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Red Sonja

Dynamite is one of my favourite publishers of comics. I buy a lot of their titles. I loved their take on Zorro and I’m still enjoying their Lone Ranger. The Shadow has had some brilliant moments and The Red Team got off to a good start. But not everything they do at Dynamite is good. In fact it’s best not to believe their hype.

They’ve been pumping up Red Sonja recently until she’s fit to burst. The new series is written by Gail Simone — “one of the premiere writers in the comics industry” — and they’ve been making a song and dance about it in all their other comics for months. But I am very disappointed. The writing isn’t bad. It’s average for the genre. But I really think Dynamite have let it down with a supporting team who are just not taking Sonja seriously.

The details in the pictures don’t support what is in the text. In episode 1, for example, we see Sonja pull a dagger from a sheath fastened to the small of her back. A nice move. And a lethal surprise for one of her assailants. But the sheath doesn’t exist in any other picture.

Then someone is sick on her boots so she gives her boots to her bodyguards to be washed. We see her taking the boots off, but in the next panel she’s still wearing the boots, while the bodyguards are holding them at arm’s length in the firelight.

Then there is her constantly changing dress at the state dinner.

And as for the spelling … well!

No-one expects a feisty, Hyrkanian barbarian to spend time with a dictionary but, Tarim’s blood, she has an editor, and she boasts of her “educated blade.” Sonja is no imbecile. But Dynamite have turned her into an imbecile with a capital I. Three capital I’s, actually, more’s the pity.

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Britt Reid - The Green Hornet

Britt Reid – The Green Hornet

Can you spot the spelling mistake in this panel from Dynamite’s Green Hornet?

It’s the first panel in episode 5 of a story by Mark Waid.

It’s a very confusing story. It’s one of the most intellectually challenging stories I’ve ever struggled through. I’m not sure who is who or what is what. Everything is turned on its head.

Britt Reid, The Green Hornet, is supposed to be out crushing criminals but he’s running for mayor instead. An innocent man is in hospital because of Britt’s arrogance and pride. Even Kato is confused.

But the picture in this panel is clear enough. Britt Reid has put himself on a pedestal. He’s blind to his own shortcomings. He’s turned his back on the paper he controls. He’s taken his eye off the ball and is concentrating only on his own ego.

It’s a shame he can’t spell infallible. Especially when everything in this panel crashes down with its full weight on that one, emboldened word.

I expected better of a newspaper mogul but, oh well, this is the 21st century. We shouldn’t expect moguls, writers, editors or artists to be able to spell.

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I was talking to an English graduate the other day. She prides herself on her discerning literary taste. She asked me what I was reading.

“Comics, mostly.”

A disapproving frown. “Are you serious?”

“I’m very serious. I spend a lot of money every month on comics.”

“Do you collect them?”

“No, I read them.”

Her eyebrows were knitted in concern. “What kind of comics?”

“My favourite is Conan the Barbarian.”

“What? Is he like an alter ego? Big, brawny… Is that how you wish you were?”

“It’s because it’s based very closely on the original stories. The adaptations are very good and the art work is superb.”

I often come across this prejudice about Conan and comics. Before I’d read any Conan stories I’d heard that Robert E. Howard had a cult following. ‘Cult’ usually means not very big. But many of his stories are still in print and very easy to find. That suggests there is still a widespread demand for them, which isn’t bad considering that they were written for disposable pulp magazines 80 years ago. Maybe ‘huge’ is a better word than ‘cult.’

I started to defend the Conan stories as examples of vigorous, thrilling prose and startling imagery. But I could see the literature graduate was unimpressed. Her eyes became hot and rebellious. Her cheeks flushed. Her brows remained steadfastly knitted.

When I learned, years ago, that there were weird literary cliques who curated museums and academies dedicated to the life and works of Robert E. Howard and brought out editions of his letters, I never imagined I would ever find myself being grateful to them. Surely, if a writer is any good, he should be read, not hoarded in a museum.

But Dark Horse publish extracts from Howard’s letters in the Conan comics and they’re always fascinating to read. I can’t help being driven to learn more about the man who produced these passionate stories.

But I bit my tongue. Some people will never be convinced. I’d rather read than proselytise.

“And what about you?” I asked her to change the subject. “What have you been reading?”

“Oh, I haven’t picked up a book in fifteen years,” she said.

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It’s not often people get to see me with my shirt off.

It’s not that I’ve got anything to hide. It’s just that I suffer from benign British reserve.

It’s funny how these cultural things work. You grow up surrounded by certain values and assumptions and – it’s hardly surprising really – you adopt them as your own.

It’s not very British to blow your own trumpet or flaunt what you’ve got. At least it wasn’t during my impressionable teenage years. Maybe things have changed.

We’ve been influenced by America where hiding what you’ve got is practically a crime.

I was chatting to a German this week. He works for a Swiss company in New York and was over in London for a week. He told me the women in New York are very forthright. I kind of knew this already because I’ve seen every episode of Sex and the City at least three times. He said if you go into a bar in New York, women approach you for sex. But you have to pass certain tests. One is having a fat wallet and a lean body. The other is having a great job. The third is having the ambition to get an even better job.

If women are really like that in New York then, if I’d grown up there, I would probably still be a virgin.

Or would I?

It could be that I’d have become the chief executive of a global company and have the body of Jared Leto (see picture.) Because cultural expectations rub off.

On the way to meeting my German friend I was listening to some frenetic rock music in my car. (It’s because I got it free in a magazine.) I found myself jumping in my seat like a metalhead on crack. I even started to become a touch impatient with my fellow drivers.

Earlier in the day I was reading an article in my favourite British newspaper, The Guardian, about how we become like the characters in the novels we read.

By the way, the comments on that article, if you’ve time to read them, are typically British, like this one from timbo1211.

After reading Slaughterhouse 5 I developed a distrust of linear models of chronology. I say after reading Slaughterhouse 5, it was really before, during, and after.

This is glaringly obvious really. You don’t need to pay a psychology professor to work it out for you. Reading good books makes you a better person and reading bad ones turns you into a vampire.

I’d like eternal youth but I don’t want to suck anyone’s blood in order to enjoy it. Luckily, there’s an easier way. Matt Posner and Jess C. Scott have just written a brilliant new book called Teen Guide to Sex and Relationships.

I’m going to read it and I’m hoping to shed at least thirty-five years.

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Ultima Ratio Regum

One of the things that impresses me most about The First Law trilogy by Joe Abercrombie is his erudite use of quotations.

The Blade Itself comes from Homer. Before They Are Hanged comes from Heinrich Heine and The Last Argument of Kings comes from the cannons of Louis XIV.

I am now about half way through The Last Argument of Kings, which is the final book in the trilogy, so I feel qualified to comment finally, though I tend to be a bit dismissive of reviews written by people who haven’t finished the book they are reviewing. Have you seen those reviews on Amazon that start “I just ordered this book today and can’t wait to start reading it, so … 5 stars!!”

I have been reading these books for about three years, so I have had a bit longer to think about them than that. But I suppose one thing people always wonder about when they embark on a 1500 page epic is, “will I be disappointed by the ending?”

I can’t answer that question because I haven’t reached the ending but I am very much enjoying getting there.

In fact, one of the reasons it has taken me three years to almost read all three of these books is that they are so pleasurable. I come from a very hard-working family where pleasure was always looked upon askance. Reading was a serious business, at the end of which you had to have something to show for it. What I had to show for it was a university degree. Then a career as an English teacher, which is ancient history now, I’m glad to say.

Which is just as well, because a knowledge of ancient history comes in useful when seeking pleasure in the work of a writer who quotes Homer.

After the erudite quotations, what impresses me most about these books is the immersive narrative voice. It gets you from the very first paragraph of the first chapter of the first book, wittily entitled The End.

Logen plunged through the trees, bare feet slipping and sliding on the wet earth, the slush, the wet pine needles, breath rasping in his chest, blood thumping in his head. He stumbled and sprawled onto his side, nearly cut his chest open with his own axe, lay there panting, peering through the shadowy forest.

You don’t know who Logen is but already you have become him. You are there, immersed in the sensory experience of what it feels like to be running, somewhat clumsily and out of breath, through a damp forest. Joe Abercrombie must write like this naturally because he has managed to sustain it effortlessly across more than 1500 pages and dozens of characters.

It is this quality of being immersed in another world, in other sensations, that makes reading so pleasurable. It is what makes it such a deep pleasure. Because in being immersed like this in another person’s world, you inhabit that person’s skin, you learn empathy, your feelings are changed and your opinions about the world can change too.

But there is no didactic message in Joe Abercrombie’s work. The Guardian even called it “delightfully twisted and evil.”

Over the Easter Holiday I’m afraid I lay in bed late with nothing in particular to do except read and enjoy a delightfully twisted episode in The Last Argument of Kings in which three Northerners crept up on a witch while Logen battled an enchanted monster called Fenris the Feared. And I have nothing whatsoever to show for it except a very relaxed and satisfied frame of mind and this somewhat lacklustre entry in my blog.

If forced to make a comparison, I would have to say it’s a bit like The Iliad, with some Beowulf thrown in, but more ironic, a lot longer and without the English Literature degree at the end of it. Although, as I said, I haven’t yet reached the end of it, so maybe there is a surprise in store.

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There are many good books out there but I am having trouble finding them. Ever since I came across Jess C. Scott’s teenage blog novel, Eyeleash, I’ve known that some very talented writers will emerge from the epublishing revolution.

The trouble is, so many bad ones are overwhelming them.

The marketing tactics used by some of the bad writers show enormous creativity. It’s frustrating that their creative energy doesn’t get channelled into their books. I don’t doubt that these authors are working very hard. But their methods in some cases are so fraudulent that I’m surprised they’re legal.

Amazon seems to encourage the worst of them. Anything that sells books is OK with Amazon.

So for readers it is becoming more and more important to have an expert guide with you when venturing into the Amazon jungle.

One such guide, I’ve discovered, is book blogger Vanessa Wu, who writes very readable reviews. Unlike many bloggers, she is not there just to serve indie writers. She reviews a whole range of authors, from Jane Austen to Stephen King and her insights are both witty and incisive. The indie authors she singles out are well worth investigating, I’ve found.

Of course, it’s a little off-putting that her focus is on erotica which, being a respectable English gentleman, I don’t read. But it would be a great shame if, like Henry James’s character, John Marcher, we wasted our lives and denied ourselves the greatest pleasures because we were afraid of the Beast in the Jungle.

The picture is a famous optical illusion. Can you spot the hidden tiger? It helps if you can read.

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The other day I was reading the blog of a writer who has published her novel on Amazon.

I have been following her blog for about two years so I know her novel underwent a great deal of polishing. The first chapter alone must have been rewritten about fifteen times.

As you might expect, it got some great 5 star reviews.

“a terrific book”

“nothing short of amazing”

“an awesome read”

“I was addicted from the very beginning”

“a truly talented author”

Then a couple of 1 or 2 star reviews appeared. The author was livid. “People I don’t even know are reviewing it,” she railed on her blog.

They accused her characters of being immature.

The author wrote a lengthy defence of her book (in another 5 star review) in which she proved that she was as immature as her characters.

The reviewers responded:

“plain awful”

“woefully immature”

“underdeveloped”

“messy”

“a terrible, terrible book”

“the worst I’ve read in years”

This proves that there is no point giving some people advice. You can polish your book endlessly. You can network in all the right places. You can guest blog and solicit reader comments. You can spend years building your author platform and then, when your book is finally published, you can totally destroy yourself.

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