Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Happy Halloween

Although we all dressed up like pirates at work today, the above mask is what I'm wearing tonight to scare all the princesses, frogs, superheroes and ninjas coming to my door tonight for candy. Despite the Hannibal Lecter quality, the mask came to me through my grandpa. It's a standard mask for pilots during WWII, used to help stave off the freezing cabin temperatures when you're flying in high altitudes.

Hope everyone does something fun and scary tonight.


Friday, October 27, 2006

When Ethics Slips In

The story I've been working on the past few weeks is a sf/horror rewrite of the Poe classic "The Masque of Red Death". I have it in the back of my head to do a full collection of Poe rewrites at some point, and I started with this one because I think it's one of Poe's weaker stories. I love the basic concept of the story and the allegory quality it has, but so much of the tale is told not shown. Aside from changing the setting and a lot of the surrounding circumstances, I'm trying to crack it open and impart a lot of the same type of information through scenes instead of narration. For the most part, I've really only been striving for creepy horror story about a disease destroying the population of Earth, but somewhere along the line metafiction and my recent forays into ethics have slipped in.

One little trick I often do when I just need to figure out the real subtext for a story is to stick two characters who are completes opposites in a room together and see what happens. In this story, those two are prince and the nut who comes to the part dressed as a plague victim. I've been working on the exchange between the two the last few days, mostly scribbles on scraps of paper when I had a quiet moment at work. I just finished typing it up, and somehow I eneded up with a four page debate between the two over the purpose of art. Not really sure where it came from, except from the ethics books I've been reading lately (particularly John Gardner's On Moral Fiction. Somehow I need to compact the four pages down to about 1/4 of a page. 1/2 a page at the most. We'll see how it goes.

Completely unrelated, but I finally bit the bullet and upgraded to the new Blogger Beta. Over the next few days, I'll be backtracking through all my old posts to add the meta-tags. It'll be tedious, but they aren't much use if they aren't used for everything I've written here.


Thursday, October 26, 2006

Review: The Beast Bowl

I was a little bit mystified when the magazine sent me Tom Chaikin’s novel Beast Bowl to review. I book featuring talking animals is cool, but a book featuring talking animals that play a giant football game every year? It’s no big secret that I’m not much of a sports fan, so I wasn’t sure I was the right person to read it. Despite that, I cracked open this young adult book, Chaikin’s first published novel, and had a hard time putting it down.

The basic premise is fantastic. Every year animals great and small from across the world set aside their natural differences to compete in a dramatic game of football dubbed the Beast Bowl. To the animals that compete---everything from powerful lions down to hopping kangaroos---playing in the Beast Bowl means respect throughout the animal kingdom. When the coach for the East Team retires, the team’s quarterback---an idealistic chimpanzee named Sammy the Slinging Simian----takes up the challenge to keep the team going. Along with his best friend Carl the Elephant, Sammy travels from Africa to the United States to recruit an out of work college football coach to run their failing team. There’s only one problem: speaking to a human will break one of their most sacred laws of the animal kingdom and may mean banishment for the two travelers. For Sammy and the East Team to succeed animals and man will have to learn to trust and respect each other for the first time in hundreds of years.

The only real weakness of the novel is John, the human coach recruited by Sammy and Carl. Early on, he is framed by his employer to cover up the unethical recruiting practices of the college. We are told by a few he’s one of the best coaches in the world but we never really get to see why until the end. I also had a hard time believing that he would leave his wife and daughter at home while he trotted off to Africa to coach a football team of animals. It could be argued that Beast Bowl is not John’s story but Sammy’s and we don’t need that much depth in John to tell the real tale. But with a little tweaking this could have really been both Sammy’s and John’s story and would have been made all the more powerful for it.

Fortunately, Sammy’s story is really compelling. His motivations to save his team are clear and quite well done and the way he sneaks across continents is quite clever (I won’t give it away, because it’s one of the true pleasures of the novel). The sport aspect is also handled very well; from the quick thinking tactics of a quarterback to the severe body blows of a lineman Chaikin writes with enough knowledge to satisfy the pickiest of sports fans and yet uses enough humor and dramatic flair to appeal to readers who don’t know the difference between a safety and a field goal. It has great appeal to teens. Nearly every time I was reading it in a public place some teenager, both boys and girls, came up to me and asked me if it was good and what it was about. Most seemed really excited by the idea of a sports story with talking animals.

But Chaikin delivers more than a sports story. The tale shifts into a court trial of sorts, and its s trial that causes the animal world to reconsider how they interact with the human world. Well plotted and delivered through memorable characters, Beast Bowl comes together as a clever and thoughtful parable on mankind’s responsibilities to both the natural world and each other.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Review: Quick Fiction Number 9

Okay, I admit it. I really only picked up issue 9 of Quick Fiction because Kim Addonizio's in it. But I have to say, I found myself impressed again and again by all the work in this pocket-sized lit mag.

Billing itself as a venue for stories of 500 words or less, I started reading with a little bit of skepticism. For about a little over a decade now publishers have been printing teeny-tiny short stories----sometimes dubbed short-shorts or flash fiction----in books and lit mags. They are damn tough to do well, so I often find them fun to read once but not offering much reason to come back to them again and again. More than one time I've wondered if publishers and editors started the trend mainly to publish more authors and, hopefully, get more readers.

The stories in this particular issue ran the full gamut of short fiction: traditional stories with a beginning, a middle and an end, anecdotes, and formalistic experimental pieces. Some, like John Ellingsworth's "One Novel as Auto-Summarized by Microsoft Word, Reducing 31,000 words to 24, Losing None of Its Nuance Nor Delicious Homoeroticism, and Gaining Even a Kind of Terse, Sad Poetry, the Author Thinks" are just goofy fun. Sue Allison's "Second Chances in the Old People's Home" is more traditional but manages to dig into some surprising layers of character for such a short space. Not surprisingly, Addonizio's "Crash" approaches things like a short narrative poem, building image after image to shoot a pretty grisly scene at the reader. While the short lengths of all the pieces suited my current (ie short) attention span, I found myself marking phrases and re-reading pieces more than I have in some time. The editors have exerted real quality control here, publishing work with real purpose behind it and not just putting out short pieces to be quirky or trendy.

For fellow writers, this is a great market if you have a real talent for tiny, tight fiction. With the quality so high the competition would be pretty stiff, but I'd be more than honored to find my own name---my real name---in the contributors list someday. Not likely, since my stories seem to get lengthier the more I write, but you never know.


Saturday, October 21, 2006

Tech Stuff

I've been slow to update things here lately because I've been playing with audio software. Ever since the summer when I hit the Balticon SF Convention, I've had it in the back of my mind to add some sort of podcast component for the space here. Not every day or even every week, but maybe on a montly basis. Instead of reviews or random rants I plan to use them for personal essays dealing with art, writing, etc. For example, the one I've been playing with the last two weeks is all about the brief but very odd relationship I had with John S. Hall, frontman for the band King Missile. It started out in email, and then phone. It got really strange and pretty much ended when we met in person.

But I'm getting away from my point here.

I have a pretty good first podcast set up, content-wise. And I've worked in some musical clips as background that I think work pretty well. What's been bugging me is the low quality of the recordings of my own voice. If anyone out there who's done a little experimenting, I'm looking for a cheap microphone (preferably under $30) that can plug into a USB or firewire port. Any suggestions appreciated.

If Miss L lets me work on my laptop tonight after she goes to bed, I should have some new reviews up here soon.


Friday, October 13, 2006


I took time away today from studying, researching and writing to head up to North Bethesda for the annual SPXPO. Although essentially a comic book convention, It is a con with a twist. SPXPO specifically supports indie publishers and creators, and is also the home of the Ignatz awards---quite a big deal in the cartooning community.

Populated with the large bearded fellows who make up so much of any comic book con, SPXPO also hosts punk rock types, indie rock kids, aging hipsters and even a few open minded guys and gals in suits. Rows and rows of tables hosted by dealers, publishers, writers, artists and cartoonists stretched out in every visible direction in the conference room. Although there were a few examples of super-hero and fantasy comics, the wares were mostly made up of indie-spirited producers creating unique visions. Visions of true to life stories, retellings of epic myths like Gilgamesh, clever surrealist expeiments, and even text-heavy comics explaining the lives and thoughts of major philosophers. Big name indie presses---Fantagraphics, Drawn and Quarterly, Top Shelf---were all there but it was more made up by dozens and dozens of smaller publishers I've never heard of.

I was a little but overwhelmed by it all.

In fact, I was so overwhelmed after making one full lap around the room I walked back out. Not to leave, but to get my bearings. I pulled out my handy dandy brochure, circled tables I knew I wanted to check out and then strolled back in, armed with somewhat of a purpose.

I wandered and met Craig Thompson, who is every bit as nice as he seems in his own comics. Rob G of Gigantic Books was also pretty cool, although in a very different way. I even got to play a little on a computer demo for some comics-creating software that uses clip art and pre-packaged shapes for panels. Even though I had no idea what I was doing it was still fun.

It was really too crowded to do much browsing of new titles, so I took a lot of notes for my next trip to Atomic Books. In the end, I only bought two things. One was the most recent issue of Mome, a great ongoing set of anthologies pulled together by a certifiably wacky team of cartoonists. I also picked up a collection by Paul Hornschemeier, whose book Mother, Come Home still sits as one of the most devastatingly beautiful stories I've ever read.

It's too bad I have to work tomorrow, because otherwise I would go back to take in the panel discussions happening throughout the day. With topics like web comics and selling your first book, I think it would have been a lot of fun. There's always next year.


Thursday, October 05, 2006

Review: Fortress of Ice

CJ Cherryh’s newest novel Fortress of Ice marks her return to high fantasy as the fifth book in her acclaimed Fortress series. It’s been sixteen years since the final moments of Fortress of Dragons and Cefwen now sits on the throne as the just ruler of a tenuously united kingdom. He begins to look toward a future filled with the promise of good things he sees in his two sons: Aewyn, the fifteen-year-old rightful heir to the throne, and Elfwyn, an illegitimate child of Cefwyn and the dark sorceress Tarien Aswydd. Raised by the good witch Gran, Elfwyn grew up unaware of his noble lineage. But at fifteen Cefwyn claims Elfwyn and takes him to live at the capitol, where he becomes fast friends with his half-brother. As much as Elfwyn enjoys his new life the dark side of his parentage constantly pulls on him to release some powerful magic that could destroy everything Cefwyn worked so hard to create.

Eflwyn’s character, teetering so desperately between two very different paths, will draw in readers through a dramatic and sometimes magical coming of age story. Much of the early parts of the book rely on political intrigue and constant references to history of the land; fortunately Cherryh wisely includes a short introduction that provides a quick summary of the back-story for readers new to the series. The remaining action focuses on Elfwyn and his search for his own path. The action overall is well plotted and fast moving, and Cherryh's controlled prose works effectively alongside her ideas. Where I feel like the book falls apart, though, is at the ending. When finally confronted with the true evil behind all the dark plotting, the conversation might as well be this:

Evil Person says, "You will bow before me and further my plans to bend the kingdom to my mighty will. Hahahaha!"

Elfwyn responds with, "Screw you, jack!"

Cherryh's approach is not quite that simplified, nor as bluntly snotty, but you get the idea. At no point is Elfwyn really tempted or confused by the evil. Sure, there are points at which he's manipulated but it's made pretty clear that he's not under control of himself at those moments. It never enters Elfwyn's mind that the evil way is better, that he or even the kingdom could be better off if he--ahem--went to the dark side. It all makes the real struggle of the novel---the internal struggle for Elfwyn to find out who he really is---pretty mundane. To her credit, I think Cherry's main intent was to create a compelling commercial novel, and Fortress of Ice will definitely satisfy anyone looking for a fast read. But anyone looking for fantasy to do a bit more needs to look elsewhere.