Monday, November 28, 2011

Review: "A Game of Thrones" by George R.R. Martin

George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series has taken on the status of ‘Must Read’ with the constant critical acclaim, the HBO series, and prime real estate positioning of his books at the local brick and mortar. I succumbed to the marketing pressures and decided to check out what all the fuss was about, so I purchased a copy of “A Game of Thrones” the first book in the series.
“A Game of Thrones” is founded on a solid base with a medieval type kingdom in turmoil, and all the big players in royal politics end up duking it out when the ascension of the prince to the throne is questioned. As far as fantastic elements, this book does not go over the top, but rather has it layered in nicely with magic not being front in center, but hiding underground with only a couple people with access to it. This makes the book accessible to those who are usually turned off by the elves, dwarfs, and wizards in traditional high fantasy. Martin also paints a very complex and vivid world that includes seasons (like winter or summer) that can last for decades on end as well as tribes of horse-riding warlords with a rich culture.
It is also clear that Martin is a master of weaving a complex plot that twists and turns through the lives of a vast array of characters that range in age from about ten to fifty, male and female, and gives the point of view of all sides of the conflict. Further more, each character is well developed to the point where they all have traits that both make them strong and weak at the same time. It’s refreshing to see somebody in the fantasy take the time to so diligently flesh out his characters.
However, there are too many characters and far too many character viewpoints to really get the reader fully invested in the book. By page 50 of the first book, I had read eight different points of view from different characters scattered across the world without once having the same viewpoint twice. This made it very difficult to get invested in the book when I wasn’t sure who the main character was, even though it turns out this book has about eight main characters.
And this leads to another problem. With eight points of view and 704 pages, we only get on average 88 pagers per main character. This book was essentially the first quarter of eight separate novels. For most novels, it usually takes about 75 to 100 pages for the first major plot point to hit and the story begins, and each of these separate story lines is no exception. This makes the book then lack much of a (or any) story arc for many of the characters as the journey has just really begun.
As a result, most of the characters undergo little or no change, and the plot really becomes almost like a listening to a history lecture (This book is said to be loosely based on the War of the Roses.) from an eloquent professor. It has it’s entertaining moments and there are a couple times when I found myself wanting to read another couple pages before I went to sleep because the story drew me in, but for the most part I kept going only because I wanted to get to the point where the story became good enough for an HBO series, but that never came.
Perhaps in book 2 or 3 or 4 it gets good, but I will probably not read those. While each of the 8 separate stories started out fine, that’s about all they managed to do. Martin just proved to me he knows how to open a novel 8 times and not that he can finish one. I for one and not about to read another 2600 pages to find out if his epic is going anywhere, and I do not recommend you invest your time in this book.
“The Game of Thrones” receives 2 out of 5 stars.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Inheriting a Legacy #FridayFlash

Just a little something I came up with today. Please let me know what you think, and as always, feel free to be extra stabby with your critiques. It's the only way to help both of us grow.

The library annex in her mother’s home was as organized as a regiment in the heat of battle: The book shelves had the correct labels, and some of the books were properly shelved, but the majority were scattered about the room. The tables were full of pots and bowls with sticky residuals from when her mother cast her last batch of spells. And wax from candles, long since burned down, dotted the carpeting.
The one thing always in the same place, a beacon of order in the chaos of the library, was her mother’s prized spellbook. The large, black, leather-bound tome rested on the marble book holder, closed with the lock holding it tightly shut. Zelda ran her hand over the cover and tapped the golden lock. She took one of her mother’s ornate daggers and pierced the tip of her finger, letting a drop of her blood fall onto the ancient metal, still polished and shiny.
The lock unlatched and the book opened itself. A faint green glow emanated from the pages accompanied with a tingling feeling running up Zelda’s spine. The magic from the book sparkled throughout her whole body.
“What do you think you’re doing?” The door to the library crashed open with her sister Victoria standing on the threshold.
“I’m going to become a witch, continuing our mother’s legacy.”
“I can’t let you do that.” She said, stepping into the library.
“Victoria, it’s what mother would have wanted.”
“Our mother was a bad person. I can’t let you descend into that world as well. Let me get rid of that book for you.”
Zelda wrapped her fingers around the edge of the book’s while marble stand. “She wasn’t a bad person, and I too will stay good. The world needs people like her, whether you agree with our methods or not.”
Victoria rolled up the sleeves of her blouse. “Then you leave me no choice.” She conjured up a small cyclone in the middle library. “Give me that book.”
The wind sucked up the contents of one of the tables and swirled towards Zelda. She ran to corner of the room and hid behind a chair. Peeking her head out, a small block of wax hit her in the head. She tried to stand, but her legs wobbled and she fell back down. As the cyclone came closer, she tried to get up once more, this time stumbling out towards her sister.
Victoria pulled her hands down, extinguishing the cyclone. She wrestled with Zelda and tried to pin her to the ground, but she broke free. “Zelda, I know it’s hard to resist. It’s in our blood to become witches, but I can’t let you. Sometimes we have to let our heritage die.”
Zelda backed away towards the spellbook, running her hands once more over the open pages. Victoria, bringing her hands back into the air, restarted the cyclone. But before it could get started, Zelda hovered her hands over the ancient pages and chanted one of the incantations.
Around her, the wind stilled, even as the room turned into a massive torrent of circling matter, banging up against the walls and shattering the windows on the far side. Once the spell was finished, a green column of light shot forth from the book and into the ceiling, dispersing the cyclone entirely. On the opposite side of the room, Victoria’s eyes turned red and a small ball of fire grew in the palm of her hand. “You have no idea what a book like that is worth do you? It is the key to unlimited wealth, and I’m not going to let you waste it like mother did.”
The ball of fire shot forth from Victoria’s hands, smashing into Zelda’s chest. She grabbed onto the book, but the impact knocked her back against the wall; a single page torn from the book remained in her hands. She noticed the smell of burning flesh even before the pain registered in her mind, collapsing her to the floor.
Victoria strolled towards the book and ran her finger around the edges, but it slammed shut with the lock clicking back into place. “Looks like I’m going to need you alive after all, sister.” She said, looking out the broken window. “At least until I can permanently unlock this damn book.”
Zelda rolled onto her side and scanned the torn page still in her hand. Despite the pain, a slight smile crept across her lips. She whispered the first part of the incantation, shouting the final word as loud as she could. Victoria spun around but it was too late. Blue light with crackling silver sparks swirled around her as she shrunk down, hands turning into sticky, webbed feet and a tail growing behind her.
Zelda staggered to her feet and dabbed some blood from her forehead onto the lock, opening the book. A small brown newt crawled up along the pages as Zelda searched for spell to heal magical burns. “I might as well keep you around too, Victoria. You might be useful as a pet.”

Monday, November 14, 2011

Best #Friday Flash of the Month for Sept/Oct

Back in August I decided to start this Friday Flash of the Month award, but I neglected to realize I was going to be gone for a couple of weeks in the middle of the second 'award cycle.' But I started it and had to deal with missing September. So I decided to combine both September and October into one super month, and hopefully I will be able to move forward with a monthly award from now on.

So this award spans two months worth of worthy flash fiction and made my decision pretty difficult, but I was able to pick out what I felt to be the best piece of that span.

Now for the drumroll...And The winner of the 2nd Friday Flash of the Month Award goes to John Wiswell for one particular story in "Possible Origins for Him" series: Number 18.

There were a number of things that really stood out to me about this piece, even though I am nearly illiterate when it comes to comic book characters. There were a number of really great moments when I could really feel the character's pain with some details, and some of them were so good they felt like they could have been placed in there by the ghost of John Updike.

I highly suggest you go over to the story and read it through really carefully because it is quite beautiful and has the most sympathetic voice I have ever heard out of a villian.

John graciously agreed to continue the tradition of me interviewing the author of the piece, and so without further rambling by me, John Wiswell!!!

Could you help our readers understand a little more about what a Bathroom Monologue is?

You’re at your computer, doing your taxes, or writing the great American novel, or having a midnight fight with your Iranian lover over instant messages. Eventually you have to go to the bathroom. As soon as you get up, start thinking about anything other than what you were just doing. No Iranian lovers. Now on your way to the bathroom, try to spin a small narrative out of whatever comes to mind, and complete it by the time you get back. Most often these will emerge in the form of monologues, because it’s easy to rant about the weather or the chauvinist nature of bear/bull iconography on Wall Street. Hence, bathroom monologues.

You seem to have piled up a number of awards and publications for your flash fiction. How long had you been writing shorter pieces before you began to get critical acclaim for your work?

I invented and began regular practice of bathroom monologues in college. I took such an intense course load that I was only reading and writing to order. Eventually I feared I’d lose my creative drive entirely thanks to all these assignments, so when I got up from the keyboard, I’d spin such ideas. It kept my mind limber, and still does. That would have been 2002 or 2003. It wasn’t until 2006 or 2007 that I began submitting anywhere, and 2009 before I got a decent acceptance rate. I’m still waiting for critical acclaim, though.

Where did the idea of the Origins for Him series come from?

It began very strongly in the idea for the original. There’s a disturbing trend in the arts to marginalize happiness, to see it as generally stupid, na├»ve, and essentially less valid than sadness, seriousness and melancholy. This attitude disgusts me. The notion of The Joker always appealed to me in many ways, including that he represents happiness as well as the forbidden; his heroic nemesis represents severity and good. One night I was driving home and meditating on how clowns are almost exclusively depicted as scary, sad or dangerous, and latched onto the idea of defending them. That morphed into a violent Joker assailing unhappiness. Before I got into the driveway it mushroomed into not just one Joker story about that, but three others embellishing more of his elements. This one is a love story, while this one is about law, while this one is about inevitability; a sort of Calvino’s Invisible Cities for a supervillain. DC’s The Joker has had many origins, sometimes rebooted, sometimes simply overlapping. There’s even one Possible Origin about continuity rebooting. Given how much I loved the guy and enjoyed playing him, I tried to let him come out in as many ways as possible. Especially after Christopher Nolan released his Dark Knight, in which Ledger’s Joker brazenly mocked having an origin, and the convention of origin stories in film adaptations, it felt really ripe to play with as a series. 

For people like me, who know very little about comic book heroes/villains, who are some of the characters you have done in this series, and in particular who was the character in "Possible Origins for Him 18"?

It may surprise you to learn they’re all about The Joker. He’s the “Him” in the series title.

Are you an avid reader of comics? If so, which ones would be your favorite?

I’ve been a fan of comics for most of my life. Being a short kid, Wolverine was my hero. In recent years I’ve read more trades than individual issues, and sometimes starkly miss being subscribed to a story. Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead was entirely worth getting monthly. So was Ed Brubaker’s Daredevil and J. Michael Straczynski’s Thor, until they left those titles. The last comic I deeply loved was Jeff Smith’s Bone, an all-ages quest that blended so many classic American cartooning styles in mere black and white. It had such heart. Almost as far away from Possible Origins for Him as it gets. Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis is also just wonderful, a great use of sequential art for autobiography. Oh – and Hiroaki Samura’s Blade of the Immortal. I actually read a few more volumes of that saga every year, and every year it’s some of the best material I experience from any form.

Were there any particularly difficult challengers in writing this piece?

Nothing outrageous. I was a little concerned over whether the references to his basement could fit in, and if they’d click with readers. Otherwise, at this point in the series, I have a decent idea of how to put together most of the elements for each chapter. This was the eighteenth; there are six more to come. It’ll end at twenty-four chapters, the same number as the pages in comics when I grew up.

I probably didn't get any of the references aside from the face paint and squirting flower, but it was actually some of those details that I really liked out this piece and gave a sense of completeness to the story. Now, for those of us who are DC ignorant, like me, what were some of those references? I'm particularly curious about the box of pens.

The box of pens is actually just flavor, not a reference. Now I wish it were. The purple garbage can that follows is one, for its color. Purple and green materials are natural themes of the whole series. Beyond the face-paint and squirting flower, there is also a bulletproof tuxedo he’s been working on, and his obsessive returns to jokes failing. While it’s not a reference, The Joker having a connection to materials that were almost SciFi felt appropriate, too, based on some of the insane plots he’s produced. For world-references, three of his early costume description fit major villains in Gotham. “A bikini made from leaves” is Poison Ivy. “Green long-johns punctuated with question marks” is for The Riddler. “Straw bursting out of seams and sleeves to form a scarecrow” is, naturally, the Scarecrow. And I’m sure you guessed the bulletproof material that winds up being a cape is part of Batman’s origin.

Are there any ‘easter eggs’ or inside jokes in that piece that most people would not have caught?

Easter eggs emerge naturally every couple of entries or so. This one has about the most obvious: the closing words, “Long Halloween,” are the title of a great Batman story by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale. Loved using it as the send-off.

What do you find most challenging about writing flash fiction?

Writing for a specific audience is the worst. If I obsess over how one particular person will react, be it a girlfriend or editor or person begging me to use a prompt, it never turns out comfortably. I’m much better leaving it up to my internal, and quite arbitrary, artistic barometer. Seeking to do the piece justice internally, rather than having it serve something extrinsically, always works out better. Statistically, more editors have agreed with that than girlfriends.

What do you find most enjoyable about writing flash fiction?

The niches of haiku, microfiction and flash fiction allow for any idea on the short-end of the spectrum to be put to use. Nothing’s too long in the canons; Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, George R.R. Martin, Patrick Rothfuss, Stephen King and company have ensured that you can allot as many words to a novel-sized idea as you want. But the proliferation of short forms means things that only have the meaning-bang or entertainment-bang for a page or less can have merits and audiences. It prevents me from discarding ideas. I cherish that allowance.

What would your ultimate goal as a writer be?

To finish whatever it is I’m working on right before I die, or to not mind that I can’t finish it. By then I hope I’ll be earning a comfortable living making people happier and better with my words. Lots of novels to go. But really, it’s whatever I’m doing right before I die.

Do you have any words of wisdom for our readers?

Thank you for every paragraph you've read, every comment you've left, every e-mail you've sent. The little-expressed wisdom is authors survive more on receptions than they can express.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Excerpt from "An Echo Remains"

I have not written a piece of flash this Friday as I'm slightly behind on my NaNoWriMo project. Anyways, I decided to post a quick scene from my NaNoWriMo project, "An Echo Remains" for your enjoyment (hopefully.)

The gray brick building sat in the middle of an old industrial park, surrounded by rusted barbed wire fencing. Old grain towers next to the rail yard loomed overhead, covered in graffiti up to the point where humans with spray paint could reach. Thom stepped out of Mark’s car and said. “Looks about like what I expected.”

“What do you mean?”

“For some reason I figured it would be in some abandoned industrial park with all kinds of rusted crap all over.”

Mark glanced over his shoulders at the grain towers. “You know they still use those right? Just because something’s been tagged a couple times and all the metal work isn’t freshly painted, doesn’t mean it’s abandoned.”

“I suppose.” Thom reached into the car and fetched his notebook and pen. “Shall we?”

Inside, the building was no less impressive. The oak-like laminated front desk showed its years in the fading of its color and many chips. Behind it, a woman sharply descending into her early 50s sat at a computer. She looked up from the screen and said, “You here to see Leonard?” Mark nodded. “Have a seat and I’ll let him know you’re here.”

Mark remained standing as the couple ripped leather chairs didn’t succeed in luring him in. The walls were painted a faded yellow and there were no framed gold records on the wall like he had imagined. A couple old newspapers sat on a small end-table. Him and Thom traded glances for a moment until Leonard emerged from the back.

“Hey guys.” said the large, balding man wearing a wrinkled polo shirt. “So I hear you’re looking to record your first record. Well, I think you’ve come to the right place.”

He motioned for them to follow him into the back. Mark and Thom hesitated for a moment before reluctantly . Lingering behind Leonard, Thom whispered into Mark’s ear, “I have a bad feeling we’re about to be taken into a basement, tortured, and never seen again.”

“You’ve been watching too many horror movies.”

“Still, this shit’s creepy. I don’t care how good they are. I couldn’t play well in this place. My anxiety is already spiked.”

They caught up to Leonard who stopped at their mixing board. It was slightly older looking than the other ones they saw that morning, but at least it didn’t look as dated as the waiting room. Through the glass, a moderately sized recording space was filled with guitars and amps for some band that must have been taking a break.

“So this is it. We’ve got this space, a big drum room with a twenty foot ceiling, and an isolation room. The acoustics we have here can’t be beat. Now, we may not have every bell and whistle that you may have seen downtown, but all our equipment is top notch, plus I’ve been doing this since the early 70s. And one thing I have learned in that time, is that having a good, experience engineer is the most important thing you can do to make sure your sound is solid.

“Our mastering engineer Teddy isn’t here either, but he’s been doing this with me for just as long, and he’s just as good. I know when you see our hourly prices are a bit steep, but me and Teddy, believe me, we’re worth it.”

He sat down on his chair at the console and clicked a couple buttons. “All I ask is that you listen to the last thing Teddy and I finished from a local metal band. Now, I know it’s not your style exactly, but I always want to show guys like you our latest stuff so you know just what we will typically do.”

The studio monitors came alive with the crunch of the heavily distorted guitars and pounding drums. But the sound was solid and full. After the opening bars of the song, the singer came screaming in with such ferocity that the hairs on Mark’s arm stood on end.

After the song finished, Leonard turned around and explained what they had done with that particular band to get their sound, the microphones they used, the signal processing they did to extract every bit of crunch that they could out of their guitars.

“So now what can I do for you guys?” said Leonard, before answering his own question. “I’ve got a selection of high quality microphones that goes back since I started this business that can give you just about every imaginable sound you want. And if you don’t like what your amps or even guitars are doing, I’ve got my own equipment that, again can allow us to do whatever you want. Do you have any questions?”

Mark scooted forward in his chair. “I’m going to state the obvious here. Your location and waiting room don’t exactly inspire a lot of confidence in me that you guys are very successful. So why should we put this much trust in you?”

“Wow, you’re direct. To answer that, Studios that pander to your creature comforts over sound quality disgust me. I’m all about sound here, not fancy leather couches and cappuccino machines.”

Thom asked a couple more questions about the amps and microphones he had, plus some of the processing effects. Mark got a list of references and a couple high-profile bands that he had worked with and they left after about an hour.

Back in the car, Mark threw his head back on the headrest and said, “So, what do you think?”

“I don’t know. Like I said, I don’t know if I’d be comfortable there, and their rates, holy shit. I don’t drink it, but for that price I would want access to a fucking cappuccino machine.”

Friday, November 4, 2011

Get Out of My Head! #Fridayflash

I thought I would share with you a quick flash inspired by my ability to come out with work similar to @Fear_In_Words at about the same time. As always, I encourage you to let me know what worked and what didn't for you. It's the only way I get better. Oh, and enjoy the music.

Doug Foster stood up on stage in front of the shareholders; I watched through the eyes of another who sat next to the aisle Foster would later walk down. The man was a business genius and could acquire the mineral rights to vast tracts of land seemingly on a whim. And even then, he would run horizontal bores into areas he didn’t have the rights and extract whatever he was after. Once in a while they ran into problems with regulators and paid them off or took the fine. Either way was less expensive than getting the rights. Profits soared and shareholders got rich.
He blathered on about their new fracking methods and assured everybody in the crowd that they were safe. It was partially my fault for believing his engineers when they came to me, but then again the dollar signs they throw in your face look so good until you’re lying in your death bed.  “Doug Foster needs to die.” I whispered
Oh god, get out of my head. Not now, please not now.
He wasn’t going to be easy to win over, but I had worked over my host for months on end up until this point. “You know how many people he has killed, and the good lord only knows how many more if you don’t kill this evil man.”
Don’t you use the Lord’s name you spawn of Satan.
“The only person approaching Satan's level of evil is finishing up his speech. You know what to do. Reach into your pocket and see what I mean.” I smiled as I whispered those words into my host’s ear. put a gun in there? But how?
“I have more power than you can even imagine.”
Then do this yourself.
“I want to see you take care of this. This is your destiny. Kill Doug Foster!”
He threw his hands over his eyes and blocked my view. The room erupted into applause; Foster must have finished. “Get ready! Get ready to kill that bastard!” I shouted as loud as I could. If I had vocal chords, they would have been wrecked. “Kill him before he kills you! This is your chance your only chance. If you don’t listen to me now, I will get somebody else, like your wife or your daughter.”
My host opened up his eyes. You can do that?
“Of course I can. I can get into them as easily as I got into you, and their minds are nowhere near as strong as yours. You have no choice. NOW DO IT!”
Foster made his way down the aisle; he was only a couple steps away. I dove deeper into my host’s head and made him grab the gun.
What are you doing.
“I’m saving your wife and your daughter. If you don’t do this, I will be forced to destroy them.”
The man who killed me and ruined my family was only a couple steps away, within range of the small handgun. My hosted lifted it up. The look on Foster’s face delighted me, tickled me deep inside. I waited for the bang and the splatter of blood, but as soon as the crowds began screaming, my host turned the gun around and put the barrel in his mouth.
Get out of my head!

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