Tuesday, April 29, 2008
It all starts when psychoanalyst Dr. Hirofumi receives an odd note from Masuda, a former patient, inviting Hirofumi to join Mausuda at a country spa. Odd because Masuda committed suicide three years ago.
And that is just the beginning. Hirofumi soon discovers that the veil of perceived reality has been ripped away altogether, and the rules of the old world no longer apply. What is left behind is called Summerworld. It is a realm where people can be who they want to be. Or at least who they view themselves as being. And Summerworld is changing to meet the expectations of those who inhabit it.
But Hirofumi also learns that straddling the line between your past and your hopes and dreams for the future can be tricky. Not everyone can walk that tightrope and make the transition. Especially when forces are gathering to push Summerworld entirely off balance.
It is really quite impressive how Summerworld pulls together its seemingly divergent stylistic threads into such a satisfying tapestry.
Summerworld is deeply philosophical. Author Serdar Yegulalp presents a thoughtful meditation on the fine balancing act between clinging to the past and losing oneself in dreams of change. Yet, philosophy aside, Summerworld also contains several wonderfully involving action scenes. And happily, Yegulalp knows that a battle is all the more exciting when the sides are evenly matched. It never feels like the villains are too strong, and thus that the heroes can only prevail through luck or authorial caprice. Rather, even at the final, spectacular confrontation, there is a pronounced sense of balance, and that only heightens the tension.
Summerworld is in many ways a fantasy novel. It takes place in the world of magic, warriors and dreams that emerges after our modern society has been pushed aside. But the novel also is grounded in reality. On a literal level, remnants of our present world linger even after Summerworld rises. More importantly, many of the characters carry the baggage of their prior lives. As a result, Summerworld's characters feel completely genuine and of this world, notwithstanding their larger-than-life fantasy trappings. On the outside they may be heroes, but on the inside they're people.
Summerworld has a powerfully epic quality. Hirofumi's journey to understand the nature of the threat that surrounds him is fully developed and feels complete. Yet Summerworld also tells smaller, intimate stories about the relationships, both old and new, that are forged in this new world. And these small, understated character moments are just as compelling as the overall saga.
Summerworld's final apparent contradiction is that, despite the scope of Yegulalp's achievement, the novel is in fact only 284 pages long. So even if you're pressed for time, there is absolutely no reason not to go and pick up this fine novel.
Summerworld is available from Lulu (as are Yegulalp's other novels) as a $14.99 paperback. Yegulalp also maintains a personal website that includes, among other information, news about various past and upcoming projects.
The members of Mystechs recently announced that they are putting the band on hiatus while they head to Hollywood to pursue their moviemaking dreams. It is hard to argue with their logic: after ten albums in as many years with limited commercial success, they feel it is time, at least for a while, to focus on other creative endeavors.
Happily, while moving forward, the band members appear also to value their years in the music trenches. As one member comments in a recent blog entry, "I don’t think I’m being full of shit when I say I wouldn’t trade the Mystechs experience to play in 98% of the bands that get lots of hype or sell lots of records." Nor have they foreclosed the possibility of returning to music some day, even as they focus for the moment on their filmmaking.
In the meantime, the band leaves behind a substantial musical legacy recorded in several different pop and rock styles. The earlier albums tend to be a bit hit or miss, although they include some songs I truly love, like the bouncy, clever political dance pop of "Shouldn't Be Dancing" from Showtime at the Apocalypse (2002). But the more recent albums, each of which is a witty pastiche of a particular genre, are much more consistent: Dixie Inferno (2008) is a riotous take on southern rock, Hot Tub O' Blood (2007) is an equally warped take on heavy metal, and Escape from Planet Love (2006), my personal favorite, takes on '70s disco and funk.
Straddling the early- and late-period albums is 2005's Warriors and Warlocks, a (very) loose concept album about using fantasy to escape the drudgeries of the workaday world. Any horror movie aficionado will appreciate "Zombie Mountain," an exhilarating three-and-a-half minute zombie flick with a hillbilly twang. But the highlight is title track "Warriors and Warlocks," about a suburbanite's dream to leave behind her "white-bread paradise" for a more exciting world where her inner elven princess can fight dragons, devils and demons. Not a novel theme, certainly, but one that the Mystechs handle with charm, sympathy, and a nicely propulsive chorus.
More information about purchasing all of the Mystechs' albums (including iTunes links for the more recent releases) can be found at their website.
Thursday, April 24, 2008
Rex Bowman's Cannibals (available at Amazon or Barnes & Noble for $5.99), although technically a "young adult" novel, is a compact, ruthless thriller that will entertain cannibal fans of all ages. The basic plot is simple as can be: six teens are stranded on an island. With cannibals. Mayhem ensues. And this is not "high adventure" mayhem, but down-and-dirty, brutal bedlam. As one character notes, being shipwrecked can "sound so wonderful and exciting when it's happening in a book. Just the opposite when it's happening to you. In real life it's miserable and scary and all you feel is your hunger and thirst." Here, the teens' travails don't sound like fun at all; indeed, the novel's likable protagonists, fearsome villains, unabashed nastiness, and even its relative brevity (222 smallish pages) all work together to make Cannibals a horrifyingly satisfying nightmare.
Tuesday, April 22, 2008
Jeff Tanner is trying his best to be a good father to his two young sons after the death of his wife. But it's not easy. His youngest son, Davey, is a mischievous smart-aleck. Older son Brian has withdrawn altogether, focusing only on his drawing. And Jeff himself is both lonely and uncertain how to move on.
But now things have gotten even worse. Jeff has started seeing strange, freaky creatures wherever he goes. Strange, freaky creatures that are becoming increasingly upset. And Jeff had better figure out why, because that agitation is turning into outright hostility. Towards Jeff. And they may be little, but they're everywhere.
There are no big surprises in Imaginary Friends. From the moment young Davey makes a Christmas wish that his father could see all of Davey's imaginary friends, we know that wish is going to come true. We know that the imaginary friends will cause chaos, but that, ultimately, they will help Jeff recognize what's important in life. We know that, as part of this process, Jeff will learn how to honor his wife's memory while also moving on, and that this lesson will revitalize both his relationship with his children and his career. Imaginary Friends is a story of holiday redemption; as such, there's only one place for the story to go.
But that's OK, because even if we know the eventual destination, the journey is a lot of fun. Pillsbury displays a flair for both big, comic set-pieces and quieter moments of loss and melancholy, and Jeff and his family and friends are charming, likable protagonists. Some characters, like precociously cute youngest son Davey and Jeff's spunky live-in mother-in-law, feel a bit too much like standard television sitcom archetypes. But others, like Jeff himself and introverted son Brian, keep the novel grounded; they're real people, with real flaws and problems that resist instantaneous resolution. Even the "imaginary friends" themselves, rather than being strictly cute 'n' cuddly, are appropriately menacing when riled.
As a result, although Imaginary Friends as a whole displays an appealing tenderness, it never descends into treacly holiday pap. Rather, there is enough bitterness mixed with the sweet to keep the reader involved, and this vitality easily compensates for the lack of narrative surprises. After all, we may know already know that the Grinch is going to learn to love Christmas; but that doesn't mean we can't still appreciate the real emotion underlying the tale.
Imaginary Friends is available for $12.95 from Amazon. You can read the first 80 pages of the novel for free at the book's website; further material, including the beginning pages of a webcomic adaptation of the novel (as drawn by Pillsbury himself), is also available here.
Incidentally, and unfortunately, the latest blog entry on the webcomic site illustrates how difficult it is for even a well-reviewed POD book to achieve much success. If you look at the nine (to date) customer reviews on Amazon, you'll see that Imaginary Friends has been widely praised, not just by the usual friends and family, but also by an Amazon top-100 reviewer, two top-50 reviewers and a top-10 reviewer. I'm aware of the debate about the worth of some of Amazon's top reviewers; nonetheless, one might think that having so many positive reviews would count for something.
But Pillsbury's blog reveals that "sales of the book have stunk," well below the (fairly minimal) 200-300 books he hoped to sell. The problem, of course, is that favorable reviews on Amazon can only sway readers who have already found the book. As always, the problem is getting the potential customer's attention in the first place. And as always, even for the worthy titles, there is, unfortunately, no easy solution.
Glen and the Sunshine Gang are a fun, quirky power-pop band that sing about fun, quirky topics like Jackie Chan ("Jackie Chan"), Jason Voorhees ("Friday the 13th"), and Billy Blanks ("Winners Anthem," which also has a nifty video).
Oh, and unicorns. Following their adventures in Imaginary Friends, I can perfectly imagine Jeff and his family singing along to the rousing chorus of "I Believe in Unicorns." I have a bit more difficulty picturing the family singing along with the ugly, death-metalesque bridge two-thirds of the way through, but even that aspect of the song is thematically consistent with the novel: just as Jeff's preliminary mistakes and failures make his ultimate growth all the more compelling, so too does the ugliness of the song's bridge make the final chorus that much sweeter.
All of Glen and the Sunshine Gang's songs are available DRM free for $0.89 each through Snocap on the band's MySpace page (where the band's two videos can be seen as well).
Sunday, April 13, 2008
What did Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, and my sister have in common? They were all my friends, and they died. Timely Persuasion follows an anonymous music critic on a quest to save his sister from the relationship that ended her life. After a chance encounter at a bowling alley leaves him with the ability to travel in time, our hero uses his musical knowledge to “blink” through the years attempting to keep the couple apart by any means necessary. But is her husband Nelson really to blame? Along the way he launches a new folk rock star, accidentally restructures his family tree, and crosses paths with the likes of Huey Lewis, Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, and Billy Joel. Reliving past events through the eyes of his younger selves, he soon finds that correlation and causation are not always what they seem. This story of death, life, love, and rock 'n’ roll defies genre conventions while paying tribute to the classic time travel tales that came before it.
Timely Persuasion reflects a peculiar phenomenon that is common in mass-market releases, where hired gun publicists write the back-cover copy, but is less usual in the do-it-yourself POD world. To be blunt, Timely Persuasion's misleading plot blurb makes a fun novel sound absolutely cheesy. Based on the official description (with its promise that the hero is "friends" with Cobain and Hendrix and also "crosses paths" with assorted other rock luminaries), I suspected that Timely Persuasion would be a series of trite wish-fulfillment trysts between a thinly-veiled author-stand-in protagonist and his musical idols, which in the end would add up to little more than a collection of fanboy fantasies.
Happily, Timely Persuasion absolutely does not go down this road. The conceit of the novel is that time travel is possible to any date that resonates strongly in the traveler's memory. For our time-traveling protagonist, those days often have rock music significance. However, our hero does not actually interact with his music idols. Rather, although his remembrances of important music dates are the springboard from which he launches his travels through time, they really are just the backdrop to his real mission: to prevent his sister's suicide.
And so Timely Persuasion ends up being much more enjoyable than the the above description had led me to expect. The writing is professional and polished, and author Jacob LaCivita does an admirable job keeping the complex mechanics of his recursive plot clear for the reader. At times his exposition is a bit too blunt, as one character will spell-out for another exactly what is going on. But that's really no different than Doc Brown drawing on the blackboard to explain the intricacies of time travel for Marty in Back to the Future Part II. And Timely Persuasion is clearly a movie at heart. Indeed, on April 1, LaCivita joked on his blog that Timely Persuasion had already been snatched up as a movie with an all-star cast. Although LaCivita was kidding, Timely Persuasion absolutely has "summer blockbuster" written all over it.
Of course, as I've mentioned before, big-studio summer films are known for being fun and clever, but also for ultimately being disposable. Indeed, Timely Persuasion raises a number of intriguing issues that it never fully explores. For example, the narrator at one point funnels hit songs from the future to a singer from the past, in order to advance the past performer's career. He expressly recognizes that in doing so, he is effectively depriving the future (original) artists of writing (or profiting from) their own songs. Maybe it's just me, but I find the implications of that fascinating (not just in the chicken-and-the-egg paradox sense; what I really find interesting is the ethical and artistic issues). And so perhaps it is unfair of me to criticize LaCivita for staying focused on the tale he wanted to tell, rather than going off on a tangent that I was interested in. But it is very frustrating to have interesting themes explicitly raised, only to be quickly brushed off to the side.
Nonetheless, high-concept films and novels definitely have their place, and Timely Persuasion fits solidly in that category. I enjoyed it for its substantial cleverness, breezy style, and pleasingly convoluted plot, which had just enough pathos at the end to give the journey some substance. If I'm a bit dissatisfied with Timely Persuasion, it is only because I would have liked more focus on some of the side-issues. But even as the novel stands, it is great for beach reading, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that.
However, I would still change that back jacket copy.
Timely Persuasion is available as a $16.00 paperback or a $5.00 pdf download through Lulu. Alternately, you can read the novel for free through an online reader at the Timely Persuasion website, where further background information is also available. Even more information is available at the novel's blog, including an ongoing series of chapter-by-chapter author's notes and comments. Finally, random bits and pieces thematically linked to the book are available at Local Blog Done Good (the name has significance once you've read the book). LaCivita clearly takes marketing his book seriously (for which he should equally seriously be commended).
In the spirit of Timely Persuasion, I offer up a music track that always pulls me back in time (not from an independent artist, alas -- this dates back to a time before I discovered that wonderful world): Ratt's "Round and Round" (the link is to the DRM-free Amazon music store). Back in 1983, I thought this was a great song; to be honest, I still do. And, should a movie adaptation ever be made, I think "Round and Round" would be the perfect choice to play over the credits. Anyone, or at least anyone from my generation, would instantly understand the concept that pop music can transcend time and create a tunnel straight back through the decades (has it really been 25 years?). And while I know that the song isn't actually about time travel, I don't think anyone really knows the lyrics beyond the perfectly apropos "Round and round/what goes around comes around/I'll tell you why" anyhow. So cum on feel the noize! (oh wait, that was someone else.)
Saturday, April 05, 2008
I did this because the author (very politely) wrote to question my original language, and, after due consideration, I agreed that my original word choice had been poor. I want to be clear: I did not change my review because someone challenged me. I changed it because I came to realize that my review as first posted did not, in fact, accurately convey what I truly feel.
I've never substantively changed an entry before (although I have fixed some typos). Going forward, I will redouble my efforts to choose my words carefully, so that I don't have to make such changes again. But I want my writing to be as accurate as possible about my thoughts, even if that means making after-the-fact edits. I feel particularly compelled to listen with an open mind to valid post-posting suggestions (even from interested parties) because I, like (I suspect) most bloggers, don't have anyone else review or edit my work before I post it. We POD reviewers constantly urge authors to have their work edited by a third party before publishing it. If I don't take that advice myself before posting my reviews, the least I can do is listen to comments afterwards.
Some might argue that I should follow the blogging tradition of striking through the old text (but keeping it on the blog) at the same time as I insert the new language, so that my change of heart is recorded for posterity. But I'm not sure what that accomplishes. I don't know that the few people who may have read the original review are ever going to go back and read it again to see if anything has changed. Nor do I think that new readers of the review would gain anything by reading my original poor word choice.
So why am I posting a whole blog entry about this? For one thing, I'm making penance for my original poor draftsmanship by confessing my sins.
But more fundamentally, this whole experience will hopefully make me a better reviewer. It has served as a humbling reminder of the massive task that any novelist undertakes. I can't get through a few-hundred-word review without agonizing over it again and again; even so, I quite clearly still fail at times to find the right words to convey my thoughts. The novelists whose work I critique often write more than a hundred thousand of those words, primarily to entertain or enlighten readers like myself. The tremendous effort involved certainly does not mean that the resulting books are above criticism. But after all of that effort, POD novelists at least have the right to expect that if I am going to say anything, and especially anything negative, I am at least going to make every effort to say it right. That's an important standard for me, as a reviewer, always to try to live up to.
Wednesday, April 02, 2008
Wildclown Hijacked by G. Wells Taylor is the most straightforward of the bunch, which is really saying something given that the novel chronicles the adventures of a spirit, in the quasi-post-apocalyptic world of the Change (in which the dead have arisen to resume their old lives), who possesses the body of an alcoholic private investigator who, in turn, wears clownface greasepaint in order to hide his face -- and thus his past -- from his own gaze.
Wildclown Hijacked is the sequel to When Graveyards Yawn, a novel I absolutely adore, and, perhaps unfairly, the new installment suffers a little bit in comparison. The problem is not with the writing; Taylor's prose continues to be absolutely top-notch. Wildclown's gritty, down-to-earth narration perfectly counterpoints the nightmarish phantasmagoria of life after the Change, and Taylor captures the mystery, violence and horror of this new world beautifully.
Rather, it is the plot that falters. To anyone already familiar with Wildclown's world (or even who has just read the above paragraphs), the title of this novel explicitly gives away exactly what is going to happen. Moreover, beyond the titular event, not much else occurs. As a result, there is very little surprise as events unfold. The details of the journey are everything. The strength of Taylor's writing is such that it is nearly enough. But in the end, Wildclown Hijacked was a little bit too predictable, even with its completely over-the-top finale.
(Wildclown Hijacked is available as a $9.94 paperback when ordered from Lulu through a special link at the book's web page -- go to wildclown.com and click on the Wildclown Hijacked cover there.)
On the surface, Robert Barry Kaplan's The Useless Detective appears much more conventional. Our narrator, a small time P.I. so lackadaisical that he doesn't even get a name, has managed to rouse himself to attend a twenty-year college reunion party at an isolated country estate. Before the night is over, one party goer has been murdered and a sudden storm has cut off all contact with the outside world. No one has any faith that our narrator can solve the crime before the killer strikes again. This, it would seem, would be the perfect opportunity for our hapless "hero" to prove his worth.
But we humans don't always rise to meet the opportunities presented to us. Sometimes, when given the chance to shine, we just stay in our ruts. And so it is with our useless detective, who, in fulfillment of his classmates' expectations, utterly fails to rise to the challenge. And so The Useless Detective proceeds like the novelization of a nonexistent Luis Buñuel film, as ennui conquers all and the partygoers resign themselves to day after day of ever more stagnant food, sex, and ultimate slaughter by the unknown killer.
So if The Useless Detective is just a big existential joke, the question becomes whether it at least is a good joke. On the positive side, Kaplan is a polished writer, and the humor, while bone dry, is very real. But once the narrative settles down into its endless cycle of dreary days and nights, I found myself waiting in vain through for something new to happen. Which, of course, is exactly how I'm supposed to feel. I genuinely respect that effect on an intellectual level. In the final analyis, however, this is a novel that is easy to admire but harder to really enjoy. And I wonder whether that's not fine with Kaplan.
(The Useless Detective is available as a $15.95 paperback from iUniverse, Barnes and Noble or Amazon. Kaplan's homepage is here, and he also writes a drolly amusing blog.)
Chuck Rosenthal's The Heart of Mars is the most out-there of the three novels, both in terms of setting and style. It is four hundred years after mankind was rescued from ecological disaster by benevolent extraterrestrials. Much has changed. There are few pure humans left. There are no machines -- everything is biological, alive. And there is no more writing, or storytelling. It's just not how things are done.
The Heart of Mars is poetic, almost psychedelic. The loose plot, involving half-human Marl's investigation into the hijacking to Mars of a ship full of fish, is only there to give the wispiest of structure to an elliptical journey that involves all manner of strange places and even stranger creatures with still stranger dispositions. The novel is a bit like an Alice in Wonderland in space, except that Marl, unlike Alice, is an intrinsic part of the strange world he inhabits.
In the end, the plot essentially falls away. As Marl gets closer to solving the mystery, the mystery itself becomes less and less relevant, until all that remains is the importance of telling the story. The Heart of Mars may ultimately be too oblique for readers looking for a straight-forward narrative, and, to be honest, I'm not sure I understand it all. But the sustained otherness of the journey is enthralling.
(The Heart of Mars is available in hardcover from Hollyridge Press, Barnes and Noble, Amazon, and other online retailers for $23.95.)