Monday, January 28, 2008

Review: Sky Pirates of Valendor by Everett Soares

It's no secret that I like comic books and that I like high fantasy. But I have a general dislike when the two are crammed together. There's something about the imagery combined with the tropes of the story that make it feel awkward and rote to me. There a few exceptions, like the Wildstorm version of Red Sonja and the series Sojourn put out by the short-lived publisher CrossGen. And after reading the the premier issue, I'm hoping I can add Everett Soares's Sky Pirates of Valendor to the short list of fantasy comics that I enjoy.

cover page

Soares has created an unusual world, an almost Steampunk realm that mixes different levels of technology. Pirates don't command boats limited to the water but ships that fly in the sky. And characters with robotic arms might battle with swords and muskets while others may raise high-powered sniper rifles in their own defense. Magic seems to be present as well, complete with talking bears, Elves and prophecies.

big bear

Valendor sits ruled over by the Valen Empire, a rich but seemingly restrictive kingdom. The series hero is Tobin Manheim, the swashbuckling captain for the pirate ship Rogue's Revenge. He's Strong-headed, easy to anger but obviously has some leadership capabilities and a good sense of conniving. Our introduction to Manheim is a humorous scene dragging a dockmaster off of his boat for interrupting his time with a lady friend.

action page

Manheim's hired by the Valen Empire to hunt down a ship that kidnapped a ranking official of the Empire. The catch is that he has to work with Gearz, a sexy but equally hard-headed woman with robotic arms. There's a history between the two we aren't privy to yet, but I can only imagine that coming to terms with their bad history will play a part of the series.

flying boat

Drawn by Brian Brinlee and inked by Michael W. Keller, I have mixed feelings about the art. Some panels are gorgeous, especially those that focus on action or faces. But others seem like they were drawn more quickly, particularly the landscapes. They do Make some interesting choices with page layouts, most noticeably on the first page where they use a series of circles instead of the standard square panels to get across a first person point of view.

intro page

It's hard to say exactly where the story is going. This first issue is about setting the stage. We get glimpses of a world that seems large and well fleshed out, and it's a testament to Soare's writing that I'm curious to see more. While this will definitely be a series high on action, there are hints intrigue and clashes of personality as well. I'm curious to see how the different levels of tech really play out in this world. I like the suggestions of what's to come and only time will tell if the team can deliver that image to the page.


Friday, January 25, 2008

AWP Rant

Well the annual AWP conference starts up next week in NYC.

Even though I let my membership lapse more than a year ago---I just can't afford it right now with the cost of classes---I've gotten more invites to things than when I actually was a member. Individual emails and snail mail fliers about specific lectures and panel discussions. Notices from different publishers about their booth number in the sales room. Invites to readings and parties off-site. There's even a sub-conference going, a quasi-protest to AWP that some writers and small publishers are holding on their own in nearby bars, restaurants and meeting room so they can discuss things they feel AWP doesn't include.

It looks like a great conference. I'd love to hit things like "Breaking Lines on the Battlefield: Poetry of Wartime", moderated by Sandra Beasley. I'd like to here what Jennifer Egan and Lydia Davis have to say about Wit and Social Commentary in Contemporary Fiction. And the various pedagogy forums would be fun, because I'd really like to develop a way to work in fiction writing sessions at whatever library I end up working at. But it's not in the cards for me this year, both because of time and money.

I do wonder, though, why we keep having these conferences related to books and literature in NYC and other similar cities. Over the next few years AWP is hitting Chicago, Denver, D.C. and Boston. Oh, I understand why. All of these cities host a large number of publishing houses and schools with writing programs. It's easier to do and gives the local venues a chance to show off. But aside from the one in Baltimore a few years ago, these are all obvious choices. How about a city like Kansas City, which has a very strong performance art tradition and a growing writing community? Or Boise? Or Spokane, which has a really strong indie press scene? I worry about the writing community a little when it becomes too clubby and too inward looking.

Bah. Ignore me. I'm probably just extra grouchy because I'm not going this year and because the little man in my head is pounding a hammer on the inside of my skull, giving me a deliciously painful headache. If you're going to AWP and you blog, share some stories so us poor saps not attending can live vicariously through you. And have a good time.


Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Review: Death of the Little Match Girl by Zoran Feric

If you've never heard of Zoran Feric, you're not alone. Although he's published several novels in his native Croatian language, little other than the odd short story has made it into English. Autumn Hill Books corrects that with Tomislav Kuzmanovic's translation of Feric's darkly odd novel Death of the Little Match Girl.

The story opens simply enough. Fero is a pathologist who lives and works in Romania. The death of a childhood friend's daughter draws him back home to Rab, a small island in the Adriatic Sea, to attend the funeral. The opening chapter is a parade of odd characters as Fero reminisces about his past life in this small town. It becomes quickly apparent that this is not a normal funeral when the priest reads the wrong eulogy and the resident crazy man of the town---who looks like Balzac in flip flops--- insists on reciting a non-sensical bit of prose at the podium.


Things are all told through Fero's darkly comic mouth, which gives us an unending supply of comments that range from the funny to the unnerving. Pontificating on the fate of the little girl's soul in the afterlife, Fero thinks: What would happen to her now in heaven's open fields, where all sorts of wishes come true? Would she grow a tiny wee wee?.

A number of Fero's thoughts made me chuckle, others made me say "Huh?", and a few---like the above---kind of did both. Especially all the jokes about Auschwitz. I'm not sure America is quite ready for holocaust humor.

A death occurs shortly after the funeral and the island's police inspector, an old buddy of Fero's, asks Fero to lend his expertise as a pathologist. You see, it's not just anyone who's died. It's the towns only stripper and prostitute. But this stripper had a big secret, yes she did. Or is it a he? No one's really quite sure.

After that things just get weird.

The longer Fero stays the more involved in the general oddities of the island of Rab he gets. He meets more old friends, and meeting more old friends leads into more bizarre cases. We've get a a thief who steals the endings out of library books, a gravedigger, Franciscan monks performing exorcisms, strange metallic statues appearing across the town overnight and a snuff film making the rounds of everyone's VHS player that may or may not be evidence in the stripper's murder. A large part of what Feric's doing is lampooning the style of the crime novel by smacking it on it's behind and sticking his own tongue out at the same time. The hero stumbles into his cases and pretty much solves them in the same way---if you can really say he solves them. It's not Inspector Clouseau slapstick or hardboiled Philip Marlowe, but something indefinably between the two.

I get the same feeling from Feric's writing that I get from Terry Pratchett and Christopher Moore, that he's laughing the whole time he's writing. But his jokes are a lot dirtier and profoundly politically incorrect, at least by U.S. standards. The novel's title, for example, has nothing to do with the old folk tale of the little match girl. It's a bad sexual pun about the size of the dead prostitute's male genitalia.

I can't personally vouch for the quality of the translation, because I don't know the first thing about translating from Croatian. I can say it's phrased in a style that's descriptive and sometimes even thoughtful, but still easy to read in a commercial, mainstream kind of way. I have a nagging suspicion I'm missing something because I don't know enough about that part of the world. Some secret joke, some cultural reference, something that takes this to a higher level of meaning. But for the life of me I can't begin to tell you what it might be. While its lewd content prevents me suggesting this to just anyone, I can say I had a good time with this. It's all smartly written, embarrassingly funny and I enjoyed it despite myself. Readers with a thick skin and an open mind will have a good time, but sensitive souls would do best to stay away.


Monday, January 21, 2008

Review: Sentences: The Life of MF Grimm by Percy Carey

I actually read this awhile ago and wrote a short review for School Library Journal, but never bothered to write up anything for this glorious space here. I had mixed feelings about this book, and I got a bit lazy. But Percy Carey's graphic novel Sentences seemed to be on everyone's mind when I was at the ALA conference a week ago. Vertigo/DC had a table in the showroom and was pushing it hard, but several people were just talking about it. People who don't know much about graphic novels were asking me about this title when they learned I read comics. It was only yesterday after I bothered to do some searches online that I found it's on a ton of best of 2007 lists. So I figured I had to toss in my 2 cents.


Author Percy Carey is better known as the underground hip-hop front man and lyricist MF Grimm. Billed as his first literary work, Carey uses the form of the graphic novel to bring a dark and frank portrayal of his own life. The story opens with Carey as a young boy growing up in NY City and working as a child actor on the set of Sesame Street. It’s a great opener for the book, all told with dark humor as Carey spoils the magic of television by telling his friends about the actors inside the suits of Big Bird and Snuffleluffagas. Things quickly move to high school, and we see a contradictory teen who both loves to read books like To Kill a Mockingbird and to create all kinds of trouble in the halls of school and the streets of NY City.


Carey finally starts making his own way in life by joining the early 90's world of Hip Hop, entering Slam competitions and appearing on some early recordings. Fans of the time period will love the appearances of big names like GZA and Snoop Dogg and how they both helped and challenged Carey throughout his career. Unfortunately, to make ends meet Carey sells drugs with his older half-brother and runs across continual problems with the law and competitors. The latter portion of the book focuses on a shooting that leaves Carey paralyzed and how he learns to deal with his life in new, thoughtful ways.


The most immediate draw of the book is Ronald Wimberly's fantastic artwork (check out his blog for further samples of his style). He illustrates Carey's childhood in a manner that's slightly cartoony and fun, and then images get progressively realistic and dark as the portrayal of Carey's life continues. Full of solid blacks, whites, and grays, the pages are almost claustrophobic in the way the images threaten to crush Carey as he struggles to not just succeed but survive in this violent world.


Unfortunately, Carey breaks one of the big rules of storytelling; he does a lot of telling without really showing. His style is high on narration. While this makes the delivery personal---almost like a diary---through his strong voice, it limits the dramatic impact of the big events. The events in Carey's life move by rather quickly, weakening the impact of what would otherwise be a powerful message of hope and making your own second chances.

Carey's used to writing for hip-hop, not in developing a longer form tale. I suspect that has a large part to do with how he told his story. I just wish an editor had stepped in and made him expand things---with everything Carey covers this could have easily been another massive book of entertaining depth like Thompson's Blankets. I understand why so many have put this on their list of favorite books of 2007. The themes are big and challenging, and it addresses ideas all too often ignored in literature of any kind. But I came away a little let down by the promise of what should have been a fantastic book. It is a quick read, though. And fans of Hip Hop will enjoy both the core and the background to the story, while other readers might be drawn in by subject matter too rarely covered in comics.


Sunday, January 20, 2008

Week One of My Last Semester

My one class this term---my last term---is a Young Adult Literature class. The class will be a a lot of work, but fun work. We're reading 2-3 books a week and have a handful of large projects. We're reading a lot of the "classic" books for young adults, which is good for me. I've read some of the newer ones over the past year, but somehow I've missed a lot of the classics. The most contemporary thing I read for classes in high school was probably Herman Melville. Plus when I was a teen Young Adult sections in libraries didn't really exist. I just didn't get exposed to what we call Young Adult books now. I pretty much lived in the sci-fi section and rarely ventured anywhere else unless I had to. I'm looking forward to it, because It'll fill in a lot of holes in what I've read. I'll probably share short, abridged reviews of what I read, just to make sure I'm thinking about these books fully.

The prof is the head librarian at a private high school, so he's bringing in a perspective I haven't gotten yet. I like him, probably because his teaching attitude is much like my own. Laid back, open to ideas and putting much of the responsibility as far as big assignments and being ready to discuss everyday on the students. As much as I've enjoyed my program, a couple of the profs treat the grad students like they're still in high school.

Our first "project" is a short personal essay about our reading habits: what they were like when we were teens, what they are like now and how these reading habits can help or hurt our working with teens. Depending on how my essay goes, I might share it here as well. At the very least, I'll being sharing an odd mixture of book reviews of the next several days.


Wednesday, January 16, 2008

So...What Kind of Librarian Are You?

I made it through the conference in Philly A-Ok. I'm not going to do an event by event account of what I did because, frankly, that would be damn boring.

Probably my favorite event, though, was the Best Books for Young Adults meeting on Sunday afternoon. Every year librarians put their heads together and come up with a list of the "best" books for teens published over the past year. What made this event so special is that a group of teens from a small high school in Colorado---not sure how they were chosen---were invited to speak their minds about the chosen titles. It was a rare chance to hear from straight from teens what they liked, what they didn't like and why. For books they only kind of liked there comments were pretty smart and incisive; they dug into ideas of depth of character, believability, theme, setting and so on. But when they were passionate about something----on either side---their emotions got the better of them. It was a lot of fun and a good reminder of why librarians do what they do.

The question that kept coming up to me, though, was what kind of librarian are you? Whether I was at a sales presentation from a database company, a panel discussion on challenges for community college libraries, or teaching writing to teens at a library, I think it was something I was asked at nearly everything I went to. I suppose it was the conference equivalent of cocktail party talk, when a stranger asks, "So, what do you do?" as an opener to conversation. Just more specified since everyone assumes you're a librarian since you're at a conference.

Part of why I was asked so frequently is probably because I don't fit neatly into any one category. At least by appearances. For starters, I'm a guy. And while some guys go into public libraries they are few and far between. Secondly, I was donning casual attire. Non-descript khakis, dress shirt and a sweater. Most corporate librarians come dressed in full suits. So while that might leave me looking like a university librarian I don't quite have that befuddled look down yet. You know---that special glassy-eyed look people get when they've spend the last twenty years of their life researching and thinking about research. Probably in time, though, I'll have it down.

Trouble is, I don't know 100% what kind of librarian I want to be. I came into library school balanced on a precipice of indecision between public and academic, and I'm still teetering on that same precipice. I like the atmosphere of a public library---it's fun, it's open and has wonderful potential to really help people. And I've really enjoyed the little bits of work I've been allowed to do with teens at my library. But I hate how tied everything is to circulation and that virtually everything gets phrased in the context of how it increases the circulation of the library. Academic libraries aren't quite that focused on circulation, but I don't look forward to having to kiss the behinds of department heads. I want to primarily help students, not faculty. But helping faculty could be a large part of the job, especially at a big school. If I work at a college I think it would have to be a small liberal arts school and not a huge university.

Ah well. In the end it will probably end up depending on where the jobs are when I graduate.


Friday, January 11, 2008

Day One at ALA Midwinter

I made it to Philly safe and sound. I'm staying at a Holiday Inn on the edge of the historic district. I was a little worried about it because the online reviews were pretty mixed. The hotel itself is fine---the rooms are small, but clean. There is a fire station across the street and I can hear sirens every now and then, but it's a city. Most importantly it has free wi-fi and it's a short half mile walk to the convention center where ALA Midwinter is being held.

After I got set up in the hotel, I made the stroll down to the convention. Right next to the hotel is Christ Church Cemetery, where old Ben Franklin is buried. Along the way I passed the Constitution Center, Philly's African American Museum, and China Town. It's going to be hard to resist the temptation to ignore the conference meetings I came for and hit all the historic sites instead. If the daylight is nice tomorrow I'll take some pictures of things in between meetings.

After getting registered and picking up the required badge and tote bag----what is it with librarians and tote bags---I wandered into the exhibition hall. It's a bit overwhelming, to say the least. There are vendors you'd expect: publishers, database providers, video distributors. But there are vendors for everything else under the sun as well: carpet companies, furniture stores, book carts, and on and on. For reasons beyond my understanding, they even had a tooth whitening stand (in just twelve minutes, you too can have a whiter, brighter smile).

The only thing on my agenda tonight was the YALSA Gaming Night. It was fun, but not quite what I was expecting. Basically, YALSA set up about ten game consoles in a ballroom and provided some food and drink. People---myself included---strolled around and tried things out. I tested out Wii bowling, Guitar Hero, and a couple of racing. They were fun but I was expecting a bit more from the event. Some discussions, presentations or even a little friendly tournament to give it a bit more structure. As it was, it was a nice social mixer, but for $40 I was expecting a little more.

Tomorrow I'm up at 7:30 for an early breakfast meeting with a database provider, and then I'll try to hit some cool stuff throughout the day. Until next time...


Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Another Year Another...Well, Something

Yesterday I turned the ripe old age of 35. It was good birthday, I guess. I spent a half-day at work, where all my co-workers wished me well. We've been enjoying 60 degree temps here in the DC area the last few days, so in the afternoon I went on a 6 mile hike and reminded myself why I like being outside. And last night I enjoyed a BBQ sandwich and a beer in a dive restaurant in Nowheresville, Va, with my friend Jim. I rounded off the night re-reading some old short stories---HP Lovecraft, mostly---listening to music by my birthday buddies Elvis and David Bowie, and thinking about the past year.

The past year has been a pretty good one. I published one short story, moved along further through grad school, and Miss L said yes when I asked her to marry me. The next year, though, will be even bigger. Over the next year I'll be graduating, finding another job, moving in with Miss L and getting married. If all goes well, all in that order.

It's a lot for one year but I'm hoping for some other things as well. Time to write and read more what I want to read and write, not just what people tell me to read and write. After I move I hope to find the wacky writerly community wherever I end up living (Baltimore?). And maybe some music lessons if I can find a good teacher. I really miss playing bass.

I'm not much for horoscopes, but I do often look at the "If today's your birthday" in the Washington Post. Here's what they have to say for my life in 2008:

Your devotion to those you love is unparalleled. Your strong feelings make taking the right action effortless. Moves and new friends are featured in February. Tell your stories in March. Your financial picture picks up in June when one bold move gets you noticed by those who can pay you well. Virgo and Gemini adore you.

I don't know about the first half, but the rest seems dead on. I know I have one older short story that will finally be giving a life in print later this year, and I think it may actually be in March. Although I'm not positive. And it looks like the new job will be in June, which sounds about right. We'll see how it all goes.

This weekend I'm heading just a bit north to Philly for the American Library Association's Mid-Winter conference. I'm sure I'll have things to blog about there, especially the gaming event and dinner on Friday night.


Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Good Reading Means a Happy Mind

The past couple of weeks I've been checking things out from the library, hoping to catch up on reading some good fiction while I'm in-between semesters. Sadly, I haven't been having much luck. I usually give myself about 50 pages for a novel to start moving before I give up on it, and so far I've given up on four. But today I started something seems really promising.

Joe Hill, whose novel Heart Shaped Box I reviewed way back here, has a short story collection Twentieth Century Ghosts that opens with a story entitled "Best American Horror". It's a wonderful horror story for people who like to think of themselves as more literary-minded (ie, nerds like myself). The main character is the editor for a yearly anthology of the best American Horror published each year. He's sent a short story from the editor of a University-based lit mag, and it renews his wavering faith in the art of horror fiction. The rest of the story focuses on the editor's search for the author.

Hill sits in that unusual place of really seeming to know both the literary publishing world and the genre publishing world, and how their own ideas of snobberies dictate what they like to read and publish. Although a very short tale, HIll manages to include a number of barbs towards both sides of publishing.

When the editor finally tracks down the author of this terrifying tale, he finds himself face to face with a horror villain come to life. While definitely a twist ending, it was an ending that made sense and wasn't all about shock like so many horror stories are anymore. I was really impressed by how Hill shapes the story; it's paced in a slower, more character-driven fashion and he never resorts to gore for gore's sake. Nothing against gore. I love splatterpunk. But there are other ways to do horror, and Hill seems to be working a more subtle method pretty well here. I'm looking forward to digging into the rest of this over the next few days.