Forrest Aguirre, in the Leaves

I am a voracious reader as well as a writer. My tastes are unbounded, though I tend toward the speculative, the esoteric, and the magically real.

YES, FINALLY!!! Amazon grows a pair!

The Strange Library

The Strange Library - Ted Goossen, Haruki Murakami

"Indulgent" is the word that critics will use to describe The Strange Library, no doubt. Some readers have expressed their thought that Murakami is now famous enough that he can do whatever the heck he pleases (a'la Peter Jackson's maulinginterpretation of The Hobbit), spurning the marketplace and readers who might enjoy his more carefully-crafted fictions.

I say "do as you please, Murakami". But I've been accused of being self-indulgent in my own writing, at times, too.

If you don't like what Murakami's done here, go do something else yourself. Want to prove you can do it better? Go ahead, prove it. But don't come whining to me when someone comes at you with the "self-indulgent" moniker. Because someone will,no matter what you write. Such is the nature of art. There will always be someone who hates your work.

I, for one, love what Knopf has done with this. This book (really a short story) is a keepsake. No, the plot isn't compelling, no, the characterization isn't deep, no, the language isn't immaculate.

But this is still a beautiful piece of art. If you're not a Murakami fan already, this book isn't likely to turn you into one. But if you enjoyed Kafka on the Shore, you're likely to enjoy this little tidbit, as well. The story isn't spectacular, but, taken as a readable artifact, Knopf has produced a beautiful piece of written and visual art, thanks to their hiring of Chip Kidd as Designer/Art Director for this little volume. This is the kind of artifact many writers only wish they could afford to produce, but they either don't have the requisite funding to do so or they don't dare spurn the marketplace for fear of losing marketability.

If I had the money, this is the sort of book-as-artifact I would love to produce.

And I say, keep on spurning, Murakami, keep on spurning.

The Pursuit of the Millenium

Pursuit of the Millenium - Cohn N

Pursuit of the Millenium is a well-documented history of anarchic millenarian movements in the Middle Ages that might have been perfect if it weren't for some fairly obvious auctorial bias.

Cohn starts with an excellent thesis and documentation about how the fervor of the Crusades, particularly among the poor, set the stage for later millenarian cults. The 2nd Crusade, in particular, set the stage for later messianic movements by using the non-canonical "Sibylline Prophecies" as pretext for invading the Holy Land and killing a lot of innocent Jews, Muslims, *and* Christians (almost always representatives of the Catholic church) along the way. These prophecies, forged at a much later date than their authors' claimed that they were written, were composed mostly by monks to elaborate and integrate the eschatological pronouncements of the Revelation of John into a world-view that saw an "Emperor of the Last Days," either a reflection of or a resurrected Charlemagne, as the key figure that would usher in the final judgement of the world and an era of peace and prosperity for believers. These apocryphal writings informed, to some degree or another, all the millenial movements that came after the 2nd Crusade. Common themes were the rise of a righteous earthly ruler who would lead the fight against the Antichrist (first in the form of the Saracens, later in the form of the Pope) and his minions, resulting in their utter destruction.

In most cases, this "phantasie," as Cohn calls it, led to instabilities in the social order, revolution, violence, and, much of the time, the extermination of anyone identified as an enemy to the movement. Think religious terrorism is of modern provenience? Think again! The methods and agenda of the anonymous author of the Book of a Hundred Chapters, written in the mid-15th-century, would make Daesh squeamish. He even claimed to have used alchemy to invent explosives with which to overthrow the kingdoms of Europe. Car bombs before there were cars!

Cohn's writing throughout is solid and, at times, downright poetic. Take, for instance, this paragraph about the flagellants, those who felt that by lacerating themselves with metal-barbed whips, the world would be bettered by their suffering penitence:

A chronicler remarked that during the flagellant processions people behaved as though they feared that as a punishment for their sins God was about to destroy them all by earthquake and by fire from on high. It was in a world which seemed poised on the brink of the abyss that penitents cried out, as they beat themselves and threw themselves upon their faces: "Holy Virgin, take pity on us! Beg Jesus Christ to spare us! and: "Mercy, mercy! Peace, peace!" - calling ceaselessly, we are told, until the fields and mountains seemed to echo with their prayers and musical instruments fell silent and love-songs died away.

But why stop at whipping yourselves when you can help others to be repentant, as well? These flagellants were wont to destroy the inhabitants of entire cities at a time, likely whipped up into a frenzy of violence by their self-punishment. 'Tis better to give than to receive, no?

While Cohn starts out in a strictly Marxist vein, he branches out to other methods of historical analysis in the later two-thirds of the book. The history of the Brethren of the Free Spirit is fascinating, complex, and "layered" in a way that makes a very confusing movement understandable. Best of all, at this point, Cohn lays off on both the thick Marxist and thinly-veiled Freudian analysis, both of which show too much of their structural prejudices early on in the book. This section is really compelling history!

One of my biggest complaints about Cohn is his assumption that Luke's account in Acts Chapter 4 is an "Imaginary version of the primitive church". The only evidence I see of this is Cohn's say-so, which makes for very bad interpolative history. Luke was there. He saw it and lived it. There are other accounts that corroborate this evidence, too. Just because the millenial cults used this to further their own arguments for egalitarianism doesn't make it "imaginary". Furthermore, I don't know why Cohn is so adamant in distancing himself from this "phantasy". I wonder if it had something to do with the time in which Pursuit of the Millenium was originally published, 1957, at the height of the Red Scare. Perhaps Cohn was fearful of being outed as a communist for his analysis of these movements, which often pitted the poor against the rich, so he made certain that it was known that he did not believe that early Christianity actually practiced the commmunal order that they claim to have practiced. But he presents absolutely no compelling evidence to substantiate his argument.

The account of the Taborite movement is fascinating - reading it was like watching what was essentially a medieval hippie commune disintegrate from the inside out. The usual problem with these arrangements reared its head: No one wanted to work, but everyone wanted the benefits of work. The idealism of the movement sowed the seeds of it's own self-destruction, while economic reality caused them to blossom into oblivion. Here, Cohn is back on his game with well-reasoned arguments and a careful reconstruction of the foundation, growth, demise, and the significant influence of the movement on later generations of millenarians.

The beginning of Matthys' Anabaptist movement in Munster sends historical echoes even further down the hall of time to the opening of Khmer Rouge rule in Cambodia. Though the movements are not connected in any way geographically or chronologically, the methodology of both is strikingly similar. From the use of intimidation to the extremities of communal ownership to the fostering of ignorance (in the Anabaptist sects through the burning of all books that were not the Bible and in the Khmer Rouge through the execution of all intellectuals, doctors, etc), the analogs are shocking. Comparing the two would make for interesting research in social history. To whomever takes this as their doctoral dissertation in comparative history, you're welcome. Mention me in the credits, please.

While this is good history, for the most part, it is clear that Cohn really, REALLY likes Marxist analysis. That's fine, as it seems to suit the subject matter and the evidence, at least in the early instances of the millenarian movements. But I suspect that some people joined these revolts out of a sense of spiritual compulsion, not just because they were poor. Poverty is neither necessary nor sufficient to push a person into millenarianism, though it might be sufficient to foster the growth of such movements. The evidence seems compelling, but what evidence *isn't* being shown here? Cohn does not show the full deck of cards here, and I believe he is hiding a card or two up his sleeve. It's not blatant enough to accuse him of outright cheating in the game of presenting historical evidence, but it's enough to arouse suspicion in the reader who is paying attention.

Still, a solid historical work on a subject that could use a lot more attention, given the religious extremism we see both domestically and abroad. Alas, we may just be doomed to having to deal with false Messiahs and their violent movements again and again. After all, we've been doing it, in the Christian world, at least, for 1500 years now. And that is a lot of historical precedent to drag behind us as we try to move forward. At least Cohn's work here helps us to clearly see the sort of circumstances that lead to these extremist movements. Maybe it's enough to start to get a grasp on how to prevent them from spreading so quickly and becoming so violent. Maybe . . . maybe . . .

Sticky Monsters

Sticky Monsters - John Kenn Mortensen

John Kenn Mortensen's first collection of his macabre drawings, all done on post-it-notes, will hold a place of prominence on my artbook/graphic novel shelf. It's not a graphic novel, per se, but Mortensen's visual vignettes each tell a story, usually by presenting a knife's-edge moment of suspense, leaving the viewer wondering what has just happened, and what is about to happen, between his cast of monsters (from the ectoplasmic to the cthulhoid to the ghoulish) and their foils (usually children). The washed out yellow of each page, combined with the artist's fine linework, gives each piece a pseudo-sepia-tone that is perfect for the archaic dress and minimalist, yet prosaic, settings of each of these drawings. If you're an Edward Gorey fan who wants a little more "bite," then this is the perfect book for you. And while Mortensen's pieces do point back to a simpler age (e.g., Klimt's "Tree of Life" is evoked throughout), the subtle emotional complexity of these artworks points to something altogether new. Much of Mortensen's work is available online, however, one must see these drawings in this book in order to appreciate what a fine artifact the book itself is.

No Exit

No Exit - Jean-Paul Sartre

As a function of pure entertainment, Sartre's No Exit is brilliant. Ironically, Sartre uses almost-pure dialogue to "show not tell" the dilemma faced by Garcin, Inez, and Estelle, three "absentees" (a euphemism for "the dead") locked into a room, condemned to be together for eternity. Each has arrived here for different reasons, but all three possess qualities that bring out the worst in the others. Rather than the traditional hellish tropes of horned demons and hell-fire, this play evokes more special tortures - the ability to see into the world of the living only long enough to know what other living beings are saying about you since you've been "absent," the pressure of having three personalities who delight in interfering with each potential pairing (and the promise of solace that might mean), and the exquisite pains of honest self-doubt.

I had hoped to take this as a "primary source" of Sartre's philosophy, but perhaps I've got it all backwards. I am familiar with the tenets of existentialism that Sartre espoused, but the philosophical gloss that is given in No Exit seems to be as much a veneer as a core underpinning.

That said, one need not think too hard to realize that this is an excruciatingly uncomfortable examination of human nature in all its banality. The characters at once seem likable, or at least their character flaws seem excusable, initially. As the play goes on, though, we begin to see each person's flaws magnified, as with a glass, until the full impact of their crimes and selfishness are realized. Soon, the audience feels shame for having excused or even liked the absentees, with a full realization that any of them (the audience, that is) could be seen as Garcin, Inez, or Estelle, or possibly even a conglomeration of any two or all three.

Not for those who don't like looking in the mirror. Or even for those who do. Prepare to be discomfited!

There Is No Lovely End

There Is No Lovely End - Patty Templeton

Though this is not true, I picture every scene, in my mind's eye, as taking place at night. Is it the dreamlike quality of the writing? The Gothic accouterments of dark lace and midnight-blue frock coats? The absence of a veil, for some, between the living and the dead? Or the morbid edge to the humor that threads through the dialogue and the plot itself? Like any great book, it is this and more. It is the fact that Templeton has set up clear guide posts that allow my brain (encased in my skull, away from the light) to fill in the interstices with shadow. I have been engulfed by this book.

Of course, when I mention gallows humor and the dead, you will immediately think of director Tim Burton's work. This is a fair beginning, but only a beginning. There is much more going on between the pages here. There is pathos.

In particular there are two of the main plot threads that delve down into a level of emotion - serious emotion - that lifts the work beyond mere Burton-esque fare: 1) Hester Garlan's quest to kill her son Nathan in order to wrench back from him the gift of seeing and speaking with the dead and, 2) the haunting of Sarah Winchester.

There is a great deal to laugh about in this book. But these two narratives cause the reader not frisson, but an discomfiture that twists the heart. The psychological and physical abuse that Sarah Winchester is subjected to makes one cringe and yearn for her release. And when the hope of release seemingly comes, it is all the more devastating to see that the abuse has not ended, but merely undergone a transformation. It is still there, and Sarah Winchester is haunted by it.

Take also Nathan Garlan's predicament: Hester tried, after the unwanted child's birth, to sell him off to a man who was not his father. After spending his youth in a hellish orphanage, the young man grows to become one of the most respected mediums in the country. Little does he know that the woman who gave him life wants to take it from him again. And let's not forget that the boy, now a man, has a father, as well, a ne'er-do-well haunted by the (rather stupid) ghost of his own brother.

I would spoil the fun and the wonder of this book if I were to reveal more. It is beautifully written, well-plotted, and meaningful. Templeton breaks Burton's boundaries and expands them. This is a dark and vivacious work that, ironically, breathes new life into some of the old, tired tropes of Gothic literature and dark cinema. It is absolutely worth your time and your hard-earned cash. There is no lovely end to the praise I can heap upon this book. Go buy this little ebony box of mysteries and make it your own.

PS: In the interest of full disclosure, yes, I know the author. No, she did not gift me a copy of this book - I bought it with my own cash. She did not ask for a review, nor did I promise such a thing. What you see in this review is all that it seems - high praise for a highly praiseworthy work of fiction.

The Dying Earth

The Dying Earth - Jack Vance

Let's do some quick math. Jack Vance's The Dying Earth was originally published in 1950. I was born in 1969. I first started playing Dungeons and Dragons, in earnest, in 1979. It is now 2014. On second thought, screw the math. You can plainly see that my reading of The Dying Earth is tardy, given that Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson cited Vance's work as influences on the development of the Dungeons and Dragons game.

And how.

More than an influencer, The Dying Earth is a wholesale supplier of D&D wares. In the first story, "Turjan of Mir," we see something akin to alignment, the fact that wizards must memorize their spells from spellbooks, the limitation (which I always thought was a rule to add game balance - I was wrong) that mages can only memorize so many spells a day, and at least one spell that was almost lifted verbatim from Vance to Gygax and Arneson (the Excellent Prismatic Spray, which appears in D&D as "Prismatic Spray," unless it is cast by one of the wizardsBill or Ted, in which case it is the "Most Excellent Prismatic Spray, Dude").

Now, that's not to say that The Dying Earth is one long hack-and-slash D&D adventure. Far from it. Vance is a far more sophisticated writer than Gygax or even Arneson (who, in my humble opinion, is the better of the two - compare Arneson's wrting on his Blackmoor campaign with that of Gygax'sGreyhawk campaign setting. Gygax had more stuff, Arneson had better original writing). So don't go in expecting a Choose Your Own Adventure. Vance is choosing the adventure for you, and his characters and their quests are meant to be read, not played. These characters, in these situations, would crumble in the hands of a lesser artist (like the 12 year old me that would have tried to create D&D stats for these characters and sent them on a killing spree through a non-descripts dungeon crawl).

I will admit that the first couple of stories were a bit trite. The thin plot devices and moralistic tales read more like a poorly-copied fairy tale than a good work of fantasy. I'd love to know the order these stories were written in, as they got better as the book progressed. By the end, they were outstanding.

The second-to-last story in the book, "Ulan Dhor," follows the journey of the titular novice sorcerer in his quest for the lost city Ampridatvir, once ruled by Rogol Domedonfors, a wizard of great power. Ulan Dhor is sent there by his mentor, Kandive, to recover the lost magic of Rogol Domedonfors by bringing together two tablets which, when combined, will restore the magical power that once held sway in the city. Along the way, he encounters a strange culture and even stranger magic - the magic of the ancients that once held sway before the sun began its slow death. One can see that this story might have influenced M. John Harrison's Viriconium or Jeffrey Ford's Well-built City.

The final, longest, and most compelling story, "Guyal of Sfere," follows another adventurer on a quest to find the Museum of Man to speak with the Curator, from whom Guyal wishes to gain knowledge. Again, the seeker travels into strange lands, encountering strange customs and cultures, in a story that is, at first, less about the magic (though magic does play a part) and more about the men and women Guyal meets in his journey. Only when Guyal and his new travelling companion, Shierl, make their way into the Museum of Man does magic play a major role. And this is strange, strange magic, of the kind that would fascinate nerds like me for decades to come. There is a hint of absurdism in the tale, which reinforces the bizarre feel of the story. Suffice it to say that we encounter one of the most disconcerting demons I have ever had the dis-pleasure of reading about - which is saying something, given my . . . particular . . . reading tastes. I could see this story influencing Gene Wolf's Book of the New Sun and, to some extent, Book of the Long Sun, which could make for some compelling historical analysis (of which I am not capable).

What started out as a not-particularly-spectacular read ended up as something excellent. I will be reading more of Vance's work, not because it's assigned reading for a class in Dungeons and Dragons history (for which I was really tardy), but because the writing in the last half of the book was excellent, the characters less shallow than much of modern fantasy, and the strangeness endearing to this strange reader.

Super Graphic

Super Graphic: A Visual Guide to the Comic Book Universe - Tim Leong

If you love graphics, statistics, and comics, this is your book. Ever wonder who all has been, for example, an Avenger? It's here. Want to know the relative strength of Galactus versus Apocalypse? It's there, too. Need to know which comic book heroes are associated with Rodents? Check: from Atomic Mouse to Mighty Mouse to Squirrel Girl.

And it's not just all about the characters. There is an intriguing swirl-graph showing the increase in Comic-Con attendance, The Chris Ware Sadness Scale (from Jimmy Corrigan to Quimby the Mouse), relative height and ride length of 15 different roller-coasters associated with superheroes . . . you get the idea.

As one would expect, the book is Marvel- and DC Comics-heavy, but there is plenty in here from independent and smaller presses referenced, as well. I was glad to see this, as I made mine Marvel as a kid in the '70s (remember Spider Man on The Electric Company?), had a brief love affair with several indies in the mid-'90s (Mostly Grimjack, Albedo Anthropomorphics, and Konny and Czu), and have recently been roped back into the comic fold by such excellent series as Fatale, The Manhattan Projects, andProphet. There seems to be a bit of a renaissance happening now, with some great titles out there. Give it ten years, and this book may need to be rewritten with an even stronger emphasis on the indies. I'll look forward to that volume, should it appear, as well.

Judge Some Books by their Covers . . . Go Ahead . . .

If you're so inclined, there is a "cover war" going on at The Qwillery for best debut book cover of October 2014. I know how I'm voting! :)

The Gay 90's

Mark Ryden: The Gay 90's - Mark Ryden, Amanda Erlanson, Anthony Haden-Guest

I am an unabashed fan of Pop Surrealism (aka "Low Brow") art.Ryden is one of the most prolific and high-profile artists of the movement. His self-admitted goal in producing the work represented in The Gay 90's is to "pull the lowest of the low into the highest of the high" by reinterpreting the kitsch representations of the 1890's (most of which were actually realized in the 1920's) as surreal-renaissance-style paintings. There is a sense of the solemn, even the divine, in the paintings themselves, but with such a twisted absurdity as to be transgressive. The painting "The Parlor" is a good representation of Ryden's aesthetic, showing porcelain-skinned Victorian girls in a parlor featuring a curiosity cabinet (carefully-planned in every detail by Ryden, as evinced by a pre-painting sketch), a tuxedoed and top-hatted Death holding a tarot card, and a gigantic eye set atop an antiqued wooden post. The center of attention is an infant (the Christ? Difficult to say, though Ryden has representations of Christ throughout the rest of the book) holding a clock-cum-image-of-eternity - a swirling snail-shell clock surrounded by symbols from the Zodiac, along with a series of Chinese symbols (that, alas, I cannot interpret). Near the eye, a nude goddess figure sits atop an overly cheerful creature somewhere between a lamb, a polar bear, and a poodle. This mixture of a sacred mood overlaying a ridiculously kitsch menagerie of figures, is emblematic of Ryden's work.

Ryden's work can be found all over online, but this book is worth owning because of the many preliminary sketches, which show the evolution of Ryden's thoughts in the very act of creation, and because of the outstanding introductory essay, "Mark Ryden and the Transfiguration of Kitsch" by Amanda Erlanson. These provide an excellent introduction to Ryden, his work, and his place among the contemporary luminaries of Pop Surrealism.

Locke & Key, Vol. 1: Welcome to Lovecraft

Locke & Key, Vol. 1: Welcome to Lovecraft - Joe Hill, Gabriel Rodríguez

This has been on my TBR shelf for a while now (as have many other books), but I hesitated to pick this up, though I've had opportunity before, because I was afraid of being disappointed.Locke & Key, Vol. 1: Welcome to Lovecraft may be one of the coolest titles I've heard of in a long time. It's evocative, and I was worried that the evocation might go horribly awry.

My fears were unfounded.

I'll spare you the story - several other reviewer friends of mine have outlined the story more clearly than I can hope to do. Suffice it to say that Lovecraft is a place, not a person, Locke is a family, and Key refers to Keyhouse, a named structure in which much of the story takes place. You won't find any tentacled horrors in this story, however. Yes, there is a strong backbone of supernatural horror, but no creatures from the Lovecraft Mythos, so far. The horrors here are human, albeit *influenced* by seemingly other-world entities.

And it's the humanity of it all that makes this an outstanding graphic novel. The psychotic characters (there are a couple true psychos and quite a few borderline cases) are not just raving serial killers. They are humans with unmet needs. They are fragile. They are broken. And they break others.

The victims and heroes are also portrayed in a more believable way than most graphic novels I've read. They are real. You want to put your arm around them and give them a hug, to tell them that it's alright, that things are going to be okay.

But that would be a lie.

The Machinery of Life

The Machinery of Life - David S. Goodsell

I passed 10th grade biology . . . barely.

My friend James and I had the two cutest girls in the class as lab partners. I can't remember their names, but they were both pretty gorgeous. I ended up in that lab group mostly because of James' charm and good looks. I was not particularly charming. I can prove it:

James and I hung out a fair amount. We had fun. You know, teenagers. So when it came time in our biology class to dissect pig fetuses, we had a good time with it. James made the incision and we had fun moving the pig into different . . . positions. One thing led to another and after a while we had the sliced-open pig dancing to Hello My Baby.

Problem is, its guts didn't want to stay inside.

And we had very slick formica tabletops.

So all kinds of innards spilled out during the chorus and splayed out across and off the tabletop, right into the laps of the girls in our lab group. They were not impressed.

Our teacher, who, it was rumored, was a cocaine addict (though no one could substantiate the claim), turned toward our table and shouted "James! Forrest! Get the hell out!"

So we did. We left the classroom and wandered the halls. I mean, it was kind of like permission, wasn't it?

The next day, we walked into the classroom and no sooner had we crossed the threshold than the teacher pointed at us and simply said "out"!

After a couple of days of this, he figured out that we were just wandering the halls, so for the rest of the semester, we were sent across the hall to spend time in another teacher's empty classroom. BIG mistake! We learned about science, alright. Like how many bags of gummy bears, stolen from the teacher's desk, did it take to fill up two teenage boys. Or whether the buoyancy of balloons on a windy day was enough to keep a teacher's metal in-basket aloft over the schoolyard (it wasn't). Or how many different topological forms could stacked desk chairs take.

The teacher passed us with a "D" so that he wouldn't have to have us in class again.

The joke was on him. I moved to England as soon as the school year was done. I later ran into James in England - he had moved there (to a different air base) a few months after I had gone. There was no chance that teacher would have ever had us as students again.

Fast forward to today. My middle son is studying microbiology at the University of Wisconsin - Madison. He wants to go to medical school and become a doctor. And I, because of my mis-spent youth, am playing catch up. I've always loved science, just sort of missed out on the whole formal training aspect of it (until I got to college). Now, I'm diving in. Heck, the only magazine subscription I have is to Discover Magazine.

So I heard and read a bit about this book and I must say that it's outstanding. Yes, it could use a little bit more depth, but it's a primer, really, a layman's introduction to cells and how they work on the molecular level. Very cool stuff. Some very scary stuff. HIV, for instance, is brutal on the molecular level, snipping out strands of a cells RNA and replacing them with its own, making itself virtually undetectable by the body's defense mechanisms. It's nasty stuff. I learned a lot about how cells work, particularly those in the human body. Did you know that the reason rigor mortis sets in is that the body, upon death, releases calcium from each muscle cell, which causes the muscles to contract. Normally, the living cells would almost instantaneously reabsorb the calcium, causing the muscles to relax, but the reabsorbing mechanism is shut off upon death. The calcium eventually reabsorbs and the body does relax, but only after a while. Or did you realize that the reason spicy foods are used as a sort of folk remedy for colds is because rhinovirus (i.e., the common cold) resides most comfortably in the mouth and nose, where there is not much acidity. Many spicy foods are highly acidic, which breaks down the cell walls of the rhinovirus, exposing its guts to the world, much like my experimental pig.

The illustrations are extremely helpful for me, a visual learner. Now, since I've "seen" how cells work, I can get on with some more specific studies and add some scientific rigor to my studies. Someday, I'd like to take a shot at some DIY biology.

And, in case you're wondering, James and I lost contact a long time ago, but I did find this little bio about him a couple of years ago. Seems he was someone very important on the USS New Orleans, a ship capable of delivering a battalion of 700 fully-armed marines into battle in short order.

If that doesn't scare you, nothing will.


Pinocchio - Winshluss

The other day, at a reading of my novel, Heraclix & Pomp, I was approached by a reader who asked if the book was a children's book. My response was "only if you want to traumatize the child".

I'd like to repeat that same warning about Winshluss's Pinocchiothis is not, Not, NOT a children's book! Au contraire, it is very much an adult book. Do not let children crack its pages, as their innocence will flee and never come back. Clear? OK.

This is a corruption clever re-telling of the horrors of the world and mankind's perversities the classic tale of Pinocchio. The artwork is most reminiscent of Robert Crumb's, et al, underground comix of the '60s and '70s. The cynicism is also in the same vein. But there's a lot less reefer and a little more playfulness in these stories within an overall story. Take, for instance, the Jimminy Cockroach subplot, showing the domestic concerns of the insect that inhabits Pinocchio's metal head (oh, did I not mention that Pinocchio is, in reality, a super-killer-robot? My bad.): The style in these subplots and the humor, remind me a great deal of Tony Millionaire's Maakies, but even a touch darker (yes, it's possible). Jimminy is despicable, but somehow Winschluss makes him almost lovable, for a time, anyway. And the blind-beggar turned apocalyptic messiah, while not quite adorable, has his moments of optimism . . . which quickly morph into maniacal plots to destroy large swaths of humanity.

So, if you can handle dark humor, and I mean *very* dark humor, Winschluss's Pinocchio is a . . . "fun" isn't the first word to come to mind, but I'll use it anyway . . . yes, fun read.

But don't say I didn't warn you about this not being a children's book. If you're going to have it in your collection at home, and there is the possibility of a child, any child, spotting the spine of this book through your window, you'd best top-shelf it and get yourself a security system. You do not want to be liable for the damages!

Pinocchio, Vampire Slayer

Pinocchio: Vampire Slayer - Van Jensen, Dusty Higgins

I soured on vampires before vampires were cool, back in the early '90s. But how could I resist picking this up? The premise is amazing, even if you're not a vampire-phile. 

The art is wonderful, with a razor-edged Disney feel. The characters were good, but I didn't find myself too vested in any of them. Pinocchio himself has a lot of potential, though, and I'd like to see what is done with him in future volumes. There is a touch of post-modern angst throughout, which could be milked to good effect. What happens when he hits puberty, I wonder? Do I really want to know? In all seriousness, I found Pinocchio to be clever in this work, and I mean that without condemnation. He is an intelligent dark hero, using his lies and the truth to his best advantage. I appreciated this aspect of the book best of all.

My biggest problem with this book had to be the ending. The plot was good throughout, a little rushed here and there, as I've come to expect with most graphic novels, but the ending. Hopefully "Empire Strikes Back" doesn't spoil it too much for you . . .

So if you're really into vampires and puppets and feel like you're in a forgiving mood, or at least one that will allow you to enjoy a derivative plot thread, go for it. If not, I'm not gonna lie to you, you probably won't like it. 

There, see? My nose didn't grow at all. 


Flotsam - David Wiesner

A perspective-altering philosophical text cleverly disguised as a children's book! Wiesner, through the use of smart story-boarding, a child's point of view, and a strong dose of whimsy, provides a tale eschewing the need to stay young. But he is not merely pedantic: he shows us *how* to remain young by inserting the reader in the middle of the action, drawing us into the child until we are the child. Then, after unmooring us from our adult concerns through the use of a series of surreal photographs of seascapes and bizarre congeries of sea creatures (including the sea monkeys you remember having been advertised in the backs of comic books as a child - come on, admit it, you ordered some, didn't you?), he teaches us that everything in the world is interconnected. He awes us with not just nature itself, but nature's possibilities. This is not a children's book, it is a guidebook, it is a workbook, it is a bible of the imagination. Learn it, love it, live it.

The Bone Clocks

The Bone Clocks - David Mitchell

I once wrote a novel like this. 

My agent wisely advised me to split it up into two novellas.

I did.

I wish Mitchell's agent had given the same advice.

He or she didn't.

Too bad.

It's a tempting trap, this splicing together of novellas. I know, I've been caught in it myself. It makes the writer's job much easier. And it's clever, to boot. In the case of The Bone Clocks, however, this strategy backfired, creating a novel divided against itself.

I'll spare you the plot overview for three reasons: 1) others have already given fantastic overviews (see, particularly, reviews by AmberBugJenny (Reading Envy), and Greg). 2) Any plot outline is bound to contain inadvertent spoilers. 3) I'm feeling rather tired from other, writerly projects.

So let's focus on structure and characterization.

The internal schism in the book isn't about plot, anyway. It's about pacing, emphasis, and characterization, more than anything else. The first 2/3rds of the book were, frankly, overwrought. And by that, I don't mean that the language was overly purple or the syntactical structure too complex. In fact, I found quite the opposite. Mitchell was careful to portray salt-of-the-earth characters and jaded characters as if they were almost Jungian archetypes of naive teenagers and hedonistic twenty-somethings, respectively. Mitchell tried really, really hard to get these characterizations across.

Too hard.

You could tell that he was trying.

Time and again, I felt that Mitchell was trying so hard to make his characters - "trendy" or "hip" are the words that come to mind - that they ended up being pastiches of the very ideal for which the author was aiming. They became, in a word, distracting, like that guy who so wants to be the center of attention at a party that he wears a rainbow afro wig. Everyone sees him there, making everyone laugh. But guess who's not going home with the girl? 

Now, I've read (and written) my share of annoying and despicable characters. But these characters, by and large, threw me out of the story. Later, when said characters returned (in later sections), I found it extremely difficult to accept them. My brain wanted to reject them, and I found myself becoming angry at the author for having screwed these characters up in an attempt to be "literary".

And there is the biggest structural problem with the book.

In the first 2/3rds, Mitchell seems to be making a conscious effort to appear "literary". I'm not sure why - it's obvious from his previous work that he has writing "chops". I don't know what he was trying to prove, but he tried so hard that he failed. He over-thought the first part of the book. Only in section 3, "The Wedding Bash" does Mitchell's auctorial *voice* sound genuine and natural. 

This third section is exceptional, and would have made a brilliant novella by itself. As it stands in relation to the rest of the plot, however, it feels as if it has been awkwardly welded-on to the rest of the novel, weakening the overall product. Really, this section is some of the best writing I've read in a while. Mitchell's got chops . . . in doses.

The next section, "Crispin Hershey's Lonely Planet" is indulgent, and not in a good way. Perhaps I'm missing some hidden humor about Mitchell's experience as a well-known writer. If so, the inside jokes are, well, a little *too* inside. And, like the third section, this bit seems tacked on, hardly relevant, except in a few small points which could have been distilled down to a few pages. In fact, I believe that the first 350 pages of this novel could have been brought down to about 100, and Mitchell would have not only a heck of a novella (in "The Wedding Bash," which I like to call the "Baghdad section"), but a great novel, as well.

Because, you see, it gets better. Much, much better. Had Mitchell not stretched out the first half of the book to three-times the length it should have been(to be fair, the blame might lay with the editor), you'd be reading a five star review. No kidding: The last half-ish of the book is THAT good.

It's in the tale of the Horologists, and beyond, that the author really hits his stride. Here things get weird and exciting, two things which I like very much in a novel. Gone is the pretense of trying to please The New Yorker crowd. The catering to angry teenagers has thankfully died away. And Mitchell reveals that he is a heck of a writer when he lets his hair down, takes off his tie, and gets down to really letting himself fly as a writer.

But, wait. "What", you ask, "is a Horologist"?

I'm not telling. I'll leave it as a surprise. But suffice it to say that once we understand a little bit about them, all hell breaks loose. Really, everything goes crazy. Not just for the characters directly in the path of the immediate action, the ones in a psychic conflict between superhuman beings, but for the whole planet. Now, before you go blaming the Horologists (after all, their organization sounds so . . . prostitutional - which isn't even a word, but you get my point), know that while they are powerful, they are far from all-powerful. They are at the mercy of mankind's collective bad decisions, just like the rest of the world. And while reading the last section of the book might make the reader feel that he is taking a beating from a pedantic stick wielded by Greenpeace, it does set things up for what I must admit is a very emotional ending. I found myself staying up late because I had to finish the book. Mitchell compelled me, by making me viscerally-involved and emotionally-invested in the characters at the end of the book. Finally, finally, I could forget the forced too-cool-to-be-true feeling of the first part of the book and enjoy myself, really let myself get steeped in the characters' thoughts and emotions, and feel their fear, love, and longing in my bones.

Yeah, I had to reach for the tissue. There were tears. 

Still, there was a time when I wanted to stop reading the book. And I am not one to stop reading books, no matter how bad. But I was tempted to close this one up and take it to the used book store. Oh, I was sorely tempted. Thankfully, I pushed through and it was just a tiny bit after I peeked over that wall (and it was a big wall), that it got better. Ultimately, it was a victory. But a Pyrrhic victory. I may be recovering from this novel, both the good and the bad parts, for some time to come.