It’s All in Your Head

The worst part of Hollywood’s trend in sticking to what they know has sold in the past are the remakes that just…don’t need to exist.  Even when they’re acceptable or good, they still don’t need to be.  And then the bad ones are just…inexcusable.

A classic children’s book is Lewis Carroll’s story of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. It was adapted into a remarkably trippy animated feature by Disney, and that version remains the quintessential film adaptation to this day.  I think we all know about Tim Burton’s live action…remake?  Sequel?  Thing.  Where he tried to turn a poetic allegory about imaginary numbers into a color-by-number hero’s journey that still falls short.

That film was released in 2010.  And it’s a shame that they only thought to repeat their former success in live action, because they could have adapted a different version of the story and had their strong heroine saving the day.

In 2006, Frank Beddor’s book The Looking Glass Wars hit shelves for the first time.  And the title alone tells you everything you need to know.  This is a nonDisney take on Alice in Wonderland, and it’s going to be grittier, but still child-friendly.  After all, this is a book for kids or young adults.  But don’t let the lower bracket of reader ages fool you – Beddor has brought his imagination’s A game in so many ways.

As you open the book and flip page by page inwards, you are greeted with step-by-step illustrations on how a Three of Hearts turns into a Card Soldier; a weirdly futuristic Victorian robot design.  I wouldn’t quite call it steampunk, because Wonderlandian technology is more akin to what we know today than what shows up in steampunk books.  Regardless, once the Card Soldier is revealed in all his glory, the next spread of pages is a map showing the Wondernations, including Wonderland, the Valley of Mushrooms, Outerwidlerbeastia, and more key locations.  Actually, I’m not a huge fan of the map because the borders make it difficult to read.  A lot of the expanses look like they should be oceans, but there are no major bodies of water aside from the Pool of Tears.

There aren’t many illustrations within the book aside from the ones I’ve detailed, but there are recurring themes on what we’ve seen.  Soldiers might be Cards or Chessmen, weapons can be swords, cannonball spiders, or even AD52s – Automatic Dealer of 52 razor sharp cards.  Yes, it’s silly.  But the reader has no choice but to take this absurdities seriously because the characters do.

Jody Lynn Nye once spoke about the Myth books she coauthored with Robert Asprin, and continued after his death, saying that the important thing about writing these humorous books was that the authors and the characters had to take the situations completely seriously.  Otherwise, it wouldn’t mean much to any reader.  Beddor clearly understands this, but is able to show both sides of the coin.

The story is relatively simple.  Princess Alyss Heart is celebrating her seventh birthday, on the verge of beginning her training as the future ruler of the Queendom of Wonderland, when her aunt Redd attacks.  Queen Genevieve is killed, along with many others, and Alyss is taken by the royal bodyguard Hatter Madigan towards safety.  Unfortunately, they fall into the Pool of Tears, from which no one ever returns.

Yet, the story doesn’t end there, because the other side of the Pool of Tears is our world!  This is where Alyss meets Charles Dodgson, AKA Lewis Carroll, and confides the truth of her past, only to feel utterly betrayed as he makes her tragedy into a mockery.  However, Alyss can only be hidden for so long.  Hatter has sought her ever since they became separated in the Pool of Tears, and those who oppose Redd have never quite given up hope…if only Alyss can be the warrior queen they need to restore the land to its former glory.

Beddor does a great job of balancing the absolute seriousness of Wonderland’s insanity with our view of the ridiculousness it seems to be.  I can easily imagine kids experiencing this story and berating the adults of our world for not believing Alyss.  And yet, it’s not a simple lighthearted tale.  Sure there’s no swearing or even indications of sex, but people are killed, tragically, and rarely in a “good” way.  Redd likes beheadings, and Beddor does describe how she kills several key individuals.  If this was a movie, it would be at least PG, if not higher for the violence…depending on when the movie was released.  Kids seem a lot more inured to violence today than when I was young, but we also seem to be trying to protect them a lot more.  I mean, The Secret of NIMH is a G-rated film, but I would probably consider it PG, because it could be absolutely terrifying when I first saw it.  I think The Looking Glass Wars is comparable for its time.

So, for those who like fractured fairy tales and retold classics, I’d definitely recommend taking a look here.  It’s not a difficult read, but it’s got real depth and a lot of clever nods hidden all throughout.  And, of course, a strong female lead as Princess Alyss must somehow take back her queendom from the evil Redd.


I am a Jewish Dork

Nothing exists in a vacuum.  Everything that is created is made within the context of its creator(s), the time, the location, the culture, and so much more.  They say there’s nothing new in Hollywood, but the fact is that what is produced is derivative of so very much, and we are much more aware of it today than we may have been in the past.  It’s easy to see Christian allegory in so much of the English-speaking world…because the English tend to be Christian and have imposed their religion on much of the world.  I have a minor in art history, so I’m very aware of how easy it is to insert symbolism into the smallest details of a painting.  In fact, this is why I had a problem seeing Blade Runner for the first time in college – I couldn’t help seeing the symbolism before the story.

But derivation is not necessarily a bad thing.  I’ve heard that there’s only a small number of different stories told and that everything else is a variant on one of these themes.  I’ve also heard that it’s the speculative fiction readers (this umbrella covers science fiction, fantasy, and all their subgenres) who are most critical of the old and most crave reading something new, that we haven’t seen before.

So when I saw The (unofficial) Hogwarts Haggadah, I was intrigued.  I mean, I love Harry Potter as much as anyone else, and if I’m not a devout Jew, I do take the holidays seriously and make an effort to observe them.  I may not keep kosher or kosher for Passover, but I take time out of my day and routine to celebrate and remind myself of what the holiday is and what it means to my people and myself.

Now, I have attended many alternate services in the past.  I grew up attending youth group, went to Jewish overnight camps, and was an active part of not only my synagogue’s youth group board but also a regular attendee to all local NFTY events (the National Federation of Temple Youth).  Part of being active means that we would take turns actually leading services and when we did so, we had choices.  We could do the conventional and standard Reform movement services, we could use alternate melodies and prayers, we could even take out actual prayers and replace them with thoughtful readings on that same theme.

So while a Harry Potter Seder sounds a bit unusual, I can see how and why someone would adapt this particular event to have a very specific theme.  And because the Harry Potter books are such strong works, they can be adapted to suit many purposes like the seder.  It’s not that far-fetched an idea, and it does make me wonder how many other themed Seders are out there.  The answer is probably “a lot, but not so many that are published.”

But don’t get your hopes too high on that word “published.”  This is a self-published work if I ever saw one and belive me, it does have flaws.  Why am I talking about it now though, when Passover is two weeks away?  Well, that’s simple.  I glanced through the book last night when it arrived, and quickly realized that if I tried to run a Seder by just going from begining to end, we’d be at the table for four hours.  So, in order to cut the chaff but still have a themed Seder, I needed to actually read the book and figure out how it works, what to keep, and what to cut.  In fact, I’m actually going to have to go through the book a second time with my sticky notes to actually mark what’s being read that night.

So let’s talk about this being self-published.  Because…it’s an issue.  It does worry me when the copyright page says the text is adapted from Wikipedia, because we all know that Wiki pages can be edited by anyone with an account and so can’t be assumed to be 100% accurate.  I am hoping that the typos I noticed – a missing question mark, “as” instead of “us”, etc. – are due to copying and pasting from Wikipedia.  I mean, it’s also poor proofreading, but that’s something of a given in this case.

The design of the pages looks cool.  The pages are meant to look like parchment on a nice, dark background, with stylized images in the lower corners.  Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of variation here and it ends up being annoying because of how little text can fit on the remaining space of the page.  Combine that with the fact that the layout artist appears to not know the word “justify” and, well, it’s not visually easy to read some of the sections.

For the most part, each section of the Seder service has a header, followed by the normal Hebrew text with English translation.  I suspect that either Moshe Rosenberg is from a more devout group than the Reform movement, or he expects more familiarity with Hebrew than I would.  There are no transliterations in this book, which immediately restricts its usability.  For the record, a transliteration means that the Hebrew is written out with Latin characters.  So you would see “baruch atah Adonai” instead of ” ברוך אתה.  It’s useful for people who, for one reason or another, didn’t have the opportunity to learn to read Hebrew or chose not to pursue it.  I may have learned as a matter of course, but it’s still a language that I have a lot of trouble with and if I am reading a passage that I’m unfamiliar with, it’s always easier to go to the transliteration instead of sounding out each word.  At least the book uses vowels, which is somewhat expected when you’re talking to an American audience.

After the traditional part of each section, there’s a passage with an actual title in which Rosenberg does a mini study session discussing the meaning of the preceding passage and comparing it to events in the Harry Potter books.  Be warned: you are expected to be familiar with the events of all seven books!  There will be spoilers otherewise!  These readings are, well, I’m pretty sure that Rosenberg teaches at a grade school.  They come across to me as somewhat preachy, seeming to be a vehicle for educating people about Judaism and using Harry Potter as an excuse to draw them in.  That’s not to say they’re bad or that they have no purpose, far from it.  Just that sometimes I read a section and thought “I guess that’s true, but there’s less Harry Potter than I was hoping for based on the book title.”

My biggest problem with the way the book is laid out is that the Harry Potter sections are probably the easiest to pick out, but it’s difficult to see where in the seder you are.  Did we forget to dip our parsley, or has that not happened yet?  I think that the Hogwarts Haggadah could have greatly benefitted from the new navigation the Reform movement introduced in the Mishkan T’Filah, the new standard prayerbook.  You see, you can break down a service into its essential parts such as the Songs and Psalms, the Sh’ma and its Blessings, the Torah Service, the Concluding Prayers, etc.  With in each section, the upper corners of each page (Hebrew on the right and English on the left) tell you what psalm, prayer, or song you’re on right now, as well as which ones are before it and which ones are after it.  So anyone, even someone attending their first service, can tell where they are in the section.  And, by flipping to the front of the book, they can find more information on what sections there are for this service.  At least, I think they can.  My copy of the Mishkan T’filah is a very early and incomplete version from 2005 when I went to the NFTY Nationa Convention.

My point stands that the Hogwarts Haggadah is difficult to navigate and I will tell anyone who wants to use this at their own seder to read it through first and determine what parts you’ll be reading ahead of time.  If you use a standard haggadah you buy at the supermarket (yes, that’s really where my family’s collection of 30 haggadot comes from) you can pretty much read it cover to midpoint (where it switches over from mostly English to all Hebrew) in a reasonable amount of time.  It’s very participant-heavy too, which is a great way to ensure everyone is paying attention throughout the seder.

With the Hogwarts Haggadah, the only time I see participation is after the meal, as part of the Birkat Hamazon, the prayer after the meal.  Given that I was raised on a participation Seder, I’m not that thrilled with the thought of being the only one with a book, but there’s not much point in anyone else having one because of all the excess text.  I’d have to literally tell any participant to “read from here to here” because nothing is well-marked for that kind of thing.  I’m going to have to use my sticky notes to tell myself that so that my family isn’t screaming at me to get on with it so we can eat.

So, my initial read-through of the Hogwarts Haggadah has me fairly leery of what I’ve found.  But, I am reasonably certain that if I do a good job of selecting the parts to use, we can have a nice, themed Seder.  After all, the elements of a standard service are, well, standard.  But the choice of which versions of each prayer, song, and text we use can make a boring service into a transcendant one.  It’s the leader’s decisions that shape the service and determine what people think of it.

Damn right I’m taking a silly, self-published book this seriously.  My disappointment in the reading means nothing in the end.  I want a Harry Potter Seder and I will make it the best Harry Potter Seder I can without rewriting this haggadah myself.

I am tempted though.  Very tempted.

I will probably be printing out the standard short version of the Birkat Hamazon though, and disdaining the longer version in this book.  There’s a call and response section that is not included here that is part of what I’ve memorized and if I print it out, my dad will actually participate with me.  And since I am big on participation, as you’ve noticed, I want to make it easier for him.

Besides, it’d sound really silly if I did the call and response all myself because there’s three phrases I’d be saying twice in a row.

Anyway, I’m going to wrap this up.  I have a bit under two weeks to go through and mark up the book in preparation, and I may need all of it.  Which also means I should probably go lighter in my normal reading to accomodate.  There’s some young adult books I’ve been thinking of revisiting…

By the Fans, for the Fans

Who doesn’t like a bit of light reading to start the weekend off?  At least, that’s what I thought when I grabbed Go Go Power Rangers #6-7.  Seven, of course, being the newest issue that I bought last weekend.  Here we finally see the big reveal to the Power Rangers that the reader has known for a while.  And it is, how cliché, during the Homecoming dance.  Because they are freshmen in highschool and that’s a very typical time for anything important to happen in highschool.

Although the fact that it’s explicitly stated that they’re freshmen is something I take comfort in.  After all, this is a comic book series that has shown itself to try to fit the bones of an old tv show into something modern, but also interesting and based in reality.  So I fully expect that one day, if the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers comic series is so lucky, we’ll see the rangers graduate and move on to college.  It’s possible that they’ll do like the original TV series and pass their powers on to younger students, but that’s unimportant for the time being.

I expect we won’t see the resolution of this storyline for another two issues at least, since the next issue is going to have a fight scene, but it’ll be interesting to see how things turn out.  The other noteworthy fact about issues 6 and 7 is that we see how Rita…acquired…Squatt and Baboo, her two hapless minions.  I’m still not entirely certain why she kept Squatt, but Baboo is clearly more than the former’s partner in all things dumb.  Neither is on Finster’s level of course, but it is very interesting to learn.

I think this is one of my favorite things about the comic books; that we get to know a lot more about the villains’ backstories and motivations.  They’re not just “the villain” or “the villain’s henchmen” or even “the evil comic relief.”  I mean, they still are comic relief, but now they’re getting more defined as people instead of characters occasionally seen to the side of the screen or frame as Rita screeches at them.

This is the kind of results that you get when something is made by the fans for the fans.  This is why everyone was excited to hear J.J. Abrams was directing The Force Awakens; because he, as a fan of the franchise, would be able to make a better movie than George Lucas, who is clearly more interested in making money off the franchise at this point.  No fan wants to see their fandom go down in flames because executives who care only about money are trying to print it.  We want to see our sequels and prequels and reboots and spinoffs made with the same love we feel for the original material, and that’s what I feel from these Power Rangers comics.  They’re made by people who grew up watching the original series just like I did, and then they were given the opportunity to expand on that start and make it better.  And I couldn’t be happier about it.

Then of course I went and read Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers #23-24.  Rita’s back at last, and she’s ready to take things to the next level.  One of Grace’s secrets is brought into the open…and it takes a dark and unexpected turn, which is likely to have serious repercussions.  Issue 24 is marked as the prelude to “Shattered Grid,” which is likely to be a major story event for the series, given that it has an actual name.  And, like any fan, I have to speculate what it means.

“Grid” almost certainly refers to the morphing grid, which is what the power rangers access to morph into their suits.  It is the source of their power, and that of their powers and zords as well.  If their access is cut off, they are stuck with only their human abilities and minds, relying on their intelligence and tactics to win back their powers.  “Shattered,” however, implies that the grid will be seriously damaged or even destroyed.  It seems a little early, but this could be the lead in to a shift in powers.

Saba’s been around as a reminder that around this time in the TV series, Alpha and Zordon were developing the white ranger powers.  However, it should also be remembered that this Saba is not actually from our universe, which makes him a bit of an anomaly.  And, of course, there was Rita’s little trip recently, which showed something major that any fan of the series will remember.

I’m not sure how Grace will fit into those story elements I see coming together from the TV show, but we’re obviously not done with her yet.  Her secrets and her knowledge make her a dangerous person, and the ways she uses both make her a perilous friend to have.  She’s far too cynical for the idealistic young power rangers, who will have to decide what to do about her very soon now.

I am continuing to enjoy this modern reinterpretation and reworking of a chunk of my childhood, and I look forward to watching the stories and sagas unfold.  It does make me wonder if they plan to work this like the TV series did – folding Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers into Power Rangers Zeo into Turbo and then finally into Space for the finale of the original set of seasons.  It was only after space, the Lost Galaxy, actually, that the seasons became more self-contained, with few callbacks to earlier seasons and very few returning characters, if any.

And then there was that crossover with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles…

Yes, that really happened.  Go look it up.  It was in Power Rangers in Space.

In other news, amazon delivered again today as promised.  You see, my mom told me that I could lead the first seder this year – the big family dinner will be second seder, but my dad still wants to celebrate Passover as it starts.  I jokingly suggested a particular version of the seder that amazon pointed out a couple months ago.  She, to my surprise, said “do it!”  So I have a new haggadah, and I think I’ll have to read it through once to determine how to lead the seder without it taking forever.

I am pretty excited about this.  It’ll probably turn out like alternate services at camp and through youth group, with a minimum of traditional prayers and readings instead of some of them.  Except that our traditional seder has a lot of English bits and that’s what I’ll probably be replacing while leaving the Hebrew prayers in.  But again, I’ll have to read it first.  And find my block of bookmark sticky notes to mark what’s actually going to happen.

Damn straight I’m going to do this properly.  It may have been over ten years since I last led a full service (other than mourning), but I do still know what I’m doing.

Mixed to Positive

I began to pick up books by Patricia a. McKillip because I’d run across her name in so many anthologies over the years.  The first was The Forgotten Beasts of Eld which was…not bad.  I could see why the book held so much for so many people, but for me it was acceptable.  The same is true for The Book of Atrix Wolfe.

In a fantasy land, there are multiple countries.  There is Chaumenard, home to the mage school.  There is Kardeth, a land of warriors.  And there is Pelucir, between the two, and the site of the book’s opening.  There we see a winter siege laid on Pelucir by Kardeth.  From Chaumenard, and yet from nowhere, the powerful mage Atrix Wolfe appears to ask the Kardethians to give up the siege and go home.

Then everything goes to hell and the story picks up twenty years later.

I think my main difficulty in this book is when magic truly starts to flow because everything becomes mutable – the magic, the world, time, distance, even the mage.  Those passages become difficult to distinguish events in, not unlike certain action scenes in movies that are made of so many edits and different shots that the audience can never gain an appreciation for what is happening onscreen.  It’s just light and noise at that point.  Those scenes in The Book of Atrix Wolfe are not so dissimilar, I think.

I feel disappointed.  The book is lovely – a nice first edition hardcover with a gorgeous wraparound jacket.  And when I can track what’s going on, the story is perfectly fine – very good even, at points.  Then we get to one of the crazy magic passages and I groan internally as I debate whether I should try to decipher what’s happening or skim to the next “normal space” sequence.  Huh, I guess those passages do remind me of the Singularity transitions in Partnership by Anne McCaffrey.  Go figure.

So Patricia A. McKillip as author of full-length novels is still mixed for me.  Neither of them hit it out of the park or even struck me as “this is really good,” but neither is bad, per se.  They just don’t seem to mesh as well with my reading style as other books I’ve turned up.  I don’t regret the time or money that much, I just wish I had enjoyed both of them more.

Which of course begs the question of what I’ll read next.  Tomorrow is Friday, and I will have the weekend to finish whatever I start.  Theoretically.  We’ll see what actually happens.  I do think I want to pull something else from the Pile, but it’s big enough to have a decent variety still.  I am feeling another novel though, instead of an anthology.

That does remind me.  At this moment, I still have more books in my library than I do unique short stories, but that is likely to change the next time I add an anthology to my collection.  As of this writing, I have 1479 books and 1475 short stories from 116 separate volumes.  It’s been almost two years since I started keeping an actual database of my books, and I definitely think it’s been a worthwhile investment, if only to keep myself from buying books twice or more.  Not to mention the joy of not having to haul down my comic books just to see what issues I’m looking for next.  I think my next database project will be movies, possibly followed by music.

On that note, I’ll leave you to enjoy the rest of the Ides of March.

Where to Next?

A good story is one that makes you constantly remind yourself that nothing is what it seems.  Good stories are ones that seem familiar and easy to relate to, but reveal themselves to be deeper and more complex than their surface would hint at.  Apex is, of course, just such a story.

I’ve talked about Joy’s sheer dumb luck for stumbling into some of the city’s secrets, but Apex is the book where we start to really pull aside some of the concealment and reveal that things are far from what we assumed back in Hunter.  Open war is a fact at this point and everyone, from Elite down to the newest Hunters, is getting hammered.  And yes, people are dying.  It sucks when those dead are Hunters because, of course, it’s a lot harder to replace a Hunter than almost anyone else.  The Psimons seem to be helping…but their chief is a hard woman who seems to be in it only for herself.

And, of course, a strange conflict from the very beginning of Hunter takes some even stranger turns in this book.

There’s so many things I could say about Apex, but between not wanting to spoil too much about its preceeding volumes and not knowing how the series will end, I don’t want to say too much.  It was a bit sad that when I checked for Lackey on amazon the other night, I didn’t see any new releases posted beyond the next Valdemar book (a midsummer release).  The Hunter books tend to come out around the beginning of the new school year (a good time for young adult books as they can be “going back to school” presents) in August or September, but the only releases around them are paperback editions of last year’s hardcovers.  Great for the Dragon Prophecy, not so much for Hunter.

I’ll just lurk and hope that changes in the next few months because finishing Apex again just reminds me how much I want to see what happens next.  After all, the end of this book puts our heroes in a much better position than they have been since Joy’s arrival in the city.  Which means the next book should show their enemies upping the ante to a new level of extreme.  Joy herself has three very powerful personal enemies out there – no one she chose herself, but people who are incredibly self-centered and took her selflessness and inclination to take her job seriously as a personal insult.  At least two of them have worked together, and I wouldn’t be surprised if all three teamed up to take her down.

But, of course, these people are on the side of evil which means that they will (continue to) plan to betray each other and never offer their full trust and cooperation even in pursuit of their revenge on Joy.

My hope for the next book is that we’ll see more of the dystopia than we have previously.  Joy sometimes reflects back on her life on the Mountain as compared to Apex, and since Elite she’s gained more experience in the smaller towns and cities near Apex, but those are just encounter locations at this point.  Our real locations are generally Hunter HQ and Spillover.  I’d like to see our experience of the world expand further and add more locations.  Joy was made an offer – repeatedly – and perhaps a next step would be to visit and see more of what that offer entails.

Then, of course, there’s the scene that gives me excited giggles at the end of Apex.  It implies that there will be opportunities next book for lots of infodumping but also a chance to really change how the Hunters of Apex think and operate.  And, perhaps with all the upset contained in this book, it’s the perfect time for such a shift.

I don’t know what I’m going to read next.  I could go for something else shorter if only to finish it in a timely fashion (and watch the movie again), or I could go for another anthology as something where individual stories will take a reasonable amount of time even if I spend a week with the book.  Unfortunatley, I think the anthologies in my Pile are a bit long given the amount of time I have available.  The last option is, of course, a real novel.  I have some that don’t look too long, but given the authors I am not certain how number of pages will compare to ease of reading.  Two hundred pages by Tanith Lee might be equivalent to six hundred pages by Mercedes Lackey, depending on the book.

Although eight hundred pages by Lackey and two others has a certain appeal too…rereading is always an option with my library…hmmm.

I’ll sleep on it, and see what catches my eye in the morning.

Some Real Action

After three months of picking up three comic book issues whenever I remembered to go to the store (IE every time I heard a new issue of Doomsday Clock was out), I felt a little strange with just my two Power Rangers books.  So when I saw issue one of a series I might have interest in just sitting there, I grabbed it on a whim.  That was Samurai Jack: Quantum Jack.

As you can guess, I know absolutely nothing about this series.  I can figure from looking at the physical book that it first came out in September last year.  That Jack has somehow been…split?…into multiple versions of himself?  At least, that’s what the cover implies to me.  Other than that…frankly, this comic book was a letdown.  A whole lot of nothing.  Now, I know that Samurai Jack as an animated series had some incredibly minimalist episodes, without even dialogue.  But…it opened with a bang.  It opened with that two-parter that sucked us in and showed us why we wanted to watch more.  And when it was adapted into comic form before, that first issue was the same opening to give new readers the same investment.

Quantum Jack, on the other hand, dives right into the story, shows us a Jack we haven’t seen before, and doesn’t give us very much to grab onto.  I don’t like this particular Jack, I have no interest in the creature he wants to rescue, and there is no infodump anywhere to tell me what this series is about.  And yes, I have the internet at my fingertips and can easily go look it up, but why should I?  I’m not sold on the first issue, so I see no reason to invest my time any further.  I guess the mystery of “what’s going on” is supposed to get readers interested and wanting to know more, but I want a little more information before I give the series any more time or money.  I know that not every episode or issue of Samurai Jack was great, so I need proof that this spinoff is doing more than trying to cash in on my nostalgia.

So, to continue the nostalgia train with something far better, I decided it was time to finally finish The Dark Crystal Creation Myths.  Yesterday I had mentioned receiving an amazon box with shorter material in it; one of those was volume III of the Creation Myths.  It’s been a long time coming, if only because I kept forgetting about it until that young adult novel reminded me that it would be good to know how the story ended.

To recap what we know, the movie is a hero’s journey that concludes an ancient saga and begins a new era for the world of Thra.  Jen’s quest to heal the Crystal represents years of work, of waiting, and of hope on the parts of so many others.  The world itself is far from what it was – Jen and Kira are the last of the Gelfling race and even the Skeksis and Mystics have declined far from the peaks they had once attained.  Their world is ending, and at the end of the movie, Kira and Jen must now build a new one from the ashes of the old.

And because so much time had passed before either of our protagonists there was born, so very much of their history was forgotten beyond recall.  Well, except for what Aughra might know, but she doesn’t just give out answers to people.

The Creation Myths takes a reader back to the opposite end of the spectrum, briefly covering the beginnings of Thra itself, and of Aughra, before diving into the story of how the Crystal cracked.  In many ways these three books are the story of a new character never before seen or mentioned in the Dark Crystal mythos; Raunip, the son of Aughra.

He is a trickster, who cannot or will not trust the goodness of what he sees and, being Aughra’s son, he can see more than most would like.  The peoples of Thra such as Gelflings and Podlings consider him a friend, if only because they are too naive to know or care about the darkness inside him.  The Creation Myths is about his journey toward understanding and compassion.

It’s also interesting to see the “birth” of the Skeksis and the Mystics.  Here, instead of the ancient and dying races of the movie, the two are young and strong, full of fire to do what they perceive as right, good, and necessary.  Neither is anywhere near the peak of their power by the end of the third volume, but we can see the beginnings of what will eventually become the rotten and decayed endings.

I have greatly enjoyed these graphic novels.  Reading them, seeing the origins of the creatures who are so integral to the movie, it helps me understand the world in ways that enhance the experience.  The art has the same feel as the sets and costumes too, although there is the occasional panel where I just have to wonder how lazy the artist felt because it looks nothing like whatever it’s clearly supposed to be.  Other than that, it’s pretty solid.

I love worlds as rich as that of The Dark Crystal because there’s so many ways you can revisit it and find something new to enjoy and appreciate.  It’s like movies where I watch all the special features because they continue to enhance my experience and understanding of the world.  Sadly, not all worlds, movie or book, are like this, which is why I take special note of the ones like this.

It’s important to remember two things when creating a fictional world in any medium.  Firstly, there’s got to be a foundation to what we see.  People, places, cultures, and languages don’t just come out of nowhere.  Secondly, we don’t need to see the foundation.  If you listen to some of the commentary on The Lord of the Rings, they talk about how much information they pulled out of the books to create the designs on a character’s weapon that the audience can barely see in the movie because the item is always in motion when it’s onscreen.  It’s important and good that they production design team did all this research, but it’s not something the characters in the movie need to tell the audience.

Which reminds me of one thing that really strikes me every time I read the Creation Myths.  Song is a powerful force in the world of Thra, which resonates with the Crystal.  The Creation Myths narrator mentons at one point that “uni” means “one” and “verse” is a song.  So the universe itself is a single song, of which each rock, plant, and animal is a single note.  How’s that for an eighties kids movie trasncending the level of understanding you might expect?

Well, a single comic book issue and three graphic novels didn’t seem like enough reading today.  And while I could watch Thor: Ragnarok another two or three times instead, I opted to pull an actual book off my shelves to reread.  Yes, there is still the Pile and it’s not gotten any smaller, but at the moment I just wanted to revisit something somewhat familiar.  So, I reread Hunter by Mercedes Lackey, mostly because I want to reread Apex, but why start at the end?

Hunter is of course our introduction to Lackey’s dystopian young adult series.  The world went to hell with global warming, climate change, the magnetic poles switching, and some crazy Christians throwing an atomic bomb into the mix.  All of this together somehow triggered, or combined with, the Breakthrough, where all sorts of bizarre creatures from the Other Side appeared in our world.  The creatures often resemble monsters from various mythologies, which also provides information on how to combat and kill them.  This also sees the appearance of Hunters, Mages, and Psimons into the world.

Something about the Breakthrough allows for magic to truly be practiced and now those who are born with the skill see it blossom.  It’s referred to as “popping Powers” because it happens so suddenly in the first two cases.  Psimons, on the other hand, are telepaths, telekinetics, etc.  Josh Green, Prefect Charmand’s personal Psi-aide and Joy’s romantic interest, relates that he remembers thinking at his parents to communicate long before he could talk.  That, in fact, they had to put Psi-shields on him to force him to learn to speak.

At the present in Joy’s world, Apex is the capital, located somewhere near where Washington D.C. would have been.  She herself is from the Rockies, a distant and isolated region in comparison.  It’s a long train ride into the city that clearly illustrates the difference between the locations…and the difference between being a random turnip (country bumpkin) and a high-level Hunter.  There’s some very real similarities between Hunter and The Hunger Games, but the latter didn’t have great world construction.  Yes, in both, everyone outside the capital gets the short end of the stick and there’s varying levels of shittiness, but Hunter‘s world has a clear and obvious explanation in the Othersider incursions that are constantly being fought off by any group of humans of varying sizes.  Most importantly, as Joy herself observes, the Othersiders never forget that Apex is the true target to be taken down.  The number of incursions into the capital’s territory dwarf anything she saw out in the mountains, and drive home that yes, her people only get the the oldest cast-offs.  But they’re able to survive and make good lives with those.  Apex truly needs the newest and best of everything if they’re to remain intact.

And, of course, Joy has secrets to keep about her home.  If Apex knew what was truly hidden out in the mountains, they’d almost assuredly come to take it all.  But it may just be Joy’s mission to seek out all the dirty little secrets Apex hides within its Barriers.  After all, given that this is heart of humanity on the North American continent, Apex’s secrets could be the salvation or downfall of everyone.

Anyway, because I am a crazy person, in addition to all the above and watching a certain movie yet again, I also read Elite today.  It’s the continuation of Hunter of course.  Joy is now a member of the Elite and thus no longer subject to the insanity of being a ranking Hunter and a stalked celebrity.  Everyone still knows who she is and far too many people idolize her in a weird way, but she deals with them much less.  Of course the Hunts are far more difficult…and the secrets she’s begun to plumb are far more deadly.

It all seems fairly routine when she escorts civilians to their workstation in the sewers, but then everything goes south as Joy discovers a new type of Othersider no one in Apex has seen or heard of before.  Her Hounds can tell her they’re Nagas, but they still have to figure out how best to kill them.  And that’s not even the worst thing she finds in the tunnels beneath the city.

There’s a lot of struggle and strife in any city, and because of her position and her uncle being in charge of the police, Joy is caught up in the top-level political infighting.  Being Hunter Elite protects her from some of this, but not enough to avoid suspicion entirely.  Especially not after the fiasco over a certain Hunter at the end of the previous book.  And that Hunter hasn’t forgotten her…not in the least.  He’d love to see her dead at just about any cost.

Still, there are lights in the darkness.  Some of them come from the most obvious and unexpected place, others from parables that make excellent teaching stories, and still others from the goodness that can be found inside of any person if they try.

I do really love that part of the climax.  The teaching parable that is.  Makes me smile every time.  But it’s getting late and I have work in the morning, so I better wrap up this post and get to bed.  Tomorrow I’ll start Apex and we’ll see how long it takes me to finish that while working overtime and having a social life.

First is the Worst

A while back, a friend of mine messaged me with a link, saying that they’d thought I’d enjoy reading this.  It was a page on an author’s blog, titled “Meat.”  Turns out it was a short story that the author got so many requests about that he made sure it was available on his blog.  I loved it.  But it wasn’t enough to have read the story.  I wanted a copy for my library.  A few minutes of checking later, and I had a book title to stick on my amazon wishlist.  Not even some out of print thing either, but something much more recent.  And when I saw the name, well, there was no question.  I had to have it.

So when I needed a bit more for shipping, or to use up a gift card (or both), there it was, sitting on my list, just waiting.  And that’s how I acquired Worst Contact, edited by Hank Davis.  It’s one of those books where you can figure the theme quite easily based on the title.  These are science fiction stories recounting humanity’s first interactions with alien races.  Usually to a humorous result…although sometimes it’s the kind of funny that makes you want to cry inside.

This anthology is a bit different from the types I usually read.  Those come in two variants.  The simpler one is a collection of previously published stories from a single author.  The other type I usually read is a themed anthology where multiple authors submitted stories written for the collection to the theme.  Now, Worst Contact is also a themed anthology (obviously), but the difference here is that only one of the twenty-one entries was written for this book.  The others were all picked by the editor from previous publications…most of which are rather old and some were completely out of print.

I’m quite serious.  Worst Contact was published in 2016, and that’s the date of Sarah A. Hoyt’s story “Her Sister’s Keeper” which is explicitly stated to have first appeared in this book.  The rest of the stories run the gamut, the oldest being from 1945.  Most seem to be from the fifties, although there’s some from the seventies and a smaller chunk from the nineties.

I didn’t really look at dates when I first started reading the book, but early on I encountered stories whose Earth settings didn’t quite sound like our present day.  I flipped to the copyright information to verify my impression and to make it clear to myself that I had to remember the context of when the story was written, as that can have a big effect in science fiction.

In many cases, I would not have guessed anywhere near a story’s true age, and knowing the original publication date had little bearing on how I read the story, save to be impressed at how it’s held up over the decades.  All the stories in this book are quite strong and while there’s always going to be some I enjoy more than others, these tend towards the memorable.  Which is unsurprising, given that they were specially picked for the collection.

The anthology Worst Contact reminds me of most (from my library) is Unnatural Creatures.  Neil Gaiman edited that anthology of stories that he enjoyed and drew inspiration from.  A lot of the tales were brought back into print for that book too.  The two books aren’t quite the same, but it’s close enough for my purposes.

As I said, my main goal in buying Worst Contact was getting my own physical copy of Terry Bisson’s “They’re Made of Meat,” but I won’t overlook the rest of the book for it.  As I said, there’s a lot of good and powerful stories here, and a number that really took me along for the ride.  There were some twist endings I truly appreciated and at least one blindsided me in a great way.  They don’t all speak to me the way the stories of Wandering Stars did, but that’s okay too.  Mostly I’m impressed by how much I was able to connect with so many stories that are so old, they predate the moon landing.

I did get an amazon box recently with some shorter reading material in it (ways to get free shipping while getting a new pair of backup headphones) and I even stopped at the comic shop today.  It looks like the next issue of Doomsday Clock is out near the end of this month, but I still have Power Rangers to collect and read.  I bet there’ll be some interesting revelations there.

And yes, I definitely could have finished Worst Contact earlier this week if I’d read more at home.  However, there was this movie that came out on disc this past Tuesday.  You might have heard of it, a little thing called Thor: Ragnarok.  Which I may have watched four times since then, as well as working overtime.  That’s a book I’d probably avoid though.  I don’t think anyone can replicate the comedic timing they have onscreen in novel form.  Although now I’m stupidly tempted to see how someone might try…

…maybe I should just watch it again and try to erase that thought.

Books of Pictures

After last night’s wave of emotions, I’m still not sure what book I really want to read next.  But, I had to have something over breakfast, especially since my phone was charging.  Since I haven’t gone to the comic book shop in a while, the only really short things I had were picture books.  And wouldn’t you know it, I happened to pick one up at the convention last month.

It was an interesting premise.  The seller’s roommate had passed away some years prior, and now her books were being sold in “grab bags.”  The very large ziploc bags were $3 apiece, but you could easily see what you were getting.  The seller even encouraged me to take books out and look at them.  They ranged from nature and cooking books to old convention program books to this particular book.

Alone in its bag, it wasn’t the best deal by far.  But of all the books available, only The Dragon’s Robe by Deborah Nourse Lattimore caught my eye.  The title and artistry looked Chinese, but that’s no bad thing.  Flipping through, I could see that the illustrations were every bit as lovely as the cover.  So, why not?

The story appears to be a fictional myth, created by Lattimore, and set in a real time period of China’s history.  It’s a simple enough tale, leaving plenty of space on each and every page for the beautiful paintings, done in the Chinese brushstroke style.  Truly a lovely book just to look at.  And not a bad lesson either.

Based on the author’s information, it looks like The Dragon’s Robe is part of a series of picture books Lattimore created based on the culture and mythology of various peoples.  The other three listed on the back jacket flap feature Aztec, Mayan and Minoan culture, and if they’re anything like this book, I should probably keep an eye out.  Overall, I’m not at all disappointed with my $3 picture book.  It’s beautifully done, and in good condition.

In other news, I’ve been watching Star Trek movies lately.  The new reboots, with Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, and Simon Pegg.  Today specifically was Star Trek Into Darkness, which of course inspired me to go reread Star Trek/Green Lantern: Stranger Worlds.

I’m still not certain about the choice of Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan, but his presence in the reboot always adds a certain…flair…to Stranger Worlds.  It does make me wonder if Star Trek Beyond will be considered if (when) they add to this crossover.  Obviously the comics won’t be canon with the movies for so many reasons, but clearly the first two movies are the basis from which these books were written.

There’s probably not much to say concerning the comic book that I haven’t said before.  Although given events, it really makes one wonder how long Starfleet is going to solve the problem of Khan and his followers by putting them back to sleep.  Because that just seems like a way to continue putting off a real decision.  I’m not saying they should be killed, but if people keep waking them up for personal gain, they’re going to continue to be a problem.

Maybe tomorrow I’ll pull a real novel off the shelf to read.  I may be just about ready by now.

These Tears I Cry

From the start, I knew how this would end.  How it had to end.  Obviously, if Art is transcribing his father’s story of how he survived the Holocaust, he had to survive.    Happy ending and everything, back with his wife, etc.  And, like I said, it’s not so dissimilar from any other Holocaust survivor’s story, even if the details, the people, and the places are different.

Yet here is a book that had me tearing up as I read the last page.  That is how you know the good authors from the mediocre.  That even if you know what will happen, they still bring you to tears as you arrive.  Here at the end of Maus II I have found the emotions I wondered if I was too coldhearted to feel after Maus I.  And if I’m crying, as someone who’s grown up hearing stories like this, again I have to wonder what it’s like for someone without my background to read Maus for the first time.  Would they curl up and bawl for the better part of an hour the way I did when I saw Grave of the Fireflies?  I certainly couldn’t say.

There’s a reason I’ve called Maus Art Spiegelman’s memoir, because it’s not just about recounting his family history.  It’s also about the time and effort he spent listening to his father tell it.  It’s about Art and Vladek’s relationship, as well as Vladek and his second wife, Mala’s.  It’s about Art coming to terms with his role as author as well as his father’s increasing debility.

Maus II starts with Art dealing with the repurcussions of having published the first volume.  Media, interviews, licensing…so much stress and so many strangers who are reading what must have become a very personal work.  When the World War II portion picks up again, we now see what happened once Vladek was taken to Auschwitz.

Every account I’ve ever heard, seen, or read has spoken of the horrors of the concentration camps, the things Vladek relates as matter-of-factly as we say the sky is blue.  I think, if we were listening to the original recordings, his voice would be as flat as any victim of trauma’s.  And yet, despite all this, it’s not until chapter three (of five) that we see the title “And Here My Troubles Began.”  For the vast majority of Maus II, until the end of the war, Vladek is in Auschwitz, the most notorious of all the Nazi camps.  But the first two chapters of this period in his life are not where his troubles began!  I have to think it’s because he was a clever man, always able to get a bit ahead, combined with the fact that things had been so bad for so long, that it was no longer easy to compare Auschwitz to life before the war.  The latter must have seemed a dream that may never have existed to so many.

Even this though, was not enough to get me to sniffle.  Except for the lingering cold I still have, but that’s besides the point.  No, the real emotion is saved for when the real tragedies of the Holocaust come into play.  It’s true that the Nazis did so many awful and horrific things to the Jews and any other people they deemed as “lesser” or, worse, “traitors.”  And in so many cases, the people in the camps ceased to be people while they were Nazi playthings.  This makes what happened after the war the true tragedy.

Having been freed and become people again, so very many went home.  But it was home no longer.  Other people lived in their houses, owned their businesses, lived their lives.  Not only were those people unwilling to give up what they had, but they often had turned against Jews as thoroughly as any Nazi.  Add to this the frantic attempts to find their loved ones, only to discover that the vast majority were dead, and you see what sorrow is.

This is why the true emotional center of this book is the last page.  Spiegelman has arranged his story so that everything builds up to the moment you know has to happen, based on the present, and yet there everything pays off so powerfully, just thinking about it sends tears running down my cheeks as I type.  And combine that with the very last panel-!

This is how you write a book to bring home, if only a very little, what kind of suffering and tragedy a human being can endure and still keep faith.

When I picked these two books up at the library sale for a dollar apiece, it was more because I’d come up empty-handed in both the science fiction and young adult sections and because I knew they were supposed to be critically acclaimed and whatnot.  After all, I couldn’t argue with $2, and since so many people I knew had read it, I should as well.  I don’t regret the decision at all, although I keep having to stop typing just to blow my nose.

So that was Maus, and I will say that it definitely deserves its place in modern history.

I am not honestly sure what I can possibly pick to follow that, so I may have to reread something silly and lighthearted.  Or maybe another book out of the Pile, it technically being a weekend now.  I think, most likely, I’ll put on a movie or five.  And no, Downfall, one of the few World War II movies I own on DVD is not going to be one of them.  Good movie though.

Adorably Depressing

I don’t read a large number of classics.  Most of them just aren’t written in a style that resonates with me.  I do a bit better with landmark books – things that aren’t yet old enough to be considered classics, but have definitely made an impact.  Sometimes it’s the first of a new type of story, or one of the founders in doing something radically different…like starring strong, female characters.  Other times it’s the actual content that speaks to so much more than the medium.

This is a book I’ve never read before, yet I’ve read it a thousand times already.  Yes, it’s a contradiction, but it’s also true.  Today I read Maus I, the adorable mouse comic about the Holocaust.  As I said, I’ve never actually read Maus before, even though I’ve been aware of it and its status for quite some time.  But, also as I said, the story isn’t unfamiliar to me.  Being Jewish, I’ve been exposed to more Holocaust stories than many others and while the people, locations, and details change, the stories are much the same.

Don’t get me wrong, that doesn’t make this a bad book.  In fact, it’s quite a good book easily deserves its fame.  I just can’t help feeling that I know the major parts of the story every step of the way.  I could almost call it a trope, but I won’t.  Doing so would lessen the meaning and impact of these stories of true horror and I refuse to do that. Bad enough that there are people out there who would like to think the Holocaust never happened.  But the parallels between certain politicians’ agendas and 1930s Germany are present.

I don’t want to talk about politics though.  It’s a rough discussion in any environment and a depressing time.  So let’s talk about the mice.

The book appears to be a memoir – that of Art Spiegelman recounting how he chronicled his father’s life during World War II.  It’s not just his father’s story, but also the conversations around it, preceeding and following the narration.  Being shown through adorable mice, the story is made more distant and somewhat less horrifying.  Something kids could theoretically read.  Since there’s no swearing, sex, or rape, I suppose you can say this is a kid-friendly book.  Certainly if someone gave me a copy when I was young, I wouldn’t have had a problem reading it.  Then again, I already had a good amount of exposure to the Holocaust at that point.  I can’t really imagine what it would be like for someone who hadn’t heard of the Holocaust or didn’t have a good understanding of what it was to read this for the first time.  I can only hope it would turn out similar to the events in Freedom Writers.

What I found most interesting as I read deeper into the book is that the only real difference between Maus and real life is the fact that all the people are depicted as animals as some type.  In fact, this helps differentiate when the Jews are pretending to not be Jews, as they wear pig masks over their mouse faces.  I am sure that all the locations are real and if names were changed for any reason, they were changed to logical-sounding ones for the people in question.

I’m not sure how I feel after finishing Maus I.  Obviously there’s a second volume, which I’ll read tomorrow, and the story is clearly unfinished with our protagonist having just arrived at Auschwitz.  There’s some kind of happy ending, clearly, as Vladek and Anja survive and make it to America, where Art is born four years after the end of the war.  But there’s a lot of horror to go through first.

I wonder if I’m somewhat inured to Holocaust stories at this point, if I should be feeling more horror than I am.  I do feel sorrow for these people, for what they endured and who and what they lost.  I feel fear that something like this could happen again (never again we say every day of every year, never again) and that there are still people who denigrate my religion and my people just because we exist.  It can’t just be the art keeping me from feeling horror.

It is a deeply meaningful and touching story, despite all this.  The only humans seen are in the “Prisoner on the Hell Planet” short included towards the end of the book, and that is in some ways the sadder tale.  That contains the only Hebrew I remember seeing in all of Maus and, as is appropriate for a funeral scene, it’s simply the opening line of the Mourner’s Kaddish.

The prayer takes its name from the use of remembering our lost loved ones.  Which makes it interesting to note that the Mourner’s Kaddish doesn’t actually contain anything of the sort.  Instead, it’s a prayer all about G-d’s power and glory.  Even if we are dust, returning one day to dust, G-d is eternal.  I guess it’s a good sentiment.  Impatient children care about the prayer more because it’s the last of the concluding prayers, meaning next is the closing song and then they are free.

Freedom.  It’s what the people in Maus needed most if they were to escape the Nazis. Yet everywhere they turned and tried to run, the Nazis and their sympathizers were there.  A maze, with cats stationed at the exists and mousetraps in every dead end.

The worst part is that this is, as I said, far from the only story like this.  There were a number of survivors – not nearly as many as the dead, but a good number – and so many of them have stories like this.

I know Jews who have gone to Auschwitz to see it for themselves, to brand their eyes with the memories of what happened.  I know other Jews who refuse to have anything to do with Germany because of what happened.  It’s become traditional in my faith to name children only after the dead, and to decry tattoos.  And, as always, to say never again.