Saturday, October 11, 2014

The Matter of Britain, Pirates, and Tough Guys

Statue of Boudica in London
I'm diving back into Henry Treece's Celtic tetralogy for Black Gate this coming week with Red Queen, White Queen. It's set during Boudica's bloody uprising against the Romans in 60 AD. Instead of the bloody queen, the book's perspective is from two soldiers, one Roman and the other a Briton. Where Artos and Medrawt in The Great Captains (reviewed at Black Gate) were building the great myths themselves, the protagonists here are only mortal moving through a legend-wreathed and spirit-haunted world.

Caractacus faces the Romans

The remaining books in the quartet are The Golden Strangers and The Dark Island. The first is set during the invasion of Britain by bronze using proto-Celtic tribes and their conquest of the stone age natives. The second is about Caractacus' war against the Romans.

I continue to be enthralled by the myths and history of early Britain. Even though my own roots are with the Saxon invaders, these stories have suffused the earth of the island itself and imprinted themselves on to all its inhabitants, including me through my ancestors. British resistance to foreign domination, be it Spain, France, or Germany, feels like it has its roots in the battles of Caractacus, Boudica, and Arthur. The seemingly endless struggle to bring a modicum of justice in times of chaos that lies with those stories as well.

I just finished off Rafael Sabatini's Captain Blood books: Brethren of the Main, Captain Blood: His Odyssey, Captain Blood Returns, and The Fortunes of Captain Blood. I'll go into more detail on them later (with Howard Andrew Jones - the worst instigator of book buying around these days). For now, just let me say that they, are rollicking, swashbuckling adventures of the first order.

I've also gotten back into some good hardboiled books as well. I finally picked back up and polished of Bait Money, Max Allan Collin's first Nolan book. The reason I hadn't finished it was it wasn't grabbing me. Nolan's a little too nice and the caper wasn't shaping up as something too thrilling. I think part of the problem was that years ago a friend told me Nolan was nothing more than a Parker knockoff and I went in expecting something more brutal and cynical than it is.

While inspired by Richard Stark's master criminal, Collins had his on take on that archetype and explains it afterword. He wanted to look at that sort of a man in the later years of his career as well as exploring Collin's own baby boomer generation through the character of Jon. But when I first started reading the book I was expecting something different.

Well, I'm glad I returned to it. The end is explosive and a great setup for the sequel, Blood Money. And don't get me wrong, there's a fair amount of cynicism, it's just tempered compared to what you find in the Parker books.

I'm also in the middle of Fast One by Paul Cain. I'd never hear of Cain until seeing him included on Jones' (Chris Hocking's actually) list of hardboiled books the other week. In keeping with its title, this is one of the most fast-paced books I've ever read. Within a few pages it's like getting hit by a train, a bloody, booze-soaked train. Not done yet but great so far.

Based on that list I also bought The Mouse in the Mountain by Norbert Davis, The Complete Casebook of Cardigan: Vol. 1. by Frederick Nebel, Solomon's Vineyard by Jonathan Latimer, and The Name of the Game is Death by Dan Marlowe. All look like a lot of fun, but I have to admit I bought the Davis book because it's got a big dog in it.

There are really a lot of similarities between hardboiled fiction and swords & sorcery. Both are tougher, more cynical and feature heroes more concerned with staying alive or getting the money than fighting evil. Richard Stark is to Agatha Christie as Karl Edward Wagner is to Prof. Tolkien. This has been talked about before (can't find the links, but trust me, people have discussed this), and reading the Cain and Collins only reinforces this belief in me.

So that's what's going on off the pages of Black Gate for me bookwise. I'm not even sure what heroic fantasy book I'm going to pick up next. I think I need to find something truly odd and from off the beaten track (of course, lazy as I am, I probably won't make the effort and I'll just grab something I've read already).

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Vlad Taltos and Something Very Special

Wanting something quick to read for this week's review, I picked up the second Vlad Taltos book, Yendi. It's got it's problem (go read my review at Black Gate), but the characters, world, and writing are all a blast. I'll definitely read more. 

Over the summer, Milton Davis, publisher, writer, sword & soul/steamfunk mastermind, asked me if I'd like to read a book he was going to be publishing later this year:  Charles R. Saunder's first novel in a new series. Sure, I said. Why wouldn't I want to get an early look at something brand new from one of the real greats of S&S? 

The book, Abengoni: First Calling is an epic. I won't say too much at this point, but dang, this is good, exciting stuff. It's a huge-canvas work, with dozens of characters, and lots of plot, but written without a spare word or fat. This is what epic fantasy should be. 

It's been about a year since I started blogging reviews for Black Gate. Looking back, I'm pretty happy with what I've done. Hopefully, readers have enjoyed them and picked up some good books that they might have missed. 

I've read thirty-seven books and thirteen batches of stories for the monthly round ups (that's about sixty-five stories). Twenty-five of those novels were first time reads for me and most were pretty damn good. I'm glad John O'Neil gave me the chance to do this and I hope to keep it up for as long as I can manage. 

As I often do these days, I'm going back in time for my music this week. Here's some Black Dio and early Deep Purple. In the video for "Lazy", watch Ritchie Blackmore's face as during the bit before Gillan comes in. Absolute fun.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Reviews and Things - The Queen's Necklace, The Elfin Ship, and The Croning

My review of Teresa Edgerton's The Queen's Necklace went up at Black Gate last week this week. It's a terrific book that takes the swashbuckling elan of writers like Sabatini and Dumas, and mixes in bits of Gothics, romances, and fantasy. It's a more serious (and much longer) book than Goblin Moon and The Gnome's Engine.  It's not a better book than those, but she scales up to the longer form quite nicely. It's just been reprinted with (I think) an e-book just around the corner.
 I will be buying the e-book. I've really come to hate reading physical books for review. Being able to make my notes on the Kindle as opposed to post-its and scraps of paper is a joy.

To keep things light for a little longer, I read and reviewed James P. Blaylock's The Elfin Ship. Unlike his contemporary fantasies, this one, his first published book, has elfs, dwarves, cheesemakers, and goblins. Good stuff. The sequel, The Disappearing Dwarf, and prequel, The Stone Giant, are equally good.

For those not familiar with him, Laird Barron is one of the best horror writers to come along in years. I've only started reading him over the past year, thanks to James McGlothlin's reviews of his work over at Black Gate. From the very first collection of his stories I read, The Imago Sequence, I was caught like a fish with a hook in its gills. 

The Croning is his first novel. He's a master of short stories and the book reads a little like a interwoven series of stories but that's alright by me. Each one, particularly a nightmarish encounter in Mexico and the telling of a ghost story, is a gem of a spook story.

Don Miller is an aged geologist suffering from a faltering memory. The novel weaves back and forth through time, from the fifties to the present, and the reader slowly learns how he's arrived at his final state. With each tale, Don falls in to deeper danger and closer to the blackness that underlies reality.

His stories are wonderfully bleak excursions into existential dread and worthy successors to HPL's work. Here, though, I feel like he's taking a bit of the piss out of those sorts of stories. There's a wonderful confrontation with a representative of the forces of darkness that calls them out for being nothing more than sadists who want to torture and eat humanity. After all the creepy events and character preceding it, the encounter's pretty funny. Until the end, and then Barron smacks you across the head with the two-by-four of despair.

I won't write more as much of the pleasure I find in The Croning comes from the skillful ways Barron tells it. Like with most such stories, you know where it's headed before you crack the cover: despair, and quite likely death, upon encountering the terrors inhabiting the meaningless heart of the universe. It's how it's all put together and told that matters, and at that, the author's a master.

On other fronts, I'm continuing my way through the Captain Blood books. Cleaning out my late aunt's house ate up some valuable reading time but I'm back at it and loving it. As to the house cleaning, let me just say, the answer to that problem is: estate sale! Woo hoo!

I'm also reading a few pages of Miami Blues every couple of days. I hope to reread the rest of the series before the year's out. 

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Back at Black Gate

So my vacation from Black Gate ended this morning with my monthly roundup of short stories. Swords and Sorcery Magazine continues to be a decent site. Not many surprises but not many clunkers either. Heroic Fantasy Quarterly remains my favorite short fiction site. Sean P. Robson's "Tomb Robber's Tale" is a nice and gruesome. I also really liked Liz Colter's "A Breath of Darkness,"enough that I'm curious about her other stories.

I have a lot of reading to do these days. I'm reading Sabatini's Captain Blood books and The Queen's Necklace by Teresa Edgerton, among several others for review.  For myself I'm rereading Charles Willeford's Hoke Moseley books. I want to read Laird Barron's The Croning and a book of Joe Lansdale short stories.  I love reading this stuff but it's almost starting to feel like a real job. Oh, well, it could be worse. No one's forcing me to do this and I could be stuck reading contemporary literary fiction.

I haven't been listening to much music lately but I did see a great show this past weekend. The Buzzcocks played Webster Hall and they were electrifying. I've seen great shows by them in the past but there was something extra about this show. Maybe now that Steve Diggle and Pete Shelley are pushing sixty they feel the need to remind people just how good they are.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Hardboiled Awesomeness Coming To Your TV

I don't know how I missed a certain tv development and I'm feeling a little ashamed. One of my favorite set of books is coming to the small screen over the next year or so.

The first is Joe Lansdale's Hap & Leonard series and the Sundance Channel is bringing it to life. The two characters' violent escapades kicked off in 1990's brutal Savage Season. The next three books, Mucho Mojo, Two-Bear Mambo, Bad Chili, and Rumble Tumble are almost as good. I found the later books (that I've read so far), Captain's Outrageous and Vanilla Ride to be a little stale. The prose is still electrifying but the stories feel thin and look a little pale next to their predecessors.

Be warned, these are among the most violent books around. Lansdale subjects his aging heroes to tremendous abuse and as hard as they try (well, Hap at least) to avoid it, bodies tend to pile up around them. Many of their adventures take them into the creepier sub-basements of Texas criminal world. Great as they are these books aren't for the fainthearted.

Sadly, another show that was in the works, Hoke, is not coming to tv anytime soon. Paul Giamatti filmed a pilot for FX based on Charles Willeford's Hoke Moseley. Sadly, the network passed on the show. Guess I can track down and watch Miami Blues starring Fred "Tremors" Ward as Hoke Moseley again.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Mail Bag

I actually bought some honest-to-goodness physical books this past summer. Two, actually. One's thin and one's thick.

The thin one's The Fox Valley Murders, one of Jack Vance's mysteries. I've never read one. I enjoy his sci-fi/fantasy work immensely and expect good things of this. I'm anxious to see how someone I know for black humor and ornate prose handled what looks like a small-town mystery.

The replacement was a Norton Critical Edition of Othello. I've read a decent amount of Shakespeare over the years and took a class in college but I've never read this (or The Tempest). I pick up Norton Critical Editions pretty much whenever I find them in decent shape. Even when I don't read the plays or stories right away I read through the attached essays and criticism.

I also bought several e-books over the past season. For $1.98 I got all four Captain Blood books by Rafael Sabatini. Sure, you can get 'em for free on Project Gutenberg, and sure Odyssey is misspelled on the front cover, and sure there are typos, but what the heck, they're full formatted and have workable ToC so I'm happy enough for my two dollars. I'm well into the first book, a collection of linked stories titled Tales of the Brethren, and it's great. Blood's a much more pragmatic and dangerous character than Errol Flynn portrayed him.

Last year I became aware of Laird Barron thanks to James McGlothlin's review of The Croning  over at Black Gate. Deciding to see if I'd like Barron's work I bought The Imago Sequence and was hooked. At some point in the story "Hallucigenia" I found myself feeling I should never bother writing again. Maybe I wouldn't be as affected if I reread the story tonight but in that moment, Barron's prose made clear to me what great writing is.

McGlothlin cost me some more money this August when he reviewed the new anthology of Barron-inspired stories, The Children of Old Leech. Unlike most books I mention in these Mail Bag post, I've already read this one. I'd give it a solid 3.5 stars. The good stories are great, gut-wrenching things. The last line of John Langan's "Ymir" will haunt me for long time. Unfortunately, the weak stories really stink. They're the sort that are all vague, and more dreamy than nightmarish. The sorts of dull stuff that too often haunts anthologies you otherwise love and makes you drop your rating down a notch or two.

Finally, after Howard Andrew Jones' post, Pulp Swashbucklers, I sprung for two Wildside collections, the Pirates Megapack and the H.Bedford Jones Megapack, again at a total cost again of $1.98. Looking at the contents along with all the other stuff I'm supposed to be reading this fall I'm starting to feel a little overwhelmed. But in a good way. 

Thursday, August 21, 2014

so I'm a viking

Recently my wife and I did genetic testing with 23andme. At this point, the only information they can give you is ancestral. For all sorts of reasons they, for the time being, can't impart any health/medical related stuff. Eh, I don't care too much about that. I already know way too much about my family's woeful medical problems.

The ancestry stuff, though, that's what I'm interested in. Basically, it turns out, pretty much everything I was taught about my family heritage is completely true: I'm about as Northern European as possible. 95.9 % of my genes are from that part of the world.

My dad's family is English and Dutch. On the English side we're descended from John Robinson from Sturton le Steeple. He was one of the Pilgrim's pastors. He remained in Leiden when they went to the Plymouth Colony but some of his children traveled there later. On the Dutch side, I have no clear information only that one ancestor worked for the Dutch West India Company.

My mom was Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish. Her dad was Norwegian and Danish but grew up in Sweden, hence the Swedish spelling of my middle name, Anderson. Her mom was Swedish, and specifically a Swede Finn from Narpes

The genetic results show my heritage was pretty much exactly what expected. I am 32.4% Scandinavian, 23.5% British/Irish, 3.6% Finnish, .6% German/French, and 36.4% Broadly Northern European, 1.4% Eastern European, .2% Broadly Southern European, 1.7% Broadly European, and somehow, .1% Native American and <.1% Broadly East Asian.

I always assumed that my maternal grandmother's family had to have a touch of Finnish in it. You can't invade, conquer, and convert a country without a little interpersonal business going on. 

I suspect the Eastern European reflect Finland's proximity the Russia, the Ukraine, and Poland.  Since 23andme claims this info represents your heritage about 500 hundred years back and there was plenty of trade going on, I'm not surprised at any Southern European blood. I have no idea where the Asian/Native American genes come from at all. Maybe some of it comes from those theoretical Russians.

I guess I was hoping for some sort of surprise in my genetic history. Maybe there was some secret no on in the family let on to. Maybe we were secretly descended from a line of Italian merchants. Maybe I had Gypsy blood or Romanian (If you've seen my picture over at facebook you'd know even most Northern Italians are dark compared to me, so Romania's about as south or east as I could dare to hope). Many of us dream about being something other than what we are, have a little mystery that lies there waiting to be uncovered.

Well, this proves there isn't one. I'm a whiter than white white guy whose family probably never ventured south of the Rhine River or very much east of Finland.

It's actually pretty cool. It means the stories told me by my parents and grandparents hold up to the science. The stories and myths that hold the greatest place in my heart, those from the British Isles and the Nordic states, are connected to my actual ancestry, so I got that going for me.