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Sunday, January 15, 2017

Review: Sacrificial Nights by Bruce Boston and Alessandro Manzetti

Every review is a tightrope walk. You navigate between being fair to the author and fair to the reader. The review's job is to point readers to books they might love, and steer away those who would not. It is to their mutual advantage as both might forge future relations.

This one is especially tricky due to all of the genres involved: poetry, fiction, experimental, supernatural, natural, mystery, horror.

For instance, a blurb claimed this novella/collection was noir, so I kept searching for noir and being disappointed that is wasn't there--as might other readers. Not only are proper labels useful but they are also critical to avoid aggravating readers that they damn works through no fault of the author.

Who will be interested?

As far as poetry, those who read primarily for mood or tone will be delighted. As for fiction, we have multiple story threads with dark bodings bordering the land that lies between horror and mystery--although the supernatural bent is more hinted at. The threads are too tenuous to build characters, but they do intrigue in how they weave together, so those who love strangely assembled narratives--think along the lines of Theodore Sturgeon's Some of Your Blood--may also fall for this one.

The book is lavishly illustrated (by Ben Baldwin) and is its own wonder. If you admire the combination of art and moody words, look no further.

If you are seeking Bruce Boston's more thoughtful verse, this probably is not the droid you're looking for. This is my first book for Manzetti, so I have nothing to compare.

But it does have art. Two ubiquitous motifs are rain and fire. They are tiresome until you realize they have been cultivated for the opposite reason they are normally employed:
"Watching the pendulum of the wipers on the rain-spotted glass, she prays silently for rain and more rain, a rain to end all rains, one that could wash her mind clean of the cold white darkness that infests it like disease." --from "Rose and the White Stalker"
It takes a few readings to glom on to this reversal. It is the rain--or at least the waters it leaves behind--that allows disease to fester. It is not until the extended conflagration scenes that baptism by fire occurs.

"Rose and the White Stalker" is probably where my interest was first piqued by the individual poems. A woman, Rose, kidnapped--but nothing happens to her, which is both a momentary relief and curious. All's well that ends well, right? Her story doesn't end here.

More fascinating is Eva in "Cannibal at Large" who follows Harry, despite knowing he has consumed her father and mother. The narrative returns to her and Harry at the end, with a surprising twist. These may be my favorite characters of this circuitous narrative.

Of interest, as well, is "The Xacto Killer: Interior Monologue," which details how a serial killer might decide to up his game.

Other characters include Jean-Paul, a painter; Sandoval, a detective on the trail of the Xacto Killer; and Eugene who begins the fire at the whore house. The narrative picks up again with Eugene final act--an act which ties up (mostly) the dangling loose ends.

This collection/novella isn't for everyone, but for some, they will hug this testosterone-boosted adventure into cross-genres fiercely.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Longevity: What Makes a Writer Worth Remembering?

Someone at Wikipedia has questioned whether a writer's [Richard Parks's] entry deserves to exist. At first, it seems outrageous to suggest erasing a writer's and his work's existence. But when you look at the actual discussion, they define it as the following:
"The person has received a well-known and significant award or honor, or has been nominated for one several times."
I am going to assume that Magnolia677 is just playing by the rules and not someone with an axe to grind.

Interesting questions arise: "What is significant?" "What makes a writer and his work worth remembering?" One can apply the same questions to Wikipedia itself: Who cares if an article is deleted from them or not? Who are they?

However, it is a go-to, community fount of information, which academics tend to discredit, but let's say it is worth keeping because the above quote makes fascinating dissection.

  1. Why does someone need to win an award? I'm guessing it isn't the only measurement that Wikipedia uses when deciding to include or exclude. 
    1. Bestsellerdom or popularity will also be a measure (see Eric Flint below). 
    2. Likewise, Shakespeare and John Milton didn't win awards, yet they are included. There, the measure is academic appreciation (which, one might say, is what the Mythopoeic award is). 
    3. Moreover, even Wikipedia acknowledges that William Faulkner is not known for his award-winning works. Therefore, despite the above quoted claim, this really is not a selection criteria for inclusion in Wikipedia for authors.
  2. Richard Parks has been nominated for five awards, won one. How many is several? Is five not several? (See below for further discussion of what even means to be nominated for the best.)
  3. What is well-known? What is significant? The Hugo award is probably the most famous genre award. The award is exclusive to a group of those who pay to vote and/or attend a convention [World Con]. Last year, they had ~4200 attend and ~7000 with voting privileges. The convention supporters are probably more likely to vote than not. However, voters won't vote for every category. So for any category, let's guess that there's a 50-75% involvement. Let's say 5,000 vote. Let's compare that to the Science Fiction Age poll. Let's say of a 50-60,000 subscriber base, only ten percent vote. In terms of voter numbers, the awards may be roughly equivalent. 
    1. Caveat not in Parks's favor: Note, however, that SF Age Reader's Poll has only one magazine that is up for an award, so the selection/competition is narrower. 
    2. Caveats in Parks's favor: 90%+ of the World Con voters did not read every story in every magazine. Therefore, it is probably safe to call the winner of an SF Age poll, comparatively, as significant as, say, a Hugo award nomination. 
    3. I've read the story in question. It is good but not a major story. It is better than some stories that won major awards.
  4. Not including his award-nominated stories and novellas, Richard Parks has had fourteen stories included in various genre retrospective and year's best anthologies. These are selected by respected writers or editors of the field. Let's call these selected stories, long-listed "award" stories. Let's assign them the worth of half a nomination. That would give Parks seven more nominations (if you prefer a third, then it would be five more nominations). So we end up with the equivalence of ten to twelve award nominations. Is that enough for significance?
  5. Related to #4, if you [who question a writer's significance] agree that someone is significant enough to have a Wikipedia page, and that person says that the writer is significant (whether via book blurb or collecting that author's work or somehow stating that Parks's works stand among the best released in the past, then you must agree the writer in question has significance. (This, of course, leaves out all the Wikified editors like Shawna McCarthy who printed Parks multiple times.) Writers or editors who fit that bill:
    1. Kathryn Cramer (four reprints)
    2. David G. Hartwell (four reprints)
    3. Margaret Weis (one)
    4. Eric Flint (one--who has, by the way, not won as significant award or been nominated  as often as Parks)
    5. Mike Resnick (one)
    6. Jonathan Strahan (one)
    7. Sean Wallace (two)
    8. Rachel Swirsky (two)
The discussion, however, is academic. His collection, Yamada Monogatari: Demon Hunter (see review), is significant--not the best of its year but among the best. This marks him as a writer worth reading and having a Wikipedia entry (were I to vote on this). Put another way: If Sir Arthur Conan Doyle deserves an entry on the basis of literary merit, then so does Parks.

His novel/collection was not well known enough that people turned to it for award nominations, which is a shame. Like Faulkner's best, sometimes good works do not get the awards nod. Still, people will be reading and passing on via word of mouth that Yamada will probably continue to sell beyond some award winners.

The author should gather his reprinted, award-winning and nominated shorter works into one massive "Selected Works" collection to see if that doesn't help tip the scale toward significance.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Finalist published in Amazing Stories

Amazing Stories published my contest story, "Awake the Snorting Citizens", alongside Alex Shvartsman and David Gerrold. My thanks to the editors, Steve Davidson and Ira Nayman, as well as the superlative illustrator, Darryl Knickrehm of Waylines. Congrats to my fellow writers.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Review: Yamada Monogatari: Demon Hunter by Richard Parks

Yamada Monogatari: Demon Hunter 
by Richard Parks  
Diamond Book Distributors  
Prime Books
Richard Parks has been scribbling speculative fiction for decades with fiction nominated for the World Fantasy, Locus, and Mythopoeic Awards, not to mention short fiction appearing in multiple year's best anthologies. Yamada Monogatari may be one of his crowning achievements.

These tales originally appeared in Shawna McCarthy's Realms of Fantasy and Scott H. Andrews's Beneath Ceaseless Skies, reprinted by Scott H. Andrews, Eric Flint, Paula Guran, Rich Horton, Mike Resnick, Rachel Swirsky, and Sean Wallace. For some reason, I thought the stories were all original and was surprised that they had not drawn more attention, but clearly, hawk-eyed editors spotted the strength of these works.

As the collection title suggests, Yamada Monogatari is a demon hunter, or any supernatural creature menacing the people of Japan. He is a nobleman, but not high enough to be embroiled in messy politics--an outsider with swordsmanship that makes him an excellent hire to investigate awkward family troubles.

Along the way, Lord Yamada picks up a sidekick: Kenji, a priest who drinks too much, neglects bathing, and takes too much interest in the fairer sex. None of which recommends his companionship except his willingness to accompany Lord Yamada on these journeys and ability to create wards and spells when needed.

The duo occupy the same literary ambiance of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson with similar charms--except the present company investigate supernatural troubles in Japan, rather than crimes in England. They both present fascinating literary riddles and resolve them, if without providing enough clues for readers to unravel the knots themselves. We are just along for the thrill of the ride. And what a ride.

Here are teasers for the ten stories:
  1. A fox woman seems to have run off with her son. The father wants his son back....
  2. Lord Yamada's former lover, now empress, has been implicated in a scandal....
  3. An ogre menaces wayfarers wandering the countryside; however, she seems uninterested in harming any of them except....
  4. Lord Yamada is kidnapped by his friends and the prince in order to dodge a goddess who sends tsunami of boiling water who seeks devoted follower who abandoned her....
  5. The daughter of a ghost bandit won't allow Lord Yamada and Kenji to exorcise the ghost....
  6. A dead child's bride doll is stolen--it is meant to accompany the child as a companion in the afterlife. Is a rival family trying to stir things up? or something more sinister causing the upheaval?
  7. The bones of would-be robbers lie outside a mansion, left by the ghosts who guard it....
  8. The seven-foot tall corpse of a demon has been stolen, taken from the family of famous demon hunters.... (especially good--perhaps for its implications)
  9. A faceless ghost haunts the walls of a nobleman's compound, but this is no ordinary ghost....
  10. Finally in a fitting finale, characters from earlier stories come together. The fox woman, the ghost of a princess join Lord Yamada, Kenji, and others to protect the upcoming emperor from a plot against him....
I'd have given this five out of five stars but for a few small matters. Two of stories are minor. This alone wouldn't be fair to downgrade a collection since the rest have a curious "dimensionality," thanks to narrative events that seem initially arbitrary but later take on new meaning. The main drawback is that the stories could have built toward a more novel-like experience. Characters do recur, and there are some changes in character. Lord Yamada shows he has loved and slows his heavy drinking. But the changes are minor--little more than one finds in Arthur Conan Doyle stories. 

Still, we read Sherlock Holmes nearly a century and a half later. It wouldn't surprise me if Yamada Monogatari scratches that same itch. I am surprised it was not nominated for awards the year it appeared.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Ghostwatch: BBC Halloween hoax

In 1992, BBC apparently had an Orson-Wells-style Halloween hoax. It has moments of creepiness, but it didn't build as I'd hoped.

What is interesting are the participants/actors who  are struggling to contain laughter, which leads to near perpetual smirks. The doctor keeps hiding her mouth.

I half-suspected the hoax to be a hoax--people traumatized as a result of watching it. Apparently so, if Wiki can be believed.

Here's the wiki entry. This reveals the most fun part: Find the "ghost." I'm afraid I didn't see or experience any of the ghost's secret appearances except for one. It might have been more chilling had they let those appearances last longer than they did. Too subtle for my eyes to register, anyway. Still, it's a fun hide-and-go-seek.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Pixar: Borrowed Time

Note: This is not emotionally cathartic, but it does resonate. How many of us feel the same about our own parents, if not physically (I hope)?

I'd like to think, though, that there's more to the story.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Review: Up the Down Staircase by Bel Kaufman

Up the Down Staircase by Bel Kaufman
Open Road Media
General Fiction (Adult)

It boggles the mind: 6,000,000 copies sold. A novel--if it can be called that--about a teacher and her students.

Kaufman had her finger on the pulse of the American zeitgeist of the time. She wrote for Esquire--the first female to do so. Her grandfather was the writer Sholem Aleichem, and her mother also wrote. So writing as a livelihood was accepted in the family.

The format of the novel is related in letters, memos, student essays. No narrative thread carries the readers through this wash of memoranda. Imagine wading through a bunch of teacher memes on Facebook, which this novel is in essence.

It is true that Americans were ready for a change in narrative format. Metafiction hit the literary world in the 1960s, and the New Wave hit SF. An anthology on Points of View, edited by James Moffett, had been out, detailing all the different ways narrative has been presented.

Historically, school integration was in full swing, and people were still uncertain about it as this novel attests.

Maybe this is what drew people to the novel. It seems most appropriate for new teachers, especially English teachers, getting ready to step into the classroom. It still has a great deal of relevancy, too, despite being fifty years old.

The novel treats Sylvia Barrett, a first-year teacher, thrown into the inner-city New York classroom with over two hundred students to teach, with classes of over forty students per class. She has an older mentor who reassures her along the way. She has a love interest in a young teacher who composes Rodgers-and-Hammerstein style lyrics for every educational event. Her students are mostly in love with her, except for a few, one who hates women teachers. Her bosses have a dictatorial style that Barrett doesn't believe is helpful.

Barrett takes a keen interest in her students. A few of them have dramatic events that draw the reader back in after feeling the monotonous onslaught of essays and memos. One student dies due to an unprofessional abortion, another attempts death when the man she falls in love with (a teacher) doesn't reciprocate her feelings.

Finally, Barrett decides to teach at a private school where she can have her own seminar over Chaucer, but things get hectic at her old school. Her request to leave gets lost. And her foot gets smashed in a cafeteria melee. Her students rally around and she returns.

That is the plot. Yes, full of spoilers, but if I hadn't spoiled it, some might put the book down in boredom. An arc does exist. The characters are vividly and charmingly portrayed in all their ungrammatical and misspelled splendor even if the characters are not dynamic.

It has much to teach us about the 1960s, the worries and concerns, which are not wholly alien to today's human yearnings. Even more potent are the trials of the teacher: trying to juggle student concerns with adminstrators' concerns and those of the parents. Even the parents are the same, begging for their kids to pass even if they don't deserve it. If there is a significant difference between Kaufman's era and our own, this must be it. While similar, the helicopter parenting has spiraled upward.

What is amazing about the novel is that all of the future changes (or pushes for change) in education can be found in here. Sometimes it's as a joke, sometimes not. But even what was an educational joke in the 1960s is taken seriously today. It's almost as if the novel is prescient.

This may not be a novel for the casual reader. That is, while I love the format, it doesn't develop characters enough through it. If your fascination runs to education or the 1960s, your interest will not flag. New teachers might steel themselves for the teaching life with this novel, though.

There is also a movie version, starring Sandy Dennis.