October 30, 2011

Arkham City


After playing the first game together, the wife and I were excited to play Batman: Arkham City. She was especially stoked for the sequel since Catwoman is a playable character. So as soon as we could, we pre-ordered it from Game Stop, and I picked it up on my way home from work the day it was released.
In a lot of ways, it’s almost a fantastic game.
Almost, even though it’s gorgeous. The city is beautifully rendered. You could easily spend hours just wandering around and looking at the environment. Sometimes to your detriment. You’ll find yourself getting lost a lot at the beginning of the story, until you learn the landmarks and how to maneuver around the crowded, gothic skyline.
Almost, even though Kevin Conroy returns as Batman and Mark Hamill reprises his role as Joker. Virtually every character from the Batman universe shows up at least once. All are well-acted. The voice-over work is excellent, easily up there as the best I’ve ever heard.
Almost, even though the plot is engaging. It takes off from the first game, but isn’t so tied together that you're lost if you've never played Arkham Asylum. There are a couple of big twists. One will come as no surprise and the other will probably throw you for a loop--“How the hell did I miss that clue?”
Almost, even though it plays well. With a little practice you’ll get the controls down. There are some nice VR training missions to help you fine-tune. Some of the levels are challenging. Occasionally, they're annoying, but not too bad even if I did consider throwing the controller against the wall twice.
No, it’s an almost game.

Almost, because of Catwoman.
Not her costume. I didn’t mind the cheesecake factor. Honestly, I would have been surprised if she wasn’t showing some cleavage. It’s not even her playability as a character. Except for the lack of equipment, she’s more fun than Batman. She’s quicker, more acrobatic, and not as a strong as the Caped Crusader—which means, once you get the combat down, she’s capable of these long chains of attacks that are both fun to do and fun to watch.
What disappoints me about Catwoman is the way’s she treated.
In case you don’t know the premise of the game, a section of Gotham has been walled off and turned into a prison a la Escape From New York and the No Man’s Land storyline for years ago. All prisoners from both Arkham Asylum and Blackgate are dumped into the new Arkham City and left pretty much to their own devices.
I think you can see where this is going.
Every thug and every villain calls her a bitch. Constantly. It’s bitch this and bitch that. When they’re not calling her bitch they’re insinuating that they’re going to rape her. When they’re not calling her a bitch and they’re not insinuating that they’re going to rape her, then they’re calling her a bitch while insinuating that they’re going to rape her.
I know, realism, right?
“But she’s a woman,” you say. “These are all men. They haven’t seen a woman in years. I think they even say that.”
Well, they do, but—
“She kicks their ass though,” you say. “That’s what they’re there for. To call her a bitch and then get kneed in the balls.”
Maybe, but I still call bullshit. If it’s realistic for them to react that way, how come no one insinuates they’re going to anally rape Batman? That does happen in prison, you know, and this is supposed to be realistic, right?
Also, why doesn’t anyone call Batman profane names? Huh? Where’s the asshole, dick, prick, bastard, or son of a bitch when you’re playing the Dark Knight and confronting a group of thugs?
It’s a shame. It really is because it makes everything that wouldn’t have bothered me feel glaringly sexist, further lessens my faith in DC to ever present a female character in a positive light and makes Arkham City an almost game.

October 28, 2011

Dispatches from Mu


Mu is a mythical continent that began as vaguely convincing pseudo-science and morphed into full blown silliness. Depending on how nutty you like your peanut butter, Mu was: the source of Mayan civilization, a colony founded by survivors of Atlantis, home of the Secret Masters, or under control of fascist lizard people who still direct the New World Order and psychically eat your brain.

Mu exists in multi-genre dimensions, rising from the waves as fantasy, science fiction, and ancient occult gobbledygook. The dead civilization ghosts through comics, short stories, novels, cartoons, anime, and music. Even Led Zepplin conjures the mystical spirit of Mu—Robert Plant’s feather symbol is supposedly one of the "sacred glyphs."


Mu is here.

I don't just read crime fiction. I certainly don't just watch cop shows or heist films. I couldn't image resigning myself to one particular genre for my entertainment any more than I could imagine listening to a single style of music. Most of what I write is crime fiction.

But not all of it. 

Like I said in my Spinetingler interview, my style is evolving. Excursions into new territory are how I push myself as a writer. How I ward off complacency. I never want to write by rote. These excursions are now collected under the Dispatches from Mu tab at the top of the page.

In a few weeks you'll understand why.

Now, back to your regularly scheduled murder...

October 17, 2011

The Letter

Patti Abbott sponsored a flash fiction challenge based on the paintings of Reginald Marsh. Every story written earns $5 for charity. For complete details of the challenge go here. For a list of entries go here. For mine, keep reading.
The Letter



Two Girls On Boardwalk

The fighting wasn’t done but they sent home three and a half weeks ago with a ruined leg. He’s spent the last two on the boardwalk with the letter that arrived the day the machinegun nest cut his squad to chunks of meat in some city he can’t even pronounce. Just sitting there with her letter in his front pocket and his gun in his back, watching the children and the girls and the women and men to old to fight walk by. Watching and waiting for her. Sometimes wishing his head would stop hurting, but mostly waiting and wondering if her hair was still dark or if she had finally turned blonde. 

She had talked about it before he shipped out. She was in love with the actress. The one everyone seemed to like but him. Her friend, Whats-her-name, thought they looked alike. He just didn’t see it and he never cared for blondes.

Catching up to her, he touches her back with one hand. The other, the one he thought was on the gun he was going to use on her for leaving him like that, leaving him by letter, isn’t on the gun at all. It’s clutching the letter.


She turns. “Hello. Can I help you?” Whats-her-name doesn’t realize and keeps walking, keeps talking for two, three, and four clicks of heels on boardwalk board. He realizes then she's not a Rican or a tanned Jew. She's Italian. Isn't she? She's So-and-so, right?

He starts to speak, but nothing comes. “Are you okay? You alright mister?” She asks. He thinks this isn’t her. Is it?

It's not. Just the same, he wants to tell her that she shouldn't have left like that. When she did, it's like she robbed him of some sort of protection and that's why everyone got cut down. He wants to give her the letter back, give it back like it'll make everything go away. But he can't he just clutches his pocket, the pocket with the letter, and his lips move like a fish trying to breathe on land.

Again, she asks, “You okay?”

He wants to tell her no, that he’s not. Not okay. Nothign will move though. Nothign but his leg. It shakes and when it shakes, his head starts hurting again and he just stands there until So-and-so grabs her arm. "Come on Martha," she says. "Let's go.

And they do while he shuffles back to his place and sits down in his spot. Wasn’t her was it? No, her hair is black. Black like dead eyes,

He sits even though the sun is at just that certain height. The bright bullet pierces his eye and his brain hurts. He doesn’t mind. That he understands. That’s something. Something more than a letter he doesn’t remember is his or not.

Sometimes, during the two weeks on the boardwalk, when the light is really bright and the sun is at just that certain height, it sends a single ray like a sniper’s bullet straight through his eye and he has a waking nightmare that her hair is red. Red with blood and pulpy with brains. He closes his eyes then and the dark inside his skull is all smoke and blood.

He’s closing his eyes when she walks by. Almost misses her. Barely catches her when the smoke and blood finally clears, the machinegun cools and quiets, and he returns, again, from that day. If she hadn’t turned and looked over her shoulder, he might not have caught sight of her. But he does.

She’s carrying a red bag and wearing a white bathing suit. High-heeling it down the boardwalk with Whats-her-name who’s in yellow and looking like a Rican or a tanned Jew.

She is blonde.

He stands quickly. Wants to run, but can’t. Moves down the walk, each creak feeling like the bones in his ruined leg are shattering, but he moves, catching sight of her and Whats-her-name over shoulders and around backs.

Memories of her flood his mind. Intimate, but distant. Almost like something he read. Something that used to be his. Something he doesn’t have any more. Does he? He can't remember.

October 13, 2011

All The Pissing

I'm finally setting down to read George R.R. Martin's A Dance With Dragons, the fifth book in his seven part (please, let it only be seven) A Song of Ice and Fire series.

I write mostly crime fiction, but fantasy was my first love. As a kid I devoured fantasy novels, reading the good stuff (Fritz Leiber, Michael Moorcock) and the shit (the Dragonlance series and R.A. Salvatore's Drizzt Do'Urden books). I played a lot of Dungeons & Dragons. I made maps of make-believe worlds and played amateur linguist.

I grew out of fantasy. Discovering Andrew Vachss and Shane Stevens helped, but it was also because as I matured I realized that 99% of the fantasy genre is utter and complete shit. Just badly-written Tokien rehash after rehash. Very little of it is imaginative. And there's a subtext to "high fantasy" that I find repellant, much like the vast majority of "military SF". Whenever I thought I had found a new savior for the genre, they always disappointed me.

Like Robert Jordan.

I remember reading the first three books in the Wheel of Time series and being excited. Here we go, I thought, here's something a little different. Here's something that's got some character focus! Holy hell, there's female point of view characters and they're not just hot chicks in chainmail bikinis! And there's no elves or dwarves or goblins! This is awesome!

Then it started...

The number of planned books lept growing and growing and growing. From 3 to 5 to 10 to whatever the hell it is now even though Jordan is dead. Next came the fantasy writer bloat--800 pages and wait for it...nothing happens. That's right, you just read 800 pages and you could count all the plot events on one hand. (Only if you're generous with your definition of "plot events.") Oh, and those female points of view you were excited about? Yeah, well, turns out the female characters are all the same and will spend the remainder of the series acting like 16 year old girls fighting over the same cute boy.

I stopped reading those books years ago. At this point, I don't really care whether Rand Al-Thor goes crazy or which woman he hooks up with. I don't care who's writing it now. Even if Tor hired a group of necromancers to summon Jordan's spirit from beyond the grave to finish the series himself, I wouldn't care. I told myself when I turned my back on Jordan that I wouldn't pick up another series. (Why is it always a series? Why can't fantasy authors write a single novel with a self-contained narrative?)

Then came Martin...

Everyone kept telling me I needed to read this Game of Thrones series. I don't want to, I told them. No, no, they said, it's so good. It's fantasy for adults! It's character driven! It's exciting, well-plotted and it's only supposed to be like three books and two of them are out already!

I thought about it...Well, fantasy for adults, huh? Only three books? And I do like Martin. His Wild Cards series was pretty cool and Beauty & The Beast was one of my favorite television shows. Why the hell not?

They were right.

There's a lot to like in the first three books. Good writing. Engaging characters. Strong women. Lots of schemes and machinations instead of a single big, epic quest to drop some item in some cave/chasm/volcano. Multiple view points connected to a larger, single plot arc that left you excited to see how everything would come crashing together. War protrayed as hellish and terrible without any of the whitewash most fantasy writers give it. And, thank god, none of that annoying info dumping: Yes, I know you really want to see our intrepid heroes reach the Castle of Nevermore, but instead I will give you 50 pages of landscape descriptions and 75 pages of history lessons on the line of Tramaldian Kings...

I was excited reading those books. I was! This was a genre I used to love and here was someone doing it right. It doesn't get any better than that.

Until Martin started doing what every other fantasy writer does...

Book I came out in 1996. Book II came out in 1998. Book III came out in 2000. A two year gap between books is a little longer than I'd like, but still not too annoying. Besides, there's only supposed to be three books--scratch that--now it's seven books. Because you know, the story just can't be told in three, and so Book IV comes after a five year wait.

I remember thinking, Are you serious? Five years? There are people who could write ten novels in five years...Well, maybe it's just a really badass and complex book? You know, it'll be where the shit hits the fan and just so fucking awesome you won't care you waited five years and had to re-read the previous books to remember who's who in the constantly growing number of POV characters.

Nope.

With Book IV, Martin shifts to a different part of the world and spends most of the book focusing on a whole new series of POV characters. Even after five years you'll still have to wait to see what happens to all the people you've grown attached to over the course of the series...and you'll have to wait for anything to really, you know, actually happen.

I tried to tell myself that, well, five years between books will mean the next one should come pretty quick and we'll get back to the people we know and we'll get some plot events that will move things forward.

Nope.

At least not so far.

Instead: six years between books four and five have gotten me a travelogue, info dumping, description after description of food, at least one POV chapter from a character I don't remember anything about, and lots of inner thoughts with very little dialogue or action. Oh, and pissing. Let's not forget the pissing. There are lots and lots of descriptions of people pissing. It seems like when people aren't eating, they're pissing, which is just the icing on the cake, isn't it? A six year wait for multiple paragraphs of people pissing.

Woot!

You know, watching the first season of the HBO adaptation I was wondering how they were going to adapt the later novels in the series, the 800 pagers. Returning to Westeros and reading the new book answered my question--easily. I mean, what's four actual plot points in a 12 episode season? Plus, it's HBO, so maybe if we're lucky we'll get to see all that pissing.

October 7, 2011

The Cool Dead

Back in September, I mentioned Warren Miller's 1959 novel, The Cool World. It's long out of print, but my university library dug their 1st Edition copy from the vaults. I got it a couple weeks ago and it's a surprisingly beautiful copy: light-blue hardback, title written in hep-cool-kat font, spine's sharp and switchblade straight.

Been considering writing an essay connecting Miller's The Cool World with Shane Steven's Go Down Dead. Both novels share a similiar premise and structure. Both novels are written by white authors about the "black experience" in Harlem. But more importantly to me, each book is social commentary hidden in crime fiction's bloody clothing.


Still from 1964 film version. Never released on DVD.
 Nearly finished with Cool and it hasn't disappointed. It's an engaging book with excellent pacing. Miller manages to switch between plot-chapter and memory-chapter without bogging the narrative. He's an excellent prose stylist. Writing Cool from the point of view of a young and poorly education gang member, he crafts a language that feels "real" and "street" and "urban," but still approachable and understandable and shockingly poetic.

If Cool trumps Dead, it's the prose...

I've already filed a request for another novel by Miller: The Siege of Harlem.




October 6, 2011

Especially From Me.

I've been quiet lately.

It's due to a lot of things: work has been one stressful thing after another, issues with Maria's sighted eye continue, and a few short days ago it was my birthday. I try not to do anything on my birthday.

One of the biggest reasons for going dark and the radio silence is I've been working on finishing up a project. (No, it's not the Shane Stevens book--though I have made a find recently that, assuming all the pieces fall into line, should prove to be quite the spotlight on our secretive author.) I haven't discussed the project yet and I'm still not quite ready for it. I want to get just a little bit closer to completion before the big reveal.

I will say, it's something you probably didn't see coming.

Especially from me.


October 1, 2011

My Dark Pages

Over at Dead End Follies, you can check out My Dark Pages where I talk about discovering Andrew Vachss and Shane Stevens.

Big thanks to Benoit for having me.











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