Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Katy Stauber “Spin the Sky” (Night Shade Books, 2012)

In Spin the Sky, Stauber transforms the bones of the Odyssey into near space opera.  Cesar Vaquero leaves home to fight in the Spacer War, only to spend 15 years wandering before returning home.  His wife Penelope is running the family ranch and fending off suitors as best she can.  Homer’s islands are now orbitals, each one stranger and potentially more deadly than the last.

A couple of things really stand out.  First, the character development is excellent.  While this book has a fairly large cast of characters, they feel fleshed out and developed.  Minor characters feel more enigmatic than underdeveloped.  There’s a sense of mystery with them (Asia, for example) where you’d love to see more of their own stories.  Secondly, the universe of Spin the Sky is a fascinating place.  The orbitals are diverse and wondrous places.  Again, there’s a sense that other fantastic tales of this universe could be told.

***minor spoilers***
My major gripe is that a couple of plot points seemed forced, rather than to come naturally from the characters.  Why exactly did Cesar have to travel for 15 years before he could return home?  Why did the black hats need the Vaqueros’ cattle?

I’m no classics scholar, but I had a lot of fun making the connections between Cesar’s misadventures and those of brave Ulysses. 

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Paul Cornell & Diogenes Neves ” Demon Knights vol 1: Seven Against the Dark “ (DC Comics, 2012)

In the midst of the Dark Ages, seven strangers are forced to work together to defend a village from an advancing army.  Of course, since this is a DC comic, & a supernatural one at that, the strangers are more than perhaps meets the eye.  We have a demon, a sorceress, an amazon, an immortal, & several others who are more than normal humans.

Demon Knights gives Cornell an opportunity to play with a variety of comic & fantasy tropes.  Our protagonists are more grey hats than white hats, each working for his or her own motivation, which are not necessarily for the greater good.  The villains of the piece do not have the same subtlety.  They are pure black hats, willing to pillage & kill for their own gain.

While not as grim or nihilistic as some modern age comics, Dark Knights does feature quite a bit of graphic violence.  Our Dark Age protagonists do not have any Silver Age prohibitions about killing, & often this is depicted in graphic ways.

If one goal of the “New 52” was to make DC’s titles more accessible to new readers, then Demon Knights has succeeded admirably.  Cornell balances information and mystery well, giving enough information to allow for characterization, yet allowing for questions yet to be answered.  Additionally, as a standalone piece, this first volume works well as a complete story arc. 

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips "Fatale Book 1: Death Chases Me" (Image Comics, 2012)

The story begins simply enough.  A man attends the funeral of his reclusive godfather.  After the funeral, he meets a beautiful mysterious woman named Jo.  Jo saves his life, and he finds himself enmeshed in a decades long conflict that is clearly out of his league.

Brubaker uses flashbacks to tease out the backstory on Jo, Hank (the godfather), and this conflict.  Slowly as the story progresses, we discover that the noir story becomes one of Lovecraftian horror instead.

Brubaker is widely acknowledged as a writer who is very skilled in the tropes of noir.  That all comes to play here.  The storyline is a classic, on par with James M Cain et al.  What is perhaps surprising is his deft touch at the horror elements.  While in this first installment the horror tropes are secondary to the noir, he works the horrific elements into the solid foundation of his everyday world.

Likewise Sean Phillips does an excellent job handling the art duties.  The preponderance of the book look & feel appropriate for a hardboiled tale, yet he handles the creepy Lovecraftian horrors protruding into this world easily.  The contrast makes the emerging horrific elements even more striking.

Since the overall story is as yet unfinished, it’s impossible to fully judge the plotting or storytelling.  However, this first installment is compelling & leaves me eagerly awaiting the next volume.

Jonathan Wood "Yesterday's Hero" (2012)

Yesterday’s Hero picks up where No Hero has left off.  After saving the Earth from the Lovecraftian horrors of the first book, Arthur Wallace & the team from MI37 must now stop time travelers from the Soviet Union who are attempting to change the time stream in order to achieve Soviet supremacy.

If you haven’t yet read No Hero, that would be recommended before trying Yesterday’s Hero.  Wood does very little to bring new readers up to speed.  I think that you would probably be a bit lost.

It’s impossible to evaluate series titles without reference to the other books in the series.  In this case, I have to feel that Yesterday’s Hero comes out rather poorly.  While there were some issues with character development in No Hero, I felt that it was rather excusable considering that it was the first book in the series.  Unfortunately, rather than delve more deeply into the characters already introduced, Wood introduces more than a few new characters.  The effect is that now we have a large number of underdeveloped characters, rather than a deepening relationship with any of the characters in the series.

Additionally, the change in focus on the villains of the piece changed the tone considerably.  While the Lovecraftian horrors of the first book provided a nice horror element, the Soviets of Yesterday’s Hero seemed rather toothless in comparison.  In fact, the entire premise of the villains struck me as rather hilarious.  I found myself wishing that Wood had played up the comical nature of this threat.

Still, many of the strengths of No Hero do carry over into this second title.  The pacing was first rate, with action & intrigue propelling the reader through the story.  The bureaucratic horrors of government work are further explored, and Wood does still provide the wit that was so charming in the No Hero.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Just Chillin With the Dolphins

Where was this when I needed it?

I ran across a course syllabus for Cal Berkeley recently.  It's an ethnomusicology class focusing on the music of Jack Rose.  The syllabus is online [pdf].  Twelve weeks of listening to albums & then discussing?  Where was this back when I needed credits?!

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Jonathan Wood "No Hero" (Night Shade Books, 2011)

This is a fun romp through standard, if well used urban fantasy tropes.  Police detective Arthur Wallace stumbles into a secret world of magic & Lovecraftian horror.  He’s enlisted in the super-secret MI37, whose mission is to protect our reality.  While all his fellow agents have special abilities or skills, he’s just a copper with a job to do.

The pacing is excellent, with intrigue and action propelling you along.  There’s a generous dose of humor used to cut the action and horror.

While utterly entertaining, I found myself wishing that there was something a bit more original here.  Tropes can be great fun, but when the roadmap is followed so closely, it is a bit disappointing.

Paul Tobin "Prepare to Die" (Night Shade Books, 2012)

When superhero Steve Clarke (aka Reaver) is defeated by Octagon & his band of evil henchmen, rather than killing him on the spot, he is given two weeks to live.  We follow Steve as he attempts to complete his modest bucket list, which primarily consists of unfinished business from his life before he became a superhero.

Clarke’s world is clearly post Miller & Moore.  The heroes are burdened by their abilities and the consequences of their actions.  The villains are very very evil.  There are less wacky bank jobs and more burning schoolchildren alive.  Clarke himself is a big dumb lug of a hero.  Thanks to the silver age origin story, he goes from being a sexually repressed teenager to a beefy guy who hits things.  

The pacing and use of superhero tropes is excellent.  Tobin’s use of flashbacks allows us to learn about the history of the Reaver.  His encounters with other heroes and villains propel the story forward even as they flesh out the world.

Somewhat problematic is Tobin’s treatment of women and sexuality.  Female characters are consistently underdeveloped, and over sexualized.  And while I have not done a head count, the feeling is that more female characters are villainous than not.  Some of this is attributable to the story being told from Clarke’s POV.  He is after all, a superbro.  Still, I would have liked to see more three dimensional characterization of some female characters (in particular Adele).

***slight spoiler***
The ending was wonderful.  After wallowing in the grimgritty world of the Reaver, Tobin shows that the answer is to uphold classic heroic values.  Why?  Because the world needs the symbol of heroes, even if the reality does not truly match that symbol.  Even if imperfect, I applaud the effort to meld a realistic tone with the idealism of past generations.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Pip Ballantine & Tee Morris "Phoenix Rising: A Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences Novel" (Harper Voyager, 2011)

Are you a fan of genre tropes?  If so, this is a book that you will love.  It loves steampunk tropes even more than you do.  It wallows in them, rejoicing as it shouts “yes, may I have another!”

An odd couple work for a secretive government agency.  They are battling a variety of evil secret organizations.  Over the course of the book we have dirigibles, mad scientists, assassins, robots (& robot armies), orgies, duels, exotic weaponry, fantastical inventions, mysterious libraries, street urchins, asylums, & more!

At this point you may be thinking that this sounds like the most derivative thing you’ve ever heard of.  It’s not.  The reason is that these tropes haven’t been used because of laziness.  They all are used in a  fun knowing way (try to identify & count the references to Victorian or SF literature).
It may not be the deepest novel you read this year, but by Jove, it’s fun.

Charles Stross "The Apocalypse Codex" (Ace, 2012)

By now you should know what to expect from a Laundry novel.  Bob gets called in to investigate a strange situation, it all goes horribly awry, & he finds himself outnumbered and outgunned.  And the fate of the world is on the line.

This time around, Bob goes to America to look into an “Evangelical” minister.  One of those guys with a megachurch & whathaveyou.  He’s there in a supervisory context, on loan to the Externals department  (yeah, Bob hadn’t heard of those guys either).  As you can probably guess, the minister is in fact trying to summon Lovecraftian horrors.  And Bob & his “externals” have to stop the threat.

If you haven’t read any earlier Laundry novels, this is NOT the place to start.  Stross doesn’t slow down to explain the workings of the Laundry universe or the Laundry itself.  You will be confused & lost.  It’s better to read the series from the beginning.

I was a bit disappointed that we didn’t spend much time with some of the usual supporting characters, but very much enjoyed the introduction of new characters.  Hopefully they’ll be back, perhaps even with some spinoff stories of their own.

Given that the villain of the piece is nominally an Evangelical, I’m not surprised to see that there’s been a bit of a backlash to the discussion of religion in the book.  Whatever Stross’ personal beliefs, he seemed to deal with religion in a way that is consistent with the rules of the Laundry universe.  It is a dark, godless universe where the “One True Religion” exists to summon back Eldrich horrors.  If you have personal problems with this Lovecraftian take on existence, then this probably isn’t the book for you.

Best of 2012 (so far)

This is a bit later than I had planned, but here are my ten favorites from the first half of 2012.  In no particular order:

The Carolina Chocolate Drops  Leaving Eden

The Chocolate Drops have been perhaps the most consistent of the new generation of string bands.  Even after a lineup shuffle, they come forward with yet another collection of traditional but contemporary songs.

Todd Snider Time As We Know It:  The Songs of Jerry Jeff Walker

The  story is that Jerry Jeff was one of Todd's big inspirations for starting down his musical journey.  I'd never given it much thought, but once the connection was pointed out, it seems obvious.  This is a relaxed look at selected material from Walker's catalog.  Snider avoids some of the obvious selections, opting instead for some deep cuts.  It's a real tribute to both performers how true the performances feel to both Snider & Walker.

The Chieftains  Voice of Ages

Generally, the "bring in a bunch of guests" theme is an indicator that the album is a dud.  (There's too many of these to count, look them up yourself.)  Voice of Ages is the rare example where this approach works.  By focusing on young Americana artists, The Chieftains have invigorated their own sound.  More importantly, the guests own music works well with what The Chieftains actually do.  This is perhaps the biggest surprise of the year for me.

Dr John  Locked Down

Unlike so many "legacy" artists, Dr John has continued to release vital music throughout his career.  However, for whatever reasons -- lack of label push or unwillingness to pander to trends -- his more recent albums have been critically ignored.  Locked Down has received the push from Nonesuch (a great label match for him, btw).  He's been paired with Dan Auerbach from The Black Keys on production.  Auerbach's retro sensibilities prove to be a great compliment to Dr John.  He provides a warm organic feel to the production, matching the veteran New Orleans performer with a variety of A list retro-funk session players.

Chelle Rose  The Ghost of Browder Holler

Chelle Rose seems to be the frontrunner in 2012's "Lucinda Williams" category.  Part country, part rock.

Lucero  Women & Work

The album cover should tip you off to the classic Southern rock style of this album.  Lucero has become the most dependable of the modern Southern bands.  (Yeah, Truckers fans, I said it.)  While perhaps a step down from the quality of their last release, Women & Work delivers on its promises.

South Memphis String Band  Old Times There

After releasing one of my favorites of 2011, the South Memphis String Band returns with another strong release.  This time, they selected material to create a dialogue about race.  Of course, this can be problematic for some, & may account for the resounding silence that met the release of this album.

The Wandering  Go On Now, You Can't Stay Here

Luther Dickinson assembled an interracial female band (not as a backing band, he's more the guitar only guy, the ladies provide the focus).  The project focuses on prewar blues and string band music.  

Luther Dickinson  Hambone's Meditation

This is Dickinson in full blown Fahey mode.  Primitive blues, ragas, etc etc....  Probably for guitar geeks only, but I find it to be a beautiful instrumental piece.

The Wood Brothers  Live volume 1:  Sky High

This is the first live collection from this Medeski Martin & Wood spinoff project.  It's a great collection showcasing their folky funky jazzy jammy tunes.