Friday, January 20, 2012

100 Books #8 - Stanislaw Lem's CYBERIAD

Imagine Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo roaming the galaxy at will, enacting vast Platonic thought experiments while exercising nearly godlike creative powers. Toss in a whole lot of whimsy and wordplay and just a dash of dizzying scientific speculation and you might have some idea of what Trurl and Klapaucius, the weird heroes of Stanislaw Lem's Cyberiad are like.

The book is utterly charming.

There is not an overarching narrative per se; rather a series of "sallies" in which the duo enact different fictional tropes and plots, some of them bewilderingly recursive. The irresistible allure of certain fantasy princesses is a common element -- Lem's version of our mechanical descendants do have sex lives -- as is speculating about whether those mushy, gushy, sloppy, gloppy organic things they call "palefaces" created the glorious robot race, the inheritors of the universe, or vice-versa.

It's a lot of great, head-scratchy fun. I would particularly recommend it to fans of Walter Moers' Zamoria books, which Lem surely must have inspired and influenced (and if you haven't read any of those yet, I envy you the treat of experiencing them -- and this -- for the first time. Books like these are why it's fun to be smart!)

Monday, January 16, 2012

100 Books #6 - Suzanne Collins' CATCHING FIRE

Well, this is something I haven't done for a while: finished one book in just a day and a half, then raced on to devour its sequel in a single day. Possibly not since I was a teenager with a small stack of new Michael Moorcocks*.

Suzanne Collins has Orson Scott Card's ability** to make ethical dilemmas the main engine of a plot, and also to plausibly and realistically depict kids not only as agents in their own destinies, but as deadly ones, abilities she more than demonstrated in The Hunger Games, and keeps on displaying here.
The stakes were pretty high in the first book; in the second they're made even higher as our heroine learns that the threat is not just to her own dear personal family (or what's left of it) but to everyone she loves AND everyone they love. Fine lessons in appreciating interdependence, these books: the stories demonstrate that ties to others are as much a source of strength as a weakness, really more so. And that circumscribing an arbitrary set and saying that's what matters does little, if any, good to anyone, least of all the circumscriber.

That's maybe tough even for some adult readers to confront, so bully for Collins for believing that tweens and teens should have to face it, too. Of course, that's what the best young adult fiction should do: take its readers, their ability to deal with REALLY adult situations*** seriously. And this, Catching Fire most certainly does.

Bring on Mockingjay. Except, you know, I already started it...

*Bookstores are few and far between in Wyoming, and visits to a town with one were rare in my youth, so having such a stack was a special treat. I did not then, nor, apparently, do I now, have the ability to ration out my enjoyment and make it last. Though it may be argues that, in this ebook age of abundance, I don't have to.
**But, so far as I know anyway, none of his disappointing and highly boycottable douchenozzlery.
***As opposed to what the MPAA and other big media ratings groups consider to be adult situations, which are usually quite juvenile except in that they involve a lot of nakedness, which is merely infantile.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

100 Books #5 - Robert E. Howard's THE COMING OF CONAN THE CIMMERIAN

I wonder if Robert E. Howard -- or his most famous creation, the barbarian/mercenary/pirate king Conan -- has a lot of fans who are herpetologists, for snakes, giant or otherwise, get a really bad rap in this collection of the first several Conan stories. I mean, if it had been Conan versus the beetles or the giant fur-bearing gold-mining ants*, I might have been a little miffed.

But giant snakes are far from our hero's only problem, are they, this figure who spawned an entire genre (which I gleefully celebrate with my friends over at Shouty Men in Shiny Armour). Sorcerors, rival kings (when he's a king), Great Old Ones, rival pirates (when he's a pirate), sea monsters, more sorcerors... Even enumerating them is exhausting. But I am not a mighty-thewed muscle-man. Of superhuman cunning and resourcefulness. With a sword.

Interestingly, though, this book and my second of the year have had the lingering effect of making me want to try to become one. At least as much of one as a chick on the other side of 40 can be. Pass the kettle-bell. Conan, at least, prefers self-rescuing princesses who make the first move.

*Which it just as easily could have been. I can't imagine Howard having neglected to read his Herodotus. He was one erudite motherfolklore.

100 Books #4 - Suzanne Collins' THE HUNGER GAMES

Boy am I glad I ditched the "one book per author per year" rule for 2012, because as soon as I'm done with this blog post, I'm starting on this book's sequel.

A classic piece of dystopian science fiction in young adult form, this book is one I would recommend to anyone. While the first person, present tense narration may put many off (including me, usually) and robs the story of a bit of tension (though not as much as as past tense would in this instance), for me that annoyance stopped mattering even before the story proper begins.

This is because the heroine is so damned interesting, a sixteen-year-old girl who has been poaching to feed her family ever since her father died in a coal mining accident (pure Appalachia, this). There is not a moment in this story in which Katniss Everdeen is not hemmed in on all sides by necessity, circumstance and, later on, cruel compulsion -- even before she becomes a player in the titular games.

The story of those games, in which a boy and a girl from each of twelve colonial Districts are exacted by the nation's capitol as tribute to remind everyone who's boss (in this resource-poor, attenuated future North America, respect for authority is hard to come by naturally and hence a permanent hostage program is believed to be needed) and then forced to kill each other off, Highlander-style, for the capitol's entertainment on reality TV, would be interesting enough, but Collins takes this all a bit further: what the story is about is how Katniss, the boy from her District, and their handlers and mentors first take the Games by storm and then subtly subvert them. It's all ever so slightly Firefly.

And so you'll understand now why I have to go. Catching Fire, and then Mockingjay, await.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Paleo Portobello Pizza = Foodgasm

If you're at all like me, no pizza will ever do that is not loaded with mushrooms -- and there are never enough. Well, here at long last is a pizza with sufficient mycological content. It's paleo, too. And, seriously, FOODGASM. Like Harry Met Sally, only there is no fakery. Check it out.

This recipe makes just one pizza to serve one person.

1 whole portobello mushroom, stem removed
Garlic oil spray (we didn't have any of this, so we made do with a little vegetable oil with some garlic powder mixed in)
1 T tomato sauce
2 T shredded mozzerella cheese
Other toppings as you like (we used chopped black olives and artichoke hearts)


1. Heat oven to 425°. Spray or brush both sides of mushroom with garlic oil and place on a foil-lined baking sheet. Bake for 30 minutes or until fork-tender, turning over once halfway through baking. Remove mushroom from oven and increase heat to broil.

2. Turn mishroom gill-side up and top with sauce and cheese and other toppings as you would an ordinary pizza crust. Place under broiler for 1 minute or until cheese melts and bubbles. Enjoy!

Big hat tip to My Own Dear Personal Mom (@Casherr on Twitter), who found this recipe in, of all things, an Atkins Diet ad in a magazine.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

100 Books #3 - Robert Jordan's THE EYE OF THE WORLD

I've encountered a few slow burns in my day. And some of them have indeed fizzled out like the wet firecrackers I have feared them to be.

The Eye of the World already had strong signs of being one of these from the start. It's the first of twelve volumes (so far), bespeaking a very slow burn indeed, and being so obviously epic fantasy (my problem with which being well known; just have a look at my rant about it over at Suppertime Sonnets. It is one of my most popular posts) meant it gave off a suspiciously musty odor. Umm.

But a lot of my friends like it, and some of them like it quite a lot. And as last year wound down I felt I was running out of fresh authors to try...

So now I've read it. For a lot of its considerable length I felt like I had read it before (but even before I started blogging my every read, I kept pretty anal lists of books read, going back many years). Celtic and Norse mythology, Tolkein and Lewis and Moorcock and Alexander... But hey, if one is going to steal, he should steal from the best.

But - always a but - there was something interesting in there. Something possibly in direct opposition to what I dislike most about Epic Fantasy, that being its glorification and glamorization of feudalism. For a long while in this story (i.e. the first, say, half, when very little happens), it seems to concern itself with commoners. No aristocrats or knights or royalty in sight. Hundreds of pages before even a passing reference to a crowned head. How refreshing!

Or it should have been. But of course the commoners in question are very, very special. And very, very important. They are being hunted by Ming the Merci- oops Thulsa Doo - oops Saur-oops for unknown but nefarious reasons. First they run away from orcs, then from Nazgul, then from Saru-oops! But these are honest mistakes, truly.

The one thing that could have mitigated the annoyance of the pastichery would have been if the narrative question of which of the three boys is the very most specialest had been played up as a genuine narrative mystery instead of done up Columbo style with us waiting a good 500 pages for the characters to find out what we knew from almost the first paragraph.

Of course, I should be grateful for this accidental pleasure I derived from the experience: the original Robert E. Howard Conan shorts I've been reading by way of taking breaks from this slog have been even more fun by contrast.

Bear that in mind before you call me a fantasy hater.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

100 Books #2 - Edgar Rice Burroughs' RETURN OF TARZAN

Was there ever such a paragon of all manly virtue as Monsieur Jean Tarzan, aka John Clayton Lord Greystoke, aka John Caldwell of London, aka Tarzan Lord of the Apes? Well, perhaps Captain John Carter of Virginia, but that just begs the queztion, doesn't it!

A modern reader approaching this stuff has to suppress the eye-rolling instinct - from the open and enthusiastic hunting of elephants for their ivory to the the racism that isn't so much thinly veiled as simply as unashamedly naked as Tarzan himself to the continued helplessness of Miss Jane Porter, there are lots of triggers for it. But in the midst of these is glorious pulp adventure, whether its on board a classy steamship, in a Paris alley, or in the jungle to which a series of meticulously timed and located shipwrecks returns the action and the action hero.

Extra fun for me was realizing that something I'd snickered at in the Saturday morning cartoon of my childhood - that all the jungle beasts had names (Numa the Lion, Tantor the elephant) but there only ever seemed to be one of each, always the same one answering to the name - was not that at all. Rather, the names are personifications of a kind. All lions are Numa. All elephants are Tantor. All apes are Bogali. I can dig that.

But I can't help noting that these animals are far less helpful in the novels than in the cartoon. Not a single Team Tantor pulled down a single tree trunk at Tarzan's request in this story.

But then, Tarzan isn't about that, is it?

Thursday, January 5, 2012

An Honest Top Ten Songs List

My good pal Mike Oliveri threw something interesting onto his blog today. Based on the number of times something has been played on your personal music system, what are your genuine top ten songs. I mean, you must like them if you play them that often, no?

So here they are, in classic countdown style. Where I've been able to find embeddable/playable links, I have included them, but in some cases YouTube/Blip/etc are letting me down.

 I'm less embarrassed by the results than I thought I would be, but I think I'm revealing that at heart I'm a bit of a sentimental sap.

10. Yell,  by Robin Danar (feat. Jesca Hoop)

This is a nice, spaced out bit of electronica with rather a sexy beat to it, and then the lyrics start sinking in. What it really is, is a crie de cour against injustice that just gets more relevant with each passing year, protest break-up or Republican debate. All delivered in Jesca Hoop's unique, soft and funky vocals. I can't follow every word when she launches into the odd bit of Indian raga-style, but it sure sounds good.

9. Manic Moonlight, by King's X

This is a live version of the song. Wish I could have been there for it (I have seen King's X live and talked briefly with drummer Jerry Gaskill, who is exactly as kind and thoughtful a guy as I expected). I'm a big King's X fan from way back and listen to them a lot, but I was surprised that this, of all their amazing tunes, was in my top most played. I think I like stuff like "We Were Born to be Loved" more, but maybe all of those dazzling time signature changes exhaust my brain too much? And maybe most of their other songs are just too passionate for me sometimes, while this one is always ok when it comes up in the shuffle. It's still heavy as hell, both in terms of the meh-tal and the meaning, but it's one of the band's smoother and more reflective numbers.

8. He Doesn't Know Why, by Fleet Foxes

Fleet Foxes' tagline is "we like to sing" and it really shows in songs like this one. Really just a series of long arpeggios sort of slapped together into a song, it's the vocals that sell it. In a lot of ways, what they're doing shouldn't work: Robin Pecknold breathes audibly and in the middle of lines, which should annoy the hell out of me but instead charms me: I think of a little kid singing his heart out but not planning ahead for when he should breathe (and now I'm thinking of Negativland's crazy "Over the Hiccups" in which a little kid struggles cutely to sing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" through an epic case of hiccups). And since I'm seeing this official video for the first time ever, LOOK! GOATS! Goats are cute.

7. Tiger Mountain Peasant Song, by Fleet Foxes

So wow, yes, I listen to Fleet Foxes a lot. Especially when I'm writing, and especially when I'm writing sonnets (you do know I write sonnets, right?). Their poetic lines spill over like mine do, plus, their music is just pretty. Really pretty.

6. When Smokey Sings, by ABC

I like absolutely everything about this song, but funnily enough, I was largely indifferent to it when it was popular in the '80s. I liked "Be Near Me" better, and the video for "The Look of Love" with its faux Ren Faire and Punch and Judy puppets was more fun. This was a song I had to grow into. What I first noticed was the classic Motown bariton sax lines (I have always liked a good, goaty bari sax bit -- why my favorite David Bowie song, against all comers except maybe, sometimes, "Queen Bitch" is "Blue Jean"), and by around 2005 this was my default choice whenever it was my turn to feed the Jukebox of Everything at my local dive bar. I'm surprised its play number isn't a bit higher, actually!

5. All Over the World, by Electric Light Orchestra

There is comfort food, so why wouldn't there be comfort music? I grew up roller skating with my little sister round and round and round and round in my dad's garage, to a select few LP's playing on my portable record player. The skates were the metal kind you fit on over your shoes, the accoustics in the garage were awful and the speakers on the record player were, well, speakers on a kid's portable record player quality, but when you're ten years old, what do you care? And one of the records we loved best was the original soundtrack album to Xanadu. My sister liked the Olivia Newton John songs (because of her, we also had to skate a lot to Grease), while I preferred the ELO. It was a good compromise. And so, to this very day, the opening bars of this song make me smile, and never once to I hit "skip" to shuffle on to the next tune. (Oh, and do yourself a favor and click on the link I made above. YouTube wouldn't let me embed the film clip but you just have to go love on Gene Kelly being his smooth, fantastic self amidst all of the kitsch flash of 1980 crap culture).

4. Shake Your Hair, by Ditched by Kate

This song just freaking rocks and it shot way up in my number of plays when the EP was released last year. I just can't stop listening to it. It's only partly because the lead singer of Ditched by Kate (and no, I am not the Kate what ditched 'em, but when I finally make it to one of their gigs we're going to pretend) is a much-loved friend, Phil Rossi (who is quite a renaissance man. Check out his website and get a load of his books and other creative endeavors, all of which I recommend). This video is a stripped down version of the song, with, I think, not the entire band (but there's my friend Chooch on bass!), played at a science fiction convention because geeks like to get down, too.

3. Waterloo Sunset, by Ray Davies (feat. the Crouch End Festival Chorus)

Don't get me wrong, I love the original Kinks recording of this lovely, melancholy little ditty, but for some reason therecording Ray Davies made a few years ago with the Crouch End Festival Chorus is what halts me during shuffles. This live version is pretty nice but I have to say, the studio version is freaking exquisite.

2. We Are Going to Fuck Some Shit Up, by Gyrating Bhtch

This is one of the most gloriously ridiculous songs ever recorded by the most gloriously ridiculous band you've never heard of (unless you're a personal friend of mine or of one or more of the band members). I've listened to it hundreds of times and it still makes me laugh like a loon, but I have no idea if it will have that effect on other people. For me, it's the lyrical absurdity combined with the hilariously creative vulgarity combined with my dear friend Mark Delsing's totally deadpan delivery. How about you?

1. Sax and Violins, by The Talking Heads

This song was originally developed for the soundtrack of one of my favorite films of all time, Wim Wenders' Until the End of the World. It was the soundtrack I fell in love with first, though, and this song had a big part in that. It's totally typical Talking Heads, but it was new Talking Heads at a time when we weren't expecting anymore, and while it was in no way a departure from what they'd done before, it still felt like the future (the film came out in 1991 and imagined, among other things, New Year's Even 1999 in a wholly original and unforgettable way). It's danceable (I like to take dance breaks when I'm writing), it's smooth, it's emotional, and, obviously, I play it all the freaking time.

So there's mine. What are yours? List in comments (share with Mike Oliveri, too, since this post is his fault), or link back to a blog post like this that you write. This was fun and a little weird 8)

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

100 Books #1 - Jo Anderton's DEBRIS

Like a lot of Angry Robot's offerings, Joe Anderton's Debris is kind of hard to categorize. Set in a strange, possibly Russian, city of the future, in which scarcity seems to be a thing of the past, Debris seems at first glance to be another nano-technological fantasy of the kind Charles Stross does such a good job of persuading us could someday be real.

But something altogether weirder is going on here. It is not nano robots generating energy, making things, or maintaining things, but meticulously governed and weirdly personable subatomic particles. To a skilled "pion-binder" (for such these particles are called – pions are real subatomic particles that play a role in the strong nuclear force. And thereby have I reached the limits of my demonstrable particle physics knowledge), the particles are "friends" that can be persuaded to solve the seemingly infinite variety of problems.

All of this sounds very science fictional so far, doesn't it? And I suppose science fictional is how it stays – but toward the end of Debris, I found myself rolling my eyes just a bit, as Anderton fell into the trap that so many sci-fi fantasists don't even seem to care about avoiding. For yes, what I can only characterize as the supernatural rears its annoying head. Sigh.

We tour all of this alongside the heroine who starts the story at the top of the city's society, rich and respected, free to take on only the most interesting work, but who is yanked suddenly and unfairly to its bottom. This is a common but effective way to explore a society, as long as protagonist doesn't spend too much time whining. Fortunately, our heroine is too busy trying to figure out what happened to complain about it too much. The mystery of what happened to her and why is tantalizing, and the villains are truly frightening, reminiscent of Firefly's "two by two, hands blue" chillers.

The mysteries are only partly solved at the end of this yet another first volume of yet another trilogy, and so I wasn't entirely satisfied with it. And I'm somewhat up in the air about whether, when the sequel does come along, I will come along with it. I suspect a lot will depend on my mood, and how desperate I am to make my numbers for this second attempt at 100 books in a calendar year

I have a lot of good stuff on deck.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Just For (A Whole Lot Of) Fun...

My good friend Jennifer Williams, aka Senny Dreadful, and I have recently been treating ourselves to a sort of pulp fantasy renaissance. I, for one, am enjoying every exemplar of Conan the Cimmerian (filmic, prose and comic) I can lay hands on. And Jennifer, Jennifer has even written some brand new classic style pulp fantasy and put it up for sale for your ebook reading pleasure (go get it. GO! I'll wait).

Which got us thinking. Surely we're not the only ones with a weakness for this stuff. And wouldn't it be fun to team up and make more of it (NEW PULP FANTASY FOR A NEW CENTURY!) and celebrate this new stuff's fantastic forbears.

And thus our new team blog, Shouty Men in Shiny Armour, was born. It's still brand new, but we've added a few posts and people seem to like the idea. And Jennifer and I are nothing if not enthusiastic blog posters and shillers of other people's cool stuff, but that blog will be so much cooler if more people are contributing.

So, if you have some pulp fantasy fiction, poetry, art or music without a home, consider making our blog that home. Or if our efforts inspire you to make some from scratch, come on and share it! We could especially use a logo and stuff. We really, really could. See, Jennifer is a pretty talented artist, but she insists that the two things she draws the least well are men and swords. I, on the other hand, can really only draw insects. So you see our problem.

Anyway, if you want to join the blog as a regular contributor, or just hit us with a one-off, get in touch with me here or send a tweet to Jenny or me and let's get SHOUTY!