Category Archives: Reading

I hope nothing like this ever happens to you!

Because it doesn’t look like the protagonists on this Jack Sparling cover are having much fun, does it?Like most anthology books edited by Jack Schiff, the story is “meh” but the cover is hard to resist (as witness I have a copy).

I’d hoped to post something more substantial but when my writing goes well, sometimes it leaves me with no brains left for blogging.

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Roanhorse, prophets, Sexton Blake and Elric: books read

At the end of Rebecca Roanhorse’s Black Sun, we had the ruling priesthood assassinated, the sun eclipsed and the Crow God dominant. In FEVERED STAR: Between Earth and Sky Book Two, the various cast members deal with the fallout by seeking windows of opportunity, figuring out who can be trusted, hunting for Lost Loves or pondering the loss of their humanity. This suffers from being the middle book of a trilogy but “suffers” isn’t quite the right word as it’s an outstanding book; like the first volume, Roanhorse does a great job of emphasizing personal stakes without forgetting it’s the middle of an apocalypse.

THE PROPHETIC IMAGINATION by Walter Brueggemann argues that Biblical prophets such as Moses simultaneously demonstrate the hollowness of the status quo (Jehovah proving Egypt had no choice but to let his people go, for instance) and imagine an inconceivable alternative where things are better; Solomon by contrast, is the anti-prophet, embracing old school monarchy and self-indulgence (Brueggemann makes the familiar argument that luxury leads to complacency). Thought-provoking but I’m not sure what my thoughts are, or if I follow all of it (like Brueggemann’s distinction between prophetic vision and social activism).

Funny, I thought I’d reviewed the Marc Hodder-edited SEXTON BLAKE VERSUS THE MASTER CROOKS before, but apparently not. Although Blake wassuccessful Sherlock Holmes clone, this book shows that like most such clones, he lacked personality — it’s the master crooks who make him memorable. Here he battles diabolical master schemer Zenith the Albino; Leon Kestrel, the criminal actor known as the Master Mummer; and Waldo, the Wonder Man, a Doc Savage-like example of physical perfection. I don’t feel the urge to grab up more Blake but this was enjoyable.

MOCKINGBIRD by Walter Tevis is a striking post-apocalypse novel in which the drugged-out, listless remnants of humanity spend their days getting stoned and watching porn while robots care for their every need and protect them from dangerous behavior (making friends violates the right of privacy!). Our protagonists are the rarest of creatures in this world, functionally literate (though baffled by the meaning of most words) and capable of feeling. Are they enough to turn things around? A great book that proves that even old cliches can work with the right handling.

BLACK HOLLYWOOD: Reimagining Classic Movie Moments by photographer Carell Augustus has various black actors replicating iconic moments from The Godfather, Gone With the Wind, Mission Impossible and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly among others (For Your Eyes Only below)

This is a mixed bag, some great (the Singin’ in the Rain shot absolutely nails it), some not — how did they do Veronica Lake and not her famous peek-a-boo hair style? That said, enjoyable to flip through though I’m curious about how they picked — why these films rather than Star Wars, The Big Sleep or Superman?

Given my wariness when “famous writer revisits his early work” I wasn’t sure Michael Moorcock’s latest Elric book, CITADEL OF FORGOTTEN MYTHS, would work out — and overall, it didn’t. Set between meeting his human wife Zarozinia and the final apocalypse in Stormbringer, this has Elric and perpetual sidekick Moonglum visiting the far side of the world in hopes of finding drugs that will let Elric to function without his accursed, soul-drinking rune-sword Stormbringer. In the first short story in the book they encounter a lost Melnibonean tribe and battle slavers; in the second they visit a lost city and discover a potential cure for Elric is actually a blood drinking killer plant (not a new idea but Moorcock makes it impressive).

The bulk of the book, however, is a novel in which Elric deals with another Melnibonean colony, a magic-backed warlord and the disorder in the godly realm that will lead into Stormbringer. All the elements are there but the story is less sword-and-sorcery than Moorcock in the talky, arty mode of Fortress of the Pearl and it’s a slog to get through. A disappointment, but the first two shorts are worth reading.

#SFWApro. Stormbringer cover by Michael Whelan, all rights to images remain with current holders.

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Researching some more urban fantasy

HEROINE WORSHIP: Heroine Complex #2 by Sarah Kuhn opens a few months after Heroine Complex with Annie undergoing a slow meltdown for lack of any evil to fight or any chance to show off her heroic prowess. When Nate proposes to Evie, Annie finally has a mission — become the most powerful, most awesome maid of honor San Francisco has ever seen! As usual her bull-in-a-china-shop approach causes problems, but not as many as a rising wave of bridezillas possessed by demonic energy.

Telling this one from Annie’s POV was a good decision. She’s a good character, conscious she’s been a failure as a best friend, determined to make up for it and struggling with her own insecurities and love life. The book does a good job of fleshing that out. I will agree with some reviews that her boyfriend Scott isn’t well developed but he’s no worse than many female love interests — he’s there to love Annie and give her a reality check or two. That said, I never buy characters who calmly and accurately diagnose their emotional issues in conversation and there was way too much of that.

In terms of research for Impossible Takes a Little Longer I think the main takeaway is that it wouldn’t hurt KC to be a little more intense about stuff. It adds to Heroine Worship and I think it’s doable for my book.

One difference is that there’s surprisingly little comics reference (surprising to me, anyway) for a superhero story set in the real world, though I think that’s generally true of the superhero novels I’ve read over the year. My protagonist’s way more comic-book nerdy. But Kuhn does throw in a Clark Kent reference at one point where the leads really need to mention him, so that’s good.

Where Kuhn’s book had a lot of rom-com elements, FAE OF FORTUNE: Seattle Paranormal Police Department Book One by John P. Logsdon and Eric Quinn Knowles feels like a mashup of Justice League of America with the old Police Academy series.Rather than a lone wolf like Harry Dresden, protagonist Savannah Sage has an entire team of paranormals in the Seattle PD to work with her. Like Police Academy they’re all screwups — Savannah being put in charge of them is a demotion — but of course by the end of the book they’ve proved they have the right stuff. The mashup didn’t work for me, though I can see why it might appeal to other readers (and apparently does, as there are multiple sequels and the series is part of a larger, multi-book mythos).

I can’t say I learned anything from this one other than if you’re going to have an exposition-heavy first chapter it’s got to be good, interesting exposition and this wasn’t. The story, involving a scheme by a corrupt Kingpin-type, is okay and the fight scenes are good, but the conversational scenes between fighting not so much. The killer teddy bear is cute, though, even if describing it as a form of golem feels all wrong to me.

#SFWApro. Covers by Jason Chan and Murphy Anderson (bottom), all rights remain with current holders.

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Paperback covers of interest

First, a 1972 cover, uncredited but very much of its era in the psychedelic visuals.This Kelly Freas is just as typical of the earlier women-in-revealing-spacesuits era of pulp illustration.This cover for one of the Avenger pulps is curiously generic. We have the protagonist (a man with his face permanently frozen by shock), the smiling dogs of the title and all we get from HW Scott is a routine nugging?Another typical cover, for 1964. Frank Frazetta was one of the go-to guys for fantasy covers in that era.To wrap up, a Richard Powers cover because why not?#SFWApro

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The Hellboy-verse and other comic-book settings

HELLBOY: The Silver Lantern  Club by Mike Mignola, Chris Roberson, Christopher Mitten and Ben Stenbeck has a kind of Justice League quality in bringing together multiple Mignola Victorian-characters such as Sarah Jewell, Sir Edward Grey and Professor Bruttenholm’s Uncle Simon, who narrates various exploits of the club members to Hellboy and Bruttenholm in the 1950s (while the framing sequence is easy to place, I’ve had to guesstimate when in the 1800s the stories take place for my Hellboy Chronology). Dealing with everything from vanished men to vanished horses — not to mention Sir Edward’s obsession with the Heliotropic Brotherhood of Ra — these aren’t first rank Hellboy stuff but I did enjoy them. I suspect the framing sequence is inspired by Lord Dunsany’s Jorkens stories, which use a similar set-up, but that’s only a guess.

SWORD OF HYPERBOREA by Mike Mignola, Rob Williams abd Laurence Campbell tracks the monster-slaying sword BPRD Agent Howards found across history: the caveman days, a mysterious lycanthrope in 1910, a scheme by the Heliotropic Brotherhood in 1940 and a blues man getting entangled in all this in 1952. More uneven with the 1910 and 1952 stories the best.

BLACK STAR by Eric Anthony Glover and Arielle Jovellanos is an unsatisfying SF story in which the shipwrecked protagonist has to race across a hostile planet to reach an escape pod with not only the environment but another shipwrecked survivor working against her. This is grim and tense but the A plot is broken up by constant flashbacks and I got lost figuring out the backstory.

NOT ALL ROBOTS by Mark Russell and Mike Deodato Jr. didn’t work for me either (I find Russell’s satire very hit and miss). In the near future robots have replaced human workers but they’re required to support a human family to keep society as stable as possible. Trouble is, both humans and robots resent the arrangement and the resentment is simmering to the boiling point … This metaphor for toxic masculinity and the crisis of men just didn’t work for me the way his Flintstones did.

#SFWApro. Covers by Mignola and Steve Pugh.

 

 

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Doing my research: Heroine Complex

I read Sarah Kuhn’s Heroine Complex four years ago. I recently reread it as research for The Impossible Takes a Little Longer. Given that book is about a woman superhero, I thought reading a book about a woman superhero, written by a woman, might be productive. Plus there’s that criticism from the editor who rejected Southern Discomfort that I should read more urban fantasy. So off I went.

For those who haven’t read Kuhn’s book, it’s set in San Francisco several years after a demonic portal opened. The portal closed but demons keep popping up; Chinese American Annie, going by the name Aveda Jupiter, takes them down with TK-enhanced martial arts skills. Unlike most urban fantasies, this all happens publicly and Annie thrives on the spotlight.

By contrast Annie’s Japanese-American best friend Evie is shy, insecure and happy to stay out of the spotlight as Annie’s support person. She manages everything from Aveda Jupiter’s social calendar to keeping her kickass leather boots clean. And she never, ever thinks about her own pyrotic powers, which she keeps under wraps.

Then Annie gets injured. Evie has to pose as her for a celebrity event but when demons crash the party Evie uses her fire powers to save the day. Suddenly everyone’s over the moon about Aveda Jupiter’s new ability so obviously Evie has to keep up the masquerade until they can figure out some way to transfer them to Annie.

The first thing I noticed — which I was sort of aware of already — is that KC doesn’t think much about clothes. Evie’s quite detailed about what she and Annie, and others in the cast are wearing; clothes aren’t something I think much about so I go light on that stuff. Most women I know think about them more — and clothes can be a good scene-setting detail — so maybe this is something to work on. Sure, KC could be the kind of woman who doesn’t care much, but that feels like a cop-out (by contrast, going light on clothing detail in Southern Discomfort, even in women’s POV sections, felt perfectly natural).

Second, like a lot of urban fantasy there’s a lot of Tell rather than Show; given the book got published and led to several sequels, it confirms my feeling this writing rules is overrated. Evie tells a lot about her personal history with Annie, her experience as an Asian American, her relationships with the other characters and the history of the city’s demonic incursion.  It works for me except when the villain gives an interminable explanation of her evil plan at the climax. That’s good news, seeing as Impossible has plenty of telling: the world’s alternate history is weird and there’s a lot I need to get across.

Third, one of the things the editor criticized Southern Discomfort for was a lack of urgency and tension. I’ve seen How To writing advice books that warn against casual, chatty scenes because they lack tension and lose the audience — though my writing group’s sometimes told me I should have more scenes with less tension, to let readers catch their breath (I’ll be blogging more about this).

Heroine Complex isn’t big on tension. The demon-slaying opening is played for humor: the demons are possessed cupcakes, Annie’s worst moment is that her zit is caught on camera. Then we get lots of Tell about growing up Asian, which is some of my favorite stuff in the book. This makes me hope that the personal scenes between my KC and her friends aren’t going to kill reader interest, Then again, a lot of Evie’s scenes are tense or awkward which adds to the drama and the interest. KC’s in a much better place a lot of the time.

Plus Heroine Complex‘s urban fantasy aspect is really the B-plot. Evie is the A-plot, a woman miserable in her own skin, blooming into a happy, comfortable person and rebuilding her relationships with the other characters. The heart of my story is the fight against a mystery misogynist wrecking KC’s life so maybe personal stuff needs to be kept down?

Studying other writers’ books isn’t a magic formula for success. “Successful author got away with X, therefore I can do X in my book” does not follow. There are lots of factors that go into making a book successful; it’s quite possible I’ll get the mix wrong. Still, I think rereading the book was helpful.

#SFWApro. Cover art by Jason Chan, all rights remain with current holder.

 

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Hellboy and other heroes: graphic novels

HELLBOY: The Bones of Giants by Mike Mignola, Christopher Golden and Matt Smith is a sequel to the short tale King Vold (collected in The Right Hand of Doom). The professor who tried and failed to exploit Hellboy in that story is now using an ancient talisman to raise up the frost giants and other dark forces for revenge; can Hellboy stop him, even with Mjolnir fused to his stone right hand? Not A-list Hellboy but a solid but of monster-smashing fun.

Alex Ross’s FANTASTIC FOUR: Full Circle takes us back to the Lee-and-Kirby days of the strip. A man who once impersonated Ben only to die in the Negative Zone returns, but is it as a friend or an enemy? What will the FF find when they go into the Zone? This boasts glorious Alex Ross art and promising ideas but the ideas never develop into anything substantial. However it does have some funny lines (“Reed, just how many of your old classmates became deranged mad scientists?”) and I do like the use of the Negative Zone as it originally was, a nightmarish alien dimension (a few years ago, by contrast, they were building prisons there).

BANG! by Matt Kindt, Willfredo Torres and Nayoung Wilson also feels undeveloped, though more interesting. Kindt’s script is a tribute to what he considers the neo-pulp heroes of the 1980s — Michael Knight and KITT, James Bond (who’s hardly a 1980s hero, I’ll note), Jessica Fletcher and Die Hard‘s John McClane — all of whom turn out to be puppets in a Macchiavellan scheme by a writer clearly based on Philip K. Dkck. The metafictional aspects have potential but not so much I’m eager for V2.

Despite being based on a videogame, FABLES: The Wolf Among Us by Matthew Sturges, Dave Justus and multiple artists works very well as a prequel to the series, back in the days when the Fables still dwelled in New York, in exile from their various homelands. In the opening, Bigby Wolf stops his old foe the Woodsman from beating a woman up, only to discover the woman’s head on his doorstep soon after. Who’s responsible? How do Grendel, Bluebeard, Beauty and Ichabod Crane fit into whatever’s going on? I could have done without any reference to real witches in Salem (stories that claim the witch trials found real witches leave a sour taste in my mouth) but overall extremely fun.

While I vaguely new of a Chinese Superman debuting a few years ago, I don’t think I ever saw him until picking up NEW SUPER-MAN: Coming to America by Gene Luen Yang and Viktor Bogdanovic. Kong Kenan is China’s newest superhero, a Superman knockoff leading a team that also includes a Chinese Wonder Woman, Flash and Bat-Man (I wonder if this was inspired by a similar Chinese villain team from the late 1970s?). As Kong has little control of his powers, this seems a long shot — can martial arts teacher I Ching (yes, a reboot version of Wonder Woman’s old teacher) enable him to master his powers? And what about the mysterious disappearance of his mother? This worked much better than I expected — two thumbs up.

#SFWApro. Covers by Matt Smith (top) and Chrissie Zullo, all rights to images remain with current holders.

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First cover post of 2023! Wait, that’s not exactly a click-bait headline is it?

But here we go anyway, starting with this Arnold Kohn cover. So are the cult people who dress like eagles or are they actual man-raptors?Next this neat-looking one by Bob Hilbreath.Virgil Finlay gives us a ginormous spider — or is it a very small man?And a vivid one by Frank Frazetta.#SFWApro. All rights to images remain with current holder.

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The Other Doc Savage: Doc Brazen in the Millennium Bug

THE MILLENNIUM BUG: Doc Brazen #1 by Jeff Deischer feels more like Lester Dent than any Doc Savage pastiche I’ve ever read. I’m not entirely sure that works, though I’m sure I’ll read Book Two eventually. Caution: spoilers included below.

Deischer is a die-hard Doc Savage fan who’s written both Man of Bronze fanfic and a chronology (not the one I read a couple of years back); his cover design was a deliberate attempt to capture some of the stylized covers of the post-war novels (I’ve got an example by Walter Swenson below). He says in the afterword his dream was to write an authorized Doc Savage novel; as he wasn’t in a position to do that, writing the adventures of Ulysses Brazen was the next best thing.

As the title suggests, this 2018 novel is set in the late 1990s. Doc Brazen has retired to Coronado (equivalent of Hidalgo) happily married to the counterpart of Princess Monja (here an Aztec rather than Mayan). Then several graduates of the Crime College — er, Brazen Institute — revert to their criminal ways. Doc investigates, accompanied by two Aztecs (Monk and Ham analogs, though not exactly). During the investigation, he acquires an added team: a computer expert, a French cat burglar (one of the reprogrammed graduates) and the daughter of the female adventurer in The South Pole Terror.What’s behind it? It turns out John Sunlight‘s followers — er John Spectrum’s — cloned what was left of him after The Devil Genghis. The clone is now a thirteen year old boy and while he didn’t inherit Spectrum’s memory he’s been trained and conditioned to think just like him (a nice variation on the usual clone-the-memory techniques). Targeting the Brazen Institute is meant to blacken Doc’s name, discrediting him before Spectrum Jr. launches his master plan.

I read this enjoying Deischer’s knowledge of and love for the original series. Millennium Bug itself, though, feels more like a so-so original novel such as The Devil’s Playground than, say, Millennium’s excellent Doc Savage comic. Deischer said setting Doc in the modern world was a way to make the book stand-out, as most pastiches (e.g, Doc Sidhe) go for a 1930s setting. The trouble is, nothing felt terribly 1990s other than people having cell-phones and computers; despite the title, the Y2K bug doesn’t figure into the plot at all. The language is outdated too (calling “Thunderbird” Crale an aviatrix rather than a pilot is very pulp-era). DC Comics did better contemporary Doc stories.

Another problem is that Spectrum’s plan doesn’t make any sense: the only thing targeting the Brazen Institute accomplishes is bringing Doc out of retirement. Though that may be intentional: Spectrum, for all his brainwashing, is still a thirteen-year-old boy so it’s not surprising his plan is more about spite for “his” old foe than a tactical master-stroke.

A minor but annoying point for me is that like Will Murray Deischer insists John Sunlight’s death at the end of Devil Genghis can’t be changed out of respect for Dent; he dislikes Millennium’s decision to show Sunlight escaped death (I found it perfectly plausible myself). And like a number of fans he takes John Sunlight’s declaration in that novel that he wants to build a peaceful utopia at face value; I can’t see it as anything but a lie to get Doc off-guard. Plus of course, what constitutes a utopia for the monstrous Sunlight is probably dystopia for anyone else.

(As a minor point, has anyone ever done a sequel to Repel? Cadwiller Olden was a formidable foe and the ending clearly leaves his death in doubt. If not, someone should get on it … hmm …)

I may be making Millennium Bug sound worse than it is; it’s hard for me not to approach something like this more analytically than enthusiastically. Certainly it’s a better story than Dynamite’s initial comics story arc or Lin Carter’s Prince Zarkon. Or, you know, James Patterson’s take. I’ll see what I think when I finally get around to book 2.

#SFWApro. All rights to cover images remain with current holder.

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A smoother cruise this week than last

I wrote a week ago that the first week of 2023 felt like a shakedown cruise. This week the ship seemed to stabilize. We still had a lot of distractions but the work went well despite that.

The big distractions came Tuesday. Snowdrop had peed on the couch the night TYG kept him indoors and she could still smell it. We had someone come in to clean the couch off, after which we and the dogs had to stay off it for several hours while it dried.

Unfortunately that resulted in me and the pups sitting on the other couch for most of the afternoon. It’s much harder to work on my computer around them — the couch arms are too high to rest the computer there for instance — so I wound up doing some research reading instead.

We also had someone come in to check out the chimney as well. It has some damage which make it unwise to use the fireplace so TYG wanted a price estimate on repairs. Suffice to say, repairs would cost more than we want to spend, given that we didn’t use the chimney much even when it was in good shape. However if either of us gets a big payday down the road we might reconsider.

Thursday I’d planned to run out to the library and pick up the new Elric book I’d reserved, otherwise the reservation would have expired. That turned into a much larger expedition as I also wound up getting Trixie’s prescription food from the vet, plus food shopping done, plus picking up a prescription. TYG is away this weekend at an alumni event out of town — she left mid-morning — so I’ll be sticking home with the dogs and not going out. That saves me having to crate Plushie — he gets up to mischief otherwise – or the slight possibility something happens to me while driving and then there’s no-one here for the dogs until Monday.

Anyway, that bulked up the trip until I had no focus left for work by the time I got home. Still, I did get quite a bit done this week:

I redrafted a story I last worked on a couple of years ago, before Undead Sexist Cliches, Aliens Are Here and Questionable Minds sucked up so much time. It’s a long way from good yet, but I see more potential in the tale of a ruthless, objectivist businessman and his mysterious nemesis. Currently untitled.

I got several thousand words further in Impossible Takes A Little Longer, getting a lot of Reveals out of the way before things move into the climax (Hitchcock recommended that, so nobody’s distracted from the action by waiting for exposition). I stopped when it became time to move against the bad guys because I’ve no idea what they’re going to do. Hopefully it’ll come to me when I resume.

My research reading involved a couple of urban fantasies I’ll be reviewing soon, Fae of Fortune by John P. Logsdon and Eric Quinn Knowles and rereading Heroine Complex by Sarah Kuhn. I prefer doing that kind of reading outside of writing hours but with so many to-do things distracting me, I compromised.

I got about 3,000 words further into Let No Man Put Asunder. I also read the first two or three thousand words to the writing group who gave it an enthusiastic thumbs up plus some feedback I’ll be discussing soon.

So go me! Let’s hope next week is as productive.

#SFWApro. Cover by Kemp Ward, all rights remain with current holder.

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