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.