Sunday, October 31, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 270 (10/31) -- Hellboy: Masks and Monsters by Mignola, Robinson, Benefiel, & Rodriguez

Hellboy is at the center of his own comics universe, these days -- he's the sun that B.P.R.D. and Lobster Johnson and Abe Sapien and Witchfinder all dance around. But it wasn't always that way; at one point he was just another colorful violent character in a distinctive costume. And, since that time was the late '90s, it was inevitable that Hellboy would find himself in a cross-universe team-up.

Masks and Monsters collects two of those team-ups: one with DC's Batman and Starman, the other with Ghost, a character from Dark Horse's now practically forgotten (and bombastically titled -- but I've already said it was the '90s once, so I repeat myself) "Comics' Greatest World." Neither one is a great story, and neither one really adds anything to the canon of Hellboy by being reprinted here, but they're both serviceable superhero stuff, with dialogue that only induces winces a few times.

Most of those winces are early in Batman / Hellboy / Starman, which ran for two large issues in 1999 (a year which seemed terribly futuristic at the time). B/H/S was written by James Robinson, at the time riding a wave of acclaim for his work on the regular Starman comic, but the first few pages read like a particularly dull Little Golden Book about Batman:
Move in! Move in!
More light!
If we're going to find him, we need more light!
There! I see him!
The Joker's down there!
Good. Now just keep him lit...
(A few pages later, we also get Commissioner Gordon declaiming "You'll find him, Batman. You always do," either indicating to the reader that the Joker subplot is entirely pointless -- and it is -- or that Robinson knows the drill too well to even bother to hide that knowledge.)

Anyway, Robinson's story rumbles on, aided massively by having been drawn by Mignola, who I gather also consulted on the story. (Why else would there be Nazis who shoot green magical fire out of their hands, intent on resurrecting a dead Elder God?) Batman runs into Hellboy after Ted Knight, the original Starman who went back to being a comic-book scientist once his sons took up the superhero business, is kidnapped by those darn Nazis. Batman and Starman play tag-team in the two issues -- Batman gets volume 1, and Starman number two -- while Hellboy stays, only the slightest bit out of character with Robinson writing him, throughout the entire story. And, yes, the Nazis are trying to raise an Elder God, with the compelled aid of Starman, Senior, but Hellboy and Starman, Jr. punch them repeatedly until everything's better. (This is not one of the more subtle Hellboy stories.)

It's odd to see a Hellboy story drawn by Mignola but not written by him; the whole affair looks right, but sounds slightly off, as if it was translated into Albanian and then back with a little too much haste. It's not one of the best Hellboy stories, but it does what a Hellboy story needs to: gives the big red galloot some Nazis and some monsters to punch, and then sets him free.

The Ghost team-up story suffers from the opposite problem: Mignola wrote it (so the dialogue sounds true), but it was drawn by Scott Benefiel and Jasen Rodriguez, so Hellboy looks faintly off-model -- a little too defined and not as shrouded in shadow as usual -- much of the time. It also suffers from a common crossover issue; Hellboy just arrives in the city of Arcadia (as he showed up in Gotham City in the other story) as if that town is on the same map he usually travels, but he's never gone to (or mentioned) either of those cities before or since.

It also seems unlikely that Hellboy would be chasing a single ghost -- even one habitually given the uppercase G, and fond of running around shooting living people with handguns -- but that's the setup for this story; he's coming to recruit Ghost for the B.P.R.D., or at least capture her for study thereby. So they meet, and briefly fight, but then get dragged off to the inevitable otherworld where they have to team up to fight the real bad guys. Once they win -- and of course they win -- they will never speak of this story again. And we probably won't, either, unless one of us is a huge Ghost fan.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 269 (10/30) -- Fated by S.G. Browne

Sometimes stories try to communicate back to their tellers, and they often don't have good news. There's one particular common eruption from the unconscious -- nicknamed "letters from Fred" by some great old writer whose name I have momentarily mislaid -- in which the writer's physical surroundings, or self-doubt, or uncertainty, pops out into the text of his current work, as if his writing hand is desperately trying to communicate with his brain.

On p. 350 of Fated -- two pages from the end -- the novel's narrator has a single-sentence paragraph: "Something about this feels kind of creepy." That's an urgent telegram from Fred, but S.G. Browne, and his editors, don't seem to have realized it at the time; the ending of Fated is all kinds of creepy, in ways that reflect badly back through the entire previous book. And it's a shame, because, up until then, Fated is a lightweight but entirely entertaining novel about the trials and tribulations of anthropomorphic personifications, in particular the one who tells us his story.

Destiny and Fate, Karma and Death, Sloth and Indulgence, Gluttony and Affection -- all of these are human-looking beings (due to their "man-suits") that walk among us to do their jobs. They can all go invisible whenever they want, transport themselves instantly anywhere -- and, of course, they're all immortal, having lived for the past quarter-million years. (They've all, as far as Browne tells us, had the same jobs that whole time, too.) They're on a first-name basis with God, whom they call Jerry, and his often-mentioned but never-seen son Josh. [1] They have the usual jobs of anthropomorphic personifications in light novels: they're both said to be completely responsible for their area of expertise in human life, and (at the same time) they either struggle to get humans to do what they're supposed to or wander aimlessly, using their powers to create random pockets of whatever-they-are.

Take Fate, our hero and narrator. (But call him Fabio, since everyone else does.) He's nursing a five-hundred-year falling-out with his oldest friend, Death (Dennis). And he has a love-hate relationship (complete with lots of "non-contact sex," for reasons Browne doesn't entirely make clear) with Destiny (just Destiny), since, in Browne's cosmology, Fate is for schlubs (who don't even live up to their fate most of the time) and Destiny is for the few superstars of the world. So Destiny is fabulous -- though Fabio, honestly, isn't really a slouch, himself. All three of them, and most of the rest of the pantheon, live in Manhattan, perhaps explaining why the real estate market is so tight there.

Fabio is regularly called on the carpet by Jerry and told to work harder, since well over half of his humans fail to live up to their fate. This is mildly curious, for two reasons: one, later on in the novel, when Fabio does start nudging his humans, that's even more wrong, which leads one to wonder what, precisely, he could do in between nothing and something. And, second, all the other personifications that we see are so vastly more lackadaisical about using their powers -- zapping people at random in bars, most of the time -- that one begins to wonder if Jerry is just picking on Fabio, or if Fabio is just the inherently guilt-ridden type, and Jerry has figured out the right way to manage him. (One also may suspect that Browne is winging it, and that aspects of his background do not entirely make sense -- but that's not a big deal, in a light romantic novel about anthropomorphic personifications.)

Anyway, Fabio is unhappy with his life and job. He's got everything he could possibly want, of course, but it's not enough. And then he meets Sara Griffen, a young human woman who lives in his building. She's gorgeous...and, as Fabio can see instantly, she's one of Destiny's, not one of his. It's against Jerry's rules to have relationships with humans -- though, again, this rule has clearly been more honored in the breach, to listen to Fabio's list of famous conquests -- doubly against the rules to mess with a human's intended future, and triply against the rules to interfere with a human earmarked for another AP's care. Fabio, like any self-respecting protagonist of a light novel about love amid supernatural entities, doesn't care, and dives right into a relationship with Sara.

And that leads to one of the first big problems with Fated. Fabio gushes on and on about how much he loves Sara, how special their relationship is, how she's so different from every other human being he's met over the past two hundred and fifty millennia...but all that Browne actually shows of their relationship is that they have a lot of sex. (Really, really good sex, admittedly, but that's it.) Fabio doesn't want to go out in public much with Sara -- the whole "God will be really pissed if he find out" thing, of course -- but we don't see them talking intently about anything, or enjoying watching Mad Men together, or working on a jigsaw puzzle, or anything. They have a lot of sex, and Fabio says he loves her. Well, yes, that's often the reaction of a man who's getting a lot of great sex from a gorgeous woman, but it doesn't really sell their relationship as something special. (And the intense focus on their sex life is one of the things that makes that ending -- which, don't worry, I won't give away -- so creepy.)

Fabio is also suffering from something like a midlife crisis: he's unhappy with his work already, and Jerry keeps complaining that the humans on the Path of Fate keep ending up even more schlubby than they're supposed to be. So Fabio starts pushing some of them: the point is to get them to live up to their potential, but, inevitably, their reaction to Fabio's attempts at motivational speaking shoves them far above their planned path, and into Destiny's camp. This leads to some plot complications that the reader will figure out long before Fabio does -- really, for a quarter-eon-old immortal, he's remarkably dim and oblivious -- on the way to the inevitable moment when Fabio can no longer keep all of his secrets.

In a book like this, it's traditional for the hero to lose everything -- with varying definitions of "everything" -- and then find a way to triumph. That does roughly describe the end of Fated. And I do have to admit that Browne found an ending that fit with the shape of the story he was telling, and which picked up a number of references from earlier in the book. But it's a creepy, uncomfortable ending, which will lead the reader to say "Wait, what!?" about five seconds after turning the last page. That's unfortunate, but the trip up to that last page is quite a zippy ride, full of running jokes and short, punchy paragraphs to keep the reader hurtling forward. The thing about Fated is that its a second novel -- Browne will certainly learn to be more subtle, and less jarring, in the future.

[1] Yes, this is a supposedly Christian cosmology without a single angel or devil, though Satan does get mentioned in passing, but never appears on the page. Again, the setting was clearly not designed for supporting in-depth philosophizing, or even a handful of searching questions.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

Friday, October 29, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 268 (10/29) -- X'ed Out by Charles Burns

This is not the whole story. Much like Charles Burns's last work, the great graphic horror novel Black Hole, was serialized in comics form over a decade before being collected into a single large book, whatever book X'ed Out will eventually become part of is not completed, and won't be for several years. What we have here is the first section: fifty-two pages of comics about one boy and his two worlds. So don't go into it expecting an ending.

X'ed out isn't a single story, either: at the center of it is Doug, a teen from about thirty years ago [1], living in both the real world and in another one: dream, fantasy, or dying reverie...or perhaps something else. On some pages -- such as the first sequence, when he wakes up in his basement bedroom and follows his thought-dead cat through a hole in the wall into a strange dusty town -- Doug looks cartoony, with Tintin-esque dot eyes. At other times, which seem to be flashbacks, or perhaps just glimpses of his current, "real" life, Burns draws Doug in his more usual, realistic style.

Doug's journey through the strange world is symbolic, perhaps -- that world, which is brighter and sharper than our own, has details that send the narrative back to Doug's teenage life, to his pills and the girlfriend who doesn't appreciate how tormented he is (and to the artsy girl who will become his girlfriend, and who, we think, does appreciate how tormented he is), to his unhappy parents and that dingy basement room where he sleeps. Doug is passive in the stranger world, and only a bit more active in the real one; even by the end of X'ed Out, he's as confused as we are, reading his story.

The two worlds have some deep connection -- as I said, it could be a dream, or an afterlife, or a drug-induced vision, or several other things, and we don't know which yet -- which will be revealed eventually. Perhaps the next book -- which the last page of X'ed Out teases as "The Hive" -- will explain what has happened to Doug, and how these two stories are connected. For now, though, we have fifty pages of brand-new Charles Burns comics: bright, sparking, and cutting, like the pieces of a broken mirror. There hasn't been a new major Burns story in a decade, so it's best just to sit back and let this one wash over you -- it will all become clear eventually, in time.

[1] He has an unironic punk hairdo and a cassette recorder with corded microphone, and a box of Pop-Tarts comes with a 7-cent coupon. From this, and other data, I deduce a milieu of late '70s or early '80s.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

Quote of the Week: They Laughed at Me at the University!

"The fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright Brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown."
- Carl Sagan

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 267 (10/28) -- Two Unofficial Guides to Walt Disney World by Sehlinger and Testa

This is the fifth and last Book-A-Day entry to cover guidebooks to the tourist traps of Orlando; I write this about ten days before the family heads out, though the post itself will go up sometime later. (You'll excuse me if I keep my vacation plans vague, when writing for an unknown, public audience.) The previous four were: 192, 214, 224, and 240 --and, yes, I did rather overdo it this year. On the other hand, I've been trying to read books wholesale to keep Book-A-Day going, and these worked nicely both as grist for that mill and to help actual vacation planning [1]

The two books here are among the very few I considered my "main" vacation planning tools, which may seem backwards, since I got to them last. (And I do have to admit that I'd done most of the serious planning this year -- dates, hotels, airfare, etc. -- before I dove into the guidebooks.) But this is the Hornswoggler family's third year straight at The Mouse, and I've used the current edition of The Unofficial Guide Walt Disney World each year, so I think I've internalized a lot of authors Bob Sehlinger and Len Testa's ideas by this point anyway, and that I just read the books to remind myself of the things I already know and to jog my memory about what worked or didn't work in the parks last year. (Or what things we didn't get to, or thought the boys wouldn't enjoy yet.)

The Unofficial Guide is massive (850 pages), comprehensive, irreverent, honest, indispensable -- and as scientific as a guide to a bunch of theme parks possibly can be. Unlike most guides, which are written by a single person or small team, behind this book is an Unofficial army, including a statistician, child psychologist, Disney historian, and phalanxes of data collectors, writers, hotel inspectors, proofreaders, and general factotums. It will be too much book for some people, I suppose -- particularly the terminally disorganized and the folks who think making any plans interferes with their special secret snowflake status -- but, if you believe in doing things right if you're going to do them at all, and if you'd prefer not to spend too much money doing it, there's really no alternative.

This is a book to buy about a year before your proposed vacation, since it will walk you through all of your options: time of year, days of the week, travel choices, housing possibilities, and all of the little details of getting to Orlando and getting comfortable there. (There's four hundred pages of book before Sehlinger and Testa even get down to the all-important topic of dining, let alone the park attractions.) Since the Unofficial Guide is an annual, a lot of this information doesn't change radically -- though hotels can get better or worse over time, so caveat reservationer -- and so you could probably get a library copy for the early going.

But, in the end, if you're going to WDW, you'll probably want to bring a copy of the Unofficial Guide along. It will probably stay in your room most of the time -- did I mention this book is big? -- but you'll find yourself scanning it before heading off to the parks in the morning or ripping out the touring plans in the back to shove in your pocket. It's best feature is its comprehensiveness -- whether you're researching hotels, restaurants, or rides, it will give you as much information as you can handle (and maybe more, for some of you) and rank everything based on both the author team's objective analysis and the reports from thousands of past guests.

The other notable aspect of the Unofficial books is their tone. Most guide books are written in a neutral (not to say flat) style, describing the scenery without any color commentary. The Unofficial books do muster massive quantities of data, but they also make value judgements, have clear preferences and have been known to use sarcasm. If you demand that your guidebooks consist primarily of lists of phone numbers and prices, this may not be for you.

New this year is The Color Companion to Walt Disney World, which I suspect may have been inspired by The Complete Walt Disney World, a full-color guidebook I covered in #240. Like Complete, Color Companion aims to be a smaller (350ish pages) guide with the same scope but, obviously less depth of coverage.

It has a lot of the same information as the big book -- just condensed, and without a lot of the commentary and details. On the positive side, it adds 560 photos -- and a couple of bursts on the covert to make sure browsers don't miss them -- which help a lot to show what things actually look like. You could definitely use this as an on-vacation reference, and it has enough detail to be useful for planning, particularly for repeat visitors. The photography is all good, if sometimes a bit pedestrian -- I do have to give Complete a slight edge in that department -- and it does its job: you'll have a better sense of what the parks and hotels look like after reading this book.

So: I promise there will be no more books about tourist traps for the duration of Book-A-Day (which is just under another hundred days at this point).

[1] As I've said before, it's a poor man who has only one reason for doing something.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 266 (10/27) -- Tonoharu, Part Two by Lars Martinson

Everyone's an alien somewhere. Maybe many of us never venture far enough away to experience a culture where we really don't fit in, but those places are there, even if we avoid them. And some people deliberately immerse themselves in those places -- though they might find that not fitting in is worse than they expected.

Daniel Wells is a young man working as an assistant English teacher in the Japanese village of Tonoharu; Tonoharu: Part Two is the middle book of a graphic novel trilogy about the single year he spent there. (The previous book is, naturally, Tonoharu: Part One, which I reviewed for ComicMix when it was published in 2008.)

Dan is intensely lonely in Tonoharu; he didn't anticipate how alone he would be as one of a very few Westerners (and even fewer Americans) deep in another country, far away from its cosmopolitan centers. The first book covered the fall of his year in Tonoharu, leading up to a Halloween party he attended with Constance, a pretty fellow teacher from the next town. (He has, at the very least, a crush on Constance, but she doesn't reciprocate his affection.) Dan didn't seem well-prepared for his time in Japan, and doesn't seem to be taking great advantage of it; his life is narrow and limited, and his Japanese-language skills are limited and not, apparently, getting better.

The second volume picks up soon after the first; Dan's life and apartment alike are slowly crumbling from neglect. He sees Constance again -- meeting her in the local city, and with her another American, John Darley, who Dan suspects (but no one ever says) is Constance's boyfriend. In fact, Dan doesn't really understand any of the relationships around him -- not the locals, and not the expatriates. He's too shy or confused to ask, and none of it comes clear on its own. In large part, Tonoharu is about wandering through a landscape, or a society, in which all of the important things are hidden and opaque.

Dan does pursue a relationship in this volume, with some success, but it doesn't connect him to the people around him; it barely brings him closer (except physically) with the woman he gets involved with. And I'm afraid Dan still comes across as a bland shrinking violent -- Martinson, following modern style, doesn't let us into Dan's thoughts, so we have to judge him by what he does, and the story is entirely about the fact that Dan is as quiet and repressed as the Japanese (in his own way). Tonoharu is the kind of story that rewards close re-reading; Martinson's precise panels often hinge their emotional meaning on the tilt of an eye, or a rising blush.

This volume takes Dan's story up to early March, just before he sets off on a long vacation -- four weeks to wander around Japan, without much in the way of plans or itineraries. Part Two focuses more on Dan's relationships outside of the school -- I suspect he's still feeling clumsy and embarrassed in school, as he was in the first volume, but we don't see much of that -- but none of those are close. Neither Dan or the reader is sure why Constance is grabbing him to be an occasional third wheel: is it pure friendliness, or something more? Dan also makes a "friend" in Steve -- another expatriate, all quick talk and surfaces, bragging about his luck with Japanese girls -- which follows the old pattern of the quick-talking womanizer and his shy money-lending friend. And Dan's new girlfriend brings problems and concerns of her own.

Part Two is the middle of this story; it takes Dan from his lows at the end of the first volume and gives him some muted high points, or at least some hope and some interesting experiences, along the way. We already known, from the very beginning of Part One, how Tonoharu will end: Dan goes back to the US at the end of his first and only year teaching in Japan, and his Japanese co-workers think of him as a failure. What we don't know, yet, is what he thinks of himself at that point. So far, the odds aren't good, but I still have hope that the big-nosed guy will learn enough about Japan and himself that the return won't be entirely a retreat, in the end.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 265 (10/26) -- Stories edited by Gaiman & Sarrantonio

I always found anthologies and collections the easiest books to write reports for, back in my book-club days: I only had to write down a line, or at most a paragraph, while reading each story, and then type them all up together afterward. There were no notes to struggle with, no plot strands to untangle, no questions of which characters were important enough to mention -- just a quick summation of plot, setting, and theme, and then on to the next one.

That model, though, would be pretty dull for something that aims to be a review, so I think I've got more work coming with Stories, a major new anthology edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio that I've read over the past few weeks. To review an anthology, one should find a central motif and examine how the book works through it, and which stories are better than others at explicating it. Most anthologies these days -- particularly in the SF/Fantasy side of the business -- make that very easy by signposting the theme in the title, like Lesbian Unicorns in Starships or Zombies Chew on Major Historical Figures. But Stories is an anthology deliberately without a theme -- or, at least, so it says.

Gaiman has a short introduction talking about the genesis of the book -- in general terms that seem nothing like any book-proposal process I've ever been familiar with -- boiling it down to a collection of great original stories, in any genre, with any plot, from writers that he and Sarrantonio loved. There are twenty-seven of those writers; about half of them come from the SF/Fantasy genre -- no surprise, since Gaiman and Sarrantonio have both mostly worked those territories in their careers -- with the rest clustered around mysteries and thrillers, shading into "literary fiction." [1] But the stories aren't organized around those clusters, or in any obvious way -- they just come, one after another, each with their own baggage and aims.

So perhaps I should run through those stories one by one, after all? I'll try it, at least:

"Blood" by Roddy Doyle -- A Dublin man struggles with a powerful desire for blood, or perhaps necks, in one of those stories that's technically excellent, but seems to have behind it, faintly, the author grinning with the thought that he's thought up an utterly new twist on a hoary old genre trope. (And he hasn't, actually -- though the story itself is spiky and ends very well.)

"Fossil-Figures" by Joyce Carol Oates -- Twin brothers lead highly allegorical and stereotypical lives in turgid, self-satisfied prose. I must admit that I've never read anything by Oates that I could tolerate, so I'm very biased -- but she always strikes me as among the writers most fond of the sound of their own words, with the least justification.

"Wildfire in Manhattan" by Joanne Harris -- The Norse gods are alive, if not all that well, and still staying ahead of the forces of Chaos in modern New York City.

"The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains" by Neil Gaiman -- Gaiman is always at his most powerful and unforgiving in short fiction, and this is an excellent example, a story of the Scottish Highlands in a more violent time, and of two men who travel to a cave in search (supposedly) of gold.

"Unbelief" by Michael Marshall Smith -- The story of one gangland hit in New York City, at a festive time of year. If it were funny, it would be a shaggy dog story, but it's aiming for pathos -- so it's a shaggy something-else story, I suppose.

"The Stars Are Falling" by Joe R. Lansdale -- A soldier comes back from WWI France to rural Texas, hoping to get back to his peaceful life -- and finds out that not only can't you go home again, it wasn't really home to begin with.

"Juvenal Nyx" by Walter Mosley -- A clotted, gnarly vampire story that reads more like the beginning to a longer story, by a fine novelist whom I've always suspected of being an instinctive rather than a calculating writer.

"The Knife" by Richard Adams -- A short crime story, set in a British boys' school some time ago, to no serious effect.

"Weights and Measures" by Jodi Picoult -- After their young daughter dies, a husband shrinks while his wife grows -- literally. Plus several points for an interesting literalization of kinds of grief, but minus all of those points and more for obviousness and utter lack of subtlety.

"Goblin Lake" by Michael Swanwick -- An oblique tribute to James Branch Cabell begins with the story of a soldier in the Thirty Years War who discovers the title magical lake, but turns into a disquisition on the nature of fictional characters before it's done. It's amusing and thoughtful by turns, but has somewhat less substance than we expect from Swanwick.

"Mallon the Guru" by Peter Straub -- An American guru-in-training goes with his German journeyman-guru to see an Indian yogi (master guru), to be told frightening and nonspecific things, in a story that ends before it can do much of anything.

"Catch and Release" by Lawrence Block -- Some serial killers are like anglers: just knowing that they could have made a kill is enough for them. A gem of a story, perfectly chilling, among the best of a great writer of short stories.

"Polka Dots and Moonbeams" by Jeffrey Ford -- A couple relive their perfect day at the end of the world, once again. Ford implies a vast science-fictional background for those of us who think about such things, but the surface of the story is just fine for everyone else.

"Loser" by Chuck Palahniuk -- In a stunning mash-up of sophomore composition cliches, a second-person narrator goes on an unnamed game show (The Price Is Right) while on drugs, and It Is All Very Dreamlike.

"Samantha's Diary" by Diana Wynne Jones -- A frivolous but diverting little story, set a few hundred years hence (which, as usual, feels no more than two decades hence, if not an alternate 1990), in which a young woman narrates the Christmas-time antics of one particularly determined suitor, who has just rediscovered a song about the appropriate for twelve days of that season. Reads a bit like a Connie Willis holiday story, only not quite as polished and manic.

"Land of the Lost" by Stewart O'Nan -- A middle-aged woman spends all of her free time searching for the burial place of the young victim of a serial killer; poignant but very short.

"Leif in the Wind" by Gene Wolfe -- The small crew of a starship with a long-term mission has to deal with one member of the crew finding alien life -- "birds" that fly through empty space and nest "inside" people.

"Unwell" by Carolyn Parkhurst -- A domineering older sister recounts her long life, and how she's always gotten her younger sister to do what she wants.

"A Life in Fictions" by Kat Howard -- A woman is deeply unhappy at having been her ex-boyfriend's muse, since that meant she was sucked into all of his stories, to live as the character version of herself.

"Let the Past Begin" by Jonathan Carroll -- A love triangle centering on a female war correspondent is settled by the prophecy of a half-dead Azerbaijani oracle child.

"The Therapist" by Jeffrey Deaver -- In a severely broken-backed story -- in two parts, with utterly different tones and styles -- a man first explains his methods of saving his patients from "nemes" (negative memes), and then is put on trial for related events. This is the story that made me most want to avoid the author's other work; it's heavy-handed as well as being clumsy and dull.

"Parallel Lines" by Tim Powers -- An aged woman learns that her recently dead twin sister is still trying to control her life, but takes steps to finally correct this.

"The Cult of the Nose" by Al Sarrantonio -- One (possibly insane) man explains a gigantic, age-old conspiratorial cult of gleeful anarchists, discernible by their ostentatious false noses.

"Human Intelligence" by Kurt Andersen -- An alien spy on Earth is finally unmasked, due to global warming, to his relief. Punched up and shortened, it would have been a solid Galaxy story in the mid-50s.

"Stories" by Michael Moorcock -- A thinly fictionalized Moorcock -- here, a noted writer of thrillers, rather than of SF/Fantasy -- writes of the not-New Wave and particularly of his complicated relationship with a writer who is precisely not-Tom Disch. Sadly and ironically, there's no story here.

"The Maiden Flight of McCauley's Bellerophon" by Elizabeth Hand -- Old friends who once worked together as young men in the not-Air and Space Museum of the not-Smithsonian reunite to fake an old, and possibly apocryphal, piece of film showing an earlier-than-the-Wright-Brothers manned flight, for a dying and even older acquaintance.

"The Devil on the Staircase" by Joe Hill -- In the prose equivalent of a concrete poem -- words arranged specifically on the page -- a man recounts the story of his young life and passions, on a steep mountainside in Italy a hundred years ago.

There are definitely strong stories in Stories, but it's also overfull with too-short pieces -- particularly in the middle -- that miss their mark or don't seem to have been aimed at anything in the first place. There's a really strong two-hundred-page paperback anthology struggling to claw it's way out of the four-hundred-plus pages here -- but that's the case with most anthologies.

There also are several seemingly obvious paired stories -- the Parkhurst and Powers stories, for example, the Block and O'Nan, the Doyle and Mosley -- that have been separated as Gaiman and Sarrantonio organized the book, perhaps because they would resonate badly with each other. But, still, they do resonate, even at a distance, and having that happen three times is distracting for a theme-less anthology; it sets a reader looking to see if all of the stories will pair up.

Stories doesn't claim to be anything more than a clump of stories by writers that Gaiman and Sarrantonio like, stories that were specifically not to be in any particular genre or tradition. They don't even, interestingly, claim that all of the stories are marvelous, or that any of them are. And that's exactly what this is: a clump of random stories, by a clump of semi-random large names, many of which work but many of which do not. If you don't read any short fiction, this is not a good place to dive in, but if you're used to picking through the curate's-egg minefield of short fiction, you can find some gems here.

[1] There's no good definition of literary fiction, but we generally all know it when we see it. The kind Gaiman and Sarrantonio showcase here is literary in the "formally and technically striking" sense rather than the "stories about academics and academia" sense.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

Monday, October 25, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 264 (10/25) -- Richard Stark's Parker: The Outfit by Darwyn Cooke

You have to get beyond an origin story to see whether a character really has legs...though comics often is obsessed with retelling that origin again and again, perhaps out of an inability to think up any other stories. Richard Stark's great criminal character, Parker -- no second name will be given, or is necessary -- doesn't have that much of an origin to begin with, having sprung full-formed onto the page, but such a beginning as he had was in Stark's novel The Hunter, and was adapted by Darwyn Cooke into an excellent graphic novel of the same name last year. (I reviewed it for ComicMix then, and was impressed, though I was concerned that the slick early '60s setting could tend to make Parker look quaint and rob him of his power -- it wasn't that I thought Cooke did anything wrong, just that I wanted to be sure that Parker was kept as cold and dangerous as he really is.)

Cooke's adapations of Stark continue in Richard Stark's Parker: The Outfit, which adapts parts of the second and third novels in the series, The Man with the Getaway Face and The Outfit. And -- not to give away the ending or anything -- it's even better than Cooke's The Hunter; getting beyond the origin (even if this book supplies, as Stark's second novel did, something of a second origin for Parker) invigorates Cooke and he stretches himself to excellent effect during the middle heist scenes.

The Hunter ended with Parker having brokered a truce with the Outfit -- organized crime, as buttoned-down, hierarchical, and serious as every other multi-million-dollar operation in late '50s America -- or so he thought. The Outfit opens a year later, and Parker has, out of his driving instinct for self-preservation, gotten himself a completely new face, at great cost. Only two men could connect the new face to old Parker, and one of them is dead -- or so he thinks. But then Parker survives a clumsy hit attempt, which clearly leads back to the Outfit, and he realizes that he needs a more permanent solution to his problem.

So Parker decides to do two things: first, to get the Outfit angry, by hitting it himself and getting as many of his friends (other independent criminals) to hit the Outfit as many times and ways as possible. And, second, to knock off the current head of the Outfit after brokering a contingent peace treaty with the man who would succeed him. The Outfit then follows the pattern of most of the best Parker novels: a situation is set up, and then we get to watch it followed through.

The various capers taken on by Parker's associates bring out Cooke's ambitiousness and playfulness; the middle of the novels sees a few of these, in quick succession, each presented in a different style (illustrated magazine article, pseudo-UPA cartoon, etc.) appropriate to the time. The rest of the book is equally accomplished -- Cooke works in two color (black and blue) to create deep, moody, noir-ish shadows and uses quick successions of borderless panels to show quick action. The Hunter was excellent, but The Outfit is even better -- moving swiftly from scene to scene, dropping into silent action sequences seamlessly and then bouncing back to heavily narrated scenes to give the flavor of Stark's writing and Parker's thinking, and turning two separate novels into one cohesive graphic story. Parker may be a creature of his time and place, but so was the Sean Connery James Bond -- and neither one is soft, or to be taken lightly, because of it.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 10/23

I had a momentary, nearly overwhelming impulse to quote ELP's "Karn Evil 9" here -- you know the bit -- but I resolutely stifled that impulse in its cradle, and emerged a better man from it. This is my usual Monday-morning post, listing the books I saw in the mail last week, arising from the usual feelings of guilt and obligation.

I haven't read any of these books yet, and there's a very good chance I'll only end up reading a couple of them -- time is short, and there are so many books in the world -- but I can let you know that they exist, which may pique your interest.

AX: Alternative Manga, Vol. 1 is a book I've been looking forward to for most of this year; it's the first in a (we all hope) continuing and successful anthology series reprinting gekiga and other less-commercial Japanese comics for a Western audience. It was edited by Sean Michael Wilson -- a Scotsman resident in Japan who writes both manga themselves and about manga -- and published by Top Shelf, a couple of months back. It has a new Yoshihiro Tatsumi story, plus works by a couple of dozen creators whose work I don't know. I'm looking forward to this like nothing since Frederik Schodt's old Manga! Manga! back in the '80s: Japanese comics is reasonably well mapped for American audiences now -- at least the major continents of shojo and shonen are pretty well known -- but this book comes from a gigantic Terra Incognita on that map, and that's exciting.

Also from Top Shelf, as part of their Swedish Invasion earlier this year -- along with Simon Gardenfors's The 120 Days Of Simon, which I reviewed recently -- is Mats Jonsson's Hey Princess. It's another one of those young-guy-moves-to-the-big-city stories, an autobiographical piece about going to college, learning to relate to girls, and all of those other vital things that seem so important at the time.

Top Shelf also sent me Will Dinski's Fingerprints, the first book from an acclaimed minicomics creator. As far as I can tell, it's about celebrities and cosmetic surgery, which is different enough to be intriguing all by itself.

Pamela Sargent's 1983 novel Earthseed -- a SF story for young readers -- has belatedly become a trilogy, with 2007's Farseed and Seed Seeker, publishing on November 25th as a Tor hardcover. Each volume moved another generation further in the story of a sapient starship (Ship) that deposited a colony on a faraway world (Home) and then left, promising to come back eventually. In Seed Seeker, the colonists have been divided for many years, into the River People, who hunt and fish for survival, and the Dome People, who maintain the old high technology and wait for the return of Ship. But now there's a new light in the sky -- some among the River People think that it's Ship returning, but the Dome People are keeping silent on the subject. So one young woman -- you know a book is YA when the big jobs are handed off to random teenagers -- decides to find out for herself what's really going on.

Joel Shepherd's "Trial of Blood and Steel" series reaches its third and penultimate volume with Tracato, coming in trade paperback from Pyr tomorrow. (The first book was Sasha; and you should probably start there if you're interested.) It's a big fantasy series set in an intricate invented world -- but I haven't read any of them, so I can't tell you any more about the details than that.

Also from Pyr this month is Pierre Pevel's The Cardinal's Blades, which is doubly interesting: it won the 2010 David Gemmel Morningstar Award for best fantasy newcomer, and it was originally written in French (and translated by Tom Clegg). We don't see a whole lot of translated fantasy in the US -- there's been a minor boom in books from the Russian, recently, led by Sergey Lukyanenko, but not a whole lot else -- so that's exciting. And the book itself also sounds like a lot of fun: a Three Musketeers-esque race through an alternate 17th century France, with Cardinal Richelieu's hand-picked men as the only hope for France. It also has a great cover from Jon Sullivan -- everything looks really good for this one.

And last for this week is the one that can help keep the drafts out all winter -- the massive conclusion of Tad Williams's epic fantasy quartet "Shadowmarch," Shadowheart. It's coming in hardcover from DAW at the beginning of December, and it follows over two thousand pages of intricate epic fantasy plotting (which I haven't read), so I'll, once again, do myself a favor and not try to summarize something I don't know.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 263 (10/24) -- Werewolves of Montpellier by Jason

Jason is one of the last cartoonists that one would suspect of engaging in hidden autobiography; his mask-faced animal characters with their hidden, unknowable motivations and his absurdist pseudo-monster movie settings are emotionally very far from quotidian life. And yet his latest book, Werewolves of Montpellier, is about an expatriate artist (like Jason) living in the French city of Montpellier (like Jason), playing chess with other expatriates and commiserating about the French (like Jason?), and roaming the rooftops by night in a werewolf costume to steal jewels (surely not like Jason, right?).

(In fact, the biography on the back flap of Werewolves of Montpellier reads, in its entirety: "Jason was born in Norway in 1965. He now lives in Montpellier, France, where he almost never prowls the rooftops in disguise.")

By this point, a Jason graphic novel is a known quantity: it will be short (around 48 pages, the length of a French album); it will have a supernatural element treated offhandedly, almost as a joke; it will focus most intently on the interpersonal relationships of its main character, primarily on his silences and halts, since he's not good at those relationships; what seems to be the spine of the plot will happen almost as an afterthought, in between scenes of dialogue or everyday life that are equally important, if not more so; and it will end, at best, inconclusively. Jason's characters are not blank-faced because he can't draw them otherwise; they look like that -- with animal heads that never quite look like any real animals -- because their faces are all masks, and their true feelings are kept resolutely inside at all times.

The Norwegian artist in Werewolves is Sven; he's in love with the girl across the hall, Audrey. (She doesn't seem to notice, but her live-in girlfriend, Julie, certainly does.) We see him working at his art for one page -- far less than we see him doing things with Audrey, playing chess with fellow expatriate Igor, and roaming those rooftops on full-moon nights, dressed as a werewolf. I could say that things don't work out for Sven as he planned, but he really doesn't have a plan -- just things he wants (like Audrey) and things he does (like the robberies), and we don't see if he thinks deeply about any of them. (And why should he? How deeply do any of us think about the things we want and the things we do?)

As ever, Jason's characters are universal precisely because they're so specific and odd; dog-faced werewolf Everymen, living their lives of quiet desperation. His art is precise and carefully defined, a collection of moments carefully chosen and arrayed to imply so much more than his characters could ever say. His silences are theatrical -- he's the Beckett, or Pinter, of comics. And Werewolves of London is another masterly performance from one of our modern best.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 262 (10/23) -- 120 Days of Simon by Simon Gardenfors

Magnificent bastards are rare, and should be celebrated when we find them. Simon Gardenfors is one such man: a few months before turning 29, this Swedish cartoonist/musician/rapper [1] decided to sublet his Stockholm apartment for four months and spend his time couch-surfing across the country, living and mooching off his fans and anyone else who'd sign up to host him on a website he had designed for the project. (Along the way, in a particularly classy touch, he expected to sleep around as much as possible -- he makes a point of not starting a possible relationship to remain unencumbered for his epic sojourn.) It's not quite a Tucker Max-level of rudeness, but it's definitely a ballsy, massively self-centered thing to do.

Oh, and I missed the most important point -- the reason for the trip was explicitly to gather material for a graphic novel. This one: The 120 Days Of Simon.

So, on March 1st, 2007, Simon set out on his trip, with the plan to spend no more than two nights in the same place. The plan was also to drink as much as possible, eat as much as possible, sleep around ditto, and, in general, just have a good time. (His second host, as he depicts it here, was a high school senior who took him to a bar and then to the kindergarten where she worked: to smoke hash, make out, and then have sex. That's the Platonic ideal of the trip, and it happened on day two.) The book isn't entirely about Simon having a ball: he also worries about the fellow cartoonist, Jonna Bjornstjerna, who he dated a bit before the trip (and thinks he might be falling in love with), and has some drama with the parents and older brother of one of the girls who signed up to host him so she could get into his pants. But it's mostly low-key slacker good times, with Simon at the head of a band of twenty-something (and some late teen) Swedes with nothing particular to do with their time and lots of diversions to dive into.

Gardenfors tells this story in a black-and-white style (reversed, so that most of the backgrounds are black) reminiscent of 1920s animation, all pipe-stem limbs and caricatured faces. He also only puts two large panels, one above the other, on each of the nearly four hundred pages, giving a lot of focus to each moment but still allowing himself enough room to tell lots of vignettes from these four months. That design helps lighten and soften 120 Days, inevitably a story with a lot of random casual sex and drug use in it -- Gardenfors's figures make that all endearing and quirkily lovable, instead of sordid. But it's still a story about fleeing responsibility and living in the moment, with almost exclusively good things happening to Simon because of it, and that may annoy some readers. (Especially those, like me, with a mortgage and responsibilities and family that's not so easily chucked aside for a gallivant through the couches and beds of one's acquaintances.) If someone was going to do this, it's good that it was Gardenfors -- he has an apparently unflinching eye and a willingness to report anything that happens to him, if it'll make a good anecdote.

[1] He's in a band called Las Palmas, which seems to have given him a higher profile than just being a cartoonist would. In fact, the whole reason this project was feasible seems to be the band -- the trip worked around several gigs, and a number of his hosts mention the band as how they knew him.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

Friday, October 22, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 261 (10/22) -- Kitty Raises Hell by Carrie Vaughn

The consumer note should come first, I suppose: series heroine Kitty Norville, werewolf and late-night talk radio host, does not actually raise Hell in this book. Nor does she do much figurative Hell-raising, either. There is an entity that comes from a place one might call Hell (while squinting), but Kitty doesn't go there, and she's more interested in laying than raising, to be honest. [1]

Kitty Raises Hell, on the other hand, does follow right on the heels of the previous novel in the series, Kitty and the Dead Man's Hand(which I reviewed here, sort of, last year), and deals with the fallout from Kitty's foiling of the plots of the nasty Band of Tiamat cult in Las Vegas in that book. [2] As usual, the Band of Tiamat didn't like being foiled -- and they were planning to kill Kitty in the first place, so they're not playing around. But Kitty has allies of her own -- she's the alpha werewolf of Denver, to begin with, and he new vampire master of her city, Rick, is inclined to aid her as much as possible, to maintain his own power and because he likes her (as much as a vampire can like anyone). Plus, the stage magician Odysseus Grant -- who clearly has something going on other than sleight-of-hand -- is still in Las Vegas, keeping an eye on the Tiamat weretigers for her.

But then the popular cable TV show Paradox PI -- something in the Mythbusters vein, only investigating the supernatural -- rolls into town -- and Kitty finagles a meeting with them, partially to see if she can get them on her show, and partially just to meet other people trying to make sense of the hidden supernatural world. And then the Tiamat revenge appears, in the form of waves of heat and fire -- which seem to be driven by a malevolent intelligence, and are aiming to kill Kitty and anyone near her, and things just go all to hell. (Again, not literally. Sometimes one does have to specify that, particularly with fantasy novels.)

The fantasy elements are still proliferating at this point in the series -- I'm two novels behind, so it's probably gotten even more complicated since then -- with not just vampires and werewolves, but ghosts and working ritual magic (including some offstage summoning of extradimensional entities and whatever the heck it is that Odysseus does). Vaughn is keeping each new element quiet and sub rosa -- it's hard for Kitty, or anyone else, to find out anything about magic -- but it is tending to make the world that much more complicated and the supernatural elements that much harder to hide. (This is a world where there apparently was quite a lot of supernatural stuff going on in the shadows until Kitty went public -- and one of the main problems with that kind of contemporary fantasy is that the cover-up becomes less and less plausible the more elements show up and the more powerful the antagonists are.)

The police are less important in this book -- the usual tough female police detective wanders in and out of the plot, but she doesn't do a whole lot -- and there's less emphasis on the rule of law here, possibly because the menace isn't human at all, and can't be apprehended or locked up by conventional law enforcement. (At least, not yet. And they never will be able to, if the people who know about this stuff keep it all secret and handle problems themselves, which kept nagging at the back of my head.) That's one of the best aspects of this series, and one of the things that distinguishes it most strongly from other urban fantasy, so I hope it comes back in later books.

Kitty Raises Hell is a completely cromulent middle book in a strong series; this isn't the place to start, but it's a good book to know is coming up. (Or, more likely -- since it was published a year and a half ago -- to remember it fondly.)

[1] And get your mind right out of the gutter, because you know what I mean.

[2] She could hardly help foiling their plans, since their plans were to use her as a human sacrifice, and what self-respecting werewolf would fall for that?

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

Quote of the Week: Headshot

"[S]ince last fall I've been buying some of the biggest new game releases and trying them out. I say "trying" because the first thing I learned is that video games -- especially the vivid, violent ones -- are ridiculously hard to play. They're humbling. They break you down. They kill you over and over. Eventually, you learn how to crouch and crawl through grass and hide behind boxes. You fight your way to a special doorway and you move up to the next level. Suddenly, you feel smart and euphoric. You reload, with a reassuring metallic click, and keep on going.
The second thing I learned about video games is that they are long. So, so long. Playing one game is not like watching one ninety-minute movie; it's like watching one whole season of a TV show -- and watching it in a state of staring, jaw-clenched concentration, If you're good, it might take you fifteen hours to play through a typical game. If you're not good, like me, and you do a fair amount of bumping into walls and jumping in place when you're under attack, it will take more than twice that."
- Nicholson Baker, "Painkiller Deathstreak," from the 8/9/10 New Yorker

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 260 (10/21) -- Odd Is On Our Side by Koontz, Van Lente, & Chan

We all love to pick on cozy mysteries: they're silly, and unrealistic, and often inadvertently funny. Well, I love to pick on cozy mysteries -- I guess I shouldn't claim to speak for you. But there is a reason they're called "cozy" -- they are warm and inviting and pleasant and nice, and sometimes that's just what you want.

I haven't read the novels in Dean Koontz's "Odd Thomas" series, so I can't say how cozy those are. But the graphic novels that branched off from those novels -- first In Odd We Trust (which I reviewed for ComicMix) and now Odd Is on Our Side -- are remarkably cozy for books with attempted mass murder and serial killers, starting with a snappy line of banter between Odd Thomas (our hero, a pancake-slinging fry cook who can see dead people) and his girlfriend Stormy Llewellyn (who is almost too quirky and spunky to live) and continuing through the details of the snug little California town of Pico Mundo. In this book, we're introduced to the Nero Wolfe-esque (in girth, if not in agoraphobia) bestselling mystery writer P. Oswald "Ozzie" Boone and his visiting editrix Valerie Malavont (who are pretty quirky themselves), the former of whom provides the backstory, explaining that Pico Mundo doesn't have normal trick-or-treating on Halloween because a creep named Norman Turley poisoned a bunch of kids twenty-five years before.

So it's Halloween once again in Pico Mundo, but Odd has a feeling that something is going to go wrong -- well, actually, the ghost of Elvis has been dancing at him to indicate danger, like some bizarre human Vegas bee-pollen act. (I swear to god I am not making this up -- Odd and Stormy actually consult an Elvis expert to work out the message in his particular dance. I told you this book was quirky.) There's also a ghost-sheeted ghost kid -- how meta is it for an actual ghost to be dressed as a Halloween ghost? -- and the local highschool kids, who steal everyone's pumpkins every year, to add some more confusion.

Eventually the quirk tide ebbs somewhat, allowing the suspense tide to come in, and there's a moderately exciting climax -- though the villain, and his capture, has a Scooby Doo-ish air to it, as if he's Old Man Jenkins trying to run everyone off his land to work the secret silver mine. Odd does save the day, and helps out his ghost pals, which I suppose is the point -- it's not overly cozy, but there's at least a hint of snuggliness in Odd Is On Our Side.

Queenie Chan's art still has some distracting manga influences -- the police chief, in particular, looks like a caricature Westerner in a second-rank shonen fighting story -- and some foreground elements (telephones, pistols) change size distractingly from panel to panel. But she integrates the humor well into the serious story -- and that's definitely something, since there's quite a bit of unlikely humor here -- and keeps the action moving with her wide-eyed, eternally happy-looking characters. The story -- scripted by Fred Van Lente from some kind of minimal plot (and subsequent kibitzing) by series author Dean Koontz -- doesn't settle into any consistent tone, but I have to assume that Koontz wanted it that way, so I can't blame Van Lente. And it is all undeniably cozy, which I presume is what the series fans want. So: here it is; maybe it will feel less like a soup of random quirks to those who have read the novels.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 259 (10/20) -- The Good Neighbors, Book 2: Kith by Black and Naifeh

A good neighbor is one who keeps to himself -- he minds his own business and lets you mind yours. Oh, sure, maybe he lends you a stick of butter or a lawn chair now and then; maybe you even get together to burn some meat in the backyard a couple of times a year, but what neighbors can give each other, most of all, is distance. But in this contemporary fantasy series, "good neighbors" is ironic at best -- think of it like calling the Furies "the Kindly Ones," in hopes that they'll leave you alone -- since these neighbors just won't keep their distance.

In the first "Good Neighbors" book, Kin -- by writer Holly Black and artist Ted Naifeh, like this one, and which I reviewed for ComicMix a couple of years back -- teenager Rue Silver learned that her heritage was not what she had thought it was; her professor father had won her faerie mother about twenty years before, and could keep her as long as he was faithful to her. (Unfortunately, her dad set that book's plot in motion by not being faithful.) Her maternal grandfather, Aubrey, is the leader of the local faeries (as usually happens in stories like this; feudalism is so deeply rooted in fantasy that it pops up everywhere), and he'd like to bring Rue to his world.

In Kin, Rue learned who she was, discovered her mother wasn't dead, and defied her newly-met grandfather. But in Kith, the focus turns (as the title indicates) to her friends -- a loose circle of girls and boys that aren't clearly distinguished in the early pages here, unfortunately, since their complicated love relationships are important to the plot -- as Aubrey and the faeries shift tactics. If they can't bring Rue to faerie, after all, perhaps they can do the opposite? Rue is still playing defense -- trying to figure out what's going on, and to stop it -- but she's a fast learner, and she does have a strain of faerie in her blood for the requisite cruelty to oppose Aubrey effectively.

Kith is very much a middle book, expanding on the story of Kin, adding complications, and ending with a new status quo that will lead directly into the third book, Kind. The characters aren't introduced here -- leading to the problem I mentioned above, of not really knowing who Rue's friends are and which of them should be making out with whom -- though there is some added backstory, particularly for Aubrey's human servant Tam. And the conflicts here -- Rue against Aubrey, her parents' rocky marriage -- are again continuing from the first book, though parts of that conflict are very strongly resolved at the end of Kith. So Kith is less successful as a standalone than Kin was, but that's only to be expected for a middle book. Kith does well what it should do -- complicate and deepen the story of Kin, and create new situations that will make Kind clearly different from the first two books -- but it feels a bit like a corridor rather than a room.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index