Sunday, January 31, 2016

Happy to See the End of January

January seems to be scheming to steal my weekends. A week ago, there was the giant killer storm -- one of the Jonas brothers, I think -- which left the whole family stuck indoors and reminded me how much I dislike shoveling snow. (My sons would probably not mind the stuck-indoors bit as much, but were even less happy to shovel.)

And then this weekend the Creeping Crud is running through the family -- my wife got it on Friday and spent a day with the usual intestinal issues that make winter sicknesses such a joy. Somehow she passed it to me yesterday, and I had my fun time then. It seems to be one of those 24-hour things, since we're both better (not good, but better), and starting to tentatively think about maybe eating something, sometime, possibly. So far the boys are unaffected, either because of the robustness of youth or because they spend all of their times in their rooms in front of screens and thus don't interact enough with us to be infected.

Anyway, I was hoping to do some blogging this weekend, and set up a few reviews to post over the next week. (Particularly the next book in my Vintage Contemporaries series -- I know no one else in the world cares about that, but it's a way to stretch my writing-about-books muscles, so I like that better than any of the other kinds of blogging I do.) That didn't happen yet, and I don't think it will: this will be a quiet day of recuperation.

But I was at least intending to write blog posts, which is a thin ray of sunlight if you want to think of it that way.

Hope the rest of you are having a more pleasant January.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 1/23

Greetings, cake-sniffers!

Did you all survive the Snowpocalypse? (Or, if you live anywhere but the US East Coast, are you smugly happy that it happened somewhere else?)

Either way, welcome to Monday once again. I list some books here every week, historically because they came to me in the mail from publicity folks. This week, I do have a couple of those, and one book I paid money for, to mix things up.

In the Surprises in the Mail category, I have volumes 2 and 3 of Hajime Segawa's manga series Tokyo ESP, which is (as far as I know) about teenagers at school, their various superpowers, young love, the fate of the world, and all that usual stuff. Both of these volumes were published by Vertical -- it would be odd if they had different publishers, since they came in the same package -- but I'm not entirely sure when they were/are published, since the books just say "2015" and "2016." (And, as you know Bob, a year is a long time. And eight is a lot of legs, David, but leave that aside for now.)

The book I paid money for is Gahan Wilson's Out There, a collection of his cartoons from The Magazine of Fantasy and SF. I got it from Fantagraphics, its publisher, in their big Black Friday sale, which surprisingly included things that hadn't been published yet (like this). Getting this book, I realize it's more to my tastes than expected -- I got it because it was a new collection of Wilson cartoons, but I didn't realize the F&SF connection, or that it also included the short stories and book-review columns he also did for the magazine over the same period (1964 to 1981 -- are those the Ferman years, more or less?) So this is a better book than I thought it was, which is always gratifying.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Reviewing the Mail: Week of January 16

Hey, I'm back again. And this week, I want to try to correct what might be an incorrect assumption some people might have. (Is that enough waffling for one sentence?)

I do get some books for free, and I'm very grateful for that. As part of that gratefulness, and to do a tiny bit to keep the free stuff coming, I do this post every Monday morning. (It looks somewhat different when I have books to write about, but bear with me.)

But, here's the thing: that's not enough. It's not what publicists are actually looking for. They want someone with an actual platform (meaning a stable, and preferably growing, audience who care about a particular genre) who will review those books in a timely manner, and, preferably, do galley giveaways and author interviews and blog tours and all that other stuff that raises awareness and sells books.

I pretty much don't do any of that. I got onto publicity lists because I had a lot of publishing contacts, because I had a book-focused blog during the great Blog Surge of 2007, because I did a lot of reviews for a number of years, and because those publicists were throwing what they had against every wall they could find to see where it stuck. But, these days, I am a very bad wall for their purposes. They know that, and I know that. And I don't make much effort to be a better wall.

There was a time when I was reading and writing about books when they were still somewhat new, and at that point I was a half-decent target for a publicist. I'm not doing that now, and -- I think I've said this before -- I would not send me free books. Seriously: I'm not doing what they're looking for. I've never even made much effort to ask publicists for books, which is Step One for a book blogger.

So the long thread of free books may finally be petering out for me, and that is totally fine. To keep it going, I'd have to spend a lot more time reading and reviewing books in specific genres -- since that is why publicists send books out, to get coverage focused on particular genre readers -- and that's not how I want to spend my time these days. (And I have a lot less time these days to begin with.)

I'm not killing this blog; I'm not even killing "Reviewing the Mail" yet. But the latter will probably happen, and the blog itself is more and more often in deep storage. Luckily for you stalwarts, I'm the kind of person who never gives up on anything and treasures routine above all else -- I'm still playing, pretty regularly, a Mac game I got at college in 1988 -- so there will be stuff on Antick Musings as long as I'm around. Maybe only haphazard stuff every once in a long while, but stuff.

That's what I can promise.

In the meantime, I bought a couple of books yesterday and wrote about them here. Hey, a post!

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Incoming Books: January 15

I needed to buy a few things -- primarily, a possible new commuting bag -- with the ability to return them easily, so I placed an order from that hegemonic South American river at the beginning of this week. And of course I had to throw in a couple of books, which I hadn't found in the last couple of stores I was in. [1]

First up is the finale of Lemony Snicket's current four-book series for middle-grade readers, "Why Is This Night Different from All Other Nights?" Snicket is a very sneaky writer with unexpected depths, perhaps even more so under that name than when he's writing as Daniel Handler (his actual, person-living-in-the-real-world name). I expect to read this immediately -- it's short and Snicket is that good. If you're interested in what I wrote about the earlier books, here's one, two, and three.

And the other one was the newish collection of Kate Beaton's random comics, Step Aside, Pops. And I really hope you know who Kate Beaton is by now.

[1] Whether if was reasonable to expect these two books to be available in those stores, or the exact nature of those stores, I'll remain silent about.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 1/9

Sometimes I think I do these weekly posts just so people can check if I am dead. (Answer for this week: No.)

This is particularly true when, as is more and more common lately, I don't have any books to write about. (Don't feel sad for me -- getting any free books, any of the time, is wonderful and should never be taken for granted. And I can reclaim the blogging time for Fallout 4.)

So there's nothing to talk about this Monday morning -- I'll be back next week.

In the meantime, I did have a quick post yesterday about books I paid money for, which you can look at if you're bored at work. Otherwise...well, it's a big Internet. I'm sure you can find something to occupy your time.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Incoming Books: January 3

So, I screwed up on the last day of my holiday break, a week ago today. I thought I had tickets for a 2 PM show at the New Victory theater in NYC that day, so I packed up my two boys -- well, they're fifteen and seventeen now, so they pack themselves -- and we headed in. We had a great lunch at Schnipper's, as usual, when it happened.

I looked at the tickets, and they were for Saturday, January 2nd. (For those of you counting on your toes, that's the day before.)

So we rushed over to the theater, to see if we could do an exchange, and found they'd be happy to accommodate us...but the matinee on Sunday was at noon, and it was nearly over. The late show was at five, over four hours later. Instead, we went to the local comics shop, and then went home much earlier than expected.

And I didn't find much of what I was looking for there (Step Aside, Pops!, Killing and Dying, Owner's Manual To Terrible Parenting, Louise Brooks, Two Brothers -- I couldn't even find Sandman Overture, which I'm sure was there someplace) , but I did get a couple of things. These are they -- one new thing and two from the clearance shelf.

Our Expanding Universe, the new graphic novel by Alex Robinson and (I think) something of a follow-up to Box Office Poison. (I've reviewed Robinson's previous books Tricked, Box Office Poison, and Too Cool To Be Forgotten here and elsewhere.)

I recall Grendel Tales: Devils and Deaths being probably the best of the line-extension Grendel comics that Matt Wagner allowed in the '90s -- he ran the main story to a point where "Grendel" was running the world, and "Grendel" was a title or job-function, something like a bureaucratic samurai, and then let others create mini-series set in that world for several years. This one is by the Eastern European team of Darko Macan and Edvin Biukovic -- I know Biukovic was Croatian, and saw the Yugoslav successor wars from the inside, but I'm not as sure about exactly where Macan came from -- and, as I recall, it understood violence from the inside out, which wasn't always the case for Grendel stories. Anyway, it was cheap, and now I have a chance to read it again.

And then there's Popeye, Vol. 2, collecting the second half of the Bobby London run from the late '80s through 1992. I know London best for Dirty Duck, which is probably true for anyone who knows who London is. So he was always an odd choice to take over the Popeye newspaper strip, but I gather it wasn't doing well, and the syndicate wanted to take a chance. I still haven't read the first book of London's run, but now I have the whole thing after finding this slightly battered and shelf-worn copy, and I'll get to them probably later this year.

Thursday, January 07, 2016

Descender, Vol. 1 by Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen

We will never get away from the image of the killer robot, despite all of the hard work by Isaac Asimov during his long career. We will always assume, deep down, that any mechanical man secretly wants to kill and destroy, his metal hands running red with our blood. Why should a robot be any better than us, after all? And don't we secretly, in our heart of hearts, have that list (short or long) of people we'd gladly slaughter if we could?

Jeff Lemire turns to writing science fiction for the ongoing comics series Descender, the first six issues of which are collected in the recent Vol. 1: Tin Stars. This is an ongoing series -- clearly modeled somewhat on the Vaughan-Staples Saga, because success always breeds similars -- and so there are only building mysteries, introductions and plot hooks here; any endings or climaxes will be far off in the future if Descender runs like its creators and publishers hope.

And, yes, it is about killer robots. The other kind, too, but let's be honest: murderous robots are more interesting than the mild law-abiding sort every time. (I love Sladek's Tik-Tok in a way that Asimov's Robbie could only dream of.) The main character of Descender is TIM-21, a boy robot in a medium future interstellar society that was mostly peaceful and prosperous under the United Galactic Council...until a fleet of mysterious planet-sized robots [1] later dubbed "Harvesters" devastated that society, killed billions, started a many-sided violent scramble over the cooling ashes, and launched a galaxy-wide pogrom against all of the more normal-sized robots.

TIM-21 wakes up on the remote mining colony where he lived as the companion to a human boy, to find all of the humans dead and the robots torn apart. But wait! His human "brother" might just be alive, somewhere out there in the universe, and so Descender has its first plot spine. (Possibly second, if you grant "what the hell is the deal with the giant killer robots" primacy.) And he's quickly on the run, because his waking up sent a signal to all sorts of people that here is an interesting robot -- some of them want to help him, some of them want to study him, and a lot of them want to destroy him immediately or sell him to other people who want to destroy him.

Luckily, some of the helpful ones get to him first. Well, first-ish. But that doesn't last too long, and by the end of this volume TIM-21 and his set of companions -- grumpy terse destruction machine, once-great robotocist fallen into despair over his Big Secret, blue-skinned female Hard As Nails military type and her brick of a sidekick -- are in the hands of the faction that most hates robots in the whole galaxy.

So this is moving pretty quickly, at least in the sense of events adding up. But a galaxy is a big place, so I'm sure Descender could find planets and mysterious habitats and giant killer robots enough to keep TIM-21's adventures going for a long time.

This story is a departure from what I know of Lemire's work -- giving the big caveat that I've never read his superhero stories, just his generally depressive indy-comics stories -- and shows clearly the Saga influence. The characters are crisply drawn and only slightly cliched, and they have a big, complex universe to bounce around in. Lemire also is willing to damage his characters early and often, which isn't seen in big adventure stories like this, so I expect the status quo will change repeatedly and radically as this goes on.

I'm less familiar with the work of Dustin Nguyen, who illustrated this book -- to my eye, he's working directly in paint, with a watercolor look and only limited ink-work underneath or on top. He's clearly got chops, though, and depicts all of the strange things that Lemire throws at him and uses his color washes to convey mood and time well. His work isn't quite as supple and distinctive as Fiona Staples on Saga, but he could get there before too long, and his style gives him a lot of technical advantages in telling a story like this.

Descender is soft SF, of course -- comics never touch the hard stuff -- but it's smart and knowledgeable for comics SF, and is telling its particular story well. I look forward to seeing what else TIM-21 can find in his big galaxy.

[1] Who are not at all like the Celestials, so forget that entirely. Also, is there a size at which a humanoform mechanical being stops being a "robot" and starts being a spaceship, or space station, or or something else? Because the size of a planet seems really close to that line, if not over it.

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

The Undertaking by Thomas Lynch

I knew that Lynch was both a poet and the hands-on owner of a family funeral business when I picked up this book, so I had high but unspecified hopes. I did not know that he was also a bourgeois Irish Catholic in his middle years, conventional and midwestern down to his socks and full of the most nonspecific version of the True American Religion as it is possible to be. So the book I was hoping for -- a clear-eyed look at death and how we deal with it in the modern world -- only appears in The Undertaking in flashes, interspersed with sub-Thomas Merton thoughts about the meaning of life and how we'll all be enfolded in Jesus's hand and lovingly placed in sunlight uplands to live forever.

(I may be exaggerating slightly for effect.)

I should note that this book won the American Book Award and was a finalist for the National Book Award when it was published in 1997, proving that we are a people who deeply prefer that our Great Unknown have a happy Santa Claus face plastered on the front of it and that I am a definite outlier.

I haven't read his poetry, but Lynch's prose has some of the core flaws of a poet's character: a desire to see everything in essentialist terms, a weakness for metaphor, and a sense that things must be intrinsically connected because they come together in his life. When he attempts to be logical, he excludes middles with abandon and assumes his conclusions with breathtaking speed. When he's writing about solid, physical things he's much stronger; when he's making special pleas on behalf of his faith or his profession -- which he does a lot -- he's duller and was the source of many eye-rolls from my vicinity.

Since Undertaking is a collection of essays, each with a different focus, that means that some essays will be to particular readers' tastes -- mine, for example -- and others will be filled with dull pap that threatens to overflow and soak that reader's clothes with pure treacle. Again, I may slightly exaggerate.

In the end, Undertaking has not as much as I hoped about being an undertaker -- I was particularly disappointed that Lynch didn't dig into what it's like to bury people he knows over the course of decades in a small town, what it feels like to be that important to a town's life and yet inevitably left over on one side of the people's daily lives. (He does allude to this now and again, but he doesn't seem to want to get personal in Undertaking, to describe how he really feels about his life, so it stays on the surface.) Lynch probably mentions his divorce -- without any details as to why and how, though I can make my own guesses, since I certainly wouldn't want to live without anyone like Lynch for a course of years -- as often as he does embalming.

If you like to believe that the stars are God's daisy chain, then The Undertaking is the book about life in a funeral home for you. If you're made of any tougher material, you will likely be moderately disappointed, as I was.

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

The Devil's Only Friend by Dan Wells

John Wayne Cleaver is barely an adult, but he's already killed multiple times -- though, as he'd be quick to tell you, he hasn't killed any human beings, despite great urges to do so, only demonic creatures who call themselves the Withered and have lived among mankind for millennia. And, luckily, the authorities have understood this, and recruited him into a special top-secret team to find and eliminate other Withered across the country.

That all sounds good: Cleaver can channel his sociopathic urges towards killing things that really are monsters, and he has allies to help and support him. But those allies don't trust him -- he is still a teenager, and they know he has no normal human empathy -- and one of them, more annoyingly, is a psychiatrist who makes Cleaver sit down for regular sessions and talk through his "issues." (Cleaver can keep going in large part because there are things he just doesn't talk about, and thinks about as little as possible.)

And the leader of the Withered, the one that recruited the others and created the ritual that transformed them, back at the dawn of humanity, now knows about Cleaver. So now there's more than one hunter -- and one of them has been hunting for a very, very long time.

That's where he is at the beginning of The Devil's Only Friend, the fourth novel Cleaver narrates. (See my reviews of the first three for more background.)

The Devil's Only Friend is an excellent contemporary supernatural thriller, but, for me, what really makes this series distinctive is Cleaver's voice. He tells us each of these stories, from deep within his own tormented and deeply non-neurotypical head, and how Cleaver perceives the world and how he keeps himself following his rules and functioning in society is more interesting and important than whether or not he manages to kill any particular demon. (Because this is a series, so we have a sneaking suspicion that Cleaver isn't going to be suddenly killed by a demon on page ten -- but he could lose control of himself, and lose everything he's worked for.)

Only Friend stands alone, or can do so -- it's set some time after the initial trilogy, and isn't as closely linked as those books are. A new reader could start here. I'd recommend going back to the beginning, though -- these are all great books, and why not savor them?

Monday, January 04, 2016

A Fan's Notes by Frederick Exley

This is the book that broke me, broke the Vintage Contemporaries reading series, broke it all to hell. A Fan's Notes has only 383 pages in the edition I read, but it took three long weeks to slog through it, and only the fact that it was finite kept me going. Then, only the end of a year could induce me to finally write about it, now that the memory has receded a bit and I can think about it without cursing the name of Exley.

In case you have a short attention span, I'll say this up front: I don't recommend reading A Fan's Notes. Unless, of course, you happen to be a ne'er-do-well alcoholic wanna-be writer far too obsessed with football in the late 1960s. If that's the case, boy howdy, do I have the book for you.

A Fan's Notes is one of those books that claims both to be a novel, so that the real people who Exley knew would not sue him, and the essentially true story of his real life, because no one would care about it at all otherwise. Exley's dead now, and so is Frank Gifford, and probably most of the other people mentioned, under their own names or others, in this book -- so it now doesn't matter how true or not it all is. That frisson is long over, and the book has to stand on what it is -- one long whine by a guy who feels he deserves better than he gets but is smart enough not to say so explicitly.

Exley was born in 1929, to a locally prominent family in a small city in upstate New York, and had the misfortune to have a father who both was a star of the high school football team in his youth and died right in the middle of young Exley's own non-football-playing high school years. And then he went to USC at the same time as Gifford, which cemented his football obsession -- mostly focused on the Giants, though, like all American sports manias, it was wide enough to cover whatever game was on at the moment. [1] This all conspired to ruin young Exley, as A Fan's Notes more-or-less says, at much greater length and with copious Hemingway-esque tough-guy writing that wants to be profound but ends up deeply in tedium.

Oh, and he had some degree of mental illness -- either resulting from his alcoholism, or vice versa, or maybe even co-existent but independent. And so he spent time in asylums in the early 1960s, during that great era when Americans had absolutely no idea how to deal with mental illness. (One can feel sorry for Exley for this, which is something -- everything else is utterly his fault.)

And so A Fan's Notes is the long, meandering story of how Exley fucked up his life -- getting jobs because he's a white guy who went to a good school, even when he's clearly unsuitable, losing those jobs for cause, getting married to a woman who must have seen something in him though I'm damned if I can tell what, shattering that marriage once they had children for maximum fuck-up-itude, and so forth. Throughout it all, Exley has an unshakable conviction that he is A Writer, and that will finally redeem him and make him important.

And when he pulled this monstrosity out of his ass in the mid-1960s, the all-white, all-male literary establishment of the time apparently was so impressed that one of their own could so impressively fuck up (and, supposedly, recover) that they made A Fan's Notes a minor commercial success and a strong critical one. But, speaking as a white male from a slightly younger generation, this was all in-group bullshit, and they should have called Exley on his flaws rather than enabling them.

(He later continued along the same path, with two more similar oh-look-I-fucked-up-again books and an itinerant teaching career mostly based on having written this. If A Fan's Notes had sunk without a trace, he might have actually had to clean himself up and settle down to do something.)

Don't read this book. Forget it ever existed. It's just the story of one guy who got far too many breaks for far too long due to his inherent privilege, and used all of those second chances just to make a crappy, self-indulgent book about how sad his life was. I say phooey to him and phooey it all.

[1] Exley doesn't claim to be a close friend of Gifford's; they seem to have met briefly a couple of times and that's about it. But Gifford was a great football player and Exley aspired to be a great football fan, which is good enough for him.

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 1/2

Apparently, not everyone has been as lackadaisical over Christmas week as I've been -- I thought I wouldn't have any books to write up this week, but two snuck in on Friday, proving the hardworking publicists of Big Publishing are still at it, and that the days of Big Publishing having Christ,mas week off ended long ago.

Anyway, I have two books here, both hardcovers from Tor, to tell you about. I haven't read them -- I should say that up front -- but here's what I can tell you about them.

All the Birds in the Sky is, I think, the first genre novel by io9 founding editor Charlie Jane Anders (who has an author photo in which she rocks an Elric vibe, minus the big black sword -- though could be just out of frame, so I'd better not cause her any trouble!). I say "genre" because it seems to be both SF and Fantasy, focusing on two young characters who each embody one of them -- Fantasy is female and SF male, which I suspect is the most conventional thing about the book -- and on their lives as they intersect over the years. Oh, and they may determine the fate of the world, because this is a genre novel. You can read All the Birds in the Sky on January 26th -- maybe sooner, if you, too, are on Tor's publicity list.

The other book I have here is Brandon Sanderson's The Bands of Mourning, third in the steampunky "Wax and Wane" subseries in his Mistborn universe. In it, the legendary magical artifacts of the title, through destroyed or permanently lost since long mythological ages ago, are found and immediately start causing trouble. It will be available on January 26th.

Sunday, January 03, 2016

Family by Ian Frazier

Everyone's family is full of stories, both the ones that are told proudly and the ones that are whispered at best. Most of those only stick around for a generation or two, though -- stories from "Great-Great Grandpa Joe who fought at Bull Run" are sketchy and mythologized, unlike the detailed stories of people who are still around to correct mistakes.

The flourishing of self-publishing over the last decade or so has brought a lot of those stories into print, if not into the marketplace, as a thousand family elders write down their memories in hopes that the grandkids will actually read them. (Spoiler: they mostly don't read them.) In fact, just today my own two sons opened big boxes from my father, with bound histories of Wheelers going back several generations...and I expect they'll spend about as much time digging into those books as I have with the copies already cluttering up the top of my closet. (I'm not proud about this, but I have to admit the truth.)

So there's a lot of family histories out there -- a few relatively professional, from local historical societies about prominent families; an even fewer completely professional, about political dynasties and similarly major folks; and a whole lot of enthusiastic amateurs mostly writing up their own lives or the stories they heard when younger. But even the most bland, seemingly unliterary genre has surprising roots -- and so I finally come to Family, from the longtime New Yorker writer Ian Frazier.

Frazier researched Family through the early '90s -- he never precisely says so, but it's clear he was inspired to do after cleaning up the possessions of his parents, who died in 1987 and '88 -- and it was published in 1994. In retrospect, that's the last moment for a book purely like this one, based on shoe-leather research and physical documents and visiting real locations. A few years later, there would be and a hundred other tools, but Frazier was at the tail end of the pure era of country clerks and giant ledgers of baptismal records. A book like Family could be researched the same way now, but that would be an affectation -- doing it more slowly and tediously and (probably) badly, just to show it can still be done. Frazier was instead just working with the tools he had, as well as he could.

He begins his story roughly a hundred years back, at the dawn of the twentieth century. [1]At that point, almost all of his great-grandparents were alive and married and raising families, aged forty or fifty-something and settled. Luckily for Frazier, they were all in Ohio or Indiana -- Family is able to have a relatively tight geographical focus, and to talk about small-town Ohio almost as much as it's about the Fraziers and Wickhams and Hurshes and Bachmans that lived in those places. Frazier had spent long years as a New Yorker writer by this point, and clearly its mania for provable detail and deep research had marked him -- Family has sixteen pages of notes to explain how he knows the things he tells us about, and where the super-diligent reader could go look up much of it himself.

From there, he moves backward through the 19th century quickly, sketching what some of his ancestors were doing some of the time, and pausing for a longer look at their lives during the Civil War. (He notes that four-year span is the most extensively chronicled of any of his ancestor's lives, a bright hot moment that illuminated everything afterward.) He doesn't follow any of them back to their pre-North American lives; he's making Family the story of the lives of his people on this continent, and not the story of the places they came from or the things they fled. (It's a very American book, in that way, all about building businesses and connections and marriages and towns and raising children -- all of the standard mythology of the ever-advancing frontier.)

The back half of Family slowly sweeps forward through the twentieth century, telling the stories of how Frazier's grandparents grew up and met and married, and how they had children who did the same, and then about his own childhood and life as he works his way right up to the then-present day. The details are the point, of course, but I don't need to include the details here -- you each have similar stories and anecdotes from your won family, and you'll see something of yourselves and your lives if you ever decide to read Family yourself.

Note that this book is not called A Family or My Family or The Frazier Family -- it's just Family, the story of one group of related people, mostly in Ohio, over the past two hundred years that is also the story of Americans in general and of the lives we've all lived over that span. Frazier does keep it both specific and general, by telling real stories that we can all relate to because we know people like that, in our own families or looking back into history. It's not quite a social history of the USA, because it's too particular for that. But it aims in that direction, and paints an engrossing picture of who we've been and how we've lived over two centuries.

[1] January 1, 1901, because he can count.

Saturday, January 02, 2016

Gou-Dere Sora Nagihara, Vols. 1-4 by Suu Minazuki

So there's this guy, see? Name of Shouta. And he's obsessed with the female lead character in his favorite manga story, which he re-reads over and over again. (He's otherwise the usual shonen lead character: first-year in high school, glasses, quiet, no friends or respectable hobbies -- the total otaku.) And then, on page two of this story, since we need to get going quickly, she appears in his bedroom, falling out of wherever right on top of him.

Wow, right? That's Gou-dere Sora Nagihara.

But, of course, she only looks like the Sora Nagihara of the comics, and has a completely different personality. The demure, shy girl dying of Ali-McGraw-in-Love-Story disease of the comics has manifested in Shouta's real world as a raging sex-obsessed force of nature. Since this is a humor comic, she's not obsessed with actually having sex herself -- that would be too easy -- but with making sure Shouta has a lot of sex with random women and thus populates the world with his offspring so he can rule the world. (This last doesn't make any sense, and probably isn't supposed to -- it's big and bizarre and funny, probably more so to the Japanese.)

Again, probably because of the Rule of Funny, Sora's efforts to strip and degrade the young women near Shouta result in Shouta getting arrested, and then immediately released. (Because if there's a girl running around ripping off other girls' clothing and spraying them with various thick viscous substances, the thing to do is declare the closest man responsible, right? This series finds new and different ways to fail feminism on nearly every page -- it's quite breathtaking.) Oh, and some of the girls thus harassed are actual characters -- like the tough-as-nails head of the dorm where Shouta was living, and the schoolmate who lets him (and Sora) stay with her family when he inevitably gets kicked out of the dorms -- who both blame Shouta for Sora's actions and yet never become entirely hostile to him. Oh, and the other male characters (only two of them, notably) are really weird, over-the-top martial-artist types, grown-ups who are even less connected to what we'd call reality than Sora.

Hmm. Know what we've got here? It looks like a harem manga, And a particularly baroque, self-aware one, at that. Shouta is very much the standard nebbish, though Sora is more specifically all about sex in her plot-driving wackiness, but otherwise it follows the pattern very closely -- down to the one girl that the hero really loves, even amid all of the crazy sex-comedy going on around them. (Though Gou-Dere is a self-aware harem manga; it lampshades that relationship a good two volumes before it even really pops up as a serious thing.)

Things get more complicated from that beginning, of course, as they must -- the whole point of a harem manga is that things get more complicated, until only the most devoted readers can even tell who all of the various girls are and what their individual very specific personality quirks are. (This is probably the point to mention that "gou-dere" is a Japanese manga-girl descriptor which essentially means "fanatically devoted to her master and particularly to obtaining nubile females for him to impregnate." The title of this series could literally not get more on-the-nose. You know how Inuit languages supposedly have a hundred words for snow? Well, Japanese manga readers have at least that many terms to describe the vast number of commedia dell'arte-esque standard characters that pop up in story after story.) But it's all harem manga-style stories, and knowingly so -- they go to a hot springs, for example, and Sora comments on the genre expectations.

This is culturally specific humor, like a lot of manga -- it comes out of a culture where being polite and quiet and  worrying about others is the very most important thing that you have to do every single moment of every single day. And so breaking that norm -- as broadly and completely as possible, in the most shocking ways possible -- is a source of humor. I personally found Gou-Dere more weird than funny, but I'm not part of that culture. If you are culturally Japanese, or very deeply invested in that culture (as a lot of Westerners are), you'll probably find this more immediate than I did. But even if this doesn't hit you the way it's supposed to, it's still an intensely weird, self-consciously genre work, and it's interesting to see that play out, even if the specific genre elements are not as familiar.

Friday, January 01, 2016

Zenith: Phases One to Four by Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell

Zenith is quite likely the best possible revisionist superhero comic series told in five-page chapters. That sounds like damning with faint praise, and there's an aspect of that -- those short chapters put Morrison and Yeowell's work in a straitjacket that they can never get free from, denying them all but the most absolutely necessary splash pages and forcing every installment to move forward quickly and efficiently -- but it's still an impressive achievement, and a pretty good revisionist superhero in general. His stories originally ran in the UK comics magazine 2000 AD, in weekly installments between 1987 and 1992, which explains the five-page-chapters issue. All the stories were written by Grant Morrison, at that point the current snotty Young Turk of British Comics, and drawn by Steve Yeowell, who had no such easy hook to be hung on and so had to get by on hard work and talent. (Not that Morrison was lacking in either of those.)

Zenith supposedly is a slacker superhero, and these stories are old enough that Generation X (my generation) was the one filled with young lazy layabouts who couldn't be bothered to work -- whereas now we know that really describes millennials, who have the bad grace to be young now, when so many of us are sadly no longer so. (We may all know different in another twenty years, but we'll need to think up a new derogatory nickname for yet another generation first.) Zenith isn't really that much of a slacker; he does hesitate initially to jump into the big superhero plot of Phase One. but that's over very quickly (no room for Hamlet-esque equivocation in five-page chapters), and he's flying around and punching monsters almost immediately.

Phase One quickly introduces us to what we need to know, with a prologue of this world's end of WWII: the Nazi superhero Masterman is about to kill the English superhero Maximan in Berlin when he's temporarily stymied by a nuclear bomb that levels the city. (No spoilers: we see the not-dead Masterman by the end of the prologue in the modern day. As I said, short chapters means this has to move fast.) Fast forward two generations: there were a bunch of British superheroes in the '60s, who broke free from government control, called themselves Cloud Nine, and eventually broke up. Half of them are now dead, and the three left alive have all lost their powers.

But two of the dead supers had a son, and that boy -- Robert McDowell -- is the 19-year-old pop star Zenith in the fateful year 1987. Zenith is self-centered and arrogant and the kind of prick that only the teenage international celebrity only-superhero-in-the-world could be. His agent tries to keep him on-task, poor man, but it's clearly an impossible job. Oh, but here comes Masterman, reincarnated by a secret society that worships the Lovecraftian "Many-Angled Ones" from beyond space that which to come down and eat our souls. (As in Loveccraft, it doesn't do to think too much about why cultists would want to destroy the entire world and have their souls eaten first.)

And it turns out that the three depowered superheroes are not as depowered as previously thought, and that Zenith will join the battle once we get through a few scenes of him being petulant and young and thick-headed. So Zenith and the most powerful of those remnant '60s heroes -- Peter St. John, a powerful telepath and hippie-turned-Thatcherite MP -- defeat Masterman and the thing from beyond space that inhabited him, saving the world and paving the way for St. John's ascension to running the Defense Ministry.

There are, of course, Dark Hints about Zenith's parents, which come out in Phase Two. This one is the least cosmic of all four Phases, with a Bond-villain-style mad billionaire who has bankrolled the creation of new supers -- though a connection with the One Scientist that created all of the UK's supers for three generations [1] -- and plots to destroy the current world with nuclear fire and build a new one with his pet superhumans. Zenith needs the help of a CIA agent and (once again) St. John to foil this one, but of course it is foiled in the end.

As usual for events that supposedly killed entire super-teams, we learn by this point that hardly anyone in Cloud Nine actually died or was depowered in the '60s. Half of the team fled to one of the infinite alternate worlds -- this might be the first time Morrison uses that idea, so Morrison fans take note -- as part of a larger Plan, which the three left behind (St. John and the two that don't do much) didn't want any part of.  But that's still to come.

Phase Three is the big, gaudy Crisis of the Zenith universe, with supers from dozens of worlds gathering together with Zenith and St. John under the leadership of an alternate-universe Maximan to defeat the Llogior. (The Lovecraftian Many-Angled Ones having quietly rebranded themselves at some point while they were offstage in Phase Two, they will be known under this name from now on.) Zenith even meets his nice, heroic counterpart from another universe, Vertex, which allows for some tension near the end.

And, yes, the collection of superheroes vaguely familiar to British audiences of the late '80s -- and much less so to this American, or to anyone not deeply steeped in UK comics of the '60s and '70s -- does save the multiverse, although some fall tragically along the way, to make it more meaningful. (And there's at least one shocking betrayal, for the same reasons.) But Zenith has very little to do with it; he's there, and he does punch a few things, but that's about the extent of his involvement.

Finally, Phase Four came along after a two-year gap, and introduced color to the series. (I'm not sure if this is because 2000 AD finally went all-color around 1992, or if it had a color section for a while and Zenith was at that point considered worthy, or what. But this Phase is in full comic-book color, while the first three are pure Yeowell ink.) Now the Big Plan of the surviving members of Cloud 9 comes to fruition, and of course it has to do with conquering the world and the Lloigor and all the things every Zenith story is about.

And, once again, St. John is the one who actually saves the world, while Zenith is mostly just around for the ride. Morrison did continue to hint that St. John wasn't what he seemed -- hints that go all the way back to the final pages of Phase One -- which would imply that a Phase Five would finally see Zenith battle St. John. (This is very much a minimalist superhero universe, despite the multiple universes in Phase Three; everyone comes from the same origin, and they keep fighting and killing each other -- eventually, obviously, the last two standing will have to fight in the final battle.) But there never was a Phase Five; the Phase Four book ends with a late-Morrison mash-up story from ten years later that throws all of the toys up in the air and delights in the weird shapes they make coming down. There's no sign that Morrison and Yeowell ever will, or could, continue this story in a conventional way: this is what we have, and this is all there ever will be.

As I said a thousand words or so ago, Zenith is inherently handicapped by being told in five-page chapters. Morrison was lucky enough to be writing in a time and for a magazine that was happy to have lots of captions, so he's able to tell larger, more complex stories than you might expect given that scope -- but, still, every chapter has to have a shape, and has to have some action or tension to close it, and that gives Zenith an inherently herky-jerky cadence, with confrontations and fights coming at predictable intervals and never lasting very long.

Yeowell is also handicapped by the space: there's only so much superhero action you can draw when you need to have ten panels and at least that many captions on each page. He does get more than his share of striking images out of Morrison's concepts, though, particularly in Phase Four (perhaps because the rising tide of the '90s was privileging pictures over captions).

So this is another flawed masterpiece, much like its model Miracleman. I imagine that amuses Grant Morrison to no end.

[1] This is very much like Emil Gargunza, from Alan Moore's slightly earlier Marvelman/Miracleman stories. The backstory of Zenith in general bears a lot of resemblances to Moore's worldbuilding; Morrison substituted Cthulhu for Warpsmiths, pretty much, and went forward from there.

How 2015 Was Hornswoggled

Once upon a time, there was a meme. And it was pleasant enough, for its time, and it led to some lists of links on a social-networking platform that later went into a decline.

Some people, though, don't give up on things. Anything they do once becomes an unbreakable tradition, to be kept up until the heat death of the universe, if not later.

Reader, I am one of those people. And so here, for the ninth time or so, are the first and last sentences published in Antick Musings for each month of 2015 -- with only very slight cheats to avoid using any of my boilerplate posts. Those sentences link to the full posts, of course.


In 2006, the Smithsonian Institution had a major renovation of their American Art Museum in Washington, DC -- it actually reopened in its real home after six years in temporary space elsewhere -- and so it wanted to celebrate.

But Dancing Bear is still a strong portrait of a broken man, showing what he can manage to accomplish in spite of the break.


It's hard not to be self-satisfied when you're well-off and on the far end of middle age, with a successful career and a good-sized file of press clippings, all filled with people saying flattering things about you.

But be careful lifting the thing, or else you could easily sprain something. 


For some readers, a book with a connection to the world of books is immediately appealing. 

As a marketer myself, I'm very prone to using the word "content" to describe written stuff, though I hope I'd think twice before putting it on a book cover. It's a very marketing-sounding word, and not customer-friendly.


Just in case anyone is actually following this odd series of reviews: yes, I did skip February.

So any reader is left with that question, weighing hope against experience -- and Brookner's novel will not tip its hand either way, unless the title itself is the deciding point.


Sidney Harris has been the premier cartoonist of science and academia for the last five decades: if you've been part of an institution, as student or faculty or whatever, any time since the 1970s, you've certainly seen Harris cartoons tacked up on doors and bulletin boards and shared via e-mail.

If you like, say, 60% or more of things Gaimanesque, you will likely enjoy reading this.


I didn't take any specific pledges for my reading this year -- I'm allergic to the things -- but I am trying to read more women and people not like me in various ways.

(If not, why are they your favorite, exactly? It came out on June 9th.)


I'm writing and posting this late, but you'll only realize that if you're me or if you're paying way too much attention to my blog. (Seriously: get a life, buddy!)

I do wonder if this book has enough sodomy in it, though. Perhaps Gardner Dozois would know.


I'm making this Quote of the Week because a) I love the metaphor, b) I agree with it, and c) it's funny, in a sad and depressing way:

And over. 


I'm getting lazier and lazier with my review writing, and with my book reading. I don't expect anyone cares -- I'm only mildly annoyed myself -- but it's true, and should be noted.

Quiver -- a word which always put me in mind of Amos Starkadder -- is a Tor hardcover, available October 13.


This is the second novel about those lovable rogues Darger and Surplus, world-traveling con men in a post-failed-Singularity world plagued by murderous AI "demons" trapped in various bits of old technology and scheming to murder as many live creatures as they can.

In best Marvel Comics movie style, it's an evil version of Adele, someone with the exact same powers as her on the side of the vampires, and if Our Heroes can't rush around the world and do their plotty things in time, Everything Will Go Pear-Shaped. This is a trade paperback from Pyr, available on November 3rd.


Since Hellboy is dead in his main series -- that doesn't stop him, since he's basically a prince of hell to begin with, but it does keep him from being on Earth, at least for the foreseeable future -- and perhaps because the main B.P.R.D. book is so gloomy these days, what with the end of the world and all, someone clearly thought there was room for a slightly happier, more positive killing-Nazi-monsters comic in the Hellboy universe. And this is it.

(As I've said before, it looks to be Northern Exposure, only somewhat further south and on the other side of the Pacific.) I did read the first volume of this series last year, and blogged about it, if you'd like more details.


So it was the tenth anniversary of this here blog back on October 4th, and I missed it.

But if you're willing to get more than one -- and we three-rocks devotees are silently sending brain-waves to bring you over to our side -- this is not just a signpost on the way to full Bushmiller, but a great collection of gags in its own right. 

Next year, you'll get more of the same --and you'll like it!

Favorite Books of 2015

Everyone connected with the book world is required by law to have a list of the best books of the prior year -- similar regulations cover movies and music -- and so here is my obligatory list to keep me out of the Book Hoosegow. This is the eleventh time I've done this; it's been a feature of Antick Musings since the very earliest days, when this blog theme was just amusingly old-fashioned-looking, and not a sad eyesore. (Those previous lists, for those craving more books anointed by a random blogger: 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, and 2005.)

I shortened my weird rules last year down to something terse and mostly comprehensible, so I'll just copy that again here, to explain why I do this the way I do.

The Rules:

  1. My list is finalized on the last day of the year, so it includes all my reading for the year.
  2. This is a list of "favorites," not "bests."
  3. I try to favor books from this year.
  4. My reading includes many genres and formats, and the list mixes that all together.
  5. I pick a favorite for each month, to make a top twelve.
  6. And each month also gets a paragraph about other notable books.

The Field:

I read only 175 books in 2015, down substantially from 2014's 383 and back in line with the three years before that (which averaged a bit over 150). Of course, last year was a Book-A-Day year, and this one was both a find-a-new-job and a settle-into-the-new-job year, so I've got excuses. (Oh, boy, do I got excuses.)

If I didn't read a book, it can't be one of my favorites for the year. (Simple, right?)

I always wish I read more -- even in the years when I got through five or six novels a week, I complained that there were as many other books that I wanted to read but didn't get to. I don't know if it's "worse" now, but there's always more books to read, no matter how many I do read. (This is a good thing.)

So the below is what I read in 2015 that I want to celebrate and call out and point at, for various reasons. It's not as complete as I wish it was -- once again, man's reach exceeds his grasp.


I started the year re-reading a great crime novel by a great wild-man writer, James Crumley's Dancing Bear. But that really doesn't count here, since that book is around forty years old now. There were also two big interesting graphic novels from opposite sides of the world -- one of which looks smaller in retrospect, and the other of which looks larger.

Scott McCloud's The Sculptor is the book that's shrunk a bit in memory: it was swinging too obviously for the fences, and trying to show supposedly great visual art within a comic was a shaky idea to begin with. It's big and full of life and fiercely ambitious: all of those things are still true. But I tend to think now that it fell shorter of that ambition than I thought in January.

But Inio Asano's giant story of ennui and Japanese slackerdom, Solanin, looks more impressive at a remove -- it's a book full of the messiness and contingencies of life, about people who aren't sure what they want but want to want something, who have hit adulthood and find that it's hitting back harder than they expected. You don't need to be twenty-something to read it -- it might be better, in fact, if you have some distance from those years.


I only read four books in this whole month, because I was busy searching for a new job -- and that's vastly more time-consuming and nerve-wracking than any actual job. Of those few books, one was a guide to job-hunting, one was a big book of newspaper comics, and one was a jokey book about marketing.

Luckily, the fourth book was more substantial, and would have been the best thing I tread that month in a field of thirty books. The third book in Lemony Snicket's current series for kids in the middle of their school careers, "Shouldn't You Be in School?", is smarter and more knowledgeable about loss and heartbreak and despair and than maybe tween need...but who am I to say what anyone needs? Somewhere out there, there's a twelve-year-old who needs exactly this book, and "Snicket" gave her a powerhouse to fill that need. Once again, he managed to talk up to his audience -- I can't explain it any more clearly than that, but it's what he does.


I saw two very good, interesting, and flawed graphic novels this month, from creators at opposite ends of their careers. Shoplifter was the first book from Michael Cho, and it tells a moody story about a young woman looking for her authentic life -- though it traffics in an awful lot of tedious creative-person cliches along the way. So it's a lovely book that tells a compelling story that made me grind my teeth far too often.

Jules Feiffer has been making comics -- and screenplays, and novels, and other things -- for sixty years or so, but Kill My Mother is his first graphic-novel-published-as-such, since the world has finally caught up to him. I found it somewhat confusing and self-indulgent, a wallow in noir tropes that could have used a bit of editing and character designs that differentiated all of the various women from each other more clearly. But it's a big Feiffer graphic novel, full of spiky Feiffer awesomeness.

The best book of the month was a travelogue, from one of the few people I admit is a bigger curmudgeon than I am: Paul Theroux's Dark Star Safari. Theroux doesn't claim to hate humanity, but he certainly doesn't like most of it, and this journey, down the east coast of Africa in about 2001, gave him a lot of scope to see appalling people and their works. Theroux's eye is as clear and precise as ever, and this is a part of the world most of us know nothing about -- thought Theroux has a long history there, making him the perfect guide.


This month gives me three plausible choices, out of the five books I read, though each has its distinctive faults. In a previous life, I probably would have given the nod to Elizabeth Bear's fun steampunk novel Karen Memory, which gives a cast of mostly women agency and vigor in a world that would deny that to them. But it's also very much a genre exercise, without rising above or transforming its material: it reads like a textbook example of "How to Write a Feminist Cyberpunk Novel."

Todd Hignite collected a lot of great Jaime Hernandez art for his book The Art of Jaime Hernandez -- that sentence sounds like a tautology, but there are plenty of art books, and their editors, who don't manage to do as well. And Hignite finds a decent through-line to Hernandez's career. But it is, in the end, a collection of someone else's art, arranged to look pretty, and just isn't substantial enough for a list like this.

That leaves me with the useful and deeply recommended How to Speak Money, a primer on the concepts and terms of the finance world by sometime novelist and explainer-of-money John Lanchester. He previously wrote the excellent I.O.U., which explained the Crash of '08 for a non-finance audience, but How to Speak Money tries to do more in a smaller space: Lanchester's goal here is to explain the basic concepts of working finance -- not the academic subject, but the things people who work with money swim in every day -- and the terms that financiers use among themselves. No book like that could be completely successful, since finance is a big world, with many pockets of dialect and nuance that are alien to each other, but he gives the rest of us a foothold into that world, which we need ever more in our ever-more-finance-driven world.


I got back to work in mid-May, which immediately had an effect on my reading. To work down the backlog on my shelves, I adopted a policy of taking two books for the commute each day: one book of comics and one of prose. The comic got read that same day, pretty much every time, which the prose stuck around for a few days -- sometimes for weeks on end, as summer turned to fall and the commute stopped being new and exciting and became just another slog to get through every day.

But that was still in the future at this point. I jumped into a bunch of comics I'd wanted to read -- a collection of Hunt Emerson's Calculus Cat stories, mostly from the '80s; Dylan Horrock's not-quite-autobiographical ode to the power of comics, Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen; and Cameron Stewart's moody crime fable Sin Titulo.

I also read two excellent books about the lives of writers. Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking is a few years old now, and so lauded it doesn't need me to add to it. John Baxter's biography of J.G. Ballard, The Inner Man, though, doesn't have nearly as high a profile, though it's about a much more quintessentially 20th century writer, and does a great job of explaining the sources of his compelling images and themes.

In another month, I probably would have named Christopher Miller's American Cornball as my favorite: it's a deeply engrossing encyclopedia of the things that Americans used to think were hilarious, from mothers-in-law to town drunks to falling safes. For anyone who likes thinking about humor, it was easily the book of the year in that narrow category.

But I also saw a great wordless graphic novel in May, the second such book from Manix Abrera, a great Philippine cartoonist who I only know from his work. Unlike his previous book 12 -- which was one of my favorite books of 2010 -- 14 isn't a collection of shorter stories, or, more precisely, isn't only that. Abrera still includes other tales in 14, within his frame story, but this book is a single work -- the story of one person who discovers a secret world, and learns more than he could have guessed about its inhabitants.


I was still reading lots of comics in June, but more in bulk -- a dozen books by Mike Mignola and his collaborators about Hellboy's world, and half of the collections of John Allison's old webcomic Scary Go Round among them. They were all interesting in their own ways, but there's nothing I feel compelled to call out here individually.

I did read two good novels by men better known for writing under other names. Daniel Handler, who has already appeared on this list as Lemony Snicket, had a new adult novel, We Are Pirates, which told its story sideways and nearly inside-out, creating quirky parallels to Handler's great first novel The Basic Eight.

But even more impressive was the first novel by John Darnielle, songwriter and occasionally only member of the band The Mountain Goats. Wolf in White Van is the story of one profoundly damaged man, and what he's been able to do with his life after that damage. Unlike some songwriters, Darnielle scales his plots and concerns up to novel length without a hitch -- though Wolf is clearly a work by the same creator as such songs as "The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton" and "Autoclave," with the same tight focus on characters and their demons.


A stinky "classic" threw a wrench into my reading life this month -- I plan to tell that story elsewhere, within the next week -- but I still had a small pile of books worth mentioning, for one reason or another.

Mary Norris's Between You and Me is not yet another memoir of years spent at the New Yorker. Thankfully, this copy editor wrote something much more useful: a guide to punctuation and clear writing, from someone deep in the trenches for many years. Also purporting to be nonfiction is The World of Ice and Fire, a gazetteer to the world of George R.R. Martin's epic fantasy series, but Martin with some able collaborators and illustrators.Every fantasy world should be this well mapped, and this worth of mapping.

More frivolously, Mallory Ortberg channeled the heroines of a hundred works of high literature (including Harry Potter and Sweet Valley High) to produce Texts from Jane Eyre, a book both laugh-out-loud and brilliant in its unwavering default feminism and insistence that women should be able to live their own lives. (Did I just say the same thing twice? I apologize.)

That leaves me with two graphic novels, both humorous takes on autobiography. Pascal Girard continues to mine his own life as a cartoonist for amusement and unexpected depths in Petty Theft.

But even more impressive -- and unexpected, and deeply welcome -- was the return of Mimi Pond with the large memoir of her youth, Over Easy. It evokes a whole world in one small cafe, and shows that Pond's sharp pens -- both the one she uses to write dialogue and the one she uses to draw her characters -- are still as pointed and well-guided as they ever were.


I read a lot less this month than expected -- partially due to the heat, partially due to some vacation time, and partially because I was still trying to get the taste of that one book out of my mouth -- but there are a couple of things to pointy out.

Maira Kalman provided paintings and Daniel Handler (him again!) words to accompany a number of old photographs from the collection of the Museum of Modern Art. All of those things were about Girls Standing on Lawns. It's a hard book to describe, but an easy one to read -- so don't wait for me to think up words, but just go find it.

The book of the month was an unabashed genre fantasy novel, the story of one young man who fights literal demons in the modern world -- with the added handicap of being (not so literally) something of a demon himself. Dan Wells brought back his series character John Wayne Cleaver -- a sociopath who wants to kill almost as much as he knows he needs to keep his urges controlled -- in The Devil's Only Friend, with higher stakes and a newly-adult Cleaver. It's still about Cleaver more than the heroics and the monsters, which is what makes it work so well.


There's no theme this month, so I'll dive in with a couple of good comics-based books by younger women. Lucy Knisley took on aging and family with the remarkably deep and assured Displacement, showing that she's one of America's great creators of comics. And from the other side of the Atlantic, Margaux Motin gave us But I Really Wanted to Be and Anthropologist..., which looks like a bunch of strips collected from her webcomic, individual adventures of Motin and her family and friends, but really is more holistic and singular than that.

I wished once again that I'd worked harder, and on more solid stuff, in school by T.F. Peterson's Nightwork, a history of pranks and exploits at MIT. Ah, the lives we could have lived!

Michael Swanwick gave us a leisurely tour of a China of the future in his deeply entertaining Chasing the Phoenix, featuring his series heroes Darger and Surplus at the head of a conquering army despite themselves.

But the pride of place for the month has to go to a short book that made me want to read science fiction again, after a long period of being sour on fiction in general and techno-babble in particular. Alastair Reynolds's Slow Bullets uses SFnal ideas to tell a story that mainstream fiction never could -- and that's a story of characters, about memory and redemption and second chances and traditions and justice and revenge.


I dove into another good SF novel right after that, and dawdled reading it for most of the moth. That's not the fault of Steven Gould's zippy and fun teleportation adventure Exo -- I don't think anything could live up to the image of "good SF" in my head at that point.

I also came back to Alan Moore and John Totleben climax of the original 1980s revisionist superhero in Miracleman, Book Three: Olympus -- it's too wordy, especially reading it today, but the art is breathtaking and the story is cruel and lovely by turns.

In the end, though, the best book of the month was by two Frenchmen, one of whom was dead for many years before it came out. Jacques Tardi adapted another dark crime novel by Jean-Patrick Manchette to make another deeply noir story, Like a Sniper Lining Up His Shot -- taking the cliche of a hitman who wants to retire and turning it into something near a Greek tragedy, full of inexplicable fate and inexorable destiny.


This was another month all about comics, and I make no excuses for that. When prose kept letting me down, comics was always there for me, a world where I could read a dozen stories across a dozen genres in two weeks and refill my capacity for wonder and appreciation.

I read two great collections of older works this month -- one was new to me, and the other was an old favorite. Roger Langridge's The Show Must Go On had work from across twenty years and probably twice that many publications, all of it in Langridge's unique vaudeville-derived idiom. And that fever dream of the 1980s, Elektra: Assassin, possibly the climax of creator Frank Miller and Bill Sienkiewicz's careers to that point, was still as mad and energetic and plausibly insane as it was when it was new.

And the best book of the month was another collection of comics, this one of newer work: Jason's If You Steal. Each story has its own mood and impetus, sharing only Jason's deadpan affect and fondness for the plot furniture of classic genre fiction, and each one has a slice of odd life with unexpected depths. 


And now we come to the day before yesterday -- the books I was reading recently enough that they're still entirely clear and present in my memory.

My rules really don't allow me to make Ian Frazier's Family the pick of this month -- it is a great book, mixing family history and American history, but it's twenty years old -- so I'll just mention it here.

But I can allow the four books of Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell's Zenith into that last slot, because even though the work is from 1987-1992, these books didn't come out until this past year. (Rules need to be nitpicky and precise in odd ways, or else what would all the rules lawyers find to do?) It's a strong revisionist superhero, by two great creators, that has been tucked away out of sight for a whole generation -- so it's very welcome to see it back out in public again.

2015's Top Twelve

    • 14 by Manix Abrera 
    • Solanin by Inio Asano 
    • Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle 
    • If You Steal by Jason 
    • How to Speak Money by John Lanchester 
    • Zenith by Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell
    • Over Easy by Mimi Pond 
    • Slow Bullets by Alastair Reynolds 
    • "Shouldn't You Be in School?" by Lemony Snicket 
    • Like a Sniper Lining Up His Shot by Jacques Tardi and Jean-Patrick Manchette
    • Dark Star Safari by Paul Theroux
    • The Devil's Only Friend by Dan Wells

    That's what I read this past year and want to celebrate -- the books that I most want to recommend to other readers and to see succeed out in the world. Of course, I'm just one guy, with idiosyncratic opinions and ideas -- but I like to think that I read a wide variety of stuff, and so there could be something of interest here for just about anyone.

    It's a pleasant dream, at least. Happy reading in 2016, everyone!