Friday, July 30, 2010

Review: Wizard and Glass

Wizard and Glass is the fourth book in Stephen King's epic fantasy/western/horror mash-up extravaganza. This book takes a major detour into the past and explores an adventure from Roland's youth.

The previous book, The Waste Lands ended with Roland and his band of friends in a tight jam, aboard Blaine, a highly intelligent, computerized super-train, locked in a riddle-battle. Picking up where the last book left off, King kicks the novel off with the conclusion of the riddle-battle. The little fellowship survives thanks to some off-color jokes courtesy of Eddie Dean. Once they disembark the train, they find themselves in 1980's Topeka Kansas. However, it is not the Topeka Kansas of Eddie's, or Susnannah's, or Jake's "when", but one that has been wiped out by a deadly influenza.

Once on the outskirts of Topeka, they camp near a dimensional hole called a "thinny". As they rest for the night, Roland tells the crew about his first experience with a thinny, thus kicking off the novel-within-a-novel.

Roland's story goes way back to when he was fourteen and had just won his guns, becoming the youngest gunslinger in history. He and his friends Alain and Cuthbert have been sent to the far off barony of Mejis, in part for their own protection, but "officially" to do some counting for the alliance which Mejis is part of. While there, Roland meets and falls in love with Susan Delgado, a young lady who is promised to become the "gilly girl" to the aged, and son-less Mayor of Mejis. Roland gets so completely caught up in his love affair with Susan that it clouds his reasoning and judgment for some time. Roland's distraction comes at the worst possible time because he and his friends have run afoul of three local thugs called the Big Coffin Hunters, and have also uncovered a conspiracy; one that involves the local upper-class citizens of Mejis supplying and fueling the military machine of John Farson, rebel leader and enemy of the Gunslingers. Oh, and add in a wicked witch, and a magical pink orb for good measure.

The story within a story portion of this book was a bit of a let down for me. I have come to really enjoy the characters of Roland, Eddie, Susannah, and Jake, and they were more or less side notes as the story of Roland's youth took up the brunt of this book. It's not that Roland's back story was not interesting; it was quite entertaining, and well written, but was such a deviation from the overall plot of the series that I was disappointed to see the book go in that direction.

My wants and desires aside, Roland's character gets further developed, and his unwavering motivation for the Dark Tower becomes a lot more clear, so the back story certainly had it's purposes. In the past, I simply accepted Roland to be a hard-ass because it seemed to be his nature, but now King has given a reason for him being so hard, and I do appreciate that. I think King has done a wonderful job of crafting fantastic characters for this series, and I appreciate the effort. Roland is fast becoming an all-time favorite character of mine.

Yeah, I would have liked to have seen more happen in the way of the quest, and I would have liked more from the main characters, but despite that, this is still a great novel. The events that take place in Mejis add another layer to this series, and build upon the history of Roland's world which has only been hinted at or glimpsed in the past novels. I will say that Wizard and Glass felt like a middle novel, so hopefully the next book will put things back on track.

Grade: C+

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Review: Officer Downe

Officer Downe is a gory, ultra violent one-shot comic from the minds of writer Joe Casey, and artist Chris Burnham. The titular character, Officer Downe is a bad-ass, mustachioed, one-man-wrecking-crew of a cop. The issue begins with Downe, literally, busting some drug lords. Much ass is whooped, but the confrontation ends with a massive explosion, killing Officer Downe. That ain't the end of Officer Downe though! As we soon find out, his employers, the LAPD, simply use a cadre of telekinetics to patch up, and give life back into Downe's body. Once Downe is whole again, relatively speaking, (he seems to be a bit more crazy after each resurrection), Downe is ready to hit the streets and deal out his version of steel justice.

Unfortunately for Officer Downe, while he was recuperating, an evil society called the Fortune 500, (I was unsure if this referred to the heads of the world's largest corporations, or just some criminal helps to not think too hard about this comic's plot), has put a hit out on our hero. The hired assassin is a hip-hop ninja named Zen Master Flash. With the help of his legion of ninja trainees, Zen Master Flash lures Officer Downe by attacking Cedars-Sinai hospital. What transpires can only be described as: hardcore ultra-violent action!

Officer Downe is all kinds of crazy and pretty much awesome. It is kinda light on plotting, and certainly lacks any kind of depth. It is a classic "what you see is what you get" experience, but it is pretty damn entertaining. Burnham's artwork is decidedly gore-filled, but it has such an over the top approach to it that it was never really stomach-churning, but instead more or less comical. On each page I found myself scouring every panel in an attempt to pick out every minute detail that Burnham included, and there's plenty of plunder for those who take the time.

My major complaint about Officer Downe is that the ending seemed rushed. There didn't seem to be any kind of conclusion to the overall story line. It seemed like the story just ran out of space, and that was it. However the double-page splash to end the comic was amazing. Perhaps there'll be more Officer Downe to be had in the future. For now, I'll be reservedly satisfied with this action packed gore-fest.

Grade: B-

Sunday, July 25, 2010

My Creation

After a couple months of dismantling, paint stripping, painting, building, tweaking and customizing, I have finally turned my brother's old ten speed Cannondale road bike into a pimpa-liscious single speed beauty! This has been a time consuming, but fun, weekend project of mine, and I'm excited to have it rolling and fully operational for my summer vacation. I learned a lot about bikes in the process, and the experience is well worth the reward. So, without further ado: Feast your eyes on my new hand-built bicycle!

Friday, July 23, 2010

Review: Blankets

I've been on a somewhat small graphic novel reading jag lately, and my latest foray into that zone is Blankets by Craig Thompson.

Blankets is a combination coming of age/first love story. In Blankets Craig Thompson is also the main character, and he crafts a memoir of his childhood with themes like growing up in a fundamentalist Christian family, sibling relationships, first love, and sex.

Blankets is told chronologically, but Thompson uses flashbacks to illuminate certain aspects of the book. This novel begins with a story about how Thompson and his brother had to share the same bed when they were kids. Like any two young boys, they bug, and tease each other endlessly, but when these altercations inevitably escalate, one of them would wind up relegated to "The Cubby Hole", a tiny dusty hole in the wall, as punishment. This first tale sets up Thompson's narrative and artistic style, and got me hooked early. From there Thompson follows his childhood through church, schoolyard bullies, and his shady babysitter. From early on his love of drawing is at odds with his spirituality. His parents see his "doodles" as a perversion, causing Thompson to be confused and to doubt his gifts.

His only release from his personal pressures is his Christmas vacation, but even that is interrupted by his once yearly trips to Church Camp, where his status as an outsider is even more magnified than usual. However, as a teen, on one such Church Camp visit, he meets Raina a girl who Thompson develops a relationship with. Though their relationship is a long distance one for the most part, the two seem to lend each other stability in their otherwise confusing and tumultuous lives. Their relationship builds to a crescendo when Thompson takes a two week trip to Michigan to stay with Raina.

Thompson does a fantastic job delivering the love story between Craig and Raina. Blankets is such an open, honest, and sincere story, and that story telling style makes it easy to fall into as a reader. I could easily connect with Thompson in his young love experiences. As the story goes on, it is interesting to see how much that relationship impacted his decisions and his young adult life. I felt like I would have preferred greater detail given to his late teen, and early twenties, as I felt the conclusion to this story was a bit rushed. However, at nearly six hundred pages, very few other details are skimped.

Thompson does a wonderful weaving art and story. He uses a stripped down style of black and white art that is the perfect compliment to the story, which is expertly paced and wonderfully written. I think the greatest thing about Thompson's art is how it lends atmosphere to the story. It was amazing how his drawings often seemed to scream emotions and place you right in the center of events.

Blankets is one of the most perfectly crafted graphic novels that I've read in my short time with the medium. Thompson dealt out laughs, love, sadness, joy and strength with amazing skill. From the opening panel I was hooked, and was easily sucked back on the rare occasions I picked the book up after setting it down. I think this is one of those books that just about anyone, anywhere could get into, yet despite how accessible it is, it never once feels generic. Read, and enjoy!

Grade: B+

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Chew Coming to TV!

I read over on the Comics Alliance website that John Layman and Rob Guillory's awesome comic series, Chew has been optioned for television. A company called Circle of Confusion is behind the deal...they've handled similar things before apparently, locking down Powers for the cable network FX, and more recently, The Walking Dead for AMC.

I don't see how this isn't a cable series, what with the cannibalism, and occasional cussing, which means my sorry can't-afford-cable-ass will be waiting for the DVD release. Sad. Congrats to Layman and Guillory though!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Review: New X-Men: E is for Extinction

Hot off my successes with All Star Superman and We3, I thought I'd give another Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely collaboration a try. Emboldened by a capes and tights story that I actually enjoyed, I snagged a copy of New X-Men: E is for Extinction off the shelf at my local library. My thinking being that perhaps the Morrison/Quitely combo is just so damn good that they can make capes and tights not only palatable, but highly enjoyable. Well...this one came close, but it wasn't quite what I had hoped for.

For this X-Men tale, Morrison did a bit of revamping: Gone are the spandex uniforms and in their place are "stylish" leather ensembles that really only Wolverine can pull off...but I got sick of seeing that guy with his leather coat unzipped and no shirt on underneath. The X-Men team is also slimmed down, for reasons I'll get to in a bit, which is potentially nice because then there is no extra bodies clogging up the panels, or extra characters clogging up the narrative just because they are on the team.

The story goes like this: A creepy looking bald lady named Cassandra Nova has discovered an unknown Sentinel factory in the middle of the jungle. She uses that factory to create new, highly adaptable Sentinels that are hell-bent on terminating all the mutants of the world. And they damn near succeed. In a violent act of genocide, Nova manages to kill around sixteen million mutants, leaving a scant few hundred left on the planet. Too bad for Nova, but six of the remaining mutants just happen to be Proffessor X, Jean Grey, Cyclops, Wolverine, Beast, and Emma Frost. Six folks you do not want to piss off.

This concept initially struck me as one that I would enjoy quite a bit, but though the idea was there, I felt that the execution was lacking. Morrison didn't hit any emotional chords, which I thought, realistically, should have played a larger role. There were also times when I felt like the story jumped around in illogical ways which took away from the flow of events and made things feel sort of cobbled together.

Quitely's artwork was quite good, but it was decidedly lacking in eye popping moments. I never once found myself staring at a panel or a splash page in amazement. That doesn't mean that the art was bad, it just wasn't nearly as high a standard as I've come to expect with Quitely.

All in all, this was a pretty much a swing and a miss for me. The whole thing felt uninspired and lacked the magic that usually graces the pages when Morrison and Quitely team up. If anything it just goes to show that I've more or less grown past the super-hero tales, and left the spandex behind. As much as I wanted to like this one, it just didn't do it for me.

Grade: C-

Monday, July 19, 2010

All Star Superman 1&2

Let me start this by saying that I am NOT, nor have I ever been, a fan of Superman. I think he is boring. The guy is just too powerful. Nothing can really hurt him, he's the fastest, the strongest, and probably also the smartest. All of which makes him a blue and red bore. So why did I read All Star Superman? Well, it features my favorite comic creative team-up: Grant Morrison, and Frank Quitely, that's why.

Despite the creative team behind All Star Superman I was still a bit skeptical about reading a Superman story, but I'm happy to say: these two graphic novels are solid gold.

In the early pages of the story, we find out that Superman is dying. A space mission set to study the sun, is sabotaged by a genetically enhanced super-clone created by Lex Luthor. Superman, of course, saves the astronauts, but in the process totally overwhelms his cells with solar radiation. This overdose of sunlight causes Superman's white blood cells to start attacking and destroying his cells, a process which will ultimately lead to his demise. However, what with sunlight being the source of his powers, and getting such a heavy dose, Superman triples his strength and intelligence, not to mention gains a new power: the ability to emit electric pulses...pretty sweet.

Superman knows he is dying, and knows it was Lex that planned the whole thing, and he sets out to do as much good as he can for the world before he is gone. In the process he forgives Lex, while trying to convince the guy to do some good with his genius, cures terminally ill children, saves a suicidal girl, makes some scientific/genetics breakthroughs, and also battles beasts monsters and bizarros.

The moment where Superman saves the suicidal girl is probably my favorite moment from these two graphic novels. As she is gearing up to jump, Superman appears behind her, rests a mighty hand on her shoulder, and tells her: "It's never as bad as it seems." Then in the next panel he is gently pulling the startled girl back away from the edge and he says: "You're much stronger than you think you are. Trust me." Then the final panel shows Superman giving her a super-hug. This struck me as not only a very touching moment, but also a very heroic one too. With a few simple words Superman gave strength to someone who needed it badly. Not something you see everyday in capes and tights comics, and I loved it.

One of the reasons I think I liked All Star Superman so much is that it put more focus on Superman's more human qualities than his crazy powers. Free of those pesky DC Universe continuity rules, Morrison, instead of remaking Superman, origins and all, remodels Superman, and presents a stripped-down Man of Steel that focuses on his quietly noble qualities that make him a true hero.

Added to top shelf writing is Quitely's Amazing (capital A!) art work. Superman has never looked better. He isn't the most muscle-rippling superman ever, not by a long shot, but he looks relaxed and heroic and noble. It was the relaxed look that got me. Superman seems so chill in many of the frames, and then it hit me: if virtually nothing can hurt you, (not even kryponite, thanks to his sun overdose), you'd be one laid back person. I love the cover of the first graphic novel where Superman is just chillin' on a cloud looking out over Metropolis. I think that cover gives some good insight into the qualities Morrison and Quitely instilled in their version of Superman.

I can't believe I'm saying this: but I loved All Star Superman. I'm not usually a fan of the capes and tights comics stuff, but these books are definitely an exception. Superman has never been better, and possibly never will be. This is a must for any and all Superman fans, and a must for grumpy tights-haters like me too.

Grade: A

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Review Quickies

Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

Cat's Cradle is a classic by Vonnegut. At it's heart this is a book about human nature. The narrator of the story is trying to write a book about what people were doing the day the A-Bomb was dropped. Through this we meet Felix Hoenikker the guy who developed the bomb. Hoenikker is an eccentric who has no interest in humanity, and only cares to tinker and experiment with his pet projects. Somehow, Hoenikker had three kids, and they play a role in the story as well, as holders of the catastrophic ice-nine. Mix in a sex-queen, a Caribbean dictator, religion controlled by the government, and the end of the world, and you get some great reading.

I loved this book, and it should pretty much be on everyone's bookshelf.

Grade: A

Travels With Charley by John Steinbeck

When Steinbeck was sixty, he decided to take a mega-road trip with his french poodle, Charley. The vehicular mode of transportation for their journey was "Rocinante" a powerful truck equipped with a camper top. Together he and Charley travel to my home state of Maine, then across the US to my adopted home of Seattle, down to Texas, through the south, then back up the Atlantic coast, home to New York. Through the journey Steinbeck tries to "find America".

This book as basically the literary equivalent of my dream. For years I've envisioned a day when I'll hop into an RV, or something similar, and road-trip around the states. Of course, that shit ain't gonna happen any time soon, so for now, Travels with Charley will have to suffice. This is a great summer read, and it is sure to make your feet itch for some exploring.

Grade: B

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Reaction: Who Fears Death

Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

I don't think I've ever been more relieved to have finished a book.

Who Fears Death is a tough book. It is tough to read. Okorafor pulls absolutely zero punches in this one and delivers scene after scene of intense moments and delivers them with a clarity that often made me feel a sense of discomfort as I read. Okorafor depicts rapes, female circumcision, death, conception, a woman's menstrual period and genocide in this book, and all these moments occur with a visceral "up close and personal" point of view that takes no prisoners. This stylistic approach gives the novel some extremely powerful moments, moments that will live long in my memory. At the same time, for me at least, it was often too much. There were definitely times when the doors to my comfort zone were completely blown open and I was exposed to the raw winds of Okorafor's literary powers. Through some of these scenes, and others throughout the book, Okorafor makes connections from the novel to our world and through this challenged me engage the raw emotions that the novel brought out of me. This was an exciting and unique reading experience for me, and one that I likely will not soon forget.

The overall style of the book is also "tough", the narrative flow has a swagger about it that gives the book and, it's main character, Onyesonwu a distinct personality. Onyesonwu is a strong female lead character, one that is not seen often enough in fantasy literature these days. Okorafor does a good job of fleshing out Onyesonwu and making her believable and realistic. Unfortunately, the same can not be said about any other character in the book. Onyesonwu's quest companions, were never anything more than names to me, as they had very little that allowed the reader to tell them apart. Even the "Evil Lord" was weak, and was apparently just evil for the sake of being evil. This lack of a strong cast of characters greatly reduced my enjoyment of the book. It was difficult and frustrating to read pages and pages of the quest where things were happening to characters I cared absolutely nothing for due to weak characterization.

Another aspect of the book which was a real hang up for me was the dialog. For me this was the weakest part of the book, and a major detractor from my enjoyment. There were a lot of times while reading that I felt like the dialog was straight out of a YA book. The delivery of how the characters spoke to each other felt very juvenile. Okorafor's writing roots are based in YA, so this may be a reason for the dialog sounding like it was aimed at a younger crowd. However, that dialog, juxtaposed against the very heavy adult themes was jarring and out of place in this novel.

So, to go back to that first sentence of this post, my most basic reaction upon finishing this book was, and still is, relief. Yes, some of that relief is just being happy to have the weak characters and lame dialog behind me, but that's not all. This book sports some of the most intense, moments in fantasy history, and upon finishing it, I feel relieved that those intense moments are beyond me. That's why I titled this post a "reaction" not a "review". Who Fears Death, no matter what my personal gripes with nuts and bolts of the book are, is a powerful novel. It is a novel that for me at least, will take some time to completely digest. I knew as soon as I was done reading that I couldn't give this book a proper review, if I did, it would get a shitty grade, like a D minus or something, because I did not like this book. The characters and the dialog were BIG turn-offs...but that grading bullshit, and my opinion don't do justice to this novel, I feel that it transcended my typical reading experience and maybe changed me a little, and for sure changed the way I think.

Just like how this book evoked a strong reaction from me, it has also has given me lots to reflect on.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Review: Preacher: Dixie Fried

The fifth Preacher volume opens with a violent and hilarious account of Cassidy from his earlier vampire days. In this prelude, Cassidy discovers a fellow vampire in the city of New Orleans. However, this guy is way into the cheesy, gothic, Dracula-esque vampire scene, right down to sleeping in a coffin every night. This wanker, (Cassidy's words, not mine), Eccarius also has a band of followers who fancy themselves Les Enfants du Sang or Children of the Blood. They're a bunch pathetic hangers on, and Cassidy tries to show Eccarius a better way of life: A life of boozing it up and living life to the fullest, of course. Cassidy and Eccarius prove to be too different to see eye to eye, and their short acquaintance comes to a fiery conclusion.

Back in the present course of events, Jesse and Cassidy have arrived back in New York City and have been rejoined by Tulip. She was left behind in France by Jesse back in the third volume, and she finally gets her shot at revenge, and she does not miss. While Jesse is suffering from Tulip's wrath, Tulip meets Cassidy at a pub, and Cassidy confesses his love for her. While it could be seen as drunken confusion, Cassidy insists that it is not, and that his love is for real.

Jesse's quest to confront God must continue though, and the three set out to New Orleans to see a Voodoo priest that can supposedly help Jesse find some answers. Amidst fractured trust, cults hell bent on revenge, and the return of Arseface, Jesse, Tulip and Cassidy need to stick together in order to stay alive.

This fifth volume of the Preacher series sports a return to the main story line, and the three main characters of Jesse, Tulip and Cassidy. While it nice to see Ennis shake things up a bit and create a few fractures in the group, not a lot else occurred in this volume. Normally I praise Ennis' skill at crafting fantastic dialog, but this one had too much dialog and not enough plot movement. The voodoo elements were deliberately cliched, but hopefully provided some direction to Jesse's mission so that the next volume will be more exciting.

Dixie Fried was not all bad though. Many of the side-plot elements were interesting and funny. There is never a dull moment when Arseface is around, and I look forward to tracking his burgeoning singing career. Les Enfants du Sang proved to be entertaining cannon fodder for Tulip and company. If only all shitty, expendable villains were so entertaining.

On the artistic front, Steve Dillon is impressive once again. Dillon has a wonderful ability to draw extremely memorable and graphic scenes. There are a few panels in Dixie Fried that will live long and prosper in my memory. The two Les Enfants impaled on the same samurai sword panel is a winner in my book.

While Dixie Fried isn't as strong as the other Preacher books, it still delivers some good solid entertainment. I'll be honest and say that this was my least favorite of the Preacher books so far, but I'll temper that statement by saying this is still some extremely entertaining stuff, and better than 99% of the capes and tights bullshit out there. Preacher continues to be awesome and I'll be reading more of it soon enough.

Grade: B-

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Author Event: Nnedi Okorafor

Last night, here in Seattle, I attended an author reading/book signing featuring Nnedi Okorafor. Okorafor and her new book, Who Fears Death popped up on my radar a short while ago when Ken from Neth Space wrote a sweet review of the book. Since then I've had my eye out for this one, and I recently came across a used copy, so I scooped it up. Then, late last week, I discovered the author event and thought it would be worth checking out.

As far as author events go, this one was quite different. Usually, these things go one of two ways: 1) The author reads a bit of his or her novel,maybe discusses the creation process of the book, fields questions from the audience, then signs books. 2) The author is interviewed by someone, often a literature critic, people from the audience ask questions, then the author signs books. However, Okorafor played things differently.

She began by reading the first chapter of Who Fears Death, then proceeded to read other sections from deeper within the novel. I'm sure this was a pleasure for those in the audience who had read the book, as Okorafor's reading covered some pivotal moments in the novel, yet for me it was somewhat torturous as I had not read the novel yet, and her reading was speckled with plot spoilers. Okorafor read for an hour, at which time it was announced the store was closing, so only a few people lined up for autographs, and it was over. No question/answer session and a handful of spoilers for those in the audience who had not had the opportunity to read the novel yet.

I'll admit, after Okorafor's reading I was somewhat frustrated, because I felt that some of the mystery of the novel had been taken away, but then it hit me that I had also been given something pretty special: Okorafor had shared parts of her novel that she felt strongly about, and read them in her voice, the way they were intended to be read, and that is a rare thing for a reader to experience. I began the book today, and I know that having heard Okorafor read the first chapter, that I had a stronger sense of the narrator's voice thanks to her reading. I'm sure this effect will carry through for the other sections I heard, and will hopefully continue to enrich the reading experience.

I was one of the few who stuck around for autographs, and I was rewarded with a cool personalization by Okorafor, so that was a nice cap to an interesting evening.


Yikes! It's been about ten days since I last wrote a blog post, and on top of that: only three posts since June 10th...Why? Well, for good reason really. The World Cup started June 11th, and I've been following it quite closely. My beloved Mexicans did well, but were no match for those pesky Argentines.

To those select, and lucky few who actually do read Battle Hymns, there should be an up-tick in content starting immediately. There is only one more match to watch, (I wont be watching the third place game), so my free time should once again be dedicated to blogging. I have a fairly hefty back-log of stuffs to cover, so be on your toes and be ready.