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The Armageddon Rag

October 2, 2008

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The Armageddon Rag by George R.R. Martin

Greetings all.

I come to you today, a full week after having finished this book, only having found time to write a review now.
George RR Martin’s ‘Armageddon Rag’ is yet another book that I first heard about via BoingBoing.net.
Martin is best known as a writer of science fiction and fantasy. Though I knew his name, I hadn’t read any of his other work.
‘The Armageddon Rag’ was first published in 1983, and takes place in and around that time. It is the story of Sandy Blair, once a prominent journalist of the 60s underground press, now a novelist with a career that seems to be fading. The fact that he’s struggling with writers block isn’t helping any, so when he gets a call from his old publisher, to cover a murder of a prominent promoter, he jumps at the chance.
The murder victim had been the manager of a band called the Nazgul, who’s lead singer was murdered at the height of an Altamont-like concert many years before. The Nazgul now seem – against all odds – to be coming back together, and Blair wants to be there to cover the story.
Though I’ve seen ‘The Armageddon Rag’ described as a mystery, it has elements of horror, social history and fantasy.
Once Blair starts investigating the murder, he starts to reconnect to the scene he was such a part of in the 60s. He travels across the country, tracking down the members of the Nazgul, as well as touching base with his old friends who have all left their old lives behind to widely varying degrees.
Through his portrayals of Blair and his friends, Martin touches on many familiar archetypes, from commune dwellers to generational sellouts that’ve packed away their tie-dyes and moved on to the executive suite. That he manages to portray these characters so vividly without resorting to the kind of ‘Big Chill’ clichés that have saturated the image of the 60s in our collective rear-view mirror.
My only criticism of the book – and it’s entirely possible that this was Martin’s intention – is that I was never really sure (and this wasn’t resolved) whether or not there really was a supernatural element operating in the background.
That said, ‘The Armageddon Rag’ was briskly plotted, suspenseful and often touching in the way Martin portrays how the various threads of the 60s counterculture had, or had not resolved themselves fifteen years on. ‘The Armageddon Rag’ would make a great movie.
Now reading – The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol

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My Booky Wook

September 13, 2008

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My Booky Wook by Russell Brand

Greetings all.

I know the last time I posted I said I was reading the ‘Fables’ graphic novel series, but volume 1 turned out to be one of those half-an-hour specials, and though interesting, not terribly captivating, so I put volume two on hold and fell right into another book.
Those of you stateside who know the name Russell Brand have either seen ‘Forgetting Sarah Marshall’ – in which he played the rock star Aldous Snow – or saw him tear it up on the otherwise stultifying MTV Video Awards (in which he rightly made light of one of the more plastic, idiotic and ultimately forgettable corners of our current pop culture).
Brand’s a funny guy.
I can’t remember where I read about ‘My Booky Wook’, but I do recall that I was intrigued enough to order a copy from the UK (it has yet to be published stateside). While I can’t explain the hoodoo that got the book here from England in less than a week for under $5 postage (I’m not sure I could reproduce that kind of speed for the same price from one destination to another domestically), I applaud the Royal Postal Service for their efficiency.
‘My Booky Wook’ is an autobiographical volume, which may seem odd for someone who is barely known over here, but we’ll overlook your assumption that if someone is not famous here in the US that they simply cannot be famous anywhere else – and continue with the review.
Brand is actually quite well know (maybe notorious) in the UK where he’s worked for the last several years as a stand up comedian, actor, TV host and renowned libertine. The book is a well written, humorous and – believe it or not – poignant look at Brand’s life, from his childhood, through his first recognition as an actor/comedian, right on through a long period of self destructive debauchery and on to a conclusion that is every bit as satisfying as it is expected.
I found Brand to be the best thing about ‘…Sarah Marshall’, loved his utterly disrespectful approach to the MTV thing (take that you pompous little Republicans. How about a promise ring that symbolizes a pledge to mind your own fucking business???), and the tales of his TV work in the UK made me eager for a time when his star rises enough over here that some of it gets released on DVD (or at least shown on BBC America, where I first encountered the brilliant ‘Little Britain’).
I’ll certainly read anything else he choose to write in the future.
Currently reading: Not sure, really. I have yet to make up my mind between a graphic novel, a sci-fi horror thing or a huge hardcover book on avant garde jazz that I got for my birthday…

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Two Novels, One Graphic, One Not…

September 2, 2008

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Too Cool to be Forgotten by Alex Robinson

Greetings all.
Though I mentioned at the end of the last review that my current reading was of the decidedly non-recreational variety, I decided that my weary brain needed a break so I set aside the heavy (in all senses of the word) text that had taken over my reading life.
Fortunately I had a couple of things waiting in the on-deck circle, neither of which was particularly heavy, so I took myself a small reading vacation.
The first thing I read was a short graphic novel – another BoingBoing recommendation – ‘Too Cool to Be Forgotten’ by Alex Robinson.
I’ve gone on in this space before about my experiences (often positive) with the graphic novel format, and I’m happy to say that ‘Too Cool…’ is very, cool that is.
“Graphic Novel” has become a catch-all for any long(er) form comic with literary pretensions (sometimes actually delivered upon). Alex Robinson’s ‘Too Cool to Be Forgotten’ is probably closer to a longer short story than a novel. There’s nothing wrong with that, and I’d be the first to admit that some of the greatest writers have worked in the form. Robinson is both an excellent storyteller – in both words and pictures – and I found ‘Too Cool…’ to be one of the more moving entries in the genre.
I won’t spoil it for you, other than to say that the book is a fantastic look at adolescence and high school as seen through the eyes of approaching middle age. Maybe it hits closer to the bone because I’m about the same age as the protagonist, and have many of the same regrets about my high school years (and I’d be suspicious of anyone that didn’t). I suspect however that anyone that’s experienced high school from anything but the very top of the social heap will find a great deal of truth in this book.
Highly recommended.

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The Curious Incident of the Dog In the Night-time by Mark Haddon

My most recent read came along unexpectedly in a box of books mailed to us by my in-laws. I’d heard a lot about ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime’, and as it was among the shortest book in the pile that interested me, I grabbed it and plowed through it in a few days. Though the first impression, via the title (a Sherlock Holmes reference), word of mouth and the jacket copy, suggested to me that this was a mystery of sorts, in the end the book is more an impression (from within) of the world of a teenager with Aspergers Syndrome, and how he navigates (with varying degrees of success) the world around him.
The author, Mark Haddon tells most of the story from the point of view of the protagonist Christopher Boone, but manages to move the story, and put events in context using the actions and reactions of those around him, some who know Christopher and are aware of (and often sympathetic to) his condition, and many who are not.
Though I can’t say with any certainty how accurate the portrayal of Aspergers is – and there have apparently been many (some with the condition) who have disagreed with Haddon’s portrayal of his main character – I have been doing some reading about this end of the Autism Spectrum, and I applaud Haddon for attempting to shine some light on a condition that is increasingly common, yet barely known to most people.
That said, ‘The Curious Incident…’ is a very interesting and thought provoking book, and the literary device he employs, while drawing tangents to the “outside” world, as well as Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories (there is a mystery of sorts here, just not what you’d expect) really drew me in.
Also highly recommended.
Now reading – Vols. 1&2 of the Fables graphic novel by Bill Willingham.

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Stardust

August 24, 2008

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Stardust by Neil Gaiman

Greetings all.

I found my way to Neil Gaiman’s ‘Stardust’ via a circuitous route. My wife read a review of ‘Good Omens’ – which Gaiman wrote in collaboration with Terry Pratchett – it sounded interesting, so I grabbed a copy, read it and liked it.
Not too long after that we put the film adaptation of ‘Stardust’ on the Netflix queue. We both like it a lot, so I promised myself that the next time there was an opening in the reading list I’d pick up a copy of the book.
I took a trip to ye olde book barn and headed over to the ‘sci-fi/fantasy’ aisle to look for the Neil Gaiman section. Gaiman has been very prolific, writing novels, graphic novels (the acclaimed ‘Sandman’ series) and even childrens books. When I saw Gaiman’s name on the shelf I was pleasantly surprised to see that they were still stocking copies of the movie tie-in paperback of ‘Stardust’. It was sitting directly adjacent to the “quality paperback” version of the book, which was almost twice as expensive as the corny looking book with the pictures of Robert DeNiro and Michele Pfeiffer on the cover.
Naturally, I grabbed the cheap copy.
I’m always a little cautious when it comes to reading a book when I’ve already seen a film adaptation. Though most of these films manage to corrupt the books horribly, occasionally you run across one (like the novel ‘Last Orders’) where the film was a scrupulously faithful adaptation and the book hold no surprises whatsoever.
Happily this was not the case with ‘Stardust’. The film was a substantial departure from the book, with some characters/events amplified (substantially), others cut from whole cloth and others diminished.
The novel ‘Stardust’ contained a lot more story than the film (a good thing) and in the end I found that I had enjoyed the book a lot as well as having a newfound respect for the film adaptation, in which the spirit of the book was kept intact and deviations from the novel didn’t dishonor the original material.
‘Stardust’ was a quick read, and managed to be a ‘fantasy’ novel that was almost entirely devoid of the kind of clichés that usually cause me to roll my eyes.
Recommended.
Now reading – non-pleasure reading…

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Escapement / Watchmen

August 15, 2008

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Escapement By Jay Lake

Greetings all.
It’s been a while since I posted, but this is another one of those whipped through one book dove right into the next (and then again into another) things.
When I posted my review of ‘Mainspring’ I had already begun reading its sequel ‘Escapement’.
Though at the point that I wrote that post it seemed that Jay Lake had conquered some of the pacing problems from ‘Mainspring’, once I completed the second book it was obvious that instead of going away, the problems had merely come into sharper focus.
‘Escapement’ continues the story of the alternate, clock driven, orrery-esque earth. Though the hero of the first book is present only in a few peripheral mentions, two of the three main characters in ‘Escapement’ are carried over from ‘Mainspring’.
The main problem with these books is ironically also their greatest asset, that being the world that Lake has created. This alternate universe and the warring religio-philosophical factions that attempt to control it are a truly amazing invention.
Perhaps too amazing.
Lake spends a tremendous time on exposition/explanation, and the detail is wonderful, but I finished ‘Escapement’ wishing he’d spent less time on minutae and more time actually plotting the book.
My main issue with ‘Mainspring’ – that the story moved in fits and starts, with long periods of slow unwinding (no pun intended) followed by inorganic jumps in the story and changes in tone – was continued in ‘Escapement’. I found myself with less than 50 pages left wondering when and how the story was going to be resolved, and arrived at the end unsure that it had. Though there was an “ending” of sorts, the book concluded as if I had just purchased not a full novel, but the first half of one.
I’m not a huge consumer of series, but one that I’ve been reading for the last few years, and enjoying a great deal is the Temeraire books by Naomi Novik. Though the books cover a finite period, and the adventures of the dragon and its master continued from book to book, these stories (and the word story is crucial) have a beginning, middle and, here’s the catch, and ENDING. Each book, though connected to the ones before and after, has it’s own distinct plot.
‘Escapement’ has a number of loose ends, one of them unforgivably huge. The ending of the book points directly to a sequel, but ends not like a self-contained novel, but more like the first half of a larger book.
I’m not exactly a prodigious consumer of fantasy literature, so maybe this is par for the course (I doubt it), but I’m not sure I’m going to want to read the next book in the series.

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Watchmen by Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons

On a more positive note, I finally got with the program and grabbed a copy of ‘Watchmen’ by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (20 years late…I know). Though I knew about the series (now collected into a single volume), my lack of interest in superhero comics kept me away. My interest was piqued by a recent review (and an endorsement by a friend), so I grabbed a copy at ye olde book barn, and I’m glad I did.
I know that the whole “turning comics clichés on their head” thing is pretty much a cliché itself, but Moore and Gibbons were  – in 1987  – at the vanguard of this movement.
‘Watchmen’ is, like the best of the genre truly a graphic novel (as opposed to a swollen comic book). The characters are complex (as is the plot), and the story is told in a manner that still seems innovative. There are sequences in ‘Watchmen’ that are absolute masterworks of the combination of text and visual storytelling.
While I can’t wait to see the movie, I wonder of there’s any way to bring the story to the screen without doing it a great injustice.
A good friend of mine – a huge comics fan with a serious grip on the history of the genre – tells me that Moore and Gibbons have steadfastly refused to expand upon ‘Watchmen’ with spin-offs, prequels or sequels. This is both cool – in that they feel the story is strong enough to stand on its own without elaboration (and it is) – and a huge drag because several of the characters, especially Dr, Manhattan are ripe for expansion.
Either way, if you’ve been avoiding graphic novels because you thought them lacking in depth, go out and get yourself a copy of ‘Watchmen’.

Now reading – Stardust by Neil Gaiman

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Mainspring

August 7, 2008

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Mainspring by Jay Lake

Greetings all.

The book I bring you today is yet another tome that I was turned on to by a post over at BoingBoing.
While I wouldn’t call myself an aficionado of steampunk/clockpunk (and PLEASE spare me a corrective post delineating the subtle but important differences between the two), but I do like what I’ve read and seen.
Thus, when I read about Jay Lake’s ‘Mainspring’ I filed it away for future reference.
A few weeks later the wife and I happened to make an unscheduled visit to the local Barnes and Noble (to avail ourselves of the restrooms, if you must know) and, in the kind of coincidence that seers and conspiracy theorists lay awake at night pondering, there, next to the bathroom door, was the sci fi/fantasy section of the store.
I was almost done with whatever it was I was reading at the time, so I figured I take advantage of the timing and see if ‘Mainspring’ were available. At first all I could find was Lake’s current novel (‘Escapement’, which I’m reading now), but then I decided to check out the ‘new in paperback’ shelf, and there it was.
The coolest (and simultaneously the most difficult) thing about ‘Mainspring’ is navigating the alternative universe Lake has created for his characters. Though the time period is the beginning of the 20th century, and the locale New Haven, Connecticut, that’s pretty much where the similarities end. The vast majority of the western world (including all of North America) is dominated by the British Empire, the rest ruled by the Chinese.
The equator of the earth is marked by a huge wall, the top of which serves as the seat for the gears on which the world turns. Everything south of the equator is pretty much terra incognita and the cause for much speculation, as well as the target for possible empire building by both of the major powers.
The hero of the book, a clockmaker’s apprentice named Hethor Jacques is sent on a quest by the angel Gabriel (the world in ‘Mainspring’ turns on a fanciful reinterpretation of Christian dogma, which in itself is cause for all kinds of conflict between warring forces).
Lake does a fairly good job of establishing, and elaborating upon his remarkable framing device. There are points in the book where the tone of the book ‘stutters’ a little bit, but he has a lot to establish here, so a little bit of unevenness is certainly better than another three-hundred pages of exposition. I especially like Lake’s ability to maintain suspense using a kind of motivational ambiguity about many of the characters.
I won’t spoil anything, but I’m about halfway into ‘Escapement’ and I’ll say that things have evened out considerably (especially since two of the three major characters in ‘Escapement’ were introduced in ‘Mainspring’).
Recommended.
Now reading – Escapement by Jay Lake.

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Last of the Mohicans

July 20, 2008

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The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper

Greetings all.

I return to you in the midst of a nasty heatwave to hep you all to the fact that I have gone into the squared circle (the metaphorical, literary one) grappled with a classic and come away victorious.
Well, ‘victorious’ isn’t really an appropriate word, but more on that in a moment.
I try, once or twice a year, when I think I am possessed of the intellectual power (and free time) to do so, I like to get a hold of an acknowledged literary classic, one that I might have avoided out of fear of boredom (or that I might discover myself ill suited to the task), and give it the old college try. Nine times out of ten this has proven to be rewarding, as in the past few years when I worked my way through ‘Ulysses’, ‘Lord of the Rings’, and ‘Moby Dick’.
This summer, I decided that I was finally going after James Fenimore Cooper’s ‘The Last of the Mohicans’.
I grabbed an old copy off the shelf – which I believe was a relic of my wife’s high school English class – and started to read. I was actually enjoying it, until the pages started to fall out of the binding. This wasn’t so bad when it was a random leaf, but when every single page began to drop out of the binding, I decided to temporarily move on o something else until I could get to the book store and get a fresh copy.
Fortunately, having long since passed into the public domain – it was published initially in 1826 – ‘Last of the Mohicans’ was available in a number of paperback editions. One of these was a very inexpensive ($5.95) one published directly by Barnes and Noble (one of a large series of such classics they print in budget editions). As “budget” printings go it was pretty nice, with an excellent, scholarly introduction and explanatory notes.
So, I dug in yet again, and guess what? I loved it!
I was fully expecting to struggle with all manner of archaic language, but what I got instead was a fast paced adventure novel.
‘Last of the Mohicans’ was one of the first popular American novels, and it’s not hard to understand why. In his lead characters of Hawkeye, Uncas and Chingachgook, Cooper has created memorable heroes. The setting of upstate New York during the French and Indian Wars (using some actual incidents as source material) is interesting in and of itself, and Cooper managed (even in the context of the 1820s) to endow his Indian characters with much more than the stereotypical idea of the “noble savage”.
I was surprised to see that the two Mohicans are more prominent characters than Hawkeye, who almost operates in the background. Though there are certain important details in his personal history that are stated early and often, Hawkeye (or Natty Bumppo, or La Longue Carabine, or Leatherstocking all names applied to the same character through a series of novels) is a man of few words. I’ll be very interested to see how the character is presented in the other Leatherstocking books, which I plan to read as soon as possible.
So, I guess the lesson here is not to assume anything about a novel because of its age (unless, like both ‘Ulysses’ and ‘Moby Dick’ they are rightly rumored to be difficult and occasionally impenetrable), which, although rewarding, they were).
Also, if you’ve seen the 1992 movie, but haven’t read the book you’ll be in for a shock as the writers of the film (presumptuous, arrogant Hollywood douchebags one and all) apparently had little regard for Cooper’s novel, which makes you wonder why they wanted to adapt it at all.

Now reading – Mainspring by Jay Lake