Monday, February 11, 2013

The End

Alright, I'm gonna get right to the point, this is the last Battle Hymns post.

An end for the blog has been on my mind for a while now, and it's time to make it happen. In the past few weeks, my energy and desire for blogging has been waning, and this past week I realized my heart just isn't in it these days. I'm not a fan of half-measures, or going through the motions, and I certainly don't want that for this blog, so a clean break is way to go for me. I won't lie, I tried to drum up ideas, new approaches and directions for Battle Hymns, that would create a spark but it didn't happen.

I'm not done with the internet and the world of blogging though. Over the years I've come to be a huge fan of so many of my fellow bloggers and I can't fathom not visiting their pages and reading their words every day. Additionally, I don't plan to vanish from the internet map either.  I'll still be commenting at blogs, rambling on twitter, and possibly, (if there's any takers) writing a guest blog post here and there.

Who knows, after some time, I might even take up other internet pursuits...Battle Hymns Pinterest anyone?... Or maybe "Mood Lighting" the romance novel blog.

Anyway, thanks to everyone who's ever taken the time to make Battle Hymns part of their day (or night). It means a lot. Thanks to all the authors or publishers who've deemed me worthy of sending me free books, or have succumbed to interviews. That was pretty awesome of you.

Oh yeah, I'll keep the blog up for posterity or whatever, and I'm reachable at the battlehymnsblog_@_gmail[dot]com email address too should anyone ever want to email me...

Alright. That's it. Thanks!

Friday, February 8, 2013

Comic Quickies: Your Indie Fix

Ritual #1: Thanks to this absolutely wonderful short comic, which originally ran as a back up for Prohpet, I became an instant fan of Malachi Ward and Matt Sheean.  Since reading Shock Post I've been on the prowl for more comics by those dudes, and I came across Ritual at the Short Run Comics Fest a few months back. I read it way back then, but recently gave it a reread since it is a bit of a mind-bender.

There's a couple of strange occurrences at the start of this comic, that definitely set the stage for some weirdness later on. The very first page sorta sets the tone and gives the sense that this comic is gonna be a bit out of the ordinary. There's a dark town, a disembodied hand hovering over the town, a sudden burst of bright light as the hand closes, and then things return back to normal as the light winks out.  From there, things get even weirder.

Photo courtesy Lucky's Comics.
The next page shows a couple in bed, and the woman, who is awake, watches as beetles crawl under her man's skin.  Pretty weird right?  Well, from there things go from weird to normal... Maybe too normal.  After that, as morning arrives, the woman gets out of bed and goes about another day in the life.  It isn't until later in the day when she's at home playing her ukulele while her partner does some work that the power goes out, and the story takes another turn.

Ward's art reminds me a bit of Charles Burns, but there's also some other influences in there I can't quite put my finger on. Either way, his art is real nice to look at, and he's got a great knack for setting a creepy, dark tone. My fandom grew by the page.

I gotta say, I really enjoyed this first issue of Ritual.  It was a bit on the weird side of things, but I like that. I've read it twice now and still don't totally know what is going on which makes me look forward to reading it again someday. There's parts where the reader needs to make interpretations, and parts where you just gotta take events as they are, and sometimes that line is blurry.  All around a good read, and I'm looking forward to checking out more of Ward's work.

White Clay: I remember the day this arrived in my preferred comic shop; it stood out on the shelf of new and notable arrivals and seemed so different from what was in my comic pile that day that I decided I should pick it up if only for the sake of variety.  

Apparently, Thomas Herpich, the artist behind this one-man anthology comic, is one of the dudes who works on Adventure Time.  I'm completely out of touch with popular modern cartoons, but I keep hearing about all these great comic guys who are connected to that show, that I gotta say, I'm intrigued by it. 

Anyway, asides aside for a moment, White Clay is another comic featured in this little round-up that has moments of straight up weirdness mixed in clarity.  There's about nine comic-pieces in this thirty-two page issue, and they are by varying degrees witty, insightful, strange, fun, cute and imaginative.  Herpich definitely shows his versatility here, and I was roundly impressed from one story to the next.  

From the artist's blog:

This is another one that I've read a couple times before posting, and again, these comics, while good the first time around, were even better with another read.  I really like Herpich's art, especially his ability draw strange human-like creatures.  He's a deft hand with the india ink too, and I really appreciate how the varying shades of grey add depth and texture to his work.  Herpich is definitely a guy I want to keep an eye on and hopefully I'll be able to track down more of his work. Good stuff!

Lose #3:  I know I've already reviewed Lose #4 and this may seem like I'm working backwards in time, but I never thought I'd actually get my hands on any of the previous issues of Lose.  Then I went to Lucky's in Vancouver, and found Michael DeForge's third issue of his one-man comics anthology.  

If you recall from my review of Lose #4, I was not totally convinced of the all the love and accolades that get heaped upon this guy. I just wasn't seeing it from reading only that one item in his bag o' tricks.  Well, I'm glad I didn't write DeForge off, because I really enjoyed Lose #3.  

Again, things are a little weird, as DeForge seems to enjoy dialing up the oddities in his comics. Last time around I said that his comics "dipped into levels of weirdness that was difficult to digest as a reader" and while those dips are certainly there in this comic too, but this time around the "dips" were like a tasty sauce; easy to enjoy and hard to stop once you got started.

Photo taken from Koyama Press Site

Overall, I found the comics much more coherent this time, and enjoyed Lose #3 from start to finish.  There's a lot to like about Lose #3 and it all starts with an awesome page of tongue fads.  Personally, I prefer to keep my tongue "classic", but I can see the appeal of the "caged heat" and "the rose" fads.

Though every comic in this anthology was pretty damn great, I loved Dog 2070 which followed a divorced dog dad though his somewhat strange, somewhat sad, all together too real existence.  This comic manages to be insightful, smart, funny and a bit depressing all at the same time. A pretty impressive feat!

With another DeForge read under my belt, and a good one at that, I'm definitely looking forward to reading more of what he has to offer.  It looks like DeForge will have at least two new comics coming from Koyama Press in 2013, so I'll have my eye on those once they're published.

So how about that? Another foray into the wilds of indie comics, and I again, I not only return unscathed, but with three great trophies!  Talk about some talented folk who don't get enough recognition for their talents... I've really enjoyed this side of the medium, and you'd better believe I'll be reading more titles like these in the future.  

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Book Review: Cry, The Beloved Country

Every now and then I get the urge to step back from works of fantasy and science fiction and read something out of my usual comfort zone.  Often, these breaks from the norm can be a path to discovery for me, and help me recharge my reading batteries.  It's been a while since my last SF/F getaway, so I figured a little recharge was in order. Cry, The Beloved Country seemed like just the book to help me switch things up.

Set during 1948 in South Africa, Cry, The Beloved Country is a novel about a black man's country under white man's law.  The book follows Stephen Kumalo, a catholic priest from a small rural village.  Early on, Kumalo receives a letter from another priest in Johannesburg explaining that Kumalo's sister is sick and in need of his help. Kumalo rounds up his life savings, and travels to Johannesburg to help his sister, and to find his son, who had left for Johannesburg some time ago to find the very same sister, but has never returned, and no longer writes.

When Kumalo arrives in the city, he finds himself for the first time, in a bustling urban setting that he can barely comprehend or function in. However, with the help of Msimangu, the priest who summoned him to Johannesburg, he not only gets his bearings, and beings his mission of reconnecting with his family.

Way back when I bought Cry, The Beloved Country, my friend who recommended it to me said that it reminded him a lot of Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.  That statement was always faintly echoing in the back of my head while I was reading through this book.  In some ways, the two novels share a connection. Helplessness and devastation in the face of something completely out of the protagonist's control is definitely a theme both books share.  However, I didn't really find that my reading of Cry, The Beloved Country had me hearkening back to Grapes of Wrath very often. Instead, I found that it was a book that stands out as an almost wholly unique reading experience for me.

The most interesting quality of the book for me was how Paton explored the theme of racial segregation and injustice in the early days of apartheid South Africa.  Paton manages to explore this theme from multiple angles and shows the many layers of such a system while remaining objective and unbiased.  He explores perspectives on "native crime", the many social issues that are resultant thanks to the break down of the tribal structure, degradation and exploitation of the land and it's resources, and the flight from rural areas into over-crowded urban centers.

On the one hand, it was interesting to read about those topics, but it was also pretty upsetting to see that many of those same topics are still issues, with slightly different spins, that are prevalent today not only in South Africa, but here in the United States, and every other part of the world.  No matter what, this is a novel that forces the reader to engage, to wonder, to reflect, and to consider the ways of the world, both the fucked up and the wonderful.  I'm not gonna lie, Cry, The Beloved Country is a sad story, but there's beauty in that sadness.

Cry, The Beloved Country isn't just a book that explores themes.  It has a wonderful, and heartbreaking story at it's core too.  Kumalo is not a character that I share many commonalities with, but I had no problem connecting with him and his travails because he so wonderfully embodies the human spirit.  His strength, wisdom and unique experience is one that everyone can learn from, and I feel like I'm a better person for having known him just through the pages of this book.

Not bad for a fictional character, eh?

If you want to talk about having a "reading experience" this is certainly an experience. I feel like I gained insight, and perspective on topics that are incredibly relevant in my every day life.  This one is an all around great read for sure. So the next time you find yourself in need of a break from your usual reading fare...why not give this one a go?

Grade: A

Monday, February 4, 2013

Comic Review: No Hero

I realized something the other day, I'm getting older.  Things I would have liked even a few years ago, don't even seem worth the effort now.  Which is why I'm a little surprised with myself as to why I even chose to pick up No Hero from my shelf.

See, No Hero kinda exemplifies exactly the type of comic I don't go for any more: over the top action-over-story type comics.  They all seem to sing the same tune, and that song just doesn't do much for me anymore.

So why the fuck did I pick up No Hero from the shelf? I guess 'cause it's been sitting there for a while, and I paid good money for it. So, even though I feel like I've moved on from this brand of comics, I still felt like I needed read this before it collected any more dust from languishing on my shelves.  I wasn't even all that excited to check it out.

Not exactly a recipe for success.

As I sorta expected going in, No Hero delivers sophomoric writing that appears to be completely devoid of any effort on the behalf of Warren Ellis.  The plot is simple: An eccentric genius creates a wonder drug, FX7, that can give the user extraordinary powers.  Carrick Masterson, the guy who created the drug, has been selectively doling it out to a few individuals over the years, this creating generations of superhumans with the communal goal of making the world a better place by policing the globe and fixing shit as they see fit, when things go wrong.

Over the past forty years, there's been a few generations of these powered up people, known as The Levelers, who later became known as The Front Line. However, in that time, they've also managed to piss off a bunch of people as well, and now members of The Front Line are being killed left and right.  Which leads Masterson on a mission to rebuild the team, and the first guy he picks out as a candidate is a young man with strong ideals and an overwhelming desire for justice. But he has some strange reactions to FX7 drug, and now that he's all jacked up with superpowers the shit really starts to hit the fan.

The plot in No Hero is nothing special; when things get slow, there's some tits and ass chucked in, then later on, there's a twist that sorta makes things more interesting, but really isn't very exciting.  Like I said earlier, Ellis' writing is nowhere near on par with his efforts on Planetary or Transmetropolitan.  It's hard to tell the same guy wrote this stuff.  The only thing that makes No Hero come even remotely close to being special is the art of Juan Jose Ryp.

The dude can draw some crazy, hyper detailed scenes, and he's pretty much given full reign here as there's a lot more substance to the art than there is to the story.  Easily my favorite part of this comic was the four consecutive double page spread sequence where Masterson's would be hero trips balls from the FX7 drug.  Talk about a bad trip...

Sadly, too much of this comic felt like it was aimed at a demographic half my age, which didn't do much for me.  Things get extremely bloody, violent and silly pretty damn fast in No Hero. There's just too many moments where I rolled my eyes, and forged ahead.  I guess some folks would really enjoy seeing spines get ripped out, and faces punched off. Shit, I would have liked that shit only a few short years ago, but it was just too much here.  That kind of extreme violence really loses it's power and impact when it is happening page after page after page.

If seeing a dude use someone else's spine as a strap-on is cool to you, then by all means, give No Hero a whirl, otherwise steer well clear of this mess. There's some cool Juan Jose Ryp art, but he's done better comics with equal skill. For me, this one is going in the sell-back pile.

Grade: D

Friday, February 1, 2013

Comic Review: Basewood

I picked up Alec Longsteth's Basewood late last year at the Short Run Comics Fest. I honestly don't know why I waited so long to dig in.

Unlike the cover pictured to the left, I snagged a boxed set of the five single issues that comprise the Basewood series.  It was pretty cool to digest this series in it's original format, but also cool to not have to wait out the long stretches between issues.  According to Longstreth, there were about twelve years between the initial idea and the completion of the story.  Talk about some dedication to your work! That dedication shows as Basewood stands out as one of my favorite fantasy stories in any medium.

Basewood begins with a bloody and battered man being slowly brought back to consciousness by drops of rain.  As he slowly comes to, he discovers that he's sporting a brutal headache, a bloody dome, and only one shoe.  Before he can get his bearings, or sort out his situation, he's chased through the woods by a dog. He soon realizes the dog is more friend than foe, and together they trek though the dark woods to a clearing where they discover two important geographical features in their vacinity: a giant flat-topped wall of sheer rock, and a large, thick-wooded forest at it's base. Hence, the name of the comic.

The man, who's experiencing some severe memory loss, constructs a tidy little shelter in the clearing, builds a warm little fire, settles down to get some rest, and soon finds himself attacked by a giant winged dragon-like beast.  Death at the claws of the mighty beast seems certain, but the man is rescued by a bow and arrow wielding old hermit by the name of Argus who drives the beast away.  Thus begins the story of Basewood, the story of Argus and the unnamed man's companionship, the mystery of his origins, and their efforts to survive in a forest plagued by a fell beast.

I was impressed by how easy it was to fall into the narrative flow of Basewood.  I instantly wanted to know more about the injured man, how he came to be in the middle of the woods, and what his whole story was all about. This mystery element pulled me in, but Longstreth didn't stop there, as he adds some danger with with the monster, and some more mystery with the Argus the old hermit of the woods.  By the time I was done with the first issue, I felt like I never wanted to leave Basewood and return to reality.

I was impressed with Longstreth's ability to work so well in the fantasy genre.  Rather than create an epic fantasy, he chose to take the more intimate, character driven approach and it really paid off. His characters are very well developed, and I loved learning about their lives, both past and present.

The fantasy world he sets the story in is pretty great too.  We don't get to see too much of it, but like all great fantasy settings, it's one that is filled with mystery, danger, love and interesting people. Best of all, it's one that, once you are done reading, you'll want to revisit again and again.

Basewood would still be pretty damn special if it only featured great writing with only so-so art, but Longstreth brought his A-game on the artistic front as well. I really enjoyed his cartooning style.His art is a really great match for the story.  There's a great blend of imaginative art that brings fantasy world to life, and art that captures the mundane, real world stuff and gives the fantasy setting its roots in reality.

Argus' tree house is a great example.  It has all the fantastical imagination of the most awesomest tree house ever, while having such a great degree of functionality that makes it feel like a real living space. Yes, there's an ingenious pulley system that gets the dog up in the big-ass handmade tree house, but once inside there's Argus's gardening tools.

Oh, and there's a snow issue.

For a good chunk of the third issue there's a giant blizzard, and there's just all these flakes and flakes of snow falling and swirling across the panels.  It's so beautiful to look at.  It also seems like it would have been an incredibly huge pain in the ass to pull off...but it looks great, so the effort completely pays off.  It creates a strong sense of disorientation, and confusion, which adds to the intensity of the issue.  This is made more awesome by the fact that some of the big mysteries of the story are revealed during the snowstorm which just makes it all the more awesome.

I think the best thing I can say about Longstreth's story and art is that it did such an amazing job of capturing my imagination, and whisking me away from my mundane life into this fantastic, and more simple, fantasy world that I sorta didn't want to leave. When any work, especially fantasy, can do that, can take you right off your couch or out of your seat and plop you down in a completely new and fascinating place, it is really special, and Basewood does just that with ease.  I think Basewood is a bit hard to track down right now as I believe Longstreth is trying to get it published, but it is worth tracking down. Highly recommended.

Grade: A+

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Book Review: Heart-Shaped Box

The most recent stop on my quest to devour all things Joe Hill related led me to his first full-on novel, Heart Shaped Box.  Somehow, this one has slipped by me until now.  The title alone, also the title to one of Nirvana's greatest songs, seems to shout that it is a book that will appeal to my inner rock n' roll fan. Then there's the synopsis: Judas Coyne, an aging rock-god (think Alice Cooper meets Ozzy) and collector of the macabre discovers someone is selling a ghost.

A poltergeist will fit in perfectly with his ever growing collection of dark oddities, not to mention, he's already haunted by memories of an abusive father, recollections of former band-mates who are dead and gone, and the lingering guilt he feels for the suicidal girlfriend he abandoned in her time of need. So of course, he buys the ghost. Sooner or later, as these things go, the ghost is delivered to his house, packaged up nice and neat in a heart-shaped box.

This ghost is not hoax either; it sets the dogs barking up a frenzy, casts a chill over the house, and Coyne even starts having visions of an old man with black scribbles for eyes sitting in his living room.  That'd be enough to give any normal man a fear of the dark, but after some digging, Coyne discovers just who this ghost once was, and it's enough to put him on the run and on the search for some closure.

Jesus, talk about a book right up my alley.

Not that the guy hasn't impressed me before, but Joe Hill really rocked my socks off with Heart-Shaped Box.  Sure, what with my love of rock/metal music it may seem like I would have been a little predisposed to like this book, but I actually think my love of rock/metal actually makes Hill's task of making the book seem authentic all the more difficult.  He had to sell Judas Coyne as an aged rock-god, and make him feel like he fits in with the canon of other rock and metal gods, all while ensuring that he doesn't come across as too Spinal Tap-ish. Not only that, but he's gotta make Coyne seem like he's lived the rock n' roll life, but not make him seem like some washed-up VH-1 reality star.

I greatly appreciated that Hill did not take the easy route and make Coyne out to be just some caricature of the pop culture rock-star stereotype.  He's a guy that, had you really a fan of back in his glory days, you could still feel pretty good liking; He hasn't sold out, kept making sub-par cash cow albums, toured casinos, or starred in reality tv shows. He's just a regular dude who wants a quiet life of walking his dogs and...that's about it.  I was a fan.

Being a rock/metal fan helps, but Judas Coyne is the big reason Heart-Shaped Box is so damn good.  Hill really delves into Coyne's psyche, and his past, and it's interesting to see how those things all led him to make certain decisions along his life path, but also led him to who he is today.  He's certainly no angel, but he's not the angel of death either. For a reader like me, who has always sorta idolized many larger-than-life rock stars, I had a great time rooting for the guy.

On top of having a great character to center the narrative around, a plot that easily captured my interest, Hill also paced his story quite well. I've found that pacing is particularly valuable in the horror genre, and Hill definitely seems to have a firm grasp on that concept here. You won't find a pace that is hell-bent for leather, instead Hill moves things along at a deliberate pace that will satisfy any reader's craving to get into the story. That deliberate pace doesn't let up when the intensity rises either, which made for some fantastic reading, and scary scenes.

If there was ever any doubt, I can now safely say Joe Hill, hallowed be thy name, is firmly entrenched near the top of my favorite author rankings.  Heart-Shaped Box hit pretty much all the right notes for me in terms of what makes a good book, and on top of that, in wizard-like fashion, Hill conjured up elements of rock 'n roll that were a delicious cherry on top.  If you are looking for a great read, that mixes some contemporary fantasy elements, with classic horror, and a dash of hard-rockin' metal music, Heart-Shaped Box is the real thing.

Grade: A

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Comic Review: Criminal Vol. 3 The Dead and the Dying

I figured since I was on such a hot streak with the Criminal series, I might as well keep plugging away at it.

This third volume, The Dead and the Dying is a bit different in format from Coward and Lawless as it eschews that straight narrative focusing on one character.  Instead, this volume gives the reader three different character studies; and boxer trying to escape his father's shadow and have a life outside of organized crime; A vietnam vet who returns home to find that the mental and physical survival skills he developed in the war are simultaneously quite useful and quite terrible when put into action in his civilian life; and lastly, a young woman with a bleak past who is trying to steer her life away from a dark path.

The most impressive thing about The Dead and the Dying is how these narratives all overlap, dovetail, and in some cases, clash with each other to create one grand narrative.  The end result is both heartbreaking and an impressive piece of writing.  I gotta say, I liked this separate-but-connected story telling technique. I didn't know this technique would be in play until I started reading the Vietnam Veteran story piece and I noticed the first piece of overlap.  I got that light-bulb effect, and upon flipping back a few pages to the previous character study, pieced a few things together to make the whole story all the more interesting.

Not only do all the stories in The Dead and the Dying interweave with each other, but again, are all threads in the tapestry of the whole Criminal world that Brubaker has created. There were many moments where I made connections from this comic to the other Criminal comics, and I'm really enjoying how each volume builds upon each previous volume to create a decades-spanning mosaic crime story.  I don't often mention world building outside of epic fantasy reviews, but the world building that Brubaker is laying down in these Criminal comics is as impressive as anything I've seen in the fantasy genre.

I do have a major gripe about this volume, and that is how the character Danica is portrayed.  To start things off, I was very much put-off by the cover here.  I feel that it's a classic case of an over-sexualized comic cover. The fact that it's an exotification of a black woman makes it doubly bad.  Then there's this piece of interior art:

Again with the over-sexualization. And it's not even all that relevant to Danica's story. It seems to say that her sex is the only thing relevant about her. Sure, a ton of comics do this same thing month in and month out, but  it's still a shitty inexcusable trend of the medium, and I just don't see the point here. Especially when Criminal has been a series that, to this point, has been so far above the standard comic fare.

Additionally, there's a lot of violence towards Danica in this comic and I found that it was very upsetting.  Yes, Brubaker and Phillips have crafted a violent and dangerous world in this Criminal series, but Danica's story ended up making me uncomfortable to the point that it jarred me out of the story completely.

Though the writing technique used to tell this story was unique and well done, The Dead and the Dying loses some big time points for it's sexist cover art, and extreme violence towards women that was very disconcerting.

I should note that I haven't experienced anything like this in all the other Brubaker/Phillips comics I've read and I hope I don't experience it again. I was feeling so good about this comic series until things got weird and uncomfortable in the final third of this volume.  I can kinda see how these events could be steered towards developing a certain character as a total fucking prick for the coming story arcs, but if that's the case, I just don't agree with how Brubaker and Phillips went about it. You can show how a guy is a total asshole, sleazeball in other ways.

In the end, I'm pretty damn torn about this third volume of Criminal.  If you're gonna give this one a go, be forewarned that there are highs and lows.

Grade: D