Thursday, July 18, 2019

Pillow Fight by Brandon Graham

So this is not a book to review, exactly. But, since I'm doing posts on all of the books I read -- even now, in my lesser state this year -- I figured I should at least mention Brandon Graham's smutty 2006 "graphic" "novel" Pillow Fight, since I did read it.

Graham, like a lot of comics-makers starting out in the Great Smutty Comics Boom (lasting roughly from Eros's birth in 1990 to the utter apotheosis of the Smutty Internet and the near-simultaneous Great Recession), did smutty print comics at the beginning of his career. This was one of them; it followed the similar album Perverts of the Unknown, which I haven't seen. (He did other, non-smutty early work, too -- that was pretty common, and probably still is these days, though the smutty stuff now tends to be password-locked at places like Slipshine and Filthy Figments, so it may be easier to keep the two strands of career separated without using pseudonyms.)

So Pillow Fight is a short, album-format comic, published as part of a sex-oriented imprint (NBM's Amerotica), and the plot and characterization is all sex-comic stuff -- the point is to move smoothly through a bunch of sex scenes and have some humor and general story virtues along the way as well.

Our main character is Jem, a young woman being sent off to boarding school after her parents walked in on her in flagrante -- Graham does not describe exactly what she was doing, or with whom, but it was clearly very steamy, and "with whom" might have been a multiple-choice answer. But she arrives at this unnamed school for "naughties," quickly meets her new roommate Bones, and first witnesses a scene with said roommate and soon after has sex with that roommate herself. And so it goes on from there -- it's a short book, and the point of this kind of thing isn't plot to begin with.

Graham has his usual punny jokes -- both visual and spoken -- though his work was cleaner and less cluttered this early in his career. (He wasn't cramming in as many visual jokes and pun labels at this point.) The jokes tend to be up front in the narrative in this book instead of half-hidden off to the edges.

But the point is to be a sex book, with nubile young women enthusiastically doing every last thing the young Graham could think up. Graham's line was zippy and precise by this point; it's drawn in basically the same style he still uses now. It's mostly of interested to big fans of Graham (like me) digging up the last disreputable corners of his oeuvre, or for people who really really like naughty schoolgirl stories.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe

Severian obviously had a presentiment of his future. But Gene Wolfe is a writer who will never say anything outright if he can instead hint, and who will never say something simple when he can imply something complex.

Since life itself is complex, that can make Wolfe a deeply engaging writer who makes worlds as quirky and real as our own. It can also make him a frustratingly vague writer who never quite makes important points clear. But no artist hits his heights all the time: all have less successful works.

Today, I'm writing about Wolfe's most famous, and one of his most successful, stories: The Book of the New Sun. Originally published as the four novels The Shadow of the Torturer, The Claw of the Conciliator, The Sword of the Lictor, and The Citadel of the Autarch between 1980 and 1982, it's most commonly seen as the two omnibuses Shadow & Claw and Sword & Citadel today. (Back when I worked for the SFBC, I did a single-volume edition with a new Don Maitz cover as an included poster; there have been other single-volume editions over the years as well.)

Severian is the narrator and main character of New Sun. Well, the story is all told in the first person, telling a single story in sequence, starting with the experiences of a young man named Severian...but that person will be quite different, in very science-fictional ways, by the end of the story. Still, let us call him Severian: he does.

We meet Severian as a teenager, an apprentice of the Order for the Seekers of Truth and Penitence, vulgarly known as the guild of torturers, housed in the Matachin Tower of the Citadel, somewhere deep in the ancient sprawling city of Nessus on the river Gyoll. Gyoll and Nessus are on Urth -- this is so far in the future that the name of the planet has drifted, so far in the future (it's implied) that the continents themselves have drifted a bit, so the lands surrounding Nessus are similar but not identical to our South America. It's so far in the future that empires have risen and fallen, men have expanded to the stars and lost that capability -- possibly more than once. It's so far in the future that our own age is a hazy mythic past, mostly forgotten and entirely misunderstood. It's so far in the future that the "towers" of the Citadel are clearly spaceships of some kind, in the traditional old '50s phallic shapes, left rusting in what may have been their port however many ages ago. It's so far in the future that, in a nod to Jack Vance, the Sun is slowly dying, this Urth growing colder and less amenable to life, as they both await a prophesied deliverer, the "New Sun" who is both a person and the white hole he will bring to that star to rejuvenate it for another age.

(Nearly all of those things, like everything interesting and important in a Wolfe novel, need to be figured out by the reader. I'll state more of those discoveries baldly here, and leave some vague -- in this, I'll be clearer than Wolfe, but in my defense I'm doing something different here than he was.)

Severian is a brilliant creation: a self-declared man with perfect memory who is forced to confront the things he has forgotten, a man intelligent but self-deluded in multiple ways, insightful but deeply limited, writing from a perspective much later than the events he's telling us about and coloring those memories through everything else he tells us and doesn't tell us. [1] And the world he travels across is equally wondrous, at first feeling like a standard sword & sorcery world -- Severian even gets a big sword with a fancy name for his journeys -- but full of revealing hints about the true nature of those elements. Wolfe writes books like onions, with nearly endless thin layers of new revelations and implications, and Book of the New Sun is the book where the still-young Wolfe stretched to show the full depth of what he could do. He wrote other multi-book sequences later on -- the loosely-linked Latro novels, and two similar and loosely related sequences to New Sun, called The Book of the Long Sun and The Book of the Short Sun respectively -- but this was where he captured lightning in a jar, writing a deeply Wolfean story full of hidden depths that still had a bright exciting surface to draw in readers and make them want to explore those depths.

Later, Wolfe's books would seem to wander, but New Sun is carefully constructed, full of parallels and made up of four novels that each cover specific way-points on Severian's journey. (And, in that very Wolfean way, the beginning of one book does not pick up from the end of the previous one -- New Sun is one story, but not one continuous narrative. Wolfe must always leave himself places to hide things.)

It begins, as I said, with young Severian, sneaking out with his fellow apprentices to swim in the river, against the rules. He "nearly" drowns in that river, and then has a life-changing encounter in the graveyard the boys travel through on the way back. The opening chapters of Shadow of the Torturer could lull the reader into expecting a traditional coming-of-age story: it's organized around his life in the Matachin Tower, as he becomes head of the apprentices, moves towards taking his next role as a journeyman, and has more responsibilities towards his order's "clients."

But the first reversal that the reader is likely to notice -- Wolfe has already palmed a few in those early chapters, which you won't realize until later -- is on the way, and Severian will be walking far from the Citadel, in his four-part journey, with various companions and alone, across this big and complex world, filled with ancient words that hint at but don't exactly explain the things they label. (Calvary ride "destriers" that are in no way horses, bearing "conti" and "lances" that fire what seem to be energy beams.) Half of the enjoyment is just in seeing what Wolfe does with words, and following Severian's near-picaresque adventures. The other, deeper half lies in figuring out what is really happening: the things Severian doesn't tell us or doesn't realize himself.

This is one of the greatest achievements in science fiction, so I do recommend you read it, at least once. (Though it's the kind of book that you get more out of on a re-read: if it were possible, I'd recommending reading it for the second time to begin with.) If you do read it, remember: everything Wolfe tells you is important. Every detail connects to something else; every character has things to tell you about the world or their relationships; every time Severian mentions his perfect memory is a tell that something he's writing about is wrong, a lie or a bad memory or something more subtle. This is not a book for a lazy reader, for the person willing to give it full attention, it can be a book of gold.

[1] He is also, I should mention, casually cruel to women: his whole world values life very low to begin with, but it could be argued Severian is even more misogynistic than misanthropic. This is a minor point when writing about New Sun, but more important when looking at Wolfe's work as a whole, where women do not fare very well at all.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 7/13/19

Back again! This week I have one book, which came in the mail, as is traditional.

Lavie Tidhar's The Violent Century is a 2013 SF novel, but I don't think it's had a wide US paperback release yet. Tachyon is remedying that with this trade paperback edition, available right now and featuring a new Cory Doctorow introduction.

As far as I can tell, Violent Century is Tidhar's superhero/cold war spy novel -- I still haven't read any of Tidhar's novels, despite two other stacked up on my shelves patiently waiting for me. (A lot of books are there patiently waiting for me, plus many more on lists -- it's a big world full of great books and not enough time.) But Tidhar is definitely one of the most interesting, vital writers in the SF/fantasy field right now, so I hope you're not waiting for me to read one of his books and tell you about it. (I mean, I still plan to do that, but don't wait for me.)

As a bonus, for those of you who suffer massive anxiety, like a certain former New York Times SF reviewer, about reading garishly-covered genre fiction on the train, Violent Century has an exceptionally classy cover that only just hints at the fantastic elements inside.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Curious Customs by Tad Tuleja

It's weird to think that the world has changed irrevocably in your own life. Even weirder when those changes are silly, minor things, so that it feels like obsession to even mention them. But Tad Tuleja's 1987 book Curious Customs -- part of a minor but healthy strand of non-fiction book publishing in the late 20th century -- is entirely a product of a culture and world that is completely gone.

Curious Customs is a "weird facts" book, of the subcategory "let me tell you the real reason for these things." Those books were never as deeply researched as they pretended to be, of course. They were generally written by a guy (usually a guy) or a small team with a room of reference books and a list of stuff to write about, and had the usual professional-writer tropism to a good story when it might be in conflict with messy or unknown truth. The subtitle is "The Stories Behind 296 Popular American Rituals" -- that's another hallmark of the genre, by the way: the quirky, not-quite-round large number of things that you the reader will learn.

If Tuleja started work on this book a decade later, in the mid-90s rather than the mid-80s, he would have used the Internet at least somewhat. If he started it any time this century, the Internet would have been his first and probably primary research tool: even books are accessible through Google Books, vastly more accessible except for a few rare cases of researchers who have direct access to major un-digitized repositories. (And I'm not clear on how many of those there are, either -- researchers or repositories.) But he worked on this in the '80s, and so there's a big list of books in the back that he consulted, and we can be pretty sure that list is basically comprehensive.

Tuleja also consulted his own deeply ingrained cultural biases, which is clear from every line of his book. I don't know him at all, but my guess is that he's an old-school Northeastern Brahmin -- I'd bet on "Boston," if I had the money to spare -- who was in his grumpy middle years when this book was published.

Because, frankly, Curious Customs is full of bullshit: not just "this is the story, but historians tend to doubt it" bullshit, but pure "I am an expert and I am telling you the truth because I know these things" bullshit, including lots of times where the things Tuleja cites or glancingly mentions blow holes in his preferred explanations. I won't say it's all bullshit -- Tuleja gets things right, or as right as it's possible to be on messy issues of popular or cultural history, at least half of the time. But there's a hell of a lot of times where he's clearly just being the grumpy old guy coming down on the side of the story he wants to believe, or the one that fits his obvious biases.

There's also, as I alluded to above, the tropism of liking the good story over the boringly messy truth. Tuleja didn't fall for any of the really obviously wrong stories (like the acronym versions of posh and fuck), but he uses the "must have" construction an awful lot, until the reader can feel Tuleja's hand pressing down on the scales in favor of the deeply dubious explanation that he likes for his own reasons.

This is an annoying book: this is what I'm saying. I'm somewhat surprised that I finished it. Even reading it in bits and pieces in the smallest room of the house meant I was hit with a "he said what?!" once or twice a week.

That's sad because I like books like this, and I think they're becoming scarce. The Internet is a more natural home for random facts -- listicles are a more evolved version of the creatures that fit this particular ecological niche. So it's annoying to see that even in their heyday, they could still be crappy.

I do not recommend Curious Customs, unless you happen to be researching late 20th century mores and accepted wisdom. If you do happen to be researching those things, Tuleja is a treasure trove of assumptions and excluded middles.

Monday, July 08, 2019

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 7/6/19

This week I have one book: a middle-grade graphic novel coming from Little, Brown in January 2020.

In fact, it's so far in the future that some of the art isn't final, which is fascinating to me. (My guess: this was created for the recent BookExpo -- which I still want to call ABA, since that's what it was called back when I had a job in book publishing -- and so they went with the feature-complete version available at the time.) The eventual book will be in full-color, but this proof is entirely black-and-white: some sequences, scattered throughout, are fully-rendered with shading and tones, while a lot of the book is in an intermediate line-art format. It looks like all of the captions are final and in place, showing one way digital production has changed how comics are made: that used to be the very last thing.

This is interesting because it's exactly like when a prose book has an unedited (or midway-through-editing) version dumped into proof form, and I haven't seen a graphic-novel example of that before. (Back in my SFBC days, it was rare but not unknown to get a "bound galley" that was shot straight from the manuscript pages -- totally unedited but easier to read than a stack of loose pages. And most galleys have a "this text is not final" warning on them somewhere.)

Anyway, this is a neat moment-in-time artifact even before I get into the usual book stuff, like the story.

The book is The Deep & Dark Blue, by Niki Smith, whose sexy book Crossplay got some attention last year. (Full disclosure: I thought it sounded interesting, but I haven't read it or seen it.) Deep is a fantasy adventure of some kind, with tween twins hiding after a coup shatters their ruling house. They also may be hiding under different gender identities, though the descriptive copy doesn't make that clear -- their real names are Hawke and Grayson, their in-hiding names are Hanna and Grayce, and there's a reference to one of them wanting to "finally live as a girl." That's one story strand, I expect, with the beating-the-usurpers as probably equally or more important. I don't see any sign that this is "Book 1 of X" but that's always a possibility.

So this is for tweens, and about tweens, with the usual magic and adventure but probably also an element that will make the usual complainers grump loudly about it. For some of us, that's a good reason to take a second look at it: anything those people are likely to hate has to have something going for it.

Unfortunately, most of you will have to wait until January to check it out!

Friday, July 05, 2019

Quote of the Week: The Possibly Proper Death Litany

"Insofar as I may be heard by anything, which may or may not care what I have to say, I ask, if it matters, that you be forgiven for anything you may have done or failed to do which requires forgiveness. Conversely, if not forgiveness but something else may be required to ensure any possible benefit for which you may be eligible after the destruction of your body, I ask that this, whatever it may be, be granted or withheld, as the case may be, in such a manner as to insure you receiving said benefit. I ask this in my capacity as your elected intermediary between yourself and that which may not be yourself, but which may have an interest in the matter of your receiving as much as it is possible for you to receive of this thing, and which in some way be influenced by this ceremony. Amen."
- Roger Zelazny, Creatures of Light and Darkness, p.40 (Avon 1969 pb)

Monday, June 24, 2019

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 6/22/19

I should have listed these two books last week; they were birthday presents that I got at a party last Saturday. (That party was already pretty late, since my birthday was at the beginning of the month. On the other hand, I bought them myself and gave to my wife to wrap, so it's not like I was kept in suspense for a long time.)

But things have been a bit hectic at La Casa Hornswoggler; my younger son (who I used to call Thing 2 here) just graduated from high school and got his Eagle Scout, so it's been a flurry of preparations and rehearsals and class trips and gala luncheons and actual graduation ceremonies interrupted by torrents of rain.

So I'm here today instead, a week later, to mention two books I recently bought myself, which I'm afraid might just cement everyone's impression of me as a child of the '80s who only reads comics. If so...oh well.

Mister X: The Archives reprints the first Vortex comics series from 1984-88, written (at least some of the time) by Dean Motter, and always orchestrated and designed by him. Due to the business practices of Vortex owner Bill Marks, and the nature of the comics field at the time, the actual writing and drawing are by a bewildering array of folks, many of whom became famous for other stuff along the way: Gilbert & Jaime Hernandez, Seth, Ty Templeton, Paul Rivoche, Klaus Schonenfeld. As I remember it, there's a lot of good material that doesn't entirely cohere into one narrative: Mister X was always at least as much about the visual image of Radiant City, and the possible stories of that place, as it was about telling this story that it set out to do. But I haven't read these comics in twenty years or more, and I might not have read all of them in order the first time: the '80s were a chaotic, confusing time for comics, and I was a college student while this series was coming out in fits and starts.

Is This How You See Me? is the newest graphic novel by Jaime Hernandez, for another few weeks at least until Tonta comes out. It collects the major Maggie-and-Hopey story from the end of New Stories and the beginning of the current Love and Rockets floppy series -- the big story he did right after "The Love Bungers." (So, y'know, expectations were high.) I've covered this story in serial form ta the end of my big L&R re-read last year, but I expect this version will be different, in subtle and maybe even obvious ways.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 6/8/19

Three books this week, all of which came in the mail. (One of them is a repeat, though -- I'll start with that one.)

The Last Tsar's Dragons is a new fantasy novel by Jane Yolen and Adam Stemple, who also happen to be mother and son. I still have the copy I got in early February, and have not yet read it. (There's a lot of books I have but haven't read yet, and I seem to be reading more slowly now than ever.) See the older post for more details, but it seems to be pretty much what the title promises, and that is intriguing. This is a trade paperback from Tachyon Publications , officially publishing a week from tomorrow.

Ivory Apples is also from Tachyon, and is the new novel from the always-interesting Lisa Goldstein. (She only comes out with a novel every three years or so, but they're each individual books that no one else could have written.) This is a contemporary fantasy, about a family that shares the secret of magic and that hides their Great-Aunt, who wrote a famous fantasy novel (also called Ivory Apples) many years ago but still attracts smart, devoted, sneaky, obsessive fans. The novel is set in motion by the arrival of one such fan, which I presume threatens to reveal whatever magic actually is in this book. (It's probably not a friendly or controllable thing, knowing Goldstein.) Ivory Apples will be published as a trade paperback on September 17th.

Starship Repo is the second novel by Patrick S. Tomlinson, after Gate Crashers, but it doesn't seem to be a sequel. (That's rare enough, these days, to be called out specifically. It may be set in the same universe, though: I haven't read Crashers yet, since it is on the same shelf referenced above.) Tomlinson seems to be doing light SF adventure -- not quite humorous SF, but not-particularly-hard SF with funny character bits and a mildly absurd universe -- that looks appealing, so I'll have to read one of them one of these days before he's got thirty books out and a shelf-full of awards. Repo is the story of Firstname Lastname (not her original name, but the result of a clerical error that is sticking harder than she expected), a refugee/budding con-woman wandering out into the wilder reaches of this multi-species galaxy and finding a new job implied by the title. Repo is also a trade paperback, from Tor, and it came out in May.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Jeeves in the Offing by P.G. Wodehouse

I've written here, a number of times, that I turn to P.G. Wodehouse when I'm in a reading slump. I hope every reader has a writer like that: someone who consistently sparks joy and can be guaranteed to make you happier in the reading.

More than that, Wodehouse for me is one of those writers who it's far easier to just keep reading than to stop. And that's just what you need in a reading slump: someone who reminds you why you like reading and want to do more of it.

I'm in a pretty big reading slump this year, as I expected. Coming off my biggest Book-A-Day extravaganza ever, it was inevitable. But it hit harder even than I expected: I read three books in January, two in February, and none at all in March. As of the moment I'm writing this -- much later than I'd prefer, which is its own issue -- I've only read eleven books. Last year, I hit that total on January 11.

So, around the beginning of May, I turned to Wodehouse. Jeeves in the Offing is a late book, published in 1960 when Wodehouse was 79 -- though he kept living, and writing, for another fifteen years. This is from the era when US and UK titles diverged for no obvious reason; it was originally known as How Right You Are, Jeeves on my shores. (My assumption, as usual, is that someone expected that Americans would be too dumb to know what an "offing" was, and that someone was probably right.)

Like the other late Jeeves books, Offing has a bit of the remix collection about it: our narrator and central character Bertie Wooster travels back to Brinkley Court, where a famous cow-creamer is inevitably found to be missing. There are people who may be loony, and Sir Roderick Glossop the famous loony-doctor to secretly examine them, and someone (Glossop himself, as it happens) impersonating a butler. There is Bobbie Wickham, engaged to an old friend of Bertie's, though not above breaking that engagement and declaring Bertie will be her husband when situations warrant. There is a writer, in this case the grumpy mystery novelist Mrs. Homer Cream, and a Jeeves momentarily unavailable due to his annual holidays. There are complications, as there must be, mostly arising from threatened legal actions and the attempted sale of various things and engagements that need just a bit more money to come to the fruition of marriage. (Perhaps surprisingly for a light writer, Wodehouse's plots are about money most of the time.)

But we don't read Wodehouse for novelty. We read Wodehouse because we know the ingredients, and we want to see what kind of souffle he made from them this time. Offing is a frothy, savory, delicious souffle, buoyed by Bertie's uniquely confident and uniquely deluded voice. I don't know if I'm reading more quickly since I read it, but it made me happy and made me want to read more books, and that's a wonderful thing.

Monday, May 27, 2019

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 5/25/19

One book this week, which came in the mail (like the old days!):

Kingdom of the Cursed is a new fantasy novel by Greg Keyes, second in the "High and Faraway" series (after The Reign of the Departed), and it's coming in trade paperback from Night Shade on June 18th.

So somehow I missed the beginning of a new series from Keyes -- I really liked his steampunky alternate-fantasy series "Age of Unreason" back when I was at the SFBC, and thought his "Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone" started as strong (and more focused) than George Martin's "Game of Thrones" series. (If I'm being totally honest, I found the last Kingdoms book a bit rushed...but Keyes did manage to end his story in four books, which is a major plus.)

It looks like this one is a portal fantasy with possible YA elements -- the hero is a teen who found himself in the body of some kind of automaton in a fantasy world after accidentally committing suicide, if I have that right. I may have to track down the first book: Keyes is a strong writer whose stories get more convoluted and crazy as they go, and it's been a decade since his last non-sharecropped book. It's great to see him back.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 5/17/19

This week I have three books that I bought -- all things I used to own before my 2011 flood, and felt like reading again. All of them are mildly out of print, I think, but that doesn't mean as much these days: most books are accessible, with Internet-aided book searches and ebooks and all that rot, to anyone who knows about them and wants them enough.

It's a goddamn utopia, isn't it?

Anyway, I'm going to list these books in order from most obscure to least, partially because that's the way they're already stacked.

Creatures of Light and Darkness -- Roger Zelazny's most obscure novel, in the Avon paperback with the Amber-style Ron Walotsky cover. The hardcover is almost nonexistent, due to some confusion as to which Zelazny book was supposed to be pulped back in 1969, right after Creatures was printed (hint: the plan wasn't to pulp the brand-new one). But it would be pretty darn obscure anyway: it's a quirky, weird, self-indulgent book. Or at least I remember it that way: it's as old as I am and I haven't read it in probably three decades. It is far-future SF of the kind that wraps back around to fantasy, except wrapped around five or six times for good measure and told sideways.

Speaking of far-future SF that wraps around to fantasy (and things told sideways), I also have Gene Wolfe's The Urth of the New Sun. This is not the fifth book of the four-book "Book of the New Sun" series, but a separate novel that follows that series. And I got this for the obvious reason: I'm re-reading "Book of the New Sun" right now, and thought I might want to keep going. I'm not currently planning to dive into the related Books of the Long and Short Sun, but who knows?

And last is also from Gene Wolfe, and similarly related: Castle of Days. This is a sort-of omnibus of the early story collection Gene Wolfe's Book of Days (with the stories arranged to line up to various holidays during a year), Castle of the Otter (a small book of essays about Book of the New Sun) and "Castle of Days" (a larger collection of more miscellaneous essays). I'm definitely going to read the Otter essays, and probably the miscellaneous ones -- I'm a sucker for novelists' occasional nonfiction anyway.

Finally: Yes, I did start Book of the New Sun because Wolfe died recently: it was a damn shame and a huge loss to literature, but, at the very least, a death can remind us of someone important and the great work they did. If it does that, we can at least keep their memory and work alive. Or maybe we just tell ourselves that, so we feel less horrified by the thought that we, too, will die, sooner than we would like.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 5/10/19

This week I have two books: both came in the mail from the fine folks at Night Shade Books.

Mythic Journeys: Retold Myths and Legends is a new reprint anthology edited by Paula Guran. It's a nice big book, over 400 pages and twenty-seven stories, and the focus is loose enough to be interesting but not restrictive. (I've seen books like this that are all Greek myths, or all Aesop's fables, and that means a reader can often guess where a story is going from the first page.) This officially hit stores on My 7th, which means you should be able to find it wherever you prefer to buy books. Included are stories by Nisi Shawl, Catherynne M. Valente, Sofia Samatar, Rachel Swirsky, M. Rickert, Rachel Pollack, Elizabeth Hand, and Yoon Ha Lee, as old as Tanith Lee's "The Gorgon" from 1982 and as new as Tansy Rayner Roberts's "How to Survive an Epic Journey" from 2017.

And for something completely different, Night Shade also just published Neal Asher's The Warship, the second book in the "Rise of the Jain" space-opera series. It follows The Soldier in that series, and doesn't say how long the series is. (Though my experience of Asher is that all of his books basically stand alone -- he does the same kind of thing each time, but you can jump in with any book, and they're all fun modern space adventure with lots of action.) I haven't read Asher in a while, but what I read of his stuff was all good: if you ever wished Iain Banks would cut out the convoluted plots and just concentrate on things blowing up, you'll like Asher. This is also set in his common Polity universe, for returning Asher readers.

Wednesday, May 01, 2019

The Not-Quite States of America by Doug Mack

Whether or not the USA is an imperial power is a contentious question: it depends on your politics, your definition of "imperial," and probably who the President is at the moment. But the question of whether the US is an actual empire -- you know, with extra-territorial possessions that it conquered in wars and that are not incorporated into the country itself -- should be simpler, right?

And the answer is...Yes, actually.

Doug Mack explores that surprising answer in his recent book The Not-Quite States of America, a travelogue of all of the places that are attached to the USA but not actually part of it in the pure sense. He visited the US Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and Puerto Rico, all of which are full of people subject to the laws and taxes of the US and none of which actually have any representation in making those laws and taxes. [1]

Hey, I seem to remember that was a really big deal in some war the US fought. Guess it's less important when we're applying it to others.

My snark aside, the territories [2] are interesting places with quirky relationships to the USA, and all of them are conquered territory, either from the turn of the 20th century or from WWII -- which, clearly, is the cause of those quirky, complicated relationships. (Big powers tend to want to hold onto things they've acquired: that's how they became, and stay, big powers.) And they tend to raise those big questions, about what it means to be an American, and who qualifies. Most of the folks in all of these territories have skin darker than one end of the US political spectrum prefers, for example, and so, even if they consider themselves Americans (and they don't, always, entirely, consistently), would tend to be excluded by those contentious gents in the bright red caps for that reason.

Mack avoids those kind of questions, possibly for reasons of timing: Not-Quite States was published in 2017, and it's not entirely clear when the journeys he chronicles here actually took place. (Travel writing takes a lot of time and money -- I didn't see any indication that these pieces first appeared as individual articles, though they certainly could have, and that's usually my assumption with a travel book like this.) Instead, he's doing the core travel-writer thing: go to this place to talk to the people there, see the sights, wander around, and try to understand it as best he can in a short period of time.

Each of those places is distinct and individual, but their concerns rhyme -- they all have those deep questions about whether they want to stay in their current relationship with the USA, get closer, or break away entirely. The details are different: the don't have the same options, for one thing. And they're all poorer than the US average, more likely to join the military, and a few other similarities.

Mack is a pleasant tour guide through these territories: he does focus the book on himself and his quest to understand the territories, but he's standing in for the reader in that. (No one will read Not-Quite States unless they do care about learning about these quirky US possessions and want to think about how they relate to the larger polity.) He made what seem to be good contacts in all of these places, had some intriguing conversations, learned some interesting things, and wrote about them all in a graceful way. Not-Quite States does what a travel book should do, and does it well; I enjoyed reading it.

[1] And, in many cases, it's even more complicated than that: courts have ruled that some laws don't apply to the territories at all, and Congress can rule all of them pretty much by fiat if it really wanted to.

[2] Puerto Rico and the NMI are officially Commonwealths, which, again, is a more complicated way of defining essentially the same thing.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 4/27/19

Two books came in the mail this week, and I'm going to hit them in order of size of physical book (descending), because that's they way they're stacked right at this second. And that means about as much as you think it does.

First up is a new novel by one of my favorite nutty SF writers, Rudy Rucker. Million Mile Road Trip is not just a brand new Rucker SF novel -- coming on May 7th from Night Shade, which I keep forgetting is part of Skyhorse now -- but the lead-off of a big Rucker reprinting project, which is possibly even better.

So: Million Mile is another odd, probably math-inspired Rucker story, in which three teens open a transdimensional gateway to Mappyworld, an endless plain divided into basin-like worlds by ridges, and of course go on a road trip there in an old station wagon to save the world from carnivorous flying saucers.

And: Night Shade is also reprinting nine earlier Rucker novels at the same time, from classics like The Sex Sphere and White Light and Spacetime Donuts to books I missed the first time around like Turing & Burroughs and Jim and the Flims. Unless you are vastly more of a Rucker-head than I am, some of this will be new to you, and I hope you have fun with it. (I see that I haven't reviewed any of Rucker's novels here -- the only Rucker book I've covered was his autobiography, Nested Scrolls.)

The other book I have is a reprint anthology called, with a certain swagger in its step, The Unicorn Anthology. I suspect there may have been more than one, but this one is edited by Peter S. Beagle and Jacob Weisman, and includes 16 stories from such luminaries as Jane Yolen, Caitlin R. Kiernan, Carrie Vaughn, Karen Joy Fowler, Nancy Springer, Patricia A. McKillip, and Garth Nix. It's a trade paperback from Tachyon Publications, and you can get it right now if you want.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Reviewing the Mail: week of 4/20/19

Two books this week -- one that came in the mail, one that I bought. And they'll run in that order, as usual.

In the mail I got 5 Worlds: The Red Maze, third in the middle-grade graphic novel series by Mark Siegel, Alexis Siegel, Xanthe Bouma, Matt Rockefeller, and Boya Sun. (The first two write, the rest do the art -- I covered the second book, The Cobalt Prince, last year and I still don't know the breakdown of work any more than that.)  This one is coming May 7th in hardcover from Random House Books for Young Readers, and it looks like just as much fun as the last one.

The book I bought is Brandon Graham's early sex comic Pillow Fight. (As opposed to Brandon Graham's early sex comic Perverts of the Unknown, which I still have not seen. I think that category includes just those two things, plus a random scene in the first volume of Multiple Warheads.) Graham has a fun line and a good way with puns and a loose storytelling sensibility. And he doesn't have all that many comics out, so I'm getting around to his more disreputable stuff sooner than one might expect. (Or maybe not: I can be pretty disreputable myself, I suppose.)

Monday, April 15, 2019

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 4/13/19

One book this week -- a book of illustrated stories coming in October from Norton.

It's called The Envious Siblings and Other Morbid Nursery Rhymes, it's by Landis Blair, and it's more than a little influenced by Edward Gorey.

(Tangent: why is that a big deal? Well, our artistic culture seems to be just fine with the thousandth genre entry -- write a book about a stableboy who turns out to be the lost prince and see if every review uses the same comparison -- but comes down hard on the second. To my mind, that's backward: the second creator is still trailblazing, turning one person's specific style into something closer to a genre, and making room for more work in that genre. I complained about this a lot when Elizabeth Willey's novels were coming out, since she was the only person who tried to do Amberesque novels other than Roger Zelazny. And I expect Landis Blair will be my new example for the same argument.)

So Envious Siblings has eight stories, all told in rhyming verse underneath full-page illustrations in precise pen-and-ink with more than a little crosshatching, all about nasty and/or tormented young people in scenes that tend to look more Victorian than modern.

I haven't done more than scan it, so I can't say how well Blair's writing handles this style. His art looks nice, carefully posed in that way that implies action but looks static. And I'm always in favor of more grisly dark humor. So I want to like this, and I'm happy to see it has quotes from Emil Ferris and Eddie Campbell. If you've been a bit out of sorts since Gorey died, you'll want to at least glance at Envious Siblings when it hits stores this fall.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Perdy, Vol. 1 by Kickily

Genres are quirky things -- especially the small ones. I'm pretty sure "French Western comics" is a pretty small genre, but it's hard to say, as a purely Anglophone reader an ocean away.

I have seen a stream of things in that genre, though -- first the Blueberry comics by Charlier and Moebius, which I read in the '90s but were mostly older than that. then some other random things, and most recently Perdy, Vol. 1 by an entity credited as Kickily. [1] And they all have seemed to fall into a basically coherent genre. It's a comics version of Sergio Leone movies more than anything -- not just influenced by the American cinematic Western, but specifically influenced by the late, decadent, European burst of "the American cinematic Western." They definitely have nothing to do with the thin American genre of Western comics, which were another one of those vaguely superhero-esque brand extensions from the Big Two and are now quite thoroughly dead.

Then again, French adventure comics tend to have a distinctive tone or style to begin with: more fatalistic than their American equivalents, depicting worlds in which horrible, irrevocable things happen...and are not afterward wished or retconned out of existence. French comics, from what I've seen, play fair with their audiences: they say clearly "this is real, this story matters, and what happens in it will have consequences."

I appreciate that, as a reader who likes stories and not just narrative shards. And that's one of the reasons why I wanted to read Perdy.

(Among the others: it's unabashedly about sex and violence but centered on a woman no longer young, never terribly attractive, built very sturdily, and possessed of the bullheaded will and drive usually reserved for men in popular fiction. Perdy herself is a great obnoxious character, and that came through even before I read the book.)

Perdy is a woman of middle years -- call her somewhere in her forties, since she has a grown daughter. She's been in prison for fifteen years as the story opens, and is just getting released for her unspecified but clearly violent crimes. She has nothing but the rags of her prison garb: not even shoes. But we readers can see immediately that this will not be much impediment to her: Perdy is the kind of person you either quickly get out of the way of or get bowled over by.

There's something cartoony about Perdy, but it's the fun, narrative-enhancing kind of cartoony. A story always moves forward with someone like Perdy in it, and so this one does: she goes to retrieve her gear from the place she hid it, and then sets out to get back to the work of her life: robbing banks.

(Well, and causing trouble, but that's more of a hobby -- the kind of thing she can and does do nearly every moment of every day. She's also quite fond of very vigorous sex, entirely on her own terms, which is also nice to see in a woman like Perdy who is almost entirely not constructed for the male gaze.)

Along the way, she comes back in contact with someone from her old life, though I won't spoil that surprise. There's another female character here who is nearly as overwhelming as Perdy, in her own more conventionally feminine way, though I have to admit the men mostly do not acquit themselves well in the company of either woman. It's understandable: they're clearly overmatched, and know it.

As the Vol. 1 might imply, this is not a complete story. The second book is promised for this fall, though, and what we have here has most of the shape of a story -- there's no ending, but it's a satisfying story that tells us a lot about these people and their world and runs us through a series of entertaining and amusing scenes. I'm cautiously optimistic that we won't be looking for the ending in a Vol. 12 some years down the road...but that's always the danger.

For now, though, this is a fine beginning and a great central character. Perdy kicks ass in several ways, and it's fun to watch her doing it.

[1] A desultory Internet search leads me to believe that Kickily is a male human being. I can't prove this, so take it as you will. Every entity on the Internet can be assumed to be a dog unless you have compelling evidence otherwise.

Friday, April 05, 2019

Quote of the Week: Yes, I Know

"The most characteristic aspect of most any blog is a first few enthusiastic posts, followed by a large gap and a post explaining why the person hasn't posted, and a public intention to post again -- usually followed by silence."
 - Kevin Young, Bunk, p.114

Wednesday, April 03, 2019

100 Bullshit Jobs...And How to Get Them by Stanley Bing

I may have found the most 2006 book ever. (And I hope someone won't be saying the identical thing about 2019 a decade from now, though I wouldn't bet against it.)

2006, of course, was the height of the last big American boom, driven by the last big delusional Republican American president -- and, at the time, we thought those both were heights that would never be bettered. (Insert hollow laugh here.)

And the mostly humorous business writer "Stanley Bing" -- he has some other name, which I could probably find without too much trouble, under which he has lived a real career as an actual mid-level corporate manager -- summed up all of the highlights of that era in his book 100 Bullshit Jobs...And How to Get Them.

This is indeed a list of 100 jobs, alphabetically, each with a pseudo-scientific and mostly humorous mathematical formula to determine just how bullshit each of them is. Up front is an introduction explaining the formula and the project, but the bulk of the book is running through those hundred jobs and describing what they do in breezy tones, starting (obviously) with pay and running through the skills required, duties, famous folks with that job, how the reader can get into it, and so on.

Bullshit isn't the same as easy, of course. A job can have long, grueling hours and still be entirely bullshit. But there's an essential lack of honesty and centeredness that characterizes the true bullshit job, and many people aspire to that state of not-caring and want to find a way to skate by everything serious and weighty.

Bing begins with Advertising Executive and runs through Yoga Franchiser before hitting #100 with, in the best business-book fashion, You. Because every business book is always about You: how you can win friends and influence people, or move the cheese, or lean in, or whatever piece of bullshit advice that particular writer thinks will sound plausible to you so he can make a fortune.

Bing knows this, and lays on the smarm at the end, with not only the final job being whatever the hell it is You do, but adding a short conclusion entirely on "Transforming your job into a bullshit job," which is of course what we all clearly aspired to in 2006.

Obviously, 100 Bullshit Jobs is a massive exercise in bullshit itself -- that's the point. Any of the jobs listed here can be bullshit, and so can a whole lot of other jobs. (Our current President, for example, is showing that you can make any job a bullshit job -- I hope Bing is proud.) Any job can also not be bullshit: like a crime, making a job bullshit requires motive, means and opportunity -- you have to have the chance to make that job bullshit, and you have to want to do it.

If you do have that desire, know that Bing's book is out there as a roadmap. The world is slightly less friendly to bullshit jobs after the last financial crash than it was in 2006 -- I have a vague, probably-bullshit-theory itself that this has been the case for every crash, and that bullshit builds up afterwards in the fat periods -- but there's still plenty of it out there, and 2006 is close enough to 2019 that the models here still mostly work.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Everybody Lies by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

This book was a bestseller and reviewed/talked about a lot -- so there's a very good chance you're not hearing about it for the first time from me. In fact, this paperback edition is already a year old itself.

More importantly, Stephens-Davidowitz's central point -- that there are now large datasets, mostly around Internet usage, which can be used by social scientists and other researchers to get closer to the truth about what people really think and feel about taboo or contentious subjects -- might be news in a lot of circles, but not to anyone who's been paying attention for the last decade or so.

(Admittedly, a lot of people don't pay attention. People are the worst, as we can also learn from this book.)

So. We have the usual punchy, expansive title: Everybody Lies. And the equally usual descriptive subtitle that claims even more territory: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are. So far, so much like a million other non-fiction bestsellers and would-be bestsellers since bookselling became a regular racket. We expect a quick, punchy read that makes big claims in a lot of areas, backs up at least some of them at least some of the time, and gives us a few facts which we can use to sound smart at a cocktail party or on the Internet.

Everybody Lies is a bit better than that, actually, but it follows that model pretty closely. Again, if you're in any data-driven field, it won't particularly shocking. (In Chapter 6, about two-thirds of the way through the book, Stephens-Davidowitz spends several pages explaining what A/B tests are -- I, and I hope every other marketing person currently in existence, have been doing A/B tests for probably a decade now. Not as often or as rigorously as I might like, true, but it's not a new concept for that many people, I hope.)

Stephens-Davidowitz (can I call him SSD from here, for short?) starts off with sex, because he is not at all stupid. He doesn't really note that one of the great precursors of this book are the occasional posts by the data scientists of (of all places) PornHub, delving into questions like whether porn viewing dips on Super Bowl Sunday and what the most popular kinds of entertainment are in different nations. But who ever wants to emphasize that other people have been doing the same thing, in more depth and sometimes better?

SSD was a data scientist for Google, and it seems that the best data he has to work with is still mostly from Google, so that informs what he's been looking at and researching. (Admittedly, I expect Google would be the best Internet data anyone could have to work with in most cases, given their size and ubiquity.) I do wonder what a similar book by a Facebook expert would say -- SSD is mostly looking at individual behavior and attitudes, as seen by searches, and a Facebook-centric (or even just social-media-focused) project would be much more about social maps, how ideas spread, which ideas spread, and the contagiousness of various things. [1]

Everybody Lies starts out with sex and racism -- it is a book by an American, for Americans, after all -- and then moves on to less immediately juicy topics and then to general issues raised by the existence of these tools and research techniques, as it tries to cover everything a general reader might want to know about Big Data and its uses.

I don't want to be flippant, because SSD has a fairly rigorous academic background, and he's clearly brought that to his data-science work and the original research that underpins a lot of this book. A lot of what he's doing here is simplifying complex data-analysis concepts to explain them to a mass audience -- but that's what a mass audience needs. Everybody Lies does a good job of summarizing both what we can know about (mostly American) mass culture and attitudes from Internet data, and at examining some particular examples of that data.

I personally would like a book with even more charts and detail, but that's me. This is probably more chart-heavy than the average reader wants to begin with.

[1] That book might exist -- let me know if anyone out there has read or seen it.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Not Reviewing the Mail

I don't know if you are as annoyed with my stream of "I said I'd do this thing, so here I am to say I have nothing to say" posts as I am, but I'm trying to stop them.

So I'm explicitly saying what might have been implicit: I'm only going to do the things I semi-jokingly refer to as "obligatory" posts when I actually have something to say about the thing the post is supposedly about.

e.g.: when I don't have any new books to write about any given week, I will not have a Reviewing the Mail post.

Inference beyond that point is left to the reader.

Have a nice day.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Shadowbahn by Steve Erickson

Some novels are about story, a narrative that moves forward and goes from Point A to Point B. Those kind of books can range from the most relentless chase thrillers to discursive books like Dickens's and across several dozen other variations. Frankly, that's what most people would think of as "a novel" to begin with.

Steve Erickson doesn't play that game.

Shadowbahn is not his least narrative novel -- I think that's still Amnesiascope -- but it's not a story of things that happen in a certain order. It's a collection of things that did happen, or are happening, or that no one can stop happening, or that we wish happened, or dream that they didn't happen. It's the kind of book that reviewers call a meditation or a fantasia or other fanciful terms: a book loosely about things rather than telling the story of them.

In this case, it's rock 'n roll, Elvis, the Beatles, American music in general, the late twentieth century, and, looming over all of that like some Tolkienian Shadow, 9/11. Erickson will not tell us clearly what the one has to do with the other: he's not a writer to draw straight, crisp lines.

So let me sketch some of the things that happen, or appear, in Shadowbahn. They will be in no particular order.

  • Off Highway 44 in the South Dakota badlands, in what seems to be 2021, two matching blocky skyscrapers appear mysteriously. Those two matching blocky skyscrapers, the ones violently destroyed twenty years before.
  • Parker and Zima, twentysomething white brother and teen black sister, are driving cross-country, from one side of their family to another, when this happens. Their car is soon the only place in the country where music still plays.
    • That music seems to come from Zima herself, and may be entirely from the massive number of playlists compiled by their obsessive father.
      • That father, who never appears on-stage in Shadowbahn, is pretty obviously a 
      • version or self-insert for Erickson.
      • He, and Parker/Zima, have appeared in Erickson's novels before, notably in These Dreams of You.
  • Jesse Garon Presley wakes up near the top of one of those towers, somewhere in his middle years -- not young, but not as old as a man born in 1935 should be. He is alone there.
    • His twin brother died at birth. We are to presume something has shifted the universe so that we got this Presley rather than another, and probably all of the other changes we see. 
    • Presley had a minor career as a male model and hanger-on in Warhol's Factory, then increasingly became obsessed by his dead/non-existent twin, symbolized by one 45 by that twin.
    • This Presley cannot sing at all.
    • He knows -- and many people around him know -- that he was supposed to die, that the world they live in is the wrong one, and that it is Presley's fault.
    • Rock 'n roll basically died out by the early '60s. The Beatles were never famous. We may presume that American popular music either was locked into sever-duller iterations of The Great American Songbook [1] or that music stopped being a serious cultural influence at all, as we choose. The latter seems more likely, given the silence in the Parker/Zima sections. 
The narrative bounces from Parker/Zima to Presley and back, looping around that car trip, Presley in the tower, and Presley in the '60s and '70s. Again, Erickson is not telling a story here. Maybe he's constructing a mosaic, or painting a picture, of an America without something central and foundational -- showing us a society shattered at its center, broken and jagged with pain in the broken places. That's Shadowbahn.

As always, Erickson writes compellingly. He's a masterful prose stylist, with sentences that sing and characters that appear full-formed immediately. This book is structured into single-page pseudo-chapters (or vignettes), each one with a "title" that is often just the first words of the first sentence, rolling up into several large sections that mostly focus on either Parker/Zima or Presley.

Most readers don't want a novel like Shadowbahn. That's fine. But one sign I have that we don't live in a broken, shattered world -- maybe one of the few, these days -- is that Erickson is out there, writing novels like this.

[1] Amusingly, this could connect to another one of my obsessions: the Fallout video game series. Those are set in a world without rock 'n roll, a world devastated by a massive nuclear war in the late 21st century, a world crueler and nastier than our own. Shadowbahn, if you squint, could almost be a prequel to those games.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Quote of the Week

He doesn't like police, and on the relatively rare occasion that he crosses paths with them, he has come to realize -- with a stumble into that old mischief maker called greater maturity -- that he talks himself into trouble. He almost got into it with the cop at the border a few hours back, before downshifting into deference, when the officer stared at him long and hard before waving him into West Texas. Parker's father was the same when he was younger, with no respect for any authority that was arbitrary, naively figuring that if he was in the right, he was untouchable. "You need to get over that notion," he later informed his son.
 - Shadowbahn by Steve Erickson, p.82

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

The Labyrinth Index by Charles Stross

The thing about the end of the world is that worlds end every day. And not just in the teenage-drama sense, either: every death is the end of the world for at least one person. Usually more than that.

So Charles Stross's "Laundry Files" series continues in The Labyrinth Index, the ninth novel, even though its world -- at least as much as the series started out as a secret history -- has definitely ended. The Lovecraftian Singularity is continuing, with an avatar of Nyarlathotep as the Prime Minister of the UK and other players assembling around the world.

But humans are still around and mostly unchanged -- the PM in particular has a soft spot for them, though perhaps primarily because he wants masses to worship him -- and so human stories go on, after the end of what used to be their world.

Mhari Murphy is arguably not a human anymore, but she looks like one, so let's give her the benefit of the doubt. She's a vampire, which is to say the carrier of a nasty but beneficial supernatural parasite: as long as she keeps it fed through a blood-link with other minds it can eat, it won't eat her mind. She's also, because of that fairly recent state and a history with the Laundry, now the Baroness Karnstein, a member of the House of Lords, and head of that house's Select Committee on Sanguinary Affairs -- which is to say she's responsible for ensuring the rest of Britain's useful vampires continue to be fed from the blood of unfortunate others so that they can continue to do the work the PM and Laundry need them to do.

(If you're lost -- and you easily could well be with the ninth book in even a loose, mostly new-reader-friendly series like this one -- you could see what I wrote about the previous book, The Delirium Brief, and from there follow links further back for as much more depth as you feel inclined to chase.)

But Mhari is about to get a more difficult job, from that creepy, vastly-less-human PM. You see, the UK's traditional closest ally has been acting strange and distant recently -- even more so than usual. The PM thinks that country has been captured by its own Laundry-style agency, which has thrown in its lot with a much nastier and more dangerous Elder God than himself.

(Those comparatives of "dangerous" and "nasty" here are being used in a way pretty far beyond human norms, I admit.)

And so Mhari has to assemble a team quickly, entirely from a list that PM gives her, infiltrate a foreign country as secretly as possible, so she can find and extract the missing President of the USA. Although, when her team arrives in the States, they find that no American can even remember that they ever had a President....

The Laundry series has always had a whistling-past-the-graveyard appeal, but that's been sharpening with the last couple of books, as the real world has itself gone traipsing through some more boring graveyards. Stross's twisted mirror of our own world has become even more shattered as we've all seen just how horrible, stupid and dysfunctional our governments really can be. And it's culminated here: where the Deep State is not only a real thing, but actually in the thrall of the dread lord Cthulhu.

Labryinth Index will be a slightly odd read for most Americans, since it's inherently about the USA from an outside viewpoint. That viewpoint is generally admiring -- well, as much as you can admire your friend who has become captured by a Cthulhu death-cult -- but it is definitely distanced, and the America in Labyrinth Index is a foreign land not just for Mhari and her band of oddball agents, but for the few beleaguered Americans who remember what a President was.

I wouldn't start the series with this book: they generally stand alone, but too much has gone before, and we're deep into the apocalypse at this point. But it's a great series, full of compelling voices, written straight down the middle of that dark no-man's-land among SF, fantasy, and horror. If any of the above sounds intriguing, find yourself a copy of The Atrocity Archives and start there.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 3/9/19

To get it out of the way first: nope. No new books, and I haven't managed to finish the one book I'm slowly reading. (Kevin Young's big, interesting Bunk.)

I did, though, finish up two book-review posts, which will roll out over over the next couple of weeks. So content will still be scattered, but maybe slightly less so.

I do need to figure out a time and place to read: that's what I'm missing in my life right now. And the many shelves of books behind me are mocking me for it.

It'll happen eventually. If it doesn't happen right now, while I have one son about to graduate college, another about to graduate high school, and I'm figuring out a very different new job...well, that's not surprising, is it?

Monday, March 04, 2019

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 2/2/19

The drought has lifted, at least for this week; I have two brand-new books to tell you about. Both are trade paperbacks from the fine folks at Tachyon Publications.

First up is The Last Tsar's Dragons by Jane Yolen and  Adam Stemple, a short novel of historical fantasy. (Yes Tsar Nicholas, yes the Russian Revolution, yes actual fire-breathing dragons.) It's coming on June 19th, and I wonder how much Game of Thrones backstory contributed to the idea -- I can see a reaction like "you think that's an evil king? I could name five worse examples from Russia alone" possibly sparking the idea. Anyway: it looks interesting, and it starts with a compelling, grumpy voice -- always a plus for me.

Available now from Tachyon is The Very Best of Caitlin R. Kiernan, a collection of twenty stories originally published between 2003 and 2017. (I suspect it collects the expensive small-press hardcovers Two Worlds and in Between and Beneath an Oil-Dark Sea, but the copy doesn't quite say that.) Kiernan writes fine, creepy stories, which tend to appear in expensive limited editions, so it's nice to have a big book of her work widely available like this. I hope it lands in a lot of libraries, in particular.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 2/23/19

This is how it starts, you know. A blog -- or any kind of ongoing content hole, a comic strip or syndicated column or what-have-you -- first misses an installment. Then it starts repurposing old content on the way to turning into a zombie version of itself, if there's any money in it, or just petering out, if there isn't.

Yes, I did miss last week! Completely forgot about it. There were no books then to jog my mind.

No books this week, either, and I've been "reading" the same book for three weeks now without actually, y'know, actually picking it up and opening it.


Well, I typed several long paragraphs about the various permutations of my work life...but, considering I lost the best job of my life ten years ago (and got left outside of SF and book publishing evermore, apparently) over one word I typed here...well, I think it would be better to be discreet. I'll just say Stuff Has Been Interesting.

I have been commuting much less, working from home much more, and that's meant that my formerly dedicated time for reading (an hour on the train each way each weekday) is basically gone. I should still have that time in my day, but, somehow, I don't end up using it to read.

This is where I insist that I will get back to reading...and that might even be true.

Anyway, there may be more content here one of these days. I do have four posts about books half written -- and two of those are genre novels of one kind or another. They'll probably land of these days.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 2/9/19

Really, there will be more content here eventually. But I got back from a big trip late last night, and if there are any book-shaped packages in the house, I haven't managed to find them yet.

So I'm pretty sure there are no new books from this past week...but I will reserve the right to revise that opinion if new evidence comes to light.

I do now have three books I've read to write about -- again, that's way down from my pace from 2018, but they're all "real" books (not comics-format), if that makes it sound more impressive. That may happen this week, if I get energetic. We'll all have to see.

Friday, February 01, 2019

Read in January 2019

I ended a Book-A-Day run with the end of 2018 -- 433 books (a lot of them comics, admittedly) in 365 days. So it's no surprise that I'm working at, somewhat reduced pace since then. But this...this is frankly embarrassing.

Neil Gaiman, Norse Mythology (1/9)

Charles Stross, The Labyrinth Index (1/18)

Steve Erickson, Shadowbahn (1/31)

I'd like to promise that I'll do better in February but, well...who knows? We'll all see.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 1/26/19

Still nothing, I'm afraid. Low-content mode will continue for a while -- probably another couple of weeks, at least, since I've got some travel coming up.

But I've gone into low-content mode and come back multiple times in the history of this blog, so I expect I will be back, eventually, for the four or five people who are still out there. See you then.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 1/19/19

Nothing to report this week. No publicity books, no library books, no purchased books.

I mean, I've got three big bookcases directly behind me filled with books I haven't read -- about twenty shelves worth, call it 60 linear feet -- but they're not new. If this dearth of new books goes on, I might need to reconfigure this standard post -- maybe take a picture of a shelf and explain why I thought I wanted to read those books?

Anyway, nothing this time. And I haven't made any changes yet. Watch this space...maybe something will happen.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

This is the first book I read in 2019, after the end of my Book-a-Day run for 2018. And it took me until the 9th to get through a short book made up of short, quick-read chapters -- as I expected, the reading backlash hit hard.

(My hope, going forward, is to read one substantial book a week, a novel or similar-length non-fiction work, and to mix in comics around that as I can. We'll have to see if that happens.)

Gaiman is a excellent writer to read when you're not sure what you want to read...or if you actually want to read anything at all. His prose here, as always, is crisp and slightly wry, with sentences like potato chips -- it's always easier to just keep going on and read the next one. He's a writer whose depths can be missed by the unwary: each word is chosen precisely, and there's always an attitude and a viewpoint embedded in those words for readers who pay attention -- but, on the surface, he's telling a story cleanly and quickly, about larger-than-life characters and their quirky exploits.

Norse Mythology was his new book for 2017; I read it in the trade paperback edition that came out a year later. (The longer I'm out of the fiction publishing business, the longer I seem to wait to read things -- if I can't get bound galleys before publication, I guess, I'll wait until the next edition in a similar format.)

I'm calling it "Fantasy" for my tags, here, but it's more accurately myth -- these are stories that we think people took seriously, and believed in at least on some metaphoric level, which is not the same as a clearly fictional work of fantasy. But all of Norse myth that we have available has been through a number of ferocious filters of Christianity and time and a long oral tradition, so it is closer to literature than religious text to begin with -- as if all we had of Greek myth were half of Ovid -- and Gaiman's work here is to retell those stories, as purely and cleanly as he can, in modern language for the people who like Neil Gaiman books.

Gaiman has an introduction up front where he admits that his first encounter with this world was Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, which is probably common for a lot of his generation. (I think I first met Thor, Odin and Loki in the back of Edith Hamilton; I didn't read superhero comics much as a kid. But I'm also a decade or so younger than Gaiman.) His version, though, is directly from the original sources, the Elder and Younger Eddas, with the stories pulled out into individual named chapters.

As Gaiman notes in his introduction, we have lost most of this mythology: we know a lot of names and some representative stories, but that's about it. The core of the mythology seems to still be extant, the accounts of the beginning and ending of the world, but it's difficult to say if Odin and Thor and Loki really were the most important gods in the pantheon, or if they're just the ones whose stories happened to be most prominent in those two Eddas.

But that's what Gaiman has to work with, and he does it well, beginning with the first giant Ymir and the creation or discovery of the nine worlds and continuing to Ragnarok, the end of this set of things. (Not of all things: this is a cynical-destruction universe, in which a small piece makes it out of the total destruction to see the next cycle. You can call that optimism, if you like.)

Gaiman's tone, particularly in the initial chapter where he introduces the gods, can seem like he's talking to children, but I don't think that's his intention. Gaiman is aiming for a storyteller voice, one that is informative and teaching, but not necessarily teaching an audience that is new to the stories. It may be more colloquial than readers of Edith Hamilton or Bulfinch expect, but this is a new retelling for a new age: every age gets the eternal stories told again in its own words.

As usual, Gaiman's words are good ones, and his stories are told sturdily. These are things he cares about and is interested in and wants to do right. It is not a novel. But fans of Gaiman's fiction will probably find much to like here as well.