Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Counting the Days

My friend Trish is down to about six weeks on her six month hitch in Iraq. She has described her stay there as rather like the movie Groundhog Day in that every day is exactly the same. She's in a support position so she 's not in the line of fire so it's kind of like an office job, just in a war zone. But there is still an element of danger simply from being where she is. I'm glad that her stay has been boring and hope that it continues to be boring until she returns home. In Iraq, boring is good.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Adventures of Una Persson and Catherine Cornelius in the 20th Century

The Adventures of Una Persson and Catherine Cornelius in the 20th Century begins with the titular pair having a holiday in a riverside country house in New England. The year is 1933, but neither woman belongs in that time period. They are inter-dimensional time travelers and they are recovering from some adventure which is never clearly explained. Soon they will become bored with the holiday and leave that time and place. It sounds like a slow way to start a book and yet, there is quite a bit of hovering tension and a sense of anticipation as the two women go through their day to day activities just because you know that they don't belong in that era. This is also where I was reminded of what a really good writer Michael Moorcock is because it's quite a trick to keep a reader interested when nothing is happening. Mike makes it look easy, exploring the relationship between the two, making the reader see them as people. Sometimes I had to remind myself that this was the same writer who gave us Elric of Melnibone and his cursed rune sword, Stormbringer.
In case you're not familiar with Una or Catherine, both are characters from other Moorcock series. Una Persson is a "temporal adventuress" who shows up in more than one of Mike's series. She's in the Warlord of the Air Trilogy, the End of Time series, The Jerry Cornelius series, and even pops up in one of the later Elric books and the alternate history novel Gloriana. She's also in a several of Mike's Seaton Begg short stories. Both she and Begg are members of the 'Guild of Temporal Adventurers.'
Catherine Cornelius is the sister of Jerry Cornelius, the protagonist of such Moorcock novels as A Cure for Cancer, The Condition of Muzak, and The English Assassin. Who's Jerry Cornelius? That would take a post all its own, but he's an avatar of the Eternal Champion which means that he is an alternate reality version of Elric, Corum, Hawkmoon, etc, etc. Some reviewers have taken Mike to task for connecting almost all of his novels and short stories through his Multiverse concept, but I find that to be one of the most interesting aspects of his work. Characters show up in various incarnations throughout his books and you never know who you might meet
Once the two heroines leave their idyll in 1933, they separate and take different paths through a series of alternate histories. The two paths seem to be split by sex and violence as Catherine becomes involved in a series of affairs and Una travels through an increasingly unfamiliar war torn Europe. Here's where the book becomes episodic and confusing, but that's seldom accidental with Moorcock who has often experimented with non-linear structures. The method of time travel utilized by Una and Catherine causes gaps in their memories and sometimes they don't seem to be the same characters the book began with. Perhaps they're not, since some of the vignettes take place in various alternate timelines. We may be seeing alternate versions of the same characters, a favorite theme of Mike's.
Of the two path's I probably found Catherine's the more interesting, because she travels through late 1960s/early 1970s London, and I suspect through worlds very familiar to the author. A large amount of time is spent backstage at various rock and roll events and Moorcock wrote songs for and performed with several rock groups in that era (Blue Oyster Cult, Hawkwind, The Deep Fix). He knows of what he speaks. It's funny because Catherine is there because of her brother Jerry's involvement with a band, while at the same time, Una is running into an alternate version of Jerry who's something of a war profiteer.
Another highlight of Catherine's adventures is Jerry and Catherine's mum, the bombastic cockney Mrs. Cornelius, who almost steals the show as she barrels her way through the various vignettes.
Near the end, the two plot lines don't so much merge as collide as Una and Catherine end up in the same timeline just in time to abandon it for another holiday.
I was utterly fascinated by the book but I should warn potential readers, who only know Mike from his fantasy tales, that there is a considerable amount of sex in this novel, and while it's not what I'd call graphic, it is described in some detail if you take my meaning. Catherine and Una are bi-sexual and I don't think anyone is sure what Jerry is so the sex is often um... imaginative. The book is out of print and fairly expensive so it's not likely any young Elric fans will come across it, but you never know. Fair warning. This is a book for grown-ups.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Not Quite Sufficient Cat-Proofing

Got home last night to find that a certain cat, who shall remain nameless though his initials are BRUCE, had dragged my 1974 paperback of John Jakes' Brak Versus the Sorceress off the shelf and chewed up the lower corners of the cover and the first twenty or so pages. Eating books is not really a way to endear yourself to me. I admonished him severely but I feel that I was perhaps not getting through, since during the discussion he attacked my left foot. Oh well. I never liked that cover much anyway, though I was proud that I was able to identify it from the mangled bit of cover that I found in the living room. Maybe I'll replace my Braks with different editions soon, though probably after Trish has returned from Iraq. All other endangered books have been moved to safer quarters...

The Secret Lives of Books

Got a used book the other day from Amazon. It's a Doctor Who tie-in novel called All-Consuming Fire and it teams the Doctor with Sherlock Holmes. Sounded like my kind of thing, and I am indeed enjoying it and will doubtless review it here once I've finished. When I opened the book though, a few items of interest fell out. One was an inventory slip from a Little Professor Bookstore in another state and the other, a movie ticket stub from The Lion King. What (as Holmes would say) can we infer from these objects? The Lion King was released in 1994, which is also the publishing date of the book. The book was probably purchased new at the Little Professor Bookstore since the inventory slip was present and since it's a UK book. Little Professor stores often had foreign editions. (There used to be one near me.) The fact that the book contained two bookmarks also supports this since few people use two in the same book, meaning that in all likelihood the slip was present at purchase and the ticket stub added later.
If we want to continue in a Sherlockian vein, I would suggest that the original owner of the book was female, probably in her early 20s in 1994 and that she was active in fandom then, but not so much now.
"Really, Holmes!" You say in your best Watson voice," That's going a bit too far."
Perhaps, but consider the facts. In 1994 Doctor Who had been off the air for five years. Only a fan would go to the trouble to pick up tie-in books for a series that didn't exist anymore, particularly since the book was from out of the country and fairly expensive. The condition of the book, flawless though apparently read (the bookmark, Watson) also supports this. Fans (like me) are usually very careful with their books.
Why female? Consider the ticket stub. It too is in perfect shape. No wrinkles, folds, etc. The likelihood is that the stub was placed in the book while the owner was still at the theater. Look at any stubs you've jammed into pocket or purse. Hardly pristine. Why would someone take a book to a movie theater? Because they were alone. I often see individuals reading before a films starts."But female and in her 20s, Holmes?" You say. Hello? She was in the theater alone to watch The Lion King. Doesn't sound very guy like. Even fanboy guy like. Sounds like a fangirl to me. The fact that she later traded the book away indicates a decline in fannish activity. So there you are.
Now of course, just as in a Sherlock Holmes story, there are countless other explanations for the slip and the stub, but wasn't that a fun exercise in Sherlockian thinking?

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Got the World on a String

Bruce the cat has a security blanket, only it's not a blanket. It's a shoe string. He drags it with him everywhere he goes and he likes to sleep with it curled in his paws. I've often accused Bruce of dog like behavior. He fetches. He follows me around like a puppy. The security shoe string is probably his most eccentric quirk. He loves his string and he wants me to love it too. He will drag it over and drop it on my feet or if I am prone, on top of the book I'm reading and look at me with his usual bugged out expression as if to say. "Look how cool my shoe string is. Isn't this great? Drag it around a bit so I can chase it."
And he does love to chase the string. He'll dash after it as long as I'll drag it around. And if I throw it he'll go get it and bring it back. He's a strange cat.

The Best of Simon and Kirby

I mentioned to Cliff the other night that if people keep putting out collections of Jack Kirby's comics work that I would eventually have to devote an entire bookshelf to Kirby. Not that I would mind, of course, Jack being not only my favorite comic book artist but also a personal hero. The latest addition to the ever growing collection is an absolutely wonderful new hardback called the Best of Simon and Kirby.
As much as I've talked about Kirby here, I don't think I've ever mentioned an important early phase of his career, his nearly two decade partnership with writer/artist Joe Simon. I think it's fair to say that Simon and Kirby were the first superstars of the comic book world. In the early 1940s, when the work of most comic book artists and writers went un-credited, Simon and Kirby's names were not only featured, but prominently displayed on the splash pages of their stories because editors knew that the team sold comics. The Simon and Kirby banner could boost circulation. People looked for that familiar signature.
The team got its start at the 'sweat shop' of Victor Fox, a production facility for comics where many young artists got their first comics work. Reportedly, Fox would employ almost anyone who could hold a pencil and pay them next to nothing for the privilege. But it was work, and in a depression scarred America, work was still hard to come buy for artists. Simon, a savvy businessman as well as an artist, recognized the talent of the young Jack Kirby and got Jack to pencil Simon's own creation, a science fiction super hero strip called Blue Bolt. The dye, as they say, was cast and the two men would go on from there to one of the most successful collaborations in the history of comics, creating characters and books such as The Boy Commandos, The Newsboy Legion, Bullseye, Fighting American, Boy's Ranch (Kid Gang comics, a genre that Simon and Kirby pretty much created, were big in those days) and a character you may have heard of called Captain America. They also drew the first issue of Captain Marvel Adventures, though not the first appearance of the big red cheese as is often reported. They also revamped and rejuvenated two existing super heroes, the Sandman and Manhunter.
The Best of Simon and Kirby contains examples of all of S&K's major series. You'll get to see most of the characters mentioned above plus a slew of other material. As times and comics changed, Simon and Kirby moved from super heroes to other genres, drawing crime comics, western comics, horror comics, Archie style humor comics, and they invented Romance Comics while they were at it. All of those genres are featured in The Best of Simon and Kirby. It's interesting to a fan and student of Kirby like myself to see the less bombastic work he produced. The romance comics are a good place to study Kirby's storytelling and his solid drawing skills. Jack is remembered for his explosive, action filled work at Marvel in the 1960s, but he could put just as much drama into anything he drew.
For years people have asked who did what in the team of Simon and Kirby. Jack, a modest man would always say, "We both did everything." An examination of the work shows that Kirby did most of the penciling, especially in the later years of the partnership. Simon did most of the inking and a lot of the writing. He was also the business man of the two and kept the team up to their arm pits in comics work for many years.
The reproduction on The Best of Simon and Kirby is fantastic and the full color reprints are introduced and annotated by Kirby friend and expert Mark Evanier, author of the recent Kirby biography, Jack Kirby:King of Comics. Evanier is the go to guy for information on Kirby. He's also a very talented writer. The book had the cooperation of Marvel and DC Comics and the help and approval of the Kirby family, so this is probably the best cross section of the Simon Kirby team ever produced. Later volumes are promised if this one does well, spotlighting Super Heroes, Kid Gangs, Romance, etc. So get out there and buy your own copy. It's a steal at right at forty bucks for this massive hard cover. No library of the history of comic books should be without The Best of Simon and Kirby.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

It's a Bird...It's a Plane...

No, it's Super-Kharrn. Since I spend a lot of my time in Lord of the Rings Online helping lower level players finish quests, someone noted the other day that I needed a blue suit and a cape. Inspired, I purchased a long sleeved jacket, some pants and boots and some red and blue dye. Couldn't dye the boots solid red, just the trim, and the blue on the jacket isn't quite as bright as I'd like it, but I think as an 'Elseworlds' kind of uniform it works for a Middle Earth version of the last son of Krypton.

Monday, April 13, 2009

'Girl Running Away From House' Books

Seeing the fantastic cover for Philip Jose Farmer and Win Scott Eckert's new book The Evil In Pemberley House (Yes, Jane Austen's Pemberley) reminded me of when I was a kid and my mom was reading Gothic Romance novels hand over fist. I mean she probably read several hundred of them or so it seemed to me, and they all seemed to have the same cover, a girl in her nightdress running away from a dark house. As a child I referred to them as 'girl running away from house' books, and in fact still call them that when mom and I are discussing our histories as readers. Just the other day we were talking about what we've been reading recently and mom mentioned that she simply couldn't read some of the stuff she used to read years ago. She said, "I don't think I could even make it through one of those girl running away from house books." Possibly not, but she sure loved them back in the day. Anyway jump over to Win's blog and check out the cover. I was already looking forward to the book and the cover just makes it better.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

About Time

My pal Lanny and I were discussing Philip Jose Farmer's book Time's last Gift, which Lanny just finished and really enjoyed. Like myself he loves a good time travel yarn. I'm going to list my top time travel favorites here. Some are books and some are short stories, but all are great time travel tales.

Time and Again.

Jack Finney's amazing illustrated novel is perhaps my all time favorite time travel story. The amount of detail he puts into the descriptions of another time is simply amazing, plus the book has period photographs and illustrations of what the narrator is talking about. The plot features mystery, romance, and the whole nine yards. At one time Robert Redford's production company had purchased the film rights, but nothing ever came of it.

The Ugly Little Boy

Isaac Asimov is know as a writer of 'hard' science fiction and isn't usually thought of as an author who produces sensitive character pieces, but his short story about a Neanderthal child brought into our time and the doctor who looks after him proves that the good doctor's work could have an amazing amount of heart. Later expanded into a novel by another writer, but get the short story. You won't be disappointed.

Time's last Gift

I've already reviewed this one at length on the blog, but let me recommend it yet again. The story of the first team of time traveling researchers is a fascinating look at prehistory and also a terrific adventure story with a major twist. One of Philip Jose Farmer's best and that's saying something.

The Time Machine

Hello? It's H.G. Wells and the original Time Traveler. The first chapter is still great. The build up to the disappearance of the model time machine and the explanation of time as the fourth dimension. Amazing.

Lest Darkness Fall

L. Sprague de Camp's justly famous novel about a man who gets thrown back to ancient Rome and decides to try and avert the dark ages. In many ways de camp is the father of the alternate history genre. A little dated, but still a strong piece of work.

Behold the Man

Michael Moorcock's gutsy and controversial tale of a man who travels back in time to meet Jesus. Not to be missed.

Bid Time Return

This novel by Richard Matheson was the basis for the Christopher Reeve film Somewhere in Time. The novel is better and the end makes a bit more sense, but I do like the movie a lot. Reeve and leading lady Jane Seymour were both perfect for the roles. The movie has a neat bit that's not in the book where the college professor who helps the hero go back in time is professor Finney. That said, this is one of those films where it's better to turn the movie off before the last ten minutes.As I said, the end of the book is a little better. Mostly though it's a great read. Like Finney, Matheson makes you see the period.

A Sound of Thunder

Ray Bradbury's hugely influential time travel story and the origin of the term 'The Butterfly Effect'. The end still packs a jolt 57 years after it appeared.

By His Bootstraps

THE recursive time travel story. Robert A. Heinlein takes a look at some of the paradoxes which would logically occur if time travel was possible. Heinlein also wrote a novel called The Door Into Summer, which has time travel as one of its themes.

That's all the literary time travel that comes to mind. Poul Anderson wrote some great stories in his Time Patrol series, but I can't seem to locate my collection of his stories so I can't recommend any one in particular. In other media, my favorite time travel movie is Time After Time with Malcolm McDowell as H.G. Wells, tracking Jack the Ripper to 1979 San Francisco. I have a soft spot for George Pal's 1960 adaptation of H.G. Wells' novel The Time Machine. Star Trek 4, The Voyage Home is another favorite.
On TV, the Star Trek episode, the City on the Edge of Forever is a classic. The original story was by Harlan Ellison but it was pretty much butchered by Gene Roddenberry. Still turned out to be possibly the best episode of the original series. Ellison's Demon with a Glass Hand, another story about time travel, fared a little better and is to my mind, definitely the best single episode of the original Outer Limits. The effects and make-up seem laughable now, but I remember being scared out of my wits by the bad guys with their shadowed eye sockets when I was six or so.
That's it for the moment. I'm sure I'll think of some more stuff right after I post this, but feel free to chime in if you have any favorite time travel stories, be they books, movies, or whatever. There's no hurry. Time is on your side.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

A Kane Connection?

And speaking of The Hour of the Dragon and Karl Edward Wagner, as I was below, after I read the two standout chapters of Dragon I mentioned, the one with the ghouls and the one with the female vampire, I wondered how much or if any influence those two chapters had on Wagner's Kane story Mirage. In that one, an injured Kane has a run in with some ghouls in a forest before becoming the intended consort of a vampire queen. Otherwise the story is nothing like Howard's but knowing of Wagner's admiration for REH and The Hour of the Dragon (Wagner writes a fascinating afterward about Dragon in a Conan collection he edited.) I wondered if he was perhaps influenced by the two sequences. I'll mention that my most recent sword & sorcery story was influenced by Mirage, though you probably couldn't tell by reading it. It's mostly in the atmosphere of an abandoned castle.

The Hour of the Dragon

Just finished reading Robert E. Howard's only completed novel, The Hour of the Dragon. (Another novel, Almuric was left uncompleted at Howard's Death and finished by another writer.) I had read the book years ago but that was in one of the ACE paperbacks and the novel had been edited by L.Sprague de Camp and re-titled Conan the Conqueror, so this was my first read through of the pure Howard version.
It's a short novel, right at 75,000 words, and it features REH's best known character, Conan the Cimmerian. The plot is basically a rework of two Conan short stories, The Scarlet Citadel and The Phoenix on the Sword, with elements of a few of the other Conan shorts thrown in. That said, there's also quite a bit of original material as well, so while Howard was 'cannibalizing' his earlier work, he certainly wasn't being lazy. He also thought that the intended audience wouldn't have ever seen his Conan short stories so he was trying to reintroduce the character and his world.
See, Howard had attempted to sell a short story collection to a British publisher and they had informed him that sales on collections weren't too good in the UK at that time (1934) but they would certainly be interested in seeing a novel along the same lines as the shorts. So Howard hammered out The Hour of the Dragon in about four months and sent it off. The book was accepted, but then the publisher went bankrupt. This was doubly disappointing to Howard as not only did he loose what would have been his first book sale, he had informed a friend in a letter that if the company bought the book he would probably go to London for a while. Robert E. Howard in London. Now there's a alternate history story waiting to be written.
Anyway, the basic plot of Dragon revolves around a plot by a group of conspirators to remove King Conan from the throne of Aquilonia and replace him with a puppet king. To do this the plotters resort to the black arts and revive the long dead sorcerer Xaltotun. They manage to capture Conan and put their plan into effect but of course the brawny barbarian escapes and all hell breaks loose. The second half of the novel follows Conan on a quest to retrieve a stolen mystic talisman, the heart of Ahriman, the only object that can defeat the undead sorcerer.
The novel is extremely episodic, and in fact certain chapters could easily be removed and not affect the overall plot. (Author Karl Edward Wagner theorized that a chapter may indeed have been lost between the original manuscript and the version printed in Weird Tales.) Doesn't matter. Howard's narrative drive keeps things moving along at a brisk pace. In many ways the book is a walk down memory lane for Conan as he once again becomes a traveling mercenary, then a pirate, then a thief. There are two stand out chapters not based on earlier material, one with a mob of ghouls in a haunted forest and one with a slinky vampire babe, that could easily have been expanded into individual short stories.
Many consider Hour of the Dragon to be Howard's best work. I don't necessarily agree, but I can see why the book is held in such high esteem. It does contain some of Howard's most mature writing. The plot is complex and multi-layered. There are multiple points of view and many of the supporting characters, especially the bad guys, are well fleshed out. Howard makes good use of his knowledge of history in presenting the political intrigues and the battle scenes. And Conan is, of course, Conan, stalking through the pages, a wolf at bay and protecting his territory. He may be down in the first half of the book but by the last few chapters he's back to show Xaltotun and his cronies how the world works.
I've mentioned before that I think the short story is the natural medium for sword & sorcery and it's hard to keep the mood and intensity that defines the genre for the length of a novel. I can count what I consider to be good S&S novels on my hands and have fingers left. Howard, as befits the father of the genre, pulls it off. The Hour of the Dragon is must reading for anyone who enjoys sword & sorcery. Wouldn't hurt a few of today's fantasy authors to give it a look either. Howard's storytelling remains powerful 75 years later.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

It's snowing this morning. We don't expect snow in April in Georgia, though obviously it does happen. This morning it was the fine, granular snow which whispered across the roof of my truck line wind driven sand. The ground is far too warm for any of the snow to stick, but it's fun to watch. One last blast from old man winter.

Monday, April 06, 2009

He is Legend

If you've been reading this blog for a while you're probably familiar with my story of how British author David Gemmell brought me back to reading heroic fantasy after a layoff of almost two decades. It was his book, The First Chronicles of Druss the Legend which caught my attention one fateful day and set me back to reading books about guys with swords. It was the character of Druss that did it. As big and powerful as Conan with a hair trigger temper and a legacy of murderous rage left to him by his warrior grandfather, Druss still managed to be a human and sympathetic character. He was a killer by heredity but not by nature and his battle against his darker side is just as fascinating as his battles with men and monsters. Needless to say, being a large man with a short temper, I suppose I identify with Druss more than a little.
Anyway, after reading First Chronicles, I learned that Druss, at that time, had appeared in two other books by Gemmell. Legend of the Deathwalker and Legend. I snatched up Deathwalker but stayed away from Legend because having read up on Gemmell I knew that Legend was his first (and most famous) novel and that Druss dies at the end of it, (the other books are prequels) and frankly I have never much liked books or movies where the protagonist dies, no matter how heroically. So I read Gemmell's other books and series over the years but stayed clear of Legend, though I did pick up a used copy at some point.
This weekend I was in the mood to hang out with Druss again and decided it was time for a re-reading of Legend of the Deathwalker. However I had forgotten that I'd loaned the book to a friend and it hadn't come back. I scanned the shelves, looking for another Gemmell I might re-read and my gaze fell upon Legend. For some reason I decided it was time I finally read the story of Druss's last and greatest battle.
The basic plot is pretty simple. The Nadir tribes, who are sort of Gemmell's version of Mongol hordes, have managed to put aside their tribal differences and unite under a single leader, a master strategist called Ulric. Ulric has forged a mighty empire and is taking and army of 500,000 troops to conquer the land of Druss's people, the Drenai. The only thing standing between Ulric and his goal is the huge Drenai fortress Dros Delnoch. Unfortunately the fortress has become run down and is currently commanded by an unfit leader. The fortress would need to hold for at least three months to give the Drenai leaders time to put together a large enough army to stop the Nadir and no one believes that possible. The fortress is undermanned and morale is bad, to say the least.
An old friend of Druss's sends the once mighty hero of the Drenai a letter asking him to come of the fortress and inspire the troops. Druss is famous for winning another no-win battle decades earlier. The giant warrior, now in his 60s, has retired to the mountains after the death of his beloved wife Rowena. Old and tired, but still a mighty fighter, Druss decides that he would rather die in battle than waste away on the mountain so he sets out for one last adventure. His brain tells him that the Drenai, outnumbered five to one, can't hope to win, but his warrior's heart tells him that nothing is over until it's over. And ultimately that's probably what I admire most about Druss. He never backs down and he never gives up. The book is filled with a lot of other colorful and interesting characters and there are numerous subplots, but Druss remains the heart of the story.
I still wasn't too happy at the end, even though I knew what was coming, but I'm glad that I finally read Legend. Druss goes out in a manner befitting his stature as a hero. Sadly David Gemmell died far too young at age 57 in 2006, so there will be no more stories of Druss. The big warrior does appear in two of Gemmell's later books, White Wolf and the Swords of Night and Day, but those books have another hero as the central character. I did pick up another copy of Legend of the Deathwalker while I was at Barnes & Noble yesterday morning. I'll be reading that one soon so I can see Druss in his prime, before he was a Legend.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

I went to the dentist this morning to have a filling replaced. I've never had that done before so it was kind of interesting. I haven't had a cavity since I was a kid, but some of the fillings I got way back when are beginning to cause me some problems. This one didn't show any problems when X-Rayed, but it had become somewhat pressure sensitive, so I went in and my dentist, who is quite possibly the coolest dentist in the world, gave me a brand new filling which looks much better than my old one. Let's hope that does the trick and I don't need to have that tooth crowned anytime soon.