Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Different Kinds of Math

I live in a small town, barely over 10,000 people and around 3 square miles. And yet, out of the 566 municipalities in New Jersey, it has a larger population than 60% of its neighbors -- we're #221.

This is so glaringly obviously the major problem with the cost of government in Jersey that everyone tries not to talk about it, to avoid embarrassment.

Because the obvious solution -- move most services to county-level government, since clearly our state is too gigantic and vast to run police, fire, and school organizations directly [1] -- would involve all of us nice suburbanites being plopped into the same system with "those people" in the larger cities.

I'm pretty sure most cost-of-government issues have similar solutions: clear, obvious, and impossible due to the people involved.

[1] Just in case it's unclear to some of my newer readers, I am being so sarcastic with this phrase that I am surprised the entire Internet does not burst into flames.

Proof of Life on Earth by Roz Chast

I have a weakness for collections of single-panel cartoons, especially of The New Yorker school. (I used to have a couple of shelves of them, before the Event last year.) But it's quite true that a random old book of cartoons can sometimes be clearly part of a cultural time and place that is now well past -- I complained about something similar when I read Victoria Geng's New Yorker humor collection Love Trouble Is My Business a few years back; that it was entirely of its very specific, very hermetic time and place and didn't make much sense (or humor) outside of that.

Roz Chast's 1991 cartoon collection, Proof of Life on Earth, isn't quite that removed -- most of the cartoons are about perennial topics, like cross-country knitting, the size of the defense budget, quotations, gardening, wall-to-wall carpet, Brooklyn, fiestaware, and lots and lots of anxieties. (Chast has an impressive collection of anxieties; her most recent book was all about them.) But there are some more dated references, to Martha Stewart, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and other quintessentially '80s stuff, to remind the reader, every so often, this this book of cartoons is twenty years old.

Still, Chast has been remarkably consistent, in her style (loose but careful, like the sketchbook of a forgotten '50s ad woman), in her material (usually domestic, with a deeply weird twist), and in her deadpan tone, which can make the reader wonder, once in a while, if it's all really supposed to be funny. And this book is prime Chast, right in the middle of her long cartooning career -- though Chast is best in repeated small doses; like many cartoonists, her nudges tend to hit in the same place each time, so you don't want to read too many of them at once, or else you'll be bruised.

Math Is Hard!

From an article about noted failed Presidential assassin and Jodie Foster aficionado John Hinckley, Jr.:
Hinckley, who tried to kill President Ronald Reagan in March 1981, is currently allowed to leave St. Elizabeths Hospital for 10 days each month to visit his mother's home in a gated community in Williamsburg, Virginia. St. Elizabeths' proposal calls for that to increase to two visits of 17 days and then to be upped again to six visits of 24 days.
If a hospital in Virginia has found a way to fit 34 days into a single month -- and has plans to increase that to 144 days in the near future -- I would suggest that is a much more newsworthy event than the petty details of Hinckley's incarceration.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 1/28

This week, there's only one book to write about, so I'll get the preliminaries out of the way quickly: this showed up in my mail last week, sent by a wonderful publicist from Tor, in the hopes that I'd publicize it, which I am doing right now. I haven't read it yet -- and I probably won't get to it quickly, if within the life of the universe at all -- but I still want to make sure those of you who might love it know that it's coming.

So, this week's book is Orb Sceptre Throne, the fourth Malazan Empire novel by Ian C. Esslemont. (Esslemont created the world of the Malazan Empire with Steven Erikson, something like twenty years ago now, but Erikson beat Esslemont into print by about a decade -- but they were equal partners to begin with, and have carved out different parts of the timeline to concentrate on for their own works.) It will be published (in the US) in May of this year, simultaneously as hardcover and trade paperback (and in the usual electronic formats, if that needs to be specified). I haven't read Esselmont's Malaz novels -- I'm still three behind on Erikson's gigantic monsters, so I'm trying to pace myself -- but I thought his first few books took place decades earlier than Erickson's stories, with only a few minor characters in common. It's a big, interesting, detailed world, so there's certainly room for more than Erikson's ten doorstop novels in it. This one takes place in -- or at least begins in -- Darujhistan, the city at the center of Erikson's first Malaz novel, GGardens of the Moon, and seems to take place after the end of Erikson's series, since there's a reference to the fragments of Moon's Spawn crashing into the sea. So, if you're wondering what happens after the end of The Crippled God, this may be it.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Bright's Passage by Josh Ritter

Each form of writing requires its own expertise, and some of them are not entirely compatible with each other. Songwriters tell stories, but need to focus on a few details and characters, since they only have a few words to work with. So they're closer to poets -- that old hip English teacher's claim from the '60s -- than to novelists. And, when a songwriter comes to write a novel, you'd expect it to be precisely written, shining an intense spotlight on a few moments, a few people, a few carefully-chosen actions.

Bright's Passage -- the first novel from the excellent singer-songwriter Josh Ritter, of So Runs the World Away fame (most recently) -- follows that expectation very closely: it's a short book, and, though it does range through years of time, it always concentrates on the young man Henry Bright, almost entirely during a few days of his life, during and soon after his service in the US Army during the Great War.

Bright came from a poor rural area of West Virginia, and was raised by his mother on their small family farm after his father died, very early in his life, in a coal mining accident. Their nearest neighbors are the Colonel -- who served in the Spanish-American War -- and his family; the Colonel married Bright's mother's sister, who also died young, after giving the Colonel two sons and a daughter. Those sons -- Corwin and Duncan -- are not right, in ways that the locals never need to specify. Their sister, Rachel, is a beauty jealousy guarded by her widower father, until Bright steals her away as his wife soon after his return from France.

And those are most of the important characters in this story, save one: the angel that Bright met in France, which is now speaking to him through his old horse. The one that tells him that his newborn son is the next King of Heaven. The one that insists that he bury Rachel -- who died giving birth to that unnamed son -- and then burn down their home and leave.

Ritter tells the story of Henry Bright, fleeing that fire that he set with his infant son, his angel-ridden horse, and a surly goat. He tells it mostly in alternating chapters, moving Bright forward ahead of the flames for a few pages before returning to his time in the Army and just after the war to show how he met his angel, how he brought it home with him, and how it urged him to marry Rachel, the destined mother of the replacement of Jesus. (Or Jee-roosh, as he sometimes puts it.) And how that Colonel, with his two dangerous sons, is chasing Bright, intending to steal his son as he claims Bright stole his child, and then shoot Bright with his own mother's gun.

He tells it in precise, short chapters, each one like the verse of a song or a scene in a play: a few actions in one location with a small cast. And then he moves onto the next scene, forward or backward in time, with that same small cast (plus a few new people, both the soldiers that fought in France with Bright and the people he meets while fleeing the fire). It opens up a little, but Bright's Passage is what its title claims for it: the story of one man's journey, through the fire, at the prompting of a voice that he thinks is an angel.

Bright's Passage is a short novel, and has the feeling of an slightly overlong novella rather than a full novel: it doesn't have the complexity of action and character that longer books have, trading that for an intensity of focus and precision. It has only a little of the sly humor and gleeful wordplay of Ritter's best songs, though his interest in human behavior in extremis is very much present. But it's a very worthy novel, and shows flashes of being fun as well as worthy, so I'm sure Ritter will write himself more comfortably into this new medium as he did into his songs. It's no small thing to say that someone's first book is quite good, and that his next will undoubtedly be better.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Skeptic's Guide to the Paranormal by Lynne Kelly

It's a sad thing to be this jaded and cynical. When a useful, cogent, and entirely accessible book like The Skeptic's Guide to the Paranormal arrives on my desk -- which it did some time ago; it's a 2004 book that I picked at work up sometime in the three years or so after publication and finally read over this last year -- my immediate reaction was a bone-deep weariness. [1]

I did eventually make my way through this Skeptic's Guide, which is well-reasoned and always honest -- in fact, author Lynne Kelly (a teacher of math and science and member of Australian Skeptics) is more than fair with extraordinary claims, and at times goes out of her way to point out places where science can't 100% prove that something doesn't exist. I would, personally, be much more dismissive: idiots need to be told firmly that they are being idiots, and will take the slightest scrap of possibility as proof that they're secretly correct. But Kelly is more polite than I am, and clearly has vastly more patience.

This is not a work of original scholarship and investigation; it's a layman's guide to a whole range of extraordinary claims (including UFOs, Bigfeet, lake monsters, mentalism and spiritualism, crop circles, ghosts, astrology, reincarnation, various prophecies including Nostradamus, dowsing, the Bermuda Triangle, and more), which patiently explains why every single one of them is bunk. Anyone mildly familiar with the skeptical literature -- I subscribed to Skeptical Inquirer for a decade or so myself, though that lapsed back in the '90s, and read at least my share of James Randi and Martin Gardner books -- will not be surprised by anything here, but the more gullible or less-informed will find more to confound their magical thinking. In fact, if anything, Kelly is conservative and backwards-looking in her deubunkery: her spiritualism chapters are mostly about the great 19th century frauds, and there's nothing about the most recent bunkum, such as "theraputic touch,"in The Skeptic's Guide.

So this book is useful in two ways: as a reference to point the way to definitive and more comprehensive works in each of its subject areas (Kelly has good references for each chapter) for those more deeply interested in paranormal claims, or as a primer on skeptical thinking for younger or still-influenceable readers. I may try to pass it on to my two sons, in fact, in hopes that some of Kelly's knowledge and common sense rubs off. 

[1] To expand on that: do we really need to keep explaining to the idiots of the world that UFOs are not alien spacecraft, that undiscovered megafauna are vanishingly unlikely, that crop circles are all fakes, and that mentalists are all charlatans? Of course the depressing answer is "Yes;" there's always a new cohort of idiots. Even worse, they probably won't listen anyway.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

In Which I Hurl Invective at a Harmless Quote

The very first sentence of a link forwarded to me from someone who will remain nameless:
Do you have an effective blogging strategy that guides your blogging and keeps it focused on building your personal brand?
Yes, do you? And are you a complete tool?

Look, "personal brand" is bullshit. It doesn't mean anything. I am not a brand, and neither are you. Nike is a brand. You're a person. The more you try to "focus on building your personal brand," the more you act like a complete asshole online.

Don't do it. Don't be that guy.

If you're working on an actual brand, then by all means keep its brand attributes in mind, and make sure that any communications related to the brand are on-target.

But if you're communicating as a human being, then you have a different set of metrics, the same ones you use in any communication with other humans: Am I being honest? Am I being fair? Am I being respectful?

Never confuse the two. And never confuse yourself with a bundle of focus-tested attributes.

(The advice in the linked article gets better from there -- if still in the freeze-dried marketing-speak mode -- but that opening quote is just killer.)


I thought that my second blog -- Editorial Explanations, visit it daily, your home for the best sarcasm and snark about editorial cartoons for nearly a year now -- was about as meta and recursive as one could safely go, since it exists to comment humorously on an art form that comments humorously on the news, which itself is often pretty humorous.

But I've just learned that the quirky tumblr They Might Be Hipsters -- user-generated content in which lyrics by They Might Be Giants are slapped on top of pictures for usually explicable artistic reasons -- itself has spawned a critical tumblr, They Might Not Be Hipsters, which seems to be primarily obsessed with pointing out that random Internet people are not professional designers.

Now that is meta. And pointless, but, then again, this is the Internet, isn't it?

Monday, January 23, 2012

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 1/21

It's Monday once again, as it is every seven days, and so it's time for this weekly post again. In case you haven't seen the disclaimer before: these are things that showed up in my mailbox last week, sent by the nice publicists of the publishing business, and are all brand-new or still-upcoming books. I haven't read any of them yet, but, for the past few years, I haven't let that stop me from describing them in what I hope is a usually positive way to whoever is out there reading this.

I'll start with the book with the best title of the week: Nancy Kress's new short novel After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall, which is being published by Tachyon in trade paperback in April. It's a post-apocalypse story in which aliens arrived in 2014, destroyed the Earth's environment, and killed all but about two dozen humans. That could have been a rounding error, but they were deliberately saved, stuck in an enclosure called the Shell, and allowed to have children -- the main story begins in 2035, when their six gene-damaged teenage children are beginning to operate a time machine to kidnap genetically strong children from just before the attack. I'm usually violently against novels that kill me and my family -- and I do intend to be alive in 2014, thank you very much -- but maybe, just maybe, I'd give Kress the benefit of the doubt.

Also from Tachyon is a new novel from Charles de Lint, Eyes Like Leaves. Unusually for him, it's an epic fantasy set in a world inspired by Celtic and Norse mythologies, centering on the conflict between two gods, the Summerlord and the Icelord. This one's coming as a trade paperback in February.

My first sequel this week is A.M. Dellamonica's Blue Magic, which follows last year's contemporary fantasy Indigo Springs and continues the story of the underground river of pure magic (Vithagua) and the two people who found it: one of whom wants to rule the world, the other to heal it. This one is a trade paperback from Tor in April.

Also from Tor and also a sequel -- but published last week in hardcover -- is the latest Enderverse novel from Orson Scott Card, Shadows in Flight. I believe this is the fifth in the side-series following Bean, who was once Ender's right-hand man boy but is now a fourteen-foot twenty-two-year-old, traveling the stars with his super-genius six-year-old triplets, but I will admit that I'm not a huge reader of this series, to put it mildly.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch's Boneyards is also a sequel: it's the third in the space-archeology series that includes Diving into the Wreck and City of Ruins. This time, series hero Boss is in a new sector of space facing new dangers, and her old friend Squishy (Squishy?) is in danger in the Enterran Empire and in desperate need of being saved. This one is a trade paperback from Pyr, and officially hit stores last week.

And last this time is another third book in a series from Pyr: Mark Hodder's Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon, another adventure of Sir Richard Francis Burton and Algernon Charles Swinburne, secret agents for the British Crown in a steampunky altered 1860s, as they race to find the third of the fabled Eyes of Naga so that Lord Palmerston can manipulate time to avoid a world war. This declares itself to be the finale of the trilogy, so if you've been hoarding The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack and The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man, now is the time to start reading. This one hit stores on January 10th, so many of you might already have it.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Afterthoughts by Lawrence Block

Lawrence Block is one of the great mystery writers of our time; this is indisputable -- and "our time" ranges back to about 1960, when Block started his transition from a teenage hack writer of sex novels (at amazing speed) into a writer with wider interests but a usual home in the field of crime fiction. But he's never written explicitly at book length about his career -- though he's obliquely tackled it from several angles, including his books on writing (starting with Writing the Novel: From Plot to Print) and his memoir of racewalking, Step by Step -- though the introduction to this book reveals that he did write 50,000 words towards a general memoir, A Writer Prepares, in the mid-90s, but crashed immediately afterward and hasn't been able to get back to it.

But Afterthoughts is the next best thing: it collects forty-five short afterwords, written over the last decade or so for reissues, in print or electrons, of Block's older books, under his own name and most of his pseudonyms (Jill Emerson, Sheldon Lord, Andrew Shaw, Paul Kavanagh), all of which talk about the writing of those particular books and, to differing levels, what was going on in Block's life at the time.

It's not a memoir, exactly -- but it's not not a memoir, either, and that deeply Blockian ambivalence to the clean, straight, obvious answer makes this a wonderful book for Block fans. He writes more thoroughly and in detail about both his early writing life -- those sex books, those pseudonymous books, the quickie thrillers -- and his personal life at the time than I've ever seen him do before. He doesn't reveal everything, and he doesn't tell it straight through -- but Afterthoughts does become a memoir-in-parts, the way some novels are built up out of disparate short stories: each bit reveals one facet, and then the next reveals another facet, until, in the end, there's a clear view of Block. It's not the view, though: I won't presume to speak for him, but I've always gotten from his best work a feeling that human behavior and even selfhood are terribly contingent -- any man is who he is at that moment, because of what happened a moment ago and ten years ago, and there are many events and actions that can be described, but not entirely explained.

So Block tells us what he can: what he remembers, what he judges worth telling, what doesn't hurt others (he dances around the edges of this; his love-life apparently had some very tabloid-ish chapters), and what is relevant to the backstory of any particular work of fiction. Block's prose is smooth and lovely as any of his mature work: he's a writer whose work is always deeply enjoyable to read, with pleasing sentences mustered carefully into pointed paragraphs that add up to precise essays -- even as he affects an off-hand, here's-what-I'll-tell-you-next tone. Afterthoughts is a fine mosaic memoir of this writer's career, but it's also of interest to anyone who cares about writers' careers in general, about the workings of publishing in the '60s and '70s, or just the varied ways that good stories can come to be.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Denialism by Michael Specter

These days, I seem to have fallen into attempting to review every single book I read. I don't do an equally good job of them all of course -- I'm sure there are some folks out there grumbling that I usually do an equally bad job, but let's leave that aside -- for all sorts of reasons: pressures of time, my own interests and aptitudes, and plain random chance.

I say this because I suspect that this particular review -- of Michael Specter's book Denialism, a book mostly about how lots of ordinary people misunderstand, distrust, and fear various things in the biological sciences -- is probably going to be one of the stinkers. I read Denialism several months ago, and thought it was decently argued and very close to my own thoughts -- always a strong positive in my book -- but it's slipped from my mind since then, and was more a book of parts than a unified whole, which means serious criticism of it needs to engage with each of the parts strongly and separately, and I simply can't do that at this point.

So, Denialism begins with a journalistic look at Specter's topic: that lots of people are specifically denying tenets of science (as I said, he focuses on the biological, so there's no flat-Eartherism or the  free-energy kooks), mostly for reasons of personal dislike (of the implications of real science, of the market forces, such as giant multinational drug companies, that drive the current breakthroughs, or just for the complicated modern world), and these people are not just wrong, but actively dangerous to society, since they tend to drag debate in useless directions and agitate for government actions that would be detrimental to the health and welfare of millions of people.

And then Specter's first chapter -- all of his chapters, by the way, nearly standalone, and I suspect most of them were originally published as magazine articles -- illustrates a situation where "science" was wrong: the pain medicine Vioxx, which turned out to greatly increase the risk of heart attacks and almost certainly contributed to the deaths of millions. Vioxx was approved by the FDA, and any dangers carefully hidden under the rug by its manufacturer, Merck. But Specter's point is that the dangers of Vioxx were discovered by other scientists and doctors -- not by TV talk-show pontificators or lay "activists" -- that the system worked, even in this extreme case, and even if it worked more slowly than we would want it to. But that slowness feeds the wells of denialism, as people who already distrust science ask what other dangers have been covered up and not yet brought to light.

Specter then runs through a litany of stupid ideas: that vaccines cause autism; that "organic" and "natural" mean almost nothing when it comes to food, and that the drive for them could seriously harm our ability to feed the world; that herbal and vitamin supplements are mostly pointless, usually under-researched, and occasionally harmful; that mapping the human genome was an entirely positive thing (this chapter felt shoehorned in more than the rest, I'll admit); and that biological engineering is not just inevitable, but tremendously exciting and promising. As you might notice, the line of his book is not so much to examine various forms of denialism but to start with positions held by denialists in robust areas of the biological sciences, and then head off into cutting-edge work, sketching out where he expects the denialists will set up their attacks any day now.

There's nothing wrong with that; all of the pieces of Denialism are smart and interesting, and a book called Things Stupid People Opposed or Will Oppose in Biology would certainly not have sold as well. But it's not as unified as you might expect, or hope, and if you were entirely committed to the idea of a single narrative thread explicating the face of modern denialism, you will be disappointed. (Other than a few sideswipes, he doesn't even mention evolution denial -- there are plenty of things that are disputed by the ignorant and confused that he doesn't grapple with.) But, as a big crowd-pleasing book strongly defending real science and reason, Denialism is very welcome.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Bloom County: The Complete Library, Volume One: 1980-1982 by Berkley Breathed

The erstwhile "Berke" Breathed, who at some point in the last two decades learned what a "berk" was in British slang and decided to extend his professional name, presents one of the most interesting and stark success stories in the history of modern American strip comics: he lept to fame with Bloom County, almost from the moment it launched in 1980. [1] And then he ended that strip in mid-1989 (cementing its role as the quintessentially '80s strip, for anyone with an axe to grind about that decade), partly for creative reasons and partly for overwork issues, to work on a spin-off, Outland, that never had the wide appeal or impact of its parent, even as it got more Bloom County-ish as it went along.

Every other major strip cartoonist before Breathed had a different reaction to success, creative unrest, and pressures of work: they all corporatized, bringing on gagmen and inkers and ghost pencilers to one degree or another, from the light end of G.B. Trudeau's Doonesbury (inked by Don Carlton) to the high end of Jim Davis's Paws, Inc. Garfield empire. But Breathed wanted to do it all all himself, and, if he couldn't, he didn't want anyone else to do do anything. So Bloom County remains entirely a product of the '80s and of Breathed's youth: exuberant, frenzied, full of more ideas and gags than it quite knows what to do with.

Last May, I reviewed the second volume of this reprint series -- there are now five matching volumes, collecting the entire run, all handsome hardcover as part of IDW's excellent Library of American Comics -- and nearly all of what I wrote then applies to Volume 1: 1980-1982, and possibly even more so. This book collects the very early days of the strip, as it was still feeling its way and Breathed was deciding what made it different from his college strip Academia Waltz (and how he could, conversely, continue elements of that strip into something carried in millions of newspapers every morning). Even more importantly -- and as Breathed mentions, bluntly, in some of his too-few marginal comments [2] -- he was figuring out what this strip was about: who were the main characters, what was its tone, what were the major themes and ideas, what of all the possible things to write about would this strip focus on.

So this book sees a strip that begins in a boarding-house, without a penguin to be seen -- though there is a talking dog, appearing briefly -- and its central characters are Milo Bloom (with much of the introspection and neuroses that would soon be sloughed off onto Binkley, once he existed), his grandfather the Major, and a succession of other oddballs, as Breathed casts about for the characters and situations he can build his mature strip on. Over the course of the next two years, Binkley appears and quickly solidifies, as does his father, and then Opus the penguin -- and, along the way so do Bobbi Harlow, Cutter John, Senator Bedfellow, the Meadow animals, and Steve Dallas, each one slotting into a need as Breathed realized they existed. At the same time, Milo is seen less and less at the boarding house (which quietly disappears, or is left unmentioned), and the Major drops into a rare supporting role and Milo shifts from an innocent to a rabble-rouser, relinquishing the center of the strip to Binkley and Opus and their shared neuroses.

I read the first two Bloom County volumes in reverse order by accident, but it's not a bad strategy: knowing where Bloom County would eventually end up makes the early days that much more interesting. And even the quickly discarded ideas and storytelling cul-de-sacs in this volume point the way clearly towards the strip Breathed was building, and that came together by the end of this book, in the fall of 1982. Bloom County is one of the great American comic strips, and its compact size -- one creator, one decade, five volumes -- makes is that much easier to comprehend and encompass.

[1] It felt that way from the outside, at least; from his comments in this book, I'm sure Breathed didn't feel like an immediate success. Does anyone?

[2] Bloom County is intensely entertaining on its own, but it's fun in such a deeply angled, oddball way that the reader -- especially three decades later -- can't help but wonder how Breathed ended up with that very peculiar, and gleefully anarchic, angle of attack of the issues of the day. If there's one thing these books could use more of, it's Breathed's voice and thoughts about how it came about, what worked well (and what didn't), and why he did it the way he did. The strictly factual notes are just fine, and sometimes deeply necessary, but Breathed's insights and thoughts are vastly better.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

This Blog Will Continue to Operate for the Duration of the Crisis

Oh, sure, SOPA and PIPA are horrible bills, full of stupid provisions, and you can read the details of that many places on the Internet.

But I've never been fond of the "I'm taking my ball and bat and going home" kind of snit -- and, possibly more importantly, I don't know how to take my blogs briefly down and put them back up, and I assume that, if I tried to do that, I'd probably delete them entirely.

So: bad law. Semi-yay to all of the people sitting out tomorrow, though the type of protest annoys me.  And no Congressfolks read this blog anyway, so my not participating means precisely nil. If you do, though -- get rid of that stupid, stupid bill before you embarrass yourself further.

(I have one post queued up for tomorrow, which is about all that's going on lately anyway.)

Connie Willis is SFWA's 2011 Grand Master

Taking advantage of the slow three-day weekend to sneak out the news, SFWA announced yesterday that Connie Willis would be renamed Damon Knight at a ceremony to be held in May, and honored her grandness and masterliness.

Wait, let me read that again....

I still don't know why SFWA put out the news on a national holiday -- and I abhor the modern tendency to name every last damn thing after a famous dead person or big-money corporation -- but I'm very happy to see that this year's Grand Master Award (oh, OK, Damon Knight Grand Master Award) goes to the perky and perspicacious Connie Willis.

I have a feeling some readers may believe I'm against Willis, since I was not notably fond of her most recent novel (the overstretched, and gravely mishandled, two-decker Blackout/All Clear), but I've been reading her books -- and enjoying greatly pretty much all of the other ones, some of which are as good as anything in the SF field -- for twenty-plus years now. Doomsday Book is excellent, To Say Nothing of the Dog is one of the sunniest and funniest books in the English language, and even Passage, as frustrating and tragically madcap as it is, has an ominous, hard-to-define power. And her short fiction, at its peak, is even better than that -- "All My Darling Daughters" and "In the Late Cretaceous" on the serious side, the incomparably nutty "The Soul Selects Her own Society" on the funny side.

So she's definitely worthy.

I've been grumbling about successive Grandmaster-ships for over a decade, here and on Usenet before here existed, but I think this one will just get a Yay! from me. Congratulations, Connie.

Three Picture Books I Should Have Reviewed Three Years Ago

Back in mid-2009, I got two picture books [1] for review, and said to myself, "Self, I said, this is a perfect dual review project -- and reading these books will take no time at all, too!"

Soon afterward, a third similar book arrived, to equal rejoicing.

And they all sat, in one of my many books-I-want-to-read-very-soon-now piles, for months upon months. They were saved from the flood, and sat somewhere else for a while. They moved back down into the basement, and onto a shelf for the first time in their eventful lives. And, finally, just this past Sunday, I actually read them, about three years too late to matter to anyone.

So here's what I think of 'em:

Farley Follows His Nose is a sweet brand extension of Lynn Johnston's For Better or For Worse newspaper strip, featuring her once-popular dog character Farley -- he was featured in the strip from 1984 through 1995,when he died heroically -- rampaging through a suburban neighborhood, in pursuit of ever-more-interesting smells. The book has art by Johnston, with a story credited to Johnston and Beth Cruikshank.

It's a simple tale of an unanthropomorphized dog -- he runs away after a bath, befriends a boy quickly because the boy feeds him, and runs farther afield before finding that boy again and, in the end, getting home. The art is detailed and energetic, but the book is really just a poor cousin to Harry the Dirty Dog, which did the same thing much better more than fifty years ago.

Blueberry Girl is similarly simple in conceit: it's a poem with wishes for a young girl's life, originally written by Neil Gaiman as a present to a pregnant friend of his, and then illustrated by Charles Vess to turn it into a book. (The friend was Tori Amos, which gives it an additional jolt of celebrity -- that shouldn't matter, but kids' books by famous people have practically taken over the field over the past decade, so it may be germane.)

The poem is addressed to various goddesses, who are urged to bestow their blessings on this "blueberry girl." They're very welcome blessings, if they come, and are both thoughtful and quirky -- but I do wonder why this particular baby is a blueberry girl, and if the fruit taxonomy continues across other infants? (My younger son -- now age eleven -- is almost certainly an Apple Boy, but his older brother is more complicated, and might have to be a Pomegranate or a Black Raspberry.)

The Vess art is detailed and intricate, and illustrates possible moments in the life of a possible Blueberry girl rather than trying to detail the requested gifts -- which is all to the good. The book would make a nice gift for a woman expecting her own Blueberry Girl (or possibly even a Boysenberry or Cherry, of either sex), or for a young Blueberry Girl herself.

Then there's the silliest, least uplifting, and most fun book of the trio: Billy Twitters and His Blue Whale Problem, written by Mac Barnett and illustrated by the great Adam Rex. (I think I saw this because I'd then recently reviewed Rex's young adult novel The True Meaning of Smekday; there's some Hyperion publicist who won't make that mistake again!)

Parents are always making idle threats to their children; I wrote, here, a couple months ago about how The Wife and I had wanted to make our sons "Amish" as a punishment -- and that actually came up in conversation at dinner last night, oddly enough -- and I'm sure we've made threats of other unlikely and impossible punishments in passing. Billy Twitters's parents' idle threat is to buy their son a blue whale if he doesn't start doing what they ask -- like cleaning his room, or eating his vegetable, or all of the other things that energetic young boys don't want to do.

Billy, of course, doesn't do those things -- and, since this is a picture book, his parents really do buy him a blue whale, the largest mammal on earth, and he has to drag it to school and feed it and do all of the other duties of a responsible pet-owner. But Barnett doesn't feel compelled to teach the life-lesson that Billy Twitters could so easily have fallen into being -- he's much more interested in exploring the possibilities of a boy with a giant whale in tow -- so Billy Twitters feels much more contemporary, quirky, and fun than either of those two books above, which were both in styles that could have been created in any of the last eight decades. It's still primarily a book for grade-schoolers, sure, but it's a zippy book for those kids, with lots of little jokes around the edges (don't miss the printed case, for example -- under the dust-jacket; it's filled with what would be bonus material on a DVD).

So all of these are admirable books for the right audience, and all are pretty and would be fun to read to children -- but Billy Twitters is the one that made me smile the most.

[1] A "picture book," for those of you who haven't had small children recently and/or don't work in publishing, is a usually large-format, usually full-color book, of around 32 or 48 pages, meant to be read to children by their parents or whoever is currently tasked with keeping them quiet. It's the bottom rung of the kids' books ladder, in the sense that picture books are generally read-to books, and so are appropriate for the youngest children. (This is a vast oversimplification, of course; picture books come in various age bands, and many of them need a higher reading level than early readers and some chapter books.)

Monday, January 16, 2012

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 1/14

This week's Reviewing the Mail is brought to you by Crelm toothpaste with the miracle ingredient, Fraudulin! Use Crelm toothpaste for 100% protection against international Communism.

As always, these are books that showed up in my mailbox last week -- sent by hardworking publicists and others, usually in the lands of "traditional" publishing, people whose job it is to bring new books to the awareness of folks like you and me. I haven't read any of them yet, and I find that I read far fewer of these books than I intend to. But I can still let you know about them -- even before, or instead of, reading them -- in the hopes that your absolute favorite book of 2012 will be among them.

I'll start with the first novel by someone I've met very briefly, Saladin Ahmed's Throne of the Crescent Moon, a hardcover coming from DAW on February 7th. It's probably the first Arabian-Nights-themed epic fantasy from a writer with a good personal reason for using that bit of cultural baggage -- I refer you to his totally awesome name yet again; if you have to be named after a long-dead legendary martial leader, Saladin is top-notch -- and it has an exceptionally kick-butt cover from Jason Chan. (Though I do wonder, slightly, at both the swordsman's stance and his sword's double tip.)

Speaking of DAW, I also have in front of me the three mass-market paperbacks that they'll be publishing in February:
  • Katherine Kerr's Apocalypse to Go, the third of her "Nola O'Grady" contemporary fantasy series, about an investigator in a San Francisco more overrun with the supernatural than we generally expect.
  • Westward Weird, an original anthology edited by the late Martin H. Greenberg [1] and Kerrie Hughes , with a bakers' dozen new stories -- from folks like Jay Lake, Anton Strout, Seanan McGuire, Brenda Cooper, Jody Lynn Nye, and Kristine Kathryn Rusch -- about various SFF thingys  (Elder Gods, aliens, and so forth) in a Wild West setting.
  • And P.R. Frost's Forest Moon Rising, the fourth novel about filker/fantasy bestseller/secret warrior for supernatural justice Tess Noncoire. (And for those of you who immediately think "Endor" upon hearing that title: I'm pretty sure this is a different forest moon. But you should definitely read it to make sure.) 
From Hachette's Yen Books imprint -- home of manga, manwha, and other kinds of comics-in-book-form, often but not always from the other side of the world -- comes the tenth volume of Korean creator Sang Eun Lee's 13th Boy, the story of a teenage girl and her romantic troubles. (At least, that's what the first volume was about, when I reviewed it a couple of years back -- long series often change over time, so I don't guarantee it's still the same now.) This one was published in January.

Speaking of comics from the other side of the world, I also have the second (and concluding) volume of manga god Osamu Tezuka's Princess Knight, published by Vertical back in December. I still have the first volume of this on my read-it-soon shelves, and I'm not going to pretend that I kept it there on purpose, so I could read the whole thing together. Tezuka's comics, even relatively early and simply-adventurous ones like this, are quirky, fun, and deeply entertaining, and this looks like a great entry into his work for young women in particular. (Boys, I'd expect, would be best served by hitting Astro Boy first.)

Also from Vertical, but coming this month, is the eleventh volume of Kou Taginuma's Twin Spica, a near-future SF story about the (very young) members of the first class of astronauts being trained in Japan after a major space disaster a decade before. It's been praised everywhere I've seen it mentioned, but I've never read it. (And I'm not entirely sure the eleventh volume would be the best place to start.) Have any of you folks been reading it? What do you think?

And, coming from Orbit as a trade paperback this month is John R. Fultz's debut novel, Seven Princes. (Orbit also recently had a week featuring this book on their blog, with a contest, several posts from the author, and other things.) It's the first in an fantasy series, and the entire world seems to be at stake, which would tend to push this over to the "epic" side.

Last for this week is a book that embarrasses me, since I still have the hardcover on my shelf and haven't yet read it: Gene Wolfe's most recent novel, Home Fires, is coming out from Tor in trade paperback on January 17th. (I actually had an advance reading copy of the hardcover, and also have it as an ebook, so this is now my fourth way to read the same book that I already want to find time for. Life is too complicated these days.) Home Fires is The Forever War (or, at least, the first piece of it) rewritten, gender-swapped, and turned into some manner of alien/spy/pirate thriller set on a cruise ship -- and that's such an odd combination of elements that I'd have to read this even if it weren't written by Wolfe, one of our very best (and quirkiest, and most idiosyncratic) writers.

[1] It's probably a publishing-schedules thing; fiction books get turned in long before they're published. On the other hand, even my end of publishing isn't immune: we're just now talking about removing the name of one particular lead author, who died over a decade ago, from an annual that he clearly hasn't worked on for some time.