Thursday, December 31, 2015

My Year in Books: Ant Farm

[This year, I was curious about what I was reading, so when I finished a book I put it on an ever-growing pile by my desk. This is the last one in the series.]

Le Livre Des Fourmis (The Book of Ants) by Robin D. Laws, Pelgrane Press, 2014.
Provenance: Purchased at GenCon from Robin D. Laws, who also gave his autograph with the note: Vive la Revolution Surrealiste!

I don't review game products here. Wait, let me back up and clarify that on two points. I don't review game products that I have not actually played. Reviewing a game based on the printed word is sort of like reviewing a play by reading the script - it doesn't tell the full story. There are numerous reviews of adventures that I have run for our Call of Cthulhu group. The other clarification is that I promote other people's games without fear, particularly if they've just released something. For me to delay a review due to my slow reading habits should not stand in the way of you finding out about cool and new stuff.

Anyway, this is bit of fiction in that it ties into a recently published adventure setting called Bookhounds of Paris, which uses the Trail of Cthulhu game system. I've played Trail of Cthulhu, though have not run it (the amazing Steve Winter was the GM), and don't have the game product that might illuminate this further. But it stands on its own as a nicely weird merger of the Cthulhu Mythos (in particular the Dreamlands) with the avant garde artists of the interwar period.

The volume is presented as a diary (in the form that CoC players know well) by Henri Salem, a supposedly minor player in the artistic politics in Paris between the wars. He hangs with Andre Breton, Jacques Vache, Pablo Picasso, Max Ernst, and Salvador Dali (yeah, keep your Wikipedia open - I knew about half these guys before I started in on the work). They are a cliquish and diverse group, continually squabbling and factionalizing as they try to move forward (or backwards, or sidewards) the cause of Surrealism and thereby change the world. In the midst of this Salem's bunch discovers how to access the Dreamlands.

The Dreamlands were a Lovecraftian creation, a setting for many stories and in particular poems. Expanded and explored over the years in stories and games by other hands, they have their own parrallel existence. The surrealistic movement of the 20s and 30s worked to break down the walls between the conscious and unconscious nature of man, between dreams and reality. They considered what they were doing a form of enlightenment, a philosopher of which its art was considered mere artifact, by-product of the process of awakening and overturning the world. They are perfect candidates for exploring the Dreamlands.

The cool thing is, that in discovering the Dreamlands, the surrealists begin to change them. As opposed to a traditional fantasy domain, these Dreamlands are more fluid, responding the power of the dreamers themselves. So the Surrealists do change the world, only not the one they are thinking of.

I really like this for this effect, and by Laws way of threading the reality of the movement and its petty politics in with the arcane and mystical. Being Lovecraftian, things end badly for those involved, as it does in the real world for many of the participants. The book is an engaging, twisted melding of two great flavors, and now I suppose I must hunt down the game product to see what they did with it there.

More later,

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

My Year in Books: Damned Good Storytelling

[This year, I was curious about what I was reading, so when I finished a book I put it on an ever-growing pile by my desk. I'm not reviewing comics, but, hey, clocking in at almost 500 pages, it rates. It also rates because it's damned good storytelling]

The Sculptor by Scott McCloud, First Second, an imprint of Roaring Brook Press, a division of Holtzbrinck Publishing Limited Partnership, 2015.
Provenance: Saw it mentioned in passing on some web site, had to special order it from my Friendly Neighborhood Comic Shop (Fantasium, for all your comic needs). Also just it back from the third person I lent it to this year, since this was a book that I inflicted on friends and fellow creatives.

So what caught my eye on the book in the first place was the author/artist. Scott McCloud some twenty years ago wrote a seminal work about sequential art - Understanding Comics, analyzing the component parts that make up a comic book story, the melding of art and words, the purposes of the gutters, the engagement required by the reader, all that. Seriously, if you're interested in comics as a medium, you should have engaged with this book. But that's not the one I want to talk about (nor is Zot!, which was a monthly book he was writing/drawing).

The Sculptor is the story of David Smith, the sculptor of the title. He's struggling in New York, trying to overcome both the limits of his ability to manifest his thoughts in his work and his own self-destructive behavior (he doubts himself, and wants everyone else to doubt him as well). So he meets god. Or death. Or the devil. Or destiny. Let's go with death, presented in the form of David's late Granduncle Harry. Granduncle Harry has a deal - David gets to power to work stone and other solid materials with his hands directly, to fully express his art. But it will only last 200 days. And at the end, David will die. 

That's the story - the next 200 days. It does not go smoothly. Smith sabotages himself more than a few times. He meets Meg, a young performance artist who takes him in, pulls him back from the edge a few times, and reveals to have edges of her own. Finally we come to the end of the 200 days in a larger than life resolution.

McCloud is deeply involved with how comics are presented, and verges on being a prophet for the media. So his work bears the scrutiny on that level. And McCloud soars in his page design and how he moves the characters effortlessly from frame to frame, capturing emotion and action (and inaction) within each panel. McCloud's artistic style is straightforward, almost simplistic in places, but his character designs are distinct and his backgrounds capture a flavor of artistic NYC that is currently relocating to cheaper digs.

McCloud also deals deeply with his characters, in particular with depression. And succeeds in presenting characters that are easily presented at first, yet deep and engaging. You get the postcard version of most of his supporting cast within two panels, and only as time goes by do you see their larger and deeper lives. Neither David nor Meg are perfect, and there a moments that you want to thwack them both across the back of the head and send them off in happier direction. But the narrative is so good that you pull through with them, and want their succeed regardless of the fact that you know it will have to end all too soon. That takes great ability.

The Hugos have a category for Graphic Story, and this should be there, hands down. This is not only fantasy but noteworthy fantasy. The thing that works against such recognition, though, is the nature of selling graphic stories, not in telling graphic stories. Published by a teeny tiny branch of a small press belonging to a large publishing house, which itself is grouped with other publishers under a behemoth corporation, it has a mayfly life in the public eye. I had to order it from my comic book dealer, so it may have been a blip in the Diamond catalog if at all. So the only thing going for it is the memory of those who have read it and passed it along. Like every other piece of art.

There is a lot of sensitive stuff in here, and lot of material that engaged me both as a creative and as a reader. Of everything I've been writing about this year, this would be the book I would press in to the hands of others, to get them to read. Now you have been warned.

More later, 

Monday, December 28, 2015

My Year in Books: American Cousins

[This year, I was curious about what I was reading, so when I finished a book I put it on an ever-growing pile by my desk. Here is the second of two histories.]

When London Was Capital of  America by Julie Flavell, Yale University Press, 2010
Provenance: Half-Price Books

Both this volume and the previous one were picked up at Half-Price, which has a pretty good selection on the more obscure chunks of history. Over the past couple years, I've picked up books on Hittite civilization, prehistoric Europe, the age of fighting sail, and these two books. And it makes sense for Half-Price's business models (purchases from individuals but more often overstocks from companies) that books about the more esoteric eras show up here in neat, even piles. Not that these books were failures - only that they never attained the escape velocity necessary for them to see wider distribution.

So, the esoteric area in question is London before the American Revolution. It is one of those forgotten periods, akin to antebellum America - those data points that lead directly up to the  next big event are noted, while most of the others is ignored. Flavell's book captures the feeling and flavor of the era for being a colonial in what was then the most important city in the world.

I picked up a lot of things here. Here are some examples:
  • When you said a American from the colonies, it included not only the 13 that we learn about, but the British West Indies as well. All were considered as one general group.
  • When you said America from the colonies, you were probably talking about southern planters. They were there are lot, because they had the money and the need to be trading in London. They were also noticeable for their black slave attendants. 
  • Slavery was declared unlawful in England in 1772 on what the judge in case had hoped to be a narrow ruling (whether a chattel slave could be removed from England against his or her will) that was taken as a general rule. Slaves could as a result declare their freedom it brought to England. Their owners were not so reticent about capturing them and shipping them back to the colonies, and those in charge winked at that as well. Slavery did not get banished from Empire until the 1830s.
  • There were representatives of the northern colonies as well in London, but they were not much more noticed than Brit citizens from the sticks - a bit backwards, but still considered British.
  • There was no real idea of an American mindset - Americans were Brits from further away.
  • An exception were American from the New England area. They were just considered nuts - stiff-necked religious fundies with radical ideas. Once they started in on property damage and firing on British soldiers that opinion just crystallized.
Flavell deals with representatives from each of the American regions (though not from the Indies - that would have interesting) / Much of the early going centers on Henry Laurens of South Carolina, whose letters and diary represent a confluence of the American Dreams in London - His own plans gets us an eye into business in the City, his plans for his sons tell us of education, the fate of a niece portrays the woman's role and perils, and his slave, Scipio in the colonies, renamed Robert in London, shows both the slave and servant experience. Laurens' works reveal a belief in the world overturned by later events.

The other mainland colonies have representatives as well.  Stephen Sayre is a fast-talking Yankee from Long Island seeking to ensconce himself in the British merchantile. Ben Franklin captures a few chapters, and comes off as a man who, though lionized in America and France, sought to fit in as well in Britain, such that his measured responses made one obeserver label him "The most cautious man in I have ever seen". 

Their stories are trying to fit into the most powerful city in the world, and with the coming revolution the choices that had to be made when their land of their birth was no longer connected to the greatest city in the nation. To those living in this pre-revolutionary time and place, there was little clue that things would change and change dramatically, and the book captures that era extremely well.

More later, 

Sunday, December 27, 2015

My Year In Books: Mechanicsville

[This year, I was curious about what I was reading, so when I finished a book I put it on an ever-growing pile by my desk. This is one of two histories dealing with periods that don't get a lot of breathing room.]

Snow-Storm in August by Jefferson Morley, Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2012
Provenance: Half-Price Books.

Growing up in the 60s, a race riot was understood to be a riot by a minority group and usually confined to poorer neighborhoods like Watts and Harlem. However, there were earlier incarnations where a race riot involved mobs of the majority population rampaging against minority groups, resulting in destruction of property and deaths. The particular riot of this book took place in the heart of our nation's capital, and involved a slave with an axe, the writer of the Star Spangled Banner, President Andrew Jackson, and Washington's first restaurateur, a freed black man names Beverly Snow.

American History is relatively quiet in this era, after the War of 1812 and in the long run-up to the Civil War. This was an era when Washington City (then a component of the larger District of Columbia - they are now one and the same) was becoming a center of power, and with it an infusion of new ideas into city with Southern attitudes, attitudes which included catering to and protecting slavery. Into this city came Beverly Snow, a former slave who established the Epicurian Eating House, which was the city's first true restaurant. Blocks from the Capitol, the Epicurian became a hub for meeting and dining, and Snow established himself both for his cooking and for his talent for self-promotion, posting adverts when he got something particularly interesting on his menu.

Also in Washington was Arthur Bowen, slave to Anna Thornton, herself the widow of the designer of the U S Capitol. Drunk one evening, Bowen entered the house with an axe under his arm and bellowed at the inhabitants. The news of the encounter spread and quickly blew up into a full fledged race riot, where white mobs of "mechanics" (laborers, often poor and unemployed, often Irish or German), fearing this as the first sign of a general insurrection by the black population, proceeded to attack black men and pillage the businesses of free blacks. Snow was one such target, on the weak excuse that he might have disparaged a white woman. Snow's business was destroyed, and he eluded the mob and got out of town, while Bowen himself was locked up for trial.

And prosecuting that trial was Washington District Attorney Francis Scott Key, of Star Spangled Banner fame, who sought the death penalty for Bowen, But his prosecution was thwarted in part by Mrs. Thornton, who pleaded for the life of her slave first within the the system, and then with Andrew Jackson himself. Jackson, while sympathetic with the mechanics and was pro-slavery, would not abide mobs in the streets of Washington threatening the rule of law and dictating terms to his officials.

Moreley spins out the tale, trying to frame the place and the era. This was a Washington that was trying to emerge as the capital, when the power of the Federal government was still under debate. This was also a Washington infused with pro-slavery attitudes, such that abolitionist newspapermen was rousted out of town with the blessing of the government, and freed black men and women lived there at the forbearance of a white population that could at any time come after them. Snow and Bowen never cross paths, so far as can be reported, but both were swept up in the storm that rolled through Washington City that August, and provides one more set of tales in our history.

More later,

Saturday, December 26, 2015

My Year in Books: Gatsbies

[This year, I was curious about what I was reading, so when I finished a book I put it on an ever-growing pile by my desk. Given their rapid-fire appearance, some folks have asked how I've been writing them. Actually, the ideas within have been in note form for most of the year, and this is just my chance to haul them out and give them a good shake for publication. Besides, you have the next week off to read them, right?]

Careless People: Murder, Mayhem, and the Invention of The Great Gatsby by Sarah Churchwell, The Penguin Press, 2014
So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came To Be and Why It Endures by Maureen Corrigan, Little, Brown, 2014
Provenance: Christmas presents

So, in 2014 I was on a plane watching the 2013 version of The Great Gatsby with the sound off. You've done this before, on the older planes that play a single movie on drop-down screens and they ask that people who don't want to watch the movie to forgo looking out the windows in consideration of those who have paid for earphones. Anyway, I'm watching The Great Gatsby and have to say I am following it along pretty well as an adaption, which is intended as a complement. I read the book in high school, and saw the relatively bloodless Redford/Farrow movie from 1974. And with the sound off I was more engaged with the colors and the way shots were framed and how the film was edited. But like I said, I could scan most of what happened.

And when I got off the plane, I picked up a copy of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald and re-read it. And, yes, it is book that is fodder for a lot of analysis, from its construction to its language to its topical references to little bits that provide a great deal of commentary. Perhaps I would do a week on Gatsby, but that's not exactly what we're doing here. Instead I'll talk about two rival commentaries - Careless People by Sarah Churchwell, and So We Read On by Maureen Corrigan.

Of the two, I prefer the Churchwell. It concentrates on the period in question, and I am always trying to get a grip on the 1920s. It was an era where being a successful writer meant you could afford to live in hotels, visit the remains of Europe on the cheap, and get a big summer home out on Long Island. Fitzgerald pulled a lot of his surrounding life into Gatsby, from the nature of parties out on the island to friends to Daisy's child, who shows up only briefly so Scott can quote Zelda about their own kid.

Churchwell also tries to tie the writing of Gatsby into the year's crime of the century that was ongoing over on the Jersey side, and in this she was less successful. Eleanor Mills and her lover were found murdered in a park, their love letters scattered about their bodies, a case that unspooled in the New York press while Fitzgerald was writing. Churchwell reports well on the case, but she doesn't quite make the direct connection between crime and Fitzgerald. The social levels were not the same, nor was the nature of the crime itself on the same line as the vehicular homicide at the heart of Gatsby.

The connection, I think, does come with the concept of "ballyhoo", a word which I first encountered in Only Yesterday by Frederick Lewis Allen. Only Yesterday was a book on the 1920s written in 1931, a case of immediate reporting as opposed to excavation of old records, and as such dealt with things that seemed important or novel at the time. Ballyhoo was what we would now call a media circus, fueled by new technology (radio) and the desire for instant reporting (akin to our 24/7 news cycle). The target of ballyhoo could not be determined in advance, though in retrospect it was obvious that this crime of passion or that miner trapped in a cave-in would excite the nation for weeks on end. Similarly, Gatsby attracts his own ballyhoo in the wake of the car accident, and in this way the two are linked, exploited, and then forgotten.

The Corrigan book, on the other hand, takes the longer view, charting not only the creation of Gatsby but  also what happened next. The Great Gatsby was, at its time, a failure. A dog. It was overprinted and did not go back into print in the author's lifetime. Fitzgerald blamed himself for not aiming the book more at women by making Daisy a more sympatheric character (women made up the large bulk of book-buyers at the time). So how did Gatsby become the tower of Twentieth Century Lit?

In part (spoiler) it was because it was short. It could be read and taught easily. It encapsulated a particular time and place in American history before things got all depressed. The book was written in 1925 but set in 1922, and Fitzgerald himself declared the Roaring Twenties to be over by 1922 (sort of like an old hippie saying that if you weren't at the first Woodstock, you missed everything important). But also, during WWII, we sent books to our troops and inculcated a reading habit among a generation of men. And Gatsby was one of those early books.

Corrigan also makes her research into Gatsby a personal journey, visiting Fitzgerald fans and the archives of Fitzgerald's writing. There is much on how Gatsby intersected with the author's life. This gives me the book the feel of an NPR-style news report where the reporter has to engage with the story as oppose to just report on it. For me, it was a passing wave to commentary to be tolerated until she gets back to the meat of the issue.

Both books have strengths and weakness, but of the two I prefer Careless People's evaluations, as she remains more planted in the era of Gatsby's creation. As We Read On concerns itself more with what happens after the writing, as it rows forward, seeking the green light of comprehension. Both are part of the rising tide of Fitzgerald works, which hit a flood tide in the movie, which I ended up watching on a plane with the sound off and all the words missing.

More later,

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Happy Holidays

A Merry Christmas and a safe and happy holiday season to all from Grubb Street.
"Rest on the Flight into Egypt" by Luc Olivier Merson, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

More later,

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

My Year in Books: Worlds of Iff

[This year, I was curious about what I was reading, so when I finished a book I put it on an ever-growing pile by my desk. Here's another collection of short stories. These are pretty obscure, and would be even more obscure if not for the author]

The Scrutinies of Simon Iff by Aleister Crowley, Teitan Press,  1987
Provenance: John Rateliff's downstairs bathroom. No, really. John tends to keep a wide variety of interesting books in his downstairs bath, and this was originally found there, on loan from a library. After the first few pages, I found most of the stories on-line and finished it that way. Not surprisingly, it is the only on-line, non-RPG "book" that I completed this year.

Aleister Crowley is totemic figure in RPGs and fringe culture. Occultist, founder of the Order of the Golden Dawn, poet, drug addict, mountaineer, magician. He called himself "The Beast" (long before Marshawn Lynch scooped up the title). The papers called him "The Wickedest Man in the World". And he also wrote a series of short stories featuring his philosopher/mage detective, Simon Iff.

These stories were written in 1916-1917, when Crowley was down in the financial dumps and living in New Orleans (because the position of "Wickedest Man in the World" doesn't pay nearly enough, even with the Great War going on). They were published in The International, which was little more than a fanzine published by Crowley with much of the writing being done by Crowley under a variety of pen names (the Simon Iff stories were by Edward Kelly, a hark-back to the British mage, but he soon just dropped that).

Let me be honest: You can live without these. Crowley solves his mysteries through application of his philosophy, which is murky at best as explained by the stories. Crowley's age and appearance seems vary in the older stories, as does his influence and reach (at one point he has a British super-secret destroyer at his disposal). These are generally forgettable, with one notable exception.

In "A Sense of Incongruity", Iff heads into the American South (for no real reason as far as the plot is concerned) and witnesses a lynching. The detail and horror with which he describes the scene is not that of a writer, but as a reporter. You have no doubt Crowley was present at such a lynching, and, much like the protagonist of Lovecraft's story "Pickman's Model" you realize that the creator is drawing from life.

Other than that, the Scrutinites are minor things, more interesting because of their author than because of their content. Be advised.

More later,

Monday, December 21, 2015

My Year in Books: For Peter's Sake

[This year, I was curious about what I was reading, so when I finished a book I put it on an ever-growing pile by my desk. Since I just talked about one set of mysteries, I thought it best to move to a collection of mystery short stories featuring the same character.]

Lord Peter by Dorothy Sayers, Harper & Row, published as a collection in 1972

I like Dorothy Sayer's mysteries involving Lord Peter Death Bredon Wimsey - British scion, amateur detective and general good-natured toff. Sort of Bertie Wooster but with more brains (Wodehouse was both inspiration and competitor to Sayers). I think Murder Must Advertise was the best of the lot, though the Lovely Bride would give the nod to Gaudy Night.

Such opinions are not universal. Raymond Chandler, whose work I also like, referred to Gaudy Night as "sycophantic drivel" and spoils the solution of one of her mysteries in "The Simple Art of Murder", declaiming that "A murderer who needs that must help from Providence must be in the wrong business". (Sayers never commented on Chandler's work, but wrote numerous reviews of mysteries in which she found American slang and American cliches extremely wearing).

Lord Peter is a collection of Wimsey short stories and provides ammunition for both sides of the argument. Sayers is a literate author who is as concerned with the manners of British society as she is with the gizmo that makes the story a mystery. As opposed to Mr. Stout and Mr. Gibson, there is a marked tendency to eschew the same familiar patterns and style that makes their works familiar to the reader. The end result is interesting, if uneven. In comparison to Wodehouse, who infamously wrote the same story for his entire life, Sayers backs up all the way and makes a running start at going in a presenting the tales in a new fashion.

Wimsey himself first showed up in Whose Body? (1923), though for the life of me I can't get exact data on where the short stories first appeared (this book is of no use in the matter: the front half  was collected in Lord Peter Views the Body (1928), and the last tale, "Tallboys" is from 1942 as far as I can tell, but for the rest there is a thick London fog as to where and when they first showed up in print).  The span of these stories are the length of Sayers' career with Wimsey, then, and would have benefited from some sort of vintage mark to inform us when they first showed up in print.

The results of these attempts are uneven. There are few where the detective is disguised from the viewer initially, which works in a magazine but less effectively in a book named after said detective. There is one story in which there are no less than three Peter Wimseys (Wimsi?) in play, others where the detective arrives on the scene late, and a good handful where Lord Wimsey presents himself politely in the first paragraph. One that sticks in my mind centers involves a spirited chase up the Great North Road. It is interesting writing, but the mystery in that one is a case of the wrong criminal grabbing the wrong bag at the wrong time. It is a good story, but is it a good mystery?

In fact the mysteries are all over the board. There are archaic and strange wills from dotty ancestors within, including one presented as a crossword puzzle (provided, with clues) and another sketched on internal organs. There is one involving a sculptor suitable for a Lovecraft adventure, Many the hinge on some arcane fact, like how telephone exchanges worked in the 1930s British countryside or the effects of a thyroid condition or the use of a proper French pronoun. And there is a particularly winceable story involving dopplegangers and mirror images. One of the better ones deposits Wimsey in a typical English hamlet with complete with a haunted coachman.

That last one is one of the longer ones, and I think that Sayers flourishes more in the longer form of mystery than the shorter. The key part of the gizmo at the heart of the mystery tends to stick out, like a bone from a riverbank, inviting further inspection. But the writing is rich, and closer to a traditional comedy of manners than the more hardboiled Stout material. Sayers does not have the knack that Agatha Christie did in the short form, but when she wanders away from the mechanics of the mystery itself, she thrives.

More later,

Saturday, December 19, 2015

My Year in Books: Howling Wolfe

[This year, I was curious about what I was reading, so when I finished a book I put it on an ever-growing pile by my desk. I note the provenance of the book (where I get it from) in addition to its regular info. Here's what I've been reading.]

Fer-De-Lance by Rex Stout, Bantam edition (originally published 1934)
Over My Dead Body by Rex Stout, Bantam edition (originally published 1940)
Black Orchids by Rex Stout, Pyramid edition (originally published 1942)
The Silent Speaker by Rex Stout, Bantam edition (originally published 1946)
The Second Confession by Rex Stout, Bantam edition (originally published 1949)
In the Best Families by Rex Stout, Bantam edition (originally published 1950)
Murder By the Book by Rex Stout, Bantam edition (originally published 1951)
Provenance: Most of these come from several large boxes of mysteries passed on to me from John Rateliff for my mother-in-law, Nardi Novak. I passed on a a lot of the Dick Francis books and similar mysteries to people at the office. I still have some survivors, but these are the bulk of the Rex Stout/Nero Wolfe mysteries (and I actually picked up one or two at Twice Sold Tales up on Capitol Hill).

Last time we talked about "solving" an author, and how that could result in inadvertent disenchantment and drifting off to other works. Here is a case where the familiar runs deep, and has produced a series that I just spent much of the year snacking on like literary popcorn.

The Nero Wolfe mysteries by Rex Stout, starting in the 1930s  are directly descended from Sherlock Holmes, if by that you mean that Sherlock's overstuffed brother Mycroft plays the part of the Great Detective and Watson is a pretty smart cookie who takes no guff from his boss. Wolfe is a corpulent, reclusive, misanthropic private detective who prefers to stay in his brownstone and tend to his orchids, rousing himself to solve mysteries only when the bank balance gets low. Archie Goodwin is his Watson, but here he's the leg-man. He's a smart-cracking wise-guy who humanizing his unempathic boss, always has a comeback, and has an eye for the ladies. He's also the narrator, so we are brought into the world through a very biased, but generally reliable, narrator. Archie is going to get you the straight dope, but he's not going to tell you what Nero is thinking until he finds it out from the big many himself.

Archie and Nero are immortal,and move through the decades like the Legion of Superheroes in their time bubble. Regardless of the decade, they have been in business together about seven years. Neither seems to age, huge amounts of time can elapse without showing any effect on them and their confederates. However, they remain topical, dealing with things in the wider world. Was Stout to still to be alive today, they would trade barbs about the Internet (Wolfe would ban it from his house as a pestilence, while Archie would have his own setup in his room, but feel it was better to get the information direct because you can tell when they're lying at you when there isn't cyberspace in the way).

And there are things that almost always happen. Wolfe never leaves the brownstone, except he ALWAYS leaves the brownstone sometime in the story, but that tells you how important the particular case is. Wolfe operates off his own sense of ethics, in which he will get justice outside the justice system and walk away with his hands mostly clean. Wolfe and Archie always foils the police, often in the form of Inspector Cramer, their Lestrade, along with a collection of flunkies for Archie to outwit on a regular basis. There is a mob of suspects, who are all called together in one place for the final reveal. Archie will, of course, hit on one or more beautiful women. Wolfe, for his part, will be a bundle of mannerisms and eccentricities which I hesitate to list because I have only read seven volumes so far, but include orchids, yellow shirts, beer, food, not wanting to be touched, and a marked dislike of women (which, like leaving the house, is continually tested).

The clients and cases take a variety of forms, which keeps the spark. Some come over the transom as standard clients, while others have some particular connection to the Wolfe household. Fer-De-Lance connects an immigrant metal-worker with the death of a college president. Over My Dead Body presents a previously unknown adopted daughter, a ballerina at the heart of a murder in the shadow of the World War. Black Orchids are two stories - one that get Wolfe out of the house for a flower show where death awaits, and another for a powerful hostess who Wolfe turned down who turns up slain.  The Silent Speaker involves government oversight versus industrial power. The Second Confession and In The Best Families involve Wolfe crossing with his Moriarity, who in the first shoots up his conservatory and in the second forces Wolfe to go on the lam. Of them all, the most traditional is Murder By the Book, which involves a  particular dreadful novel that, which unpublishable, leaves a trail of death (and sends Archie to California by plane).

So, well-rounded, generally likable central characters (well, Archie is), combined with a variety of stories and plots. The end points are generally fixed (domestic life at the start, gathering the suspects at the end). And Archie's narration, which creates the feeling that the author himself is taking a great delight in the character, and pulls away from his wisecracking when the plot demands it and another body thuds into their lap. All of this makes for an engaging and entertaining series. Stout's work has brought over the British consulting detective and given it an American spin that has proved to be timeless.

More later,

Thursday, December 17, 2015

My Year in Books: Burying the Lede

[This year, I was curious about what I was reading, so when I finished a book I put it on an ever-growing pile by my desk. The Lovely Bride thinks that this was because I was too lazy to shelve, but I had REASONS for this behavior - namely, to keep at hand the tomes I've written. Here's what I've been reading.]

The Peripheral by William Gibson, G P Putnam's Sons, 2014
Provenance: Christmas Present

Distrust That Particular Flavor by William Gibson, G P Putnam's Sons, 2012
Provenance: Purchased at Twice Sold Tales up on Capitol Hill.

There are few writers I buy in hardback, fewer still that I buy in hardback upon release. Gibson is one of them. I tuned into Neuromancer way back when it was a Timescape book, and continue to read the author whenever he released a new work of fiction. The mechanism known as marketing has recognized this behavior in the aggregate form, so a new Gibson hardback tends to show up in October, perfect for the Christmas season purchase (much like the new Hillerman mysteries tend to show up just before Father's Day).

And there is an interesting thing about writers. For a lot of them, I read them for a while, then drift off. Mainly that is because I know what's coming - writers all have their own styles, both in crafting sentences and larger plots, and after a while you "solve" the writer, and in solving the writer suddenly lose interest. I got through the Hillerman Leaphorn/Chee mysteries, but had the pacing down pat as the plot unspooled. Sue Grafton's alphabetic series, on the other hand, sort of ground out for me around the letter "F".

And this is not a particularly bad thing, in that a professional author has to balance the familiar with the novel. The familiar establishes their personal brand - people expect a particular flare, a particular style, a particular point of view. That keeps them coming back. But if they find the same thing, part of your market will slowly drift off to other interests.(Creating radically different works is a thing that works for some writers, but then, that is what their readers come to expect).

So. William Gibson. This is writer that I have "solved" in that I know what's coming, but I keep coming back regardless, because I like his style, his ideas, and his approach. A typical William Gibson book will have two viewpoint characters of opposite genders, with strong female characters. He will slide his technical terms into smooth narrative passages and explaining what they mean much later. He also has two plots going on at once - the plot that you are engaged with in the book, and then the secret plot that is running along, unknown to the protagonists. Often that secret plot is revealed in the last few chapters ("Hey, the world AI has achieved sentience") in a bit I have come to call the "Bill Gibson phone call".) This is the frame that he hangs his stories on.

The Peripheral hits all these bases, and hits them well. Flynne is a resourceful young woman from the near future, where things have gotten crappier but they haven't really noticed because of some tech advances. She fills in for her brother on a job piloting a remote drone. And it is clear that she is flying it in some weirder, underpopulated London than she has read about, and she witnesses a murder where the target is literally unraveled by nanotech. Wilf, a publicist and an alocholic, is a native of that London, which is further up the timeline, after a fairly pleasant apocalypse that has left the survivors in a post-scarcity society.

Except Wilf's world it is not really Flynne's future. Flynne's world is an alternate past, sharded off from some handwavy tech in China (So how does that work? China! No, really, how can you shard off the past into another universe? China! What does that say about the nature of reality? CHINA!). But the dimension-jumping has rules, in that physical stuff can't move, but information (like peripheral pilot commands and plans for economic agents to jostle the earlier market and build tanks) can. Flynne is the witness to a crime, Wilf needs to find out what happened. And story emerges from the results.

And it's good, but then it is William Gibson, and I already poised to embrace his prose and forgive those parts that feel familiar (Flynne and Wilf are NEVER getting together, and, oddly, that isn't a spoiler). But here's the thing I found interesting. Later in the year I picked up a copy of Distrust That Particular Flavor, which was a collection of  his short nonfiction articles (some of which I had already read). And in the introduction, Gibson is talking about his early writing, and how his wife mocked certain tropes, and he gives an example

Here's the quote:
"...But there was always something akin to "the rig". Some unimagined (by me), hence unnamed element of technology. But already I sensed that even if I had somehow come to know what the rig was, what it was for, it was better not to tell the reader just then. "Javnaker slipped  from the quantum universe-splitter that wasn't actually a time machine" would not be good for the reader.
One of the cores that lay at the heart of Gibson's writing, and it is something he knowingly does - burying the lede, and burying it so deep that the eventual excavation becomes part of the journey. But here by way of example he describes the very rig (whose exact nature is unknown because CHINA!) that he would be working on for The Peripheral. So he is reversing himself for once, not only telling you exactly the mystery engine of his book is , but hiding it two years in advance of the book itself.

For some reason this amuses the hell of me. The Peripheral is definitely worth reading, though you'll enjoy it better if you are comfortable with Gibsonian story construction. Distrust is good if you are a die-hard Gibson fan.

More later,

Friday, December 11, 2015

The Gaming News - Kickstarter Edition

A lot of folk are talking about Kickstarter RPG stuff, so here's some general news from Grubb Street on that:

I received this week Rob Shwalb's Shadow of the Demon Lord RPG in hardback form. I got it by PDF earlier, along with a steady and ever-growing stream of small adventures by a host of  talented friends and allies in the gaming industry, PLUS I received over the Internets a PDF of the Demon Lord Companion, which includes a passel of stuff they didn't put in the initial book. Just breezing through the hardback it looks like a rich, dark world with straightforward mechanics. This is one of those Kickstarters that worked out real well, and deserves greater attention now that it has escaped been released to the greater world. And now I know what I'm reading over the holiday break.

Also in the mail, a surprise package arrived from Peterson Games containing more stuff for the Cthulhu Wars game that I supported and of which I had already received the core game (Note to self - get that review back in the works (Spoiler: Its a good game). The package contained two of the independent Old Ones I had ordered (Father Dagon and Mother Hydra), PLUS an entire set of one each of the miniatures for the game, which surprised the heck out of me. I had to go back through the messages for the Kickstarter to determine that yes, for my contributing level, I was supposed to get these as opposed to it just being some wacky mistake. Still, an impressive pre-holiday gift, and almost makes me want to start painting miniatures again (so I can spring these on my Call of Cthulhu players).

AND, Scott Gable, one of our local designers, has launched a kickstarter for The Faerie Ring, a project that has been in the works for some time. The Fey have always been a challenge in the D&D universes, and this project provides both powerful domain lords as well as player character options as new races. The writing is mostly done (and the first two chapters are available online) and this is to push it into the realm as print. It is worth checking out here.

And, finally, not connected to Kickstarter at all, the AV Club had a great article on the early books in the Dragonlance Series and its effect on fantasy fans in the 80s. You should check it out - I'm just going to sit over here and feel incredibly old.

More later,

Tuesday, December 01, 2015