Thursday, May 30, 2019

My Appendix N: Music

Awhile back I was part of a thread on Twitter centered around "Our" Appendix N, the list of works that inspired us to built us to what we are. It was an interesting idea. I answered a few of my own, but thought it necessary to expand it to a series of posts on the subject.

I wanted to try this to frame where my inspiration came from when it comes to writing, not necessarily my entire range of tastes of different mediums. This should be an interesting experiment if I can narrow it down.

Before we begin, I should explain what "Appendix N" is.

For those who kept up with my Pulp Revolution post, Appendix N is the list of books Gary Gygax read which inspired him to construct Dungeons and Dragons from the aesthetic to the rules to the general set up to every trope you know today. In other words, Appendix N covers these foundational works that made a game that changed everything.

Because I am not talking about a game with very obvious and blatant influence, but about writing inspiration, there are few mediums to shuffle through. The first I want to talk about is traditionally my least popular topic on the blog, music. It's a hard medium to discuss so I also just want to get it out of the way first before getting into the obvious stuff.

Without further ado, here is the list.

Stray Cats/Brian Setzer

There were a lot of records (yes, records) around where I grew up, much of which is Boomer trash I no longer listen to. However, one record my mom had that I dug into as a kid was called Built For Speed by the rockabilly revival outfit known as the Stray Cats. The album was back to front incredible and I didn't know until later that it was a compilation of their first two albums that were, at the time, UK exclusive. When I started collecting CDs I found import copies of those two albums which still remain two of my most listened. Their follow-up album Rant N Rave with the Stray Cats was just as good, but the band soon broke up and despite many reunions and one-off comeback albums they never reached the height of those first three.

But those were enough. To this day they remain three of my favorite albums, and they remain the favorites for just about every rockabilly fan alive today.

The Stray Cats and their lead singer/songwriter, Brian Setzer, have a unique place in how I see entertainment. Their image, outdated at their peak in the 80s, of tough guys that could croon and their focus on songs meant to evoke an era forgotten by everyone else has given their music a strange time capsule feel. If you handed a Stray Cats album and a Carl Perkins album to a Zoomer they would have no idea they came out 30 years apart from each other. They saw a time when pop music could be anything, and didn't have to be watered down and degenerate to be wild and palatable at the same time.

But they were also surprisingly reviled back at the time. They were called things like "reheated Gene Vincent" by self-important music critics who didn't know what playing in older abandoned styles actually meant. They were booed when opening for the Rolling Stones. They were called pretenders and trend-hoppers. Boomers, who from my experience hate 50s rock more than any other generation, detested them. But 40 years removed from their formation, they have been playing together and had longer careers than anyone who first played the genre when it began.

Just a few days ago they released their 8th album and first after 26 years appropriately called "40" and are one of the few rockabilly bands around playing it straight instead of farcing it up with goofy posing and empty style.

Outside of the Stray Cats, which is a band few outside younger Gen X and older Gen Y have appreciation for, Brian Setzer did something different in the 90s. He helped revive Big Band Swing and made it a phenomenon before the great purge of 1998 cut that short. If you were alive in the 90s you probably heard the Brian Setzer Orchestra at least once.

At this stage in my life the band opened up new pathways for me. His third Big Band album, The Dirty Boogie, came out around a time when my life as a teenager had begun and was already sinking. In this album he went all out and threw in the kitchen sink including injecting in some of his rockabilly style into it. That's right, this is the first time I had really noticed genre mixing and how natural it was.

You notice it especially on his cover of his first hit Rock This Town where the two styles merge effortlessly to create a sound that strikes a chord with someone like me even harder.

But after that Setzer didn't stop. All the way through the '00s and into the '10s, a pretty terrible decade overall, he would do anything. From a solo rockabilly album to a blues record to kitchen sink album called 13 where he did just about everything, to trilogy set of celebrating 50s rock n roll, he made it clear to me that what a lot of what artists called walls weren't anything of the sort.

Consider that this was the 00s and think back and what rock actually was at that time. Did you cringe? That's natural. But at the time Brian Setzer was injecting pure color into the sepia-tinged slop of the industry.

It's quite interesting how he puts music first and never gets into political slap-fights like many artists today. He kept it about entertainment first. Heck, his one political song was on the first Stray Cats album and it isn't one you would hear playing on the radio today. Not to say that they would dare play anything good as it is. But Setzer kept it focused on where it counted: entertainment. And as the years passed he only got better at it.

He even put out an instrumental record and, like the old masters like the Ventures or Dick Dale, made it fun. No pretension to be found.

However, there was one album he put out in 2009 that hit me, apparently, much harder than anyone else out there.

The album was called Songs from Lonely Avenue, and it was something he has not done since. He flirted with another era long since forgotten.

He got back with the Orchestra to create a soundtrack for a film noir movie that never existed. Of course he paints in darker tones, but his experimental phase allowed him to try things he never would before while still keeping everything sharp, to the point, and energetic. This was one of the albums that finally pushed me to start writing for real, even if it wasn't right off the bat. There was a bit of magic to this one that many missed the first time.

Brian Setzer has never been afraid of being thought of as cheesy or corny. The man put out more Christmas albums than most bands put out normal records. But he always said that he just wants to make fun music to move people, and he does it seriously. This is an approach I don't think anyone has anymore.

The passion behind this album, and Setzer's whole career, made him one of my biggest inspirations. Without him I would not be writing what I am writing. This is why he is the first inclusion on the list.

  • Stray Cats - Stray Cats (1981), Gonna Ball (1981), Rant N' Rave with the Stray Cats (1983)
  • Brian Setzer OrchestraGuitar Slinger (1996), The Dirty Boogie (1998), Songs from Lonely Avenue (2009)
  • Brian Setzer - Ignition! (2001), 13 (2006), Setzer Goes Instru-Mental! (2011), Rockabilly Riot! All Original (2014)

The Ramones

The first true punk band and the most ripped off of the 20th century, the Ramones were a band I discovered when going through my punk phase, back when the genre wasn't filled with whiny zealot brats. As I've gotten older the four brothers from Brooklyn are about the only band in the genre I can stomach to listen to anymore.

This is for two distinct reasons. They always kept it simple and focused. There was an unwritten rule that a Ramones song would never exceed four minutes in length, and they never did. The band came along at a time where the Baby Boomers were twisting rock music into a self-indulgent mess of musical masturbation and hedonistic urges over entertainment and excitement. They went the other way with clear '50s rock influence and aggression not seen since the day the music died. The Ramones also consisted of a band with varying beliefs, politics, and interests, which kept them fighting each other instead of their audience.

As for why I consider them the band of the 20th century, it is because of their violent aggressive sound contrasted with lyrics about cartoonish antics, pop culture absurdity, and societal decay that showed the dead end the west was coming to.

No band that came after them hit that perfect storm of being in the right place at the right time. I don't think there's another band in the 20th century that got it quite as much as they did.

  • Ramones - Ramones (1976), Leave Home (1977), Rocket to Russia (1978), Road to Ruin (1979), Too Tough to Die (1984)

Urge Overkill

I've explained this before, but Urge Overkill was the Gen X response to Boomer hedonism. A rock band with smart lyrics, rocking tunes, and enough noise to put hair on the chest of the neighboring Nirvana fan.

They hit their stride with their Stull EP before getting big with their fourth album, Saturation, which satires and skewers the rock n roll lifestyle that had become a punchline by that time. They then went through a rough time of their own afterwards and put out Exit the Dragon as their final major label release which is a 100% serious take on bottoming out and crawling out of the darkness. It ended up being their final work for sixteen years when they came back with their independent Rock & Roll Submarine, a sort of check-in to show they were still alive and kicking. It managed to keep the rocking alive.

These albums showed me a side of rock I had never seen before about the dangerous habit of pleasure seeking our society had headed towards and the destruction we are in for. There is more to life than bleeding out and smiling about it, and few bands are willing to admit it. These albums, especially, helped me through some dark times.

Sometimes there is a hidden depth behind what seems simplistic at first.

  • Urge Overkill - Stull (1992), Saturation (1993), Exit the Dragon (1995), Rock & Roll Submarine (2011)


This is a genre I got into about the time I started writing seriously. My story Someone is Aiming For You came to me as I listened to the song Early Summer by Miami Nights 1984. Satellite Young's debut album helped me come up with several stories currently in various stages of production. Noir Deco helped me nail down my interpretation of Cyberpunk being best when smashed with Gothic Horror. Of all the genres, Retrowave is the one that has given me the most direct inspiration for writing, even when I'm not.

As is fitting my selections are the newest on this entire list. The genre's penchant for mixing and matching old with new, putting passion and creativity before pretension and without pandering to the mainstream, has made it one of my favorites. It continues to inspire now.

If you have not yet gotten into the genre I have included many of the albums that affected me the most in the creative process and just when sitting around thinking.

  • Miami Nights 1984 - Early Summer (2010), Turbulence (2012)
  • Noir Deco - Future to Fantasy (2011)
  • Sunglasses Kid - Graduation (2017)
  • The Midnight - Nocturnal (2017)
  • Megadrive - Futurescape (2012)
  • Satellite Young - Satellite Young (2017)
  • FM Attack - Dreamatic (2009)
  • Megahammer - Raw Licks, Sleazy Flicks (2016)
  • Tokyo Rose - The Chase: Last Run (2017)

And lastly I wanted to include stray albums with a quick explanation as to how they got to me. Not everything is centered around a handful of artists.

Dick Dale & His Deltones - Surfer's Choice (1962)

One of the first pre-Beatles albums I heard that showed me just how rich the soundscape of pop music was before everything was torn down. This album is a kaleidoscope of rock from before a time where it was required to water it down.

Madness - One Step Beyond (1979)

A breezy, goofy ride through a downtown neighborhood that no longer exists, this album portrayed a youth that is long gone, but remains as exuberant and exciting as ever. One listen to this and you'll be wondering if maybe things will be okay again.

Blur - Modern Life is Rubbish (1993)

An album made in response to the murky nihilism of the early 90s, of all Blur's albums it has remained the least dated to a degree no one wished for. Modern life is still rubbish, what were once tiny fractures have grown and all but torn apart what was once united, and emptiness remains in its place. That said, its power remains undiluted and it remains Blur's strongest album, and probably the best of the '90s.

X - Los Angeles (1980)

This is a band I should like more being that they were an early punk band with a clear rockabilly influence, but most of their material isn't powerful enough to me and many of their lyrics are typical subversive chants about nothing. However, their debut is different. X was composed of three members from Illinois and a drummer from the album title in question. Los Angeles is a searing indictment of modern life in the worst city in the world with songs blasting drinking yourself to death, cocaine, Hollywood, sexual assault (but I repeat myself), and the world falling apart around your ears. The vocalists deadpan delivery burn the impression of an empty-souled city and modern life with nowhere to go but hell. They were never this powerful again, and never as dead on in describing the problems of the 20th century. All of it is in Los Angeles and still around today.

Carl Perkins - The Dance Album of Carl Perkins (1957)

One of the first Rockabilly albums and the one Elvis fell in love with, the Dance album is one that has been ripped off countless times, and probably by bands who don't even realize it. He created the template for a fun versatile style of music that few bands have truly taken advantage of to this level. If you haven't heard this one you're missing out. As much as I like Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran neither of them had an album as strong as this one.

Oasis - (What's the Story) Morning Glory? (1995)

To be deadly honest, as much as they've been called rip offs of the Beatles, I have always like Oasis more. This album especially was the first I ever bought as a kid from a band I discovered on my own. It stuck with me for decades and while Oasis had other great albums (their first two and last two are generally considered the best) none hit that sweet spot of pop hooks and big sound that made the postivity of Britpop overtake the nihilism of American grunge. For a minute everything was going to be alright, and that minute is this album.

The Jam - In the City (1977)

Before Paul Weller got an ego the size of the titanic he put out The Jam's debut album in the year of punk rock. However, this was a mod album which meant it was about dancing more than moshing and the lyrics were more concerned with the destruction of old things, escaping the dehumanizing encroachment of city life on the mind, a past that was gone forever, and the Batman theme. Yes, there is a cover of that, and it is amazing. In a year of super serious punk rockers already missing the point of The Ramones while cashing in on them, The Jam, at least for now, was doing it right. Telling the magazines he voted for Thatcher was a great touch, too. It took years for the hate to come off these guys, but the album remains a snapshot of fun amidst a downhill climate that was rapidly becoming clear to everyone.  

Deluxtone Rockets - Green Room Blues (2000)

An album about clawing for Christ in a situation where hope has all but been squashed, this one helped me both through some rough times and when writing stories of my own. It has always been a shame that these guys only have two albums to speak of, but this second one contains a rainbow of rocking sounds to match lyrics of crushing darkness with piercing rays of hope cutting through. It's a remarkably strong album, and one that inspires me to this day. Rock fans passing it up because the band is Christian is doing themselves a disservice. This is fantastic stuff.

And that is it for this post. I apologize for the length, but I wanted to be thorough and explain just how music can affect a writer and their process of storytelling. It happens a lot.

Next time I will be more straightforward with a different medium that has a focus on narrative, but for now I hoped you enjoyed the ride. Communication can do wonders for your mind and soul.

Art truly is a wonderful thing.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Tricking the Mirror

You can say a lot of things about the way the world is now, but one thing absolutely baffling about it is how things that were once common sense only a decade ago are now nuggets of obscure knowledge. For instance, see plagiarism. No one takes it seriously these days.

For example, there was this video game recently released called YIIK: A Postmodern RPG that has been embroiled in many forms of controversy. First it was from the creator about how games aren't art, despite all creative works by definition being art, aside from his game being special and highly original of course. Then it was referencing the suicide of a real life victim to frame its story around (not in itself wrong, but execution is everything). Now it is about stealing whole passages from author Haruki Murakami for dialogue within the game. You can see the story here.

When confronted with this truth the studio pulled out the "homage" card, because that's the get out of jail free card these days.
“YIIK contains quite a few homages to the writer Haruki Murakami. Our intent was to include little nods to Murakami’s lesser known works as tributes. Within the game, the tributes served a narrative function,” Allanson said.
I'm unconvinced there is a Millennial who knows what an actual homage is. They should, but for some reason have discarded this definition from their minds. A "homage" is clearly not swiping passages of another writer's work and not transforming it to a new form, such as comedy or parody, or attributing the original when doing so. But that aside there is a another quote that gives the game away.
"The idea is, Alex has read After Dark, and his fondness for the novel is seeping into his reality with vocal and physical manifestations calling his attention back to the passages of the book now living in his subconscious. In that context, we thought it would not be in-character for “Proto Woman” to cite that their words hail from Murakami’s novel, since they don’t have the awareness that their words are actually an excerpt from a book."
Modernism subsists entirely on stealing and twisting the old ideas of dead men while picking and choosing what you want, and Postmodernism doesn't have the self-awareness to understand this when trying to break free of its shackles. Nonetheless, the book in question came out in 2004 and the game takes place in 1999. So this doesn't cut it, as it can't be true. But I'm sure there's some tortured explanation as to how this still makes sense. After all, (Post)modernism is all about bending reality to make what ever you want true. This is how we end up with those defending things that are obviously wrong such as plagiarism.

But that's not what this post is about. There is another angle to this problem.

Without going into the ethical and moral quagmire about why taking something that isn't yours wholesale from another then attempting to profit of it is bad, I would rather talk about why any creator that does this is never going to amount to anything. This is an interesting topic and I feel compelled to explore it, at least a little.

Plagiarism is the habit of a pretender who has no creative talent. It is the refuge of a man with no imagination, and no interest in cultivating one. It is about a man who sees the results of a real creator's work and wants in on that. In art this is the absolute worst thing you can be, far below simple hacks and even message fiction writers.

The reason I say this is because of how a creator takes in inspiration. They watch a movie like John Wick and decide to write an action story themselves, maybe about a secret assassin organization or about a lone gunman with an attitude or perhaps even about a dog who gets shot. The story might not even have any direct similarities at all aside from genre. In other words, something about the original story tickles them and causes the writer to create a wholly new idea with the original as a starting point. That's how all art works. A plagiarist takes John Wick, calls him Ron Stick, and keeps everything else in the original more or less the same. At that point it isn't even about making art anymore, it's about someone who wants attention. Plagiarists are not in it for the product, but for their own ego.

What this tells me about the above mentioned game is that the creator wanted notoriety, fame, and acclaim, and was more interested in that than he was sitting down and writing a story. Storytelling came second to ego. He was so creatively bankrupt that he needed to take whole passages of someone else's work instead of writing something of his own and didn't care about why. It's lazy and the mark of someone who either has no voice of his own or needs another to speak for him.

Which might speak well of this entire generation.

I've seen many cases of such plagiarism being labelled okay because "everyone does this now" but why aren't we asking why "everyone does this now"? No one was okay with this before.

Why didn't Phantasy Star IV swipe the battle mechanics from Dragon Quest to make it easier to create for them? Why didn't Columbo steal whole plots from Father Brown if it didn't matter? Why didn't Dragon Ball trace whole panels from Astro Boy to save time on a weekly schedule? Why didn't Dee Dee Ramone lift whole choruses and lyrics from Smokey Robinson if it wasn't a big deal? Why didn't any of these older artists need to do what modern ones do without even thinking twice? This is a question none of these people ask. And yet now we even have commentators questioning why plagiarism is so bad. We live in the 21st century, not Year Zero. You are not doing anything others before you have not already considered doing.

In less than a generation we've gone from admiring a perfectly cooked steak of creativity to coveting lukewarm comfort food heated in the microwave. This laziness is why we get so much bad art these days and accept even moderate plagiarism as good enough to spend money on. At some point we went from passively accepting lesser art to needing to spend money on it, and we don't even ask why.

So, then, why?

Much of this has come about by elevating entertainment and artists to modern scripture and scribe status. We put them up there with religions. If these people decide to put it out then it's okay. Who are you to complain? They aren't making art for you, so just shut up and enjoy it or find something else. If you deny this happens then try criticizing the newest Star Wars trailer for any reason at all and watch the reaction. This is not something that would have happened back in the '90s. At some point they became zealots for these products and have no self-reflection as to why they are and why this has changed so much in a short time.

No wonder these people want to get in on the scam. If you will buy anything from them then they can do whatever they want and never suffer for it or learn from their mistakes. Bringing back standards would go a long way to fixing this, but I digress. Fanatics don't want this. They will dance to anything, as an old band once said. It is what it is.

Disposing of those old standards to fashion cover for ourselves to do whatever we want damn the rest is a dead end. It's causing schisms where there shouldn't be. This attitude is going to destroy what little relation we have left to each other and is killing an already weak society.

This isn't a road we want to go down.

Creativity is a craft. There's a reason no writer will ever let you see the first story they ever wrote and that is because they are all terrible and not worth reading. A writer with any semblance of ability will tell you this. No one starts out great, no matter what lie you've been fed. Not just grammar or sentence structure, but creativity itself is something you train and build up with the rest of your skill set. However, it will only improve if you want it to and if you truly believe in what you're doing. A plagiarist skips this step so are missing the key ingredient to being a creator and is therefore never going to amount to anything. It shows their priorities are not where they belong. This is a fundamental error in being a creator.

The reason every writer thinks they're a fraud five seconds away from being found out is because they know where they came from and how easy it is to make a wrong turn and have your work fall apart. This is why they edit so much and spend what little cash they have on editors. A plagiarist that knows nothing of such things will never have that level of awareness about art. They do not understand the craft, and they have inoculated themselves from being able to. A society that doesn't hold their feet to the fire is also partially to blame for this loss of quality control.

In the end these plagiarists are hurting themselves most of all in a bid for adoration and applause, not audience satisfaction or for creating art. They can do this because we no longer have any standards informed by the past but whatever tickles our nostalgic appetites and base desires. We no longer even understand what it means to build on a tradition anymore so we rehash what little we know and subvert it into a corner. There's nowhere to go here.

This constant need to reheat the past with reboots, references, plagiarism, and "modernization" shows a culture that has entirely lost its connection with its roots. No one needed to do this back in the 90s or earlier. This is a modern problem. If it's always Year Zero it can never become Year One, so forever will we be trapped in this limbo or reinventing the wheel but calling it a different name, or perhaps not even bothering to do that much. Without a true connection to the past this is all you can do to avoid building from a foundation and ever reaching greater heights.

Plagiarism severs that relationship totally. When the plagiarist decides to steal wholesale from someone else he has abandoned his quest to connect with the audience via their own voice through their own art. They have instead usurped another's art for either quick fame or because they don't think much of their audience to begin with. Regardless, plagiarism is unbridled disrespect given form. Legal and moral arguments aside this is disgusting behavior.  

At the end it comes down to why one bothers with art at all. Is it because they want to understand their fellow man better, or is it because they want to hide in their own little world away from their neighbors? It is one or the other. This is the question that will decide what, exactly, art means to you and the world around you. This is what will decide what art is for.

If you don't care then you also don't understand why art is so lazy today. It's because commentators like the following from the above article let them get away with this:
"It honestly isn't a big deal. I know how much people here like to shit on bad games and their makers but... Yeah, really not a big deal."
No one would have let this fly even ten years ago. In school it was hammered in to students for decades that plagiarism is the worst thing one can possibly do. How did we go from that to this ambivalence of theft and accepting of mediocrity? How did we just let things get this bad? Are we that spiritually dead?

If allowing an important form of communication like art degrade into outright theft in pursuit of the almighty ego boost is not a "big deal" then it is no wonder it has become such disposable garbage today. This is the world we've let happen.

At what point do we start taking this loss seriously?

A long look in the mirror would do a lot of good. Find out what exactly happened to get us to this point. Then maybe we can do better than this wasteland we have now. Hopefully by tomorrow we will find our way back on track again.

That's the hope, anyway.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Drifting Sounds from the Far Off Place ~ A review of Miles Matrix's "Buena Vista"

Find it Here!

Note: I was given free access to this album for review. As always, it will not affect my final opinion.

This post is a bit late because I wanted to share this with you at the right time, and that is now. For this one we go back to the world of Retrowave. I hope you're ready!

Today I'm going to look at the just released album, Buena Vista by Miles Matrix.

I've made a few posts on Retrowave music, but this is the first time I've managed to review an entire album. This is mostly because reviewing music is not easy as most of it hedges on opinion over soundscapes others might hear somewhat differently than you do. Objective criteria is hard to come by which is proven by how many terrible music critics there are and how few respect them.

But this was a chance to give my opinion on a new work by an independent artist in the best music genre going today. So when I was approached to review this album I jumped at the opportunity. This is new ground for all of us.

At the same time I haven't been all that impressed with the genre this year which has had some artists "modernizing" their sound and becoming more like the junk that plays on the radio in what sound like a bid for mainstream acceptance. It's been a bi of a downer. I'm happy to report that Buena Vista is not that at all.

This is good old fashioned Retrowave of the sort anyone can get into. So please sit back and enjoy, and listen to the fresh sounds for yourself. We're going to look into it together.

First some info on the album:

"Buena Vista" is the first album by Vienna based producer Miles Matrix. It features 8 tracks spanning the whole spectrum of the Synthwave genre. Born from a love for movie soundtracks, nostalgia and synthesizers, "Buena Vista" is 80s infused Retrowave inspired as much by Jean-Michel Jarre, Klaus Schulze and Vangelis – music Miles Matrix had on a cassette as a kid – as by contemporary synthwave icons like Perturbator, Dance with the Dead or Lazerhawk."\ 
"The album title "Buena Vista" has a couple of meanings for Matrix. For one, Buena Vista translates to Schöne Aussicht in german, the plural of which can be a metaphor for bleak prospects. Having grown up in the 80s, Matrix still remembers the feelings of anxiety due to Tchernobyl and the cold war mixed with a hopeful outlook based on technology and science. Miles Matrix translates this emotional melange to eight songs full of darkness and light alike, accompanied by an album artwork showing a view of Saturn from a beach. At the same time, Buena Vista International was a title card he saw on many movies he has fond memories of. "When I see the words 'Buena Vista', it always spawns a film in my head."
As for the artist:
"Miles Matrix, who is an autodidact and has no background in music theory, produced and recorded the album in his livingroom. He initially entered the scene with vocal synthwave, but transitioned to instrumental soon. He had already finished the production on his album when he was struck by the insight that he was not at all happy with the results. "The majority of the tracks neither reflected my progress nor what I wanted to convey with my music", explains Miles Matrix. He scrapped most of the recordedings and started over."

This highlights one of the strengths of this synth movement and that is how it allows an artist to be direct with their audience with both their sounds and their intent. It's very direct and sharp. No pretension, no filler, and an immediate connection with the audience, are three things the genre has going for it.

But how does this album stack up? Let us see for ourselves.

Buena Vista is 8 tracks and 38 minutes long. It's a very sharp record. This one gets to the point with the first track and hooks to the end just as some of my favorite artists in the genre such as Miami Nights 1984 do. Because of the relative brevity of the album I'm going to go track by track through all eight and contrast what Matrix intended against what I hear, and make my general impressions known.

So let us dive in to some good old fashioned Retrowave! It's been a spell.

1. Night Striker [Album Version] (4:10)
"A Youtube commenter on Luigi Donatello's channel described this song as "i turn this on in my headphones when i'm hunting poison dart frogs in the rain forest", and while I thought more of car chases through neon-lit Los Angeles, I think his description is picture perfect."

Being that I'm a writer of action adventure stories, the first thing I thought of with this one was a vigilante stalking the streets of some post-apocalyptic city. The creeping synth and the desolate soundscape reminds me of a lone hero fighting for what little there is left that he can fight for. For four minutes the build up ends with the hero walking away to the next fight.

It's a very direct and punchy number, perfect for starting an album or inclusion on a compilation.

This one highlights the reasons I enjoy the genre. It is how these soundscapes can so inspire the listener in different ways and remain accessible to a newcomer to plug into.

2. Starpilot (4:26)
"I like to imagine many of my songs as short stories with the music as their soundtrack. "Starpilot" for me is a campy sci-fi opera, think Pirates of the Carribean, but somewhere in space."

It reminds me a lot of both a Wolf & Raven track and old NES games such as Blaster Master. The percussion sounds like the rattling of tank treads and the spiking swirling synth definitely drives like a heroic charge into the unknown. I could hear this playing in an old Sega Genesis games such as Granada. Get out of the way, or get blasted and crushed!

I really do enjoy the space synth stuff, but so rarely are the songs ever driving and action packed. There is usually more build up and stalling than payoff by the end. It was good to hear one nail that feel in a compact nugget such as this.

3. Super Getaway Driver: Miami (4:42)
"The song title speaks for itself – it's the soundtrack for a heist involving muscle cars. I am a massive fan of motorsports and one of my hopes is that maybe one day, Formula One pilots like Esteban Ocon or Mick Schumacher will listen to my music."

There is no doubt that this is speed music. This sounds exactly like a race against time versus some creeping enemy right on your tail which is ready to do you in. The build raises tension throughout with tightened percussion and layers of competing synth-lines to produce that great effect of time running out.

The track ends almost abruptly, making the listener wonder if the race was won or not. It's not a loud piece overall, but it nails the sense of urgency perfectly. This is the Outrun style through and through.

4. Adventure Club (5:37)
"Probably the most personal song on the album and maybe my favorite as well: When I was a kid, my dad used to take us for adventures and explorations in the woods behind our house. He even printed explorers certificates when we returned home. In the forest there were craters from World War II bombs, but in our imagination we had discovered dinosaur graves."

I suppose the standard comparison to a track like this these days would be to Stranger Things, but the overall feel reminds me more of a Goonies sequel if it took place in an ancient abandoned city instead of under a small town. The swirling synth and the thumping bass emphasize exploration while the song itself digs deep to reveal to new sounds under the surface with every moment. It's adventure, after all!

This is probably the best written song on the album, and it earns every second of its length. Songs about adventure are uncommon enough, never mind ones that simulate well it with sounds. That makes this one a gem.

5. You Did Good, Kid (6:33)
"This song features samples from an old science fiction movie called "Assignment: Outerspace" and the samples set the tone for this atmospheric and slow piece. It is a very melancholic song and I can easily imagine it being the score for a tragic twist in a story."

The feeling I get from this track, paired with the title, is the end of a long journey where the protagonist of the piece has suffered a fatal wound and the song replays how he ended up in this state. It's a slow burn, but engaging. The bluesy sound of the background synths add to this feeling tremendously.

As it builds to a crescendo the fallen makes his last move and uses his last breath of life to deliver the final blow and save his allies from a fate worse than his. He succeeds and the track ends as he drifts off to meet his maker. It's a very dark piece, but very powerful.

This is my favorite track on the album.

6. Stay A While, Stay Forever! (4:17)
"One of two vocal synthwave songs on the album, this track is dedicated to one of my best mates, M. He died a couple of years back in a bike accident, but when I was a kid, we spent nights on end playing video games together. One of my fondest memories is completing Secret of Mana on the Super Nintendo as a team."

Even knowing the background of this track doesn't make it feel any less like a song you would hear on alternative radio back when that meant something. It's a very weird piece, and eerie, but it has a very Gothic feel at the same time.

Imagining a team storming Dracula's castle and you might have a perfect encapsulation of what listening to this one is like. Being one of two tracks with vocals helps this mood, too.

7. Main Force Patrol (3:15)
"While producing the album I rewatched all Mad Max movies. The Road Warrior is still my favorite, but I was blown away by the raw energy of the first film, and a title taken from it fitted perfectly to the by far most punk rock track on the album."

The first thing I thought of was DOOM. An invasion takes place and a force equal in intensity, if not number, must fight to repel it. Being the shortest and punchiest track on the album it lends itself well to the interpretation.

Clashing and harsh synth with plenty of speed lends in quite a bit of power and muscle. Of all the songs on the album, this is the one I could most easily hear during a shootout scene in a Chuck Norris movie. It is more than intense enough.

8. Enemy Mine (4:40)
"The lyrics of course can be applied to any relationship. But I wrote this song last year during a phase in which it wasn't clear whether we would be able to keep our beloved dog, a rescued street dog with severe trauma and behavioral disorders. It was a tough period which sent both my girlfriend and myself spiralling from sadness, but ultimately we were able to keep the dog and carry on together. It was only in hindsight that I realized the song is basically about our dog. The title is borrowed from an 80s science fiction film I liked a lot."

The final track actually feels like an ending credit song to a movie where only the main character made it out alive. The vocals hiding in the back of the mix are eerie but the sound of the lonely high pitched synths and driving backing track specifies loneliness above all. It definitely matches the tone of the album and the title.

Its a good piece to end the album on, but it's not quite up there with my personal favorite ending pieces in the genre such as The End of Summer by Megahammer, Take Me Home by Mega Drive, or Hopeless Romantic by FM Attack. The atmosphere matches as does the structure for a closer. It just needed a bit more power to hit that level to reach home, but it still remains a solid end to a very good album.

As a whole Buena Vista is exactly what I look for in the genre. It has varied moods, sounds, and tones, that all coalesce into a unified sound of synth, style, and emotion. 8 tracks of no filler and plenty of hooks to take you to a land of escapism and distant alien sights is exactly what you get here. There isn't much else you could want.

Most of my problem with modern music comes from how empty it has become. Endlessly sappy songs about one night stands and sexual obsession gets old. Repeating sounds that were tired when they were first cranked out back in 1998 doubly so. One of the reasons movements such as these have scratched an itch so well is how much genuine passion and excitement the artists and listeners have for this style that has taken an abandoned torch and forged ahead into new territory with it, burning the cobwebs and overgrowth away in the process.

I was a little worried for the genre at year's start with some appeals to the mainstream that reeked of scrap begging. But with summer on the way I am reminded that the heart of the genre beats loudest when it is brightest and hottest, and this album is a good example as to why. There is still plenty of gas left in the tank.

So sit back, relax, and enjoy the sounds of summer. They're not going anywhere anytime soon, and I am grateful for that.

You can find Buena Vista on Soundcloud here and on Bandcamp here.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

The Old Normal & Weird Fiction

Given that the first issue of Dimension Bucket Magazine is finally available in print I thought I would use this chance to both advertise for it and to make a little post based on the story I wrote for inclusion in its pages.

No, this isn't going to be a review post. That would be awkward. I'm not comfortable reviewing things my work appears in for many reasons, but I can tell you that the magazine features many different authors that are quite good at what they do and stories you won't read coming from the cobweb-caked shelves of Oldpub stores. You can even find the issue digitally here.

I'm going to be talking about the weird and the normal.

My story in the issue is called Endless Nights in Villain City and is ostensibly about a selfish loner who embraces his inner magic to become, as Boomer parents like to say, true to himself and his inner light. In other words, it stars a villain. The story is incredibly violent, vicious, and dark, but I thought it was quite Superversive in the end. I thought the ending quite uplifting. However, two different Superversive writers told me it in fact was not Superversive in the slightest, so who am I to say? You can be the judge of that and let me know. I'd be glad to hear.

But the story highlights the difference between good and evil with the latter not being shown as ideal. Apparently this is weird and not the norm. Well, it is to me.

The more I've been writing over the years the more I am aware of how weird fiction can be. I've been writing in a PulpRev mindset since 2017 and as I write I'm starting to understand what I write might not be as straightforward as how others see it. What I think is normal is actually quite strange. For one I was told by someones that the first short story I sold, Someone is Aiming for You, was too scary. I didn't catch that when writing it. For another example, what I thought was the most direct story I ever wrote, Lucky Spider's Last Stand, was described as such:
"It's the tale of a gangster who was his boss' right hand. The boss is dead, there's a legit, no-shit superhero who is immune to bullets called "A Crusader" (nice touch btw), and Lucky Spider has to fight this superhero with a healing factor in a god damned sword fight."
Special thanks to Jim Fear for the kind review.

The more I write the more bizarre it appears to get. I recently realized that I don't write superheroes, but pulp heroes. One would have to be familiar with their differences (law vs. justice, the permanent against the temporal, etc.) to understand the schism, but there is absolutely a gap. Each story I have written in my "magic superhero" series has not been like those in the comic books I grew up on and has shifted into something far different. What was originally a battle of the supernatural between two opposing forces (powers and magic) somehow became a playground for nutty ideas about God, justice, alienation, and death. I'm not sure where it's going to eventually end up, but I think after the next story I'm working on I will move them to novels instead. There is more to tell than what I can scratch out with a handful of short stories.

But it also kicks off a big difference between what I think works between the pulp hero and the post-pulp hero, and that is in explaining too much. The #1 writing problem I've picked up today for anyone who writes and action adventure story is their constant need to explain everything in overbearing detail. Others have picked up on this, too.

I suppose my take on this is strange because of how I write characters. When I write a story it is as if a window to another world is forming in my head and each draft and editing pass goes towards cleaning the glass so that it can be fully grasped. This means the characters are already formed with everything else which means they already have a history coming into what I am writing. They are prepackaged with one when they come into existence. I know it, and so do they.

But the reader doesn't need to know that. Origin stories have quick become a plague on modern writing. The worst ones damage the imagination, even the better ones strip away mystique.

As far as the reader knows the characters lived normal lives in the world in question up to the point the story started. Just as all weird tales, it is normal until it isn't anymore. This adds weight to the weirdness surrounding the plot and action and allows the audience to ease into it at the same time as the characters do. The audience are normal people and that is how they relate to the hero. If the reader is learning about whatever the trouble is with the main character then there is a better chance for a connection. This should be the goal of all stories.

In a book the main character should have no intense, tragic background before the story starts. No heavy traumas the audience doesn't know about, no excuses for why they are doing what they are doing, and no complex relationship with the antagonist that the audience isn't informed of until the author deems it right. I say this because the place you start your story from should be the place where the audience can be connected to it. The writer's job is to let the reader in, not to lead them around by a leash and tell them where they are allowed to put their investment. The main character should not be the one throwing curve-balls at the audience, they should always be on the same side in whatever craziness occurs.

You might be wondering about other things. Literary works are all about trauma drama, so it works there. But we aren't talking about those.

Stories like Trigun or Cowboy Bebop feature a back story for the main character, seemingly breaking the rule. But it must be taken to account how it does so. When that background is in focus, they are not the focal point character in the story. In Trigun when Vash's history is brought up we see it from another character's perspective every single time, and when it is focused on Vash it is never about that side of it. In Cowboy Bebop it is the same whenever one of the main characters has their past focused on. The perspective shifts to the most normal character in the situation. This is much easier to do with visual art forms than written ones.

In short stories and novels the writer has to use a different tool-set.

In Grey Cat Blues, Two Tone is the main character. He is a reformed punk though the audience is never told the exact reason why as it is not relevant to the story being told. However, at the point the story starts he is the anchor for the readers and learns the craziness occurring with them. On page one he is the normal the readers need for the weird that is about to happen and they need to connect with him. To do this he cannot be a broken character or else it dilutes this connection, and being that he is the only viewpoint character he needs to retain his normality in the weirdness.

That is the key to true weird fiction. The normal and moral is the starting point and the weirdness that closes in from the outside is the true antagonist. If the norm is as stained as the weird then there is no power in victory over it. The entire battle between them blurs into grey paste.

In Lucky Spider's Last Stand, my protagonist is a villain and the weirdness comes in to give him a moral battle with the one before him. To keep it focused I could not give any excuses for him being a villain to soften his character. He had to confront his own choices in a way the audience could get right off the bat. It is the same with Endless Nights in Villain City. The weirdness is what allows the villain protagonist to be who he wants to be and its the hero antagonist that has to face the weirdness caused by his choices. I suppose you can consider these stories subversive, but all they do is show typical hero stories from another angle. At no point is evil glorified or good seen as wrong.

What I'm getting at is that something in a story has to be nailed down in normality, and the most obvious thing is the protagonist, the good guy. This is what a "relatable" character should be. This is the key to weird fiction and what makes it so digestible no matter how disturbing or out there the story might get. The good guy needs to represent normality. Otherwise you just have a bunch of events randomly happening to people in a world you don't care about. If you end up there, what is the point of it? Why even bother?

That's a long way to say that one of the things I have gotten more appreciation for since I started down this pulp revolution path is what weird really is. Since I began reading authors I had never heard of and stories long since buried by gatekeepers that had no right to gatekeep I began to see why things were changed. And it isn't just the old works. The stories I reviewed in my previous post all reclaimed the old normal just as well as the pulps did. They were stories focused on the border between the normal and the abnormal with the former being seen as the way it should be--the natural state of things. Good is good and evil is evil and both should be pointed out for what they are for both the characters and the audience.

The weird is a tool to highlight the normal, whether by cautionary tale, heroic adventure, or straight up romance. This is something the dinosaurs of the Oldpub have forgotten with their mandatory genre segregation and 400 page cookie-cutter formulas. Truth is weird, it's not as stale as the creative class with their sensitivity readers and dry workshops have made it today.

I plan on writing more stories to highlight this bizarre reality, and I hope to read more stories from others doing the same. I hope you will join me.

The revolution is still on. No sleep until victory!

Thursday, May 2, 2019

The Big Book Blowout!

Which is why I take my time going through things

Have you ever gotten so off track that you find it embarrassing? 2018 for me was the year of distractions and as a consequence I didn't do quite enough when it comes to reviewing newer books. I read, but it was mostly older stuff. It is good to keep in contact with the old ways, but newer authors deserve the reading time, too. This is an attempt to make it up here. Today's post is an overlong set of reviews. So if you're looking for a good book to read then you've come to the right place.

Of course many of these works are Pulp Revolution being that I have been in contact with everyone of them before and that I know they are aware of what the movement is. It's also been about three years since the movement got going (as of now, anyway) so we should keep up with how it is progressing.

That said, there isn't really a theme other than I promised these reviews a while back but fell behind in producing them. So here they are! This post is meant to bring me up to date as best as possible and to hopefully spread the word about some good books. So everyone wins. The books I will talk about today are Reptilian Wanderer, A Traitor to Dreams, Going Native & Other Stories, and The Ophian Rising. That is quite the selection.

I've wanted to get these out for a while now so I stored them up in this one mega-post. I hope you are ready for a lot of reading because that is how much I had to do just to make these reviews reality.

*Note: I have met these authors before, and some of them gave me copies of these works to read. As usual it won't have any bearing on my reviews but I figure it is worth mentioning.

Find it Here

The first book to talk about is A Traitor to Dreams by Alexander Hellene, his first published novel. This is an Isekai fantasy story of the old sort. IE it's actually worth your time to read.

Elpida Kallistos is in her late-30s and is unable to establish a lasting relationship. Now, as doubt about the future creeps in on her, she begins to second guess her life choices. Instead of dealing with the problem beating her over the head, she finds herself an out. The Dream Trashcan! A new product for dealing with unwanted issues, it can give the user the sleep they desire and remove unpleasant thoughts. So Elpida uses it to remove her budding desire to build a family. All seems well at first, but did she make a mistake?

This is genre fiction, so yes.

She finds herself trapped in a strange dream world that looks suspiciously like ancient Greece. Crazy monsters from the myths, landmarks, and a strange sky all greet her at once. At the same time she is joined by a winged muscular man with the personality of a boy and wise-cracking bird who are not what they seem at first. Eventually the group is pulled into an adventure of creepy horrors, computerized knights, monsters and beasts, and some existential dread.

And that's just to begin with. There is far more to mention that I won't spoil here. Nonetheless, it is a quest for Elpida to find her way out again. But things will never be the same again.

This book is hard to peg. There are elements of Science Fiction with the creation of a device such as the Dream Trashcan, Elpida's desire also point to a sort of character piece as well. I could also mention the fantastical and horror elements, but I'll leave those surprises for those willing to dive into the book for themselves. Just talking about them is spoiler central. I would classify this story as pure weird fiction, the type that would have been serialized in a modern day edition of Weird Tales, if one existed, and still remembered its roots. The story manages to get stranger and stranger as it goes but it never loses its grounding as an adventure story.

It also manages to be a rare feat in that it stars an at-first unlikable main character who learns and grows as the story goes on into being someone you like hanging around with by the end. In an age where rotten characters are portrayed as ideal this is refreshing. There are other characters both good and bad that fit this mold, but not one of them is actively annoying or grating. In fact, the varied characters are probably the strongest part of the book.

If I had a complaint it is that some scenes stretch on for a good while past when a problem should be solved, though that might be a particularity of mine. Nonetheless, things are still happening which is usually not the case with modern Oldpub books these days. As long as things are happening on the page the author is doing their job.

I highly recommend this book for weird fiction fans and anyone who wants an example of how to modernize the old formula without ruining its mystique. It works great here and I eagerly await what Mr. Hellene has waiting for us next.

Find it Here

More weirdness!

Reptilian Wanderer by Dominika Lein is a novella about a strange spacecraft full of lizard people who appear lost at space without any clear direction and are very far from home. Ray wakes up from slumber with a bit of scrambled brain amnesia and is being trained to rejoin his brothers and re-learn how everything in the ship works. However, something is not quite right and he begins to think and remember things no one else who is reborn does. This slowly ends up building to an ending where everything around them is not what it seems and their quest turns out to be more important than any of them realize.

Along the way is romance, action, and wonder, the three keys to a good old pulp romp. The pulp revolution has attracted many authors with their own distinctive tastes, but so far of the ones I've read they all appear to value those three aspects of fiction above all else. This one is no exception.

For a shorter book Reptilian Wanderer has a slow build, which works to its favor. There's no padding and the suspense delivers its point without being blunted by being excruciatingly stretched like so many similar sff books these days to meet a corporate approved page count. I say "similar" but I only mean in their attempt to world build: most Oldpub books care more about aesthetics or background info that the reader finds trivial or gets in the way of the main plot. They are more impressed with themselves than they are the story. Here the background is very important for the plot but it also enhances the atmosphere as distinctly alien and the characters as both like us humans and different from us. We can understand them as far as we should be able to. You're learning about this spacecraft and its small society at the same time the story relies on it to slowly unfurl what is going on behind the scenes. By the end you will almost feel as if you are a part of the group and hate to see them go.

One of the aspects of the pulp revolution I have enjoyed is the shorter and sharper books that have come out of it to really emphasize how much unnecessary fat modern novels have and how much a good writer can really pack into a work under 300 pages if they really want to. Reptilian Wanderer would not feel out of step coming from C. L. Moore, Jack Vance, or even Roger Zelazny, and reads as the kind of book that would feel impossible coming out even five years ago. In fact, there is no chance a major publisher would touch this, and that's a shame.

Reptilian Wanderer is weird, sharp, distinct, and has a heart to it that I haven't read from an Oldpub book in a long time. You would be remiss skipping this one.

I eagerly await the next piece the author puts out. Surely even better works await than even this.

Find it Here

If you thought we were done with the weird stuff then you thought wrong.

This book is the most recent addition to this list, a short story collection by yet another writer of weird fiction (I think I might have a problem) this time it is Going Native & Other Stories by J. Manfred Weichsel. You might have recalled that I reviewed the title story during a review of a Cirsova issue. To refresh your memory it was an PSA against having casual sex with aliens. Yes, really. The story was utterly bizarre and horrifying but also funny at the same time, which is a hard trick to pull off. So when I was given the chance to read and review this collection of six stories including said weird tale I jumped at it.

After the clever title story is the first contact tale of "The Funniest Story Ever Told" about aliens that land on Earth and have a particularly odd effect on those who glance at their faces. In order to solve this problem and prevent the aliens from leaving Earth behind forever, a weird yet believable idea begins to be formed. This leads to an escalation of events leading up to an ending that does its title justice. Once again this is another humorous story with a great ending that will leave you smiling but also maybe a bit horrified.

Next is "Complicit in Their Bondage" about a soldier lost in the desert after a battle with the Taliban. Soon he is attacked by some monsters and meets a crazy broad with a thick British accent. He gets taken to a place where even stranger creatures are and certain people are held in a zoo. I'm not certain I can explain this one without giving the whole thing away, but it reminds me a bit of a certain horror story I read in a collection I reviewed a little while back. Except this one is less predictable with an ending I didn't see coming a mile away.

"The Garden of Prince Shi-Wiwi" is another curve-ball of a bit of an alien meets oriental yarn about plant monsters grown by the titular character. The story is really about a question of ethics and if they are as universal as we consider them here on Earth. It's a shorter piece but a good pace breaker and keeping with the weird theme. It also has another quite horrifying ending.

After that is "Alter Ego", by far the longest story in the collection and probably my favorite. A mental patient finds himself descending into a deeper sort of madness from the confines of the hospital. The main character goes on a strange journey about identity and what it means to be who you are. Oh, and his doctor is a Satanist in a pact with a demon that has a sexual urge to be with dudes. It brings a whole new meaning to the term "trap" and gives us the definitive answer as to their sexual preferences. This story reminded me of something you would read out of a later day Weird Tales issue considering how bizarre it is and how many turns it takes, although it s a bit more explicit. I was hooked until the end trying to figure out which character was where and doing what. I'm sure the author had fun trying to make as many weird turns as he could, and it pays off.

Finally we end on "We Might Not Have Fire, But We Sure As Hell Have Fury", and what a final story it is! A homeless Vietnam veteran is hired for a special job. At first this story starts out like a Cannon action movie might before it gets bizarre. Then it becomes Isekai, but good Isekai. Explaining where the protagonist ends up would involve quite a bit of spoiling but suffice to say that Burroughs, Kline, and Vance, would be proud. You're going to get your action and you're going to like it. The final speech at the end is a good place to leave the collection off, too.

This collection features six stories, all of which are remarkably strong pieces and very different from each other. The only similarities are that they are all weird tales, proving that genre really is more than aesthetic and has its own voice. If you are in a mood to read new pulp stories with the beating heart of the old tales then this collection is for you.

It doesn't get much weirder than this one.

Find it Here

Or does it?

Finally, here is a book I've been meaning to get to for far too long. This is The Ophian Rising, the final entry in Brian Niemeier's Soul Cycle quartet and since I've reviewed every entry in it so far I wanted to cover the final one. It only stands to reason that I should finish what I started.

I'm at a bit of a loss to explain this book without spoiling the others. It's not so much because it's the last book in a series and that it is unavoidable but because this story could standalone without them. However, I have read the other three so I will keep it brief.

There is a place much like Hell where the dead are trapped in endless torment. However, it is not like the cartoonish fire and brimstone Hell you see in old Bugs Bunny shorts or in equally silly online arguments with atheists but one where the world is much like ours with a fantasy and science fiction bent. "Magic" exists in so much that manipulation of the natural world is possible via different methods and systems that are, mercifully, not explained in detail. More than that death and rebirth is a prison where souls remained trapped in this hell world and demonic beings roam free to rule over and torment the masses. This is where the Soul Cycle series takes place.

Through the events of the last three books it has been learned that this world is not the real Hell and these demons playing gods are power hungry monsters looking to rule over this chaos for their own gain. It is an endless cycle of death and despair. But there is a bit of hope. There is escape from this hell, a crack in the abyss that points to something a fair bit different than the world the main characters know. By the end of the third book the good guys have finally discovered this and decide to share it with those trapped in the endless cycle. That is where we were left off. In this final entry many years have passed but it looks as things haven't changed all that much.

Or have they?

In many ways this book is an epilogue to the first three as the third entry wrapped up a lot of character arcs. This one closes off the final few and adds a couple more to be sure. However, it does confirm a theory I had about the universe since the first book in regards to what this place really is and lets you know why it has been such a struggle to turn the hell around. By the end of the story the pieces come together and it leaves you with the feeling that Good will eventually win over the Evil this place is infected with. It will not be easy, but it will happen. Considering how much carnage and destruction these books have this says a lot that such a positive takeaway can be gathered from only a single plot turn..

And of course, being that this is an action adventure story I am happy to report the author has them both in spades here. Even though we have seen this universe four times now I never get sick of exploding buildings, demonic pits, eerie magic, exotic monsters, and trippy spacecrafts. Every event is punctuated with an action set piece that would leave Chuck Norris giving a solemn nod, and the story moves briskly from intrigue and reveal to yet another escalation in stakes without breaking a sweat. Of all four books this one has the best flow.

One thing the author should be praised with doing is going in the opposite direction of epic fantasy and science fiction writers when it comes to the length. Each book in the Soul Cycle is sharper and quicker than the last with this entry being the shortest and sharpest. Rowling would have learned well from this series.

But the key to the success of this series is the wonder. Niemeier doesn't explain everything. He doesn't tie everything up in a neat bow. The story ends when the threat has been defeated and the main character arc has ended. There are questions that haven't been answered and there are events that still must play out. Not everything is shoveled out, but the story has still ended.

This is a good thing.

This is what brings the Soul Cycle from being just another fantasy series that explains everything for my feeble brain so I can forget all about it five minutes after reading to being an adventure that keeps me thinking about possibilities and events that might play out after the last page has been turned. It sticks because it leaves you with questions about the world you will want to figure out for yourself.

It's a feeling a try to get across in my stories, and Niemeier has done it here and made it look so very easy. As a writer I admire what he has done here, but as a reader I am even more pleased.

This usage of wonder has successfully made the Soul Cycle one of the best series I've read in recent memory. If you haven't jumped in by now then what are you waiting for? Get going! You won't read anything else like it today.

In fact, this wonder is the best part of everything reviewed in this post. None of these stories had to suck the life out of by giving my imagination training wheels like I had a slow brain. No endless back stories to explain why every bad action can be explained away or over-focused explanations on why a spaceship can fly through warp speed or an in-depth explanation on why monsters are what they are and how humans are to blame for everything. These stories gave me a fantastical adventure and let me have my fun and speculations, along the way.

It shouldn't be forgotten how important that is for readers. Art is communication, not preaching.

This is what stories are for. You want to get taken on a journey to a new world where anything is possible and the good wins out in the end. For that I do hope you check out all the above.

And I also hope I won't fall so far behind again.

See you next time for when I hopefully get back on track.