November 30, 2009

The Mondays: Things Are Getting Graphic In Kentucky

It never ceases to amaze me how the censorship of literature is lauded as a moral right by the narrow-minded. It was ridiculous enough earlier this year, when a couple of cranks somewhere in the States sued for the right to burn library books they deemed offensive. It turns out there are also others dismantling the rights of library members from within. And all so conveniently in the name of protecting the little children. Queue the wife of Reverend Lovejoy: "Won't somebody please think of the children?!"

In case you haven't a clue as to what I'm talking about, I encourage you to check out a couple of articles I came across a couple of weeks ago:

Child protection or censorship? (Lexington Herald-Leader)

Alan Moore, destroyer of library workers (Publishers Weekly: The Beat)

Book censorship from a library P.O.V. (One Minion's Opinion)

Long story, short: Sharon Cook, a library worker at the Jessamine County Public Library in Kentucky--former, actually, since she was fired for what she did--objected to the inclusion of Alan Moore's graphic novel, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Volume IV: The Black Dossier, among the graphic novels available at the library, citing its proximity to children's literature in the library. She tried to have it removed from the library's shelves altogether through conventional means, but when her requests were denied she checked out the book herself and kept renewing it over and over again to keep anyone else from borrowing it. She found the book so horrendous in nature, she said that others prayed for her soul as she read it--give the old girl credit for actually reading it, which is rare among censors of her ilk, though she may have only looked at the pictures in reality and skipped over the text and context of the book entirely. And even then, she only read it as part of the library committee overseeing her official challenge of the book.

It was an ingenious plan withholding the book, she no doubt thought, until someone placed a hold on it, requesting to be the next in line to read it. That meant Ms. Cook could no longer check out the book, and would have to return it to the library. Did she do that? Of course not. She got a coworker to snoop into the personal information of the person who issued the hold request, and upon learning it was an eleven-year-old girl, the two library employees (neither actual librarians, by the way) removed the hold from the computer records. Personally, I'm curious if it even mattered how old the other library member was, as they seemed adamant about keeping the book out of everyone's hands. Ms. Cook still has it in her possession to this day, by the way, paying a ten cent fine for each day she keeps it tucked away in her knapsack.

Are you surprised to hear they got fired? I'm not.

I find the idea of banning books repellent enough, but when the staff of a library start administering shady forms of censorship--withholding books in perpetuity and invading the privacy of library members--that's a whole new kind of wretched behavior. I don't care how righteous they think they are, they're wrong and were dealt with in appropriate fashion. Excessive punishment? Maybe, but keep in mind they abused their positions, breached library policies, and they refuse to hand over the book in question in some misguided act of defiance. Just imagine pulling something within the realm of what they did at your place of work. Would you still be employed once caught? No less than a suspension would be in order, as far as I'm concerned, and I'd be disappointed to learn such people were under the employ of any library I frequented.

Now that the story has hit the media, the Jessamine County Public Library Board is having to suffer Kentucky-fried activists attempting to bully the library into changing its policy, to enable the rampant censorship of books deemed offensive, immoral, pornographic, and other beyond-the-pale categorizations. I'm quite content with the knowledge that this kind of thing doesn't pollute the public discourse most of the time, as the majority of people are rational and mature.

Given the book thief's disposition towards literature, she may be best served in an occupation that doesn't require her to be around books anymore. Libraries need employees that aren't about to impose their own prejudices onto others. Given the immature behavior demonstrated in this fiasco, I find the idea of such people populating libraries more distasteful than the raciest of graphic novels populating the library's shelves.

November 28, 2009

Rabid Reads: "The Girl Next Door" by Jack Ketchum

Title: The Girl Next Door
Author: Jack Ketchum
Published: Leisure Books (2005); originally published in 1989
Genre: Horror
Pages: 334
ISBN 0-8439-5543-0

This is the second Jack Ketchum novel I've had the privilege to read, the first being She Wakes. The Girl Next Door, unlike She Wakes, is not a supernatural horror story, but a starkly realistic and gut-wrenching story that may be the most chilling novel I've read. Heck, I may as well go on that limb and say it is the most chilling novel I have read yet.

I had no reason to doubt Ketchum's faithful and other horror fans for their touting this novel as one of the very best and a compulsory read of any self-respecting fan of the genre. But now, after reading it for myself, I'm left with a pseudo-shame for having not read it sooner. Dammit, he's good.

The story is told by David, now a forty-two year old, twice divorced broker on Wall Street, as he writes about a horrifying summer during his childhood in his hometown during 1958. Long since removed from those times, he remembers that summer through a kind of confession--a final purge, perhaps, of those memories as he tries for a third time to enter into married life.

David's story begins at a small creek behind his house on a dead-end street. An innocent boy just hunting crayfish who meets a startlingly pretty, yet older, girl name Meg. She has a sister, Susan, and is now living right next door with David's best friend, Donnie Chandler, and brothers, Willie and Woofer, and their mother, Ruth. That's where it starts, and where it ends can only be describes as a tragic rendering that leaves no life untouched or unscathed.

Meg's and Susan's parents died in a car accident, so they're fostered to their aunt Ruth. For David, it's an added treat for a summer that promises to be one to remember. It's a veneer, however, and everything David's come to know about childhood innocence, and the goings-on of the Chandler house next door, decays and reveals a darkness that's been festering not only inside Ruth, but in her sons and even in David, himself.

It happens rarely, but there are books I have read over the years that have forced me to stop reading after a certain point just to take a break. I'm not talking about times when a book bores me or disappoints me to the point where I want to quit. I'm referring to those visceral moments in a story where I've become so invested in the characters and the scene they're in smashes me in the ribs with such force, I literally want to crawl out of my skin to get away from the book for a little bit--maybe listen to some cheery pop music or something to lighten the mood. Do you know what I'm talking about here? Those scenes so genuine, yet so torturous, you wonder how a book could affect you.

While I sympathized with David, I had those moments where the insanity of his worsening situation had me questioning how something could be allowed to go on. And I think that's exactly what Ketchum was aiming for, because there is a disturbing humanity found within the cruelty depicted in many of the scenes within this book's pages. You want to be the angel on David's shoulder telling him to do the right thing, to help Meg and her sister Susan.

Maybe it's the sick voyeurism I felt reading some of the harsher scenes that had me squirming. That line where I knew it was all fiction, but my suspension of disbelief has me standing in David's shoes and shuddering at what happens next. Because there's more than just Meg and Susan being held hostage within those walls, as David--a free and willing visitor to the Chandler home--is a hostage in his own right.

I think this is exactly the kind of book that a horror fan should hold up as an example of how great a tale of terror can be while keeping its feet firmly on the ground. The premise may have seemed outlandish and beyond belief in the past, but if you've seen the news lately in this information age, you're all too aware of how depraved we humans can be when we think no one can see us.

Read the book. You won't be able to unread it, that's for sure.

You can read another review of this novel at HorrorScope.

November 27, 2009

Getting Graphic: "Watchmen" by Alan Moore

Title: Watchmen
Author: Alan Moore; illustrated by Dave Gibbons
Published: DC Comics (2005); first published as 12-part series (1986)
Pages: 408
ISBN 1563899426
ISBN-13 9781563899423

The most celebrated and revered graphic novel in history, is it? Well then, I'd better read it.

Watchmen is not your papa's run-of-the-mill comic book. It's a stark and rather satirical character study of superheroes. That may be why it's given such praise by critics. It even has the distinction of being the only graphic novel to be listed as one of Time Magazine's "100 Greatest Novels." Add up the accolades it received during its publication, then heap on the insurmountable onslaught of hype surrounding the film adaptation, and there is a recipe for disappointment for anyone who reads Watchmen for the first time--like me.

It's the mid 1980s and the world we live in has been forever changed by the existence of men and women in flashy costumes fighting crime. They appeared after World War II, seeking justice, power, fame, you name it. And the world gave it to them because there were just as many villains running around in costumes too. And it's that very premise of disguised vigilantes that Alan Moore presents as both plausible and ridiculous.

The story revolves around the death of one rather notorious superhero known as the Comedian. The news of which ends up causing an informal and unconventional reunion of the remaining Watchmen--Rorschach, Nite Owl, Dr. Manhattan, Silk Spectre, and Ozymandias. Masked vigilantism was outlawed in the late 70s, so they've all had to move on with their lives, some more willingly than others. Rorschach, the one resistor of the bunch, refuses to stop fighting evil even though he's become a fugitive himself and tries to enlist the others in his quest to find out who is behind the Comedian's murder and a possible plot to kill all of the former "heroes."

It's an alternate reality they exist in, and rightly so considering how influential the mere existence of Dr. Manhattan and his ability to manipulate matter on an atomic level altered the balance of power during the Cold War. The entire story in unconventional compared to anything I've had a chance to read in comic book form. It's kind of like Alan Moore's middle finger at the entire notion of masked men in capes swooping in to save the day. Anything that might get glossed over in the more traditional fare of the genre is hit with a big ol' spotlight within this series.

Vigilantism, corporatism, communism, democracy, misogyny, old age, utopian aspirations, and military conquest are some of the things that are thrown into the meat blender and provided to the reader for consumption. If you pick up Watchmen expecting to see the same kind of thing you've come to expect from your favorite comic books or superhero movies, you may be setting yourself up for a big letdown.

Had I not read previews for the film last winter, those picturesque trailers the studio put out in spring would have given me the wrong message. And now that I have had the chance to read through Moore's writing--and really appreciate the artwork of Dave Gibbons--I have a broader appreciation for the movie and story as a whole.

If there's one thing I took away from reading this, it's how humanity is not as noble as it tries to tell itself it is. We strive to be better, but our baser characteristics have a nasty habit of bubbling to the surface over and over again. Save the world? A nice thought for the superhero as he tries to stop the madman from detonating a bomb. But is the world he is saving better off, or just a few ticks of the clock away from the next madman with a bomb? And if the madman is the one trying in his own twisted way to save the world from itself? It's like the tagling for this story: "Who Watches the Watchmen?"

November 26, 2009

Getting Graphic: "Marvel 1602" by Neil Gaiman

Title: Marvel 1602
Author: Neil Gaiman; illustrated by Andy Kubert
Published: Marvel Comics (2004)
Pages: 248
ISBN 0785123113
ISBN-13 9780785123118

I will hazard a guess that many Neil Gaiman fans, especially the ardent ones, have been on the bandwagon since his breakout work on the comic book series, Sandman, if not before. I have never read a Sandman comic; I became a fan of Gaiman's writing a few years ago through his novels, namely Anansi Boys and American Gods (two of my very favorite novels). So, to learn that Gaiman has an abundance of work in comic books as well, I had to see if I could track one down.

Gaiman has a remarkable skill at making the fantastic seem perfectly plausible, yet still presenting it in a fashion where you consciously regard it as fantastical. Make sense? Maybe not. But if you're a fan of Gaiman's novels like me, then you're going to want to check out this graphic novel--at this point a very stylized "WOW" graphic should appear over my head.

My familiarity with Marvel Comics comes from the old "Cavalcade of Comics" cartoon that used to play on Saturday mornings. I never had the coin to buy the comic books each month as a kid, so my enjoyment came from 70s cartoons, namely Spider-Man's adventures (Canadian fans of these shows may also recall Rocket Robin Hood). But even though I didn't pour over the epic battles waged between the pulpy pages of those older comics, I still managed to collect a vague understanding of the Marvel universe. And you'll need some kind of understanding of that universe if you hope to follow the storyline in this novel.

The premise is high concept in a way: What would it be like if the heroes and villains from the Marvel universe existed during the time of the Spanish Inquisition?

Queen Elizabeth (the First) is under the guard of Nick Fury, her personal spy and confidant, as there is a plot to have her assassinated. During this time, strange storms are occurring throughout the land and certain people are cropping up with strange powers. The Queen seeks advice from her doctor, Stephen Strange, who has become aware of a disturbance in the world and believes there is a single source to all that threatens the Queen, England, and the world. On the other side of the coin, the King of Scotland secretly plots against the Queen. His nefarious allies include Otto Von Doom and an Inquisitor, later revealed to be one of the major Marvel villains.

The supporting cast is all encompassing at times with appearances by the Elizabethan incarnations of Peter Parker (Spider-Man), Professor X and the X-Men, Thor, Matt Murdoch (Daredevil), and others. If I had immersed myself with present day Marvel comics, I may have caught on to some of the characters sooner, as not all are so obvious in their identities to those uninitiated in all things Marvel.

The story plays out well and there are moments, especially when characters get into soliloquies-of-sorts, that you really feel Gaiman is behind the wheel. Surprisingly for me, what steals the show in this graphic novel is the illustrations of Andy Kubert. Everything was so vivid and alive on each page. It was a style that couple the tried-and-true style you expect from the golden age of comics with the pristine and realistic sense you get from much of today's fare. I loved it, and found myself taking breaks from reading just to pour over every inch of the imagery.

Marvel loyalists and anyone worth their salt in the realm of comics may be better equipped to tell you how this story ranks in the pantheon of graphic novels and comic books. If you ask me though, this is a fine way to spend an evening or two, reminiscing about the Marvel characters you know and savoring a great combination of visual and textual prowess. Now, I suppose I need to track down a Sandman comic to see what Gaiman's most celebrated efforts in the medium can offer.

November 25, 2009

Getting Graphic: "Iron West" by Doug TenNapel

Title: Iron West
Author: Doug TenNapel; illustrated by author

Published: Image Comic (2006)
Pages: 160
ISBN 1582406308
ISBN-13 9781582406305

Doug TenNapel's sci-fi western turned out to be a bit of a gem. This is my first sampling of his work, but I have a suspicion that if I found more of it I would enjoy it just as much, if not more.

The book is rendered in black and white, and the art style felt reminiscent of something you might see in a Gorillaz music video. The characters are very stylized with a blocky cartoonish quality, yet each character appearing immediately has its own identity as soon as you see them. And given the vast array of characters that appear in this lightening-paced tale, you can't help but appreciate TenNapel's imagination.

The story begins in the Californian gold rush, as a couple of prospectors unwittingly and unfortunately discover an uprising of mechanical men, resurrected and out to destroy humanity. The hero of the tale is an anti-hero in fact. Actually, he's a bit beyond anti-hero. Preston Struck is a bona fide coward and cheat.

After fleeing the law from town, he's rounded up and taken via train back to town. But before they get back, the train is hijacked and everyone killed by a posse of cowboy robots. The town and everyone in it, including the whore Preston has a soft spot for, are endangered as the mechanical mob descends upon the town in one of the craziest shoot-outs one can imagine. Even though Preston tries countless times to shirk his duties and his morality, he keeps getting pulled back into the fray, aided by the grizzled sheriff, the lovable prostitute, a native Shaman and his Sasquatch companion.

Sound a little crazy? Well, that ain't the half of it, and I won't spoil it for you in case you feel like reading it for yourself. I will say this, though. The story felt rushed. The pace of the story has everything happening with such a furious pace, I didn't get a very good feel for any of the characters beyond Preston Struck. Everyone and everything else kind of felt like they were being kept at arm's length. For me, the story went by too quickly, and within one sitting with the book I was finished and half-wondered if I'd skipped pages.

The pages that are there are great, with the appealing artwork I alluded to earlier, along with snappy dialogue and some highly imaginative action sequences. While the story left me wanting more in the pejorative sense, it also left me wanting to read more of Doug TenNapel's work in the panegyric sense.

And hey, it may not be "steampunk" in the strictest technical way, I think fans of the sub-genre should consider this. Heck, I caught wind of this book in the first place through a blog entry about steampunk.

Wish List Wednesday #22: "The Demon's Lexicon"

Sarah Rees Brennan is an Irish lass who seems to have struck gold with this urban fantasy title. The most scathing review I've seen for The Demon's Lexicon on the blogosphere so far was, "I liked it." It should be noted that said reviewer may be associated with the Communist Party ... and hates puppies.

I guess what set this novel apart from some of the other titles I've seen come out this year in the same genre is the fact that the protagonists are male. What?! Blasphemy, and yet it's true. I'm not really proficient in urban fantasy, but I've lost count of the covers shown on book blogs that feature a young, strong woman brandishing a weapon and/or a "mean face."

There is a first impression from hearing the teaser for this book and likening it to the television show, Supernatural, with the two brothers in a world populated by demons. I'm sure Brennan creates her own world entirely and the story she's crafted doesn't resemble Supernatural in any other way beyond the superficial comparisons. I may be setting myself up by expecting a more action packed story than what's been written, but I am more than willing to give it a chance.

Have you read it yet? Is it on your wish list? What's your take on this novel?

November 24, 2009

Getting Graphic: "Batman: Hush" Volumes 1 & 2 by Jeph Loeb

Title: Batman: Hush Volumes 1 & 2
Author: Jeph Loeb; illustrated by Jim Lee (with Scott Williams)

Volume 1:
Published: DC Comic (2003)
Pages: 128
ISBN 1401200605
ISBN-13 9781401200602

Volume 2:
Published: DC Comics (2004)
Pages: 192
ISBN 1401200923
ISBN-13 9781401200923

Growing up, Batman was probably my favorite superhero. I think there might be something to the old adage that a kid is either a fan of Superman or Batman, because I was not a fan of Superman. The Dark Knight was a bad-ass sans super powers with one of the coolest costumes in all of comics. Am I wrong? I don't think so.

I loved the Tim Burton film, I used to faithfully watch the Adam West series as reruns on Saturday mornings, and when the animated series started up in the 90s I watched that without fail too. But I've never read a Batman comic book until now. And, boy howdy, did I pick a good one.

In the first volume, Batman gets the holy heck beat out of him in the course of thwarting Killer Croc's latest rampage, not to mention chasing down Catwoman across Gotham before being shot down by a masked newcomer. This new antagonist quickly establishes himself as a puppetmaster, manipulating several of the characters in Batman's life--good and bad--in order to make Batman's life a living hell. Batsy even finds himself at odds with the Man of Steel, Superman, during the course of the first volume. Crazy stuff all the way around.

And it only gets more dangerous and more precarious for Batman in the second volume, as his past comes back to haunt him on more than one occasion with familiar faces seemingly turning their backs on him, as he continues to struggle in his efforts to find out the identity of Hush. And while the big reveal may not be what you expected, or even what you wanted, there is a certain level of believability and justness to how the story ends.

The artwork is fantastic, as Jim Lee really shows off his talents in this series. I'm not a devotee to the world of comics, but I could be easily if I followed Lee's art. There is a crispness displayed in each page that is wonderfully offset by some very bleak and tragic scenes. And with so many of the major characters from the Batman mythos and beyond appearing in the "Hush" storyline, there is a lot to show off--Harley Quinn is a long-time favorite of mine, thanks to the amazing animated series.

I just wish I was the kind of guy that followed comic books with more fervor. I say this because, even though I was able to quickly hop on board and follow the subplots and character interactions, there was a great deal to the history of Batman that I'm not very familiar with and ended up having to take some stuff at face value. If I were a bigger fan, I would probable catch a lot more of the subtleties displayed inside these two volumes.

All that being said, I am in the midst of reading another Batman graphic novel, this one penned by Alan Moore, called The Killing Joke. It should be a doozy.

November 23, 2009

A Couple of Contest Links

J Kaye's Book Blog has a couple of good giveaways happening right now that I couldn't resist entering.

The first one is for an audiobook of David Cross' I Drink For A Reason. I love that guy's stand-up, so I'm hoping an audiobook can carry some of that humor too--I wonder if it comes with a laugh track. The contest is open to the U.S. and Canada, and the winner will be announced on Dec 12th.

The second contest is for a copy of Stuart Archer Cohen's The Army of the Republic. An alternate glimpse of America as two sides war with each other. It could be a very good read, so I threw my name in the hat. The contest is open to U.S. and Canada, and the winner will be announced on November 28th.

Getting Graphic: "Fables: Legends in Exile" by Bill Willingham

Title: Fables: Legends in Exile
Author: Bill Willingham; with pencils by Lan Medina
Published: DC Vertigo (2002)
Pages: 128
ISBN 1-56389-942-6

A lot of us like stories that are mash-ups of sorts in the storytelling, like taking classic fables or fairy tales and placing them in a modern, contemporary setting. Well Fables does that and then some, with the entire pantheon of characters from just about every children's story, fairy tale, nursery rhyme, and classic fable and thrown them onto the streets of New York City. And in the real world, Prince Charming ain't exactly so charming once you get to know him, and the Beauty and the Beast have some serious marital issues.

But the heart of this story centers on a mystery: Rose Red is missing and her apartment has been trashed and spattered with copious amounts of her blood, including a scrawling on the wall stating "No More Happily Ever After." Her sister, and the real brains behind the goings-on of Fabletown (a segment of NYC secretly designated for the dislocated legends), Snow White employs the sheriff-of-sorts to figure out what happened to her. The sheriff? None other than the Big Bad Wolf (aka Bigby Wolf, get it?). He, like many living among the "mundanes," is charmed by magic to appear fully human so as not to arouse panic and undue attention from a bipedal, talking wolf walking around the city.

The story plays out like a classic gumshoe detective story, but with the added edge of it being populated by familiar folklore characters. Bigby has his suspects, including her ex-boyfriend, Jack of beanstalk fame, and a surprise suitor in Blue Beard.

I had no real preconceptions about this novel beyond the artwork I'd seen years ago and found interesting. Plus, I just like the idea of fantasy characters trying to make it in the real world or a reasonable facsimile of it. The style seemed a little mish-mashed to me, and not in a particularly good way. By that I mean there were moments in the story where it felt like a detective mystery--not my favorite genre, but enjoyable when done with care--and other times it felt like a psychedelic "Sex in the City" episode. The two didn't not mix well, I found.

The humor was a bit more sporadic that I would have guessed, but the action and suspense of certain scenes came off nicely. I think the biggest criticism I have was the "big reveal" at the end of the tale. On one hand, it riffed off of the old "parlor scene" where Bigby Wolf gets all the suspects in one place and solves the case, but on the other hand it was telegraphed from almost the very first chapter. And when the twist finally came, all I had to say was, "knew it."

All things considered, it was an alright story with some interesting twists on fairytale characters, but ultimately lacked the kind of vibe I was looking for. I suspect fans of urban fantasy and die-hard fable freaks are a better demographic to go for. Perhaps if there's a later iteration in the Fables franchise that takes a darker turn, I will have to check it out.

The Mondays: This Week Gets a Little Graphic

It's kind of strange to see the things that come into popularity. It's been especially strange this decade to see the things normally relegated to geeks and nerds take center stage. Science-fiction is blowing up on television and in theaters with District 9 and Battlestar Galactica, though others might argue that the majority of popular sci-fi is dreck--Transformers, I'm looking in your direction.

The big winner of the basement dwellers, however, has to be comic book aficionados. The twenty-first century has become the stomping grounds of the superheroes. Sure, we got a few big screen outings from the likes of Batman and a couple other comic book characters during the '90s, but nothing close to the scale we're seeing these days.

When it comes to the movies, as soon as X-Men proved to be a hit at the box office, then everybody wanted in on the action. Now, as we end the decade, it feels like you can't go a couple of months without a movie coming out that's based on a comic book or graphic novel.

But for a guy like me who never really got into the reading and collecting of comic books as a child, the whole medium has been pretty foreign territory. Oh sure, I grew up on the Saturday morning cartoons that were based on Marvel and DC characters, but I rarely sat down to flip through the pages of any of their books. It came down to two reasons why I never hopped on that bandwagon: 1) Growing up poor, spending money every month on comics just wasn't an option; 2) there weren't that many places selling comics in my neck of the woods anyway.

I'm in my thirties now, and you'd think this would be a time in a man's life when you "put away childish things." Not so in this century. My generation just never stopped ... never stopped playing video-games, never stopped watching cartoons, and never stopped reading comics. We've basically taken the medium once monopolized with kiddy fare and turned it into a free-for-all. Granted, comic books and the graphic arts started out with a more mature slant, but once that McCarthy-style era of imposing moral boundaries on the medium went into effect, everything became Archie Digest and G-rated Captain America. And once that ridiculous era faded into the background, comic books and graphic novels became a whole lot more diverse and infinitely more interesting.

But, still, it's never occurred to me to immerse myself in the medium. I enjoy many of the movies and TV based on comics, but as far as going out and rifling through the shelves for the latest issue of Captain America or Swamp Thing, I still don't bother. I think it comes down to being a bit of a babe in the woods when trying to decide what to read. There is a glut of material to choose from and I'll be damned if I know where to start.

I did read a half-dozen graphic novels in 2009, however, as a way to acquaint myself. I guess it was the theatric release of Watchmen that put me over the edge. They hyped the bejesus out of that movie for almost a year. They called it the greatest graphic novel in history. And here I was, feeling like the one guy left on the planet who'd never read it. So I did, along with four others over the course of the year that I'll be reviewing on my blog this week.

Here's a look at the titles I'll be reviewing as part of my "Getting Graphic" week:

  • Monday - Fables: Legends in Exile - written by Bill Willingham, illustrated by Lan Medina

  • Tuesday - Batman: Hush - written by Jeph Loeb, illustrated by Jim Lee

  • Wednesday - Iron West - written and illustrated by Doug TenNapel

  • Thursday - Marvel 1602 - written by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Andy Kubert

  • Friday - Watchmen - written by Alan Moore, illustrated by Dave Gibbons

Those five comprise a drop in the bucket to what's out there available to be read, but I thought they made up a fair spectrum of what can be found from the more popular graphic novels. There's superheroes, fairy tales, mythical creatures, and cowboys. Not a bad way to get the ball rolling.

There are so many more out there that I hope to read sometime. I would especially like the chance to read History of Violence, 30 Days of Night, Ghost World, and American Splendor--all of which inspired movies that I thoroughly enjoyed.

Since I've been borrowing these from my local library, I'm limited to graphic novels. So, if there are any titles that you think I should have on my radar, feel free to leave a comment or send me an e-mail to let me know.

November 21, 2009

Rabid Reads: "The Road" by Cormac McCarthy

Title: The Road

Author: Cormac McCarthy
Published: Vintage Books (2006); a division of Random House, Inc.
Genre: Dystopian Fiction
ISBN 978-0-307-27792-3

This might be the first time I've ever read a book that was on Oprah's Book Club. Unless, of course, Drew Carey's Dirty Jokes and Beer was on her reading list. Was it? No? Alright, The Road is the first for me then. And while I'm not sure there will come a day when I say Oprah Winfrey and I share the same tastes, when it comes to this novel by Cormac McCarthy, we are agreed: It's amazing.

The first sentence on the back cover's summary lures the reader instantly, I believe--"A father and his son walk alone through burned America." Literal and allegorical, the two characters in this tale trudge through a burned out husk of land that used to be America. It's a post-apocalyptic story told from the most intimate of viewpoints, as a father does all he can to keep his child safe in a land barren of resources or compassion.

The cause of the world's end is never explained, but the imagery of ashen snow and desiccated remains provide for plenty of speculation. The precipitating factors leading to the fall of society are almost moot, really. What's done is done and now the father must be the little boy's sole beacon through the unforgiving ruins that surround them. They're vagabonds on a trek westward to a place even the father is unsure is waiting for them. While the father can still remember pieces of a time before everything turned gray and lifeless, this dystopia is all the son has ever known. Or ever will know.

McCarthy's writing in this work resembles the bleakness of the environment he's created for his characters. Stripped to the bones, we see this world through the father's eyes, and even as the father sees it through his son's eyes. It's gripping, and with no chapters--only a singular unending narrative--I found myself reluctant to put the book down at night. Everything about the story slowly throttles you, and even when the miraculous bits of good fortune meet the father and son, you know the moments resembling happiness are fleeting.

You might expect such a story to contain a villain for the heroes of the tale to conquer, but this isn't that kind of story. They do fight for their lives at times and cross paths with unsavory characters, but there are no nefarious overlords waiting in the wings for them. The abandonment of civility and community is their enemy, as the father must wrestle against his relentless will to ensure his son's well-being against the pieces of morality that still cling to his soul. How far will a father go to protect the one thing left he lives? The Road gives you a glimpse and the answer isn't pretty.

The Road could be classified as science-fiction for the near-future setting and prophetic look of a world turned to ash, and it could be classified as horror for the suspense and direful moments the characters must endure--two genres I'm sure McCarthy would prefer to keep at a distance from his work. At the end of the day, however, how about I just classify it with the word I used at the beginning of the review. It's amazing.

November 20, 2009

Writing Like Crazy: Autumn '09

It must be a couple of months since I did one of these segments. I'm still writing like crazy, but the progress bar hasn't been moving forward as fast lately.

The deadline is fast approaching for The Literary Lab's Genre Wars. I have until the end of November to get any entries in that I hope to submit. I have two stories lined up for submission--one in the horror genre and the other leaning more towards fantasy. The first is a 1,000 word piece of flash fiction I've beefed up to about 1,500 words, after having it critiqued over at Critters. I ought to be able to get that e-mailed out today. And, as for the second piece, I believe it needs another draft. It's another reworking of a shorter piece, but this process is a bit more involved since the original incarnation weighed in at a mere 250 words. Literary Lab has their word limits set between 1 and 2,000 words, and right now it's not quite 900 words in length. I'm going to see what I can do to retool it without bloating the story unnecessarily.

I also received another acceptance for a submitted short story. I'll refrain from going into much detail about it,since the editor hasn't made an announcement on the full list of acceptances for the anthology, yet. Once I get word on the nitty gritty of how the book is shaping up, what kind of final edits will be required of my story, and--not to mention--when it hits the shelves, I'll add a blog entry about it. It's one I'm particularly interested in, as all of the stories revolve around a very cool theme that's a bit apocalyptic in nature. So, stay tuned for that one.

My zombie short story, which I'll inevitably submit to Dark Moon Books' "Zombie Short Story Contest," is currently being in the Critters queue for critiques. The deadline for submissions is January 1st, and I should receive my critiques in early December, so that should give me plenty of time to work on it and get it just right. Winning entries for that one are apparently going to be included in Dark Moon Anthology: A Collection of Zombie Short Stories. Neat.

On the novel rewrites front, I'll sum it up with one word: Grrr.

November 18, 2009

Wish List Wednesday #21: "A Lower Deep"

After reading The Night Class, I became convinced that any accolades Tom Piccirilli has received over the years are well deserved. That Stoker Award winner was a real trip and unique from just about anything else I've read, especially involving college kids.

A Lower Deep sounds like it may be another mind warp. All I caught about the story was that it involved necromancers attempting to resurrect Jesus Christ in order to bring about Armageddon. Sold.

I'm sure there is much more to the story than that, with characters that spring to life and a sophistication in plot and theme ... But the potential of a zombie Jesus? That's too good to resist, even if it's not implied by the brief blurb about the novel. It put this title at the top of my Piccirilli wish list at any rate, but I'll gladly pick up any of his titles should I come across them. Tom was even gracious enough to suggest a couple of titles to me (Grave Tales and Coffin Blues) when he visited the blog months back. They're on the wish list too.

November 17, 2009

A Couple of Contest Links

I came across a couple more contests. Just had to throw my name in the proverbial hats.

The first one comes from Just Another New Blog, as they've got three copies of the audiobook The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold. That's one of my favorite books, so I wouldn't mind an audio version to add to my collection. The contest is open to U.S. and Canada and ends on November 18. HURRY!

For something other than books, A Park Avenue Princess has a Giveaway to sell your soul for. Not only is there a chance to win Matthew Carter's debut novel, Liquid Soul, but also a chance at an e-reader of your choice. Hello! The contest appears to be open to all and ends on Christmas Eve. A lot more elbow room to get your entries in there.

Good luck, all.

Rabid Reads: "I Am America (And So Can You!) by Stephen Colbert

Title: I Am America (And So Can You!)
Author: Stephen Colbert
Published: Grand Central Publishing (2007)
Pages: 227
Genre: Humor; Satire; Nonfiction
ISBN -10: 0446580503
ISBN-13: 9780446580502

Back when Comedy Central first announced they were giving Stephen Colbert his own show, based on a satirical ad during his time on The Daily Show, I wondered just how desperate for original content they had become. Within a few minutes of watching the debut episode of The Colbert Report, however, I realized they had stumbled upon a gem of a show.

The acerbic wit, and uncanny parody of cable news punditry, by Colbert and his writing team have provided more laughs to me over the years than nearly anything else on television. We Canucks love our political satire, as evidenced by This Hour Has 22 Minutes and Air Farce (not a show I cared for personally), and when we see that Americans enjoy laughing at themselves as much as we love laughing and ourselves--and Americans--we flock to it as well.

I think Stephen Colbert has done pretty well for himself over the years. Heck, the guy's practically a rock star. He lambasted the then sitting President, George "Dubya" Bush, at the White House Press Conference Dinner, as well as the press, in magnificent fashion. His satirical skewering of Republicans and Democrats alike have whizzed over the heads of feeble-minded politicians--Republicans clambering to be be on his show or praise his rhetoric during the early days, while Democrats were ordered by their quartermasters not to give him the time of day. He's has a species of spider named after him, a minor league hockey team embraced his "truthiness" and namesake, and he's even sung with some of music's legends of today and tomorrow.

The man and his brand have managed to turn the most mundane and relatively obscure facets of his show and life, and turn it all into periodic crazes and fads. Wikiality, "Wrist Strong" bracelets, and even a book. I Am American (And So Can You!).

If you're a fan of The Colbert Report, what you'll find inside its pages is what amounts to a transcript of everything that's every been lampooned on the show. He (and I suspect a couple of select members of his writing staff) lampoon Hollywood, homosexuality, religion, the elderly, and every other tidbit of humanity cultural conservatives have rallied against ad nauseam. All with the finesse to show just how inane the arguments against certain "liberal" ideals really are.

But even at a scant two-hundred and twenty-some pages, the subject matter and comedic tone can becoming a less amusing drone if read for too long a stretch. To read the book from cover to cover would be like sitting through a Colbert Report weekend marathon. It might be great for a few diehards out there, but the majority of us need to break that humor up into doses. Thankfully, the book is categorized in such a way that you can read one chapter, set it down, then come back to it a couple days later and not feel like you've lost your place one iota.

If you're not familiar with the style of comedy employed here, you're better off getting acquainted with Stephen Colbert by tuning into his show on Comedy Central. If you're already a fan, this will provide even more laughs that will last for some time to come. And if you're neither a fan, nor interested in becoming one ... what's wrong with you? Are you a Communist?

November 16, 2009

The Mondays: Maple Syrup, Ice Hockey, and The Giller Prize

Last week, CBC journalist and fellow Maritimer, Lindon McIntyre, won the coveted Giller Prize for his debut novel, The Bishop's Man. Kudos to him, as I've enjoyed a fair bit of his work on CBC's The Fifth Estate over the years.

He was up against four other books that sounded quite interesting in varying degrees too. Anne Michaels' The Winter Vault and Colin McAdam's Fall each sounded like they'd be particularly good reads. I'm not sure if it could be considered an upset win due to the fact that this was his first foray into a fictional work, at least of this magnitude, but I think some of the Canadian literati were probably caught off guard by his win.

The story takes place in the northern region of Nova Scotia, in one of the more staunchly devout areas, and deals with the cover-up of child molestation by priests in the diocese. It's somewhat timely that this book would win during a year when Nova Scotian churches are under fire yet again due to the abhorrent (or allegedly abhorrent) actions of certain priests and bishops in the past--shocking to learn just how much went on during the "good ol' days." Lindon was quick to point out the book was written and published prior to the most recent case of Roman Catholic bishop Raymond Lahey being arrested and charged with possessing child pornography.

Anyway, the reason I wanted to mention the Gillers and The Bishop's Man is that I've mumbled for some time about wanting to read some quality Canadian literature, yet I haven't really gone out to look for any. Oh sure, I've read some enjoyable books by Canadian authors, but their nationality was purely incidental. I think, in 2010, I need to make a resolution to read more Canadian fiction. And the Giller short list looks like a good place to start. Beyond that, I also want to become better acquainted with Canadian authors that deal in dark fiction, whether it be horror, fantasy, etc.

I'm open to suggestions, people. Is there a Canuck's book that you've read and liked enough to recommend?

If you're looking for one yourself, I'll point a finger towards Timothy Findley's Not Welcome on the Voyage. Imagine a very skewed, and more than a little disturbing, re-imagining of the Noah's Ark fable.

November 14, 2009

Rabid Reads: "The Gentling Box" by Lisa Mannetti

Title: The Gentling Box
Author: Lisa Mannetti
Published: Dark Hart Press (2008)
Pages: 307
ISBN-10: 0-9787318-9-1
ISBN-13: 978-0-9787318-9-2

When it comes to works of particular authors, there are a lot of debut novels I have yet to read. This is especially true of authors I've become a fan of over the years, as I have yet to read Stephen King's Carrie or Clive Barker's The Damnation Game. But give me time. However, when it comes to Lisa Mannetti and her debut novel, The Gentling Box--winner of the Bram Stoker Award for Best First Novel in June of this year--I'm content in knowing I've gotten in on the ground floor of what's sure to be a celebrated storyteller's career.

Thanks to the Stokers, I became aware of this novel back in June when the winners were announced. And after reading about the premise for the book I placed it on my wish list. Well, Lisa Mannetti, herself, was charitable enough to forward a review copy of the book to me. Having now read The Gentling Box, it's abundantly clear why it has received such praise.

The story takes place during the 1860s in eastern Europe, mostly through Hungary and Romania. Imre, a half-gypsy horse trader, learns via a messenger that his mother-in-law, Anyeta, is close to death and she wishes to see her estranged daughter, Mimi, one last time. Reluctantly, Imre takes his wife, Mimi, and daughter, Lenore, by caravan to visit the gypsy colony to which they once belonged. However, Imre learns that Anyeta wants more from him and Mimi than a mere visit. And even though the old witch is dead prior to their arrival, her plans are already set in motion and ominous occurrences threaten to tear Imre's family apart along with everyone else in his life he holds dear. Before long, Imre must wrestle with the prospect of contending with Anyeta's other-worldly manipulations, or if he'll succumb to her evil intent and his own cowardice.

Spooky is too cartoonish a word to use in describing this novel. Melancholic doesn't work either. I guess I'll go with a trust standard and say Gentling Box is haunting. A bit quaint and simplistic, but after reading this novel the characters still resonate. So maybe haunting is an apt word to use.

In a story populated by gypsies, or Romani, it's kind of easy for the characterization to drift towards parody and stereotype--too many Saturday morning cartoons as a child can instill such hokey images. Lisa Mannetti does justice to her creations, however, by avoiding any such pitfalls and providing a genuine and redolent world where these characters can play out their tragedy and joy. It's easy to tell she did a lot of exhaustive research to get the details down, which she does. There are even sporadic moments of the Romani language used that are translated for readers in such a way you hardly notice you're not fluent.

Imre's voice stands out as authentic, even in the most extraordinary of circumstances. Early in the novel, he bears witness to a wrenching scene, as Mimi sneaks into her mother's quarters at night to claim a powerful talisman that's been willed to her--think cursed monkey paw to the nth degree. But to claim the dangerously potent object, she must first sever her own hand, as Imre watches helplessly from beneath the caravan as her blood drips through the floorboards onto him. Such a display is a cakewalk though for the tormented man, as Anyeta's deeds gradually escalate in her attempts to return from the grave and carry on her wicked ways. It's only when he fully realizes his daughter, Lenore, is part of the old witch's end game that he understands he's the only one who can put a stop to her.

I think the only criticism I can lay upon this book is more about Imre's reactions to certain events, but to read the novel in its entirety I think that's less to do with Lisa Mannetti's writing than with the very real flaws Imre carries with him. He's deceived by Anyeta on more than one occasion, and I couldn't help thinking just how gullible the guy could get at times. But the strength of her character weighed against the slowly sapped strength of his, I think he ends up doing admirably well.

I have mentioned before that horror literature bears as sweet a fruit as any other facet of the writing world. The Gentling Box backs my assertion. I've also mentioned that women as are as adept at crafting a chilling story as any man, more so at times. The Gentling Box backs that up too. The writing delves into some very disturbing and sometimes nasty moments in these characters' lives, but Mannetti lays it all out with such a beautiful style you don't really mind. Unless you're especially squeamish, then there might be a couple scenes you'll want to gloss over.

I can't wait to see what else Mannetti has up her sleeve. I'm not sure when her next novel, The Everest Hauntings, is due to be published, but I'm putting it on my wish list right now. Paranormal activity + Mount Everest? Yes, please.

You can read other reviews for The Gentling Box at the following sites: Dark Scribe Magazine; Gene Stewart's writing blog.

November 13, 2009

Book Trailer: "Under The Dome" by Stephen King

Unless you're living under a rock, or some other residence with bad reception, you've probably heard about Stephen King's latest novel, Under the Dome. It's huge. The book, that is.

Anyway, I discovered there is a book trailer thanks to Dark Wolf's Fantasy Reviews, so I thought I'd post it too. Enjoy.

November 12, 2009

A Contest Link: The Great Kindle II Giveaway

I'm still unclear about whether the Kindle is at all useful yet for Canadians, but I'm not going to pass up a chance to win one. And if you want a shot at winning one, just click on the link below to visit Bibliofreak and sign up. It's open internationally.

Join the Great Kindle II GiveAway!

Any Canadians out there who know the skinny on what we Canucks can do with Kindle, and not do, maybe you could leave a comment on this post to better educate me. In the meantime, throw your name in the hat.

Movie Trailer: "Kick-Ass"

Super-hero movies are hitting a bit of a saturation point, don't you think?

Heck, Ryan Reynolds alone may be responsible for the crash of comic book movies after snagging the lead roles in both Deadpool and The Green Lantern. I like the guy's movies and all, but really?

Well, I think this comedy, Kick-Ass, might be right up my alley. A bunch of people who want to be super-heroes, yet lack the one missing ingredient: super powers.

And if nothing else, this movie has McLovin! Nice.

November 11, 2009

Wish List Wednesday #20: "The Rising"

Earlier this year, I had the chance to read one of Brian Keene's novels, Ghost Walk. I liked it a fair bit, but I felt like I was reading a sequel--turns out there is a preceding books called Dark Hollow. Regardless, I really like Keene's way of weaving a story and have been patiently waiting for an opportunity to read another of his novels.

At the top of the list from his works is his debut novel, The Rising. The post-apocalyptic, zombie-laden novel must be pretty good because it won a Bram Stoker Award for Best First Novel, and Keene has gone on to write a slew of stuff in the form of novels, short stories, screenplays, and comic books. If I had my pick of the litter, however, I would start with the debut novel that set the man off to turn into one of the preeminent voices of horror in the 21st century.

Any Brian Keene fans out there willing to attest to this novel's caliber? I'm not a mark for zombies like some, but if the story is solid I can deal with just about any kind of gruesome and well-worn archetype, whether zombies, vamps, or hillbillies. And if you can think of any other Keene works I should have added to my wish list, feel free to leave a comment.

November 10, 2009

A Book Contest Link: "Under The Dome" by Stephen King

Stephen King's latest novel is epic in size, if not story. At nearly 1,100 pages, Under the Dome is going to be some hearty reading for anyone with the temerity to pick it up. I am one such individual, and have discovered a book blogger's first contest that has Under The Dome as the prize.

RK Charron is the place to visit if you want to throw your name in the hat. The contest is open worldwide, with the winner being drawn on American Thanksgiving.

Rabid Rewind: "Mutant Chronicles"

Title: Mutant Chronicles
Starring: Thomas Jane, Ron Perlman, Devon Aoki, and John Malkovich
Originally Released: 2009
Genre: Horror/Sci-Fi/Steampunk/Role-Playing Game Adaptation/Cult/Kitch/Did I leave something out?

Tom Jane in The Mist, loved him. Ron Perlman in Hellboy, adored him. Devon Aoki in Sin City, lusted her. John Malkovich in anything, worship him. Throw in some rampaging mutants, gratuitous gunplay, and a broody chick with some wicked swordsmanship, and I should be loving this movie. "Should" being the operative word there.

I found out after watching this film that it was based on some role-playing game from the eighties. And while I don't want this to be taken as a slight against RPGs, there was something about the movie that made me think it was off-pudding (okay, that was a bit of a slight).

Positivity first: I thought this movie was gorgeous to look at. Heck, it was the stylized steampunk appearance that drew me to the film in the first place. Take a look at some of the screenshots of this flick floating around the net. B-e-a-utiful. The folks who made this movie poured a lot of love into the set design and costuming and sound. A majority of what I saw looked like it was plastered on a green screen, but that's irrelevant because it's just so damned pretty. And you have to hand it to the guys handling the CGI because their work blended in so well with the live action, I didn't notice half the time. When I did notice, it looked like the actors were playing dress-up in a painting, which I didn't have a problem with, either.

Where the movie disappointed me was the story. The premise was great, don't get me wrong. I just thought there was a bit of a pacing issue about midway through, a minor thing that didn't last long mercifully as the action picks up soon after the tinny exposition. And some of the backstory and its relation to the action in the movie irked me.

While set in the future, the movie has a historical feel thanks to the Great War era costumes and trench warfare at the beginning--don't forget the coal-powered airships (I know they didn't have those in WW1). And a long-buried device that changes humans into bloodthirsty mutants has been unearthed thanks to the unending warfare by nations-turned-corporations over scant natural resources. However, there's plenty of coal and gunpowder apparently. The human race managed to fend off these mutants back in the olden days when they had only swords and chain mail, yet technological advancements like automatic machine guns and grenades are no match for the geezly buggers.

So, mankind is screwed, and it's up to His Holiness Ron Perlman to recruit steampunk's answer to the Magnificent Seven in order to sneak into the very large and very accessible device that's underground creating all these mutants. And where did those initial mutants come from after one of the corporation's artillery shells opened the seal? The things been locked up tight for centuries, but within seconds both armies are decimated by hordes of the friggin' things. And where was the gosh darned sign posted to warn everyone not to open the seal to the buried monstrosity that will doom all humanity? We have signs to keep off the grass, but nothing for the most malevolent mechanical abomination in history. Go figure.

Anyway, Ron Perlman--I have already forgotten the names of the characters, so sue me--gets Tom Jane and a gaggle of others to help him on his suicide mission, while the rest of the world either evacuated the planet or sits around waiting to get impaled on the spiky appendages of the mutant army--another thing that bugged me about the movie was how the mutants were mindless, ultra-violent killers, but some could operate complex machinery like airships. In one scene, they're a swarm of rampaging barbarians, trampling over everything that movies. In the next scene, they're meticulous predators who surround and separate their prey before hauling them off to God knows where. What the heck was that about?

And I know it wasn't intentional on the film maker's part, but the only two black guys on the mission ... they die first. How obscenely clich├ęd is that?

Bah, enough bellyaching. The movies not that bad. In fact, if you're in a forgiving mood and are able to switch off your disbelief for nearly two hours, you'll likely enjoy this movie quite a bit. It's true that no one is winning an Oscar with this movie, but if you can sit through Michael Bay's Transformers, then Mutant Chronicles will be a cakewalk.