Thursday, April 30, 2009

Free Green Lantern!

And many others as well. In case you didn't know, this coming Saturday -- May 2nd -- is the annual Free Comic Book Day across North America.

All you have to do is walk into a participating comics shop, say "My good man, do you have a FREE COMIC BOOK for me?" and walk out with five minutes of trashy disposable entertainment in a form most adults gave up on decades ago.

A list of the potential wonders that await you is here. You may search for the elusive "participating comics shop" via a search box on that self-same page.

Happy Free Comic Booking!

2009 Clarke Award Winner: Ian R. MacLeod

Last night, Ian R. MacLeod's novel Song of Time won the 2009 Arthur C. Clarke Award for best science fiction novel published in the UK.

I haven't read or seen it, so no reaction from me. But congratulations to MacLeod, and I hope this helps get the book published on this side of the pond.

Locus Awards Finalists

Locus, the newspaper of the SFF field, released earlier this week the list of finalists for their annual popularly-voted awards. As in past years, the winners are already known in the hallowed hall of Locus, since voting is over. But the rest of us will have to guess what those winners are, until the big ceremony during the Science Fiction Awards Weekend in Seattle in late June.

  • Matter, Iain M. Banks (Orbit UK)
  • City at the End of Time, Greg Bear (Gollancz, Del Rey)
  • Marsbound, Joe Haldeman (Ace)
  • Anathem, Neal Stephenson (Atlantic UK, Morrow)
  • Saturn's Children, Charles Stross (Orbit, Ace)
I've read Matter and Saturn's Children without loving either of them, and I've got Marsbound on the teetering to-be-read pile. I keep vaguely feeling like reading City at the End of Time, but then I look at how long it is and the feeling goes away. And I have no desire at all to look at Anathem, which means it will certainly win and be acclaimed the definitive SF novel of last year.

  • The Shadow Year, Jeffrey Ford (Morrow)
  • Lavinia, Ursula K. Le Guin (Harcourt)
  • The Bell at Sealey Head, Patricia A. McKillip (Ace)
  • The Dragons of Babel, Michael Swanwick (Tor)
  • An Evil Guest, Gene Wolfe (Tor)
I've read Evil Guest and Dragons of Babel, both of which are decent books with serious flaws (the Swanwick is a fix-up and shows it; the Wolfe is another entry in his list of odd supposed-to-be-women). I want to read Sealey Head and Shadow Year. I haven't seriously wanted to touch a Le Guin book since she started preaching and stopped storytelling about twenty years ago -- so, again, I expect she'll win.

  • Thunderer, Felix Gilman (Bantam Spectra)
  • Black Ships, Jo Graham (Orbit US)
  • Pandemonium, Daryl Gregory (Ballantine Del Rey)
  • The Gone-Away World, Nick Harkaway (William Heinemann, Knopf)
  • Singularity's Ring, Paul Melko (Tor)
The only one I've read is the Melko, which was a solid first novel. The Gregory and Harkaway are still around somewhere, in case I have the time and desire. The Gilman looks like fun, but I've never picked it up in person to glance at the prose. And the Graham is a book I know very little about.

  • Little Brother, Cory Doctorow (Tor)
  • The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman (HarperCollins, Bloomsbury)
  • Tender Morsels, Margo Lanagan (Knopf)
  • Nation, Terry Pratchett (Doubleday UK, HarperCollins)
  • Zoe's Tale, John Scalzi (Tor)
I've read everything but the Lanagan -- which, again, is around somewhere. The Scalzi is not technically a Young-Adult book, but that's splitting a very fine hair. Nation is very Pratchetty, in all the usual good and bad ways. (Ditto Little Brother wrt Doctorowianness.) I'd probably lean towards the Gaiman book myself, but, since the Lanagan is something that I'd have to force myself to read, I expect it will win. (I'm being extraordinarily pessimistic this year; it helps to simplify things.)

  • "The Erdmann Nexus", Nancy Kress (Asimov’s 10-11/08)
  • "Pretty Monsters", Kelly Link (Pretty Monsters)
  • "The Tear", Ian McDonald (Galactic Empires)
  • Once Upon a Time in the North, Philip Pullman (Knopf)
  • "True Names", Benjamin Rosenbaum & Cory Doctorow (Fast Forward 2)
Haven't read a one of them. I'll root for the McDonald story, for old times' sake.


  • "Pump Six", Paolo Bacigalupi (Pump Six and Other Stories)
  • "The Ice War", Stephen Baxter (Asimov’s 9/08)
  • "Shoggoths in Bloom", Elizabeth Bear (Asimov’s 3/08)
  • "The Things that Make Me Weak and Strange Get Engineered Away", Cory Doctorow ( 8/08)
  • "Pride and Prometheus", John Kessel (F&SF 1/08)
Ditto on not reading short fiction, and I have no useful opinion on this category.

  • "King Pelles the Sure", Peter S. Beagle (Strange Roads)
  • "Boojum", Elizabeth Bear & Sarah Monette (Fast Ships, Black Sails)
  • "Exhalation", Ted Chiang (Eclipse Two)
  • "The Kindness of Strangers", Nancy Kress (Fast Forward 2)
  • "After the Coup", John Scalzi ( 7/08)
And I plead ignorance for the third time.

  • Analog
  • Asimov's
  • F&SF
  • Realms of Fantasy
  • Subterranean
Wow! There are still magazines being published! I'm very out of touch with short fiction, so I can't say any more than that.

  • Ace
  • Baen
  • Night Shade Books
  • Subterranean Press
  • Tor
I have no idea how anyone determines their vote in this category -- publisher that had the most books I personally liked? publisher that did the fewest books I loathed? publisher who gave me the biggest advance? Tor wins this every year anyway.

  • The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror 2008: 21st Annual Collection, Ellen Datlow, Kelly Link & Gavin Grant, eds. (St. Martin's Griffin)
  • Galactic Empires, Gardner Dozois, ed. (SFBC)
  • The Year's Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Fifth Annual Collection, Gardner Dozois, ed. St. Martin's)
  • Eclipse Two, Jonathan Strahan, ed. (Night Shade Books)
  • The Starry Rift, Jonathan Strahan, ed. (Viking)
I've read none of these, and am vaguely rooting for Starry Rift for Alma Mater reasons. I do think any category that mixes original and reprint anthologies is confusing and weird -- they're very different things -- but Locus never asked my opinion on the matter. I suspect Eclipse Two will win.

  • Pump Six and Other Stories, Paolo Bacigalupi (Night Shade Books)
  • The Drowned Life, Jeffrey Ford (HarperPerennial)
  • Pretty Monsters, Kelly Link (Viking)
  • The Best of Lucius Shepard, Lucius Shepard (Subterranean Press)
  • The Best of Michael Swanwick, Michael Swanwick (Subterranean Press)
Haven't read any; have or want to read most of them. (Though I've read nearly all of the stories in the Swanwick and probably half of the Shepard.) I'd normally think Link would win, but Pretty Monsters is a mix-and-match collection of mostly stories from her two previous collections, aimed at a YA market. So I'm unsure.

  • Ellen Datlow
  • Gardner Dozois
  • David G. Hartwell
  • Jonathan Strahan
  • Gordon Van Gelder
All very respectable names, whom I'm all at least moderately friendly with, so I'll maintain a dignified, self-preserving silence.

  • Bob Eggleton
  • John Picacio
  • Shaun Tan
  • Charles Vess
  • Michael Whelan
I'm a bit out of the loop these days, so I might have missed a flood of new Whelan art in the genre...but I doubt it. Folks, he stopped working regularly on SFF art a good decade ago, and you really need to let go. (He does do a cover or two a year, but that's about it.) SF people are remarkably conservative for whiz-bang sensawunda folks.

  • Spectrum 15: The Best in Contemporary Fantastic Art, Cathy Fenner & Arnie Fenner, eds. (Underwood Books)
  • What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction, Paul Kincaid (Beccon)
  • Rhetorics of Fantasy, Farah Mendlesohn (Wesleyan University Press)
  • Coraline: The Graphic Novel, Neil Gaiman, adapted and illustrated by P. Craig Russell (HarperCollins)
  • Tales From Outer Suburbia, Shaun Tan (Allen & Unwin; Scholastic '09)
I've read the three of these with the fewest words, which is sadly typical of me. I want to read the other two, but somehow doubt I ever will. I suspect the Mendelsohn will win; it sounds like a really interesting book that crystallized a lot of vague thinking about fantasy. (That is, it will win if the vast Gaiman-loving audience doesn't just vote in Coraline out of habit.)

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

All These Major Bummers Are Making Me...Tense!

Today at ComicMix, I did my best to over-intellectualize a bunch of '80s humor comics by Keith Giffen and Robert Loren Fleming. Please join me there for a look at Showcase Presents Ambush Bug.

A Question for BEA Attendees

Book Expo America is back in New York this year, so I'll be there for at least one day. Unfortunately, I'm going to be off at a conference -- the annual meeting of NACVA in Boston -- through that Friday, so there's no chance that I'll make it to BEA on Friday.

But here's my question: is Saturday a substantially better day to be at BEA than Sunday?

I'd have to dismantle the booth Friday at 4, and then drive home to Jersey that evening -- after spending a long day selling books to accountants -- to make it on Saturday. But if Sunday is a dead zone with hardly anyone around and only picked-over remnants of giveaways, I'll make the effort to be there on a day when I can see people.

So, any of you who have attended BEAs (especially in New York) -- what's Sunday like, compared to Saturday?

Have You Seen This Design Before?

I suspect my usual audience won't have a clue about this, but it's been bugging me for more than a month now, so I'm throwing it open to the world.

This book right here -- called Ordinary Greatness, a great upcoming book about leadership skills from the finest book publisher ever to be headquartered in Hoboken -- has a cover that keeps distracting me. I'm sure that there's some other item, probably some kind of business book in the last ten or twenty years, that had a yellow cover with a sun motif and red accents, but countless wasted hours of searching have turned up nothing.

So, I ask you: does this book remind you of something? If so, what? Please help me scratch this annoying mental itch, if you can.

(Don't get me wrong -- I like this cover a lot. It just keeps reminding me of something...and I can't remember just what that "something" is.)

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Faking Amazon Reviews

Neth Space linked to a fine piece of fan harrumphing (from a blog called Best Fantasy Books) on the subject of Amazon reviews late yesterday. BFB is shocked and appalled at his discovery that some authors and publishers actively try to encourage (or even write) positive reviews of their own books on Amazon, and so rambled on in the paranoid mode for a thousand or so words about this deadly scourge.

I thought the outrage was ridiculously overstated for the tiny complaint -- there are so many reasons that quick reviews by random amateurs might not be entirely reliable as a guide to one's own tastes -- and so I commented over at Neth's place, thusly:
Well, he's half-right: publishers and authors do sometimes write reviews of their own books on Amazon, and even more often ask their family and friends to review their books. But the idea that there's "big money" in this is ludicrous.

Amazon's search algorithm is affected by reviews, yes -- but it's also affected by tags, and the behavior of customers (what books they click on, what books they buy), and, most of all, by sales ranking. So it's not possible to do that much SEO through good reviews alone.

I won't say that no publisher has ever spent money to pay an outside company (or their own staff) to sit around writing Amazon reviews -- the world has an endless supply of really stupid people -- but that's a ridiculously expensive way of accomplishing not very much. For all but a few very bestselling books -- which are already selling very well everywhere else, too -- the velocity of sales at Amazon is not and will not be at a level to pay for those activities.

So: yes, authors in particular do try to game Amazon. It doesn't work as well as they think it does. And any particular reader might well find that a random Amazon review does not closely match her taste and preference in books. But anyone who's surprised and outraged that a self-publisher is a huge self-promoter probably is also shocked every morning to see that the sky is blue.

The Yggyssey by Daniel Pinkwater

Daniel Pinkwater's new book The Yggyssey is a loose sequel to his previous novel The Neddiad, and it's another lightly-plotted Pinkwaterian ramble through 1950s Los Angeles and contiguous alternate worlds. It's not one of his best books, but it is another book that only Pinkwater could have written, which is something. It's probably of most interest to middle-aged long-time Pinkwater fans such as myself; I'm unsure how actual current "young adults" will react to it.

I described The Neddiad as "a standard Pinkwater book: a young hero (we're not told that he's fat...but, then again, we're not told that he isn't, either) travels to interesting places, meets odd people who teach him new and exciting things, and saves the world in a quirky way without there having been a heck of a lot of tension along the way." Yggyssey is very similar; only the pronoun needs to be changed. The young person telling this particular story is Yggdrasil (Iggy) Birnbaum, who had a supporting role in Neddiad and the starring part in this book. She lives in the Hermione residential hotel in Hollywood in the '50s -- with her father, aged ex-cowboy movie star Captain Buffalo Birnbaum, and her younger and barely-mentioned mother -- where she's about equally amused and bothered by the large number of ghosts resident in the hotel.

Her friends are Neddie Wenthworthstein and Seamus Finn, the hero of the previous book and a boy who might just get a book of his own next. Those two boys and the other characters are a bit thin here; Iggy's voice is clear and distinctive, but everyone else comes across as a collection of quirky behavior without much center. The boys get dragged along first on Iggy's investigations of why so many of the ghosts from the Hermione have been disappearing, and then with her on a journey to Old New Hackensack, a city in an alternate world where the ghosts have gone for the Old New Supernatural Days festival. (As the subtitle explains: "How Iggy Wondered What Happened to All of the Ghosts, Found Out Where They Went, and Went There.")

Along the way, they have a series of adventures, in a minor picaresque manner, and eventually overthrow the not-all-that-evil overlord of the alternate world, who turns out to have an unexpected connection to Iggy. It's all pleasant and Pinkwaterianly oddball, but there isn't much purpose to it; these are just some things that Iggy and her friends did over the course of a couple of weeks rather than something with the shape of a real novel.

I'd called The Yggyssey "young adult" above, but it isn't, actually -- and, as I think about his work, Pinkwater rarely if ever really writes for what we now call the young adult audience. (Even his sublime Young Adult Novel is about middle-schoolers, for example.) Pinkwater's characters and audience are smart older kids: they haven't hit puberty yet, so they're still at the age when their obsessions and interests -- old movies, ghosts, shamanism, reading, dada, whatever -- define them, rather than their relationships with the alluring sex. He does write real novels -- even if The Iggyssey is a slight disappointment on that front -- but he writes them for tweens rather than teens. Pinkwater's last two books have not been his best, for whatever reason -- but the novel just before that, The Education of Robert Nifkin, is one of his best, so I'd recommend new Pinkwater readers to look for that book, or for one of the omnibuses of his best earlier novels, 5 Novels, and 4 Fantastic Novels.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Tiptree Award Winners

This year the Tiptree judges (chair Gavin J. Grant, K. Tempest Bradford, Leslie Howle, Roz Kaveney, and Catherynne M. Valente) tied -- or deadlocked, or something -- in any case, they decided the award would go to two books instead of one this year. (The award web site quotes Grant and Bradford praising the Ness book, and Howle and Valente similarly exuberant about the Shawl, if that means anything.)

Those books are:
  • The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness (Walker)
  • Filter House by Nisi Shawl (Aqueduct)
The Tiptree judges additionally listed thirteen other things they liked somewhat, though not enough to give an award to. (Their process still strikes me as backward, and their "shortlist" too long, but it's not my award -- and I suppose this process minimized hurt feelings.)

The actual awards will be given at the upcoming WisCon and include $1000, "artwork" created by someone unspecified based on the winning work, and an unspecified quantity of chocolate of unspecified quality. (I mention the latter only because the SFnal world has seen near-duels over questions of particular chocolate brands.)

[via Locus]

The True Meaning of SmekDay by Adam Rex

The True Meaning of SmekDay was published as a book for younger readers, but without an explicit age range on the book (because, as we know from the UK, age-banding is an evil thing that will only lead to misery and the cataclysmic death of all life on Earth). But, since the main character, Gratuity Tucci, is twelve years old, one can apply the old rule of kids' books -- that kids will generally refuse to read about kids younger than they are -- and estimate that it's primarily for 9-13 year olds.

SmekDay is the first novel by Adam Rex, who was best-known before this for his sly and humorous poetic picture book Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich. It has rather more illustrations than adult readers would expect -- one every five pages or so, including "photos," comics, and other things.

SmekDay starts off as an essay that Gratuity writes for school in the eighth grade (just a few years from now) as part of a contest for a time capsule -- all of the kids in the US, presumably, are writing about what this new holiday means to them.

You see, on what used to be Christmas Day in 2012, an alien race called the Boov invaded Earth and took over. They weren't overly hostile -- they seemed a bit goofy and not entirely competent -- but their technology so far overmatched human abilities that, as they say, Resistance Was Futile. Six months later, after trying to live among humans -- mostly by kicking people out of their homes and moving Boov in -- they decided to relocate all humans to reservations and keep most of the planet for themselves. All Americans were to move to Florida on one June day, aided by Boovish rocketpods.

But Gratuity's mother had disappeared just before the invasion, after claiming to have been abducted by aliens to teach them language and to fold clothes a few months before. So Gratuity was alone, and didn't want to take any Boovish rocketpod -- she wanted to go on her own. So she drove her mother's car and took her cat, Pig, straight south from eastern Pennsylvania towards her new home in central Florida. She didn't get very far before the road ran out; the Boov had been disintegrating the highways. But she met a Boov named J.Lo who rebuilt her car and then came along with her. (He was in trouble with his people, for a reason we don't find out until later.)

So Gratuity and Pig and J.Lo get to Florida and find trouble there, and have to move on to another human reservation. Along the way, they learn that another, much nastier race of aliens (the Gorg) is on their way. And the Boov shift, in the minds of the readers and Gratuity's view, from being clueless but obnoxious conquerors to something like allies, as those Gorg get closer and closer and finally arrive. According to J.Lo, the Gorg will drive the Boov away, then enslave some lucky humans and eat all the rest (and much of their planet). In the end, though, Gratuity helps to make a freer, happier world -- and finds her mother along the way.

That all sounds very serious, but SmekDay is a deeply funny book -- the Boov are buffoonish conquerors, though still dangerous (and the Gorg are not funny at all). Not a page passes without a laugh, or at least a smile. Boovish diction and biology -- they have seven sexes, including boygirls, girlboys, and boyboyboyboys -- are particularly amusing. For a while, the Boov invasion looks like a looming metaphor, but that's not Rex's intention at all -- he's telling a story that can go from farce to serious on a dime, but he's aiming for a more universal type of "serious," and he lets his subtext stay subtext.

SmekDay moves quickly, is incredibly entertaining, and has a subtly cynical view of human (and alien) nature that will endear it to smarter readers everywhere, no matter what their ages are. It's also an excellent contemporary SF novel for younger readers, and I know many folks have been beating the bushes for those. It's a wonderful book, and I hope Rex writes many more novels like it.

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 4/25

And so it's Monday morning again, which means it's time for me to post the list of books that I got for review last week. As always, I do this to backstop the books that I won't manage to review -- though I'd generally like to read everything -- and make sure everything gets some notice and attention.

This time, there was only a small trickle in the mail, so I'm also including two books that I bought myself. As it happens, everything is comics this time, and all but one book are manga of one kind or another -- starting with the biggest and most exciting book of the week, one I spent my own money on and wished I'd found in a store sometime before:
A Drifting Life is the gigantic memoir in comics form of Yoshihiro Tatsumi, covering his life from the end of WW II to 1960 and taking him from a boy to one of the driving forces behind the gegika movement in Japanese comics. Drifting Life took Tatsumi more than a decade to write and draw; it's the acknowledged masterpiece of the creator whose earlier stories have been collected in the searing, compelling collections The Push Man, Good-Bye, and Abandon the Old in Tokyo. (It's such a major event in manga that even the New York Times took notice of it recently.) Drawn & Quarterly published A Drifting Life earlier this month as a trade paperback; I expect it will be the gigantic squarebound comic of the year the way Bottomless Belly Button was of 2008.

Tor/Seven Seas is publishing the third volume of the manga series Hayate X Blade this week; I reviewed the first book last year for ComicMix. The publisher describes it as "high-octane swordplay meets light yuri romance," which is pretty accurate -- the fighting was secondary in the first volume to introducing as many characters as possible, but the series was clearly organized around pretty girls hitting each other with swords. And the "yuri" part, for those of you not up on your manga sub-categories, is the female equivalent of "yaoi" -- same-sex romances, in this case generally chaste (and, in the first book, most repressed to the level of often-humorous subtext). I find it interesting that Japanese gay jokes seem mostly to be on the "OK, I'll act gay if I have to" level rather than the more common US "I'm not gay! Perish the thought!" style, but I'm not sure what it means -- if anything.

The best title of the week is clearly Maid War Chronicle, Vol. 1, which begins a fantasy series in which a young price escapes the invasion of his country and heads out to begin his insurgency...aided only by the six palace maids who escaped with him. Come to think of it, that's probably the best plot of the week, as well. This will be published by Del Rey Manga tomorrow, and it's by the manga-ka known as RAN, who did the art on Mao-chan (written by the nearly ubiquitous Ken Akamatsu, and reviewed by yours truly once upon a time).

Also from Del Rey Manga this month is a book with a more conventional (or well-trafficked) premise: Orange Planet, in which the main character is young Rui, a girl whose worst problem is that too many boys are in love with her. From a quick glance though, this looks very, very shojo, with huge eyes brimming with emotion, shirtless boys, and all manner of school activities leading to emotional confrontations. It's by Haruka Fukushima, whom Del Rey helpfully notes also did the manga Instant Teen and Cherry Juice.

The first time around, I had to admit that I just didn't get The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya; the word "melancholy" didn't seem to have anything to do with the manic, delusional main character, and it looked like something that was supposed to be extremely funny...and it wasn't. Well, the second volume has come around -- it was published by Yen Press in March -- and I might just have to take a second look at this thing and see if it makes any more sense to me this time around. (By the way, this is one of those complicated Japanese media entities that started as a series of light novels, turned into an anime show, and probably had substantial storylines running on lunchboxes, lipstick containers, and ramen noodle cups before finally becoming a manga, and the credits are equally complicated: Art by Gaku Tsugano, Story by Nagaru Tanigawa, Characters by Noizi Ito -- in that order.)

And last for this week is the other book I bought for myself: B.P.R.D.: The Warning, tenth in that series and the latest story in the extended Hellboy universe. This one is written by Mike Mignola and John Arcudi, with art by Guy Davis -- the usual, great B.P.R.D. team -- and it comes back to the modern day (after the flashback of the last storyline, 1946) to pick up right after the end of the previous volume, Killing Ground. Dark Horse published it earlier this month, and I wouldn't start reading this series here, by any means -- but the Hellboy and B.P.R.D. stories are great horror-tinged adventure tales with atmosphere and style to burn; they're wonderful and spooky and gripping.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Saturday Is Bond Day #8: Live and Let Die

This week, the hope was to move the standard movie time to Friday evening -- since it's now generally nice and warm and sunny on Saturday afternoons, so spending them indoors in a darkened room isn't the best idea -- but Thing 2's baseball game put the kibosh on that. And then we spent all day Saturday in NYC, hitting the Central Park Zoo (which the boys thought was fun, but were slightly disappointed in the way it differed from Madagascar), wandering through the park, and eventually having a late lunch at Patsy's (hat tip to Colleen Lindsay for introducing me to Patsy's through their Village outpost, so I was able to promise two food-shy and hungry boys that they'd really like the pizza...and they did).

So Bond Day shifted to Sunday -- Sunday evening, in fact. And The Wife made a rare guest appearance as well, sitting in and telling Thing 1 every few minutes not to repeat just about every single line of dialogue from that stereotyped redneck sheriff.

When you talk about Live and Let Die, you'll inevitably talk about stereotypes -- not just that very broad good ol' boy, but the voodoo-tinged black villains. (They are genuinely threatening, not played for laughs, so they stay awfully '70s and blaxploitation-influenced, but don't fatally harm the movie.) Yaphet Kotto has a dual role (for about the first half) as the two main villians: the Harlem drug lord "Mr. Big," and Kananga, minister of something-or-other for a fictional Caribbean island. He has several major henchmen, at least two of which -- Geoffrey Holder as Baron Samedi and Julius Harris as Tee Hee -- have real menace. But there are so many named henchmen, so many would-be Oddjobs, that the film can palm one to hold in reserve -- if the viewer hasn't been paying close attention.

Live and Let Die was a retrenchment film -- it's the first movie with Roger Moore as Bond, and at the time, there must have been a question about whether he'd continue or pull a Lazenby and disappear after one movie. And Diamonds Are Forever was studiedly over-the-top (in a slightly lower-budget-looking way than the best of the Connery Bonds) in a way that Live and Let Die extends but deals with more naturally -- it fits the Moore Bond much better than Connery's.

And so there's a series of set-pieces that feels like a Bond "Greatest Hits" package -- fight in a train sleeping car from From Russia With Love, a speedboat race/fight also from Russia, sharks from Thunderball, Quarrel (Junior) from Dr. No, and so on. On the other side, since the most successful Bond movie -- Goldfinger -- was set largely in the US, both this and Diamonds were set primarily in the States, and this time in very unlikely bits of it for Bond -- rural Louisiana and Harlem.

I'm generally a Connery partisan, but, watching these movies in order, I have to admit that Moore here looks better than Connery did in Diamonds. He's not the same Bond -- he doesn't have the physicality that Connery did, for the biggest and most damaging difference -- but he wants to be Bond in a way that Connery didn't in his last movie, and he's given material that he can work with. (Including Jane Seymour as the obligatory girl, Solitaire.)

Live and Let Die has, hands down, the best title song -- though it does say something about the Bond series that the most rocking song they managed was from Paul McCartney -- a plot that generally makes sense, a villain who's nasty enough without wringing his hands, and an excellent Bond girl. It's not the best in the series -- it's not even one of the top two Moore Bonds -- but it steadied the ship when that was needed and is a nice thick slice of early-70s action cinema.

Genre Bestsellers of 2008

Once again -- I did this exercise last year in this space, and have the vague feeling that I did it before then somewhere else (maybe rec.arts.sf.written) without being able to actually trace earlier iterations -- here are the genre books that made Publishers Weekly's round-up of the best-selling books of 2008. (From the March 23rd issue; I'm running a month late this year.) As always, I think it's important to be clear-eyed about what people are actually buying, reading, and enjoying, and lists like this help that.

I try to be expansive in my definition of "genre" when putting these lists together, including paranormal romances, mainstream alternate histories, and other books that I know have fantastic elements. However, I don't know what every single book is, so I've almost certainly left out something that sold very well and had some genre element in it.

There will probably be some commentary, but I'll try to keep that to a minimum, since this will already be a series of very long lists.

Adult Hardcovers
The very top-selling fiction book, according to PW, was John Grisham's The Appeal, whose numbers are secret. (But it's somewhere north of #2, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski, at 1,320,000.) Genre titles start with
  • #3 The Host, Stephenie Meyer, 1,240,005
  • #9 Your Heart Belongs to Me, Dean Koontz, 784,645
  • #20 Just After Sunset, Stephen King, 565,000
PW stops counting after #30, but they keep listing.
  • Strangers in Death, J.D. Robb, 403,000
  • Odd Hours, Dean Koontz, 401,522
  • Salvation in Death, J.D. Robb, 378,500
  • A Lion Among Men, Gregory Maguire, 377,458
  • Acheron, Sherrilyn Kenyon, 232,027
  • Blood Noir, Laurell K. Hamilton, 216,121 -- the first book published in-genre
  • Dark Curse, Christine Feehan, 172,258
  • Swallowing Darkness, Laurell K. Hamilton, 167,958
  • Anathem, Neal Stephenson, 157,215 -- the first genre SF novel on the list
  • From Dead to Worse, Charlaine Harris, 145,000
  • Small Favor, Jim Butcher, 124,188
  • Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana, Anne Rice, 112,000
  • The Outlaw Demon Wails, Kim Harrison, 108,528
  • Ender in Exile, Orson Scott Card, 107,792
  • The Gypsy Morph, Terry Brooks, 105,838
  • Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, Sean Williams, 103,232
  • Days of Infamy, Newt Gingrich and William R. Forstchen, 101,288
  • Star Wars: The Clone Wars by Karen Traviss, 101,146
  • Star Wars: Legacy of the Force: Invincible, Troy Denning, 101,034
  • The Widows of Eastwick, John Updike, 101,000
I didn't see anything on the hardcover non-fiction list of direct interest to the SF/Fantasy world. The top seller there was Randy Pausch's The Last Lecture, at 4,388,137.

Mass-Market Paperbacks
This list, and the trade paperback list that follows, incorporates both fiction and non-fiction, but I won't mention any of the latter.

Top book is John Grisham's The Appeal, at 2,185,722. (By comparison, the best-selling movie of the year, The Dark Knight, sold an estimated 22.37 million admissions -- roughly ten times as many. It's useful to remember this issue of magnitude when thinking about the book world: it's about a tenth as popular as movies.)
  • The Hollow, Nora Roberts, 1,912,349
  • The Pagan Stone, Nora Roberts, 1,838,137
  • The Darkest Evening of the Year, Dean Koontz, 1,060,474
  • The Good Guy, Dean Koontz, 940,235
  • Creation in Death, J.D. Robb, 828,045
  • Dream Chase, Sherrilyn Kenyon, 750,000
  • Strangers in Death, J.D. Robb, 735,321
  • Three in Death, J.D. Robb, 636,422
  • Devil May Cry, Sherrilyn Kenyon, 520,000
  • One Silent Night, Sherrilyn Kenyon, 510,000
  • Dead Until Dark, Charlaine Harris, 502,456 -- first genre title
  • Turbulent Sea, Christine Feehan, 500,059
  • Heart-Shaped Box, Joe Hill, 500,000
Trade Paperbacks
Top seller here is Eckhart Tolle's A New Earth, at 5,298,355. Note that this is twice the highest-selling mass-market book and well above even The Last Lecture. Trade paperbacks are clearly the dominant format at the moment in the US market, at least on the top end.
  • Duma Key, Stephen King, 871,000
  • The Road, Cormac McCarthy, 750,467
  • Marked, P.C. Cast, 400,000
  • Untamed, P.C. Cast, 330,000
  • Chosen, P.C. Cast, 315,000
  • Betrayed, P.C. Cast, 300,000
  • The Children of Hurin, J.R.R. Tolkien, 191,435
  • The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold, 184,923
  • Halo, Tobias S. Buckell, 176,435
  • The Yiddish Policemen's Union, Michael Chabon, 150,000
  • Bakugan Battle Brawlers, no author listed, 140,124
  • World War Z, Max Brooks, 106,305
New Children's Hardcover
The kid's side is a much more backlist-driven business (think of all those copies sold of Winnie-the-Pooh and Where The Wild Things Are and Dr. Seuss every year), so it's broken down into more sub-sections. Genre books make very strong showings here; much more so than on the adult lists. First is frontlist hardcovers:
  • #1 Breaking Dawn, Stephenie Meyer, 6,051,981
  • #2 The Tales of Beedle the Bard, J.K. Rowling, 3,577,183
  • #3 Brisingr, Christopher Paolini, 2,604,642
  • #6 The Battle of the Labyrinth, Rick Riordan, 1,000,000
  • #11 The Final Warning, James Patterson, 519,444
  • #12 The Dangerous Days of Daniel X, James Patterson, 517,918
  • #14 Artemis Fowl: The Time Paradox, Eoin Colfer, 406,687
  • #15 Eclipse (Special Edition), Stephenie Meyer, 345,669
  • #16 The 39 Clues 1: The Maze of Bones, Rick Riordan, 321,054
  • #20 The 39 Clues 2: One False Note, Gordon Korman, 255,832
  • #21 Dark Day in the Deep Sea, Mary Pope Osborne, 254,699
  • #23 Inkdeath, Cornelia Funke, 254,176
  • #24 Eve of the Emperor Penguin, Mary Pope Osborne, 225,765
  • #30 Wall-E, no author listed, 184,813
  • #33 Warriors: Power of Three #3: Outcast, Erin Hunter, 159,893
  • #34 Seekers #1: The Quest Begins, Erin Hunter, 159,893
  • #37 Septimus Heap 4: Queste, Angie Sage, 155,002
  • #39 The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins, 150,873
  • #45 Warriors: Power of Three #4: Eclipse, Erin Hunter, 136,949
  • #48 Warriors: Power of Three #5: Long Shadows, Erin Hunter, 132,938
  • #53 A Giant Problem, Holly Black, 128,872
  • #59 The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman, 122,559
  • #61 Twilight (Collector's Edition), Stephenie Meyer, 120,435
  • #62 The Nixie's Song, Holly Black, 115,953
  • #66 Warriors: Cats of the Clans, Erin Hunter, 109,918
  • #68 The Magician, Michael Scott, 107,522
  • #71 The Diamond of Darkhold, Jeanne DuPrau, 105,142
  • #74 Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (Anniversary Edition), J.K. Rowling, 103,450
Backlist Children's Hardcover
  • #1 Eclipse, Stephenie Meyer, 4,525,238
  • #2 New Moon, Stephenie Meyer, 1,430,167
  • #4 Twilight, Stephenie Meyer, 1,138,588
  • #79 Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.K. Rowling, 113,376
  • #94 Eldest, Christopher Paolini, 102,882
  • #96 Eragon, Christopher Paolini, 100,744
New Children's Paperback
  • #1 New Moon, Stephenie Meyer, 5,309,229
  • #2 Twilight (mass market), Stephenie Meyer, 1,872, 408
  • #3 Twilight (media tie-in edition), Stephenie Meyer, 982,034
  • #4 Saving the World and Other Extreme Sports, James Patterson, 799,631
  • #8 Twilight: the Complete Illustrated Movie Companion, Mark Cotta Vaz, 442,361
  • #12 Prince Caspian (movie tie-in edition), C.S. Lewis, 364,864
  • #13 The Titan's Curse, Rick Riordan, 341,192
  • #35 Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Tracey West, 190,700
  • #36 Inheritance Cycle Omnibus: Eregon and Eldest, Christopher Paolini, 188,613
  • #37 Star Wars: The Clone Wars: Battle at Teth, Kirsten Mayer, 186,282
  • #39 Revenge of the Living Dummy, R.L. Stine, 184,669
  • #47 Creep from the Deep, R.L. Stine, 165,933
  • #50 Dragon of the Dawn, Mary Pope Osborne, 157,695
  • #55 Star Wars: The Clone Wars: The New Padawan, Eric Stevens, 152,661
  • #67 The Scream of the Haunted Mast, R.L. Stine, 135,016
  • #77 The Lost Colony, Eoin Colfer, 123,943
  • #80 Warriors: Power of Three #1: The Sight, Erin Hunter, 121,389
  • #83 Star Wars: The Clone Wars: Intergalactic Adventure: Activity Book, no author listed, 119,621
  • #85 Night World #1, L.J. Smith, 116,488
  • #87 Shadow Kiss, Richelle Mead, 116,125
  • #88 The Alchemyst, Michael Scott, 115,422
  • #94 Warriors Super Edition: Firestar's Quest, Erin Hunter, 112,755
  • #105 Warriors: Tigerstar and Sasha #1: Into the Woods, Erin Hunter, 108,186
  • #117 Star Wars Fandex, Christopher Cerasi, 103,191
  • #120 Septimus Heap 3: Physik, Angie Sage, 101,837
  • #126 Frostbite, Richelle Mead, 100,476
On this list, I left off a lot of movie tie-in books that I suspect are 4x4s or other less text-heavy formats. But there are several dozen more vaguely SFnal or fantastic books based on media properties here.

Backlist Children's Paperback
  • #1 Twilight, Stephenie Meyer, 5,698,941
  • #2 The Tale of Desperaux, Kate DiCamillo, 507,054
  • #3 The Lightning Thief, Rick Riordan, 503,372
  • #5 Dinosaurs Before Dark, Mary Pope Osborne, 396,008
  • #6 Prince Caspian, C.S. Lewis, 393,405
  • #7 Eldest, Christopher Paolini, 369,546
  • #9 The City of Ember, Jeanne Du Prau, 349,038
  • #11 The Sea of Monsters, Rick Riordan, 336,895
  • #15 The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis, 311,413
  • #22 Eragon, Christopher Paolini, 289,521
  • #23 Mummies in the Morning, Mary Pope Osborne, 265,730
  • #25 The Night at Dawn, Mary Pope Osborne, 261,812
  • #26 Pirates Past Noon, Mary Pope Osborne,256,431
  • #29 The Magician's Nephew, C.S. Lewis, 247,034
  • #37 A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L'Engle, 223,625
  • #41 The Horse and His Boy, C.S. Lewis, 206,672
  • #44 Night of the Ninjas, Mary Pope Osborne,201,150
  • #45 The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C.S. Lewis, 197,407
  • #48 The Silver Chair, C.S. Lewis, 190,467
  • #50 The Last Battle, C.S. Lewis, 189,101
  • #56 Afternoon on the Amazon, Mary Pope Osborne, 177,542
  • #57 Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, J.K. Rowling, 177,133
  • #60 Midnight on the Moon, Mary Pope Osborne, 176,363
  • #61 Dolphins at Daybreak, Mary Pope Osborne, 175,492
  • #66 Polar Bears Past Bedtime, Mary Pope Osborne, 171,942
  • #68 Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, J.K. Rowling, 171,680
  • #74 Blizzard of the Blue Moon, Mary Pope Osborne, 159,662
  • #77 Sunset of the Sabertooth, Mary Pope Osborne, 158,020
  • #79 Ghost Town at Sundown, Mary Pope Osborne, 155,113
  • #82 Vacation Under the Volcano, Mary Pope Osborne, 151,813
  • #83 Warriors #1: Into the Wild, Erin Hunter, 150,637
If you noticed, Stephenie Meyer had the #1 book on all four children's lists, and it looks like every edition of everything she's written so far made it onto these lists. She's definitely one face of fantasy to today's audience...but don't forget Mary Pope Osborne (the "Magic Treehouse" series, all early chapter books for grade-schoolers) and Erin Hunter (the "Warriors" talking-cats books, for slightly older kids), who sell, in aggregate, nearly as many books as Meyer does.

One last note -- these lists purport to cover all books sold through bookstores in 2008, but there's one major blind spot: comics and manga. The trade paperback of Watchmen sold at least 300,000 copies last year, which would have put it solidly in the middle of that list. There may be other books in that area -- some volumes of Naruto, maybe -- that also sold enough copies to be included on the lists. So there may be other categories suppressed; it would be difficult to tell what those are unless you already know the sales of particular books.

2009 Nebula Winners

Last night, in a swanky ceremony somewhere in greater Los Angeles, the following awards were handed down with all appropriate pomp and fanfare:
  • Novel: Powers, Ursula K. Le Guin (Harcourt)
  • Novella: "The Spacetime Pool", Catherine Asaro (Analog Mar '08)
  • Novelette: "Pride and Prometheus", John Kessel (F&SF Jan '08)
  • Short Story: "Trophy Wives", Nina Kiriki Hoffman (Fellowship Fantastic)
  • Script: Wall-E, Andrew Stanton & Jim Reardon. Original story by Andrew Stanton & Pete Docter (Pixar)
  • Andre Norton Award: Flora's Dare, Ysabeau S. Wilce (Harcourt)
  • Damon Knight Grand Master: Harry Harrison
  • Author Emerita: M.J. Engh
  • Solstice Award: Kate Wilhelm, A.J. Budrys, and Martin Greenberg
  • Ray Bradbury Award: Joss Whedon
  • SFWA Service Award:Victoria Strauss
I haven't read Powers -- though the title always reminds me of the Brian Bendis revisionist-superheroes comic -- so I won't comment on that.

Ditto on the short fiction winners.

I believe this is the last time SFWA will have the Script category, which is not too soon for me, though WALL*E is a fine movie, albeit one whose script I would not be able to evaluate from seeing the film.

Flora's Dare, which I recently read, is a fine novel, and a lot of fun. Wilce now has 40% of the Norton Awards ever awarded.

I was once quite fond of Harrison's work, but I don't entirely think he's up to the level of the best previous winners of the Grand Master Award. (And renaming the award, though it was a well-meant gesture to the man who created SFWA out of whole cloth, makes it sound like the naming rights have been sold; the title is now too long, too unwieldy, and a bit silly-sounding.)

I've complained for several years about the kiss-slap of the "Author Emeritus" award, and I murmured again this time around for Engh. (Who, additionally, appears to have gotten it for writing one highly respected but little-read book in the '70s.)

And the Solstice Award is for writers who will never get the Grand Master, aren't important enough to be a single Emeritus, but SFWA wants to give some recognition to before they die. I don't believe the recipients consider that as much of a back-handed insult as I would; I clearly am more nasty-minded and pugnatious than the average aged SFWAn.

The Bradbury will take over for the Script category next year, as a voted award going to the media object SFWAs most wish they were writing for. This year, though, is an unvoted one-off going to a single individual for no obvious reason despite the fact that SFWA is desperately in love with him.

And the SFWA Service award is what it always is: the kind of award every organization gives to the people that keep it running.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Wetlands by Charlotte Roche

This is a very smutty, deliberately offensive novel, translated from the German (where it was a bestseller). It's another one of those novels about a disaffected teenager -- in this case one obsessed with physicality, and with using the body to shock others.

What makes it different is that teenager is a girl -- teenager Helen Memel, in the hospital for an operation on an anal lesion. She's the first-person narrator, and she's one of those compulsive explainers and sharers -- the tenth-generation spawn of Holden Caulfield -- who just has to tell us everything about herself. (By the second page, she's not only talked about the lesion, but segued from that to a deep discussion of her hemorrhoids and the fact that "I've had very successful anal sex for many years -- from the age of fifteen up to now, at eighteen....")

All of the things she wants to tell us have to do with her body, particularly about the usually-untalked-about parts of her body. Helen is desperately trying to shock, with all of her talk about aggressively poor hygiene and ingestion of bodily wastes and marking of her territory in quite animalistic ways. Wetlands is, above everything else, a detailed look at several days in the life of the region between Helen Memel's legs. Smegma, ear wax, snot, and other bodily secretions do also get their shout-outs, but the focus remains in the vaginal-anal region.

If you read Wetlands, something will shock you -- that's its point. There isn't much else to Helen Memel besides the shocking; she's empty otherwise. There's a bit of psychobabble about her divorced parents, and a time when her mother may have tried to commit suicide (and kill Helen's younger brother along the way) when Helen was young. But, really, that's all an excuse for her behavior -- Roche put that in to have a reason to have Helen act out, rather than starting from Helen and moving out to her behavior.

I can't recommend Wetlands; at first, it's refreshing to find a female character this crudely and rudely physical -- she's starts to seem like a female version of the unwashed, drinking-till-he-vomits frat boy -- but she quickly becomes tedious in her thin obsessions and relentless, dull self-centeredness. It's always dangerous to extrapolate from character to author, particularly on a first book, so I won't engage in any of that. But I do hope Roche, if she writes another novel, tones down the self-indulgent first-person narration and works in a bit more story.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Hey, the SFBC Has a New Website Design!

And I was about to complement them on it -- it's clean and easily navigable, which is no small thing -- when I noticed that the SFBC has exactly the same design as all of its sister clubs. (At least two of which -- BOMC and Crossings -- are either down or have bad links.) So that's one big point for corporate consistency and minus about a dozen for losing the previous distinctive designs of the individual clubs.

Remember, corporate America: that impulse you have to dumb everything down and do it all on the same template? That's a bad impulse.

I Stood Stone-Like At Midnight, Suspended in My Masquerade

This week's "Manga Friday" column for ComicMix is Growin' Up, with an eclectic mix of books about teenagers doing various things -- things that they do best, but aren't pretty (Wolverine: Prodigal Son); going to art school (GA: Geijutsuka Art Design Class); and learning about love in rural Korea seventy or so years ago (The Color of Earth).

In other news, the number of books that I've read and not written about here is up to twelve. I've been a bad, bad Hornswoggler...

In other, other news, it looks like I'll be going to the special "Blogger's Night" of the Off-Broadway musical The Toxic Avenger. So look for the first Hornswoggler review of a major musical sometime late next week. (I hope.)

Movie Log: Living in Oblivion

Living in Oblivion is a funny movie about low-budget filmmaking which I saw a few weeks ago now, and don't remember a whole lot about at this point.

Well, that one character is clearly a satire of the young Brad Pitt. (He was just the plain old Brad Pitt when the movie was made, of course -- this was a dozen years ago.)

And the repeated "and then he/she woke up" either happened one too often or one too few times; if you're going to repeat something, the magic number is three. Two just looks sloppy.

Steve Buscemi plays the director of a low-budget movie filming somewhere vaguely downtown in Manhattan, and the rest of the cast is his cast and crew -- mostly not people I recognized, except for Catherine Keener as the female lead.

And the movie rambles on through several long scenes -- three sequences of scenes, actually -- all about the various problems that arise when you work with people like these on a movie like this. Everyone involved in the movie-within-a-movie is moderately competent (with the possible exception of James LeGros as the not-based-on-Brad-Pitt-at-all-oh-no Chad Palomino), but they're all also neurotic and dysfunctional, so there are always more problems.

I gather that this was most interesting to other indy filmmakers in the mid-90s, but it's still pretty funny, and only very slightly self-indulgent -- I was expecting that level to be much higher.

An Early Morning Thought

With all of the immediate reactions to everything being either "fail" or "win," the social web is like nothing so much as a zero-sum game.

Quote of the Week

A Pack of Parker:
"You know, she speaks eighteen languages. And she can't say 'no' in any of them"

"If all the young ladies who attended the Yale promenade were laid end to end, no one would be the least surprised."

"Tell him I've been too fucking busy -- or vice versa."
- to her editor, on her honeymoon

"I require only three things of a man. He must be handsome, ruthless and stupid."

"All I need is room enough to lay a hat and a few friends."

"This wasn't just plain terrible, this was fancy terrible. This was terrible with raisins in it."

- all quotes from Dorothy Parker

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Tales from Other Hemispheres

Today for ComicMix, I reviewed three comics projects from the Philippines: Elmer, Trese, and Martial Law Babies. (No links for those; they're not generally available on this side of the Pacific, sadly.)

Suvudu Examines Eisner Nominees

Starting two days ago, the Random House SF web portal Suvudu is examining all of the nominees in all of the categories of the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards. The first category they tackled was Best Cover Artist, with well-chosen art examples and some thoughtful commentary. (Full disclosure: I was one of the judges this year, and so far Kyle M. of Suvudu hasn't said anything along the lines of "the judges must have been on crack to have nominated {foo}," so I'm inclined to like him.)

It's not entirely clear how often these pieces will run -- there are twenty-six categories, but Suvudu's initial post about the series makes it sound like they'll be spaced out to run until the opening of Comic-Con in San Diego in late July. But I'll be looking forward to them, however often they appear.

But I will note, once again, the vagaries of taste: Kyle M. particularly likes Matt Wagner's Zorro covers, while I was practically jumping up and down in the judges' room, telling everyone else not to spend much time on those (which I thought were decent guy-in-heroic-pose work), but to pay attention to the magnificent design sense and dynamics of light on his Grendel covers. So even when people agree with each other about art, they disagree as to why they're agreeing.

Movie Log: Rachel Getting Married

Rachel Getting Married is not entirely a frame for Anne Hathaway's performance as Kym (the recovering-addict sister of the Rachel who's getting married), but it's darn close -- it's rare that there's a movie so much about one character that has the name of another character in the title.

Hathaway was Oscar-nominated for that role, for both good and obvious reasons -- it's a meaty part, with a lot of turbulent emotions and big speeches, and Hathaway does it well. Kym is one of those people who always has to be at the center of everything, and Hathaway balances the annoyance of that (won't this girl ever just shut up and get over herself?) and the raw neediness of it.

The background is slightly fuzzy at times -- some of that is deliberate (there's one important character from the past who is mentioned in passing once or twice early in the movie, and the big expected payoff is later), and some of it looks more like a result of director Jonathan Demme's improvisation-friendly style (Kym has been in rehab for about a decade, is still in her mid-20s, and was a professional model before that -- not impossible, but confusing).

Rachel Getting Married is another example of that old staple, the family drama: take someone who will say and do anything and dig up all of the old skeletons, and drop her into the middle of something important. In this case, it's Kym -- the trope works best when it's an estranged family member -- and the wedding, and the expected fireworks do follow. Rachel gets angry at Kym and with their father; Kym argues with her divorced mother; there's a big inappropriate speech by Kym at the rehearsal dinner, and so on.

Rachel doesn't quite come into focus; Demme lets his cameras linger too much on some scenes -- particularly the party shots -- as if he doesn't want to get back to his actual story. It could have used both a tighter script and a sharper cut in the editing room. But Hathaway is amazing, and she's surrounded by other actors doing good work as well. This is really a movie to see for acting rather than story, but it's definitely worth seeing.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Movie Log: The Spirit

I'm watching Frank Miller's The Spirit this evening, and, as I've done with other movies that can't be taken seriously, I'm going to type a few thoughts about it as I go along and just post when the movie ends. (Some things aren't worth spending any time thinking about afterward.)

It's as if Miller is daring the audience to notice his bizarre attitude towards women with that bizarre speech from SexyDeath...and Gabriel Macht's equally overheated narration.

So far, the only thing traceable back to Will Eisner are the names -- nothing else.

Miller likes cutting quickly between tight close-ups so that you can't tell what's happening, doesn't he? And it's really distracting when the two people talking are lit utterly differently and have very different diffusion filters on them.

This is another one of those movies that takes place in the middle of nowhere, with a couple of lunatics emoting at each other at random.

I'm glad to see that Sam Jackson's having fun. But if only The Spirit and The Octopus are nigh-invulnerable, how come the mook can get run over by a truck and still walk around?

Young Denny is distractingly familiar...oh! he's the kid from Hotel for Dogs! Now, that's a better movie than this one. More realistic, too.

I don't want to say that Macht can't act, since it's impossible to prove a negative. But I will say that he does a very good job of avoiding acting here.

Um, the Blood of Heracles?!? So far, I'd be hard-pressed to find five consecutive seconds of this movie that I could believe in.

She takes a photocopy of her butt? As part of a threatening conversation? Has Miller ever met a woman?

This entire movie takes place in a world ruled by the pathetic fallacy -- it must be nice when blinds lower themselves because you're snogging.

Since I haven't mentioned it yet, let me point out that the Spirit wears blue, not black.

Eisner's names always were really unbelievable, weren't they? Sand Sarif is almost as bad as Tooty Compote.

There are only two kinds of dialogue in this movie: the lines that explain the plot in tedious detail, and the lines that illustrate what an unpleasant place Miller's mind must be.

Dolan is about twenty years too young and looks like Harvey Bullock.

And another scene set in a coal scuttle lit by floodlights facing down from ten feet up.

This is not a movie that should be calling attention to things that are "plain damn weird."

ScarJo's glasses are cute. And she seems to be trying to actually act, to play a character, which is odd, because she's the only one in the movie who is.

Miller never saw a fancy shot he didn't love, did he?

It's nice to know the nobody-can't-tell-it's-you-if-you-wear-a-small-domino-mask idea is still around. It'll probably live forever.

Plaster of Paris, too? What is this, the Spirit's greatest girlfriends? Oh, and here comes Sam Jackson in a Nazi uniform and monocle, about which I can have nothing coherent to say.

Every action movie requires a Talking Killer scene, doesn't it? It must be in the contracts.

Miller really didn't understand the point of The Spirit, did he?

Yes, the only thing that will stop the Spirit is chopping him into a million pieces and mailing him all over the place...unless just stabbing him in the chest is good enough.

I'm so sorry to learn that Miller is yet another in the long line of people who don't know what "gunsel" really means.

I bet that would have been quite entertaining on a big screen with a crowd that didn't expect it to be any good. At home on a TV, the lameness crests higher.

Saving Publishing -- the Jonathan Karp Way

I have mixed feelings about Jonathan Karp's recent article for Publishers Weekly, in which he laid out his "12 Steps to Better Book Publishing." On the one hand, I imagine they would make publishing more consistently successful and profitable. On the other, the only way they'd do that would be through unfeasible collusion in restraint of trade, losses of the jobs of at least half of the people currently working in book publishing, and publication schedules that resemble Karp's own Twelve imprint (one guaranteed big-seller a month and nothing else). Since I enjoy both reading books outside that narrow framework and a publishing ecosystem with jobs for myself and my friends, it's not a model I can entirely agree with.

And so I'll rephrase Karp's rules in terms that the rest of us -- the ones who don't run our own imprints and have PW fawning over how visionary we are -- can understand.

Prologue: Don't publish books that Karp doesn't like, particularly if they are "arcane." Any book that won't sell a hundred thousand copies is just not worth it! Books by ex-Presidents are a bad idea; likewise books about food, sex and religion. (What do people do to keep themselves occupied in Karp's world, if they're uninterested in politics, sex, food, and religion?)

Also, don't ever publish a book if anyone else has published a book on the same or a similar topic. Unless that topic is the Titanic, of course! The only possible future for publishing is to "invest time and resources into major works and to market them with overwhelming force."

End Kabuki Publishing: Never be enthusiastic about the books you publish. The only sales reps you need to care about are the "key" ones. Only big things count!

Also, Karp thinks big mainstream publishing is made up almost entirely of phonies, and he's going to go feed the ducks instead of playing along.

Prioritize and Specialize: Ignore most of your list. Only care about things with huge potential. Karp urges specialization...but he also urges only concentrating on things with huge potential, which means everyone should have the same specialty. So try not to specialize in anything that might qualify as an actual specialty or genre.

Tell the Truth: It's time to stop being nice to authors and say directly to them the things you mutter to your colleagues. As a bonus, this may also help achieve the massive job losses mentioned above.

Screw relationships! Screw good sense! Tell that big bestselling jerk on your list precisely what you think of the turd that just landed on your desk!

Also, ebooks and POD are to be used as dumping grounds for bad acquisition decisions. A very smart contracts manager will be required to get that language past agents. And talented accountants will be required to deal with the flood of red ink.

Stop the copycat books: That topic was Karp's idea first! So you can't publish a book on it. Never, ever publish a book on any subject remotely similar to earlier books, like a biography of Lincoln, or a Tuesdays With Lots of Morries, or yet another book about politics by an insider. No, no, no.

More editorial quality control: You get to tell Dan Brown what goes in or out of his book, because your imprint is on the spine. More generally, you can publish only great big books and still hope to be more important and powerful than the real authors of those books. You are also the King of Ruritania!

Imprints for everyone: Oddly enough, this is the one I have absolutely no problem with; my current employer operates under a system almost exactly like Karp describes, and I find that works very well. But we don't do a tiny number of great big books, either. We do a lot of very targeted niche books, and have a lot of people in aggregate working on those books, most of which Karp would probably deem not worth publishing. So I don't believe this plan actually fits in with the rest of Karp's suggestions as closely as he believes it does.

One bidder per company: Most of you acquisition editors? Hit the pavement. Or get demoted to development editors. Only your boss's boss's boss will be allowed to negotiate for the company -- you know, the one you always struggle to make understand what your program is and why it's important?

This is the kind of idea that sounds wonderful when you're already the head of a major imprint.

Pay authors to market their work: No snark here, though my experience is that the bulk of authors -- across categories and genres -- aren't any good at this or (to be kinder) know what to do. Though, if we're drastically slashing the number of books published, we can get rid of all the authors who don't already market themselves effectively. That'll increase the average quality of author marketing immediately.

Be loyal to the book, not the ego: Very nice words. When the Marcus Dohles and Brian Murrays of this world repeat them, and back editors/publicists/sales reps rather than bigfoot authors when push comes to shove, people might actually believe them.

(And when books by John Grisham/James Patterson/Nora Roberts/Laurell Hamilton stop selling at massive levels year in and year out, showing that readers are immeasurably more loyal to the author than to the publisher.)

Let's be honest: if one of Twelve's forthcoming books came in from the author, and it was lousy, do you really think it would be suddenly downgraded to POD?

And, once again, Karp is demanding the all-big-books-all-the-time model of publishing: only hit home runs.

Announce all deals: Another nice thing, but making it happen would be an applied exercise in game theory -- the first mover would be heavily penalized, and the last holdout would have the most power. It's very unlikely to happen, unless agents do it -- they have more incentive to do so to begin with.

Downsize: And Karp will go first -- he's resigning to spend more time raising rutabagas. His comments about mid-list authors are laughable; under his plans many writers who are currently at the top of lists would find themselves in the middle of much smaller lists. And anyone not at the top of a list would be gone entirely. But there's always "digital distribution" for all those lousy books he'd rather not see published!

Advertise: Again, only books that you can spend lots and lots of money on deserve to be published. Publishing is about big men spending big money to put out big books!

Feh! If this is the way to save publishing, I'd rather it stay on life-support.

Edit, a day later: Since this post is getting an unusual amount of traffic, I should point out that there are a number of things in Karp's essay that I didn't disagree with. I mentioned a couple of them above, but left the others unstated because that wasn't the focus of the piece.

My disagreements are more important than my points of agreement, because of the overarching aim of Karp's essay. He's trying to force all of trade publishing into a narrowly focused blockbuster-all-the-time model, which is unsustainable. The real problem with trade publishing today is that model, not the fact that smaller books manage to be published along the way.