Tuesday, August 31, 2010
Ex Machina is comics, as proven by the first story reprinted here -- from Ex Machina Special #4, I believe -- in which writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Tony Harris pitch their concept for the in-world version of Ex Machina to Mitchell Hundred, ex-superhero, mayor of New York City, and possessor of an alien thingy on his cheek. It exists purely to wink at and nudge the ribs of the fans; it's Vaughan and Harris mugging to the camera and showing how quirky and self-conscious they are about doing a "real-world" SF comics series. And it's yet another weight slowing down the forward momentum of Ex Machina, not that the series has much inertia left after all the dithering about over the past ten or fifteen issues. (Another good test: graphic novels aren't always good, and have their own failure modes, but they don't break down so simply into "this month's pages" the way comics do.)
Ex Machina started out with great promise: it felt more like real science fiction than the usual comics lazy version of the same, and the superheroics were limited, firmly in Hundred's past, and primarily there to allow him to be in place to stop the second 9/11 airplane from hitting the World Trade Center. It was audacious, it was serious, it had a drive and a energy and a point of view. It also focused on practical, day-to-day politics to a degree unprecedented in mainstream comics, though it did have the usual West Wing premise of having the political leader be both unassailably honest and dependably Hollywood-style-liberal.
But in the forty-some issues between then and now, all of that drive and energy have leaked out, as the point of view swung around, under comics' relentless gravity, to yet another pseudo-alternative superhero comic, complete with threatened alien invasions and powered supervillains. Even worse, the SFnal implications -- and even the political ones (supposedly Ex Machina's strengths) -- of those developments have been systematically ignored in favor of the same old hugger-mugger of superhero comics and mediocre thrillers: fight scenes and multiple groups with secret agendas.
From a SFnal point of view, Hundred knows only a very little about the danger he and his world are in, and is in no good position to stop any of it. So the fact that there's only one more storyline worries me; at this point I'm not convinced that Vaughan and Harris can get to any plausible, satisfying ending (other than the entire domination of Earth by whoever-the-hell-they-are) in just six issues. At this point, I'm not going to give up on Ex Machina -- I still remember how good it was in the early days, back in 2004 -- but I'm not as hopeful as I'd like to be.
(I said much the same thing, in different ways, when I saw Vol. 8 as Book-A-Day # 12.)
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Monday, August 30, 2010
Chris Eliopoulos's first strip in a daily strip-comics format was Desperate Times -- about a wanna-be freelance artist named Marty (presumably his viewpoint or self-insert character), his best friend Toad, and -- well, let me just quote the back cover, which helps illuminate my point: "one drunken sloth, a guy living his life in a theme park costume, the sister of one slacker and the wife of his that always has her ventriloquist dummy on her hand". (Desperate Times appears to be either over or on indefinite hold, but Eliopoulos is currently running a daily webcomics strip, Misery Loves Sherman, that shows that he learned a lot from Desperate Times.)
This collection of Desperate Times strips was published in late 2009, but the strips are clearly from some time earlier, and also may have been done over the period of several years. (The book has about sixty pages of comics; the first section is laid out as half-page comics telling a single long story, and the rest are strip comics, with a humorous continuity.) Eliopoulos's drawing is excellent -- there's a clear Bill Watterson influence, especially in the black areas on his figures -- and his dialogue and situations are strong as well. But the strip lurches from one plotline to another with little overall continuity -- Marty gets married, suddenly, between strips, shortcircuiting what could have been a great sequence, and then it takes another couple of pages before Eliopoulos reveals who he's gotten married to -- and the focus wavers from Marty to Toad, with the minor characters dropping in and out in a way that feels random.
Desperate Times is funny, and it's a strip about twentysomething slackers, which is uncommon enough to be notable and exciting. And I suspect that the rough patches would have smoothed out if Eliopoulos had been able to devote more time to the strip, and run it as a real daily (instead of as a backup in the Savage Dragon comic, and then in occasional issues of its own comic book). As it is, it's an interesting piece of work that doesn't quite gel, and seems to have ended prematurely -- but this is still a collection of funny comics about quirky characters, somewhat more adult than anything you'd find in your local newspaper.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
First is A.J. Hartley's Will Power, second in what seems to be a secondary-world fantasy with vaguely Shakespearean overtones (after Act of Will). It also looks to be witty -- not funny, in the way of wacky fantasy full of zany elfs and cheeseball dwarves, quick-talking magic swords and absent-minded wizards with very pointy hats, but smart and quick -- which would be a wonderful thing to find in the dour, serious shelves of fantasy. I haven't read this first one, but this looks like good stuff -- it's edited by Liz Gorinsky, who is both smart and has good taste. Will Power will be published in hardcover by Tor on September 19th.
A Star Shall Fall. It's the third in a series set in 18th century London -- following Midnight Never Come and In Ashes Lie -- focusing on a secret faerie court far below the city. (I'm waiting for the book in which the faerie court isn't secret at all -- they pay their taxes, have a representative on the zoning board, and run vegetable shops or something like that -- their neighbors think they're a little weird and foreign, but never quite agree on what kind of foreign.) This time, they realize that the dragon they bound into a passing "star" -- after he caused the 1666 fire -- is on its way back, since that "star" is a comet newly traced by Edmund Halley. And we all know that dragons are quick to anger in the first place, so one that's just been on an unwanted seventy-five-year tour of the outer solar system is not the kind of guest you want to come back to your city annoyed about his reception last time.
Manga for the Beginner Shoujo (following the original Manga for the Beginner and Manga for the Beginner Chibis). It's heavily illustrated -- as of course it would have to be -- with step-by-step drawings from sketchy lines all the way to finished colors of cute boys, girls in hats, demon boys and girls, lots of hair, giant eyes, and the all-important clothes. If you'd like to learn to draw in this style, you need this book -- and you get get it as soon as Watson-Guptill publishes it on September 21st.
Sunday, August 29, 2010
Weathercraft is the new "Frank" story from Woodring, a wordless excursion into a world where a pig-man is tormented horribly by a smirking crescent-moon-faced figure and the fabric of reality is literally ripped aside to reveal the secrets behind. The only words in Weathercraft are on the outside, with a cast of characters listed on the back of the book (in words that I would call deliberately obfuscatory if I weren't absolutely sure that Woodring is being as clear and precise as he can be) and a FAQ on the back flap -- by the way, all of those words on the outside of Weathercraft are clearly by Woodring himself, and, again, he explains as well as he can.
The joys of Woodring comics are twofold: first of all, there's his supple and detailed art, with its nuance of gesture and expression, which makes even his most twisted and seemingly-hideous characters believable, even lovable, in their own ways. But even more important is the view into Woodring's world, where his unique logic -- that of a realm roughly bounded by nightmare, hallucination, and religious epiphany -- renders indescribable scenes and figures with the clarity and majesty of our own dreams.
I could no more explain what happens in Weathercraft than I could build a hydrogen bomb from scratch -- this book is a window into a Woodring world, which only Woodring can fully explain. But it is mostly about the greedy and unpleasant Manhog and his sufferings at the hands of the god-like figure Whim and/or two witches who are never named. Frank, the usual main character in this milieu, is seen only glancingly; the action swirls around him, but leaves him intact. Not so Manhog, who suffers horribly for his past and future sins (which, Woodring assures us on the flap, have been copious and massive).
There is no one like Jim Woodring, and comics are immeasurably strengthened by the fact that he's chosen this art-form to work in. I can't say that Weathercraft is a particularly strong or weak Woodring work; conventional measurements and judgements simply don't apply here. Weathercraft is a hundred-page dose of pure Woodring -- no more, no less. There is no one like him; there can be no one like him. If you have any feeling in your soul, Weathercraft will confuse and mesmerize you.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Saturday, August 28, 2010
The Norwegian cartoonist who goes by the single name "Jason" is in the last category: his work relies heavily on a repertory cast who recur, looking identical, in work after work. And his stories have a consistent emotional tone -- quiet, wry, detached, chilly but not quite cold. Those stories often revel in genre fiction ideas and tropes -- time machines, zombies, Frankenstein monsters, werewolves, noir -- but turn all of those forms into crafts of essential Jason-ness, with endings that are at best ambiguously negative and characters who stare blank-eyed at each other and whose thoughts stay unknowable and silent.
Low Moon was a collection of Jason strips from last year (2009), collecting the title story (originally published in The New York Times Sunday Magazine's "Funny Pages" section), plus four other short pieces. "Short" is relative, here -- Jason is first published in France, so many of his works are 48-page albums, which already seem short to an American audience. But the five stories here are around 30-50 pages each, as presented here ("Low Moon" is recast as four large panels to each comics page; the "Funny Papers" presentation was denser) -- totaling a little over two hundred pages of comics in all.
As usual with Jason, these stories are blackly funny, with characters whose core motivations are often unknown. It leads off with "Emily Says Hello," in which a woman gives a man successive sexual favors in return for his murdering five other men -- but we don't know who they are, outside of this relationship, or even why she wants those five men dead. (It's not even clear if she is Emily.) Similarly, "Proto Film Noir" combines The Flintstones with The Postman Rings Twice, with a dark Jason spin -- all of the characters are cartoon cavemen, and the woman's oblivious husband is murdered by her new lover every day, only to come back the next morning, completely healthy and ready to garden. "&" tells side-by-side stories of two men who are unlucky in their desires, but those stories have nothing to do with each other -- until, perhaps, just after the last page of the story. The title story, again with Jason's sly humor, recasts High Noon as a chess battle, with the bad "gunslinger" returning from a long stint in jail to challenge the sheriff again.
But the last story in Low Moon is the most powerful, and the one that most demands to be decoded, to be read as a metaphor: "You Are Here" sees a woman abducted, right after a fight with her husband, by an alien, who takes her away to his planet. In their own ways, her husband and son deal with her loss, or make plans to retrieve her. Since this is a Jason story, you can safely assume those plans don't end in the way anyone hoped. "You Are Here" almost begs to be read as the story of any husband and wife, and child -- Jason blackens the dialogue balloons of their argument, so we only know that they are arguing, and not any details. The details don't matter; the only specifics in "You Are Here" are borrowed from pulp fiction, and thus more metaphors than anything else. In the world of "You Are Here," every couple fights and separates, and every child is left to pick up the pieces.
Without any notices of the dates of original creation, it's dangerous to make assumptions about Jason's creative path, but...these seem to be among his most recent works, and see Jason moving away from the half-jokey pulp references of works like The Living and the Dead and I Killed Adolph Hitler to use his genre materials more subtly and deeply. He's been a creator of great stories for many years, but there has always been something glancing and surface-y about his works before. Jason has always been deadpan, but he's showing, some of the time, unexpected depths in that pan.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Friday, August 27, 2010
My answer, as well as those of Heather Massey, John Joseph Adams, the inimitable John C. Wright, and several others, can be found here. A hint to my answer can be found in the title of this very post.
One of the good things about reading SF and F is that it allows the author to create as mundane or as wild a setting for a story to take place in. And with innumerable stories to choose from, the range of settings, and a reader's favorite, is limitless as well. We asked our panel this week to answer this question:Q: What are some of your favorite science fiction and fantasy settings and why?
This time around, I review Graphic Classics: Edgar Allan Poe, a trade paperback full of comics adapting his work, by various hands; and two collections of John Stanley's Melvin Monster comics from the 1960s.
So the iPad is now Porthos, since it's the physically largest of my devices.
My oldest iPod, a 160GB Classic that still can hold my entire music library -- and probably will for another year or three -- is Athos, since it is the oldest, and has the most secrets.
And the middle device, my iPod Touch, must therefore be Aramis.
And, yes, I did rename the internal hard-drive of my desktop D'Artagnan at the same time, just to be consistent.
But now I wonder if I should bring my Windows laptop into the fold as well -- should that be Richelieu? Or maybe Lady de Winter?
The literary world, in particular, has a fatal fondness for metaphors -- for language of interest for its pure language-less, and for texts that encode close relationships to the mundane aspects of life that the literary world usually concentrates on. Science fiction, on the other hand, must always treat metaphors gingerly, like unexploded bombs -- in a work where "her world exploded" can easily mean literally that, a metaphor has to be worth its weight in confusion to pay its way, or be finessed so that the literal meaning can't possibly be taken as true. Literary writers, dazzled by science fiction's ability to make metaphors concrete, and to allow them to hit audiences over the head with ever-larger hammers of obviousness, have often gone much too far down the road of metaphor, thinking that they're writing science fiction when they've just committed literary fiction under an elaborate code.
Charles Yu shows dangerous signs of literary self-absorption from the very beginning in How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe -- there's that terribly self-referential, po-mo title to begin with, and then it turns out that Live Safely is the story of a young man named Charles Yu, about the same age as the author, and his relationship with his parents. As the novel goes on, the reader has the creeping sensation that this universe is not science fictional at all -- that Yu-the-author has utterly misunderstood science fiction, and thinks that calling something a "time machine" is enough to plant his novel in that territory. But what little science there seems to be at the beginning drains away by the end, and the reader comes to doubt that Yu-the-character's activities are anything more than the thinly coded reality of Yu-the-author's real life.
It doesn't help that Live Safely has the thinnest plot of any 233-page book that I've ever seen; Yu-the-author has taken a novelette's worth of activity -- and I'm being very generous there -- and stretched it out to novel length through the literary novelist's version of Volstead Gridban Disease:
And what had we done? We had plugged away, scrap by scrap, paper scrap and metal scrap, we had plied our trade, journeymen, not even a trade, we had our little hobby, and now we were a curiosity. That was it. We have still never gotten anything right. We are dreamers who have stuck around long enough to have one semi-interesting dream. This is not going to work out. I know it on some level. This us us, in relation to the world. If I could draw it, it would look like my father and me very small, world very big, with a barrier between us and the world. We are too slow, too methodical, too square, too plodding. We are naive. This is how it has always gone with us. (p.173)That's a page and a paragraph I chose randomly; open up Live Safely anywhere and you'll find prose like that -- groping blindly, like a nest of worms, around the few thematic elements that Yu-the-author wants to hammer on, and always in those carefully-written sentences that say the same nothing over and over again. The plot that finally emerges is this: Yu-the-character is a "time machine repairman" (though the ending of the book makes this job seem unlikely, if not impossible), who has a paradoxed-out-of-existence dog and the occasional presence of the holographic head of his computer-program supervisor to keep him company in the ten years he's spent in his closet-sized TM-31 Recreational Time Travel Device. He remembers his childhood -- not so much specific events and actions, but how he felt towards his father and mother at particular times. He then returns to his base for maintenance. After briefly visiting his mother, he returns to the time-machine landing field in time to see himself appear, shoots himself (with a gun Yu-the-author clearly thinks is very science fictional), and runs away. Yu-the-character agonizes about the "loop" he's caught in for a while, but goes back to get shot at the required time. Afterward, he finally finds his father, which was the whole point of traveling in a time machine for ten years. The end.
That's it: guy goes back to HQ, shoots himself, runs away briefly, comes back to be shot, and finds his dad. I haven't even left out any minor events; the bulk of Live Safely is endless paragraphs of Yu-the-character obsessing about his relationships with his parents, or talking about "science fiction" and "Mirror Universes" in such metaphor-encrusted literary language that it's impossible to read any of it straight. The reader has to swiftly realize that Yu-the-author is using "time machine" to mean "memory" -- though Yu-the-author makes this far too clear later on -- and translate all of the science fictional jargon into the most mundane, and dull, of human concerns: do my parents love me?
Yu-the-author has done something impressive here: Live Safely is a novel that anyone who identifies as a science fiction reader on any level will find tedious and obvious. Literary writers coming to SF always have to write off the half of the SF readership that prefers the sign to the signifier, but Live Safely torques its few metaphors up to levels that will make even lovers of John Clute begin to roll their eyeballs. Though I may be giving him too much credit; his "time travel" is alternately metaphorical or real, depending on the needs of a particular scene, and Live Safely doesn't entirely make sense either way -- time travel in Live Safely, like light, must be both a wave and a particle at the same time.
I was inclined to have sympathy for Yu-the-character's failed inventor father -- who never gets a first name in Live Safely, but presumably is named whatever Yu-the-author father's name is -- since I'm descended from a famously too-early and not-quite-right inventor myself. (John Fitch, twenty years and the wrong propulsion mechanism ahead of Fulton in the steamboat sweepstakes.) But Yu's father never comes into focus; Yu-the-character is so relentlessly self-absorbed that none of the other characters register at all as a person. Of course, it doesn't help that half of the supporting cast is either non-existent (Ed the dog) or a computer-generated personality (the TM-31's operating system TAMMY, Yu-the-character's boss Phil) -- those are almost literally the only characters in the novel other than Yu and his parents.
Live Safely consists of a long string of pseudo-scientific metaphors, all to the end of saying that it is possible to find your lost father, but you might have to hurt yourself first. It is the literary equivalent of traveling around the world to get to the next block, and simultaneously manages to pretend to be a time travel novel -- a science fictional form essentially about change -- while forming a narrative utterly tied down to stasis, dullness, and the endless present moment. (I'm not convinced that Yu-the-author knows what a time loop is, either, nor that he's constructed one here.) The sentences in this novel are all admirable, and each individual paragraph is pleasant to read. But, in aggregate, their effect is less than impressive.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Every mule, then, is sui generis; it leaves no legacy beyond itself, no radiating gene pool to mark its visit to this world. It is as if each mule knew that it had one shot at being here on earth, and risky behavior, such as jumping out of an airplane at ten thousand feel, would interfere with that."
- Susan Orlean, "Riding High," in the 2/15 & 22/10 New Yorker
Thursday, August 26, 2010
So take that as written: whatever I say here will be, at best, a twisted, half-handed misinterpretation of an excellent first novel, and that this is one of those rare books where the hype is absolutely warranted and correct.
The Imperfectionists is the story of an unnamed newspaper -- it's in English, published from Rome, for people around the world, making it a fictional, poorer sister of the International Herald Tribune -- told in two ways: through eleven chapters, each telling the story of one person connected to this paper; and in a short, italicized recounting of the major events in the paper's history, running in between those longer chapters.
A idea I had years ago -- back when I still thought I might want to write novels one day -- was to tell one story, about short-story length, from one point of view, and then write the story of what happened because of that, from another point of view, and continue on, either getting further and further away from the original moment or circling back to it at the end. (I never decided; pretending to think about writing novels is much more fun than the hard work of actually writing them.) It's not a new idea, and not nearly as clever as I thought at the time, but the impetus to open up a story to multiple points of view is both invigorating and terrifying -- because it can so easily go wrong, and a book would just turn to random events if it does go wrong.
But Rachman does it all right here, moving from an aged (and pretty much put-out-to-pasture) stringer in Paris through the various levels of the Rome home office (obituary writer, editor-in-chief, corrections editor, copy editor, and so on) over to reader, to another would-be stringer, and back in and out of that office. Each story is connected to the ones before it and after it, but not directly -- each one is the story of that person, but these are people who know each other, and work together, so their stories wrap around or push through each other's. Those stories are not entirely happy ones -- this paper has never been terribly healthy, having been started for an ulterior motive and kept going primarily by inertia for fifty years, and so it has attracted a crew of misfits and oddballs, each unfit in some particular way for other things -- but Rachman tempers the losses with possibilities of gains, so The Imperfectionists never feels depressing.
In fact, it's inspiring, even thrilling. We're all Imperfectionists, just as these journalists are -- fighting our own implacable deadlines to do what we can, where we are, with what we have. And so Rachman's characters are triumphant, in the only ways that they can be, even as the shaky edifice of their newspaper starts to sway further and further in the cold wind of modern newspaper economics.  The Imperfectionists is a magnificent first novel -- short enough to read in one long day, or two shorter ones, but full of characters and thoughts that will remain with a reader much longer than that.
 I apologize deeply for that sentence, and that metaphor. I told you I gave up all hope of writing novels, didn't I?
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Wednesday, August 25, 2010
There are very few really successful playwrights in the world -- it's not a lucrative profession -- but this one has done decently for himself, aided by living frugally with "Uncle Ernie" (his landlord, an older man he watches over but isn't related to) and by apparently writing some scripts for film and television. And, although this book is called The Playwright and his job is the core of his presentation here, we don't see him actually at work, either writing or interacting with the people who will turn his words into a play or a movie or a TV show. He's the stereotypical solitary writer, whose professional contact is limited to his agent -- and his interest in her is nearly as much sublimated sexual attraction as anything professional.
But then nearly everything we see in The Playwright's life is sublimated sex -- White never says so, precisely, but one gets the distinct impression that The Playwright is English, and a very traditional type of Englishman -- and The Playwright's central plot is of how he comes to term, finally, in late middle age, with real women in the real world, and finally starts to live himself (still in a quiet, English, way) instead of using what he sees around him as material for his work. (Wright makes that last point rather forcefully, I'm afraid; it's the old "one can either live or write" false dichotomy again.)
So The Playwright looks at women, thinks about women, remembers women -- and, since he's English, also remembers his days as a youth in a all-boys school and the rampant wanking that went on then. As always, artist Eddie Campbell draws great real human bodies -- lumpy and rumpled, never perfect but still enticing and interesting -- for the playwright to obsess about. White's words are much of a muchness -- too much so, part of the time -- but work well alongside Campell's few panels (generally three to a short page, arranged horizontally like a newspaper strip).
The Playwright takes place in ten sections, each separated by some time -- call it a year apiece, making the whole a decade, and it's close enough for our purposes -- and through them we see this man, already adult and successful at the beginning, finally turns from work (which we really don't see, though we're told a lot about his various plays) to life. As the back cover says, it's "a dark comedy about the sex life of a celibate middle-aged man. It's not one of Campbell's greatest works -- not up there with the Alec stories, or the Alan Moore-written From Hell -- but it's a story with deep truth in it, and an excellent example of comics being turned to a story very unlike what most people think of being comics. And that's more than enough.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Tuesday, August 24, 2010
Lil' Hellboy does make an appearance, dragging along with him his freakishly large right hand and his precocious taste for pancakes, as does Prof. Trevor Bruttenholm, the founder and head of the B.P.R.D. But 1947's main plot centers around the bureau's first active-duty team, four variously damaged WWII vets sent to investigate a series of grisly murders of ex-Nazis  across Europe. Bruttenholm -- and his creepy and randomly-appearing Russian counterpart, the ancient child Varvara -- are sure a vampire named Konig is behind the killings, and is seeking revenge for the disruptions done to his holdings during the war.
So the four men are sent to Chateau Lac D'Annecy, on the lake of the same name on the French-Swiss border, where Konig threw a party in 1771 that led to a horrifying opera, among other things. It's not the most obvious opening, but it turns out to be the correct one -- there are vampires, Konig among them, infesting the area.
If you read 1947 -- and I recommend it; it's a fine, creepy supernatural story, as well as one of the better routes into the Hellboy universe -- don't get too attached to those four men; it's a dangerous job they signed up for, and it would be too much to expect for all of them to make it out to the other end of it. But they do a good job along the way, which is all you can ask of mortal men faced with undying murderous monsters.
 Not so much "ex," as "in detention while they wait for their turn in front of the tribunals," actually, since this is 1947.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Monday, August 23, 2010
That's the plot, such as it is, of Lewis Trondheim's Mister O, a 32-page album-sized collection of single-page wordless comics. Mister O is that round figure, and he fails in his attempts to cross the chasm just as routinely -- and as baroquely, and as humorously -- as Wile E. Coyote does in his own pursuits. The fun, as always with a simple premise like that, is in seeing how many changes the creator can ring on his simple materials -- and Trondheim doesn't disappoint, making each page a mini-opera of hope, frustration, and mayhem. Each page has sixty equally-sized panels, making Mister O closer to film than most comics; we're seeing this round guy through exactly the same box over and over and over again, and he keeps trying, and failing, to cross the chasm.
Mister O is cacklingly funny, as the reader alternately sympathizes with Mister O's plight and laughs at his downfall. This is just great comics, of the purest form -- the kind of book that can cross borders, and race around the world, without any need of translation or changes.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
But you don't care about any of that -- you're here because you'd like to know what came in my mail, and you're too shy or polite to do the hard work of staking out my house and steaming open the packages. (By the way, have I thanked you for not doing any of that lately? I do appreciate it.) And, in exchange for your polite forbearance, I do these Monday-morning posts about the previous week's mail. As usual, I haven't read any of these books yet, but I can tell you things about them, based on their flap copy, my years of experience in publishing, and random guesswork.
I mentioned Brandon Sanderson's new doorstop fantasy The Way of Kings, when I saw the bound galleys, but now the finished book has arrived, and it's immense. Over a thousand pages of the beginning of a new epic fantasy series from the guy handpicked by Robert Jordan's widow/editor to finish "The Wheel of Time" series -- all the indications are that, if you like epic fantasy even the tiniest bit, you'll enjoy this book. (Personally, I know both Sanderson's editor and agent as men with excellent taste, and I'd probably say "Yes, I'll definitely read this" if the sheer bulk and heft of it didn't frighten me.) Tor is publishing Way of Kings as a hardcover on August 31st, and Sanderson kicks off a twelve-city tour at midnight of the 30th in Provo, Utah.
Tor shows up again as the publisher of Haunted Legends, a new original anthology of ghost stories and similar legends, edited by Ellen Datlow and Nick Mamatas. It has twenty stories from writers including Caitlin R. Kiernan, Catherynne M. Valente., Jeffrey Ford, Gary A. Braunbeck, Stephen Dedman, Kit Reed, Pat Cadigan, Ramsey Campbell, and Joe R. Lansdale, and it will be in stores on September 14th -- just, the cover letter says, in time for Halloween! (Well, they do want to give you time to read the book before the big day.)
Also from Tor, and also something I've seen once already, is David Wong's humorous horror novel John Dies at the End -- Tor published it in hardcover last year, and their trade paperback hits stores on September 14th.
Larry Niven's new collection, Stars and Gods, is a very miscellaneous affair: it leads off with excerpts from seven recent novels (mostly co-written with others); then has ten stories, plus some introductions, in just over a hundred pages; continues with some short nonfiction, two more co-written novel excerpts, a co-written nonfiction piece, and three collaborative stories; then finishes up with two more stories and a handful of further nonfiction. I have to say that I really don't see the point of including novel excerpts in a collection -- particularly recent novels that are still in print, by a living writer -- and I do have to wonder if there are that many Niven completists to make a book like this worthwhile. If you are such a Niven completist -- or, perhaps, if you haven't read any of his recent novels, and would like tasters of them -- then you'll want to grab Stars and Gods right now -- it was published last week, on August 17th.
Last for this week is the book I'm least qualified to critique: Joe Murray's Creating Animated Cartoons with Character. Murray is an accomplished animator -- creator of Rocco's Modern Life and Camp Lazlo -- as well as the author of several books for children, a former political cartoonist, Emmy Award-winner, and independent filmmaker. I am a guy who writes a blog and can't draw a straight line. But this book looks great -- it has some bits about Murray's life and pre-Rocco work, and some history-of-TV-animation material, but it's mostly focused on what goes into making an animated series for TV today, with an emphasis on practical information. There are storyboards with extensive notes, Q&As with other major creators (Steve Hillenburg, Craig McCracken, etc.), and a step-by-step structure organized around finding a workable idea, pitching it to a network, and moving forward from there. I don't know how many people out there are in a position to make use of all of the advice in this book immediately, but if you want to work in TV animation in any capacity, this book will be wonderful. Watson-Guptill published it as a trade paperback in August, so it should already be available everywhere.
Sunday, August 22, 2010
Simon Rich is not afraid to be funny, and he's not afraid to be short -- two things that greatly endear him (or his writing, I should say -- I've never met the man and don't expect to) to me. Free-Range Chickens is his second collection of humorous pieces -- after Ant Farm -- and it's the size of a modern poetry collection (129 pages), with a similar number of separate bits (54 of them). (By the way, I ran across Ant Farm randomly two years ago and loved it, which is why I was so happy to see Chickens.)
Those bits are smart enough and funny enough and precise enough -- they are, actually, not unlike poetry, in that they get in and out of their situations with the minimum of words to create the maximum effect -- that I can forgive Rich for being ridiculously young; he was born when I was in high school (which I have to insist was not that long ago). Either because of his own youth or because he writes for Mad magazine -- the bits in Chickens were probably published somewhere first, at least some of them, but there's no indication of what or where or when -- a lot of those bits are about kids and childhood, though from a jaundiced perspective. Rich's titles almost give away his jokes a lot of the time -- bits are titled things like "If adults were subjected to the same indignities as children" and "How my mother imagined the police" -- but he does always manage to punch the joke more strongly than the title promises.
So: Free-Range Chickens is a short book of very funny stuff, by a writer I have to call up-and-coming, since it would pain me to call a man fully arrived when it looks like he hasn't started shaving yet. But Simon Rich is very funny, and there are now two books of his stuff to enjoy.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Saturday, August 21, 2010
Only One Wish collects four related stories in what could easily have been an open-ended series; the lack of a "Volume 1" in the title gives me the hint that there aren't any more, but I could easily be mistaken. The setup is that there's an "angel" -- who acts as the horror-host for these very vaguely horrific stories -- who will grant one wish to someone who texts her at her secret cellphone number...which you can find out by climbing the stairs up from the top floor of your school at midnight and reading it in the mirror on the landing. (You also seem to use the secret angel-phone that appears near that top landing, but the narration never mentions whether that's required.)
And the people who do the texting, and wishing, are entirely schoolgirls -- schoolgirls who wish for cute boys, to not be dead (so that they can chase cute boys), to shrink a cute boy so she can keep him like a doll, or to...actually, the fourth story is about another cute boy, but the angel is just the host; she doesn't get involved in the text-messaging, though she does watch the girl and boy text-message each other. All those girls are all young and bubbly and terribly (even stereotypically) feminine, concerned with their phones, with cuteness, with the boys they like and the boys that like them, and (almost as important as boys!) their friends.
The angel declares that these are horror stories, but it's a very, very mild horror -- the horror of losing your best friends in the whole wide world, or of the cute boy rejecting you, rather than, say, the horror of being tortured to death by someone ugly, large, and cackling. (I'm not fond of more traditional horror, though, so I didn't mind the lack.) They're atmospheric, vaguely creepy stories...if you're a Japanese schoolgirl, or the equivalent. Otherwise, they're cute and mild and difficult not to look down on from a great height. But if you ever wanted a lot of pictures of a shojo girl wearing both a sailor suit and a witch hat, you are amazingly in luck!
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Friday, August 20, 2010
The big difference is that Kick-Ass wants to both pander to and insult its readership -- which it declares is made up entirely of people just like its hero -- but Ratman is more traditional, making its hero the usual shonen yearning, incompetent dork but still having affection for him. Ratman also isn't satisfied with "realism" of any kind, so its hero -- Shuto Katsuragi, notably short and still in elementary school, besides being the kind of kid who breaks into long speeches about how awesome some random corporate super-type is -- gains actual superpowers, and a super-sentai-ish suit to go with them.
Shuto wanted to become a superhero in the worst way -- and so, as the old joke goes, that's just how he does become one, falling into the middle of a plot hatched by a secret organization. (The organization is ostensibly evil, as well, since it's against the superheroes, but there are enough clues to the heroes' corruption to leave that as an expected plot point for future volumes. As often happens in a book like this, they force him to sign a contract with them -- and he's too honest to break it.) And, as usual in manga, his superhero life is inextricably tied up with his school life -- his classmates include the tough daughter of the head of the superhero association and the femme fatale who lured Shuto into the Ratman suit.
Ratman has a clean art style and a sense of humor about itself -- the minions of the evil organization (Jackal) are the main comic relief -- which elevates it somewhat from its generic origins. It doesn't aim terribly high, but it has a clear eye for where it is aimed, and hits its target solidly and entirely. It may be a guilty pleasure, but it definitely is a pleasure.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
- John Lanchester, "Party Games," in the 6/7/2010 New Yorker
Thursday, August 19, 2010
In Bender's case, that interesting thing is the growth of adults who build with LEGO bricks -- please, Bender and all of his subjects cry, don't call them "LEGOs," since that's not the correct jargon! -- particularly the communities they form and the neat things they build. Along the way, of course, Bender finds himself becoming an AFOL (Adult Fan of LEGO) himself, but who expected otherwise?
So Bender goes to the gatherings of adult builders -- Brickfest and Brickworld and BrickCon (one begins to see a pattern in these names) -- and visits LEGO world HQ in Billund, Denmark (and, later, the US HQ in Connecticut, conveniently near his childhood home for thematic purposes), and the LEGOLAND theme park in California. Along the way, he meets a lot of men (and only a tiny handful of women) whose hobby is to build models or new creations from little squares of plastic, and quickly wants to become one of them. (Bender also has a subplot -- which I forgive for its lack of subtlety because this is a nonfiction book, and so presumably it's all true -- is that he and his wife Kate have been trying to get pregnant -- to have kids of their own to play with -- with no success so far.)
Lego was published by my employer, so I'd avoid saying negative things about it even if I didn't like it -- but I've enjoyed LEGO myself (mostly with my kids in recent years) for ages, so Bender's explorations into the world of adult builders (and many of their frankly awesome creations, documented in photographs in the book) was a real treat. I don't think a reader has to like LEGO to enjoy the book -- it's another "here's an interesting subculture" book, like Candyfreak, with the additional interest that these guys are hobbyists who make neat things. (And LEGO creations somehow seem less pointless than buildings made out of matchsticks, for example.) It might not turn you into a brickbasher overnight, but The Wife brought home two big LEGO sets (supposedly for Christmas gifts) last night, which she got really cheaply, and I'm beginning to wonder who actually will be the one to put them together....
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Wednesday, August 18, 2010
Book-A-Day 2010 # 196 (8/18) -- Amelia Rules!: The Tweenage Guide to Not Being Unpopular by Jimmy Gownley
Unfortunately, I read this volume immediately after Raina Telgemeier's Smile, another book about a tween girl growing up and learning about life (it was Book-A-Day # 194), and Telgemeier's book laps Gownley's in just about every way possible: writing, drawing, feeling, meaning, truth, art. So, even though this fifth book -- The Tweenage Guide to Not Being Unpopular -- is just as good as the first four, and very entertaining in its afterschool-special-meets-Three-Stooges style, it can't help but come up short when compared with Smile, a book that transforms one young woman's real life into a touching story about growing up, finding yourself, and extreme dentistry.
Gownley's work is broad and bouncy, full of pratfalls and goofiness -- but it's also very wordy, a heavily narrated story with carefully delineated (and pretty obvious) morals. I suspect most actual tweens will endure the wordiness and morals on account of the knockabout humor. This book was the first to be planned and executed as a single story, instead of collected from previous comics issues -- but it still has a chapter-every-twenty-pages-of-so structure, so it's not all that different from the previous books. Amelia Rules! is an utterly age-appropriate, positive series of graphic novels that many tweens will enjoy, and The Tweenage Guide to Not Being Unpopular is another solid entry in that series -- but it doesn't wow the way Telgemeier's book does.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Tuesday, August 17, 2010
So a book by a reporter is always a gamble -- there's no one out there clamoring for it, so it can (and often does) fall flat. Experts have a more complicated problem: they can, if they're successful enough, and write enough, outrun their expertise before they exhaust the goodwill of their audience.
Paco Underhill, for example, founded the retail consulting firm Envirosell, and used his deep knowledge of that world in his first book, the 1999 bestseller Why We Buy. A few years later, he went back to that well -- this time focusing more specifically on a particular shopping environment -- with Call of the Mall. Both of those books immeasurably benefited from Underhill's years of experience, and his very specific examples and knowledge -- and both were phenomenally successful commercially.
But any successful writer gets a contract to write another book, until he hits his own version of the Peter Principle, as witness Underhill's third book, What Women Want. Women has a much vaguer remit than Underhill's first two books -- it's ostensibly about commerce, more or less, but ends up being a terminally unfocused look at women, primarily as consumers of stuff, but also as whatever else came into Underhill's head as he was writing it. (Or, as the afterword makes clear, as several people were mostly writing it for him.)
Women is organized -- as much as it is organized, which isn't very far -- into various spheres of interest to "females" (as Underhill insists on calling them, most of the time), starting with the rooms of the house (bathroom, bedroom, kitchen) and then wandering through other aspects of life semi-randomly. Along the way, the reader gets anecdotes masquerading as evidence and vague platitudes in place of facts -- Underhill, you see, has worked with women all his life, and really likes women, so he can explain what all women everywhere want and do, not just today but in the future. (He's mostly writing about affluent middle-aged women in close-in suburbs of major cities -- those who shop at the kind of stores that can afford to hire Envirosell.)
Any reader will likely agree with some of Underhill's hazy generalizations and disagree with others -- and probably have just as many anecdotes to back up her disagreement as Underhill did to make the assertion in the first place. I hope Underhill hasn't used up his entirely career's worth of experience on his two previous books, but the evidence otherwise is not strong. What Women Want is a breezy, lightweight book, suitable for beach or poolside reading, but not much more than that.
 I may have remarked on this before; if I have, please pretend that this is a new, wonderfully insightful thought, if you don't mind.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Monday, August 16, 2010
Smile is a memoir in comics form, Telgemeier telling the story of her adolescence through her teeth and all of the parts of her life that spun out from them. When she was in sixth grade, she fell while running and knocked out her two front teeth -- the evening of the day her dentist told her she was going to have to wear braces. And so Raina -- not quite a teenager yet, but just beginning to worry about boys and popularity and whether she's acting her age or not -- spends much of the next few years either in the offices of various specialty dentists (endodontists, orthodontists, periodontists) or in pain from scrapings, headgear, and ever-tightening braces.
So, without ever being blunt about it, Smile is the story of young Raina's self-image; these were the years when she did most of her growing up, and those braces and headgear and doctors' appointments are the way she organizes her story of those years. Telgemeier tells that story in a sweetly cartoony style full of wide-open faces with clear, readable expressions; we feel what young Raina does by watching her face as she goes through all of this, and learn to know which friends are true and which aren't by separating the real smiles from the smirks. Telgemeier is equally strong at showing her life through incident and her thoughts at the time, keeping it all direct and specific and not encumbering her story with narration and after-the-fact reactions.
Smile is a fine story about growing up, in the best tradition -- by writing and drawing the story of her teeth and her tween years in early '90s San Francisco, Raina Telgemeier has created a sweet, lovely graphic novel for anyone who ever was in sixth grade -- or, as my son showed, is still looking forward to that time.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
First this week is that exception, Stitches by David Small. It's a memoir in graphic novel form, by a writer/artist best known before this for picture books for young readers. (And, by "best known," I mean that he's a Caldecott Award winner, which is the Oscar-equivalent in that end of publishing.) I reviewed Stitches last year for ComicMix, and liked its power, though I didn't think Small pulled all of his scenes and elements together into a single story. Norton is publishing Stitches -- which itself was a finalist for the National Book Award, a major honor for any book, let alone a graphic novel -- on September 13th.
An Artificial Night is the third book by Seannan McGuire in a contemporary fantasy series about the changeling October Daye -- whom I still think has excellent grounds for a suit for cruelty against whoever named her that -- who, this time out, is investigating the abductions of a series of fae and mortal children. (She thinks someone named Blind Michael is responsible, which may mean something to readers of the previous two books.) Artificial Night is a September mass-market paperback from DAW.
Also from DAW as a September mass market is Violette Malan's The Storm Witch, the fourth of the "Novels of Dhulyn and Parno," which was originally published in hardcover last year. The two series characters are mercenaries in what looks to be the usual medievaloid secondary world -- so this book probably counts as sword & sorcery, and on those grounds I approve of it highly.
Another reprint from DAW in September is Mickey Zucker Reichert's Flight of the Renshai. As I recall, the Renshai books were two trilogies -- from a decade or so ago -- and this book is a recent addition to that generally epic fantasy series.
The latest boom in publishing -- which is quite welcome, since the old conventional wisdom was that Americans wouldn't read a translated book, or one by an author with a "funny" name -- is of Scandinavian novels, led (of course) by the Stieg Larsson trilogy about a girl who did something-or-other. Another piece of that wave is John Ajvide Lindqvist, who is Swedish (like Larsson), and one of whose books was made into the acclaimed film Let The Right One In a couple of years ago. That movie is being remade by Hollywood -- as all successful cultural products must be, to prove that Americans are economically dominant and artistically bankrupt -- under the title Let Me In, so of course Lindqvist's novel is coming out under that title for the US audience. (It has been previously published as Let the Right One In in English translation; the Swedish title seems to directly translate to that -- says the guy who doesn't read Swedish.) What I have in my hands is about the most tasteful movie tie-in edition I've ever seen, with a calmly white cover on a chunky trade paperback. The story of the novel, presumably, is much like the two movies, with a pre-teen boy bullied horribly at school meeting a new friend in the girl who lives next door -- who is not at all what she seems to be. This edition of Let Me In is coming from St. Martin's Press/Thomas Dunne Books on the first of September.
I was briefly confused by the back-cover copy of The Third Bear -- which declares this to be the "much-anticipated first collection of critically-acclaimed author Jeff VanderMeer's surreal and absurdist short fiction" -- until I realized "surreal and absurdist" was meant as a specific descriptor for this volume rather than a general one for VanderMeer's work. (I was sure he'd had other collections before this.) Anyway: it's a new collection of short stories by VanderMeer, whose last novel, Finch, was the book most reviewers of China Mieville's The City & The City last year should have been writing about. (Mieville's book was good, don't get me wrong, but Finch did all of the important things City did twice over, backwards and more elegantly, and was more authentically noir, as well. See my reviews of both for proof, if you trust my judgment.) Third Bear is a trade paperback from Tachyon Publications, already available.
And last for this week is another Tachyon book, The Secret History of Fantasy, edited by the inimitable Peter S. Beagle. It's a new anthology of reprinted stories, primarily from the last generation or so -- there's a T.C. Boyle piece from 1977, and another trio from the '80s, but it's mostly from the last two decades. Beagle has assembled these nineeten stories as part of the ongoing genre/literary argument, as far as I can tell -- this is his argument that fantasy can be as good, as subtle, and as powerful as any other type of story. (And anyone reading this blog probably already agrees with that proposition.) Other authors with work here include folks from our side of the divide -- Jeffrey Ford, Stephen King, Michael Swanwick, Neil Gaiman, Octavia Butler -- and some better known to the literary types -- Yann Martel, Seven Millhauser, Aimee Bender, and our changeling Jonathan Lethem. Nearly four hundred pages of great stories chosen by Peter Beagle -- how can you go wrong?