Thursday, July 17, 2014

Beautiful Covers of a Series I've Never Read

First, I just reviewed short stories published in June over at Black Gate. Some alright stuff, but I really dug Stephen Case's "The Unborn God" from Beneath Ceaseless Skies #150. It's got a single moment of really fun inventiveness that made me exclaim out loud. Really, it did. Any author who do that to me is worth paying attention to. 

Next - Derek Kunsken posted an article at Black Gate about his love for the Deryni Chronicles of Katherine Kurtz and TSR's Dragon Magazine. My dad loved those books, or at least read all the ones published before 2001. For some reason I've never even picked them up.

I have most of them. I still keep them on my book shelf in fact (admittedly, stacked in the back). I've always loved the early covers by Bob Pepper and Alan Mardon. Later covers were done by Darrell Sweet. As much as I love him they don't compare. But here, take a look at the various covers for the first trilogy, The Chronicles of the Deryni.

While I'm still listening to Dream Theater on my bike rides, at home and in the truck I'm listening to the Godfathers. I read once that Oasis was the first serious loud guitar band to hit the UK after punk's heyday in the late seventies. There's all sorts of reasons that's a load of bunk, but the very existence of the Godfathers is enough to trash the assertion.

On four aggressively loud albums in the late eighties and early nineties, the first three produced by the great Vic Maile, the Godfathers produced some of the best rock 'n' roll of the time. Then they slipped away for sometime before finally resurfacing again a few years ago. 

I saw them back in 1989 for the More Songs About Love & Hate tour. They were one of the most forceful bands I've ever seen. Naked Raygun, whom I a big fan of, opened for them and were really solid. The Godfathers blew them away. A few folks tried to get a pit going for Raygun but it didn't amount to much. When the Godfathers hit the stage in their suits, things went wild and bodies went flying. I remember singer Peter Coyne sitting on the stage at one point just watching over the chaos unfolding on the floor. An amazing night of what I still want most from rock 'n' roll; chaos, urgency, noise and the hint that things might go terribly wrong.

I'm also listening to another great band from the same time, The Screaming Blue Messiahs. While mostly known for their goofy novelty track "I Wanna Be a Flintstone" from the Vic Maile produced Bikini Red, these guys were way more than that. Singer/guitarist Bill Carter laid down some blistering, psychotic sounds on all three of their albums. I read on wikipedia that he'd play with his fingers and use the thickest strings possible to keep from shredding his fingertips too much. Still, blood would be shed when he played. My buddy saw them open for the Cramps for which I will always be jealous. When they broke up in 1990, Bill Carter seemed to fall off the face of the earth. Which is a shame.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Tim Powers and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Blech

Tim Powers and James Blaylock are two of my favorite authors. I started reading Powers with The Anubis Gates and Blaylock with The Digging Leviathan and have been following them ever since. The other day I read there's a sequel to The Anubis Gates coming out this fall and it got a little worked up Both are complicated stories set in-between the cracks in history. They purport to tell the real stories about what's going on being the scenes, hidden from view. As a fan of conspiracy theories I was predisposed to like these two men's work.

Whatever. Spurred on by my wife starting The Anubis Gates this past week, I picked up Powers' early swords & sorcery book, The Drawing of the Dark (review over at that Black Gate place). It starts as a fun adventure about an aging Irish soldier hired by snake smoking wizard to watch over the mysterious doings in a brewery and almost imperceptibly metamorphosizes into a darker tale. Great stuff.

On a different front, I subjected myself to the Gary Oldman movie, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy the other day. Though I had heard great things about it, I'm a tremendous fan of John Le Carre's novel and the BBC mini-series starring Alec Guinness (hands down, my favorite actor. I own all three of his books of memoirs and will sit through almost anything he's in no matter how poor it is). Still, I figured, why not chance it?

T,T,S,S is the first of John Le Carre's Karla Trilogy (followed by The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley's People). Set in the early seventies, it follows the investigation by George Smiley into the existence of a mole in the British intelligence service. It's a great mystery and examination of the nature of spies and their craft.

It's also a study of the fall of post-war Britain and the collapse of it's elite. It was published at a time when the U.K. seemed to be slipping backwards. It was plagued by strikes, and unemployment. There were all sorts of shortages and no signs of improvement in sight. Once she had ruled the waves, but now England can't keep it's own lights lit.

As one old spy in the novel puts it, these are men shorn of purpose:
 "Trained to empire, trained to rule the waves. All gone. All taken away."

Our monkey-brains linger on to give us that little bit of survival instinct, that little something whereby we can react quickly to sudden attacks or dangers. Well, mine had been warning me against the new movie but I didn't listen. In the future I need to pay better attention .

I admit it's hard to come at an adaptation when you're familiar with the source material and stay objective, but let's pretend I was. Viewed solely as its own thing, it's not good. It's a complex story and is not clear much of the time. Motivations are sometimes vague and explanations are weak.

Characters whom we're told are important have too little screen time to make any sort of impact. The suspects are less than ciphers, mostly just standing or sitting about in drab suits and giving the audience a bit of insufficient exposition.

Things never feel right in the movie. One character, renowned for her vast memory, has pictures of many of the characters as young men. Why would any ex-spy have photos of various secret agents in her possession at all? It's one of lots of bits that just struck me as feeling false but included to serve the beast of film making. 

In recreating the seventies the film goes for the irritating and simplistic insertion of cheesy songs, some period others a little older. At a spy agency Christmas party, Sammy Davis Jr.'s "The Second Best Secret Agent in the Whole Wide World" plays. While Oldman's George Smiley wanders the same party, "The Proudest, Loneliest Fool" plays in the background and underscores his alienation from his compatriots as well as his well-known status as a cuckold. Sometimes I felt like I was watching a grittier Wes Anderson movie.

Now, coming at the movie as a fan of the book and earlier film, I can only describe this film as crap. The novel is dense with plot, characterization and ideas. The movie is dense with something and it's none of those things.

I don't really mind the plot compression and character conflation done in order to shoehorn a big book into a two-hour movie. It's the nature of the beast and I've long ago come to accept it. It's the removal of the depth of the remaining story that bugs me.

In the novel, a Soviet spy's burgeoning Christianity is part of the impetus for her to seek a new life and removed. The British spy who romances her, seduced partially by her goodness, has his rough edges sanded away. Almost everyone is simplified to the point of meaninglessness. Perhaps, by making the players more opaque they were supposed to be more mysterious. It doesn't work.

The Cold War never feels real or important. The depths of the mole's betrayal never seems important. The centrality of the conflict between East and West that by then had gone on for nearly thirty years and the moral issues at play are never addressed. I take that back. It is at one point and the implication is that, unlike WW II, it isn't one Britain can be proud of. The loss of Britain's imperial power and its effects also goes unmentioned. It's never really clear why the mole has betrayed his service or why we should care other than in the simplest whodunnit? sense.

In the course of Smiley's investigation in the book, each suspect gets the chance to speak for himself, exposing their motivations and fears. All that is lost in the new film.

Everything is jazzed up and made to look shiny. I have trouble imaging 1973 Budapest was quite as camera ready as it's made out to be in this movie. There's more violence, dead bodies and sex than in either of the earlier telling of the story. It feels forced and out of place in what should be a very anti-James Bond spy story.

If you haven't read the book but were thinking about watching the movie, please, don't. You can find a used copy on Amazon for a penny plus shipping. It's the best espionage novel I've ever read as well as a powerful and mournful look at a country operating past its sell-by-date.

So I've been listening to a lot of Dream Theater lately. I first started listening to them with Metropolis, Pt. 2: Scenes from a Memory (1999). If you haven't heard them but the idea of crazy-time-changing-prog-metal is at all appealing check them out. 

update: so the scene with the old spy and the photos is actually in the book. Makes me feel a little dumb. It still strikes me as off.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Tempus Fugit

So attending my friend George K.'s 50th birthday and the luminous Mrs. V's appointment to a local grand jury disrupted the finely tuned operation that is my weekly book reviewing for Black Gate. So it goes. If you haven't yet, you can read my review of Dark of the Moon here. It's should be pretty clear I really (REALLY) like P. C. Hodgell's books.

I'm back on track with this week's review. The very fun Changa's Safari books by Milton Davis are worth any S&S fan's time.

Going to friend's birthday served as the first reunion of my core group of friends in over five years. While we had all known each other from the neighborhood or school, but what really drew us together was a love of science fiction and fantasy and roleplaying in particular.

We started with D&D then moved on to DragonQuest, then Rolemaster, and finally settling on the Hero System. Each new game was an effort to get towards something we considered more realistic. We wanted games that awarded experience based on adventuring not just killing beasties and stealing their gold. All three of three of those post-D&D games did just that to varying degrees of success.

Even as we got older and did other things, gaming still occupied an important place in our friendship. Sometimes we didn't really play and just hung around making up characters and eating Chinese food. And we didn't care. Just hanging out was enough.

But most of the time we played. A few of us started playing seriously in 1978. By 1980 we gamed with between ten and twenty people each Saturday. Eventually, the chaos became overwhelming and we retreated to a small core of under ten people. Certain players, in fact, who had become terrible rule-players, weren't even told about our sessions anymore. We came to take our playing very seriously. If we weren't having fun it wasn't worth doing.

If I take the time, I can still smell my basement and of the weathered game books and hear my late friend Jimmy C.'s voice. When I come across an old character sheet or meticulously drawn map on hex-paper I'm zapped back in time thirty years. I feel young and old simultaneously.

As people got 'real' jobs, engaged and eventually married, or moved away the gaming stopped. No time and nobody. But when we got together last week it was one of the big topics of conversation. Memories of games played twenty years ago and more still figured large in all our minds. Remembering the castles pillaged and monsters slain was a real blast.

Now, if I want a bit of the old gaming feel I'm stuck playing Icewind Dale or something similar. A bit of hack and slash is alright, but I miss the extravagant roleplaying from my youth. Oh, well. Tempus fugit.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Kencyrath Madness, or a Foolish Promise

One of my favorite, and I'd add one of the best, fantasy novels in the past thirty-five years, is P.C. Hodgell's God Stalk (read my review at Black Gate), first in her Kencyrath series. Since it came out in 1983 I've read it half a dozen times or more. The sequel, Dark of the Moon (look for my BG review next week barring any disasters at my buddy's 50th Birthday Pig Roast this Saturday), I've read only a time or two less.

Hodgell is one of the unfairly recognized truly good authors toiling away in the fantasy Dark of the Moon in 1985 she didn't publish the next novel, Seeker's Mask, until 1995. After that she was silent until 2006 with To Ride a Rathorn.
fields. Aside from the hit-or-miss nature of any book's popularity, she fell off the scene for a while. After

From what she's written, it was a combination of an academic career, family obligations, and the unfortunate collapse of two publishers out from under her. Fortunately, since 2006, she's been writing like a fiend and moving the story forward.

Every time a new book's come out I've ordered it at once. But I haven't read four of
the seven novels yet. Everytime a new one comes out I've felt compelled to go back and start at the beginning. Hodgell's books are complex, filled with intricate relationships, and slathered with crazy invention and I want to be up to speed.

The latest book, The Sea of Time, just came in the mail this past Sunday. Putting it on the shelf and not knowing when I was going to read it ticked me off enough to start in at once on Dark of the Moon. Which made me promise myself to read the rest this summer. Once and for all, I'm going to get to the end of the books before anymore are published.

Now, I've got a bunch of things I have to read this summer. I've got a Sacred Band book to read and I've got to read Changa's Safari II before III is released. There's a pair of James Enge and Howard Andrew Jones books staring at me along. Then there're the books I'm still in the middle of reading. And I've got my aunt's house to clean out. Oh, well.

It's fascinating, and more than a tad depressing, to watch the changing covers over thirty years. The first, for God Stalk, is perfect. Dark, mysterious, and fantastically detailed. Things are bearable until the two Baen covers for Bound in Blood and Honor's Paradox. Hodgell's character is a flat-chested teenage girl, not some inflated pinup girl. Fortunately, the newest cover is much better, even if not perfect.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Constant Tower and The Proposition

My review of Carole McDonnell's The Constant Tower is live at Black Gate. It's a story of about suffering, sacrifice, and restoration that contains elements of sci-fi and fantasy. I love the two stories, "Changeling" and "The Night Wife" that McDonnell wrote for the two Griots anthologies edited by Milton Davis and Charles Saunders (they've already got a third, YA-themed, one in the works). Not heroic fiction, instead, her two tales are folklore styled stories of obligations, love, and jealousy.

McDonnell is a Christian (Protestant, Pentecostal subdivision) and there are studies of suffering, service, and sacrifice in the novel. This is all skillfully done so the book never reads like something you'd find on the spinner in the church bookstore. If you aren't religious don't be put off either, there's no proselytizing in The Constant Tower.

There's also enough sex and violence here to keep it off of that same spinner. They're important parts of the world she's created that labors under unending warfare, sexual domination and scarcity. It's a dark broken world in The Constant Tower, much like our own is.

Too many Christian artists I've read (don't get me started on most Christian films) show the messy, painful realities of the world being solved way too easily. As works of art many just stink. Instead of mirroring life in all its hues, dark and light alike, they settle for bright and shiny colors.

I'm not saying this is the best written or most profound novel I've read, but McDonnell has engaged the real world with her art. Christianity is supposed to be challenging and this book definitely doesn't go for the easy outs. I don't read a lot of fiction with anything deeper going on than adventure these days but every now and then I pick up something with a little more going on. This was one of those books. Good, good stuff.

I just watched The Proposition, an Australian Western from 2005. It was written by musician Nick Cave, directed by John Hillcoat, and stars Guy Pearce, Ray Winstone, and Emily Watson. It's dirty, grim, and extra, extra bloody. It's well shot and well acted but in the end I'm not sure what purpose those things serve. It takes itself very seriously but the story's point seems to be little more than it's hard to tame a dangerous land. The relationships between Guy Pearce's characters and his two brothers isn't developed much but that's half of what's driving the story. It's slow moving and the dialogue's a bit ponderous so it's not exactly exciting. I didn't dislike it but I can't imagine ever watching it again. Now, I did just pick up a copy of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford the other day, so maybe I'll watch that again tomorrow.

I'm still listening to a lot of Dramarama though a little power pop in the form of Fountains of Wayne, Cheap Trick, Enuff Znuff is getting thrown into the hopper.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Mail Bag plus

My review of Warlock of the Witch World, second of the triplets trilogy, by Andre Norton went live at Black Gate. If you have listened to me before, do yourself a favor and check the series out.
She spins great tales, no bones about it. Maybe they aren't as bloody or as sexy as today's fantasy novels, but that doesn't matter to me. Too often those things are served up to distract the reader from the lackluster story or hammer home the same tired points about the "real world" I'm usually reading fantasy to escape from for a little while. There's a glorious and pulp creativity to these books that would put to shame a lot of writers cranking out the same, tired Fantasyland® stuff everyone should be tired of by now.

I made a few new purchases over the last month or so. I've already dipped into the two spook story collections and they look great. I've started the Peter Heather book and it's fascinating. The newest Gonji book will have to a bit but I'm itching to dig into it.

I'm continuing to dive back into the fantastic songwriting of John Easdale and his compatriots of Dramarama. I also dug out the one completely solid Soul Asylum album, Hang Time.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Moorcock, Moorcock, Moorcock, etc.

I delved into my earliest days as a S&S fan this past week, reading for the first time in nearly thirty-five years, Michael Moorcock's The Eternal Champion (as usual, reviewed on Black Gate). The book, while a minor part of the Eternal Champion cycle, and only okay, triggered a whole bunch of memories. Most of the review is dedicated to the place Moorock and his seminal S&S series played in my youth, especially among me and my gaming comrades. Like Chun, these books were unavoidable.

I'm surprised the review didn't generate more comments. I thought at least the older readers would have something to say about Moorcock. In the seventies and the eighties, if you were a fantasy fan it almost went without saying you read at least the Elric books. The Whelan cover for Stormbringer is one of the single most iconic S&S covers bar none. Moorcock's books were part of the warp and woof of heroic fiction.

There's a wild, adventurousness to Moorcock's fantasy. He wrote many of the Eternal Champion books (if I recall right, several of the Hawkmoon books were written in only a few day's time) quickly and the prose isn't always the most beautiful, but it is propulsive and the level of mad, inventiveness has been rarely matched by other S&S authors. The evil Hand of Kwll, Stormbringer and Mournblade, the legions of Granbretan, his books teem with the strange and grotesque. His books are a large part of the reason I'm still reading fantasy today.

I don't think the kids today are reading his books either. They're short and they want the big, fat books. Supposedly, the characterization's weak by today's standards. I think today's standards are simply examples of bloated overwriting. A good writer, and Moorcock is that, can limn a great character and get you into his mind without endless pages and chapters of jib-jab.

I've also read complaints about Moorcock's worldbuilding being flimsy. I'd rather have a one that's alive with chaos and wonder than one where the economics and the lineages of the great houses have all been figured out to the last possible point. Would you really rather have some perfectly constructed world where everything makes sense or Jack Vance's Dying Earth? I'm not saying the well-constructed world doesn't have its place or the ability to come to life (Middle-earth anyone?), but I don't want my fantasy to simply mimic the real world, I want it to deliver me to the realm of fairy or dreams (delightful and nightmarish) and Moorcock delivered that in spades for many years.

Other than my latest rereading of The Eternal Champion, the only Moorcock I've read in recent times are the six Corum books and the first few Elric stories. I think I've read over thirty other books by him. I was glad how well they held up. It's always painful when adolescent pleasures prove disappointing when revived. I wonder how his other books, like The Ice Schooner or the Nomads of the Times Streams series will read today? Maybe this summer I'll find out.

For music I've been digging into some basic rock & roll. I've really been enjoying Rockpile and Dramarama a bunch lately.