taking place, there are only victims, regardless of who "wins" the conflict. That's not to take away responsibility for those who commit atrocities like the slaughter of unarmed, innocent Lebanese civilians by "Christian" forces loyal to the then-recently-assassinated Bashir Jumayel, President of Lebanon. Of course, justice must be served against killers. There is no excuse for their actions. But that doesn't mean that when the executioner's axe rightfully falls on them, if it ever did or ever will, that they weren't also victims of those in power over them.

And what of the Israeli soldiers who witnessed the massacre? Are they not to blame for not having stopped the slaughter earlier? Of course. But, as Waltz With Bashir makes apparent, even they are partially punished by the haunting nightmares, the psychological damage of having witnessed what they witnessed and not having done what was necessary to stop it. Perhaps your idea of justice is that these soldiers should swing from the noose for holding off when they could have intervened. But if they had intervened, in a time of war, against orders, they would likely have swung from a noose anyway, for being traitors to the aims of those in power over them. Would that have further satisfied your sense of justice? Would it? Really?

Perhaps. Perhaps not. Each person has to decide for him or herself what is "just" and who to blame for such terrible things. Should political leaders hang for decisions that lead to such slaughter? How exactly does one pin the blame for such things? Who gets to decide? Who is the judge? Is it enough to suffer psychological trauma for the sins one has committed, or must lives be paid for at the cost of more lives?

The lines between who is good and who is evil are muddled by the fog of war. The only thing that is certain is that everyone pays the price of aggression. Everyone who is in an area of violence, whether belligerent or innocent, is, in some sense, a victim.

There are no easy answers.

But if you want to explore the questions posed above, Waltz With Bashir is a good place to start. It's not likely to change your mind about anything in regards to the ongoing conflict between Israel and its neighbors, but it will cause you to pause and think. And maybe that pause will be long enough to stop and at least consider the consequences and gravity of such conflicts, to consider the effect on *everyone* involved. Maybe a minute or two, within which peace can get a toehold, if nothing else.

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The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath & Other Stories

The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath & Other StoriesThe Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath & Other Stories by H.P. Lovecraft & Jason Thompson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I first encountered the artwork of Jason Thompson through a poster he created for the Lamentations of the Flame Princess role-playing game. I was immediately struck by the simplicity of his central figure, the "mock man," set against the finely-honed detail work one sees in his settings, costume, and creatures. His work is truly unique, cartoonish, but compelling. So when I first saw the cover of his hardbound The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath & Other Stories, I knew it wouldn't be long before I procured a copy. I was filled with that sort of book-lust that only true book lovers know. I obsessed a bit.

And I am not disappointed.

This volume contains stories from what has come to be known as Lovecraft's "Dreamlands" cycle: "The White ship," "Celephais," "The Strange High House in the Mist," and the eponymous novella "The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath," as well as a series of drawings from Thompson's sketch book. Thompson stays faithful to the original stories, but adds an easter egg or two in a touch of whimsy, such as a moment when Randolph Carter is telling Pickman's ghouls that he must take his leave of them to continue his search for Kadath: the ghoul to his left says "Oh, Carter, please don't go!" and the one to his right says "We'll eat you up, we love you so!"

If you don't get that reference, it's time for you to hit the children's books again.

Despite this and a couple of other dalliances, Thompson stays true to Lovecraft's plots, characters and, for the most part, rich descriptions. Unlike many illustrated versions of Lovecraft's work, Thompson's artwork actually does reflect the very words that Lovecraft used. The work is bound together aurally and visually; a rare thing, indeed. The lush illustrations are sometimes only evocative of the wonders and horrors Lovecraft created, allowing the reader's imagination to fill in details that are out of sight just beyond the frame of the picture itself. This leads to a sense of anticipation and sometimes dread that pulls the reader in. It is as much what is not seen, but hinted at, that provides enticement to the intellect. Or, as it is said, "It's not the kill, it's the thrill of the chase".

A thrilling chase, indeed. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Buy a copy here and support Thompson so he can continue to produce such wonderful art and books. He's just whetted my appetite with this volume. I want more, and more, and more.

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Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Six Memos for the Next Millennium

Six Memos for the Next MillenniumSix Memos for the Next Millennium by Italo Calvino
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Let's start with the fact that Italo Calvino is one of my favorite writers of all time. His crystalline surrealism, easy tone (at least in translation), and whimsical subjects (by which I mean situations and characters, inclusive) are, to me, compelling. To say that I went into this book with a favorable view of the author would be a gross understatement. I absolutely adore Calvino's work.

Now, I am also discovering that I don't really like many books about writing. Moorcock's Death is No Obstacle is, so far as I've read, the best book on writing out there. Calvino's Six Memos for the Next Millennium is a close second. A *very* close second.

What you won't find in this book are lessons on grammar, editorial tips, or the best way to market your book to the masses using obnoxious tactics like going on Goodreads and spamming members when you have not bothered to review more than a half dozen books or looked to see if said members share any kind of interest in books of your type whatsoever . . . sorry, was I using my outside voice when I said that? Silly me.

What you will find here is a peek behind Calvino's magic curtain. You will see that even his explanations about how he does his work are magical. You won't see the nuts and bolts of how Calvino mechanically goes about constructing his stories (though he is very methodical), but you will see a high-level treatise on Calvino's state of mind as he writes. This is a philosophical text cleverly disguised as a book about writing.

The book is divided into five sections. "Five?" you ask. "What happened to the sixth?" The sixth memo is "Consistency," lightly penciled into the handwritten table of contents provided by Calvino at the beginning of the book. In fact, it looks as if it had been written in, then erased, an irony that is as Calvino-esque as anything else I can think of.

The first memo, "Lightness," is the one thing that I struggle with the most as a writer. Here, Calvino is not talking about lightness as it relates to hue, but as it relates to mass. He gives the example from Boccaccio's Decameron, a story in which the Florentine poet Guido Cavalcanti is beset by some men who want to pick a (philosophical) fight with him in a graveyard.

Guido, seeing himself surrounded by them, answered quickly: "Gentlemen, you may say anything you wish to me in your own home." Then, resting his hand on one of the great tombs and being very nimble, he leaped over it and, landing on the other side, made off and rid himself of them.

Now, call me strange (it's true), but this is something I can sink my writerly teeth into. I can apply this principle of lightness, not because Calvino has given me specific instructions on how to do it, but because he has opened a window for me to stick my head out, look around, take stock of the landscape, and enjoy it. He's put me in the headspace I need to be in to integrate this principle of lightness into my writing.

And so it is with the remaining principles. Of "Quickness," Calvino states:

I am a Saturn who dreams of being a Mercury, and everything I write reflects these two impulses.

And, reading the context of this memo, I know exactly what he means and see that struggle in myself. In fact, this is my favorite quote about writing ever written. But can I take this down to the grammatical level and explain it to someone else? Hardly. I know in my bones what Calvino is saying, but explain it in figures and diagrams, I cannot.

In the section on "Exactitude," Calvino goes to some extent to explain how vagueness can only be properly described, with exactitude. In speaking of the evocative power of words and the importance of using them in the most exact way, he states:

The word connects the visible trace with the invisible thing, the absent thing, the thing that is desired or feared, like a frail emergency bridge flung over an abyss.

Again, a bit of intuition and reflection is required to really grasp what he is saying. Not because his statement is poorly written, but because this notion is an abstract concept. This "writing book," if one can assign such a banal descriptor to it, requires the reader to think!

Memo four, "Visibility," dwells on the imagination as the impetus for all creativity, particularly the visual imagination. While he acknowledges that literary work might arise from the hearing of a good turn of phrase or from an academic exercise, the majority of such creations arise from a visual cue in the writer's mind. Thus, the need to use exactitude to describe the visual seed of a story or book, which allows the reader to see into the mind of the writer, if but for a moment, and anchors the story in the reader's mind.

"Multiplicity" is the fifth and most inappropriately titled memo. I might have used the word "Nestedness" or even "Complexity" to give the reader a head start, but, hey, it wasn't my book to write. I do feel that this is the weakest section of the book (and Calvino acknowledges as much), as the decision to try to form an all-inclusive novel (meaning: including ALL), is really a question of writerly preference, rather than a universal principle which one ought to apply to writing a novel. Still, Calvino calls on the example of Borges and the Oulipo to demonstrate what is possible in a novel, eve if the pursuit of such a work might not always be advisable.

As a part of this fifth memo, Calvino states his vision of the aim of literature:

. . . the grand challenge for literature is to be capable of weaving together the various branches of knowledge, the various 'codes,' into a manifold and multifaceted vision of the world.

Unfortunately, Calvino did not live to see the new millennium. He would have been fascinated by the possibilities of hypertext, no doubt, and his memo on multiplicity dwells, in fact, on the need for more open-ended work with several possible endings, a multi-dimensional plot that reaches through various realities (a'la Borges' "The Garden of Forking Paths"), and gathers them into one text. He even goes so far as to call his experimental If on a winter's night a traveler a "hypernovel".

Perhaps, in another reality, Calvino is exploring the infinite possibilities of literature and will one day find his way back to teach us more, like some kind of literary Messiah. In the meantime, he has left Six Memos for the Next Millennium as a travel journal showing the direction he might have gone; inviting us to follow.

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Friday, August 1, 2014

Perdido Street Station

Perdido Street StationPerdido Street Station by China MiƩville
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I admit to being a bit inured to the "new weird". In fact, I'd say the new weird . . . is getting old. Strangeness for the sake of strangeness has lost a bit of its luster. I've read, and written, plenty of fiction in this vein. That's not to say that it's atrophied in my mind - I still appreciate the bizarre, but some of it has become so self-referential as to be an inadvertent pastiche of itself. The same can be said of the "steampunk" ouvre. I've argued before that the entirety of the steampunk movement is all a bunch of window-dressing with little punk about it. Maybe I'm getting curmudgeonly in my middle age.

But that doesn't mean I can't enjoy great writing. And this is what we have here, a clear case of fantastic writing . . . to a point. There is too much of a good thing. Unlike many people I know, I like to be forced to reach for the dictionary once in a while. In fact, while reading short stories, I tend to prefer those stories that cause me to reach for the dictionary frequently. But I do sometimes grow tired of the overuse of the same uncommon word again and again.

Years ago, I had put together a short story that I was awfully proud of. I asked Jeff VanderMeer, my co-editor on the Leviathan 3 anthology, if he would indulge me and take a pass through the story. It was very early on in my writing career, really one of the first short stories I had ever completed. Jeff was gracious and took a look at it.

I've never seen so much red ink on a page. He might as well have painted it with a broad red brush. Jeff had hacked and slain "my baby," . . . and I am grateful for that, to this day. He did an incredibly thorough job of pointing out the problems with this story, and I used it as a sort of reference text for many years, showing what *not* to do in a short story.

Needless to say, this story has never seen publication.

One thing that stuck out to me, and that I clearly remember (that paper is buried in my personal archives somewhere now), was Jeff's increasing frustration with my use of the word "myriad," which I used . . . well, a myriad of times (not really, but you get the point). Finally, after having marked the appearance of this word (and it's sometimes-improper usage), he wrote "You have got to stop using that word!" And he was right.

China Mieville has much the same problem in Perdido Street Station. Frankly, his fascination with the word "furtive" got in the way of the story. After the first few times, I found myself actually stopping reading whenever I ran into the word. It would cause me to pause and reread the sentence. It grew in my head, unwanted, till I felt it would explode out of my frontal lobe. I found myself hating that word, and several others like it that were misused or downright abused throughout the text. I swear, if I might just cry the next time I read that word.

Now that I've got that off my chest, I can move on . . . I think . . .

Perdido Street Station has as much weird as you'll ever need in a book. There are strange, alien creatures, sentient constructs programmed through the use of punch cards, and humans who have been forcibly reconstructed, or "remade" into bizarre agglomerations of human and animal body parts. The technology of the society is based on the harnessing of steam and thaumaturgic energies, and has a decidedly Victorian "feel" to it.

But as I have argued in the article linked above, there really is nothing "punk" about "steampunk" in it's most popular incarnations today. At least I had not seen much in the way of what *I* consider punk (you can beg to differ - in fact, that would be very "punk" of you) in the steampunk movement, outside of aesthetic considerations and trappings.

Until now.

Yes, Perdido Street Station is rife with the nihilistic attitudes that so many people associate with "being punk". But that's not punk to me, or at least that's not the sum total of punk. To me, punk is anarchic, transgressive, smart, witty, and has a strong bent for "making do" with what's at hand. It was a movement that started primarily among the poor before it was co-opted by society at large. It's not about pink mohawks or leather or sneering Billy Idol wannabes. It's about an attitude.

And this book has attitude.

Say what you will about the mildly convoluted plot, the gratuitous use of Deus ex Machina, the absolutely un-necessary introduction of such un-needed elements as the Handlingers, and multiple infodumps (some of which were, it must be admitted, cleverly-disguised and introduced). Yes, the novel has problems. But despite all that, I have to say that this is the most "punk" of the supposed "steampunk" novels, stories, video-games, and movies, that I've encountered.

The street-level political, nay, anarchical sentiment and actions that set the city of New Crobuzon into chaotic motion, are clearly "punk" in their nature. The transgressive relationship between Isaac and Lin is effective in causing the reader to question, almost from the beginning, the prejudices which exist in each of their own cultures, but which they have left behind. The DIY science by which Isaac discovers the secrets of "Crisis energy," smacks of hard science being done on the back cover of a punk zine. In total, this novel is the first that I've encountered that gives due respect to these truly "punk" notions and attitudes.

And though there are several ways to try to encapsulate what Perdido Street Station *is*, I'd argue that one of the more compelling interpretations of the book is that it is, more than anything else, a Baedeker of the city of New Crobuzon, or, possibly, a Baedeker of China Mieville's brain. In this book, the city itself is a character whose moods and whims affect the characters who live within it. Though they can affect the city in some limited ways, ultimately the city contains them, constrains them, and influences their actions. They can fight against the city, but there are always repercussions for doing so. The characters' environment does not fully form them, but it does inform them.

This is why I rate the book, with all it's warts and scars, as highly as I do. Mieville's imagination is a force to be reckoned with. His political convictions and intellectual strength seep through the work (particularly when he is channeling Hofstadter or making a sidelon homage to Foucault, by naming the mayor "Bentham"). But this cleverness seems perfectly natural, rather than a pretentious showing off. Perdido Street Station is not as pretentious as its more "literary" cousins, but it is witty, in a veiled sort of way. A truly . . . punk sort of way.

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