From an Author to Readers: Thank You.

I am stunned and in awe. As most of you know, my novel Raven Wakes the World was published this week. Amazon sold out almost immediately, and the entire first distribution sold out soon after. A few friends who tried to order from their favorite local bookshops told me that it was either backordered, or not available for order at all.

The good news is, Amazon should starting again as soon as Monday, and it should be available everywhere at about the same time.

This is especially surprising because most of the marketing doesn’t start until November (it’s a holiday book) and it was designed for point of sale, which is a not really a thing these days. So wow. Just wow,

In the meantime, the only thing I know to say is … thank you. Thank you from the very bottom of my heart. When you it down to start writing a book, you always hope that someone, somewhere, will want to read it. You hope, but you never really believe it.

But if the early sales and reviews are any indication, it looks like people really are reading Raven Wakes the World, and even liking it. I have to tell you; it’s hard to wrap my head around that. Carol and I are awed, humbled, and grateful. Thank you. Thank you all.

One of Carol’s illustrations for Raven Wakes the World

Hey, y’all! I’ve been interviewed!

As most of you know, my novel Raven Wakes the World is going to be released tomorrow, and should be available wherever fine books are sold. While most of the marketing and such won’t hit until November (it’s a holiday gift book after all), I’m excited to announce that my first interview has just been published.

I am especially thrilled, because The Little Red Reviewer is a blog I’ve been following for ages. I truly adore her voice, and I’ve purchased more than a few books based on her recommendations. I’ve never been disappointed.

Please take a look and let me know what you think!

I’m on Medium!

Folks, I’m blogging again! My new articles will be appearing here and on Medium. My first Medium article is a slightly revised version one one I posted here before, but I hope you’ll take a look. You can find it here.

Also, if you missed the news, I have a book coming out in October. It’s called Raven Wakes the World: A Winter Tale, and it’s all about the power of mythology to heal us, and to help us remember how to create, even when our hearts are broken. It’s a romantic tale with a bit of holiday magic realism thrown in. Best of all, it features some lovely illustrations (and way cool custom drop caps) by my wife, the amazing Carol Bales. The Story Plant is putting together a lovely gem of a hardcover edition, perfect for the holiday season.

Stay tuned! There’s a whole lot more coming—about myth, meaning, writing, and all that kind of stuff.

On Ray Bradbury, Pat Conroy, Renaissance Fairs, and setting as a character in a story (Combining Blogs, Part 3)

Dear folks,

A while back, I started a second blog, one just for my renaissance fair novel, Blackthorne Faire. I’m combining them, because, well, it’s a lot easier to maintain one blog than two, and a lot of the topics I want to write about, like music in fiction (just to name one), fit equally well in both.

So I’m moving the Blackthorne Faire posts here. I hope you’ll stick around.

Here, if you missed it, was the third of the posts from that blog….

 

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Fair

A setting, especially one like a Renaissance fair, can be more than just a stage where stuff happens. A setting can be, almost, a character in the story instory. I think it should be.

If you’re going to set a novel at a Renaissance fair, the fair itself needs to be … something special. It needs to be something that speaks to all those people who love Renaissance fairs enough to go to them year after year after year. It must invoke laughter, music, and memories. It must invoke story.

As I mentioned before, I think a large part of the magic of a Renaissance fair has to do with with the communities that seem to spring up there. There’s more, though. After all, those communities form and thrive at Ren fairs, not at, say, office buildings, coffee shops, or shopping malls.

Something about that setting, that specific place, calls us, or about five million of us, anyway. A story set at a Renaissance fair probably couldn’t, or shouldn’t, be set anywhere else — not even a similar event like, say, a science fiction/fantasy convention or an SCA event.

Can you imagine Charles de Lint’s Moonheart or his Newford stories set anywhere else? What about Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? How much do the fog-shrouded streets of London add to the stories of Sherlock Holmes, or to the novels of Charles Dickens? What is Heathcliff without his moors? I don’t think the stories that take Tarzan away from his jungle ever really work.

Place is important.

A story’s setting can be more than just a stage, it can be more than just a place where stuff happens. It can be a deep part of the story’s fabric. More, I’ll argue it can be almost a character in the story. That’s a lesson I learned from two of my very favorite writers: Ray Bradbury and Pat Conroy.

Mr. Bradbury, who was a dear friend, and Mr. Conroy share a lot in common — both were absolute masters of elegant, lovely prose, both were heavily influenced by events in their childhood, and both wove stories that are absolutely drenched in a sense of place. I am thinking of Mr. Bradbury’s Greentown, his Mars, and his carnivals, and of Mr. Conroy’s coastal Carolina.

Place is so important to Mr. Conroy that he includes these lines near the beginning of The Prince of Tides:

“To describe our growing up in the Lowcountry of South Carolina, I would have to take you to the marsh on a spring day, flush the great blue heron from its silent occupation. Scatter marsh hens as we sink to our knees in mud, open you an oyster with a pocketknife and feed it to you from the shell and say, ‘There. That taste. That’s the taste of my childhood.’ I would say, ‘Breathe deeply,’ and you would breathe and remember that smell for the rest of your life, the bold, fecund aroma of the tidal marsh, exquisite and sensual, the smell of the South in heat, a smell like new milk, semen, and spilled wine, all perfumed with seawater.”

Those lines are gorgeous enough to be heartbreaking, but Mr. Conroy doesn’t write them just to fill his pages with pretty prose. No. They’re important. They bring to life a primal landscape that shaped the narrator as a character, as a person, as surely as any parent (another important factor in Mr. Conroy’s work). The Lowcountry is a character.

Ray Bradbury, too, will always be one of the great masters of place and season. Here, for example, are the opening lines of his novel Something Wicked This Way Comes:

“First of all, it was October, a rare month for boys. Not that all months aren’t rare. But there be bad and good, as the pirates say. Take September, a bad month: school begins. Consider August, a good month: school hasn’t begun yet. July, well, July’s really fine: there’s no chance in the world for school. June, no doubting it, June’s best of all, for the school doors spring wide and September’s a billion years away.

But you take October, now. School’s been on a month and you’re riding easier in the reins, jogging along. You got time to think of the garbage you’ll dump on old man Prickett’s porch, or the hairy-ape costume you’ll wear to the YMCA the last night of the month. And if it’s around October twentieth and everything smoky-smelling and the sky orange and ash gray at twilight, it seems Halloween will never come in a fall of broomsticks and a soft flap of bedsheets around corners.”

I talked to Mr. Bradbury about his experiences working on Disney’s film version of Something Wicked This Way Comes. He said he was always telling the director, “‘It’s autumn. We need more leaves.

“The director would scowl at me and say, ‘I’m getting tired of hearing about your damn leaves!’

“I’d tell him, ‘I have to talk about them. They’re important. Now go down to central casting and hire me ten thousand leaves!'”

Mr. Bradbury understood the truth: autumn in a small town, and the coming of a carnival … those elements are as crucial to the story as any character, hero or villain. Place and time give the story mood and texture, sure, but they also, in some subtle way that defies analysis, shape and push the characters in ways that, usually, in the hands of lesser writers, only other characters can.

PirateShip2

Where else but a Renaissance Festival might one plausibly find a landlocked pirate ship selling swords? Well?

I’m trying to take those lessons to heart in my own writing, especially Blackthorne Faire, my novel that’s set at a Renaissance Festival, a place that’s so rich with scents of beer and frying meats, with sound — music, laughter, shouts — and colors, oh, so many, many colors. That’s easier said than done, especially when one is attempting to learn from masters like Mr. Conroy and Mr. Bradbury.

First, both men are very concrete with the details they provide … think of how Mr. Bradbury talks about season, something core to the very heart of his story. Think about how Mr. Conroy moves far, far beyond visual description to invoke scents, sensations, even tastes? All of those details combine to create a sense of place and time that does more than simply flavor a story. They are ingredients, not mere seasoning. Meat, not salt.

I started in a prologue set decades in the past by attempting to describe the place where the Blackthorne Faire Renaissance Festival will someday be built:

All Hallows Eve, 1936

In later years, the vast suburban sprawl of Atlanta will bleed outward like kudzu to cover the hills and hollows that surround the O’Brien farm with subdivisions and mini-malls. But not yet. Now the city is too much in the future to be a part of life here. It is distant, a dream, like New York or Paris, or the Pyramids in Egypt. The southern hills burn with rich color, fire and rust—a thousand million shades of orange, yellow, and apple red set against a deep and enduring background of evergreen beneath the brilliant, sapphire blue sky of an autumn long past. The old year has dressed in its finery for one last hurrah before the winter frosts come to soothe it away to memory. Breathe! Taste air crisp and heavy with the scents of pumpkin, sweet applewood smoke, dying leaves, and the last wild Georgia blackberries. Breathe, and autumn fills you like spiced wine.

Season is important in my novel, too.

Next, I introduce the fair from the point of view of the two main characters, Erin and Brian. Starting with Erin:

Cloaked in pre-dawn fog, the Blackthorne Faire Renaissance Festival waited quietly, an empty stage, curtain drawn and lights dim, a story waiting to be told. Empty pathways wound hither and yon around the plaster-stone façade of a castle and through faux half-timbered Tudor shop fronts with their sloping roofs of slate or thatch, hiding secrets and surprises the way a carnival does before the barker lets loose his first shout. Erin Winter loved it.

The hush would vanish soon; in a few hours it would melt away with morning’s gray mist. The cast, sleeping off the remnants of the past night’s revels in the employee campground behind the back gate, would whisper, giggling and moaning and sharing hangover cures as they washed the cottony thickness of bourbon’s sweet rot from yawning mouths and slipped into costume and character. And then, when the first guests passed the gates like tourists through a magic wardrobe, the air would ring with music, laughter, and carefully practiced (and more or less convincing) English accents. The guests would breathe deeply, tasting the wind of another time, heavy with the scents of beer and sun and roasting meat. The performance spaces would welcome jugglers, jesters, and musicians, and every stage would boast a marvel. Since this was the last weekend of the fair’s spring run, the crowds would be large and boisterous.

Soon, soon. But not yet.

Walking alone, Erin could almost taste a hint of magic in the chilly mist, some witchery that carried her away from the field north of Atlanta and deposited her in the bright watercolor pages of a favorite book. To Erin’s eye, shadows ringing knotted oak trees hid mysteries, and rings of toadstools marked the places where fae creatures danced in wild circles washed in the light of the full moon. The morning brought a breeze, enough to stir dust from the dirt pathway had seasons after seasons of foot traffic not packed it nearly as hard as the cobblestones that paved the main paths. She found a penny, but it was face down so she didn’t pick it up. Instead, she turned it over to let someone else find it and have the luck. She found herself wishing, suddenly, that she had more time to twirl and wander through the still morning looking for hidden luck. But she didn’t. Her friend Caitlin McGregor waited in the makeshift fair-site apartment above the shop she shared with her husband, Carter.

A sorceress with cloth and bric-a-brac, Caitlin stitched colorful frocks and doublets that delighted fair patrons and cast members alike. When Erin had spilled red wine down the front of her usual garb while making a little too merry at the cast revels, Caitlin had promised a new dress. “Oh, I’ve got something that’ll do, dear. It’ll just want a little touch or two here and there.” Erin hummed a bit of an old Celtic morning tune mingled with a snatch of classic REM and hurried along.

The shop was tucked neatly into the village square just before the paths rose toward the rocky bluffs behind the festival’s back gate, and just inside the rushing stream that bordered the western edge of the site. Caitlin and Carter were already up and about; Erin heard their laughter and light morning conversation, and her belly rumbled as she drank the scents of fresh coffee and sizzling bacon.

Brian’s first impression is different. To him, the fair seems loud, crowded, and tawdry. His opinion changes, though, as he himself grows as a character:

Brian didn’t answer; he simply listened, and in the notes and chords he heard more than melody. He heard the sounds of the fair, not as it was, but as Erin knew it. He listened, and suddenly the costumes around him seemed no longer puerile or gaudy, but bright and merry, spun from rainbows. Erin played, and Brian heard the music of earth and wood and hidden cities forgotten by time and the march of years, of wild toadstools growing in rings beneath the shadows of the deepest heart of a forest. Shop façades and stage flats vanished like canvas hidden by an artist’s brush, replaced by tall castles and welcoming village squares, alive with people and stories. Brian gasped and turned, taking it all in with eyes and mouth wide open. The music shook him, gently, tenderly, like a caress, a touch as soft and full of promise as a first kiss. The tune changed, and Brian heard the sounds of May and the birth of spring, of robins and blue jays, of butterflies and newborns and damp earth. He heard wind and whispers and the buzzing of bumblebees so fat with nectar they could barely flit from flower to blazing flower. He heard the song of streams swelled by melting ice flowing down, down, ever down to join silver rivers leaping over smooth stones.

What makes people change? What makes characters in stories grow? Experiences, certainly. But I think interactions with others, friends, family, lovers, even enemies, change us even more.

Place, though, place defines us. It shapes us from birth. Pat Conroy showed us that. We are never so lonely again after when find a place to truly call home, because we always have, somewhere, a place to belong. I think place can change us, too. It’s no coincidence that quests and pilgrimages involve a journey.

One of my characters in The Widening Gyre, another of my stories, learns that very lesson:

Seeing a new region changes you, I think, because it makes the world you know that much bigger. And it adds to the store of beauty you keep secreted away in your heart and your attics of memory.

In that sense, settings, at least in the hands of masters like Mr. Bradbury and Mr. Conroy, are characters. That’s a lesson I’m still struggling to learn. Blackthorne Faire needs to be a character as fully realized, in its way, as Erin and Brian.

I’d love to know what y’all think.

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ON RENAISSANCE FAIRS AND THE FEELING OF BEING LOST IN A STORY (Combining Blogs, Part 2)

Dear folks,

A while back, I started a second blog, one just for my renaissance fair novel, Blackthorne Faire. I’m combining them, because, well, it’s a lot easier to maintain one blog than two, and a lot of the topics I want to write about, like music in fiction (just to name one), fit equally well in both.

So I’m moving the Blackthorne Faire posts here. I hope you’ll stick around.

Here, if you missed it, was the second of the posts from that blog….

On Renaissance Fairs and the Feeling of Being Lost in a Story

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Why do I love Renaissance fairs so much? Why do I love them enough to have written a book about one? One answer, I think, is because when I step through the gates, I feel like I’ve fallen into the pages of a story.

FairEntrance3

It’s not exactly a magic wardrobe, true, but I can’t help feeling like it’s a gateway into a story. By the way, the woman in the hat and the white shirt (walking away from the camera) is my lovely wife, Carol.

I was the kid who grew up spending way, way too much time reading under the covers with a flashlight, and standing in line to see The Empire Strikes Back on opening night. My love for story  has been a part of the very core of my being since … well, as long as I can remember.

I don’t think I’m alone in that.

There is something intrinsic in our collective identity as human beings that makes us strive to find narrative in anything and everything, including, perhaps most of all, the chaotic happenstance of our daily lives. There is something in us that recognizes (or creates … toe-MAY -toe/toe-MAH-toe) patterns, and weaves them into meaning.

We recognize, somehow, that our lives are more than just episodes and coincidences. We respond to stories because we recognize in them the way we’re meant to live, something that we’re supposed to be. We are, all of us, the makers of stories. I am fond of something Alan Kay of the Walt Disney Company said:

“Why was Solomon recognized as the wisest man in the world? Because he knew more stories than anyone else. Scratch the surface in a typical boardroom and we’re all just cavemen with briefcases, hungry for a wise person to tell us stories.”

For me, for that kid reading under the covers way past bedtime, it wasn’t enough just to read a story. For reasons I couldn’t begin to articulate at the time, I longed to be in a story. I wanted to visit Narnia, to climb the hills of Prydain, to brave the forests of the Commonwealth, or sip a pint at the Prancing Pony in Bree.

When I visit a Renaissance festival … something I try to do single year, even if I seldom succeed … I’m that kid again. I’m turning a tattered cover and finding myself lost in another place, another time. I’be broken through the page and found myself, just for that fleeting moment, in a story.

KidsPlaying

I don’t know what their story is … but there’s a part of me that envies them for it. By the way, the little girl on the left was laughing, not crying. My picture was not well timed.

I’ve noticed something else about Renaissance fairs and stories. There is something in both of them that inspires communities.

Recently, my business partners and I incubated our own publishing company, Gramarye Media (the world’s first cross-media story incubator) through Georgia Tech’s Flashpoint program.

As a part of our research, we spent a lot of time talking to readers. One of the things we learned (it didn’t really come as a surprise, I confess) was that many readers long for community … to be with people like them. Many equate their best and dearest friends with people who love the same stories. When you find those rare someones (it’s a lot easier now in the days of Internet communities), there’s an instant connection.

C.S. Lewis put it like this in The Four Loves:

“Friendship … is born at the moment when one man says to another “What! You too? I thought that no one but myself . . .”

There is, in my experience at least, an instant assumption of kinship when you meet someone who loves the stories you do … a feeling that this person is like me in a way that other people aren’t. The other person has to do something dastardly indeed to break that assumption of immediate friendship.

In doing our research for Flashpoint, we saw that some people had communities that they counted among their very dearest friends … even though they’d never met in person.

I found those same communities, or ones very much like them, at Renaissance fairs … among people who attend them and among people who perform there. These people have stories, all of them. The casts at Ren fairs always seemed especially close, and, deep in the heart, I always wanted to be a part of those fellowships. I never was — I had neither the time nor (alas) the talent. That’s one of the sadnesses of my life.

IK

His Majesty, Ik, King of the Trolls

When I first started researching my own Renaissance Fair novel, Blackthorne Faire, I asked Mr. Bryan Thompson (AKA Ik, King of the Trolls)* for help. He very kindly invited me to a gathering of the cast of the Georgia Renaissance Festival after the fair had ended on a Sunday night. We met at a long table at a nearby Mexican restaurant, and we ate and drank and laughed late into the night. I listened, and they told stories.

There was a community there, dear and close, made more so by the fact that (as with so many of the best theatre companies) they knew their fellowship was a temporary one, bright and gone like the flash of a falling star.

I found that I envied them.

I was a welcome guest, but I wasn’t a part of their community, of their story, and I never really could be. But I loved it all the same. Like a reader glimpsing Narnia or Middle-earth distantly, through the dark glass of the page, I was only a visitor, and my time among them was short.

Funny though … all those years later, I still think about that night. I am probably the only one who does; it was one of many for them, and I doubt anyone was wise enough to recognize how precious it was, how soon they would scatter without ever recognizing that one night that was their last together. But in me, though, that night is preserved, in all its giddy glory. I will always be the outsider in that family, the traveler passing, but I remember. Maybe an outsider is the only one who can.

And maybe that’s my role in this story. I remember, and I tell. I can’t be a part of that story. But I can remember it, I reshape it into new patterns, and I can tell it. Hence, Blackthorne Faire.

*By the way, his Highness King Ik has a cameo or two in Blackthorne Faire.

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Combining blogs!

Dear folks,

A while back, I started a second blog, one just for my renaissance fair novel, Blackthorne Faire. I’m combining them, because, well, it’s a lot easier to maintain one blog than two, and a lot of the topics I want to write about, like music in fiction (just to name one), fit equally well in both.

So I’m moving the Blackthorne Faire posts here. I hope you’ll stick around.

Here, if you missed it, was the first of the posts from that blog….

Welcome to Blackthorne Faire!

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Cloaked in pre-dawn fog, the Blackthorne Faire Renaissance Festival waited quietly, an empty stage, curtain drawn and lights dim, a story waiting to be told. Empty pathways wound hither and yon around the plaster-stone façade of a castle and through faux half-timbered Tudor shop fronts with their sloping roofs of slate or thatch, hiding secrets and surprises the way a carnival does before the barker lets loose his first shout. Erin Winter loved it.

The hush would vanish soon; in a few hours it would melt away with morning’s gray mist. The cast, sleeping off the remnants of the past night’s revels in the employee campground behind the back gate, would whisper, giggling and moaning and sharing hangover cures as they washed the cottony thickness of bourbon’s sweet rot from yawning mouths and slipped into costume and character. And then, when the first guests passed the gates like tourists through a magic wardrobe, the air would ring with music, laughter, and carefully practiced (and more or less convincing) English accents. The guests would breathe deeply, tasting the wind of another time, heavy with the scents of beer and sun and roasting meat. The performance spaces would welcome jugglers, jesters, and musicians, and every stage would boast a marvel. Since this was the last weekend of the fair’s spring run, the crowds would be large and boisterous.

Soon, soon. But not yet.

Those paragraphs are from Blackthorne Faire, a novel I’ve completed recently. My literary manager, Mr. Peter Miller, the Literary Lion (believe me, he’s earned that title) of Global Lion Intellectual Property Management, is presently helping me shepherd it from manuscript to bookstores. It’s a new adult fantasy adventure with elements of paranormal romance, and it’s all set at a contemporary Renaissance festival.

IMG_0054

I didn’t dress up when I went to the fair to take these pictures, but so help me … I would have.

I have a confession to make. I love Renaissance festivals. I attend the Georgia Renaissance festival just about every year. And do you know what? I’d probably go more often if I could. Turns out, I’m not alone. Here are some fun facts about Renaissance festivals that you might not know:

  • More than five million people attended a Renaissance Festival in 2008 … twice.
  • There are at least 57 Renaissance Fairs in the United States.
  • There are many more Celtic, Old English, Medieval, and other closely related events.
  • Approximately 13,680,000 people attended a Renaissance Fair in the United States in 2013.
  • More than 65% of those people had previously attended a fair within 5 years and more than 37% plan to attend every year.
  • Celia Pearce, a professor at Northeastern (formerly at Georgia Tech) likes to say that Renaissance fairs are the biggest business in America that’s not on anybody’s radar.

So it turns out … I’m not alone. My wife Carol and I attended the last weekend of the Georgia Renaissance Festival. As we were leaving, she smiled and asked if I was having a good time. I could only grin and say … “these are my people.”

More importantly, I think the community of people who love Renaissance festivals — English and history majors, fantasy fans, music and drama lovers, costume aficionados, and all the rest — have stories to tell. 

In this blog, I’m going to tell some of those stories, and talk about the book, Blackthorne Faire, and its journey. To be honest, this is new to me. I’ve never blogged about a specific book before. I hope you’ll join me, and let me know what you think.

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Food for thought … can the old pulp heroes of yesterday work in a contemporary setting?

tarzan_ely

Ron Ely was the Tarzan of my youth. I didn’t  learn about Elmo Lincoln, Johnny Weissmuller, and, best of all, Edgar Rice Burroughs, until much later.

My love for the old pulp heroes — characters like Tarzan, Doc Savage, Professor Challenger, and the Shadow — came early, and when it took hold, it never let go. First loves are like that.

It started, like so many of my early loves, on Saturday morning.

I was watching TV with my dad — the Tarzan adventures with Ron Ely. Back in those days, there used to be shows, like, say, The Six Million Dollar Man, that Dad and I could could watch together, and both enjoy.

Dad explained that Ron Ely wasn’t the real Tarzan; that was Johnny Weissmuller. (And Clayton Moore was the real Lone Ranger.) I didn’t know if Dad was right or wrong, but I didn’t care. Ron Ely’s Tarzan delighted me.

After that, Dad led me to The Phantom in the newspaper comics, and told me about The Shadow and Doc Savage, characters I would discover for myself in later years. When I was a bit older, he introduced me to James Bond.

These characters were the first superheroes … they came before Superman and Batman and their legions of followers. They fought without costumes or superpowers (well, arguably a few like the Shadow and Mandrake the Magician might have had what you could call powers, but even they weren’t exactly leaping tall buildings with a single bound)  … just extraordinary skill. They were the peak, the very best ordinary men and women could become.

As you’ve probably heard, Superman owes much of his mythos to Doc Savage — the Man of Bronze and the Man of Steel, Clark Savage and Clark Kent, the Fortress of Solitude and the, uh, Fortress of Solitude … you get the idea.

The superpowered crowd, with their bright capes and primary-colored, skin-tight costumes, might have driven their predecessors, with their fedoras, loincloths, and ripped shirts into relative obscurity, but they’ve never quite gone away. Superman, after all, had been flying for years when I watched Ron Ely’s Tarzan with Dad. There’s a new Tarzan film out now. I haven’t seen it yet, but despite some decidedly mixed reviews, I intend to. Like I said, those early loves go deep.

Shane Black, one of the most interesting filmmakers working, is bringing Doc Savage back to the screens, and Sam Raimi was working on a new version of The Shadow, although (alas!) that seems to have vanished into development hell. Sherlock Holmes is everywhere these days — and yes, I consider Sherlock Holmes a pulp character. To me, the golden age of the pulps begins with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and his Holmes and Challenger characters, and ends with Ian Fleming and his famous creation, James Bond.

Most pulp adaptations, successful or otherwise, share one thing in common — they are period pieces. This year’s The Legend of Tarzan film, for example, is set after the Berlin Conference of 1884 and 1885. The 1994 film version of The Shadow was set shortly after the first World War.

tarzan-in-manhattan

Attempts to modernize the pulps usually come across as, well, ludicrous. Tarzan in Manhattan, I’m looking at you.

Frankly, I think that’s a key part of the charm of the old pulp hero stories. They are relics of a time past. Something about that very inaccessibility makes suspension of disbelief easier somehow. You can kind of believe, almost, that Tarzan was raised my jungle apes, or that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger could find dinosaurs in a mysterious lost world in South America … when those stories are set in decades long past.

In the days of Google Earth, we know, all too well, that there are no more hidden plateaus or lost cities of gold in the deepest jungles. We live in a world where mysteries are vanishing.

Indeed, attempts to modernize the pulps never really seem to work. Moving Tarzan from the jungles of the late 1800s to, say, modern Manhattan, usually comes across as downright silly.

Sure, there are exceptions. There are two modern takes on Sherlock Holmes that are working beautifully … although I have a hard time imagining that Professor Challenger would have the same luck.

doc-wilde-and-the-mad-skull

Tim Byrd has written a very modern take on the pulps.

My pal Tim Byrd has written a series of wonderful middle grade/young adult novels called Doc Wilde, a not-even-thinly-disguised homage to Doc Savage. Tim’s stories are set in modern times, but his Doc Wilde isn’t the Doc Savage we know and love … it’s his son, and the main characters include the first Doc’s grandchildren. So while Tim’s stories are decidedly modern, they have deep roots in the past.

 

But these seem to be the rare exceptions that prove the rule. By and large, pulp adventures seem to work best as period pieces.

Even the venerable James Bond series, at least until the “reboot” that came with Daniel Craig’s Casino Royale, seemed a little … out of place when divorced from the cold war era. In fact, I remember reading that the producers actually considered, at least briefly, making Craig’s adventures period pieces and returning them to their cold war roots.

So my question is this … can a modern pulp series work in a contemporary setting? Could Indiana Jones have gone after the Ark of the Covenant in the 1980s, or was the World War II setting necessary?

Are the pulps doomed to be just quaint relics of a vanished age?

I ran into this problem a few years ago, when my pal Bob Robinson and I were thinking about developing a pulp pastiche for television. I wanted to make a period piece, but Bob wisely pointed out that budget and audience demand made that idea impractical at best. So my task was to come up with a modern take on the pulps, without losing the charm and adventure. After all, we still have a need for wonder … we need modern myths for the information age.

Bob and I never worked together on that project, but I never let it go.

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Early concept art for Challengers by my pal, John Bridges

The idea became Challengers, a TV pilot and bible I wrote. It’s spent years in Hollywood development hell (that’s frustrating, but despite what you hear, the process made the story at least a thousand times better). The TV version is still kicking.

 

Just this year, though, I turned the first episodes into a series of novels. My literary manager, super agent Peter Miller, has meetings in New York literally even as I type this to shop the first book, The Secret of the Serpent’s Eye.

So how did I solve the period problem? Glad you asked. Challengers tells the story of the great grandchildren of the pulp heroes. Their great grandparents could have those amazing adventures because … the world really was different then.

Something has changed.

The nature of that change is the secret history of the world.

The lead character is a 25-year old billionaire and adventurer named Tom Reilly. Twenty years ago, Tom’s parents learned a secret no one alive should ever know. They were found murdered. Only one thing was missing — a leather bound journal belonging to Tom’s great-grandfather, the founder of the Challengers, Professor Phineas J. Reilly himself.

In this first adventure, Tom recovers the journal. Desperate to learn the secret it contains, Tom gathers his diverse team, a magician, a shaman, a daredevil pilot, an inventor, a spy, and an assassin (also the great-grandchildren of pulp-era adventurers), and begins a journey that will take them to a lost temple, where they find a key that seems to alter the nature of reality itself.

One of the producers who worked with me on the television version of this story, called Challengers Edgar Rice Burroughs meets Joss Whedon as introduced by Grant Morrison, which thrilled me to no end.

As I say on my Web site, in the era of Google-earth, when we know all too well that there are no more undiscovered dinosaur plateaus in South America and no last enchanted forests waiting, still, to be found, we live in a world bereft of wonder. And perhaps more than ever, we’re hungry for the sacred stories that, like Ariadne’s thread, show us the way out of life’s dark labyrinths.

So like Tim Byrd, my stories have deep roots in a mythic past to create new archetypes in a world starved for wonders.

So what do y’all think? Can the pulps, or pulp-inspired characters, work in a modern setting? Would you want to see an Indiana Jones or Doc Savage remake set in 2016?

 

 

In which I am interviewed on writing and marketing, I write about Renaissance fairs and setting as a “character” in a story, and prepare to write about the old pulp heroes of yesteryear

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Setting can be more than just a stage where stuff happens. Place can shape and change us just as much as other people can. It can be, almost, a character in a story.

This isn’t really a blog article as much as it is a brief update.

First, there’s a new article up on my other blog, the one about Renaissance Fairs and my book Blackthorne Faire. In that article, I talk about Ray Bradbury, Pat Conroy, Renaissance Fairs, and setting as a character in a story. Please take a look and let me know what you think.

In other news, I was recently interviewed! If you have a minute, please check out my answers to 5 Questions with Fantasy Author John Adcox.

I’ll have a new blog up next week about the old pulp heroes … characters like Doc Savage, Tarzan, and The Shadow who were popular until Superman and his costumed followers replaced them in the public zeitgeist. I’m wondering … do those stories ever work as anything other than period pieces?

It’s an important question to me, because I’m working on a series of novels, Challengers, that are heavily influenced by the pulps, but are decidedly contemporary. My literary manager, Peter Miller, is shopping them as we speak.

I’d love to know what y’all think.

Stay tuned, folks. There’s more to come.

The Sword and the Grail: Restoring the Forgotten Archetype in Arthurian Myth

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GyreCover2 1Just recently, the Library of Jungian Articles republished an essay I wrote a few years ago on the meanings of the two key archetypal images in the Matter of Britain, the stories of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. At the time I write this, a selection from the article is right there on the front page.

I’ve been thinking about the ideas in that article a lot lately, mostly because I am working on a series of Arthurian novels called The Unbroken Circle. The individual books are called The Widening Gyre, Winter Kept Us Warm, What The Thunder Said, and The Last Light Flickers.

I’ve been working on these books for something like ten to twelve years,  and I’ve been thinking about these since, well … at least since high school. They’re longish (the first is around 350,000 words … although in my defence, some of them are very short words, and I’ve used some of them more than once.) and, frankly, they’re hard. I think I finally cracked the first one last year. Since, I have finished the second, and around half of the third. They’re coming much faster now.

I imagine that I can guess what a lot of you are thinking about now. Really, John? Do we really need another King Arthur book? Obviously enough, I think the answer is a resounding yes. It is, after all, a topic that’s endlessly fascinating. And besides, there hasn’t (yet) been one set in modern Atlanta! There is another reason.

I’ve always felt that the Arthurian legends are, well, incomplete. While King Arthur is sending his knights out to find the Holy Grail, this amazing feminine symbol of healing and power, Morgan le Fay, his shadow self or opposite number, is trying to steal the sword Excalibur, the great symbol of masculine energy.

It seems to me that they’re both looking for something that’s missing in themselves. The whole thing falls apart in the end, because no one is able to bring these two archetypal artifacts together.

According to the traditional story, Arthur is destined to return some day because the world needs him. But also, I think, because he still has things of his own to resolve and learn—his relationship with his wife, for example, and with his best friend and his sister. Not to mention his son. And why should Arthur himself be the only one permitted (or doomed) to return? What about the others? What if they all came back, in the hour of our greatest need?

Those are the questions I was asking myself when I started writing these books. I think I’ve come up with some pretty surprising answers.

In any case, writing the article that the Jung Article Library has kindly republished has helped me work through some of these ideas.

An updated version of the complete article follows just below. I’d love to know what you think. Please let me know in the comments section down below?


The Sword and the Grail: Restoring the Forgotten Archetype in Arthurian Myth

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This is about a third of my own collection of King Arthur books. Seriously. About a third.

If it were even possible to assemble them in one place, the volumes written on psychological and mythic approaches to the Grail quest in Arthurian myth would bend even the sturdiest, stout oak bookshelves. From Emma Jung and Maria Von Franz’s definitive work, The Grail Legend, to the work of later luminaries ranging from Joseph Campbell to Robert Johnson, the Grail quest has evolved from Celtic lore to become a metaphor of astonishing power that continues to guide generations of seekers on their own journeys to individuation, to use the Jungian term.

The Arthur stories are no longer purely Celtic—they have become universal. It’s not too great a stretch to call the Matter of Britain, the cycles of legends surrounding King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, the definitive myth of Western civilization. Here we find our modern concepts of equality (the Round Table had no “head” and no corners), romantic love, strength protecting the weak, and spiritual growth and enlightenment based on the achievements of the individual expressed in a single source—and arguably expressed with more power and greater resonance than in any other myth cycle.

How else can one explain the enduring popularity of the Arthur story? There have certainly been other romantic stories, probably even greater ones. Adventure? Our heritage of myth is full of it. Magic? We’re lousy with it. Fellowship and super human accomplishment? Look no further than the adventure tales of Fionn McCumhail, Jason and the Argonauts, or Robin Hood and his Merry Men.

All of these cycles, and thousands of others, have been enormously popular through the ages. Robin Hood and the men of Sherwood, especially, have inspired countless novels, songs, poems, films, and television productions. But none of them have approached the Arthur stories for enduring and significant popularity. It’s more than a subgenre—it’s an industry.

Dreams of lost, golden ages are called “Camelot.” Remember the Kennedy administration? A Google search on the Internet reveals more than 100 different companies and products with Excalibur in the name. Truly special treasures are “Holy Grails.” Remember the “Holy Grail of Christmas presents,” the coveted Red Ryder BB gun, in A Christmas Story? Metro Atlanta boasts at least five different neighborhoods with streets named after Lancelot, Galahad, Guinevere, and King Arthur himself.

When I began thinking about the original version of this article a few years ago, I stopped by a tiny mall bookstore (those were still around back then), and quickly located no less than 16 different contemporary novels, not counting children’s books, books that use the theme but aren’t specifically or overtly Arthurian (Bernard Malamud’s The Natural, Stephen King’s Dark Tower, or C.S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength, for example), or classics, on the Arthurian legends—in three different categories.

At present, two big-budget King Arthur films and one new television series are in various stages of development (the funny thing is … that was true when I wrote the original version, and it’s true again, now). Dan Brown’s bestselling novel, The Da Vinci Code, offers a new take on the Grail quest, but the core elements are the same: a man’s quest through terrible danger for a healing symbol of the Divine feminine. For some reason, the Arthurian legends have struck a chord that is arguably unmatched in Western culture, surpassing even the myths of classical Greece.

The question, again, is why? Why the Arthur stories, over so many other romances, adventures, wonder tales, and myth cycles? Why have they grown from forgotten history and half-forgotten Celtic myth to be so much a part of modern culture?

One possible answer, of course, lies in the image of the Grail itself. Something about that image endures, even as the shape of the image evolves (is the Grail a stone, a Celtic cauldron, a chalice, or the womb of Mary Magdalene?), and strikes a chord somewhere deep in the psyche. This answer is compelling, if only because it points to something missing in the other tales. The gold stolen by Robin Hood certainly doesn’t resonate as deeply as the Grail (not that I’d turn it down, mind) and even Jason’s Golden Fleece doesn’t promise spiritual healing.

Perhaps part of the answer lies in the quest itself, rather than merely in its object—the journey rather than the destination. In this sense, the Grail story serves as a roadmap rather than a simple travelogue describing the destination. The Grail tells us what, the quest tells us how. What differentiates the Arthurian Grail quest from mythic spiritual journeys in other cultures, what makes it uniquely and definitively Western, is the emphasis on the individual.

In the East (if you’ll forgive the broad, sweeping generalization) the emphasis in spiritual seeking is apart from the individual. Seekers often wear pictures of a guru to remind them to keep their focus on the path and away from the individual, the ego, or the self. The way is important; the self is not (or at least much less so). But the knights seeking the Grail all enter the forest alone, apart from their fellows, in a place where the wood is thickest and where there is no path. When there is no path, only the self remains.

I won’t bother to summarize the Grail myth or its significance. Emma Jung, Maria Von Franz, John and Caitlin Matthews, and Robert Johnson have already done so very well. If you’re unfamiliar with the stories or the symbolism that empowers them, I highly recommend any of their books on the topic. In short, the Fisher King is wounded as a youth. The nature of the wound varies from source to source, but to be delicate, the wound is above the thighs as below the belt. Ouch! As a result of the wound, the land is waste. The inner state is reflected in the outer world.

A knight must achieve the quest for the Grail before the wounded king, and the land, can be healed. If you’ll pardon a gross oversimplification (to go along with the sweeping generalization above), most Jungians view the archetype of the Grail quest as Animus’ quest for Anima—a joining of opposites resulting in the healing of the inner Wasteland of the soul, or individuation. The knight achieves the symbol of femininity, uniting the opposites and healing the wound. Ironically, the symbol of feminine healing comes from a male source, the Fisher King in later romances, and even the king of Annwn (Ah-noon), the land of the dead, in the legendary Welsh bard Taliesin’s mysterious poem The Spoils of Annwn, which may be an early source of the Grail romances.

The point is a pretty simple one. Like all good myths, the Grail quest is a roadmap, a trail of breadcrumbs that leads us through the dark forests of life. It shows us how we heal our own inner wounds and become the whole and functional (or individuated) people we were meant to be.

I think, however, that focusing solely on the Grail is a mistake, because we’re missing half the story when we do. We de-emphasize the other primary archetypal treasure in the Arthur story—the Sword Excalibur.

Like the Grail, the sword of power is an artifact of supernatural (even Divine) power, surrounded with golden light. In many ways the polar opposite of the Grail, Excalibur is a symbol of power in the world—of victory in battle and ruling a kingdom. The feminine Grail comes from a masculine source, the Fisher King in his Grail castle, but the sword comes from a woman—a goddess figure, no less—the Lady of the Lake.

While Animus quests for Anima, Anima is busy, too. While Arthur sends his knights off to find the Grail, his shadow, his sister Morgan le Fey (herself a goddess figure), is attempting to steal Excalibur. She has no interest in the Grail—in fact, when the Grail part of the sword, the scabbard that heals wounds, is briefly in her possession, she throws it away. She has no interest in it at all, because she doesn’t need it. Anima has no need for the feminine—she is the feminine. Arthur needs the Grail; Morgan needs the sword. They’re both looking for something missing in themselves. There’s a clue here.

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In this image, the stone holding the sacred sword of the king looks rather like a chalice, doesn’t it? There’s a clue there.

I think it’s fair to say that the Arthurian story is a longing for the missing half, an attempt to unify the missing elements into a whole—sword and Grail, anima and animus, man and woman. Throughout the stories, you find clumsy attempts to unite the two, to find that missing… something. Some few are successful (Gawain’s union with the goddess in the Marriage of Sir Gawain), but most fail. Think of Uther’s conquest of Igraine (the “rape” that leads to Arthur’s conception), Arthur’s unfortunate coupling with his sister (the tryst that leads to the birth of Mordred), Lancelot’s affair with Elaine, and of course, the doomed love of Lancelot and Guinevere. These characters are forgetting that they’re supposed to be looking inside, not outside. A man can’t expect a woman to be his Grail—it’s tremendously unfair to the woman. He has to find the Grail himself, inside, before he can have a healthy relationship. The reverse is also true. The Arthur myth gives us this clue, too.

Which leads me (at last!)  to the point of this article. No one succeeds in the Arthur stories. Galahad finds the Grail, but it does no good. Why? He goes off to Heaven. According to Joseph Campbell, the hero’s journey ends with the refusal of the return (the longing to stay in the place of bliss), which must be overcome so that the hero can bring the object of the quest back to his people, the ones who need it. Galahad doesn’t do this. He is lost in bliss. He has achieved the Grail, but the quest has failed all the same. He didn’t bring it back.

Don’t be too hard on poor Galahad, though. He’s not alone. Morgan never successfully steals the sword—at least not for long—and the lovers, Lancelot and Guinevere, Tristan and Iseult, all seem to find only disaster, not wholeness and unity. No one is ever able to combine the two opposites into a successful whole. No one is able to combine the powers and use them together. In achieving the Grail, Galahad leaves the sword behind. In the end, everything falls apart.

Our only brief glimpse of what should have been happens in the moment of Arthur’s death (or, if you prefer, when he is taken to the Isle of Avalon to heal). At Arthur’s command, the last knight, Sir Bedievere, casts the sword back into the Lake. It is caught by a feminine hand, the hand of the Divine female herself, the goddess, and brandished three times before it disappears beneath the waves. The masculine symbol is reunited with the feminine. Only then can Arthur rest in peace.

Everyone fails and Camelot falls. But all is not lost. The legend ends with a promise. Arthur is the once and future king, after all. He is destined to return someday. This, too, is a clue. The Arthurian legends are incomplete. Arthur must come back to us in our hour of need, because something is left undone. What? That’s the real question and, of course, we are not given the answer.

When Robert Johnson wrote his book on the Grail, He, he worked with an incomplete version of the quest myth. In the last chapters, he could only speculate on how the myth might have ended, or what might have happened when the knight achieved the Grail. Using his example, I think it is fair to look at the clues we have in the Arthurian canon, and guess what might come next. I’ve tried to briefly sketch those clues above, a few of them anyway. We have the main characters seeking their opposites, the “something” that’s missing in themselves. The Grail quest fails because the knight, Galahad, leaves the sword behind, getting lost in the inner world so that the outer world (the one that needs its hero!) is left forgotten. In the end, Excalibur is reunited with the goddess, masculine with feminine, before Arthur can rest. Now, what do those clues suggest?

When Arthur returns, the sword must be reunited with the Grail. (I say reunited, even though the two are never actually together. Nonetheless, the Grail is accompanied by a Spear, a similar archetype, and Arthur draws a sword from a stone, a feminine symbol. Remember, in some of the early romances, the Grail is a stone that fell from Heaven.) The two powers must be used together. How? For now, that’s a question yet to be answered. I don’t know the answer, but I’m challenging you to solve the riddle. At least until Arthur returns, the quest is yours.

I think artists will answer it with new Arthurian tales—something new and different, as opposed to the countless retellings that currently fill even the tiny mall bookstores. After all, as Joseph Campbell reminded us, “the people who can keep (myth) alive are the artists of one kind or another. The function of the artist is the mythologization of the environment and the world.” That’s how I personally intend to explore the question.

I’m trying to do that with my own four-volume cycle of modern-day Arthurian tales, The Unbroken Circle, which begins with The Widening Gyre.

But the artists aren’t the only ones who should explore the idea. After all, if therapists and analysts use the Grail myth, shouldn’t they use the entire myth? If the fragment is powerful, shouldn’t the complete archetype be even more so? Shouldn’t those who work with the myths, especially Jungians, use both the Grail and the sword?

Again, I’m not sure what the answer is. I only mean to raise the question in the hope that others will explore it. But if the Grail is a symbol of internal healing, perhaps the sword is the tool for taking that healing beyond the individual and out into the world.

The Grail focuses our attention internally. It’s the symbol of our ultimate spiritual destiny, our individuation after trials. Excalibur is something different, and it is something that, perhaps, is missing in Jungian psychology. Excalibur is the tool of power in the world. Coupled with the Grail, however, it becomes something new, a sword that both cuts and heals. Perhaps the time has come to combine the two into a new archetype.

James Hillman is fond of talking about psychological activism, complaining that, generally speaking, therapists are trained to listen and focus on the individual, not to speak out and challenge the things in the outer world, the things that wound us in the first place. Hillman claims that so much emphasis is focused on treating the disease in the individual that it is easy to forget to eliminate the metaphorical “germs” in the environment—he horrors of war, poverty, ugliness, marginalization of the arts, environmental disaster, child prostitution, and greed, just to name a few—in the Wasteland around us, that make us sick.

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I own a signed print of this painting by Robin Wood. The artist was very aware, I imagine, that these two powerful archetypes are meant to be used together, as a unified whole.

In the Arthur stories, Excalibur is at least as important as the Grail. The two are equals. We’ve forgotten that. When you use only half a myth, you only harness half the potential power. Arthur promises to return in our time of need, when the world needs him most. When he returns, he will at last unify the chalice and the blade. At least, that’s what the hints in the myth seem to tell us. But do we really need to wait for Arthur? Can we afford to? Or is it time to forge a new myth for the information age?

In the meantime, we can restore the missing archetype, the shining sword of power, to the Grail myth. We can heal inside using the power of the Grail, and use the power of Excalibur to make a difference outside, in the world around us. That is Arthur’s challenge to all of us, especially those of us living in dangerous times and wounded societies (don’t we all?): to drink from the Grail, and use the power of the sword to make a difference, to turn the Wasteland into a Camelot, with white towers standing tall in a golden age.

It’s our turn to complete the myth. How? That’s for us to determine. After all, it’s not enough merely to live and breathe the myth cycles that are our inheritance—it is our duty to add to the treasure trove for future generations. Our dreams nourish tomorrow. This isn’t a call to merely keep myth alive. This is a call to mythopoeia, to myth making.

It’s not enough to simply tell and retell. We have a responsibility to add to our birthright. It is our job to bring myth into our modern world, to see how the heroes and monsters might respond to our modern world, with all its shining glories and nightmarish horrors. This is a call to knights and queens, wizards and accountants, psychologists and artists, teachers and leaders. It is a call to pull the sword from the stone and bring back the Grail. Used together, united, the opposite forces, anima and animus, masculine and feminine, chalice and blade, can build Camelot.

Afterward:

I know it’s not fair to raise questions without attempting to answer them. I can only plead that I am an enthusiast, rather than a scholar or a psychologist. The best I can do is what’s in The Widening Gyre and the other books in the series. All the same, I’d love to know what you think. Please let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

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Did y’all know I have another blog, too?

Hey, did y’all know I have another blog, too? It’s about stories, writing, fantasy, mythology, and Renaissance festivals.

You can find it here: http://blackthornefaire.net

The most recent post is about Renaissance fairs, and the feeling of falling into a story. There’s a lot there about communities, too. I hope those of you who follow this blog will take a look at that one, too. I’d be grateful.

Thanks and huzzah!

IK

Love and comfort in fantasy, or why George R. R. Martin isn’t the American Tolkien

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I totally stole this image. I honestly have no idea where it originated, but I really like it. So many, many props to some unknown but sincerely appreciated artist.

First, I am really enjoying HBO’s adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. I was enjoying the books, immensely, until I realized I was forgetting so much between volumes that it just made more sense to wait until the entire series is finished to dive into them again. My “to be read” stacks are perilously high, and having to re-read an entire series of not exactly concise tomes every time a new volume is released takes a lot of all-too-scarce reading time away from other books, any one of which might become a new and beloved favorite.

Overall, though, I’m a fan. I mention that because what follows might be perceived as throwing shade on Mr. Martin’s books, or on HBO’s adaptations, and I don’t mean it that way. This is, in fact, not a review at all. It’s just a series of thoughts that occurred to me about my own writing, specifically in my Widening Gyre series, as I was watching the most recent episode of A Game of Thrones on HBO.

Sure, Professor Tolkien’s and Mr. Martin’s books have a lot in common … on the surface.

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Also, both Professor Tolkien and Mr. Martin introduce heroes of smaller stature. I stole this image, too, by the way.

I often hear Mr. Martin called “The American Tolkien.” I can see why people say that. (Was Lev Grossman the first?) Both write (or wrote) extremely complex fantasy novels, both have very passionate fan bases (with a great deal of overlap), both have created British Isles-inspired worlds rich with invented history and languages, and, well, both authors have the initials “R. R.” in their names.

But honestly, I think the resemblance ends there. The similarities are superficial at best.

Mr. Martin’s books are grounded in, well, the rather unpleasant realities of a world at war. Mr. Martin has made no secret of the fact that his books are inspired by true history, most notably the War of the Roses. When his books are brutal, it’s because, well, history was brutal. In fact, Mr. Martin has criticized Professor Tolkien, pointing out that his wars aren’t like the wars of history (they certainly aren’t), and even pointing out that The Lord of the Rings never bothers to address Aragorn’s tax policy. (For more, read this article and this one.)

To be fair, I think Mr. Martin’s complaints have more to do with how Professor Tolkien has become a template for lesser writers than with any real issue with The Lord of the Rings, but I think the point is an interesting one.

You see, Professor Tolkien and Mr. Martin are writing books in the same genre only to the extent that it makes it easier for bookstores to know where to shelve them. Mr. Martin writes grounded, historically-based fantasy that appeal largely (I think) because they are so grimly real. The famous shocks and twists come from the harsh brutality of a world at war. Even the famous Red Wedding is based on two different historical events. (For more information, read here and here.) To a large (and often uncomfortable) degree, Mr. Martin is writing history, with a few ice zombies and dragons tossed in.

Professor Tolkien, on the other hand, is writing myth.

In his book The Inklings, biographer Humphrey Carpenter recounts a significant and now famous conversation between Tolkien and a then-atheist C.S. Lewis. The two were walking among the colleges in Oxford on a September evening in 1931. Lewis had never underestimated the power of myth. One of his earliest loves had been the Norse myth of Balder, the dying god. All the same, Lewis did not in any way believe in the myths that so thrilled him. As he told Tolkien, “myths are lies, and therefore worthless, even though (they are) breathed through silver.”

“No,” Tolkien replied. “They are not lies.” 

Tolkien went on to explain that early man, the creators of the great myth cycles, saw the world very differently. To them “the whole of creation was myth-woven and elf-patterned.” Tolkien went on to argue that man is not ultimately a liar. He may pervert his ideas into lies, but he comes from God, and it is from God that he draws his ultimate ideas. Therefore, Tolkien argued, not only man’s abstract thoughts, but also his imaginative inventions, must in some way originate with God, and must in consequence reflect something of eternal truth.

When creating a myth, a storyteller is engaging in what Tolkien called mythopoeia (myth-oh-pay-uh). Through the act of peopling an imaginary world with bright heroes and terrible monsters, the storyteller is in a way reflecting God’s own act of creation. Human beings are, according to Tolkien, expressing fragments of eternal truth. Tolkien believed that the poet or storyteller is, then, a sub-creator “capturing in myth reflections of what God creates using real men and actual history.” A storyteller, Tolkien believed, is actually fulfilling Divine purpose, because the story always contains something of a deeper truth. Myth is filtered through the artist’s culture, experiences, and talents, but it is drawn from a deeper well.

By Tolkien’s argument, all myth is a response, a reaction to the force of creation occurring all around us. Granted, this calls for a slightly different definition of myth — and ignores the perhaps (probably) different intentions of the storytellers — which, of course, we can never know in any case. But a story can be myth, Tolkien would argue. Indeed, it could scarcely be anything else, because any act of creation is a reaction to the call of the Divine. Tolkien and the Inklings were responding to the same “shout” that the creators of myth have been responding to throughout the ages — the utter magnificence of a beautiful, dangerous, and impossible universe.

I’ve written more on that topic here (in fact, I stole the preceding five paragraphs from myself).

I bring that up because I can’t help thinking that anyone who reads The Lord of the Rings and comes away asking about Aragorn’s tax policy has completely missed the point. (Although again, I think Mr. Martin is actually ranting against the clichés that sprung up from Professor Tolkien’s imitators, rather than the books themselves. The Lord of the Rings was groundbreaking … but I certainly can’t blame Mr. Martin for wanting to break the template. In fact, I applaud him.)

The twin ideas of mythopoeia and eucatastrophe are at the heart of Professor Tolkien’s work. Indeed, the deeply mythic concept of eucatastrophe, a sudden turn of events at the end of a story which ensures that the hero does not meet some terrible, impending, and very plausible doom, is antithetical to the core of Mr. Martin’s work.

Professor Tolkien formed the word eucatastrophe by affixing the Greek prefix eu, meaning good, to catastrophe, the word traditionally used in classically-inspired literary criticism to refer to the “unraveling” or conclusion of a drama’s plot. For Tolkien, the term had a thematic meaning that went beyond its literal etymological meaning. It was at the very core of Christianity and his love of myth and art. It was a part of his very DNA.

Eucatastrophe is the blessed conclusion we all crave; it’s something we long for deeply in the heart — a time when wounds are healed, the broken are mended, and rights are made wrong. That longing, I think, is key.

In that sense, Mr. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and Professor Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings are polar opposites, matter and antimatter.

Let me ask you this. Would you really want to visit Westeros?

There’s quite a few variations of this meme floating around on Facebook and Twitter:

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There’s something in the mythopoeic works of Tolkien and Lewis that calls to that deep longing within us. There’s a part of us, somehow, that knows that the fantasy landscapes are a metaphor for something beyond, something more than the fields we know. It makes us feel almost homesick for a place we’ve never been.

I image that most of Mr. Martin’s fans can relate to the Hunger Games fans. A visit to the world of A Game of Thrones is … well, less appealing.

(Although I think there’s another blog to be written about the appeal of The Hunger Games. Stay tuned.)

This idea struck me when I was watching the most recent episode of HBO’s A Game of Thrones with my wife, Carol. The episode happened to feature two absolutely stunning shots of the castle Riverrun. Carol and I turned to each other with wide eyes and just said, “wow.” The shots were lovely. It was, in fact, the first time I can remember that a location in A Game of Thrones had made us want to visit that place. The fact that there was a siege going on quickly damped our enthusiasm, but still, I was struck with the idea that A Game of Thrones is almost utterly devoid of any kind of wish fulfillment, key elements of fantasies like the Harry Potter series or, say, Star Wars.

It made me wonder if anyone would want to visit the locations in my books, or spend time with my characters. I hope so. I really do. At very least, I hope readers would long to visit the Renaissance festival in Blackthorne Faire, or the Commonwealth pub in The Widening Gyre. I try to ground things, solidly — a lesson I’ve learned from Mr. Martin — but mythopoeia and the longing for eucatastrophe are in my DNA, too.

Another thought struck me soon after.

Both the television and the novel versions of A Game of Thrones are short on love. I don’t (necessarily) mean romantic love, but love. Love of family, love of place, love of friends, love of partner. When love is there, it’s usually broken in some way … think of the late King Robert’s lost love for Ned Stark’s sister, Lyanna. Think of Jamie and Ceresi Lannister (but not too much, because ewwww). Think of Tyrion’s love for his prostitute, Shae. Perhaps the purest love in the story is that of Ned Stark’s family, and look how that turned out.

By contrast, The Lord of the Rings is bursting with love, even though it is (almost) completely devoid of romantic love. There are certainly deep and loving friendships — Merry and Pippin for Frodo, Sam and Frodo, Gandalf and Bilbo, Gimli and Legolas. There is also a deep love of place … think of Frodo’s love for the Shire, all the walks he takes. Think how heartbreaking it is when Frodo’s ultimate sacrifice isn’t his life, but rather the life he has known and loved in the Shire. When he returns, his battles won, the Shire is lost to him, but not his love for it.

Indeed, the whole story turns on the role of Providence, the divine love that leads to eucatastrophe, that dearest of all loves.

The Narnia stories, too, are rich with love. So are the Harry Potter stories. They shine with love and grace.

Last — and this is something that the films missed for the most part — The Lord of the Rings, the novel, holds precious moments of comfort, even in the midst of terrible war and danger. There’s Bag End of course (who wouldn’t want to visit Bag End?) — which, to be fair, the films absolutely nailed. But Bree, a port of (at least temporary) safety in the books, is a frightening place in the films. Ditto Lóthlorien, that precious place of unfallen paradise. Gone utterly are Tom Bombadil’s house and Crickhollow.

The dear and comfortable places make Professor Tolkien’s Middle-earth come to life. It makes us long to visit, just as (for example) Cair Paravel and Beaver’s Dam make us want to visit Narnia, and Hogwarts makes us long for an owl-delivered letter.

For the most part, the Lord of the Rings films miss these moments of comfort, and the moments of the numinous. I think that’s why they’re less likely endure the test of time, as the books certainly have.

These moments are, at best, rare in A Song of Ice and Fire. Mr. Martin seems to be crafting more of a puzzle box, closer to, say, Lost than to The Lord of the Rings. When was the last time you heard someone talking about Lost? (To be fair, I expect a much stronger resolution to A Song of Ice and Fire.)

I wonder … when the last shock has shocked and the last twist has been revealed in all its gory glory, will we still turn to A Song of Ice and Fire?

Probably. I certainly think so. I think Mr. Martin’s achievement is a remarkable one that will continue to find new readers for generations. I hope writers will learn the right lessons from it … break the templates, don’t just imitate the new ones.

I think A Song of Ice and Fire will gain as many new readers as The Lord of the Rings does. When all the mysteries are unfolded, and there’s no need to go back and scour the text for clues, I wonder if A Song of Ice and Fire will have as many re-readers? I don’t think so.

I wonder, too, if A Song of Ice and Fire will inspire the same enduring love, and longing, that The Lord of the Rings kindles. Time will tell.

In the meantime, both have lessons to teach writers like me. I’ll ground my fantasies. I might even think about the tax policies of my own (metaphorical) Aragorns. But I’ll always season my stories with love, place, and comfort, even in the moments of darkness.

Mr. Martin isn’t the American Tolkien. He’s the American Martin. That’s more than good enough.

Reinventing this blog … just a little. (Or … A New Mission)

Hey, folks!

ProfileJAIf you’ve been following this blog for a while, well, there’s some changes coming. Don’t worry; I’ll still be doing the reviews … of books, movies, beer, root beer, and pretty much anything else that strikes my fancy. In fact, I’ll probably be doing a lot more of them.

That’s not all, though. As many of you already now, I’ve recently signed with a new agent, Mr. Peter Miller of Global Lion Intellectual Property Management. Peter’s a great guy, and to be blunt, he gets things done and deals made. I’m just all kinds of lucky to be working with him.

As as my books and scripts get closer to finding their way to bookstores and screens, I’m going to be sharing a little bit of that journey here.

Right now, Peter is placing Challengers, a novel based on a television pilot I wrote a few years back. The pilot’s not dead, not by a long shot, but the novel version lets me spend a little more time with a cast of characters I have come to love dearly. It’s a modern take on the old pulp heroes, so I’ll be spending a lot of time talking about the old pulp heroes: Professor Challenger (who gave the team its name), Tarzan, The Shadow, Mandrake the Magician, and guys like that. So I’ll be talking about the pulps a lot … the first superheroes, and what it might take to make them work in the modern world.

A while back, I started working on a trilogy of King Arthur novels. I couldn’t quite make it work, but I think I’ve finally cracked it. It’s now a four book series … all of them massive tomes. I’ve finished two and about a half of the third. The series is called The Unbroken Circle, and the books are called The Widening Gyre, Winter Kept Us Warm, What the Thunder Said, and The Last Light Flickers. I honestly think these are the best things I’ll ever do.

I’ve written a screenplay that’s received some fantastic feedback that has both shocked and humbled me. It’s called A Planet Called Eden, and it’s basically astronauts vs. dinosaurs. Well, you could also say it’s about a 22nd century space expedition that finds an artificial planet in a faraway solar system with mysterious connections to the origins of life on Earth. But seriously, it’s astronauts vs. dinosaurs.

I’m really proud of the Eden script, and I can’t wait to have time to dive into the sequels, but to be honest, the book kind of sucks. I’ll be talking about the steps I’m taking to try and improve it here. I’d love your thoughts and feedback. We used Eden for the rough demo we did for my “eBook 2.0” publishing company, Gramarye Media.

There’s another book, too. Blackthorne Faire is a contemporary New Adult fantasy adventure with elements of paranormal romance (with a dash of a war between the courts of faerie and the mob) set at a Renaissance Festival. But that’s getting its own blog. Stay tuned.

Book Review: City of Dark Magic by Magnus Flyte

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Read City of Dark Magic: A Novel

Magnus Flyte is a pseudonym for the writing duo of Meg Howrey and Christina Lynch. I knew that name was too good to be true. The book is a delight, though.

Magnus Flyte is a pseudonym for the writing duo of Meg Howrey and Christina Lynch. I knew that name was too good to be true. The book is a delight, though.

If I didn’t travel, I probably wouldn’t have discovered City of Dark Magic, a lovely little gem of a novel that doesn’t fit neatly into a genre box, or rather it seems to fit into several of them at once. It’s part historical mystery, part conspiracy thriller, part spy novel, and part, jeez, contemporary fantasy or magic realism, I guess, all wrapped up in a candy shell of romanic comedy. Unfortunately, that makes it kind of to browse for in a bookstore. If I hadn’t noticed it in an airport newsstand, I surely would have missed it. That would have been a shame.

The Prague of City of Dark Magic is a city I'd love to visit. I'd glad the book took me there.

The Prague of City of Dark Magic is a city I’d love to visit. I’d glad the book took me there.

The Prague of City of Dark Magic is a city steeped in legends of magic, a history of blood, and a legacy of secrets. It has been home to geniuses and eccentrics. It is also a city of secrets as music student Sarah Weston discovers. Sarah has come to the Prague Castle for the summer with a team of colorful academics to restore the Lubkowicz Palace to its former glory and turn it into a museum filled with centuries old treasures. There, she finds clues that might finally unravel the mystery of Beethoven’s famous immortal beloved. What follows is a tale of mystery, politics, furtive sex, music, alchemy, murder, a time traveling prince, a centuries-old dwarf, and even a portal to hell or two. Yes, and its a romantic comedy. This isn’t a book that follows genre conventions, it lays them out like toys and plays with them.

Sarah is a delightful character to spend time with, and the Prague created in these pages is one I’d love to visit. Even minor characters are vivid and often fascinating. The mystery is intriguing, the danger feels real and immediate, and the comedy is wicked and delicious. The plot twists in the most delightfully labyrinthine manner.

It’s not a perfect novel. There are flaws; for example: the enigmatic prince’s secret, which drives much of the plot, is revealed in an off-hand way that does more to set up a sequel than to resolve tension. Sarah and the novel’s primary villain, an ambitious politician with a shadowy past, never spend much time together. None of the flaws diminish the absolute fun of City of Dark Magic. It’s smart, exciting, sexy, and laugh-out-loud funny. If you like a little dark mystery, magic, and romantic adventure (spiced liberally with cleverness and loads of charm) in your summer read, this is the book for you.

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Pizza Review: Pizza K (no, really, it’s good!)

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Visit Pizza K Decatur/Emory

About a year ago, I published one of my more popular blog posts, 10 Places to Get Terrific Pizza in Atlanta. Since then, one of them (Decatur’s Zucca) has closed, alas. So I’m one short. In the interest of public service and keep the number at 10, here is a replacement, also in the Decatur area.

I likely wouldn’t have stopped at Pizza K. It’s a generic-looking hole-in-the-wall in a Publix strip mall at the corner of Clairmont and North Decatur. (Coincidentally, that’s two more spots on my list of ten great spots for pizza are near that same intersection … Athens and Cappozi’s. Talk about an embarrassment of riches.) I’d stopped at that center for dog food, and decided to get a little people food, too. But it was raining, and I was too lazy to venture to the Publix. So I gave Pizza K a try. I’m glad I did, because wow, this was a surprise. A couple of them, actually.

Frankly, I wasn’t expecting much. But much to my surprise, I saw bags of flour, tomatoes, and, you know, actual ingredients. Not frozen dough or canned sauces. That was surprise number one.

The second surprise was that they had actual Chicago style pizza. Not deep pan pizza that’s all bread. Real Chicago style pizza. With the thin crust stuffed with mounds of cheese and ingredients, a thin upper crust, and real sauce on top. Sort of like what you get it Nancy’s, but at least as good. Maybe even a little better. And for a fraction of the price.

Granted, this is colored bit by low expectations. But I’ll be back, and often. I haven’t tried anything other than the Chicago style, and it’s so good that I may never. But the other styles are probably worth a try. In the meantime, this is probably the best Chicago style pizza I’ve had outside of the cities of Chicago or Orlando, at least since Uppercrust closed back in the 80s.

The prices here are amazing. Little Ceasar’s prices, but for real pizza. Sadly, there are no tables. It’s take out or delivery only. But it is amazingly good, especially for the price.

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Theatre Review: The Book Club Play at Horizon Theatre

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See The Book Club Play at Horizon Theatre

8703078440_dda1453400_zThis is a short review, largely because I want to urge you to catch this show, and since it closes soon, I don’t want to slow you down more than necessary. Well, better late than never, right? The Book Club Play isn’t as edgy or innovative as much of the work Horizon Theatre in Little Five Points/Inman Park is known for. It is, however, an absolute, laugh-out-loud delight that deserves to be seen. But hurry, you only have a couple of weeks.

One of my heroes, C. S. Lewis, once wrote that “we read to know we’re not alone.” I also think we read to find out a little about who we are. We feel compelled to share, and to explore more deeply, because the secrets we discover are secrets about ourselves and how we relate to one another, and to an increasingly complex world. But when we scratch the surface of secrets, especially in the company of others, it’s not always going to be a comfortable experience. Ann, played wonderfully by Wendy Melkonian, has a perfect life … career, catalog-perfect home, handsome husband, and tightly-knit book club. When the delicate mix of the latter is stirred both by the presence of a stranger and by becoming the subject of a documentary film, intimate discussions lead to sit-com level pandemonium.

Yes, the play is sweet, even cloying. The outcomes are neat and fairly predictable. But the cast (which also includes Bryan Brendle, Maria Rodriguez-Sager, Danielle Deadwyler, and Dan Triandiflou) is so terrific, and the laughs are frequent and loud. More, the questions raised are interesting and worthy of exploration. More, the characters are genuine, and I was delighted to spend an evening with them. Real belly laughs have been rare this season (The Internship, I’m looking at you). The Book Club Play provides them in spades … with more than a little intelligence and heart thrown in for good measure.

Do yourself a favor and don’t miss this. But get moving; it ends June 23, alas.

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Movie Review: Man of Steel

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superman-man-of-steel-ew-pictures-4-04112013-102722-1First, I really enjoyed Man of Steel. It’s a really good film, and one of my favorite superhero films ever. I loved the epic scale, I loved the realization of a truly alien, dying Krypton, and I loved the richness of the characters, even the ones that are only on screen for a few moments. Lois, especially, is a driven, capable character with courage, clear motivations, and, yes, a strong moral compass that guides her actions, and even makes many of them inevitable. Amy Adams plays her with strength and genuine earnestness that never winks or devolves into damsel in distress camp.

Henry Cavill looks perfect as Superman, but his performance goes far beyond the visual. Quite simply, he makes the role his own. I didn’t once think of Christopher Reeve, the man who absolutely owns the part. Cavill’s Superman is different, and goes for gravitas rather than Reeve’s effortless charm, although I ached for Reeve’s sly wit. Cavill doesn’t echo Reeve, but his portray is unique, interesting, and satisfying. I look forward to seeing how it evolves in later films. As surely as Reeve, if in a very different way, Cavill makes a Perfect Superman.

The backstory is fascinating, and the conflicts between villain General Zod, Jor El, and later Superman, are poignant and fascinating. The mythic structure and overt religious imagery works extraordinarily well. I didn’t care for the uniform (or much else, really) in Superman Returns, because it seemed too much a departure from the classic union suit for my taste. The uniform in Man of Steel is even more of a departure, but somehow, it just seems to work much better.

In short, it’s a terrific film. I say that up front, because I am about to complain about it now. Beware, folks, there be spoilers ahead. If you haven’t seen the film and plan to do so without knowing a lot of stuff that happens, turn away now. But please come back after you’ve seen it, because I’d love to know what you think.

Still with me? Okay. You were warned.

amy-adams-henry-cavill-man-of-steel-skipJonathan Kent dies. That’s no surprise, in most versions of the story he usually does, and his loss is one of the events that shapes who Superman is as a character. Here, he dies in a tornado, and Clark could have saved him. Easily. Now, a key thematic element of this story is the importance of keeping Clark’s powers secret. I get that, and I liked it. It worked beautifully in the structure of the film. But the way this key death was was handled was … well, bad. Just bad.

To be frank, I HATED the tornado scene. Hated it. There were just too many ways to save Jonathan Kent without revealing the secret. I can’t believe that Superman, in any incarnation, would allow his dad, or anyone, to die when he could stop it. In Donner’s film, Superman The Movie, Jonathan Kent’s heart attack had resonance, because it was the one thing Clark COULDN’T stop, and made him that much more dedicated to stopping the things he could. In this film, the death shapes Clark’s obsession with guarding his secret, and highlights his alienation. That works. Again, Jonathan’s sacrifice was moving, but the execution (no pun intended) just struck me as unforgivably lazy writing.

Also, in the climax, General Zod forces Superman to kill him. It’s a powerful moment (again, no pun intended), and everything we’ve learned about Zod’s character makes it inevitable. But I can’t help thinking that the climax would have had more impact if we had seen Superman reluctant to kill before, or if the question had at least been raised. Also, to me, the scene kinda showed that Superman could have ended that epic fight at pretty much any time. Wouldn’t it have been stronger if Superman was constantly having to choose to let Zod go temporarily in order to save the people of Metropolis?

Am I the only one who really ached for some humor? Iron Man III was, in many ways, a dark film. There aren’t that many lighthearted romps about Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome and terrorism. But it had more than a few really good and warned laughs. The Avengers comes close to matching Man of Steel for sheer destruction, but it still had some laughs. We needed to break a little of this tension.

Last, a couple of questions for those of you who have seen the film:

First, what was Jor El’s plan for the codex? To have Superman gradually gain trust, and then bring forth a new race Kryptonians? I get, metaphorically, that he is now the father of all Kryptonians. That worked. Last Son of Krypton and all that. I’m with you. But from a story point of view, how was Jor El’s plan different than Zod’s, save (perhaps) for the terraforming?

Second, in the flashback where Clark is playing with the blanket cape, who is he pretending to be? (Lovely gem of a scene, though.)

I bring these issues up largely because when a film is very good, the obvious flaws that keep it from being great are that much more frustrating. I did really enjoy the film, though, and I can’t wait for the sequels. Although while I liked Jenny Olson, I miss Jimmy. And Krypto. And while Hans Zimmer’s score was effective, and even stirring, I still miss John William’s iconic theme, which is, frankly, one of the greatest film scores ever. Zimmer’s music is brilliant, but they won’t be playing it after super (see what I did there?) catches at baseball games.

Oh, and for those of you who are interested, this is a list of Easter Eggs you might have missed.

So, what did y’all think?

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Musing on Some Elements that Work in Fantasy, Part Two: Iconic Imagery

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One of the most iconic images in all of fantasy literature: The One Ring from The Lord of the Rings.

If you read Part One of this series, you already know that some partners and I are starting a new publishing company, ePic Adventures, Inc. As I mentioned, we’ll be doing print books, both hardcover and paperback, but our emphasis is on eBooks designed to stretch the capabilities of smartphone and tablets and redefine what an eBook can be in the age of transmedia. Again, think of them as eBooks 2.0, or the Magician’s Book from Narnia, or the tablet/smartphone equivalent of a volume from the library at Hogwarts.

As we build the ePic Books brand, we’re focusing on a single genre (or range of subgenres, I guess), at least for the first year or two: fantasy. A part of our strategy involves looking for certain elements that the very best and most successful fantasies share in common. When I say “most successful,” I’m talking about the classics of the genre, the most beloved and enduring works that stand out, across years and even generations. These are the works that shine above the rest, when as works of equal, or arguably even greater, quality dim into obscurity.

One of those elements that most enduring and successful works seem to share, Iconic Imagery, is very closely related to the Iconic Locations detailed in Part One. If you haven’t read it, skip back. It’s okay. we’ll wait.

Back? Okay then.

Absolutely iconic.

Star Trek is a terrific source of iconic images: the famous badge, the bridge of the Enterprise (always recognizable, generation after generation), tribbles, and, of course, Spock’s ears and Vulcan salute. Bladerunner? Don’t even get me started.

Speaking of the bridge of the Enterprise, how is an iconic image different from an iconic location? I admit the line is thin. In fact, at least three of the examples I mentioned in Part One, the Lamppost in Narnia, the Starship Enterprise, and the Death Star from Star Wars, might better be called iconic images rather than locations. The lamppost especially … our first view of it includes two characters, Lucy and Mr. Tumnus with his umbrella and bundles; the characters are as much a part of that scene as the lamppost and the snow-covered trees. So whether you consider it a location or an image, the point remains; it’s iconic and unforgettable. You want images like that in your story … assuming that you are striving for one of those enduring, unforgettable classics. And if you aren’t, seriously, why the hell not?

I should also point out that iconic images, at least as I’m thinking of them, aren’t always exclusively visual (which makes me think I have likely picked the wrong word, but there you are). Consider the Lightsabers in Star Wars. Those glowing laser swords are unforgettable—and are even, I think, a part of why the first film was so astonishing successful. But as iconic as that image is, most of us, I am willing to wager, can recognize a lightsaber even without the visual. The sound, that unmistakable hum, is as much as part of the integral lightsaber-ness as the visual design. If someone plays you a clip of a light saber activating or deactivating, you’ll know it at once. Go head, give it a try.

Star Wars is another gold mine for iconic images: The Millennium Falcon, the X-wing, Yoda, Wookies, the creatures in the cantina, Princess Leia’s hair buns, R2 and 3PO…. In fact, that’s one of the differences between the original trilogy and the prequels. The original trilogy is chock full of iconic images. The prequels have far more incredible and imaginative designs. But how many stand out? How many are memorable? Of those, how many didn’t appear in the original trilogy first? Off hand, Darth Maul’s character design is about all I can come up with. Could you sketch him? Or even describe him in a sentence?

Tolkien’s ring is one of the most iconic images in all of fantasy. So are his hobbits, with their pipes, their small stature, and, of course, the furry feet. What would the Harry Potter books be without, say, the wands or the moving paintings? I can honestly say that I remember more about the visuals of The Wind in the Willows, from the characters to the locations, than I can about the story itself (which means it’s probably time to revisit it).

Captain Hook’s hook is an iconic image that helps define him as a character. without it, he’s a generic pirate.

Personally, I think the best and strongest iconic images are related closely to a character if only because they have the effect of making that character iconic almost by consequence, although of course the image alone won’t do that. But at a glance, they give the character a very specific look, and they tell us a little something about the character. More, the character just won’t be the same without it, like the Dread Pirate Roberts without his black shirt and mask.

Some examples? Remember how Darth Vader’s iconic black helmet and cape stands out from that sea of white-armored Stormtroopers the first time we see him in Star Wars. Think of Indiana Jones with his jacket, whip, and hat. He’s still Indy without them, of course. He’s wearing a white dinner jacket in the opening scenes of The Temple of Doom. But when I saw the film on opening night, the first real spontaneous round of applause from the audience came when Indy pulled on his familiar “uniform” on that little plane.

If you see a poster—or read a description—of a muscled man wearing a loincloth in the jungle, chances are you’ll assume it’s Tarzan. If you see a stern male figure smoking a large pipe and wearing a deerstalker, you’re probably not thinking Nero Wolfe or James Bond. When you see a man on a white horse wearing a white hat and a mask, you won’t have to ask, at least not with a straight face, who was that masked man? It’s the Lone Ranger.

Bob Kane’s original concept for The Batman, before Bill Finger suggested the dark knight we know today.

The colorful uniform made Superman stand out from his pulp-era forefathers like Doc Savage and The Shadow, themselves iconic. When Bob Kane created Batman, he originally envisioned a bright red body suit, bat wings, and a domino mask. Bill Finger contributed a different look … the brooding cape and cowl. Would Batman have worked either way? Maybe. But I doubt it.

Granted, iconic imagery is a pretty shallow way to define a character, and it takes far more than a distinctive look to make a character truly classic. The icons help us recognize a character at a glance (Harry Potter’s glasses and scar); they don’t make us care. It’s at best just one layer, the surface one, but it’s a good place to start.

Iconic images present a challenge to the writer. It easy to show an iconic image in, say, a film or a comic. On the page? Not so much. I include the screenplay page here, too. Strong visuals help a film sell. Regardless of the medium, iconic images have to be described in sufficient detail that we can see it, sure, but the best resonate through the other senses as well. When you’re reading or writing, think of sound (remember the lightsabers), smell, and weight. The icons have to be real. In this case, the written word has an advantage. You can’t smell a film, but a writer can make a scent real. For better or for worse. A film can show us a magic sword, but the written word can show us what it feels like to hold that power pulsing through the palms of your hands.

They present challenges, but they have advantages. They make your character (or prop, or location, or vehicle, or…) a part of the collective zeitgeist. Just about any man, woman, or child can recognize Superman or Mickey Mouse at a glance. Most of them can recognize Harry Potter, Spider-man, or a lightsaber. If you want to have your work adapted for the screen, or illustrated, iconic images give the interpreters a strong foundation from which to start.

And finally (this may sound a little crass), iconic images are merchandisable. You can make toys, t-shirts, costumes, posters, mugs, trashcans, and pretty much anything else you can think of. Just look at what Patrick Rothfuss has been able to do. That’s a way to keep people talking about, and promoting, your work. And it’s a pretty good way to make it attractive to studios and publishers. And it’s certainly something that’s on our checklist at ePic.

Any thoughts, writers and readers of the world?

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Musing on Some Elements that Work in Fantasy, Part One: Iconic Locations

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When asked to picture Narnia, you probably think of something rather like this, don’t you?

If asked to close one’s eyes and picture Narnia, I am willing to bet that just about everyone will picture a snow-covered wood surrounding a clearing where a lamppost sheds a soft, golden light … just beyond a wardrobe door. Something about that image, that specific location, is iconic. It’s a strong, concrete, visual image. It’s something we almost can’t help responding to, almost like it, that one place, was a character in a story. When we revisit, years later, it’s like meeting an old friend.

As many of you know, some partners and I are starting a new publishing venture, ePic Adventures, Inc. We’ll be doing print books, sure, but our emphasis is on eBooks. Magical eBooks. Think of them as eBooks 2.0, or the Magician’s Book from Narnia, or the tablet/smartphone equivalent of a volume from the library at Hogwarts.

In short, ePic Books present a platform that stretches the idea of what an eBook can be. The original idea was to focus on a narrow selection of genres — fantasy, science fiction, mystery, paranormal romance, and young adult. Our investors and advisors talked me out of that. So we’re focusing on fantasy, at least for the first year or two, and expanding once we’ve built our brand.

Quick, what’s this? Once answer: it’s utterly iconic.

That still doesn’t narrow things down a whole lot. So we have developed a sort of checklist of things we’re looking for. Some of them have to do with the medium … books we we purchase (yes, we’ll be paying advances and royalties) have to have elements that fit the technology we’re developing. That’s obvious enough.

And, of course, we’re looking for the usual: strong characters, excellent writing, surprises, unique ideas, well-structured stories. all that stuff. I would have mentioned that first, since ultimately those are most important. But they are kind of obvious, and most publishers, even small ones, have literally hundreds of manuscripts that meet those criteria on their desks at any one time.

Beyond that, we took a heuristic look at story, trying to identify elements that the truly successful works in the genre, regardless of medium, share in common. That’s not to say that we’re trying to be formulaic. Far from it. But certain elements are at the heart of successful stories, especially in the fantasy genre. There are things many share in common. Those are the elements we’ll be looking for next year.

The first? Iconic locations. Think of some of the most beloved and successful fantasy works. Almost without exception, they feature absolutely forgettable locations: places that everyone who has ever experienced the work can describe in a minute. Think of Charlie’s Chocolate Factory or the cantina in Star Wars. In the Harry Potter books, Hogwarts is almost as much a star as Harry himself, and it stands out in a series that is absolutely packed with iconic locations.

In fact, I am at a loss to think of a truly successful fantasy that has endured the test of time that doesn’t include at least one absolutely iconic location. The Wizard of Oz? Think of that first color shot Munchkin Land, or the Emerald City, or even the Yellow Brick Road. Field of Dreams? The baseball field in the cornfield. The Name of the Wind? The University, of course, and its library in particular. A Song of Ice and Fire? I think the Wall is likely the best example.

If you’ve read the works of Charles de Lint, think of his Tamson House or his city of Newford. Speaking of cities, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol might be an exception, although you can argue (convincingly, I think) that the snow-covered London is as much a part of the story as Scrooge and the ghosts.

Now, picture scenes from the best of the Disney animated films. They are rife with iconic locations, from the cottage in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to the castle, the pub, and the lonely tower in Tangled. Picture Pleasure Island or the Fairies’ House from Sleeping Beauty. Chances are, if you’ve seen any of those films, those places are locked away somewhere in the attics of your brain. They are beautifully realized.

Professor Tolkien’s Bag End, one of the most iconic fantasy locations of all.

Or maybe the most perfect example of all: Bag End in Professor Tolkien’s Middle-earth books. Tolkien even begins with a description if Bag End in The Hobbit … it is described in loving detail long before we learn one single fact about the main character (aside from the fact that he lives there, which now that I mention it does tell the reader rather a lot about Bilbo Baggins) or the story. We know about that hole in the ground long before we learn of wizards, dwarves, or dragons.

Of course, Professor Tolkien’s works are full of iconic locations, and many of them are places you long to visit. LothLorien. Rivendell. The Lonely Mountain. Beorn’s House. The Prancing Pony in Bree. Minas Tirith. Mirkwood. Gollum’s cave.

Gormenghast. Amber. The Swiss Family Robinson’s treehouse. Dune. Treasure Island. 221 B Baker Street (although as with Mr Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle’s London might be a better example). The Hundred Acre Wood. Ray Bradbury’s Greentown or Mars. Barsoom. Callahan’s. Neverland. Prydain. The Commonwealth (yes, the whole damn thing) from Silverlock. The Batcave. The starship Enterprise. Even the secret junkyard headquarters in the Three Investigators books.

Mentioning the Three Investigators may be a cheat, since they are mystery rather than fantasy, but looking back at my love of reading, I honestly think it begins with my longing to visit that secret headquarters (through Tunnel Two, naturally) or Charlie’s chocolate factory, that amazing creation of Mr. Wonka and Mr. Dahl. The place was a part of the appeal. If you’re lost in a story, isn’t one of the reasons that some part of you wishes, deeply in the heart, to visit those places you’re falling in love with?

I won’t say that is rule is universally true. But again, I am at a loss to think of an exception. I’m sure one will occur to me the instant I hit “publish,” but it’ll be the exception that proves the rule. I am also not saying it’s the only element that makes these stories work, or even that it’s the most important one. (We have a whole list of key elements that I’ll be talking about on this blog over the next few weeks.)

So what makes an image iconic? Four things, I think.

First, an iconic location is utterly unforgettable. Once seen, it lingers.

Two, it’s distinctive. If you’ve experienced the story, you should be able to name the location at a glance or describe it in a sentence or three. It must be utterly unmistakable. There’s no confusing Bag End or the Emerald City. Both were described perfectly, and later realized brilliantly on screen. Ideally, one should be able to sketch it (although you’d need a green crayon for the Emerald City).

Third, it’s an integral part of the story. After all, where would the Arthurian legends be without Camelot? One of the reasons the ending of The Lord of the Rings (the real one, not the awful movie ending) works so well is because we’ve come to share the characters’ love of the Shire.

What makes a location iconic? A good map never hurts.

Finally, and most importantly, an iconic location inspires emotional response independent of the audience’s response to the character or story. Iconic locations evoke strong emotions … usually wistful longing (who doesn’t want to visit Bag End or the Beaver’s Dam for Tea?) or dread. The Death Star and Orthanc are both unforgettable and utterly unmistakable, but really, who wants to hang out there?

By the way, my friend Angela Still has pointed out that iconic locations are also a key part of gothic literature, too. I think more than a few of these key elements are also important in other genres, too. I should also point out that iconic locations are very close to, but not quite the same as, the next criteria on the list: iconic images. But I’ll talk about that next week.

So what do you think? Are iconic locations a part of what you respond to? If you are a creator, how important are iconic locations to your story? I’d really love to hear your thoughts and ideas.

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Review: Beer From a Growler

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There’s been a rather remarkable change over the past few months. As late as the end of summer, I don’t think I’d heard the term “growler” before. By the fall, I’d found a store, the beer lover’s heaven known as Ale Yeah, that offered them. Now, they seem to be everywhere. There is literally no direction I can go upon leaving my house without passing a store that offers quality craft beers and ales in growlers. The neighborhood markets, Cander Park Market and Oakhurst Market, carry them. Heck, even the gas station at the end of my street has them now.

For those of you who are where I was just two seasons or so ago, a growler is a glass beer bottle, 64 or 32 ounces, filled with beer from a tap. The term growler dates way back to the late 19th century, before the dawn of the age of the six-pack, when folks carried fresh beer home from the local pub in a small bucket. The inside of the pail was usually coated with lard to decrease foam, meaning more beer for the buck (if you don’t mind a certain lardy taste). Supposedly, the escaping CO2 made a growling noise when it escaped from the lid as the beer sloshed around.

Pick your ale from a list like this, fill 'er up, and enjoy!

Modern growlers are glass bottles, not lard-coated tin (or whatever) pails. You buy your bottle (they’re pretty cheap. I mean, it’s a glass bottle.), and it’s yours to keep forever. Take it back to the shop of your choice, and choose a beer from a selection that (in the stores around my neighborhood, anyway) changes regularly. They’ll sanitize and fill your growler, send you home, and then it’s time to enjoy. You don’t get the growly sound anymore, but then, you don’t have to worry about the lard, either. So, you know, give and take.

There’s something that’s just deliciously old-fashioned about growlers. Maybe it’s just the novelty, but frankly, I can’t help thinking that beer tastes better when it comes from a growler. After all, you won’t have to go far to find someone who thinks draft beer is better than canned or bottled. In fact, I’m willing to bet that you’re more likely to find people who’ll disagree about why draft is better than those who quibble about the premise itself. Growler beer is draft made portable and convenient.

There’s another advantage, too. Sometimes, you just want a little beer (I’m as surprised as you are, but yeah, that’s possible). Not a whole bottle or pint. With a growler, you can pour as much or as little as you like (well, up to 32 ounces, anyway). The choices are usually craft beers, and the selection is usually eclectic and well-chosen, when more than a few that you might not have discovered otherwise. Yeah, even at the gas station.

I’m not sure when or how then trend got started, or rather rediscovered. I certainly have no idea how or why it became ubiquitous so quickly. But I’m delighted. Oh, one more thing. Someone asked my wife Carol and me how long beer in a growler would last when opened. Does it go flat after a certain amount of time? Carol just smiled and shrugged. “We don’t know,” she admitted. Like the number of licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop, the world may never know.

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Ten Places to Get Amazing Pizza in Atlanta

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If I had a dime for every time I’ve heard someone say they just can’t find good pizza in Atlanta, I could buy a lot of slices, all with extra cheese. Frankly, the comment never ceases to astonish me. That is, until I remember that it’s usually uttered by carpetbagging Yankee new-comers who likely haven’t found their way past the mall Pizza Huts yet. For better or worse, Atlanta hides its hole-in-the-wall gems well.

And so, offered as a public service, here are ten places (with two extra honorable mentions) to get amazing pizza right here amongst the maze of Peachtree Streets. By the way, these are listed in alphabetical order, not in order of quality or preference.

For the record, I am skipping some of the more popular chain type places, like Mellow Mushroom and Fellini’s, despite the fact that I am fond of both. But the simple fact is, you’ve probably already tried them, or at least know about them. And to be frank, yummy as they are, they simply didn’t make the top ten list.

1.) Antico Pizza Napoletana

This was the place that redefined what pizza can be for me. I made that comment to a friend of mine who is both a Yankee and of first or second-generation Italian descent, and she admitted that it had redefined it for her, too. You order at the counter, and then you hope for the best since seating is extremely limited. There are bench seats that surround long tables that you share with others, making you feel (rather delightfully) as though you’ve been invited into someone’s kitchen, where you can see these giant imported Italian ovens (which heat to more than 1000 degrees), bags of imported flour and cans of exotic imported extra virgin olive oil, fragrant fresh herbs, and stuff like that. It’s homey, warm, and wonderful.

I think I would have fallen in love with the place even if the pizza was only passable. Happily, it’s a lot better than that. It’s transcendent. The word Antico means ancient, and the techniques and recipes the master bakers employ here have stood the test of time for a reason. They are amazing. It’s a little hard to find (the west side, behind Georgia Tech in that nebulous area between downtown and midtown, is more maze-like than any other part of the city, and that’s saying a lot), but it’s worth it. I promise.

2.) Athens Pizza House

When searching for pizza, generally what you’re looking for is a pie baked by a Yankee with a last name that ends in a vowel. There are exceptions to that, albeit not many, and Athens is chief among them.

A few years ago, my wife offered to take me to any restaurant in the city for my birthday. She assumed I’d pick one of the pricier steak houses, like Bones, Rathbuns, or Parker’s on Ponce. I picked Athens, because, frankly, when the Athens craving is upon you, nothing else will do. Nothing.

The pizza is Greek style, meaning the crust is a little breadier, softer, and very so slightly sweeter than New York or Italian styles. It’s always astonishingly fresh, which matters more than I’d realized. It’s probably the best crust you can find in Atlanta, and it hold up will under a pile of ingredients without getting soggy, which is good, because Athens is generous with the toppings. The sauce is tangy, slightly salty, had has a hint of premium olive oil in it. It’s impossible to describe and impossible to forget. It’s comfort food at it’s most comforting, and if I had to pick a last meal, this might be it. (unless I could think of something that, like, takes several years to cook. Anyway.)

Some of my friends swear by the other Greek dishes, especially the Lemon Chicken Soup, and they may will be right for all I know. I’ve been ordering the same thing for years: a small pizza with pepperoni, Canadian bacon, and feta cheese, just the way the Lord and Mrs. Papadopoulos intended. Be sure to try it the feta.

3.) Avellino’s

Remember what I was saying about pizza baked by a Yankee with a last name that ends in a vowel? Maybe more than any other spot in the city, or the known universe, Avellino’s proves this rule. The recipes here come from New York, where Avellino family has been baking for generations. In fact, the family claims that the pizza here is better than what they can make up north, because they have access to better and fresher ingredients.

The pizza is some of the very best I’ve had anywhere. Everything tastes fresh, wonderfully spicy, and, for lack of a better word, hand-made. It ranks a solid A, but it gets a boost to A+ for atmosphere. It’s small, homey, charming, and friendly. It practically defines the term “neighborhood spot.” The staff is great, the crowd of regulars is welcoming, and the overall experience keeps me coming back again and again. Well, that and the fact that it’s walking distance from my house. But seriously, I’d drive to the ‘burbs for this.

One more thing: the beer is is terrific (it would have to be, since it shares space with beer heaven, Ale Yeah) and the deserts are to die for. I haven’t sampled the wine yet, but my wife is pleased. The list is small but solid and eclectic.

4.) Bambinelli’s

Of all the glorious pizza spots on this list, Bambinelli’s might be the one I’ve loved the longest. It opened in the early 1980s, and happened to be located right smack between my old high school and the mall where I worked at the B. Dalton Bookseller. I was there the day they opened and, although I don’t get to this charming little family-owned place as much as I used to, Bonnie Bambinelli still greets me by name.

Picture a cozy New York neighborhood spot in little Italy. Not one of the newer, trendier places. Think of a smaller, warmer, more comfortable corner that a single family has run for generations. Pull that image off the shelf of clichés in your brain, transport it to the Northlake area, and you’ve got Bambinelli’s. They’re only missing the red and white checkered table cloths.

Bambinell’s was the first authentic New York style pizza I ever tried, and although I’ve new visited New York itself dozens of times since, it’s still the standard by which I judge. It’s the A+. And it’s scores that A+ on all four of the main criteria: crust (crisp and favorable), sauce (tangy and ever so slightly sweet, with fresh herbs), cheese, and toppings. While I generally prefer the thin, the Sicilian style is also excellent, with that wonderful fresh-baked bread aroma. The other Italian dishes are first rate, especially the ones with cream sauce. But the pizza is what keeps bringing me back, decade after decade. Oh, and the garlic rolls? To die for. Seriously.

5.) Bella’s Pizzeria

If you were to describe Bella’s as Bambinelli’s west, you would not be far wrong. They’re not exactly sharing recipes, mind, each is unique, but there’s a certain neighborhood charm and cozy goodness that makes one remind me fondly of the other. Like Bambinelli’s, it’s family owned. That makes a difference. In fact, nostalgia aside, I’m hard pressed to think of something I’d say about Bambinell’s that I wouldn’t say about Bella’s, except that Bella’s won’t have that basket of hot garlic rolls on your table before you order, at least not at lunch. Bambinelli’s has an edge in taste, too, but it’s close. You’ve got to drive over to Bambinelli’s on the northeast side for that. But the slices are solid, with good crust and tangy sauce, and they’re always hot. A warning: I haven’t been there in a few years, but I assume it’s just as good as always. By the way, I was torn on whether to put Bella’s or the New York Pizza Exchange (see the honorable mentions, below) in this spot. It was a hard decision and might have gone either way.

6.) Cappozi’s

Cappozi’s is one of the most versatile spots in all of Atlanta. I’ve been there for special occasions (an amazing Valentine’s dinner with my wife), family gatherings, and when I just want to grab a seat at the bar for a fast slice. It’s causally elegant, romantic, warm, and welcoming. Every time I visit, I leave knowing I’ll be back … and soon.

The slices are foldable (my Yankee friends assure me that this is a crucial test) and tasty, with home-made sauce that’s the star of the show (although they have the best pepperoni in town). Everything tastes fresh, and the high-quality of the ingredients is evident from bite one. You’re best to stick with the traditional, the pepperoni (seriously, the best in town) and the sausage. Stuff like that. I’ve ordered extra cheese a few times, but it’s not really because it needs it.

This list is about pizza and I don’t want to drift too far off topic, but I have to mention the rest of the Italian menu. It’s fantastic, creative, and always delicious. There’s even a chef who creates daily specials, and the wine list is exceptional. The staff is terrific. This is another place that gets a boost from solid A to A+ for ambience and welcome.

7.) Edgewood Pizza

Edgewood Pizza in Atlanta’s historic Old Forth Ward neighborhood pretty much defines the concept of urban “no frills.” As near as Google and I can tell, they don’t even have a Web site — I had to link to the Facebook page. There aren’t many tables (a problem if you want to go at night—the neighborhood hipsters will have already grabbed them) and parking is limited. Although to be fair, neither of those are an issue at lunch.

What you’re going to get in place of the charm and, uh, seats you might find elsewhere is a darn good, honest slice of pizza served hot and quickly by a friendly staff. Everything tastes fresh and homemade; the crust especially is delicious. When you lost past the counter, you see those machines they use to mix dough. Always a good sign. The herbs in the sauce are terrific. And even if you order the “King Slice,” (other places would call that “two slices”), you’re not going to pay a lot for it. Edgewood Pizza is one of intown Atlanta’s best lunch bargains. It might be the closest thing you’re going to find to a genuine Manhattan pizza slice south of the Sweet Tea Belt.

8.) Nancy’s

In my long-ago youth, one of the very best spots of pizza was the long-vanished Upper Crust. It closed (I think, back in the 1980s), and I’ve missed that three-inch pile of gooey goodness ever since. At the time, I thought Upper Crust was utterly unique. I thought I’d miss that decadent yumminess forever. Then, I found Gino’s East in Chicago, and realized I wasn’t just missing a restaurant, I’d been missing a whole genre: Chicago-style pizza. Happily, Nancy’s Pizza, a chain that originated in Chicago itself, is every bit as good as Upper Crust was, and nearly as good as mighty Gino’s itself. (Although they don’t have that flaming cheese appetizer that I could never pass up at Upper Crust. Seriously, it was cheese and bread, and it was on fire! What’s not to love?)

If you don’t know Chicago-style pizza, it’s not pizza in the traditional Italian/New York style. It’s like the too-delicious to exist love child of pizza and lasagna. You start with a thin and crispy lower crust that that’s deep … like a pie shell. A really deep pie shell. Then, it’s stuffed with enough cheese to fill a bucket, and topped with another crust. The sauce, thick and tomato-y, bubbles on top of that. There’s still plenty of room for toppings. It’s pricy, sure, but then you’re buying a whole cheese shop in every pie. And man, is it amazing.

There are two locations here in Atlanta. One is in Buckhead, where I am told they have lots of table seating and all the amenities. I’ve never been there. The Ponce de Leon location, close to my neighborhood, is carry-out only, and it’s next to impossible to park. (Think of that pie slowly cooling while you circle. Grrr.) But it’s worth all the trouble.

9.) Varasanos

Varasano’s is probably the most upscale place on this list, tucked as it is in the high-rent district between Midtown and Buckhead. Don’t let that fool you. You can still get a good, honest pie here, with a nice, crispy Napoletana-style (not New York style, so set your expectations accordingly!) crust, tangy and favorable sauce (you can taste the fresh tomato and basil), and high-quality ingredients. Varasano’s adds a sourdough base to the crust, something (as far as I know) that’s unique. But eat it quickly, while it’s piping hot. Sure, that’s important everywhere. Especially here, though, because as all that bubbly deliciousness cools, the sour taste becomes more pronounced, and a little less pleasant, It’s still yummy, though. If you take some home (the pies are huge) the left overs will be disappointing, unless there is some arcane secret to reheating that I haven’t cracked yet.

10.) Zucca

Zucca has the rather dubious distinction of being the place I found because it’s the one place where you can usually find a table when all the other Decatur Spots are full. Thank heaven, because otherwise, I might have missed some mighty tasty pizza. It’s one of the best slices in a neighborhood that’s full of them, and while you can’t (alas!) get slices at night, the pies are always piled high with generous toppings and cheese, and the crust has a subtly sweet bready taste that’s terrific.

To be honest, the ambience seems a little out of place for Decatur, known mostly for charming, quaint pubs and casual but upscale dining. Entering the door is like crossing a portal that leads from the Square to a dive in any college town, anywhere in the USA. It can be a little loud, although in a fun rather than oppressive way, and the service can be a little on the slow slide. It’s friendly, though, and the pizza is worth the wait. The sauce is made fresh on-premises every day. That makes a difference. The bar is solid.

Honorable Mention:

New York Pizza Exchange

As you’ve likely guessed from the name, New York Pizza Exchange is the closest thing you’re likely to find to New York street pie south of Jersey. It might be a little pricier than, say, Edgewood, but there are plenty of seats, an extensive bar, and an extensive non-pizza menu. You’re probably going to want to avoid it after 7 on Friday and Saturday night, when the crowd and live music makes conversation challenging.

The pizza, though, the pizza is down right yummy, made special by the subtle dash of oregano in the red sauce. The garlic sauce on the white pizza is terrific, too. In fact, while the crust and toppings are delicious, the sauce is the star of the show here.

The New York Pizza Exchange is as much a sports bar as a pizza place, a change from my college days, so it’s a good place to catch a game if you happen to be in the neighborhood. In Atlanta, longevity counts. The fact that this place has been around and thriving for more than three decades says something.

Uncle Vito’s

To be honest, I haven’t been to Uncle Vito’s in years. The location I used to know and love when I lived in the wilds of suburbia has long since closed, and the remaining ones just aren’t close to any place I ever go. So I am reviewing from memory, which is probably unfair. I am convinced that one of the reasons transplants can’t find pizza that compares to what they got back home is simply this: Atlanta pizza isn’t competing with any specific New York pizza, it’s competing with memory. Nostalgia always wins. But I remember Uncle Vito’s having generous slices, enough cheese that you never felt the need to order extra, good, foldable crust, and some of the very best Italian sausage I’ve ever tried. Here’s hoping they’re as good as I remember, and that I find myself passing one at lunch time some day soon.

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Book Review: “The Night Circus” by Erin Morgenstern

Read The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Wow, the last quarter of 2011 has been a grand one for books. Erin Morgenstern’s lovely and haunting The Night Circus continues a string of truly good reads that began with Among Others and The Magician King. It’s a book I’ll be thinking about for a while, and one I’ll alms certainly read again some day … something increasingly rare when my to-be-read stack reaches the ceiling. It’s certainly one I’ll be pushing on my friends and family. Lots of them, in fact. The Night Circus is a book that I can recommend to a wide swath of them, because it will appeal to a very broad range of tastes. It’s romantic, it’s mysterious, it’s evocative (certainly that!), it’s magical (oh yes), it’s lovely, and it’s (at times) heartbreaking. And it’s almost impossible to describe.

Celia and Marco are the young proteges of rival magicians that have been dueling for ages. They are meant to continue the struggle by playing a game they don’t really understand, for stakes they can barely imagine. The arena is the marvelous Le Cirque des Reves, The Circus of Dreams, a place that Celia calls “wonder and comfort and mystery all together.” Think of the most wonderful Cirque du Soleil possible, a carnival imagined by Isabel Allende, Ray Bradbury, and J. K. Rowling.

Le Cirque des Reves appears suddenly, and is open only at night. It’s the place of wonders we’ve all dreamed of finding, the marvel the artist sleeping within has always longed to create. It’s a place you’ll ache to visit. Neither Celia or Marco knows how to win the game. But they know they can’t stop playing, and they begin to suspect that the loser will die. The game gets complicated when Celia and Marco fall in love.

A synopsis doesn’t do The Night Circus justice. The prose is lovely and elegant. The writing is not as lush as, say, a Ray Bradbury, Catherynne Valente, or Mark Helprin, but the lighter touch is perfect for the story, like cotton candy spun from silver moonlight (which, by the way, is the kind of thing one would be likely to find at the Night Circus). At times, her descriptions seem almost like sketches, whips of dream glimpsed then vanished. Nonetheless, it’s a sensual treat … the sights, and even the sounds, textures, and scents, seem immediate and real. We never stay too long with any one character or scene. We drop in and are gone. We long to linger, yes, but we are eager to see what’s around the next corner, too. It’s a brilliant structure for a novel.

As author Katherine Dunn said, The Night Circus has a “leisurely but persistent suspense.” I wanted to rush through The Night Circus, and I wanted to savor every word. I couldn’t wait to get to the end; I wanted it to go on forever. I hope you’ll give it a read. Your local corner bookshop is sure to have a copy, or it’s perfect for that new holiday tablet gadget. Either way, I look forward to hearing what you think.

UPDATE:

Erin Morgenstern will be signing here (or at least fairly close to here) in the Greater Atlanta Area on Friday, January 27, at 7:00pm. The event occurs at FoxTale Book Shoppe, in Woodstock, Georgia. It’s a ticketed event; $30 admits two and includes a copy of the book ready for signing. For more information, contact: FoxTale Book Shoppe, 770/516-9989, 105 E. Main St., #138, Woodstock, Georgia.

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Book Review: “The Magician King” by Lev Grossman

Read The Magician King: A Novel by Lev Grossman

I don’t usually review sequels. That’s not a bias, mind. I have nothing against sequels, especially when they continue a story I enjoyed. There are exceptions, of course. I reviewed the brilliant The Angel’s Game, for example. Although that doesn’t really count; it’s not so much a sequel as a related novel set in the same basic milleu. Besides, it really is a special read. I reviewed Robert V. S. Redick’s The Ruling Sea, the second in a series. I didn’t review the third book, despite the fact that I rather liked it—mostly because readers of the first two were already likely to pick it up, and those who haven’t aren’t going to want to start in the middle. As with most sequels, generally speaking, I didn’t have much to say that I hadn’t already said about the first book. (If you haven’t read Redick’s series, it’s worth checking out. It’s a light, fast-paced, fun read with characters that remind me of those created by the late, great Lloyd Alexander. But I digress.)

If you read my review of Lev Grossman’s previous novel, The Magicians, you’ll recall that (spoiler alert!) I liked it a great deal. On the surface, it’s a sort of Narnia/Harry Potter book for adults, with familiar archetypes viewed through the lens of modern literary fiction, with all of the cynical irony you’d expect in the post Bright Lights, Big City era. But it’s actually a lot more than that. It’s a powerful and moving novel about what happens when wishes come true, about power, about love, yes, and even about responsibility. It’s also a heck of a fun read, albeit a heartbreaking one at times, one that my love of the source material (Narnia, Harry Potter, The Once and Future King, etc.) made especially poignant. It’s exciting, it’s funny, and, frankly, it’s darned insightful. I was excited to learn that a sequel was in the works.

I went to hear Mr. Grossman speak when his author tour brought him to Atlanta, and while I found his talk and reading delightful, I didn’t think The Magician King was a book I’d be reviewing. Largely because, when someone asked about a third book, Mr. Grossman joked about writing as many as his agent thought he could sell. Great, I thought. This isn’t a book. It’s an episode. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I've got to say, the Brits got a much cooler cover than we did here in America. Of course, you can't judge it that way.

While The Magician King assumes familiarity with the first book (although it does a fine job of reminding you of the hight points if it’s been a while since you read it), this is a sequel with it’s own beginning, middle, and very definite end. It’s not a product. It’s a novel. And darned if it’s not an out an out better book.

More, Quentin Coldwater (how great is that name?), the main character, grows and changes in this book. Sure, he’s (at times) the same whiny git he was in The Magicians, and you’ll want to slap him more than once. But there’s something in him that longs for more, and that something makes us long right along with him. If the first book was (at least ostensibly) about Quentin becoming a Magician, learning to harness, if not live up to, the power within, the sequel is about Quentin learning what it means to be a hero.

The first book had nods to all sorts of fantasy classics, and the sequel has them, too, with all sorts of delicious Easter eggs for fans of the genre (from the obvious—a winking reference to mischief managed—to the almost achanely obscure—Free Trader Beowulf). The structure of the main story is drawn primarily from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, one of my favorite of the Narnia tales, but The Magician King is far more than a mere homage or pastiche.

There’s a parallel story as well, one that shows us what happened to another character, Quentin’s friend Julia, while he was away at the Brakebills college of magic in the first book. Her story is a harsher one than Quentin’s, and in some ways a more interesting one, but it provides a delicious counter melody. What Quentin was essentially given in The Magicians, Julia has to fight for. Hers is a gripping and, at times, even difficult story to read. If you’ve ever wondered about the characters left behind, the unchosen, so to speak—think of Dudley in the Harry Potter stories, or Susan in C. S. Lewis’s The Last Battle—Julia’s story will fascinate you. Julia is the one who wasn’t granted access to Brakebills, the one to whom magic is denied. But unlike cartoonish Dudley, Julia is a character of mighty intellect and grit. And also, alas, a toxic sadness. A sea of depression that seems sure to drown her. She pays a terrible price, but she gets what she wants. But in Grossman’s books, magic and irony come wrapped together, like a bitter center in a sweet chocolate.

The stories intertwine, and their parallel resolutions, which come with sacrifice (from both), reward (for one), and loss (for the other) are elegant and unexpected—although, in retrospect, inevitable. It’s got an ending that absolutely threw me for a loop, but by Heaven, Grossman earned it. As Quentin learns, the hero isn’t the one who gains the reward; the hero pays the price.

At the end of the story, Quentin is a man who has accomplished his quest and become a hero. But in many ways, both literal and metaphoric, he’s lost everything he holds dear. But oddly, he’s left in a good place, or as close to it as a flawed hero like Quentin might hope. There’s a sort of optimism wrapped in his too-familiar despair, a core of cheerful nihilism. A journey has ended, sure, with victory and heartbreak. But I for one can’t wait to see where the next one takes him. When the next book is released, I’ll be first in line.

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Book Review: Jo Walton’s amazing “Among Others”

Read Jo Walton’s Among Others

I readily confess: I am not above occasional flights of hyperbole. Nonetheless, I don’t think I am indulging in it even in the slightest when I say, Jo Walton’s lovely, startling Among Others is more than amazing. It’s a book that’s going to save someone’s life some day.

On the surface, Among Others sounds like a typical genre book. An almost too-smart, too-precocious, too-isolated teen girl, suffering the loss of her twin sister, must find the strength to confront her-own half-mad (at least) witch mother. That kind of synopsis is more than inadequate. It’s almost unspeakably unfair. It doesn’t scratch the surface of the subtle way the story is told, and how we’re not always sure what is literally “real,” and what is the product of a lonely girl’s desperate imagination. (The book provides clear answers, don’t worry, but it manages to do so without sacrificing any of its delicious ambiguity.) The writing is spare and lovely, and the story is certainly engaging. Although honestly, the story is almost incidental. Here, character is what matters. And the lead character, Morwenna Phelps is fascinating. And for, I think, more than a few of us, the bookish types, she’s a little too familiar.

Morwenna narrates her own story through a series of journal entries. Ostensibly, she’s telling us about her encounters with magic, here something more akin to the subtle marvels that Isabel Allende, Alice Hoffman, or Gabriel Garcia Marquez might describe, rather than the bombastic miracles that Harry Potter encounters. More importantly, she’s talking about growing up in a world (here, an English boarding school) that she is in but not a part of. With subtle and and times devastating cleverness, Jo Walton lets Morwenna show us the loneliness of growing up surrounded by others who simply can’t — or don’t care to — understand her, and so respond either by tormenting or simply ignoring her. It describes her escape into the world of books — mostly science fiction and fantasy — that provide her only real company, as well as (for better or worse) her framework for understanding the challenges and complexity of her world.

That latter part, the escaping into the beloved worlds of Tolkien, Zelazny, Heinlein, Silverberg, and the like, hit a little too close to home for me. Like Morwenna, I was a child of the late 70s, and those very same books were my own solace and escape. Morwenna’s reading list is my own biography. Now, I was one of the lucky ones. I found friends like Chris, Jay, Big Squat, Beth, Terri, Lashayne, Patty, Jim, Doug, DJ, Greg, Celine, Laura, Paul … and others that I’ll kick myself later for not mentioning … that pulled me out of my dusty covers and showed me the world of music, parties, March of Dimes Haunted Houses, theatre, baseball, astronomy, beer, and, yeah, girls. And even other authors (like Dickens and Bradbury … thanks one more time, dear Matt) that I hadn’t found on my own. You can’t, after all, live your life in the isolation of fiction. You learn its lessons, and then you have to live out here, Among Others. The others I found, they made it worth while. I’ll love them forever for that.

I know others that weren’t so blessed. For them, high school was four or five years of hell made remotely tolerable only by rare escapes into the fleeting heavens of Narnia, Middle-eath, and Amber. For them, I think, Among Others is going to read a little like a love note, one they might wish they could send back to the child they used to be, that says, things are going to get better. Really. You are going to meet people that are like you and who will understand you. You are going to meet people you will like, and who will like you back. You’ll even love some of them, and that love will prove stronger than years and miles. It’s worth the wait. I promise.

When a book can do that, it’s more than a book to read. It’s a book to cherish and share.

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Beer Review: Heavy Seas Great’er Pumpkin Ale

Sip a mighty tasty Heavy Seas Great’er Pumpkin Ale, just in time for Halloween and Thanksgiving!

I can still remember the first time I found a pumpkin ale at my local market. Pumpkin is one of my absolute favorite flavors, especially when combined with all the cinnamony-nutmegy flavors that tend to come along with it. Add ale, another of my favorites, and it sounded like heaven. I can’t even remember who made it — there are usually quite a few pumpkin ales on the shelves and taps at this time of year. I couldn’t wait to get home to try it. The reality, alas, was a disappointment. So was the next pumpkin ale I tried, and the one after that. I never learned my lesson, though. I never gave up. Someone, someday, was going to brew a pumpkin ale that lived up to my expectations.

That persistence finally paid off when I tried Heavy Seas Great’er Pumpkin Ale on tap at my neighborhood Marlay House pub. It’s everything I ever hoped a pumpkin ale would be. It pours a lovely brown amber (almost orange) color with a tan head that doesn’t linger. The aroma, rich cinnamon and spice with caramel sweetness and, of course, pumpkin, is pleasant and evocative — it makes you think of those bright Arthur Rackham illustrations of the Fezziwig’s party in A Christmas Carol, or holiday feasts in a Norman Rockwell painting. There is something quaint and lovely about it, something distinctly autumn, a comfort scent.

The flavor lives up to the aroma. It’s a big, festive ale. The bready, wheaty tastes of the ale balance the sweet pumpkin spice nicely, creating waves of complex flavor. The flavors promised by the scent are all there, along with a very subtle touch of vanilla. More, the ale was seasoned in bourbon oak casks, giving it a boozy wood finish that is unexpected and really quite delicious. In fact, that conditioning is what separates Great’er Pumpkin from the merely Great Pumpkin that Heavy Seas also brews. I haven’t tried that yet, but the oak cask conditioning and the hint of bourbon flavor make this really special, so I’m not sure I want to.

This is one of the very best seasonal brews I’ve tried in ages. It’s a little hard to find, but it’s absolutely worth the effort. If you give it a try, I hope you’ll let me know what you think.

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Root Beer Review: Boylan

Sip a tasty Boylan Root Beer

A while back, I read a review of Boylan sodas, saying that the cane sugar gave them a more refined, “white collar” taste. I honestly have no idea what that means, but I got a chuckle out of it all the same. What I can say about Boylan’s root beer is that, like the other cane sugar varieties I’ve been sampling of late, Boylan’s is mighty tasty, and it’s a large step ahead of the corn-syrup stuff you find at your local gas station.

Boylan has been making root beer since 1891, so they’ve had plenty of time to perfect their recipe. It shows. Boylan has more head than most of the others I’ve tried, and it tastes creamier than most. It also has more vanilla flavor than any say perhaps the Tommyknocker, and the cane sugar taste is more apparent (Tommyknocker is also sweetened with maple syrup, so there is a bit more complexity to the sweetness).

If there is any knock against Boylan, it’s that the sweetness is a little too strong, and the vanilla seems to to be trying just a little too hard. Don’t get me wrong” real vanilla is one of my very favorite flavors. But I miss the balancing root beer “bite.” While the flavor is terrific, its not nearly as complex as some of the others. The sweetness makes a little less refreshing as well. That said, Boylan Root Beer is terrific, and it’s one I’ll buy again.

By the way, their grape soda, also made with cane sugar and natural ingredients, is amazing. Growing up, Fanta Grape was my favorite soda. I tried one recently, and I have to admit … the stuff they make today doesn’t match my memory. I don’t know whether Fanta has changed, or whether my tastes have. A little of both, most likely. Boylan Grape, though, that’s what grade soda should taste like.

Give it a try, and let me know what you think!

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Music Review: “Old Blue Truck” by Charles de Lint and “Crow Girls” by MaryAnn Harris

Listen to Old Blue Truck by Charles de Lint and Crow Girls by MaryAnn Harris

If you’ve read the contemporary “real world” mythic fantasy works of Charles de Lint, you know he has a knack for creating believable characters that seem just a little too real, and stories that exist somewhere in the twilight land between wish fulfillment and nightmare, between the all-too-familiar and the too-long-wished for. You also know that his tales are absolutely thick with music—his prose is lyrical and poetic, and more than a few of his plots revolve around songs or tunes, lush and dripping with gritty urban enchantment. Many of his characters are themselves musicians, and even the ones who aren’t will mention a favorite artist, concert, or recording now and then.

But of you haven’t had a chance to hear Charles de Lint perform live with his wife, the artist MaryAnn Harris, you’re only getting half the story. Up until now, that meant you had to be lucky enough to catch the couple at a fantasy convention or book festival, or make the trek to Ottawa to hear them at a quaint pub like Paddy’s. If you’ve had the experience, you know what a treat it is. The music carries echoes of Celtic, roots, folk, rock, blues, and … whatever the heck it is that artists like Fred Eaglesmith, David Franklin, and Tom Waits sing. I’ve heard it called urban country, which is certainly an evocative label, except that it really doesn’t tell you anything unless you already know what it sounds like.

Happily, the couple has finally found the time to record and release a pair of CDs. And better still, while the tunes are dressed up in their Sunday best, they don’t have that slick, over-produced quality that drives the life out of far too many first time recordings. Old Blue Truck and Crow Girls captures all heart and energy of their live performances.

MaryAnn Harris’ Crow Girls is the shorter of the two with only five tracks. Her voice is bouncy and energetic, and offers far more range—I mean that more in terms of style and emotion than vocal range—than you’d expect if you’d just heard her singing back up on Old Blue Truck. Her voice is gentle and melodic, of course, but you’re kind of expecting that. So much so that the more raucous, more rascally edge kind of sneaks up on you.

The title track, Crow Girls, is taken from two of the more memorable characters in Charles de Lint’s Newford stories, and it’s just as fun and lively as you’d expect if you’ve encountered them in the tales. It has its own strange logic, and it continues to defy your expectations, even when played again. Another favorite is In A heartbeat, a more overtly roots tune about a long love that does more than endure—it keeps its magic alive. All in all, it’s a lovely gem of an EP, and MaryAnn Harris’s voice and mandolin blend perfectly with the guitar and fiddle that accompany her.

MaryAnn Harris’s voice is much, well, smokier in her backup vocals on Charles de Lint’s Old Blue Truck. Charles de Lint’s voice has the throaty growl of a smoother Tom Waits or a rougher Lou Reed, and it’s perfect for the CD’s ten tracks, all off which just shine with de Lint’s talents both as a musician and as a storyteller. To my ear at least, Great Big Moon is the strongest track on a strong CD. If you’re listening with headphones or earbuds, be prepared to explain to anyone who might pass that you’ve got something in you eye. If you’re playing it through speakers, well, you won’t have to explain why you’re wiping away a tear. It’s a quiet and introspective piece about the harder edges of romance, and de Lint’s rough but smooth (think of the best whiskeys and you’ll know what I mean) voice gives it power and poignance.

The rest of the tunes are equally strong, although Cherokee Girl and Medicine Road deserve special mention. All feature strong guitar lines, solid vocals, and evocative lyrics. I hope both CDs will find the wide audiences they deserve. The couple deserves to have their reputation spread beyond a few pubs and festivals. If you’re about to hear them for the first time, trust me. You’re in for a treat.

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Theatre Review: “Noises Off” at the Georgia Shakespeare Festival

Catch Noises Off at the Georgia Shakespeare Festival … but hurry.

Far, far too often, I hear people complaining about the lack of good theatre in Atlanta. Frankly, this always mystifies me. I find myself asking, what have you seen? Did you catch The Alliance’s brilliant productions of The Road to Mecca or Dancing at Lughnasa? (For that matter, did you know the Alliance won a Tony?) Did you see Theatrical Outfit’s amazing The Blood Knot (a show so powerful that, years later, I still have trouble talking about it) or Confederacy of Dunces? Or heck, have you seen anything at Horizon Theatre? Or Push Push? Or Dad’s Garage? Or the Center for Puppetry Arts? Or The New American Shakespeare Tavern? If not, I tell them, see a few shows. Then tell me there’s no good theatre here. I dare you.

Did you miss the Georgia Shakespeare Festival’s production of The Tempest this summer? The Tempest was exceptionally well performed, and I say that as one who has seen Shakespeare at the RSC, the Globe, and London’s West End. If you missed it, you missed a treat. If you haven’t seen Georgia Shakespeare Festival’s production of Noises Off, featuring much of the same remarkable cast, you’re about to miss another.

Noises Off may well be the funniest play — or one of them anyway — in the entire canon of modern theatre. I can’t remember ever laughing so hard at a live performance. It’s a genius mix of fast entrances and exits, rapid dialogue, and, yes, physical comedy. Not to mention doors and sardines. Noises Off doesn’t merely exemplify classic farce, it practically defines it.

Noises Off tells of a company of fifth or sixth-rate actors struggling to perform a British bedroom farce called Nothing On — a play within a play, or rather a farce within a farce. The first act shows us the final dress rehearsal. Act Two takes us back stage for a performance midway through the run, and the final scene shows us the final performance — with each act somehow managing to top the others for sidesplitting disaster.

The show is hilarious, always, but this cast, along with Richard Garner’s inspired direction and choreography, makes it even better. Act Two, when the actors are essentially performing two plays at once, is the single funniest half-hour I have witnessed in ages, but the final scene, somehow, manages to top it. I laughed so hard I literally lost my breath at times. I can’t recommend Noises Off highly enough.

I think one of the reasons that people complain about the lack of theatre here in Atlanta is that shows don’t run very long, and with funds stretched thin, they aren’t promoted as strongly as you’d hope. So it’s up to us as audiences to seek out the gems that surround us. It takes effort, but it’s worth it. If you blink, you’re going to miss something amazing. My advice? Don’t blink.

In the meantime, see Noises Off. Seriously. Don’t miss it. But hurry. It closes this weekend. By the way, the program contains a program within a program for Nothing On, the play within a play. The director’s notes therein are worth the price of admission alone.

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One more root beer review: Abita Root Beer

Sip an Abita Root Beer, straight from Louisiana

Like more than a few of the better microbreweries, Abita also brews a root beer, which it boasts is made from pure Louisiana cane sugar. I have no idea what’s different about Louisiana cane sugar, but it’s mighty tasty in Abita Root Beer. Like all the (admittedly few) cane sugar sodas I’ve tried of late, that puts it well ahead of the cloying corn syrup-sweetened sodas you can pick up at your local gas station. To me at least, the cane sugar tastes smoother, less sticky, and both tastier and more refreshing.

Abita is a fine root beer, with the traditional, familiar root beer taste of, say, IBC or Sprecher. As soon as the cap is popped (pun intended), the scent is pure licorice-root beer, and the taste matches. The color is dark and the carbonation is solid, although (alas!) the head fades quickly. The familiar root beer bite is there, more pronounced, even, than in the Sprecher variety, and with the vanilla smoothness to balance. It disappoints only in the aftertaste—there really isn’t any. The finish is almost watery, surprising after the boldness of the flavor mix in the first sip.

If the aftertaste is lacking, Abita wins with its sweetness. It’s not overpowering; it’s simple, balancing, and delicious, with hints of something subtle that reminds me a little of honey. I can’t remember tasting anything quite like it, even in the rarified spectrum of cane sugar sodas. I should also mention that I’m writing this in August, and the balance of flavors, the subtle sweetness, and perhaps even the weak aftertaste, make it especially refreshing. Recommended.

Okay, I promised book and music reviews. They’re coming soon, along with a couple more cane sugar soda reviews—neither of which are root beers.

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One More Root Beer Review: Sprecher Root Beer

Try a yummy Sprecher Root Beer

Earlier this week, I praised Tommyknocker Root Beer, calling it delicious, one of the best sodas I’ve tried, but somehow not a root beer. Sprecher is a classic root beer … in fact, it may be the Platonic ideal of root beer.

Taste-wise, it falls right smack between A&W and IBC … it has all the liquorice and sassafras zip you expect, with a hint of something like wintergreen and the creamy finish of good vanilla. It’s also a good step above, a likely consequence of it’s being fired brewed, whatever the heck that is. It’s absolutely one of the best plain old honest root beers I’ve tried. If IBC were made with organic ingredients and pure cane sugar, this is likely what it would taste like.

Sprecher is sweetened with corn syrup, but there is a hint of honey in the taste. The vanilla is also apparent, especially in the after taste, but no other spice or flavor is obvious. The flavors blend harmoniously. There’s a mild, spicy aftertaste that reminds me of what a vanilla wafer might taste like if it were backed with the merest tease of ginger. The bite is mild and short-lived.

Sprecher is a little more syrupy than, say, the Jones or the Tommyknocker, but it’s nowhere as cloying as you expect from corn-sweetened sodas. I’d love to try a cane sugar batch. All the same, it’s truly tasty, and quite refreshing for summer. Sprecher doesn’t just live up to the taste expectations you have for a root beer — it comes mighty close to defining them. It’s an absolute treat.

One hint: root beer should be sipped from a frosty mug if at all possible, or at least served very cold. There’s a reason for that, aside from the obvious aesthetic one. The cold blunts the sweetness ever so slightly, so that the other flavors become more apparent. Save a sip or two, and try it after it’s warmed a little. You’ll see what I mean.

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Root Beer Review: Tommyknocker

Try a delicious Tommyknocker Root Beer

Last weekend, I created a new tab for root beer here on the ol’ blog. Figured I might as well make use of it, huh? Anyway, turns out there are quite a few “gourmet” root beers out there, all made with real cane sugar which, as far as I’m concerned, is a must in any soda. After discovering and reviewing Jones Root Beer, I was eager to try more. My local market carries quite a few, so I picked up one called Tommyknocker. Tommyknocker also makes a few tasty beers, and they use all natural, organic ingredients, including Tahitian Vanilla Extract and pure Maple Syrup. I have no idea what Tahitian Vanilla is, but real vanilla is one of the world’s truly great under-appreciated flavors. And how can you go wrong with real maple? Besides, it’s named after a creature from Celtic myth, which is certainly a way to my heart.

The Tommyknocker did not disappoint. Like a good ale, the pleasure comes in waves, beginning with the nose, proceeding through waves of flavor, and ending with a bit of an aftertaste. I drank it from the bottle, so I’ll have to skip the usual description of the pouring experience. The maple scent is pleasantly present as soon as the bottle is opened, and the taste is the most evident in the waves of flavor that follow when sipped. The vanilla is more subtle, but it balances the other flavors beautifully. Seriously, the real vanilla and natural maple combine to create a truly pleasant experience. More, with the real cane sugar, it’s not as sticky or overly sweet as corn-sweetened sodas can be. As a matter of fact, I’d go so far as to call Tommyknocker Root Beer one of the very best sodas I’ve ever tried. It is not, however, a good root beer.

I’m not sure I can describe what root beer tastes like. You either know it, or you don’t. There’s the liquorice/sassafras twang made delicious with the vanilla finish. From A&W to IBC to Braq’s to Jones, there’s a continuum of flavor — an almost indefinable essence of root beerness — that they all share in common, even while each stakes out a spot of individual distinction. Tommyknocker doesn’t seem to fit in that spectrum. It’s a neighbor, sure, but one that lives a few blocks away. With Tommyknocker, the root beer flavor seems almost like an afterthought, something added to balance the maple and vanilla. It might almost be closer to a cream soda, although it’s still a block or two from that street, too.

That’s not necessarily a complaint, mind. Tommyknocker is delicious and refreshing, and the quality of its ingredients are very apparent in the well crafted recipe. I guess Tommyknocker Maple Vanilla soda would have been too hard a sell? Tommyknocker may not be root beer, exactly, but it is mighty tasty and well worth a try. Whatever the heck it is.

On a related note, I found a variety of A&W made with the real cane sugar at Kitsch’n 155, which also happens to serve one of the very best burgers I’ve ever tried — made with high quality, local organic ingredients, and at fast food prices. It’s a new favorite. But I digress. The difference between the cane sugar A&W and the regular stuff you get at a gas station or grocery store is night and day. I’m telling you, there is something to this real sugar soda stuff. If you can find it, give it a try. It really does make a difference.

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Aside

Sip a tasty Ace Pear Cider

Ace Pear is the desert wine of ciders. If you haven’t tried a hard pear cider (Woodchuck makes one), they are, in general, littler and sweeter than most apple ciders, crisper, and less tart. Ace is no different.

It is, however, more golden than the norm, slightly heavier (although still not as heavy as most apple ciders) and certainly sweeter, although it’s far from cloying or syrupy. It’s pours a lovely clear, pale gold color with a thin white head that disappears quickly. The bubbles remain, though, and a very pleasant champagne-like carbonation sparkles on the tongue. It has a very light mouthfeel and no feeling of alcohol warmth. The pear flavor lingers on in the finish.

It’s a little too sweet to go well with a full meal (although there are worse options out there, and it goes exceptionally well with salty foods, cheeses, and bread). It’s best sipped on its own on a supper evening, or as you might serve a desert wine. In short, it’s sweetly delicious, and well worth a try.

On a somewhat related note, I hadn’t seen Ace Pear in a while, so to be sure the reality matched my memory, I used the finder on the Ace Web site to find my local distributor, and then to the distributor’s site to find where it could be found.

For the bottles, I was forced to drive nearly half a mile … to find a six-pack at the local Candler Park Market. On my street. Of course, the draft version is a little tastier. To find that, I had to drive nearly a mile farther … to The Porter, an amazing upscale gastro pub. On my street. See, this is the trouble I am willing to go to for you, faithful blog readers and cider sippers. May your quests be even easier.

I’ll have a couple more cider reviews, a music review (Charles de Lint and Maryann Harris), and a book review (Jo Walton’s amazing Among Others) soon. So stay tuned, and let me know what you think.

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Root Beer Review: Jones Root Beer

Enjoy a tasty Jones Root Beer

You know, I had to add a new category for this one.

Anyway, the simple truth is, I drink a lot of root beer. I have for years. When I was 16, a co-worker at the Northlake Mall B. Dalton Bookseller said I was like a cartoon character, like Linus with his blanket … I’m the one who’s always drinking the root beer. I’ve tried a number of varieties, and there is just about always a case of Diet A&W in my fridge (the real aged vanilla makes it a treat). It makes a great nighttime soda. If I had to pick a favorite, I’d usually stick with one of the classics, venerable IBC (the king) or ubiquitous A&W. My tastes tend to the simple.

But since I’ve found Jones Root Beer, I may have to reevaluate. It’s got all the classic sassafras root beer taste with a very pleasant vanilla aftertaste. It’s a little sharper than you might expect; it’s a grownup’s soda. But it’s surprisingly delicious. The Jones Root Beer has one secret that lifts it above so many others: it’s made with real cane sugar, not high-fructose corn syrup.

Now, I’m not debating the relative health benefits of either product, especially since I am pretty sure that neither one has any. But to me at least, cane sugar just tastes better, and that difference is especially obvious in soda. It has a subtler sweetness, and a slightly different taste that’s hard to describe. It’s also less, well, sticky, and more refreshing. In summer especially, that’s a good thing.

I actually forgot to photograph my first delicious root beer float, so I was forced to make another. Truly, a dedicated blogger's work is never done. You're welcome.

I found Jones Root Beer at my local Kroger, and bought it more or less on impulse, since they were out of my usual Diet A&W. The bigger Krogers also carry the cane sugar version of Coca-Cola (in little glass bottles on the bottom shelf of the Mexican food aisle), so they may single-handly start a cane sugar soda Renaissance. I hope so. Try some. The difference will, I think, surprise you. Jones also makes a heck of a root beer float. Use the Breyer’s All-Natural Vanilla with the real vanilla bean specs. If the store is out, go elsewhere. Do not repeat my mistake and let yourself be conned into getting the extra-creamy variety. It’s not the same thing. It’s just not.

Anyway, Jones Root Beer, on its own or as a key ingredient in a a root beer float, is a perfect summer treat. Even if, like me, you have to wait until your wife is out of town.

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Film Review: Disney’s lovely animated “Tangled”

Watch Disney’s Tangled

Tangled; Disney's best animated effort since 1991's "Beauty and the Beast."

All that about “John Reviews Pretty Much Anything” never said anything about “fast” or “timely,” am I right? Right. Anyway.

Disney’s 50th Animated film, Tangled, was released back in November, and I’m guessing that most of you probably missed it in theaters, which is a shame. I didn’t catch it until (close to) the last week. It’s available on DVD now, and I hope you’ll check it out if you haven’t. It’s Disney’s best effort since Beauty and the Beast. Yes, music aside, it’s better than The Lion King—which, despite that astonishing opening sequence and fantastic score, never did find a middle act. The animation is, in a word, stunning. And learning from their compatriots at Pixar, Disney absolutely nailed both the story and the characters. It’s been a while, Disney animators. Welcome back. You were missed.

The backgrounds have a painted look that would have pleased the famous "nine old men" animators who crafted the timeless Disney classics like "Snow White" and "Bambi."

This is a 3D computer animated film, but don’t let the technology fool you. This is old school Disney, with all the warmth and charm of the very best of the films you remember. The backgrounds have depth and texture and a downright painterly look—those are backgrounds of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Pinocchio quality. Rapunzel’s forest tower (shown above) is stunning, and the castle alone is worth the price of admission (or, now, the price of a DVD). That castle, with its surrounding hamlet, is old school painted Disney, sure, but the fly-overs that take advantage of newer technology would make Disney’s famous “nine old men,” the last of the old school animators, swoon with envy. Disney has created a rich and textured environment for this film—a world of forest towers, dodgy taverns, and charming castle villages that I found myself aching to explore.

More, the characters actually seem to fit into the environment. While clearly computer-generated, they seem a part of the scene—something that couldn’t be said of some of Disney’s lesser efforts, even when every frame was hand-drawn. While Disney animation’s Pixar siblings raise the bar with every effort, the animators behind Tangled have wrought some wonders with light that will be hard to beat. When (spoiler alert!) Rapunzel leaves her tower for the first time, the sunlight seems more real and natural than anything I can remember seeing in animation, whether crafted by paintbrush or keyboard. A scene with floating lanterns (pictured below) comes close to beating it.

In "Tangled," Disney accomplishes miracles with animated light.

That horse is a Disney horse.

And while I miss the hand-drawn Disney classics, and look forward eagerly to the next one, whenever it may arrive, I have to admit the tool the artists use doesn’t seem to matter. Tangled just feels like a Disney film—not like a Pixar film (and I say that as a huge, die-hard Pixar fan). Oh, the Pixar touch is there—Pixar’s chief creative officer John Lasseter had his fingers in the pie, and it shows. But the result is a better Disney film, not a Pixar clone. In fact, Tangled feels more like classic Disney than the last hand-drawn (and stunningly beautiful) effort, The Princess and the Frog. There’s a horse in this film that has more charm and personality than any Disney animal sidekick since, well, since the prototype, Jiminy Cricket himself.

The characters are wonderful. Somewhere, Walt is smiling.

It’s the characters that make this film succeed where so many recent animated films not crafted by Pixar (and so many films in general) failed. All of them—from principals to it players—have personality and, well, life. There is a moment between Rapunzel’s parents, the grieving mother and father, that carries more genuine emotional weight than I’ve seen in a dozen lesser films. That moment, communicated with a look and a touch, and not a single line of dialog, is heartbreaking. Like all Disney fairy tales, Tangled is a love story, but here, the love grows slowly and feels earned. That makes a difference. The voice talent, especially Zachary Levi from televisions silly, fluffy, and woefully under-appreciated romantic adventure series Chuck (somehow, it always makes me grin).

Despite the familiar story and formula, Tangled actually manages to feel fresh.

The story is as familiar (for Heaven’s sake, if you don’t know the story of Rapunzel, look it up—read the original and see the film) as the Disney fairy tale princess formula through which it is told. Nonetheless, it has an attitude (think The Princess Bride) and a lighter than air panache that makes it seem fresh. There is self-aware irony in the wit, sure, but (again like The Princess Bride) it works as a post-modern comedy and as a romantic fairy tale adventure. That’s a hard balance to achieve, sure, but Tangled pulls it off.

If I have two complaints (that’s not really an “if;” I do have two complaints) they’d involve the marketing and the music. The marketing for this film was, in word, bland. None of the freshness, life, charm, or Princess Bride wit came across—that’s why I nearly missed it in theaters. And does anyone remember any kind of celebration about this being Disney’s 50th Animated film? To me, that’s the kind of milestone that deserves to be celebrated. Heck does anyone remember any marketing at all? In all seriousness, I am sure I saw a trailer or a commercial—I must have. But I can’t remember a single one. Bland is not the secret to a successful, audience-atttracting campaign.

Memorable wit, memorable characters, memorable adventure—and utterly forgettable songs.

Second, the very best Disney films have always had scores that you can hum—usually after hearing them just once. Think Whistle While you Work or Some Day My Prince Will Come from Snow White, or When You Wish Upon a Star from Pinocchio. Or You’ve Got a Friend in Me from Toy Story and When Somebody Loved Me from Toy Story 2. Or Be Our Guest from Beauty and the Beast. Or heck, anything from Jungle Book or Mary Poppins (that last one isn’t fair, I suppose).

I think the marketing team might have been responsible for the tunes in Tangled. (Actually, that’s not true—it’s Alan Menken, who crafted unforgettable songs for Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid, so frankly, the blandness here is just baffling.) Sure, they are pleasant enough. The love duet is pretty enough, I’ve Got a Dream (sung by thugs in a pub—really) is grand fun, and the wicked stepmother sings a song called Mother Knows Best, or something along those lines, that drips with evil wit. The problem is, I can’t remember a single line from any of them, and couldn’t hum a note if I had to. Just try to get Chim Chimney or Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious out of your head. Just try.

Thankfully, neither of those nitpicks ruin a fun little film with genuine wit, heart, and adventure that deserves a bigger audience than it found. I hope it finds new life on DVD. After all, the best Disney films deserve to be shared and passed down. So what did y’all think?

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Hard Cider Review: Magner’s Irish Cider

Try Magner’s Irish Cider

Continuing to answer my requests for more cider reviews, after my reviews of Crispin’s The Saint and Browns Lane, I offer a few words on a hard apple cider imported from Ireland: Magner’s. In fact, if forced at gunpoint to name a favorite “everyday” cider, this is probably the one I’d choose. There are two primary reasons. First, it’s delicious. Second, it’s almost universally available. My beloved Marley House, Mac McGee’s, and McGowan’s pubs have it on draft (most of the establishments here in pubtopia do, I think). Last night, I even found the bottles in bar in a bowling alley. My opinion of bowling alleys has gone up a notch or two.

Magner’s pours a lovely red-copper-gold, and its aroma carries citrus and floral notes as well as the expected apple. There is very little carbonation. The mouthfeel is medium. The taste … well, sweet apple with a bit of balancing tang from the alcohol. You’d expect that from a hard apple cider. But honestly, most ciders have tastes beyond what you’d expect, like the maple and Trappist yeast in Crispin’s The Saint.

Magner’s is almost surprising in its basic simplicity. In fact, I’ve even heard it criticized for being basic. Honestly, I just don’t get that. The more exotic ciders (again, like The Saint) are just that: exotic. They are special occasion ciders, if there’s such a thing. Magner’s is more like a good, favorite table wine. It’s (almost) always available, always dependable, and always delicious.

Magner’s is crisp, red-apple sweet without being cloying, and quite refreshing. In a word, it’s satisfying in a way that too few products of any sort are. Magner’s is the perfect alternative for a night at the pub when you’re just not in the mood for beer (in theory, that could happen).

It’s best served very cold (in Ireland, it’s usually poured over ice), and is mighty tasty with food, or just on its own. It also defies seasons—I tend to think of it as a refreshing spring/summer afternoon pick-me-up, perfect for a deck or a ballgame. But honestly, it’s also very nice in autumn and winter. In fact, I’ve had hot winter drinks that use it as a base, and they are amazing.

There is nothing especially unusual or distinguishing about Magner’s. It’s just a nice, slightly sweet, well-balanced, and delicious cider. Sometimes, that’s exactly what you’re looking for. It’s a staple for a well-stocked fridge. As always, please feel free to use the comment space to let me know what you think.

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Book Review: “The Magicians and Mrs. Quent” by Galen Beckett

Read The Magicians and Mrs. Quent

I was about halfway through reading, and thoroughly enjoying, Galen Beckett’s The Magicians and Mrs. Quent when I decided to pop online to check out the reviews. It’s a rather irritating habit (irritating to me; I can’t imagine that anyone else cares), but I like see if every one else agrees with my own assessment. The first review I read (I tried to find it again to link, but alas, it seems to have vanished) offered this critique: “nothing new.” For the record, that doesn’t seem to be the majority opinion, but frankly, I can’t say I disagree. None of the ingredients, or few of them, anyway, are what you’d call groundbreaking. But then, it’s not always the ingredients that make the stew; it’s how they’re mixed. Sure, The Magicians and Mrs. Quent is pastiche. But it’s very good pastiche. Outstanding, even. My wife and I took turns reading it aloud to one another, and we had an absolute blast.

The Magicians and Mrs. Quent is a fantasy set in an alternate world that has strong echos of an England that would be familiar to Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. In fact, the author’s voice is a deliberate pastiche of Jane Austen’s in the opening chapters, and of the Brontes and even Dickens in latter ones. The plot certainly carries with it echoes of Austen and the Brontes: comedy of manners, a strong emphasis on marriage proposals, a gothic country house where the brooding but romantic master hides a secret, falling ill in someone else’s house, the entailed house, and couples carefully (and at times sadly) avoiding the “inappropriate” marriage. Not to mention a Dickens-worthy subplot concerning a young man of good family fallen on hard times and working as a scrivener in a counting house to provide for his frail sister.

The echos extend beyond plot: Beckett does a terrific job of suggesting the wit, atmosphere, and mood of his sources without merely mimicking them. More, he does it without ever coming across as stilted, dated, or musty. He strikes a pace and tone that’s decidedly modern. More, he writes complex, fully-developed characters that are of their time and culture—his women, especially, are strong and determined even a restrictive age that Austen would recognize. They are not anachronistically feminist or democratic, for example. But they’re not pushovers, either. They are compelling. Nonetheless, the structure of their society places restrictions on men and women of all classes, although to the modern reader, at least, the plight of women and the poor are more likely to make us cringe. Women, for example, are not allowed to perform magic (a story reason is given, but it’s a spoiler so I’ll avoid talking about it) but the lively, intelligent, and charismatic young heroine, Ivy Lockwell, consoles herself with historical study, thereby placing herself in a position to become a hero.

The cosmology in Beckett's familiar yet strange world is not like ours, and signs in the sky auger a dark future, creeping inevitably closer—and possibly tying in with the madness of our heroine's magician father.

Beckett doesn’t shy away from the sex and class restrictions of a society that reflects the England of Austen and Dickens. Nor does he use the tropes of an alternate fantasy world to sidestep them. Instead, he uses them to build compelling characters and to tell a story that’s truly gripping. He doesn’t skimp on the world building, either. While Beckett’s in Invarel is a mirror of Austen-era London, it has a cosmology that is utterly unique, and a subtle, creeping mythology that as unique and delicious as anything in, say, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. His descriptions are vivid and lovely to read—especially his word-paintings of the shadowy underbelly of the Illusionists shows on mysterious Durrow Street, or the streets and alleys were dark-clad highway men prowl, or the taverns and coffee houses where students and intellectuals question authority in whispered tones.

I should say something about the story, although it’s not really one that lends itself to a paragraph. Our heroine, Ivy Lockwell, is the unmarried daughter of a family stricken with poverty after her magician father went mad. She meets the aristocratic Dashton Rafferdy (I would have called him dashing, but you knew that already, didn’t you?) and, despite obvious mutual attraction, can not pursue a relationship. Rafferdy, meanwhile, has strange and unsettling encounters with a gentleman magician. Ivy travels from her home to become a governess at the country estate of Heathcrest, a Bronte-analogue complete with a brooding and mysterious Rochester stand-in. Soon, Ivy discovers an ancient story wrapped in the dark mythology of a sinister wood, still working its will on the world. And I haven’t even mentioned all of the lead characters! Mysteries, romances, magic, illusions, cons, dark prophesies, and even revolutions abound—enough to keep you turning the pages long after bedtime.

The Magicians and Mrs. Quent is complex, but the pace is relentless, the story gripping, and the characters unforgettable. It’s a page turner with smarts and depth, and its a terrific, truly fun read. I hope you’ll give it a try.

One sequel, The House on Durrow Street, has already been published, and another is coming. I can’t wait.

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Hard Cider Review: Crispin Browns Lane Imported English Cider

Try a pint of Crispin Browns Lane Imported English Cider

A pint of Crispin Browns Lane Imported English Cider, poured into a frosted mug.

A week or so ago, I reviewed one of Crispin’s special ciders, The Saint, finding it surprisingly complex and quite delicious. After that, I decided to try some more of their products. Especially since I had numerous requests for more cider reviews (well, four—not counting one specifically for an Ace Pear review—but I don’t often get requests to review, well, anything, except by book publicists, and I aims to please). So, ready and eager to do my duty, I picked up a four pack of Crispin Browns Lane Imported English Cider.

“Bittersweet” is one of those overused terms that long ago reached the status of cliché. Nonetheless, it remains one of the most poignantly ironic contradictions in all of English, a language that excels at paradox. The official description of Browns Lane claims that it is pressed from traditional bittersweet English cider apples, and if ever a product deserves to be called bittersweet, it is this one. It’s bitter and it’s sweet.

It pours with a very light, effervescent carbonation and a pale gold color, about the shade of, well, apple juice. That’s not as much of a “duh” as you might think—ciders have a surprisingly wide range of hues, ranging from so pale it’s almost clear to a deep reddish gold. The scent … well, I guess that is a duh. Apples.

Bittersweet English Cider Apples look pretty much like any other regular old apples, apparently.

The taste is surprising. After the gentle sweetness of the Saint, I’d expected something similar from the Browns Lane. Not so much. The first taste is tart, mouth-puckeringly so. So much so that it look a few sips before I decided that I liked it. The sweetness that you expect from is there, certainly, but the sharp tartness almost (but not quite) overwhelms it. It’s not as refreshing as Crispin’s other ciders, but it has a dry, well, uniqueness that grew on me, sip by sip. It’s bitter; it’s sweet.

The Browns Lane truly excels when paired with food. I tried it with my own secret recipe creamy chicken and wild rice soup, and later with a nice slab of delicious prime rib with red potatoes. In both cases, the sharp flavor complimented, and even enhanced, the flavor of the food, like a good dry wine. While The Saint is as good (or better) on it’s own, the Browns Lane is one to pair.

My tastes run to the sweeter side of the cider scale, especially when you can find well balanced ones like Magner’s Irish, Ace Pear, or Crispin’s The Saint. Nonetheless, I found the Browns Lane interesting enough to buy again, although I’ll save it to pair with meals, rather than simply popping one open on a warm summer afternoon. I also applaud Crispin for offering such a wide range of flavors. While I find some of their offers better than others, I have to say: they are all interesting, and they absolutely refuse to be pigeonholed with just one style. In my book, that’s quite a compliment.

One final note: the label suggests that Browns Lane should be served ice cold. They’re not kidding. When the English, of all people, suggest serving any beverage ice cold, take them at their word.

I’ll have at least two more cider reviews this month (see the paragraph above for some hints), as well as music and book reviews. So please stay tuned. As always, thanks for dropping by.

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Beer Review: Baudelaire Saison Ale from Jolly Pumpkin Ales

To be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I picked up a bottle of Jolly Pumpkin’s Baudelaire Saison Ale. The label seemed Parisian, somehow—the Paris of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and the Moulin Rouge. For all it’s many amazing qualities (it really is the most beautiful city I’ve ever visited, and the Disneyland there just rocks), Paris isn’t really a city one associates with beer. Baudelaire is from Michigan, not France, but still, Paris is what the branding suggests. Also, for a craft ale, it’s label is, well, girly. Beer labels usually feature rugged rocky mountains, or patriots, or pirates, or wild dogs. Or at very least, bundles of, you know, wheat or something. This one? I mean, just look at it:

It has rose petals in it, for cryin’ out loud. And rose hips. I’m not really sure what those are, but they sound girly. That said, it comes in one of those great big bottles that holds enough to to fill two glasses—perfect for sharing. You know the ones I mean—big, manly bottles like the ones you see pirates swilling rum out of in the movies. So curiosity got the better of me. My wife might like it, anyway, I decided. She’s in to all the arty French stuff. Besides, it also has hibiscus in it, the stuff that’s in that good Jamaican tea. And some of the best writers and philosophers salons ever have sprung up in Paris. Maybe they’d drink something like this there, at least when the absinthe ran out.

See what I mean about the head?

The pleasantly strong and bready aroma is apparent as soon as the bottle is opened. It’s wheaty and yeasty, with subtle hints of fruit—dried orange, maybe—and floral notes. It pours a ruby red (like roses, of course) with one of the thickest, creamiest heads I’ve ever encountered. It reminded me of a root beer float. The taste surprised me—it wasn’t nearly as sweet as I was expecting, although there was a very subtle fruity, floral undertone. The hints of sweetness, as a matter of fact, came mostly in the very pleasant, lingering aftertaste. Almost like a white wine.

The grains dominated the first and most obvious wave of flavor, reminding me of a cross between a Belgian wheat beer and a hoppy American craft ale in the Anchor Steam/Samuel Adams tradition. There is a rustic farmhouse rawness there that I didn’t expect, but that I quite enjoyed. I can’t say I tasted the rose petals (actually, I have no idea whether I did or not—I have no idea what rose petals taste like), but there was a gentle, almost lemony flavor that balanced the wheat grains and yeast nicely. That, with the slightly bitter, hoppy finish, made the flavor balanced and quite refreshing.

Overall, I’d call Baudelaire Saison Ale a very pleasant surprise. We paired it with Italian food. It held its own admirably, offering terrific flavor without overpowering the meal. It wasn’t girly at all. It’s well worth purchasing, especially to share over a good dinner.

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Belated Book Review: “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell” by Susanna Clarke

Read Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

if there was ever a book I truly don’t know what to say about, it’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Don’t get me wrong—I adored it. I’ve recommended it to dozens of my friends. But not all of them. I don’t even recommend it to all of my friends who like fantasy, or mythic fiction, or British drawing room comedies of manners.

It’s a massive book, something like 400,000 thousand words (that’s a guess; I haven’t actually counted them). Nonetheless, I found myself enchanted from page one. Magic and sly witticisms were so thick I had to swat them away like flies, and the oh-so-English narrative delighted me. The characters are engaging and well-drawn, and the period voice, complete with obsolete spellings and elaborate, fanciful footnotes (don’t dare skip them!) delighted me. All the same, when I was nearly halfway through, I found myself still wondering when the actual story was going to get started. It had been going all along, but Ms. Clarke, like any good magician, had distracted my attention. Tricky rascal.

Clarke has crossed a fantasy mythology as complex as those of Tolkien himself, or very nearly so, and coupled it with the gaslit, fog-shrouded Britain of Dickens or Jane Austin. It’s a book-lover’s book, not something for the causal beach reader. Mr. Norrell, magician, is out to restore magic to Britain in the age of Napoleon. In Clarke’s Britain, gentlemen scholars pore over the magical history of their island, following tantalizing hints dominated by the mysterious Raven King, who long ago mastered enchantments from the lands of Faerie.

The study of the gentlemen scholars is only theoretical, of course—until Mr. Norrell reveals that he is capable of producing actual magic and becomes the toast of London society. Meanwhile, one Jonathan Strange, an impetuous young aristocrat, decides that he, too, will follow the practical study, and finds surprising success quickly.The two magicians irritate one another equally, but Strange becomes Mr. Norrell’s first student. Soon enough, the British government shows interest in their budding work. Mr. Strange, in fact, serves with Wellington in the Napoleonic Wars, but after finds himself unable to accept Mr. Norrell’s rather restrictive views on magic’s proper place. And all of that is almost incidental to the main story, teeming just below the surface. Still with me?

The copy i have to give away has this nifty white cover.

In Susanna Clarke’s England, magic is a believably complex and almost tedious labor. Her England is a strange (no pun intended) land of omens and miracles, where every incident or object may harbor secret meaning. Through it all, signs indicate that the Raven King may return, and more than one character is more than what they seem. It’s a dense, slow, fascinating read. In many ways, it’s like rich food. It’s delicious, but you don’t want too much at once. It’s a feast to savor slowly. It’s not for everyone. All the same, it’s a book that absolutely deserves a wider audience. There are wonders here. We need more books like this.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is not a new book. I’m reviewing now not because I’ve just reread it (although I due, as soon as my to-be-read stack grows slightly less ponderous) or anything like that, but because I have recently found myself in possession of an extra hardcover first edition that needs a good home. Atlanta friends, I’ll trade it to you for a beer. Or heck, you can have it free for nothin’. Just let me know.

In the meantime, please use one of the links to help spread the word? I’d appreciate it.

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Hard Cider Review: The Saint from Crispin Cider

Try The Saint from Crispin Cider

A few days ago, I happened to pick up a bottle of The Saint from the Crispin Cider company of Minneapolis, Minnesota. It comes in one of those large, two-pint bottles that’s just perfect for sharing. Usually, I’ll check reviews before trying something new … especially when a bottle goes for more than eight bucks. I didn’t this time. what the heck. The label promised crisp, all-natural cider with real organic maple syrup and the Belgian Trappist Yeast that’s a key ingredient in some of my very favorite ales. I took a gamble, and I’m glad I did. It was an absolute treat.

The color is hazy straw—golden and, well, natural looking, for lack of a better term. The aroma us subtle and pleasing: fruity, of course, like fresh apples and a hint of something else—pear, maybe—and the delicious, bready scent that always accompanies the . There is a light head that disappears quickly,leaving only a few bubbles and faint lacing. The mouth feel is surprisingly light with pleasant carbonation. The taste, though, that’s where the Saint excels.

The first taste is apple, of course. Tart and sweet, but the tartness isn’t puckering, and the sweetness is far from syrupy or cloying. The maple is the next taste to emerge, subtle but clearly present, and it adds to and balances the apple in a marvelous way. The Trappist yeast adds very pleasant herb and vanilla notes. It all blends in a delicious, satisfying, and all-together delicious way.

I’ve only tried the one bottle (although I am about to race back to my beloved Candler Park Market to pick up another—and maybe see what else Crispin has to offer) but I feel fairly confident in declaring this my very favorite cider—maybe even over Magner’s Irish Cider and Ace Pear. It’s delicious and refreshing, and (while I usually think of apple cider and maple to be more autumn flavors) perfect for summer. As always, please let me know what you think!

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Book Review: “The Wise Man’s Fear” by Patrick Rothfuss

Read The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss

A few years back, I read and fell utterly in love with a book called The Shadow of The Wind. I recommended it to a friend. “This one is special,” I promised him. He raced out at once … and bought a book called The Name of the Wind. Different author, vastly different genre, similar title. All the same, an easy mistake to make.

A days later, he called to thank me for recommending such an amazing read. “Special indeed,” he agreed. “Damn special.” When we began to compare notes, we discovered the mistake. The book he read wasn’t set in gaslit Barcelona, and didn’t feature a sinister police officer or the Graveyard of Forgotten Books. The one I read didn’t involve a fantasy world, a stunning woman who appears and disappears like the wind, or a University of arcane knowledge that makes Hogwarts seem like a mundane kindergarten.

So we both raced off to the bookstore, and we each found another book that found its way to the top of the favorites list. Amazingly, both have remained at the top of that list despite a few years of reflection and even a reread or two. To this day, it seems amazing to me that two absolutely brilliant books with such similar titles could be released at around the same time, and both feature such lovely, aching prose (with sentences and even whole passages that absolutely demand to be read aloud) and such utterly unforgettable characters. But there you go. These books are special. Both of them.

Quality aside, the books could not be more different. The Name of the Wind is a fantasy with all the imagination that makes the genre so rich. And in a market where the shelves are overflowing with doorstop-sized tomes offered tin-eared echoes of the mighty J. R. R. Tolkien, Patrick Rothfuss has created something that feels comfortably familiar at times, and startlingly original at others. More, he has, without question, the best ear for prose since, well, Tolkien, Ray Bradbury, or Patricia A. McKillip.

Rothfuss creates characters, and a world around them, every bit as complex and believable as those crafted by George R. R. Martin in his A Song of Ice and Fire series, but without the relentless darkness. That’s not to say that Rothfuss’s work is all sweetness and light. Far from it. But he balances that darkness with joy. The latter makes the book shine with a beauty that the best fantasy strives for, and makes the former all the more poignant. In fact, that balance is a key part of the book’s success. Some of the very best, loveliest, and most wounding fiction comes from an author who crafts characters that you can’t help but love, and gives them true happiness—for a moment—and then snatches it away. Or who gives his characters exactly what they want the most, but in the worst possible way. Joy and heartbreak, blended. It worked for Dickens, it works for Joss Whedon and J. K. Rowling. It certainly works for Patrick Rothfuss. (In fact, Rothfuss’s fans seem to have the same level of passion of Rowling’s and Whedon’s.) It’s a brilliant, beautiful book that comes awfully (emphasis on the awe) close to doing all that fantasy can at its best. If you haven’t read it, I urge you to do so.

The sequel to The Name of the Wind, The Wise Man’s Fear, was released a few years later than promised, but it was worth the wait. The new volume picks up right where the last one ended. The central character, Kvothe, has been narrating the truth about his life—already a legend—to a scholarly young man known as Chronicler. Kvothe promised that the telling would take three days. The first volume was day one; the new one is the second day. The final volume, day three, should be released within our lifetimes, if all goes well. There’s apparently a sequel trilogy coming after that. I have no idea when, but I feel utterly safe in saying that whenever it arrives, it will, like The Wise Man’s Fear, be worth the wait.

Of course, that strength is also the book’s shortcoming. It’s not so much a book as a chapter. (A hell of a long one, but still.) The Wise Man’s Fear doesn’t really have a beginning—that was offered in The Name of the Wind. It doesn’t really have an end. Kvothe stops narrating when the day ends. He happens to be in a happy place then, but we have enough foreshadowing to know that it’s not going to last. The Kvothe who’s narrating the story isn’t the same man who’s living it. Something has happened, a wound, and the next book will tell us what, and how he came to be where he is now, a shadow of his old self, living in hiding, even his name left behind.

I reread the first book before diving straight in to the new one. It’s one of the very few books I’ve read in the last decade or two that I feel is honestly worth a second, and perhaps even third read—yes, it’s that good. And looking back, I have a hard time remembering where the first one ended and the second one became. They blend together seamlessly. The first book doesn’t so much end as stop, pausing for a rest before the next one begins. The second volume does the same. That can be especially frustrating when the next book is a year or three away. But like I said, it’s worth the wait. And please, don’t bother waiting until all are released. In most cases, I’d agree without hesitation. That’s the right thing to do. In this case, you’re only denying yourself the pleasure of a very special read. And the anticipation? That’s a small price to pay.

The books, both of them, are rather episodic. That’s not truly a complaint—the underlying storyline is subtle at times but always present—ad the character arc is always moving. That’s the real reason that we’re along for the ride, after all. If I have one other complaint, it’s this: some key segments seem to be missing. At least two sequences are skipped over—the narrator insists they’re not a part of the main story. When one of those glossed over instances in a very critical court trial that can cost our hero his life, and the other is a sea voyage that involves, among other adventures, a shipwreck and a pirate attack, well, I beg to differ. I ache to read those scenes. And while the episodes that we skip ahead to reach are breathtaking, I miss the chapters we don’t see. All the same, when a book nears 400,000 words and still leaves you wanting more … well, it’s done its job, wouldn’t you say?

The story is fascinating, as is the world of its setting. The is magic aplenty—well designed and believable—with daring adventure and romance. The pace is fast—I had a hard time putting both volumes down, even when I reread the first. Kvothe is an engaging lead character. Sure, he may seem a little too perfect at times. Even his flaws, of which he has many—not the least of which include his temper and his arrogance (he is all too aware of his own cleverness)—are, in a strange way, perfect. But then, Kvothe is narrating his own story, and he has established himself as a gifted, if occasional, liar who is not above deliberately crafting his own mythology. So we never really get a feel for how reliable a narrator he is, and that subtle ambiguity only adds to the complexity of his character arc. Speaking of which, his arc follows one as old as storytelling itself—Kvothe grows through the hero stages of orphan, wander, warrior, and, ultimately, martyr. But in Rothfuss’s skilled hands, it never feels clichéd or formulaic. Somehow, it always feels fresh, new, and surprising.

I’ve read a lot of fantasy in my day. Some where brilliant, some almost embarrassingly bad. There were many, many that I liked, and dozens that I adored. But loved? That’s a shorter list. Tolkien’s books, certainly, and the Narnia series. John Myers Myers’s Silverlock, of course. Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain books. The Harry Potter books, maybe. It’s early yet—it takes a little time to know that you’ll return to a book more than once. All the same, I think it’s safe to say that Patrick Rothfuss’s books are going to remain on that very special, treasured, rarest shelf. These are special. They are.

Please be sure to let me know what you think.

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Book Review: “Guardians of the Desert” by Leona Wisoker

Read Guardians of the Desert by Leona Wisoker

If you’ve read this blog for a while, you might remember that about a year ago, I reviewed Leona Wisoker’s Secrets of the Sands. The same disclosures apply: the author is a friend of mine, and I have a soft spot for quality small presses that take a risk on innovative new writing. Finally, Guardians of the Desert if a sequel to Leona’s earlier book, so you’ll want to read Secrets of the Sands first. Okay, that’s out of the way. Back to your regularly scheduled review.

What I liked about Secrets of the Sands was that, in the increasingly crowded fantasy bookshelves, Secrets of the Sands actually felt fresh and original. Leona created a desert society that was harsh, vivid, and believable—without reminding me of, say, Dune or The 1001 Arabian Nights. More, her characters were vivid and memorable. I was eager to turn the page to see what happened to them, sure. But I was more intrigued to see how the events would shape and change them, and the budding relationships growing between them.

The sequel, Guardians of the Desert, actually expands on the earlier book’s strengths—the world is deeper and more complex and the characters have grown. Leona’s sense of pace hasn’t dulled, and the mental pictures conjured by her spare but elegant prose and much more vivid. Her subtle, wicked wit is still apparent—and still luring to catch the reader unaware.

Guardians of the Desert picks up almost right where the last book ended—and Leona is clever enough to refresh the memory subtly without a cumbersome “what has gone before” recap—a skill I envy. While the first book was focused on three lead characters, the sequel focuses almost exclusively on one: Alyea, the new-made Desert Lord. Her journey to understand her role in a complex and dangerous society, and in the events that threaten to shake them to the core, is a fascinating one. The other characters are present enough not to be missed, at least not sorely, but the tighter focus makes Guardians of the Desert even more gripping that its predecessor.

Nonetheless, Guardians of the Desert feels more or less like its own novel, and not merely like the second half or the middle third of a larger story. Sure, it builds upon and expands what has gone before, but it stands neatly on it’s own (although again, this is not the place to start), both plot-wise and thematically. Too many “series” books feel like fragments or bloated chapters. Guardians of the Desert is a book, and a darn satisfying one, even while it’s a part of a larger whole. Fair warning though: it does end with a fairly large “to be continued.”

It’s refreshing to see a sequel that not only lives up to the promise of a bright debut, but actually surpasses it. This is a more mature book, and I am eager to see what the future brings, for the series, sure, but more for the author herself. Small press books can be hard to find, and often don’t get the attention they deserve. Often, though, they produce gems that are well worth the effort to seek out. This is one of them. if you enjoy a good fantasy with a complex and interesting world, compelling characters, and elegant prose, I hope you’ll take a chance on it.

If you enjoyed this review, please consider using one of the links below to share!

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Book Review of something utterly new, strange, and powerful: “The Orange Eats Creeps”

Read The Orange Eats Creeps

See, there’s this thing I can’t help doing when I’m reading a novel. More often that I really care to admit, I find myself picturing the author in the act of crafting the page I’m reading. I don’t mean to. In a way, it sort of breaks the spell of the story. In another way, though, it sort of deepens that illusion of connection between writer and reader.

Usually, I picture a man in an untidy office surrounded by piles of books and papers, pounding some old-fashioned manual typewriter while downing mugs of hot, bitter coffee, or a woman scrawling in an elegantly-bound journal, her tongue wetting the corner of her lips in some over-stuffed but cozy Victorian parlor. In her case, the mug is a china cup, and the bitter coffee is tea with twists of steam that carry the scent of lemon. Sometimes I picture a shabby coffee house, all bohemian chic, sometimes a quaint pub, and sometimes a library, with hardwood shelves straining under the weight of two many leather-bound books. More than a of my imaginary writers inhabit those spaces.

It makes me uncomfortable to picture Grace Krilanovich crafting The Orange Eats Creeps. I get these fleeting, nightmarish image of a young woman, wild-eyed and too thin, scrawling the words on the underside of a bridge somewhere, or on the walls of the kind of bar I’d be afraid to enter, even if I was cool enough to know how to find it. I picture her mainlining caffeine laced with meth, or something, some drug I’ve read about in newspapers, not for stimulation but to dull the fire of stranger substances screaming though her veins like electricity. Because you see, witnessing the birth of an new kind of literature, a utterly new way to pound and twist blocks of English into something mind-blastingly fresh, is a little frightening.

Mind, I don’t know anything at all about Grace Krilanovich. Maybe she is huddled safely in a library or parlor, sipping tea and tracing neat letters on fine, cream-colored paper. Her words though, they come from a stranger, harsher, lovelier, and all together original place that is three parts in-your-face and one part heartbreak. Maybe she’s wearing a high-necked blouse and a jacket. I imagine it’s more likely to be a ratty t-shirt, one even the thrift store wouldn’t take, one with writing that holes and fading have long obscured, but might once have been something obscene, or maybe a prayer. You can’t tell. You’ve seen girls with shirts like that. But you’ve always looked away quickly, haven’t you? I have. And later, a part of me always wished I hadn’t.

Ernest Hemingway declared that “all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” He’s got a point, because starting with frank Huck and his innocent, original declarations on that raft, American literature has been about voice: about expressing something universal, but in an absolutely unique and personal way. At it’s best, American literature, from Twain to Faulkner to Bradbury to Pynchon, is about grabbing words by the root and pulling them, raw, out of a character’s soul and straight through the gut, to reveal something that absolutely couldn’t have been revealed in any other way, or by any other character.

Grace Krilanovich follows in that tradition. Her voice reminds me of a sort of stylistic love-child of William Burroughs, Phillip K. Dick, and some of the edgier grunge bands of the 90s (it’s best not to try to imagine the physical specifics of that metaphorical union). All the same, I can’t help feeling that listing her even among that august company does her something of a disservice, because while she is clearly a part of a continuum, comparison, pretty much by definition, makes her sound in some way derivative, and nothing could be farther from the truth. Grace Krilanovich has brought forth something new, fresh, and, yes, original.

Take three examples (that I picked largely because I could find them on the Internet without retyping them, but they are more than typical enough to make my point):

“Safeway at sunrise: we storm through the doors; totally wasted we run for the back, behind the scenes. We barricade the door so Josh can menace the bag boy. What would happen if you harnessed the sexual energy of hobo junkie teens? The world would explode and settle on the surface of another planet in a brown paste, is what. Cockroaches would lick it up and a new wave of narcissistic gypsy-slut shitheads would hatch out of tiny pores on their backs.”

Or this:

“We not only devour each other, but we bite, hard. We’re blood-hungry teenagers; our rage knows no bounds and coagulates the pulse of our victims on contact. we devour them, too; the bodies of mortals become drained when they reach our fangs. Our cause is nothing…I’ve been living off crank, cough syrup, and blood for a year now. I ride the rails with a bunch of immoral shitheads, hopping freight trains, secreted away in rail cars across this country. We have no home, no parents. I can’t remember being a child, maybe I never was one. But I’m sure I’ll never die; I get older, my body stays the same. My spine breaks and then gets back together. I have the Hepatitis, I give it to everyone, but it never will actually get me. Our kind doesn’t die from anything, all we do is die all the time.”

And this one:

“The city smelled like a wet paper bag. That great big dirty rag hung up in the sky, casting a shadow over the middle of town. A motel was strangely and inexplicably equipped with a smokestack and it spit streams of pigeon-shit colored smoke up into the sky.”

You get the idea. But don’t dare think The Orange Eats Creeps is just about attitude. I did, and so help me, I nearly missed that behind all that aggression was a rather heartbreaking mix of story and character. The voice captivated me, but it has a way of getting the hackles up. While my guard was raised, watching out for the relentless beating power of those words, the story snuck in past my shields and devastated me, leaving my heart a deserted city. I felt numbed and overwhelmed, moved and shaken. Mostly, I felt, well, exhilaration. I didn’t expect that. Not just any book can do that, move you that way, you know. You have to watch out for the ones that can. And you have to share them. Even when you don’t know quite what to say.

An update: A couple of people on Twitter noted that I never said anything about the story, aside from it’s impact. That’s because any kind of synopsis really does the book a disservice. But I aim to please, so here goes.

A band of self-described hobo vampire junkies roam a nightmarish, broken landscape—the Pacific Northwest of the 1990s. It’s not the Pacific Northwest I’ve seen as a tourist, though. Thank Heaven. And when i say vampires, don’t think Twilight, or anything else you know. They are creatures of appetite. The narrator, a girl with (apparently) drug-induced psychic abilities and a strange connection to a young member of the Donner Party (who credited her survival to her relationship with a hidden wooden doll), searches for her vanished foster sister along “The Highway That Eats People.” Meanwhile, she’s stalked by a monster out of a David Lynch film. She has no memory to speak of, only vague feelings, and she rambles like someone reporting the events of a fever dream.

We never really get a feel for how much of the events presented are “real,” and it doesn’t really matter. The events are shocking, sure, and fascinating. But the haunting power of the story comes from the stream of consciousness that carries us through them, and the burning question that haunted me on every page … is this really what it’s like in the brain of some drug-burned street kid in the urban underbelly of the Pacific Northwest? The story is fascinating, sure. But it what’s might be real that lingers after the last page is turned.

The Orange Eats Creeps is a new kind of literature for a century that’s just getting its feet wet. It’s an undefinable novel for a yet-to-be-defined era. It’s a product of its time, sure, but its one that I think has the power to endure. Ultimately, it is about matters of heart, family, and home, or lack thereof, themes that will always be universal. I’m still not quite sure how to respond to it. But I do know that it’s impossible to be indifferent. I wish I’d discovered it for my own fledgling publishing enterprise. I hope you’ll give it a try, and I hope you’ll let me know what you think.

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Beer Review: Saint Somewhere’s Lectio Divina

Try a tasty Saint Somewhere Lectio Divina

First, I have to admit a hint of bias. I bought amy first Saint Somewhere’s Lectio Divina at my neighborhood Candler Park Market because, quite frankly, I feel in love with the bottle. I know, I know. You can’t judge a book by its cover and all that. But with a front label that suggests the idyllic whimsy of Maxfield Parrish and a lyrical back label that echoes, almost, the pen of my favorite poet, William Butler Yeats, they could have filled the thing with mule piss, and I would have been predisposed to like it. Thankfully, they did no such thing. The Belgian-style ale inside absolutely lives up to it packaging. The brewers are every bit as talented as the marketing folks.

Saint Somewhere Lectio Divina comes in a tall bottle that easily fills two pint glasses, making it perfect to share. As you can see from the picture I stole off the Internet, the bottle is topped with a champagne style cork. Be careful with that. I’d just started to twist the wire cage when the cork shot out, bouncing around the kitchen like a superball (missing anything breakable, thank heaven) and scaring my poor wife and dogs half to death. The aroma is apparent at once: complex and yeasty as you’d expect from a Belgian pale ale but pleasantly fruity and sweet, too. Lectio Divina pours a hazy amber red, with an off-white head that fades quickly, leaving a pleasant lace around the rim of the glass.

The body is medium—not nearly as heavy as I was expecting, even for a pale ale. The taste is surprising and wonderful. It starts off with a surprising sweet that gives way to waves of wonderful wheaty grain and spice flavor, and finishes with a fruity citrus aftertaste that’s sweet and almost tart, although hardly puckering. As the glass empties, the taste wavers between grains, caramelized sugar, spice, and citrusy sweetness, always complex, surprising, and delicious. It’s also quite refreshing, and pairs very well with food.

Overall, I’d say this has far too much flavor and complexity to be a saison/farmhouse style or a pale ale, and it’s a little too silky smooth to be, say, an abbey double. It lies somewhere in between. It’s delicious, complex, and decidedly unique. It’s certainly one I’ll buy again, and I am eager to try Saint Somewhere’s other offers.

I’m not quite ready to award it an A+ yet … that’s reserved for special favorites like mighty Aventinus. But it’s a solid A in my book, with extra points for originality, and my wife gives it a B+. Give it a try if you’re in one of the thirty states where it’s available, and as always, be sure to let me know what you think.

I’ve got a couple of book reviews, a Web TV review, and another beer review coming later this month, so stay tuned. And if you don’t mind, please use of of the links below to help spread the word. Thanks!

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Book Review: “Mr. Timothy: A Novel” by Louis Bayard

Read Mr. Timothy: A Novel

I received Louis Bayard’s Mr. Timothy: A Novel as a Christmas gift more than a year ago. Since it is a sequel (of sorts) to Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol, I decided to wait and read it over the holidays. I shouldn’t have waited.

If you’ve read my earlier reviews of The Meaning of Night and The Shadow of the Wind, you know I am fast becoming a fan of the emerging “Victorian Noir” genre: tales set in the romantic but shadowy Europe of Dickens and Hugo, but with modern pace and psychological character depth. It’s a love that began, I think, with that long-ago favorite, The Quincunx by Charles Palliser. Most of those books seem to echo the feel of Dickens and his ilk—colorful characters, quaint pubs, sinister urban underbellies, and fog-shrouded alleys and gaslit streets, for example—without offering literal echos. Mr. Timothy: A Novel goes farther. The Timothy of the title is none other than Timothy Cratchit himself, Tiny Tim. Stripped utterly of his angelic sentimentality, Bayard’s Timothy emerges as a fully realized character worthy to number among the best Dickensian heroes.

I should mention that I am not generally a fan of writers making use of another author’s characters. While I have enjoyed more than a few modern takes on, say Sherlock Holmes, more often, we wind up with something like Scarlet, the unworthy followup to Margaret Mitchell’s brilliant Gone With The Wind. Mr. Timothy: A Novel succeeds largely because in Dickens’ original, Tiny Tim is little more than a caricature, a sort of cherubic plot point with a crutch. Building on our shared memory of “God bless us, every one!” Bayard shapes Timothy into a fully realized, if somewhat broken, human being—one that fascinates and, yes, makes us care.

Bayard’s Timothy is young man who, like Dickens’ Pip, say, or David Copperfield, is struggling to find a place for himself in a wide, atmospheric, and often dangerous world. Trying to free himself from his dependency on the generosity of his “Uncle” Neezer (none other than an elderly Ebeneezer Scrooge himself, a man who keeps his house decorated perpetually for Christmas), Timothy earns his room and keep by teaching the madam of a London brothel how to read. Timothy is a man haunted—not by the literal spirits that troubled his Uncle Neezer, but by images of his late father, and by the bodies of murdered 10-year-old girls, who appear in London’s seedy docklands branded with a letter G.

The mystery that follows is a page turner, with a puzzling mystery in a coffin-filled basement, an assault on a gloriously gothic mansion, and a desperate final chase along the urban river. The characters are, well, Dickensian—all colorful, complex, and worthy of the master himself. The mystery is intriguing and the suspense is relentless. But the true stars are Timothy himself, as the events both scar and heal him, and Bayard’s lush, elegant prose, filled with passages that beg to be read aloud and shared.

As another old favorite, Silverlock, reminds me, there is a joy in meeting old literary friends again in a new and unexpected place. Mr. Timothy: A Novel is more than a pastiche. It’s a fully realized and absolutely original novel that is well worth your time. Don’t repeat my mistake and wait for next year’s winter holiday season. Do yourself a favor and read it now.

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Book Review: Looking for the King, An Inklings Novel

Read Looking for the King: An Inklings Novel by David C. Downing

A very special Christmas gift brightened this past gloomy December: a chance to spend some remarkable evenings in conversation with the Inklings, that famous band of readers and writers that counted among its members C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, Owen Barfield, and Hugo Dyson. This remarkable experience came in the form of a new book, Looking for the King: An Inklings Novel by David C. Downing. It’s a somewhat flawed but overall delightful read.

The story tells of a young American, Tom, who has come to England in the months just before World War II to research a book on the historical King Arthur. Along the way, he encounters a lovely young woman, Laura, who is haunted by dreams that seem to be leading her to specific historical sites, all of which are connected to a famous lost artifact—the Spear of Destiny that pierced the side of Christ as he hung on the cross. Along the way, our heroes are fortunate enough to receive some help from the Inklings themselves, especially Williams, Tolkien, and Lewis.

From a pure storytelling point of view, the Looking for the King: An Inklings Novel could have used, uh, well, another draft. We never get a feel for why Laura is apparently led to discover the Spear of Destiny, or what might happen if she doesn’t. There are sinister “others” after the spear, and we know they are following our heroes closely. But we never really get a feeling of danger from them. Even the ultimate end of the quest seems a little too easy, and there’s little to suggest that the world would have been significantly different had Tom and Laura simply stayed at home. More, there is a significant obstacle in the way of Tom and Laura’s chaste and charming budding romance that simply disappears, in a rather offhanded way midway through the novel, without apparent consequence, emotional or otherwise. All of those are fairly significant and rather obvious storytelling flaws.

And, frankly, none of them matter a bit.

While Looking for the King: An Inklings Novel doesn’t quite work as a supernatural mystery thriller, it does work as mythopoeia, as myth making—it is a reflection of the true light, like a shaft of dappled sunlight reaching through the thick, green canopy of a dense forest. For better or for worse, David Downing isn’t Dan Brown. The thriller aspects of this novel are lacking, the character arcs, especially for Tom, are profound and significant.

Unlike Brown’s shallow Langdon, who is basically the same smug man book after book, Tom changes profoundly as the book progresses. He is changed by the events of his quest, by his growing feelings for Laura, and, most of all, by his conversations with the Inklings. Those conversations alone are worth the price of the book. I’ll be thinking about the ideas, philosophical, theological, and mythic, long after I’ve forgotten the details of the story.

Downing has done a remarkable job researching the Inklings … plowing through volumes of biographies, first person accounts, essays, and, most of all, letters to capture the essence of their personalities, their speech patterns, their humor, their relationships, and even their thoughts. In many cases, Downing has used their own words (carefully annotated at the end of the book) to recreate the wisdom they might have bestowed upon a bewildered, seeking American. In some cases, I felt like they were talking to me.

The Inklings, Lewis and Tolkien especially, are a part of a very special personal pantheon for me: they number, along with Ray Bradbury, Lloyd Alexander, Dr. Seuss, Walt Disney, Hank Aaron, Joseph Campbell, and the crews of the Apollo flights, as my personal heroes. My journey to the Eagle and Child, the Oxford pub where the Inklings met, was a kind of personal pilgrimage for me. Reading Looking for the King: An Inklings Novel is as close as I’ll ever come to joining them for a pint and a night of conversation. For one night, at least, I felt like I was right there with them. I’m grateful for that experience.

Also, kudos to Ignatius Press for crafting a lovely edition, with quality paper, stamped spine, and, so help me, stitched binding. While I sincerely applaud print on demand for making far more titles available to hungry readers like me, and for making the publishing industry (at least potentially) more efficient overall, I am delighted to still run across fine craftsmanship from a smaller press now and again. Although come to think of it, some of the finest print craftsmanship around these days comes from small publishing houses like Small Beer Press and Subterranean Press.

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Review: J. D. Rothschild’s Hot Chocolate Blend

Try J. D. Rothschild’s Hot Chocolate Blend

A short blog today, folks, but something I wanted to share: my first ever hot chocolate review. The best hot chocolate I’ve ever tried came from a friend’s mother some (I think) 25 years ago, who made hers from shaved gourmet chocolate and fresh, creamy milk. Nothing else I’ve tried has come close, alas. Nothing, that is, until I tried a tin of J. D. Rothschild’s Premium Hot Chocolate blend over the snowy Christmas holiday. It’s probably not fair to compare a powder from a can to a 25-year-old memory of melting shaved chocolate, but I am happy to report that J. D. Rothschild’s holds its own just fine.

I have to start by admitting: I am a hot chocolate fan. Much to my wife’s unending amusement, I actually own a hot chocolate making appliance, which I swear by. The machine makes chocolate that is perfectly hot and wonderfully frothy. It is, however, only as good as the chocolate inside it. Rothschild’s is the best I’ve found. It’s all natural, and it’s made locally, by hand, in small batches. And it’s just terrific—exactly the way real hot chocolate is supposed to taste.

The directions call for water, but I used milk (by mistake) the first time, and a blend of water and milk the second (on purpose). I think the ideal blend may be 3 parts milk to one part water, but I have great incentive to keep experimenting. Each “test batch” yields mugs of rich, creamy, delicious chocolate, and I am happy to keep sampling them. All in the name of science, of course. To the best of my knowledge, it’s only available at the Irwin Street Market, but if you don’t happen to live in one of the groovy intown Atlanta neighborhoods, give them a call. I’m sure they can mail you a can.

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Beer Review: Abita Christmas Ale

Try Abita Christmas Ale

Samuel Adams doesn’t brew any of my favorite beers (although I hear their Christmas brews this year are sensational). I don’t dislike Samuel Adams, mind—not by any means—they just don’t happen to make anything that makes my top ten list. Nonetheless, I will always have a soft spot in my heart for Samuel Adams because, rightly or wrongly, I credit them for truly sparking the American craft beer revolution. Sure, there were other plenty of American craft beers on the market before Sam Adams burst on to the scene with a winning combination of excellent product and powerful marketing savvy. But I think Samuel Adams is the brewery that made truly fine, well-crafted beers and ales a part of the national mainstream.

More, I personally credit Samuel Adams (again, rightly or wrongly) with defining what has become the American “style” of craft brew—as opposed to, say, Belgian, German, Scotch, or English styles. If there is such a thing as a stereotypical American craft brew, it would be golden amber in color, offer a few waves of wheaty flavor, and finish a very distinctive hoppy signature after taste. That, in a nutshell, is Samuel Adams.

Abita, a brewery in the New Orleans area, follows in the Samuel Adams tradition, making bold, small batch beers and ales with very distinctive bitter, hoppy tastes that are both utterly unique and proudly American. Their Christmas Ale is no exception. My pal Mike Mikula, the brilliant cartoonist, introduced me to Abita Christmas Ale when he found Sweetwater Festival Ale a little too sweet for his tastes. While I am usually more fond of the sweeter and spicier winter ales, I have to admit, this is a mighty tasty alternative.

Christmas ales, in my experience, are usually Belgian or English style ales … brews that make you think of cozy seats by the fire in quaint, snow-dusted pubs with frosted windows. Abita’s offer is, again, distinctly American. It pours a nice amber red with a small and white head. It’s medium bodied and smooth, with very light carbonation. The signature taste comes mainly, but not entirely, from the malted grains and hops themselves, rather than from fruit or sweet notes—although very subtle hints of cinnamon and ginger are present.

My tastes tend more to the sweeter Belgian and Scottish style ales, but Abita’s Christmas Ale is a surprisingly nice alternative. I can also report that it pairs nicely with food—try it with a bowl of hearty winter stew or chili, or even with a nice Sunday roast. And while yes, I do own a calendar, I feel safe in declaring that it’s never too late for a fine Christmas ale. Especially when the temperature is still hovering in the 20s and 30s. Cheers, and let me know what you think!

More blogs are coming soon … hot chocolate (seriously) and book reviews. Stay tuned.

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Beer Review: Sweetwater Festive Ale

Try Sweetwater Festive Ale

This year, I was fortune enough to fine two (two!) favorite Christmas ales: Red Brick’s Long John (reviewed yesterday) and Sweetwater’s Festive Ale—both brewed right here in my very own home town, Atlanta. As I mentioned, the annual arrivals of the Christmas/Festive/Winter ales at my local pubs are some of the most eagerly anticipated joys of the season for me. This is an especially good year for Christmas ale.

Sweetwater Festive Ale pours a dark, almost black color—unless you hold it at an angle so that it catches the light … then it has a very deep ruby red tint to it. The aroma is mild, with very subtle notes of dark chocolate, cherry, vanilla, molasses, nuts, and roasted malts. Those scents carry through in the taste, blending nicely like the notes in a symphony—although one played at low volume. Despite the complexity, Festival Ale is far from overpowering. Like most Christmas/winter ales, Festive Ale is sweet, although less so than Red Brick’s winter offer, and yeasty. Festival Ale has a decided Belgian flavor to its yeast—always a good thing in my book—and the malt flavor is tempered nicely with the roasting.

The mouth feel is light to medium, even mild, not nearly as robust as you might expect from the dark cherry color. Nonetheless, the flavors blend well, and the overall experience is wonderfully satisfying and quite delicious. It’s a worthy addition to an celebration—a sip or two will make you feel like you’re at the Fezziwig’s Christmas party in A Christmas Carol. It’s certainly a worth offer on the crowded shelf of winter brews.

While the 2010 bottles you’ll find at better stores are terrific, if you happen to be close to intown Atlanta, you are in for a special treat. The Candler Park Market put a few bottles of last year’s 2009 brew aside. A year of aging has mellowed and deepened the flavors, raising it from delicious to absolutely amazing. Give it a try if you can.

Be sure to let me know what you think, and cheers! Happy Christmas (or the winter holiday celebration of your choice) to all.

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Beer Review: Red Brick Long John Winter Ale

Try Red Brick Long John Winter Ale

A few weeks ago, I stopped by The Marlay House Pub on a cold Winter night to hear the Tuesday traditional Irish/Celtic music jam. Speaking of, if you haven’t given it a try lately, you’re in for a treat. The music is nothing less than legendary. Legendary. As I said before, I’ve paid serious money to hear bands that weren’t nearly as tight. But I digress. The Marlay had local brewery Red Brick’s winter ale—Long John—on tap, so I decided to give it a try. I am glad I did.

I’e always had a fondness for the winter ales … Samuel Smith, Sierra Nevada, and Anchor Steam make especially good ones (and my pal Steve Scheer assures me that Samuel Adams has some terrific ones this year). In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the annual arrival of the festive and winter ales at my local pubs is one of the highlights of the Christmas season for me. Most of them are hearty, yeasty, and slightly sweet, and feature subtle hints of spices: cinnamon, nutmeg, and fruit. Pouring one is like breaking open a loaf of liquid Christmas bread—it just makes you feel warm and merry, somehow.

But even allowing for regional bias (Red Brick is brewed here in my hometown of Atlanta), Red Brick’s Long John is one of the best I’ve tried. It pours a nice deep burgundy color, ruby brown, with a nice two-finger head that thins to a nice lacing … like frost on a window. The scent is bready and rich, and the taste is, well, festive. There are hints of cocoa, almonds, and fruit, raisins, figs, and banana, and spices. The body is medium and smooth.

I’ve heard one or two people complain that Long John is a bit too sweet for their tastes, even when compare to, say, Sweet Water’s equally delicious Festive Ale. If sweet isn’t your thing, you might want to stick with something like Samuel Smith’s Winter Welcome, an always amazing treat. But c’mon. It’s Christmas. Indulge a little. Cheers!

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A few (expanded) thoughts on the future of television

Some of these ideas were originally a part of my review of The Best Sketch Comedy Show, which sort of explain why this post isn’t a review, despite the blog title. But all this future of television stuff didn’t really have anything to do with that review, and it made the article awfully long. So I expanded the thoughts and moved them here.

Watching online shows like My Bitchy Witchy Paris Vacation and The Best Sketch Comedy Show makes me wonder if the networks and media giants are watching, too. They’d better be.

I talked to a few of my neighbors at a Halloween party, and learned that more than a few of them are ditching cable and satellite services altogether, and replacing them with Internet television delivery solutions. Thanks to sites like Hulu or TV Guide, most network shows can be streamed to your computer, tablet, or TV, especially if you are willing to spring for a device like Apple TV, Google TV, or Boxee. Some televisions, in fact, already ship with Internet-ready connections built in.You can find most (if not all) of your favorite networks shows, and you can purchase or rent others from Amazon, Netflix, and iTunes. Best of all, you can watch on your own schedules, with or without commercials.

Old media distribution outlets are reacting in a predictable manner … they’re fighting it tooth and nail for the most part. Comcast, for example, is attempting to charge services like Netflix a toll, much to the chagrin of net neutrality advocates. They may well win, at least in the short term. But long term? No way. The best they can hope for is to postpone the inevitable, and lose more of our good will in the meantime.

As the technology improves and alternatives become more ubiquitous, the old media models will have to change. Viewers will no longer have to settle for content that the networks chose to push their way; they’ll pull their favorites, from a multitude of sources, and consume on their own schedules. I’m not entirely convinced that the legacy networks, at least in the forms we know today, will survive the next couple of decades. Increasingly, even specialty cable outlets, like SyFy and Comedy Central, will seem like unnecessary middlemen when users can pick and chose the content they like best … and even whether they’d like to pay for it, or sit through advertising. Content creators—from the independents to the conglomerate backed—can come straight to us.

The question isn’t if the models will change, but when. Will the media conglomerates evolve now, or wait until they’re obsolete? Networks can struggle to hold on to their dwindling market share, an ultimately unwinnable fight, or they can look at bellwethers like Flipboard or Pandora to find new models for the personal “pull” networks we’ll create for ourselves, based on our own specific tastes and moods.

Right now, the networks have to cast as wide a net as possible … to every degree possible, they have to be all things to all people. Even specialty channels like Syfy or Lifetime have to reach beyond their core base to keep dwindling numbers as high as possible. That’ll change soon. Soon, the networks will be able to “narrowcast,” targeting their programs to a very specific audience. Maybe even an audience of one: you.

If you’re not familiar with Flipboard, it’s an ipad application that allows to to create your own iPad newspaper or magazine, pulling in articles of specific interest to you from a variety of sources. Imagine being able to do the same with television.

If you don’t know Pandora (I’m sure there must be someone somewhere who doesn’t), you are in for a treat. Basically, you enter some of your favorite songs or artists, and Pandora uses a complex algorithm to determine other songs and artists you might enjoy, and then creates a custom radio station just for you. You may enter as few or as many songs and artists as you like, but the more you enter, the more uncanny it gets … I can’t remember the last time Pandora played a song I didn’t appreciate. If you don’t like a song or artist it suggests, click the thumbs down, and Pandora won’t play it again … and it adds that data to its algorithm. You can even create multiple Pandora stations for different moods and occasions.

Now, imagine being able to do that with television. You’ll be able to enter your favorite shows … dramas, comedies, anything. Then, like Pandora, the network of tomorrow will pull content from a wide spectrum of sources, ranging from the major studios to the garage independents, to create a personalized network that matches your own unique tastes. You’ll be able to flip on your own network not to see what’s on … but to chose from a menu of shows that match your tastes precisely. You’ll be able to narrow or widen your search as much as you like.

Will it be expensive? Possibly. But honestly, I don’t think that’s terribly likely, especially when you compare it to your present cable/dish bill. Remember, choice opens markets. Right now, we’re facing an environment where fewer and fewer conglomerates control both production and distribution of content. A wider market opens the playing field, and offers us more choices. Just think of the indie music scene. Think of how many truly amazing indie films you miss, even if you frequent the festivals, because there’s just not enough distribution, or because some studio exec feels (probably correctly) that there’s not a vast enough audience for wide distribution.

But back to the original point, choice also brings competition. We’ll certainly pay for some of this content. Some will be paid for by advertising. Imagine how attractive a precisely-targeted series of networks would be to advertisers. Even the commercials will be better, because we’ll be seeing marketing that’s more likely to be of interest. Marketing itself can become a service rather than an intrusion, something done for, not to, the customer.

Granted, the models for monetizing will have to change. Television is still expensive to produce, even if the inherit waste in the process can be eliminated. That will come. Advertising will continue to support some, and we’ll pay for others—subscribing to a series, or just buying or renting an episode or two. We’ll see more branded entertainment (a lonely hero drives across the nation in his new Ford Mustang, fighting crime while wearing Levi jeans, navigating with Google Maps on his iPhone). “Freemium” models will emerge and evolve. Some of them will work.

But in the end, as my agent and business partner Philippa Burgess is fond of pointing out, there are only two monetization models in all of entertainment—one where the consumer pays for the content (buying a movie ticket, a CD, or a book) and one where advertisers subsidize (network television, Pandora, broadcast radio)—or maybe a hybrid of the two. There’s no other option. That, at least, won’t change.

In any case, the end result is the same. We’ll have choices, and we’ll shape our own personal networks. We’ll access them through the channels that give us the most bandwidth, flexibility, and service at the best price. The only things that seem likely to evolve are the layers of filters and middlemen between you and the content … layers that, increasingly, don’t add significant value. At present (forgive the oversimplification), a studio produces a show. A network buys it and shows it to you for free. Their customers, advertisers, pay to hitch a ride (remember, you’re not a network’s customers; you’re the product). Right now, the network adds value to the chain because that’s the channel (pun intended) that allows the programs to reach the consumer. In the next decade or so, that value is going to shrink if not disappear altogether.

One complaint about customized television is that we’ll lose the “shared experience” of television … we won’t hear as much about how all of America was watching as one, say, the Apollo moon landing, the final M*A*S*H episode, or even the ending of Lost. To a degree, that’s already happening, at least outside of sports, and has been since the VCR and DVR came on the scene. But the shared experience and water cooler talks won’t go away altogether—it never will. We’ll still want to watch the shows that excite us most as soon as they’re available. After all, we wouldn’t want to wait another minute to find out who shot J.R. We’ll still watch together, or we’ll discuss later. But if we miss something terrific, no problem. We can pull it the next day, or the day after that.

In the meantime, we have a wealth of content from a broad spectrum of providers from which to choose. The teams behind The Best Sketch Comedy Show and My Bitchy Witchy Paris Vacation are some of the pioneers that are shaping the future of television. I hope their efforts pay off brilliantly for them.

I’ll have a few more Web TV series reviews for you soon—as well as the usual book, beer, and general stuff reviews. If you don’t mind, please help spread the word? Also, I’d love to know what you think. Please be sure to let me know.

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Web TV Review: The Best Sketch Comedy Show

Watch The Best Sketch Comedy Show

Originally, I had a few thoughts on the future of television here. Since they made this review awfully long, and took away from the conversation about what the Junior Varsity guys were doing, I expanded them and moved them to a new blog entry. Okay. Back to your regularly-scheduled blog.

Sketch comedy seldom falls on the politically correct side of the humor scale, and The Best Sketch Comedy Show's Jesus for Justice is no different. Way wrong, but funny.

A few weeks ago, I reviewed Alexis Niki’s mythic archetype-drenched Web TV series, My Bitchy Witchy Paris Vacation. Since then, I’ve discovered a wealth of original content waiting on the Web. Much to my surprise, a lot of it is quite good. Some of it, in fact, is as good as a lot of what you’ll find on the commercial networks or cable television channels.

One of the surprises I’ve found lately is The Best Sketch Comedy Show from the guys at Junior Varsity TV. As you can tell from the descriptive if not overly modest title, this is a sketch comedy series. So far, the team has posted eight episodes, each around four or five minutes long. All of them are funny enough to make you smile—and, in fact, all contain at least one or two good laugh out loud moments.

Sketch comedy is hard to pull off, at least if you define “pulling it off” as doing it well. The best sketches create a character quickly, usually one you can describe in a sentence (remember John Belushi’s Samurai? Or Eddie Murphy’s Buckwheat?) and puts them in an absurd situation that’s good for a few obvious chuckles. To really pay off, the best sketches build toward an obvious punchline, and then veer away at the last second to a different, unexpected payoff. The guys at Junior Varsity do two of the three brilliantly—the situations are good for a smile, and the punchlines, more often than not, actually inspire a laugh. The characters they create (with a few exceptions, like the way, way wrong but way funny Jesus for Justice) aren’t that memorable. They usually play variations on their own everyman personas. It works, though.

The Best Sketch Comedy Show hasn’t quite lived up to it’s title yet. Unless they mean the best on the Web, which is possible, because honestly, I haven’t seen any others. Still, they are easily as good as most of the sketch troops I’ve seen live (some of which are quite brilliant) and many of the ones I’ve seen on commercial television. I won’t put them on a pedestal with the very best of Saturday Night Live just yet, but I’d put them ahead of, say, the Anthony Michael Hall years (yeah, I guess that’s damning with faint praise), and ahead of most of the sketch shows I’ve seen on cable that don’t involve Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert. The production quality exceeds some of what you’ll see on cable. More, the episodes get better as they go along, although all are worth the four or five minute investment.

In short, if you go out to see live improv, and you enjoy it, this is going to be your cup of tea. Give it a try, and let me know what you think.

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Book Review: Lost Lore: A Celebration of Traditional Wisdom

Read Lost Lore: A Celebration of Traditional Wisdom

Just last night, my wife Carol and I discovered something nifty that we didn’t know we could do with our iPhones. That wasn’t the first time that’s happened — almost every week, we’re learning something new about our latest gadgets and toys. Er, I mean tools of our trade. That’s it.

But it seems like for everything that’s learned, something is lost. It makes me a little sad to think of the gems of knowledge, once deemed critical, that are now relegated to the dusty attics of our brains reserved for trivia until, at last, they vanish forever.

That’s why I was delighted to discover Lost Lore: A Celebration of Traditional Wisdom at my beloved Blue Elephant Book Shop in Decatur. Want to know how to send or read smoke signals? Looking for the Christmas traditions our ancestors enjoyed? Or maybe how to navigate with old-school maritime instruments? Well, likely not, I suppose. But anyway, you’ll find all that, and more, in this treasure chest assembled by authors Una McGovern and Paul Jenner. You’ll even find a section on letter writing, another gentle art vanishing in the age of instant communication. I found the letter writing section especially fascinating. I now want to go out and buy sealing wax with a custom seal, fine paper, and scented ink. If I can’t find the scented ink, no worries. Lost Lore tells me how to make it.

The book is divided into sections like Health and Wellbeing, where you will find everything from time-honored cures for drunkness (plunge the whole body into cold water, the excitement of a git of anger, terror, or even a “good whippping.” Frankly, I’d rather stay drunk.) or headaches to tips on natural first aid and long life (eat sage in May and have a gentle temper). Other sections include Household (for example: soap making, laying a fire, dyeing, living thriftly), Outdoor Life (Working With the Moon and Tides, Seafaring, Foraging for Wild Food), Education and Knowledge (Using an Abacus, Using a Slide Rule, Using Mnemonics), and Socializing and Celebration (Celebrating the Seasons, Wooing and Courting, Making and Taking Tea, Predicting the Sex of a Baby, and Writing by hand).

Granted, you’ll probably never need to know most—or, franky, any, of this stuff. But it’s a delight to know that you can. And besides, life is uncertain. You never know.

In any case, the text is an absolute joy to read. The entries are consise but wonderful, offering brief but absolutely fascinating peaks into the past—not at its great events, but at its minutiae, the tiny details that made life rich. More, the book is beautifully illustrated, designed, and bound. It’s as much a pleasure to hold as it is to browse.

There is a wealth of knowledge that my great-grandparents never passed down to me. There is little need now to properly stack wood in the fire chamber of my kitchen range, alas. What they knew is all but lost. Nonetheless, I find it oddly comforting to know that the subtle and delicious details of their everyday lives are preserved, especially in so handsome an edition. I’ll browse through it often, I’m sure, during the winter months when the holidays seem to turn one’s mind to the past.

Co-author Una McGovern has put together a companion volume as well: Lost Crafts. I look forward to picking up a copy soon. Another volume, Lost Wisdom, is forthcoming.

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Web TV: My Bitchy Witchy Paris Vacation

Watch My Bitchy Witchy Paris Vacation

The talented, engaging cast begins their Bitchy Witchy Paris Vacation in a six-part Web series

New media has opened the doors for all sorts of content creators who might never have taken that band out of the garage, or that unpublished novel out of the drawer. The good news is, a tremendous number of truly amazing artists, like my pal Bill Shaouy, have found a way to connect with audiences even without the boost of the major labels, and my friend Jim Gillaspy has just gone the self-e-publishing route for his hard science fiction/coming of age novel, A Larger Universe.

Now, “do-it-yourselfers” are creating, shooting, and distributing their own films and television episodics. I don’t think the major publishers, networks, and film studios are losing any sleep just yet, but for audiences and artists alike, this is an exciting time. And for the media giants with open eyes, there’s a minor league system developing and polishing major league-ready talent. Sure, we don’t have the filters that the major company’s offer—a book you see on the shelf and your favorite local bookstore has at very least been vetted by an agent and an editor. The next time you complain about the crap that you find on the shelfs or all 2000 of your cable channels, think about the stuff you’re not seeing.

Esmée Buchet-Deak as Miranda

Even boutique publishers or niche cable channels have to appeal to at least somewhat broad audiences. That leaves all sorts of smaller demographics that are, at best, under-represented. All of them have stories with telling, and hearing, but anything that doesn’t fit neatly into a marketing box is all too likely to be ignored by even the most open-minded conglomerates. Meaning there is some terrific content out there that simply hasn’t found a home. At least not yet. Thankfully, we have the Internet. And while we might have to pan through a lot of sand to find it, there are some nuggets of absolute gold in them thar Webs.

Which brings me to My Bitchy Witchy Paris Vacation, a six-part Web series created by writer/filmmaker Alexis Niki. My Bitchy Witchy Paris Vacation follows a menopausal mother and her two daughters, one pregnant and one adolescent. It’s not really a drama, and it’s not really a comedy (although it has plenty of both to offer), which means it likely never would have found a home in the TV Guide grid. But the portraits it paints of three women at three very different and pivotal points in their lives, and their efforts to bond, are fascinating.

Kate Michaels as Diane

I have no idea what the budget is, but the look and feel is surprisingly professional. The cast is sharp and engaging, and seems to grow as an ensemble with each episode (only the first episode has been posted so far, but I was lucky enough to get a sneak preview). The beauty of the Paris setting doesn’t hurt, either. In fact, the setting is almost a fourth character: the wide and magnificent expanse of urban Paris coupled with the vaguely ironic smallness of their crucible of an apartment.

Not confined to a network, the characters are allowed to be real … they are not glamorized or over sexed. They complain. One has hot flashes, one has all the unpleasant issues of pregnancy, one has all utterly unromantic issues of budding adolescence. In short, they are, well, human. As a male, I felt vaguely voyeuristic—this is a world we men don’t often see. And I say that as a man with the life experiences of a wife, sister, mother, and two semesters at an all-women’s college. The pure, raw, and seemingly unfiltered look at the experiences as they alternately define, divide, and (I’m guessing, since I haven’t seen the enter series yet) ultimately bind the characters is compelling. And utterly unlike anything else you’ll see.

Pelham Spong as Ashley

The only real problem is the nature of the medium itself. Right now, Web viewing is a more comfortable experience when taken in smaller chunks. My Bitchy Witchy Paris Vacation is told in five-minute mini-episodes—the first of which does little more than introduce the characters and tease the journey that’s ahead of them. The second begins the storytelling in earnest, although it too leaves you wanting more. Still, “I want more” is never a bad feeling to have after a chapter or episode closes.

In a year or two, most of us will think nothing of streaming Web content to our gianormous flatscreens, or catching an episode on our iPads or Smartphones. When that happens, the lines between networks and emerging new platforms will blur. The process is already underway, even if its still in its infancy. In the meantime, the content is already here. I hope you’ll spare five minutes to give My Bitchy Witchy Paris Vacation a try; I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Alexis Niki and her team have voices that deserve to be heard.

Update: this blog post was picked up by Reelgrok. If you didn’t just come here from there, I hope you’ll give them a look. It’s a terrific resource.

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6 Blogs For Writers And Those Who Lead The Creative Lifestyle

There’s something kind of meta about a blog that reviews blogs. But the title says “John reviews pretty much anything,” right? As I see it, my blog, my rules, yes? Uh, anyway.

There are dozens blogs out there that I’ve found enormously helpful, and dozens more that I find fascinating or even challenging, and still more that are just downright entertaining. I’m starting with a few favorites that deal with writing or creativity in general. Some are about writing, some are about living the creative lifestyle, and some are just about turning your passions into a career. In any case, they all deserve to be shared. Here are a few to start with:

1.) K. M. Weiland maintains a number of blogs, all with the mission of helping writers become authors. I read her WordPlay every time she posts, and I try to drop in on AuthorCulture at least once a week or so.

2.) Speaking of K. M. Weiland, she wrote a terrific guest post, 10 Essentials for an Inspired Author’s Life, on Margo Berendsen’s terrific Writing at High Altitude blog. It’s always worth a visit.

3.) The author Leona Wisoker turned me on to Fan to Pro: The Blog of Professional Geekery, a blog by the amazing Steve Savage on turning passions or hobbies (like, say, writing … or gaming, computers, costuming, art, etc.) into a productive career. It’s practical, entertaining, informative, and even inspiring.

4.) Cassandra Jade in the Realm is a blog that talks about all sorts of challenges facing writers—from topics like character motivation to the perils of writing high fantasy. Cassandra Jade often mentions a challenge, say, or a problem, or a thought, and then offers her explorations. What I like best, though, is the way she raises questions that leave me thinking about my own creative work from new perspectives.

5.) Inky Girl offers daily diversions for writers, librarians, editors, and readers. She’s witty, concise, insightful, timely, and always worth a look. She also has a couple of Twitter accounts, @Inkyelbows and @ipadgirl. Both are well worth following.

6.) Backstory is a site where authors share the moments or ideas that inspired their work. It’s a great place to visit and remind yourself that ideas can lurk anywhere. Anywhere. That’s not a bad thing to remember.

That’s a few to get you started. I know I am forgetting dozens … I’ll post more soon. Please let me know your favorites.

In the meantime, here are a few more Resources for Writers I’ve collected.

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A Brace of Beer Reviews: Victory’s Moonglow and Old Chubb

Victory Moonglow

Saturday afternoon, the only thing that made the Braves heart-rending loss tolerable was darn good company (hey there, cousin Chip) and a truly excellent beverage: Victory Brewing Company’s Moonglow Weizenbock. It is without question one of the very best weizenbocks (a strong German style wheat beer—yeah, I had to look it up to be sure) I’ve ever tasted. Which is saying quite a lot, because honestly, I can’t think when I’ve ever had a bad one. Put simply, Moonglow belongs on the shelf close to my beloved Aventinus. It’s that good.

The color is on the darker side of amber, like caramelized honey, with a small, creamy head that settles to a small lacy rim that hugs the side of the glass. The scent is heady and wonderful: bready with subtle hints of apple, nutmeg, citrus, and clove.

As for the taste? Well, enough to say it lives up to the name. Victory Moonglow has the spice bread taste of any good wheat beer or ale, with the definite sweetness suggested by the nose, and a faintly bitter after taste—think dark malt rather than strong hops—that balances nicely. It’s wonderfully and surprisingly complex, but smooth and extraordinarily drinkable—which could be problematic given the higher than usual alcohol content.

This is a beer that will pair well with food—or make a meal on it’s own. Although it’s not nearly as heavy as you’d expect from a sweeter weizenbock. It’s perfect for a cool autumn evening or a long winter night by the fire.

Old Chubb

Sunday’s much happier Braves game was accompanied by a lovely Scotch-style ale, Old Chubb. At first glance, it looks rather like the Moonglow—a dark amber brown with a thin, lacy head. It’s one of the better Scotch Ales I’ve tried, one that stands up proudly to Claymore Scotch Ale and brings back happy memories of McEwan’s Scotch Ale, a dear old friend that’s far too hard to find these days.

Like all Scotch Ales, Old Chubb has the distinctive caramelized malt flavor that’s light on hops and carbonation—giving it a sweetness that balances a full grainy flavor nicely without being syrupy or overly heavy. The nose is all about the malt, with just a hint of smoke. The taste is distinctively Scottish: peaty, smokey, and nutty with wonderful notes of fruit (fig, maybe?), brown sugar, and cocoa. The feel is thick and creamy, certainly, but silky and with a pleasantly dry after taste.

Drink this slowly. The flavor changes slightly as it warms, making the experience much more interesting as the glass empties. It’s an ale to be savored. Even served cool, it warms the belly nicely, making it another delightful choice as the nights grow longer and colder.

It turned out to be a pretty darn good way to celebrate the Braves’ return to the post season, too.

Update: for those who asked, I found the Moonglow at the Decatur Taco Mac, although I’m sure it can be found elsewhere. Living in Pubtopia, I don’t hit Taco Mac very often—although it ties with the good old Brew House as the best place in the neighborhood to watch a game. Still, the original Taco Mac pretty much introduced the Buffalo chicken wing and the magnificent beer list to Atlanta way back in the olden days. Maybe those finer aspects of modern civilization would have made it here without Taco Mac, but how can we know for sure? So Taco Mac will always have a special place in my heart. The Decatur location doesn’t have quite the divey charm of the original Virginia Highlands location, but it has parking and more TVs. So really, you win either way. But seriously, try the Victory Moonglow.

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Book Review: “The Meaning of Night” by Michael Cox

Read The Meaning of Night: A Confession

A few months ago, I wrote a blog post listing my fifteen favorite first sentences in literature. At the time, I hadn’t read Michael Cox’s The Meaning of Night: A Confession, or I would have been forced to give serious consideration to including it. It begins: After killing the red-haired man, I took myself off to Quinn’s for an Oyster Supper. Now that’s a pretty good start. It’s an opening that hooks us immediately on the story, certainly. It’s hard not to wonder what’s going to follow that. More, it hooks us on character—who is this narrator, and how can he describe an act of terrible violence in such a casual manner? I’m happy to report that the balance of the novel lives up to the promise of that first sentence. It is a dark, chilling read, and an utterly compelling one.

Like another favorite of mine, Charles Palliser’s Quincunx, The Meaning of Night is set in the fog-draped London of gaslights and greatcoats—the labyrinthine city that Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins described. The language is deliciously Victorian, a pastiche that is always just present enough for flavor but never overpowering enough to distract. And like Quincunx, The Meaning of Night reads like one of the “sensation novels” that Dickens himself might have written, had he the benefit of modern noir sensibility, pacing, and psychological insight while retaining his flair for character and atmosphere.

The story can best be described as, well, Dickensian. There are all the diabolical narrative twists one would expect in a tale of hidden identity, questions of inheritance surrounding a magnificent manor and a considerable fortune, and, of course, revenge. The drive is relentless and the tale is absolutely a page-turner. There are secrets a plenty—some obvious enough, some truly shocking, all earned. But beneath them all, there are deeper levels to explore here. The Meaning of Night is more than a Victorian mystery thriller—it is an unforgettable portrait of psychological obsession, and it is an unrelenting, unflinching exploration of the darkest reaches of the human soul.

The story is compelling, but the most fascinating elements are the characters. None of them are perfect; in fact, most of them are barely sympathetic. Only the most minor bit players are more or less who they seem to be, and not even all of them can be reliably depended upon not to wear a mask or two. Few are entirely innocent in the revealing light of day—the one who comes closest dies quickly; his death is the one referred to in the opening sentence. The next closest is a prostitute. The rest exist somewhere between twilight and the darkness of night. Even the beautiful Emily Carteret, object of the narrator’s obsession and sufferer of a traumatic loss, is very possibly carrying on at least two secret affairs. The rest of her secrets? Enough to say they’ll keep you turning the pages late into the night.

Worst of all, though, is the narrator himself. The narrator is told bluntly at one point to “trust no one.” We’d all do well to bear this in mind, too. Cox raises the concept of the unreliable narrator to a new level. Edward Glyver, the novel’s protagonist and narrator, is no heart-of-gold rogue, and certainly no Victorian gentleman hero, even though he comports himself with gentlemanly charm and chivalric courtesy. We know from the opening line that he is capable of unspeakable violence. We learn quickly that he is an accomplished liar. In fact, one of his casual actions may have sent an innocent man to the gallows. More, he shows hints of seeming madness—he is so accused more than once—and is a regular user of both alcohol and opium. Unreliable? Yeah, I’d say so.

But despite the fact that we have, at best, little reason to feel any sympathy at all for Edward Glyver, or even to accept his account of events, Cox’s skill is such that we can’t help but feel for him. We want him to succeed, to achieve his revenge, and claim what is “rightfully” his. In spite of ourselves, we like him. Even—maybe especially—when we really, really don’t want to. Whether we can trust him or not, his is a soul in torment. Is his confession enough to earn him some manner of peace or redemption? That’s a hard question, one to ponder long after the last page is turned. I’ll be interested to know what you think.

Cox has written a sequel, The Glass of Time, one that’s already skipped ahead to the top of my ponderously high “to be read” pile. It’s a stand-alone novel, but from what I can tell from the cover blurb, it seems to deal with some of the consequences of Glyver’s actions. I can’t wait.

Update: I’ve just learned that Michael Cox passed away from cancer in 2009. These two books are all we’ll see from him. Our loss. Rest in peace, sir.

If you liked this review and if you don’t mind, would you please consider using the links below to help spread the word? I’d be grateful.

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Game Review: Falling into a Story with The Lord of the Rings Online

A fast note: versions of this article have been published before, most notably in the amazing Silver Leaves, a scholarly journal focusing on J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and the Inklings. It is a terrific publication, a must for both the causal and the obsessive fan. Best of all, the proceeds go to charity. Please give it a try if you can.

Play The Lord of the Rings Online

My character, Jack Rowenstaff, visits Bag End in the Shire. Click any image to enlarge.

While there are, of course, many virtues in fantasy, it’s not hard to argue that one of the chief appeals is wish fulfillment. I’ve known many readers who lost themselves utterly when visiting the charm of the Shire hills, the welcoming comforts of the Prancing Pony in Bree, or the golden, enchanted magnificence of Lothlórien. On more than one occasion, I’ve seen a person look up, blinking, from a tattered paperback of The Fellowship of the Ring and realize, suddenly, that they are in a doctor’s waiting room, or a school cafeteria, or on a train. Each time, whether I’ve actually spoken to them or not, I’ve smiled an inner smile and thought to myself … friend. There sits a kindred spirit.

I don’t think I am the first to have been so lost in a story that I’ve almost forgotten I’m reading, and that there’s a world around me that will, all too soon, require my attention. I am probably not the first to long to vanish into a story for a longer period, to hear forgotten tales at the Hall of Fire in Rivendell, or raise a pint with the Gaffer in the Ivy Bush. And I don’t think the desire to go left, when the author took the characters right, is necessarily a lonely one. What might have happened then? What paths were left unexplored? What surprises did the author not reveal? Is the beer at the Golden Perch really that good? What of the Forsaken Inn, a day’s journey east from Bree, that Strider hinted at so tantalizingly? What is that like? Or Staddle, the hobbit town outside of Bree; could it be as charming as our beloved Hobbiton?

The Prancing Pony Inn in Bree

Critics, of course, would be quick to dismiss that longing as puerile escapism. And they are, of course, quite right, the smug rascals. But as Professor Tolkien himself noted, who objects to escapism? Jailors. The master wrote in On Fairy-Stories: “I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which ‘Escape’ is now so often used. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?” Since Tolkien is careful to distinguish between the escape of the prisoner and the flight of the deserter, the question arises: what’s wrong with wanting to escape into a story, to wander the hills of unknown shores, now and again?

Unfortunately, books have endings, the hidden roads remain lost and secret gates unopened. As much as we might want to, we can’t wander north to see what is beyond the Shire, or linger in Lórien’s golden wood, and Fornost remains forever only a dread rumour.
Until now.

The dread Barrow Downs by night

The Lord of the Rings Online is a computer game that actually captures the feeling of falling into a story. There are some limits, of course, but by and large, Middle-earth is yours to explore at will—from Thorin’s Hall in the west to Lórien and perilous Mirkwood in the east. Using the arrows on your keyboard, you can send your character wandering through the towns and forests of the Shire, or through the dangers of the Old Forest and the Barrow Downs (both deliciously creepy), or even all the way to Bree and Rivendell, where old friends will be waiting. The experience of the game is astonishingly immersive—sounds, voice, and music blend seamlessly with the visuals. Every environment is lovingly—at times even astonishingly—rendered. Even more than Peter Jackson’s films, the game feels like Tolkien’s Middle-earth.

The eastern gate of the Mines of Moria

Everything you recall from the books is there—even things only mentioned in passing, like the taverns at Frogmorton and Stock, or the mysteriously-named Forsaken Inn. Barliman Butterbur welcomes you to the Prancing Pony, and you might happen upon an abandoned Elf camp in the Shire, just before you come to Farmer Maggot’s farm. Wander through Bag End itself (although you’ll have to endure the shrill complaints of the thrice-dratted Sackville-Bagginses) or brave the dread halls of dark Moria or (now) Dol Guldur in Mirkwood.

And, of course, there are a few smiles and in-jokes for the more dedicated fans of Tolkien and the Inklings. The Inklings met regularly at an Oxford Pub called the Eagle and Child, or “the Bird and Baby,” as they affectionately called it. In the game’s version of Michel Delving, just below the famous Mathom House, you’ll find a pub called The Bird and Baby. The painted sign will be familiar to any fan of Tolkien, C. S. “Jack” Lewis, Owen Barfield, or Charles Williams, who has visited Oxford. If you wander to the back room of the game’s version, you’ll find a group of lively hobbit friends raising pints, arguing literature, and wondering about the whereabouts of their friend Ronald Dwale. Their names are Jack Lewisdown, Owen Farfield, and Carlo Williams. What fun to spend a lively few minutes, even virtually, with the Inklings!

Indeed, it’s tempting to ignore the “game” play and simply wander and take in the sights, or simply to stand on the porch of your very own Hobbit Hole or Bree house and blow a few virtual smoke rings as you chat with the neighbors. But then, the game itself is terrific fun.

Sunrise over the Golden Wood of Loth Lórien

I should issue a fast disclaimer. I’m not a computer gamer. At all. Well, at least not until I discovered my virtual passport to Middle-earth. I pretty much went straight from mobile phone Solitaire to The Lord of the Rings Online (or LOTRO, as the experienced gamers say). I’m not sure how this game compares to others, save that I’m told the interface is similar to World of Warcraft. That said, I’d often heard how these games could be incredibly addictive. I used to shrug and scratch my head when players of games like Everquest called it EverCrack and NeverRest. I now get the joke. If you’ve ever stayed up way too late, flashlight under the covers, to finish a wonderful book, you’ll know the feeling.

The first thing to understand is that this is a multi-player online game. As you wander Middle-earth, you’ll constantly bump into other players—Hobbits, Men, Elves, and Dwarves. The hobbit you meet at the Moria gates may be your neighbor; that Gondorian warrior in the North Downs may be huddled over a computer in France or Africa.

It’s the social aspect that makes the game so utterly charming. Need help? Ask, and someone is sure to give it. And you’ll find yourself doing the same, even when the laundry needs folding or bed is calling in the last hours before an early morning. And you’ll find that, by and large, the people you encounter are kindred spirits. They, too, fell in love with a certain story. And, just like you, they longed to be a part of it: to share the adventure.

You begin by creating a character. Select the gender and the race—a female Elf or a male Hobbit, for example—and then choose a class: minstrel, warrior, burglar, captain, or lore master. Each has their own set of skills and attributes. Next, customize the appearance—hair colour, body type, even the shape of the nose and the size of the lips. Finally, choose an occupation. The game has an economy, and you’ll find it useful to craft a weapon, grow a crop of pipeweed, stitch a cloak, or even cook a tasty breakfast to make your way in the world. Choose a name. You’ll find that your characters become, well, characters. I play the mighty Jack Rowenstaff, warrior of Bree, Nickollas Windsong, minstrel hobbit of the Shire, and Nedberry, burglar—or rather, expert treasure hunter. There’s something rather Tookish about those latter ones, I dare say. Much to my very great surprise, I’ve come to care about them almost as much as I care about characters in a favorite story. Hmmm. I wonder if the idea of Mythopoeia can apply to a computer game. Why not?

My character, Jack, in front of his house in the greater metropolitan Bree area

Once you’ve created your Dwarf or Elf, explore the world. Wander anywhere you like. Sure, there are a few “barriers” here and there—a cliff too steep to climb or a locked gate—but for the most part, the whole of Middle-earth is open to you. And more is opening all the time. The most recent additions opened Moria, Lothlórien, and Mirkwood. In the months since Moria opened for play in the spring, I’ve barely scratched the surface. Middle-earth is, after all, big. Remember how long it took to get anywhere in the book? Part of the charm, and, I’ll admit, the frustration, of the game is that it takes a while to get from, say, the Shire to Rivendell. But as you advance, travel gets faster. You can buy a pony or horse ride from the stable masters in most towns, and eventually acquire your own mount.

Players can undertake quests—anything from delivering pies in Hobbiton, to finding Bilbo’s lost buttons in Goblin Town, to slaying an army of Orcs in Moria, or even trying all the beer in the Shire. That’s the object of the game. The more quests one completes, the more experience your character gains. With more experience, characters gain new abilities. Quest completion also nets rewards—nifty items or money to save for buying those horse rides and Hobbit holes.

The game takes place concurrently with the events in The Fellowship of the Ring. For all players, the game begins about the time that Frodo and Sam leave the Shire. This means that your story parallels the one you know so well. And, indeed, you provide some unseen help. For example, when you arrive in Bree, a strange Ranger called Strider asks for your help. That begins a game quest. By the time you’ve finished, you race back to learn that Strider has left in a hurry with four Shire hobbits. In his place, you speak to Gandalf the Grey himself, who is eager for your news. And another quest begins. Later, you find an abandoned pony just outside the Moria gates, and save him from ravenous wolves. This is, of course, poor Bill and you help him return to the safety of the Elves.

You can’t alter the familiar events, of course. But your aid, given “off screen” as it were, fits seamlessly with the story you know so well. Perhaps best of all, you get to witness, first hand, some key events: the reforging of the sword Narsil and the departure of the Fellowship from Rivendell, for example.

Evening at Tom Bombadil's house

Along the way, you interact with familiar characters—including, just to name a few off the top of my head, Gimli, Gloin, Elrond (along with his sons and daughter), Gandalf, Aragorn, Barliman Butterbur, Nob, Bob, Fatty Bolger, Frodo, Sam, Merry, Pippin, Boromir, Old Man Willow, Tom Bombadil, Goldberry, Radagast the Brown, the Sackville Bagginses, Gollum, the Gaffer, Ted Sandyman, Legolas, Galadriel, and old Bilbo himself. There are many, many others. All right where they should be, doing exactly what they should be doing, and acting just as you would expect them to act. You’ll find yourself grinning, as though you’ve spent a weekend at a monumentally grand party or reunion, smiling at each new meeting with a dear old friend.

For the most part, the game truly feels like Tolkien. Sure, there are a few more monsters than you remember from the books—but none that would seem out of place in the Nordic and Anglo-Saxon sagas that Tolkien loved so deeply. And yes, some of the quests can be redundant and, at times, even tedious. But no worries. You can skip those, or find some new friends and complete them as a fellowship, sort of making a party of it.

The Bird and Baby Inn in the Shire ... where old friends wait.

Some of the quests are difficult, taxing the brainpower and the strength of your hero. But again, don’t worry. There’s usually someone happy to help. And before the night is done, you just might surprise yourself by thinking of them as friends—met unexpectedly—just like the helpers that appear in a fairytale, and are suddenly, instantly dear. The storyline is terrifically engaging, and complements the familiar story in the books beautifully.

I do have a few complaints about the game, and I fear this first especially is one shared by many.

I discovered the game when my wife started playing it for business research. She was immediately hooked and insisted that I give it a try. I used her account to create a character of my own. Now, I too am hooked, and have opened my own account. But my main character is trapped on her account. We’d love to play together, but since I can’t transfer that character to my new account, that option isn’t available to us. It is available, for a fee, on many other games, so I hope the folks at Turbine will offer it soon. I know many other couples and families in this same very frustrating boat, and Turbine’s inability to accommodate them is costing them customer loyalty and good will.

In their defense, Turbine spokesman Adam Mersky says that this service is not offered to prevent fraud and to protect the game play experience for the majority of their subscribers. But bluntly, speaking as someone who has worked in new media, e-commerce, and even game development, I can think of at least a dozen simple solutions without breaking a sweat. The resources required, of course, aren’t trivial, but speaking from experience, honestly, it’s a fairly simple matter all told. More, people seem more than willing to pay a premium for this service. In this economy, when someone wants to pull out the old credit card, find a way to accept it.

The other complaint is a bit more serious, and it involves customer service.

Recently, I joined a group of friends for a very long (something like four hours) adventure, which was supposed to lead to some nifty items to better equip your character. We fought through and completed the adventure … only to discover that the chests were bugged. We couldn’t open them. No loot. The four hours was vanished forever.

Now of course, I understand that software, but its very nature, it occasionally buggy, and in the case of The Lord of the Rings Online, problems are extremely rare. In any business, problems arise. It usually can’t be helped. The best you can hope for is to make problems as rare as possible (Turbine gets an absolute A+ here), and to make every effort to make things right when they do arise. In the latter case, Turbine failed, and miserably.

When we reported the problem, we were informed that there was nothing Turbine could do to correct the problem, which is understandable. But Turbine’s customer service rep made no effort at all to address the issue. The rep wasn’t even especially polite about it.

Again, problems arise in any business. But all the same, when you pay for a product, it’s not unreasonable to expect that product to, you know, work. When it doesn’t, you expect the company you’re doing business with to make some effort to make things better. If you buy a new television and find it doesn’t work, you expect to have it replaced. If you check into a hotel and find that the shower doesn’t work, you expect to move to another room. If you go to a movie and the film breaks, you expect the theater to make a repair, and probably hand out a few free passes if the delays stretch on too long. If your steak is overcooked, you expect to get a new one. Usually with a heartfelt apology from the manager.

Turbine offered … nothing. No attempt to mail the items we’d just one, or something else. No apology. No coupon for free play to offer a friend. Not even an apology. We were just told, tersely, to try the instance again.

Speaking only for myself, four hours of time is a pretty precious commodity, and it’s not very easy to come by. Not by a long shot. I truly haven’t had it available in the weeks that passed. While the costs of the game are fairly insignificant, I do value my money, too. Turbine should have made some customer service outreach. Something. Even if it was just an apology.

From another company, I might understand. You don’t, for example, expect the same service from a $14 a night no-frills motel that you get at, say, the Ritz Carlton. But Turbine has always, always been a first-class organization. I expected better from them, and I am deeply, deeply disappointed.

On the other hand, it is a rare experience. That’s something.

To play The Lord of the Rings Online right away, you’ll need to purchase the game (either on disc through Amazon, Best Buy, Target, or any other affiliated stores) or download from the Internet. You’ll also have to purchase a monthly or lifetime subscription. Subscription rates are reasonable, and start at around $9.95 for unlimited visits to Middle-Earth. I purchased a lifetime subscription, so I have no monthly fees. A free trial is also available. If you wait a month or so, the game will be free to play, with very attractive additional content available for (surprisingly reasonable) cost. The free to play sounds like a great way to try before you buy, but I imagine that most players will want to upgrade fairly quickly.

For more information, please see: http://www.lotro.com.

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Book Review: “The Great Reset” by Richard Florida

Read The Great Reset: How New Ways of Living and Working Drive Post-Crash Prosperity

I’m not sure that anyone other than Richard Florida (author of The Rise of the Creative Class) could thoroughly examine today’s economic climate and its long-term implications, and write a book that leaves the reader with a rather surprising feeling of optimism. Nonetheless, he’s done just that in The Great Reset: How New Ways of Living and Working Drive Post-Crash Prosperity. It’s an absolutely fascinating and even exhilarating, if perhaps a bit too broad, read. More importantly, it expresses a vision that seems to make readers on both sides of the vast political divides want to roll up their sleeves and get busy. Like the best visionary works, it’s a very practical and timely call to action.

Early on, Florida argues that economic peaks and valleys are part of the life-cycle of a society’s development as “obsolete and dysfunctional systems and practices” fall apart and are by necessity replaced by “the seeds of innovation and invention, of creativity and entrepreneurship.” Looking to history, Florida points to the first Great Reset in America that occurred in the 1870s, and to the second in the Great Depression of the 1930s. Each was a period in which the previous period of prosperity reached its limits, and a “reset” of innovation literally remade both the economic and geographic landscape of the nation.

In the First Reset the factory became the center of economic life. The industrial city became the place to live. The shift was from an agricultural to an industrial economy. The transcontinental railroads were built. In the Second Great Reset, the one that evolved from the Great Depression, manufacturing efficiency and productivity improved dramatically. Suburbia attracted the mobile population with the new wealth to buy a home and a car to travel to it. The population migrated to the suburbs and the South and the West — so much so that a majority of us lived in the South and West by 2000. The interstate highway system was constructed.

Florida then points out that a third Great Reset is developing now, one that focuses on the development of denser, closely-linked “megaregions” made possible by, for example, new investments in public transportation and the technology that allows for the increased productivity of telecommuting. Florida believes that this is the time to build a great high-speed rail system to further integrate each megaregion and eventually to connect the megaregions of America. In emphasizes the promotion of creative jobs and service jobs—and the need to prepare for the former while making the latter more appealing. We are moving from “…an industrial to an idea-driven creative economy now,” Florida argues. We are seeing the Third Industrial Revolution and moving from “…an economy based on making things to one that revolves around knowledge and creativity.”

The Great Reset also calls, to a degree, for a shift in values and a redefinition of success. “The promise of the current Reset is the opportunity for a life made better not by ownership of real estate, appliances, cars, and all manner of material goods, but of greater flexibility and lower levels of debt, of more time with family and friends, greater promise of personal development, and access to more and better experiences. All organisms and all systems experience the cycles of life, death, and rebirth.” The coming Great Reset gives us the promise of time … to innovate, to devote to causes, to spend with family, to simply live. Renting, rather than owning, in some cases gives individuals the mobility to take advantage of new opportunities—and may well be the better long-term investment. Quality of life may be measured more by the time and resources to have meaningful experiences than by possessions.

In Florida’s discussion of the current Reset, he builds a compelling and, yes, practical case for recognizing, understanding, and then taking full advantage of the opportunities created by “new ways of living and working” that will drive “post-crash prosperity.” Speaking both as a passionate idealist and hard-nosed pragmatist, Florida proposes guiding principles, based on his examination of history and the present economic, social, and political climates that can help America and the rest of the world to move toward a more sustainable and prosperous future. Here are a couple of those guiding principles, offered for example:

1. An abiding faith in a simple, undeniable first principle that “every single human being is [or can be] creative … The real key to economic growth lies in harnessing the full creative talents of every one of us.”

2. “There’s an urgent need to create new good jobs — lots of them. We need to support the growth of higher-paying knowledge, professional and creative jobs, and make sure that greater numbers of workers are prepared for them.”

Having rigorously examined two Great Resets, Florida makes a compelling argument that together, we can address urgent needs and build a new prosperity. He calls for us to look beyond the short-term band-aid quick fixes and invest for the long-term — something that’s hard to accomplish in the short-attention-span days of the 24/7 news cycle. We are past the time when we can afford to focus on a problem’s symptoms rather than its deeper root causes. The older, non-sustainable fixtures of our society, frankly, are not coming back. We need to start working on what will replace them. “Let’s stop confusing nostalgia with resolve. It’s time to turn our efforts, as individuals, as governments, as a society, to putting pieces into place for a vibrant, prosperous future.”

Florida also has some excellent points about the financial industry, reminding us that its original, intended purpose is to connect capital with enterprise. Basically, it’s a necessary middle man. Like all middle men, it should be as small, efficient, and invisible as possible. It was not meant to be an intoxicating instrument of ever-increasing complexity and risk, existing largely to feed itself. The instrument of commerce needs to refocus on capitalizing innovation and infrastructure.

After reading the book I found myself not just hoping, but believing that a new model of sustainable, long-term prosperity is within our grasp. I found myself wishing that the book was longer—I kept wanting more depth, more exploration. It is, after all, a very quick read. But in the end, The Great Reset isn’t meant to provide all the answers and blueprints. No one book ever could. It’s meant to spark thought, conversation, and, ultimately, action. It does the first two brilliantly. The vision articulated is practical and exciting. I am ready and eager to start working on the third. and I am eager to go back and read some of Florida’s earlier books. I hope my elected leaders are doing the same.

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Beer Review: Claymore Scotch Ale

I first tried Great Divide Brewing Company’s delicious Claymore Scotch Ale at Mac McGee’s, one of the fine pubs here in Decatur (I’ve gone out on a limb and called the area that stretches from my beloved Marlay House and past Mac McGee’s, The Brick Store, Leon’s, and Twain’s the very best pub crawl district in all of America outside of Boston) and I adored it at once. I was happy to discover that my neighborhood Candler Park Market carries it, and it’s just as good in the bottle as it is on tap. For a “wee heavy,” it’s surprisingly refreshing and drinkable. It borders on sweet, but the malty graininess adds a nice balance. It is, in a word, delicious.

The pour is darker than I expected … a deep ruby/cherry brown, and it has a nice two-finger, creamy head that laces beautifully. But wait a second before you taste, okay? Savor it from a wide-mouthed glass, because the aroma is a big part of the pleasure. Start slowly. Breathe deep. The scent carries roasted caramel malt, chocolate, coffee, and a very subtle hint of fruit — cherries and raisins, maybe. Ready? Now take your first sip.

The feel is exceptional — smooth and creamy, and surprisingly complex. Bready, sure, in the best and most comforting sort of way. Sweet, but not even a little bit syrupy. The taste follows the scent: roasted, sweet malts with subtle hops, chocolate, grains, and light accents of, well, something fruity. Apple, raisin, or cherry, I think. Maybe notes of all three. The finish balances the sweetness nicely, with just a touch of the woody, peaty notes you’d find in a good Scotch. It’s complex, drinkable, and oh so smooth.

I was about to say this is one of the best Scotch ales I’ve had in ages, one that equals or maybe even surpasses my fading memories of McEwans Scotch Ale, which (alas!) is hard to find these days, at least here in the Atlanta area. But frankly, it’s one of the most delicious brews of any sort I’ve tried recently. It’ll be cementing a place on my favorites list, and it’ll be a mainstay in my kitchen. I can’t wait to try it in the fall and winter. In the meantime, it’s mighty tasty in the summer.

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“Secrets of the Sands” by Leona Wisoker

Read Secrets of the Sands

It’s a sad fact but a true one—some of the most interesting books today are being published by small presses, but they remain the most difficult to find on your chain bookstore’s shelves, or in the ever-shrinking book review pages of your local newspaper. Leona Wisoker’s (the usual note of disclosure: the author is a friend of mine) debut fantasy novel, Secrets of the Sands, is a perfect case in point.

Wisoker has created an elaborate, well-crafted fantasy world that doesn’t feel like the too-familiar pseudo-Celtic Medieval Land, and a complex desert society that doesn’t feel like, say, Dune or The Arabian Nights. She’s created a logical and consistent language that feels exotic but (despite the ubiquitous apostrophes) doesn’t feel like Klingon or Tolkien’s masterful Elvish. She manages to use her language to make her world seem textured and real, but still keeps her dialogue fresh, lively, and yes, even contemporary. Secrets of the Sands is a fun read—it’s delightfully original, and it deserves attention.

Secrets of the Sands tells parallel stories. The first focuses on the desert lord, Cafad Scratha, whose entire family was murdered when he was a child, and the orphaned street thief, Idisio, who like most of Wisoker’s characters is more than he seems. The other follows the young noble woman Alyea, who must navigate a perilous journey and a maze of deadly politics to become a desert lord and hold the Scratha fortress for her king. Both characters carry deep wounds from the past that drive their actions, and both stories ultimately connect in a surprising manner that satisfies while leaving you wanting more.

While I generally prefer the longer, door-stop tomes when choosing fantasies (or, well, novels of any genre), I found Wisoker’s brisk, relentless pace refreshing. Trials and the learning of skills pass quickly, but never seem effortless or unearned. Revelations come fast, but we never really miss the deeper dives into motivation that bog down so many longer works. The focus always remains right where it belongs, on the primary characters and the rather profound changes that are occurring around and, more importantly, within them. It is the characters, after all, that make the novel.

The book is filled with subtle and delicious wit. For example, one character, when discussing a whore, replies “tartly.” Wisoker’s book is also distinctly, and even anachronistically, American. Village Inns have front desks, for example. Those touches made me smile while reading, and set her world distinctly apart from the generic worlds so prevalent on the shelves at your local Mega-Barnes-a-Zillion.

I have only one real complaint. Wisoker has done an amazing job of creating a vivid, breathing, original world—but more than a few chapters pass before she slows the action enough to describe it, leaving us to fill in the gaps from the shelf of clichés we all keep stored in the attics our brains—with images from, well, Dune or The Arabian Nights. When we have to revise those mental pictures later, it’s jarring and pulls us out of the story. Thankfully, the characters are rich enough to pull us right back in, and leave us eager for the sequels when the last page is turned.

I hope you’ll give Secrets of the Sands a try. Since the small presses are the ones taking real chances in this market, they deserve support. Even if they don’t have the budgets to buy space on the tables at the mega chains, and, yeah, even if you have to make the effort to seek them out.

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Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner

Pastries A Go Go
Candi’s for Breakfast at the Irwin Street Market
The Marlay House Pub
Parker’s On Ponce Steak House

Actually, this isn’t a review of those meals, specifically. The truth is, I am for all of them. This is about some truly outstanding and more or less undiscovered gems where you can find them.

I’ve often referred to my neighborhood and the surrounding mile or two as Pubtopia. with all sincerity, I think it may will be the very best pub crawl area outside of Boston. Yes, even above New York, Chicago, and St. Louis. It’s Pizzatopia as well, and is fast becoming Q-topia (barbeque, of course), but those are topics for another blog.

Breakfast:

Getting (at last, and in the third paragraph no less) to the subject at hand, this area — the Atlanta neighborhoods between Decatur, Little Five Points, Inman Park, East Atlanta Village, and Druid Hills — is breakfast-topia, too. When you live in a neighborhood with the venerable Flying Biscuit (the oatmeal pancakes are amazing), Java Jive (the ginger waffles with lemon curd are to die for), and two Thumbs Up locations (best pancakes in the city, bar none) and none of them make it to the top of the list of your favorite spots, you know your options are pretty close to terrific.

My two favorites are Pastries A Go Go, just a couple of blocks from the square in downtown Decatur, and Candi’s for Breakfast at the Irwin Street Market in the Old Fourth Ward. I usually order pretty much the same thing at both — a good old fashioned southern breakfast with scrambled eggs, biscuit, sausage, and (naturally) grits. Both offer other alternatives with the southern breakfast, like bacon, toast, and potatoes. Both places are amazing. Despite the somewhat similar menus, neither could be more different from the other.

Pastries A Go Go is a bakery first, and one of the very best. The biscuits are simply amazing — quite possibly the best I’ve had that wasn’t served at a southern relative’s home. They make their own sausage, and they do something (and I have no idea what) that makes their scrambled eggs just absolutely heavenly. My wife says that the Eggs Benedict are delicious.

The place is small, homey, and causal, but with a subtle vibe of Decatur hipness. They say that Decatur is the place where Berkley meets Mayberry. Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised to find Pastries A Go Go in either place. The coffee (from local roaster Dancing Goats) is terrific and plentiful. The staff is friendly. Comfort (comfort food in a comfortable space) wraps you like a blanket. Don’t miss it.

Speaking of comfort, you’ll find that feeling in abundance at Candi’s for Breakfast. It feels like an old fashioned diner … and honestly, the food tastes like what you always think (or hope) diner food will deliver. Sadly, diners seldom live up to your expectations. Candi’s exceeds them. The food is cooked in a tiny kitchen right in front of you (assuming you sit at the counter — if you take a table, well, it’s close by, anyway) and is crafted with care.

The biscuits aren’t as subtly sweet at those at Pastries A Go Go; they are breadier for lack of a better word, and absolutely delicious with butter, sausage, or one of the hand-crafted spreads that Candi has to offer. The house specialty is the stuffed biscuit. Baked to order, it’s a biscuit stuffed with your choice of yummy things: sausage, home made turkey sausage, bacon, cheeses, or veggies. I’ve never tried anything like it.

My pal Jay Gagliardo says that the Eggs Benedict (available served on a biscuit, of course) are the best he’s ever had. And in fact, Candi’s has more than a few specialties that I have yet to try. I can’t wait.

Sunday Lunch:

Speaking of pubtopia, I’ve mentioned my beloved Marlay House Pub a time or two. It’s one of my three or four favorites here in the Decatur/Little Five Points area (out of more than a dozen or so that I would consider very legitimate contenders). I’ve been for dinner and drinks, the amazing Tuesday night Celtic Jam, and even breakfast. In all that time, I never once tried the Sunday Roast. What was I thinking?

In Ireland, a Sunday roast is traditional at the pubs. Darren Comer, one of the owners, assures me that the Marlay House’s recreation is just like the ones he remembers from home. I’m more than willing to take his word, but in all the times I traveled to those fair Isles, I never once found pub food this good. And I say that as a man who adores pub food.

The roast is a standing ribeye, rubbed with herbs and cooked slowly to to be tender. It’s served with roasted potatoes, a “lashing” of gravy (I had to ask — a lashing means a lot, so think about getting it on the side), fresh veggies (from experience, I can assure you than these can be held), and Yorkshire pudding, which again is much better than any I’ve found abroad.

The Sunday Roast at the Marlay House is comfort food, pure and simple. It’s delicious (it pretty much has to be to survive in Decatur) and, along with a frothy pint from one of the best beer and ale menus in the city, it’s a wonderful way to relax away a Sunday afternoon. Share it with good company, even if that company is a good book. I wish I’d tried it sooner.

Dinner:

Decatur and the surrounding areas provide a wealth of dining, from comfort food to exotic “foodie” paradises. What’s been missing is a truly outstanding steak house. I am happy to report that Parker’s On Ponce fills that gap neatly. I can’t say it’s the best steak I’ve ever had. It is, nonetheless, one of the top ten or so that I’ve had anywhere, and a genuine A+. In a city where people will literally line up for a B- steak, that’s saying a lot.

The steaks are seasoned subtly and well, and cooked perfectly. A medium actually comes out medium. Vegetarian options are more than an afterthought. My wife tried a grilled portabella mushroom, and found the flavor and the presentation delightful. She wasn’t even remotely jealous of my steak, or the Porterhouse for two that my parents praised.

The flavor and quality is absolutely first rate. The sides are generous; some familiar, some imaginative, all (that we tried, anyway) outstanding. The beer and wine list is solid and the deserts are superb.

The ambiance is casual, friendly, and comfortable, and blessedly lacking the “upscale” pretentious attitude in which so many fine steak houses seem to bask. The place is divided into smaller nooks (and a private room for events), making the large space seem more intimate.

Parker’s on Ponce is a welcome addition to one of the very best dining neighborhoods Atlanta has to offer, and I look forward to visiting regularly. In fact, I’m looking forward to trying the brunch this weekend.

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“Secret Voyage” by Blackmore’s Night

Listen to Secret Voyage by Blackmore’s Night

As anyone who knows me or my forthcoming novel Blackthorne Faire can tell you, I have a fondness for Renaissance festivals and the music you’ll find there that borders on the fanatical. I also have a love for Celtic, folk, and, of course, good old rock. For that reason, I was thrilled to discover Blackmore’s Night a few years back. Blackmore’s Night was born when Richie Blackmore (of Deep Purple fame) met Candice Night, and discovered their shared love of Renaissance music.

What you’ll hear on their latest album, Secret Voyage, isn’t exactly (or at least not entirely) Renaissance music—not even the kind you’ll hear at your local Ren fair. Instead, think of it as being invited to a cast party thrown by one of the best Ren fair bands you’ve ever heard. They’ll do some of the music from the fair, some originals, and even some old favorites. The point isn’t authenticity or thematic purity, it’s to make sure that everyone has a rollicking good time. Happily, when Secret Voyage is playing, we do.

Once again, Blackmore’s Night takes us on a journey through ancient times to modern. As always, Richie Blackmore’s guitar stylings are energetic and complex while Candice Night’s vocals are utterly bewitching. The merry band of minstrels that accompanies them are solid as always. The album begins with an instrumental, “God Bless the Keg,” opening with a harpsichord solo until other instruments join in, ending with a haunting, deep organ. That leads seamlessly into “Locked Within The Crystal Ball,” a song that echoes the darkest, most romantic fairy tales—with a beat that’s somewhere between fast Celtic folk and driving rock. Those two cuts provide a very strong opening.

The rest of the album is just as solid. Special favorites include the merry but wistful “Toast to Tomorrow,” the Renaissance-flavored “Peasant’s Promise” and “The Circle,” and the utterly charming “Far, Far Away.” There’s even a lively, fast, folkish cover of Elvis’s hit “I Can’t Help Falling in Love With You.” After all, you never know what the band will decide to play with when it’s their party. Just be glad you’re part of the circle and share the fun.

If you’ve heard some of the earlier Blackmore’s Night efforts, like The Village Lantern or Past Times with Good Company, you know what you have to look forward to. The Secret Voyage is neither a step back nor a tremendous leap forward. But like a reunion with dear old friends, that’s not really what you’re looking for here. You’re looking for fun, and a CD that you can listen to again and again … on its own, or as excellent company while driving, reading, or writing. The Secret Voyage is a party I intend to revisit again and again.

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“Total Oblivion, More or Less” by Alan DeNiro

Read Total Oblivion, More or Less: A Novel

Total Oblivion, More or Less is a strange novel. In a lot of ways, in fact, it’s a novel about strangeness, and how ordinary people deal with it. Imagine Huck Finn’s raft drifting through a post-apocalypse American wasteland. Things have changed. The government has disappeared, geography itself seems to have been altered, somehow, technology doesn’t work, plague decimates the population, and bands of Goths and Scythians roam the landscape for plunder and mayhem.

In this case, Huck is a teen girl, Macy Palmer, fleeing St. Paul with her family for the faint, fleeting hope of safety on an island in the Gulf of Mexico. The novel is packed with action, mystery, and genuine suspense … to say nothing of an utterly fascinating (and deeply unsettling) new world. It’s a weird, wonderful, heart-breaking, and thought-provoking read. You’ll find surprising and laugh-out-loud humor, adventure, and, yes, even grounded, well-earned emotion. The result is an absolutely original and gripping read.

None of which, mind, is the real strength of the novel.

The comparison to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn goes deeper than the incidental detail of shared journeys down the Mississippi River. Ernest Hemmingway famously declared that all of American literature begins with Huckleberry Finn. Twain’s genius in Huckleberry Finn, undimmed even by the controversial ending, is his invention of an absolutely original character’s voice. Read any one line of Huck’s narration, and it’s utterly impossible to confuse him with, say, Natty Bumpo, Hester Prynne, or Hamlet. Huck is not an archetype or a stereotype. Huck’s voice, and his famous “All right, then, I’ll go to hell” declaration, make him a unique and fully realized individual. According to Hemmingway, at least, that focus on an individual voice was the birth of American literature, and what makes its tradition different from its European forefathers.

Macy Palmer is Huck Finn’s heir. The adventure, for all its gripping suspense and clever originality, isn’t what makes Total Oblivion, More or Less such a triumph. In Macy, Alan DeNiro has created a unique and compelling voice spoken by a compelling and all-too-real teen girl—one like the teens we all see at any Starbuck’s and every local mall. She is smart, clear-eyed, and mordantly sarcastic. She’s often petulant and resentful, but ultimately resilient and even heroic. Most of all, even when facing the loss of all she knows, she is intensely and acutely alive.

Maybe, as Hemmingway declares, the ending of Huckleberry Finn is faked. In the end Huck goes home again, full circle back to the starting point, and his monumental decisions and soul-deep changes don’t seem to matter much. Macy has no such luxury. There’s no going home for her, and the promises of safety are illusions. That makes her story heartbreaking and heroic, and offers us a unique and terrific read.

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Left Hand Brewing Company’s Milk Stout

Try Left Hand Milk Stout

Several months ago, I tried Left Hand Brewing Company’s Milk Stout at the Decatur Craft Beer Festival, and it was love at first swallow. I was lucky enough to find it again at two of my favorite spots: The Marlay House Irish Pub (formerly the Grange Pub) in Decatur, and in bottles at the Candler Park Market, just a few blocks from my house.

To be honest, I’d been afraid that, when I chanced upon it again, the reality wouldn’t match my fond memories. There’s something about the Decatur Beer Festival that just makes everything seem better. I needn’t have worried. Honestly, this fine brew matches Highland’s amazing Oatmeal Stout on my list of the best stouts brewed in America.

Like all good stouts, it pours a very dark brown, almost mahogany black, color with minimal head. The first tastes are of the smoky, roasted grains and malt with hints of coffee (or even espresso) and chocolate. But what sets this stout apart are the milk sugars added, which add a sweet, smooth finish that is delightfully complex and exceptionally drinkable. It’s not nearly as heavy as most stouts, but it has enough body to please, and the sweetness balances the slight bitterness of the hoppy finish.

If you’re drinking this in a session, you’ll probably want to start here. More robust stouts will overpower it. It’s also a terrific brew to enjoy with food—from a good pot of chili, a steak, or a nice plate of roast beef, or even a selection of quality cheeses. Or heck, just enjoy it on its own. It’s a terrific choice for stout lovers—and even for those who find stout a little too, well, stout and prefer lighter brews.

Most critics seem to rate Left Hand Brewery’s Milk Stout a B+ or an A. I’d give it a solid A. This is a brew I intend to keep on hand, especially in the winter months. That said, I’m enjoying one right now, and it’s May. Why wait?

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Jake’s Hot Fudge and Capobianco’s

Visit Jake’s Ice Cream and Capobianco’s at the Irwin Street Market

A week or two ago, I reviewed Jake’s Ice Cream at the Irwin Street Market. In short, I declared Jake’s Ice Cream, made by hand in very small batches, to be the best I’ve ever tried, period. I also mentioned how much I adore the Irwin Street Market space, with its cozy nooks (perfect for conversation with a few friends or for settling in with a good book or a laptop), eclectic mix of businesses, and hip urban vibe. It is completely unpretentious, comfortable, and wonderful.

I had only one problem … Jake’s had no hot fudge. For an ice cream shop, that just seemed, well, wrong. It’s like that one blemish that keeps it from perfection. I needn’t have worried.

The very next day, I received a message from Jake Rothschild himself, the Jake, Jake of Jake’s. Jake assured me that the rumors were true. Homemade hot fudge was on the way, and sooner rather than later. In fact, if I would be willing to come down and serve as the official taster, Jake would name the final hot fudge recipe after me.

What could I do? A blogger’s work is never done. Since I take my responsibilities very seriously, I agreed. Someone, after all, has to do it. The whole name thing, of course, has nothing to do with it.

Not to kill the suspense, but since I was the official taster with at least some influence over the final recipe, and the product is named for me, it’s not much of a stretch to imagine that the review is (spoiler alert!) going to be a positive one. The simple truth is, the reality far exceeded my expectations. It is, quite simply, the best I’ve ever tasted.

When I arrived at the Irwin Street Market, Jake led me back to his secret laboratory (it looks suspiciously like a kitchen). There, he set me up on a stool, and went to work. First, he had me try his chocolate syrup. I wasn’t especially excited about that, to be honest, but much to my surprise, it was amazing. Seeing my surprise, Jake explained: “it’s not made with corn syrup. The stuff you’re used to … that’s all corn syrup.” After that, I expected Jake to use the chocolate syrup as a base for the hot fudge, but not so much.

Jake started from scratch, adding heavy cream, real vanilla, and two kinds of gourmet chocolate chips (semi-sweet and dark) to a great pot … along with a few other ingredients that I honestly couldn’t track. A few minutes later, the first batch was ready. I was prepared to offer my expert analysis and a few suggestions for improvement, but honestly … I had nothing to say. It was perfect. Absolutely perfect. It was sweet, sure, but not so sweet that I couldn’t taste the waves of subtle flavor in the melted chocolate. This is, I think, key. Too sweet, and all you taste is, well, sweetness. It overpowers the flavor. Nor was it too bitter. That’s even worse. Häagen-Dazs, I’m looking at you.

Next, texture. Too thick, and the hot fudge thickens into a globby mess. Too thin, and it might as well be chocolate syrup. Once again, Jake nailed it, and on the first try. Sure, other variations were explored, but the first batch was the one. Of course, one more critical test remained. How would this concoction hold up over ice cream?

We tried it over Brown Sugah Vanilla (my favorite) and Ginger. The Ginger was surprising … it had the sharpness of real ginger with the creamy smoothness of homemade ice cream, an excellent combination. In both cases, the hot fudge passed with flying colors. It enhanced, without overwhelming, the subtle flavors of the ice cream. I could clearly taste the real vanilla and the ginger, as well as the wonderful, chocolatey complexity of the fudge.

Just to be sure, I tried it again when Jake wasn’t present. (Like I said, a blogger’s work is never done, and someone has to do it.) My wife and I took my folks after dinner on Mother’s Day, and once again, the hot fudge (this time, I tried it with the Sin Oh Man) did not disappoint. There truly is something to be said for foods that are handcrafted, in small batches, in a real kitchen. There is a complexity and, frankly, a freshness that factories just can’t match. Give it a try. I think you’ll be surprised.

Speaking of handmade, the Irwin Street Market also boasts a bakery called Capobianco’s, which bills itself as “the King of Cannolis.” That made seem audacious, but they’ve earned the coronation. The cannolis are simply fantastic. The pastry is light and wonderful, and the fillings of sweetened, whipped ricotta and chocolate chips are to die for.

Capobianco’s also offers a surprising (and constantly evolving) list of variations, including chocolate dipped (I suspect Jake may have something to do with that chocolate sauce, although that’s just speculation), chocolate mint, and even blueberry. The blueberry is amazing. When I was tasting Jake’s Hot Fudge, I overheard Franky Capobianco, the baker himself, ordering fresh mango. That’s a variety I can’t wait to try.

I think what I like best about Capobianco’s —seriously, maybe even more than the baked treats themselves—is the fact that it’s a family business using recipes that date back centuries. Franky himself is usually present, greeting all comers like old friends. His obvious pride and enthusiasm is contagious. To be honest, I’d never though of Cannoli as something I’d go out of my way for … it was always just that desert you got at Italian restaurants. Thanks to Franky and his handcrafted creations, I know better now. I’m glad I do.

I think I’ll head over to the Irwin Street Market today to get some writing done over a good mug of fresh coffee. And then I’ll face the hard decision … do I fuel the muse with cannoli or ice cream? May I always be faced with such dilemmas.

More blogs are coming soon … one or two new beers and a book or two. Stay tuned, and let me know what you think. Please share this site if you don’t mind.

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Jake’s Ice Cream at the Irwin Street Market

Visit Jake’s Ice Cream at the Irwin Street Market

I first discovered Jake’s Ice Cream about six or seven years ago (thanks to my pal Katy) and I’ve loved it ever since. It is, quite frankly, the best I’ve ever had, bar none. And believe me, I’ve tried quite a bit. I love good ice cream. Jake’s is made by hand in small batches, and while it’s much harder than soft serve, it’s still softer than most. It actually tastes like what you might get out of a real, honest-to-God, old-fashioned churn at home, if you had the genius to create such amazing recipes as Chocolate Slap Yo Mama and Brown Sugah Vanilla.

The flavors are amazing and constantly changing. My favorite, the astonishingly delicious Brown Sugah Vanilla, is usually available, although some of the other varieties of vanilla, such Yo Daddy’s Vanilla, Honey Vanilla, and Vanilla Malt, are a little more rare. Not to worry, though, they are all terrific. I am especially fond of cinnamon ice cream … and have more than once visited Jake’s and found two different cinnamons available at the same time. In all, I’ve found five different cinnamons at one time or another, including Cinnamon Chocolate, Cinnamon Roll (with real pieces of yummy cinnamon rolls), Cinnamon Kenya AA (cinnamon with coffee!), Cinnamon Apple Piescream, and just plain Cinnamon. I’m not sure I could pick a favorite. Although in the interest of journalistic investigation, I intend to keep trying.

Speaking of coffee, there are at least six varieties of coffee ice cream, and nine chocolates—from the simple but terrific Just Plain Chocolate to the exotic (and rather surprising) Mexican Hot Chocolate, with adds a bite of hot pepper. Don’t laugh. It’s unusual, sure, but amazing. The point is, there is always something new to try, although it’s hard to say no to old favorites, since you never know if they’ll be there next time. I haven’t seen the Root Beer Float variety in ages.

Not to worry, though. Whatever happens to be there … it’ll be wonderful. The problem, alas, is making a choice. Thankfully, American genius has concocted the two scoop/two flavor cup or cone. Give Jake’s a try. I challenge you to find better ice cream.

When I first discovered Jake’s, they were located in a funky old house on Church Street in Decatur, Georgia, just a block or two from the Square. They later moved to a space on Clairmont, which was fine but just never quite the same. Now, they’ve moved to the Irwin Street Market, which I think is my favorite space of all. Jake’s shares the space with a breakfast nook and lunch counter, a coffee shop and bakery, a few shelves of homemade pasta sauces, and a market.

Aside from Jake’s, of course, I’ve only tried the bakery. I recommend it highly. It’s run by the baker himself and his wife, and their obvious pride in their cannoli is well-justified. The coffee has always been hot, fresh, and well-brewed. The other treats look almost too inviting.

The space itself includes lots of comfy chairs and tables, perfect for lingering over breakfast, a coffee, or an ice cream with friends, a laptop, or a good book. It’s deliciously unpretentious, relaxed, and welcoming—spacious and wonderfully quiet, perfect for reading, working, or conversation. It’s a cozy, welcoming space—one of my very favorite urban hangouts in a city that is rich with them. I can’t wait to go back and try the breakfast. I’m planning to do some writing there this week. I hope to see you there.

One complaint … Jake’s doesn’t (yet) have hot fudge. Granted, their vanillas are all so good that they don’t really need it, but somehow, it seems like a must. But don’t worry. Rumor suggests that homemade hot fudge is in the works. I’m looking forward.

UPDATE: the hot fudge may be coming sooner rather than later. Jake himself has informed me that testing of various recipes begins this week. I’ll keep y’all posted.

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Throw-back SciFi in “Deuces Wild: Beginners’ Luck” by L. S. King

Read Deuces Wild: Beginners’ Luck

First, a note of disclosure: the author is a friend of mine.

L. S. King’s novel Deuces Wild: Beginners’ Luck began life as a serial somewhere out there in the Interwebs on a site called Ray Gun Revival. Ray Gun Revival is an online pulp, if you will, offering throw-back stories inspired by the Golden Age of science fiction, when heroes faced forbidding planets and space monsters armed not with phasers or blasters, but with good, old-fashioned ray guns. Not surprisingly, the stories there aren’t exactly cutting edge. What they are is fun. Refreshingly so.

In Deuces Wild: Beginners’ Luck, a cowboy and a space pirate team up when both are threatened by gangsters, shadowy government types, and an insane emperor. That’s right. This is a story about a cowboy and a space pirate. How cool is that? Happily, the book lives up to all the unabashedly cliff-hanging, popcorn-eating, silly-grin-inducing fun of the premise.

The science is plausible — something rare in Golden Age throw backs — and the world-building is closer to Star Wars and Firefly than to the art deco-inspired environs of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. No worries. The heart and feel is the same. The roots show a bit. Since Deuces Wild: Beginners’ Luck started out as a serialized collection of stories, the plot is not as tight as most of us have come to expect from modern science fiction. Characters that seem like the may become important don’t reappear, and heavies that seem destined to become major threats are dispatched much sooner than one might expect. In fact, my one complaint is the lack of a villain strong enough to be a match for our heroes. There’s no Darth Vader to tie the episodes together.

None of that matters. Like the movie serials of yesteryear, when narrators used words like, um, yesteryear, the emphasis is on moving the characters from one wild adventure to the next.

More, the arc that makes Deuces Wild: Beginners’ Luck work is the at first reluctant friendship that grows between the two leads. Imagine what might have happened in Star Wars had Luke met Han in that bar without Obi Wan and some urgent mission. Imagine them slowing coming to respect, and even like each other and they drift planet to planet, constantly finding new trouble to get themselves out of. The growth of that friendship is what keeps you smiling in spite of yourself and turning the pages.

A few story threads are hinted at but not explored—they are, in fact, left tantalizingly open for a sequel. And that’s just fine, because something this much fun deserves to be continued.

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Intown Acupuncture

Visit Intown Acupuncture

The title of this blog promises reviews of pretty much anything, right? Well. Okay then.

For years, I’ve suffered from severe seasonal allergies. Actually, I’m not sure severe is a strong enough term, but I don’t want to be overly graphic in a family blog. Enough to say that it had been years since I’d been able to enjoy spring or fall.

As my wife will tell you, I always called them the killing seasons. She even had to take me to the emergency room a time or two when my symptoms got so bad that I literally couldn’t breathe. I once joked with my pal Bill Shaouy that I could never be the Braves stadium announcer, because I’d always start the season on the disabled list. Frankly, they made my life utterly miserable for at least four months of the year.

Needless to say, I tried just about every remedy available, both prescription and over the counter. I literally exhausted every option my doctor had to offer. Nothing worked. Nothing.

Finally, one of my wife’s friends (thank you, Mary Frances Jones!) told me that she used to have the same problem. Now, she swears by … acupuncture. Seriously. Acupuncture. I was desperate enough to try anything, despite my general distaste for anything involving needles.

I made an appointment with Laura Greiner at Intown Acupuncture, located just a mile and a half or so from my home. First, I have say that the experience met none of my preconceived expectations. The practitioners were not male or Asian, they didn’t wear long red silken robes decorated with Chinese symbols and characters, and they didn’t have those little pointy gray beards. The needles were not long and gold, nor were they tapped in with a little hammer. Apparently, Hollywood has misguided me.

Laura Greiner is professional, kind, and skilled, and happy to educate. As near as I can tell, the other practitioners there are as well.

The needles are small, and barely break the skin. But … it works. Now, I’d been warned that I wouldn’t see results after the first or second treatment. It would take three or four. That turned out to be true. Since that fourth treatment, I haven’t needed allergy medication. Seriously. Not a single tablet or Albuterol shot. I still have a symptom or two, but not enough to make me lose my voice, hack up a lung, or (best of all) miss a wink of sleep. I doubt I would have exhausted even one of those little pocket packages of tissue.

On a scale of 1 to 10, with one being no result at all and 10 being stones to bread, Red Sea parting, and pillars of fire in the desert, I’d put it at around an 8. Given that my insurance covers it, I might even push it up to a 9. I now go eight times a year for “refresher” treatments—four times in the spring and four in the fall.

It’s good for more than allergies, though. I have friends who swear by it for everything from fertility to back pain. I can attest to the energy/mood boost and the overall feeling of well-being. Not too long ago, my dad suffered what appeared to be a very minor stroke. Since then, he’s suffered occasional fainting spells, difficulty walking or getting in and out of chairs, and a host of other, similar symptoms. After batteries of test from a small army of specialists, he wasn’t closer to learning what was wrong … or how to treat it.

So I made him an appointment with Laura Greiner, and (another “9” miracle) managed to talk him into going. Unlike me, his results were immediate and dramatic. He’s been twice now (two consecutive Fridays) and is planning to go at least twice more. If he continues to improve as much as he did after the first two treatments, they may have to lock the doors to keep him away.

To be honest, I have no idea how or why acupuncture works, and I certainly don’t advocate it as a substitute for traditional medicine. I don’t know anyone who does. But if you have lingering issues that more familiar remedies haven’t soothed, give them a call. Or get a recommendation for a licensed acupuncturist near you (I wouldn’t go to one without a recommendation — any more than I would choose a doctor without a recommendation) and ask. Who knows? You might be surprised.

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“The Ruling Sea” by Robert V. S. Redick

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This is a short review, folks, largely because pretty much everything I said in my review of The Red Wolf Conspiracy also applies to its sequel, The Ruling Sea. Once again, Robert V. S. Redick has created a fantasy that recaptures the swashbuckling adventure that I first fell in love with in my youth in books like Treasure Island, The Three Musketeers, The Sea-Hawk, Captain Blood, and the wonderful, marvelous tales of the ever-brilliant but woefully under-appreciated Lloyd Alexander. Yet once again, despite the familiar elements, The Ruling Sea doesn’t come across as a pastiche; it feels terrifically fresh. And, again, it’s packed with page after page of rollicking fun.

Like The Red Wolf Conspiracy, The Ruling Sea is set aboard the great sailing vessel Chathrand, a veritable fortress on the waves, last of her kind. The story picks up right where the previous volume left off, launching us directly into the adventure. Again, there is swashbuckling action, deft conspiracy, double-crosses, and unexpected twists aplenty. This time, Redick adds budding, forbidden romance, a secret island witch, a monster on a jungle island, battle at sea with cannons ablaze, and a whole lot more.

Indeed, there are times when I think Redick must have made a wish list of all the things he’d like to read in a favorite “under the covers with a flashlight” novel and then twisted his plot until he found a way to work them all in. As a result, the novel feels rather episodic at times. Some chapters, or at least groups of chapters, feel like complete adventures as well as a part of a larger, sweeping saga. Nonetheless, the well crafted, complex characters, both major and minor, and their evolving, engaging arcs tie the episodes together and kept me turning the pages long after bedtime. They are terrific, and I loved spending time with them. Now that the last page is turned, I find myself missing them all—as much as I miss those dear heroes from Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain and Westmark books. Thankfully, Redick’s next novel in the series is coming soon. I’ve already preordered my copy.

I should mention that the book has a much more evocative title in England: The Rats the the Ruling Sea. I’m not sure why it was changed, save that rats play only a minor part in the story. I suppose rats just don’t sell as well in the United States as they do in the UK. Go figure.

As always, let me know what you think, okay?

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“The Red Wolf Conspiracy” by Robert V. S. Redick

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I’ve noticed that more than a few reviewers, especially those who write jacket blurbs, have compared Robert V. S. Redick’s The Red Wolf Conspiracy to George R. R. Martin’s magnificent Song of Ice and Fire series. Honestly, I think that’s a little unfair. Sure, both are fine achievements in world building and character creation, and both authors sport an extra initial. And, uh, both write fantasy, I guess. To me, that’s where the superficial resemblance ends. Redick doesn’t match Martin’s depth, complexity, or stark, brutal beauty. Nor does he try.

What Redick has accomplished in The Red Wolf Conspiracy is something that seems all too rare in the fantasy genre these days. He’s written a book that’s flat out fun.

The Red Wolf Conspiracy is in many ways a throw back to old-school romantic adventure. Since comparisons are inevitable, Redick’s storytelling reminds me less of Martin and more of the seagoing adventure of Rafael Sabatini or Robert Lewis Stevenson with the intrigue, clever plotting, wit, and, well, panache of Alexandre Dumas—with a liberal dose of the late, great Lloyd Alexander’s ability to create lovable, complex characters that manage to do heroic things not just despite their flaws, but often because of them. Yet despite the abundance of familiar ingredients, Redick has crafted a story that feels altogether fresh.

In a world of great sea-going empires, The Red Wolf Conspiracy tells of a voyage of a massive sailing ship, Chathrand. The last of her kind, the secrets of her construction were lost ages ago. Aboard we meet Pazel, the young tarboy cursed with a strange gift, spirited Thasha, destined to be a treaty bride whose arranged marriage is meant to bring peace to warring empires, and a host of engaging characters that includes an intelligent rat, a hidden clan of doll-size warriors, a mink-wizard from another world, a sinister captain, a conspiring magician, a deadly spy, a heroic warrior, a mysterious doctor, a mad god-king, and more—all fascinating, all bound in webs of conspiracy.

Once the great ship’s voyage begins, the pace is relentless. In fact, some critical events happen “off screen,” and we only hear about them as the the characters upon whom our attention is focused at that moment learn of them—Redick never wastes a chapter, or even a page, going back. The story is always moving forward. It’s a complex structure, and it works, leaving us breathless, even though at times I wished we could have found some magical, impossible way to follow more than one set of characters at once.

My only “complaint” is that when I reached the last pages, I discovered that The Red Wolf Conspiracy is the first of a series. While the novel ends in a satisfying place, it leaves the reader aching to know what happens next. I am happy to report, however, that the sequel, The Ruling Sea (in the UK, it has the much more interesting title of The Rats and the Ruling Sea) has just been released. The third book is coming to the UK in September (thank you, http://www.amazon.co.uk/) and here in the USA in February, 2011. But there are worse things an author can do than to leave readers wanting more.

More than a few rather obvious events never occur—the massive cannons on the deck are never fired; swords are seldom crossed. What does happen is just as good, though, and after all … Redick has to save something for his sequels. I can’t wait. As always, please let me know what you think.

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“The Angel’s Game” by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

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Yesterday, I reviewed Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s brilliant novel, The Shadow of the Wind. Continuing with the “holy crap this is good” theme, today I’m taking a look at his follow up, The Angel’s Game.

While both The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel’s Game are completely stand-alone novels, they are subtly connected. The two novels both a part of what Zafón says will eventually be a four-book cycle of loosely connected stories with overlapping narratives and characters. Either can be read alone, but reading both makes each a deeper and richer experience. In fact, I read The Angel’s Game at the same time that my wife Carol and I were reading The Shadow of the Wind aloud to one one another, a strange and wonderful experience.

The Angel’s Game has quite a lot in common with its predecessor. Familiar locations recur, such as the mysterious and tantalizing Cemetery of Forgotten Books and the dear, familiar, dusty coziness of Sempere and Son book shop. Familiar characters appear, if only briefly—welcome reunions with old friends. And once again, the true star of the work is the poetry of Zafón’s heartbreakingly lovely language —every sentence is a treasure—and the richly gothic and atmospheric streets of Zafón’s Barcelona, beautiful, seductive, and dangerous, as vivid as any gas-lit corner of Dickens’ London.

The differences, though are  stark. The Angel’s Game is a much darker book, with grizzly murders, doomed romance, and subtle, shadowed, edge-of-your-vision elements of the supernatural. If the mystery in The Shadow of the Wind leaned precariously toward the noir end of the spectrum, The Angel’s Game makes a leap. At times it moves close to old-school gothic horror. It’s never graphic; it never even comes close. It’s certainly not the gruesome slasher porn of today. It’s a subtler dread that calls upon the imagination to ponder what might be lurking in midnight’s deepest shadows—those in the city and those in the heart. The Angel’s Game builds dread through hints and atmosphere, making a truly spin-tingling read that haunts the heart long after the last page is turned.

It’s not all fear, though. There is beauty, too, and love. Certainly that. Beauty makes the dread that much worse, and the hope that much dearer. The theme of the book is introduced in the first lines:

“A writer never forgets the first time he accepted a few coins or a word of praise in exchange for a story. He will never forget the sweet poison of vanity in his blood, and the belief that, if he succeeds in not letting anyone discover his lack of talent, the dream of literature will provide him with a roof over his head, a hot meal at the end of the day, and what he covets the most: his name printed on a miserable piece of paper that surely will outlive him. A writer is condemned to remember that moment, because from then on, he is doomed, and his soul has a price.”

The novel explores, subtly, long before we’ve begun to realize it’s doing so, what it means to sell one’s soul, the many ways we do so, what is gained, and what is lost. Is the gain worth the cost? I’m not sure even the characters themselves could answer that. The question lingers, haunting like the memory of a nightmare, or a fond wish. To me, one of the strengths of The Angel’s Game is that it raises questions and only hints at the answers, leaving the reader to interpret in a sort of storytelling collaboration between artist and audience.

Some of the reviews I’ve read have complained about the ambiguity of the ending. Honestly, I hadn’t even noticed the ambiguity until I read about it those reviews. Most of those critics, I think, seem to expect some kind of science-fictiony explanation for everything that’s happened. Like God is an alien computer or something like that. That sometimes works brilliantly in a novel like say, Dune, say, or Hyperion. Indeed, Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion (one story in two volumes, both of which which rank among my very favorites) together are a kind of cosmic science fiction dealing with the ultimate mysteries of how the universe is structured and how reality functions—although personally, I think Hyperion’s latter sequels, Endymion and The Rise of Endymion, weaken the first two novels by explaining far too much and making the grand sweep too mundane. I digress.

The point is, The Angel’s Game is not that kind of book. It works according to something akin to dream logic. To me, the ending is satisfying and thematically appropriate, and it’s one that I’ll be thinking about for a long time to come. Although I confess I am eager to see what Zafón will do in later volumes. Something this good deserves to continue. When Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s next book is released at last, I’ll be first in line. I hope I’ll see you there. Don’t miss these books. And please be sure to let me know what you think, okay?

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The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

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I’ve wanted to review Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s brilliant and lovely The Shadow of the Wind for a while now. I’ve hesitated largely because I needed to think of something to say other than simply, holy crap this is good!

I first read The Shadow of the Wind when it was first published in the United States—it was already a best seller in Europe—about four years ago or so. I’ve knew at once it was a book I would reread. Over the holidays, faced with some sixteen hours in the car with two trips to Morristown Tennessee and Birmingham, Alabama, my wife and I decided to take turns reading it aloud to each other. I wondered, frankly, if it could possibly be as good as I remembered. It was. No, wait. More than that. It was even better.

The Shadow of the Wind begins with one of my very favorite first lines: “I still remember the day my father took me to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books for the first time.” That’s a pretty hard act to follow, as first sentences go, but the rest of the book, every word, lives up to it. The Shadow of the Wind is, without question, a book lover’s book, filled with dusty old bookshops and lost volumes holding terrible secrets. The very air is heavy with the intoxicating scent of dusty leather, musky old paper, and ink. The language is lovely; line after line, even whole paragraphs, demand to be read aloud and savored.

It’s also a book for lovers of a good story. The richly gothic-thriller plot is Dickensian in the best possible way, filled with surprising twists, fog-shrouded, crumbling old buildings, and labyrinthine, gas-lit streets. Nonetheless, despite its setting—a gothic Barcelona of the mid Twentieth Century—it’s decidedly modern—again in the best possible way, with a profound understanding of character, psychology, and archetype. Zafón’s characters, from comic eccentrics and earth-bound goddesses to struggling literary types and sinister killers, are fascinating, well-drawn, and unforgettable. The Shadow of the Wind is also a hell of a page turner, rich with suspense, mystery, and dark, forbidden romance.

The Shadow of the Wind is a gothic mystery story, certainly, but it is also a love story (or rather, several love stories), a story about the passion for books and stories, a bawdy work of comedy, and certainly a thriller. It’s pages are filled with the wide spectrum of human emotion and experience: love, hate, intrigue, coming of age and (of course) loss of innocence, humor, cowardice, courage, villainy, cruelty, compassion, regret, murder, incest, and, ultimately, redemption. Add to this delicious alchemy characters who come alive and leap off the page, and you have a book that resonates, deeply in the heart, long after the last page is turned.

If I have one complaint, it is that the end seems rather sudden, given the buildup. The events are all foreshadowed and certainly earned, but they seem to happen all too quickly. We are only given a few hints of aftermath; I ached to spend more time with the surviving characters, people I’d come to care about, to see how (or if) they healed, and what became of them. We are given enough, though, and when a book leaves you wanting more, well, there are worse problems.

Reviewers have compared Zafón to such luminaries as Umberto Eco, Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and, of course, Dickens. That’s a little unfair, since it sets the readers expectations pretty darn high.I am happy to report Zafón lives up to the comparison, while forging an utterly unique voice all his own. Just last week, I read Zafón’s follow-up, The Angel’s Game, a very welcome to milieu introduced so marvelously in The Shadow of the Wind. Like the previous volume, em>The Angel’s Game is a book to savor and treasure. I’ll review it soon. As soon as I can think of something to say other than, holy crap this is good!

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“Last Night in Twisted River” by John Irving

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I’ll start with by answering the question that (I imagine) John Irvings’ many fans—assuming that there are any who haven’t read this yet—are asking. Yes, the John Irving who wrote Last Night in Twisted River is the good John Irving, the one who produced The World According to Garp and A Prayer for Owen Meany, not the John Irving who produced the flawed (albeit still interesting) Until I Find You.

In a television interview about Until I Find You (the vague citation is due to the fact that I can’t remember where I saw it, but I think it was this one), John Irving talked about rewriting the novel and removing the first=person narration to make it less personal—to distance himself, a bit, from the fire of the somewhat autobiographical events. Alas, it also distanced us, the readers. I am happy to report that Last Night in Twisted River is the product of an author completely unafraid to brave the danger and plunge deeply into the river that twists through his own psyche. The journey, part Twain, part Dickens, and all Irving, is one well worth taking.

Oh, and the answer to one other question that Irving fans will be asking: yes, there are bears in Last Night in Twisted River, although the remain just off stage. There’s even a wrestler or two, and the shadow of boarding school.

The novel begins at a mid-20th Century logging camp, where a series of three tragedies, each more gut-wrenching than the last, sends widower and camp cook Dominic Baciagalupo and his son Danny on a rootless journey into exile. The rest of the novel follows father and son over five decades as they travel to a Boston Italian restaurant, an Iowa City Chinese place, and finally to a Toronto French cafe, all while never really leaving the past behind.

As they travel, Danny evolves into a distinctly Irving-esque writer. The novel is structured in a winding sort of way that keeps twisting (like, well, a river) back around on itself, moving backward and forward in time to show how events, both accidental and arranged, shape, wound, and temper the life and career of a budding novelist. Yes, that makes the novel seem at times redundant, while at others morsels of plot are dangled in a tantalizing way—and we don’t see the consequences until much later. That didn’t bother me. The stark, lean sentences and well-crafted main characters earned enough trust to keep me turning the pages. Sometimes late into the night.

It’s not a perfect novel. Outside of Danny and his father, and the old logger Ketchum, few of the characters seem to grow beyond one dimension. They are types. The novel feels a bit self-indulgent at times, and critics will certainly be combing the pages for hints of autobiography. Nonetheless, it’s still an utterly fascinating read. If you’re not an Irving fan, I can’t say that this is the book that’s likely to change your mind. Thankfully, if you are a fan, it’s not likely to change your mind, either. In many ways, it’s a return to form. If there are elements that will remind you of earlier novels, and there most likely will be, they are viewed (or reviewed) from a fresh enough perspective to make them as interesting as ever. Irving certainly isn’t the first author to revisit a theme. I suppose that, like a Dickens story, there are elements (or archetypes) that make an Irving novel distinct, a part of his personal mythology, as it were. Revisiting expands, rather than diminishes, them.

This is an Irving novel that belongs on the shelf with Garp, Owen Meany, and The Cider House Rules. It’s quintessential Irving, and it’s a welcome return of an author re-achieving, if not actually exceeding, his previous heights. It’s a fascinating, revealing, and engaging read, and one I am certain that I will return to again.

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Great first sentences in literature

As both a reader and a writer, I’ve come to appreciate the power of a truly excellent first sentence. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that some of the most memorable and best-loved books ever written have truly amazing first sentences. In many cases, you can name the b