Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Lies of Locke Lamora

The Lies of Locke Lamora (Gentleman Bastard, #1)The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the novel every sixteen-year-old wants to read. And by "sixteen" I mean anyone who is chronologically sixteen or sixteen at heart. That probably means you (so long as you're not allergic to a lot of swearing and violence - if you can't handle this, find something else). No, it's not a coming of age novel. Not really. I'd pity the sap who had a childhood like Locke Lamora's - an orphan whose "family" was a band of child thieves before being sold to another "family" of thieves. But it is as bawdy, violent, and intelligent as one could ever ask in a fantasy novel. It is also incredibly well-written - elegant, though not baroque or overwrought, limned with brilliant turns of phrase that wrap the reader in the story, rather than pushing them out.

I won't even attempt to go over plot details in this one. First of all, I'm not very good at relating plots; and, second, the many comparisons I've heard to Ocean's Eleven and The Godfather are more than adequate to underscore the complexity of the plot. Suffice it to say that we see the titular thief's beginning, much of his upbringing and those of the other "Gentleman Bastards," we see their exploits as a cocksure gang, including an intricate heist involving the duping of a pair of nobles (brilliantly planned and executed) then, with the entrance of a mysterious figure known as the Gray King, things start to go wrong. Horribly, horribly wrong.

The wonder of this is that the book is written, throughout, with a chronological back-and-forth dance between past and present. Lynch choreographs this dance more deftly than I have ever seen before. The book progresses chronologically, at first, to the point where Locke is sold to his new garrista, or gang boss, Father Chains. From there, we jump to the present, and from there on out, we weave our way back and forth, following Locke and the Gentleman Bastards' heist and the complications presented by the Gray King in a linear fashion, while dipping back into interludes from the past that provide just enough information about the characters' pasts to give the needed background to understand aspects of the present, but not so much information that it feels hokey. Other, less skilled authors, would make these past sections feel like an awkward interpolation, but Lynch's flashbacks never feel like an infodump.

The setting, the city of Camorr, is mysterious and well-realized. I'm not certain if subsequent volumes of the adventures of Locke and Jean (one of the other Gentleman Bastards) also take place in Camorr, but Lynch has definitely not tapped the potential of the city with this one novel. Imagine a city not unlike Venice, but rife with sharks in the water and human sharks in every alleyway. The city itself is built atop the architecture of some past civilization that we know almost nothing about. This alien architecture is made of some unknown material called "Elderglass" that is sometimes translucent, sometimes opaque, and glows with "falselight" in the evening, lending an eerie quality that is used throughout as a sort of time marker indicating nightfall.

While the other Gentleman Bastards, Jean, the twins Calo Sanza and Galdo Sanza, and the young Bug, are all critical to the story, the focus is, as one would expect, on Locke Lamora. Locke is not the most physically deft person (that would be the Sanza twins), nor is he very strong or a good fighter (that would be Jean). But he is absolutely cunning and a fantastic liar. He is brilliant, and he knows it. But he is also very cautious, which saves his hide several times over. He is more cocksure than brave, but never stupid, even as he derides himself for being so. He is the ultimate Scheisster. As with any very intelligent person, he has a cutting wit, which is actually a common trait among all the Gentleman Bastards. The humor is thick and ribald in the first two-thirds of this book, then becomes grim by the end. Expect to laugh a lot at first, then expect to wonder if you should be laughing or not. For the reader with a dark sense of humor (read: me), this is a hilarious read when it needs to be and becomes more serious when it ought to (though it never loses its snarkyness).

I must admit that there are times when I read a book and am just plugging through it to get through it. I started that way with this book. Yes, I had heard it was good, but it took me a moment to "buy-in". But that was a quick moment. Maybe three or four pages, and I was hooked. The story flows quickly, yet uses intelligent, complex syntax with clever twists of irony. Lynch shows a master author's touch in The Lies of Locke Lamora. I haven't been "taken away" by a fantasy like this in some time. This book will demand all your attention, and it should. It is THAT good!

View all my reviews

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Glowburn, Episode 4: Stowaways on the Warden

Glowburn, Episode 4: Stowaways on the Warden

Please fasten your seatbelts at this time and stow any and all artifacts or adventuring equipment underneath your seat or in the overhead compartments: In this episode, we are taking off with the Starship Warden to explore Metamorphosis Alpha. Judge Forrest recounts Gameholecon and we hear an actual voice of the Ancient Ones! Judge Bill and Judge Forrest then unleash an unintentionally horrific pair of artifacts on Terra A.D. Opening and closing theme song is Juno by Chronox.




Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Tainted Earth

The Tainted EarthThe Tainted Earth by George Berguño
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

All short story collections (even my own) have high points and low points. The trick is to find collections where the high points are so good that they pull the other stories "up". If the low points were your average stories, the collection can still be outstanding. And this is the case here. Though some of the stories were, for me, average, there wasn't a stinker among them, and when Berguno shines, his light is bright, by which I mean it is gloomy and ethereal, light gray, if you will.

The title story, "The Tainted Earth," is reminiscent of the decadent writers Gautier or de Gourmont: very capably written, with little originality of plot, and a little twist at the end. I found that same decadent voice throughout the collection, to some degree or another, which is not a bad thing! The framing device for "The Tainted Earth" really is the story, which isn't usually my thing. But it flows so smoothly, one has to admire the writing behind it. I would normally give this sort of story three stars, but the prose is so well-constructed, that I'm giving it four stars.

Ah, Berguno, you trickster, you. Here, in "The Sick Mannes Salve," the author pulls the old bait and switch, though masterfully done. This story's tone is highly evocative of Poe and maybe a touch of M.R. James and a very tiny pinch of Dunsaney. Nicely done, though a touch predictable in hindsight. Four stars for you.

"The Ballad of El Pichon" is a tale of (dark) magic realism every bit as worthy as anything Marquez ever wrote. Surreal like a fever dream. I swear this was the reality I knew as a child when we traveled to Mexico for a day trip. Did I see that old man selling canaries? Or, worse yet, did he see me? Five stars!

"Fugue for Black Thursday," a vortex of respect, social chains, and revenge set in Nazi-occupied Poland, is centered around Bruno Schulz, author of The Street of Crocodiles (brilliantly interpreted in cinema by The Brother's Quay). This story had true pathos, with a plot that creates sympathetic creatures in the most evil of men. It is grim, loathsome, and altogether enjoyable, if you get what I mean - in much the same way that a Brother's Quay movie is, though quite a bit less surreal. This story, the second-strongest in the collection, easily gets five stars.

"Mouse and the Falconer" felt manipulative. This is forgivable, though my resistance to the authors overt attempts to play with my sympathies and fears ironically prevented me from feeling the depths of emotion I was "supposed" to feel. Still,the syntax and vocabulary are exquisite, but not adequate to earn any more than three stars.

"The Rune Stone at Odenslunda" fell flat for me, but was still not a bad story. Imagine if Dunsany and Ovid had written a horror story and set it in Norway. Three stars.

"The Good Samaritan of Prague" is a labyrinth meandering through dream and destiny, with a shadowy figure that may or may not exist as a sort of mystic minotaur. But monster and hero are conflated and indistinguishable from one another. A convoluted, gloomy story which is, at its heart, a brooding on homelessness, but I can't tell if it makes me sad or merely contemplative. Four stars.

"Three Drops of Death" could have been stripped straight out of the pre-Raphaelite short fiction collection, The Dream Weavers, except that Berguno gives the characters much more depth by showing their quirks and flipping reader expectations on their head. Five stars for this clever and endearing piece of dark humor.

The pièce de résistance here is to be found in the absolutely amazing novella "A Spell of Subtle Hunting". Another piece starring a Nazi as its protagonist, this story, written in the second person (a form that I usually hate with a flying passion), is an all-engulfing dreamscape with emotional depth that tugs at the heartstrings and immerses the reader in a hazy fugue state. Ernst Junger, the controversial writer, is the narrator. The war has come and gone, and Junger is old, very, very old, and about to die, so he seeks out a piece of his youth, from the time before he "began to die," when he was dismissed from the German army for his ties to the officers who attempted to assassinate Hitler (referred to as "Kniebolo" throughout) and had to relinquish his post in Paris, where he had become acquainted with such luminaries as Picasso and Jean Cocteau. "A Spell of Subtle Hunting" is a master-class in painting with an airy brush saturated with sadness, regret, and a hint of self-satisfied defiance. This piece is strong enough to cause the most avid reader to ask "why aren't there more novellas in the world"? We get enough of an insight into the character that we can see them from several angles, yet the form is short enough that we don't get mired in minutiae. This is especially important: The tone of the story, a touch grim and yet playful at the same time, is facilitated by the lack of fluff. As Calvino used to say, "I am a Saturn who dreams of being a Mercury". That same impulse is evident in spades in Berguno's longer (but not too long) masterpiece, "A Spell of Subtle Hunting".

This book would have been complete had it only contained this last novella and "Fugue for Black Thursday". Thankfully, it has these and much more to commend it. Add to this the exquisite production values I have come to expect from Egaeus Press (if you've never bought and held an Egaeus title, go NOW and do it!), and even the average stories become lifted up such that the The Tainted Earth is well-deserving of five stars.

View all my reviews

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the WorldHard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I cannot provide a more succinct and excellent summary of the plot of Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World than Michael has provided. Nor would I wish to try to describe the plot. It is classic Murakami, which means that several disparate elements are fused together in a surreal totality that somehow works. This may have more to do with the mind's attempt to fuse together disjointed pieces, filling in any logical gaps with its own concoctions, than the intention of the writer. Yes, Murakami supplies many pieces of the puzzle, but the reader's brain must itself invoke any missing pieces from past experience or the subconscious's sheer creation of additional fiction on the fly. Of course, this is the case with any piece of fiction, but the chasms that we willingly cross with Murakami are a testament to his power as a writer - the power to draw one into the story, to fold the reading experience in with the story itself.

That is not to say that the book is not without its flaws. I must admit to having felt "thrown out" of the story for a good portion of the story: an infodump in which one of the characters explains complicated concepts about neurology and consciousness in a highly-distracting, "folksy" voice. For a chapter, I thought I might set the book down, as I found this voice so annoying at what seemed like such a critical juncture. In the end, I'm not certain that the section in question was really even necessary. It could have at least been reduced by half and simplified, in order to keep the flow that I normally enjoy from Murakami.

Still, after that bump in the auctorial road, the story comes together again, as if it has jumped a hurdle and is now racing, quite confidently, to the finish. At a certain point - which I won't reveal - the two stories that comprise the book begin to meld into one, and yet the ending came as an utter surprise to me . . . because it was the ending I was expecting all along and the ending I both most feared and the ending I had secretly hoped for. It "rocked my world" because it did not "rock my world".

Ultimately, this is the sort of bittersweet story I've learned to hope for from Murakami, a sort of Hegelian dialectic in which hope and despair resolve into a sort of triumphant acceptance of inevitability. This has been a timely read for me, and rather poignant, since my father was recently diagnosed with cancer which has not, thankfully, metastasized. He had surgery to have his kidney removed just two weeks before I am writing this review. He is doing well, but, in talking with him on the phone, I can tell that he is finally feeling his age and, while I hope and pray that he will live for many more years (his prognosis is actually quite good), he is being faced with his own mortality. Dad is a fighter. And he won't go without holding on as long as he can. But I think he'll do it with dignity. Do I wish he could live forever? Yes. Do I know that he must eventually die? Yes. And still, there is a quiet beauty to his growing old, not a fear of fate, but not a desperate struggle, either. I can hear a twinge of sadness in his voice when I talk to him, but also an increase of appreciation for Life.

All intellectual concerns aside, I can't think of a more appropriate book to have read at this time.

View all my reviews

Friday, December 2, 2016

Fugue XXIX

While I am very happy about and proud of my novel, Heraclix and Pomp, I would be remiss if I didn't point you toward a very different work of mine, Fugue XXIX. Fugue is . . . ahem . . . older now. But I'm still rather fond of it. Those stories are me somewhere between cutting my teeth as a fiction writer and becoming comfortable with my writing voices (no, not the ones in my head - well, sort of). But now that I'm feeling ready to once again take up the short story pen (and have, in fact, done so), I thought it might be good to point you to this collection which you can order from your friendly neighborhood book store, directly through the publisher, Raw Dog Screaming Press, or through the evil (but necessary) empire.

You'll find these stories much more dark than H&P, with little of the playfulness found therein. These are admittedly grim and edgy. I'm told that some of them are "horror" stories, but, to be honest, I think that's an exaggeration. Regardless of genre labels, if you enjoyed the darker moments of H&P and are looking for something a little more post-modern in its forms, then Fugue XXIX might just be for you. But don't say I didn't warn you!

In the meantime, I've got a notebook waiting to be filled with words . . .

New Story Beginning?

Indulge me for a moment, please. After a long hiatus, I am taking up the short fiction pen again. And I need to know, since I am rusty, what you might suggest as a potential improvement or improvements to the following. Please note that I might have to take it down in the future, as I get closer to finishing the story and submitting it for publication. In the meantime, what is your reaction, and what do you think might improve this (admittedly incomplete) piece? Please be specific in your comments, and thank you!!!


Work in Progress:

Death masks are the strangest of all mementos, not because of the occasion that precipitates their creation – after all, death is common to all, banal – but because of skin.
                Upon the death of the central nervous system, skin cells continue to live for up to twelve hours, long after nerve cells have gone dark and the other major organs have begun their spiral into eternal decay. Desiccation sets in quickly, which creates the illusion that hair and fingernails are still growing on a days-old corpse. Not so. It’s the recession of the skin, due to dehydration that fosters this folk myth. The proteins in hair and nails, like the perceptive organs of seeing, smelling, tasting, and hearing, are effectively dead soon after synaptical shut-down, but the skin – the organ of touch – lives on for hours.
                I wondered, as I looked at my own death mask – a faux affair made as I slept once, a long, long time ago – if the wet plaster applied to the face extends that life further beyond death by giving it the sustaining water of life. Or does the mask, becoming mummified from its very inception, more quickly draw life from that boundary that once simultaneously separated the self-conscious being from, and acted as interface with, the rest of the universe?
                And when does that “soul,” the breath of life, that is, actually, finally, leave the skin? Does it pass through the death mask, dissipating into the past, evaporating into memory, or does the wet mask prevent it from slipping through, barricading it in that liminal space between pore and plaster? And then what? Where does that essence, that energy, go?
                At some point, the end must begin.
                Or so I thought.
                Until the eyes flickered open, filled with void.
                My fingers gripped the edge of the mask, paralyzed. I could not un-clench them. And like the mask itself, I could not, though I tried . . . I tried to shut my eyes. But the panic that seized me forced them open. I stared through those open eyes, and they stared back through me.
                This is what they saw . . .

Kill 6 Billion Demons, Book 1

Kill 6 Billion Demons, Book 1Kill 6 Billion Demons, Book 1 by Tom Parkinson-Morgan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is going to come as a shock to some of you, but, in the instance of the excellent Kill 6 Billion Demons I actually prefer the webcomic to the physical object. Yes, I am normally quite adamant in my preference for physical artifact over photons, but when I spotted this at my friendly local book store last night and picked it up off the shelf, I realized something . . . about myself . . . and my age . . . and my eyes.

I've been following Tom Parkinson-Morgan's outstanding Kill 6 Billion Demons for quite some time now. I was thrilled to hear that he was publishing the work as a physical book. "Sweet," thought I, "the ultimate edition of this awesome comic". Yes, I already knew that the art was simply amazeballs and the plot had enough twists and turns to wrest it from the often flat and uninteresting landscape of comic book storytelling. I had grown to find some degree of depth in the characters that inhabit the strange heavens/hells of Throne, including the newcomer, Allison, a mortal human pulled into a world beyond her understanding. The setting, I knew, was a hallucinatory swirl of gods (alive, dead, and dying), angels, demiurges, and devils (including Allison's reluctant guide, Cio), colored so richly that one wonders if the very ink was infused with LSD. Parkinson-Morgan's art is finely-detailed, and his sense of scope is, at times, breathtaking, especially when one sees the sweeping vistas he uses to provide a birds-eye "map" view of the environs of throne. I was thrilled to be able to hold the book in my greedy little hands and exchange debit-photons for it.

And this is where the problem of the little book comes in.

Little . . .

It's too little. And my eyes, strained by decades of reading, are not getting any better.

Simply put, though I love the idea of the physical book, I much prefer the webcomic.

I never thought I'd say that. But it must be said.

Should you go buy the book? By all means, feel free. But I didn't. For me, too many intricacies are lost without a large image on a monitor, in this case. This is a world to be explored down to the smallest details, and I can't stand the thought of missing something that I know is there merely because of dogmatic devotion to the physical page. Instead of buying the book, I am supporting the artist by donating at the website. With photon-money that the artist can spend online or transform into real paper money at his leisure.

For once, technology wins.

View all my reviews

Friday, November 25, 2016

Ulysses

UlyssesUlysses by James Joyce
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What I've discovered about myself from reading Ulysses:

1. I am good for only one "major" read in a year. I had set out wanting to read this and Proust this year. Alas, I was only able to make it through Ulysses.

2. It's okay to have another along to help you out the first time through. In this case, it was Blamire's The New Bloomsday Book.

3. I realize that Joyce was, indeed, a literary genius. I can see why some writers would quit writing after reading Ulysses, as he is a master of the written word. His flitting from voice to voice and style to style without losing the narrative is proof enough. That said, there are moments of tedium, some of them many pages long, that rival and exceed even the great Moby Dick for sheer boredom. When he's on, he's on, when he's off, he's drop-dead boring . . . and no academic pretense that you want to learn something about whaling (which you really don't, let's face it) will save you this time.

4. I realize that Joyce plays domestic angst in an excruciatingly understated way. He creates excellent tension by what he does not say, as much as by what he does say.

5. The funeral/underworld scene is an astounding piece of work. I felt sadness, pity, annoyance, and laughed aloud, all at once. Such a mixing bowl of emotions in that section. My innards are all tumbled around after that, like I don't know which way is, emotionally speaking, up.

6. Anyone who coins the acronym "K.M.R.I.A" deserves a statue. Or did he coin the term? Either way, he inspired The Pogues to use it in a song, which deserves a statue in its own way.

7. Jest on. Know thyself. may be all you need to know about Joyce and the notion of fiction as autobiography.

8. I love the "sirens" section, with its sing-song rich voice, which feels like it was written in the shadow of Finnegan's Wake. It's one of my favorite places to be a brain.

9. I need to read all of Finnegan's Wake.

10. "-Tis a custom more honored in the breach than in the observance." may be the most clever pun I've ever heard. Ever.

11. I love the sections where Joyce is seemingly channeling Lovecraft, then Dunsany, then Wavy Gravy.

12. The sentence: "The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit." may be one of my favorite sentences of all time.

13. Good golly, Miss Molly!

14. I am lost and found somewhere betwixt Dedalus and Bloom, yet unbounded by one, the other, or both, inside their circle, outside their confines, them, yet me. Joyce's words, Dedalus' and Bloom's actions, my brain, my past, my hopes, my frustrations, my feelings.

15. Yes. Yes.



View all my reviews

Monday, November 7, 2016

The Sandman: Overture

The Sandman: OvertureThe Sandman: Overture by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have two confessions to make: 1) I don't like Neil Gaiman's fiction. I . . . just . . . can't. So kill me. 2) My single experience with Neil Gaiman in person left me feeling a little snubbed. Long story, but I met him at the World Fantasy Convention, where I approached him and tried talking to him, but I found him rather cold and uninterested, constantly looking for important people to talk to. I don't want to go on and on (I could) about the whole experience, but that is the summation of my feelings. I frankly didn't like him much. In fact, I think he was kind of a jerk.

So why did I want to talk to him at all, you ask? Well, in the comics desert wasteland that was the 1990s, his comic The Sandman was a bright spot in a rather dull universe. It was one of my favorite comics of that decade.

The opening story of the '90s Sandman series begins with the main character, Dream, being captured via an occult ritual. The iconic image of a black-cloaked figure wearing a gas mask lying in a fetal position, surrounded by magic sigils immediately caught my attention when I first saw it, as it caught the attention of tens of thousands of other readers. Like Morpheus, I was smitten.

The Sandman: Overture is an accounting of events in the world of the Sandman mythos that led up to this imprisonment. I hate to use the term "prequel," as that term is tainted by a couple of really bad examples of retroactive storytelling wherein the original (which occurs later, chronologically) is demeaned by the "prequel". Two movies should clearly demonstrate this: Phantom Menace, and The Hobbit. But I digress.

As I said earlier, I don't care much for Gaiman's long-form fiction. I tried Anansi Boys and just couldn't. I've dipped my toe in a couple of others, as well, but have found myself growing bored quickly and have had to move on to something else. I hear American Gods is good, and maybe I should read that someday, since part of it takes place in a setting that is a forty-five minute drive from my house.

That said, here Gaiman hits his stride. As you would expect, it's a strange story, full of subtleties and deception. Political intrigue abounds, and there is some moving pathos there, especially when the character Hope enters the picture, then exits, then reenters . . . changed, yet much the same.

But let's not kid ourselves. While you may forget all the intricacies of the story, one thing you will not forget is the art. At this point, this is the most beautiful graphic novel I have ever laid eyes on.

EVER!!!

J.H. Williams' art is absolutely stunning. At times, the illustrations will make your head spin - quite literally, if you're not willing to turn the book around a few times to follow some of the more serpentine configurations. A few fold outs invite the reader into the book - as immersive an experience as you are likely to have reading a graphic work. And Dave Stewart's colors are a roiling phantasmagorical dream in vivid color. The difference between this work and so many other graphic novels is that the illustrations and color here were designed. Not just drawn and inked, but designed, carefully. There is a craft happening here that is a ritualistic invocation of the imagination. It is a solemn, nearly worshipful thing to read this work, and utterly immersive.

It is obvious, from reading the book, that Gaiman is a much deeper person than I give him credit for. Maybe he was having an off day and needed some more familiar faces or he was sick of fans or whatever, I don't know. At the least, I can't hate him, after reading this. I might pity him, as I do Morpheus, but I can't hate him. I love this work too much.

View all my reviews

Saturday, October 22, 2016

The Eyes of the Overworld

The Eyes of the Overworld (The Dying Earth, #2)The Eyes of the Overworld by Jack Vance
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Whereas Vance's previous volume in the The Dying Earth series was composed of several short stories, each featuring a different character, The Eyes of the Overworld focuses on one character, Cugel the Clever. Though the book is episodic in nature (each story was published separately over the course of a couple of years before being compiled in this volume), the character is consistent. And while the characters in The Dying Earth were capably presented in their individual stories, Cugel the Clever is featured in every story in this volume.

And rightfully so! The character that Vance has created here deserves, nay, needs a more lengthy format to shine. Vance is able to extrude the subtleties (if they can be called that) of his main character with this form because Cugel is, if not clever, complex. Well, he is clever from time to time or, more appropriately, cunning, but there are several times when he fancies himself much more clever than he actually is. Still, he is no clown. This presents a wonderful Wodehousian dynamic to the whole book. In a nutshell, it is rather funny throughout. The section that I will call "The Lodermulch Ruse" had me laughing aloud, and demonstrated one instance in which Cugel's ability to improvise proved brilliant. Still, his mis-steps make me think that Sergio Aragones must have read this work before penning his comic Groo The Wanderer. If anything, the title "clever" should have been reserved for Vance, not Cugel, though Vance's use of the title for Cugel shows some genius.

Cugel, caught in the act of thievery from the powerful magician Iocounu, The Laughing Magician, is forced on a quest for items of interest to Iocounu. To ensure cooperation, a small demonic, alien being named Firx is affixed to Cugel's liver. Firx, a'la the bomb implant in Snake Plissken in the movie Escape from New York, keeps Cugel "on task" by torturing his liver whenever he became distracted. This enforced quest is a sort of Grand Tour of the Dying Earth, introducing the reader to several strange peoples and customs. I was about to say "magic," as well, but in this setting, the line between magic, as thought of in most fantasy settings, and technological artifacts, as one would find in a science fictional setting, is blurred and sometimes altogether erased. There is a sense of deep time here. Not just of ancient magics, but of even more ancient technology whose creators are forever lost in the dull light of the giant red sun that once glowed bright yellow when these artifacts were first conceived.

Vance continues in the wonderful writing voice from his first volume in the series. Not too baroque or flamboyant (as, I admit, my own work can sometimes be), but with enough flair to keep one enthralled and engaged. The more I read Vance's style, the more I like it. It strikes a great balance: not too presumptuous, but not treating the reader like an idiot.

He's saved the idiocy for Cugel, and the world, whether out own or that of the Dying Earth, is better for it!

View all my reviews

Monday, October 10, 2016

MoldMother Patron AI for Mutant Crawl Classics RPG

MoldMother

It may remain forever unknown whether the Ancient One who became MoldMother suffered The Grand Transformation at the hand of a cabal of mad scientists or voluntarily biohacked her way to immortality. Perhaps she was the victim of some accident of self-experimentation that resulted in the amalgam of human flesh, circuitry, and eukaryotic organisms of which she is now composed; a sort of biological super-computer. In any case, those shadowed years don’t matter now. What is of importance is the incontrovertible fact of MoldMother’s survival of the Great Disaster. While most technology ceased to operate, and much of life with it, MoldMother persevered. And still, She lives!

He who seeks knowledge about the Ancient World from her lips will find her mute. She concerns herself with the present and the future, rather than the past, and her followers are also forward-looking, using the technology of the ancients as a tool to build the colony for the future. Still, her goals are inscrutable – her erstwhile human motivations garbled with the cold calculations of her bio-computer brain; the whole electro-organic field subsumed under the soft silence of the enormous gray fungal blooms that have enveloped her once-human frame. Veins of yellow slime mold marble the gray heap of her form. Somewhere in that slow-shuffling mound, a pair – or more – of once-human eyes might be seen peeking out from under the eukaryotic cascade. In the darkness, MoldMother casts a slight glow from the combined light of phosphorescent mushrooms that bloom at the surface and the blink of co-processor indicator lights seeping out from within.

While MoldMother’s aims are alien and ultimately unknowable, it is certain that she rewards faithful followers who do all they can to spread the good mold of the colony, especially when it involves the mating of mold, man, and machine.

Followers of the MoldMother are collectively known as “Spore-riders”.

Invoke Patron Check Results

12-13   MoldMother is busy tending to her slime molds. A mycelial mat covers the shaman’s  skin, giving +2 to AC and completely ablating radiation for one turn.

14-17   A column of mold spores arises from the ground, affecting the shaman’s enemies, but not affecting the shaman’s allies. Enemies are blinded and cough violently, suffering -4 to all attack rolls and moving at half speed for 1d4 rounds.

18-19   Hyphae tendrils shoot up from the ground, wrapping around the feet and lower legs of enemies. All enemies on the ground must make a DC 20 REF save or be immobile for 1d6 rounds. The hyphae excrete enzymes that break down biological polymers, causing a further 1d6 points of damage each round. This also damages organically-based materials such as leather, plant fiber, etc.

20-23   Mycelium shoots thrust up through the ground and into one target, causing an automatic 4d6+1d6 GL damage. If this kills the target, it causes the corpse to act as a minion under the control of the shaman. The minion moves at ¾ speed of the erstwhile-living host and any mutational or wetware-imparted abilities are at half-strength in all regards. This mushroom-zombie is under the complete control of the caster (who does not need to concentrate on the control – MoldMother knows the caster’s bidding and will communicate all that is needed) for 1d6 hours. It has Hit Points equal to half the Hit Points it had in life. The Shaman can also opt to forego this effect, taking a lower Invoke Patron check result, as desired.

24-27   Bright neon-orange, highly phosphorescent mold spreads over the bodies of all enemies in a 30’ radius. This mold completely covers the enemy’s skin/chitin/bark and bonds to it. Completely removing the mold causes 2d6 of damage and a series of DC 20 FORT saves to avoid passing out. A total of 10 removal “treatments” are needed to fully remove the mold. If the mold is not fully-removed, it grows back at the rate of an extra full “treatment” each day. It must be 100% removed to be rid of. While subject to the mold, enemies are at -2 to Armor Class and can never surprise an opponent, meaning that those skilled at hiding and sneaking will always fail their checks. Those affected also leave behind glowing footprints, fingerprints, and traces that last for a full five days. The victim’s personality score also suffers a -3 penalty, as their visage becomes obviously hideous, unless the victim is a disciple of MoldMother, in which case they are granted a +3 bonus to personality. The Shaman can also opt to forego this effect, taking a lower Invoke Patron check result, as desired.

28-29   Within a 40’ radius, a large Yellow Slime Mold rears up from the ground and attacks the Shaman’s enemies. Each is 10’ X 10’ and suffers half damage from cutting or piercing weapons. They are immune to radiation and electricity regenerates them at the rate of 1 Hit Point per point of electrical “damage”. When they first appear, each enemy must make a DC 20 REF save or be fully enveloped by the slime. The slime inflicts 1d6 points of dissolving damage each round the target is enveloped, from enzyme-induced polymer breakdown. Also, all plastic/plasteel, glass, and metal objects on or held by the target are destroyed if the yellow slime mold is not removed within three rounds. An opposed strength roll vs STR 16 is required to break free or to take any action, once engulfed. Once freed, a subsequent “to hit” result of 19 or 20 means that the target is once again engulfed. The Yellow Slime Mold may also attack using its two pseudopods for 1d4 damage each + 1d6 acidic damage. For every five points of damage the Yellow Slime Mold inflicts, it grows 5’ square, gains another pseudopod, and gains 5 Hit Points. Each Yellow Slime Mold fights until either it or its target is dead. Those who flee the fight will be pursued by their “assigned” Yellow Slime Mold until one or the other is dead. If a Yellow Slime Mold kills its victim and another of the shaman’s enemies remains alive, that Yellow Slime Mold will join with another member of the colony to fight remaining enemies. If these enemies flee, the combined Yellow Slime Mold will pursue them until either they or the targets die. Those who invoke this level of wrath from the MoldMother tend to sleep with one eye open, as the slime will slowly, inexorably pursue the offender to their doom. Some victims have been known to have been attacked years later by a Yellow Slime Mold that they had completely forgotten in the intervening time since their initial encounter. All are well-advised to stay out of the path of these children of the MoldMother! (Yellow Slime Mold: Init (always attacks last, except on initial summoning), Atk 2 x pseudopod +4 melee (1d4 +1d6 acid damage); AC 10; HD 2d8; MV 5’, climb 5’; Act 2d20; SP: half-damage from slicing and piercing weapons, envelop attack, polymer-dissolving enzymes; SV: Fort +6; Ref -8; Will -6; AL N). The Shaman can also opt to forego this effect, taking a lower Invoke Patron check result, as desired.

30-31   The MoldMother sends an avatar to aid the shaman (MoldMother Avatar: Init +6; Atk 2 fists +12 melee (dmg 3d8+6) or mycelium tendril shoots +10 missile (dmg 2d8+10, range 100’) or spore cloud or scare. AC 17; HD 12d10; MV 40’; Act 1d24+1d16; SP: Spore cloud, crit on 20-24; SV: Fort +12; Ref +6; Will +12, AL N). The Avatar rolls ono the Giant Critical Hit table if she hits with a 20-24 on the attack die. She can choose to attack twice per round with two fist, two tendril shoots, or a spore cloud, but may only use the spore cloud once per round. The spore cloud is a choking cloud of acidic organisms that shoots out from the avatar to a distance of up to 200’ away, where it expands and envelops all within a 30’ radius. For 3d4+6 rounds, targets in the cloud suffer -4 to all attack, damage, skills, mutations, and save rolls. They also take 8 points of damage each round and must make a DC 12 Fort save when first exposed or be poisoned (-3d4 Agility, -1d4 Strength, and -1d4 Stamina for 1 full day). The Mold Mother Avatar may also, once per day, exude an airborne fungus that spreads 100’ from her body, which automatically frightens all creatures of 2 HD or less. Others receive a Will save of DC 30 to resist the effect. Frightened creatures suffer 1d4 points of damage from shock and flee at top speed for 3 turns. They will be unable, form utter terror, to go in the direction they encountered the MoldMother Avatar, for one full day. Because of the avatar’s use of electrically-charged and enhanced fungus, these effects work not only against organic opponents, but inorganic enemies, such as robots, as well. The Shaman can also opt to forego this effect, taking a lower Invoke Patron check result, as desired.

32+      The Great Bloom awakens! The shaman has found such high favor in the eyes of MoldMother that she declares the ground on which the shaman and their allies fight sacred, a place worthy of growing a new colony! She sends her Avatar (as in result 30-31) and three of her Yellow Slime Molds (as in result 28-29) to secure the area and rid it of her enemies. She weaves a great mycelium mat, approximately 100’ in radius, on the ground and all objects on the ground. A forest of giant mushrooms, from the height of a man to the height of a tall building, springs up in the area. Any structures in the area are partially (in the case of skyscrapers and their ruins) or totally (in the case of four-story or smaller buildings) embedded with mushrooms large and small. Clouds of spores (harmless) float in the air, and any detritus of corpses are immediately covered in quick-growing hyphae tendrils that eat the dead and weave themselves into the colony’s great mycelium mat. Shamans of the MoldMother in this area are at +2 AC, are immune to radiation of any strength, and gain +5 to all patrol AI check results while in the area. If the shaman and his allies leave the area, they trail spores in their footprints behind them for another 200’ beyond the border of the colony. Within 3 turns, these spores bloom, fruiting into giant mushrooms and extending the colony’s area even further. Unlike many other results, the shaman cannot forego this effect. It is the MoldMother’s will, which is all the shaman needs to know.

Patron Taint: MoldMother

When Patron Taint is indicated, roll 1d6 on the table below. When a shaman has acquired all six taints at all levels of effect, there is no need to continue rolling any more.

Roll                  Result

1                      Any food touched by the shaman immediately spoils, covered with gray fuzzy mold. He may eat it, but anyone eating it who is not a follower of the MoldMother must make a DC 20 Fort save or grow violently sick for 1 hour, unable to do anything but vomit and groan in pain. The second time this taint is rolled, all food that comes within 10’ of the shaman is so affected. The third time this taint is rolled, all food that comes within 50’ of the shaman is thus affected.

2                      The shaman’s hair falls out and scores of tiny mushrooms sprout up on his scalp. The second time this taint is rolled, the tiny mushrooms spread to cover the shaman’s face like a mask and the entire head and neck, dropping the personality score by -1 permanently. The third time this taint is rolled, one large mushroom cap covers the shaman’s head like a hat, further lowering the personality score by a point.

3                      Hyphae form under and on the shaman’s skin, spreading into permanent masses of mycelium. If this taint is rolled again, mycelium branch out from the shaman’s body whenever he is motionless for more than a few seconds. After a full sleep cycle, the shaman must literally peel himself up from his bed or the ground, suffering one Hit Point of damage. If this taint is rolled a third time, any flesh or organic material that the shaman touches begins to decompose, causing a sharp, stinging sensation to any living being he touches.

4                      Black mold spots dot the shaman’s eyes. The second time this taint is rolled, the eyes become completely black. The third time this taint is rolled, the eyes remain black and the shaman becomes permanently blind.

5                      Gray spores are continuously discharged from the Shaman’s pores. The second time this taint is rolled, the spores are jettisoned out, creating a cloud of spores surrounding the shaman’s body at a distance of 1’. Anyone who comes within this cloud begins sneezing uncontrollably until they leave the cloud. If this taint is rolled a third time, the mass of the shaman’s muscles become a loosely-bound cloud of spores orbiting the skeletal structure. Movement is halved, the shaman’s personality score drops by 1/3 (round down) and actions that require grasping or physically manipulating objects become impossible. Any previous changes to the shaman’s physical form are superseded by this one, as the body has effectively become a mold spore cloud gravitating around a skeleton.

6                      Yellow slime mold oozes out of the shaman’s ears, nose, mouth, and tear ducts. The personality score permanently drops by one point. The second time this taint is rolled, yellow slime mold crawls between the orifices and all over the shaman’s body, permanently dropping the personality score by another point. The third time this taint is rolled, any attempt to speak is accompanied by yellow slime mold vomiting forth from the shaman’s mouth and nose, permanently dropping the personality score by yet another point.

Patron Wetware: MoldMother

Spore-riders eventually download three unique versions of wetware, as follows:

Level 1: Agar Affinity
Level 2: Sporecloud
Level 3: Quantum Meld
Glowburn: MoldMother

MoldMother is munificent to those who are dedicated to the growth of the colony. Spore-riders who are willing to “lose themselves” for the greater good of the whole will be rewarded.

Roll      Glowburn Result

1          Hyphae tendrils shoot up from the ground and into the supplicant’s feet and legs (experienced as stat loss)

2          The shaman is granted the glowburn bonus, but sacrifices a chunk of flesh, which drops to the ground and immediately tunnels into underground mycelium and sprouts mushrooms, forming another toehold for the colony (expressed as stat loss)

3          A cloud of spores blows past and rakes the shaman’s body, tearing microscopic bloody troughs across his body (expressed as stat loss)

4          A portion of the shaman’s inner psyche is decomposed and the resulting quanta are redistributed to nearby fungi and molds in the soil (expressed as stat loss)


Thursday, October 6, 2016

Glowburn Podcast Announcement

Yes, it's official: I am a podcaster! I'm happy to announce that co-host Bill Hamilton and I have released the first episode of Glowburn a podcast dedicated to the Mutant Crawl Classics RPG and post-apocalyptic roleplaying. You can hear the first episode by going to podcast.glowburn.org! I have to acknowledge the many hours of work put in by those behind the intro/outro/bumpers and sound engineering, so thanks to Bob Brinkman (of the Sanctum Secorum podcast) and Hector "The Missile" Cruz of Hectophonic productions.


You can also access Glowburn via iTunes. If you listen to it there, please leave a rating! And be sure to tell your friends!

Thursday, September 29, 2016

The Book of Disquiet

The Book of DisquietThe Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

As I clicked the "I'm finished" button on Goodreads, I must admit that I felt a sense of relief. No, I didn't read all 544 pages of The Book of Disquiet, but I am, indeed, finished. This is not something I do lightly. Lemming a book is not my standard mode at all. In fact, I went through a sort of grieving process the last time I lemmed a book, which was also the first time I had lemmed a book since I came to Goodreads. I'm glad to see that it has been over a year now, with a lot of reads (some good, some great, some "meh,") in between. I consider myself a fairly resilient reader, with wide-ranging and exploratory tastes. I kind of pride myself on my reading stamina. But, in this case, I'm just sick of being beat up.

Granted, my expectations were high going into this read, but not unrealistic. I had read some positive reviews and had the book recommended to me by other readers who know my tastes and whose opinions I hold in high esteem. So, what happened? How did Pessoa break me?

It's not like the book is horrible. Not at all. Pessoa definitely has his own rhythm, his own voice. And though it took me a while to start to fall into step with it, I can still appreciate his ability to craft words and sentences. You don't get the kind of praise many of my Goodreads friends heaped upon his work by being a bad writer. Chapter 31, I felt, was brilliant. And if that was the whole of the book, I would have been totally satisfied. Unfortunately, that little slice of the ethereal was by far the exception here.

For me The Book of Disquiet's author was too presumptuous by an order of magnitude. And this presumptuousness takes a strange form: The self-deprecating mirror of the narcissist.

Believe me, I am all about self-deprecation. It's a viable defense mechanism for a lot of people, and I find that, usually, those who can be self-deprecating in a humorous way are some of the most "centered," emotionally healthy people I know.

But Pessoa takes self-deprecation to a new level. I knew this was coming, simply from the reviews of the book I had read. I was looking forward to some self-deprecating humor on the part of the author. But what I found was not very funny at all. Or if it was, I totally missed the humor. Rather than finding myself chuckling at the author's skewed view of self, I found myself more or less bored to the point of anger by the tedium of it all. Too often, the book slipped from healthy self-deprecation to self-loathing. I can take that in doses, but Pessoa rubs your face in it. I just got sick of reading about the author's view of himself as being, essentially, the coolest person in the world because he took an interest in nothing (excepting art - though I found his definition of art so poorly-constructed as to subvert his own arguments, if they can be called that, about aesthetics).

Aloofness is not necessarily the hallmark of a formidable intellect. Especially when one's own supposed intellect is the focus of one's entire attention.

Pessoa's love of himself, his love of his own sadness and banality, wore thin. Glorying in how pathetic one is really does nothing for this reader. I might have seen some of myself in him, perhaps wallowed with him in gothic misery (I've been known to do that from time to time), but my reaction to these boring, self-centered ramblings was to simply walk away and move on to better things.

Because there are a lot of better things, namely, a lot of better books, waiting on my To Be Read shelf. So, if you'll excuse me, I'll be going to pick out something better to read.

Oh, and ignore the whining man curled up under the desk there. Give him a mirror and please, please, show him out the door!

View all my reviews

Monday, September 12, 2016

Station 16

Station 16Station 16 by Yves Huppen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As you might have guessed, I am not a big DC comics fan. I've always been partial to Marvel and, even much more so, independent comics. But my favorite DC title is, really, one of my favorite titles ever: Weird War Tales. Death is the host, and he presents bizarre tales of warfare redolent of the Twilight Zone which, I am fairly certain, inspired it. In fact, the iconic television show ended in 1964, while Weird War Tales started in 1971. 1983 saw the last issue of Weird War Tales - the same year that Twilight Zone: The Movie came out. Twilight Zone Magazine had also been available since 1981, and one wonders if the audience for Weird War Tales had not moved on from the comic form to the (excellent) fiction contained in the magazine.

All this is to say that Station 16 would have been right at home among the Weird War Tales series, except that it's a touch longer than those tales and much better!

The mostly gray tones in the book, as well as the bleak setting, create an ethereal tone that extends well beyond the abandon soviet military base in which most of the action takes place. A sort of temporal fugue state has settled on the area with results that are startling, if a bit predictable, and 100% in the zone - you know which one!

View all my reviews

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Invitation to a Beheading

Invitation to a BeheadingInvitation to a Beheading by Vladimir Nabokov
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Don't fall into the lazy-readers' trap of thinking that Invitation to a Beheading is just some pastiche of Kafka. This was my misconception for the first 70 pages or so. Nabokov claims not to have read The Trial before writing this work, and I am inclined to believe him, given the limited availability of Kafka's text outside of the German language at that time (Nabokov did not read German). But the close kinship these texts have is very apparent . . .

. . . at first.

It is not too long, however, before Nabokov's softer "touch" becomes apparent. The protagonist, Cincinnatus, is held captive under what may or may not be a trumped-up charge that really is not a charge at all, or at least not one that has a slippery definition, if any definition at all. Some readers excoriate his lack of emotion, his stupidity, but I felt some deep pity for the man. Again, things are not quite as they appear on the surface. A more careful reading reveals a man who is paralyzed by his fear of execution, but who buffers himself from that fear by probing for the answer to the question "when?". This dissociation of emotion is Cincinnatus' central conceit. But what appears on the surface as a lack of emotion is really a manifestation of his subconscious attempts to stifle the fear of death within him. By asking the question "when?" and receiving no answer, his attempts to know when "his time" will come serve to heighten his fears, rather than ameliorate them . . .

. . . at first.

The style throughout is varied. If pinned down to use one word to describe the oeuvre of the work, I would use "dreamlike". In fact, Cincinnatus, who sometimes acts as the directly stream-of-conscious narrator (but only sometimes), himself admits his penchant for dream:

But then I have long since grown accustomed to the thought that what we call dreams is semi-reality, the promise of reality, a foreglimpse and a whiff of it; that is, they contain, in a very vague, diluted state, more genuine reality than our vaunted waking life which, in its turn, is semi-sleep, an evil drowsiness into which penetrate in grotesque disguise the sounds and sights of the real world, flowing beyond the periphery of the mind.

This preference for the dream-state is another defense mechanism used by Cincinnatus to push away the angst brought on by his very real situation. Through this intentional dulling of the waking world's reality, Cincinattus shields himself from the lingering background horror of his sentence . . .

. . . at first.

But one of the more poignant scenes, for me, a heartbreaking scene, wherein Cecilia C., a woman who may or may not be his actual mother, enters the cell to speak with him, heralds the implosion of his shields, not by crushing his hopes. Not initially. But by giving him hope. Hope here, is the enemy, and ultimately, it opens the abyss of disappointment beneath him. As part of their awkward conversation, he asks "What's the point of all this? Don't you know that one of these days, perhaps tomorrow . . ."

He suddenly noticed the expression in Cecilia C.'s eyes - just for an instant, an instant - but it was as if something real, unquestionable (in this world, where everything was subject to question), had passed through, as if a corner of this horrible life had curled up, and there was a glimpse of the lining. In his mother's gaze, Cincinnatus suddenly saw that ultimate, secure, all-explaining and from-all-protecting spark that he knew how to discern in himself also. What was this spark so piercingly expressing now? It does not mater what - call it horror, or pity . . . but rather let us say this: the spark proclaimed such a tumult of truth that Cincinnatus's soul could not help leaping for joy. The instant flashed and was gone. Cecilia C. got up, making an incredible little gesture, namely, holding her hands apart with index fingers extended, as if indicating size - the length, say, of a babe . . . Then she immediately began fussing, picking up from the floor her plump black bag, adjusting the lining of her pocket.

"There now," she said, in her former prattling tone, "I've stayed a while and now I'll be going. Eat my candy. I've overstayed. I'll be going, it's time."


The solemnity of this scene contrasts sharply with the tone of bureaucratic silliness that pervades the actions of the government officials throughout. There are too many such instances to mention here. Suffice it to say that the utter ridiculousness of these antagonists are somewhat reminiscent of Toole's Confederacy of Dunces . This is yet more evidence of Nabokov's ability to write in several "voices," startlingly different, yet of a piece. At one point, my reading notes comment on Chapter 8: "Beautiful angst, like Beckett and Calvino conspiring on a stream of consciousness riff of awe with baroque frills" - a contrast to the whiffs of Ubu Roi that I occasionally smelled while reading. Which just goes to show Nabokov's skill in switching from tone to tone in the same novel while maintaining a feeling of wholeness. The man can WRITE! Often, though, I found myself wishing that David Lynch might do the world a favor and offer up a cinematic version of Invitation to a Beheading. He would be one of the few directors who could actually pull it off. Lynch's ability to portray what I will call "timeslips" on the big screen would be needed and tested. For example, imagine who you would film the following, a scene wherein Cincinnatus is escorted to a "farewell visit" with the city officials:

This nocturnal promenade which had promised to be so rich with sad, carefree, singing, murmuring impressions - for what is a recollection, if not the soul of an impression? - proved in reality to be vague and insignificant and flashed by so quickly as happens only amid very familiar surroundings, in the dark, when the varicolored fractions of day are replaced by the integers of night.

Many have called this novel a work of existentialism. And this is not incorrect. However, it is not a nihilistic work. What starts out floundering in captivity and darkness, with an increasing fear of inevitable doom billowing up into storm clouds in the background, resolves (a word you will rarely hear being used to describe a work of existentialist literature) into a manifesto of self-sufficiency ("By myself," becomes Cincinnatus's refrain) and a profound statement on grasping one's own destiny, embracing it, and stepping off into the unknown, with confidence and surety of purpose, with full freedom of being one's self . . .

. . . at last.

View all my reviews

Monday, July 25, 2016

The 6 Voyages of Lone Sloane

The 6 Voyages of Lone SloaneThe 6 Voyages of Lone Sloane by Philippe Druillet
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Like Hawkwind, circa the same time these were originally published, but without Lemmy.

The absolutely stunning artwork in this volume more than makes up for flat characterization and the presence of more gods in the machines (I mean this literally!) than ancient Greece could have conceived. Druillet was no storyteller, but, wow, what an artist! The line between organic and mechanical is effectively erased, while the immense scale of the structures, space, and spaceships through which and with which Sloane travels overwhelms the viewer, further adding to the sense of awe that sweeps out from the pages.

Not my favorite graphic novel in recent memory, but well worth a gander. I'll be very curious to read the further volumes to see if the storytelling improves or if it retains it's too-short and under-impressive plott(dd)ing. In any case, I shall absolutely be back for more brain-cracking artwork.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Beyond the Silver Scream

Welcome to Beyond the Silver Scream, a Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG-compatible 0-level "funnel"! Players begin as high school kids in the mid-'70s - early-'80s who go to the local seedy theater to catch the premiere of the new horror flick "Screaming Sorority Girls from Planet Playtex". But the horror isn't confined to the screen! And the special-effects are all-too-real. So take a seat and brace yourself for an adventure where the director isn't the only one doing the cutting!

Includes the full adventure and "The Dimensional Dogs" patron, a fully-fleshed patron for use with DCC RPG. 

Awesome art provided by Thomas Gile, Matt Hildebrand, David Lewis Johnson, Nicolo Maioli, and James V. West!
----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Praise for Beyond the Silver Scream!

"WARNING: Contents may daze and/or confuse. Unexpected, thrilling, blockbuster fun. Two thumbs up!" - Brendan LaSalle, author of "Hole in the Sky"

"This is the work of the Devil and his minions and should be burned immediately. Jack Chick would be appalled." - The Ghost of Patricia Pulling

“This made me feel the ‘VHS shlockfest’ love so much, I felt the need to adjust the tracking.” - Adam Muszkiewicz, "Drink, Spin, Run" Podcast

“Beyond the Silver Scream” takes teens of classic roleplaying games’ golden age — the 1970s/1980s — into the epic danger of gritty Dungeon Crawl Classics, while providing a unique springboard to your next fantasy campaign. If you want a blast of nostalgia coupled with weird intrigue and action, then buy this module and be prepared for a blast from the past… and beyond!” - Julian Bernick, co-founder, Minneapolis DCC RPG Society

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
$5 retail
SKU: FA1001


Monday, July 4, 2016

Hey, Michelin Star Man! Alinea Still Deserves All 3!

My wife and I celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary this month. Some people celebrate anniversaries with more diamonds, some go on exotic cruises. We went out to dinner.

Well, not any old dinner.

We went to Alinea, one of only fourteen 3-star Michelin-rated restaurants in the US, one of 117 in the world. Just last month, it was ranked as #15 on Eater.Com's list of The World's 50 Best Restaurants. We knew this was going to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for us.

And how.

From the outside, Alinea is unassuming. I would have driven right past it without even knowing it was there, had I not been looking for it, specifically. The only thing giving it way was the occasional limousine that pulled up front.

We were greeted with a "Happy Anniversary!" by two young ladies at the front, then led upstairs to our table. The first floor was being decorated for the next-day's Gallery meal, which is another experience entirely (and one we thought was just a touch out of our price range), and we got to see the staff suspending paintings from the ceiling (read the linked article above to understand why) as we wound our way up the stairs to the Salon.

We had great seats, right where we could get sneaky peeks at the servers as they prepped to come in and serve the next course to whomever was in "their" room. Natalie's back was next to the waiting station, so we, well I, got to watch waitstaff as they came and went and got to hear some of their conversations.I'm a logistics guy, at heart (and in my day job), so I really enjoyed trying to figure out how they handled the timing of orders while remaining unobtrusive. They are efficient and their timing is impeccable. I chatted with one of the waitstaff about this, and he noted that it takes months, even years, to be trained to "go live" on the floor. These aren't your slapdash college students doing a stint between classes. The service was excellent, they knew their stuff (I had to ask what the heck an "Ebi" was, and the waiter was right there with the answer), and they were . . . just darned friendly and personable. I really felt like they took a personal interest in us, but not in an awkward way. They were genuine, but professional. Even the guy who set the utensils for each course was friendly, and, surprisingly-to-me, very down to earth, but with an air of dignity. Cool people.

Of course, you want to hear about the food, don't you? What did we get for our expensive dinner?

This is where I falter. I consider myself a bit of a foodie, but I am by no means a professional reviewer. My wife is a high school foods teacher, so she knows a bit about food. But she's not a fine-dining chef, either. So if my observations are a little rough and tumble, and if my knowledge of the exact nomenclature is a bit off: Sorry, not sorry.

The Menu:



Unlike most of your run-of-the-mill restaurants, Alinea is one of those that crafts the menu for you. You don't choose your burger and fries with a medium soda, you take what the chef has created. The staff was careful to check for food allergies (we have none, except I'm a little lactose intolerant), and they knew we don't drink (we added that note when we made reservations), so were careful not to serve anything with uncooked alcohol in it. The menu in the picture above (sans the "Happy Anniversary!" note, which they added later) was all we had to go off of. Part of the fun was the mystery. Just what the heck was "Elysian Fields" and "Carnival Rainbow"? This little bit of (welcome) trickery brought a sense of adventure to the meal and enhanced the experience. We had a good time speculating what was coming next on any given course. To read the order of the courses, start at the upper left corner with "ICE," then go down to "CRUNCH/PAPER", then "YELLOW," go back up to "CONTRAST/SPARROW GRASS," then "SWIRL," and so on. Follow the curve and you'll know your path.

Ice:


Yes, that's a bowl made of ice. I probably should have snapped a photo of Natalie's, as well, as they are roughly similar, but unique. Now, I knew that we would be getting small portions with each course, but this looked tiny. And it's a good thing it was so small. This was incredibly rich, not what I was expecting for the first course. It was like starting with desert, sort of. The flavors were ebi, banana, and coconut, mainly. This was brisk and sweet, but salty. My only problem with this portion was that the ice was so cold that the food, especially the clear gelatin globules you see there, really liked to stick to the bowl. We were warned that this might happen, so I just put some elbow grease into it and got every last sweet, savory drop and ate part of the bowl in the process. Who says I don't get into my food?

Crunch/Paper:



Next, we were brought bowls of what appeared to be paper. These were actually a scallop-reduction dried to form large noodles. The server poured in a corn soup (insert fancy name that I can't remember here) that instantly hydrated the noodles. These were served with a pair of small shio kombu/nori seaweed rolls filled with a substance that I can't remember. The rolls were delicious alone and when dipped into the soup mixture. But the best part was the noodles and soup combination. The noodles were more firm than I expected, chewy, but in a good way. Enough resistance to give some satisfaction, but not rubbery. And the combination of the scallop flavor with the corn soup was warm and comforting. I could eat this just about every day of a Wisconsin winter. If I could find the recipe, I might just do that. Besides, the servers encouraged us to drink straight out of the bowl (you only got chopsticks to eat this course, no spoon), and I'm always looking for that excuse. At first, it felt naughty to drink straight from the bowl while wearing a suit. Then it felt . . . liberating.

Yellow:





Notice that I had to photograph this one while holding it in my hand. This was by design, another clever trap by the chefs, who want you to have a kinesthetic experience as part of the beautiful assault on your tastebuds. And we ate this with bright yellow chopsticks, which was tricky, a little messy, and a lot of fun. You'll note throughout that there is nary a "plain" plate here. Everything, even the utensils, were chosen to enhance the experience. Included on this were egg yolks, thinly-sliced onion, mustard, sweet potato, curry, and yellow and white blossoms. This entirely blew me away - each little bite was substantially different from another, even if you mixed the constituent elements thoroughly (which I did about halfway through, just to try it). Every taste was distinctive and unique, which I did not expect. We were told that there were sixteen ingredients in this little dish, That's 2.092279e+13 possible flavor combinations. I think I hit them all. It was diversity in action, in my mouth.

Interlude, water:

Important safety note: If you go to Alinea, or any fine-dining restaurant, for that matter, it's a good idea to drink something between courses to cleanse your palate for the next course. We had sparkling water, since we don't drink, and that worked quite well to wash away the old and prepare for the new. We now return you to your regular blogpost.

Contrast/Sparrow Grass/Swirl:




I began to question things when I was presented with what appeared to be a bowl of foam like you would find atop a clutch of frog eggs. I've eaten frog legs, and they are quite delicious, but I have to admit that I was a little hesitant when I saw this. The stuff underneath looked palatable, so I though that if I didn't like the foam, I could just scrape it off. Well, it turned out just fine. For the life of me, I can't remember what the flavor was, but underneath was lychee (which I've eaten before, thanks to my many Hmong friends), white asparagus (yes, white), and lily bulb bathed in a citrus mouse. This was the "Sparrow Grass" portion of this course. The "Swirl" was a coil of apple drenched in yuzu juice with a sprig of lemon verbena on top. Best . . . apple . . . ever. The piece-de-resistance of this course, however, came in the "Contrast" dish - a sort of gazpacho, so cold it was nearly frozen, served with watermelon and hot parmesan cheese. This was one of the highlights of the meal for both me and Natalie. We're big gazpacho fans, and this was by far the best I've ever tasted. It was exquisite. After all this, the server poured a vial of water into the plate on which the "Swirl" had been served, releasing a dry-ice-induced fog from the vessel - a plate with a hole that opened up into a bowl beneath. A nice effect, which my camera fails to do justice.

Fry:



Fried food, fine dining? Yes, if it's done right. And this was done right. Breaded, fried icefish in delicate strips were light and airy, not heavy as you've come to expect with most fried food. Thinly sliced radish and blossoms complement the dish, which was set in a vibrant, both in flavor and color, kumquat syrup that I won't soon forget. Oh, and again, a third time, with chopsticks. Good thing I learned how to eat with chopsticks when living in the Philippines at a very young age.

Glass/Petal:



The cracker-looking thing you see embedded in the flowers is a glass made of dehydrated soubisse. I don't recall the exact sauce in the middle, but it was also oniony. Very oniony.  Imagine the essence, the very soul of oniondom, and you get the idea. On the plate was another high-point of the evening: Morel mushrooms smothered in a foie-gras sauce, served with a crystallized blueberry/lapsang souchong tea reduction. Now, I love mushrooms of all kinds, and particularly morel. The contrast of the strong, sweet blueberry flavor with the earthy goodness of morel was something that nearly lulled me into a slobbering coma of culinary satisfaction. But I'm glad I didn't need life support at this point - more greatness was on the way!

Smoke/Bon Bon:






When we entered the restaurant, I caught a whiff of what I thought was stale cigarette smoke. I seriously thought that someone had walked through there smoking or something. Knowing how much many chefs strive for lung cancer, I thought that maybe they had traipsed through on their way in from break. Only when I saw a flaming bowl at another table did I realize that this was part of the "smoke" course. I can't tell what all was in that burning bowl, but there was star anise (you can see it clearly in the photo), palo santo, and cinnamon, among other things. There could have been anything else in there, and I wouldn't have known the difference. All I know is that it smelled wonderful and I didn't go on a vision quest, as a result . . . that I can remember.




After the flame was snuffed and we were enveloped in pleasant smokiness, we were warned that the plates that were coming might be hotter than the flames themselves. On the plate was a piece of chicken striped with three sauces to try to imitate the Mexican flag: Salsa verde, a spicy red salsa, and a white cream sauce. Though there was only a tiny stripe of each sauce, they were each packed with flavor. This seemed to be a common theme: tiny packages with HUGE flavor! This was no exception. The rough ball you see had a chicken-liver center, which was delicious (and I am not a liver person at all) surrounded by some hard, crunchy substance, the provenience of which I forget. It was great, even if my memory isn't. On the candy skull skewer (so poorly photographed in the bottom frame), was a pineapple gelatin wrapped in what I swear the server said was something related to root beer, though Natalie disagrees with me on this. And she's usually right. Oh, and the bon-bons can be seen in the second photo above, up on the left there. I'm a dark chocolate snob, as some of you know, and this passed the snobbery test with flying colors. Snob satisfied!

Cloche/Bone:



Hidden beneath that piece of lettuce is a piece of chicken curry. Not too spicy, but very well done. It was probably one of the most "ordinary" things we ate that night. The melon on the right was meant to counteract the spiciness, but it was honestly not that hot. That chunk of lettuce, however: pure genius. Last year, when we went to Indianapolis, Natalie and I ate at bluebeard restaurant where I ate what I considered to be the best salad I had ever eaten, to date. Well, sorry, cap'n, but you've just been outdone. That leaf of lettuce, laced with myoga and anise blossoms, was far and away the best leafy green I've ever eaten. It was extremely sweet - like it had been frosted - and I suspect the sauce that was brushed on had a good deal of sugar in it. I was surprised at how satisfying it was. Who would have expected that a leaf of lettuce would have been one of the tastiest offerings that night? Not me. But now I'm a believer. Lettuce can be the best thing on the menu (to be fair, it wasn't, but it can be). The other part of this course was, as you can see, served on a bone. Those are pieces of wagyu bone marrow served on, of all things, rice crispy squares. I kid you not. I have never had marrow before, but I'm game for just about anything and I like rice crispy treats, so I gave it a shot and popped them in. Not bad. They were, well, exactly what you'd expect bone marrow to taste like. I wouldn't eat more than I did, but these were fine. To each his own. Not terrible, but I probably won't have it again. I've eaten my share of raw meat before, so that's not the issue. I just wasn't in the mood for it, is all, and after that awesome lettuce it was a little bit of a let down.

Elysian Fields:




I'm a big fan of lamb. It is one of my favorite things to eat (pork is tops, in case you wonder). So I was delighted to learn that the next dish would have lamb in it. Three kinds of lamb, in fact. One was a standard cut, cooked to perfection. Then there was shredded lamb neck, cooked in the skin, then pulled from the bone, then a cube of congealed drippings. This was served with blackberries, thyme blossoms, and black garlic scapes. This was the best lamb I had ever eaten. In fact, this was the best dish I had ever eaten. This is the dish that I will look back on, wistfully, when I am on my deathbed and declare in gastro-existential angst, "I will never eat that again in this life. But I had it once, and can die a happy man. *burp*" - I'm so glad that this was the culmination of the meal, before the sweet denouement (more on that in a moment). It was the celestial pinnacle of culinary greatness. And the bread was pretty good, too.

Carnival/Rainbow:


After this, desert. A spot of anise, half a strawberry, raspberry creme, crystallized (yet soft) ginger, glazed fennel, and a gelatin whose flavor I can't recall. Oh, and rhubarb. Yes, rhubarb, which I usually loathe, but this was candied to perfection. It was just enough sweet to swing ones tastebuds around from the incredible savory of the last course. And then . . . then, things got crazy.



Those are, you guessed it, edible balloons, strawberry flavored, with a strawberry-flavored edible string. We were instructed to remove our glasses, "gently kiss" the top of the balloon, inhale, sing, or say whatever came to mind. Natalie did her best Minnie Mouse imitation and I couldn't stop laughing long enough to breathe in. I don't know what they used for the actual balloon, but it was really sticky at first, then it sort of . . . unstickified? At first we thought they should supply us with hot rags to get the sticky off of our fingers, then it just sort of got better on its own. Weird. I don't know if I want to know what material does this. But I do know that I would eat it again if it was offered.

Paint:


Those who look closely will observe that some of this was already eaten when I took the picture. I forgot and just dug in, realizing about halfway through that I should have gotten a shot of this. Forgive me for enjoying my food. The painting, under the glass, was done by the same artist who curates the art at Alinea. I liked his sensibilities, but can't remember his name. I'm sure he'll be famous when he dies. Isn't that the way of all artists? From the post-apocalyptic photo, you can probably see pistachio nougat, a panoply of cherry, marshmallow, orange (a very "rindy" orange, I might add), and coffee-flavored sauces, along with a hearty slab of chocolate ganache, all served on glass so that you can paint your own picture. Except you can't. Because you're too busy eating the medium. Which is fine. This was the most delicious art I've ever tasted.

And I mean that about the whole meal, not just this last course. My words and photos don't do it justice, and for that I apologize. If you want to really know what it tastes like, you're going to have to go there yourself. I heartily recommend it. From start to finish, top to bottom, first to last course, the service, food, ambiance, and just plain fun was something I shall never forget. Well done, Chef Achatz! You've made my culinary dreams come true. And, incidentally, you should seriously think about opening a restaurant in Madison. Guaranteed, more foodies per square mile in Madtown than in Chitown. Don't wait too long, though: we're getting hungry again.