Friday, August 15, 2014

Pirates of the Caribbean (not the movie)

Disney really had a lot to do with my love of pirates. When I was eight, my aunt took me to California. Disney Land was definitely the highlight of the trip and the Pirates of the Caribbean ride the highlight of that.

Later, Disney allowed MPC to make PotC action dioramas. I had a few of them. The pieces were cheap and the action didn't work well. But I didn't care. They were super cool.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Freebooters, Buccaneers, Privateers, and Pirates!

I love pirates. Even knowing the bloody, violent truth about them and their era, I'm fascinated by the history of men who broke free of the bounds of society, poverty, or slavery, and created floating republics able to wrest a living from the wealthy and powerful. While there are bits of truth in that description, for the most, whether they were the government sanctioned Dutch freebooters or English sea dogs, or the multi-ethnic buccaneers, they were a bloody minded bunch. And I admit, I don't really care.

The early Dutch and British privateers in the sixteenth were direct agents of their respective governments with the goal of damaging the Spanish in any way possible. The buccaneers and privateers of the next century were more independent but more or less loyal to their nations of origin. By the end of the seventeenth century, the rise of professional navies and the success of the non-Spanish colonies, privateering became rare. All those men who'd made their living stealing from the Spanish turned were out of work. The bold (or desperate ones) turned pirate and stole from everybody.

The Spanish make easy villains. The Dutch, English, and French out to steal the wealth the Spaniards had stolen from the native empires are easy heroes. There were acts of great boldness and bravery that are thrilling to read to this days.

I'm not sure what the first pirate I ever saw was but I imagine it was Captain Hook in Disney's Peter Pan. With curled hair, ruffled cuffs and that hook, he was probably what most people imagined when the heard the word "pirate" until the advent of the movie Pirates of the Caribbean.

In the years that followed, I watched Captain Blood, The Black Swan, and in Treasure Island read about Hook's only real rival until the arrival of Jack Sparrow, Long John Silver. Forgive the pun, but I was hooked. Even Peter Ustinov's Blackbeard in another Disney movie, Blackbeard's Ghost, was good enough for me.

Eventually, I started reading historical accounts. First came the American Heritage Junior Library book, Pirates of the Spanish Main. It's a nice introduction that doesn't totally dispel the romantic veneer of the age. The illustrations are a beautiful assortment of period pictures and illustrations like the marvelous one to the left by Howard Pyle.

The next book, snatched from my dad's shelves, was Funnel of Gold by Mendel Peterson. It's more than just a history of ship-borne thievry in the Carribean; it's a history of treasure taken out of the New World by the Spanish treasure fleets and the long war waged against them by the empire's European rivals. It takes what appears to be a small, individual ship-to-ship actions and places them in a larger context and gives them more significance.

Other books and movies followed. Standouts include Alexandre Exquemeling's History of the Buccaneers of America and Roman Polanski's Pirates. I even got my friends to play a pirate-themed Fantasy Hero campaign. Tim Power's On Stranger Tides (1987) (apparently badly served and used as the basis for the last Pirates of the Carribean film), a novel of Blackbeard and black magic, was the basis for that game.  My own character was a dour Dutchman named Pieter Hoothouf with one hook, one peg leg, and one eye. Charlton Heston's Long John Silver from the 1990 movie version of Treasure Island is even better than Robert Newton's classic timber-shivering version from the 1950 film and is still one of my favorite presentations of the genre.

I've built a decent shelf of non-fiction books about golden age of piracy. Coupled with other books about the
surrounding areas during the same period (the conquests of the Aztec and Inca empires, the European settlement of North America, etc.), I have learned a good deal about the era and area. I haven't read all of them yet, but I have dipped into most and read a chapter here or there.

All this is a long way of proving what I wrote at the outset; I like pirates. Recently, I prompted by a post by Howard Andrew Jones about historical adventure fiction, I picked up Wildside Press' Pirate Story Megapack. A conversation about Rafael Sabatini prompted me to buy the Captain Blood books. I'm pretty jazzed to start reading.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Taking Breaks and Rejuventation

I started this blog to make myself read more. I started reviewing at Black Gate to make myself read even more and force myself to take more care with my writing. I've been doing the former for several years now and the latter for nearly one.

And now I'm taking a short hiatus. By short I mean about a month. That should be enough to catch my breath a little, read some longer books and some I won't review on BG (I can't figure any way to convince John O'Neil that John Le Carre's books are really S&S).

I also want to take some time to line up some specific books to review over the fall. Too often lately, I've been rushing things and just grabbing things almost at random. Sometimes, it's been great, as when I finally read Carole McDonnell's The Constant Tower or Michael Chabon's Gentlemen of the Road. Other times less so, such as with Michael Moorcock's The Eternal Champion. My goal is to expose people to good stuff that due to its age or lack of publicity has slipped under the radar of much of the contemporary readership of S&S and related genres. I want to be more thoughtful about what choices I make so I need to step back a think it through.

I've also got some stuff to take care. Yard work, emptying my late aunt's house of decades of acquisitions, having the nephews visit and watching Captain Blood in the backyard (Exposing my seven year old nephew to the joys of Errol Flynn has been one of the highlights of my life).
When I start up at BG again in September I'll probably start off with something easy, like a Short Story Roundup. From there I've got a few books picked out that I hope people will enjoy reading about enough to try out for themselves. After, I'm hoping this break pays off enough to make my BG reviews continue to be worth wasting a few minutes on each Tuesday morning.

As you can see by the "What I'm Listening To" box down on the right of the blog, I'm listening to the Black Crowes. I bought their first album, Shake Your Money Maker, on the strength of the songs "Jealous Again" and "Hard to Handle" and was happy to find the whole album's a blast. Then I forgot about them for a decade.

A review of By Your Side in (I think) the NY Daily News caught my attention. Seems they had loosened up (and smoke a bunch of dope) and turned on to finding a groove and working it. Not as long-winded or indulgent as a jam band can be but less tightly-focused on verse-chorus-verse-chorus songs as they had been on the first album. I bought it at the late J&R Music and have been hooked ever since. I even bought their album of Zeppelin songs with Jimmy Page, Live at the Greek.

If like the Faces, Mick Taylor-era Stones and a comfortable, relaxed vibe to you music, I highly recommend these guys. Good, good music.

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.