Monday, June 6, 2011

Bad Movies, Good Company

Recently I had the chance to get together with some people that I knew back when I was in college (1984-1988): Leigh, Trina, and Kyle. Our connection back then was The Rocky Horror Picture Show, beginning as fans and eventually leading to the performance cast; in short, we spent an inordinate amount of time running around in darkened theaters in our underwear (or less) shouting profanity at the tops of our lungs. Good times.

Leigh and I were already friends when we met the other two, and Leigh and I kept in touch through the years, remaining friends. Contact with Trina was more sporadic (totally my fault), but we had recently re-connected via mutual friends, a fondness for ArmadilloCon, and facebook. Kyle I had not seen or spoken to since college.

I was curious about the weekend we planned--sure, we had a lot of fun back then, but a lot of time had passed. Would we still have stuff in common, or were we in for a polite yet brutally uncomfortable time together?

The theme for the weekend was Bad Movies (okay, technically it was Bad Movies and Alcohol), with everyone bringing stuff to choose from. As we started unpacking our choices and looking over everyone else's, the conversation took off: categories of "bad", bad slasher films, Troma, SYFY crappy-mutant-monster-of-the-week movies, etc..

As we happily kibitzed and argued and teased each other, it was clear that our shared Rocky Horror past wasn't the only thing binding us together. These are genuinely smart, funny, knowledgeable people, and while are tastes aren't necessarily the same, they do overlap quite nicely. In short, a geek twenty years ago is probably still a geek today, so chances are you'll still have lots of common ground.

Re-connecting with old friends can be a fine, fine thing, because sometimes you need to discuss the relative merits of Sharktopus versus Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus (Sharktopus wins, hands down) or reduce the frankly awful Sleepaway Camp to a chorus of "Is it me, or does that chick have man-hands?" or decry the woeful lack of lesbians in a film called Blood Sisters of Lesbian Sin (and no, Lloyd Kaufman, an introductory sequence of you leering at two girls making out does not count).

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

May Reads

I'd say it doesn't seem like it could be June already, but then I walk outside into 97-degree weather with a balmy 400% humidity, and it's clear that summer is indeed upon us. For me, that means more time inside in glorious, air-conditioned comfort with my nose stuck in a book. Exhibit A: my May booklist (29 books, for those keeping count)--an eclectic collection with some real standouts like Julia Stuart's The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise, Matthew Dicks' Unexpectedly Milo, and Peter S. Beagle's The Secret History of Fantasy.

Allende, Isabel Eva Luna
The story of Eva Luna is a story about stories and storytelling. Allende is adept at weaving magic with words, making the most outrageous situations seem natural. I love her stuff.

Beagle, Peter S. The Secret History of Fantasy
Although I understand the frustration of writers tired of being marginalized, it's difficult to talk about without sounding whiny. Ursula LeGuin manages; Beagle, not so much. But none of that takes away from the fact that this is a stellar anthology whose lineup of participating authors should open a few eyes regarding “fantasy literature.” Particular favorites include Steven Millhauser's “The Barnum Museum,” “The Empire of Ice Cream” by Jeffrey Ford, Octavia E. Butler's “The Book of Martha,” and “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss” by Kij Johnson.

Bolano, Roberto The Return
A collection of short stories from the late Bolano. It's odd that, for me, at least, Bolano doesn't sing until he taps into the life of woman who's had enough of the macho BS culture (“Murderous Whores”). There's a tenderness when he writes as a woman (even a murderous one) that he generally doesn't allow himself when he writes as a man (exceptions would be “Buba,” a soccer-themed story of brotherhood and magic, and “Prefiguration of Lalo Cura,” about a boy raised on porn sets). Bolano is angry and harder-edged than most of the more well-known Latin American writers, and he's not shy about expressing his disdain for most of them.

Clemons, Leigh Branding Texas
A study of how Texas sees and presents itself, both in performance (film, TV, & theatrical) and in real life. Fascinating stuff.

Datlow, Ellen Teeth: Vampire Tales
An anthology edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling is always going to be quality, and this one, featuring stories of teens, vampires, and teen vampires is no exception. Particular favorites include Genevieve Valentine's “Things To Know About Being Dead,” Suzy McKee Charnas's “Late Bloomer,” Garth Nix's “Vampire Weather,” and “Best Friends Forever” by Cecil Castellucci.

Denton, Brad Blackburn
Jimmy Blackburn is a killer, but he only kills those who deserve it: men who hit women, cheating husbands, men who are cruel to dogs. Denton shows us how Jimmy was created and where he ends up with a fair amount of humor along the way.

Dicks, Matthew Unexpectedly Milo
Unexpectedly Milo is unexpectedly awesome! Milo Slade suffers from OCD and has spent his life hiding his affliction from others. He's been startlingly successful; even his wife has no idea. But now his marriage is breaking up and he's struggling to figure out how to fix it when he happens upon a video camera and some tapes. The tapes turn out to be the video diary of a woman who believes herself responsible for the recent death of her best friend and also for the presumed death of her childhood best friend who she helped to run away and who was never seen again. Milo decides to try to find the missing girl and reunite the two, and this is the story of his quest. Funny, sad, heartfelt, and absolutely just right.

Dozois, Gardner Year's Best SF & Fantasy 27
Some excellent stories (as always), but what I really love about these collections is the “state of the genre” essays and the “Honorable Mention” lists. If you're a genre fan, this is a fantastic guide to some of the top stories available in a given year.

Green, John An Abundance of Katherines
Colin Singleton is a former child prodigy who's terrified that he's not a genius and that therefore he will never matter. He has also dated (and been dumped by) 19 girls, all named Katherine. Now, after a ridiculously short post-graduation road trip, Colin and his best (and only) friend Hassan find themselves in Gutshot, Tennessee, living in an enormous pink house and interviewing town residents about the history of the town. None of which comes close to describing how awesome and fun this was to read (even though it involves math).

Harper, Charise Mericle Flashcards of My Life
In a clever combination of words and pictures, Emily tells us her story. It's chock full of crazy school “He likes you. Do you like him?” shenanigans, and Emily has a great voice, but somehow it didn't gel completely for me.

Keating, Mark The Pirate Devlin
Serviceable pirate fare with a hyper-competent pirate captain with intelligence, skill, and heart but the poor taste to be born Irish and poor and therefore worthless. Unsurprisingly, he is wildly successful as a pirate with the freedom to use his many skills without societal strictures. Strangely, as hyper-competent as Devlin is, he spends his entire first adventure making life-long enemies who will no doubt pop up periodically to interfere in his happy pirate life before being vanquished yet again and left to shake their sad, non-piratical fists in the air and curse the pirate Devlin.

Keeler, Harry Stephen The Riddle of the Traveling Skull
I've read about Keeler for years: crazy plots, loopy dialogue, terrible accents, eccentric characters, and not a lick of sense in the whole lot. A critic (one who LIKED Keeler) once said that his books read as if they had been translated from the original Choctaw. This was my first chance to actually read Keeler himself, and I have to say, it's all true. If you're looking for characters with understandable motivations or plots that actually make sense, look elsewhere. If, however, you enjoy sheer exuberance and creativity, then give Mr. Keeler a try.

Kenyon, Sherrilyn Invincible
Book 2 of the Chronicles of Nick picks up right after the events of book 1. Nick is slowly realizing that he is surrounded by beings that only seem human, and that most of them want him dead. This, however, doesn't make him any less of a smart-ass. Nick also learns that he is fated to destroy the world unless something seriously changes and begins to suspect that his “Uncle” Ambrose might not be who he says he is. Fast-paced and a lot of humor, but Kenyon takes care to deepen some of her characters along the way, lending some depth to the story. Nick is a fourteen-year old boy, which means that at various points in the book, everybody (the reader included) wants to smack him, but he has a good heart and it's easy to root for him.

Leonard, Elmore Out of Sight
US Marshall Karen Sisco is serving a warrant at a prison when she arrives in the middle of a jailbreak & is captured. Forced into the trunk with one of the escapees, she finds him oddly charming, as he does her. She makes her escape and he eludes the authorities, but neither can stop thinking about the other. They meet again, over drinks in a snowstorm, and the stage is set for a final meeting with Foley swearing he won't go back to prison, & Sisco swearing she'll bring him in.

Leonard, Elmore When the Women Come Out to Dance
A collection of short stories featuring some appearances by characters Leonard has made famous in his novels. Some are good, some are great.

Leonard, Elmore Tishomingo Blues
High diver Dennis Lenahan accidentally witnesses a murder. Soon after, he meets Robert Taylor, a smooth-talker from Detroit who has his own agenda in the area. Toss in an unbending CBI agent, a retired baseball pitcher, and a Civil War re-enactment and soon Dennis is heading to his own rendezvous with Robert Johnson's infamous crossroads, and contemplating his own deal with the devil. Funny, fast-moving, and Leonard keeps you guessing the whole time.

Mancusi, Mari Gamer Girl
Maddy's parents have split and she's had to move from Boston and all of her friends to a small town full of the tragically unhip (she calls them Aberzombies, which makes me giggle). Outside events (a grandmother who still thinks she's 8, mom jeans, and a unicorn sweater) combine with her own quasi-goth, manga-loving geekiness to make her a total outcast at school. She finds solace in an online fantasy game, where she meets a boy who seems perfect. She struggles at school and at home, trying to find her way in this new world. A little something for the geek girl in all of us.

Mieville, China Embassytown
Mieville returns with this tale of a lonely, backwater world and an alien race for whom language has no symbolism. A crisis occurs and everyone must learn new ways of thinking in order to communicate.

Moore, Terry Strangers in Paradise: Ever After
Terry Moore finally brings his epic to a close, and it's as surprising, comforting, sad, silly, horrible and wonderful as you'd expect. Griffin Silver's girlfriend, Nikki, helps Francine finally see what she needs to be happy. She leaves Brad and beelines for Katchoo, determined to live happily ever after. Despite everyone's best efforts, David succumbs to his brain tumor. At the reading of his will (Freddie Femur, of all people, is his executor), David leaves everything to Katchoo but asks that 4 letters be read aloud which air some secrets that really hurt Katchoo. She leaves with David's ashes, determined to find a beautiful place to let him go. Francine calls on Tambi to find Katchoo, then surprises her in Santa Fe, where she confesses her love and kisses Katchoo. Katchoo blows her off and tells her she's not serious. Francine is hurt, but determined. They find a house that they fall in love with, and Francine tries again. When Katchoo blows her off this time, Francine explodes, determined to make Katchoo see that she's serious. It works. They scatter David's ashes and an adorable coda shows Francine & Katchoo both with little ones, living their life together, when Francine comes over and shuts the door on us. Beautiful.

Nix, Garth Abhorsen
Sabriel and Touchstone are believed dead in an assassination attempt in Ancelstierre. Lirael, Sameth, Mogget, and the Disreputable Dog are trapped in the Abhorsen's house, surrounded by the dead and Chlorr. Hedge's plans proceed apace, and Nicholas is weakened and bespelled and cannot see what Hedge is really doing. Much like book one, Nix spends a lot of time getting all of his characters into place before a slam-bang ending. Little nuggets of information about characters are enlightening, including exactly who (or what) both Mogget and the Disreputable Dog are. Not all of our friends survive the final battle, but it is a very satisfying ending nonetheless.

O'Malley, Bryan Lee Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
Volume 2 starts with some of Scott's history. Although he's totally fallen for Ramona, Scott still hasn't broken up with Knives, which is apparently a pattern for him. When he finally does, Knives refuses to believe it & blames Ramona, attacking her at the library. Scott duals Lucas Lee, Ramona's skateboarder-turned-actor ex, who kicks the crap out of Scott, then offers to tell Gideon that Scott won if he pays him. Scott's big mouth ruins that, but then he challenges Lucas to a skateboarding feat where Lucas ends up going so fast that he explodes, giving Scott the victory. We hear about Envy Adams, who dumped Scott much like Scott dumped Knives, for the guy who plays bass in her successful indie band. Todd the bass player turns out to be evil ex number 3.

Perez-Reverte, Arturo Captain Alatriste
Perez-Reverte's first book featuring Captain Diego Alatriste de Tenorio, soldier, swordsman, mercenary, and man of honor. Perez-Reverte spends a great deal of time setting the stage for future books: familiarizing us with Spanish history and culture, introducing us to characters who will clearly feature in future episodes, and, above all, painting a portrait of Captain Alatriste himself, a man not above hiring himself out as a killer, yet at his heart a man of courage and honor, willing to face the consequences of his decisions. I suspect it will be great fun to spend more time in the captain's company.

Phillips, Robert Nightshade: 20th Century Ghost Stories
Ghost stories from some authors you wouldn't expect, including John Cheever, Muriel Spark, and William Trevor. A mostly good collection of stories weakened by the editor's pontification that his collection is better than everybody else's because it contains Literary Writers, not those genre freaks, an utter lack of a sense of humor (again, fine for the hoi polloi, but not for a Serious Collection), and a messed up binding that causes a repetition of some stories and a complete skip of others (including, ironically, the editor's own story).

Salter, Sydney Swoon at Your Own Risk
Polly Martin remakes herself anew every time she gets a boyfriend: one liked cars, so she learned about cars, one was into politics, so she ran for student government. Unsurprisingly, none of these relationships have worked out, & she can't figure out why. But her grandmother, who writes an advice column under the name Miss Swoon, is coming to live with them for the summer, so Polly is determined to figure out why nobody loves her. Some funny moments, but Polly is simply not likeable enough to pull off being the clueless bitca she is through much of the book.

Shteyngart, Gary Super Sad True Love Story
In a future world where America has lost it's supremacy and online ratings of appearance and personality and credit rating are monitored by everyone, including your job and the government, Lenny Abramov is a throwback: a shlubby guy who believes in true love. He falls for Eunice Park, a young Korean girl fighting against tradition and trying to be a modern woman. It's funny and romantic and sad.

St. Onge, Cassie Jane Jones: Worst. Vampire. Ever.
All of your generic nerdy teen girl problems plus a vampire who's blood-intolerant. Turned during the Dust Bowl, Jane and her family have lived a life on the move ever since, as teenage Jane and her ten-year old brother Zach have to move on before everyone notices that they're not aging. But suddenly not one but two boys have noticed Jane, and a cure for vampirism may be possible, but it would mean leaving her family behind forever.

Stevens, Taylor The Informationist
An excellent first novel, taut and fast-moving, that introduces an utterly fascinating character: Vanessa “Michael” Monroe, adept at infiltrating questionable places and piecing together scarily accurate information about the business and political climate. She's the best, and people pay top dollar for what she does, but her skills are tied into a dark past that makes her unstable and very, very dangerous. Hired to find out if a girl missing in Africa for four years is dead or alive, just as she begins to find answers, she's attacked and left for dead. Now it's personal, as she navigates the tangled morass of African politics and culture and tries to figure out who's on her side and who has betrayed her.

Stuart, Julia The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise
Take an unlikely setting, say, the Tower of London. Add in some unusual characters, like the Beefeaters who both live and work there. Now mix in a man who collects different types of rain, the Lost and Found department of the London Underground, a second Royal Menagerie on the Tower grounds, a marriage falling apart, an unexpected pregnancy, the oldest tortoise in the world, and a bearded pig who may or may not be on the loose and you've just scratched the surface of the delights in this book. Funny, sad, and chock full of historical tidbits about the Tower (some real, some made up), this delightful book is well worth a read.

VanderMeer, Jeff The Steampunk Bible
I'm still beyond tired of steampunk fiction, but this tight little bible of steampunk culture is both informative and fun. Covers fiction, movies & TV, fashion and art and presents definitions of steampunk from those involved in the culture.