Monday, November 30, 2009

Walking Journal Day Five

This morning was chilly but crisp, with a bright blue sky, not much of a breeze, and a temperature around 30 F. I dropped the kids off at school and then went to Ann Morrison Park downtown. Walked for about 35 minutes, not counting a couple minutes of time lost to snapping photos.

First off, yet another bridge! This picture came out better than I expected, given that I have no real talent for photography.

I really like pedestrian or "walking" bridges a lot. The slight curvature, the freedom of movement across an otherwise impassable or challenging space, the views, and the fact that pedestrian bridges tend to be so much quieter than those open to automobile traffic.

One of the little creeks that runs through Ann Morrison Park has thin layer of ice over it. A flock of seagulls ("I ran, I ran so far awaaaaay--" sorry) were hanging out on the ice.

I thought this was really cool, for some reason. Just the idea that these birds that spend so much time flying over an ocean that is always in motion walking around on top of a slick sheet of frozen water was interesting. I wonder what they think about the contrast, if they think about it at all.

A Little Football

As it stands today in college football, undefeated TCU is almost certainly going to get an automatic bid into one of the prestigious (and monetarily very rewarding for their participants) BCS bowl games at the end of the year. Should Boise State go undefeated by beating a pathetic NMSU team next week, they will probably be left out of the BCS.

For the second year in a row.

By the way, these two teams played last year and TCU won by a single point, 17-16. There's not a lot of difference between them.

BSU gets knocked for its strength of schedule. Its signature win this season is over the University of Oregon, who are on the verge of winning the PAC-10 and who currently sit at 7th in the AP and BCS polls, one spot behind BSU.

But I think it's a little sketchy to say that TCU beat 3 Top 25 teams, which is what they get credit for doing by beating Utah, BYU, and Clemson. Currently, only BYU and Clemson are ranked in the AP Top 25 (Clemson by the skin of its overrated teeth, at 25th), and only BYU is in the BCS Top 25. Oregon is much better than any of those teams.

TCU benefits heavily from the fact that the Mountain West gets vastly more respect than the WAC, based largely upon the current reputations of the trio of TCU, BYU, and Utah.

Those three teams are a combined 31-5 this year. By comparison, the top three teams in the WAC (BSU, Nevada, and Fresno State), are 27-8. And those 8 losses include losses to BSU twice (ranked 6th), Cincinnati (Ranked 5th), Wisconsin (ranked 20th at one point), and Notre Dame (back when they were ranked 23rd). The MWC ranked losses include TCU twice (ranked 4th), Oregon (ranked 7th), and BYU (sitting at 14th right now).

Marque wins? Aside from playing each other, you have BYU's fluke win over a stunned Oklahoma team minus its quarterback, TCU's win over Clemson (uh, okay), and Utah's win over . . . well, nobody. Utah didn't have a signature win over a ranked team this year.

Of couse, neither did Nevada or Fresno State.

Still, that's not a tremendous separation. Moreover, Utah lost to the two ranked teams it played--which happened to be BYU and TCU in its own conference. Nevada began the season in a coma and then went on a tear. I'm not convinced that the current Utah team is any better than Nevada in terms of talent; their wins this season are no more impressive. The Utes are largely living off of the buzz of their bowl win over Alabama.

But this perception of the MWC as being a far superior conference lets TCU play two ranked teams in conference, and that's a huge edge for them in the BCS calculations.

Those who say, "The Broncos should just schedule tougher teams" have no idea how difficult that is for a good mid-major type school.

BSU would gladly move into the MWC, and the topic comes up every season. But the MWC commissioners run away from that suggestion like it was on fire. They like the little niche they have somehow carved for themselves without adding any other competition.

Since a merger is unlikely, perhaps we could solve this perception issue by having BSU play BYU and Utah in nonconference every season? Home and away? It surely doesn't involve much in the way of travel and makes great regional sense. That way BSU can get the same schedule benefits that TCU enjoys, while leaving open a nonconference date to try and score a higher profile opponent. And if BSU loses those games, then the argument over relative quality is settled on the football field.

That being said, I think TCU is probably a little better than BSU this season and I hope they do well in whatever BCS matchup they are rewarded with. I have no dislike for the Horned Frogs. It's the system that gives out automatic berths to unimpressive ACC champs (and weak Big East champs, most years) that is flawed.

More Conservative Christian Inanity

While looking for items for my daughter's wish list on Amazon, I stumbled across this review of the Bionicles books from Lego by a woman identifying herself as a Christian home-schooling her children.

"Not only are these Bionicle figures and their stories filled with dark images of death and cruelty, the paranormal, occult aspects are very liberally seen throughout the books. This dark world comes with an entire alternate reality, including it's own language, geography, religion and politics. It is very easy for boys of any age to get all caught in this dark world and the consequences could be very disturbing. . . .

We are Christians who teach our children the Bible and undoubtedly my son could sense how the themes of Bionicles were very different than those we were teaching at home and what he was hearing at church.

My advice is that ALL parents thoroughly review the Bionicle books before giving them to your children to read. My previous work in the field of child counseling showed me that children of today have enough problems with dark thoughts and tendencies (ie. the skyrocketing rates of childhood depression and suicide, boys getting "lost" in fantasy worlds, etc.) and do not need books with dark themes.

Christian parents who value raising children with a biblical worldview might well consider avoiding the Bionicle series as it will send messages that will conflict with views you desire your children to grow up with."
I don't even know where to start with this sort of earnest, well-intentioned, yet ultimately simple-minded and ironic (see Bible comments below) fearmongering.

I've heard rising divorce rates and environmental stress associated with higher urbanization and the fast pace of the information age mentioned as possible contributions to adolescent depression. Even video games and violence on television. But this is the first time I've heard someone blame fantasy worlds based on books stimulating the imagination. When I was a kid, that's the very thing that helped me FIGHT depression.

Bionicles might be potentially annoying to adults who haven't gotten into the setting as much as their kids, but they are hardly harbringers of a dark, occult worldview. I have no idea what to say to someone who is shocked that a book might do something as crazy as provide a detailed, alternate world of imagination. Perish the thought. Though I have to say, I'm pretty sure the world this woman lives in has its own language, history, politics, and religion compared to the world that I live in.

The BIBLE is loaded with more violence (wholesale slaughter left and right), cruelty (it condones slavery and sacrifice), and mature themes (multiple wives, spousal coveting, and so forth) than you will find in the Bionicle books. And plenty of stuff in the Bible is patently made up, should you choose to take it literally. So I'm puzzled as to how reading Bionicle books and playing with toys that require you to assemble them will warp them compared to intensive Bible study. And unlike the supposed "cult" inspired by Bionicle books, many people devoted to biblical teachings have actually murdered and repressed other people in massive numbers in the past as well as today.

I had some more stuff to suggest what is more likely to contribute to eventual depression among kids home-schooled in a narrow minded, conservative Christian worldview once they eventually encounter the diversity of the larger world and have to deal with arguments based on facts, but honestly I hope that her kids grow up happy and healthy.

Review: Astro Boy Movie

Saw this film yesterday with the kids at a local "dollar cinema." Of course a dollar cinema doesn't cost a dollar anymore, but this one is reasonably priced and pretty clean, and five minutes from our house.

As for the movie itself, the kids liked it. My seven year old son was particularly entertained and enjoyed all the action sequences. My ten year old daughter, who has read some of the Astro Boy manga in translation, thought it was fine, but wondered why they made so many changes to the storyline of the manga.

Ah, the ageless question of why adaptations make the changes that they do to stories that we love. Although I can't say that I cared a lot about Astro Boy one way or the other coming in.

The film's narrative is very simplistic. The villains are foolishly and almost pointlessly villainous, the comic relief is slapstick, and the whole question of how humans should interact with intelligent beings that they have essentially enslaved is sort of waved at in passing. There's probably more action than necessary. You won't get any insights into human dependency upon technology or the emotions of robots as you do in Wall-E. As far as the animation, it's fine but not breathtaking in any way; the characters are cartoonishly exaggerated but without much subtlety of expression, kind of like a big screen Jimmy Neutron film with less humor.

All in all, not a film I'd recommend seeing or renting unless you have younger kids interested in it. Then it's not bad to sit through as far as such things go. The enthusiasm of children can compensate for a lot of visual and narrative shortcomings.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Walking Journal Day Four

Today was a little rushed. I wanted to go down to the hike and bike trails where they run by the Boise River and then swing by the main branch of the public library. Movie plans with the kids sort of cramped my time more than I intended. I did manage to get down there, but wasn't really feeling very relaxed as I rushed through the last ten minutes checking my watch, hoping I'd make it back in time to get the kids to the movie matinee. (I did.)

However, I did see some nice things. Starting with this old railroad bridge that was converted to a pedestrian bridge. (It's located near the Anne Frank Memorial, which I will photograph on another walk.)
Not sure what the symbolism is of my encountering and wanting to take pictures of bridges and tunnels, but there it is.

Crossing the bridge, I saw this neat old tree by the Boise River:

As my poem Giants might suggest, I've always like big old trees. I especially enjoyed how this one seems to claim it's own little piece of ground as the river swirls around it. Given that the river is at a low ebb right now, this tree must be pretty tough. I'll try to remember to take a picture of it in the spring.

And then, crossing the Friendship Bridge from the Boise State Campus side of the river back into Julia Davis Park, I saw something rather unusual in downtown Boise: a pair of deer. They were trotting along at first, looking kind of skittish. I waited until they settled down and got close enough to get an okay photo of them.

Seeing the bridge and the tree and the deer made the first half of my walk pleasant, though I managed to distract myself with time concerns just five minutes later! I'm glad I went today, because I wouldn't have seen the deer otherwise.

As for the walk itself, I walked 30 minutes and had some odd soreness in my right ankle and one strange muscle spasm in my left calf that hurt like an SOB for about 15 seconds. Then it got better. On the fourth day I have a few more aches, specifically some heel pain, than I expected after something as moderate as daily walking, but I will have to figure out how to adjust to it. Hopefully a third straight night of doing yoga will help a bit.

Review: The Renaissance at War

If you like military history or are interested in the wave of change that swept through Europe as a result of the Renaissance, then this book by Yale historian Thomas Arnold is a real treat.

In less than 250 pages, Arnold deals with a large amount of material in a very accessible fashion.

Chapter One, "The New Fury," describes the impact of the gunpowder revolution, specifically the introduction of artillery, on European sieges and fortifications. Arnold includes multiple sidebars that help the reader decipher the bewildering array of Renaissance military pieces and the key differences between them (culverins have longer barrels than cannons, with a thicker base that allowed them to use heavier powder charges and fire at longer ranges). You get a sense of the range of artillery, how much gunpowder and shot it used, and how difficult and costly it was to transport over distances. Then there is a good discussion of how fortifications had to change to withstand assaults by the new cannons.

Chapter 2, "The New Legions," discusses how infantry and cavalry were altered to adapt to the needs and capabilities of gunpowder weapons. This chapter brought up many points of which I was unaware. For example, military drums were a Renaissance innovation designed to provide a strict cadence needed for densely packed squares of pikemen and musketeers to march and manuever in unison while providing flanking fire for each other. Arnold also makes the point that the introduction of guns themselves didn't necessitate all the changes that took place. Early guns were less accurate than crossbows; someone could have instituted many of the Renaissance battlefield changes adopted for firearms without guns, based on equipping large numbers of soldiers with heavy crossbows, whose bolts could pierce armor.

But the early guns were cheaper to make and use than crossbows (which I did not realize, assuming that gunpowder was more costly than it apparently was), faster and easier to use (since they weren't aimed and reloading was apparently a simpler and speedier process than using a small winch to rewind a heavy crossbow), and possibly more intimidating (with a shock and awe effect of noise, flash, and smoke that crossbows lacked). So it was both more affordable and more feasible to equip large numbers of soldiers with the new weapons. Ironically, once this was done, it became necessary to institute new methods of drill, many originally inspired by Classical Roman training manuals, to put the large numbers of musketeers to good use.

This is also the first text I've read with a decent discussion of the design and uses of war wagons, which were a common feature of warfare in Eastern Europe (particularly among the Hussites). Not a lengthy discussion, but much more informative and easier to find than the coverage in every other general source that I've read. Since this was an interest of mine, I was quite happy.

These two chapters alone made the book a treat for me to read. Chapter 3, "The New Caesars," gives an interesting description of the changes to the battlefield role of the nobility and of military commanders during the period, which is helpful to anyone trying to envision what a battlefield of the period was like and how knighthood transformed.

Chapter 4, "Cross versus Crescent," describes the ongoing wars between Christian Europe and the Ottoman Empire for control of the eastern European frontier, North Africa, and the Mediterranean. Good reading, supplemented with some very cool and very readable color diagrams of several key sieges and battles.

The last two chapters, "Dueling Kings" and "Faith vs. Faith," are about the conflict between the Hapsburgs and the Valois kings of France on the one hand and between Protestants and Catholics on the other. These were well-written, but not particular interests of mine, so I didn't give them as thorough a read.

Overall, this is a portable, concise, informative, and attractive reference to the key military transformations of the period.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Walking Journal Day Three

Today it was much sunnier, but the temperature was actually a few degrees colder, close to freezing. Still, without the same breeze and with the direct sunlight, I felt warmer on my walk, almost a bit too hot. Headed out in the morning in the neighborhood and walked for 30 minutes.

Here's a look at the brand-new school (built last year) that's a five-minute walk from our house (assuming one of our neighbors lets us cut through his yard, as he always did when Will attended kindergarten at the old school that was torn down). I give you Grace Jordan Elementary:

It's a very nice looking school, with a big playground area that I did a terrible job of capturing in the next photo due to the angle of the sunlight, which was blindingly bright:

(Hey, I think I got my thumb in there!) Yep, I wouldn't have to drive a 45 minute round-trip twice a day if my kids attended this school. Wouldn't even have to start the car. Would undoubtedly save a lot on gas money.

However, I think this is probably pretty fair, all things considered. My kids were fortunate enough to both qualify for a special highly gifted program that puts them in small classes with great teachers and a challenging group of peers. It's not perfect, but it has given us a lot of wonderful opportunities for the kids and introduced us to some great people. So on the big karma wheel of life, I feel that there should be some inconvenience attached to our receiving such a blessing.

Right next to the elementary school is a pedestrian bridge that crosses Overland Road. When the new school was built, they held a contest, and a majority of the kids wanted to name the new school Skybridge, which is cool, but the Board of Education ignored the kids and went with a name honoring some local person I've never heard about. Important to teach those kids early on that their input doesn't really count for important decisions, just things like the People's Choice Awards. Here are a couple photos of the Skybridge:

On windy days the bridge sort of hums. For some reason there was a squirrel running around up here who sprinted off when I approached.

This is a shot of the eastbound traffic on Overland. Not very busy on a Saturday morning. I may try this again later when there's snow on the ground.

A good walk overall, even if the neighborhood is a bit familiar.

Review: Muse of Fire by Dan Simmons

Dan Simmons has an uncanny ability to write well in any genre. Muse of Fire is a science fiction novella about a wandering troupe of Shakespearian actors known as Earth's Men. They travel about the stars in a distant, bleak future where humanity lives under the rule of a hierarchy of mysterious and powerful set of alien overlords.

In this setting, the human race is divided into arbeiters, who perform manual labor, doles, who are gray-hearted and somber clerks, and the dragomen, who are sexless, genetically altered translators for the Archon, large arthropods who are the immediate overlords of mankind. The crew of the Muse of Fire don't seem to fit into any of these categories and it is isn't clearly explained why not, though the narrator is one of the few humans who comes from Earth, which is a blasted, desolate planet filled with the billions of sarcophagi of generations of dead humans, who are returned to their ancestral homeworld by their alien overlords upon death.

In the middle of a performance on one backwater world, the Earth's Men draw the wholly unexpected attention of an audience of Archons. They are then sent on a breakneck journey to perform a new play for each of the alien races who control the known universe. First they perform Macbeth for the Archons, then King Lear for the amphibious Poimen, then Hamlet for the colossal and terrifying Demiurgos, and finally Romeo and Juliet for the mighty deity Abraxas.

It is a strange journey, full of dazzling imagery and mysteries that remain mysteries to the largely befuddled human crew. Along the way, Simmons manages to give a pretty good description of the various personalities found in the theater and this particular troupe, coupled with asides relating to various aspects of Shakespeare's plays and the roles therein.

Knowing Simmons, but having only slight familiarity with gnosticism, I'm confident that there are many layers of symbolic meaning to the names and choices for the various alien hierarchy and the odd religion that the human race follows. However, not being able to appreciate the full depth of such aspects did not impair my enjoyment of the story, which kept me reading past my bedtime to get to the end.

In somewhat classic Simmons fashion, there's no real sense of the ramifications of the changes that take place as a result of the events in the story, either for the individual characters or for humanity as a whole. But it is quite clear that significant change has occurred.

I don't know that I would buy this book as a stand-alone novella unless I found it for a good price. But the story is included in Gardner Dozois' anthology The New Space Opera, so you can get it there along with a lot of other interesting stories.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Walking Journal Day Two

Thought I'd try keeping a log of my daily walks. After battling a bunch of aches and pains the past few months, I'm starting the RealAge Workout, which is a bit milder than my previous workout schedule. The Phase 1 goal is to walk at least half an hour every day for 30 consecutive days. I'm modifying that slightly by adding a brief Movement Prep routine (about five minutes) taken from Core Fitness, and hopefully adding some yoga as often as possible.

The first walk was actually on Thanksgiving, with the family. We walked about 50 minutes along the river downtown.

Today I walked to the local branch of our library, at Hillcrest Shopping center. The majority of the walk was on the irrigation canals in our neighborhood. It's a fairly relaxing way to walk, albeit a bit muddy this time of year. The temperature was in the mid-30s, with some occasional drizzle. Here's a shot that shows how some of the water remaining in the canal has frozen over.

This walk normally takes about 14 minutes straight from my door, so I modified it by walking down to the local highschool and picking up the canal route there. It still ended up being too short by about 12 minutes, so I walked across the enormous parking lot behind the shopping center until I got to 30 minutes. Then it was another 13 minutes or so to walk home after a break to browse the shelves.

I never noticed it before, but this parking lot is rather large considering that it is almost always empty except for a handful of cars and an occasional delivery truck. Here's a shot:

I have to wonder what the people building the shopping center were thinking. Probably that there would be enough business that employees of the various businesses here would have to use this back entrance parking instead of parking out front. But from what I've seen, that's not the case.

Still, I'd rather walk through this lot than the front of the shopping center. It has one of those crappy dollar stores, a cosmetology store, a liquor store, a poorly aging Albertson's grocery store that we don't shop at, another discount shop of some sort selling crappy stuff, and a Payless Shoe Store that we patronize sometimes when the kids need shoes.

The library is tucked into a corner in the back, a bastion of relative serenity.

Review: Purple and Black

This fantasy is an epistolary novella, told entirely through the letters written between Nicephorus, the young and recently crowned ruler of the Vesani empire, and Phormio, an old school chum who has been sent to the embattled frontier more for his loyalty to the embattled emperor than as a result of any personal qualifications.

As is apparently in keeping with Parker's other fantasy works, this is more of a historical fantasy about an alternative world without magic, strange creatures, or wondrous landscapes. It's a highly political story, focused on the machinations of individuals in an old, corrupt imperial bureaucracy trying to acquire or preserve power and authority. And it is ultimately a tragic story of friendship, youthful idealism, and betrayal.

The conceit of telling the story through letters works well because the letters themselves are typically brief and to the point. There are some twists and turns that gave themselvs away a bit earlier than I would have liked, but the development of Phormio and Nicephorus's characters is handled well, with little bits of their backstory emerging.

The setting felt odd to me: clearly everyone is fighting at a high medieval level, with armor, swords, and so forth. Yet there are sections in the story where it is made quite clear (in fact, it is key to the plot) that there is a rather sophisticated record-keeping apparatus in place within the empire, to the degree that every piece of armor mass-produced by certain companies receives its own lot number. And books seem to be quite commonplace, at least among the elite. There are references to specific editions of multiple works and of texts updated over decades. All of this lends a somewhat more modern feel to what is otherwise a lower-tech society. I'm not sure how well it works; at times it felt anachronistic, even given that this is a make-believe world.

On the other hand, it did make me want to check on whether the Roman Empire or one of the Chinese dynasties employed such detailed and well-organized record-keeping for military matters.

I wouldn't spend the $20 or so to buy a hardcover of this novella; it's just too slight of a story for that sort of outlay unless you are a big K.J. Parker fan (this is the first of her books that I've read). However, the story is well worth reading if you can find it at the library or perhaps someday included in an anthology.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Review: Night Watch by Sean Stewart

This is one of those incomplete reviews I write every so often when I make it a significant way into a book (at least 150 pages or so) but just can't find the interest or enthusiasm in me to finish reading.

The book in question is Night Watch by Sean Stewart, a writer who has received high praise for other novels such as Resurrection Man, Perfect Circle, and Galveston. This is the first book of his that I tried to read, and I think I may have picked one of his less successful efforts.

Stewart writes some beautifully evocative prose, and that's what kept me reading as long as I did. I found the dialogue less successful, but enjoyable at times. The setting just did not hold together well for me, and the plotting was uneven at best. The experience of reading the novel was akin to that of watching an artsy version of an action movie made by a gifted cinematographer and a below-average director.

Throughout the book I had the feeling that I had picked up the second or even the third book in a series, one in which all the characters have already been introduced and a certain amount of their intertwined personal histories played out. However, though this novel is set in the same broad setting as Resurrection Man, in which magic is reintroduced to the world following World War II, it apparently takes place long after the events in the earlier novels.

Two hundred pages into this book I couldn't tell you who the main characters were or what exactly their goals were aside from "try to save Vancouver's Chinatown from destruction" for a number of them. I didn't come across any characters that I liked with the possible exception of Wire and Ant-something-or-other, and I really didn't care what happened to any of them.

As far as the unusual setting, a future that mixes various levels of technology with the presence of uncontrolled magical forces, I have no real sense of how magic is supposed to work in this setting, which is always a problem for me, though not for everyone. Magic without limits or rules communicated in some fashion to the reader becomes, in my view, a plot device that is too easy to abuse.

More significantly, I don't know how the people in this setting really view magic. There are a bunch of tough, militaristic white Canadians who are supposed to have a very rational view of the world because they've pushed the magic away into one corner of their city. This seems kind of unbelievable to me, but the real shocker was having a character named Claire, whose mother was a Hawk Goddess called the Harrier, express skepticism about the "superstitious" nature of the Chinatown inhabitants. I would think that her own origins would have cured her of any such traits. And the people of Chinatown are afraid of these white techno-magical cyborg soldiers they've hired as mercenaries, but it's patently obvious that these guys are no match for the magical "Gods" or Powers that live in and around Chinatown.

Ultimately I didn't finish the novel because I didn't trust the author to answer any of the questions that I was interested in. There's a scene where Stewart goes on for at least six pages about a character's efforts to build a fire to save himself. Now, to begin with, I was not invested in that character at that point in the narrative. Even if I was, six pages of him repeating the same basic actions over and over to stave off the cold and get a fire lit was severe overkill. And then the character disappears, at least for the next 100+ pages that I bothered to read. Why on Earth invest that much narrative and reader effort in the struggles of a bit character who is only going to disappear?

Later on, Stewart sets up a scene when several characters are about to embark upon a dangerous attempt to save the life and possibly the soul of a man trapped by demons. Their main resources are the fighting experience of a 95 year old man and the magic sword that his son has brought him. Then Stewart chooses to skip over that scene entirely. We rejoin the characters after they have completed the mission successfully.

The experience of those two scenes encapsulated much of the novel for me. Pages of descriptive prose spent upon topics that I would have happily devoted at most a paragraph of my attention to, and a complete overlooking of various scenes that would have interested me.

I think that in this novel this tendency to toss key scenes "off-screen" and spend time on odd little exchanges goes beyond a quirky choice to emphasize certain literary elements over "less sophisticated" action sequences. It's more like the novel just has no focus, no sense that when you set up the audience to anticipate a big confrontation and then just blow it off as an afterthought, you're toying with them. It felt like a bait and switch. If he wanted to write an atmospheric novel about unlikable characters in a dreamlike setting, I don't think he should have included the military aspects and the battle for the city, because they just don't work here.

Based on his reputation, I'd like to give another Stewart novel a try, but it will be a while before I bother to get around to it. I think I'd rather read a book of poetry by Stewart as opposed to a book of prose.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Review: The Spirit, Vol. I by Darwyn Cooke

The Spirit is a classic comic book character created by the legendary Will Eisner. The Spirit has no super-powers or even much in the way of a costume, as you can see in this picture.

He's basically a cross between a hard-boiled private detective and a costumed street-level vigilante. Like the classic vigilante, he wears a mask, doesn't carry a gun, does his fighting with his fists, and has a rogue's gallery of very offbeat characters. Like a private eye, he gets smacked around a lot, has a wise-cracking sense of humor, uses his wits and contacts to follow up on cases, and deals with a lot of femme fatales. (This collection even has a story featuring the Batman and the Spirit, so you can see the contrasts between them.

Artist and writer Darwyn Cooke has brought the Spirit back in a recent series. I picked this up on a whim, and I was startled at how well done it is.

You might be familiar with Cooke's work on the DC Elseworlds mini-series Final Frontier, which reimagined the emergence of the Silver Age heroes of the DC universe in a 1950s that was truer to the politics of the time than contemporary comics were. The comics were also turned into a DC Animated-style movie. I found The New Frontier interesting but not particularly inspiring, to be honest. And I thought the ending was rather confusing and a bit cliched.

This new Spirit series just crackles with energy and style, however. Cooke's art is crisp and classic, evoking memories of old newspaper comic strips but with an updated sense of design. The coloring in particular is superb, really adding to the emotional nuances of the panels. And the title pages read as homages to Eisner's constant experimentation with design, introducing each story with a distinct visual style designed to tie into its theme.

It's the stories themselves that are a delight, however. Unlike the classic newspaper comics that it reminds me of, Cooke's Spirit moves through each storyline at a brisk, efficient clip, packing in little details of character and plot with great efficiency.

And the stories collected in this volume are self-contained within a single comic issue, which is remarkable in this age of decompressed storytelling. It would take Brian Michael Bendis at least three issues to tell most of the stories in this volume. Characters and subplots seem to carry over from one issue to the next, but you could simply drop in on any of these "chapters" with no prior knowledge of the Spirit and immediately pick up on the characters and plot. And be satisfied with the story arc and its conclusion. This is a completely different approach from that of Fables, which is also excellent, and it's one that is a real pleasure to encounter as a busy parent.

Cooke throws interesting characters out right and left. The pacing is fast and accentuates the sense of action conveyed by the art. Brief flashbacks deftly reveal key details about the main protagonists. There's humor mixed in with adventure. All in all, I give this collection an A+. I admit I was completely surprised by what it had to offer.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Review: Fables: War and Pieces

Unlike the Good Prince, which was volume 10 of Fables, the eleventh collection of Bill Willingham and Mark Buckingham's masterpiece, War and Pieces, pretty much demands that you've read the earlier volumes.

It's not that you can't understand what's taking place in this particular graphic novel without having read all that has come before, but you certainly won't appreciate it fully. The storyline has been building toward this huge conclusion for some 75 issues, so much so that Cory Doctorow mistakenly thought that this graphic novel concluded the Fables story.

In fact, there are at least two more collections on the way and I've read bits that suggest the story is perhaps only halfway completed. Willingham is not the sort of author to simply allow his characters a big victory without sifting through the consequences of their struggles.

In any case, in this volume the exiled Fables take the battle directly to the Adversary and his legions in the Homelands. I don't want to say more than that because I shouldn't spoil any surprises. And you can probably find a summary somewhere online if you really want.

I have to say that I've been reading Willingham's material for a while now. I have a nearly complete run of the troubled Elementals comic, which had some fits and starts. I've also got the script book for his Pantheon superhero comic, published in b/w by Lone Star comics. He's always had talent but I found a Elementals to be kind of scattershot in tone and conceptualization, ranging from really intriguing to weird and nearly incomprehensible. It also had a very, very strange collection of characters. Pantheon had some great concepts in it but was let down by poor execution in terms of the production and art. It also tried to cram a bit too much into twelve issues (or thirteen? I forget how many issues there ended up being, as I have the complete story in manuscript form), given all the implied backstory of the various characters and the comic universe that he was revealing. (I almost wish that Buckingham or some other talent like John Cassady could redraw the Pantheon story in color.)

For me, Fables is the real fulfillment of all the storytelling promise that Willingham displayed in those earlier comics. It's not something that I had any interest in reading based solely upon the high concept pitch. But the implementation is a treat. Willingham has found a vehicle whose dimensions are open enough to allow him to stretch even his more bizarre creative muscles, yet confined enough to stay coherent. With this series he really took a leap for me, moving from the ranks of promising journeymen to brilliant creator. And seeing that is as fun for me as reading the wonderful story itself.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Review: Fables: The Good Prince

If you haven't been keeping up with the comic book Fables, written by Bill Willingham and illustrated by Mark Buckingham (pencils) and Steve Leialoha (inks), then you are missing out on one of the best comics being produced today. I'd rank this up there with titles like Ex Machina and Promethea (which has completed its run) for the richness of the setting, dialogue, artwork, and plot.

And it just so happens that this particular volume collects a story that you can enjoy and understand without being very familiar with what has come before. A lot of characters get introduced, but you are told most of what you need to know about them. I didn't read either of the two graphic novels in the series preceding this one and didn't have a problem keeping up.

The basic concept is that the Fables of western lore (and to a lesser degree Eastern--you do get to see them but the focus is mainly on the western fables living in America) were driven from the various faerie kingdoms by a mysterious Adversary and they ended up in New York living in disguise among the mundane population.

This particular storyline follows the adventures of a character who has played a pretty minor role up to this point in the series as far as I can tell, one Flycatcher (the Frog-Prince), who assumes his old role as Prince Ambrose and sets out on a noble quest with very interesting results. I can't say too much more without ruining some of the suspense, but suffice it to say that Willingham & Co. have developed a knack of making even conflicts that have foregone conclusions interesting to read, due to a combination of excellent visuals, some witty dialogue, and an ability to pull back now and then from the big picture view and zoom in on the specific casualties of any given struggle.

It's remarkable to me that Willingham can keep such a vast cast of characters straight and distinctive enough from each other to follow their exploits. He sketches out characters nicely with bits of dialogue, summing up small characters quickly while stretching out explorations of main characters at length. And one of the pleasures of Fables is that you never know when a seemingly minor character is going to be further developed in their own story. The Good Prince is a perfect example of that.

And I'd be remiss if I didn't credit Buckingham's excellent graphic design for helping distinguish the multitude of characters that dance across the page.

I'd only collected the first couple volumes of this series, as I have gotten out of the habit of collecting graphic novels in the past couple years, but I'm seriously reconsidering.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Blogging Milestone

So, I was glancing at the sidebar and realized that I hit 172 posts (now 173). Which means that in 2009 I have officially surpassed my blogging totals from the previous two years [17 posts] by a factor of ten.

I leave it to the blogosphere and the Internet in general to determine is that is a Good Thing or not.

Review: Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

This new young adult steampunk novel by Scott Westerfeld imagines an alternate World War I that pits British Darwinists--who have mastered the science of extracting and blending "life threads" to genetically engineer organisms--against German Clankers--who have engineered mechanical walking machines in all shapes and sizes.

It's a clever background. The Germans and their Austro-Hungarian allies have basically assembled a collection of steam-operated mecha, ranging in size from small one-man scouts to large, multi-legged land cruisers equipped with naval cannon. The Brits and their allies have aquatic and aerial navies assisted by their biotech. The wet navy has ships accompanied by giant Kraken-like "companions", while the latest airships used by the flyers are big floating ecosystems based on the greatly enlarged framework of whales.

These various creatures and creations are nicely illustrated in black and white pieces by artist Keith Thompson, scattered throughout the book.

The story starts out telling the parallel stories of two teens from very different sides of the tracks. Aleksander is the son of Archduke Ferdinand, on the run from would-be assassins following the political murder of his mother and father. Accompanied by some loyal house retainers, he helps pilot a walking talk (the Cyklop Stormwalker) to a hideout in the Alps. Deryn Sharp is a young girl determined to make her dream of becoming a member of the Royal Air Corps a reality (in memory of her late airman father), despite the fact that the military has a strict no girls policy. So she disguises herself as a boy with her older brother's help and assumes the role of midshipman Dylan Sharp.

The book alternates chapters in each character's story, until the narratives intersect about halfway through as strange events throw the unlikely pair together on an isolated glacier. Each teen has to adapt to new circumstances and plays a key role in helping their respective sides through a tough scrape. At this stage of their stories, at least, there is a friendship but only the barest hint of romance.

The book clearly demands a sequel, as we're left halfway through the story, though not really on a cliffhanger. And the afterword makes it clear that a sequel is in the works.

As Westerfeld says in his Afterword, "Leviathan is as much about possible futures as alternate pasts. It looks ahead to when machines will look like living creatures, and living creatures can be fabricated like machines." The book interlaces this futuristic element with bits of social issues, such as aristocracy and the role of women in society, that are rooted in its turn-of-the-century millieu. As such, it's a good example of steampunk.

I'm not normally a big reader of YA titles, and this book didn't amaze me or anything, but it's full of clever ideas and likable characters and I think it would be a very good read for a kid interested in exploring the genre.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Review: BPRD The Warning

Most of the BPRD graphic novels to date have worked relatively well as stand-alone stories, with certain character revelations being introduced but the plots being decipherable (well, as much as they ever are) without a lot of familiarity with the earlier collections. Not so with this 10th collection in the series, which announces itself as the first book in the Scorched Earth trilogy.

The Warning tries to bring people up to speed, but I think it would be pretty confusing for those who haven't read several of the earlier graphic novels, such as Plague of Frogs or Garden of Souls. You've got legions of evil frog-beasts, strange devolved hominids building vast machines in the bowels of the Earth, visions of Cthuluesque monstrosities taking over the world, mysterious sorcerers appearing and disappearing in astral form, portents of a big destiny for Liz Sherman that belies her seemingly humble origins, and cryptic messages from the spirit of Lobster Johnston.

The city of Munich gets largely obliterated, the BPRD troops get some more serious gear, Liz gets kidnapped again by occult entities, and Abe Sapien starts acting exactly like Hellboy. Seriously, I don't know if the authors realize this, but in this storyline the personality transformation that began in Garden of Souls seems to be pretty much complete. Abe is talking and acting just as gung-ho, aggressive, and careless as Hellboy here. Still fun to read, but it just made me miss Hellboy actually taking part in these stories. I liked Abe more when they had more differences.

Overall, another good graphic novel, setting up a story arc that looks to deal out tremendous mayhem to Earth as ancient powers seek to reclaim their power and transform the planet into their playground. I'd be surprised if Hellboy himself doesn't make an appearance of sorts at some point in the process.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Review: Turn Coat by Jim Butcher

This is the lastest novel in the Dresden Files series featuring the wizard private eye Harry Dresden. More so than some of the other books in this series, this one is aimed at people who have been keeping up with the series, thought you could still enjoy it if you aren't as familiar with all the characters here and their relationships.

It starts out with a bang and keeps the momentum going. As I've said before, Butcher does a good job of keeping the tension building in these books. The Warden Morgan, who has been a long-time thorn in Dresden's side, shows up on Dresden's doorstep asking for shelter and help in clearing his name. Morgan has been accused of murdering a senior member of the White Council, the big collective of wizards that set and enforce the rules about magical behavior that mortals must follow.

In keeping with his character but struggling against his personal feelings toward Morgan, Dresden agrees to help out. And because lately Butcher feels compelled to throw everything and the kitchen sink from his setting into each story, the novel brings in the White Court of the vampires in addition to involving the White Council. And Butcher shows that his monster-building chops are still sharp by bringing a really scary skinwalker into the story. This isn't a Navajo witch-style skinwalker so much as it is one of the ancestral, supernatural beings that inspired such creatures.

The novel brings about some significant changes for Dresden's relationship with Warden Morgan and Warden Anastasia Luccio, as well as a potentially big transformation for Dresden's vampire half-brother Thomas. Dresden also establishes a sort of psychic bond with an unexpected entity, perhaps filling the void left behind by the fragment of a fallen angel with whom he shared his consciousness for a couple books.

Dresden's police detective buddy Karin Murphy isn't in the book much. We get some more insight into the different senior members of the White Council and more hints, though pretty vague ones, about the supposed Black Council conspiracy that Dresden has been trying to convince people about for the past few books. At least he gets some people to agree with him this time around.

I admit that at times Butcher's tendency to bring all the various factions together in a single place for major battle royales gets a little familiar. It's as though he's a action-film director whose movie budgets keep increasing, letting him stage bigger and bigger blockbuster finales. There is a good shapechanging duel in this clash, however.

Another book that I felt compelled to finish in a few days. Not a good place for those new to the series to jump in, but a good mix of action and character development. If it is formulaic in places, it is a reliable formula.

Review: BPRD The Garden of Souls

This graphic novel, written by Mike Mignola and John Arcudi, and illustrated by Guy Davis, continues the story of the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense that began in Mignola's Hellboy comics. Hellboy hasn't appeared in the BPRD comics for a while now. Instead we get Hellboy's former compatriots, the amphibious humanoid Abe Sapien, the pyrokinetic Liz Sherman, and bodiless medium Johann Krauss.

By this point in the BPRD series (Garden of Souls is the 7th graphic novel), Captain Benjamin Daimo (a horribly scarred marine who returned from the dead in a mysterious fashion) and occult specialist Kate Corrigan are also on the team. For those keeping score, the homunculus Roger is dead at this point.

Anyway, this story involves Abe Sapien following mysterious messages about his past life as the occult dilettante Langdon Everett Caul. He brings Daimo with him to Indonesia, where he ultimately ends up at a strange little outpost of Victorian mad scientists who walk around inside these extremely cool looking robot suits (they look something like the helmet of an old diving suit, complete with portals, to which mechanical arms and legs in odd proportions are attached).

These fellows, who belong to something called the Oannes Society, are holding hostage a psychic Egyptian mummy named Panya who was apparently resurrected in the 1800s and has been walking the Earth since then. Of course the Oannes Society also has a crackpot scheme that involves triggering massive tsunamis that will kill many of the people in Southeast Asia, whose souls will then be absorbed by these artificial bodies the mad scientists have constructed for themselves, so that they will become godlike as a result.

I won't spoil the story in terms of how the bad guys get defeated or what Abe learns about his past. It's all rather confusing.

The things I liked:
  • The robotic suits worn by the Victorians are really, really cool looking. Guy Davis does an amazing job of drawing in Mignola's style.
  • The backstory of Panya the mummy is actually really interesting, at least the flashbacks to her life in the 1800s after she is brought back and becomes something of a celebrity in certain circles, only to be sequestered and then forgotten.
  • There is some nicely creepy stuff involving a message being sent via a young girl.
The things that were less satisfying:
  • I could not for the life of me figure out why a pseudo-scientific cult of Victorians whose interests seem to revolve around ancient sea gods would want to keep prisoner a mummy from a desert country who has no apparent link to the sea. At all.
  • Supposedly this reveals how and why Abe got transformed from Caul into his fishy form. And it does. Sort of. But not in a very satisfying way. And there's a very clear disconnect between the personality of Caul and that of Abe and no real explanation as to why he's so different now.
  • After a while all the weird occult societies and their various plots start to blur together.
Still, it's an entertaining story with some nice visual designs and solid storytelling.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Review: Midwinter by Matthew Sturges

Picked this book up on a whim on the new books shelf at one of my local libraries.

It's the first novel by Sturges. He's a comic book writer whom I hadn't heard of, though apparently he's written some stuff in the Fables line that I actually might have read but not realized Bill Willingham had a partner on. And reading the acknowledgments, it looks like Chris Roberson, whom I saw at Armadillocon this year, was one of his readers and helpers with the novel.

Anyway, Midwinter is a fantasy novel set in a Faerie Realm. A former member of Queen Titania's Royal Guard gets released from prison to carry out a secret mission, so secret that he doesn't know exactly why he is doing it. He assembles some other prisoners to help him out.

It was a good if unspectacular book. Part of the problem was that I thought a couple of the main characters were pretty flat--there's a human in the party who does next to nothing and has no significant skills, which really stands out given all the magical abilities of the others. Sturges does about as much as he can with the lead protagonist, Mauritaine, who is one of those "incredibly competent and completely bound by his code of honor" types of characters. To be honest, I would have liked the book a little better if he hadn't been the main guy.

There are some good villains and some nice twists. I like the image of Unseelie Queen Mab's floating city. And I think Sturges does a good job for the most part of presenting the Faerie Lands and their history in a very economical fashion. The plot moves ahead without too many hiccups and the story sets itself up for sequels while still bringing the main plotline that it introduces to a satisfying conclusion.

So I'd recommend this, not as something that will amaze you, but as a good first effort by a writer who can craft a solid story and clearly has a vision for an intriguing world. The Dresden Files stories, though they have a very different feel, began in a similar fashion and just got better. I suspect Sturges has that same potential.