Thursday, October 30, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #301: Alive by Hajime Taguchi

Indulge me a bit: today I'm going to go meta. I promise, it won't be a regular thing -- but I hope I can get some slack, after three hundred straight days of let-me-tell-you-about-this-book.

I'm sure I've written loosely about this kind of book being hard to review, or some other one giving an easy target, or other things in that vein. And it is definitely true that some works of art are easier to write about than others: anything notably bad is pretty easy. On the other end, really good can be more difficult, setting up expectations and high standards. Genre stories usually have some loose bit of string to grab hold of -- a SF story is sure to have some error of science in it, or a wonky sociological expectation, and a mystery novel is never so perfect as to leave no nits to pick -- even if the reviewer wants to come down positive in the end. Flamboyantly literary stories are the same way: there's a lot of stuff there to grab hold of.

But low-key stories in a realistic vein are more difficult. If they're wonderful and magnificent, well, there's that to say. If they're clunky and laughable, there's that as well. If they're just pretty good, with some flashes of human insight and a few moments of clarity and beauty and a lot of everyday-ness, do you express that?

Alive is a collection of pretty good realistic manga stories, in the vein of literary short stories, all by Hajime Taguchi (about whom I know absolutely nothing). So I'm left in that last category: not wanting to praise this too highly, but wanting to celebrate it for honesty and truth, for almost three hundred pages of short stories about real people and their real lives. Alive will not change your life. (There are realistic manga short stories that could change your life: Abandon the Old in Tokyo by Tatsumi, for example.) But it is a nice book to read, with stories about people you might recognize, or see yourself in.

If you saw that cover, you might expect survival horror, or the story of some put-upon schoolgirl. But that's not what Alive is: it contains a couple of dozen stories, most of them pretty short, about modern urban Japanese. Some are students -- manga just can't get away from high schoolers, no matter how hard it tries -- but many more are young office workers. None of the main characters are particularly old, or particularly rooted -- they may have lovers or even newish spouses, but they don't have children and long careers and extended families. They also mostly don't have much that they enjoy: Alive is not entirely stories or urban anhedonia, but the tone is more often melancholy or sad than anything more positive.

Taguchi works in what I think of as an indy-comics version of the expected manga look: faces slightly more open and realistic, panel layouts generally restrained and professional, often showing places and things instead of relentlessly focusing on high-energy people and poses. It's all controlled and solid, without ostentation or frippery -- and the writing is similarly unadorned, mostly dialogue leading to moments of clarity at the end of the stories. Some of those endings work well, others...well, a few times you, like me, may be surprised to realize a new story has begun.

Taguchi has skill and clearly a drive to tell these stories. And there are enough hits in Alive to more than balance out the stories that miss. But this is low-key work about regular people: you have to be interested in that going in. If you are, Alive is worth checking out if you can find it -- it's from the newer publisher Gen, and I get the sense their books may not have a wide distribution in print form.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #300: Concrete Park, Vol. 1 by Puryear & Alexander

I don't ask for much: I really don't. I'm fine with really fuzzy science in my SF -- FTL, timetravel, aliens with prosthetic foreheads and an insatiable lust for Earth-flesh, aliens with hideous slavering jaws and an insatiable hunger for Earth-flesh, implausible biology and cosmology and physics and chemistry and sociology and anthropology. All I ask is that a setting make the least bit of sense -- that there be some kind of argument you could make that it could possibly happen.

Call it the Alien from LA rule: if the civilization in your SF story doesn't make at least as much sense as the worst movie Kathy Ireland ever made -- if the city in your SF world is less plausible than an underground '80s style boiler-room called "Atlantis" and populated mostly by Australians  -- than you've got a problem. Concrete Park has a problem.

It's the usual Hollywood near future crapsack set-up: everyone is young and attractive and photogenic (muscular and/or curvy, as appropriate, and not overly encumbered with clothes), but the world has all gone to hell, leading to riots and food shortages and the usual corporatized/internationalized riot cops in their body armor. Resources are clearly limited, and getting tighter.

But, at the the very same time, Earth is transporting tens of thousands of people to an alien world -- how, we don't exactly see, but they're sent in large numbers -- where they're apparently all going to work with pickaxes at a mine face deep in the ice, as if this is a 1947 Yosemite Sam cartoon. This clearly can't be an expensive journey, since the evil body-armor cops are just hoovering up random street thugs from around the world to shove into slavery on this random alien world: no special skills necessary, no homesteading available, no need to vet or choose people to even the slightest degree.

And, yes, tens of thousands of those enslaved mineworkers have escaped, out into the remorseless desert (I can't even keep up the count of cliches at this point), where they have built a city that looks more solid and with a stronger building code than much of The Bronx. Nevertheless, Scare City is lawless, ruled by feuding gangs that seem to keep to the traditional organized-crime standbys: prostitution, drugs, and shooting at each other while running around.

We see no farms, and nowhere for farms to be. We see no useful economic activity on this planet at all, except the sealed mining camps. We see no indication that anyone involved in creating this story thought for one second about how a society actually operates, or how these people would live and keep up their impressive LA physiques. All we see is Cool Shit.

(Do I need to point out that this is possibly the very most stupid colonization plan in any work of sci-fi in history? And that if they can travel so easily, they can certainly find a nicer planet, or a nicer place on this same planet, since As You Know Bob, planets are very big places. Idiot SF creators, if you need to process a bunch of random people wholesale to an inhospitable world, what you need is a teleportation gate: you can shovel people through it, it's plausible to have a fixed other end, and you can play games with one-way travel and the gate's on/off schedule.)

So some random LA gang banger -- given Sadness and Angst by the oh-so-tragic death of his terminally cute kid sister -- is shanghaied to whatever-this-planet-is-called in the periodic cattle car, crash lands, escapes, and begins to get the inklings that he has a Destiny. And the busty girl on the cover, head of one of the local gangs, runs around at great length to introduce us to what will be the supporting cast. At the end of this volume -- Concrete Park, Vol. 1: You Send Me, collecting the initial run of these stories in Dark Horse Presents -- they finally get to Meet Cute, but they probably won't get to bang until the middle of the next story, after at least two gunfights, one car chase, and a showing-him-around-the-city montage.

The actual story here isn't bad -- seriously overwritten, with a lot of angsty narration, but no worse than classic period Frank Miller -- and the art is energetically fleshy and real. There's room for improvement, sure, especially in that overheated narration, but it's a solid adventure story that would make a perfectly cromulent dumb summer movie. But the world? Hoo boy, that's a stinker.

Unsurprisingly, this was written by a screenwriter (Tony Puryear) and an actress (Erika Alexander), who are also married to each other. Somewhat more surprisingly, the art is also by Puryear: that shows a real attention to craft and storytelling that the world-building entirely fumbles. There's probably no salvaging this milieu without massive retcons, but, if they could find a half-decent science consultant, they could immediately up their game substantially for the next project. Concrete Park, though, is only for readers who either don't understand or don't care how societies work.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #299: Tomboy by Liz Prince

Hardly anyone interesting will admit to having a happy childhood: that's the marker of stupidity, conformity, and the boring. We were all outcasts, rebels, loners, burnouts, stoners, band geeks, ordinary geeks, losers, poor kids, from the wrong side of town or stuck wearing hand-me-downs during those important years. Everyone claims to have been unpopular in high school -- either the ones who were popular are lying now, or those cheerleaders and football players are just in an entirely different cultural circle (NASCAR, country music, tertiary Fox channels, and only books ghost-written under the names of sports heroes) these days.

Liz Prince was unpopular as a kid -- she's a cartoonist, so we could have guessed that. She's written a memoir of her childhood, which is another marker of having been unpopular -- publishers aren't particularly interested in a few hundred pages of "everybody loved me, I got decent grades, and was homecoming queen!" But Prince's drawings are open and clear -- lots of thin pen lines and rounded figures -- and her writing is clear and honest, so Tomboy is more than just another "other kids picked on me" book.

As you might have guessed from the title, this book is mostly about how Prince was never interested in girly things -- dresses, pretty hair, dolls, the color pink, the whole panoply of modern marketing crap, girl division. And she mostly grew up in the suburbs of Santa Fe in the '80s and '90s, which partially explains why this is her problem -- there are a number of urban centers where kid Liz Prince would have been no big deal, though on the other hand it certainly could have been worse in parts of the South and other enclaves where the 1950s have never ended. Tomboy is not a feminist critique of American gender roles, though Prince could have used a good dose of that much earlier than it finally got to her. It's her personal story, about how she muddled through and had a decent childhood and adolescence despite all of the kids around her who were annoyed and hostile because she did "girl" differently than they expected.

One of the startling things for a reader on the other side of the gender divide like me is how absolutely tiny her deviations seemed. She liked wearing a baseball cap. She never wore dresses past the age of two. She was friends with a few girls, but also boys sometimes. She liked to play catch. I'd like to think it's not this bad where I live now -- that girls can both play baseball and be in the Girl Scouts without people's heads exploding -- but I'm not in a position to really say (being male, and one of The Olds). For Prince, just being authentically herself was an uphill battle every day.

Prince does make the point a number of times that a lot of people are just jerks, and find ways to pick on people they consider weaker: this was the way they picked on her, because it was easy. (Each of us reading this can probably remember a similar way we were each picked on, whenever our childhoods were.) That's magnanimous of her, and shows that she can be clear-eyed and honest about her own experiences, but there's no denying that ingrained, institutional sexism made her first twenty years much harder and less pleasant than it should have been.

This book will probably be read mostly by tomboyish girls, past or present. But the people who really should read it are boys, and, maybe even more than them, the girls who love pink and gossip and painting each others' nails and big frilly dresses and cute shoes. I hope they find it; I hope they get it. Tomboy is a brave and honest book, by a fine cartoonist, and it deserves to be in a million school libraries and ten million brains.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Monday, October 27, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #298: Ubel Blatt, Vol. 0 by Etorouji Shiono

I'm sure Michael Moorcock didn't know what he was putting us all in for, back fifty or so years ago when he first thought of giving a tormented weak guy with a complex backstory that honking gigantic black killer sword. How could he? He didn't know it would lead to a parade of cursed blades and their bearers, each more tormented and anguished than the one before. He didn't know "black sword" would become standard fantasy shorthand for "look out -- badass!" He didn't know Elric would become as much of a cliche as his opposite Conan had already become.

But it's mostly because of Moorcock and Elric that we have Ubel Blatt, Vol. 0 all these years later, even if creator Etorouji Shiono, as I suspect, got his doom-haunted half-elf and his particular ebony death-machine entirely through intermediaries and secondary sources. (Though I could be wrong: Shiono could be a huge Moorcock fan and the parallels entirely planned.)

Before I get into the plot details, a quick consumer note: yes, this is Volume Zero. As far as I can tell, it reprints the original Japanese volumes zero and one, which in turn reprinted the first episodes of this story. It's not a later prequel; this is where the story starts. If that big zero isn't purely an affectation, I can't see what it implies. But this also is a gigantic book -- over 400 pages, in the larger manga size rather than the mass-market-paperback size -- so you can forgive it a few affectations.

In a Germanically generic fantasy world -- castles, armor, flying machines, magic used entirely for organized murder, feudalism, a nasty religion, and of course lots of swords -- the good-guy Empire of Szaalenden has been threatened by the evil forces of Wischtech for quite some time. (Wischtech seems to be more other-side-of-a-dimensional-gate than over-the-mountains, but this isn't entirely clear.) Twenty years before the main action of this story, the Emperor sent out an elite strike force, each with a lance he blessed himself, as the Fourteen Lances, to go kick some bad-guy ass and save the world for a while. Three died on the way and four Traitorous Lances defected to the enemy and had to be killed, but the Seven Heroes were victorious and came back to get power and lands and all that good stuff.

But now Wischtech is threatening again, and there are other pockets of unrest on the Empire's borders -- frankly, established authorities in this part of the Empire are all looking pretty lousy, at best ineffectual and in most cases actively hand-wringingly evil. But there is this half-elf kid Koinzell, who looks far too wimpy to be any trouble...which of course means he's the biggest bad-ass in the world, by the old law laid down in karate movies. And it turns out that the story of the Seven Heroes is not quite the way it's been told. Finally, this is a seinen manga, which means everything has to really go to hell, to make the story of saving it all be that much more impressive.

Ubel Blatt is a pretty decent epic fantasy/seinen manga mash-up, if you're not looking for anything too original on either side of that mash. Of course, just shoving those two things together makes for some interesting moments -- sure, both traditions feature a lot of S&Mish sexual play to establish how nasty the villains are, so that just stacks, but Koinzell's actual Black Blade is depicted early on as a bunch of smaller knives attached to his long braided hair, which is just goofy enough to be awesome. I could see this being a particularly good introduction to manga to fans of secondary-world fantasy (or even death metal, honestly) -- Shiono has a crisp style that's very accessible to Westerners, distinguishes clearly among all of the characters in his large cast, and has a suitably kick-ass story to tell here.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 10/25

Even though my front steps were under construction this week, meaning my mail box was sitting in a plastic tote over in a corner of the yard, just outside the construction zone [1], the brave Package Fairies of various services managed to get a number of packages to me over the past few days. In honor of their brave and zealous work, I can present this week's "Reviewing the Mail" post: five new books coming out in North America, sent to me semi-unexpectedly by their publishers. I haven't read any of them yet, but here's what I can tell you about them.

Willful Child is the new novel from Steven Erikson, and it meets almost none of the expectations raised by the first half of this sentence. It's not secondary-world fantasy: it's a SF novel. You couldn't block a door with it: it's under 350 pages. And it's not deeply serious: it looks to be a satire (or maybe piss-take is the better word) of classic Star Trek. This deeply surprising and unlikely book is a Tor hardcover coming November 4th.

Jala's Mask is the first novel by husband-and-wife writing team Mike and Rachel Grinti, coming as a trade paperback from Pyr on November 4th. It's a fantasy novel set in a world with a Polynesian influence, where a small group of islands has used magic to shape coral ships to raid the mainland for centuries and where a young woman from outside the usual circles of power has just married the king. That's when the mainlanders finally hit back, just as Jala (our heroine) is thrown into the typical snake-pit of scheming advisors and nobles. Can she save her marriage, her family, and her nation?

Harry Harrison! Harry Harrison! is the memoirs of a SF writer whose name I think you can guess. (Yes, he did die in 2012: sometimes publishing takes a while. He wrote this the usual way, before that event.) It's a Tor hardcover, coming November 4th, and it covers his entire life and career -- one of the last primary documents about the SF and comics world of the '40s and '50s that we'll ever get, I expect.

Impulse is a military SF novel by Dave Bara, coming from DAW as a hardcover on February 3rd. It's the first in a series -- books that aren't in series are in shorter supply than hen's teeth in SFF these days -- and the first novel by Bara, telling the story of a young officer in the space navy in a dangerous medium-future galactic civilization, and the difficult choice he has to make.

And then there's the new Wild Cards novel, Lowball, edited by George R.R. Martin & Melinda M. Snodgrass, continuing the long-running multi-author series about an alternate history filled with superhumans. (I read the first ten or so in the series -- the whole original Bantam run, I think, but lost track when it bounced among publishers and there were too many evil body-swappers in a row for a while. But there have been a truly remarkable number of excellent writers involved since the beginning, and I've never seen anyone else come close to replicating the "mosaic novel" structure of many of the series books, with multiple writers each doing their stories and the editors weaving them together into something that really reads like a single novel.) This is a Tor hardcover, available November 4th, and the writers included this time out are Michael Cassutt, David Anthony Durham, David D. Levine, Mary Anne Mohanraj, Melinda M. Snodgrass, Ian Tregillis, Carrie Vaughn, and Walter Jon Williams.

[1] Metaphorically in a filing cabinet at the bottom of a broken flight of stairs behind a "beware of the leopard" sign.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #297: Bumperhead by Gilbert Hernandez

We expect to take stories literally, thinking that they express a single history and tell us about the same people from beginning to end, that signs don't switch signifiers in the middle or time periods suddenly shift without notice. But not all stories work that way: that's a pre-modern conception of story, to begin with, and many times it will fail us.

You can read Gilbert Hernandez's new standalone graphic novel Bumperhead as the story of one life in ordinary time, though you have to squint a bit to do so. But that doesn't seem to be what Hernandez is doing here, even though it looks like the story of most of one man's life, from early childhood through late middle age.

At first glance, this is clearly a follow-up to Hernandez's Marble Season from last year: it begins in roughly the same time and place, a small city in working-class Southern California, some time in the 1960s, among a group of kids mostly still in single digits. Our central character this time is Bobby, only son of a Mexican father and a mother whose only character traits are tight self-control and chain-smoking. And the story drops in on Bobby at five points in his life -- say ages 10, 15, 20, 25, and 50. (Those are probably wrong, but not horribly wrong; he's a child to begin, the middle three sections show him in extended adolescence and young manhood, and the last moves much farther into the future.)

But even though there are some clear signs of particular times -- Bobby gets very involved in punk in those middle sections -- there are other signs that point in contradictory directions. The precise year is only mentioned once -- the second section takes place in 1972. And the last section almost seems to be set a century ago, as if the century looped and went backwards from 1999 to 1900. And a secondary character carries an iPad -- called by that name, and a "future predicting toy," interchangeably -- throughout most of the story. So Bumperhead may draw on on its creator's life -- he was born in 1957, so he was fifteen in 1972, as Bobby was about that age, and twenty in 1977, for the punk explosion -- but it does so at a slight remove, through a filter to make it all more general.

It's easier to say what Bumperhead is not about: despite the publisher's description, this isn't really a story of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll -- Bobby does care about all three, at least for while in that middle, but none of them lead him anywhere. It's almost the story of his relationship with his distant father, but there's not enough relationship there for that, either. It comes close to begin the story of Bobby's childhood crush on Lorena Madrid -- but, even though Lorena passes through his life glancingly a few times, that's all it is. In the end, this is the story of Bobby, who moved from one thing to the next, looking for the good times in the future and mostly just existing in the present. (Except that's not really true, either: he did burn brightly in those energetic middle punk years.)

It may just be the story of a young man who didn't have any drive to do anything: he loved glam rock and then punk, but they didn't inspire him to make music, or to make anything else. Bobby's life is not exactly wasted, but it is a life without strong attachments to others, without any guiding ideals or goals, a life spent mostly passively. But, then, what else would you expect from a bumperhead?

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #296: Hawk by Steven Brust

For longtime fans of this series, I'll start with the headline: after about a decade and four books, Brust finally moves the main story forward in this book. Vlad Taltos has returned to Adrilankha once again, and this time it might just stick.

The rest of you might want some background. There are many resources online -- and I've covered the last four books in some depth: Dzur, Jhegaala, Iorich, and Tiassa -- but the important points can be covered quickly. The Vlad Taltos novels appear to be sword & sorcery, first-person caper novels set in a fantasy world where humans are a minority and tall, magic-using, long-lived Dragareans (whom humans call "elfs") are dominant and whose empire has a complex clan-based social structure and a millennia-long history. Vlad himself is a human who by this point in the series has attained and lost a high position in the Dragarean House of the Jhereg (organized crime), gotten an Imperial title, become reasonably adept at human witchcraft (quite different from Dragerean sorcery), made close friends with many of the most powerful and dangerous Dragareans alive, and been on the run for nearly a decade from his ex-friends in the Jhereg. Underlying that surface is a deeper story Brust will probably never tell completely: this all takes place millions of years in the future, Dragareans are a genetically modified successor race to humanity, much of the sorcery may have a mildly SFnal explanation, and these stories (with a few minor exceptions) have been narrated directly by Vlad to a mysterious figure from beyond his world who is taping them for unknown purposes.

The subtext mostly stays subtext -- except in the most pyrotechnic book of the series, 2001's Issola -- but that does mean that the Vlad books look very much like secondary-world fantasy, and can be read as secondary-world fantasy, but the quack of this particular duck is in a subtly different tone. And it speaks to the kind of writer Brust is: sneaky, wry, laconic, driven by dialogue and by a drive for narrative novelty, unwilling or unable to repeat himself directly but perfectly happy to ring changes on the same situation. (Much as every other recent book has seen Vlad return to the Dragarean capital of Adrilankha: Dzur, Iorich, and now Hawk.)

Hawk is the story of how Vlad finally decides to get out from under the kill-order from the Jhereg; they've had a very high bounty on his head and a mandate to use soul-killing weapons since the events of Phoenix, where he gave up a member of their ruling Council to the authorities to save his ex-wife. (As in most organized crime groups, the one unforgivable sin is to use the law to win your battles.) That plan is baroque and complex, and, as we should expect from Brust, Vlad will tell us about the people who helped him put the plan together and the various items he needs for the plan, but not what the plan itself is until the moment he puts it into action.

So Hawk is much like Dzur and Iorich on the surface: another book about Vlad wandering around Adrilankha, talking to people and assembling his plan. This time, though, the assassination attempts are more frequent, somewhat sloppier, and are starting to rely on overwhelming force and ubiquitous coverage -- the old Jhereg tradition of setting one supremely skilled professional on a job hasn't worked in Vlad's case, so now they're trying other tactics. And those tactics are coming very close to working; if Vlad didn't have the massive magical advantages he does -- primarily a Great Weapon and a talisman that makes him immune to magical detection -- this would be a very short book.

The joys of a Vlad Taltos book are twofold: first, Brust just tells a captivating story on the surface, propelled by Vlad's instantly engaging voice and the quirks of his setting. The deeper joys are those of the serious fan, who is alert for the appearance of Devera in each book and keeping mental checklists about the background details of the series -- those require both much closer attention to Brust's word choices and offhand details and a deep knowledge and love for the series as a whole. I'm personally not quite at the right level to fully appreciate that deeper level -- only Brust and a few fanatical devotees really recognize all of the important hints -- but I'm at least halfway there, and it's a sliding scale: each sneaky reference caught is a pleasure, even if only a few are caught.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Friday, October 24, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #295: No Matter How I Look at It, It's You Guys' Fault I'm Not Popular!, Vol. 5 by Nico Tanigawa

I might not have anything more to say about Tomoko Kuroki. She's a wonderful, glorious character -- deeply conflicted as a misanthrope who wants people to like her and a girl who wants a boyfriend despite the fact that she's so socially anxious she can't talk to anyone -- but I've already written about the first four books of this series, and said there the things I might say here.

Tomoko is back in No Matter How I Look at It, It's You Guys' Fault I'm Not Popular!, Vol. 5, which sees her begin her second high school year with the additional burden of her younger brother Kuroki joining her there as a first-year. (As always, No Matter is by a team of two manga-ka that work under the single name "Nico Tanagawa.") She's still not socially adept in any way, and still obsessed with sex in the least useful ways, but she understands herself better by this point, which makes the stories less immediately lacerating.

Tomoko spends her time alone -- no matter how many people are around her -- partially because she prefers that, and partially because she's just no good at interacting with others. (Real life is sadly different from her beloved dating sims: there's no one right answer to unlock the next level, and real people frustratingly refuse to follow any scripts.) But she's setting less lofty goals in these stories -- using a point system to force herself to talk to people, bringing her grades back up to average to avoid cram school, making a funny introduction to the class at the beginning of the year -- and more or less hitting those goals, which is a big win for her.

Of course, she's also trying to get "ahead" of other girls in her class by image-searching for "d*cks" -- during class, no less -- and accidentally impersonating a flasher at a local park, so don't expect things to go smoothly for her. She's as awkward and introverted as ever, and even her reasonable, sensible plans are not massive successes.

But there is hope for Tomoko: she seems more satisfied with herself and more centered by this point, without the naked yearning of the first couple of volumes. It's a hard road, but it's just possible that our little Tomoko is growing up. And I'm happy to continue to check in with her as she does, hoping that she will someday get that boyfriend and happy life...even if I'm sure she'll never be "popular."

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index