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

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Comic Review: Criminal Vol. 2 Lawless

Tracy Lawless has returned home after a couple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan; back to the world he was raised in, the crime ridden streets of the city.  Tracy probably would have preferred to stay away, but someone killed his brother, and he wants to find out why.

Despite lots of family history behind the Lawless name, Tracy has an advantage in the criminal underworld in the fact that he's been gone so damn long that no one remembers his face.  Tracy's first step in finding his brother's killer is linking up with his brother's old crew, and though that might bring him one step closer to the truth, the truth might be uglier than not knowing.

Once again, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips deliver gold standard hard-bitten crime comics.  These guys are just flat out scary good at this stuff.

Though it's predecessor, Coward was an impressive feat of crime comics, I was more impressed with Lawless due to the fact that it has been cleverly crafted to fit into the world that Brubaker and Phillips created in the series opener.

Even though both Coward and Lawless can be read completely as stand-alone stories, there are little subtle touches that stand out to the reader. Side characters who seemed like throwaways take a more prominent role, familiar faces are back in familiar roles, and names just barely mentioned become leading roles in this volume.  Brubaker and Phillips have crafted an impressive, multi-layered world that I feel like I'm just now starting to get a grasp on.

With masterful craftsmanship and impressive world-building it is easy to rate this one pretty high, but there's more goodness to be had in Lawless.  Brubaker and Phillips again deliver the goods in terms of writing and art. I really think Phillips is the best possible artist for this series, as he is just really flippin' good at bringing dark and gritty to life.

Brubaker is no slouch either. Sure, crime plots can often seem a bit recycled, but Brubaker somehow gets readers to care for his criminal, low-life, unsavory characters.  That ability to make readers care about the characters makes the plots more gripping the the tension more palpable.

As impressed as I've been with this comic makin' duo in the past, I was even more impressed here. The material that I've read from the Criminal series is definitely their best work in the comics medium thus far, and it appears to be only getting better.  Not convinced yet? Do yourself a favor and go read Criminal.

Grade: A+

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Book Review: The Red Knight

It's still very early in the year, but we've already got a fantasy debut that seems poised to challenge the established ranks of the epic fantasy pantheon.  Enter Miles Cameron and his fantasy debut, the first book in the Traitor Son Cycle, The Red Knight.

The Red Knight isn't just the name of this book, it's also the name of the main character.  He's the leader of a band of mercenaries who have been hired by an abbess and her convent of nuns to protect them from the dangers of the wild.  The wild is an unruly expanse of the map where dangerous creatures, be they wyverns, irks, boglins, and other creatures of nightmare live.  It appears one of these fearful beasts has been causing problems in the lands around the nunnery, and the Red Knight and his soldiers have been hired to defeat the beast.

However, it looks like the mercenaries might be in for more than what appears to be a tidy profit, and the company of comely novices.  The creatures of the wild are out in force, with a malevolent, magical being pulling the strings. With help from the king and his knights days, possibly weeks, away, it's up to the Red Knight to devise a defense of the abbey against not only the hordes of the wild, but a magical onslaught from an unknown powerful being.

From the get-go it is pretty clear to see that Miles Cameron does a lot of things right with The Red Knight. First off, he sets his story in a very realistic medieval setting, albeit one with lots of crazy monsters hanging around.  For the first time since I read Mary Gentle's Ash I felt like a writer provided an accurate depiction of medieval arms, armor, and the mercenary life-style.  This quality came through clearest during battles or action scenes where the fighting was visceral and bloody...exactly how you might expect things to go when sharp, pointy bladed things are the weapons of choice.  On a personal note, I also liked how Cameron didn't treat horses as something the heroes can just hop on and make a charge to glory.  The war horses got appropriately tired from charging with a shit-ton of armor, and an armored dude on their backs. A small thing sure, but it was a detail I appreciated and added a nice layer of realism.

Mary Gentle's Ash wasn't the only work of fantasy this book reminded of. I was pleasantly surprised to find myself finding some parallels between The Red Knight and the works of Steven Erikson.

The Red Knight doesn't start out nearly as complex, or on such a huge scale as Erikson's stuff, but it definitely builds in complexity, and depth as the story progresses.  What begins as a tightly focused siege tale in an analog for medieval England soon expands to include Galle, a very French-like country, as well as some locales and characters with middle-eastern influences, and the Sossag people who reminded me in some ways of Native American/First Nations people.

Another aspect that gave me fond reminiscences of Erikson is that Cameron definitely went for the grand conversion ending where all his plot threads came together in one epic, and deafening crush of action of mayhem.  I loved it. Sure, he didn't pull it all together as craftily as Erikson, (who could?) but it works pretty damn well, and I was impressed.

In addition to a wide range of people and cultures that come into play, there's also some impressive and devastating magic in this world that Miles Cameron has crafted.  The magic system, which is based on hermeticism,  is one that struck me as pretty unique to the fantasy genre, but I was never quite sure I understood just how it all worked.  Granted, this is only the opening novel in a series, and not everything can or should be explained in the first book. I'm willing to give Cameron a pass on this one as I think more exposure to the magic system would lead to a greater understanding.

I'm always a stickler for great characters, and Cameron did pretty well in that regards here too. Though this is a book of knights and ladies, there isn't a true "hero" in the King Arthur and Knights of the Round Table sense. Most everyone in The Red Knight, with a few exceptions, is more gray than clearly black or white.   I can't say that I was an instant fan of too many of these characters, but I definitely acquired a taste for more than a few of them.  By the end, there were a few whose viewpoint sections I came to look forward to.

I wouldn't be the person, or the reviewer that I am, if I didn't mention the creatures of the wild.  I love crazy beasts and monsters.  Oh, sure the creatures of the wild are fairly standard fantasy fare; irks and boglins sure sound an awful lot like orcs and goblins.  Not to mention we've got trolls, wyverns, and even a dragon. But you know what? That's fine. Why reinvent the wheel?  It's how you use them, and Cameron did a pretty damn good job of that. Yes, the irks and boglins were mostly used as sword fodder, but the larger beasts were quite awesome, gruesome and terrifying.  And intelligent. Which made for some really great monster fights.

Though there's a lot to like about The Red Knight, I found myself hung up on one key factor: That there isn't a lot about the plot that seems new.  You've got a giant siege, the "good guys" are out numbered and out-gunned, or more accurately, out-magicked, and there's a super-powerful evil tree-wizard trying to take over the world.  As I was reading, I kept wanting Cameron to steer the story away from those classic story elements, but the more I read, the more I discovered the direction towards a been-there-done-that plot was inevitable.   This led to a large degree of predictability for the story, and caused my interest to flag in the second half of the book.

The predictability and standard plot wasn't a total deal breaker for me though. Cameron still delivered enough great action and monster fights for me to be pretty well entertained from start to finish.  That being said, in a book that had a lot to like, I still found myself wanting more.

Despite drawbacks, The Red Knight is a fantasy that will likely find it's way into many hands and onto many "debut of the year" lists.  Cameron shows a lot of promise and though The Red Knight fell a little short for me, there's certainly hints that this is a series to keep an eye on.

Grade: B-

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Comic Review: Criminal Vol. 1 Coward

I've been hoarding my volumes of Criminal for a while now, waiting for the right moment to uncork and savor these crime stories from the modern crime masters, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips.  However, I've been enjoying their latest, Fatale so much, that my will power cracked and I decided instead to go for a Brubaker/Phillips binge and read me some Criminal.

Sometimes it's nice to have wimpy willpower.

In Coward, we follow Leo, an expert pick-pocket and a guy with a deft hand when it comes to planning a heist too.  The thing is, he has a rep for bailing on a job at the first sign of things going south.  However, sometimes a job can be worth the risk, and when Leo is approached by an old friend and a crooked cop to help orchestrate an armored car diamond heist he sets his rules aside in favor of a large pay-off.

If I had any doubt that Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips are the modern masters of the crime story, I threw all reservations out the door with Coward.  These two guys are truly at their best when working in the crime genre.  Not only was Brubaker able to deliver a great story with all the twists, backstabs, and drama that are the staples of the genre, but Phillips was able to bring it all to life with his fantastic art.  The settings are seedy, the characters are unsavory, and Phillips makes it all seem so real.

The synergy that Brubaker and Phillips share is incredibly impressive and their great rapport makes it incredibly easy for the reader to completely fall into this world of crime and mayhem.  It's pretty easy to gush about how solid the Brubaker-Phillips collaboration is, these guys have worked together extensively, and it shows in Coward.

One aspect that made Coward stand out for me was Brubaker's choice of Leo as a main character.  In pretty much every crime story I've come across, the main dude is usually a tough-guy type who won't back down from a fight, or hesitate to whip out a gun and shoot it out with some cops.  Leo, on the other hand, is the polar opposite and when the going gets tough, Leo hits the road.  The use of a non-standard character in this very standard urban crime setting was a nice touch, and one that makes this story stand out from the crowd.

As I've come to expect when Sean Phillips is involved, the art in Coward is great. Phillips can flat out draw the hell out of a crime story. As I mentioned earlier, he has a great knack for bringing the world, and the characters that fill it to life with his art.  Phillips can deliver action scenes and dramatic moments where body language and facial expressions tell the tale with equal aplomb, which is no small feat.

If you like your crime with a nice layer of grit, and are in the mood for a crime comic with fantastic writing and pitch-perfect art, than Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips' Criminal is the place to go.  This is top shelf stuff from two of the very best.  I expect I'll be reading the rest of the Criminal volumes sooner than later.

Grade: A+

Friday, January 18, 2013

Book Review: The Emperor's Knife

A terrible disease is chewing away at the heart of the Cerani Empire.  Victims of the disease find their flesh become increasingly covered in geometric patterns until one of two things occur: the victim either dies in agony, or becomes a carrier who is essentially a salve to the mysterious and evil Pattern Master.

The emperor himself, Beyon has been stricken with the disease, and though he hides it from his people for now, it is only a matter of time before the patterns spread and it becomes clear that he is not only afflicted, but disobeying his own decree that anyone showing signs of the disease be killed.

The emperor's loyal agents have been dispatched to the corners of the world in search of a cure.  A last ditch deal has been struck with the people of the northern plains in hopes that Mesema, the daughter of a great chieftan, and a windreader, can help not only produce a much needed heir, but also a cure for the disease. Meanwhile, the royal assassin, Eyul has been sent to the desert wastes to seek the wisdom of a hermit.

The plans all seem like random shots in the dark, but the empire is on the brink of disaster, and the Emperor seems to be out of good ideas.  While the emperor's health flags, and the empire teeters on collapse, his chief adviser, Tuivani, plots and schemes to turn the events to his favor.  However, there's other players in this game of illness and politics and even the emperor himself has an ace up his sleeve in the form of a secret brother.

The Emperor's Knife is a book I've had my eye on for a while, and when Night Shade Books did a free Thanksgiving giveaway, I jumped on the opportunity to get my hands on this book.  I was interested in the concept of an unstoppable deadly sickness, and Williams did a good job of creating a disease that, like all terrible diseases, is unbiased in who it attacks, and completely bewildering to those who try to stop it.  Adding to my interest in the novel is the fact Williams sets it in a middle eastern-like setting which I found to be a nice switch from the typical European setting that dominates many fantasy worlds.  These concepts certainly served to draw me into Williams' world and set the stage early for an interesting read filled with political intrigue and action.

Concepts are all well and good for getting a person to start a book, but it takes more than that to fashion a great novel, and Williams takes a couple more steps in that direction with a couple interesting characters and a great magic system.

I was most taken with Eyul, the Emperor's assassin.  He's a bit of an aged dude, and I liked that rather than center a huge chunk of the narrative on a young boy poised fulfill a prophecy, Williams instead based a lot of the story on a man who's getting a little long in the tooth, and finds himself doing the dirty work of the empire.   Sarmin, the emperor's brother, was another interesting character, as his life and mental stability made him a bit of a wild card, which helped spice things up a bit. Though Eyul and Sarmin were interesting characters, I never really got invested in the other characters, and found it hard to relate to, or make myself care about what was happening to a bunch of scheming privileged politicians.

Another feather in Williams' cap is the magic system in The Emperor's Knife.  Mages in this world have elemental powers which I not only found interesting, but genius in it's simplicity.  I'm not really a fan of complex magic systems, so it was refreshing to see one that was simple, creative and cool all at the same time.

Though I did find stuff to enjoy with The Emperor's Knife, I had my gripes too.  This is a novel with lots of political twists and turns, but the events, grand actions and schemes that play out over the course of the novel don't really seem to affect anyone other than a few dozen politicians and the guards who happen to get caught in the undertow.  At times, it almost seems like the Cerani empire is an empty place, populated only by the characters in the book.  This definitely made things feel a bit more flat, and took away from what was an interesting setting.

Additionally, though there was an unstoppable sickness at the heart of this novel, I never felt that Williams took advantage of the tension this plot element could cause. Though Williams tells the reader the sickness is plaguing many people in the empire, this is never shown, and thus weakens the story with this lack of depth.

When the dust clears, The Emperor's Knife is a debut that ultimately fell a bit flat for me.  Though I experienced some highs and lows, Williams brings some very interesting elements to the table and shows promise in his/her future novels. In the end, I wanted to like this book more than I did.  I never found myself fully invested in the characters or the world, as both lacked the vibrancy I need to get fully engaged in a novel.  Though this is the first in a trilogy, The Emperor's Knife can be read completely as a stand alone novel, as Williams wraps things up pretty neatly, yet leaves the door open just enough for stories with this world and these characters.

Grade: C

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Comic Quickies: Indie Gems

Comics Class: This one was one of my many exciting pick ups from Lucky's Comics in Vancouver.  Exciting enough that I read it at the first opportunity I got: on the bus ride home, with my lady reading over my shoulder.

We both loved it.

Maybe I'm a little predisposed to like Comics Class due to the fact that I work with school aged kids. This fact certainly helped me relate to the material, but there's plenty to like about Comics Class for every reader.  First of all, it is hilarious.  There's a lot of jokes packed into this 44 page comic, enough to get both me and my partner laughing out loud on multiple occasions.

In this "kind of based on a real class" comic, Matt Forsythe, the writer/artist/protagonist takes a job teaching a comic class at a local middle school.  A job which he rides a school bus to, arm wrestles students to prove a completely non-comics related point, and doesn't have his students do any actual comics creating for the first seven weeks.

In an ironic twist of fate, the Matthew Forsythe character in the comic has absolutely no success in teaching his students anything about making comics, However, I felt like I gained insight into making them just from reading the book.

The most impressive thing about Comics Class is that it manages to do so much in such a small amount of space. It is smart, witty, insightful, and a lot of fun to read.  This was the first comic I read in 2013 and I gotta say, I got off to a perfect start.

Wimbledon Green: I've been researching and branching out into more indie comics lately, and always two names pop up as must-read creators: Seth, and Chris Ware.  I've read Seth's It's a Good Life If You Don't Weaken and while I enjoyed it, I wasn't blown away.  However, the guy is extremely well respected in the comics medium, so I wasn't about to write the guy off after one pretty good, but not amazing reading experience.

This time around I went for Wimbledon Green, a comic that apparently originated as a comic he did in his sketchbook just for fun, and turned out to be a project he wanted to explore further.  The story follows the titular character, Wimbledon Green, who's an eccentric and avid collector of obscure, expensive comics. The guy is a bit of a mystery, as no one seems to know where he's from, how he got all his money to spend on comics, or even if he's who he says he is.

Regardless, Wimbledon Green has one of the most impressive rare and expensive comic collections around, a collection he's gathered thanks to some shady deals, trickery, manipulation, and possibly even outright theft.  The other comic collectors who act as Green's colleagues and rivals aren't much different in their comic collecting practices from Green.  All together they create a comic that was a lot of fun to read.

Seth's art in Wimbledon Green isn't as polished or as detailed as his other works that I've either read or thumbed through, and the lettering can be a bit hard to read at times.  That being said, I still enjoyed Seth's cartooning, and there's a fair amount of sight gags, jokes and just great cartooning in this comic to satisfy my tastes.

 Quimby the Mouse: As I mentioned earlier, aside from Seth, Chris Ware is the name that gets bandied about when folks talk about a modern master of the comics medium.  Despite his preeminence in the medium, his works have eluded me up to this point thanks to either scarcity or the price of the product.

During my most recent trip to the Fantagraphics Bookstore and Gallery I was determined to leave with a Chris Ware book in hand so that I could finally explore his work.  After pawing through his books and inquiring with the shop person, I decided the best place to begin was (surprise, surprise) the beginning.

Quimby the Mouse collects Ware's early works, mostly strips and one to two page comics. Some of which he made while still an undergrad in college.  The comic is printed in a very large format, and has a running gag that the material between the covers is from a discontinued library book.  Using the oversized format to its fullest capabilities, Ware fills up each and every page with either comics or text, and often his panels are postage stamp size or smaller.  This led to two things: I often found myself squinting to either read the microscopic text or view the art, and I found that on many occasions, it would take me 20-30 minutes just to work my way through a single page.  I didn't mind that the pages called for deep immersion, but I wasn't expecting so much squinting given the massive size of this comic.

In the end, all the squinting and eye strain paid off as I was rewarded with a great glimpse at what Ware is able to bring to the table in terms of comics.  His style of cartooning is completely unique, and pops off the page as very eye-catching.  I was also impressed with his ability to create a feeling of motion with his panel art.  In many of the Quimby strips I was able to quickly move my eye from one panel to the next and create the sensation that the art was actually moving, like a flip book or early animation.  All told, it was a cool experience, and I'm excited to explore more of his work in the future.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

I Lost My Blurb-ginity!

The other day I got a really awesome email from my fellow blogger-buddy Bryce from Only The Best Sci-Fi and Fantasy. Bryce was kind enough to give me the heads up that my review of Scourge of the Betrayer got blurbed in the trade paperback edition of said book.   

Bryce also sent me a photo of the blurb, which was exciting, but I really wanted see it for myself. I've been searching around a few of the local book shops here in Seattle, but I didn't come across a paperback copy of the book until today.

Exciting! It was all I could do to not show it off to the random people in the fantasy and sci-fi section.

Thanks go out to Bryce for the heads up, and thanks to Jeff Salyards for blurbing my review!

Friday, January 11, 2013

Kicking it Old School: The Dispossessed

I've been traipsing around in the annals of old school SF again, this time around I decided to explore the fertile ground that is the works published list of Ursula K. Le Guin.  I picked out The Dispossessed based on the back blurb, and a staff recommendation from my favorite local bookstore.

A few generations ago, the moon Anarres, with its bleak desert-like landscape, was settled by an anarchic utopian civilization.  Urras, the mother planet, is a planet much like our own. It has a capitalist system with extreme wealth and severe poverty, as well as it's fair share of warring nations, and savage inequalities.  On the surface, the two planets seem like night and day, and that discrepancy has led to hatred and misunderstanding between the two planets for years.

Shevek, a brilliant physicist from Anarres is underappreciated and underutilized on his own planet. So he decides to undertake a most unheard of mission, and travels to Urras in hopes of pursuing his physics career, learning about this unknown world, to share his knowledge, and reunite the two planets.

The Dispossessed has a unique narrative style that I enjoyed quite a lot.  The chapters alternate between focusing on Shevek's time on Urras, and his time on Anarres.  The cool part is that the Urras chapters deal with the events of Shevek's time on the foreign planet, and the Anarres chapters deal with the events of Shevek's life that lead up to his departure from Anarres.  I enjoyed this quality of the book as it made me feel like I was having to put together a mental jigsaw puzzle so that I could understand the book.

There was a bit of a drawback however, as it makes the reader wait a long time for an explanation as to why Shevek decided to leave his home planet behind.  This long development worked as a double-edged sword as it kept me on the hook... to an extent, because for a large portion of the book I didn't understand Shevek's motives, and that led to some frustration on my part.

For me, the most impressive part of this novel is that Le Guin had to create and make real not one world but two, and she did it incredibly well. There were plenty of parallels between Urras and our own, which was a deliberate part of the plot, but Le Guin also made Urras different enough so that it was fun to explore alongside Shevek.  It was interesting to see how further exploration of each planet brought about more highlights and inadequacies of each. The exploration of these two disparate societies reminded me a bit of books like Brave New World, but The Dispossessed explores both the Utopian and Dystopian side by side which I found much more interesting.

In the past, I have had a hard time getting fully into SF books where the focus is on a political exploration/message.  I've often felt like the politics often overtake the narrative and don't leave any space for an interesting story.  For two thirds of The Dispossessed, I felt the same way. However, once the back story kicked in and gave meaning to the current events of the novel, I found myself enjoying it a lot more, and felt rewarded for sticking with it.  It might take a while the whole picture to become clear, but I was glad I hung in there.

I didn't enjoy The Dispossessed as much as my previous Le Guin read, The Lathe of Heaven, but I still enjoyed what this book has to offer.  Despite being published before I was born, it still is a book that can have relevance today.  That should say a lot.  It's not too bad of a read either.

Grade: 7.5 Fanny Packs

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Sweet Tooth Finale

My trip to the comic shop will be bitter sweet today, as it is the last time that I'll walk in and have an issue of Sweet Tooth waiting for me.

For the past couple of years, Sweet Tooth has held that special spot in my heart as my favorite monthly comic.  Not only has this post apocalyptic comic entertained me month in and month out with a story that is packed with emotion, action, a bit of romance, and a bit of bromance, but it has introduced me to Jeff Lemire, a man who has quickly become one of my most favorite comic creators.

His creator owned comics such as The Underwater Welder, Essex County, The Nobody, and Lost Dogs all hold a special place on my shelves, and in my heart.  So when the 40th issue of Sweet Tooth is purchased, read, reread and filed away with it thirty-nine brothers there'll be an empty space in my pull box, and at the top of my most-loved-monthly-comics list.

The ending is just a beginning though right?  Though I'll be sad when I turn that final page, we haven't seen the last of Jeff Lemire.  He's slated to release Trillium later this year, a ten issue mini-series from Vertigo.  I'll be looking forward to that.

If you'd like to read more about the end of Sweet Tooth, check out this USA Today interview.

If you haven't read Sweet Tooth yet, I strongly urge you to check it out. It is one of the very best comics of the last 5 years.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Comic Review: Queen and Country Vols. 3 & 4

Queen & Country Vol. 3: Hot on the heels of my earlier experience with Greg Rucka's Queen & Country books, I decided I'd dive in again for the rest of the story.

Again, I was treated to much of the same highs and lows that were associated with the earlier volumes of this material.  This third volume, which wraps up Tara Chace's story has all the hallmarks of the Queen & Country series. First and foremost among those hallmarks: Greg Rucka's writing is quality. His spy stories are not only incredibly engrossing, but they also pack a very realistic feel, and strike a fine balance between political agendas and personal loyalties.  Also, just like my earlier experiences, the art was hit or miss for me.

In the third volume, things were more hit than miss for me on the art front, as Steve Rolston, probably my favorite artist from the series, was back dealing out some high quality art, and Chris Samnee, who I enjoyed on the Rocketeer Cargo of Doom story, handled some of the art as well.  Both those guys delivered some fantastic art, and helped raise the quality of this volume.

However, I was surprised to find myself frustrated with Rucka's writing.  At the start of the second story arc, Operation: Red Panda the narrative drops the reader down into the middle of events, and it soon becomes very clear that there's been a very major plot development that has gone down.  However, that major plot development is never explored, nor fully explained. Not only did I find this extremely confusing and frustrating, but I was pretty upset with this development, as I felt like I'd been cheated out of a huge piece of the story.

This whole ordeal seemed very out of character for Rucka's writing; He's typically a writer that is very good at tying everything together and buttoning up loose ends.  So much out of character that I blamed myself for missing something.

Well it turns out I did miss something.  An entire prose novel.

Between Operation: Saddlebag and Operation: Red Panda, there was apparently an entire prose novel titled A Gentleman's Game.  I can only assume that the major plot events I missed out on occurred in the pages of that book.  As a comics reader, I'm not so sure how I feel about that.  It's frustrating that the whole story isn't told within the medium in which it was started, and it's also frustrating that even if I wanted to read A Gentleman's Game, by reading this comic, much of that book is already spoiled, thus taking away form that experience, so there's no really good way to get closure.

This also brings up a discussion; that of comics being the destination, not a vehicle to other more well respected mediums, that I don't want to get into.  Suffice it to say that the switching of mediums, and subsequent major plot gap did a lot to take away from my Queen & Country experience.

Queen & Country Vol. 4: This fourth and final volume of the Queen & Country series collects the Declassified story arcs.  Each story reveals the past of one of the characters from the Queen & Country series.

Hardcore fans of the series will likely find this material quite interesting, as it gives backgrounds for Paul Crocker and Tom Wallace, two of the key characters from the series. For me, after the empty feeling I was left with from the previous volume, found that I didn't care about this material as much as I could have.

The stories here are pretty good, the first two in particular were pretty solid, and it was nice to have Brian Hurtt, one of my favorite comic artists, back at work on some Queen & Country material.  That being said, I wasn't a fan of the final story, which also happened to the first Queen & Country story written by someone other than Greg Rucka.  For this one Anthony Johnston did the writing and Christopher Mitten was on art, and the shift in quality was noticeable.

Overall, I found that I didn't enjoy this final volume as much as I did the previous Queen & Country material.  That being said, I'd say this is a strong comic series, but would recommend that any perspective reader gets the novel, A Gentleman's Game, and reads it at the appropriate time so as to get the full story effect.  Regardless, Queen & Country is a very good spy story, and if that's your thing, then you can't go too far wrong here.  Be prepared for strong writing, great characters, and inconsistent art.

Overall Series Grade: B

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Book Review: The Silent Land

At the onset of this haunting tale, Jake and Zoe, a married couple on a skiing vacation in the French Pyrenees, are buried in an avalanche.  Somehow, they both survive, and are able to dig themselves out of the snow. In the aftermath of the avalanche, Jake and Zoe notice that an eerie silence and pervasive sense of loneliness has taken over.  Upon returning to their hotel, they discover that the bustling ski village has been evacuated.

They soon discover that the phone lines are down, and their varied attempts to head further down the mountain to the next town are stymied and bring them back in a circle.  Jake suspects that they have died, but Zoe begins to experience strange, unsettling events that seem to suggest a more complex explanation than death.

The quality that instantly stands out about The Silent Land is how gripping of a novel this is.  From the opening pages, up to the very last words, I was fully taken in by this book.  Not only is it one of those book that is hard to put down, but The Silent Land is a read that is extremely well plotted and paced.  There's absolutely no fluff, or plumping to this novel, instead it is slim, trim and tightly focused.  That tight focus is a big reason behind why this is such a gripping novel, but for my personal tastes, I need a book with some interesting characters to really set a book apart from the crowd.

The strange thing about The Silent Land is that there isn't too much interesting about Jake and Zoe.  They struck me as incredibly regular folks.  However, it is that regularity of the characters that makes this book better.  I found that it was very easy for me to relate to both Jake and Zoe, their life, and their experiences.  This ease of relate-ability not only helped make the events of the book seem more real, but also made it easier for me to get caught up in the supernatural events going on around Jake and Zoe. Their reactions to events, and the ways they dealt with everything made it easy for me to feel like I was in their shoes, and experiencing events alongside them.

Another aspect that I really enjoyed about this book, is that it's a contemplative read.  As easy as it was for me to understand and relate to both Jake and Zoe, I also wondered how I would feel were I to find myself in their predicament.  Would being completely alone with an abundance of everything at your fingertips, yet with no way out feel freeing, or would it feel like a trap?  Despite this being a slim read, this is a book that lends itself to some thought provoking moments.

If I had one complaint about The Silent Land, it would be that I had the end game figured out pretty easily.  I typically prefer an author to play things closer to the chest, but I'm not totally sure Joyce was going for the big reveal here as much as he was going for that slow drawn out yanking of the heartstrings.  Either way, it didn't take too much away from the overall experience, as I still greatly enjoyed this book.

Though categorically a fantasy, The Silent Land is definitely a book that can be read by both genre and non-genre fans alike.  I think every reader will find something to enjoy in this book and maybe find a piece of themselves in these characters too.  No matter what, any reader who turns the pages of this book will find some food for thought, and an incredibly engrossing read.  The Silent Land is a very well done book and one that I'll be recommending to a number of the readers in my life.

Grade: B+

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Happy Blogiversary + Vacation Pics!

Well, another year has gone by and that means that Battle Hymns is three years old. I'm pretty proud of the fact that I've been blogging for three years. Battle Hymns has been a fun part of my life, and has opened a lot of really fun, exciting and interesting doors that I never expected. When I got the blog rolling three years ago, I don't think I ever imagined all the awesomeness that I've experienced through the blog. For those reasons, plus all the awesome unread books on my shelves, I'm incredibly excited to get rolling on my fourth year of blogging.

I know I covered a bunch of the readings I'm excited for in 2013 a couple days ago so I won't go over that stuff again, however, I do want to say THANK YOU again.

To everyone who makes Battle Hymns part of their lives: Thank You.  It means a lot that the reviews I write turn out to be something that people actually want to read, and it never ceases to amaze me that people actually value my opinion.  I hope I can keep on giving everyone plenty of reason to come back to Battle Hymns in 2013.

That's enough tooting of my own horn...for now.  Instead I want the lion's share of this post to focus on the coolest thing I've done in my personal life recently: travel.

Vacations have too few and far between for me lately, so, in order to say farewell to 2012, and to just get away from the regular everyday life of Seattle, my lady and I took a trip to Vancouver, B.C. this past week.  It was a short 4 hour bus ride, but it was my first time outside of the country since May of 2002, and my first trip abroad with my girlfriend, so it was sorta a big deal for us.

Aside from sight seeing and feasting on delicious foods I took a bit of time to turn my vacation into a nerd-cation.  This past fall at work I've been listening to the Inkstuds podcasts with great frequency, and Robin McConnell, the host has mentioned a particular Vancouver comic shop as a great destination for comics lovers multiple times, so I made sure a journey to Lucky's Comics was on the to-do list while in town.  The shop was as great as advertised, and the selection was quite impressive. There were dozens of indie comics in the shop that I'd heard of, but never laid eyes on.  It took a lot of willpower to not drop a ton of money, but I still made out with a pretty great stash of comics.

Aside from scoring a couple copies of the shop's own zine, I scooped up every bit of  Malachi Ward comics goodness that the shop had on hand. Not only did they have all four issues of his and Matt Sheean's Expansion series, but I scored Utu as well, which looks pretty cool. In addition to that stuff I also picked up Michael DeForge's Lose #3, of which there are zero copies available in Seattle, as well as the hilarious (I read this one straight away and it was super fun) Comics Class by Matt Forsythe.  There was a ton of other great books in the shop, including an entire section dedicated to Koyama Press titles, a comics publisher that is publishing really great stuff lately.  All told, it was an awesome visit, and I hope to get back someday to buy more great comics.

Now, onto the food, and lovely scenery...

Coal Harbor.

We had a some really great, but chilly, weather while we were there, so the views were fantastic.  I wish I could take credit for most of these pictures, but as usual, I forgot to pack my camera, so my lady did most of the photography.  Probably why they look so nice.

Our biggest splurge of the trip was tickets to Cirque du Soleil Amaluna.  The show was absolutely amazing. Each act was the most incredible thing I'd ever seen...until the next act occurred, then that was the most incredible thing I'd ever seen. This situation repeated itself for the entirety of the show.  

They don't let you take pictures once you are inside, so here's Amaluna from afar. 

The best part of any vacation is getting to eat new food, so here's some food pictures:

That was our dessert.

I finally got to try poutine. That stuff is delish!

Come to think of it, the poutine was actually a "dessert" as well.  Here's a picture of me impatiently waiting for one of our meals to arrive:

And here's how happy I am when there's finally food close at hand!

I have a weakness for Jelly Doughnuts.

We were also in Vancouver for New Years, so I've got a couple pictures of that too.  The New Years  festivities are fairly mellow in Vancouver, but there were still plenty of folks out and about getting their drink and their party on.  Myself included.

And last but not least. The first picture taken of this guy in the year 2013. Simultaneously the best and worst photo of the year.  

That's all for now.  By the way, Happy New Year everyone. I hope 2013 is your best year ever!

Regular blogging business shall resume shortly....

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Looking Back and Looking Ahead to 2013


Holy cow, it is kinda scary how fast 2012 went by.  2012 was a pretty big year for me both in my personal life and here at the blog.  I graduated college, got a big boy job and moved into a new place with my lady.  With all that personal stuff going on, it shouldn't surprise that the blog suffered a bit in terms of output.  I didn't manage to crank out as many blog posts as I have in years past, but I'd like to think that the quality of the posts I did produce make up for the slight drop in quantity.

Regardless of how many posts I cranked out, this was by far a banner year for Battle Hymns.  I had the pleasure of contributing my "wisdom" to a couple of other blogs, which was an honor.  I contributed a piece to Sarah's Special Needs in Strange Worlds event at Bookworm Blues and took over the Speculative Scotsman, if only for a day, while Niall was on vacay.

In addition to the guest posts, and single handedly averting the Mayan-pocalypse, (yeah, that was me), I also conducted four author interviews, which has got to be the highlight of this blogging experience for me so far! Check 'em out:

Tim Marquitz

Michael J. Sullivan

Jeff Salyards (and part 2)

Paul S. Kemp

Yep, a pretty awesome year!  Before I start looking ahead, I just want to thank everyone who has made Battle Hymns a piece of their lives.  It's you people who visit, leave comments and all that good stuff that keep me driven and keep me cranking out the blog material.  I hope I give you guys plenty of good reason to keep coming around in 2013!


My shelves are already stuffed to near capacity, but I'm sure I'll plump 'em out even further in 2013.  There's already a few choice items sitting pretty, ready for review, and even more sitting there waiting for my attention.  Here's a little glimpse at what I hope to have in store for the blog in 2013...


I don't often pony up for the brand new stuff, I simply don't have the spendin' money for it.  On occasion however, I'll shell out for a book that I just can't wait to get my hands on. Last year, the big release I shelled out for was Stephen King's The Wind Through the Keyhole, which, given my history with the Dark Tower series, was a fun book to be reading and reviewing around the time of release.  I expect Joe Hill's latest, Nos4a2 will have the honor of being the release I pony up the cash for this coming year.

I've been increasingly impressed with Mr. Hill with each work of his I read. Both his prose works and his works in comics have been great, and I'm hungry for more of both. Lucky for me, 2013 should bring not only his latest prose work, but also the conclusion of his fantastic Locke & Key series.  For that reason alone, signs point towards the fact that 2013 should be a good year, however there's some other good lookin' stuff on the horizon, both new and not so new, that I have my eye on. Here's a glimpse:

The Red Knight: I'm definitely intrigued by this early 2013 release, and I have a copy of it on my Kindle, so expect to see this one get covered here early in the year.

Red Country: 2012 was a Joe Abercrombie-less year for me, and that is sad.  I'll be looking to get my hands on his latest before too long, as I have a hankering for some Bloody Nine.

The Coldest War: I belatedly began Ian Tregillis' The Milkweed Triptych this year, and enjoyed it immensely.  With the second book out and third one due, I'm looking to get a move on in this series.

Railsea: It wouldn't be much of a year if I didn't read something by China Mieville. I'm looking to keep pace with his publications by reading his latest, albeit a year later.

Rise of Empire: Another series whose grip I got caught in this year.  Another series I'm looking to dig deeper into.

Some authors I've never read but hope to in 2013:

Nick Harkaway
Adam Roberts
Courtney Schafer
Felix Gilman
Robert Jackson Bennett
Teresa Frohock


I'm always on the lookout for great new comic reads, but I've had to govern my comics spending more closely lately and limit the number of active titles in my pull box.  However, in 2013, for the first time since I became a comics reader, there's going to be a gaping hole in my monthly comics reading when Sweet Tooth finishes up.  Lucky for me, and every other comics reader out there, we'll see a new Jeff Lemire comic sometime in 2013 in the form of Trillium, a science fiction love story that spans centuries.

While Trillium is sure to make me happy, here's some other titles I'm looking forward to:

Walrus: It's no secret that I'm a big fan of Brandon Graham.  In Spring of 2013, PictureBox Inc. will release a printed edition of his sketchbook.  I'm hoping it will be like a tangible version of his blog, which is a cool mix of comics, and weirdness.

Sullivan's Sluggers: I purchased this months ago on Kickstarter, and still haven't got my copy. I gave them my mailing address though, so I'm hoping I'll see my copy soon.  I've been waiting for this one for months, so I'm pretty excited to finally get my hands on it.

East of West: I've had mixed feelings about the Jonathan Hickman material that I've read in the past, but East of West which promises to be a "sci-fi western set in a dystopian America where all hope for the future rests in the four horsemen of the apocalypse" (quoted straight from the Image website). I dare say from that description that East of West sounds like it is right up my alley.  I'll for sure be checking out a few issues of this title to get a taste for it.


2012 was a bit of a music fail for me, so I hope to make more of an effort to experience more of it in 2013.  That means going to more live shows and listening to more music on a daily basis.  Right now, my work situation is pretty conducive to listen to whatever I want for a good chunk of the day, so that should help.  As  for stuff I'm looking forward to, my fingers are crossed that there'll be a new Red Fang album for me to listen to before the end of the year.

So there you go, a good look at some of the stuff I'm looking forward to in 2013.  And now I turn things over to you faithful Battle Hymns readers: What Books, comics, and musics are you pumped about for 2013? Head to the comments section to let the world know!