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February 2009
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The Angels of Mons

The Bowmen The Winter issue of Machenalia (the newsletter of the Friends of Arthur Machen Society) has some photographs and captions by yours truly. Arthur Machen - a Welsh horror writer and contemporary of HP Lovecraft - is possibly best known for two things. 

The first is his haunting short story of sinister vegetation, "The Willows". The second is "The Bowmen" - his retelling of the legendary Angels of Mons, phantom archers that helped the the British forces at the Battle of Mons in 1914.

When I bought an early copy of "The Bowmen and Other Stories",  I found some carefully pressed clippings from the era, talking about the Mons sightings. Interesting stuff that I was keen to share (and FOAM was happy to reprint).

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The Week in Geek (Mar 21 - 28)

After a long silence, the Invader is back. Lots of good news - the original Paris invasion book is being re-released, a new home invasion kit (that is, a plastic invader mosaic of your own) is out and a load of other toys, including some fantastic trainers.

Very good list from Abebooks (who have always been more geek-friendly in their own content than Amazon) - 20 must-reads in post-apocalyptic fiction.  

Sigmate Studio continues to score interviews with the up-and-coming, including Vifor Cafaggi, creator of Puny Parker (a news-strip-style comic about the adventures of young Peter Parker...).

Spotted: Posters for Joe Abercrombie's First Law trilogy hanging in tube stations. Mike Carey signing at Forbidden Planet - a 'true gentleman'. Editor of Subterranean Press in wiki-discussion about the true identity of KJ Parker.

Underground Reading: Harrison High by John Farris

Harrison HighHarrison High (1959) was written by John Farris at the precocious age of 23. It sold over a million copies, spawned four sequels and, in 1960, was made into a movie. It is a sprawling piece of JD ('juvenile delinquency') fiction that charts the course of an entire year at any Anytown, American high school.

Harrison High is a highly-regarded school in a traditionally upper-class neighborhood. Recent population shifts and general social malaise have conspired to make things a little edgier as of late - the school is no longer solely packed with college-bound jocks, but now has a seedy working-class, jeans-clad underbelly. The school still prides itself in its football team (GO LIONS!), wealthy donors (a whirlpool in the locker room!) and talented faculty.

The book has a handful of protagonists, each with their own unique perspective on Harrison High. The supposed hero (as played by Dick Clark in the film) is Neil Hendry, a new teacher/coach with a jaded attitude stemming from a war wound and a previous teaching job in a crappy location (across town). His love interest is the new Spanish teacher, Joanne Dietrich, who matches Hendry's defeatism with a gloriously unfounded optimism.

The kids far outshine the teachers. Although all the characters are hormonally-imbalanced, painfully egotistical and often catastrophically stupid, at least the teenagers are supposed to be that way. They are represented by Trent (football star and future pharmacist), Ricky (hot blond who went to Sunday school), Buddy (quarterback from the wrong side of the tracks, trying to make good for his single mom), Anne (curvy drama student who wants to make it in Hollywood) and Griff (seedy jd with the sensual lips). The five form an awkward love pentagon - a clumsy sexual salad of self-absorption, naivete and badly-expressed horniness.

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Underground Reading: Involution Ocean by Bruce Sterling

Involution Ocean Involution Ocean, published in 1977, is Bruce Sterling's first book. It is introduced by Harlan Ellison, who claims that the book is a "stunning tour de force" that will rock the genre and its readers. Ellison, although a great judge of talent (especially if you ask him), was either painfully incorrect or wildly prescient. Sterling did do his fair share of rocking, but it wasn't until Mirrorshades in 1986.

Involution Ocean is a far cry from the cyberpunk niche that Sterling later came to dominate (and, arguably, create). The setting is the far-flung world of Nullaqua. The world is defined by a single habitable crater, and that crater is filled with a heavy, perpetual mist of dust. Nullaqua is a sea-faring world, populated by a race of stoic, unimaginative sailors - all on an ocean of dust.

The book's protagonist is John Newhouse, an off-worlder. John is drawn to Nullaqua by 'Flare', a potent drug stilled from the belly of the 'dustwhale'. The story begins with the drug being declared illegal. In order to preserve his supply, John is forced to join a whaling ship, and sail the dusty seas of Nullaqua.

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Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie

Best Served ColdBest Served Cold, coming this June, is the fourth book from British fantasy wunderkind, Joe Abercrombie. Abercrombie, alongside Patrick Rothfuss and Scott Lynch, has spent the past three years redefining the fantasy genre - producing complex, stylish and character-driven books.

Mr. Abercrombie's first three books - The First Law trilogy - were perfect examples of the new face of fantasy. Eschewing prophecies, orphaned stable boys and epic destinies, Mr. Abercrombie created a cast of very real, very grounded and very flawed characters. Although some conventional fantasy tropes like 'high kings', 'demons' and 'wizards' all existed, they were all carefully subverted in dark and unusual ways.

I could go on about the new 'golden age' of fantasy, but let's get to the point... how was the fourth book?

Despite appearing in the same world as the First Law trilogy, Best Served Cold has a few key differences in the characters, the plot and even the author's style.

Those that read the preceding books will be especially glad to see Jezal in a humorous cameo, but, otherwise, the key players in the First Law trilogy all go unseen. The lead protagonist is Monzcarro Murcatto, a female mercenary of uncanny ability and dubious reputation. Monzcarro has spent the last few years uniting the divided city-states of Styria until the banner of Duke Orso. Ruthless and pragmatic (and tarred with rumors of worse), Monzcarro begins the book on a single-minded quest for vengeance (thus the title).

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Underground Reading: Sweet Silver Blues by Glen Cook

Sweet Silver Blues Sweet Silver Blues (1987) introduces Garrett, a private eye in an openly high-fantasy setting. Garrett is a superficially-jaded ex-soldier-turned-detective. He already has an established practice at the opening of the book, the first in a long-running series. Garrett also has an extensive network of allies and confidantes, including Morley - a half-elf with violent tendencies - and 'The Dead Man' - a psychic corpse.

Sweet Silver Blues begins with Garrett being hired to track down a missing heiress. The search takes him out of his comfortable hometown and back to the distinctly uncomfortable site of his military service.

The author, Glen Cook, builds and describes a complicated world with a life of its own. He hastily outlines a tangled political scene, lengthy military campaigns and a mind-boggling social structure that includes a half-dozen mythical races (and their mixed offspring).

The plot takes a half-dozen promising turns, but ultimately fizzles. 

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Brian Lumley @ Forbidden Planet, 7 March


(Picture from Forbidden Planet)

The book: Necroscope: Harry and the Pirates

The star: Brian Lumley was very friendly. He had something to say about all of the books he signed and gave recommendations on follow-up reading. He even took the time to sign both of his entries in a second-hand anthology. He was pleased to shake hands and politely greeted everyone - including a gang of Facebook "friends" that showed up after I did. (More on Brian Lumley)

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Critical Fail: Piers Anthony

It's no great secret that Piers Anthony's novels are not especially progressive when it comes to gender.  Indeed, his first Xanth novel, A Spell for Chameleon, may be one of the most blatantly sexist books I've ever read.  But I loved the Xanth novels when I was a kid (I read my first, Ogre Ogre, at eight), and will occasionally buy them to reread when I find them in second-hand bookstores.

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Friday Five: 5 Graphic Novels to Hook Your Friends after Watchmen

Global FrequencyWith the advent of the world's most over-exposed movie, bookstores are all rubbing their hands with delight. After gawking at Dr Manhattan's bobbing blue Oppenheimer for three hours, people will be pouring into shops - dazed, confused and eager to spend their hard-earned Ameros on these so-called 'Graphic Novels'.

The secret is, Watchmen is a really tough graphic novel, and a terrible introduction to the comic book format. A lot of people crash out on their first time through. Alan Moore is brilliant, but can often be impenetrable. Dave Gibbon is his perfect artistic match for the project, but the art is deliberately symbolic and often dense and unfriendly.

A lot of the existing 'Top 10' lists and bookstore recommendations are based on the same well-meaning, but blundering, enthusiasm. The geek, retail and geek-retail populace need to take a deep breath and think about their audience. Approachable characters; self-contained storylines; absorbing plots. The ideal graphic novel should stretch their perception of what the comic format can achieve, but it also shouldn't be so far from their initial expectations that it comes across as wanky modern art. It should be commercial, fun and engaging.

So without further ado, some graphic novels with which to subvert your unenlightened kin-folk:

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