Monday, May 29, 2017

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 5/27

Sometimes I dream of the perfect books-in-the-mail week: I get exactly the books I'd want to read next, and precisely as many books as I'd read the next week. Since the universe is infinite, it's theoretically possible, but since even I don't know what I'll want to read three days from now (or what will affect my reading time and inclination), it's practically impossible.

But, some weeks, I get just one book, and it's practically begging me to jump the queue and read it that's pretty close.

(In case you're confused: I review books, so publishers send me books to review. Fewer now than in the past, since blogs are pretty 2006 these days, and my traffic is not setting the Internet on fire. But free stuff is a wonderful thing in any circumstance, so I celebrate those books every Monday morning.)

This week, that book was Nothing Left to Lose by Dan Wells.

It's the sixth novel about John Wayne Cleaver, and, I suppose, the end of the second loose trilogy. (Each book is a standalone, like a mystery novel, but they tend to cluster.) John is a teenage sociopath -- diminished emotional affect, urges to kill, voices in his head, the whole bit -- who has tried his whole life to keep himself controlled and good. Unfortunately, John lives in a dark-fantasy universe, where a group of people got supernatural powers thousands of years back and have been predating on humans ever since, in various horrible and unpleasant ways. John has been tracking and killing these monsters for several years now, since they wrecked his young life back in the first three books. Along the way, he's lost just about everything but himself, and all of his hopes for anything else.

John has a great voice, and Wells lets him tell the stories directly -- they're compelling, page-turning stories that move well and and bleakly excellent. See my reviews of the first trilogy, The Devil's Only Friend, and Over Your Dead Body for more details.

Nothing Left to Lose is a trade paperback from Tor, coming on June 6th. It may be the end of John's story.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Snotgirl, Vol. 1: Green Hair Don't Care by Bryan Lee O'Malley and Leslie Hung

Sometimes, a main character is the entire book. A reader's reaction to her determines everything. If you sympathize with her, you sink into the book and are swept along. If not...well, in that case, things are rockier.

I have to admit that I didn't warm to Lottie Person, the tediously self-centered, vain and shallow main character of Snotgirl. She's a fashion blogger in LA, the epitome of the empty-headed young person who lives 24/7 with a phone in her hand, an emoji in her heart, and an uplift at the end of her sentences. I won't say that I hate her, but I'd rather not spend any more time in her company than I have to, and if I knew her in real life, I probably would hate her.

(She reminded me of Stephanie Plum, the similarly ditzy heroine of a series of novels by Janet Evanovich. I hate-read five or six of those books, back when I read much more and when I was reading professionally, always with the hope that Steph would finally wise up, even just slightly, and get the least clue about herself or her life. I am older and less tolerant of the travails of the young and fabulous now.)

Snotgirl is entirely from Lottie's point of view: it's deeply invested in her and her view of the world. If you're not willing to deeply believe in this neurotic young woman, and insist along with her that blogging about clothing is a serious and worthy pursuit for an adult, you will be left cold, grumpy and entirely outside the story.

As I was.

I am impressed that this is written by Bryan Lee O'Malley, cartoonist of Seconds and the mega-popular Scott Pilgrim stories -- it has the focus on youth and complicated, flawed protagonists of those previous books, but it digs much more directly into a very female life and world-view than he's one in the past. My opinion is probably not that believable on this subject, but Lottie felt deeply real to me: not a person I want to spend time with, admittedly, but like someone I could easily see existing in the real world.

It looks gorgeous, too, as a book about fabulous people and their fabulous clothes should -- artist Leslie Hung and colorist Mickey Quinn create a crisp, larger-than-life world of gorgeous clear-skinned people in outfits that pop and a vibrant, energetic color palette.

But I just don't like Lottie at all. I don't care about her massive allergy-driven self-doubts, and I'm not intrigued enough by her new frenemy Caroline's obvious gaslighting and negging to want to keep up with more Snotgirl. Lottie is shallow when she isn't mean, and mean when she isn't shallow, and occasionally both at the same time. I just don't want people like that in my life, even fictionally.

That's totally fine -- there need to be more comics not for middle-aged white guys like me -- but I'm a little sad that I bounced off it so hard. I'll have to see what O'Malley does next -- and maybe see what else Hung has done, since I'm not familiar with her work.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Stone Heart by Faith Erin Hicks

The trilogy begun in The Nameless City continues here in The Stone Heart -- and, as we all know about trilogies, that means that this book will be darker than the first and have less of an ending. Both of those things are true, and I'll also note that some of the things I grumped about in the world-building of the first book are muted or explained otherwise here -- I don't think Hicks even knew my post existed; just that those are obvious questions that she either already had in mind or had raised to her by librarians or readers or her editors.

So: we're still in not-13th century China, in the city that is officially Nameless in this book (I don't think anyone calls it DanDao, the official name under the current conquerors). Our heroes Kaidu (teen son of a conquering general) and Rat (orphan teen daughter of locals killed by those conquerors and raised by the local monks) saved the life of the General of All Blades in the previous book, making them moderately important and influential. That General, in fact, has come around to the idea that Nameless should be governed by an independent council, made up of representatives of the great warring nations and the locals. It hasn't happened yet, but the current set of conquerors are moving forward to make it happen -- if one of the other major warring nations can be brought on board.

Not everyone agrees with that utopian dream, of course -- particularly not young Dao lordlings who currently expect to grow up to rule this great city and who would be exiled from it under the proposed plan. And lordlings in a feudal society have violent options to stop changes they don't like.

Things get dark -- again, this is the middle book of a trilogy, so that's to be expected. Our heroes can't save the day if the day doesn't need to be saved. There is a lot of age-appropriate death and destruction before the end of The Stone Heart, and there is a day that is definitely endangered. It will probably be another year before the concluding third book, The Divided Earth, which may test the patience of some younger readers (and, who knows? older ones as well). But, from the evidence here, Hicks will reward that wait -- she's been telling great comics stories for a while now, and this trilogy shows her stretching to a larger canvas and doing a great job of it.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Underworld: From Hoboken to Hollywood by Kaz

Everything declines and falls; everything takes ship for the West and its inevitable end. But sometimes things can be reborn, as the Age of Gold turns to the Age of Silver. So underground comics died, as their audience aged out or grew up or got real jobs or got embarrassed or just went somewhere else. But much of the same energy and subject matter and style came back in comics that ran in the burst of weekly free newspapers that sprang up in the late '80s and flourished in the '90s.

(And some of that, in turn, went into webcomics when those weeklies, in their turn, were strangled by market forces.)

One of the most aggressively underground of the strips in those papers was Kaz's Underworld -- a weekly strip with no continuity, just a collection of grotesque lowlifes who swore and killed each other and did drugs and parodied themselves and older comics. (Kaz is the working name of a cartoonist with the jaw-buster moniker Kazimieras G. Prapuolenis; if I had a name like that, I'd want to work under something shorter as well.) And that strip apparently is still running, though I can't imagine where -- those free weeklies are pretty much all gone.

Underworld: From Hoboken to Hollywood collects what seems to be the full run of the strip, incorporating six earlier books that chronicled the strip from 1992 through 2008 and three sections (also originally separate books?) titled "Underworld USA" from the years since then. The strip might have been re-launched, in the same venues or somewhere else, in 2009 as "Underworld USA" -- the book isn't entirely clear there. (There are also a few strips that are repeated; I suspect because they got accidentally duplicated in the original books and this new compilation didn't go back to the original strips.)

Underworld is a wallow in the gutter, deliberately. The characters are lovably horrible people, murderers and drug addicts and sex fiends and creeps and scumbags. That's the point. And they inhabit something like the world of classic comics or early black-and-white cartoons, where anything can happen for a gag and it all goes back to the way it was for the next installment. So the strip is remarkably consistent over the twenty-plus years collected here -- Kaz's art got somewhat more expressive and precise along the way, but that's the main difference -- as the characters do the same things in the same ways, for mostly humorous purposes.

I read Underworld, on and off, throughout the '90s in the New York Press, more or less its home paper. So I have some nostalgia -- nostalgie de la boue, I suppose -- for Kaz and his creations. But three hundred pages of the same thing is a bit wearying; I don't know if anyone who doesn't already like and remember these characters will make it through to the end. Frankly, I think the smaller books are a better format for a strip like this -- some things just aren't made to be entombed in a giant hardcover slab.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 5/20

Hey! You know how I list and summarize/pitch the books that show up in my mailbox here? How I do it every Monday? That whole thing?

Well, obviously I can only do it if I get books in my mailbox.

Last week I didn't.

So, instead, I'm going to spend the time this lovely cool Sunday morning by trying to finish up posts on the books I read last week. That might be of more or less interest to you particularly; I don't know. But it's what I can do, and it's what I will do. See you here next week for another mailbox check.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

The Other Chain

So a week ago the family went off for Mother's Day festivities, our choice of which might seem odd to some. (We did the dinner-out thing the night before, because we are neither crazy nor fools, and didn't want to fight the crowds of those who are one or both.)

What we did was see a movie. A big Hollywood blockbuster movie, which you may have heard of, about a group of misfits guarding a galaxy, the sequel to a similar movie about the same people. We did this at 11:15 in the morning, so the price was at the level my '80s-born heart still thinks is the right price for a movie, and that price made me and The Wife happy.

(The Wife avoided that original movie when my sons & I went to see it in the theater, because she thought it would be too boyish, and then did not believe us when we told her she would really like it. She subsequently watched it on TV and had to admit that once again, as usual, I was right in all things.)

That movie features really prominently a song called "The Chain." That song was rolling around in my head for several days, along with several others from aforesaid movie.

But that's not what I'm here to talk about.

On shuffle in my car, a couple of days ago, this other song called "The Chain" came up in the rotation. It's more my style to begin with -- I never completely get into songs about happiness and success and things like that -- and the juxtaposition amused me more than it should have.

So here's Ingrid Michaelson with another tale of bad love -- about a girl, a boy, some promises, and something locked up tight:

Friday, May 19, 2017

Gobler Toys: The Fun We Can't Remember by Steve Casino and Steve Fink

I've mentioned before that I'm a sucker for fake non-fiction: the kind of books that barefacedly claim something untrue, and spin that out at great length, completely straight-faced. It can be a serious history book like For Want of a Nail, or a puckish natural history guide like Dragons: The Modern Infestation, or an encyclopedic takedown of an entire genre like The Tough Guide to Fantasyland.

Or, as here, a heavily-illustrated nostalgic guide to the best-known products of a post-war toymaker that is slightly hampered by the fact of never actually existing.

Steve Casino and Steve Fink -- both of them equally toilers in the toy mills and collectors of brightly-colored plastic crap from their own late-Boomer youths -- have constructed the story of a company only a little too silly to be real, and its weird genius of a founder, Ira Gobler, in Gobler Toys: The Fun We Can't Remember.

The toys here are almost plausible, like a Weeble-esque toy for kids to climb into and drive around called Gobler's Wobblers. They all look like the detritus of some slightly quirkier universe, where a pull-toy called Senor Sandwich -- which smells like real salami! -- could have been a smash hit in the early 60s.

And the quirky head of that company also is nearly believable, with his penchant for publicity and knack for creating popular fads -- though his insistence that all of his genius comes from tugging on his "neck skin" (six inches of excess flesh hanging below his face) will make all but the most gullible suspect something is up.

As you might imagine, this was a website first, and the site is still up -- the book is from 2003, so this was an Internet 1.0 (or maybe 1.1) play, back when Microsoft was the only evil overwhelming tech monopoly. The book is different from the site, and has a lot of material not on the site, though the site does have some video (which books, sadly, still can't provide). It's an obscure book, more or less self-published and over a decade old, but worth searching out for those who like fake history and quirky jokes.