Saturday, September 5, 2009

Neil Gaiman's Library is Slightly More Extensive Than Expected

Shelfari has posted images of Neil Gaiman's library. They're numerous and large enough that you can zoom in on the individual titles that he has shelved (or not shelved as the case may be). I've seen large home libraries before. I've seen extensive author's libraries before. This is the single largest private library that I've ever seen. Here's a quick sample that doesn't even begin to cover it:

There's just one more thing. The library that Shelfari has the photos of? It's his downstairs library and he keeps the reference library upstairs.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Review - Girl Genius Volume 8: Agatha Heterodyne and the Chapel of Bones

Girl Genius Volume 8: Agatha Heterodyne and the Chapel of Bones
by Kaja and Phil Foglio

2009 Hugo Winner for Best Graphic Story

At this moment there are five webcomics that I follow regularly and Girl Genius is one of those. Besides entertaining me one of the big attractions of the series is that is created by the Foglios who have been doing nerd humor far longer than is healthy for any human being. Phil won a pair Hugos for best fan artist in 1977 and 1978 but then he moved into the area of professional artist where a cartoonist can't compete with someone who paints rockets. So in some ways it is appropriate that they have received some recognition by winning the first Hugo for best graphic story. I just wish that it had been for a better portion of that story than Agatha Heterodyne and the Chapel of Bones.

The webcomic Girl Genius features a steampunk world of mad scientists whose inventions run rampant. In the past the greatest of these mad scientists were the Heterodyne family. Twenty years ago they attempted to bring order to the madness but vanished shortly after an attack destroyed their castle. Their friend stepped into the vacuum and set himself up as a tyrant ruling all of Europe for the sake of ending the non-stop wars. Now the lost heir to the Heterodyne family has resurfaced and become entangled in the plots of both the ruler of Europe and the mysterious "other" who drove the chaos before.

That brings us roughly to volume eight in which our titular heroine has returned to her ancestral home; an intelligent castle filled with deathtraps that is badly in need of repair. Agatha needs the castle in order to stand against all those who would use her. And as she progresses alone into the castle her would be lover, and heir to the European throne, tries to follow her in. Complicating things is a woman claiming to be the Heterodyne heir who entered the castle first and has a scheme of her own that doesn't involve getting the castle functional again.

My biggest problem with Agatha Heterodyne and the Chapel of Bones is pacing. There's two core plots in the book: Agatha getting to the center of the castle in order to repair it and her not-willing-to-admit-it boyfriend trying to get into the castle. The first should be a madcap adventure given that it takes place in a castle full of deathtraps and features the only direct villain in the book. The second should be effectively an afterthought. And yet the first is cut short while the second is dragged out. Agatha enters the castle, bumps into the villain, and runs for her life. Then it jumps to her boyfriend who spends a lot of time talking with the supporting cast about helping her and making some false starts before finally getting on with it. When the story cuts back to Agatha she's already at her goal and the villain has vanished from the book.

It comes down to this particular set of strips are a bridge. They connect the dramatic confrontations of the previous book with what promises to be an action packed climax to the castle storyline in the next. But a bridge doesn't stand very well on its own. The characters are isolated in this book and the plot is thin. It's a book that only works in the context of the entire webcomic.

On the other hand Phil's artwork is always a delight. His character designs are so distinctive that you would never mistake a Foglio drawing for anyone else. Their sketchy, swirled figures are lively and make them almost leap from the page. Phil's comic timing is a lot of fun as well and that ties into his impressive ability at page design. He has a classic sense of storytelling in his artwork that prevents Girl Genius from descending into just a set of fan pandering glory shots.

In general the story reads better in a book format than one page every few days. There's an inherent break when you read the story on the web that vanishes in the published format. Also the oversized artwork in the printed books looks better. The volume is oversized even for comic collections and it makes the artwork even more enjoyable.

While I may not recommend Agatha Heterodyne and the Chapel of Bones specifically since it is a terrible starting point and does not work as a book on its own I do recommend reading Girl Genius. Kaja and Phil Foglio have put together a series that is a lot of fun even if this particular volume isn't their best. And I recommend getting the printed collections because they look even better than the pages on the web. Just start at the beginning rather than with this book.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Review - The Graveyard Book

The Graveyard Book
by Neil Gaiman
2009 Hugo Winner for Best Novel

I've said in the past that despite my appreciation for Neil Gaiman he recent output has been a bit repetitive. He tends to go back to the same broad concepts repeatedly and so while he may do a great job of telling the story I can't help but say, "You've already told us that one!" As a result I wasn't expecting much going into The Graveyard Book. As a YA novel there's practically a license to reuse old material and YA usually translates to "watered down for the kids". I was half right on that. The Graveyard Book isn't the equal of Gaiman's books created for adults; still, it is very good at what it set out to be.

Nobody was a toddler when his entire family was murdered and he wandered into the graveyard to be adopted by ghosts who live there. He grows up under their protection and has adventures in the magical world that this old graveyard contains.

It might be easier to think of this book as an anthology. Each chapter is its own effectively self contained story as Nobody and a new friend explore a Celtic burial mound or Nobody attempts to find a headstone for a witch who was buried without one. It's an episodic format common to children's books and while I won't complain about that format I will say that there's far too few episodes.

The YA market calls for shorter books for shorter attention spans. That's where the one adventure per chapter format comes from. The problem is that The Graveyard Book is just eight chapters long and that last chapter is a denouement for the entire coming-of-age story. That makes the book far too short (there's a phrase you won't find me saying often). As an adult reader it took me a bit more than two hours to read the entire thing.

If Gaiman was a terrible writer than this length wouldn't have bothered me. Gaiman is a good storyteller and I kept getting glimmers of it in The Graveyard Book that are constantly cut off before they can fully develop. You can see the threads where there's obvious places to insert further stories into the book. It's very common for characters to be given a grand introduction and then completely abandoned. Nobody's adopted ghostly parents adopt him and then effectively vanish for the rest of the novel. So much is left undeveloped that it makes The Graveyard Book feel half-finished.

Then there's the plot thread that runs through the book regarding the killer of Nobody's family. About three-quarters of the way through the book it takes a sharp left into weirdness and concludes so poorly that I was shocked. It was as though Gaiman said to himself, "I need a big villain for this book!" and so threw in a bland action scene for a climax. It's completely different in tone from the rest of the book. Even with occasional dropping of hints the conclusion still felt like it came out of left field. The entire climax could have been skipped with the only real downside being making an already too short book even shorter.

The Graveyard Book is one of those instances where I have to acknowledge that I'm not the audience for it. While I may have found it to be a bit flat I would have loved the novel if I had read it when I was ten. My ten year old self isn't writing this review (you can tell because it isn't a stream of consciousness rambling that compares the book to cartoons I just watched) so I have to conclude by saying The Graveyard Book left me lukewarm; what there was of it was decent but it was so shallow that it felt more like an outline than a novel. On the other hand I may give a copy or two out at Christmas because I know some ten year olds who will love it.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

My Fall Television Season

I don't watch a lot of television. It's not that I dislike it; it's just that I've got a lot of entertainment options and don't care to try to sort the wheat from the chaff on television any more. So with the new fall television season hitting I'm watching absolutely no new shows.

Well, let me amend that; I'm watching absolutely no new shows being broadcast. There are however two programs that I've found recently that I'm watching and one that I'm looking forward to seeing again since I never expected for it to be brought to the United States. Oddly enough all three are from Asia though that wasn't something I was looking for, it's just that two of the shows are unique and the other is an exceptional drama.

The first show is a nostalgia trip for anyone who loves old Nintendo games: Game Center CX. The premise of the show is going to sound dull. A man sits down at a conference table in a featureless office and plays old video games. The trick in this case is that the man playing the games is a lovable goof who isn't very good at the games. He struggles through some of the most notoriously difficult games with occasional assistance from the rest of the production crew. It's entertaining to watch his frustration grow with each set back and see the triumphs when he finally gets past a challenge.

Unfortunately Game Center CX is Japanese and only airs there. An attempt to bring episodes to the United States stalled and it doesn't seem likely to happen. On the other hand there are about a dozen translated episodes that you can watch at Crunchy Roll. I recommend starting with the Ghost n' Goblins episode since anyone who remembers that game will also remember how painfully challenging it was.

Second up for me is a show from 1994 that I'm watching on DVD: The Romance of Three Kingdoms. I enjoyed the novel a lot and this Chinese television series is an faithful adaptation of the book. It's eighty-four episodes long and while each episode doesn't quite correspond to a chapter it comes pretty close. This is the a sprawling epic detailing the civil war that split China in three during the third century A.D. And when I say "sprawling epic" I mean get ready for a cast of important characters numbering over one hundred. This was a conflict that spanned generations and the series follows it from the weakening of the Imperial court to the last betrayals that united China more than fifty years later.

The downside on this one is that it is a production for Chinese television and that shows through sometimes; it was shot on video tape, for example. On the other hand so much effort is put into bringing the giant battles to the screen that I can forgive it's limitations. Not everyone can be John Woo.

Finally the SciFi Channel (sorry, "syfy" is just too freakishly wrong for me to use it) is bringing the last anime television show I got excited about to the air. Monster is an anime that Alfred Hitchcock would have created if he thought of working in animation and it starts airing on October 12. The series is a psychological drama about a doctor who chooses to save the life of a child over the life of a local politician. Years later the child returns to thank the doctor and the doctor finds out that the child has become a serial killer. It's a show about personal responsibility and hard ethical decisions.

I thought this show would never come to the United States for two key reasons. First, it's not a standard anime program. Monster is a serious, adult drama and the market for anime in the United States is tuned to the complete opposite. Making things worse for a company translating the show is that Monster is a long series; if they air one episode a week the SciFi Channel will finish up around March of 2011. That length makes it an expensive investment. I suspect that VIZ media, who is handling the translation, was encouraged by the strong response to the manga; for their sake I hope it's a gamble that pays off.