Monday, October 31, 2016

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 10/29

Every week, I make a post on Monday morning to list the books that came in the mail the previous week. Some weeks, it's a lot of books, and I'm happy but a little overwhelmed. Some weeks, there are no books, and I'm vaguely sad (from not getting free things, oh poor me) but also chipper from the added free time. And some weeks, it's in the middle.

This, then, is a Baby Bear week. Maybe the most Baby Bear-iest of weeks possible, because I only have one book to write about.

I'd like to say that means I can take more time and really tell you a lot about this book, but, sadly, I don't actually know that much. You see, this is a collection of short stories set in a bunch of the author's fictional worlds, none of which I've ever read about before.

Perhaps I should say what the book actually is.

Brandon Sanderson is prolific and inventive, so it's not a big surprise that a number of his ostensibly-separate fantasy worlds have a deep connection. His new book Arcanum Unbounded: The Cosmere Collection collects nine "short" (mostly novella-length, I think) stories set in the worlds of six of his fictional universes, including the Stormlight Archives, Elantris and Mistborn.

Again, I haven't read any of those series, so I don't even know if this everything-is-connected idea is new or if old-time Sanderson fans are all thinking "of course it's all connected! That's his thing!"

But Arcanum Unbound is a big fat collection of Sanderson, including one brand-new Stormlight novella and a long Mistborn story that I think was only in electronic form previously. And it's coming from Tor on November 22nd. I'm sure many of you will be happy about that, even if I can't tell you anything meaningful about who's in what story and how they connect to their respective novels.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Incomplete Works by Dylan Horrocks

I'm happy to note that this odds-and-sods collection, gathering together a lot of short comics that Dylan Horrocks created over the past three decades, actually has a title story. Yes, Virginia, there is an "Incomplete Works," almost as if Horrocks knew he'd want that title for a collection someday and decided to stake it out back in 1989.

(And who knows? Maybe he did. Horrocks is a very meta creator -- with stories here about creation, about creators both fictional and real, and about similar ineffable things.)

Incomplete Works -- the assemblage, the one that goes in italics rather than inverted commas -- tells the story of a young man besotted with comics, in the way of a creator who discovers the art form that does exactly what he wants to do, even if he can't always make it do the things he wants to do right at that moment. He writes about fake comics-makers -- both real people who did not actually make comics (Captain Cook) and creators whose careers he entirely invents (his alter ago Sam Zabel, to begin with) -- and does so skillfully enough that when a later story was about the real but obscure New Zealand cartoonist Barry Linton, I quickly googled him to see if he was actually real.

So Horrocks is one of the comics uber alles types -- this is his form, and he loves it to death, believing that it can do all of the things he wants to do in art. (Horrocks himself has had a complicated relationship to comics, as you might expect from that stance -- see his recent Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen graphic novel for the single integrated take on that tension.) Since a man's reach always exceeds his grasp, many of the stories here -- from a long almost-farewell-to-comics in 1990 to a series of diary comics for The Comics Journal in 2012 -- are about how Horrocks, or his fictional versions, are heartbroken and disappointed by comics, or find themselves unable to live up to their own images of themselves as comics-makers.

Incomplete Works is a book of mixed melancholy and joy, one that revels in what comics can do and curses what it does do and how lines never quite do what their drawer wants them to do. It also shows Horrocks's artists development, through various styles and mediums to his current clean, precise line -- though even the earliest stories here are well-drawn, with art that works strongly to tell the stories he has at that time.

Most of us don't care about comics as much as Horrocks does. I dare say most comics creators don't care about comics as much as he does. But we can still enjoy his enthusiasm and look at the lofty heights that he demands are comics's due...even if we think he may be exaggerating a bit.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Trashed by Derf Backderf

Following up a really awesome idea is tough. Say, for example, that you went to high school with noted serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, and later turned that life experience into an award-winning graphic novel (My Friend Dahmer, still available), you might find it difficult to get a follow-up that would have as much impact.

The fact that you worked on a garbage truck for a while when a young man, might, perhaps, have some possibilities for fictionalization, but it's not going to have the pop of "yeah, my high school buddy ended up killing and eating several people, can you believe it?"

None of that is John Backderf's fault -- in fact, he had one compelling story handed to him by life and treated it brilliantly -- but it's the kind of thing that can lead to oddly uncomfortable conversations with one's publisher. ("So, Mr. you know any other serial killers for your follow-up?") But it all does lead into Trashed, which is a more conventional graphic novel, and one that doesn't have the newsworthy hook of Backderf's last.

(By the way: the man's name is John Backderf. He had a long-running alternative weekly cartoon -- back when those and the papers they ran in were both things -- under the name Derf. And now that he's creating book-shaped objects, he's using the portmanteau credit Derf Backderf. He may be trying to pull a Johnny Cougar, and if so I wish him luck on the journey to his own personal Mellencamp. But "Derf Backderf" is a deeply unlovely name to work under. It sounds like the sound effect for something unpleasant on an Adult Swim cartoon.)

Trashed is not Derf's story; it is fiction, and focuses on a young man named J.B. [1] in the present day, in a smallish town somewhere full of blue-collar white people. (Like Backderf's own garbage-picking career, this is somewhere in Ohio.) Young J.B. starts out at the bottom of the trash-collection totem pole in this town -- giving Backderf an opportunity to showcase some carefully observed understanding of the hierarchies of small-town, semi-political organizations. But J.B. rises somewhat in the ranks over the course of the next year, mostly by being reasonably competent in doing his job and surviving when others flake out or quit around him. The book is organized around the four seasons, which all are horrible for the trash-collection men for various different reasons, and Backderf lovingly gets into the muck and mire of this job. Trashed is one book that everyone can be very happy is not available in scratch-and-sniff form.

Along the way, Backderf explains the American way of  disposal, which is deeply flawed: done cheaply and half-assed, with toxic leakage almost guaranteed, even with "modern" landfills with their fancy plastic linings and gas-venting systems. This book may make you seriously check out how close landfills are to your home (or water source) and the most likely directions of any leaks -- or turn you into a zealot for reducing packaging, but I'd bet the former more often.

The fictional story is fairly thin: it's all around the trash crew, both their mild interpersonal conflicts and the slightly more serious issues with their town-level overlords. It all comes out OK in the end, not due to anything we actually see on the page or that J.B. does -- Backderf might say that this is realistic, and how workplace conflicts usually end. That's true, but it's not a great argument for making choices for a fictional work. But, if you don't mind a thin Horatio Alger garbageman story wrapped around the stinking fish of your lesson on modern garbage handling, Trashed gets the job done.

[1] Yes, those initials are very similar to the author's. One presumes this is deliberate.

Friday, October 28, 2016

I Hate Fairyland, Vol. 1: Madly Ever After by Skottie Young

Gertrude was whisked away to Fairyland -- the candy-colored, sicky-sweet version from a thousand bad animated movies and theme-park rides -- as a young girl, to have a fun and uplifting adventure before finding the key back to home and coming back to her world with a new appreciation for the wonders of existence and of the power of love. (At least, we assume such was the plan.)

Instead, Gertrude proved to be so recalcitrant, and so horrible at key-finding, that twenty-seven years later a deeply sour Gertrude, still stuck in that little-girl body, is rampaging through Fairyland, supposedly still key-hunting but really just acting out her frustration on every smiley-faced anthropomorphic being that crosses her path. She is a murderous, horrible, twisted little foul-mouthed creature, and she is our heroine.

Such is I Hate Fairyland, Vol. 1: Madly Ever After, which collects the first arc of Skottie Young's comic about Gertrude. It's gleeful in its violence, though apparently Fairyland censors all of Gertrude's would-be swears. (Perhaps this is meant to be a joke, but it recurs too much to stay funny.) It's episodic in that old-comics style, with each issue being relatively discrete and this volume completing the first overall story, in which Gertrude gets everything she wants, more or less. (As another nasty comics character said long ago, "The valuable lesson is that you can get what you want and still not be very happy.")

Young's art style is very good for cute little creatures, happy anthropomorphic plants, and sweet munchkin-esque folks, as evidenced by pretty much all of his earlier work. It's also, perhaps surprisingly, good for giant cliffs made of skulls and all of the things in the previous sentence lying dismembered with X's for eyes and cheery bright red blood leaking out of them. There's a joy in the violence here, which comes out in the art as well as the dialogue.

I don't think this series can run forever, since it only has one joke so far. (I suspect the next arc will introduce a new joke, based on the last page of this book. That will only go so far, obviously.) But this first collection is fun in a nasty, cartoonily-violent way, and that's good enough for now.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Envelope Manufacturer by Chris Oliveros

Chris Oliveros is best-known for other people's comics: he was the founder and publisher of Drawn & Quarterly for its first twenty-five years, only stepping away recently to concentrate on his own comics. I believe The Envelope Manufacturer is his first book-length comic, but I'm sure shorter works lurk in the background -- possibly as long ago as the beginning of D&Q, or even older.

Oddly though, from the evidence here, Oliveros has been powerfully influenced by Seth. We have an office in what feels like a provincial Canadian city, some years ago -- say the 1950s, but it doesn't have to be then. The men wear suits with wide ties, the women have longish skirts and fussy hair. They work at a deeply old-fashioned and dying industry, in a marginal end of even that: a tiny shop making envelopes. And that business is failing, and has been failing, first slowly and now rapidly, for some time. They talk elliptically to each other, saying the same things over and over again and seeming to hope for a different answer this time.

Oliveros's line is shakier -- deliberately, as a stylistic choice -- than Seth's is, but there are some minor similarities in the art as well,  mixed in with Oliveros's tiny feet and shading done with many little hand-drawn parallel lines.

Mostly, though, this is a story driven by dialogue -- not conversation, since they all talk past each other and it doesn't change anything -- but by their long speeches at each other, about what they want and need and should have had, about how to make the business strong again, about all sorts of things that they're clearly all completely wrong about. While they talk, Oliveros's virtual camera swoops around, showing this person and that, diving out into the street or just outside the window, as if even he can't stand to stay in the company of the characters he's created. (That may be unfair, but I think it's amusing, so I'll leave it in.)

I don't know if comics needs another chronicler of low-key business failure and despair, but we seem to have just gotten one. And Oliveros is pretty good at that, with a whimsical line making up for the bleakness of his character's situations.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Beverly by Nick Drnaso

When one is reading a book of low-key, lightly interconnected stories about regular ordinary people in a quiet, literary style, it's disconcerting to realize that several pages have been ripped right out of the book you're reading, right in the middle of a story. (And worse when you realize it happened in three places in that same story.) But such are the dangers of library books -- a previous patron must have loved, or hated, those pages so much that they had to come out right now.

So I want to be very circumspect in writing about Beverly: it seemed to be a smart, well-observed collection of literary comics stories, written in the mode of Adrian Tomine and drawn in something that seems to be influenced equally by ligne clair and by Adult Swim. But it also looked like those stories were lightly connected, at least some of them to some of them, and I have no idea what connections were on those lost pages.

All in all, it's probably smartest of me to claim this is a masterpiece, not be too specific, and get out quickly. A lot of other people have been praising Beverly this year -- that's why I read it in the first place, actually -- so it would fit in with the general tone of coverage.

And I did enjoy Beverly -- the art is slightly more primitivist than I usually prefer, but it works for these stark stories: Drnaso's people are almost abstracted, visual sketches of themselves, which tends to make them Everypeople. Those people are mostly losers, I suppose, like most art-comics characters -- from Chris Ware or Seth or Daniel Clowes -- but they're losers like the rest of us are: people who don't quite get what we want, when we even know what we want.

So I'm not going to get too deeply into Beverly: I think it's good for what it is, despite my personal dislike for the art style. And I'm sure I missed some connections and important moments from those lost pages. But this is definitely good for its type -- for anyone who's enjoyed the other cartoonists I've mentioned here, Beverly is a great showcase for the arrival of a new strong talent in that same vein.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Ukridge by P.G. Wodehouse

We all know That Guy: the one who always has a plan to get ahead, a scheme to get rich, a quick shortcut onto Easy Street, and a boundless optimism that he can do it all with just the tiniest bit of help. P.G. Wodehouse knew That Guy, too.

For the space of these ten stories, That Guy is Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge, the laziest ball of energy in England, an endless font of complication and silly ideas in a yellow Macintosh coat. His schemes are all entirely of his time, as they must be, but his type is more modern than a lot of Wodehouse's characters. (Ukridge also may be more interesting to some Americans than effete aristos like Bertie Wooster; he's not American himself but his boundless enthusiasm and desire to get very rich easily and quickly resonates very strongly on my side of the Atlantic.)

Be happy you don't know Ukridge, or that you don't have a Ukridge in your own life. He's a wearying fellow, always imposing on a friendship to ask for a favor or a small loan or to borrow one's nice suit to go out to a party. In fiction, he's a wonderful character, but in life he would be horrible.

The contemporary US equivalent of Ukridge is Kramer from Seinfeld, if that helps you place him. Ukridge is British and well-educated, so not as vulgar or loud -- but easily as annoying and full of crazy ideas. Ukridge also features in a number of other Wodehouse stories across several collections, and the early novel Love Among the Chickens.

All of the Ukridge stories are narrated by his long-suffering friend Jimmy Corcoran, a hard-working writer who bears some resemblance to Wodehouse himself during the years he first created Ukridge (the first decade of the twentieth century). Each story has a certain shape, as it must: Ukridge arrives, with a new scheme, and enlists Jimmy's aid in it against his best judgement. And things go badly, humorously wrong, as they must.

Wodehouse was the greatest writer I know at taking a particular plot armature and ringing changes on it: he had no more than ten major plots but wrote a hundred books over the course of a long and very successful career. He's the epitome of a specialist writer: he got amazingly good at doing something very specific, and amazingly funny at getting new laughs from the same standard pieces of furniture. That might all sound like a small thing, but it's not: so few writers have ever written a really wonderful book once, and Wodehouse was able to write really wonderful books, in the same mode, for over six decades straight. Ukridge is a fine example of that, and one of the lesser-known creations of the great comic mind of the twentieth century.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 10/22

Hello and Happy Monday, as always.

I got a couple of books in the mail this week, so I'm going to write about them. But I also bought a couple of books, for let's-use-up-these-gift-cards-that-we've-already-had-for-two-years reasons, so I'll list those as well. I trust that I've been communicating professionally for long enough that I can make it clear which books are which.

(In case you're confused, the first two are the ones that came in the mail.)

Steven Erikson is back in space-opera mode with Willful Child: Wrath of Betty, one of the least likely space-opera titles I've ever seen. It's a sequel to last year's Willful Child, and continues the adventures of a crew that Treks through the Stars, if you know what I mean. Do not expect subtlety. This is a Tor hardcover, available the first of November.

Also appearing in my mail: Liselotte & Witch's Forest, Vol. 2, by Natsuki Takaya. (Yes, not "in" forest, and also not "the" forest. I suspect this series will be misnamed more often than not.) I think this is one of these stories about a girl who is way too perky and happy all the time, despite being exiled to the ass-end of nowhere and saddled with other serious problems. This one is from Yen Press, and is available right now.

Obtained with my own money: Hellboy in Hell, Vol. 2: The Dead Card. I understand this is the very last Hellboy story, until Mike Mignola thinks of something else for him to do. It's by Mignola with colors by Dave Stewart.

And last, and also from my shopping trip, is Stephan Pastis's Pearls Gets Sacrificed, the latest treasury-sized collection of his comic strip. I seem to have gotten out of the habit of buying collections of current newspaper strips -- maybe because that genre is dying and mostly infested with zombies -- but Pastis annotates his collections, which makes them that much better and worthy of my money.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Complete Peanuts, 1950 to 1952 by Charles M. Schulz

I have thrown a lot of words around here about Charles M. Schulz's cartoon magnum opus -- see my posts on the volumes covering 1957-1958, 1959-1960, 1961-1962, 1963-19641965-1966, 1967-1968, 1969-1970, 1971-1972, 1973-1974, 1975-1976, 1977-1978, 1979-1980, 1981-1982, 1983-1984, 1985-1986, 1987-1988, 1989-1990, 1991-1992, and 1993-1994 -- but the first few volumes came out before I had started this blog. (Which makes this a very long publishing program, since the last volume is rolling off the presses this month.) I've never actually had the opportunity to bloviate here about the very beginning of Peanuts.

Of course, lots of other people have bloviated before me -- check out the Google for Peanuts around the time the first volume published in 2004, and you'll see the cartoon to the right (the very first Peanuts comic strip, from October 2, 1950) reprinted a hell of a lot, along with plenty of chin-scratching about how mean these kids were in the early days, how Schulz's style was clearly different then, and how the core cast didn't really start to assemble for another year or so. But this is my chance to dig my reviewing mitts into The Complete Peanuts, 1950 to 1952, so forgive me if I don't let go of it easily.

The Complete Peanuts, 1950 to 1952 shows us a very different strip than the Peanuts we know -- it's different both from the often sad sequence of long continuities and strong characterization of the '60s and early '70s, and even more different from the mostly sunny, mostly gag-a-day version of the strip featuring Snoopy that flourished from the late '70s through the end in 2000. Schulz's characters started out as real children, doing almost entirely childish things, with a level of cruelty and heartlessness that Peter Pan would approve of. The larger, and usually sub-textual, philosophical questions won't start showing up for another couple of years. So this book has stories of kids alone, in a mostly stark landscape, without parents or teachers or other adults. (Charlie Brown didn't get a barber father to talk about for several years, and the talking school building was several decades in the future.)

The cast is also notably different -- Charlie Brown was there from Day One, but he was a cocky, self-confident kid. The doubts and misery came later, as he turned into Schulz's viewpoint character, and not just a kid to make gags around. The rest of the opening-day cast is mostly forgotten now, because Schulz had them in as placeholders, and replaced them over time as he had better, more specific ideas. So Patty and Violet were "girls," and not much more. But Lucy was first a cute little kid, and then a fussbudget, and then (long after this volume) something like the fictional version of Schulz's first wife. Sally, too, started out as a cute kid, a more refined version of the initial version of Lucy, and clicked as Charlie Brown's kid sister. Similarly, the undifferentiated Shermy is joined, and nearly lapped, in this volume by the more specific and interesting Linus and Shroeder.

Coming to the very early Peanuts after seeing only late Peanuts for a long time can be a breath of fresh air: I loved this volume when I read it the first time. There's so much energy and emotion here; this is before Schulz sublimated those unruly kid feelings into his standard plots, and if that makes it all pretty scattershot, it's still an energizing kind of scattershot. Schulz did get better than this, definitely -- but he was interesting and exciting and original right from the beginning.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

The Leaves of Brown Came Tumbling Down


Well, if you didn't remember, my post listing the books I read in September has finally gone live where it was supposed to.

And, because this is what "September" always reminds me of, have a little Tex Avery (in case the embed doesn't work right, the relevant bit is at 5:38:

Lulu Anew by Eteinne Davodeau

There are not all that many books about middle-aged women. Books that treat them realistically, and give their lives meaning and agency are even rarer. Lulu Anew is a little slow, and a little self-indulgent, and has a huge bait-and-switch near the end, but just putting a woman like Lulu at the center of the story generates more than enough credit to overcome all of that. (It does for me, at least. Your mileage may vary, depending on how much you're interested in comics stories about realistic people leading realistic lives in the real world.)

Lulu Anew is a graphic novel by Etienne Davodeau, who I know from his earlier book The Initiates, in which he and a winemaker "traded jobs" for a while. (Davodeau actually helped to made wine, but the winemaker only read comics; he didn't make them.) This was originally published as two separate albums in France -- there's a clear break right in the middle of this book -- but it's been put together for an American audience that likes heftier volumes that come all the way to the end of a story. It's a heavily narrated book, told by Lulu's friends as they piece together her story one long evening after the main events of the book -- and that framing sequence obviously adds tension and drama to what otherwise is a fairly low-key story about one woman's walkabout.

Lulu, again, is middle-aged, not lovely, and not particularly appreciated. Her husband is a lout, her twin elementary-school sons are more than a handful each, and her teen daughter not terribly helpful. A job interview in the next city over has just gone badly -- so she decides, on the spur of the moment, to just not go home that night to the unappreciative husband grumping at her on the phone. She stays over at a hotel in that city, where she meets a traveling saleswoman -- the two have a long, wine-filled dinner, and Lulu complains about her life in a way she hasn't for years, or possibly ever.

So she doesn't go home again the next morning -- she's not ready to drop back into her old life, full of other people's needs and demands. Instead, she finds herself in a city on the coast, watching the ocean and just being there. She meets a man around her age, Charles, and the two immediately fall into an affair, aided by Charles's two protective brothers.

Meanwhile, her hotheaded husband is imposing on the family friends back at home -- he's the typical fictional husband, incapable of doing anything for himself or the family and prone to destroy anything in his way out of mere pique. A friend is sent to the coast city to find and bring back Lulu -- he does one but not the second. Then the daughter comes, with similar results.

Lulu does eventually get back home. And the ominous hints from the frame story finally come into focus, in a way that I'm afraid is too manipulative and obvious. But that's a minor flaw. Lulu is a real, complex, fascinating woman -- an average-looking person in a provincial city with an average family, living a life that isn't quite giving her what she needs. Davodeau tells her story at a remove, to give her room to be free and a bit unknowable, the way real people always are. His art tells the story cleanly, and the dialogue has just a hint of dialect in it -- I'm not sure if that's intentional, or an artifact of the translation process making the phrasing just that bit clumsy. Lulu Anew is a fine story about a complex person that doesn't try to simply her, and succeeds because of that.

Friday, October 21, 2016

The Story of My Tits by Jennifer Hayden

Um, we all know what it means when a middle-aged creator does a book-length story about a body part, right? OK, maybe it could be some thing thrillingly obscure, like body integrity identity disorder, but 99 times out of a hundred, it means The Big C.

Jennifer Hayden had The Big C. She lived to tell the tale. And that tale is The Story of My Tits.

But Hayden doesn't just want to talk about the Big C, which is gratifying -- we all know that story, and anyone's individual version of it isn't going to be that different in the general outlines. (Is the story told by the person? Then she survived. Is it told by a close family member? Prepare for an even sadder version.) Instead, The Story of My Tits is a general autobiography in comics form, with chapter titles that all reference her tits.

I like this book, because it gives me an opportunity to use the word "tits" repeatedly.

Well, I like it for other reasons, too -- Hayden is engaging and honest and has an infectious enthusiasm for life as well as a quirky art style that looks a little bit like R.O. Blechman -- but the tits thing is a nice bonus.

Hayden is from New Jersey, like I am -- another reason to like her! -- though I think she's a bit older than I am. (A gentleman doesn't dig too much into the age of a lady.) And she's had a lot of life, like all of us. But she's got an interesting through-line here to organize it: the tits thing really means that Story is about self and connection -- how she feels about herself and what people she's close to. After an initial chapter about her childhood, where she was a late and small developer, Story gets deeply into her college love life, and then (once she connected with the man who became her husband) the connections were with his parents and their partners.

From there, it's a lot of incidents and experiences -- she's lived a full life, and is good at looking back at it to pull out moments and sequences -- of her personal and professional life over the next couple of decades. Her parents, and her husband's parents, get older, and that's not always pleasant. The Big C shows up more than once for other people before (Spoiler Alert!) it hits Hayden herself.

Hayden tells all of this in a chatty comics style somewhat influenced by Lynda Barry -- wordy but conversational, focused on people and relationships, the story of a person that's also the story of the communities she's part of. It's a long book -- about 350 pages -- and denser than it looks. But, then, Hayden is telling the story of her whole life, and she's done plenty of things. And, just as  importantly, she's known a lot of people and thought about a lot of things -- The Story of My Tits is the story of all of those things, of the people Hayden has known and the communities she's been part of and the lives she's lived.

And of her tits, too, of course. Can't forget those.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Megg and Mogg in Amsterdam by Simon Hanselmann

Well, um, that was a thing, wasn't it?

I believe Megg and Mogg in Amsterdam is the second book by Simon Hanselmann about his series characters Megg, Mogg, Owl and Werewolf Jones, after Megahex. Megg is a witch -- green skin, long nose, black pointy hat, the whole package. [1] Mogg is her cat/boyfriend. They're both layabouts, stoners, and general losers with no apparent source of support. Owl is their third roommate, and the requisite functional adult of the group: he's a wet blanket, a whiner, and more than slightly annoying, but he actually holds down a job and presumably provides all of the income for this crappy little household. So he takes substantially fewer drugs than Megg or Mogg...which isn't to say he doesn't take any.

Oh, and Werewolf Jones is their dealer, who uses his own product far too much if his temper and mood swings are any indication. Jones also is the sometimes caretaker for his two feral tween sons, who are barely sapient at best. He sometimes seems to be supposed to be wild and wacky and a crazy guy, but more often he just seems psychotic and cruising for some very heavy object to be lovingly placed upside his head. There are some minor characters, too, but they tend not to talk much -- and the main four talk incessantly.

All of these are unpleasant people who do dull things in annoying ways and are both deeply horrible and deeply boring. Hanselmann's art, also, is on the dull side: he mostly uses a simple, almost animation-derived line, and his layouts are relentless grids, varying only in the number of identical boxes on each particular page. He generally puts a lot of small panels full of tedium on every page, so it takes a while to read all of the dull words these dull unpleasant people fling at each other.

You may guess that I did not exactly enjoy this book. You would be correct.

I don't mind comics about stoners -- I really loved Joe Daly's Dungeon Quest books, and wish there was another one of them right now. But I do need those stoners to interact with the outside world at least somewhat, and not sit and stew in their own drug-fueled misery. Even for stoners, Megg and Mogg are whiny dull losers, and that's saying something. If they did anything interesting, they'd be fine. If their non-adventures had snappy dialogue, they'd be OK. If the pages were attractively designed and pleasing to look at, they'd be all right.

But it's not all right. It's not even close to all right.

[1] She doesn't seem to do anything witchy, but then she doesn't do much of anything of any kind. That's kind of the point of these stories.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Crooked by Austin Grossman

The "everything you know is wrong" story is a long-time favorite, with an eternal appeal. Listen, the storyteller whispers as you lean closer, and you'll hear how it really is, the story behind the story, and the secrets that should never have come out. Those stories have to go big, of course -- no one cares about little secrets about little people, like that substance that we call "2% milk" is really, horribly 3% milkfat due to a cabal of fat-loving dairy farmers.

(If the 3% milk was a carefully calibrated amount designed to slow the brains of men as part of a fiendish operation led by the only-appearing-to-be-cows advance force of an alien invasion fleet, then you might have the beginnings of something. Outlandish. Unbelievable. Bizarre. Crazy -- that's what we look for in these kind of stories.)

So what would you say if I told you that Richard M. Nixon was actually the greatest President who ever lived, a man who sacrificed everything to make America permanently safe, a hero who threw away vast power selflessly? Well, I hope that, like your imaginary self in the first paragraph, you'll lean closer and settle in comfortably to learn more.

That's the story Austin Grossman has to tell here. He calls it Crooked. And it tells you that all you know about Nixon -- as well as about the roots of American political power and the real roles of its rulers -- is deeply, deeply wrong. You see, Presidents are magicians. Not in the metaphoric fooling-people sense, or even in the stage-magic sense. Lovecraftian gods are real, the world is full of horrors, and the only thing that keeps human societies safe are mystic bonds forged by blood between rulers and their lands. But magician-kings can be benevolent or malefic, just like any other kind of kings -- and the same goes for presidents. And sometimes power can be claimed in such a way that it can never be taken away again.

I probably shouldn't write too much here about the twists and turns of the plot: in fact, I may have already said too much. (But the whole Nixon's-the-one twist is the whole point of the book; it's hard to discuss it without at least gesturing in the direction of Nixon the ritual practitioner.) Grossman brings us this story in Nixon's own words, and explains many puzzling moments in his life, in the best secret-history style.

And, even more so, Grossman is a fantastic writer of sentences and paragraphs and scenes, with prose that's absolutely perfect dozens of times in Crooked. Look, here's one: "Like an aeons-buried elder god, or a vast extradimensional intelligence, the heart lives by unreadable codes and incomprehensible motives, knowing nothing of dignity or humanity, and more often than not brings only destruction and madness on those who are exposed to its baleful cravings." (p.13)

Or this even better bit, two pages later:
This is a tale of espionage and betrayal and the dark secrets of a decades-long cold war. It is a story of otherworldly horror, of strange nameless forces that lie beneath the reality we know. In other words, it is the story of a marriage.

If I wanted to ding Grossman on anything, it would be on his worldbuilding: there's a faint sense that he's spinning this all out as he goes, and that he hasn't done the obsessive research and background writing of someone like Tim Powers. The world in Crooked isn't thin, but at times it's very convenient, and Grossman is more interested in the flow of Nixon's voice than in nailing down (even in the background or his own head) exactly how ritual magic works and what practitioners need to do to accomplish their ends.

Still, it's a surprisingly emotionally resonant mildly Lovecraftian novel with Richard Nixon as its hero, which is three kinds of unlikely success rolled up into one. And it's a fine third novel from the quirky writer who already brought us Soon I Will Be Invincible and You -- all odd, spiky novels driven by voice, deeply focused on a sideways take on a geeky obsession, and with a slight tendency to skate over lurking plot complications and logical holes.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Turtle Recall: The Discworld Companion...So Far by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Briggs

It's hard to make a guidebook to something that keeps expanding, particularly if you keep trying to nail it down between covers. (Sure, there's always a Wiki if you want ease of updating, but a Wiki is much harder to sell than a book, and publishers aren't in the habit of spending money to build out something that they then give away for free.) Turtle Recall is, if I'm counting correctly, the third edition Discworld Companion, after two earlier versions with separate individual titles.

And not to be morbid or anything, but the only reason why this one is likely to stick is because Terry Pratchett died in 2015 after having only written two more books than those incorporated here. If he'd still been around, he would have kept writing, and Turtle Recall would have been outdated in a few years, just like the other two editions were.

(And, yes, we all do wish we were in that leg of the Trousers of Time. Sadly, we never get that choice.)

Turtle Recall is credited to Pratchett and Stephen Briggs, who has been the motivating force (or maybe just an able pair of hands) behind most of the "non-fiction" Discworld projects for the last two decades -- Mappes, cookbooks, the previous Companions, etc. The text is all pretty Pratchetty, though I have my suspicions that it was Briggs who actually assembled all of it. Of course, one reason bits of that text may be particularly Pratchetty is that they were originally written by Pratchett -- I don't think there's much more than phrases lifted out of the novels, but much larger pieces come from the annual Desk Diaries, from the Mappes, and the other miscellaneous books.

Which is, of course, all as it should be: this is a guide to those other things, so it should tell us what is in those other things. (Preferably in a shorter space, or else the map is equal to the territory and we're into a Borges story.)

That's exactly what this third edition Companion does, in much the same way as the first two editions did it. The Discworld keeps getting bigger and more full of people, so this new edition has to mention many more people and places and shiny new technologies as the Disc strides confidently forward into the Century of the Anchovy.

(Hey, since I can't find any other place to shove it into this post, here comes my theory of Discworld plots. Like most things, Discworld can be divided into three historical eras, based on the typical plots.
  • Early Disc: Creatures from the Dungeon Dimensions want to eat us, and they Must Be Stopped.
  • Medium Disc: There is a very nasty thing -- possibly a creature from elsewhere (not the Dungeon Dimensions!) and possibly a human being with a distinct lack of affect and empathy. It also Must Be Stopped.
  • Late Disc: It's steam-engine time! Aren't steam engines neat! Oh, OK, have a little plot, too. Here are some people doing things, probably including Moist von Lipwig. Nothing Must Be Stopped, because Progress Cannot Be Stopped, and everything just keeps getting better all the time, gosh darn it.)

So, anyway: a guide to Discworld. Updated through Snuff. Quite possibly the last edition of this book, unless Rhianna Pratchett utterly changes her mind and decides to take over the Old Establishment herself. (I'm not betting on it, but who expected Brian Herbert to write more Dune novels than his father when the old man kicked off in 1986?) Utterly useless if you're not interested in those books, but why did you read so long in this blog post if that's the case?

Monday, October 17, 2016

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 10/15

You can't tell, but I'm not here this Monday. I'm actually off in San Francisco, working a trade show for the mighty Thomson Reuters Legal empire, sitting in on sessions and probably meeting a lot of lawyers. But Reviewing the Mail goes on no matter what, and so here are the books that arrived last week. As always, I haven't read them, and what I'm about to say will be based on my suppositions and prior knowledge but may not end up being completely accurate. If I get anything wrong, I apologize in advance.

Alien Morning is, I think, Rick Wilber's first novel -- I'm a little vague because the book doesn't precisely say that and I know I've heard his name around for a while now. (On the other hand, the cover letter does talk about how he's written lots of short stories, which could be the reason for both things.) It's a first-contact novel, aliens-come-to-Earth subdivision, this-ordinary-guy sub-sub-division. The ordinary guy in this case is a journalist, or what that job has been debased into by 2030, and his genius scientist brother is engaged to the equally brilliant female scientist who is the main point of contact with the aliens. (Isn't that also a Robert Charles Wilson book?) It's a Tor hardcover, available November 8th.

The rest of the books this week are manga from Yen Press, and first among them is Ato Sakurai's Today's Cerberus, Vol. 1. An ordinary teenage guy -- yeah, Standard Manga Protagonist #1, Shonen Division -- was bitten by a three-headed dog as a young boy, as you are, and he thus lost a piece of his soul, because obviously. That dog is now back as a sexy schoolmate -- I think, it can sometimes be hard to tell if a teen girl in manga is supposed to be sexy or is just in the standard look -- and wants to help him get that soul-piece back. But supernatural girls in manga never do anything the easy way, so wacky hijinks ensue.

Then there's Tohyo Game, Vol 1: One Black Ballot To You, credited to G.O. (original story), CHIHIRO (adaptation) and Tatsuhiko (art). I'm not sure what it was adapted from -- my guesses are 1) video game and 2) light novel -- but it clearly was adapted. This is one of those horror stories about kids at school who get killed in ironic and horrible ways; in this particular case, it's all set off by a popularity contest, and then the least popular kids start dying hideously. I am old enough that such blatant symbolism no longer appeals to me, but your opinion may differ....

And last is the latest in the reprinting of a very popular series: Natsuki Takaya's Fruits Basket: Collector's Edition, Vol. 6. This new edition collects two of the original tankobon volumes into each larger book, for those who like more pages and bigger art. I haven't read the series, but I think it's a story about a girl who drops into a weird family that also transforms into strange creatures, because every manga has to be in at least two genres at once.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Snoopy and "It Was a Dark and Stormy Night" by Charles M. Schulz

Back when we all did our shopping in person, malls -- remember malls? that was where we did a lot of that shopping -- had bookstores, and those bookstores had checkout counters. And on those counters would be a collection of silly small books, designed for impulse purchase and quick reading. Perhaps it was designed to catch your eye for yourself, or for Aunt Gladys whose birthday is coming up, or for that nice Johnson boy who delivers the paper, but there would be a small clutch of cardboard displays, each with eight-to-ten copies of something amusing, often tied into some vague media idea or fad. (The Olympics or Yuppies or cats or whatever -- it's what we did before the Internet made memes a competition sport.)

And so a lot of things that had "regular" books also threw off little books, for that particular ecological niche. Because if your audience is already shopping for books, why not try to grab them again just before they leave?

That's how the world got Snoopy and "It Was a Dark and Stormy Night." It's essentially the graphic-novelization of the sequences of strips from the late '60s in which Snoopy (then in the process of taking over Peanuts from that round-headed kid) wrote a bad novel and tried in vain to get it published, presented as what may be drawings from those panels or may be then-new art from Sparky. (The book does not make this entirely clear. Knowing Schulz's work ethic, though, my suspicion is that he re-drew it for the book, or at least a lot of it.)

The words, though, are very familiar, as they must be. ("It was a dark and stormy night. Suddenly, a shot rang out! A door slammed. The maid screamed.") Snoopy is writing a bad novel here, obviously, full of melodrama and cliches -- and more amusingly, writing it in the space of two pages, because comic strips don't have that much space to begin with.

But there is enough space for metafiction in Dark and Stormy; we see Snoopy write the book, we see him send it off and be accepted by a publisher, and we eventually see him receive his own copies of that book. And then we read that book, with a cover by Lucy (actually painted by Mark Knowland in a fictional-fussbudget style) and all of the words we've seen Snoopy type -- again, it's not that many of them -- organized together into two sections to form something that vaguely looks like a narrative if you squint really hard.

And the old publishing hand of me is particularly happy to see that the book-in-the-book is printed on different paper and in a different font than the frame story: that's the way to do it.

This is a very silly object, that only exists because Peanuts was world-famous at this point and the licensing folks were happy to leap on any hint of product that could be sold. Still, it's a wonderful silly object, and I'm glad to finally have a copy for my very own after all these years.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Ronald Rabbit Is a Dirty Old Man by Lawrence Block

I concluded the Smut Week of early August with this novel from one of the great mystery writers of our time. But it's not a mystery.

It falls into a very small subgenre: the metafictional sex novel. (I know of two other examples, Donald E. Westlake's Adios, Sheherezade and Hal Dresner's The Man Who Wrote Dirty Books.) The metafictional sex novel is written by the author of actual sex novels, the kind that are hacked out in a few weeks to fill a trashy publisher's behind-the-counter slots in the '50s or '60s, and generally is fueled by a rising tide of bile and self-loathing about writing so much bad vague sex in too short a time. Westlake's book is the exemplar of the form, and Dresner's also falls mostly into line.

(Perhaps we'll see some similar books coming out from the flood of modern ebook erotica? But those writers do it themselves, because they like it, and not to fuel a sleazy capitalist enterprise -- unless you count Amazon. So I think the self-loathing is absent, mostly, in this generation.)

Lawrence Block, though, was doing something else. He'd mostly gotten away from the sex-book world by the late '60s, and he was never the bridge-burner that Westlake was. He instead wanted to see if he could take what he learned about writing a lot of sex and turn it into a more literary exercise, an epistolary novel in a contemporary style. Maybe he also wanted to do something more cheerful than the noir and mystery books he was writing at the time; even his sex books had mostly featured varieties of thriller and mystery plots. All of that led him to the cheerfully vulgar Ronald Rabbit Is a Dirty Old Man, an example of how much chaos one man can cause with a typewriter, a gleeful lack of propriety, and the kind of joie de vivre that only works out right in fiction.

I read Ronald Rabbit once before, soon after Subterranean published this edition in 2000. But that reading was before this blog, and that copy was lost beneath the waters in 2011, so, eventually, I knew I had to get another copy and take another run at it. And Smut Week was the perfect opportunity.

Laurence Clarke [1], in the best fictional tradition, loses everything at the outset of this novel. First, his employer discovers that he's been "stowing away" on Whitestone Publications after the magazine for children that he was hired to edit, Ronald Rabbit's Magazine for Boys and Girls, shut down six months ago. Then, his wife Fran turns out to have been sleeping with his best friend Steve, and the two of them leave him a sad note on their way to Mexico with all of the marital savings. And his ex-wife Lisa has just called off her impending marriage, which leaves Larry on the hook for continued alimony. (This is 1971, remember.) All he has left is the typewriter that he hasn't managed to produce a novel on and a stack of Ronald Rabbit stationery. Oh, and his native wit and anarchic sense of fun, which will be as important.

So he sets out to write some letters -- to his runaway wife, to his erstwhile best friend, to his nagging ex-wife, and to his former employer. (He'll come up with more people to write to along the way, and a few of his targets will even write back -- but most of this short book is in Larry's words, as it should be.)

This is a sex book, so Larry falls into sex. And it's a sex book of the late '60s, so he falls into sex by letting himself be free and open and getting out into the world -- becoming that manic agent of lunacy, basically. It's mostly loving, consensual sex -- not always guaranteed for that era and that genre -- and it's generally in service of the overall aim of the book, which is to show how much chaos and fun Larry can cause  once he's freed from having anything else to worry about.

Ronald Rabbit is not one of Block's major novels. But it's a joyful, manic romp, easily his most gleeful book -- even the frothiest of the Bernie Rhodenbarr novels doesn't come close. And it's an interesting signpost on the long, crooked path of sex in the 20th century novel

[1] Who is clearly Not Lawrence Block. No, no, not the same person at all! Not at all like his creator! Perish the thought.

Friday, October 14, 2016

The Young Girl's Handbook of Good Manners by Pierre Louys

Smut Week continues with Book #3, a fake handbook of etiquette from the French writer Pierre Louys, one of many erotic manuscripts discovered in his papers after his death in 1925. I read a review of it somewhere over the past year, and it sounded like my sort of thing -- I like really cutting satire, I like books that pretend to be a kind of non-fiction that they aren't, and (like everyone else) I like sex.

All that led me to this slim guide: The Young Girl's Handbook of Good Manners. It's in the form of one of those interminable lists of rules for behavior, which were even more common in the late 19th century when Louys was writing. But these rules are all about sex, and Louys paints a picture of ubiquitous debauchery through the things he keeps insisting young ladies should not do.

(How young is that "young" in the title? Too young, for anyone this century. Probably too young even at the time, which is part of the point -- Louys wrote this for his own amusement, and to break as many taboos as possible. If you're not offended, then he failed in his task.)

As usual in works like this, the assumed young girl is polymorphously perverse, engaging in all conceivable sex acts with men and women, family friends and house servants, sex toys and fruit, at all times and in all places. Louys organizes the book into page-long chapters, each with a list of things not to do (and, more rarely, to actually do). Some of the amusement for modern readers comes from the social and cultural assumptions embedded in those rules -- Louys wrote for an audience of people who had servants and fancy dinners, among other things seen less often these days.

This is, of course, a book with no particular redeeming value. But then, so are most books, and Young Girl's Handbook is also wickedly amusing, which most books are not.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Candy Girl by Diablo Cody

This was the second book of my week of smut, back in August -- after I read Vox, I figured I had a theme going and might as well keep it up. Diablo Cody is now a top Hollywood scriptwriter, but a decade ago, she was a wanna-be with a few things in development -- one of which was Juno, and which gave her a big success to launch that career -- and a colorfully interesting past that she mined for a memoir of her life a few years before.

That memoir is Candy Girl; that colorful past is primarily the fact that she worked as a stripper in Minneapolis for about a year in 2003-2004. She was young and at loose ends -- she clearly wanted to be a writer, but she doesn't focus on that much in this book, which is more about her desire to make some money and enjoy her twenties (in that way a lot of people have, to have some crazy years before they inevitably settle down). She had a supportive boyfriend and her "career" in a real office was both maddening and going nowhere, so she signed up for a local strip club's amateur night. She wasn't the usual type -- she was alternative rather than corn-fed blonde, slim rather than va-va-voom, brainy and self-doubting rather than brassy and outgoing -- but she didn't do too badly.

And, of course, she loved it -- the attention, the money, the sense of performance. So it turned into a second job for a while, and then an only job, when she quit that office job that she hated. She never quite considered this what she was really doing, so she bounced from one club to another, and then to working in a booth at a sex shop (which she liked the best, since the customers were always on the other side of a pane of glass).

Again, all of this happened within about a year; this wasn't a long career, just some jobs for a while. It got her into great shape, showed her a new side of life, and put her into a deeply competitive industry for a short but important stint. (How competitive? Think of it this way: a certain amount of money walks in the door of a club every night, and the people there -- dancers, bartenders, and the house itself -- are competing to grab as much of that money as they can. It's a pure zero-sum game, not unlike selling used cars.)

Eventually, of course, she got out -- that's the story here. She tried phone-sex work for a while after dancing naked lost its appeal, but it didn't quite click. So she got another real job in an office, and that's where she leaves herself at the end of this book: looking back on a year of sex work as a crazy, fun interruption in an otherwise bland, normal corporate-job life.

She doesn't say that she got out of sex work to get regular hours again so that she could write, but perhaps that was part of it. Within two years, she wrote this book and the script for Juno, and had both of them on a flightpath to release. That doesn't happen by accident; Cody was clearly focused and smart and writing diligently even during the wild stripper year. (And her prose here shows all of that -- it's wild but controlled, full of amusing metaphors and telling details. Candy Girl is a hoot to read on a sentence level as well as a crazy-stuff-going-on level.)

Memoirs can be about a whole life or a moment: this is one about a moment. Cody keeps a tight focus on the life she lived then, and the craziness of the stripper life, making Candy Girl a wonderfully amusing, sexy jaunt through one wild-hair year in the life of smart, quirky, perceptive woman.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Vox by Nicholson Baker

For some inexplicable reason, one week in early August I decided to spend the week reading smutty books of one kind and another. This was the first of four books on that loose theme that week -- all short, all with some redeeming value, but all about sex in one way or other.

Vox is probably the great smutty novel of the current generation, as Peyton Place was for the post-war generation and I guess Valley of the Dolls was for the boomers. Nicholson Baker, though, has always been a miniaturist in his fiction, so he was never going to give us the sprawling state-of-the-world style of those earlier examples. No, a Baker book is usually about an event, something simple and discreet, that he can then elaborate, to see how much complexity he can layer on top of something simple.

So Vox is the story of one call; two people who connected on a phone-sex line and who switched over to a private line the second before the book begins. Abby and Jim are horny, but they still have high standards: they want to talk to someone interesting while they masturbate.

And they find each other so interesting that they talk for about a hundred and sixty pages before they get down to the serious masturbation.

This is a Baker novel, so it's full of digressions. It starts off about sex, and continuously loops back to sex, since the two people involved want it to, but the conversation isn't closely focused -- the two of them are throwing out ideas and images that arouse them, and riffing on those. They enjoy talking with each other, talking dirty -- I almost said flirting, but it's more than flirting if you hands are already in your pants -- and, in the end, almost enjoy it enough to never stop.

But sex always leads to a climax, and so does Vox. Readers will be happy to learn that it has two climaxes, basically simultaneously, as in all the best such stories.

Baker is an interesting and inventive writer, particularly as he keeps giving himself near-Oulipo-level restraints on what he can write about in a particular book. Vox is one of his most restrained books, since it's nearly all about sex, and thus almost pure Baker. I find that his books are short enough to be enjoyable without wearing out their welcome, but, in case of this particular book, that will depend a lot on your interest in sex and willingness to listen in on these two people's fantasies and desires. (They're pretty vanilla, but I know some of you are either too prudish to like anything or too jaded to care about the basics -- because people are both of those things, and you're people.)

Vox isn't the scandalous book it was twenty-four years ago, and it's technology is slightly outdated. (Who looks for a hookup by talking, these days?) But the impulse and the desire is eternal, and it's still a sexy run through the fantasies of two inventive people who are discovering how compatible they are.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

After the Fall by Victoria Roberts

Every so often, quirkiness is personified almost purely in a book: this is one such, from New Yorker cartoonist Victoria Roberts.

After the Fall is a fable, I suppose, but one without a moral -- just a story that meanders through a collection ofNew York stereotypes. A quirky rich Upper East Side family -- thin glamorous mother from Buenos Aires, tubby absent-minded inventory father, our neurotic narrator the ten-year-old son, and his precocious younger sister -- suddenly "lose everything" and wake up the next morning with all of their furniture arranged in Central Park.

(So the "everything" they lost does not include any of their actual stuff.)

They then try to live -- with the aid of their two Mexican maids, who stay on without pay to care for this deeply useless family amid the trees and park benches -- in their new home, turning it into as close a simulacrum of their luxurious apartment as they can. Complications arise, the marriage is in danger, but then, as inexplicably as it began, the crisis is over and they are restored to their proper place as rich people in a big apartment.

They learn nothing. They do just about nothing. They do look very amusing in Roberts's pictures, though.

After the Fall, I'm afraid, is like Gertrude Stein's Oakland for me: there's no there there. I may have entirely missed the point of the book, I admit. But I can't quite tell where that point would have resided, if it were there for me to miss. The quotes and reviews compare it to Edward Gorey, but Roberts is vastly gentler than Gorey, and has a deeply renormative ending, which is entirely un-Goreyan.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 10/8

Hey! It's another week, and I've got a batch of books to tell you about. All of these are newly published, and I haven't read any of them. But let's not let that stop us here. Who knows? Maybe one of these could be your new favorite!

First up is Ken Liu's The Wall of Storms, a big fat fantasy novel and the second in his "Dandelion Dynasty" series. The guy who became Emperor Ragin in the first book now has to deal with an invading empire on his east, and sends his adult children off to battle the invaders with armies and stealth. This is a hardcover from Saga Press.

(Everything else from here on out is from Yen Press -- either manga or light novels related to manga. So I'll just say that once. It's also vaguely in alphabetical order, broken up by size of book, because that's the easiest way to stack them.)

Akame ga KILL!, Vol. 8 comes from Takahiro and Tetsuya Tashiro, and the back cover tells me that Akame and her team have "finally arrived at the headquarters of the religious organization." Does this organization have a name? You'll have to read the book to find out...

Aoharu x Machinegun, Vol. 1 is by an entity credited only as NAOE. The heroine, Hotaru, gets sucked into "the world of survival games" after her neighbor cons a classmate out of her money at a host club...and somehow that leads to Hotaru dueling him with fake guns and losing. I have no idea how to genre-type this, honestly.

Ningen and Yuu Miyazaki return with The Asterisk War, Vol. 2, which continues a story adapted from Miyazaki's light novel of the same name. This is a magical-school story, set in the title city, where there are a number of such schools. And I think this is also the series where people have duels at the drop of a hat.

Bloody Cross, Vol. 12 finishes up the series from Shiwo Komeyama about various demons and angels competing to be the next God (yes -- Yahweh, Jehovah, the Christian god). At this point in the series, the thirteen divine relics have been collected and "the Black Seal bearer's blood has been spilled," so everyone can move on to Round Two and actually have the big final battle for the divine throne. I suspect Komeyama doesn't intend it to be as blasphemous as it is.

Another light novel adaptation: A Certain Magical Index, Vol. 7, by Chuya Kogino from Kazuma Kamachi's original. This is yet another young-magicians-at-school story, which certainly wasn't influenced by any Scottish writers I could name. Definitely not.

The Devil Is a Part-Timer!, Vol. 7 also is from a light novel series (by Satoshi Wagahara), and was adapted by Akio Hiiragi. OK, so the Devil King of some other world was deposed by The Hero, and now both of them are teenagers in Tokyo, working in a fast-food restaurant and somehow also the parents of a toddler named Alas Ramus -- that child, I'm certain, which they did not produce in the normal way. I think they know who each other are, but I'm not totally certain about that.

Horimiya, Vol. 5 comes from Hero and Daisuke Hagiwara, and is a school-romance story. (With no added demons, or world-saving, or haunted schools, or ancient prophecies, or harems. There may be a hot-springs trip somewhere in it, but nothing wackier than that.)

Kagerou Daze, Vol. 7 is another series adapted from a light-novel series. This time, the novelist is Jin (Shizen no Teki-P) and the manga-ka is Mahiro Satou. The back cover insists "the tale of Azami begins here!" which I hope doesn't mean the first six volumes were pointless. I don't know who Azami is, or who else this series is about, though.

Yet another adaptation! Mamare Touno's light novel becomes Koyuki's manga in Log Horizon, The West Wing Brigade, Vol. 4. Our heroes are trapped in a MMORPG -- as happens distressingly often in Japanese culture -- but it sounds like this one is not as hack-and-slash-focused as the online games I'm used to, since the plot of this volume revolves around a new burger restaurant opening in their neighborhood. (Yes, in the game.)

And one more -- from Tappei Nagatsuki's light novel, into Daichi Matsuse's manga, and then we have the jaw-breaking Re:Zero: Starting Life in Another World -- Chapter 1: A Day in the Capital, Vol. 2. The hero of this one was not trapped in a video game, but was thrown into an alternate world with a lot of fighting and danger in it.

Shinjiro is responsible for Taboo Tattoo, Vol. 4, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise. I think this one is about people who fight with magical tattoos. The back cover copy -- all about the elite troops of the United States trying to stop Princess Aryabhata from reaching "the last ruin site" and Seigi not being the only one with a "keyless Spell Crest" -- is of no help to me in understanding it.

Barakamon, Vol. 12 is by Satsuki Yoshino, and not based on anything else in any medium...except for the fact that this fish-out-of-water story (uptight professional from the big city rusticates to a tiny little remote village filled with colorful characters) will remind many of you of many other things.

The Devil Is a Part-Timer! High School!, Vol. 5 ends this spin-off series about the Demon King and his nemesis in high school -- like the main series, the story is credited to Satoshi Wagahara, author of the light novels, but the art here is by Kurone Mishima.

Handa-Kun, Vol. 4 comes from Satsuki Yoshino (yes, again), and is, I think, a satirical high-school story about a boy who just wants to be left alone but keeps getting dragged into clubs and activities and the various oddballs of his school.

Psycome, Vol. 2: Murder Princess and the Summer Death Camp is a a light novel by Mizuki Mizushiro with illustrations by Namanie. (The main title is shortened version of "Psycho Love Comedy," which would not be terribly auspicious, though it's lapped several times by the subtitle.) So, our hero somehow got stuck at Purgatorium Remedial Academy, which I think is for murderous teens -- they may be in prison, or that may just be a theme, it's not entirely clear. And, in this book, the whole school decamps for a prison-themed summer camp! There's some kind of romance, and of course most of the characters are murderers -- mostly cute girl murderers, because Japan.

Scum's Wish, Vol. 1 begins a new manga series by Mengo Yokoyari about a cute high school couple  whose "relationship is built on a single shared secret: they're both in love with someone else." I'm not sure if it's the same "someone else," or if they each have their own someone else.

And last for this week is another light novel: Sword Art Online: Progressive, Vol. 4 by Reki Kawahara with illustrations by abec. The "Progressive" books retell the story of the first book in the "Sword Art Online" series -- in which our heroes are, yes, trapped in a MMORPG where death is real -- at much greater length, apparently because the audience likes that novel better than its sequels.