Friday, October 31, 2008

Halloween soundtrack

Though we’re actually starting to get quite a few decent Christmas records, if there’s a holiday for metal, it would have to be Halloween.

As with movies, I prefer my Halloween music creepy and perhaps disturbing rather than filled senseless gore, so Alice Cooper trumps Cannibal Corpse every time.

If you’re putting together a metal soundtrack for a Friday party, here are a few suggestions. Beyond the first two, they’re in no particular order except the way they came to mind. By no means is this list comprehensive. Please feel free to add your own.

"Black Sabbath," Black Sabbath. I don’t know that there’s a better song out there for Halloween, those three bell-like notes of ringing out over a barren wasteland and Ozzy’s moaning about figures in black really set the mood.

"Welcome to My Nightmare," Alice Cooper. Let’s face it, you could probably do a whole list of Alice Cooper tunes and have a bunch left over. I’ll go with the obvious one.

"Trick or Treat," Fastway. You may or may not remember the really bad horror movie of the 1980s about a deceased rocker back for revenge. The only redeeming points of the movie were Ozzy Osbourne hamming it up as a TV preacher and the soundtrack by Fastway. The title track is a great, rocking tune.

"Bark at the Moon," Ozzy Osbourne. Here’s another obvious one, playing to the campy side of Halloween. Visions of Ozzy in a werewolf costume dance in your heads.

"How the Gods Kill," Danzig. There are also no shortage of Halloween tunes in Danzig’s catalog. When it comes to creepy, though, I’m going with the title track of his third record.

"The Thing that Should Not Be," Metallica. It’s based on Lovecraft, it’s an awesome song. It makes the list.

"Scared," Dangerous Toys. Not really creepy or spooky, but a great song nonetheless. And as a tribute to Alice Cooper, it gets him on the list a second time. He deserves it.

"Fear of the Dark," Iron Maiden. So the obvious choice here is "Number of the Beast," but I’m going to break from the pack and pick one of Maiden’s later tunes. To me, it has a slightly more Halloween feel.

"Tourniquet," Marilyn Manson. Say what you want about Manson, but this is a great song. Definitely creepy and definitely fitting.

"Cemetery Gates," Pantera. Very dark, great imagery and an incredible screaming riff when the heavy guitars kick in. You can’t go wrong with it.

"Hell’s Bells," AC/DC. Perhaps the most obvious choice on my list. Still got to get it in there, though.

"Melissa," Mercyful Fate. Another band with no shortage of appropriate tunes. "Melissa" would be my first choice.

"The Dungeons are Calling," Savatage. Being a devoted fanboy, I’ll try to get a Savatage tune in just about every list I make. This creepy little tune would be a nice intro to a Halloween haunted house.

"Captain Howdy," Twisted Sister. Disturbing in an entirely different way, especially if you’ve seen Dee Snider’s horror flick "Strangeland," this song is easily creepy enough for a Halloween mix.

"I Am Legend," White Zombie. While my first Zombie Halloween choice would be a creepy little number from the "House of 1,000 Corpses" soundtrack with a title I can’t print here, I’ll go with this musical take on the classic Richard Matheson horror tale instead.

"The Ripper," Judas Priest. What’s a Halloween party without a tune about Jack the Ripper?

"Mary Jane," Megadeth. Spooky isn’t a word I’d often use to describe a Megadeth tune, but this one fits the bill.

"Seasons in the Abyss," Slayer. There’s plenty of horror imagery in Slayer’s music, but since we’re going for dark and creepy instead of gory, the title track to their 1990 record is a winner.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Armchair QB: Deuce returns

Maybe Sean Payton isn't as dumb as I thought. His comments last week after we failed on more crucial short yardage situations had me scratching my head and thinking we had another Jim Haslett in the house. He said he couldn't bring Deuce McAllister in because Deuce hadn't practiced in short yardage situations. Does anyone really believe that Deuce needs to practice to take the ball and get a yard?

Finally, on Sunday, Payton turned Deuce loose, and no one can deny that he provided a big spark for the team. The Superdome roared when he took the field, and he gave the crowd what they wanted on his first carry, pushing the pile ahead for about six yards. After that, Deuce did what he does, averaging about four yards a pop and providing a real North-South running game for the Saints.

There were lots of positives in Sunday's game. Lance Moore continues to be impressive. It seems that all he does is make plays, and in the absence of Marques Colston and Jeremy Shockey, he's shining. Even the defense looked good, getting to former Saint J.T. O'Sullivan early and often, and even Jason David made a few good plays in coverage.

I realize that the 49ers aren't exactly the cream of the crop in the NFL, but it did feel good to see the Saints looking like the team we expected them to be. And 2-2 beats the heck out of 0-4.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Armchair QB: The sequel

First off, I'd like to thank coach Sean Payton for not making me create a new graphic this week and allowing me to be lazy and ask the same question in a different way. How many times do we have to be stuffed on key short yardage plays before we give the ball to Deuce McAllister?

It's no secret that I'm a fan of Pierre Thomas. I thought it was the right choice to keep him over a draft pick last year, and I love the upside. But the bottom line is that he's not getting it done on these plays. Reggie Bush, as good as he's looked this year, is not the smashmouth between the tackles runner. That's No. 26, who has been on the sideline every time we've needed him the past two weeks.

I can't figure it out. We gave him the ball twice last week and he busted off five yards on each carry. Then he disappeared. Why? If he's still hurt, why is he dressed out, stretching, staying warm and looking like he's itching to get into the game on the sideline? If he's hurt, why could he carry a couple of times last week but not on a third or fourth and one? Why are we dressing him out if we're not going to use him? Does Payton have some sort of problem with Deuce? I had hoped with Payton we were past these hard-headed, frustrating coaching decisions, but apparently not.

I can't understand having a weapon over there, a weapon that's perfect for the key situations that we've been in and not using it. Obviously, I can't sit here and say that I'm 100 percent sure that Deuce would have gotten the yardage, but no one else is making those plays, so I don't see the downside to giving him the shot. Quite frankly, I'd feel much more confident lining up with him in the backfield in those situations, and he definitely couldn't do any worse than the other guys.

Are we in for another long season? I'm not sure yet. Despite the moves we made in the offseason, our defense still stinks. It was nice to see Mike McKenzie back in there making a few plays. But when it comes down to it, when it counted, the defense gave us a chance to win. The offense couldn't convert ... that's turning into the story of the season.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Armchair QB: Where's Deuce when we need him?

On the sideline for no good reason, apparently. How you can justify leaving Deuce McAllister on the sideline when your run game is anemic, I don't know. I can understand wanting to rest him and make sure he's healthy for the stretch run. But you've got to win to get to the stretch run, and 46 yards from your running backs ain't gonna get you there.

Let's look at it, Reggie Bush had 28 yards on 10 carries. Pierre Thomas had eight on six carries. Deuce touches the ball twice and rips off five yards on each carry, then he's back on the sideline. Even on third and one late in the game, when we were trying to hang on -- no Deuce. In that situation, he's got to be your guy. At the very least, you line him up back there to make the other team think about it. I can't figure it out. Maybe if he'd had more plays, Washington would have shut him down, too, but you can't know that if you don't try.

Admittedly, 1-1 is much better than 0-2, where we were at this point last year, but we should be 2-0. We've been sloppy, with a lot of mental mistakes over the first two weeks. I know our defense was decimated today, but where's that ballyhooed offense?

I know it's early and there's no need for panic, but I'm starting to feel a little of that old aggravation sneak back in.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Armchair QB: More like it

After a couple of games with a defense that looked like it was still full of holes, I was certainly pleased by their performance in what amounts to the real warm-up for the season Saturday night. My enthusiasm is tempered by the facts that we were playing the Bengals and their top two receivers were out with injury. But still the defense looked much improved, and Jason David was not in the starting lineup. Two very good points.

I was disappointed that the offense couldn't put more points on the board, but they still managed a solid performance. Deuce continues to look like he can contribute this year, and Aaron Stecker and Pierre Thomas looked as good as they did at the end of the year last year. The receivers also looked good, though I question letting Marques Colston get beat up the way he did on that first drive in a preseason game. All in all, a much better outing.

Also, congratulations to former Saint J.T. O'Sullivan, who really should have gotten a shot in New Orleans during the Aaron Brooks years, on being named starting quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Armchair QB: Good and bad

There were a lot of good things to see in last night's preseason game against the Texans. There were also a lot of bad things.

We'll start with the good. Drew Brees is already dialed in, and with the exception of a few dropped passes, our offense looked ready to go. Deuce McAllister made his return to the field and looked very good in limited action. He can still make a few cuts and still push the pile despite his knee surgeries. A healthy Deuce is one of the keys to making another run this year, and since he rivals Archie Manning and Sam Mills as my favorite Saints of all time, I'm just happy to see him back out there.

Now, the bad. Our defense is still full of holes, Jason David being the biggest. I heard a comment during the telecast that the Saints coaches still have confidence in him. How many times can a guy get burned like that before you start to lose confidence? Not that anyone in the defensive backfield looked like a world-beater last night. And where was that run-stuffing improvement.

I've still got some jitters about our defense, despite all the upgrades we made. Here's hoping it comes together over the next few weeks. Otherwise, we may just be hoping our offense can outscore everyone.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Armchair QB: Finally!

Football is back.

As much as I love my Saints, to be honest, it's hard for me to get fired up about preseason games. Don't get me wrong, I watched every single minute of tonight's matchup with the Cardinals, but I certainly wasn't as focused on it as a game that means something. And, of course, it's even harder when you get to the fourth quarter and you know you're watching a bunch of guys that won't be on the team.

Still there are some good and bad things I take from tonight's outing. First, a win is a win, even if it's meaningless. Of course, Saints fans know that, historically, poor preseasons are better for us, so that makes me a little nervous. I'll start with the good points. Drew Brees was ... well, Drew Brees. No rust there. He looked sharp, as we expected, and we'll need him to be. The offense was clicking pretty well tonight, even with some notable absences. It was also nice to see Robert Meacham, the first round pick that didn't play a game last year, making some plays. I was a little disappointed that Pierre Thomas couldn't seem to get on track running, though he did have a pretty nice kick return. I'd feel a lot better seeing Deuce McAllister out there looking close to 100 percent.

Now the bad news. Same as it was last year -- defense. I realize it's only the first preseason game, and there were, again, notable absences, like new linebacker Jonathan Vilma. I was pleased with all the defensive moves we made in the offseason, but it didn't look to help tonight. I saw Randall Gay get burned a couple of times. I saw receivers catch passes without a defender within 10 yards. There's a long way to go until it starts to count, hopefully all the changes will come together by then.

It's too early to worry yet. I'm just glad it's that time again.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Review: "Guitar Hero: Aerosmith"

To hold fans of the “Guitar Hero” series over until the fourth installment arrives this fall, Activision delivers what could be the first in a series of artist-based titles, “Guitar Hero: Aerosmith.” (Rumor has it that “Guitar Hero: Metallica” is already in the works for a 2009 release).

While it’s still more of an expansion pack for “Guitar Hero III” than a new game, “Guitar Hero: Aerosmith” does manage to bring a few new twists to the table, unlike last years “Guitar Hero Rocks the ’80s.” While the game follows the basic pattern and rules of “GH III,” in career mode players must first perform two songs as an opening band before they unlock Aerosmith for that level and get to rock out on the band’s classic tunes.

The opening band numbers include classic songs from bands like Cheap Trick, Ted Nugent, Joan Jett, The Clash, Run DMC and more, all hand-picked by the members of Aerosmith. Most of them are the actual songs, rather than the covers that have dominated past installments of the game (though there are still four or five of those.) Once you get past those, there are two Aerosmith tunes and an encore to unlock a video of the band discussing its career and move to the next level.

The venues here are integral to Aerosmith’s history from the high school where they played their first gig, to Max’s Kansas City where they were discovered to the Orpheum Theatre where they reunited in the early 1980s to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame and halftime of “the big game.”

Perhaps the best part of this game is the playlist in career mode. Notably absent are overrated and oversaturated tunes like “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” “Janie’s Got a Gun,” “Dude (Looks Like a Lady)” and the “CryinAmazaCrazy” trilogy. Instead, we get some underappreciated gems from the catalogue, like “Movin’ Out,” “No Surprize,” “Uncle Salty,” “Nobody’s Fault” (my personal Aerosmith fave) and the Joe Perry vocal on “Bright Light Fright.” I was disappointed in the decision to use the Run DMC version of “Walk This Way,” but the real version is included as an unlockable extra and that’s a minor quibble for a set list that’s heavy on hard-rocking classics and light on the newer hits.

All in all “Guitar Hero: Aerosmith” is a short, but enjoyable add-on that should whet your appetite for “Guitar Hero World Tour,” due out just in time for Christmas, of course. More of these artist-based titles would be welcome.

Get "Guitar Hero: Aerosmith" for Wii.
Get "Guitar Hero: Aerosmith" bundle for Wii.

Get "Guitar Hero: Aerosmith" for Xbox 360.
Get "Guitar Hero: Aerosmith" bundle for Xbox 360.

Get "Guitar Hero: Aerosmith" for PS3.
Get "Guitar Hero: Aerosmith" bundle for PS3.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Review: "Sabriel," by Garth Nix

I’m a latecomer to Garth Nix’s Abhorsen Trilogy, having only picked up the series with the latest trade paperback re-release of the first book, “Sabriel” ($9.99, Eos). So far, I’m impressed and sorry that I didn’t pick it up years ago.

The title character is a young girl, just coming of age, at a school in Ancelstierre, a more modern world where technology rules. But she’s from the Old Kingdom, separated from Ancelstierre by a wall, where magic is king. Her father is a necromancer, but not the bad-guy kind that raises the dead. Instead, it’s his mission to banish the dead from the world of the living, and there are plenty of dead for him to stay in business since chaos has descended on the Old Kingdom with the end of the royal line and the breaking of the magical Charter stones.

One day at school, Sabriel receives a strange messenger from the realms of death, one who brings her father’s magical sword and the bells he uses to banish the dead. Though ill-prepared, Sabriel has to take up the title of Abhorsen and do battle against an enemy named Kerrigor that’s returned from death and is about to take his revenge on the Old Kingdom and Ancelstierre alike.

Though the basic storyline here — a young person thrust into a destiny that he/she is unprepared for and must rise to the occasion — is one of the oldest in fantasy, and perhaps in literature as a whole, Nix breathes new life into it with an imaginitive reality and cast of characters. While the story here is self-contained, with no loose ends left, it still seems to be only a beginning. The book, which focuses primarily on the characters, leaves the readers with a great many questions about the wider world, a combination of a more traditional fantasy world blended with a World War II-era world.

The book features a darker tone that reminds me a bit of Michael Moorcock’s Elric tales, yet the action is fast and lively and less brooding than those books. Aimed at YA readers, the book could use a little fleshing out with a bit more depth and time given to the characters and the world amid the action sequences, but that won’t keep you from falling into the fast and furious flow of the book and enjoying it just the same. I look forward to what comes in the next two volumes, also recently re-released by Eos.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Review: "From Dead to Worse," Charlaine Harris

There’s an air of finality in “From Dead to Worse” ($24.95, Ace), the latest volume of Charlaine Harris’ tales of telepath Sookie Stackhouse.

As the book starts, Sookie is trying to get her life back to normal after she was caught in the middle of an anti-vampire terrorist attack in the last volume. She’s returned to her waitressing job in Bon Temps, just up the road from Monroe, but the peaceful life, as usual, evades her. Soon after the book opens, a war between erupts between rival factions of the Shreveport werewolf packs, and on top of that, a crew of vampires from Las Vegas is in town eyeing a takeover with Louisiana queen Sophie Anne-Leclerq weakened by Hurricane Katrina and injured in the terrorist attack.

Sookie’s personal life continues to be tumultuos as her weretiger boyfriend Quinn has gone missing, her witch roommate has problems with a rich father and a former mentor who has found her and she gets caught up in her brother’s marital problems.

While it may sound like the plot of a really bad soap opera, Harris always manages to handle things deftly to keep the reader engaged and keep the story from devolving into silliness, no matter how many supernatural characters show up or how many unlikely events break out.

For folks like me, who have lived in this area for most of my life, it’s a bit hard to imagine having vampires and werewolves lurking around every corner, but Harris has a way of making the reader buy it hook, line and sinker.

This book has the feeling of a wrap-up with most of the ongoing storylines from the previous books seemingly tied up at the end. A sense of normalcy is returned to Sookie’s life. The good news for fans is that there are a few new problems and there’s an intriguing twist at the end of the book that seems to promise more stories to come. At the very least, fans can check in with Sookie again this fall when HBO launches the series “True Blood,” based on the books.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Review: "The Born Queen," by Greg Keyes

It’s refreshing these days when a fantasy author delivers what’s promised. In the era of bloated epic fantasy series that just keep going and going without resolution, Greg Keyes promised four books in his Kingdom of Thorn and Bone series, and he delivered four books that were tight, focused and fast-paced. Unfortunately, that’s also a weakness of this last book.

In the final volume of the series, “The Born Queen” ($26, Del Rey), the powers that have established themselves in the first three books are maneuvering to decide the fate of the world, and none of them look like particularly promising rulers. The most likely candidate is Anne Dare, descendant of the legendary Queen Virgenya Dare and current ruler of Crotheny, but she has a dark side emerging along with her growing power. The Sarnwood Witch has set a plan in motion to create a new Briar King to take the throne. The legendary despot the Black Jester has been reborn in a scholar. Overzealous church leader Hespero has declared holy war against Anne. The last of the Skasloi, who once enslaved humans, is hatching its own plans, and of course, Anne’s uncle, the undead murderer and usurper Robert Dare is still out there.

The action hits as soon as “The Born Queen” starts and doesn’t let up until the final page. If there’s a weakness to the book, it may be just that. At times, the story seemed to move a bit too fast. There were certain events and revelations in the book that needed a little more time and attention. While the major story arc was tied up neatly, there were some underlying storylines that perhaps got a bit short-changed.

I suppose it’s the nature of epic fantasy to grow beyond the scope of an easy wrap-up, and I got the feeling several times during this book that Keyes was rushing to finish it in the promised number of volumes. I applaud him for not allowing the series to grow out of control, but I also wouldn’t have minded a fifth book to allow him to flesh the ending out a little more and give more time to some of the secondary storylines.

Ultimately, “The Born Queen” adequately wraps the story up, and it’s a satisfying end to the series, though perhaps a bit less enjoyable than the first three volumes due to its rushed nature.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

RIP George Carlin

I'm coming in a few days late on this, but Carlin was one of my favorite comedians. Here's my favorite Carlin bit, on the differences between football and baseball, in his memory.

One year, come and gone

I had planned to have some sort of celebratory post about hitting the one year anniversary of rededicating this site. Unfortunately, my father passed away just days before the June 14 date when I made my first post on the relaunched site, and I didn't feel like celebrating very much. Still don't. But I figure I should recognize it in some way.

Since I launched a site in 1996, this is the longest I've probably kept one running on a regular basis. While it hasn't quite been what I envisioned -- some months I've packed it with content, some months have gone by with only a few posts -- it's still here, still more or less regularly updated and drawing better traffic than most sites I've had before. I find it fascinating to look at the places people are visiting the site from, and I'm continually amazed that the ramblings of this crazy guy in a hicktown draw attention from all corners of the globe.

Thank you for reading, and here's looking forward to another year.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Review: "The Wolves in the Walls," by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean

I originally reviewed this book when it came out in 2003, a couple of years before I had a child of my own. In the last few weeks, my three-year-old and I have begun starting to explore a few books outside the realm of the standard Dr. Seuss-style children's books that we've been reading forever (not that there's anything wrong with those; we still enjoy them quite a bit). I quickly found out that he's not ready for books without pictures yet, when I tried "The Hobbit." (I know, I know, but I just can't wait to read it to him.) One of my next attempts was "The Wolves in the Walls." He absolutely loved it, and we've been reading it at least once or twice a night for the last week. I still find it a delightful book, and Dave McKean's occassionally creepy illustrations don't seem to scare him a bit. So, here's my original review from five years ago, and I find it still very much fitting:

When the wolves come out of the walls, it's all over.

No one's really sure why it's all over, or even what "it" is. But they all say it, so it has to be true, right?

The wolves do indeed come out in "The Wolves in the Walls" ($16.99, HarperCollins) the latest children's book from master fantasist Neil Gaiman.

When Lucy begins to hear scratchings and rustlings in the walls of her home, she knows the wolves have come. The problem is that no one in her family believes her. When she brings it up, they all think she has an overactive imagination, and they all tell her the same thing - "When the wolves come out of the walls, it's all over."

The book gets even more weird when the wolves do decide to come out. They take over the house, running Lucy and her family out. Lucy's parents and her brothers begin to consider all of the places they can move to get well away from the wolves, but Lucy doesn't want to live anywhere but her house. When she decides to go back in and confront the wolves, everyone gets a surprise.

I've been a fan of Gaiman since reading his "Sandman" comics in high school (and no, it's not about the guy from Spider-Man that can turn himself into sand.) He's one of the most inventive writers out there. "Good Omens," his collaboration with Terry Pratchett further reinforced that opinion, and his novels "Neverwhere," "Stardust" and "American Gods" are some of the best out there.

"The Wolves in the Walls" has the same kind of twisted humor you'll find in his other books, but the story remains light enough for young readers.

Artist Dave McKean worked on the "Sandman" books and also illustrated Gaiman's other children's books, "The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish" and "Coraline." His illustrations are the perfect match for this story - creepy, but whimsical at the same time.

While it's a picture book, it might be a bit too intense for very young children. There's no violence or anything really questionable that parents should be concerned about, but some of the wolf drawings might bring a bad dream or two to the truly young. Think of it as a more intense version of "Where the Wild Things Are."

In the end, though, as creepy as the story is and as scary as the wolves may be, little Lucy finds a way to triumph by using her wits. Despite his affection for the darker stories, Gaiman manages to show children that their nightmares aren't as bad as they think, and all you have to do is stand up to them. And he does it in a way that can provide an interesting diversion even for his adult fans.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Review: Stephen King, "Song of Susannah" and "The Dark Tower"

So ends a 20-plus year oddyssey in my reading life. I remember in high school reading that line: "The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed." A great opening line. One of my favorites ever. I devoured the first three books in the series and waited and waited and waited some more. So, it's a bit ironic that after years and years of complaining about the fact that Stephen King seemed unable to finish the Dark Tower series, it took me four years to get around to reading the final two installments. Since most people with a strong interest have already read these books, rather than a formal review, I'll just offer a few thoughts on these two books and the series as a whole.

It's sad, but I'll admit that on hearing Stephen King was hit by a van in 1999, one of the thoughts that crossed my mind was, "now we may never get the end of the story." It sounds horrible to say that, but unlike other characters whose story has been drawn out over too many years (Rand al'Thor, whose author did pass away before giving readers a finale, for example), I've never lost interest in Roland Deschain. I'll admit to having a strong interest in mysterious, gruff cowboy characters. I've even written one or two myself -- though certainly not comparable to Roland. He's a fascinating and tragic character.

When "Wolves of the Calla" arrived, I bought it immediately and jumped right back into the story. But for some reason, when "Song of Susannah" and "The Dark Tower" came out, I didn't get them right away. I could offer excuses, sure. I had a stack of books to be read for review that I didn't have time to get to. Maybe I couldn't afford the hardcover editions of the books at the time they came out. But, deep down, I wonder if, after so many years with these characters, I didn't want to see the story come to an end.

I read the final two books over the last few weeks with mixed feelings. The story, which had seemed a little stalled over the course of "Wizard and Glass" and to a lesser extent in "Wolves of the Calla," got moving again, zipping right along. I was less enthused with the way that King insinuated himself into the story. At times, it seemed a bit arrogant to me. Sure, we all know where the story flows from, but it just seems a little too full of yourself, particularly when the story would likely have worked just as well without it. But I guess, when you're Stephen King, that's your prerogative. Though at times annoying, it was not enough to ruin the story for me.

Ultimately, at the end of the 20-year road, I was satisfied with the outcome. I'd recommend you consider sai King's suggestion at the end of the book to stop and let the characters sail off to the Grey Havens. I almost wish that I had, but like most readers, I had to push forward and see what was inside the tower. I won't give it away, but as King suggests, I think the journey is the heart of the tale rather than the destination that the seven books have revolved around.

The story is done, the book is closed. We say thankya.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Submission guidelines

Occasionally I get a message from someone who would like me to review their book. I welcome those inquiries and submissions for review. If you'd like to offer your work up for review, drop me an e-mail with a little info, and if I'm interested, I'll let you know where to send your submission. That said, I do have a few ground rules that I want to let people know up front.

I accept very few books for review here. The reason is just a lack of time to read and review all of them. I currently get about 8 or 10 books a week for review through other outlets, and I can only get to a fraction of those. On the other hand, I'm always looking for new and exciting stories, so if you think you've got something I'd like, I encourage you to let me know about it. I do welcome small press and self-published works. However, I do not accept books that have been published through PublishAmerica, Author House or one of those other companies that accept everything they get. It's not a judgment on your individual work. It's that I have had tons of absolutely awful books from those "publishers" foisted upon me, and I simply won't bother with them anymore. I will also accept ebooks in the epub format, which I can read on my Nook.

While I enjoy exceptionally well-written books, technical skills matter less to me than a good story. An adequately-written work with an incredible story will beat a beautifully written piece with a lousy story for me every time. That said, a book littered with grammatical and punctuation errors is not a good idea. I work as an editor, and they do tend to annoy me. My primary interests are fantasy and horror, and I like just about all varieties of those genres. I do review some science fiction, but it usually needs to have some sort of interesting twist to catch my attention. I also like good humor. I will consider other genres, but it will likely be a tough sell.

If this all sounds a little picky, well, it probably is, and I apologize for that. My pickiness protects us both. I don't need a house full of stuff that I'm not going to review, and you don't need to waste the materials and postage to get it to me if I can't review it or am not interested. If you're unsure whether your book is right for this site, it never hurts to drop me an e-mail and find out.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Random rant: Moment of Zen

I just had one of those things that Jon Stewart likes to refer to as a "Moment of Zen," that I had to share.

I was sitting at a red light behind a Nissan Sentra with this monstrous bumper sticker plastered across a whole half of the bumper demanding that I "BUY AMERICAN." Priceless. I wish that I'd had a camera.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Review: "The Begotten," by Lisa T. Bergren

Being sick of the vampire porn that seems to be constantly pushed at me these days, I was intrigued by the premise of Lisa T. Bergren’s “The Begotten” ($14, Berkely).

Here’s the setup: Fragments of what could be a lost letter of Paul the Apostle foretell the coming of a group called the Gifted, blessed with special powers to battle evil, in this case a being known as the Sorcerer, who is a pretty vicious character. Naturally, such a group would be as much a threat to the church of 14th century Italy as it would be to evil, so they have enemies on both fronts.

The setup sounds intriguing. The delivery, not so much. For one thing, “The Begotten” spends a lot of time setting up, bringing the Gifted together, and while I suppose it’s necessary, after a strong start to the book, I really started to nod off toward the middle.

There are two stories here that intrigue me – the conflict between the Gifted and the church and the conflict between the Gifted and the Sorcerer, who, for my tastes is a far too underdeveloped black mass of evil. By the time Bergren really gets to either one of them, I had lost a lot of my initial interest.

For fans of historical fiction or Christian fiction, who revel in attention to historical detail and reaffirmation of their faith, “The Begotten” might be a pretty good book – judging from the reviews on Amazon, it’s popular with that crowd. For me, coming from a fantasy background, there seemed to be a lot of information here that bogged down the story I was interested in, that ultimate battle between good and evil. I also detest preachiness, and the story does occasionally veer into preachy territory.

I can’t say it’s a bad book. It’s well-written and there are some quite enjoyable moments scattered throughout, but overall, it’s just not for a heathen like me. Fans of Christian and historical fiction may enjoy it, though.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Random Rant: A little help, please

If you’re one of the three people who visits this site with any regularity, you’ve probably noticed a lack of book reviews recently. Sure, the three-year-old running around like crazy and that gorgeous new Music Man Axis that I got for Christmas have taken away from my reading time, but the honest truth is, there’s just not a lot in my to-read stack right now that’s exciting me.

It’s gotten to the point that, when choosing a book earlier this week, I dipped back to pick up Stephen King’s "Song of Susannah." (Yeah, after griping about him not finishing the series for years, it’s taken me four to get to the last two books.)

I get books for review two or three times a week, and probably eight of every 10 books that I get these days are in the genre that I jokingly refer to as "vampire porn." You know the ones. There’s a vampire (werewolf, fairy, insert fantasy character here) that lives in the modern world. A problem lands on her (usually, but occasionally his) doorstep, and she has to use her powers to solve it — quite often with a lot of steamy sex along the way.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not offended by this in any way. I was a big fan of Laurell K. Hamilton until her "plots," and I use the term loosely these days, became an excuse to get her characters from one sex scene to the next. I enjoy Charlaine Harris’ vampire stories that take place in my back yard, and Jim Butcher has yet to disappoint me with his pretty much sex-free tales of Chicago wizard Harry Dresden. But the truth is, I groan now every time I pull one of those books out of the envelope (enough, already), and unless it’s by an established author that I know I like, it’s probably destined for the donation box.

I’m so sick of the subgenre that I even stopped work on a book of my own in the genre (no vampires, period) despite the fact that I quite like the idea of it. There’s just too much of it out there right now, and it’s gotten stale — really, really stale.

So, here’s where my three readers come in. I’ve got the King books to keep me company until Greg Keyes’ latest book arrives later this month and Jim Butcher’s comes in early April. Both of those go directly to the top of the stack. George R.R. Martin’s latest is coming in September (we think), but between those, I need some suggestions. So hit me with your best ideas. Give me suggestions for a book that’s exciting, a book that has some freshness, a book that will inspire. Whether it’s a book from your favorite author or a book of your own (know in advance, though, that if you send me your own, I will be completely honest, love it or hate it.) Leave it as a comment for the other two readers to share or send it to me via e-mail. If it sounds good to me, I’ll check it out.

Review: "Runemarks" by Joanne Harris

Joanne Harris, author of “Chocolat,” turns her attention to young readers with her latest novel “Runemarks” ($18.99, Knopf).

Maddy is an outcast in her village of Malbry, born with a runemark on her hand — or a “ruin-mark” as its known to the people who have renounced the old Norse gods and now follow a god known as The Nameless. Magic is strictly forbidden, and those born with the mark of it are shunned at best, and in some cases, executed at birth.

The girl spends her days cleaning the Seven Sleepers Inn in the village and daydreaming about the return of the mysterious traveler known as One-Eye. He doesn’t see Maddy as an outcast. Rather, he views the runemark as a blessing and has been secretly teaching her the magic that is her birthright during his visits over the last seven years.

Now the world is changing, and when One-Eye returns, he asks much more of Maddy than their regular lessons. He sends her into the goblin-ridden underworld of Red Horse Hill, just outside the village, to receive a magical ancient artifact known as the Whisperer. Maddy is armed with little more than simple rune spells and a warning to stay away from a former associate of One-Eye, a trickster and the reason that One-Eye himself can’t retrieve the item.

The journey will bring Maddy all the way to the borders of Chaos and beyond.
Needless to say there are quite a few twists and turns, revelations and surprises in store through the course of the story. I won’t give them away any more than those with a little knowledge can already guess from the setup above. It will leave the reader with a slightly different impression of the Norse pantheon.

“Runemarks” will certainly be a challenging book for the young readers that it’s aimed at, not only because of its heft, but also because of the content. While it is an engaging adventure story, it also tackles some serious moral questions and is thought-provoking even for adult readers. Fantasy fans of any age should be able to appreciate it.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Review: "Outrageous Fortune," by Tim Scott

Think you’re having a bad day? Could be worse. Ask Jonny X67, the main character of Tim Scott’s new novel “Outrageous Fortune.”

Jonny’s having a really bad day. He’s just come home to find out his entire house has been stolen. In its place, he finds a card that says “Don’t You Hate When This Happens?” with a phone number. He’s had a fight with his girlfriend. He’s about to be abducted by four bikers who have named themselves after the four horsemen of the apocalypse who want him to assassinate God, and he’s being hounded by a militant encyclopedia salesman.

Scott’s debut is a zany, fun and inventive ride that reads like Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett and Christopher Moore sitting down for a book club discussion of William Gibson’s “Neuromancer.” It’s often funny and just a little goofy. Scott creates a world where record companies have taken over California, and everyone lives in zones that are based on their listening preferences. (I was a bit disappointed that we didn’t at least get to visit Heavy Metal in the course of the novel.) Elevators tell knock-knock jokes and long to travel, people have phones and debit systems transplanted into their bodies, humans can catch ad viruses that pop up around them randomly and one of the hottest spots around is the most inconvenient bar in the world.

But under the flashy world and fun, there is a very serious side to the book. Scott presents, in a light-hearted way, some very real criticisms of our technology driven world, our search for convenience and our loss of privacy. There’s certainly a little bit of Orwell’s Big Brother in the Zone Securities police force which tracks people through implanted chips and can seemingly arrest and dispose of them with impunity. There’s also a warning here about the dubious uses of technology in the wrong hands, though I won’t go into that because I don’t want to spoil anything.

“Outrageous Fortune” opens with a strange and intriguing scene and continues to delight with its oddball world and keep the reader interested by the unfolding puzzle of a plot. It’s a great debut from a promising new voice.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Armchair QB: Final thoughts on the 2007 season

I took a few weeks off to reflect on the disappointing 2007 campaign before sitting down to write my wrap-up because I wanted a clear head to look at the whole picture.

I'm disappointed. All Saints fans are. But the fact of the matter is that I still believe that this team is on the cusp of becoming one of the elite franchises in the NFL. Yes, I know we've thought this before, and there are some odd parallels between the first years of Jim Haslett and Sean Payton. Haslett took over a team that was 3-13 and in disarray, finished 10-6 with the first playoff win in Saints history, then tanked to 7-9. We couldn't win the one game that we needed to win to get into the playoffs. We all know how that turned out. Payton took over a post-Katrina team that was 3-13 and in disarray, finished with a 10-6 record and took the team to the NFC championship for the first time. Then, he tanked to 7-9 and we couldn't win one game that we needed to put ourselves in control of the last playoff spot. So why do I think this team will be any different from Haslett's team?

Look at the talent. We've got one of the best quarterbacks in the league -- a luxury the Saints have only had once before in franchise history, when No. 8 was under center. The difference is that Drew Brees also has some talent around him. He's got a line that doesn't allow many sacks, so despite those first few games, he's not running for his life like Archie Manning.

We're stacked at running back. Pierre Thomas' performance in the final game against the Bears really showed that he does have what it takes to be a great running back in this league. Aaron Stecker played like a beast in the few games that he started toward the end of the year. Reggie Bush, while certainly not nearly as good as advertised in my opinion, can do some good things for us given the right situation, which brings us to the big question mark -- that bruiser running back that will open Bush up. Deuce McAllister is one of my favorite players ever, and no doubt a great running back. I hope to see 26 back on the field and doing all the things he does again next year, but in the real world, a second knee surgery doesn't bode well for a running back in the NFL. Can Stecker or Thomas be that guy if Deuce can't return to form? I guess we'll see.

An offseason look at the receiver position might not be a bad thing. We've got talent there already, but I wouldn't mind having one more playmaker out there. David Patten did some good things late in the season, and of course, Marques Colston is the man. Lance Moore and Terrance Copper have been pretty solid as the four and five guys. Beyond that though, I think there's room for improvement. Devery Henderson had way too many drops, many of them key drops. Our first round pick Robert Meacham appears to be a bust, not even suiting up for a game in his first season. On the bright side, Billy Miller looked pretty good at tight end in the last few games, and maybe he can step up if Eric Johnson goes elsewhere in free agency.

Kicker is a no-brainer. Olindo Mare must go. He had a lousy year and then got injured. We punted several times from inside the 35 because we didn't trust him to make a 50-yarder -- the very reason we brought him in. Martin Gramatica did a solid job filling in, going perfect in his few attempts with one impressive 55-yarder. Is he the long-term solution? I don't know. I'd definitely like to see some new kickers, particularly young kickers, trying for the job in camp.

Defensively, though, is where we have the most problems. Up front, we're pretty solid. Those guys were the only real bright spot on the defensive side of the ball. Our linebacking corps is average. I'm a fan of Scott Fujita, but I also wouldn't mind seeing us look at strengthening the position more. In the backfield, we need lots of help. Jason David was obviously not the answer. He was burned at least once in most every game he played this year, and there were, of course, the spectacular failures in a couple of games. I know the excuses, that he's switching from a zone defense to a man defense and needs time to adjust, but I really didn't see any improvement through the course of the year. He started the season getting burned and finished the season getting burned. I think we're fairly solid on one side with Mike McKenzie, and we've got a few promising young safeties in Josh Bullocks, Roman Harper and Chris Reis who might develop into really good players. But I'll be very disappointed if our first-round pick this year is anything but a defensive back.

Looking back at the season, it was a mixed bag of elation and aggravation. At times, the team looked poised to turn things around, at others, you wondered what happened to that team that was out there last year. There was no consistency at all. In truth, this looked like a team searching for an identity. A team that's been historically horrible that underwent an amazing transformation last year. A team that, perhaps, came into the season buying a little too much of their own hype and believing that they were a little bit better than they actually were. Certainly, most of us fans did. I believe that this season will serve as a reality check. I've said it before, but I'll say it again: Historically teams that have unexpected success have a down year the next year. It's part of the process of becoming an elite team. We're not quite the championship team that we thought we were, but I don't think we're too far away from it. We'll make the adjustments in the off-season, shore up some of our problems, hopefully get all of our injured players healed and back at full strength, and next year's squad will look a lot more like that 2006 team. So, even though I got burned before, I'm going to make that prediction again: Saints in the Super Bowl in 2009.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Review: "Empire of Ivory" by Naomi Novik

“Empire of Ivory” marks the fourth installment of Naomi Novik’s entertaining alternate history series that places dragons in our own world in the time of the Napoleonic Wars.

The series focuses on Temeraire, a Celestial dragon usually reserved only for members of Chinese royalty, who was captured while in the egg by British Navy captain William Laurence and bonded with the captain, taking him from his beloved Navy and into Britain’s Aerial Corps.

Now, the British dragons are decimated by a flu-like illness that has taken the lives of many dragons and is keeping most of the rest grounded. Temeraire seems to be immune to the disease, and the corps’ surgeons suspect it’s due to something he encountered on his recent travels. The clue sends the pair to Africa in a race against time to find the cure, both to save the lives of the other dragons and to get them back in the air before Napoleon realizes his advantage and can mount an attack.

But the untamed wilds of Africa are fraught with danger, including a group of natives who have a dragon army of their own and are determined to wipe out the slave trade — a goal that Laurence and Temeraire wholeheartedly agree with, though they can’t quite convince the tribe of that fact.

Over the course of the four books, Novik’s story has evolved from a blend of fantasy and history-based naval adventure in the style of Patrick O’Brien into a more far-reaching tale. There are dark undercurrents running through this book that make statements about equality (for both people and dragons), biological warfare and the line between duty and doing what’s right.

The strength of Novik’s work continues to be characterization of the dragons, particularly Temeraire. By giving them real personality and motivations, she’s able to make the reader forget, at least for the time you’re reading the book, that dragons aren’t real.

Some fans may be disappointed by the jarring ending which leaves Laurence and Temeraire in a great state of uncertainty. It does feel a bit like this is the first half of a longer book, but at the same time it provides a powerful hammer-blow to punctuate the actions that they’ve taken late in the novel (which I won’t reveal here for obvious reasons.) It leaves much unresolved and the reader hanging on the edge, and if you hate cliffhanger endings, it’s probably best that you wait for the next volume coming this summer which should tie up the loose ends.

With “Empire of Ivory,” Novik continues to entertain, while also managing to offer some serious social commentary. It again proves that she’s one of the best and most promising new writers in the genre.