Thursday, November 29, 2012

What I'm Reading: Dial H for Hero

Dial H for Hero is a comic series written by China Mieville, whose day job is writing, I think, steam-punk novels.  I've never read one, but maybe I should, judging from the quality of his comic writing.

The comic is a revival of a DC series from the 60s that has quite a cult following, about a teen-aged boy named Robby Reed who finds a telephone that gives him superpowers.  All he has to do is dial H-E-R-O and he finds himself transformed--the catch being, it's only for a short while, and he has no idea what set of powers he'll gain until he has them.  Often, the powers are spectacularly wrong for the situation he's facing, and the fun is in seeing how Robby figures out who he can apply them to overcoming that issue's villain or complication.

Mr. Mieville moves the action to the current day, and sets it in a run-down Midwestern industrial town, where Nelson Jent, a slovenly out-of-work loser, discovers a pay phone when on the run from some mobsters his buddy owes money to.  He tries calling for help, only to discover he's turned into Chimney Boy, the first of many improbable, comical heroes he'll become in the following issues. 

Along the way, he meets Manteau, an elderly lady who has a dial of her own, and who has secretly fought her own war against crime in the town for many years while researching the nature of the dial.  One senses she's inspired by the youthful reinvigoration of her various heroic incarnations as much as by a desire to help the downtrodden.

The latest issue finds Nelson stuck at home after the dial turns him into Chief Mighty Arrow, an embarrassingly un-PC hero who's mission is fighting heap big crime.  Manteau shares with him some of her more mortifying transformations over the years--Doctor Cloaca, Captain Priapus, etc.  In the end, Chief Mighty Arrow's flying horse thwarts a band of kidnappers in a disgusting, but horsily-appropriate way.  Let's just say you know what birds do if you leave your convertible under a tree, so imagine the damage a flying horse could cause.

The series is intelligently written and funny, in an absurdist sort of way.  It requires no prior knowledge of the earlier series or other DC comics.  For someone with at least a general appreciation of superhero comics an an off-beat sense of humor, Dial H for Hero makes for some quite enjoyable reading.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

What I'm Reading: Becoming Billie Holiday

I bought this book intending to also get a CD of Billie Holiday's music to go with it.  That was four years ago, and not until recently did I acquire the CD!  So, it's been on my reading pile awhile.

Before I started reading it, I had the impression this was a graphic novel telling Billie Holiday's biography.  In fact, it's an illustrated book of poems.  It is a biography of Billie Holiday, but the choice of poetry to tell the story means it doesn't have the fact density of a regular biography.  Nevertheless, I think poetry is an especially appropriate story-telling method for the subject matter in this case.  The poems have an earthy, bluesy feel to them that really evoke the atmosphere of 1930s Harlem.  The occasional pictures, while beautifully done, don't add much to the story in my opinion.

The CD I purchased is Billie Holiday Sings Standards and it gets a ten out of ten, four stars, two thumbs up.  Billie's singing is...heartfelt.  I know I'm hardly the first to notice this!  It really feels like she's inhabiting the songs.  The other artists with a similar quality that spring to mind are Hank Williams, or Robert Johnson.  Probably not a coincidence they all lived hard lives during the Depression.  My favorite on the CD is Gee Baby Ain't I Good to You but any of the songs are excellent, and many feature well-known jazz musicians of the era (Oscar Peterson, Ben Webster, etc.).  It is definitely my intention to seek out more Billie Holiday--perhaps Lady Sings the Blues.

Hey, you got two reviews for the price of one!  I'd recommend Becoming Billie Holiday to someone who had a special interest in her life but was already familiar with the general details, or perhaps someone who was learning about the Harlem Renaissance.  The CD I'd recommend to anyone who would appreciate a jazz vocalist, or love songs with a sad tinge.  As far as jazz vocal CDs go, it's up there with Ella and Louis or Sarah Vaughan's self-titled debut album.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

What I'm Reading: Looking for Alaska

Looking for Alaska (2005) is the first book by John Green, who's become a leading YA author over the past several years.  It follows high school junior Miles during his year at a boarding school in a small town in Alabama.  He didn't mind leaving his old public school in Florida, where he didn't fit in and had hardly any friends.  Almost right away at his new school, he falls in with a group of prank-playing, smoking, drinking (yet studious!) companions: his trailer trash-raised but brilliant roommate, the Colonel; Japanese-born, rap-loving Takumi; and of course, gorgeous, troubled, prank master-minding Alaska.

The plot of this book is tough to describe, not because it's complicated, but because almost anything I say about it will give away the book's crucial twist.  Suffice it to say, Alaska has a dark history she doesn't share with her friends, and a drunken night mixes with that history like gasoline with oxygen.  Add in the match of a prank gone awry, and there is a plot explosion.  More than that I will not say.

The book really resonated with me.  Not too surprising, it resonates with most who read it.*  I felt like I had a special connection, however, because it reminded me a lot of my own prank-playing, drunken (yet studious!) college days in a small town in the south, where like Miles and his friends, we had to make our own entertainment.  Certain details about the local flora, the nearby interstate (I-65, with which I'm quite familiar), the unbelievably humid weather in late summer, even the futility of the sports teams at a small school, all took me back to my time at Sewanee.

I can heartily recommend this book for almost anybody, as well as another of John Green's books, An Abundance of Catherines.  My wife is also quite fond of his latest, The Fault in Our Stars, although I haven't read that one yet.

* An indicator of just how much this book seems to register with people: One of Miles's quirks is that he memorizes the final words of famous people.  In the copy of this book I checked out from the library, several people have written their own favorite last words on the final page!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

WiP reception

So last Monday I read the first chapter of my current WiP to my writers group, the Writers of Chantilly.  Very promising!  Everybody seemed to enjoy the first chapter, and one person wrote that they "loved" one of the characters I introduced.  And that was one of the written comments, which I put more credence in--verbal comments often tend to be more positive but generic "good job"-type remarks.

Next Monday will be Chapter Two.  Hopefully I'll get as good a reception--or, almost as good, a worse reception but with concrete advice for improving.

Background research required?

So I've been having a fairly unproductive past week or ten days in writing my current WiP.  Partially due to a great number of financial and automotive problems that have required my attention, but mostly, I think, because I really wasn't sure where the story was going.

Oh, I have an ending in mind, although fairly vague.  And the 10,000 words I've written so far are a good start.  But I wasn't quite sure how I was going to reach the end from where I am now.

The root problem, I think, was that I didn't quite have a handle on all the characters' motivations.  So today I sat down and worked out what each character is up to.  Just three or four lines (one or two for minor characters).  I also wrote up a page with details on the setting that I didn't have straight in my mind.

I believe this will break the logjam.  Already I know what I need to write tomorrow night.  And even beyond that, I have a much better conception of where the story is going.

As a story with a lot of fantasy elements, I assemed my WiP wouldn't need research because it's all in my imagination.  Wrong!  It does need research--only the source is my own mind.