Saturday, December 20, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #354: The Whispering Skull by Jonathan Stroud

It's not easy work, hunting ghosts. First of all, only some children can even see and hear the ghosts to fight them -- the ability starts to fade out sometime unpredictable in the late teens -- and many ghosts have the power to freeze people in their tracks, the better to scare them to death. Sure, iron and silver and salt and fire work pretty well to contain or dispel a ghost, but only finding and eliminating its source will stop a ghost permanently -- scattering ectoplasm just means the specter will be back the next night.

That's the world Lucy Carlyle lives in, as one of the three agents of Lockwood & Co., the smallest agency in London. She's somewhere in her early teens, in something like the present day, in a world where ghosts unexplainedly began to appear widely in the early 1960s. Children in her world are tougher and more self-sufficient than we're used to -- at least the ones we see -- because they are the only ones who can perform dangerous work on a nightly basis, and so society has changed to let them do that work. With all that iron and silver, and the fortunes made by adults selling them to a frightened world, Lucy's London feels Victorian, full of dark nights and ghost-fighting steel rapiers, iron chains and silver nets.

Lucy has been with Lockwood & Co. for a little over six months as The Whispering Skull begins, and things have settled to the usual work of an agency since the tumult of her first case, The Screaming Staircase. Lockwood's profile in the world has risen with that success, and agency head Anthony Lockwood -- just barely older than Lucy, though with hidden secrets and a family background that gave him a Portland Row townhouse -- is quoted in the papers semi-regularly. But their agency is still an anomaly: not just the smallest agency in London, but the only one actually run by its agents, and not by adults that used to be able to see ghosts. The Fittes agency, in the person of the odious team leader Quill Kipps, is particularly unpleasant, seeming to dog their steps wherever they go.

Kipps's crew and Lockwood's find themselves in competition when a simple job of guarding an excavation at the Kensal Green Cemetery turns complicated: the grave of Edmund Bickerstaff, Victorian occultist and doctor, is an iron box containing a powerful spirit and a unique artifact. That artifact, a mirror in a frame of bones that each holds another ghost, is stolen that night -- and Inspector Barnes of DEPRAC wants it back immediately, especially after both of the thieves turn up dead within a day. Fittes and Lockwood are each independently working on the case, and the losing team will have to take out an advertisement in the local papers to proclaim the superiority of the winners.

That would be enough, but another artifact -- a skull within a jar, which the Lockwood agents keep and which may have spoken to Lucy once -- is stirring, telling her malicious secrets and asking misleading questions. Only one other agent, the legendary Marina Fittes, has ever had verified contact with a Type Three ghost, one that clearly communicates with living humans. So this skull could be a huge coup for Lockwood and Lucy...if they can get anyone else to believe them and if its whisperings don't get all of the killed first.

The dangerous magical mirror is reminiscent of some of the paraphernalia in Stroud's Bartimeus books, though the stakes in the "Lockwood & Co." books remain on a purely personal and professional level. Whispering Skull is a smart, exciting supernatural thriller for young readers (or older ones), even if it doesn't have the scope and depth of the Bartimeus trilogy. And there are hints in this book that the stakes may get larger, and possibly simultaneously more personal, as the series goes on. I look forward to seeing many more adventures of Lucy and her fellow agents.


Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Friday, December 19, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #353: The Harlem Hellfighters by Max Brooks & Caanan White

When you think "African-American military history," you automatically think "guy who writes zombie books," right? It's not just me, is it?

Max Brooks, of World War Z fame, has had a passion project for the past decade or so -- which he details in his Author's Note at the end -- and it had nothing to do with zombies. (Though you could construct a through-line involving horribly mutilated human bodies, if you wanted to.) He's been enthralled with the story of the Harlem Hellfighters -- more officially the 369th Infantry Regiment of the US Army during World War I -- since the age of eleven, and spent years working on versions of a screenplay about their exploits.

Brooks transmuted those screenplays into a graphic novel, The Harlem Hellfighters, which came out earlier this year. Art is by Caanan White, whom Brooks implies he's previously worked with, though I can't figure out on what project.

We could ask all kinds of impertinent questions about this book -- is a white guy from LA the best one to tell this story? is it really in anybody's best interest to glamorize any aspect of the most brutal and dehumanizing war in history? does the black and white presentation really work with this art entirely devoid of tones? -- but The Harlem Hellfighters accomplishes its goals well, becoming an uplifting Hollywood movie on the page and making its 21st century readers feel morally superior and firmly anti-racist. (It's in development now, so it may yet become the movie it wants to be.)

Brooks tells the story as we would expect, throwing in a mixed bag of real historical and invented fictional characters, so he can include real events (Henry Johnson, the very first American to earn the French Croix de Guerre!) and many scenes of contemporary white people being horribly racist as well. The focus is on the fighting, so that group is lining up for induction on page twelve and soon rushed through basic and a queasy sea-journey to get to France, where they can start getting their faces shot off like millions of French, Germans, British, and Russians before them. The bulk of the book, as expected, is set in the trenches, mixing incredible feats of martial valor (forced marches under fire, ambushing Germans to save prisoners) with the usual explanations of the squalor those soldiers had to live in (lice. millions of lice) and an occasional not-quite-as-racist-as-you-d-expect white guy.

World War I had so many horrible things about it -- it only escapes being the premier abattoir of the 20th century because of what happened twenty years later -- that there's something disconcerting about focusing on the young men who desperately wanted to go fight. (Though one soldier here gives the best explanation: where else could he have white guys paying him to kill other white guys?) The Harlem Hellfighters is entirely focused on these young men and their struggle, and has no time for larger political questions, so the war just is.

I suppose it's good that these guys got trained, were able to stand up for themselves, and brought glory to themselves and their unit -- and that some of them even made it back to the US alive in the end -- but I still think if you're looking at The Great War as a place to prove yourself, get medals, and be recognized for martial prowess, you're entirely barking up the wrong tree. So this is a very heartfelt, well-dramatized and -drawn book that teaches entirely the wrong lesson.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Relative Dimensions in Timey-Wimey

So I've been looking at this here poster -- or a more vertical version, actually -- on my train for the last few weeks, and it finally clicked for me.

(It's actually for a limited-run Broadway production featuring a bunch of Aussie stage magicians.)

This looks like some alternate-world Doctor Who reunion special, maybe for the twentieth anniversary. The Seven Illusionists! The punky Seventh Illusionist must team up with all of his prior incarnations to defeat the most diabolical scheme of The Servant yet! Can they save the galaxy -- and their home planet of Roxilangue -- from her sinister alliance with the Giztor?

And once I saw that, I had to share it with the world.

(My headcanon sequence: the guy in white is First, plaid jacket is Second, chain guy is Third -- and probably the fan sweetheart -- nondescript guy on the far right was Fourth, Trent Reznor wannabe on far left was Fifth, and Lounge Singer of Fifteen Worlds was Sixth and just prior to the central, current Illusionist.)

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #352: The Complete Multiple Warheads Vol. 1 by Brandon Graham

This is the only book I've ever gotten from a library that includes a explicit scene in comics form of a man with two functional penises having sex with his girlfriend after she has just smuggled one of those penises (in the usual fundamental bodily location for smuggling similarly-shaped objects) and then sewed it onto his body. It's inventive and sexy and weird and entirely original, like the rest of Multiple Warheads, but it's quite a shift in material from the bulk of the book, and I suspect the library that bought this book still doesn't know about that scene. [1]

That brief hardcore porn aside -- I personally am mostly in favor of porn, though it can be disconcerting to come across it unexpectedly while reading on a train -- most of The Complete Multiple Warheads, Vol. 1: Alphabet to Infinity is content with brief female nudity for its titillation, like most comics marked "mature" these days. And cartoonist Brandon Graham mostly keeps sexiness as a minor element in his mix: he seems to be much more interested in puns and strange concepts, which are vastly more prominent.

Organlegger Sexica -- she traffics in magical organs with particular abilities, like eyes that see the truth and livers that regenerate, and gets them in vague mercantile ways that don't include assassination/dissection -- is living in the living heart of the mostly-ruined Dead City with her boyfriend, mechanic/werewolf [2] Nikoli between her frequent trips out in the wastelands to retrieve organs and smuggle them back into the city. They live in a medium-future Russia -- or Russian-influenced alien world, or something even more exotic with a Russian flair -- a world full of strange creatures, ruins, high technology both biological and wired, and relics of long-dead conflicts, several decades after a major devastating war between aliens and werewolves. The reader can assume that the werewolves were defending humanity, and that they lost -- since aliens, or intelligent not-humans more generally, are ubiquitous in this world, and humans are somewhat rarer -- but Graham never actually says anything like that. But this is a weird world, deeply textured, something like a particularly baroque advanced Gamma World campaign illustrated by Moebius, with lots of background details and in-panel labels of hard-to-read text, which usually turn out to be yet another bad pun.

Graham, as a writer, is not overly concerned with plot: the main story here is that an unexplained explosion destroys Sexica and Nikoli's neighborhood, so they decide to take the long roadtrip vacation to the Forbidden City that they've been planning for a while, in a car that almost becomes a character, but not quite. Their story then turns picaresque, with various minor adventures in the places they drive through or stop in. About halfway through the stories collected here, Graham also starts following one of Sexica's competitors/co-workers, the more violent and direct Blue Nura, as she seeks the body behind (beneath?) a mysterious severed head, and finds a lot of semi-identical men who share that head. Nura's adventures are more action-comics focused, though even they have pages of languid impressions of scenery or interesting personages. Some tertiary characters also recur, and their stories may become more important when and if the series continues. Nura's story, though, so far has essentially nothing to do with Sexica's.

All of this is collected from a one-shot comic from 2007, in black and white, and a four-issue series in color that came out between then and 2013, supplemented with a bunch of pin-ups, illustrations, and shorter stories (including the aforementioned porn). It may be called "Complete," but that's only in the sense of "all the stuff up until now" -- there's no ending to Sexica or Nura's stories here, just the pause at the end of an episode. It's incomplete, but given the way Graham plots, there's no serious expectation of a big ending -- things will likely drift on like this for as long as he can or wants to keep telling these stories.

Graham's art is pretty and eye-catching, particularly once he turns to color -- there does seem to be a strong Moebius influence there. (His aliens are also as inventive as anyone this side of Matt Howarth, though there's no artistic through-line there.) Multiple Warheads, despite the bellicose title, is a comic to experience like a lazy tourist: spend a lot of time looking at the sights and checking out all of the odd inscriptions, making your own pace and not worrying about what else is going on. If you're willing to sink into that kind of story, there's a lot here to see and appreciate.


[1] I'm not sure if I should tell them -- not sure how to tell them, too, since I got this through inter-library loan. But, if you happen to be a librarian, it is one very powerful reason not to buy this book, unless you are in an extremely tolerant community.

[2] Only part werewolf, actually, and entirely because of that second penis that Sexica sewed onto him. Trying to make sense of the ground rules of Graham's world can only lead to splitting headaches.


Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #351: Nijigahara Holograph by Inio Asano

It's no longer shocking to be told that kids can be cruel and violent, six decades after Lord of the Flies. Any purity or innocence we could have reflexively expected in middle-schoolers has been thoroughly disproved, in both fiction and real life. But we can still be amazed to see the details of that casual cruelty, to see how spite and bullying and group violence and random attacks can be so much of the fabric of everyday life.

Inio Asano's Nijigahara Holograph is the story of a cluster of violent events in one school in one small town in Japan -- either absolutely typical or shockingly unique, take your pick. Or maybe it's the story of how those events are the manifestation of something more supernatural and surprising. Asano will show the reader many scenes and many characters, but he won't explain it all in the end.

Most of Nijigahara Holograph takes place "eleven years ago," when most of the characters were in middle school. In the present-day side of the story -- Asano switches between the two timelines without warning or visual representation, rewarding careful readers -- those kids are now twenty or so; young adults with their own budding lives. The two characters we follow the most are boys eleven years ago: Amahiko, who fell from the roof of the school in a suicide attempt and says he has a metal box that can grant one wish; and Kohta, leader of the bullies until one day he goes too far, who seems slow and quiet until his temper is up.

But at the center of the story is Arie, a girl in a coma for most of the story. Her estranged mother was found dead in the Nijigahara drainage tunnel behind the school -- and, before or after or both, Arie would tell all of the other children at school about the monster that lived in that tunnel and would end the world. Because of that, or maybe because she was too pretty and had hair the other girls coveted, Arie was "accidentally" knocked into a well that led to that tunnel.

She's not the only one that falls into that well. Most of the violent acts in Nijigahara Holograph happen more than once, to more than one person: hit by concrete blocks, punched in the face, stabbing, falling out a window. There's a lot of returning and recurrence in Nijigahara Holograph, a lot of characters running in the same circles.

And, between and around them all, there's a cloud of luminous butterflies, unnaturally many and unnaturally active. Or maybe it's just the moonlight shining on the butterflies. Like so many things in Nijigahara Holograph, Asano will not tell you what to believe about them.

Asano's art is precise and detailed, with only the slightest hint of caricature in his faces. And he's very assured here, telling his story in bits and pieces, placing each fragment of this story just so and then moving on to the next, trusting that the reader will understand it all. This is not an easy book, for a number of reasons, but it's a deep and rewarding one, worth reading more than once and remaining in the mind for a long time afterward.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Today's Song

I'm not going to claim this one is my current favorite song, like I usually do -- though I did listen to it three times in a row yesterday, if that counts -- but it's bouncy and catchy and I half-expect it to get so popular that I can't stand to hear it anymore.

(That sounded hipster-y, didn't it? Well, I will admit that I don't understand what the mass audience likes in music in general, and that what they like only rarely matches what I like. But Ingrid Michaelson's first single from this current album got a lot of play -- I heard it quite a bit while my pop-radio-listening wife was driving -- so I think this one has a chance. And it sounds like the kind of thing that other people like too. I dunno. I do like it, and hope that I don't hear it so much that I don't like it as much anymore, which happened with "Born to Run" and a thousand other songs that it seems most guys my age will listen to several times a day until they die.)

Anyway, this is Time Machine by Ingrid Michaelson, another tale of regret and bad love:

Book-A-Day 2014 #350: A Most Imperfect Union by Stavans & Alcaraz

I'm sure I've said this a thousand times before, but it never helps to wish that a creator -- in any medium -- was someone different. It never actually accomplishes anything, and obscures what's good and specific in the actual work at hand.

But, still, I can't read this book without thinking of Larry Gonick, the 800-pound gorilla of history in comics form, and I doubt the creators could create it without him either. A Most Imperfect Union tells the story of the USA in comics from, from the first arrivals of non-locals up to the present day, and that's exactly what Gonick's The Cartoon History of the United States did more than twenty years ago. Of course, there's been more history since then, and no two historians completely agree on everything, so there's plenty of room for a new book.

Most Imperfect is written by Ilan Stavans, a professor at Amherst and author of over twenty other books -- most importantly among them several other graphic novels. So he's no newbie. Joining him here on the pen is Lalo Alcaraz,who writes for TV and cartoons both in a political vein and in the strip La Cucaracha. They're both Mexican-Americans, which influences a lot of their slant in this book: this is emphatically not a book about heroic white guys conquering an entire continent with the force of their whiteness and manliness.

On the other hand, Stavans goes out of his way to not present a single unified viewpoint; he adds in several other characters (a "director" of this story, a blonde woman who is not overly intelligent, a dog) to comment on his points and sometimes argue with him. It's all vaguely from the point of view of the left side of American politics, but only vaguely -- Stavans is not as ideologically defined as even Gonick is, and is most concerned with presenting other sides of the story, especially from groups usually outside the history books.

So your Tea Party uncle will loathe this book if he reads it. Come to think of it, I wouldn't be surprised if Fox has already done a hit piece on it -- two Mexicans; it's perfect for them -- so he may be able to loathe it without reading it, like most things in his life. For the rest of us, it's very wordy for a comic -- much in the Gonick style -- but not so much for a history book, and it's not obviously biased in any particulars. (Everyone's biased, more or less -- the point is to keep it out of the street and not scare the horses.)

Alcaraz contributes a lot of art that looks hasty or sketchy -- until you realize how many famous faces he's drawing into this book, and how you know who all of them are. And then the sketchiness starts to look more purposeful and deliberate.

Imperfect Union is a decent introduction to American history, with a modern social-history slant and a tropism for fairness, inclusion, and progress. It's probably best for teens, maybe in a school setting, but it could also be very eye-opening to folks new to the USA as adults, like Stavans himself, who moved to this country in his mid-twenties.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Monday, December 15, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #349: Overheard in New York by Friedman & Malice

People have been eavesdropping on each other ever since the invention of language, but it took the Internet to make that a business model. Back in early 2005 -- the golden age of blogs, when any crazy idea would attract millions of hits and the Google Ads flowed like wine -- two New Yorkers realized that the people around them were providing free content, and all they had to do was collect and publish it.

Thus was born the Overheard in New York blog, which spawned a mini-empire of similar content collected different places -- beach, office, etc. -- though it all seems to have died back a bit now, with a lot of dead pages on the main site. But New Yorkers keep saying strange things in public, and other New Yorkers write those down and send it to a website, so the cycle goes on.

Fairly early in that cycle, the folks behind the site got a contract to put together a book, because that's what blogs did in those days. And so, only a little more than a year after the site went live, there was Overheard in New York, the book, credited to S. Morgan Friedman and Michael Malice. (Those could be the legal names of two actual people, for all I know -- they are New Yorkers, after all. But I somewhat doubt it.)

The book is divided into three big sections -- stores, streets, and subways -- corresponding to where the conversations were captured. And perhaps it needs saying that all of these words, however racist, sexist, lunatic, deranged, or ill-conceived, were all said in public by actual human beings in the greatest city in the world. (I may perhaps be biased.) The book also features a foreword by Hairspray lyricist Marc Shaiman and an introduction by New York-based crime writer Lawrence Block, for added cultural cachet.

A slightly newer version of the book came out in 2008, but I read the 2006 version. Sure, everything from both editions was originally on the site, and is still on the site, but there's something about having these kind of fleeting moments of lunacy between two covers that's so much more satisfying.

I have a sense writers love this kind of thing the most, since it's a way to capture a lot of real human voices for inspiration. But anyone who appreciates the nuttiness of supposedly normal people can find a lot to enjoy here -- it's not a book to read straight through, but left in the appropriate place in a house, it can provide hours of occasional enjoyment, much like an irregularly updated blog does.

And so I'll leave you with one absolutely randomly-chosen snippet from page 51 of the book:

Old man: You put your hands on me again, I'll cut your fucking throat.
  - Post Office, Bensonhurst

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 12/13

Hey, remember last week, when I said that I had no books to mention? Well, it happened again -- it seems that the rest of publishing is just as sleeping in December as my office has been.

I suppose if this continues for longer, I'll have to reconsider doing these posts every week -- there's no point in posting to say that I have nothing to post. But I can burn that bridge when I come to it.

Next week there will be a post in this timeslot once again -- either an actual list of books received, or more vamping like today. Come back and see which!

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #348: Deep Secret by Diana Wynne Jones

This is definitely not a Chrestomanci book. The secret magical busybodies are called Magids here, their structure is very different, and the novel in which they operate has some just-barely-offstage sex that would never be allowed in young adult books like the Chrestomanci novels.

But the Magids of Deep Secret are all quite British magical types, bravely keeping the many worlds as safe and secure as possible against a variety of dangers, often in over their heads, and otherwise are very much Diana Wynne Jones characters. So if you grew up reading Chrestomanci books -- or any of Jones's novels -- you will find a lot familiar and welcoming in Deep Secret. And if you didn't grow up reading her books -- which is no crime; I didn't, for one -- this book, as her only fantasy novel officially published for adults, is a good place to begin.

Rupert Venables is the Magid at the center of this story: young but confident in his abilities, and the middle of three Magid sons in his family (which is amazingly rare). He's from our Earth, which is one of the worlds on the science side of the infinity symbol of infinite worlds that is the multiverse in this novel. Magids have particular responsibilities, but can live pretty much anywhere they want; Rupert's primary responsibility is the Koryfonic Empire, a dozen worlds that Magids avoid as much as possible.

Deep Secret is the story of two projects that hit Rupert at once. First, his mentor Stan dies -- tidily and at a preordained time, as is usual for Magids -- leaving Rupert with the job of finding his replacement. Luckily, Stan knew the end was coming, and assembled dossiers of the five top candidates for the job. The other job looks trickier: the paranoid and barely competent emperor of the Koryfonic Empire is assassinated very messily, taking out most of his court. One minor wizard, a secondary wife, and a very much in-over-his-head junior officer jumped up to General are the only ones left, and the General is left in charge of the Empire until the heir can be found. Unfortunately, the dead Emperor was really paranoid: it was a capital crime for his hidden heirs to discover their real parentage -- Rupert saw him have one son summarily executed as the novel opens -- and his files about those heirs are both encrypted and coded.

Rupert tries to ignore the Empire as much as he can, since he's sure they're Intended -- by the fuzzily defined Powers above the Magids -- to fall apart in a spectacular way, and he doesn't even want to watch that. But even the hunt for a new Magid to replace Stan runs into difficulty: all of his candidates are avoiding him, and most of them are overseas. So he does a magical working to draw them all to one place where he can meet them all: a hotel in the town of Wantchester, where some sort of literary gathering will be happening.

But that gathering is a science fiction convention, which is more than Rupert expected. And the hotel is on top of a powerful magical node, which someone is trying to tamper with for nefarious purposes. And all of his candidates are spectacularly impossible, especially one young lady who completely infuriates Rupert. And the Empire's collapse is taking place closer to Rupert than he expected, and dragging him in more deeply. And it all seems to be tied into one of the Deep Secrets of the Magids, of which Rupert knows only one small piece.

Deep Secret is not quite a fictionalization of British convention fandom, though I bet a lot of the minor characters are based on people or types well known to those folks. But it is both a deeply entertaining and humanist fantasy novel and a bemused mash note to the oddballs and quirky folks that love SFF books. You don't need to know anything -- about Jones's other books, about fandom, about Magids -- to read it, but if you enjoy fantasy, you'll find a lot to love here.

(And it's finally in paperback in the US, only seventeen years after it was originally published!)

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index