Thursday, September 30, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 239 (9/30) -- Cat Getting Out of a Bag by Jeffrey Brown

There are books that exist for entirely extra-literary reasons -- or, to be even more general, extra-artistic, since some non-literary books, like collections of art or photographs without supporting text, can have artistic interest without literary interest. But there are a few books that have none of that -- no story, no fine art, no information about the world or about the creator's state of mind -- that exist for entirely different purposes.

Cat Getting Out of a Bag and Other Observations, one of what seem like thousands of books produced by the frighteningly prolific Jeffrey Brown over the last half-decade, is one such book. By producing it, Brown is saying, "I am a cat person." By buying it, consumers are saying the same thing. And, in publishing it, Chronicle gambled that there are enough cat people that even the subset of them who will see this book and buy it on an impulse is large enough to be worth pursuing.

Out of a Bag has about a hundred pages of art, most of them short strips tightly focused on Brown's most recent cat, Misty -- he notes, in his biography at the end, that he's currently "between cats" -- in her various antics and activities. That's all as if from the POV of another cat; the viewpoint is a few inches off of the ground, right at Misty's eye-level. Interspersed between those are a few full-page illustrations in a more realistic style -- portraits of a cat in various moods, I suppose. There's a relentless focus on the smallest, most quotidian moments, with the aim of striking recognition in other cat lovers -- they, presumably, will see Misty sneezing or being frightened of a dustbuster or jumping up onto a counter and squeal in recognition and happiness.

I, on the other hand, was vaguely interested in the closeness of Brown's observations of his cat -- he's really paid attention to small bits of behavior, and that's a great basis for a larger work. This particular book, however, is very small and entirely of interest to the kind of people who think cats are infinitely fascinating. Good for them, I suppose.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 238 (9/29) -- Lucky by Gabrielle Bell

Out of all the forms of art in the world, low-key autobiographical stories are the one where obvious artifice is the most immediately dangerous. Small stories from life must be shaped without appearing to be shaped, like some Zen parable -- it all has to seem as if it happened exactly that way, even as the creator bends events to give that effortless impression. Of course these stories are vastly harder than they look, since they have to look as if they just emerged spontaneously.

Lucky collects the three issues of the first series of Gabrielle Bell's minicomic of the same name -- plus a few related stories, added in at the end -- and the reader can see her starting with the raw details of everyday life (in that first issue, in pages with six panels and probably too many explanatory words) and stripping those moments and thoughts down to their essences, presenting them in more open pages in the subsequent issues.

She also starts with a precise style -- lots of lines, nearly all the same weight, carefully and exactly placed -- and opens that up only slightly as the book goes on, though the later issues do see her working in larger panels with more space to breathe, and using spot blacks in larger and more confident ways. Both her writing and her art say that this is real, this is her life as closely as she can depict it in comics.

But what Lucky actually shows is Bell rapidly becoming more adept at turning the events of her life into stories. The first issue is mostly anecdotes about various days, though well-chosen and formed into six-panel strips, but the later issues -- probably sparked by the fact that Bell lost her sketchbook, with Lucky #2 laid out in it, making her re-do everything she'd done once -- break out of that page-a-day framework to tell the story of Bell's life, giving weight to events because she realizes they need that weight, and not because they happened a particular day.

The actual events are small -- Bell was a young cartoonist, living in cheap apartments and scrounging for minor jobs, when she made these stories -- but that's the whole point of this kind of autobiographical story. The events are small because everyone's life is full of small events. To turn those small events into real stories, though, takes a keen eye. Bell has that keen eye, together with a precise hand and a willingness to throw her life open -- as long as she keeps those things, her stories will be just as true and clear as these.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 237 (9/28) -- Game of Cages by Harry Connolly

Urban fantasy often cheats. It cheats in ways borrowed from its two great parents -- the PI novel and epic fantasy -- by having inescapable death traps and no-win situations that almost always, miraculously, all of the important characters escape. It cheats by setting up tough moral dilemmas, and then letting the main character make an end-run around the problem and save everyone. It cheats when it creates worlds with good guys who agonize over their moral choices but never have to do anything really unpleasant. It cheats, because that's what popular genres do -- readers want consolation and re-normative stories, most of the time, and readers are what fiction's all about.

But it doesn't have to be that way. I picked up Harry Connolly's second novel, Game of Cages, in large part because he wrote, in a comment on my "I just got this in the mail" post last week:
I sent it over because of your review of Jim Butcher's Changes included this sentiment: "Changes is the book where... [Harry Dresden] 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." I'm trying to write a whole series on those hard choices so, with a typical writer's arrogance, I thought that suggested you might like my latest.
Connolly's successful in this book; his characters live in a world as dangerous as many writers say theirs is, and that danger has consequences. If he continues at this level, Connolly's "Twenty Palaces" novels could be the urban fantasy equivalent of Dennis Lehane's early Kenzie/Gennaro mysteries -- in those books, the damage was cumulative, and the reader could see the characters buckling under the weight of what they'd done and seen, unlike so many other books in so many genres with blithe violence and a five-minute sulk afterward.

Game of Cages is the second novel in this series, after Child of Fire (which I haven't read). Semi-reformed ex-con Ray Lilly -- a tough guy who's been knocked around by life a lot, and now is just trying to get by -- stumbled into the secret world of sorcery in the first book, and came out of it alive, though not unchanged. He's not a sorcerer himself, or an apprentice, or anything glamorous -- he's the "wooden man" of Annalise Powliss, a peer of the Twenty Palaces Society. And he knows a little bit more about what that implies than the reader does, at first, but not that much more. He's a quickly magicked-up grunt, disposable cannon fodder who survived unexpectedly and now is inside something he barely understands.

The magic in the Twenty Palaces books is one-half Lovecraftian -- summoning "predators" from spaces outside our universe, which can be controlled, sometimes, somewhat, but are hungry and cruel and very inhuman -- and one-half Vancean, with magicians squabbling over a few spellbooks and incantations that lose power every generation removed from the original, like a poor Xerox. The Twenty Palaces Society seems to be the remnants of the secret government of the magical world, fallen on hard times as more and more rogues have punched holes in it over the past few hundred years, and now it's focused -- as far as Ray has seen -- on stopping predators and killing anyone who tries to summon them. They're ruthless and organized and strong -- though, clearly, they haven't been enough of any of those things for a long time.

Ray fell into one situation with a predator on the loose in Child of Fire, got a little way in (some protective tattoo spells on his chest and arms, a paper "ghost knife" that can cut through anything and feels like part of him), and survived. Apparently, a lot of other people didn't, at least some of them due to Ray's direct actions. He's now part of the Twenty Palaces Society, on some level, but they don't seem to care. And he's living quietly, keeping his head down, and working as a night stocker at a grocery store somewhere in the Pacific Northwest.

That's when Catherine Little, a Twenty Palaces investigator, grabs him for backup: a predator is being auctioned at a big house high above the small town of Washaway, in the North Cascades. Their job is just to reconnoiter the situation, gather intelligence, and report back -- a Society peer will handle the wet work -- but they arrive to find that the auction has ended, the winning bidder had some sort of accident on the way back down the mountain, and the predator is free.

The action that follows is taut, occasionally claustrophobic: the first half of the novel takes place that night, around that big house, with three frustrated bidders and their allies squabbling and attempting to kill each other, with breaks for chasing Ray and Catherine. And then the survivors follow the trail of that predator -- a "sapphire dog" whose tongue's touch makes humans obsessed with it to the point of murder -- down to the town of Washaway, from which there's no way out.

Ray wants to protect innocents, just like all of those other urban fantasy protagonists, but Connolly doesn't make it easy for him like so many of those other writers do. Ray isn't the best there is at what he does; he's a guy with enough magical protections and knowledge to keep him from getting killed immediately and one weapon of only limited use. And his primary job is simple and stark: kill the sapphire dog and anyone capable of summoning something similar. He does hope to be able to save the people of Washaway from the sapphire dog -- keeps hoping that even after they've been touched by the predator and turned to its ends -- but, like the real world, hopes in this novel are no guarantee of results.

Game of Cages is a tough, smart, unflinching urban fantasy novel; it's to the average vampire shagger what Ross Macdonald was to Agatha Christie. And, if Harry Connolly can keep his plots this gripping and Ray's dilemmas this compelling, he's on track to be one of the important fantasy writers of the next decade, someone who can help lift urban fantasy out of its wish-fulfillment rut.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

Monday, September 27, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 236 (9/27) -- The Playboy by Chester Brown

When it comes to autobiographical comics by men living in Canada about their complicated relationships with porn, you go to Joe Matt for squalor and Chester Brown for class. While Matt wallows in his dysfunctionality and odd fetishism, Brown shows a more conventional fear/guilt reaction to sexually exciting material. And Matt's stories are nearly always set in the present day, showing what he's doing then, while this graphic novel from Brown is a retrospective -- the story of what he did for, to and with Playboy magazines when he was a teenager in suburban Quebec.

The Playboy is narrated by the present-day Brown [1], in the form of a small bat-winged figure, who flies through the life of his teenage self. The younger Chester Brown never acknowledges his older self -- the narrator may look like the stereotypical "bad angel" of a thousand cartoons, but he's just describing to us Chester's thoughts and motivations, not tempting him to do anything. It's an interesting artistic choice, and it adds life and focus to the story without entirely making sense in that context.

The batwinged narrator does allow Brown to comment on himself -- to speak directly to his younger self -- without the need for caption boxes; it's intriguing to be reminded that art-comics were turning away from captions twenty years or more ago. It also allows Brown to tell this story quickly, which he needs -- this is a hundred-and-seventy page graphic novel, but each page has only two or three panels floating in an inky background, so it has the narrative of a book half the length. (The black background and few panels do impose a sense of deliberation, as if Brown has thought a lot about his past and his relationship with porn, and decided to show us these precise images and moments. It also subtly refers to his habit of ripping out the pages of Playboy that he particularly liked and just keeping those while discarding the rest of the magazine.)

Young Chester Brown was interested in sex, much like any fifteen-year-old boy in 1975. Somehow -- The Playboy doesn't go back that far; Chester knows it exists the way he knows where his house is -- Chester came to know about Playboy, and the first scene here is the day he bought his first issue. He used it as teenage boys have for three generations -- rushed home to a private spot, found some pictures he liked, and masturbated. (Chester has what I'd call an odd technique, but that may just be my lack of experience with other men's styles.) Afterward, he was disgusted with himself, and hid the magazine in a field near his house. Even later, he came back again to that magazine.

Those actions repeated themselves, in various permutations, over and over again, for the next few years -- getting Playboys, using them, hoarding them, discarding them, only to go back to get the very same issues again and start the cycle once more. Unlike Joe Matt -- and unlike the usual scare-tactic attacks on pornography -- Brown didn't move on to "harder stuff;" as he depicts it here, he knew what worked for him and kept going back to that. Near the end, he notes that he found masturbating to be more fulfilling than having sex -- well, on average, it probably is for most people. (As Woody Allen once said -- "Don't knock masturbation; it's sex with someone I love.")

Despite the narrating presence of the older devil-Brown, there's little moral disapproval aimed at teenage Chester -- and all of that is in terms of what he felt and thought at the time. I'm sure Chester Brown wasn't entirely happy with his younger self's relationship with Playboy magazine -- and he mentions at the end that he's over Playboy, despite still having a collection of his favorite nude pictures from it -- but he never once says what he did was wrong, or wishes that he'd been other than he was.

Twenty years later, The Playboy is almost quaint. A fifteen-year-old today grew up entirely in the age of the Internet, and has almost certainly seen much nastier pornography than young Chester Brown ever dreamed of. (Wherever you are on the Internet, you're never more than three clicks away from porn.) But the core of Playboy -- one young man's fascination and guilt and ambivalence for porn and his reaction to it -- is just as true and clear to that generation as to any other. And, to broaden it beyond sex and desire, we all have wanted things that we didn't want to want -- drugs or sex or fame or something shiny. The Playboy is one of the starkest stories in comic about desire: how it feels before, and how unsatisfying it is afterward.

[1] "Present-day" at the time; the main action of The Playboy takes place from 1975 through 1978, but it was written and drawn around 1990, when Brown was thirty.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 9/25

Usually, "Reviewing the Mail" is a wander through the stacks of books that the publicists of the world -- and I don't think we appreciate publicists enough, honestly -- have sent me that week, along with my ritual declarations of Not Having Read Them Yet and Making Possibly Unwarranted Assumptions from Back-Cover Copy. However, this week that stack only contained two books, which is quite wee and not really up to a full-bore Monday-morning blog post.

Luckily, though, I have some other books, which I paid for, to mention as well. So "Reviewing the Mail," this week, will be in three parts, just like Gaul:

one of which the Belgae inhabit (Books in the Mail proper) -- First here is a new vampire novel with the possibly audience-confusing title Twilight Forever Rising, by Russian author Lena Meydan and translated by Andrew Bromfield. Now, I don't think that anyone not named Stephenie Meyer should be barred from writing vampire novels with the word "Twilight" in the title, but, if one is already translating from a language that doesn't use the Roman alphabet, one might be able to find a synonym that won't confuse a legion of passionate teenage girls. (On the other hand, maybe I'm crazy to suggest that a vampire novel with a good reason to have the word "twilight" in its title should ever shy away from that.) In either case, this has nothing to do with sparkly vampires -- Meydan's hero is a rare vampire empath, struggling to balance his personal desires and the needs of his house (and, it looks like, some Fate of the World issues as well). Again, Meydan is Russian, so I would not be surprised if there were some Doom involved. Twilight Forever Rising is coming in trade paperback from Tor on September 28th; it's billed on the cover as "A Novel of the Vampire Clans," so there may well be more in this series coming.

The other book that came in the mail is so different from Meydan's that it can't be mentioned in the same breath; it's Babymouse: Cupcake Tycoon, latest in the graphic novel series (beloved by middle-grade girls) by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm. This time, our heroine is determined to raise the most money for her school library to win a contest -- and, of course, help the library, too. It's the thirteenth in the series, and is the usual small paperback from Random House, hitting shelves on September 28th.

the Aquitani another (bought at Borders) -- Borders e-mails coupons to their club members -- so far, even to the free tier of members, like me -- like clockwork these days, three or four times a week, so that there's always an active coupon to induce one to go shop there. (And Borders is my default Big Bookstore, since it's the one closest and easiest to get to from my house -- proximity being huge in retail.) This last Friday, the Borders marketing machine spit out one of the top-end coupons -- 40% off paperbacks, up to two per person -- so I grabbed the list of stuff I was going to buy anyway, checked it against the website's predictions of what would be in store, and bought:

Sundome, Vol. 7 by Kazuto Okada. I don't know if I'd call myself a fan of this creepy teen psychosexual manga series, but it is the only manga that I make a point to keep reading, even if I don't get review copies. (I reviewed Vol. 6 as Book-A-Day #4, and there are links from there back to what I wrote about the first five volumes.) You probably won't want to read this series in public, but it's a fascinating -- if at times unpleasantly so -- and unflinching look at obsessive young sexuality.

And then there's Julia Wertz's Drinking at the Movies, the first full-length graphic novel from the creator of the webcomic The Fart Party. It's a memoir of her move to Brooklyn -- and, from what I can see, her realization that she was drinking way too much -- but I have hopes that it's better than the flood of memoir comics that the big New York houses have been pumping out for the past few years.

those who in their own language are called Celts, in ours Gauls, the third (books from Top Shelf) -- So the excellent small comics company Top Shelf had a sale a couple of weeks ago, and I bought a bunch of books from them. Those books also arrived this week:

Super F*ckers by James Kochalka, which is some kind of teen superhero book in the inimitable Kochalka style. I haven't seen anything by Kochalka yet that isn't worth reading, and I love repeating his name over and over again, too -- Kochalka Kochalka Kochalka.

The 120 Days Of Simon by Simon Gardenfors. Gardenfors is a Swedish cartoonist, and this was his stunt book: he advertised on the Internet for places to stay, since he wanted to stay away from his home for four months, and not stay in the same place more than two nights (and, then, get a book out of it as well).

The King by Rich Koslowski. I got this graphic novel about Elvis -- who isn't dead, apparently -- because it was really cheap, Top Shelf published it (so it must be pretty good), and because I liked Kozlowski's "Three Geeks" strips when I saw them, years ago. Hey, why not?

Moving Pictures is a newish graphic novel -- came out at the beginning of the summer, I think -- by Kathryn & Stuart Immonen, and having something to do with French art collections during WWII. The reviews have been good, and the Immonens have done good work before.

I know almost nothing about Niklas Asker's Second Thoughts, which was another part of Top Shelf's big burst of works by Swedish cartoonists earlier this year. But it was on sale, and what are sales for, if not for trying new things?

And last is James Kochalka again, with American Elf, Vol. 2, the second collection of his online diary strip. I read the third collection as Book-A-Day # 61, and was impressed then by how well this daily strip reads in larger chunks, and I've wanted to work backwards to the earlier collections since then.

And that's what showed up in my house to read over the past week -- well, not counting a large pile of books from the library (I dove into their online database again, looking for graphic novels I'd missed) -- and I expect a majority of them will show up as Book-A-Day posts in the next month.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 235 (9/26) -- Ice Cream & Sadness by Kris, Rob, Matt, & Dave

There are lots of webcomics out there, and probably more moderate successes (paying for their hosting costs, plus some contribution to the creators' pizza fund, if nothing else) than are apparent to most of us -- why, there are even popular webcomics that aren't about gaming, or nerd culture, at all!

I don't know what Cyanide and Happiness's metrics are -- and I don't actually care; I read it because I find it funny, not because some critical mass of other people read it -- but I hope that they're good, since it's consistently funny in nasty and tasteless ways. (It's occasionally funny in non-offensive ways as well, but offensive is definitely the way to bet.)

Cyanide and Happiness is like a jolt from the past -- the art is crude, the subject matter is shocking, and there's only the tiniest occasional bits of continuity from one strip to the next. It could have run in the '70s National Lampoon, or sat on a bookstore shelf next to 101 Uses for a Dead Cat soon afterward, but instead it lives on the Internet -- which, after all, is proverbial for being filled with things both crude and offensive, isn't it?

Ice Cream & Sadness is the second book collecting the comic, after the inevitable Cyanide and Happiness, earlier this year. (I reviewed it as Book-A-Day # 41.) Since there isn't any real continuity here -- just a relentless stream of jokes about death, inappropriate sex, bodily functions, and more death -- there's very little new to say now that I didn't say then. But the strips in this book are just as good as the ones in the first book -- and just as likely to offend random people, though the specifics of that offense may vary.

Cyanide and Happiness is the premier webcomic created by four random, geographically separated guys who met online -- it's a weird distinction, but they came by it honestly. Read it for free online, or read it in a book -- it's still as crude and rude as it is funny, and that's "a lot."
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 234 (9/25) -- 7 Billion Needles, Vol. 1, by Nobuaki Tadano

Ignorance can be tremendously liberating, under the right circumstances. Even after a number of years of reading manga, I still don't have a good sense of what Japanese names are coded male and which female -- oh, sure, some few common given names are familiar, such as Akira or Ai, but that's about it -- and so I can read books without any real clue whether the creator was a man or a woman. It's not quite sex-blind reading, but it's a step on that road, and it can help keep the focus on the story rather than the story-teller.

Take 7 Billion Needles, for example. It was written and drawn by Nobuaki Tadano -- loosely based on Hal Clement's 1950s SF novel Needle, in ways I'll bring out more fully below -- and, up to this moment, I know no more about that person than the name. One quick google later, I learn -- assuming this is correct -- that Tadano is a he, and that 7 Billion Needles was his first longform manga story. But I knew neither of those things when I read 7 Billion Needles, and so my reading of it -- though beginning to be colored, now, by that knowledge -- was as close to pure as I could make it.

If a reader was unfamiliar with the Clement connection, 7 Billion Needles would seem most closely related to Hitoshi Iwaaki's Parasyte series, in which an alien (one of a race of anthropophagic invaders) accidentally colonized a Japanese boy's arm instead of eating his brain, leading the two to be forced to work together to kill other "Parasytes." 7 Billion also has an alien invader in the body of a Japanese teen -- in this case, quiet, recently orphaned Hikaru Takabe. But Hikaru's new symbiote, which calls itself Horizon, is a "policeman" -- one of the major borrowings from the Clement novel, where the alien in the teenager's body calls itself The Hunter and was explicitly chasing a "criminal" member of its own species.

In 7 Billion, Horizon is chasing an entity called Maelstrom -- but, in possibly stereotypically manga fashion, the stakes are much higher than they were in the Clement novel; Maelstrom grows from ingesting humans (forming a blob of amorphous, changing, semi-formed flesh, familiar from Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira and other stories), and he, or an entity like him, wiped out the dinosaurs. Horizon also says that Maelstrom could destroy all life in the universe, which sounds like hyperbole -- Maelstrom might want to destroy all life in the universe, but, as long as it sticks to eating things (even if it moves up to planet-sized things), there's far too much universe to eat in any countable span of time.

Still, Maelstrom is an immediate danger -- it knows that something followed it, and so the two aliens are in a cat-and-mouse game with each other. And these aliens have some nasty abilities, which Tadano depicts in a more matter-of-fact, cold way than most manga artists would. Both are amazingly fast, of course, and Maelstrom can sculpt the flesh of its host into whatever form it wants -- and ingest its victims to get more flesh to shape into larger, more dangerous forms. Horizon's main advantage is the element of surprise -- it knows that Maelstrom is near, and is trying to quietly find Maelstrom's host and get close enough to kill it quickly.

Tadano isn't done with this story here -- this is only the first of four volumes -- but there's a major confrontation going on the last pages of this volume, and the next book will certainly have a different tone than this one did. Tadano made this science fiction story -- with its monster-movie overtones, and a jolting dose of ultraviolence -- mostly quiet and subdued, with a heroine who falls into none of the usual manga stereotypes. Hal Clement might have had a hard time seeing his story in this, but I think he would have appreciated those quiet moments, and the communications between Horizon and Hikaru.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

Friday, September 24, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 233 (9/24) -- Miss Don't Touch Me by Hubert & Kerascoet

Nations have distinctive characters -- we may want to deny that, at times, but those distinctions always bubble back up, and prove us misguided if not totally wrong. Americans proverbially want their greatest stories to be tragedies with happy endings -- to provide the highest catharsis to the audience, and to have heroes that make the ultimate sacrifice, only to be quickly brought back in payment for their goodness. The French, on the other hand, have a darker view of the world -- their deepest stories have a strain of tragedy in the happy ending, a feeling of something irreparably lost, no matter what crimes have been stopped and what wrongs put right. They're also more likely to let sex be at the center -- or close to the center -- of a story that's not purely about titillation, unlike Americans.

Miss Don't Touch Me is a French book, deeply so -- set in Paris during the uneasy 1930s -- and it's a revenge story that's much more ambivalent about justice than the equivalent American book would be, as well as much more realistic about power and privilege than any American popular work can ever afford to be. It's also a graphic novel, but surely we're beyond the point where we're startled when a mere comic shows up at the gates of literature, aren't we?

Young women -- as always, seeking some excitement in a life that's mostly drudgery by day at some menial job and the prospect of years of drudgery as some schlub's husband wife for the foreseeable future -- gather in pavilions out in the suburbs to dance through the night, hoping to meet a dashing man, or at least to have a happy time. But there's a killer lurking -- the Butcher of the Dances -- capturing and hideously murdering those young women, one at a time.

One of the young women who enjoys the dances is Agatha; she lives with her more introverted, timid sister Blanche in the large house of the older woman for whom both of them work as maids. One day, Blanche looks through a new hole in the wall separating their attic bedroom from the next building -- and sees two men at work at the grisly task of disposing of the body of a dead young woman. Blanche is sure this is the work of the Butcher, and runs to find her sister, wanting the two of them to run away immediately. But it doesn't work out that way, and soon Agatha is dead -- in a way the police judge as suicide, but Blanche knows was the work of the Butcher. What's worse, her employer turns her out of the house immediately for the "scandal."

Blanche can't find another job, and wants only to avenge her sister. She learns that the last victim of the Butcher -- the woman she saw dead -- was a high-class prostitute from the Pompadour house, and tries to apply there for a job as a maid. But the madam instead -- with a touch of humor -- hires Blanche as the new "Miss Don't Touch Me," a dominatrix on the style of an English governess, who whips and beats men but never has sex with them. Blanche, with no other options, accepts, and tries to continue her investigations into the Butcher.

She finds friends and enemies at the Pompadour, as in any small group of people of the same sex, and also comes to learn about the true powers of the world, of the crimes that wealth and position and fame can shield and the resulting suffering of the poor and ill-placed and obscure. She does find the Butcher, in the end, and there is some justice -- for some of the people involved. But some are too far above justice, and some people we would call innocent suffer far more -- Miss Don't Touch Me ends on a devastatingly poignant moment of misguided "justice."

So this is a French book -- it has what counts as a happy ending, with the villains routed and their plans foiled, but it also has a deeper sense that some villains are never really routed, only pushed away, so that their next evil acts will be done somewhere else, to someone else. And that may be the best that we can hope for -- that we know why our sister died, and did as much damage to the people responsible for that death as we could. It's a fine, thoughtful, nuanced and unflinchingly clear-eyed book, not least interesting as a story deeply sympathetic to women though it was created by two men.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

Quote of the Week: Art

"Artists can color the sky red because they know it's blue. Those of us who aren't artists must color things the way they really are or people might think we're stupid."
- Jules Feiffer

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 232 (9/23) -- Two Smurfy Books by Peyo

Papercutz -- the graphic-novels-for kids publisher headed by Jim Salicrup -- has scented a new wave of Smurfmania about to sweep America, with an all-new live action & CGI Smurf movie coming next year and renewed interest in the 1980s TV show. But they knew what a lot of people have forgotten: that the Smurfs were originally, and primarily, a comics property, appearing in over two dozen albums by Peyo. [1] And so Papercutz has re-launched Peyo's characters -- Les Schtroumpfs, in their home tongue -- for a new generation of American fans. [2]

The first two books -- The Purple Smurfs, a slightly retitled and recolored version of the first Smurf album, 1963's Les Schtroumpfs noirs; and The Smurfs and the Magic Flute, a similarly retitled version of the Smurf's first appearance in the 9th album about medieval pages Johan and Pirlouit (aka Johan and Peewit in English), La flûte à six trous -- are available now, with a third (The Smurf King, presumably a translation of the second Smurf album of the same name) coming in December. And, even though these stories were created for a Franco-Belgian audience over fifty years ago, they're still clever and fun now. [3]

The Purple Smurfs is the better of the two -- or perhaps I should say the smurfier of the two. It contains three stories, two of which are credited to Yvan Delporte and Peyo (and the third to just Peyo), and all of which are funny, energetic, and zippy. The title story -- in which a mysterious bug's bite turns the smurfs into hulk-ish purple hoppers who can say only "Gnap!" and bite each other to spread the infection -- follows a predictable shape, but it's enjoyable throughout, and an eye-opener for those who thinks of Smurfs as just the mushy TV versions.

"The Flying Smurf" takes up the middle of the book, and it's the best of the three stories -- inventively humorous in the I-can-top-that, one-damn-thing-after-another style of Chuck Jones's Roadrunner cartoons. (Letterer Janice Chiang also wins seventeen Internets for her clever and funny homage to Harvey Kurtzman on the first page -- as depicted to the left.) The story is simple -- one smurf decides he wants to fly, since that would solve all of his problems -- but allows for many, many funny variations.

The third story -- "The Smurf and His Neighbors" -- is more gentle, with one smurf deciding to move to the woods to get away from the noises of his neighbors, and, inevitably, discovering that things are no better anywhere else. All three of these stories are smurfily entertaining, and they're different enough from each other to provide some variety.

The Smurfs and the Magic Flute, on the other hand, isn't really a Smurfs graphic novel at all, despite the fact that it's their first appearance. It was the ninth volume of the adventures of Johan and Peewit -- who are either a page and his sidekick, or a squire and a jester, or something like that, in the sort of vague medievaloid kingdom that you'd expect from a '50s series for younger readers -- and the Smurfs show up as supporting characters about halfway through. Since this is the middle of an ongoing series, Johan and Peewit aren't introduced here, and the Smurf-seeking reader has to figure out who they are and why the King is hiding from Peewit's horrifically bad musicianship rather than doing something about it. (And this reader assumed that the king is the sort of old softy that young '50s comics readers would expect, and couldn't bear to tell his jester that he's a rotten singer.) Johan is tall, stalwart, and brave; Peewit is short, gluttonous, and a practical joker -- a fairly typical double act.

Before long, the magic flute of the title comes into Peewit's hands, and he soon discovers that it is magic: it causes people to dance uncontrollably when played (even by so bad a musician as Peewit). An unscrupulous character named Matthew Oilycreep learns of the flute and steals it, which sets Johan and Peewit off on a quest to retrieve it and foil Matthew's dastardly plans. It turns out that the Smurfs created the flute, so kindly wizard Homnibus (a continuing character in the series) enchants Johan and Peewit off to the Smurfs' village to get their help.

Of course, it all comes out right in the end. In this story, the Smurfs are one-half comic relief and one-half local color; they're the goofy people that Our Heroes run into during this adventure. But, like Popeye and Snuffy Smith before them, they quickly became more popular than their hosts, so Magic Flute is interesting as the germ of the later Smurfimania. And it's a solidly entertaining adventure story in the Franco-Belgian comics tradition, so fans of Tintin or Asterix will want to take a look at it to see what another Eurocomics master could do in that style. But it's not nearly as smurfy as Purple Smurf is.

[1] Most of these were "by" Peyo in the same way that the films of the Walt Disney Studio in the '40s and '50s were "by" Disney; Peyo was the head of the studio, and supervised everything, but didn't do the day-to-day work of actually writing and drawing comics.

[2] Want to feel old? If the target audience for the Smurfs is 6-12, then the youngest Smurf fans when the TV show launched (in 1981) are now 35.

[3] And the Smurfs are still appealing to that tween target audience, if my twelve-year-old son is any indication; he's been bugging me for The Purple Smurfs since he saw it come in the mail.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

For No Good Reason

Utterly torn from context and left lying, stunned, on a cold concrete floor:
Every year of my life, I become more and more convinced that the wisest and the best is to focus our attention on the good and the beautiful, if we just take the time to look at it.

Book-A-Day 2010 # 231 (9/22) -- College in a Nutskull by Anders Henriksson

If you google "student bloopers," or many similar phrases, you'll find vast lists of mangled information and humorously spoonerized sentences purporting to have been written by actual students and handed in to their actual teachers, though details on the time and place of these papers will be exceptionally scanty. This book -- credited as "compiled and edited by Professor Anders Henriksson," thank you very much -- aims to be the peer-reviewed, tenure-track version of those lists, compiled from the actual essays, quizzes and other materials created by students worldwide over the past whoever-knows-how-long. But Henriksson doesn't provide any more supporting detail than those Internet lists do, so we just have to trust him on it -- well, trust him and the long list of other professors that he thanks in his acknowledgements (and trust him when he says there's an even longer list that didn't want to be named).

Of course, the provenance of these bloopers is really a side issue; what's more important is whether they're funny. (The point of reading a book like this is to be able to laugh and feel superior simultaneously, which means that the bloopers must be both humorous and based on simple facts that most of the audience will know -- they're only funny, in the most part, if you know what the real fact is that this particular student mangled.) And there are some real howlers here, such as :
  • Life in the trenches was very dangerous due to constant attacks by submarines.
  • Europe is several miles to the right of the USA.
  • Greeks and Pakistanis go to the Eastern Orthodont Church. Unlike Catholics, they did not worship Santa Claus.
  • Some people do not cope well. This copulation problem can lead to heroine or alchohol abuse. Alcoholism may involve drinking.
  • Rome was built in a day. Homes came with garden moratoriums. Amazing aqua ducks supplied fresh water.
  • Henry V is about a king named Richard III.
  • A dipthong is a very small bottom worn in Brazil.
  • The Babylonians were able to live only during certain months of the year.
And so on: this is a short book (130-ish pages), laid out to mimic a student's notebook, with no more than six or eight bloopers per page, but there's at least one good laugh on each of those pages. Henriksson, through whatever academic back-channels, has a great pipeline for student idiocy, and the final product here is the cream of that very fertile crop. (Though it actually follows a previous book along exactly the same lines, Ignorance is Blitz -- clearly, student idiocy is a very renewable resource, since each September brings a new crop of it.)

So this is another one of those cases where there is a competing, inferior product available for free, but the paid version -- and the price is ludicrously low at $8.95 list -- is well worth the expenditure. If you know much of anything about the world and its history, you'll know just how these thickheaded young people went wrong, and you will find their ignorance very funny. (But you will also hope that the professors who funneled these errors through Henriksson also spent some time teaching these students, so that, with any luck, they're not quite as ignorant now as when they wrote these things.)
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 230 (9/21) -- Mikansei No. 1, Vol. 1 by Majiko!

I know that it's petty and probably Eurocentrist (or some other trendy word for a thing leftists are ashamed of) of me, but I just can't take seriously anyone with a bang at the end of her name. So, my apologies to Majiko! -- whose parents, I suspect, did not gift her with that name -- but I'm probably going to be dismissive and sarcastic about her manga Mikansei No. 1.

"Mikansei" is a Japanese word meaning, more or less, "unfinished" -- which is not an auspicious word to name a series, I would think. Perhaps the title is meant to evoke something like "Unfinished Symphony #1," which makes half-sense, since this is a story about musicians. The half that doesn't make sense is that they're teens who want to become famous junky pop-music singers, so it's difficult to see what's "unfinished" about them [1] or their music.

Anyway, Neo Takigawa is a perky, spunky, singing-obsessed free spirit in the tightassed 23rd century, a ball of light and energy amid hordes of dour fun-haters. After an accident that I won't bother to try to explain, she finds herself in the present day, which she has been obsessed with -- due entirely to the music of J-pop singers, which she adores. She immediately meets a boy of the same age (named Saya), and -- through another complicated plot contrivance that only needs to be noted -- finds herself in a "band" with him, and with a deadline by which the two of them have to have a successful concert or else their musical careers will be DOOOOOOOMED FOREEEEEEEVER!!!!!!!!

(No, I'm not exaggerating; this is a light shojo manga. If anything, I'm downplaying the importance of this gig.)

Majiko! shows the two singing, but doesn't try to give us a sense of their lyrics, which is an odd choice -- the two just stand back-to-back for a few panels, while other people react to them. (I will admit to not being a fan of that sort of music to begin with -- I like my bands to have and play instruments, and my pop to at least have a little power in it.) At the end of this volume, things have gotten more complicated, as they always do in the first volume of a manga, but that crucial first gig has not yet happened. (The two haven't yet broken up for the first time, either -- expect that in Vol. 2.)

This is a very, very lightweight manga series, with some mild humor and what will eventually grow into an equally mild romance. It's almost entirely for those who are obsessed with J-pop, and should be firmly left to them.

[1] Except in the poetic sense in which teenagers are unfinished adults, but that's about three orders of magnitude more subtle than anything in this book.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

Monday, September 20, 2010

Please, Sir, Buy Some Popcorn From a Poor Orphan Boy

Well, not an orphan boy -- it's my younger son, generally called Thing 2 here -- but he is selling popcorn, and it would be swell if any popcorn-lovers among you would buy some from him.

I may need to back up slightly to explain.

You see, in the world of fundraisers for youth organizations, there was once the great Treaty of Snack Foods. The Girl Scouts (and their associated Brownie gurkhas) claimed all of the territories of Cookie, and the Boys, magnanimously, agreed to limit their operations to the delightful land of Popcorn. [1] From that point forward, each organization -- assured of a consistent flow of funding to support camping, hiking and similar character-building activities -- was able to remain at peace with its great sibling, working separately but in tandem to provide unhealthy, but exceptionally tasty, munchables to their local communities.

And so, once a year, the forces of male Scoutdom -- both Boy and Cub -- set forth into their neighborhoods, wearing their crispest uniform shirts, and blink their doe-like eyes at any adults they encounter, asking, imploringly, "Would you like to buy some popcorn to support Cub Scouts?"

It is that time once again; Thing 2 has already been on two customer-hunting expeditions, and I have at my side a supplementary order form to post at my place of work. But this is the 21st century! Everything is -- as it must be -- online. And so Scouts can cajole popcorn orders from people far away from themselves, through the power of...a website!

If you are so benighted as to have no Cub Scouts near you -- or so popcorn-crazed that your local provider can't fill your needs -- and you're willing to pay the frankly quite high prices for these goods [2], then, please, click on this link, and help my son achieve his dream: winning a marshmallow-shooting crossbow for his very own.

Again, just click here, and type in the secret cub-scout number 7894409 on the upper right, where it says "You are supporting no one." -- because aren't you ashamed of yourself, supporting no one like that? -- and help a boy achieve his dream of high-powered soft ordinance.

Remember, you must enter that secret cub-scout number -- 7894409 -- or you will be supporting some other child (whom I'm sure is quite nice, but not nearly as deserving as my son), or, even worse, supporting no one.

And, really, is that what you want to be known for in life: supporting no one? Surely not?

[1] The Sea Scouts occasionally claim dominion over potato-based snack foods, but this is disputed; the Boys have traditionally claimed all of the salty treats as their own.

[2] This is fundraising popcorn; the point is to contribute money to a good cause, not to maximize your caloric intake for the lowest cost.

Book-A-Day 2010 # 229 (9/20) -- StarCraft: Ghost Academy, Vol. 1 by DeCandido & Furukawa

StarCraft: Ghost Academy raises many questions, but all of them are frivolous. For example: how on earth does that woman on the cover manage to put on an uniform with such an advanced case of boobsocks? What kind of interesting cultural stew produced an artist with such an awesome name as Fernando Heinz Furukawa? And who thought it was a good idea to have a graphic novel miniseries that takes place in between two novels based on a multi-player video game? (If there'd only been a concept album somewhere in the mix, it could have hit the media-item jackpot.)

This book -- which is competently written by my old acquaintance Keith R.A. DeCandido, who has built a career out of being able to whip up coherent plots and generally believable characterization out of whatever shards of mediastuff he's thrown [1] -- has the carefully constructed feeling of a elaborate bridge, leading from one point outside this series on to another point that will also be outside the series. Those points are both in the novel Nova, which was coincidentally also written by DeCandido. (So, if you want to do this right, go get the novel and all three volumes of this series, and read the novel right up to the point where Nova Terra [2] goes to the Ghost Academy, then take a graphic novel break before finishing the novel. Or you could just go get DeCandido's non-tie-in novel Dragon Precinct instead, if you prefer something less complicated.)

If you play the game StarCraft, you'll already know the background (and probably be too busy playing the game to read comics anyway). If not, you probably don't care. But, for the three of you ambivalently in the middle, this is set in what seems to be an easy-FTL medium future, with humanity having spread across the galaxy and run through several multi-planet polities and into several kinds of hostile aliens. Under the current Dominion -- which I gather is meant to be seen as cruel, vaguely unpleasant, mildly racist, and imperial in ways not entirely borrowed from Star Wars -- humans with psychic powers are press-ganged off to the "Ghost Academy" in adolescence, where they're trained as soldiers to battle the Dominion's many enemies. Nova is one of these; she's hugely powerful (naturally), but, at the beginning of the book, entirely a lone wolf who refuses to follow the orders of her Team Blue leader Gabriel Tosh.

And so this volume is mostly the story of the socialization of Nova, with a sideline in a secondary's character's drug addiction and the antagonism of a mean new recruit who father is a Dominion bigshot (and who consequently never lets anyone forget it). But it's mostly about Nova learning that she doesn't need to be alone, and that Team Blue is her new family. (I'm not a betting man, but, if I was, I'd lay good money that the rest of them will be pushing up daisies by the end of the series.) It's a SF adventure comic, professional enough despite the fact that most of the characters seem to be naked except for body paint (and the absence of hair, nipples, and genitalia), but really only of interest to gamers who can tear themselves away from their own characters long enough to care about DeCandidio's.

[1] He's even better when allowed to make up stories that don't need to be forcibly shoved into pre-existing intellectual property, but who can make a living on originality these days?

[2] I have great respect for DeCandido, so I fervently hope he was saddled with that wince-inducing name by someone at the licensor, Blizzard.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 9/18

It's been another week, full of visits from the people my sons are annoyed that I call the Package Fairies, and so it's time for me to tell you all about my mail once again. Since this kind of thing is much more common in the blog world than it was when I started [1], I'm not sure my disclaimers are necessary anymore, but here they are anyway: I haven't read any of these books. I may never read some of these books. But I will tell you what I can about them right now, based on what I know and what I can tell, since the books you crave are not necessarily the ones I love.

First up this time is Dreadnought, Cherie Priest's second novel set in her loose "Clockwork Century" alternate history (after Boneshaker). Dreadnought looks to take place soon after (or contemporaneously with) Boneshaker, around 1880 in a North America still fighting a bloody Civil War and struggling to incorporate various kinds of clanky new technology. But Dreadnought sets out for different territory than its predecessor: while Boneshaker was set primarily in Seattle, Boneshaker takes place on the Union train of the same name; Boneshaker was about a mother and her endangered son, while Dreadnought is about a daughter and her dying father; and the zombies of Boneshaker are replaced here with...well, I guess we'll all have to find that out as we read Dreadnought. Dreadnought is coming in trade paperback on September 28th from Tor.

John Trevillian's The A-men is the first in a medium-future trilogy that looks to combine gritty noir with technofantasy -- looks like a different ingredient mix than Shadowrun, but a recipe somewhere along the same lines -- centering around a rag-tag group of dangerous and mysterious characters, led by a man with a forgotten past. Trevillian is a journalist, short story writer and "creator and designer of AEs Mail Adventure, the award-winning interactive writing game;" this is his first novel. The A-Men was recently published by Matador, the self-publishing arm of the UK's Troubadour Books. I would expect distribution on this side of the pond to be pretty spotty, but the Bookstore Named After A Big River In South America has it, so it's definitely findable for those who don't insist on physically holding a book before they pay for it.

Some titles -- particularly in epic fantasy -- just beg to be made fun of, but I resist that urge as strongly as I can. Still, when a book comes in with the title Tome of the Undergates, it's difficult to stay serious. (Though the dude on the front cover with the wet shins and the heavy-metal hair would presumably be less than pleased with me if I were to make fun of his exploits.) Tome is the first book of the very violent and gore-filled "The Aeons' Gate" series by Sam Sykes -- apparently his first novel, as well -- a demon-fighting tale in the martial, gritty tradition of Joe Abercrombie. Lenk -- the guy on the cover, I assume -- is the leader of a small band of nasty, borderline-psychotic "adventurers" who have been hired "to track down a missing book stolen by a zealous foulness [2] risen from the depths of the ocean" but must battle "titanic, fishlike beasts, psychotic purple warrior women, and the ferocity of an ocean that loathes [Lenk] as much as his own people do." So expect big, wide-screen action and characters whom you'd never want to meet. Tome of the Undergates was published in trade paperback by Pyr on September 7th.

I've been a fan of Loren Estleman's Amos Walker series of hardboiled PI novels -- I went on a reading binge of the series a few years back, in fact -- but, in the way that often happens in the mystery field, I haven't read much (if any) of his other work. (And Estleman's written a lot of other things -- a series of major more-or-less mainstream novels about his home city of Detroit, whole bunch of westerns, plenty of standalone thrillers and mysteries, plus shorter series and other things.) So I was intrigued to find that Forge had published (at the end of August, in trade paperback) the first book in a new series about a Hollywood film archivist named Valentino. Frames is this first book, and this series is in a quick, funny caper style -- Valentino has to solve a murder in three days to save the lost reels of Erich von Stroheim's Greed -- that, I hope, is something like Lawrence Block's great "Burglar" books. The time to jump on a mystery series is with the first book, so maybe you'll join me with this one?

Twelve is a historical novel -- well, it's being published by Pyr (on September 14), so the way to bet is that it's a historical fantasy -- from Jasper Kent, set during Napoleon's invasion of Russia in 1812. The main characters are Russians, army officers desperately trying to find a way to stop the relentless French forces -- and they find it in the Oprinchniki, a group of twelve mysterious mercenaries. The book description also throws in some atmospheric prose about "the voordalak -- a creature of legend, the tales of which have frightened Russian children for generations." So I assume that these twelve mercenaries will both be successful in their Napoleon-foiling mission and that their Russian hosts will then be desperate to find a way to get rid of them. That is, I'm assuming that this is a historical fantasy -- one that follows our history -- and not an alternate fantasy...if the latter, anything at all could happen.

Steve Alten -- probably best known for his "Meg" series of thrillers about giant killer prehistoric sharks -- is back with Grim Reaper: End of Days, the first in a planned trilogy based on Dante's "Divine Comedy." (I always say, if you're going to steal borrow, borrow from the best.) Grim Reaper seems to be an apocalyptic thriller set in the modern world, which doesn't exactly match my memory of Dante, but there are almost certainly more people who want to read stories about tough-but-tender Iraqi war veterans making their way through a plague-devastated USA than who are excited about reading about some poet having a guided tour of hell. Grim Reaper is being published by Variance, and it looks like it's already available.

Nabuaki Tadano's new manga series 7 Billion Needles has an odd origin: it's inspired by (or perhaps loosely based on) Hal Clement's classic SF novel Needle, in which a boy on an isolated Pacific island is infiltrated by an alien symbiote "cop" to catch a "criminal" alien from the same species, hidden in some other being on that same island. In Tadano's updated version, the "cop" alien is Horizon, which has merged with disaffected Japanese teenager Hikaru Takabe to stop another alien entity, Maelstrom, which threatens all life -- not just on Earth, but everywhere in the universe. It's from Vertical -- which specializes in smart manga and other translated works from Japan -- so I expect this will be quirkier and more distinctive than the usual generic shonen or shojo manga. And it'll be in stores on September 28th.

Last for this week is the second collection of Cyanide & Happiness strips, Ice Cream & Sadness. As with the first book, it's collected from the online strip by the four random far-flung creators ("Kris, Rob, Matt, & Dave"), and it's filled with jokes that you'll laugh at and then say, "Oh, that's so wrong." Cyanide & Happiness is in the proud comic tradition of Sam Gross, John Callahan, and 101 Uses for a Dead Cat -- proving that tasteless cartoons will survive through the 21st century and beyond. (I reviewed the first book about six months ago.) This book also includes 30 never-before-seen cartoons, and a section of new "Interactivities" ("for Kids and Slow Adults!" the cover proudly says), meaning you can't just read through the archives and get all this stuff. Yes, there still are reasons to buy physical products, and you'll never get to download your brain into UNIVAC -- suck it up, nerd. (Oops, I think this strip is rubbing off on me.) Anyway, it books (a division of HarperCollins) will publish this on October 5th.

Oh, and no one's yet quoted my line about Cyanide & Happiness's creators, but I like it so much I'll inflict it on you again:
If John Callahan were Voltron, these four guys would be the robots that come together to make him.

[1] I'm not claiming to be the original; I know other people did this before I did. But I thought it was a good idea, and I'm glad to see other people agree with me -- it's comforting to be in a majority, isn't it?

[2] Zealous foulnesses are the worst kind, and the hardest to clean out of your carpets afterwards. Oh, damn! I said I wasn't going to make fun of this book....