Wednesday, July 31, 2019

The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson

I never really noticed there were no women in Lovecraft's Dreamlands. In my defense, it's often difficult to notice things that aren't there: the dog that didn't bark, the people who aren't represented. But if you're the one left out, you will notice.

Kij Johnson noticed.

And what good writers do about things they notice is to rewrite it their way: to do a better version, to incorporate their own lives and experiences and thoughts, and show the world what they can do. (And then they also leave some things out, deliberately or not, because no book contains all human experience or ever could -- so someone else, sometime later, may feel that same urge to do it better once again.)

The result was her 2016 novella The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, which is Lovecraftian in its own way but definitely has more women in it, and cares much more about the thoughts and fears and lives of women, than Lovecraft's original Dream-Quest. (It may care more about women than all of Lovecraft's stories put together, frankly.)

The title signposts that, quietly. Lovecraft's original was a Dream-quest to a place; Johnson's is a dream-quest of a person. Boe is a middle-aged professor at the relatively new and still fragile Women's College of Ulthar University, having settled down after a more exciting and adventure-filled youth. She's awoken late one night: her student Clarie Jurat has run away with a man.

That would be bad enough in the only-vaguely-modern society of Ulthar; it could be enough to have the Trustees shut down the whole Women's College and give up education for women as a bad idea. But it gets worse: that man is a dreamer, from the waking world, and may be taking Clarie there, never to return. And Clarie is the granddaughter of an Elder God from the cold wastes of Kadath, who sired a daughter years ago during a brief time in human form. That god, like all of the Dreamland's gods, is small and petty and cruel, insane and unfettered and massively powerful, jealous and possessive and punitive, detached and dreaming and liable to destroy cities on a whim.

So Vellitt sets off to intercept Clarie and bring her back. Not for Clarie's own sake: the waking world might well be better for her. Not even for the College. But because Clarie leaving the Dreamlands will most likely result in a god's Doom utterly destroying all of Ulthar, as so many other places in the Dreamlands have been randomly destroyed by other gods for reasons even lesser.

It's a long journey, as it must be: episodic and extended, across as much of the breadth of the Dreamlands as Johnson can manage. She races first to the closest gate to the waking world, and finds an unlikely old friend there but no passage through. And then she has to cross the world as quickly as possibly to find another old friend -- one with a name Lovecraft readers will recognize -- while hoping that Clarie's grandfather has not awakened, or been awakened by other scheming gods, to see what has happened.

Johnson writes evocatively, with a few echoes of Lovecraft's language but more often plain descriptive words: gugs are "like elephants" rather than some elaborately Latinate word that means the same thing. But she does touch on the places and creatures and societies that Lovecraft did: that's one of the main purposes of this novella. She's rewriting this world, to give it space for women and their stories.

This story, in particular. Vellitt Boe is no one's Everywoman: she's particular and gnarled and skilled and thoughtful, a woman with a lot of life behind her, full of choices she believed in at the time and still understands now. And her Dream-Quest is more than just an answer to Lovecraft; it's a full story in its own right, a parallax view on the Dreamlands and its people, full of thoughts on things Lovecraft may have implied or left unspoken or not even thought about.

The world needs more Dream-Quests; I'm glad we got this one. I hope to see more soon.

Monday, July 29, 2019

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 7/27/19

So I ordered books recently from the organization that doesn't seem to be called Edward R. Hamilton anymore. (I do wonder who was Hamilton, if he's still around, and who actually runs that business these days -- but I don't wonder all that much.)

Hamilton is a great remainder dealer; they have a wide and ever-changing stock at excellent prices. It's not a place to go buy one particular book, but they're wonderful if you feel like finding a bunch of books you vaguely want at great prices. That's what I felt like; that's what I did; those books arrived this past week.

Note: I'm providing links to that other online bookseller, in hopes that you click on those for more details or other people's reviews, set a cookie, and so I get a few pennies the next time you buy something there. But if you're actually interested in just buying any of these books, the link to Hamilton above is your best bet.

The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard -- one of his earliest novels, from that initial cluster of early-60s disaster stories. This is a fiftieth anniversary edition, in hardcover, with an introduction by Martin Amis.

The Skill of Our Hands by Steven Brust and Skyler White -- the sequel to their earlier novel The Incrementalists, which I managed to miss when it came out in 2017. The first one is a story about the immortals who secretly guide the world -- and I do mean "guide," since they nudge it oh-so-gently and not all that often -- and this looks to be another story of the same people, and still not about controlling the world all that much.

Winter Tide by Ruthanna Emrys -- a recent (2017) Lovecraftian novel about the survivors of a government prison camp, what the government demands of them years later, and the potential end of the world. So not topical at all.

The Pigeon Tunnel by John Le Carre -- a memoir by the well-known (and now aged) author of spy thrillers: probably mostly about his research and how that intersected the short time he actually spent in the intelligence world, rather than a how-I-write book.

The Last Days of New Paris by China Mieville -- a slim 2016 novel by a writer I feel like I should be much further behind on than I actually am. (I think he's been doing other things than writing novels a lot this past decade, as I've been doing other things than reading his novels: I'm not sure if that's comforting or sad, a statement on that decade as a whole or just how life goes.)

Thesis: Oh, Florida! by Craig Pittman -- an examination of that interesting character "Florida Man," and how he has made his home state such an odd place, in the typical "this one thing explains everything" non-fictional style.

Antithesis: Best. State. Ever. by Dave Barry -- in which the transplant from Philadelphia explains why his adopted state is actually totally awesome, though he seems to do so by examining the same kind of weird things that Pittman does in his above "Florida is weird" book.

It is possible these two authors are loudly in agreement.

The Liberation by Ian Tregillis -- finale of the "Alchemy Wars" trilogy; I read The Mechanical soon after it came out and still have The Rising on the shelves of things I really want to get to as soon as I feel up to reading a four-hundred-page-plus book. (Which hasn't been a lot, lately.)

Last is a new expanded edition of Calvin Trillin's 1984 journalism collection Killings. This one has an introduction and author's note that don't say if they're from the old edition or new now, and what seems to be six stories that were originally published (in The New Yorker, like all of these pieces) in 1985 or later. I don't recall the old Killings being particularly short, so some of the old pieces may have been removed for this new edition. As usual, the book makes none of that clear.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Quote of the Week: Literary Influences

"But this tendency of Huck Finn to cause other writers to write books extremely similar to it but worse is telling; the voice of the book reminds us of the beauty of the world, and of the fact that beauty can indeed be gotten at by the word, and that our language, English, that old dowager, has not yet begun to fight."
 - George Sanders, "The United States of Huck," p.193 in The Braindead Megaphone

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Creatures of Light and Darkness by Roger Zelazny

This is my favorite book by one of my favorite writers. I haven't read it in a couple of decades.

For some people, those would be contradictory statements: a favorite is something they return to again and again, to revisit to keep it all-but-memorized. But I'm not like that. My favorite books are the ones that bulk large in the back of my mind, the ones that influenced some way of thinking or reading -- generally long ago. That's the kind of thing that can never happen a second time; the Heraclitean river has moved on.

But how do you know you never can go home again if you don't try? So I finally came back to Roger Zelazny's weirdest novel Creatures of Light and Darkness, published the year I was born, which I first read as a teenager looking for more things by the guy who wrote the Amber books.

Creatures is a novel legendarily written not to be published -- as a writing exercise, or a series of exercises. As I've heard it, it was Chip Delany who urged Zelazny to publish it -- whether that's true or not doesn't really matter. It's a good story -- the novelist coming off The Einstein Intersection telling the novelist coming off Lord of Light that this new SF novel inspired by mythology is worth pushing out into the world. It's a short book, in that old style: crammed full of stuff, leaping forward and rarely slowing down to do more than sketch descriptions of everything. But these are all gods anyway, right? You don't need Zelazny to tell you what Anubis looks like.

If Lord of Light was a SF novel with fantasy trappings based loosely on mythology, Creatures is all of those things amplified and purified. It's essentially SF, but of the variety set so far in the future, and so devoid of techo-talk, that it doesn't read as SF. So it comes across as fantasy...but it isn't. Whoever these people are, whatever race they may have once been part of, however much they may call themselves gods, they're still part of a rational, law-based universe. But all of their relationships with each other and the wider universe are wrapped up in those mythological names -- Anubis and Horus and Osiris and some that Zelazny palms for later, calling them Wakim and The Prince Who Was a Thousand. Their conflicts are legendary -- literally. They've been fighting each other, one way or another, for more time than we can count. And the tools they have to fight with can shatter planets...which Zelazny will describe quietly, obliquely, offhandedly.

What I love about Creatures is its fearlessness: this is a kitchen-sink book to beat all kitchen-sink books, partially written in poetry and chamber drama, smashcutting from wry humor to bleak horror, presenting the myth of Horus sideways as baroque space opera, and slyly implying the mysterious nameless ancient god they're all trying to keep contained has a name we also might find familiar.

It throws a large number of characters at the reader quickly: an unnamed Man, resident in Anubis's House of the Dead for a thousand years, his master, The Steel General and Madrak and Vramin, all of those other gods and demi-gods. It cuts to quick portentous scenes that it won't explain for a while. It charges forward, burning through a dozen literary forms as it goes, daring the reader to keep up. It's the novel of a writer at the top of his game, writing purely for himself and trying every last thing he can think of -- and, to me, all of it works, and all of it works brilliantly.

Creatures is one of the great examples of what a novel of the fantastic can do -- make its own way, smash through genres and preconceptions and ideas almost at random. It is a weird, quirky, bizarre book and I still love it.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 7/20/19

Every summer that I have summer hours -- which is been most of them since I got out of actual fiction book publishing (confusingly counter-intuitive but good for me) -- I end up taking at least one Friday afternoon to go book shopping. This summer I also still had the remnants of my Book-A-Day reading to get rid of: stacks and boxes and bags of books still sitting around what I sometimes call my office.

So I packed up some of those books this past Friday and took them to a local used-book store to see if they'd buy them. I've been selling books there for ages, since I long ago had access to the fabled Giveaway Shelves of Doubleday, and was getting review copies for a years after that. Those things are all in the past now, and my book-selling trips have dwindled to barely yearly, and each one is more feeble than the last.

This probably was the last; there's a Goodwill nearer to me that takes books, which much less hassle. I'll miss the swap aspect -- I like getting new books for my old books -- but it's not the '90s anymore, and I can accept that.

Anyway, here's what I found, at two different stores (one general used & new books, one a comics shop) where I had some credit to spend:

The Rub of Time by Martin Amis -- a big essay collection by an interesting and intermittently great British writer (son of Kingsley, champion of Ballard, once briefly scandalous for getting a big advance and using much of it to fix his very British teeth), who I've been reading for twenty-some years now...though I slowed down once I hit Night Train, which I still insist is a horrible book. This is the "sequel" to The War Against Cliche, I think: another whomping slab of Amis essays, meant to be a Big Serious Non-Fiction Book.

Jeeves and the Wedding Bells by Sebastian Faulks -- It took nearly forty years after Wodehouse's death for this estate to allow a sharecropped book, and another six for me to give in and buy it. (Hey, Wodehouse wrote nearly a hundred books in his career, so the argument that we need more of that but not as good is pretty thin.) I'm keeping my expectations as low as possible, and hoping to be mildly surprised...but I tend to be a curmudgeon in this area. (See: my dismissive post on the first ninety pages of And Another Thing....)

Hogs Wild by Ian Frazier -- a big new collection of reported pieces by the New Yorker mainstay. This is Frazier in serious mode, as opposed to the Dating Your Mom zany Frazier.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller -- I recently started thinking that I should read this again. And I didn't have a copy, after that flood in 2011 I keep mentioning. So I picked up this 50th anniversary edition, with an introduction by Christopher Buckley that I have now already read. (So when I pick this up for real, I can jump right into the novel -- I'm one of those weird people who feels compelled to read all of the front matter in every book.)

Because I Said So! by Ken Jennings -- this is a collection of debunkings, or possibly re-bunkings if they turn out to be true, of standard Parental Advice of the mid-American, mid-20th century sort, from famed Jeopardy champion Jennings. I got it as fodder for the smallest room in the house, and it looks to be admirably well-suited for that use.

Totally Weird and Wonderful Words by Erin McKean -- This is another book for the same usage as the Jennings immediately above, a lexicon of oddball words that I will try to remember but probably fail.

Smile When You're Lying by Chuck Thompson -- every book-shopping trip should find something completely unexpected, and this was mine this time. This is some kind of sarcastic, cynical travel book, made up of the stories that Thompson couldn't sell to the magazines in his normal career for the usual sordid reasons. (In that the stories are about sordid things, not that the making of travel magazines is sordid. Or maybe both ways -- I'll have to see.)

To Have & To Hold by Graham Chaffee -- a graphic novel from 2017, by a creator I don't think I've read before. Chaffee, and this book, were the subject of a review post on TCJ a few weeks ago, I think -- the title and cover stuck in my mind. I deliberately didn't read that review carefully, since the book sounded interesting -- it's some kind of mildly noirish crime-and-bad-marriage story set in the early '60s.

Mind MGMT, Vol. 5: The Eraser by Matt Kindt -- I read the first two collections of this series earlier this decade, and plan to finish it up, though it seems to be mildly out of print at the moment. So I grabbed this one for half-price even though I don't have volumes three and four, since I expect I'll want it eventually.

Beanworld Omnibus, Vol. 2 by Larry Marder -- I came to Beanworld really late. (Like, last December late -- thirty-some years after Marder started.) But as I always say: I may be slow but I am trainable. And so I'm here for the second go-round.

Mage: The Hero Denied, Vol. 6 (or possibly 2) by Matt Wagner -- This is the grand ending of Wagner's most personal, and long-running, work. See my posts on Hero Discovered (the original '80s series), Hero Defined (the return fifteen years later) and the first half of Hero Denied, all from last year, for more details.

And that's what I got!

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)