Friday, April 30, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 86 (4/30) -- Zeus: King of the Gods by George O'Connor

Kids love the Greek gods -- maybe because they have great powers, maybe because they're always fighting with their parents and siblings, maybe because they always seem to be able to do whatever they want. But kids love 'em -- from Edith Hamilton to the D'Aulaires to Percy Jackson, they can't seem to get enough thunderbolt-throwing action. (The Norse gods get somewhat less love, possibly because of the increased level of doom, and the relative dearth of family squabbles.)

This year sees the launch of a new series of twelve graphic novels for young readers about the Greek gods, all written and drawn by George O'Connor, and on what looks like a quarterly publication schedule. Zeus was the first of the series, though I've already read the second book (Athena: Grey-Eyed Goddess, which was Book-A-Day # 72).

Zeus is even stronger than Athena was, going the full Hesiod to start with the birth of Gaea from Kaos and run through the appearance of Ouranos and the birth and rebellion of the Titans before even getting to Zeus. He does skim over some of the more gory details, but, in general, this is a very authentic retelling of myth, given energy and excitement by O'Connor's vivid, stunning reimaginings of the characters: the Titans have star-fields for eyes and trailing clouds instead of hair, and their brothers, the Cyclopes and Hekatonchieres, are even stranger. O'Connor shapes Zeus's story to be a classic hero's quest -- as of course it already is, being one of the templates of that form -- with stunning panels and great scenes throughout.

O'Connor also manages to show -- at least to his older readers -- Zeus's wandering eye, which becomes much more important in the later myths. (I wonder if this will come more into play in Hera, the next volume.) His Zeus is cocky and attractive and in love with his own power, not the bearded old man of so many modern retellings, but eternally young and sure of his power and righteousness. And this is a great book for younger readers -- though they'll be even more eager to pick it up if you can manage to hide how educational it is!
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: Midnight Spin - In the Air (Revival)
via FoxyTunes

Quotes of the Week: On Architecture

"All architecture is great architecture after sunset; perhaps architecture is really a nocturnal art, like the art of fireworks."
- G.K. Chesterton

"In my experience, if you have to keep the lavatory door shut by extending your leg, it's modern architecture."
- Nancy Banks-Smith

"Ruins are the most persistent form of architecture."
- Joseph Brodsky

"I declare this thing open, whatever it is."
- Prince Philip, opening the east wing of Vancouver City Hall in 1970

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Movie Log: Pirate Radio

The Wife and I are inordinately fond of Richard Curtis movies -- mostly because of his last film, the absolutely wonderful Love, Actually -- so we made sure to get Pirate Radio on the day of release. (From Netflix, of course -- I collect and accumulate enough different categories of stuff without adding movies into the mix.)

It's a romanticized, fictionalized version of the story of the pirate radio stations of the '60s, which broadcast from boats anchored in the North Sea to subvert the BBC's stodgy habit of never actually programming things that people wanted. (In this case, rock 'n' roll.) Pirate Radio -- which may be better known in some regions under its original British title, The Boat That Rocked -- is one of those loose-limbed assemblages of scenes that more or less add up to a plot, but don't entirely track from one event to the next.

Look: it's the mid '60s, right? And, according to this movie, everybody listens to and loves the pirate radio stations, except for a few of the obligatory anti-fun government types -- led by Kenneth Branagh as a minster in charge of, for all we can see, repressing rock and all things pleasant. One young man, after being thrown out of his college, is installed there for nebulous reasons under the tutelage of the station manager, Bill Nighy's Quentin. He meets the various DJs -- all odd, larger-than-life characters in their own ways, played by Nick Frost and Rhys Ifans and Philip Seymour Hoffman and Chris O'Dowd and others, and then Pirate Radio has nearly two more hours of scenes in which those characters play music, have fun, and goof around on the boat.

(The stuck-together-on-a-ship-with-a-bunch-of-men issues are dealt with in unlikely but pleasant ways, such as the boatload of attractive and willing women that arrive every Tuesday -- or was it Wednesday? -- and the boat is capacious enough for any number of adventures.)

At the moments when the viewer begins to doubt that Pirate Radio has a plot at all, Branagh pops back up to cast more aspersions on rock music with the aid of his underling, the oh-so-subtly named Dominic Twatt (Jack Davenport). Most of those plans come to nothing of course, until the climax of the movie.

Pirate Radio is a tremendously entertaining movie that at times comes perilously close to Gene Siskel's great Alternative to This Movie (a documentary of the actors just talking). The US disc also comes with almost a full hour of outtakes, all of which are equally as fun and funny -- but, clearly, someone was smart enough to realize that this movie couldn't be three hours long. There's really not that much to this as a film, and anyone who doesn't like '60s rock (or, at the very least, any rock music from then or later) will probably be annoyed and bored -- but it entertains in just the way it promises to, and has a pile of very watchable performances from some very funny men.
Listening to: Josh Ritter - Rattling Locks
via FoxyTunes

Free Comic Book Day Is This Saturday!

In the calendar of fixed holidays, Free Comic Book Day is a recent addition -- it's only in its eighth year -- but a welcome one, because, hey, everybody likes free stuff, right?

The official Free Comic Book Day website has a store locator, so you can find an outlet giving away comical goodies near you. I hope your schedule on Saturday allows dropping into a shop and grabbing some free comics -- and maybe even finding something interesting to spend money on!

Book-A-Day 2010 # 85 (4/29) -- Dungeon: Twilight, Vol. 3 by Sfar, Trondheim, Kersascoet, and Obion

I find the "Twilight" books the least compelling and coherent of all the Dungeon sub-series -- though, I'll admit, this may be because I came in on the second volume. Both "Early Years" and "Zenith" follow a young, energetic naif being battered around by the world -- Hyacinthe in the former and Herbert in the latter -- only to be turned into an often unpleasant, cynical and nasty older man in the subsequent series. In "Twilight," the equivalent position is taken by Marvin the Red, who isn't as innocent or appealing -- he doesn't have the moral drive of Hyacinthe or the ne'er-do-well goofiness of the young Herbert. Marvin's high-powered armor doesn't help this feeling, either -- even in a scene with massive fire-breathing dragons, he always looks (and acts) tough enough to take care of himself, which was never true of Herbert and only intermittently for Hyacinthe.

The "Twilight" books are also the most concerned with large manifestations of power: with rulers and their armies, leverage both personal and physical, and the sharp end of the spear of the state. And that can translate to long conversations about who's manipulating who, and discussions of tactics that aren't nearly as exciting as seeing them would be. (This is where the Dungeon books' origins as French albums really shows -- the "Twilight" stories are larger and more complicated, with large casts, armies, and many massive characters, but they still have to fit into the same page counts, so all of those elements get crunched down into too-small panels and events whipsaw back and forth.)

This book, like all of the American editions, collects two original French albums, with essentially separate stories. Both are written by the core Dungeon team of Joann Sfar and Lewis Trondheim, though the art duties are split between the single-named artists Kerascoet (on "The New Centurions") and Obion (on "Revolutions"). That first story is the larger and more complicated of the two, and my problems above are with it more than with "Revolutions."

One of the things that I do appreciate, and love, about Dungeon is the way that major things -- the shape of the world, a fortress, family members, a distinctive suit of armor -- are lost quickly and definitively, in an almost offhand manner. The world of Dungeon is one where every day -- sometimes every moment -- that a character can spend alive is the result of a struggle. Sfar and Trondheim don't spare their major characters, either -- there's been no sign of Hyacinthe at all in the two volumes of "Twilight" I've seen, and Herbert became almost unrecognizable as the evil overlord-esque Grand Khan.

So "New Centurions" is a story of political and military struggle, overlaid with the usual Dungeon troubles with romance and friendship -- it's too complicated to summarize (and more complicated, unfortunately, than is really explicated in this volume), but it sees the Grand Khan and his daughter the Duchess of Craftiwitch arming in their own ways for battle, with lizards, dragons, a hundred tribes of somebody else, and various other factions confusing the issue. Oh, and what they're fighting over are the occasionally crumbling and always drifting pieces of exploded Terra Amata.

"Revolutions" is a smaller-scale story, with Marvin the Red (the rabbit-like ostensible young hero of the "Twilight" books) and Marvin the Dragon (Herbert's old friend and Dust King of his people) stuck on a quickly rotating land -- which provides its own dangers, since gravity still pulls "down" as if there was a planet far underneath.

"Revolutions" is up to the high level of most of the Dungeon stories, though "New Centurions" does read like the middle volume of an epic fantasy trilogy. That particular story would probably work better as part of a longer Dungeon-reading binge. And this certainly isn't the place to start with Dungeon -- though I do hope you do start somewhere with Dungeon; it's a quietly accretive work with a subtly constructed world and an very European view of adventure and adventurers.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: Those Darlins - Red Light Love
via FoxyTunes

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Movie Log: How to Train Your Dragon

Every month or two, there's an animated movie that drags out all of the old cliches, props them up shamelessly, and makes a giant pile of money. This month, that's How to Train Your Dragon.

It has the requisite young man, a bit too sensitive for his rough-and-tumble society (in this case, a gang of resolutely ahistorical Vikings living on an inhospitable rocky island and constantly besieged by a dazzling array of immense dragons). It has the huge change that this society must undergo, which is first utterly inconceivable but then happens instantly once the young man is seen as the hero he so obviously is. And it has a whole lot of talking-about-the-relationship conversations, between the young man and his stereotypically successful and masculine father, between young man and the tougher-than-him young woman whom we all know he will eventually win. And it has the amazingly wonderful thing that the young man discovers -- a dragon, in this case, a totally unknown and ultrafast dragon that no one has ever even been able to learn anything about -- which leads him to learn the true secrets of his world, develop his hidden (and totally awesome) skills, and save everyone he's ever known in the big action sequence at the end.

In short, if there had been any doubt that animated movies today are made entirely by geeks who still haven't gotten over being picked last for kickball, How to Train Your Dragon provides yet another object lesson. It does its job pretty well, though no care was taken to give these "Vikings" even vaguely consistent accents -- at least the anachronistic jokes were kept to a bare minimum. The animation is quite nice, and this new 3D process is still stunning -- though the price of the tickets ($50 for a family of four) was also stunning in its own way. But as a story, Train Your Dragon is a big disappointment.
Listening to: Demander - Math
via FoxyTunes

Book-A-Day 2010 # 84 (4/28) -- I.O.U. by John Lanchester

Nobody saw the real estate crash of 2007 coming -- except for a large number of investors who bet against the bubble and made a fortune. Except for a huge number of homeowners nationwide who saw the paper values of their homes skyrocket, and knew that it wasn't sustainable. Except for plenty of people in the financial industry and the financial press, who had seen bubbles before.

Well, maybe then everybody saw it coming -- or everyone that mattered, anyway. Everyone certainly knew that there would be a correction in the market -- except for the poor deluded few that believed Alan Greenspan's managed-growth-forever Kool-Aid -- but, since most of them were still making bets on the markets continuing to rise (journalists needing ad buys for their publications, homeowners needing those price increases to make their interest-only loans look mildly plausible, and all those brokers and traders making money on every transaction), they all just kept hoping that the correction wouldn't happen until tomorrow. But we all know that tomorrow eventually comes.

I.O.U. is one of the slew of books that started in late 2007 and will continue for another two years (at least), explaining and explicating and making clear as many aspects of our financial mess as they can. This one is by a novelist, John Lanchester, who found himself working on a novel set in the finance industry in mid-2007, when everything started to go to hell. He shifted gears at some point, as he kept keeping track of what was happening and he tried to work out why it was all happening, to writing this book instead of the novel -- a short book about what happened and why, as the not-entirely-accurate subtitle says (I sense the hand of some fellow marketer behind it, and salute that faceless personage) "Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay."

Lanchester keeps his eye on the big picture, making sweeping statements when he needs to, and avoids getting caught up in the minutia of which bank did what -- and which of the players are "banks" and which are "nonbank financial institutions," for that matter. He does clarify categories when he has to, to keep the chain of blame clear, but he mostly lumps these entities together as "banks," which is entirely reasonable. (After all, the most obvious Too Big To Fail "bank" was AIG, which was primarily an insurance company but which had proliferating arms with their fingers in every financial pie imaginable.)

Along the way, he uncovers the real reasons for the boom that ended with this crash, and it's not a pretty one: the financial industry created an unregulated market for bets against anything they could devise, ran up the value of the pool of those bets until it was many times the actual value of the assets (those being the entire world economy) underlying the bets, and then kept building higher and higher, assuming that gravity and cyclical market downturns could be dealt with as easily as starry-eyed government regulators.

The resulting book is amazingly quotable, as it explains the highs and lows of the recent market:
The credit crunch was based on a climate (the post-Cold War victory party of free-market capitalism), a problem (the subprime mortgages), a mistake (the mathematical models of risk), and a failure (that of the regulators). It was the regulators' job to prevent both the collapse of individual companies and the systemic risks which ensued; they failed. But that failure wasn't due so much to the absence of attention to individual details as it was to an entire culture of the primacy of business, of money, of deregulation, of putting the interests of the financial sector first. This brought us to a point in which a belief in the free market became a kind of secular religion., The tenets of that religion are familiar, and they have been a central part of the story so far: the primacy of laissez-faire capitalism, the magically self-regulating nature of the market, the superiority of the free market to all other forms of human organization. These are all debatable, contestable positions -- but in the Anglo-Saxon world, we forgot to contest them. This should be an enduring lesson of the crisis -- an understanding that the rules governing the operating of markets were not handed down on stone tablets but made by human beings and are in constant need of revision, supervision, and active, imaginative enforcement. We can't afford to forget this point: humans make markets. (pp.201-202)
I find myself wanting to type out Lanchester's entire last chapter -- where he synthesizes the issues covered by the previous chapters, and adds them up to form a damning picture of financiers drunk with debt and leverage, scornful of anyone who does anything else and utterly sure of their own righteousness:
One of the peculiar things about the world of finance is that it freely offers the sensation of being proved right to its participants. Every transaction in the markets has a buyer and a seller, and in most cases one of them is right and the other wrong, because the price goes either up or down. The cumulative weight of this rightness-or-wrongness is one of the things that make financial types psychologically distinctive. Artists, sportsmen, surgeons, plumbers, and the rest of us have secret voices of doubt, inner reservations about ourselves, but if you go to work with money and make money, you can be proved right in the most inhumanly pure way. This is why people who have succeeded in the world of money tend to have such a high opinion of themselves. And this is why they seem to regard themselves as paragons of rationality, while others regard them as slightly nuts. Outsiders don't often get a good look at this mind-set in its full pomp, but when we do, it makes an unforgettable impression. (pp.203-204)
He's not one of the many who wants to assign blame to just one convenient scapegoat -- the rating services, the regulatory agencies, the investment banks, the derivative traders, the homeowners who signed mortgages that they wouldn't be able to afford, Bush or Clinton or Chris Dodd or Hank Paulson or the secret ruling Goldman Sachs cabal -- since he's sure that this boom and bust were precisely what the derivative market was destined to become; like all immense crashes, it's obvious in retrospect, but no one listened to the voices of reason ahead of time since there was money to be made: huge, dog-choking piles of money, which all went to the bankers.
The regulators failed; but they failed because the bankers made them fail. All the rules which existed, about bank capital and reserve requirements, about risk, and about cross-border regulatory supervision, were energetically, systematically, and determinedly circumvented by some of the banks. They treated the rules as things designed by thick people to slow them down and hamper their rightful profitability. It was self-evident to them that they had a better understanding of the risks they were taking than did anyone else. They behaved like drivers who regard speed limits as things to be obeyed only by muppets. It's as if they saw the thirty-miles-an-hour sign but then realized that the speed cameras wouldn't work if you were doing more than seventy -- and took that as their cure to roar through built-up areas at the highest speed possible. The proliferation of nonbank banks, the pervasive use of derivatives to increase rather than to hedge risk, the overwhelming preference for over-the-counter derivatives -- all of these things were critical contributors to the disaster, and all of them had, not just as some marginal benefit but as their central purpose, the determination to get around the banking rules. (pp.204-205)
Lanchester probably put this book to bed eight or ten months ago, but I found this passage near the very end (it's the last quote, I promise) particularly pointed, as my local government here in New Jersey is fighting over exactly these issues. (As probably is your local government in wherever you are.)
As the bill is paid, and especially as taxes go up while services and jobs go away, people are going to get steadily and inexorably more furious. I'm not sure at whom; I hope it's at the responsible bodies, but I wouldn't bet on it. Public rage is like lightning, and tends to discharge its energies at anyone who has the bad luck to be prominent in the wrong way at the wrong time. (p.223)
I.O.U. probably isn't the definitive book on the crash; books like that tend to come late in the cycle, to synthesize the prior art and turn it into an integrated argument about what came before, during, and after. It's still too soon to get that kind of distance, since we don't yet know yet what the shape of the post-crash economy will be. (Though I personally hope that things aren't as doom-laded as Lanchester puts it in that last chapter; it clearly was written in mid-2009, when everything was lousy through and through.) But it's one of the very best books on the current economy available now: clear-eyed and thoughtful, engagingly written and layman-friendly. I know a little bit about the economy and the world of finance from my day-job, but Lanchester has studied this world intently and sees it with the clarity only a real outsider, and a great writer, has. If he can write this well and entertainingly about a market crash, I probably need to check out his other books.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: Mieka Pauley - We're All Gonna Die
via FoxyTunes

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Movie Log: Paper Moon

I'm still trying to catch up on classic movies when I can, so I watched Paper Moon recently. (And, after watching it, I'm thinking the movie I'd really like to see again -- particularly since I've been thinking a lot about how movies for and about kids have changed since I was the age my sons are now -- is Little Darlings, which isn't available on video now and I don't expect will be any time soon.)

Tatum O'Neal won an Oscar for her role in Paper Moon -- still the youngest actress ever to do so, and even more impressive when you realize this was her first movie. She's an orphan in Depression-era Kansas (Addie Loggins) who gets foisted onto small-time con man (her real-life father, Ryan O'Neal, as Moses Pray, who may be Addie's father), since he's supposedly going towards her only living relatives, over the state line in Missouri.

Paper Moon is one of those quintessentially '70s comedy/dramas -- it doesn't run to formula, but mixes humor and danger in the way real life usually does but movies have since learned not to. But the reasons to watch it are the O'Neals, father and daughter, who both put in great performances. Everyone else in it is there for an episode or two of their travels, though Madeline Kahn, as a woman who is not precisely a prostitute but whose favors are definitely negotiable, makes a strong impression as well.
Listening to: Holy Fuck - Lovely Allen
via FoxyTunes

Book-A-Day 2010 # 83 (4/27) -- Stephen Fry in America by Stephen Fry

If Stephen Fry weren't clearly such a pleasant, personable chap, it would be difficult to avoid being criminally jealous of him. He's smart, witty, well-connected (both in the acting world and consumer electronics), a fine writer and an accomplished actor.

Worst of all, he gets to do projects like this: about three years ago, Fry set off in a black London cab to see the USA, spending a little time in each of the fifty states and filming a TV documentary about it along the way. (So he got paid to wander around the country, seeing tourist sights and having interesting adventures.) The TV show itself hasn't made its way to the US yet -- perhaps because TV programmers don't think we care, as a country, what a Brit like Fry thinks of us -- but this, the companion book, was published in time for last Christmas, so that it would be available to be given as presents to Anglophillic America-lovers (like me).

Stephen Fry in America doesn't exhaust its subject -- each state, even the smallest and least-populated, are worth at least two coffee-table books of this size, and probably wouldn't be covered in depth even at that level -- but it does present a succession of reasonably iconic portraits of American life, from Maine lobstermen to Hawaiian luaus, all in Fry's bemused and appreciative voice. Fry admits to liking, even loving America, despite what he sees as its flaws -- and that's how all honest people really feel about the countries they care about, whether their own or foreign.

Fry is pleasant company as always, and the joy of Stephen Fry in America was only slightly dampened by the wish that I was the one wandering across the country and poking into everything. If you're better at living vicariously than I am, that joy may well be unalloyed.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: Josh Ritter - Real Long Distance (live)
via FoxyTunes

Monday, April 26, 2010

Movie Log: Zombieland

I've mostly avoided the recent string of zombie movies -- much like I skipped the Romero movies before them, and for similar reasons -- but I did catch up with Zombieland recently, because it was compared to Shaun of the Dead.

Well, Zombieland isn't as consistently funny as Shaun is, and it follows the standard big-movie paradigm both more closely and without Shaun's knowing smirk. It's a decent zombie movie, I guess -- though the on-screen body count is awfully low for a real zombie-movie fan, I expect. Woody Harrelson has a lot of fun with his part, while Jesse Eisenberg shows that the motormouth Michael Cera act can be just as annoying in other hands as the original. The two females are there mostly for plot purposes, and to keep the whole thing from being a sausage party -- they're the potential new girlfriend and the replacement kid.

Zombieland is a professionally constructed piece of genre entertainment, forged in the fires of Mount Hollywood's plot mines and honed to a bright sheen identical to half-a-dozen other movies each summer. I enjoyed it, and only felt slightly guilty for doing so. But it freaked out The Wife, making her turn on the highbeams in her car the next night, so she could see the zombies coming from further away and take them out. Caveat emptor.
Listening to: Titus Andronicus - "Fear & Loathing in Mahwah, NJ"
via FoxyTunes

The Decider Explains How He Decided

Today's morning Publishers Weekly newsletter brings word that Crown has scheduled Decision Points, the memoir from ex-president George W. Bush, for this November 9th.

The big takeaway here is the date -- one week after Election Day. If Bush was hoping to influence the election -- like Palin and Rove and a thousand other operatives on both sides -- he'd want his book out substantially earlier. Coming out one week after the election signals an intention to be seen as statesmanlike and above the fray, in line with previous ex-Presidents.

He's also been silent about the major issues of the day since leaving office, so this is probably a larger, coherent strategy. (And one that not all ex-office-holders follow: his former Veep, Cheney, has been very vociferous, particularly on national-security issues.)

It's good to see that Bush can be polite and thoughtful when he needs to be, but 2010 is somewhat later than we might have liked for proof of that.

More Fun With Blogger

Can anyone explain to me why "new" Blogger -- the supposedly zippier and better editing package, which I tried again over the weekend before giving up on once again in favor of "old" Blogger -- highlights its spell-check "errors" (in actuality, most proper names, lots of jargon, and plenty of perfectly good words) in the actual post itself?!

The old version doesn't do this -- could it have been a deliberate design decision? (That would be monumentally thick, even for a software engineer, but it could be true.)

I also note that the gosh-wow Amazon Associate plug-in still doesn't work for me in New Blogger, which would have been the major reason for switching anyway.

Feh. I'd really prefer not to move to some platform that would have me actually paying money to bloviate, but it may become necessary, some time in the future. I suspect this blog's design is getting to look a bit '95 Geocities to some eyes....

Book-A-Day 2010 # 82 (4/26) -- Naruto, Vols. 45-47 by Masashi Kishimoto

I wrote about the three immediately previous Naruto volumes back on Day 16, mostly talking about the shape of the series to that point...and that means I'll have even less to say here than I did then.

(Of course, that's why I chose this to be the Book-A-Day post that I'd be writing on a Friday night, after a long week, and immediately after wandering around the neighborhood with Thing 2 putting up Cub Scout Food-Drive notices.)

From Kishimoto's introductory comment in Vol. 47, I gather that this battle is not just a really big one, but the beginning of the climax of the series -- so my estimate, in that previous review, that the story (and now, I guess, the series) would end with Vol. 50 is looking more reasonable by the moment. Of course, there are still two shadowy nasties with plans to destroy Naruto's home village of Konoha (assuming there's anything left of it after this battle, which may be an unwarranted assumption) -- Naruto's ex-teammate Sasuke, and the mysterious hypno-masked leader of the evil Akatsuki ninjas (whom the reader and Sasuke knows all about, after the epic conversation in Vol. 43) -- so I may be off by a few hundred pages. But I wouldn't be surprised if Naruto ends in the next year or so.

In these six hundred pages of the story -- that may seem excessive, but a manga like Naruto is the comics equivalent of a big epic fantasy, leaping from one subplot to another and shifting focus from the hero gaining his true power to the villains discussing their fiendish plots -- the uniquely nasty ninja Pain attacks Konoha, demanding Naruto.

In Vol. 45 and 46, Kishimoto starts off with Sasuke's team's attempt to capture the last fox-tailed ninja who isn't Naruto, and then dives into the main event, switching between scenes in which a small army of Konoha ninja, singly and together, attempt to fight Pain's seven bodies (and fail miserably) and with scenes of Naruto training to learn sage jutsu from a bunch of ancient, ultra-powerful talking frogs on Mt. Myoboku. Eventually, of course, Naruto -- stronger and with new skills from his training, as always in shonen stories -- comes back to fight Pain himself, and that takes up pretty much all of Vol. 47.

So these books would be pretty much incomprehensible to anyone who hasn't read the first 8,000 or so pages of this story. I will say that Kishimoto is good at delivering on what he promises -- his battle scenes are truly epic, and even a reader like me (who doesn't bother to keep track of the different kinds of jutsu, their strengths and weaknesses, and the other gaming-style trivia of the world) finds it gripping and exciting. And, for the first time ever, I'm actually caught up with this series -- and that's something to celebrate.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: The Fauves - The Dirt-Bike Option
via FoxyTunes

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 4/24

Once again, these are the books that showed up in my mailbox last week -- I haven't yet read any of them, but here's what I can tell you about them from a cursory glance and my towering a priori knowledge of everything in the physical universe:

Brendan Connell publishes a lot of short stories in various odd and quirky venues -- both individually, in magazines, and as slim books from various respectable but little-known presses. He wrote me recently to ask if he could send me a book, and that's why I have Metrophilias, a collection of thirty-six very short stories about cities, in front of me. About two-thirds of the stories were originally published elsewhere, but they were very scattered, in such outlets as TEL: Stories and The Sink and Sacred Naked Magazine and Idiot's Manifesto. This assemblage -- which has no cover copy or introduction to explain or define it -- was published in March by San Diego's Better Non Squitur.

Mark Chadbourn's The Devil in Green is the beginning of "The Dark Age," his follow-up series to "The Age of Misrule," in which the ancient Celtic gods re-awoke and plunged the world into chaos (and, reading between the lines, megadeath). I probably won't read this myself -- I have a long-standing objection to contemporary or near-future books that use the mass murder of my family and myself to motivate its action -- but don't let my quibbles stop you. Pyr will publish The Devil in Green on May 4th in trade paperback -- and I wouldn't be surprised if the rest of the series follows quickly, since this was originally published in the UK in 2002.

Dexter Palmer's The Dream of Perpetual Motion is one of those trendy "steampunk" novels, with a stylish bronze cover sporting the inevitable Zeppelin. On the other hand, it's also about a greeting-card writer imprisoned for life on that very Zeppelin, writing his memoirs and accompanied only by his love Miranda's disembodied voice and the cryogenically frozen body of Miranda's father Prospero. (If your name is Prospero, and you have a daughter, you must name her Miranda -- it's in the U.S. Code somewhere. I saw a similar case in the Times this morning, where Persephone, the daughter of an actress named Delphi, was getting married.) There are so few novels about greeting-card writers to begin with that I can't help but feel warmly towards this one, which was published in hardcover by St. Martin's Press in March.

Speaking of steampunk -- as I was -- Pinion is the third novel in Jay Lake's series about a clockwork solar system ruled by Queen Victoria, after Mainspring and Escapement. It was published in hardcover by Tor on March 30th.

And here's a book I never thought I'd see: Norman Spinrad's big novel He Walked Among Us, which has a SF author as a main character but isn't, from what I've seen of Spinrad's public comments about it, SF itself. It was originally published in French close to a decade ago, and has been available in electronic editions in English (sometimes for free) since then -- but this is the first time that it's been in print in English. He Walked is the story of a stand-up comedian who claims to be from an eco-devastated future, sent back to warn all of mankind -- and I've heard widely varying reports of how well it all works. But now He Walks is free in the world, and we can all make up our own minds about it -- it was published by Tor in hardcover at the end of March.

And last for this week is the Essential Wonder Woman Encyclopedia, by Phil Jimenez and John Wells, which has everything you'd ever want to know about Wonder Woman (versions I through XI, and including Wonder Tor and several versions of Wonder Girl) between two covers. It will be published by Del Rey tomorrow, April 27th, as a huge trade paperback. I don't know who needs to know this much about Wondy, but, if that's you, you're in luck.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Movie Log: The Men Who Stare at Goats

It's impressive when one of the major movie stars of our time is willing to be a complete goofball now and then. And George Clooney delivers another one of his marvelously unhinged portrayals of a complete nutbar in The Men Who Stare at Goats. Jeff Bridges is even spacier as Clooney's commanding officer, adding to the fun -- both of them are playing

Men Who Stare at Goats is based on a true story, more or less -- it's based on Jon Ronson's nonfictional book of the same, name, but Ronson's been ironically both de-Briticized to an American reporter, and played by Scotsman Ewan MacGregor. The Ronson character is here called Bob Wilton, and he finds himself just outside Iraq during the run-up to the second Gulf War, desperately trying to get a great story, prove himself, and win back his philandering wife. What he finds instead is Lyn Cassady (Clooney), who claims to be part of a secret U.S. Army psychic-operations squad called the New Earth Army, trained and deployed during the Reagan years.

Much of Men Who Stare takes place in flashback, as Cassady explains their training under General Bill Django (Bridges) to the credulous Wilton. The present-day scenes, though, see Wilton and Cassady captured by random Iraqis and suffering other indignities -- Cassady does break up clouds by looking at them, and hurts Wilton with a small plastic thing called the "Predator," but otherwise his supposed "Jedi" skills don't come into play much.

And that's the joke, of course -- Men Who Stare is primarily saying "look at these insane military types, and what they believed," though it also wants to have it both ways: the military men are silly and misguided, but, dramatically, this Jedi stuff has to work now and then. So it's a lumpy, odd movie, full of over-the-top performances and scenes that don't necessarily go anywhere. It's enjoyable on its own level, but the neo-hippie vibe of the New Earth Army may lead the viewer to wondering if it would be funnier, and make more sense, if said viewer had indulged in certain substances before viewing....
Listening to: Basia Bulat - The Pilgriming Vine
via FoxyTunes

B&N Searches Bring Up E-books First Today

I'm not sure how long this has been the case -- or if this is the result of a deliberate change, or some glitch -- but this morning, on all of the books I'm looking up at, the e-book edition comes up first, with the print book afterward.

It's an interesting, if odd, development -- does B&N think consumers will accidentally buy the e-book and become so enamored of the format that they then immediately buy a Nook?

Book-A-Day 2010 # 81 (4/25) -- Hello, Again by Max Estes

Estes is an American illustrator and cartoonist now living in Norway; this was his first book (back in 2005, before he moved to Norway), which I happened upon serendipitously recently. Hello, Again is a small-format drawn book, just slightly taller than wide, roughly 5" x 6".

It was Estes's first graphic novel, and it's five years old, so it would be cruel to be particularly critical of it -- and excessive, since Hello, Again may be a bit slight and obvious in its connections, but Estes has a wonderfully expressive drawing style (only slightly hemmed in by the small panels and pages he's working within here) and a fine sense of character.

Willy -- the guy on the cover -- is the super of an apartment building, and secretly having an affair with Delia, who is not only a tenant but the live-in girlfriend of his best friend, Aaron. Estes explicitly links this to a similar infidelity by Willy's father when Willy was young -- I'd say that's a bit too pop-psychology and on-the-nose for a book like this, but it's plausible. Willy has to face the morality of what he's doing when a specter from his past -- which may be just his conscience, or may be something more -- appears and begins to lightly harangue him about his failings.

Hello, Again is a small book -- in theme and scope as well as physical size -- but it's a zippy, cute one. Estes's story of infidelity and second chances probably doesn't have as much resonance as he'd hoped for, but it's a perfectly good debut graphic novel with very appealing art.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: Okkervil River - Bruce Wayne Campbell Interviewed On The Roof Of The Chelsea Hotel, 1979
via FoxyTunes

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 80 (4/24) -- The Muppet Show Comic Book: The Treasure of Peg-Leg Wilson by Roger Langridge

Now, that's a long title! The second collection of Roger Langridge "Muppet Show" comics picks up right after the first one (which I reviewed in the middle of a long monthly round-up), and continues Langridge's eerily accurate evocation of the late '70s Muppet Show. As I said the first time, there was no reason to expect that this would work: the TV show was an odd, lumpy concoction in the first place, made up equally of old fashioned showbiz/British music-hall razzmatazz and quirky humor, cemented together by a cast of fine performers and their very expressive characters. A comic book can't rely on performers, or musical numbers, or puppetry, or the original Muppet Show's reliance on then-famous guest stars. And, yet, Langridge did it -- his first book felt like an adaptation of particularly good shows from that old series (though completely without any guest stars), and this second continues that evocation while also adding a stronger plotline.

Once again, we're at the Muppet Theater, wherever that may be. The chance discovery of a map -- from the titular Peg-Leg Wilson -- leads the rats and others to start searching the theater for his hidden treasure. Meanwhile, someone whom the reader is sure is not Kermit is wandering around in leather glasses and dark sunglasses, making flippant replies to everyone else's questions and requests. Animal has become unaccountably quiet and civilized, due to an unlikely experiment, though he still doesn't speak. And, all the while, the usual Muppet bits -- Pigs in Space, Bear on patrol, Professor Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker, the Swedish Chef, and various musical numbers (which, most particularly, should not work in comics, and yet do) -- continue, interspersed with the backstage story, again just like the old TV show.

Langridge continues to draw the Muppet characters not quite on model -- they're very close, but subtly Langridge-ized (particularly Fozzie). Even more subtly, Langridge's versions of the Muppets have somewhat more realistic facial expressions -- since they're pen drawings, and not lumps of fur and felt -- that adds to the sense that these are real characters that we should care about. (Despite their clearly closed-interior half-moon mouths and other artifacts of their puppet origins.) His page layouts still have his own comics version of the music-hall/vaudeville energy of the TV Muppet Show -- not to say that Langridge hasn't had that energy and flair for a longer time, since he has -- giving the whole enterprise a rollicking air.

The Treasure of Peg-Leg Wilson is published as if it were for kids, though I would be happily surprised to find out that its current audience was primarily too young to drive (as opposed to those of my generation who were kids for the original Muppet Show). On the other hand, I am going to pass this on to my own boys, and I expect they'll enjoy it. Come to think of it, I never asked them what they thought of the first volume....
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Heads Will Roll
via FoxyTunes

Friday, April 23, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 79 (4/23) -- Rasl, Vol. 1: The Drift by Jeff Smith

Lighting, contrary to the old saying, is actually more likely to hit in the same spot a second time -- that is, if it happens quickly. That's because the first bolt makes an easier path in the the air -- and here you'll have to pretend that I have a detailed explanation of ions and air pressure -- for that second strike to follow. And so lightning is a decent metaphor for publishing: one big hit can clear the way for another big long as the second strike comes quickly and follows the same path.

But if the second strike comes several years later, and is very different in tone and style -- well, then you're back out in the field with a metal rod, trying to coax down another random jolt of pure energy.

Rasl is Jeff Smith's follow-up project to Bone, and what it has in common with Bone are primarily a four-letter title, Smith's care and storytelling ability, and publication from Smith's Cartoon Books outfit. Like Bone, it starts off at its own pace, clearly the beginning of a longer story than a sequence of issue-by-issue individual stories. Call it "writing for the trade" if you want, but Smith is going to tell one story about Rasl, and tell it at his own pace.

The Drift collects the first three issues of the Rasl series; enough to show the outlines of the beginning of this story, but not really enough to give the reader a sense of where that story is going. It could almost be an artifact of a previous era in comics publishing: the "collected edition" rushed out to give a new series a presence on the graphic novel shelves, a book due to be replaced eventually by a more comprehensive, and better planned, reprinting of the series. Its giant size -- this book measures about 9" x 12" -- adds to that feeling, as if Smith realized that he had to give the readers something if he couldn't give them a large enough chunk of story, and decided to give them bigger pages instead.

In these three issues, we meet Rasl -- a ruffian of a cross-dimensional art thief, who was once a much more clean-cut (though still not overly moral) scientific researcher named Robert. And we learn that forces from "the Compound" are after him, for stealing the gear he uses to jump dimensions (or "drift," as he calls it) and sabotaging the research facility, to make it harder for anyone else to do it. But there's a lizard-looking man in a dark coat on Rasl's tail, and he's got his own dimension-jumping gear. And there are secrets in Rasl/Robert's past that haven't even been hinted yet. While Bone was mostly a gentle fantasy, with occasional mythic underpinnings, Rasl is a noirish SF thriller, with tasteful sex and obligatory violence.

The Drift is very early days for Rasl, and it would be premature to say much about the story at this point; these are the first three chapters of a longer story. Smith's supple, flowing line is familiar from Bone, though the characters and their actions here are very different. And his dialogue is tougher, more growly than Bone, without the earlier work's sense of fun and whimsy. Rasl's world is nastier than Fone Bone's was -- there's a major death in the second issue here, to underline that difference -- and his story will go in very different directions. But, for now, it's all potential -- we have to wait to see where this bolt of lightning will go.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: Emily Haines - The Lottery
via FoxyTunes

Quote of the Week: Leverage

"The banks were incredibly profitable not because they were doing anything better but simply because they were making bigger, riskier bets -- plunking down more money on the roulette wheel. That isn't just a metaphor, it's the actual conclusion of an academic study made by Andrew Haldane, the Bank of England's executive in charge of financial stability. Between 1986 and 2006, the average annual return on banking shares rocketed from its historic norm of 2 percent to 16 percent. Why? Because the banks were making bigger bets. There was no skill, efficiency, intelligence, or judgment involved, just riskier bets. In Haldane's exact words, 'Since 2000, rising leverage fully accounts for movements in UK banks' ROE [return on equity] -- both the rise to around 24% in 2007 and the subsequent fall into negative territory in 2008.' This is astounding stuff. Haldane is in effect saying that most of those bankers paying themselves monster bonuses were doing so simply as a result of making bigger bets -- and, as it turned out, it was we the taxpayers who, unwittingly and unwillingly, were bankrolling their ever-riskier wagers. This wasn't just looking for trouble, it was sending trouble a 'save the date' card, followed by a formal invitation, followed by nagging e-mails and phone calls just to make absolutely sure."
- John Lanchester, I.O.U.: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay, pp.36-37

Thursday, April 22, 2010

It's Not You, It's Me

When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for people to dissolve the personal bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

But who has the time to work up a detailed declaration of rejection every single time? I know I don't.

Luckily, there's now an alternative. As a promotion for the book Other People's Rejection Letters by Bill Shapiro, Crown has posted a Reject-o-Matic, which will automatically generate rejection letters suitable for all occasions.

Here's one example that I just whipped up.

The template isn't quite as sharable as I'd like -- it generates a page on the publisher's server, and a link to that page, rather than a discrete bit of code that can be embedded in any webpage -- but it's still a fun tool. Use it to reject all of your friends!

Book-A-Day 2010 # 78 (4/22) -- City of Spies by Kim, Klavan & Dizin

City of Spies is the second graphic novel for young people (and about young people) from First Second in May about WWII, after Resistance, Vol. 1, which I reviewed earlier this week. But the two books aren't all that similar, really -- Resistance is set in France, while City of Spies is set in New York. See! Totally different! The fact that both take place in 1942 is just one of those wacky coincidences beloved in sitcom and manga.

All kidding aside, City of Spies looks very different from Resistance -- it has a Herge-ish clean line and flat color, as artist Pascal Dizin gives a modernist feel to New York -- and its story (from playwright Susan Kim and novelist Laurence Klavan) is different, as well. Evelyn is a rich pre-teen girl who just wants to be with her father -- she draws superhero comics that make that plot point over-obvious -- but is foisted off on her bohemian aunt for the summer while her dad runs off for a honeymoon with his latest wife. In her aunt's ritzy apartment building, Evelyn befriends Tony, the rambunctious son of the super, and the two of them -- inspired by Evelyn's comic-book adventures -- soon are seeing Nazi spies behind every corner. Of course, a book called City of Spies would be pretty boring if spies never showed up, so....

There is plenty of adventure before the end, though City of Spies stays on a light-hearted level to match the art; there's danger here, but it never feels particularly serious. The reader is pretty sure that these spies will be thwarted -- if not by Evelyn's creations Zirconium Man and his sidekick Scooter, than by Evelyn and Tony themselves, or a friendly policeman. It's not as obviously educational as Resistance is, but I expect City of Spies will be the favorite of more kids in the long run.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: The Wonder Stuff - Angelica Maybe
via FoxyTunes

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Quote for the Day: Bug-Nutty People

"It's always a little sad to lose some stupid. I love people doing stupid things that I'd never do—different stupid things than all the stupid things I do. It reminds me that although all over the world we humans have so much in common, so much love, and need, and desire, and compassion and loneliness, some of us still want to do things that the rest of us think are bug-nutty. Some of us want to drive a Hummer, some of us want to eat sheep's heart, liver and lungs simmered in an animal's stomach for three hours, some us want to play poker with professionals and some of us want a Broadway musical based on the music of ABBA. I love people doing things I can't understand. It's heartbreaking to me when people stop doing things that I can't see any reason for them to be doing in the first place. I like people watching curling while eating pork rinds."
- Penn Jillette on the death of the Hummer in the Wall Street Journal

Book-A-Day 2010 # 77 (4/21) -- The Sorcerer's House by Gene Wolfe

Gene Wolfe's novels are always tricky things, carefully constructed to provide the minimum amount of information the reader needs and artfully arranged to conceal that information from any readers not sufficiently engaged. It's a cliche to say that the reader does half the work of making a book come alive, but, with Wolfe, both the author and the reader are working much harder than they typically would. Sometimes, as with the breathtaking but utterly insular "Short Sun" books or in Wolfe's great novel Peace, the trip is more than worth the bother. And sometimes, as with the recent "Wizard Knight" duology and odd misfits like Free Live Free, the reader is left wondering why he bothered to put in so much effort. (Of course, it may be, in the case of those latter books, that the reader has not quite put in enough effort.)

The Sorcerer's House falls on the Wolfe continuum closer to the first group than to the second; it also falls on the other axis of Wolfeness -- determining how readily it gives up its secrets -- towards the end of clarity and transparency, with Pandora by Holly Hollander and There Are Doors. It's an epistolary novel, told entirely in the letters sent by a middle-aged ex-con, Baxter Dunn, and in the letters sent to Baxter by various others.

Baxter has recently left prison -- he was incarcerated for a crime he did commit, the details of which come out in the course of the novel -- and has landed in an unnamed town in what I assume is the Upper Midwest, sometime in the last few decades. He writes often to his twin brother George, the successful and conventional one. Baxter had been a scholar of some kind, firmly ensconced in some university somewhere, but the details of his past stay out of focus -- he's telling this story in letters to people who already know his past, and so he doesn't talk about that much.

Baxter notices a large empty white house on the edge of town, and quietly moves into it when his living situation at the local motel becomes problematic. And that soon leads to his entanglement with a series of very Wolfean women -- they're all somewhat flighty and deferential, very much small-town women from the middle of the last century, without much perspective or scope -- starting with the real estate agents Doris Rose Griffin (young, vivacious, recently divorced) and Martha Murrey (older, and possessed of many secrets). Baxter comes into the possession of that old house very quickly, and of other inheritances as well -- to such a degree that the reader begins to wonder, until Wolfe explains (in a typically Wolfean, sidelong way) later in the novel.

He also comes to explore the house, which is larger every time he explores it. (Of course Baxter doesn't actually say this -- as with most details in a Wolfe novel, it's there to be observed, but the reader must do the observing.) Also, many of the windows look out onto -- and, as Baxter learns before long, lead out onto -- a vast forest that does not surround the house in its usual place. The house, as Baxter learns, is called the Black house, after the mysterious man who used to own it -- who may or may not have also been known by another name, who is supposedly dead.

Baxter and George are not the only set of twins in The Sorcerer's House -- and I'm afraid I'm being very Wolfean myself with that statement; there are other sets of twins in the book, and one set, very significantly, turns up in the house itself.

But The Sorcerer's House is a novel that has to be read rather than explained; the plot is not the point here, since the plot consists of Baxter writing about people he met, their elliptically Wolfean conversations, and the strange things he has seen and done -- with a small sideline in some of those other people writing back to Baxter. The female characters here are not as central, and thus not as jarringly of a type (and an idiosyncratic, anachronistic type at that) as in last year's An Evil Guest, but Baxter is a very Wolfean hero: quietly competent at nearly everything he turns his hand to, very successful with those women, reticent to talk about himself, but a great talker otherwise. This is a mature Wolfe novel, full of sly secrets and offhand misdirection, but not as ambitious or major as his series work. Baxter is a mostly reliable narrator, as well -- and that's about as clear as one can ever get from Wolfe!

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: Split Enz - One Step Ahead
via FoxyTunes

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Movie Log: Couples Retreat

I'd been under the impression that Couples Retreat was an utterly bland and mostly unfunny Hollywood "comedy" and so I came into it with low expectations. Perhaps that's what did the trick, because I enjoyed it -- oh, it is fairly bland (like the Des Moines version of Thai food), but The Wife and I found it to be actually funny most of the time.

Oh, sure, it's generic and obvious, a clearly contrived slab of Hollywood Product arrayed around a fistful of currently trendy jokes, personality types, problems, and talking points. But it is funny most of the time, in its non-threatening and renormative way.

But it's really not worth taking any more time or space that that -- it's the story of a bunch of attractive people who go to a more attractive place to do funny things and then remember why they Really Love Each Other. It could have used a bit more edge or point of view, but it does what it wants to do, and what it wants to do is generally admirable and pleasant.
Listening to: The Refreshments - Fonder And Blonder
via FoxyTunes

Book-A-Day 2010 # 76 (4/20) -- Changes by Jim Butcher

Popular fiction series rely heavily on the indulgence and selective memory of the reader, particularly in the early going of a new book. All of the ungainly wheels of coincidence and danger need to be trotted back out, oiled, and set to work, while that reader rubs his hands together and remembers the Really Good Stuff from earlier books -- said Really Good Stuff typically coming at the end of a book, of course, where the series hero and a few plucky compatriots finally gather all of the information and maguffins and weaponry they need and activate the plan that's So Crazy It Just Might Work. And the reader knows something like that will be coming at the end of this book as well, so he settles in, trying not to be annoyed by the writer's ever-more-obvious tics and the weight of backstory that needs to be explained yet again (and which seems less plausible every new time the explanation is made).

Jim Butcher is a storyteller rather than a fine writer, who uses the same bricks of description, dialogue, and characterization in book after book -- they all worked just fine the first time around, so why change them? And that familiarity, as Harry Dresden declares, one more time, that he's going to stand up against the baddies to stop "people" from "being hurt," can either lead to the comfortable feeling of settling into a warm bath, or to a dull sense of deja vu.

Changes is the book where a lot of Harry Dresden's demons catch up with him, where he finally has to face up to the fact that his "I'll just save everybody, all of the time" attitude might not be precisely realistic, and that exercising power means hard choices. It also has an ending that I expect has already gotten fans of the series chattering madly -- there's the biggest magical confrontation yet, followed by a series of hard choices, revelations, and surprises, ending with the kind of cliffhanger that really has no place in a series of discrete novels. (It's a Two Towers-level cliffhanger, and I expect it will be a year before the next novel resolves it.)

In the first line of the novel, Harry -- once "Chicago's only consulting wizard," but latterly one of the mainstays of the wizardly White Council's police/enforcers/soldiers, the Wardens -- learns from his ex-lover Susan Rodriguez that the two of them have a seven-year-old daughter, Maggie, and that Maggie has been captured for nefarious purposes by the vampiric Red Court.

Cue a massive infodump, because Susan is a half-vampire -- infected but not turned by the Red Court, still somewhat human as long as she doesn't give in to her blood thirst -- who works for the Fellowship of St. Giles, a loose federation of half-vampires like her that battle the Red Court. Harry's had his own run-ins with the vampires as well, and the White Council only recently settled into an armistice with the Red Court after a very deadly war. But the Red Court has sent an envoy to the White Council to negotiate a peace treaty -- the very same high-ranking noblewoman who was behind the kidnapping.

Changes is a medium-length novel with a very simple structure -- Harry learns about the kidnapping of Maggie, immediately pledges to save her no matter what, and runs around at high speed, gathering all of the information and power and allies he can before the Red King (the inevitable millennia-old ubervampire) sacrifices her in a ritual that will kill and curse her entire family. As usual, Harry's status with the White Council has been reset with the beginning of each book, so they don't trust him at all, despite the fact that he single-handedly saved the Council and eliminated a sleeper agent from their shadowy opposition in last year's Turn Coat. Butcher allows some details to get away from him during this long stretch of the novel, but there are a lot of details at this point in the series, so that's mostly forgivable. But the bulk of Changes is a reunion tour of all of the important people and places from the earlier books, as Harry asks or cajoles or demands or negotiates help from them all.

There's never enough, power, though -- the point of Changes is to finally force Harry to make moral choices he doesn't entirely like, after he spent the first eleven books of this series utterly sure of his own righteousness and contemptuous of anyone who disagrees with his priorities. (Butcher's trying to have it both ways here, though -- he constructed all of those books precisely so that Harry was always completely on the side of righteousness, and shuffled the cards so that Harry could always save the innocents and defeat the nasties.) This time, he needs to ask for help, and accept conditions from, the kind of powers that he sneered at in previous books (and does so here, too -- the smartass persona of an urban fantasy protagonist is hard to leave behind).

In the end, of course, Harry and his personal Scooby Gang -- rag-tag enough, but pretty darn powerful -- confront the Red King and his court, battle hordes of vampires, and attempt to save the life of one little girl. Whether they succeed or not isn't really the point of Changes; this is a book in which Harry Dresden finally sheds his armor of shiny moral perfection and does things he feels bad about. (I might not have as much sympathy for him as Butcher hoped; I was doing things that I felt bad about afterward twenty-five years ago.) It's exciting to see Butcher stretch in that direction, even if stretching can leave the reader both wanting more (a closer eye on the prose; Harry's morality to be actually based on something other than "I know I am always in the right") and for things to go back to the way they were before. The next book in the "Dresden Files" should be really something; I can't wait to see it.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: Ingrid Michaelson - Die Alone
via FoxyTunes