Thursday, December 29, 2005

Holiday Surprise

No matter what you celebrate, the holidays this time of the year are filled with all sorts of presents. A fruitcake from the Secret Santa at work. Candy from that aunt you haven't seen in a long time. Socks from mom. A gift card to Best Buy from Dad. A documentary on chickens from your significant other ( didn't get one too?). But sometimes the best presents are those you planned yourself and completely forgot about.

Yesterday I got home to find a nice little package sitting in my mailbox, a wonderful little book called Alice Redux. Pulled together and edited by writer/editor/poet Richard Peabody, it's an anthology he's had trouble selling to publishers and finally decided to just put it out through his own Paycock Press. There are some big name writers (Robert Coover), local D.C. champions (Miles David Moore) and even a small handful of people I know from grad school. And, of course, a bunch of writers I'm not familiar with. It follows the pattern the Mondo series (Mondo Barbie, Mondo James Dean, etc) Peabody edited previously; he simply asked for work inspired by Carroll's classic work Alice in Wonderland and let the writers have their way. Some appear to be nice homages, others are satires, but a good number are unique pieces all to themselves. From genre work to mainstream to experimental, AR promises to spin poor Alice in every direction you can imagine (and many you probably haven't).

Despite the ever growing pile of books in my yet-to-read pile, I think I'll be shifting AR into the on-deck position. So I'll be tearing through the Thomas Paine book I'm reading now just to get to it (not that it's a's a damn good book, too). If you're at all interested, there's info on purchasing the book (as well as other items from Paycock) here and of course through Amazon.


Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Grendel Vignettes

Matt Wagner's newest graphic fiction collection, Grendel: Red, White & Black, brings together 23 vignettes all written by Wagner and each illustrated by a different artist. For the uninitiated, Grendel is a long-running, innovative character created by Wagner about 20 years ago that brought a sense of grit, noir and character that hadn't been seen before in U.S. comics. Over the years the Grendel legacy has grown to include a variety of versions, each one bringing his or her own flavor to the stylish black costume and two-pronged sword that make up the Grendel trademark. The stories in this book all focus on Hunter Rose, the original and most popular of the Grendel incarnations. Rose leads a double life: one part NY City sociliate, the other the black-costumed assassin and crime boss known only as Grendel.

Most of the tales showcase Grendel's stylish yet grisly killings of competing mob bosses and snitches, but a small number focus on Argent, a werewolf who will one day kill Grendel. In full issues Grendel is a surprisingly complex character, balancing two very different lives and doling her own special brand of mob justice on the streets of NY City. But these stories are mostly quick action scenes, and they often feel like pages Wagner left out of other issues. There are some subtle references to main conflicts in Rose's life, but they are so subtle only the hardcore fans will have any idea they are even there. It's unfortunate, because Wagner is a gifted story-teller and has continued to break new ground in comic book stories over the last two decades. A series, even a short one comprised of single, stand-alone issues, with a rotating roster of artists would come off much better than what he has here.

The artwork, on the other hand, is quite impressive. Wagner pulled together a roster of highly talented, diverse artists who all offer up their own unique visual interpretations of Grendel. From the fairly straight comic style of Kelly Jones (Sandman) to the hip-hop inflected indie-spirit of Jim Mahfood (GrrlScouts) the book is a good example of the sheer variety of styles and methods a collaborating writer/artist team can tell a story. If only the stories themselves were more worth reading.


Friday, December 16, 2005

Son of a Witch

In some ways Gregory Maguire has it pretty tough. About a decade ago Maguire unleashed his novel Wicked into the world. An inventive novel that recast the iconic character Elphaba the Wicked Witch of the West as a hero and revolutionary fighting against the tyranny of a despot known simply as the Wizard, it's one of those rare books that developed a life all its own. Early reviews in the fantasy markets were highly favorable, but it became one of those books to really spread, at least as I remember it, by word of mouth. People who would never normally read fantasy were passing it around and enjoying the inventive retelling of the classic story of the land of Oz. People I worked with at the time, and even people in my family, who barely read a book a year were picking it up and reading it on their daily commute. And, of course, it developed into a hit musical on Broadway that's now enjoying a successful national tour.

So when I say Maguire has it pretty tough, I say it in regards to the expectations for his sequel to Wicked, an enjoyable book called Son of a Witch. While Wicked carried the story of Elphaba to the starting point of the original Wizard of Oz tale, Son picks up where the Baum book left off, right after the death of the Witch. Elphaba left behind two young children, a daughter Nor and a young boy named Liir who may or may not be Elphaba's son. Without knowing what else to do, young Liir follows Dorothy and her yellow brick road menagerie back to Oz hoping the Wizard might tell him if Elphaba is really his mother and give him the same sense of purpose the Wizard gave Dorothy and her friends.

Unfortunately, the Wizard refuses to even see young Liir, so the boy enters into a decade of soul searching. He travels, looking for Nor across Oz and in the prisons of Emerald City. He then joins the millitary, enjoying the structure it provides his life. But eventually his rearing and possible heritage catch up to him and he finds himself in demand to help foster a new revolution.

An odd series of deaths, deaths leaving the victims with their faces scraped off, start appearing all across the land. As Liir travels he discovers the new head of Oz, an Emperor with ties both to Elphaba's and Liir's past, sits behind the machinations. The new Emperor uses the strange killings to spread distrust between the various races of Oz: Munchkins against humans, humans against sentient animals, and so on. With all this distrust between each other the only place they can turn to for leadership is the seat of power at Emerald City. Wielding Elphaba's flying broom and donning her magical cape Liir makes some small but bold gestures that help the populace of Oz and re-plant the seeds of hope Elphaba first tried to spread a generation before.

In some ways this new novel is stronger than Wicked. Wicked, at least for me, has several long stretches that are pretty dry and need some work to really be necesssary. But Son is a much tighter work, making use of flashbacks and different viewpoints to help move the story along. The secondary characters here are better developed and seem less stock types than those in the earlier novel. And Liir's quest---both to find himself and to save the people of Oz--- is much easier to believe and track with than the motivations that drove the bitter yet heroic Elphaba.

But so far the reviews for Son have been pretty mixed. What Wicked has that no further sequel can ever have is a tight connection to an iconic character. Readers enjoyed rethinking the Witch's actions and seeing them from a different perspective, and no further sequel can have that. So when you read Son and all its coming sequels, for there are hints that can easily lead to at least one more book in this world, read it on its own merits. Read it as a well-wrtten, well crafted fantasy that can stand on its own two legs. You'll enjoy it much more.


Sunday, December 11, 2005

Fantasy on the High Seas

There's something to be said for formula fiction. While most of it just is what is, and will probably be forgotten in a few years time, a small handful of writers are able to work within a formula and still create something entirely unique. Samuel Delany's Neryona fantasy series, for example. Or the oddly satirical thrillers of Carl Hiassen. Trapped within the constraints of their formula genre, that beat against the walls, stretching them out to include new territory most other writers never considered before.

While my newest read, James M. Ward's Midshipwizard Halcyon Blithe, doesn't stretch up to the same high-end of literature the authors above do, it still manages to create something a little different. At its core, the novel is a coming of age tale for Halcyon Blithe, a young wizard just coming into his own unique abilities. Blithe's innate abilites are well beyond that of most others, making him powerful but a bit arrogant. His training and skill, though, lacks refinement and sometimes causes him some problems. There's also an overarching plot-line involving war between the good guys (the Arcanians) and the Maleen, and evil empire trying to take over the world. The main difference between this book and so many other fantasies is the setting. This one takes place on a boat.

To be specific, it takes place on the Sanguine, an Arcanian battleship with its deck and sails built onto the back of a living, breathing sea dragon. Ward's imagination really comes into play when he mixes realistic nautical details---sails, rigging, battle tactics----with doses of magical support----controlling the wind for sailing, magic shields to protect you during a sword-to-sword melee. A good half of the book is made of training sessions, each one designed to show different aspects of life and warfare on the high seas. While this does carry a little too long, it gives the reader a chance to meet a wide cast of charactes on the Sanguine; from the able bodied Captain all the way down to the newest recruits, the Sanguine is filled with a wide array of distinct personalities. When it becomes clear that one of these personalities is a sabateour who infiltrated the crew, their situation is made all the more dangerous when they enter battle against three Maleen ships. Blithe is ordered to guard a key area of the ship during battle, putting both his safety and that of the entire ship on his using everything he's learned in his recent training to survive. While still a fairly predictable fantasy, the nautical elements make Ward's novel just different enough that readers a little bored with the typical fantasy will find it both familiar and new.


Thursday, December 08, 2005

Horizons Far and Strange

I hadn't peeked at Strange Horizons in a couple of weeks, but I popped in there today and found out a review I did for them a couple months ago finally made it up last week. I'm pretty pleased with it. The editors were very helpful, and probably make me look a lot smarter and informed about an odd niche of sf than I really am. I'm not always that impressed with the original fiction they put out, but the reviews department does a pretty nice job. I'm happy to be part of it, at least for one piece. If they offer up other interesting books to review, I'll try to take part.

This week, Lori Ann White reviews Michael Blumlein's The Healer, which I reviewed myself awhile ago. She seems to like it more than I did, but she makes a couple good points for its merits. The main character's inaction, though, I found almost maddening. Also, Greg Beatty reviews A Sense of Wonder, a new book of criticism of the work of Samuel Delany by Jeffrey Allen Tucker. I've been a fan of Delany's for some time now, and just idea of some well thought out interpretations of Delany makes me drool.


Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Little Annie's Fannie

This past Saturday night Miss L and I paid a visit to the 14 Karat Cabaret Club in downtown Baltimore. If you've never been there before, it's bar/performance space hidden away in the basement of Maryland Art Place, a non-profit organization that supports artists living and working in Maryland. The bar is dark, with brick walls decorated with paintings, sculptures and photographs by local artists.

The evening started with a very odd animated short film entitled Asparagus. Made in 1979, the animation style is kind of Disney meets Surrealism. Much of the "action" takes place inside a woman's home, with shrinking houses and fields of giant asparagus rolling by the window. Metamorphosis, games with perspective, and a few other light touches make it a pretty accomplished film both in concept and delivery. And the loads of overt sexual and scatological imagery make it very funny, and definitely not your kid's cartoon.

Next the host came out stuffed into a spacesuit. The spacesuit boots were strapped to large cement blocks, so when she walked it imitated a space walk quite nicely. Abstract electronic music played in the background and, as she floated in outer space, she recited most of the lines of Hal the computer from the sci-fi classic 2001: A Space Odyssey (coincidentally, my favorite movie of all time).

Next in the line-up was Esmirelda, a DC-based singer/songwriter. Donning a 50's style dress and her hair tucked up into a short beehive, her appearance matched her songs quite nicely. Playing an electric-acoustic guitar, she punched out songs with melodies influenced by Buddy Holly and 50's Doo Wop music. But Esmirelda is not a cover artist or a tribute performer. Her songs are all her own, with topics ranging from pre-operative transexuals, yeast infections, and being the kind of woman she wants to be with or without your approval. I've never heard of her, but she's obviously a seasoned performer, knowing how to work in some banter to connect with the crowd. Smart, slightly genre-bending and pretty damn funny.

The main event, and the prime reason we attended, was Little Orphan Fannie: A Whorehouse Musical. Put together by Wire Hanger Productions, the same team of writers and performers who brought Baltimore the musical version of Mommie Dearest, Fannie is a bawdy retelling of the classic Annie story. As is obvious from the title, the story takes place not in an orphanage but a whore house run by a transvestite named Madam Mannigan. The girls may indeed be orphans, but they are also prostitutes who both enjoy and hate what they do. Fannie is a prostitute with big dreams of finding a john to take her away from the nasty life of the whorehouse and thinks she may have found her man when Daddy Fourbucks, a man searching for a good time on his 21st birthday, walks into Madam. Trouble, and hilarity, ensues when it becomes obvious that Daddy Fourbucks is more of a man's man than the lady's man he's trying to be. Little side moments include a parody of the Vagina Monologues (one of the girls has one that predicts the future), simulated puppet sex and a husband and wife team trying to involve Madam Mannigan's in their scheme to become porn film moguls. A couple of the songs are a little rough, but by and large it's a fun and very dirty sendup of a classic just looking to be made fun of.

Originally billed as a one-time performance, the event was popular enough that a number of people got turned away at the door. If you're interested at all, they announced tentative plans to hold the performance again on Friday, December 16. Doors open at 9:00. Keep an eye on the Club's website for updates, and go early so you don't get turned away.


Hebdomeros Update: 12..08.05

The second performance is now confirmed for Saturday, December 17. So don't go on the 16th. They won't be there. But go will probably sell quickly again.


Friday, December 02, 2005

Looking For Jake

With his unique mixture of Dickensian settings, Lovecrafitan terrors and socialist political theory China Mieville achieved popularity and critical acclaim both within and outside the community of fantasy readers. While certainly descending from the traditions of fantasy and horror his novels, especially Perdido Street Station, developed a style uniquely his own. I picked up his new collection Looking For Jake filled with hope for finding something great within the pages. And, for the most part, it is. U.S. fans should note the collection contains several stories thus far only published in the U.K.

The weakest pieces are those based almost totally within his political ideas. "'Tis the Season", for example, is a world with commericialism done to the extreme. It's Christmas time, and everything--absolutely everything--related to Chistmas requires a license of some sort to participate. Although a fun read, it's little more than a throw-away piece, something you laugh at once but aren't likely to ever look at again. Likewise with "An End to Hunger", an odd blend of conspiracy theory and parody of charity organizations gone wild that reads with a political purpose all too obvious.

He takes some bold, dare I say even experimental, steps with a small handful of pieces. "Entry Taken From a Medical Encyclopedia" is exactly what it sounds like, although the disease Mieville imagines for us is bizarre, well thought out and holds a unique history of discovery. Alongside artists Liam Sharp, he tries his hand at a short comic strip telling the story of city at the edge of war. Although it appears Mieville aimed for a lean, crisp and pithy style similar to Alan Moore's (The Watchmen) generate a piece that's a bit disjointed, sparce and diffiicult to follow. While these two are not wholly successful, it's always nice to see a writer stretch a little beyond his abilities by trying new things.

Mieville really shows his skill and imagination in the more horror-oriented pieces. He has that rare gift of identiftying those fears that flicker and lurk within the deepest, darkest basements of our own mind and dropping them down right in front of us. The progtagonist of "Different Skies" is an elderly man who fears the aggressive teenagers living in his neighborhood. He has a new window installed in his room and at night one of the panes looks out not on the beautiful park his home overlooks but onto a dank, dark alley filled with children who taunt and threaten him through the glass. In "The Ball Room" (a piece co-written with Emma Birchaum and Max Schaufer) turns a simple, common playroom in a furniture store into a haunting room of accidents, death and mystery. With all the bad horor I've read over the past year it was wonderful to read these creepy little gems that work beyond the simple twist ending and gore filled descriptions.

The strongest piece by far is the novella "The Tain", the longest story in the collection and the one that probably comes closest to the depths of his novels. For eons the population of a paralell world lived trapped within our mirrors and forced to mimic us as our reflections. Finally they burst free of their reflective prisons and begin destroying humanity. Sholl, the one human who holds a talent for defeating the inhabitants of the mirror world, becomes a begrudging hero and faces the difficult concept of surrender as the only means for mankind's survival. Giving his ideas more length gives him the room to mix his invetive horror with touches of political thought, hinting that Mieville's true gifts lie with the longer form and not the tightly nestled gems of short stories.

Extreme fans of Mieville's might grumble a bit that only one piece, "Jack", is set in the fantasy land featured in his novels. But if you can look beyond that you can see a writer willing to explore a variety of ideas over what promises to be a long and interesting career. Despite some of it's flaws, Looking For Jake is a collection well worth seeking out.