Saturday, July 31, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 178 (7/31) -– Spice & Wolf, Vol. 1 by Hasekura, Koume, & Ayakura

This is definitely getting old. I’m still (as I write this) in a hotel down in Maryland, for a conference, without Internet, elevators, or air conditioning. (It only got up into the low 90s today, which is what counts for good news.) Tomorrow the conference ends, and I think I’ll be driving back home in the evening instead of staying over and leaving in the morning, as originally planned. (Who would willingly stay an extra night in a hotel without air conditioning in DC in the summer?)

So I’m in a particularly foul mood tonight, which may alarm some of you when you recall reviews I’ve written on relatively sunny days. (Kick-Ass, anyone? I may have been slightly cruel there; there’s no reason to believe that Kick-Ass readers can’t be successfully reintegrated into society after an intensive regiment of electroconvulsive therapy.) But the book I read today – during downtime in the booth, which (thankfully) is in a facility that still has working AC – isn’t big or definitive enough to be worth an overwhelming response in either direction.

Spice & Wolf began as a series of light novels – they’re just like regular novels, only with fewer calories words – by Isuna Hasekura, but, in the usual Japanese dominate-all-media fashion of successful properties, quickly spread into other media. What I read is the first in a series of manga volumes, written by series creator Hasekura, with art by Keito Koume from character designs by Jyuu Ayakura. (That last detail makes me suspect that there was an anime of some type in between light novel and manga, but I can’t check that – as I noted above, I have no Internet access as I type this.) Spice & Wolf, at least in this incarnation, is a mercantile fantasy that so far isn’t making much use of its fantasy element, preferring to veer strongly in the direction of mercantilism (to the point of wonkiness, actually).

Kraft Lawrence is an itinerant merchant – the kind beloved in fiction of several genres, seen as the “tramp starship captain” or, as here, a guy with a cart, a horse, and a load of stuff he’ll sell in the next village to buy more stuff, ad infinitum – in a vaguely medieval world, who comes to the small farming town of Pasloe during their harvest festival. Their local harvest god – called a “god” throughout, though her current form is definitely female, as proven by the many pages where Koume draws her nude – is Holo the Wisewolf, and he/she has decided that it’s time to move on – the fields are as fecund as they’ll ever be, and her continued presence won’t add anything. So she – I’ll call Holo “she” from here on, to reduce confusion – hops into Lawrence’s load of grain, leading to the inevitable meet-(nude-and-)cute.

There’s an unspecified (but vaguely Catholic and mildly repressive) “Church” in the background of this unnamed world, which would disapprove of Holo if it knew of her, but Lawrence is enough of a man of the world that finding a naked, wolf-tailed and –eared girl in his wagon at night just leads him to quizzically talk to her until he agrees to let her travel with him back to her ancestral home far to the north. In return, Holo (eventually) declares that she will use her age-old wisdom and feminine wiles – not necessarily in those terms, mind you – to make Lawrence’s deals more profitable to him than they would be out of his own efforts.

And that leads to the pulse-pounding mercantilism of the main plot, as Lawrence is recruited into a scheme – he’s told – to profit from the upcoming secret plan for a nearby nation to increase the weight of silver in their silver coins, as part of a moderately complicated currency arbitrage gambit. Holo has the ability to tell if someone is lying, though – not infallibly, and not to tell what is the truth – and notes that Lawrence’s contact, Zheren, is lying about something.

After several long speeches about various mercantile topics – buying cheap and selling dear, currency exchange rates, the attractiveness of several sorts of cargoes – this volume of Spice & Wolf bounces to an end without finishing up the current plot. But that’s OK; no one expects a manga to finish even its introductory story in only two hundred pages.

Holo is a pleasant example of that manga staple, the spunky girl who Is Vastly More That She Seems, even if Lawrence is little more than a dry stick that gives plausible speeches about economics. It’s pretty pedestrian for a book that comes shrinkwrapped with a “mature readers” label – the latter is purely because Holo prances around naked for several pages at a time in most of the chapters here, though it’s entirely non-sexual nudity – and I suspect that most of the readers who are attracted to shrink-wrapped manga will be disappointed to find Spice & Wolf’s full-page explanation of how to profit from changing weights in silver coinage. To an American eye, this series is an unlikely mix of the generic (spunky goddess-girl, traveling trader hero) and the idiosyncratically unique (currency arbitrage, extended negotiation sequences about the scent of apples), but I bet Japan’s large and diverse ecology of manga has built an entire micro-climate of books much like this. It’s just weird enough to be worth reading, even given the familiar elements, and I have to admit that I wonder if it will turn into a deal-of-the-volume series, with Holo and Lawrence bootstrapping their load of pelts into silver coins, and then into fine timber, or into rice cakes, or foreign jewelry, or something even more unlikely, on their way north to the city that Holo doesn’t know ended several centuries ago. Or maybe something else unexpected will happen in the next volume; I wouldn’t be at all surprised.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

Friday, July 30, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 177 (7/30): Scott Pilgrim’s Finest Hour by Bryan Lee O’Malley

I’m writing this into a Word file, in a half-dark hotel room slowly getting warmer, with no Internet access, intending to copy it into a blog post some time in the near future. You’re reading this – assuming you are at all – close to a week later.

A lightning strike, or downed tree, or something, cut power to this side of the street of National Harbor, Maryland – the mall that walks like a mixed-use development – early this afternoon, and it still hasn’t been fixed seven hours later. Hence the darkness, the warmth, the lack of phone and TV and Internet – there’s a generator somewhere, but it only provides emergency power. If it doesn’t get fixed soon, we’re all in for a hot, sweaty night.

Such are the joys of accounting conferences. [1]

But even when I can’t connect, Book-A-Day rumbles forward – partially because I’m five days ahead to begin with, and partially because the whole point of this stretch of Book-A-Day is to make me write, every single day, about a book I’ve read recently. (I may write well, or badly, say stupid or obvious or profound things; that doesn’t matter as much. I’d prefer to write well and be profound, obviously, but this is an essentially journalistic exercise – to bang out copy again and again, like punching a heavy bag, to build up that muscle and fix the habit.)

This afternoon, when the room was about ten degrees cooler and I could still hear the ducts rattle occasionally, I sat with the sun streaming through the windows and read the sixth and final volume of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s “Scott Pilgrim” saga – the one in which Scott kinda looks like a girl on the cover (despite his Power of Love sword also looking like a portion of his external genitalia) – and it made me laugh and cheer and smirk and smile, several times over. It’s not perfect – in some ways, I’m not sure if it’s as strong and unified as the better earlier books in the series – but it has some great scenes, and more of O’Malley’s patented precise and perfect video-game references, and an ending that doesn’t promise too much for the romance of two twentysomethings but is still hopeful and romantic and transcendent in a way that turns the whole series into one rising arc.

Scott Pilgrim is still young, still brash, and still tends to forget every inconvenient fact or action in his past – but he’s less so as he goes along, his friends are continuing to call him on his flaws, and he’s getting better at the little details of being an adult. (Once again, the most exciting, special thing about the Scott Pilgrim books is the way O’Malley has channeled the standard shonen fighting-and-growing-up plot through 8-bit video games into a caricatured but recognizable story about real young people in real relationships.) Finest Hour starts out a bit slowly, as does Scott himself in most situations – he has to wander around and mope for a while before he can get down to doing what he really needs to do.

O’Malley works a complicated juggling act here – telling a story that seems to be all surfaces and secondhand action, while actually weaving complicated references (both to a shared culture of video games, and backward and foreword in this story) and using the fake-matter-of-fact video-game captions to both move forward the action and ironically comment on it. Most of all, his characters are real twentysomethings – confused, passionate, itching to do something but rarely sure about what. And, of course, there’s a big Kung Fu sword fight for the climax, with characters leveling up and fighting the real-world equivalent of the End Boss: their own doubts, fears, and pasts.

Or, to put it another way: all your base are belong to it.

[1] It’s not that bad; I have music playing – from my iPod through the clock radio – and a bottle of Redbridge – an actually non-sucky beer from the vast satanic mills of Anheuser-Busch – beside me to keep me cool. But it’s more fun to pretend to be tormented.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

Quote of the Week: What Doesn't Kill You?

"What I was learning about fear, on a trial-and-error basis, was that instead of backing away from it, in which case you might back up all the way to the womb (dear God, no!), if you turned and headed right for what most scared you, it would more than likely turn out to be not that big a deal. Or you could get killed. This was not an exact science."
- Jules Feiffer, Backing Into Forward, p. 138

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Incoming Books: 29 July

I'm recovering at home today from a trip to lovely National Harbor earlier in the week -- short reason: that storm on Sunday cut off power to my hotel for most of the trip -- and what's more relaxing than going to a book store? So I found my way to the Montclair Book Center this afternoon and grabbed a few things:

Songs for the Missing, Stewart O'Nan's 2008 novel. His books are emotionally draining, so I'm not working my way through his backlist as quickly as I thought I would, but he's such a damn good writer that I want to give him whatever support I can.

Simon Rich's second collection of short humorous essays, Free-Range Chickens. I read and liked Ant Farm when I found that randomly at the library three years ago, and I've seen some of his work in The New Yorker as well.

I'm with Stupid, a humorous book on the battle of the sexes by Gene Weingarten and Gina Barreca from most of a decade ago -- I know I heard somewhere that this was funny, and I guess now I'll find out for myself.

Elsewhere, U.S.A., a look at the changing face of American family and work life over the last generation, by sociologist Dalton Conley. I guess I was feeling serious when I saw this on the shelf.

Martin Amis's new novel The Pregnant Widow. I guess I am still buying Amis's books in hardcover -- I got into the habit around The Information, and haven't shifted yet -- even though several of them have been serious disappointments. (I still haven't read Yellow Dog, for example, and word is that I haven't missed much.) This one has gotten decent reviews, so I'm cautiously optimistic -- though there's a good chance it will sit next to Yellow Dog, equally unread.

Speed Bump, which seems to be the first collection of the single-panel daily strip by Dave Coverly. (If it makes any sense to say "single-panel" and "strip" in the same phrase.) It's from 2004, so I'm very late in stumbling over it.

Entirely random, I know. Once again, I was mostly looking for Mieville's Kraken and didn't find it.

Book-A-Day 2010 # 176 (7/29) -- 2 Sisters by Matt Kindt

Titles can explain a lot about a work...or they can be misleading. Take, for example, 2 Sisters, which was Matt Kindt's warm-up graphic novel for Super Spy, telling a few entwined stories related to WWII espionage as Super Spy would later tell a tangled, twisted web of stories in the same milieu. (I reviewed Super Spy, a couple of years back, for ComicMix.)

2 Sisters does primarily tell the story of two women, and one of them, Elle, does have a sister, Anna. But the other woman 2 Sisters follows is not her sister -- though there is a resemblance -- but a nameless woman a few hundred years before, who becomes a pirate when the ship she's traveling on is attacked. But, perhaps, in deeper ways, these two women are like sisters -- in the ways that they're both manipulated and used by men, both surviving alone and by their wits in a hostile world, both strong and self-reliant enough to change themselves to survive and make it out to the other end.

Elle comes to London as a young orphan, and gets a job driving an ambulance. She meets a young man, starts to fall for him -- and then sees him killed by a German bomb. Soon afterward, she's recruited as an "operative" for some branch of British Intelligence, to work behind enemy lines, passing messages and performing the occasional murder. Elle joins up, perhaps because she doesn't have much choice, or perhaps to do her bit for the war effort, or perhaps just to do something.

The other woman goes through her own travails -- wordlessly, without explanations or filters -- as most of 2 Sisters is told with only passing dialogue and no narration, letting the events stand for themselves. Kindt's raw, blocky style works well with this kind of stark storytelling, and he uses a lot of pages to tell this particular story -- nearly 350 of them, spanning centuries and continents but always circling around WWII and the life of Elle and her sister.

That lack of explanations leaves the reader a lot of ground to fill in himself, to work out the details and fit together the pieces of the puzzle (as a real spy does, of course) -- and that's deeply appropriate for 2 Sisters. For a book of this physical size and heft, it tells a remarkably quick, tight, personal story, of two different women each going through their own trials to come out the end, not unchanged but still themselves.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 175 (7/28) -- Legion of Super-Heroes Archives, Vol. 11

Back in the '90s, when I was the one buying comics for the SF Book Club, I only very rarely abused my position. (Every reviewer or reprinter knows about those abuses -- there's something you really want personally, so you pretend that you want it professionally, and then it wanders home with you before too long.) In fact, the only thing I can remember blatantly asking for that had no chance of getting into the club -- and I think I made that clear, after the first volume -- were the first ten DC Archives editions reprinting the early years of the Legion of Super-Heroes comic.

I hadn't entirely soured on superheroics then -- and it didn't hurt that the Legion had just come off a great series of runs, from the Paul Levitz/Keith Giffen era in the '80s through the Birnbaums in the early '90s, which I'd read partially at the time and partially in retrospect -- so I would eat up the Archives volumes, which reprinted much sillier templated superheroics from a much simpler era. (I also suspect there's some crossover between Legion fans and readers of big fat fantasy, in a common love for sheer volume of characters, complications, and coincidence.)

In any case: I knew that the Legion stories of the '60s and early '70s were more fun than good, but I was happy enough to read them. Eventually, though, things changed: I wasn't buying comics anymore, and my main contact at DC moved on to other things. DC published two more Archives, and I bought one of them (this one, Vol. 11) but never bothered to get Vol. 12. And as I wandered away from contemporary superheroics -- it didn't help that the Legion was aggressively rebooted and dumbed down several times in this period -- so Vol. 11 slipped lower and lower in the piles of books that I planned to read "someday."

But then Book-A-Day came, and I dug deeper in those stacks -- that's one of the reasons I do this; to make myself read the books that pile up -- and so I finally got to the collected Legion stories from July 1974 to October 1975. They're still silly stories, though, at this point, the Legion was in the middle of a string of stories sexing them up (and making them more popular along the way) with a lot of peekaboo costumes for the female characters and more explicit stories about dating and heartbreak among these teenage crime-fighters.

These are mostly stories written by Cary Bates, with a few seeing Jim Shooter return to the Legion, and they're as overwritten and wordy as the Legion ever was, particularly since many of these issues had two shorter stories, meaning even more plot and dialogue had to be crammed in. On the art side, these are all from a young Mike Grell, who had a pretty strong dynamic post-Neal Adams style at this point (though he got even better later on).

This kind of thing is either a guilty pleasure or pure nostalgia; I didn't read anything like this as a kid, so it was entirely the former for me. Until Levitz turned them into actual human beings, a few years later, Legion stories are interesting in the way DC Silver Age stories are: they're big, and garish, and strange, more like fever dreams than reports of events that could have ever happened to real people.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 174 (7/27) -- Grendel: God and the Devil by Wagner and various artists

More than twenty years ago, when I read God and the Devil as issues 23-33 of the Comico color Grendel run, I thought it was an excellent, gripping, story about a believable, textured future with a lot of exciting "action." This time through, I found it slick but obvious, with a buffoonish Catholic Church both run by a vampire and featuring Elvis as a Saint (either one of which would be enough to swallow), and featuring incredibly overwrought and unnecessary narration.

So either I was an idiot then or now; I'll leave that question open.

This was only the second "big" Grendel series, after the Christine Spar story ("Devil's Legacy") and a bunch of shorter pieces. This time out, writer and Grendel creator Matt Wagner shifted the focus away from the person possessed by Grendel -- Eppy Thatcher, a secretly brilliant assembly-line worker addicted to a very convenient drug and who has equally convenient genius-level tinkering abilities, whose characterization is limited to being a tormented drug addict who repeatedly gloats that God hates him -- to the society around him. Unfortunately, Wagner isn't subtle about any of his background, tossing in vampire popes, torture-happy nuns, smirking corporate government officials, and the maniacally cackling Eppy, who wanders in and out at random to provide Grendelian anarchy as needed. His real hero, Orion Assante, is also pretty blandly comic-booky in this story, out to audit or rein in or topple the power of the Church and otherwise without a lot of personality. (Though he does have an incestuous relationship with his twin sisters to spice him up)

If the original Grendel, Hunter Rose, was something like an attempt to do "evil Batman," the later stretches of the Grendel timeline are like the result of playing an iterative game of "and then what's the worst thing that could happen?" with the world, salted with a slightly more "real-world" version of DC's old Crime Syndicate Earth-3.

The various dystopic elements of this world -- a libertarian-ish independent police force, those corporate governments, the evil Catholic Church, the supposedly ecologically-ravaged planet -- don't come together all that well, with each of them remaining a separate flavor in the Grendel gumbo. But it is a big, complex world, filled with odd things -- Wagner avoided most of the major mistakes of similar SF, though his 26th century is stereotypically obsessed with our own times, as usual.

The art is energetic, moving the story ahead well (even weighed down by all those narration boxes). But the style bounces around, as a "chapter zero" by Tim Sale gives way to a main story told by John K. Snyder III, Jay Geldhof, and Bernie Mireault -- each a distinctive and interesting artist, but quite different from each other -- in some kind of unspecified rotation; each artist seems to be inking himself, but the book doesn't say who did what. (Some sections are clearly Snyder and others are equally obviously Mireault; it's harder for me to say what was Geldhof, unless he's just the remainder.)

The story putters along, as the evil Pope schemes, Eppy-Grendel capers, Orion investigates, and other background stuff does its thing as well, for about three hundred pages. There really isn't an overall structure here; each of the original issues has some events that mostly hold to the Aristotelian unities, but they just stack up next to each other until the last issue sees the giant climactic battle between the forces of vampire-pope, another band of vampires, Orion's conjured-out-of-thin-air army, and Eppy, the least scary and dangerous Grendel. (Sure, he does kill people, but they mostly deserve it, and he mostly goes in for unpleasant pranks, not mass slaughter, like the other big Grendels.)

God and the Devil is a solid late-'80s adventure comic, following in the footsteps of American Flagg! and the earlier Grendel arcs to tell a story that audiences then thought was vastly different from Big Two superheroics -- though, at this distance, it looks like very much the same thing, and very much a precursor to the particular excesses of the early '90s.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

Monday, July 26, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 173 (7/26) -- Moomin, Vol. 4 by Tove Jansson

The artifacts of other people's childhoods can be disconcerting, particularly when they're presented in such a way as to attempt to evoke memories of one's own childhood; it's like biting down on a sandwich and finding only air.

Tove Jansson's "Moomin" stories were the stuff of many childhoods -- particularly those of mid-20th century kids in the UK and Scandinavia -- but they were not universally known, even in the Anglosphere. I'm over forty, and this book is my first direct experience of Jansson's work -- despite the existence of ten novels for children, the strips collected here, and a number of other objects. So my experience of these Moominstories are entirely unaffected by nostalgia, for good or bad -- I'm coming to them as an adult and a blank slate.

But these stories -- originally syndicated in newspaper strip-cartoon form in The London Evening News from 1953 to 1959 -- presumably attracted an adult audience back then, so being an adult shouldn't hurt anyone's appreciation of these stories. And the fact that this is the fourth of four volumes -- which fact is hidden on the outside of the book and only revealed, as if furtively, on the copyright and table of contents pages -- also shouldn't be a major issue, since a newspaper strip has to be based on the assumption that readers will drop in and out, willy-nilly, and that each strip must stand somewhat on its own.

That last assumption turns out not to be true: the Moomin strip was divided into discrete storylines (this volume collects five of them, each around 80 to 100 strips long), but individual strips don't always stand alone. In a reprint volume like this, that's an advantage, avoiding the stutter-step progress of so many strips that attempt to both tell a story that moves forward and bring new readers up to speed every single day, but it may have confused some readers in London back in the mid-50s. (Even if so, who cares about them?)

The main characters of Moomin are iconically standard: the young Moomintroll, driven by whatever fad or fancy takes him at the time; his more-or-less girlfriend, Snorkmaiden, typically "romantic" by the standards of young women of her era; the tinkering and occasionally self-improving Moominpapa; and the mostly colorless Moominmamma. A number of secondary characters parade through as well, who also mostly exhibit one major trait, in the standard way of stories for youngsters. (Think Winnie-the-Pooh, or Wind in the Willows, or what-have-you.)

And Jansson's stories are in that classic stories-for-youngsters mode, too: there's a lesson of some sort buried not too deeply in each of these stories. Luckily, Jansson's morals are rather less dour and Protestant than most of the classic books for children: "The Conscientious Moomins" is about finding the good life by slacking off, and "Moomin and the Golden Tail" has a similar message against fame and fortune -- mostly because it's uncomfortable and short-lived.

I found these Moomintales pleasant in a whimsical, old-fashioned bohemian way without entirely giving in to them -- but, again, I'm coming to them for the first time as a grown man, and a pretty grumpy, hard-hearted one as well. Anyone less curmudgeonly than me will likely find Jansson's work sweetly endearing, and her mid-century illustrator's line smooth and endlessly expressive.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 7/24

I'm in the middle of a string of weeks with very little mail -- possibly due to the usual publishing summer doldrums, possibly because the massed publicists have finally wised up and purged small blogs like mine from their lists -- which is just fine with me, since it means less time sitting in a hot basement, tapping away at this keyboard.

But below are two swell-looking books I did get this week, both from the fine First Second graphic novel imprint of Roaring Brook Press, a for-younger-readers division of the vast Holtzbrinck publishing conglomerate. I haven't yet read either of them -- so what I can tell you before is based mostly on looking at the covers and publicity letters -- but I do expect to read both of them withing the next month.

Brain Camp is the second graphic novel written by the team of Susan Kim (who has also worked as a playwright and scriptwriter for animated TV shows, such as Courage the Cowardly Dog) and Laurence Klavan (Edgar award-winning novelist and also a playwright), after the WWII homefront adventure City of Spies earlier this year. (I reviewed City of Spies here as Book-A-Day #78.) This time, the art is provided by Faith Erin Hicks, whose The War at Ellsmere I read during my Eisner comics-to-brain download weekend last year. Brain Camp is about two teenagers, a boy and a girl, who are separately sent to the strange and mysterious Camp Fielding to jump-start their academic achievement. Of course, Fielding is not what it seems to be at first -- how could it be, in a story like this? -- in a Stepfordian way, if I don't miss my guess. Brain Camp will be published in August, so it's likely already on its way to a store near you.

And then coming a month later, in September, is The Unsinkable Walker Bean, a new graphic novel by Aaron Renier, author of Spiral Bound. It's some kind of adventure story about a boy whose grandfather was cursed by a menacing skull -- I presume the glowing one on the cover, unless this book has two menacing skulls -- and has to set off on the high seas to set everything right. It looks weird and unique and roisterous, with can only be good -- and it has nice quotes from Lane Smith and Jeff Smith on the back cover.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 172 (7/25) -- Tricked by Alex Robinson

Alex Robinson doesn't get the acclaim he rightfully deserves -- he's got three substantial graphic novels behind him (Box Office Poison, this book, and Too Cool To Be Forgotten), all in a modern realistic vein, all strong fictional works, not sublimated or thinly veiled autobiography, all published mostly to the sounds of crickets. (Though Too Cool did win a Harvey award last year.)

Tricked is the middle Robinson book, midway in time and in length between Box Office Poison (serialized in the '90s and collected in 2001 at a whopping 600+ pages) and Too Cool (a slim 150ish pages, published in 2009). It's a substantial work -- about 350 pages -- and wasn't serialized; it's a real book, with a book's structure and solidity. (Robinson's never worked in commercial comics, so he hasn't been infected with the never-let-anything-end syndrome; he knows how to shape stories, and how to end them properly.)

To be glib about it, Tricked is the story of six people -- three good women, and three bad men:
  • Ray, the rich rock star in his early 30s, coasting on his one big hit album from several years back and drifting aimlessly while he waits for inspiration (or his work ethic) to strike again
  • Nick, the whitebread-looking suburban father and husband who works as a forger of sports memorabilia in a stripmall storefront for a possibly-criminally-connected boss, unbeknownst to his wife
  • Phoebe, the teenager from somewhere in rural Texas, running off to the big city to find the father she's never known
  • Steve, the badly socialized and fanatic IT support guy, who has just stopped taking his medication as the book opens, whose obsessions will gradually consume him
  • Caprice, the waitress at the Little Piggy diner, who's just been dumped by her boyfriend
  • and Lily, a young intern at Ray's record company, who he takes an immediate interest in when he sees her -- more so when she won't have sex with him in the limo.
Their stories start out separately -- except for Ray and Lily, of course, since that's the first connection -- and gradually come together, as Phoebe's father turns out to be one of the owners of the Little Piggy, and Steve becomes more obsessed with Ray, and other characters visit Nick's shop. They do all come together in the end, but, for most of the book, there's a Ray-and-Lily story, a Caprice-and-Phoebe combined story, and separate stories about Steve and Nick.

In the usual Robinson style, the stories are heavily narrated by the internal monologue of the characters, and we get to know them all well -- except Nick, who is essentially slippery, and who Robinson only sees from the outside. (In his story, Robinson also focuses entirely on his work at the shop -- the first two pages of his first story show his wife and baby, but they're not even mentioned again until the very end of the book, after all of the stories have collided.) The women have flaws, certainly, but they're all much better than unhinged Steve, lying Nick, or that smooth hedonist Ray. And that dangerous collision of all of the stories that forms the climax of Tricked is caused, one way or another, by the bad behavior of all three.

Tricked is a big book about small things -- trust, truth, understanding, and second chances. Ray's life is larger-than-life, but in a realistic way, and that's the only part of Tricked that isn't simply down-to-earth. It's a more integrated and controlled story than Robinson's first graphic novel, Box Office Poison, and more expansive and encompassing than his third, Too Cool to Be Forgotten. For now, this is his best work -- but a creator who can be this good three times in a row is likely to keep going, and perhaps get even better.

(I've previously reviewed Too Cool to Be Forgotten for ComicMix and Box Office Poison here.)
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Incoming Books: July 23rd & 24th

I hit a bookstore yesterday, and both a library and a comic book store today -- if I buy an e-book tomorrow, I'll have officially run the table this weekend. (But I don't expect that will happen.)

Borders sent me another coupon -- for 40% off this time -- so I wandered over to my local on the way home from work to see if they had a copy of Charles Stross's The Fuller Memorandum on hand -- and they did. It's the third "Laundry" files book -- after the highly excellent The Atrocity Archives and The Jennifer Morgue -- which is my favorite work from one of the very best SF writers working today. So I'll be getting to this one quickly, I hope.

(And I love that cover -- it's so quintessentially Ace, in ways I can't entirely define. The fonts, the placement, the figure -- even with that almost Terry Pratchett-esque spectre of death, that's a deeply Ace-ian cover.)

While I was there, I checked to see if they had the brand-new (released at midnight on Tuesday) Scott Pilgrim's Finest Hour -- the finale to the excellent graphic novel series by Bryan Lee O'Malley -- and was happy to note that Borders is still keeping up with their reputation as the stronger chain for manga/graphic novels. I also expect to be reading this really quickly.

At the comics shop, I got a couple of floppies for the boys and a Previews catalog. (For last month, I think, since the new one will be out any minute now.) It's a small store, mostly for undiscriminating young Big Two fans -- there's a sizable section of toys in the back, which I always think pegs the mental age of the customers of a store very well -- so I didn't see any of the books I was half-hoping to find there (Matt Kindt's Revolver and the new B.P.R.D., Jack of Fables, and Ex Machina collections).

And, as usual, I didn't find the one book I thought of looking for at the library -- China Mieville's Kraken, which I'll get on the reserve list for before long -- but I did run into three other books that I already knew I wanted to read. (And all of them were non-fiction, interestingly enough.)

First was Tom Bissell's Extra Lives, a book about video games that's been getting good review attention. (It's pro-games, which is unusual in book form.)

Then I bumped into Lynn Barber's memoir An Education, basis for the movie of the same name (which I saw a couple of months back). I'd almost bought it once or twice in a bookstore, so it was an easy choice to nab at the library.

And last was the new book by retail guru Paco Underhill, What Women Want. I'd liked his first two books -- Why We Buy and Call of the Mall -- which was enough for me to want to see if he had anything new to say this time out.

So, if you're wondering what I'll be reading for the next two weeks or so, add a few graphic novels (it's probably time for a string of manga, actually) to the above, and that's likely to be it.

Book-A-Day 2010 # 171 (7/24) -- Kick-Ass by Millar and Romita

There's an always-roiling debate among critics -- and the people who read them -- about sensitivity and tact, about how nice reviewers should be and how honest, and about whether one can, or does, or should always come to a book with a positive outlook. I often have sympathy toward the "reviews should be positive" viewpoint, since I've known a lot of writers and generally don't want to deliberately injure people I know.

But, on the other hand, a book is not its author. A book is a standalone artistic work, which (we all hope) will still be available to be appreciated and enjoyed and savored long after the author is dead. So the stakes are actually much higher than any consideration of the author's state of mind, and an artwork can never be flattered or offended or depressed. And it's stupid to think one must wait until an author is dead to say, for example, that Henry James was a horrible writer, able to make social minutiae endlessly dull and never capable of writing a medium-length convoluted sentence when there were three or four more unrelated clauses he could jam in there. The time to take aim at a bad book is when it first enters your sights, and to blast away with all the ammunition that the book's own flaws provide (though never more than that).

So critics do have to grapple with bad books, and face them squarely -- have to be willing to say, right out in public, that something is lousy. And sometimes those critics will deliberately read a work they're pretty sure is horrible, to give it a chance (however slight) and to know what it really is.

For example, right now: Kick-Ass is a piece of shit, a deeply conventional piece of superhero mythologizing in the currently fashionable pseudo-deconstructive mode that masquerades -- as that strain of dull superheroing generally does -- as a fresh and vibrant and transgressive look at the same old bullshit that it has swallowed whole. It's a carefully calibrated kiss-slap in the face of jaded superhero readers, bringing the relationship of the writer and the reader even closer to a true sado-masochistic scene than the big corporate characters have yet allowed, as writer Mark Millar in turn fawns over the puerile power fantasies of his readers and then stomps all over them with his high-heeded vinyl boots -- though, again, since this is a S&M relationship, he never hits to wound, but only to hurt, and only to keep the scene going until the reader slinks out of the dungeon, sated but too woefully un-selfconscious to feel bad about his filthy passion for boys in skintight suits.

Kick-Ass (the poisoned well that watered the recent stunted movie) is neither real -- as Millar and his defenders claim -- nor fantasy, as some detractors have argued. It's a decadent, self-conscious parody of both modes, coming so late in its genre that what should be parody can be played utterly straight and get roaring approval from the jaded herd. It's the story of yet another dope who wants to save the world -- or is it aggrandize himself? or perhaps push his sensation-jaded nerves to feel something new? or is it that Millar wants to feint in all those directions at once and not settle anywhere? -- and does so in a way that only makes sense in the context of a superhero comic book. There's a lot of violence, which is simultaneously too easy (for this dweeb to do, without knowledge or ability or training) and "realistically" bloodily dangerous...except that it's still pulp-novel violence, which either kills outright or is something that can be shaken off for a speedy return to full "fighting trim."

John Romita, Jr. draws it all in a crisp, easily readable mainstream style -- he's done much better work than this (though Millar has not), and will undoubtedly get to illustrate stories that aren't self-servingly wretched in the future once again. But Kick-Ass is the apotheosis of the modern violence- and realism-obsessed superhero comic; if you want to be able to continue reading them without instinctively flinching, I recommend either avoiding Kick-Ass or reading it with only cursory and transitory attention. Luckily, the kind of person who seeks out Kick-Ass for pleasure is incapable of reading any other way.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

Friday, July 23, 2010

Top 45 With a Bullet

I have to admit that I've entirely lost track of the awards and accolades that groups on the web give out to each other...but I don't think the one that I just won is generally considered massively important. (But do I care? I do not, since I'm always happy to accept a sliver of egoboo.)

Awarding the Web -- of whom I have not previously heard -- and OnlinePhDPrograms -- of whom I have heard, if possible, even less, and at whom I cock a skeptical eye -- have teamed up to present the 2010 Top 45 Sci-Fi Book Blogs, and have stuck Antick Musings on the list at #27. (This was apparently voted on, somehow, by someone -- the whole thing is pretty vague, honestly.)


1) I've never been fond of that awkward neologism, "sci-fi."

2) I'm not sure how much respect I should have for this award.

3) I placed solidly in the middle of a large pack.

4) And it's a pretty tightly circumscribed category to begin with.


Quote of the Week: Say on Pay

"The salary of the chief executive of the large corporation is not a market award for achievement. It is frequently in the nature of a warm personal gesture by the individual to himself."
- J.K. Galbraith

Book-A-Day 2010 # 170 (7/23) -- Flight 7 edited by Kazu Kibuishi

The Flight books have always been gorgeous exercises in a bland mass-market strand of story telling -- I got into that issue in greater detail when I reviewed Flight 5 for ComicMix -- and this seventh volume lives both up and down to the series legacy. The Platonic ideal of a Flight contributor is still a storyboard artist at a decent animation studio -- say Blue Sky, for example -- though there are a number of full-time makers of comics and several artists who work by day on video games. That brings with it a tremendous variety and depth of attractive art -- there are no outsiders here, but the gamut ranges from the cartoony black lines of Kean Soo's Jellaby stories and Katie & Steven Shanahan's "Fairy Market" to the confident paintings of Kostas Kiriakakis's "Premium Cargo"and Stuart Livingston's "Overhead" -- but all of that art is uniformly crisp and clear and carefully laid out and entirely nice.

(Reading a volume of Flight almost makes me want to run out and find a Johnny Ryan book, just for a palate cleaner and to prove that comics don't have to be utterly respectable and polished.)

This seventh volume contains nearly three hundred pages of attractive comics, mostly about young people or young-people-stand-ins (like animals), and nearly all of the stories here could find themselves the basis of a major animated movie rated no higher than PG. The Flight creators are all very good at what they do, but three hundred pages of that at a time can be a little much; I always find myself wishing, as I reach the end of an annual Flight book, for something that's not quite so tasteful, or that doesn't feel like it's been carefully formed with a focus group in mind. Still, this is a fine collection, and reading it in smaller doses will completely eliminate the feeling of sameness -- I recommend that for all Flight readers.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

Thursday, July 22, 2010

SF Masterworks Meme

This is another one of those "long list of books" memes, in which we all try to impress each other with how much time we've spent indoors, our noses stuck inside old skiffy novels. (I got it from James Nicoll.) It is, as the name implies, a list of the book in the "SF Masterworks" series from the UK publisher Gollancz.

The standard instructions for memes like this is to bold books one has read, italicize books one owns but hasn't read yet, and strikethrough books one violently disagrees with. I also often add comments, since that's the kind of blogger I am.

The list:
  • I – Dune – Frank Herbert
  • II – The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K. Le Guin
  • III – The Man in the High Castle – Philip K. Dick
  • IV – The Stars My Destination – Alfred Bester
  • V – A Canticle for Leibowitz – Walter M. Miller, Jr.
  • VI – Childhood’s End – Arthur C. Clarke
  • VII – The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress – Robert A. Heinlein
  • VIII – Ringworld – Larry Niven
  • IX – The Forever War – Joe Haldeman
  • X – The Day of the Triffids – John Wyndham

  • 1 – The Forever War – Joe Haldeman -- what, again?
  • 2 – I Am Legend – Richard Matheson
  • 3 – Cities in Flight – James Blish -- I hates it, I does, but I did read it. And it is important.
  • 4 – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – Philip K. Dick
  • 5 – The Stars My Destination – Alfred Bester
  • 6 – Babel-17 – Samuel R. Delany
  • 7 – Lord of Light – Roger Zelazny
  • 8 – The Fifth Head of Cerberus – Gene Wolfe
  • 9 – Gateway – Frederik Pohl
  • 10 – The Rediscovery of Man – Cordwainer Smith -- not in this edition, but in the separate Del Rey paperbacks of the late '70s
  • 11 – Last and First Men – Olaf Stapledon
  • 12 – Earth Abides – George R. Stewart -- though it once featured in a contest here
  • 13 – Martian Time-Slip – Philip K. Dick
  • 14 – The Demolished Man – Alfred Bester
  • 15 – Stand on Zanzibar – John Brunner -- I don't think I finished it, so this may be cheating.
  • 16 – The Dispossessed – Ursula K. Le Guin
  • 17 – The Drowned World – J. G. Ballard
  • 18 – The Sirens of Titan – Kurt Vonnegut
  • 19 – Emphyrio – Jack Vance
  • 20 – A Scanner Darkly – Philip K. Dick
  • 21 – Star Maker – Olaf Stapledon
  • 22 – Behold the Man – Michael Moorcock
  • 23 – The Book of Skulls – Robert Silverberg
  • 24 – The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds – H. G. Wells
  • 25 – Flowers for Algernon – Daniel Keyes
  • 26 – Ubik – Philip K. Dick
  • 27 – Timescape – Gregory Benford
  • 28 – More Than Human – Theodore Sturgeon -- I have serious issues with the "gestalt entity," and it's less than the novella ("Baby Is Three") it grew out of.
  • 29 – Man Plus – Frederik Pohl
  • 30 – A Case of Conscience – James Blish
  • 31 – The Centauri Device – M. John Harrison
  • 32 – Dr. Bloodmoney – Philip K. Dick
  • 33 – Non-Stop – Brian Aldiss
  • 34 – The Fountains of Paradise – Arthur C. Clarke
  • 35 – Pavane – Keith Roberts
  • 36 – Now Wait for Last Year – Philip K. Dick
  • 37 – Nova – Samuel R. Delany
  • 38 – The First Men in the Moon – H. G. Wells
  • 39 – The City and the Stars – Arthur C. Clarke
  • 40 – Blood Music – Greg Bear
  • 41 – Jem – Frederik Pohl
  • 42 – Bring the Jubilee – Ward Moore -- another book I can't stand for suspension-of-disbelief reasons
  • 43 – VALIS – Philip K. Dick
  • 44 – The Lathe of Heaven – Ursula K. Le Guin
  • 45 – The Complete Roderick – John Sladek
  • 46 – Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said – Philip K. Dick
  • 47 – The Invisible Man – H. G. Wells
  • 48 – Grass – Sheri S. Tepper
  • 49 – A Fall of Moondust – Arthur C. Clarke
  • 50 – Eon – Greg Bear
  • 51 – The Shrinking Man – Richard Matheson
  • 52 – The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch – Philip K. Dick
  • 53 – The Dancers at the End of Time – Michael Moorcock
  • 54 – The Space Merchants – Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth
  • 55 – Time Out of Joint – Philip K. Dick
  • 56 – Downward to the Earth – Robert Silverberg
  • 57 – The Simulacra – Philip K. Dick
  • 58 – The Penultimate Truth – Philip K. Dick
  • 59 – Dying Inside – Robert Silverberg
  • 60 – Ringworld – Larry Niven
  • 61 – The Child Garden – Geoff Ryman
  • 62 – Mission of Gravity – Hal Clement
  • 63 – A Maze of Death – Philip K. Dick
  • 64 – Tau Zero – Poul Anderson
  • 65 – Rendezvous with Rama – Arthur C. Clarke
  • 66 – Life During Wartime – Lucius Shepard
  • 67 – Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang – Kate Wilhelm
  • 68 – Roadside Picnic – Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
  • 69 – Dark Benediction – Walter M. Miller, Jr.
  • 70 – Mockingbird – Walter Tevis
  • 71 – Dune – Frank Herbert
  • 72 – The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress – Robert A. Heinlein
  • 73 – The Man in the High Castle – Philip K. Dick
  • 74 – Inverted World – Christopher Priest
  • 75 – Kurt Vonnegut – Cat’s Cradle
  • 76 – H.G. Wells – The Island of Dr. Moreau
  • 77 – Arthur C. Clarke – Childhood’s End
  • 78 – H.G. Wells – The Time Machine
  • 79 – Samuel R. Delany – Dhalgren
  • 80 – Brian Aldiss – Helliconia
  • 81 – H.G. Wells – Food of the Gods
  • 82 – Jack Finney – The Body Snatchers
  • 83 – Joanna Russ – The Female Man
  • 84 – M.J. Engh – Arslan

I note that nearly all of the roman-numeraled titles turned up later in the main sequence, one of them very, very quickly. I'm sure this is a secret coded message from the Illuminati to their sleeper agents, and not more evidence of the weird ebb and flow of publishing.

Book-A-Day 2010 # 169 (7/22) -- Stephen King's The Stand: Soul Survivors by Aguirre-Sacasa and Perkins

Middles can be tricky things -- they have to get from the beginning to the end, making sense all the way, and still preserve enough interest among the audience that know the ending is coming, and mostly just wants to get there. Middles can be even trickier, though, when they come as ostensibly separate objects, with very little explanation of how middle-ish they really are.

Soul Survivors is the collection of one of several miniseries published by Marvel adapting Stephen King's novel The Stand; it was written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and drawn by Mike Perkins. It comes shrinkwrapped, and the only indication that it is a piece of middle -- not an independent side story set in the world of The Stand, or any of the other possibilities -- is the word "continues" in a small paragraph of copy on the bottom of the back cover, down by the price and ISBN barcode and Marvel logo. I believe that Soul Survivors is the third such miniseries, but don't quote me -- that's based on the very last page of this book, which has two bookshots (of the collections Captain Trips and American Nightmare) under a headline reading "The Story Starts Here." There's also no indication how many more series will be required to finish adapting The Stand -- I'd assume a lot; it's a huge book, and this adaptation seems to include every plot point and event -- but the next one will be called Hardcases.

All those things would generally be considered more important to a reader -- and to the successful marketing of a book adapting one of the best-known and -loved books by a hugely bestselling writer -- than the name of Marvel's Senior Vice President for Strategic Development (Ruwan Jayatilleke), but the latter is easily found in Soul Survivors, and the former is entirely missing. One thus begins to understand why Marvel has had relatively little luck getting its products into bookstores; they're still packaging those products for an audience that already knows everything about the things they care about, makes detailed lists of the things they're going to buy, and visits their chosen retailers obsessively. Occasionally, Marvel can reach the larger audience that does not do any of those things, but only by luck.

The story of Soul Survivors, as I said, is entirely middle. A number of people -- the most important of whom were introduced in the earlier books, and just appear here -- continue their journeys through an America depopulated by the government-created (and accidentally released) "Captain Trips" supervirus, after the death of 90% of us. They meet new companions, face some new threats, and converge on the Nebraska home of a centenarian black woman, Mother Abagail. Meanwhile, all of the evil people left over are similarly heading towards Las Vegas, drawn by the "dark man," Randall Flagg. (And, as usual for that period in his career, King's symbolism is nowhere within a country mile of subtle.) It begins in the middle and ends in the middle, focusing almost entirely on the "good" characters as they gather together for their inevitable battle against evil.

There's no reason to read Soul Survivors alone -- either you're a big King (or Stand fan), and want to follow the story in every medium, or you read Captain Trips and have been following along since then. It's middle-ness is so perfect that there's no good opening into it for anyone not already familiar with the story, and so it should be left to them.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 168 (7/21) -- Penny Arcade, Vol. 6 by Holkins & Krahulik

It might not seem that way sometimes, but I do actually try to keep the length of my post titles from getting ever-longer. For example, I could have called today's post Book-A-Day 2010 # 168 (7/21) -- Penny Arcade, Vol. 6: The Halls Below by Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik, but I didn't, thereby saving about thirty characters. So don't say that I never do anything for you folks....

Penny Arcade is critic-proof; it'll stay vastly popular until that moment when it suddenly seems old-fashioned and its host of readers stop taking it seriously. That may happen tomorrow, or not for thirty years, and it entirely depends on Holkins and Krahulik remaining connected to that audience -- thinking like them (only smarter), playing the same games as them (only for longer hours, and caring more), and making the same kind of jokes (only better). Luckily for them, Holkins and Krahulik clearly have an exceptionally strong work ethic when it comes to playing video games and posting JPEGs about them to the Internet. (And a sense of humor about it, since they regularly say that their job is playing video games and posting JPEGs about them to the Internet.)

I've reviewed Penny Arcade books in the past -- the recent Splendid Magic anniversary coffee-table book earlier in this Book-A-Day stretch, and the first collection about two years ago -- so I'll try not to repeat myself.

Halls Below collects all of the strips from 2005 -- I still have no idea why the reprints are so far behind, or even if it's a deliberate strategy or an accident -- with about a paragraph of annotations/comments/thoughts by Holkins, the writer for each strip. Opinions vary widely on the efficacy and usefulness of annotations like that -- I've seen near-knifefights about the worth of author afterwords in SFnal circles, and I expect similar high spirits reign in the even more enthusiastic world of comics -- but I'm firmly on the side of wanting more background detail, so I enjoyed these annotations a lot. (Though they do make this book take much longer to read than it would appear to -- again, this will be a feature, not a bug, to most people.) Also -- and this is no small consideration -- a Penny Arcade strip is usually very tied to the geeky obsessions of the moment, and can be deeply opaque several years later even to people who cared deeply about that issue at the time, so the annotations serve to explain exactly what the joke was supposed to be about.

There's also a concluding section about the world of the horrible fantasy series "Epic Legends of the Hierarchs: The Elmenstor Saga," mostly consisting of excerpts from the extensive wiki about those (utterly nonexistent) books. This shows, once more, the fiendish intelligence by which Holkins and Krahulik harness the restless energy of their fans -- not just to buy their products and increase their traffic, but to actually write content for them. When you get to the point when you can have your fans telling jokes to each other, and paying you for the privilege, you know you've made it.

I hope Del Rey manages to speed up the publication speed of the Penny Arcade collections; it would be great to have the book of 2010's cartoons on sale (for example) sometime in mid-to-late 2011. And, selfishly, wishing for that also means that there would need to be three more new Penny Arcade books in quick succession to catch up, which would be a damn good thing.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Amazon Algebra

Amazon sent out another press release this morning, filled with glowing phrases attributed to Jeff Bezos and a whole slew of numbers carefully chosen so that they don't actually correlate with each other at all. Their clear aim is to show how their sales are growing immensely -- the underlying tone of every single Amazon press release dating back to 1995, though what, precisely, is growing hugely has changed often -- and that they have some big, impressive numbers to throw around.

So I wanted to try to quote some of those Amazon declarations, and put them into equation form, to show what it is we know, and what we don't know.

The full press release is here, for those of you who want to follow along at home.
the growth rate of Kindle device unit sales has tripled since we lowered the price from $259 to $189,"
So the first derivative of K1 (Kindle unit sales), has increased from x to 3x since June 21st. We do not know what K1 was before or afterward, nor what N1 (unit sales of Barnes & Noble's Nook device) is, nor what the similar sales are on any other e-reading device.

One month ago, Apple announced that they had sold 3 million iPads in three months. One may postulate that K1 has not yet reached this milestone -- because, if so, Amazon would mostly likely have said so -- but there is no solid data to support that assumption. (Amazon has sold four different physical Kindle units -- original, second generation, DX, and second-generation DX -- since November 19th of 2007, but total unit sales have never been released.) customers now purchase more Kindle books than hardcover books
K2 (Kindle book units) > B2 (hardcover book units), over an unspecified unit of time.

Note that this implies that K2 is less than B1 (total book units), though that's unproven.
Over the past three months, for every 100 hardcover books has sold, it has sold 143 Kindle books.
K2 = 1.43 B2
Over the past month, for every 100 hardcover books has sold, it has sold 180 Kindle books.
No, wait -- K2 = 1.8 B2.

Amazon is clearly not willing to use a moving average to smooth out bumps in their data, and may well have timed this announcement to take advantage of specific bumps. (One possibility: the book business often slows down in the summer, and so Amazon is cherry-picking data to emphasize a recent peak.)

Also, see below -- the "past three months" may be Mar-May.
The Association of American Publishers' latest data reports that e-book sales grew 163 percent in the month of May and 207 percent year-to-date through May. Kindle book sales in May and year-to-date through May exceeded those growth rates.
The first derivative of K2 (not to be confused with the first derivative of K1, mentioned above) is larger than 163% for the month of May and 207% for Jan-May, compared to the same period the previous year.

It is unclear how, if at all, this statistic correlates with the "last three months" data above.
On July 6, Hachette announced that James Patterson had sold 1.14 million e-books to date. Of those, 867,881 were Kindle books.
Kindle is claiming a 76% market share in James Patterson e-books. (My own doubts about whether that Patterson number represents the true ceiling so far of e-book units by a single author still stand, with no further data on either side of the question.)

Amazon, as usual, is throwing around the largest numbers they can mine from their data, salting those numbers with their standard triumphalism, and declaring their obvious victory -- while, at the same time, not actually revealing the most important numbers. (K1, K2, the actual rate of growth of both of them.)

If you're impressed by that, and would like to join the bandwagon now before it leaves you behind, just click on the below banner and you can buy your very own Kindle -- and have your purchase be part of the next round of Amazon Algebra, sometime later this year:

Book-A-Day 2010 # 167 (7/20) -- Wet Moon, Book 4 by Ross Campbell

I knew Ross Campbell's work from Water Baby -- a book he did for DC's ill-fated Minx imprint a few years back, which I covered at the beginning of a comics round-up post -- but Wet Moon looks to be his central and most popular series, coming regularly from Oni since 2004, with five collections to date.

I've only seen one of those collections so far: this one, #4, with the ominous (and unearned) subtitle "Drowned in Evil," which was published in 2008 and collects issues 17-21 of the comic. This book has no introduction, and the only description on the back cover is a jokey quote from Campbell himself -- "This one's the best volume yet!" There is a page of character headshots with their names and ages...after the end of the story. And there's nothing else to bring a reader into the book -- I can't remember the last time I saw something this reader-hostile. If a new reader does dare to pick this up, though, it's reasonably clear what's going on -- this is yet another story about college students (mostly) that focuses on their interpersonal travails and drama.

Most of the cast -- which circles around roommates Cleo Lovedrop and Mara Zuzanny -- are students at Wet Moon Art College, in the fictional Southern city of the same name. Wet Moon -- at least in these issues -- doesn't venture into or anywhere near the classroom; these issues take place over the two weeks around Halloween, but no one goes to class or mentions school or homework once. Their personal lives are far too complicated for that, I guess; Wet Moon is primarily about their tentative love affairs, and equally tentative forays into work and the rest of life. (For multiple-pierced tough-acting girls, these are a bunch of softies.)

Campbell is good at getting into their heads -- and not just through the expressions in his nearly manga-sized limpid eyes, since we also get diary entries from three of these young women to wallow into their emotional turmoil in more depth. (Campbell is excellent at capturing that aimless, restless yearning of late adolescence -- perhaps too much so for readers whose own adolescence is a distant memory.) Refreshingly, the cast is almost entirely young women, and they come in various body shapes, sizes and races -- though they're all vaguely shabby, dressed in raggedy cut-offs and torn layers of ill-treated shirts.

I bet that there's a small but passionate Wet Moon fandom, made up of women (and some men) whose lives are very much like this, and the men (and some women) who are strongly attracted to that type of young aimlessness. But these issues only hint at a larger plot, and quotidian details can only sustain an ongoing series for so long -- I'd have preferred to see these girls working on something they cared about, whether it be school or their 'zines or some cause; they come across as more distracted and frivolous than Campbell intended. Of course, they're still young -- they have plenty of time to grow out of it!
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: CocoRosie - Lemonade
via FoxyTunes

Monday, July 19, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 166 (7/19) -- The Complete Peanuts, 1973 to 1974 by Charles M. Schulz

A previous volume of The Complete Peanuts -- covering the cartoons from 1969-70, since I'd accidentally gotten out of order -- was Book-A-Day #135, and interested readers can drop back to there for more detailed musings on how Peanuts was changing at this point in its life. (For those with more time to kill, there's also my ComicMx reviews of the 1967-68 collection and the recent biography Schulz and Peanuts. And a review of 1965-66 here. Oh, and 1961-62, from the last run of Book-A-Day. And, also from that Book-A-Day run, a very short squib on 1959-60.)

So I've babbled a lot about Peanuts over the past couple of years, leaving me with less to say this time. These years do see Peanuts in its slow slide from an often-bleak look at the cruelties of childhood and the inevitable failure of life to be what we want it to be into something lighter and less tethered to reality, as Sparky Schulz's Minnesota childhood got further and further in the past and the pleasant fat years of adulthood in Santa Rosa became a greater and greater proportion of his life. But it's still often sad or bittersweet -- these are the years of "poor, sweet baby," of Sally's first conversations with her school building, and of perhaps Charlie Brown's greatest triumph, when he was a respected president of his summer camp after becoming "Mr. Sack."

And Peanuts still ran close to half the time on unrequited love -- Charlie Brown for the red-headed girl, Peppermint Pattie for Charlie, Lucy for Schroeder, Woodstock for his mother, Snoopy for his mother. Where most American gag strips were about the silly things that happen every day, Peanuts was about how to keep on living when you don't get what you want. It was still vital and true at this point, even if more and more of the stories focused on Snoopy quaffing root beers with Bill Mauldin, or writing bad novels, or playing tennis.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: Hallelujah The Hills - Slo-Motion Records Broken At Break-Neck Speeds
via FoxyTunes