alexxkay: (Bar Harbor)
Neil gives good lecture. (Tough crowd; he doesn't get a laugh until 17 minutes in...)
alexxkay: (Bar Harbor)
I finally got around to finishing the magic tome that Kes got me for Christmas last year. It's very much a Taschen book: Breezy text, *tons* of pictures, marvelous design. It's the sort of book that is best enjoyed in small chunks, which is a bit problematic, seeing as how it is physically HUGE, and requires non-trivial effort just to move it to a reading position.

I would also like to share one of my favorite images from the book, a 2-page spread of a poster advertising a mentalism act. Dozens of *cute* little demons have written their burning questions out on cards, with the hope that Miss Baldwin will answer them. Most of these question include such standard concerns as family, health, and money.

Read more... )


Apr. 9th, 2013 02:20 pm
alexxkay: (Bar Harbor)
Recently read: _The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down_, by Colin Woodard (2007). It's well-researched, and the material is fascinating. Pity it wasn't better prose work, but its virtues did keep me reading until the end. Mild recommendation.

I was fascinated by political aspects to piracy that I hadn't previously been aware of. At least 2 major pirate fleets were organized around the idea of supporting the Jacobite Rebellion in England. (Hence the ship name "Queen Anne's Revenge".) That rebellion never got off the ground enough to actually interact with those 'navies' directly, but it's how they got some of their local support.

More generally, the socioeconomic aspect was really brought out in this book. Part of why piracy was so popular among english speakers was that British sailors got a *really* raw deal from the government, and not much better from private industry. Piracy was in many ways a direct reaction to the inequalities of mercantile capitalism run amok. Ordinary people often supported pirates for much the same reasons that the Robin Hood myth endures.

Happened to be at the Boston Museum of Science over the weekend, and took in a temporary exhibit, "Shipwrecked!", about recent recoveries from centuries-old shipwrecks, and the technology used to bring them back. It had a half-hearted piracy aspect, clearly aimed at bringing people in, but this was a very minor aspect. It's a nifty exhibit of what it is, just don't buy the pirate advertising.
alexxkay: (Bar Harbor)
Not long ago, I finished reading Westlake's Parker novels. They are stories of a professional thief who is a complete sociopath, but is so incredibly competent at what he does that you end up rooting for him, even though he's an awful human being. Westlake's other major series, the Dortmunder books, is almost the inverse. Dortmunder is also a professional thief, but he and his friends are comically *in*competent, yet full of amusing and entertaining character traits, so they are fun to read about.

_Jimmy the Kid_ is the third Dortmunder book, and comes with a fun, meta surprise. Dortmunder's friend comes to him with an idea for a new caper: (paraphrased) "I read this great book about a crook named Parker. Let's use his plan from the book!" The Parker book in question, _Child Heist_, was never published in our universe, but the glimpses of it we get here are classic Parker. Westlake does a few compare-and-contrasts, where he actually includes a complete chapter of _Child Heist_, showing Parker carefully pulling off some action, then follows that with a chapter showing the corresponding action getting flubbed by Dortmunder and friends. It's the kind of thing that could get out of hand, but he stops doing it before it wears out its welcome.

For those concerned about triggery content, be assured that nothing bad happens to the kidnap victim. For that matter, nothing *too* horrible happens to anyone: No deaths, a few relatively minor injuries, and lots of embarrassment. Recommended.
alexxkay: (Bar Harbor)
Daryl Gregory is an author I am watching with close attention. I lovedlovedloved his first novel, hated his second. _Raising Stony Mayhall_, his third, I had mixed feelings about on first read, and never got around to reviewing. Having come up in conversation recently, I gave it a re-read, and liked it much better this time around.

This book is set in a universe where George Romero's 1968 film "Night of the Living Dead" was a documentary. The '68 outbreak was put down fairly successfully, but the world remains fearful of a second, worse outbreak. On the night of the '68 outbreak, a young woman is found dead by a roadside in Iowa, with a dead baby in her arms. Well, actually, an *undead* baby. The woman who discovers them decides to protect and shelter the babe. Eventually, mysteriously, he begins to grow up. This is his story.

So, it's a zombie story, and, at least at first, a YA coming-of-age novel. That changes radically when he discovers that he isn't the only 'surviving' undead from the first outbreak. To try to pin this book down to any small number of genres is to deeply misunderstand Gregory as an author. He's a man who *loves* genres, and both understands and abides by their rules. But he will switch genres on you without warning, once a chapter or more, to tell the story he wants to tell. He's very much a 21st century author, a child of remix culture. So before it's done, this novel passes through political thriller, science fiction pastiche, horror novel (of course), post-modern literary fiction, and more (that would be spoilers to detail).

I think that's why I had mixed feelings on my first read. I enjoyed each of the genres that this novel turns into, but I wanted more of each of them and missed them when they switched. But Gregory is a parsimonious writer. On a second read, I appreciated how much evry piece of the book was necessary, with no wasted scenes. Even some seemingly-minor tidbits of youthful characterization turned out to be important plot setup. In one bravura section, he takes plot incidents that other writers would spend a hundred pages on, and reduces it to a single-page bullet list summary, because that's all that's really needed for the story he wants to tell.

This is a book that will confound your expectations. If you're the kind of reader who can deal with that, it's highly recommended.
alexxkay: (Bar Harbor)
Just finished reading this 3-volume e-book biography of Orson Welles. Like Orson himself, the book is brilliant, but deeply flawed.

The author's thesis is that Orson self-identified as a magician, and that this hugely influenced every aspect of his life -- a detail overlooked or ignored by all other biographers. He makes a convincing case, and it's a fascinating angle from which to view a fascinating man.

But, ye gods!, he needed a better editor, at every level of production. Typos and grammatical errors are frequent. Whatever software was used to convert from his manuscript to a kindle ebook introduced numerous formatting issues, including sometimes causing small snippets of text to be duplicated -- or go missing.

Aside from mechanical issues, he also needed better editing on a structural level. As published, he presents events and anecdotes in *almost* exact chronological order. But you can see signs of earlier drafts which were more arranged by topic. It's common to see a well-written transitional sentence at the end of paragraph A that leads beautifully into paragraph B -- but in between A and B, paragraphs Q and R appear. There's at least one spot where a footnote contains a 'todo' note along the lines of "(find the exact date for this)".

The author's particular interests definitely color the book. He spends comparatively little time on Welles media projects, often mentioning them offhand in anecdotes without having previously established what they even are, and what Welles was trying to accomplish with them. But every scrap of anecdote he can find about Welles and magic gets included. He seems interested in Welles' love affairs, but gives extremely short shrift to his marriages and children. Whaley invariably takes the most charitable view of Orson in any contested story, but is an honest enough scholar that he includes the conflicting views.

All that said, this *is* a very good book, and indispensable to any serious Welles fan or scholar. The author has done a lot of original research, and spends a good amount of verbiage countering common myths about Welles. Of which there are legion, of course, many started by the man himself. Yet his *actual* life was an *extremely* full one, with tons of fascination.

Welles was famous for movie projects that ran over budget and time, and were never finished. Whaley spends a lot of ink 'refuting' this reputation, but also sort-of reinforcing it. The facts make it clear that, at least as far as filming goes, Orson routinely brought in projects *under* the scheduled budgets and schedules. But Whaley himself provides multiple examples of Orson spending inordinately long times in post-production editing, many of which, in fact, never finished that process. Orson *was* a brilliant editor, but his perfectionism kept him from actually getting it *done* a lot of the time.

Recommended, with caveats.
alexxkay: (Bar Harbor)
PCR is an extremely talented comics artist who specialize in adapting prose and operatic works into the comics medium. For some years, on and off, he's been doing The Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde. Volume 5, _The Happy Prince_ came out recently, completing the set.

Though I am in general a big Wilde fan, these fairy tales are pretty depressing. They are full of christian moralizing, and a Han Andersen tone. As an anti-theist, I find the last line of this one to be a rather Lovecraftian horror: `You have rightly chosen,' said God, `for in my garden of Paradise this little bird shall sing for evermore, and in my city of gold the Happy Prince shall praise me.'

That said, PCR's adaptation is, in despite of the old Russian proverb, both beautiful and faithful. He's got quite a challenge in this one, as the title character is an inanimate statue for most of the story, yet he still manages to imbue it with emotion. There is room for a few touches of his sly humor. The expression of the little bird when the second drop of water hits it is priceless. And there's a shot of three sad princesses that are (in a quite naturalistic way) doing the "see/speak/hear no evil" poses.

The artwork gets a strong recommendation, the story, not so much.
alexxkay: (Bar Harbor)
Although I don't like alcohol, I have long admired Kraken Rum, since a bottle showed up in the house some years ago. Nifty name, and nifty design style.

Now I find (h/t [ profile] james_nicoll), that in addition to their other virtues, they sponsor some SF awards. And not just any awards, but ones for "the year's most progressive, intelligent and entertaining works that contain elements of the speculative or fantastic". They're called "The Kitschies".
alexxkay: (Bar Harbor)
Further thoughts, on having read the whole corpus:

1. "[name] was certain that they would never be able to sleep after all that excitement, but they were awake [small number] of minutes after hitting the pillow." Is a phrase that shows up several times (though no more than once per book). Reading these while awake in the middle of the night icing my shoulder makes that extra-annoying.

2. Gosh, he sure likes a marriage as part of his happy ending. The books spend almost no time on "romance", per se, but if the protagonist is an adult male, odds are overwhelming that some awesome babe will show up in time to marry him at the end. This is especially notable early (publication-wise) in the series. In the first three books, the protagonist ends up marrying: A) A powerful immortal magician, B) A princess, C) one of *each*!

Of course, an awesome babe showed up in time to marry *me*, at a time when i didn't think my life contained any active romance plots, so in some ways, this is another aspect I can relate to :-)

3. On the other hand, the structure of the series allows him to revisit several of these marriages when the characters have supporting roles in later stories. None of them have remained unreasonably in "honeymoon" status. Most of the marriages are still intact and clearly good for the participants, but they do show signs of the stresses that come up in life, even after you've had Happily Ever After.


Jan. 24th, 2013 02:29 pm
alexxkay: (Bar Harbor)
I've been reading Lawrence Watt-Evans' Ethshar books lately. I started them years ago, but got distracted. They are high fantasy, not deep, but well-written and fun. Since I am lately finding myself awake at odd hours, something light to read was pretty much what the doctor ordered.

One thing I particularly admire about LWE's work is that his protagonists feel a lot more relatable to me than typical fantasy heroes. They are rarely ambitious or "heroic", but just good people trying to their best in difficult situations. Some of them *are* ambitious, but they all fall into the category of "young idiot who learns better". Interestingly, "young idiot who *doesn't* learn better" is a good description of most of his *an*tagonists (for those books that have one, at any rate; often the conflict is not on that sort of level). For that matter, the most threatening figure in any of his books is still more relatable than most Evil Overlords; when asked what he intended to *get* with his near-limitless power, he replies "Good food. Beautiful women. Sunny days. A comfortable home. The same thing that please anyone." The difference is that he doesn't care who he hurts while *getting* those things.

Interestingly, I feel no urge whatsoever to do an Ethshar Timeline, despite it being excellent material for one. The stories cover a fairly wide span of time and space, and are lightly interrelated. But LWE actually gives too *much* information for me to find the project interesting. He has clearly worked out his calendars and timelines in great detail, so there's really no need for me to reconstruct that work. I discover that part of the attraction to me of making Timelines is the prospect of finding apparent contradictions, and cleverly resolving them.

The series as a whole is recommended. I would specifically recommend starting with either _The Misenchanted Sword_ or _Night of Madness_. Both are well-written, set early in the chronology, and set up significant events and characers who will occasionally get referred to in later books. But all the books stand on their own quite well.
alexxkay: (Bar Harbor)
I finally got around to reading a book I got for Christmas last year: _Floating Worlds: The Letters of Edward Gorey and Peter F. Neumeyer_. It contains correspondence between the two of them from 1968 through early 1970, as well as many envelopes with Gorey illustrations on them. Primarily of interest to Gorey fanatics only, but it did spark some thoughts I felt worth sharing.

During the time covered by this book, Edward Gorey was doing a lot of commercial illustration work to earn money, in between working n his own books. He and Neumeyer both hoped that their collaboration will lead to great fame and fortune for them both, and they speak of dozens of potential joint projects.

From the standpoint of the 21st century, this looks weirdly misguided. The collaborations between the two, while reasonably successful, stopped after three books, and never amounted to anything much. Gorey went on to earn enduring fame and fortune in his own right; Neumeyer pretty much didn't. What really struck me, however, was that, by this time, about half of Gorey's best work, that would earn him that fame and fortune, was already *done*. Mostly for small specialist publishers, and not all of it even still in print, but done nonetheless.

Perhaps this sort of thing is what keeps the great artists humble. Knowing that the same piece of work can be ignored by everyone or broadly hailed as a work of genius, just with the passage of time.
alexxkay: (Default)
This book has been on my radar for years as one of those books that a small number of people recommend with extreme vigor. Having finally read it, I see why. It's got a rare set of qualities, and executes on them very well.

I am reminded most, curiously enough, of Eco's _The Name of the Rose_. Both books start slowly and deliberately, with extremely dense ideas, and almost no action. I know that Eco is on record as deliberately using this structure to "create his ideal reader" -- that is, to drive away any reader who doesn't share enough of his tastes; I suspect Williams is doing the same. Both books, after this opening section, open up into rip-roaring plots in well-tread and traditionally rather 'lowbrow' subgenres (Space Opera and Historical Mystery). The exciting plot continues to require a great deal of work on the reader's part to keep up, but rewards that work with Crowning Moments of Awesome. And both end up using genre tropes to raise some of the fundamental questions of human nature, and to offer some interesting potential answers.

Also, each book is packed to bursting with intertextual allusions, understanding of which is not necessary to grok the main plot, but which does add significant texture if you do get them. At one point, he uses the word "Heliogabalian" -- correctly! -- and I nearly squee-ed aloud. I doubt that many readers of even this LJ will understand the reference, but I did, and loved it.

The book is by no means perfect, but I find most of its imperfections charming. That said, I rather wish I had read it in paper. The ebook opens with an apology from the author that he couldn't work out a way with current ebook technology to properly do a 2-column layout, so some of the experimental layout effects in the original print edition had to be abandoned. Also, the ebook has a significant number of unrepaired scanning errors of one sort or another. All that said, even the ebook is Highly Recommended.
alexxkay: (Bar Harbor)
Finished reading [ profile] kestrell the new Bujold t'other day. Fun book, and a good one to read aloud. There were many requests for "Read that sentence again!" Kes and I have long wanted to see Ivan get the romantic comedy he deserved, and this did not disappoint.

Very glad to see that Lois seems to be past her Reichenbach Phase[1]. I saw her at Boskone a bit before _Cryoburn_ came out, and she mentioned that she had set that one on a previously-unmentioned planet, so that she didn't have to worry about accidentally contradicting her past continuity; that's always a bad sign in a long-term-series writer. Perhaps she realized this herself; judging from the vast (but not unreasonable) number of callbacks that CVA has to previous books, she has to have reread her own canon before writing it.

Not the best of her books, but well above the worst. I'd say it was her best since _A Civil Campaign_.

[1] This seems to affect all authors of popular series characters. Eventually, they grow sick of them, and want to do something else. They bring the series to what seems like a definitive conclusion, sometimes going so far as to kill the protagonist. This rarely works[2], and the series ends up continuing. Sometimes it even gets better, after the initial resentment fades; sometimes not.

[2] Douglas Adams is a notable case, wiping out every parallel universe version of Arthur Dent in _Mostly Harmless_. And he was under contract for two more Hitchhiker books at the time! Only by dying young himself did he escape having to bring Arthur back somehow.
alexxkay: (Default)
A few Halloweens ago, I read this passage from Bradbury's The Halloween Tree aloud at a party. Still one of my favorites.

cut for length )
alexxkay: (Default)
I admit going into this book with bias. I have been working on-and-off for some years now on a scholarly paper about Neil Gaiman's various uses of DC continuity in _Sandman_, and had some concern that this annotated edition would render it redundant. Not so much, as it turns out.

I'm only a few issues in (having very constrained reading time right now due to crunch time at work), but have already seen enough to confidently render a verdict. While these annotations contain much that is interesting and useful, they also have an unfortunate amount of errors and omissions. Within the first few pages, there are multiple incorrect cross-references to other notes. While he correctly sources Cain, Abel, and Lucien, the fact that the Witches Three also hosted a horror anthology is completely overlooked (nor does he mention Alan Moore's treatment of Cain and Abel, which hugely influened Gaiman's). When Lucifer mentions recent political shifts in Hell, the notes tie them directly to _Crisis on Infinite Earths_ in a way that skirts the line between misleading and outright false. Perhaps most infuriating, some of the most interesting information he presents, such as a biographical sketch of Roderick Burgess, includes no source citations, leaving one somewhat at sea if wanting to verify or look deeper into that detail.

The production values are sort of middling. It's a large volume, with an impressive Dave McKean cover. The contents are printed at full size, but in black and white, which seems a poor compromise. You wouldn't want to read the story this way, but it still takes up a huge amount of the page. When several pages in a row go by without any notes, the feeling that one has overpaid starts building up.

Despite my complaints, I can still recommend the book for some audiences. If, like me, you consider yourself a Sandman scholar, then the book contains enough original, interesting material to be indispensible. If you enjoyed Sandman, but feel you missed a lot of obscure references, then this will be an enjoyable read. Contrariwise, if (like many of the my friends) you were a reader of DC Comics in the late 80s and early 90s, and have had a liberal arts education, then you won't get a huge amount out of these annotations that you didn't already know.
alexxkay: (Default)
I'm getting involved in a light (staged-reading) production of Thomas Middleton's "The Revenger's Tragedy". I've been a fan of Middleton for years, and this has spurred me to do more reading.

I have long been aware of an excellent (if incomplete) website with the texts of about half of the Middleton canon, The Plays of Thomas Middleton. These include hypertext annotations, which I adore.

In poking around further on the net, I found that some folks a few years back came out with a Complete Works one-volume book, which is now available in an affordable paperback. Amazon has it for less than $40, which, considering that this tome weighs in at over 2000 pages, is quite a bargain. This contains complete texts of all surviving works that Middleton wrote or collaborated on, with annotations and editorial essays. I've only dipped my toes in it so far, but it seems excellently put together. Apparently even 2000 pages apparently wasn't enough for these editors; there is also a large Companion volume, which is currently out of my price range, that contains a lot of more detailed finicky scholarship, such as discussion of authorial attribution, how exactly they updated spelling, and such-like.

I also picked up a more portable version of one of my favorite Middleton plays, Women Beware Women. I've had the luck to see this performed twice, and am looking forward to reading it. It's got some deliciously evil characters. The climax has about as many deaths as "Hamlet", but with a far more varied and creative set of methods, such as trapdoors, poison gas, and molten gold! I do have to wonder how they pulled off the special effects for molten gold back in the early 1600s...
alexxkay: (Default)
So close, and yet, so far.

The writer and artist of this graphic novel are both industry veterans, with considerable mastery of craft. Their skills at pacing and characterization are ample. The weave a tale around the classic theme of "How can God allow evil to exist?", or, phrased more secularly, "Why do bad thiongs happen?" All the ingredients are present for an excellent graphic novel. Sadly, the one element that probably made it 'saleable' quite ruins the rest.

If this book had *actually* been about 9/11 and its aftermath, instead of metaphorically, it would have been much better. Unfortunately, the event which fills the world with both horror and hope is... a superhero. He's an ordinary schlub, who gets his powers for no obvious reason (though he thinks they come from God). At first, he uses his powers for good, but gradually becomes a jerk, then a rapist, then a mass-murderer. Said murders are depicted with a loving ferocity that makes me think that Alan Moore and John Totleben's infamous "Kid Marvelman destroys London" story was remarkably sophisticated and restrained by comparison.

The superhuman's best friend (the viewpoint character, keeps asking him "WHYYYYY!!!", but never receives anything like a coherent answer. This makes a certain kind of literary sense, as the superhuman is standing in for the arbitrariness of the universe. But by so fully becoming a metaphor, he ceases to be a *character*. He does what he does for no other reason than that the theme demands it of him.

All this leaves a gaping void in what (to my mind) should be the emotional center of the book. Perhaps the author even intended that effect. But it ruined the book for me. Not recommended.
alexxkay: (Default)
A friend of mine, Andy Kirschbaum, has written a novel, and is trying to get funding to self-publish it through Kickstarter. He describes it as "Urban Fantasy-Noir, Murder-Mystery Adventure". If that sounds like an interesting mix, check it out.
alexxkay: (Default)
Historical fiction about 10th century Vikings, written in the mid-twentieth century, but in the style of an actual saga. To quote [ profile] gyzki, "Good men, bad men, beautifullest women, and twin Irish acrobats." Grand adventure. It made me laugh out loud, gasp, or otherwise physically react on numerous occasions.

Michael Chabon, in his introduction, claims, with deliberate hyperbole, that this novel would please everyone on earth, and wonders why it has not been better known. I can easily see a large class of people who would not be pleased by this novel, namely those who easily take offense at... well almost anything. The book has a gentle but persistent irony that refuses to take anything too seriously, whether religion, sex, violence, government, or the various intersections of these important topics. Some *characters* take some of these things seriously, but the overall narrative tone refuses to lend its support to any position absolutely.

Also, the author is perhaps over-fond of certain patterns. When a character leaves the stage apparently for good, only to reappear dozens (or hundreds) of pages (and miles) from where you last saw them, unexpectedly but at the perfect dramatic moment, that's cool and exciting. By the ninth and tenth time it happened, however, the repetition bothered me a little. Still, each instance had its own uniqueness, and remained cool and exciting on a pure narrative level.

I nitpick because I care, and because to talk too much about the story would risk spoilers. So I will close by quoting Chabon again: "It is really good."
alexxkay: (Default)
[ profile] kestrell and I went out today to see Bad Habit Production's performance of Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia". In addition to such typical theatrical topics as sex, death, and literature, this play also concerns itself with such matters as fractals and the second law of thermodynamics. This was an excellent performance of an excellent play (one of Kes' all-time favorites), and is highly recommended. It's playing for just one more week, so hurry!

Sunday travel being uncertain, we usually leave with lots of time to spare, and end up talking about diverse subjects. I told Kes some anecdotes from _The Long Ships_ which I am in the midst of reading (full review anon). We talked about how those Vikings sure had a dry sense of humor, with lots of very straight-faced irony. And how violence was dealt with casually and also a subject for humor. And it suddenly seemed that they shared more than somewhat with the literary style of something else I've been reading to Kes lately, the stories of Damon Runyon. So naturally the next bit of story had to be about how Orm and his gang (including Bald Willie the Priest), after having ticked off Boss Sven, had to move up to the North Side, outside his territory, and set up their own liquor business thereby...

A pleasant Sunday indeed.


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Alexx Kay

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