Archive for July, 2009

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Also, The Shadow of the Wind

July 29, 2009

shadow of the windOnce more it appears that I am unable to keep my reading list trim, or perhaps I’m just a glutton for punishment, because after all the praise I’ve heard for The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon I felt compelled to purchase the book yesterday and before I knew it found myself about 3 chapters into the story.

The novel follows a young boy named Daniel living in Barcelona following the Spanish Civil War who, still reeling from his mother’s loss some years prior, finds solace in his his books, his father and her memory. One early morning, following an episode where Daniel realizes in terror that he can no longer remember his mothers face, Daniels father resolves to take him to a secret Cemetary of Forgotten Books, a vast place where he and a small group of friends preserve tomes that have brought much joy to man but that now lay forgotten to time. There he is instructed that as a future caretaker, and  according to tradition, he is to select a book that he will care for and call his own. Winding through it’s winding corridors Daniel happens upon a book entitled The Shadow of the Wind by Julián Carax and soon finds himself on a journey to discover more about the author that wrote it, and the mysteries surrounding why it may be the sole surviving copy.

Thus far the book is beautifully written, dripping with old world flavor befitting its setting, and is ever bit as captivating as I’ve heard. Stay tuned for a full review in the weeks to come.

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Tron Legacy

July 27, 2009

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After spending a couple of days relaxing in a quiet little town down I-35 in central Texas at weeks end, I spent a few minutes online Sunday afternoon checking up on some of the stuff I missed over the weekend, and in doing so I was fortunate enough to stumble upon the trailer that was unveiled at SDCC ’09 for Tron Legacy. Like the majority of young folk who grew up with the original Tron, it was one of those movies that completely blew my mind and helped define a childhood spent chucking frisbee’s while  pretending I was good ‘ol Tron himself. Well, geeking out a little bit my fiancee asked what I was watching and after explaining a little about the original and how cool the light cycles were to us kids, seemingly impressed by the trailer which heavily features the cycles, she stood back and matter of factly replied: ‘I can see why.’

Well, apparently the Mouse knows how much we want to see these in action again and, upping the anty a bit, they released this awesome trailer. And while I’m always a little cautious about properties I’ve enjoyed so much over the years being revisited, I’ve got a lot of faith in the creative team, the actors, and am really looking forward to experiencing this!

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Reading ‘Atlus Shrugged’

July 21, 2009

atlas shruggedI’ve been itching to read Ayn Rand’s Atlus Shrugged for years now, but I’ve never quite had the time to sit back and digest this mammoth of a novel, so I figure that instead of waiting for the perfect opening that I had just better get started and see how things unfold. And without being too political it also appears as if this might be just what the doctor ordered as we enter an era where socialized programs and increasing  government involvement and control throughout the public and private sectors seem the destructive order of the day (as I approach it anyhow). I’m a good 3-4 days worth into the ride and while it’s shaping up nicely it’s going to be an awful lengthy ride, devouring that brick of a book, so I also plan to tackle a more fantasy themed offering simultaneously if I can manage it.

I’ve been itching to dive into Brandon Anderson’s Elantris (beyond the first dozen pages) sooner rather than later but I also kindly received a review copy of Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself, The First Law Book One which I’ve heard nothing but great things about, so I may try to see what lies in store there first. I also have Carol Berg’s Song of the Beast, Robin Hobb’s Assassin’s Apprentice, and Steven Erikson’s Gardens of the Moon, Malazan Book of the Fallen to get back to (I got a little lost in the story there for a season so I’m in the midst of re-reading and getting myself caught up again).

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Apollo 11’s 40th Anniversary

July 20, 2009

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“That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.”

I can’t claim to have been around for the historic “giant leap” as Neil Armstrong touched down on the moon those 40 years ago (wasn’t even a twinkle in my parent’s eyes at that point) but I’ve lived the moment countless times over through the miracle of technology and I celebrate the achievement with them each and every time. If you get a few moments today, please…ahem…moon walk over to NASA’s official site for a great celebration of the event which includes some nice restored video, audio, pictures, and commentary.

Thanks, once more, for reaching for the stars!

We all benefit as a result.

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‘My Father’s Swords’ by Stan Sakai

July 15, 2009

uybook13cAfter mulling over the possibility for a couple of weeks, I decided that if you’d be so kind to indulge me, it might be a lot of fun to highlight and/or review select graphic novels here at Follow That Raven from time to time. I don’t plan on turning the blog into a comic-centric one by any means but there are indeed works of graphic fiction that more than deserve the consideration of not only a diverse reading audience, but those that profess to simply love good literature. That said, I’ll try my best to restrict myself to great independent works such as Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo, Kazu Kibuishi’s Flight anthologies, Mike Allred’s Madman, Jeff Smith’s Bone etc. as not only are these personal favorites that I believe should get all the attention they can, but because they also represent some of the best stories being published today. I hope you’ll pick them up.

For your consideration then: My Father’s Swords, a stand alone story in Usagi Yojimbo Vol. 13 – Grey Shadows TPB collection by Stan Sakai.

First, for those that are perhaps unaware, Usagi Yojimbo is the story of a masterless samurai named Miyamoto Usagi who travels a sixteenth century Japan trying to apply bushido, or “the way of the warrior” as best he can, often lending his good heart and expert blade to the poor, downtrodden, haunted and the afflicted. Oh, and he’s also a rabbit — which is awesome. Our long-eared friend is actually enjoying his 25th anniversary this year so there’s never been a better time to see what’s made him such an endearing character for as long.

Anyhow, one of the great things about Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo stories is that he’s able to hit you right smack in the gut when you least expect it, but in the most natural of manners. Take, for example, this short story in which, on his travels, Usagi runs into a young samurai named Donbori Chiaki. Recognizing Chiaki’s unique sword technique as he observes a (non-lethal) duel he congratulates the boy on his sound victory, and upon uy3cov23learning his name reminisces that he had known and admired his father Donbori Matsuo while they served together under lord Mifune’s banner, before he died at the Battle of Adachi Plain years prior. Over the course of the story the two talk of the inspiration Matsuo has been for the boy and even see that illustrated when Chiaki defends a crippled man from a drunk samurai before leaving the city.  As they part on their respective journey’s Usagi wishes him the best as he inwardly praises the boy’s commitment to the memory of his father in the way he lives his life. But ‘lo, off in the distance Usagi spots a group of brigands laying in wait for Chiaki and his purse strings, and unable to reach him in time to lend a hand Chiaki is left to fight the band himself, that is until the same crippled man who he had rescued earlier leaps to his aid… Well, I won’t spoil what happens for you but rest assured that it isn’t your typical ending and that it may just pull at your heartstrings more than a little.

Stan is an expert of visually crafting his scenes, be it a peaceful walk as Usagi strides through a forest where a mushroom takes center stage on an old tree, or an action-packed battle scene where the reader cheers the ronin on through seemingly overwhelming odds, Stan pulls you into the world he has created and once he has successfully done so it isn’t a place you want to leave any time soon. Stan’s artistic style can be described as “cartoony” in the same sense that, say, Carl Barks is “cartoony” but like that comics legend he grabs hold of your visual senses and nearly forces you to see the wisdom and skill in the approach. Yes, these are indeed “funny animals” but at the same time…not so much. Likewise, the black and white artwork perfectly captures his steady line work, slick use of blacks, and all the intricate detail.

Rounding out this splendid volume are several other stories including: The Demon Flute, Momo-Usagi-Taro, The Hairpin Murders, The Courtesan, and Tameshigiri. All excellent (and it was a real treat to see Usagi, kinda take the center role in the famous Japanese folk tale of the Peach Boy in Momo-Usagi-Taro). Perhaps more on these later, but please do yourself a real favor and check this out for yourself.

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Quote The Raven

July 13, 2009

raven_r11I looked behind me, and gave a cry of dismay: I had but that moment declared I would not leave the house, and already I was a stranger in the strange land!

“What right have you to treat me so, Mr. Raven?” I said with deep offence. “Am I, or am I not, a free agent?”

“A man is as free as he chooses to make himself, never an atom freer,” answered the raven.

“You have no right to make me do things against my will!”

“When you have a will, you will find that no one can.”

— Mr. Raven, Lilith

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‘And Dream Such Dreams’ by Lee Allred

July 9, 2009

lincoln-monumentIn September 2008, Down East Books released an anthology of short stories edited by Noreen Doyle entitled Otherworldly Maine, featuring a myriad of tales relating to, or inspired by the old, rich and storied state of Maine, 23rd state in the Union.  Author and Sidewise Award for Alternate History finalist Lee Allred submitted a short story for the publication entitled And Dream Such Dreams, a poignant tale set during the American Civil War in which President Abraham Lincoln plays a central role, while sharing a peculiar connection to ancient Greece and the principles of funerary rites aptly summarized in the phrase — “parainesis of the living, epainesis of the dead” or admonishment for the living, praise for the dead as Allred explains.  But how do Greek funerary rites connect President Lincoln, a  mysterious professor who begins visiting him nightly in his dreams, and the American Civil War?

Real world Civil War hero Major General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain opens the story addressing the audience at the Dedication of the 20th Maine Monuments at Gettysburg, October 3, 1889 stating:

‘We know not of the future,’ he concluded, ‘and cannot plan for it much. But we can hold our spirits and our bodies so pure and high, we may cherish such thoughts and such ideals, and dream such dreams of lofty purpose, that we can determine and know what manner of men we will be whenever and wherever the hour strikes, that calls to noble action.’  The audience politely clapped and came up to shake his hand. The crowd milled about for a while until, as if on cue, it slowly melted away, leaving Chamberlain to stand silently alone.

But such as it was, the audience hadn’t quite grasped what Chamberlain had been trying to say and it will take Abraham Lincoln, Assistant Private Secretary John Hay and the lessons of a Greek professor for the readers themselves to truly understand the weight of his words by stories end.

Comments: I’ve had the pleasure of conversing with author Lee Allred on several occasions now and he’s nothing if not a thoughtful individual with vivid imagination, quick wit, and civil_lincoln2a deep respect for virtue — all of which that’s on full display in the short story And Dream Such Dreams.  Told from three compelling points of view, we follow President Lincoln through a pivotal phase in the Civil War, enjoying insights unique to each of the storytellers.  Allred’s literary method allows the reader to slowly form a whole of the puzzle that’s laid before him following the cryptic comments in Chamberlain’s opening speech as the narrative becomes ever clearer as we travel with our heroes through the soles of their individual experiences — not unlike an interested observer in a dream — towards the conclusion in this worthwhile tale of deep humility and self sacrifice.

And let me say that while I likely could have walked away from the short story pleased with what I was able to glean about the historical figures from the details scattered throughout, I would reckon that Allred deserves a pat on the back for not only creating an authentic sense of who the characters were but for creating a desire, at least in my case, to find out more about their triumphs through the historical scholarship available on each, particularly where Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and John Hay were concerned (as I’ve long enjoyed learning about Lincoln).   In the end, no words were wasted and like all good works of fiction and non-fiction alike there was some cause for introspection…and application.  Definitely do yourself a favor and enjoy Lee Allred’s unique take on President Lincoln, his friends, and the glimpse into what makes good men great.

Chamberlain’s hand brushed his side. The wound from Petersburg should have killed him, but he had been spared for a reason, as if part of a bargain.

Following the stories conclusion I wrote Mr. Allred once more to inquire further and he was kind enough to take the time to provide some valuable feedback as to some of the inspiration for the tale, a little as to why he holds President Lincoln in high esteem, and other valuable insights — so I hope you’ll take a moment to sit back and enjoy the detailed commentary he provided:

Having read To Dream Such Dreams and East of Appomattox (found in Alternate Generals III from Baen Books) it goes without saying that the two stories are deeply trenched in the American Civil War, its lore and its heroes. If you don’t mind expounding further, what was it about that period in American history that initially inspired you to make it the setting of ‘To Dream Such Dreams?’

Connie Willis, in her forward to her magnificent novel LINCOLN’S DREAMS, wrote:

“In the first part of Lincoln’s Dreams, Jeff [the main character] is offered a job researching the long-term effects of the Vietnam War. He turns it down. ‘I’m busy studying the long-term effects of the Civil War.’ And I guess that’s what I was doing, too, writing this book.

Because the Civil War isn’t over. Its images, dreamlike, stay with us — young boys lying face-down in cornfields and orchards, and Robert E. Lee on Traveller. And Lincoln, dead in the White House, and the sound of crying.”

I refer to my “To Dream Such Dreams” as a ghost story. And it is, but in more than the usual sense. The Civil War  itself is a ghost story. It’s a haunting. Even after 144 years — an aptly termed gross of years, a dozen dozen — it haunts us still. It haunts me still.

Lincoln giving his farewell in Springfield, knowing — knowing! — beyond all mortal reason that he will never return. The Union boys at Fredericksburg, clutching the shattered frozen corpses of their friends, ghoulishly pressing against them for their fading warmth in the icy night, then those same boys standing victorious at the stone wall at Pickets Charge, chanting “Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg!” in awful and just revenge against the shattered Confederates fleeing the field. Lincoln begging, pleading to the South “We must not be enemies, but friends.” The agony of four simple words four long, bloody years later: “And the war came.”

I’ve had the good fortune of visiting several of the Civil War battlefields: Pea Ridge, Antietam, Harper’s Ferry, Vicksburg, Chickamauga, Chattanooga. Something indeed abides. And each time I get the feeling that Joshua Chamberlain spoke of across the veil of time: “And reverent men and women from afar and generations that know us not and that we know not of, shall come here to ponder and to dream and the power of the vision shall pass into their souls.”

Likewise, it’s fascinating that you tied principles of ancient Greek funerary rites to Abraham Lincoln and the tragic fate that felled him in the spring of ’65 following the war, and I’m curious what it was about the Greek ideal of ‘admonishment for the living, praise for the dead’ that led you back to the legendary president?

Well, I can’t claim credit for the original Greek idea. Several years Garry Wills won a Pulitzer for his non-fiction book, LINCOLN AT GETTYSBURG. Wills explored in great detail the parallels between Greek funeral oration and the Gettysburg Address. The first time I picked up a book and read the back copy (which made it sound almost as if Lincoln purposely copied Greek oratory), my first thought was “As if!” Lincoln, self-educated on the Prairie, like Shakespeare before him, had only a “little Latin, less Greek.” Lincoln didn’t know enough Greek to do it on purpose.

Then, like a true science fiction author, my next thought immediately was: “But someone who did know enough Greek was Joshua Chamberlain!”

I didn’t finish writing “To Dream Such Dreams,” though, until after I had served three rotations in Iraq. The concept of “admonishment for the living, praise for the dead” has a very new, very different, very concrete meaning for me now than it did the younger Lee Allred who first picked up the Wills book.

I came to the quick conclusion (heh) that you held President Lincoln in a high esteem, and wondered if you might share something with readers that you’ve found to particularly inspiring about the 16th President of the United States?

You may have heard the claim that, next to Shakespeare and Christ, more books have been written about Lincoln than any man who ever lived. And yet, no matter how many books are written about him, the definitive Lincoln still eludes us. He is a chameleon figure. The Lincoln of each of those books is whichever Rorschach Lincoln the respective historian wants to believe in.

The specific Lincoln I chose to write about (as a fiction writer — an entirely different prospect than writing as a historian) is the religio-mythic Christus figure. The Savior of the Republic. The American Moses who was not allowed to see the fruits of his victory. The dark, brooding melancholy man who dreamed dreams and saw visions, dreams of the black boat, visions of his own death.

Do I think that that is the real Lincoln which existed or even could exist? The Lincoln I wrote about would be called in my own culture “a prophet, seer, and revelator.” I leave it at that.

Repeatedly in “To Dream Such Dreams” I refer to General Daniel Sickles’ account of Lincoln’s desperate prayer for victory during the ongoing battle of Gettysburg. I have added only one thing to that account: the proffered bargain, Lincoln’s life for the Union’s.

Lincoln repeatedly referred to himself as an Instrumentality in God’s Hands — “with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right”. Lincoln, like the other great figure of the Civil War, Robert E. Lee, repeatedly spoke of the payment of debts. (Robert E. Lee’s last conscious words were “I will pay that sum,” as readers of “East of Appomattox” will well note.) Much of Lincoln’s sublime Second Inaugural Address speaks of the debts that must be “sunk” (paid):

“Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword…”

The proffered bargain I added as fiction is thus not entirely out of character, but then, is it truly fiction? Perhaps I merely added was really there all along.

Standing on that railcar platform at Springfield, Lincoln’s words were those of a man who knew he’d never return. His words and actions the day of Ford’s Theatre were of a man who seemingly knew what lay ahead. It is not so difficult to imagine Lincoln that evening as he left for the theatre, taking one last look around him at the nation he preserved and saying, “I am going like a lamb to the slaughter but I am calm as a summer’s morning.”

What, if anything, are you currently reading and what might you recommend that might have slipped under our reader’s radar?

Science fiction, Elizabeth Moon’s Vatta series (TRADING IN DANGER is the first book) is how military science fiction shoot-em-ups ought to be written. LINCOLN’S DREAMS by Connie Willis is what “To Dreams Such Dreams” wants to be when it grows up. RULED BRITANNIA by Harry Turtledove is an alternate history tour de force.

Non-fiction: I’m studying Shea’s PEA RIDGE: CAMPAIGN IN THE WEST, the definitive book on the crucial-but-overlooked Civil War battle in Northwest Arkansas. I also just picked up (surprise, surprise) another biography of Lincoln: William Lee Miller’s LINCOLN’S VIRTUES: AN ETHICAL BIOGRAPHY. It promises to be a good read.

What’s next for Lee Allred on the literary front?

I don’t talk about what I’m currently working on. Sorry. Long-standing policy.

I can talk a little about what’s in the publishing pipeline. I should have a short-story titled “Hymnal” coming out in a reprint anthology coming out soon. The story’s about the far future and the heat death of the universe. It first appeared in a collection that had very, very, very, very low distribution, so it’s more like a brand new first publication for the piece. Release details are still in play. I’ll post details at my leeallred.com website when I have them.

…….

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The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

July 7, 2009

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“Recently I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t getting any better. So I wrote a short story…” – Neil Gaiman

Introduction & Overview: I was well aware that Neil Gaiman was a great storyteller thanks to his comic book work for Marvel and DC over the years, but it was only relatively recently that I tried one of his novels. I had heard of the stop motion animated film entitled “Coraline” in the making and, loving that medium, wanted to get a drop on her story and travels into a new and exciting world she stumbles upon where she meets her Other Mother…and things start to go downhill rather fast. I read it in one sitting while waiting for my sister to welcome her newest into the world and it was a huge breath of fresh air. It was original, didn’t take itself too seriously, was full of whimsical characters, more than a little creepy, and was a great deal of fun from start to finish. It appeared I had indeed been missing out up to now and that I’d have to keep an eye on this Gaiman fellow’s books. Well, wouldn’t you know it, other people appear to be doing the same and after releasing The Graveyard Book Neal Gaiman went and won himself the John Newbery Medal and a string of honors for the book. Most recently he won an Audie for the audio version of the book and after listening to a sample chapter, and with promises of violins, I decided that I had better jump on board quick and see what all the fuss was about.

The boy was supposed to die. The man Jack had already taken care of his family in the dark of night and with knife firmly in hand snuffing out the life of a baby was supposed to be the easy part of the job. But the boy was gone. Having awoken in his crib he had decided to explore and after lifting himself up and over the bars he had playfully made his way to the bedroom door, down the stairs, and thanks to an open door…into the dark night. On his great adventure that night he found himself traveling up a hill near his home and into a sprawling graveyard. Jack was beside himself, how could the boy have escaped!? Where could he have gone?

Comments: Like Coraline, I was completely engrossed in The Graveyard Book in the few days it took me to complete it on my drives to and from work. I’ve discovered that a good audio book does wonders for me on my long commute and I found myself a little perturbed to actually arrive at my destinations while listening to this. Neil Gaiman does a splendid job bringing the story to life, enthusiastically breathing the characters to life with a genuine excitement, a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor and an entertaining english accent that is entirely appropriate to the setting. I don’t know that the book would’ve come to life in quite the same way had I read it, but I can say that you’ll do yourself a favor by listening to his own reading.

Well, it seems that the boy that escaped Jack’s clutches that fateful night would become one “Nobody Owens,” a name given him by his ghostly parents Mr. & Mrs. Owens, citizens of the graveyard who, alongside his guardian Silas, take the baby in to protect him from the dangers that lay outside the graveyard gates. Dangers like Jack. “Bod,” as his friends call him, is something of a remarkable boy, taking for his family and friends the dead that inhabit the old graveyard. For him, doing this is as normal as it would be for you and I to go to school each morning and converse with our friends in the hallways. Given the “freedom of the graveyard” Bod is taught lessons by its ghostly citizens both practical and magical and through the course of the book we are treated to several compelling adventures that demonstrate Bod’s growth from a toddler to a young man, from naivete to wisdom, as he tries to apply what he’s learned both within and without the graveyard gates, all while Silas and a group known as the Honour Guard work mysteriously behind the scenes to uncover the truth behind the attempt on his life those many years ago. With Silas’ help, and the assistance of a childhood friend named Scarlett Amber Perkins, Bod slowly begins to unwrap a number of the mysteries surrounding his families death as well and it was interesting to me that instead of being concerned with what he might find, even frightful about the confrontation that might inevitably occur between Jack and himself one day were he to continue pushing for information that he didn’t cower, and that he wasn’t much scared. Actually, in something of a refreshing twist, Bod actually lets the reader in on the fact that it’s not he that has something to fear but that as he grows and adapts to his abilities that  Jack may very well be the one that needs…protecting. It’s not often you see as proactive a group of characters in a novel, much less one geared towards young adults, and it made for a very interesting dynamic when the bad guys do indeed show their faces again. You’ll see!

Additionally, the book is just chock full of mystery, be it a particular characters motivation, why another behaves as they do, what lurks in the dark, or just what kind of being someone really is and these are addressed (or not addressed) masterfully throughout the book so as to fully flesh out an unforgettable cast and add layers of depth to the story. There was actually a scene that occurs towards the end of the book where one of the characters reacts in a way that I couldn’t comprehend at all and for a moment I wanted to level a measure of negative criticism at the book before I realized once more that people seldom react as we might hope, or that would even seem rational on occasion and that it actually made that moment all the more real for me. In the same line of thought, Gaiman doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to confronting the reader with hard truths about Bod, his situation, or the human condition — particularly when he addresses themes of borders and belonging. Despite the story being awfully fun, with good clean scares throughout, it’s likely that its those deeper, life affirming, themes that will stay with the reader and that truly makes it a modern classic worthy of the Newbery for fine literature. Obviously then, I give Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book a very, very high recommendation and hope that you’ll enjoy reading it yourself, as well as with your little ones.

I know I’ll be reading this again and probably again…