Thursday, December 29, 2005

Review: "My New Orleans: Ballads to the Big Easy by Her Sons, Daughters and Lovers"

The contributors' list for "My New Orleans: Ballads to the Big Easy by Her Sons, Daughters and Lovers" ($13, Touchstone Books) is an impressive one. It ranges from writers such as Poppy Z. Brite, Christopher Rice and Rick Bragg, to famous chefs, such as Paul Prudhomme and Leah Chase, to musicians like Wynton Marsalis.

The wide variety of celebrities share some of their personal memories of time spent in the city and what the city means to them. Being a lover of New Orleans myself, I was looking for essays that connected with me, something that made me smile or feel something about the city - the kind of stories you might tell over a beer with a group of friends. While some do that, others sound almost like the kind of essay you'd write in school.

Many of the essays, such as Wynton Marsalis' "Soul Model for America," are calls to action to rebuild the city. While his words, if spoken, might be a powerful rallying cry, they don't translate to that in print. Others fare better, such as Walter Isaacson's "How to Bring the Magic Back," which does evoke some of the sights, sounds and scents of the city.

One of the most effective of the call to action pieces is Randy Fertel's "Bring Back the Clowns," in which he pokes a bit of fun at his dad, the Gorilla Man of the 1969 mayoral campaign. He campaigned in a safari outfit on the platform that the Audubon Zoo needed a gorilla. It's a light-hearted reminder of the kind of characters the city has spawned and what makes it special. Balanced with Fertel's more melancholy thoughts on returning following Hurricane Katrina, it's a strong piece.

The best bits here are when the writers bring it down to a personal level instead of trying to make a broad statement about the city. Brite talks about discovering a love of bird-watching in Audubon Park. (She also scores points with me for her reference to Bobby Hebert taking over for the late Buddy Diliberto, as I've sat by the radio several Sundays this year, shaking my head and saying, "He's no Buddy D.")

Rick Bragg's "This Isn't the Last Dance" is perhaps the perfect example of what I was expecting, as he talks about strolls through the city and memories of his visits. In the essay, he voices the words said by many lovers of the Big Easy the night Katrina came bearing down, as his wife says, "I'm glad you took me there. Before."

The essays in "My New Orleans" may not all pull at the heartstrings and make you misty-eyed like you'd expect, but there are some powerful moments among the words of the city's sons, daughters and lovers. It's well worth the read for anyone who knows what it means to miss New Orleans.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Review: "The Official Guide to Christmas in the South" by David C. Barnette

Normally I don't go in for the folksy Southern Christmas books, but David C. Barnette's "The Official Guide to Christmas in the South, or If You Can't Fry It, Spraypaint It Gold" ($14.95, William Morrow), had me chuckling just from the title. I had to dig into it.

It's often been said that the funniest stories are those that are true, and that's what makes this book such a hoot. If you've ever celebrated Christmas in the South, you've been involved in a few of Barnette's jokes. One of my favorite decorating tips: "While pheasant feathers and other hunting themes are in vogue, it is never appropriate to use red-and-white ribbon to `candy stripe' rifles." To be honest, I think that may have happened once or twice at a relative's house in the distant past.

The chuckles roll from the chapter titles - "The Divinity Code," "The Gilt Complex," "Party Like It's $19.99" - to the brief summaries that introduce each concept - "Christmas is no time to go for Yard of the Month honors. The measure of a well-decorated Christmas lawn is a visit from the police regarding traffic delays in front of your home."

"The Official Guide to Christmas in the South" covers everything you need to know to experience a true Southern Christmas this year, from lawn decorating tips by used car dealers to regifting to, of course, gold spray paint.

Barnette's book is a great way to get in the mood for the approaching holidays with a laugh, and, as scary as the thought may be, perhaps a few new ideas on how to celebrate this year. It wouldn't be funny if it wasn't true.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Review: "Habeas Corpses" by Wm. Mark Simmons

Wm. Mark Simmons returns to the tale of his half-vampire hero Christopher Cséjthe in his latest novel "Habeas Corpses" (Baen Publishing, $22).

To catch you up if you're not familiar with previous books "One Foot in the Grave" and "Dead on my Feet," Cséjthe (pronounced Chay-tay, for the uninitiated) was given a blood transfusion from a vampire. The transfusion transmitted half the virus that causes vampirism without fully transforming him, making him unlike any creature seen before. In the meantime, he's caused a lot of trouble for the undead community, including in the last book, becoming Doman of the New York clan of vamps.

This time out, Cséjthe is laying low in his secluded home on the Ouachita River with his werewolf lover Lupé, his vampire protector Deirdre and a 1930s Chicago gangster vamp, The Kid. So far, they've been able to repel all the attempts on Chris' life, but then things take a strange turn. First, there's a psychic e-mail, then a special delivery of a still-beating heart in a jar and finally an attack from a nearly indestructible Frankenstein monster.

It all adds up to a trip to New York to finally take the reins of the vampire community there and try to uncover the secrets of this new threat. He soon finds those may be just the beginnings of his problems.

As in the previous two volumes, Simmons layers the story with multiple villains. There's a classic horror monster, a historical bad guy and a technological terror for Chris to tackle. To avoid giving anything away, I'll leave those up to the reader to discover.

"Habeas Corpses," as you might guess by the title, also delivers the same humor that has permeated all six of Simmons' novels. It's been said of him that he never met a pun he didn't like, and it's absolutely true. Readers will also have a lot of fun picking out the pop culture references littered throughout the book. There's just something too funny about an argument between a vampire and a werewolf about whether Buffy or Anita Blake is the best vampire hunter.

As usual for Simmons, "Habeas Corpses" provides a fun romp through the supernatural, classic horror, science and history. The story raises some serious questions currently being tackled in the real world, but refuses to take itself too seriously, a refreshing trait among vampire novels.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

"Marsh Mission: Capturing Vanishing Wetlands" by C.C. Lockwood and Rhea Gary

When photographer C.C. Lockwood and artist Rhea Gary put together "Marsh Mission: Capturing the Vanishing Wetlands" ($39.95, LSU Press) they expected it to provide a glimpse of wetlands that would one day be gone. I'm sure they didn't expect those wetlands to be unrecognizable this soon.

Following the ravages of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, many of the areas photographed and painted are greatly changed from the scenes depicted in this book just last year. But there's still a chance to save them, and that's what this book is all about - drawing attention to some of the beautiful and essential wetland areas of Louisiana that are in danger due to coastal erosion.

The book began with a year-long journey through the wetlands on a houseboat by Lockwood and his wife, Sue. They covered more than 5,000 miles, capturing life on the coast of Louisiana. During that year, Gary also spent time on the houseboat, painting the scenes they came across.

The result is a gorgeous collection of photographs and paintings that leave out no scenes from the area. Lockwood's photographs run the gamut from a spoonbill pelican feeding its young and misty mornings on the bayou to photos of oil rigs and the muddy waters of a diversion canal. Most of Gary's paintings depict the remote landscapes of the marshes in vivid colors. Most interesting are the times when Lockwood and Gary focus on the same subject. It's interesting to see, side-by-side, the interpretations of Lockwood's camera and of Gary's brushes.

Perhaps the most effective and haunting images in the book are in the epilogue, which focuses more on the loss and destruction than the beauty. Particularly striking is the image of a large live oak tree, now dead, its root system exposed and hanging half into the surf of a beach on Cheniere au Tigre. In the background, you can see a camp, with waves lapping at its door, that once had a road and 40 feet of beach in front of it. It's a visceral testimony to the erosion that's occurring on the Louisiana coastline.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Review: "Only You Can Save Mankind" by Terry Pratchett

Best known for his massive Discworld series, Terry Pratchett has also occasionally ventured outside that milieu for a book or two. One of those was the Johnny Maxwell Trilogy in the early 1990s. The first book, "Only You Can Save Mankind," ($15.99, HarperCollins) has just been re-released with a few, very minor updates.

Life hasn't been good to 12-year-old Johnny Maxwell lately. His parents are going through Trying Times, and the Gulf War is plastered on his television screen every night. One of his favorite escapes is a game, pirated by his hacker friend Wobbler, called "Only You Can Save Mankind." Unfortunately, this time when he logs on to blow away the invading ScreeWees, the aliens want to make peace with him. They surrender and ask for his protection.

When he falls asleep that night, Johnny finds himself at the helm of the fighter ship leading the ScreeWee fleet back to its homeworld and protecting it from other gamers. Soon thousands of computer users around the world are turning on the game to empty screens where there should be attacking aliens. Gamers aren't happy, and neither are some of the aliens aboard the ScreeWee mother ship.

On the surface, Pratchett's tale is a fun story of a boy living a video game adventure. It's not exactly a new premise. It's been around since video games first started popping up in the early 1980s, but how many of those stories have you read where the aliens surrender, changing the boy's world view?

And that's what sets this apart from the average children's science fiction novel. Anyone who has ever read Pratchett knows that he's an excellent satirist. While the satire here is a little more obvious than in his usual work, it's just as effective. The constant backdrop to the story is the 1991 Gulf War, which with the smart bombs and other technology was a lot like a video game itself.

Pratchett uses the story to illustrate the dangers of that kind of war and how easy it is to forget that we're shooting at other people. In video games, no one gets hurt. Right?

"Only You Can Save Mankind" is enjoyable for younger readers, but there are plenty of jokes for those of us that remember Atari 2600s, too. I particularly enjoyed a thread on the burned out hulls of Space Invaders that Johnny and the fleet pass. If you missed this one the first time around, now's a good time to check it out.

Monday, September 26, 2005

God's Wrath

God's Wrath.

I'ts a phrase I've heard so many times in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and now Hurricane Rita, that if I hear it again, my head might explode. I've talked to these nutcases on the phone; I've gotten e-mails from them; I've read their letters to the editor. If it weren't so sad, it would be funny.

Since New Orleans happens to be one of my favorite cities -- really the only major city I feel like spending any time at all in -- it also royally pisses me off when I hear it.

New Orleans is a city full of sin, said one caller. God is cleansing his earth of that sin. So tell me why were the vast majority of those killed, those whose homes were completely destroyed, the poor people? Why, less than a month after the hurricane, are there bars open on Bourbon Street and strippers going back to work? The famous legs at Big Daddy's were swinging again only days after the storm, while the poor people of the city are living in shelters and FEMA trailers and wondering about family members they haven't heard from. Seems to me if God were really working his wrath on New Orleans, Bourbon Street would have been the first place wiped out. Instead, it went largely undamaged compared to the rest of the city.

An e-mail from an uber-conservative Christian group that somehow got my e-mail and blasts me with 10 or 12 messages a day said that it was God's punishment because abortion is legal. Huh? What could the two possibly have to do with each other? If that was the case, wouldn't it have made more sense for God to wipe out all the abortion clinics and leave everyone else alone? Even for those that consider abortion murder, it makes no sense. When a murder is committed, do we just randomly execute people? Then why would God do that?

Of course, these are the same people who popped up after the Tsunami, saying it was God's wrath. They said God was trying to get our attention, to send a message. Which raises the question, is a God that would kill thousands of people just to make a point, really one that's worthy of worship? Looking at it in that light, I can't understand why the people that believe that God is this angry, petty child, would continue to worship him. Because if they don't they'll go to hell? Well, if God truly is the deity they believe him to be, maybe, in the words of AC/DC, hell ain't a bad place to be.

Read my review of "My New Orleans," a collection of essays paying tribute to the Big Easy.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Review: "The Mysteries" by Lisa Tuttle

People just don't disappear into thin air, do they?

That's the question that Ian Kennedy keeps running into over and over in Lisa Tuttle's "The Mysteries" ($21, Bantam Spectra).

Kennedy specializes in finding missing people. He has since his father disappeared when he was a child, the first of many disappearances from Ian's life. He eventually found his father, discovering that his reason for leaving was just a mundane, everyday reason, not the lavish fantasies that he had created. But not all of his cases have been so ordinary.

Lately, he's been hired to find Peri Lensky, who disappeared under mysterious circumstances. With the help of a mother who obstinately refuses to believe in anything remotely supernatural and a reluctant boyfriend who doesn't really understand what he's seen. Ian begins to piece together the puzzle. It's a scenario that points the finger at the folk of fairy, and is disturbingly similar to one of his first cases.

Tuttle weaves the tale around a variety of Celtic myths, primarily "The Wooing of Etain." She also blends in plenty of legends of abduction by fairy folk. At first, the seemingly unrelated vignettes about people who have gone missing are jarring. But as the story continues, the reader begins to see the parallels and gain a better understanding of what's happening in the main story. What at first seems to be an intrusion, in the end makes the book richer.

"The Mysteries" takes the supernatural detective story that's become so popular and adds a satisfying extra layer of legend and folklore. Yet, it still remains the type of light and breezy story you'd expect from the genre, a quick, engaging read.

"The Mysteries" is the first novel from Tuttle since 1996's "The Pillow Friend," which is scheduled for a re-release later this year. Hopefully it won't take another nine years before we get the follow-up.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Review: "Dragonmaster" by Chris Bunch

Most of my reading lately has been in the corners where the world of faery intersects our own world. It's been a while - far too long, in fact - since I dived into a good, old-fashioned sword and sorcery story. After all, those are the tales that first hooked me on the fantasy genre.

Looking over my stack of unread books, I decided that Chris Bunch's "Dragonmaster" ($15, Roc) would fit the requirements nicely. I've got a soft spot for a good dragon story, and Bunch delivers.

Hal Kailas is a young man staring at a grim future of working in the local mines when he rounds a corner one day and finds a nobleman's son tormenting a young dragon. He stops the torture and returns the dragon to its nest, but when the nobleman threatens to make his family miserable because of the incident, Hal is forced to leave his village.

With dreams of flying a dragon, he hooks up with Altheny, who runs a traveling dragon show and promises to teach him to ride. He has good life with the man, but learns very little. Then, with war brewing, Altheny gambles away his dragon business, leaving Hal on the streets. Before he can raise the money for passage home, he's conscripted and finds himself on the front.

He gets another chance at his dreams when the army announces the formation of dragon-mounted troops to combat those of the enemy Roche army. He signs up, and finds himself on the front lines of a long and brutal war.

Bunch's tale takes a little time to build, but once Hal is enlisted, the action comes at break-neck speed. You get the feeling that Bunch is a military man. His battle scenes present visceral images of the chaos and carnage of being on the front lines. There's also a dark humor in the string of foppish, unqualified commanders Kailas finds ignoring his intelligence and sending the army to disaster time after time.

Bunch's use of dragons in battle is interesting. Since his dragons don't have flaming breath, you might expect the standard lance and sword duels from dragonback that you see in other books (never mind the fact that it would be very difficult to get close enough to have a sword duel on dragonback). Instead, Bunch uses his dragons more like modern fighter planes, developing strategic and effective weapons for his dragonriders to use.

Bunch's writing style can be brusque at times. It seems a bit strange in the more leisurely approach to the first half of the book, but it's quite fitting for the military fantasy of the second half.

The ending of this first book in the series, while not the cliffhanger type that I hate, was still a bit unsatisfying. Few issues were resolved and Kailas was only in a slightly better position than when the war started. It will be interesting to see how the situations Bunch has set up will play out in later volumes.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Review: "Singer of Souls" by Adam Stemple

First-time novelist Adam Stemple comes from good writing stock. His mother is respected fantasy author Jane Yolen, with whom he co-wrote a children's book, so there are high hopes for his first book, "Singer of Souls" ($22.95, Tor). Stemple lives up to them.

The book tells the story of Douglas "Doc" Stewart, a recovering heroin addict and musician. (He got the nickname after a drug binge that left him talking completely in rhymes for a time. His friends began to call him Dr. Seuss.)

When he finds himself back with those same friends, preparing a needle that will take him right back into his former lifestyle, he decides he has to make a major change. He flees the temptation by going to stay with his grandmother, a tough no-nonsense sort, in Edinburgh, Scotland, where he makes a good living as a street busker thanks to his innate talent to create songs about people on the spot.

It was a good choice for him, but was the choice entirely his? When he sings a song for a mysterious woman, he ends up opening the door to a strange world he never thought existed and getting himself trapped in the middle of an age-old supernatural war.

An unsuspecting human caught in a war between supernatural powers is hardly a new idea for the genre. In fact, the last book I read, Orson Scott Card's "Magic Street," had the same premise. But Stemple handles it deftly, throwing in nice twists and never quite letting the reader know where Doc stands with the folk of faery.

He also knows his music and has an eye for detail when it comes to that aspect. The book should be an interesting read for musicians, but for those who don't know the terminology, the writer's allusions to chords and scales may get a little tedious. Most of them are brief and won't interrupt the story.

Stemple has a fast-paced, breathless writing style that keeps the reader in the action. At less than 250 pages, this novel is incredibly short by today's fantasy standards, but it packs a lot of punch into those few pages. I'm looking forward to his follow-up.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

More updates

Check out the nine new album reviews on the music page and seven new book reviews on the books page. (Yes, I'm still working on beefing up the music archive, too. It's just a matter of finding the time to work on it.)

As always, if anyone's got suggestions about how I can improve the place or any information you'd like to see in the reviews that you're not seeing, feel free to drop me a line.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Review: "Magic Street" by Orson Scott Card

I've been a big fan of Orson Scott Card ever since I first read his science fiction tale "Ender's Game" many years ago. While I normally prefer fantasy, Card's science fiction seems to appeal to me more. I enjoyed "Enchantment," but I'm not a big fan of the Alvin Maker series. Still, I was excited at the prospect of his latest urban fantasy, "Magic Street" ($24.95, Del Rey).

The story centers around Mack Street, who was born magically and found covered in ants in a plastic bag by a young man named Cecil Tucker in the Baldwin Hills area of Los Angeles. Ceese takes the boy to Ura Lee Smitcher, a nurse who lives in the neighborhood. She ends up adopting him, and Ceese cares for him as he grows up.

Those beginnings mark Mack as unlike the other kids, but as he grows older, he finds that he's really different. He has the power to see other people's fondest wishes and grant them - but always in a twisted way. For example, when a girl in the neighborhood wishes her father who works long hours would stay home more, he's hit in the head by an I-beam at the work site and paralyzed.

Mack develops a technique for avoiding what he calls the "cold dreams" to avoid hurting people. Then he discovers the truth about who he is and what's going on. He's caught in a war between the fairies Titania and Oberon (yes, that Titania and Oberon) and the fate of the world may be in his hands.

With "Magic Street," Card attempts to do for Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" what he did for "Sleeping Beauty" with "Enchantment." While he does achieve that to some degree, I didn't feel the same sense of wonder that I did with the previous book. Still, "Magic Street" is an enjoyable read.

There's a bit of fun to be had in the image of Titania, queen of the fairies, as a biker babe, or Puck as a dreadlocked vagrant, and there are plenty of sly references to other literary works that readers will have fun picking out.

The story itself is engaging, part Shakespeare, part W.W. Jacobs' "The Monkey's Paw" and part Stephen King horrorfest. The characters are likeable, if a bit forced at times. There are moments when Card seems to be trying a little too hard to make sure the reader knows the characters are black, when the story would have worked with characters of any race.

In the acknowledgements, Card admits that this is an experiment to see if a white writer can write believable black characters. It came about when a black friend questioned the lack of black heroes and why he didn't have any in his books. I'm not really sure whether the experiment succeeded. Card's characters here are serviceable, but not as fully developed and engaging as those in, say, Nalo Hopkinson's work - or Card's previous work, for that matter.

For those unfamiliar with Card, I'd recommend picking up "Ender's Game" and "Enchantment" to get a feel for the writer at his best. But, if like me, you've enjoyed Card's work for years, you should also enjoy "Magic Street."

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Jared must die

Every time I have to sit through commercials while watching televison, I'm exceptionally thankful that I have a DVR at home so I can fast forward through them. Maybe I'm not the target for those genius ad executives, but most of the commercials I see just annoy the hell out of me. They actually drive me away from the products they're trying to sell.

A perfect example of this is the guy from Subway. When he started coming on TV telling us how he lost all this weight eating at Subway, I said "hooray for him, now pass me that Quarter Pounder." It didn't convince me to eat at Subway, but it didn't annoy me either. Now, the genius ad execs have given Jared a new mission in life, to put down every other restaurant's food. Now, he comes on with a smirk telling us how much fat is in this or that and how superior Subway's food is to those other guys. Sorry, but I've eaten at Subway. I wouldn't say it's any worse than McDonald's or Burger King, but I wouldn't say it's any better either. I've always believed that when you had to attack the competition, it's probably because whatever you're trying to sell can't stand on its own.

And besides, who the hell is this guy to look down on me because I choose to have a double cheeseburger instead of a sweet teriyaki chicken sandwich? It's not even like the sandwich they show on TV is the one with only five grams of fat, either. That's the one on wheat bread with no condiments whatsoever.

It struck me as funny the other day when I drove by a local Subway and saw on the sign that they're now offering pizza. Here's this guy on TV telling me that Subway is so much more healthy than anywhere else, and now they're serving pizza. I'm sure those pizzas only have five grams of fat, right?

But in all fairness, it's not just Jared. He's just been the most annoying of late. A while back there were those Truth "anti-smoking" ads. I put that in quotation marks because I came away from most of those commercials actually feeling better about the tobacco industry -- and that's sad. Then again, they were sponsored by a tobacco company, so maybe that's what they were designed to do. They always had a bunch of snotty, annoying kids pulling some kind of publicity stunt. One that sticks out in my mind had these kids sneaking through a hotel in the middle of the night, putting signs on the door knobs. My reaction to that was, "If you're so proud of what you're doing, why don't you march your punk ass in there during the day and do it?" Of course, then they might meet some of these people they're villainizing, and it would be most inconvenient to actually have someone express a differing viewpoint, wouldn't it?

But some of the most mind-boggling commercials to me are the ones that the police put on TV. Locally, we have these seat belt commercials from the state police with this macho-sounding voiceover (and you'd really have to hear it to understand just how bullying and condescending it is) saying "IF YOU DON'T WEAR YOUR SEAT BELT, YOU WILL GET A TICKET." Yeah, threats always get the desired response out of your audience. Being the personal freedom advocate that I am, I'm not the biggest fan of seat belt laws to begin with, but every time I see one of these commercials, it makes me want to get a knife and cut the seat belt out of my truck. Do they honestly think they're convincing people to wear their seat belt by threatening them? My guess is they're actually galvanizing people who don't wear their seat belt against the laws.

If you can't sell me your products on their own merit or convince me why I should do something without threats, then obviously what you're selling isn't worth buying. And even if it is, you're still not selling it to me. Maybe one day advertisers will come around and realize that the best way to get your point across is not by annoying or bullying people. Until then, my finger's on the fast forward button.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Review: "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" by J.K. Rowling

As Harry grows up, so does J.K. Rowling's writing style, and that's as it should be.

With "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" ($29.99, Scholastic), Rowling delivers a fairly grown-up tale of the now 16-year-old boy wizard. Though not quite as dark and menacing as the previous volume, "Order of the Phoenix," this book deals with much more mature issues than the earlier volumes of the series. That, too, is proper, considering how much people change between the age of 11 and 16.

"Half-Blood Prince" opens in a world that's eerily similar to our own over the past several years. Lord Voldemort is back, the Death Eaters are reformed and the wizarding community lives in fear of their attacks. Wizards are being killed or simply disappearing almost daily. Harry, Hermione and Ron often start their morning reading the Daily Prophet with Ron asking if anyone they know has died today. It's very much like the on-edge feeling following terrorist attacks in the real world.

Even in the midst of this, life must go on, so Hogwarts reopens with a surprising new professor in the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom, and the young wizards put their noses back in the books. One book, in particular, formerly owned by someone calling himself the Half-Blood Prince, is helping Harry to excel in potions and learn a variety of new spells that aren't taught in the classroom.

Harry has also begun private lessons with Professor Dumbledore, designed to help him better understand the enemy, and he's obsessed with finding out what his old rival Draco Malfoy is up to.

While parents have been cautioned to read this book first - and it's not a bad idea for younger kids - I didn't find it too graphic. There are some intense action sequences and a very emotional ending that, as has been widely reported, includes the death of a major character, so it may be good to discuss some of the issues along with kids.

"Half-Blood Prince" works to flesh out a lot of the deep background of the story and set up the final volume that's to come. We learn much more about the history of Lord Voldemort and the Death Eaters. We're also hit with a few surprises along the way - one being the true identity of the title character.

There are also some allusions to other literary works. Whether intentional or not, I was reminded greatly of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" as Dumbledore and Harry take trips into the past through the Pensieve. I was also reminded of scenes from Tolkien as the two cross an underground lake to retrieve a magical artifact.

The only real problem I can find with the book was that it ended. While the earlier books in the series have been pretty self-contained, this one feels more like the first part of a two-part story. While it doesn't exactly end in a cliffhanger, it does end in a place that leaves the reader with many more questions. It creates even more anticipation for the grand finale.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Review: "Dead as a Doornail" by Charlaine Harris

Often I say that picking up a new book in a favorite series is like visiting an old, familiar place. In this case, it's very familiar. Charlaine Harris' town of Bon Temps may not actually exist, but you know the town and you know the people in it - well, except for the vampires and werewolves, of course.

"Dead as a Doornail" ($22.95, Ace) is the fifth novel in Harris' "Southern Vampire" series, and I've enjoyed every one tremendously, in part due to the familiarity. Bon Temps, if it existed, would be out on the backroads, roughly somewhere between Ruston and Monroe. Harris drops in a lot of nice references to familiar places. But, as I said, even the things that aren't real are recognizable. For example, everyone knows a simple, no-nonsense woman like Harris' Sookie Stackhouse, though the one you know is probably not a mind-reader.

This time out, there's a shooter targeting shape-shifters in the area, a group that Sookie's brother Jason has lately joined against his will, thanks to a bite from a shifter. The police think the shootings are random and only a few people know the truth, since the shifter community hasn't gone public like vampires. What's worse, many in the shifter community are suspicious of Jason and some have even called for his execution.

As if that weren't enough for her to deal with, a pair of private investigators come snooping around trying to find out what Sookie knows about the disappearance of one Debbie Pelt from Jackson, Miss. She knows quite a lot about it actually, since Sookie was the one who shot and killed the shifter in self-defense. Having only the word of the amnesiac vampire that took a bullet intended for Sookie, she decided to let him cover it up instead of reporting it - not one of her brightest moments, and one that may come back to haunt her.

There are also entanglements in Sookie's love life. Her former vampire boyfriend Bill returns. An interesting new vampire bartender Charles arrives to fill in at her workplace. A surprising romance blooms with her boss Sam, and Shreveport businessman Alcide Herveaux has a proposal for her. And that's not even all that's going on in this book.

"Dead as a Doornail" is perhaps the most complex book so far in the series. Harris introduces us to more characters and gives us a closer look at the were/shape-shifter communities. There are also many more small threads woven into the tale than in previous stories, some offering interesting lines for future volumes.

We also see for the first time a more vulnerable Sookie. Her waffling between love interests at first makes her seem more wishy-washy than the tough cookie we've seen in previous books. On second thought, though, all good heroes have at least one major failing, and perhaps we've just found hers.

Where the tone of the previous installments has been more light-hearted and humorous, "Dead as a Doornail" takes a darker turn - one which actually started at the end of the last book, "Dead to the World." While there's always been an element of danger to the books, it seems even more palpable in this one, and the jokes take a back seat.

It's still a heck of a lot of fun, though. If you haven't read Harris' novels, you might want to check one out. You never know what's roaming the backroads of our area.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

"Greatest American"

As I write this, I find myself a little embarrassed to be an American. That's not something I feel often. But, you see, I just finished watching "The 100 Greatest Americans" on the Discovery Channel, a list chosen by the people, and I don't have much hope for us.

The premise is a tough one to start with -- to choose the greatest Americans in the 229-year history of our nation -- but surely we can do better than this. The list was loaded with entertainment personalities. Do some actors and musicians deserve to make the list? Probably. You could certainly make arguments for Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne and Katherine Hepburn, who were all on the list. Musically, you can argue in favor of guys like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, who were left off the list. But Tom Cruise and Madonna? What's worse, Madonna wasn't only in the top 100, she was in the top 50. Does anyone out there really believe Madonna is one of the 50 greatest Americans in history? Apparently so.

Then there's Michael Jackson, who is currently on trial for child molestation. If he's guilty, that would mean that voters think a pedophile is one of the 100 greatest Americans. What does that say about our country?

Plenty of other choices left me scratching my head. Brett Favre? If the list were the 100 greatest athletes, I'd say absolutely. George Lucas? You won't find a much bigger "Star Wars" fan than me, but he doesn't rank on this list. Rush Limbaugh and Michael Moore? I guess, at least, we can be thankful that there was fair representation for blowhards.

Athletes took their share of the list, too. One of the most amazing ones for me was the ranking of Tiger Woods over Jesse Owens. Sure, Tiger broke the color barrier in golf, but Owens only went to Berlin and embarrassed Hitler by proving that, at least in athletics, the Aryan race wasn't superior. By comparison, I don't think Woods deserves as much recognition as other athletes on the list who faced adversity, like Owens, Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali. And what about Arthur Ashe, who wasn't even on the list? He did basically the same thing as Woods and then used his position to work for change - something Woods hasn't done.

Then there's the top 25, which is the group that voters will ultimately choose the "Greatest American" from. Let's start with George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. There are arguments in favor of putting both men in the Top 100, but does either really belong in the Top 25? Then we have Oprah, televangelist Billy Graham, Bill Gates, Elvis. Top 100? Probably. Top 25? I don't think so.

When I think of "Greatest Americans," I think of people who have made great sacrifices and great contributions to preserve or improve our way of life. I think of people who have made a lasting impact, one that we can see in our everyday lives. To be fair, there are excellent choices in the Top 25 -- Martin Luther King Jr., Einstein, Edison, Washington, Lincoln, Rosa Parks, FDR. But I'm incredibly disappointed in my fellow Americans over much of the list.

I've always wanted to believe the majority of Americans are not as shallow as we're often portrayed. After seeing this list, I'm beginning to think those portrayals may not be so unfair after all.

Updates finally!

Finally, there's new content on the site. There are nine new album reviews on the featured music page, and I'm working furiously to get more up on the archive page. I've also got a couple of new book reviews I'm trying to get online. You can expect regular updates to resume soon.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Still alive

Just wanted to check in with anyone who might happen to be visiting with any regularity. The site hasn't died again, I've just been pretty busy, what with a new addition to the family and all. I've got tons of updates ready to roll just as soon as I get the chance to do it.

In the meantime, you can check out some more recent album reviews at

Friday, May 20, 2005

"Episode III" marks the end of a long journey

When "Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith" opened across the country at midnight Thursday, it marked the end of a 30-year journey for filmmaker George Lucas. It also marked the end of an almost as long journey for me.

To this day, I remember the first time I saw the words, "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away …" on the theater screen. It was 1977, and I was a 5-year-old, sitting in the old Rose Theatre in Bastrop, back when it was a movie theater. It may or may not have been the first movie I saw in the theater, but it was certainly the first movie that I remember seeing.

I was captivated by the Star Wars mythology. I had the books, the toys, everything I could talk my parents and grandparents into getting for me.

I remember a few years later when "The Empire Strikes Back" hit theaters. I was disappointed when my family arrived at the old Twin City Mall theater to find the line stretching back around the corner of Montgomery Ward. I didn't get to see the movie that day, but I did eventually get to see it when the line shortened.

I remember fondly my father grumbling about the cost when we saw "Return of the Jedi" at Twin City Mall. With popcorn, it cost about $25 for my mom, dad, myself and my brother to see the movie. By today's standards, that seems like one heck of a deal.

At the age of 32, "Star Wars" still has a hold on me. In my office at home, you'll find a light saber (a plastic one unfortunately, but a real one is still on my all-time wish list as soon as it's invented), a number of Star Wars action figures and a photo of me in full Darth Maul regalia during Halloween 1999. (That's not a rubber mask either; it's full makeup.)

I relived the wonder of the series in 1997 when I introduced my wife to the movies. Despite having been around me for quite a few years at that point, she had never seen the movies. It was almost as much fun watching her discover the secrets of the movies as it was watching them again myself. Her reaction even lessened my grumbling about the changes Lucas had made in the movies.

I look forward to that experience again in a few years with my son, and I hope he one day gets to see all six movies on the big screen. (And to answer your next question, yes I did like "The Phantom Menace" and "Attack of the Clones." Perhaps not as much as the others, but I did like them.)

Over the years, rumors have swirled about "Star Wars" possibly being a nine-movie series. Lucas has been adamant in saying he thinks "Star Wars" is the story of Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader. It's now been fully told, so he insists he's done. But even he has hedged his bets a bit in recent interviews.

While I'd love to see a few more "Star Wars" movies in the future, I'm more than happy with the six I have. The closing chapter in the "Star Wars" saga arrives at an appropriate time for me, as a new chapter is opening in my own life. Here's looking forward to the next chapter.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Review: "Dead Beat" by Jim Butcher

It's about time Harry Dresden appeared in hardcover.

"Dead Beat" ($23.95, Roc) is the seventh installment in Jim Butcher's series based on the wizard private eye, and the first in hardcover.

The book follows Butcher's hardcover debut late last year with "The Furies of Calderon" ($23.95, Ace), which introduced his high fantasy series "The Codex Alera." While that book was well-written and entertaining, it wasn't nearly as much fun as the Dresden books.

This time around, Harry finds himself in another pickle courtesy of the Black Court of the vampires - the old school, rotting flesh branch of the vampire world. Mavra, queen of the Black Court, has photos of Dresden and his partner, police detective Karrin Murphy, taking down a den of vamps (see the last Dresden book, "Blood Rites," for details). Since most of the world denies the existence of vampires, the release of those photos of a bloody, shotgun-wielding Murphy blowing away human-like creatures would mean pretty bad things for her.

Mavra presents the photos to Harry and says she'll release them unless he can bring her the "Word of Kemmler," a lost work by an evil necromancer. The problem for Harry - other than the power that Mavra could gain with the book, of course - is that several of Kemmler's disciples have arrived in town, also searching for the "Word." And there's an even bigger twist on the way for everyone's favorite wizard.

After seven books, most series start to get a little stale, but "Dead Beat" is just as much fun as the first installment of "The Dresden Files." The reason is that Butcher continues to find unique characters and twists that keep the story moving forward.

These books never pretend to be anything other than what they are, a fun adventure story loaded with magic and ghouls of all stripes. The action begins from the first page and doesn't let up for the next 387.

Butcher admits that what he calls the "swords and horses fantasy" of the "The Codex Alera" is his first love, and the second volume of that series is due out this summer. But here's hoping that he doesn't drop "The Dresden Files" any time soon. These books are far too much fun to be forgotten.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Review: "New Seasons" by Wiley Hilburn

I grew up reading Wiley Hilburn's columns. They were a big part of what made me want to go into the newspaper business. (Little did I know then that if you're lucky enough to be able to write a column like Wiley's, it's only a very small part of the job.)

Even after I began studying the business, his columns still inspired me. As I was dealing with the "just the facts" lessons that were stifling to a college student with big dreams of being a novelist, Wiley showed me that you could be creative and have fun in the journalism business. That's why I eagerly dug into "New Seasons" ($24.95, Jack Dog Press), Hilburn's latest collection of columns from over the years.

The book features columns from January 1989 through 2004 and covers a wide variety of topics from local folks to childhood stories to history and politics.

While he's right at home writing about history and politics, it's the stories of life that stick with me. I remember a column he wrote only a few years ago about sneaking down to a pond when he was a child to go fishing. It really struck a chord with me because my brother and I did that very same thing so often - and well after we were old enough to know better. Unfortunately for me, that one didn't make the cut for this book, but a similar and just as engaging story about rediscovering Corney Creek from 2003 did.

That's the appeal of Wiley's work for me. Even though he and I grew up generations apart, we had a lot of the same experiences on the backroads of northeastern Louisiana, and I bet a lot of other people can relate as well. He tells stories about life, about places we've all been. While I've never been locked out of my vehicle by my dog, as Wiley relates in "Car-Jacked," I've certainly been in situations just as strange and embarrassing.

In the 205 pages and 70-plus columns, you'll meet people that you didn't know lived next door and you'll travel to places that you didn't know existed in northeastern Louisiana. You'll find funny tales, tragic tales and heartwarming tales, all told with a down-home candor that makes you feel like you're sitting across the table from him at the Huddle House.

The book takes you from a rollicking misadventure of childhood in "The Great Cap-Gun War" to a somber, yet fitting end as he remembers a long-ago fishing trip with his father, Wiley Hilburn Sr., following his death in 2003.

I have to admit that one of the most daunting things when I came to work as a copy editor in the Accent department at The News-Star in 1999 was the fact that I'd be editing Wiley's column. I'd have to edit a man that I'd read for a good portion of my life, a man that taught me at Louisiana Tech. Even in that, I learned something from Wiley - that no one is perfect, and even the teachers make the occasional mistake. (Though, if he asks, you didn't hear that from me.)

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Loss of an old friend

I get more books for review than I could possibly ever read, so I don't really get to the bookstore as much as I would like anymore. It's a decision to save money and my wife's sanity. You see, I'm physically incapable of leaving a bookstore without at least a couple of purchases, and with thousands of books already stacked around the house it's just adding to the problem of too many books, too little time. (Which, in my mind, is not a bad problem to have.)

When I found myself at the local mall the other day, I decided I'd drop in on one of my favorite shops, Waldenbooks. Sure, I know it's a national chain, but it didn't really feel like one. It was a smaller shop with kind of an intimate feel. It felt to me what a bookstore should feel like. I use the past tense because when I arrived at the door to the store, the metal gate was down with a sign that said "Sorry, closed" hanging in front of a forlorn landscape of empty shelves. It truly saddened me.

When I was a teenager, I worked in that same mall and was in the store at least a couple of times per week. The people who worked there knew me and knew what I liked. They'd often make suggestions or even hold books that they knew I'd want back for me. When I got my check every other week, a good portion of it went to pick up a stack of books from Waldenbooks.

Eventually, I took a "real" job in another city and moved away from the store. Then, when I moved back, I started writing book reviews and really had no need to visit so often. Still, I wandered in occasionally. The people no longer knew me, but the place still felt cozy and comfortable, even when they moved to a bigger location.

Thankfully, we do still have one nice independent shop here, even though it's a little out of the way for me. I guess that's where I'll have to go to get that same cozy feeling. The other choices are not so appealing. There's independent where the staff sniffs and looks down their noses if you ask for fantasy (at least the last time I shopped there, which has been quite some time). And we have a massive national chain store that's more like a warehouse than a bookstore. It's in a converted Wal-Mart building, and it's the kind of place where the staff probably wouldn't remember you if you did go in a couple of times a week. It gets the job done, but it takes away from the book shopping experience for me.

I guess it's a sign of the times. With books becoming so cheap and easy to get over the Internet, I'm sure scores more brick-and-mortar shops will be shutting their doors. Perhaps I lose some credibility since I'm saying this while offering books for sale on my site through Amazon (although at the rate I sell, I'm certainly not cutting into anyone's sales), but still it's a sad thing to me. I guess I'm torn. While I love the convenience of ordering online, there's nothing quite like walking through rows and rows of books in your local bookstore. I'd hate to see that go away.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Riding the wave of the past

I love technology. Take a quick look around the room you're sitting in right now, and I'm sure you'll see dozens of ways technology has made your life easier. We've got gadgets that will do things our parents and grandparents thought couldn't be done. It's wonderful.

That said, there are just some things I prefer to do the old-fashioned way. I have e-mail and my parents have e-mail, but if I want to talk to them, I call. It just seems right. I have a computer and printer, but if I want to write a letter to a friend, I sit down with pen and paper. It just seems right.

For six or seven years now, I've had friends and fellow writers trying to sign me up for the "wave of the future," e-books. I'm not opposed to e-books, but I prefer the old-fashioned ink and paper book. To me, it just seems right.

I've read two e-books, and I thought it was a miserable experience. I only finished them because I had promised both of the writers reviews. They were just too cold and impersonal to me.

I can't remember a time when I didn't have books around. I got my first one when I was in the crib, and still several years away from being able to read it. Since then, I've been surrounded by them. I currently own thousands of paperbacks and hardcovers that I've collected over the years, and that number will probably grow to thousands more before I die.

For me, reading a book is almost like a religious experience. I love the feel of a book in my hands. I love the smell of a book. I love to look at my favorite books on the shelf in my office. I love to browse through aisles in a bookstore. Those are things I just can't get from an e-book.

I have other issues with e-books. For one, they make books seem disposable. Just read and delete. I know you can save them, but what guarantee do you have they'll be there if you want to read them again? Not much. Lots of things can happen to zap them. It's one of my greatest fears of the convenient technologies we have, that the books, letters and photos that give us perspective on history will be lost to the generations that come after us -- gone because they're now in electronic rather than physical form. But that's a rant for another day.

As I said at the beginning, I'm not against e-books. If you prefer e-books, by all means, read them. If you've been published in electronic form, congratulations. It's tough to get published by a reputable publisher in any format. If you never want to read an ink and paper book again, don't. Just please don't try to shove e-books down my throat.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

A bad decision

Just before the holidays, I decided to bring my home into the satellite radio age. I'd been tempted for a long time. Commercial-free radio, and the opportunity to listen to any type of music you want. I checked out both XM and Sirius and chose XM. I was so happy with it after listening to a trial online, that I bought a car receiver and a boombox for the house.

Only a few months later, it looks a lot like wasted money. Earlier this week, I got into the car, flipped on one of my favorite channels, XMLM, to find that they had taken it off the air to make room for more baseball. (For me, there are few worse things they could have cancelled it for.)

Now, I'll be the first to admit that I didn't think XMLM was perfect. As a matter of fact, I dissed song selection in my last entry. I thought the station focused too much on the death/grindcore aspect of metal and ignored a lot of heavy bands that deserved some play. Still, I did listen to it regularly, and its loss leaves a huge void for metal fans in XM's programming.

Now your options are the Boneyard, which plays a lot of the more commercial hard rock from the 1980s, and Squizz, which plays a lot of the more commercial hard rock from today. While I do like those channels, if you want anything underground or really heavy, you're out of luck. (Oh, they give one of the XMLM DJs three hours on Squizz during the day, when no one with a job can listen; and of course, you can pay an extra $3.99 per month to listen to the 64kbps online version -- sorry, but there are a lot of FREE online metal stations that I really like.)

The great thing about satellite radio in the beginning was that it provided a place for bands that aren't going to get exposure on regular radio to be heard. It was a place where listeners who were into musical genres that don't get airplay could find new music. But, as with everything in the music business, the corporate machine gets to it sooner or later. I fully expect that one day, satellite radio will be just as generic and boring as standard radio, all of the promise lost. It's already on its way.

My advice, if you're a metal fan thinking about satellite radio, go with Sirius. At least they still have a metal channel ... for now.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Where did all the singers go?

That's the question I ask myself every week when I watch Headbanger's Ball. I grew up with guys like Bruce Dickinson, Jon Oliva, Ronnie James Dio. All undeniably metal, but all guys that can really wail. It's what I find missing in most of the metal I hear today. Most of the bands out there now seem convinced that in order to be heavy, it has to sound like your singer's voice box is about to fly out and smack into the opposite wall. It's just not true.

Black Sabbath practically invented metal without screaming at all.

Let me qualify this so you know I'm not just some old geezer that can't handle the new sound. There are a lot of newer bands out there that I really like. In fact, I'm more excited about what's going on in metal right now than I've been in a long time. Bands like Shadows Fall, God Forbid, Diecast and Soilwork are producing some of the best music I've heard in a long time (and yes, most of them are screamers.)

What annoys me when I watch Headbanger's Ball now is that so many of the bands sound exactly the same. I feel like I'm hearing the same song 8 or 10 times during the course of a two-hour show. I grew up on thrash -- Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer, Anthrax, Testament, Overkill, etc. They all played the same style of music but they all had their own sound. When you heard a song, you could tell immediately who it was. I don't hear that now. I was listening to Liquid Metal on XM Radio last night. They played three songs in a row, and I couldn't tell where one song ended and the next began. Three different bands, and it was so cookie cutter that I couldn't even tell when the song changed, much less tell the bands apart.

Maybe it's insecurity. Metal fans have a long history of ridiculing bands they don't consider "true metal." Maybe these guys are afraid of seeming weak. But singing doesn't mean sounding like the pretty boys in the hair bands. Look at guys like Zakk Wylde or John Bush. Both sing, and both have very masculine voices. Black Label Society's "Stronger than Death" is a great heavy album, and it doesn't lose an ounce of power because Zakk's singing instead of screaming. Or take Pantera as an example. Sure, Phil did more than his share of screaming, but he could also sing when the piece called for it. Is "I'm Broken" any less heavy for the singing? Would you give up a song like "Floods" just because it's not played 90 miles an hour with blast beats?

I understand that everyone has different tastes, and to each his own. There's obviously a market for that sound, so if they like it and can make money doing it more power to them. But would somebody, anybody, please give me a singer?

Saturday, February 12, 2005


Welcome to the new and improved Hall of the Mountain King site. I started this site in the late 1990s with grand intentions (or perhaps illusions) to make it something of a portal site for people interested in fantasy and science fiction or heavy metal. That didn't quite work out for me, and at some point in 2000, I just let it go.

For almost five years, the site sat here, an aging ruin in the ever-changing world of the Internet. A couple of weeks ago, I decided the time had come to undertake a major renovation of the old site, and I've been putting in a lot of hours during that time to try to redesign the site and get five years worth of reviews posted. Needless to say, the job was bigger than I thought when I started, and there are still many areas of the site under construction. My hope is to have everything active within the next two weeks. In the meantime, I thank you for stopping by, and I hope you enjoy the new look of the site and the content that's available.

I've resisted this blogging trend for a couple of years now for a couple of reasons, but it seems that I need a good place to muse and rant, and what better place? In this journal, I'll record general thoughts or interesting tidbits I pick up on music, books, movies or whatever else comes to mind. I welcome differing opinions, but ask only that you take a moment to think before replying to a post. I want the discussion to be intelligent and not devolve into name-calling and personal insults. Beyond that, anything goes.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Review: "The Charnel Prince" by Greg Keyes

Epic fantasy can be a tough nut to crack.

Between the classic high fantasy of J.R.R. Tolkien and the gritty, more modern fantasy of George R.R. Martin, there's plenty of fertile ground for writers, but there is also a lot of land that's been leached of its resources through overuse. That's why picking up the latest epic can be an iffy proposition, but when you get a good one, the fantasy subgenre is hard to beat.

Greg Keyes has planted the seeds for an excellent epic tale with the first books of his "Kingdom of Thorn and Bone" series. The second installment, "The Charnel Prince" ($23.95, Del Rey) delivers exactly what the first book, "The Briar King," promised - an action-packed thrill ride that keeps readers intrigued and turning pages.

Keyes' style blends the best of both worlds of epic fantasy. The action is more akin to Martin's darkly violent style, with no punches pulled. The tone and world of the story are closer to Tolkien's magical realm, filled with great wonder.

In "The Charnel Prince," the legendary Briar King walks the world again, and with him, he's brought beasts and monsters that most people considered only myths. Then again, a lot of the people of Keyes' world once considered the Briar King a myth.

Meanwhile, a civil war is brewing in Crotheny following the murder of the king and most of his family, and the surrounding nations are positioning themselves to capitalize. Queen Murielle has kept a shaky grip on the throne with her mentally disabled son Charles, but unless her daughter and only other surviving family member, Anne Dare, is found, all may be lost.

If you missed "The Briar King," you might want to pick it up in paperback ($7.50, Del Rey) before you get started on this one. Otherwise, you'll be a little lost in the story, and you may not get a full appreciation for some of the characters, which were more fully introduced in the first volume.

Since Keyes weaves so many storylines together, the chapters of the book hop from character to character, and the author usually leaves readers in a cliffhanger ending to each chapter. I've heard some complaints from other readers about this style, but personally, I love it. I think it's one of the things that makes the book so hard to put down. I've just got to see what happens next.

Another appealing thing about this book is that Keyes wastes little time on the lengthy, distracting, purple-prose descriptions you'll find in other epic fantasy novels. He tells the reader only what you need to know and keeps the plot moving forward.

I'm always a little nervous about recommending a series like this because I've seen a lot of promising epic series come to a bad ending (usually by never ending). The concise way that Keyes has structured the first two books gives me hope that he can tell the story in the promised four books.

Keyes is off to a fantastic start with a series that could rank among the best the genre has to offer.