Monday, January 31, 2011

Book-A-Day 2010 # 362 (1/31) -- Harvey by Bouchard and Nadeau

If I weren't in the middle of a Book-A-Day run, I wouldn't have given this book a whole post -- most, or all, of what I want to say about it could easily be boiled down into a single paragraph in a longer round-up post. Of course, if I weren't in the middle of a Book-A-Day run -- and actively looking for more books to read and review -- I never would have read this book in the first place, so it's an oddly moot point.

Harvey is not quite a graphic novel -- it has no panels, has only one or two pictures per page, and is told primarily through narration rather than dialogue -- but it's from the side of the children's picture book universe closest to graphic novels, and definitely is a fine example of the art of putting words and pictures next to each other. (It reminded me quite a bit of Pascal Girard's devastating Nicolas, which I reviewed for ComicMix a few years ago.)

Harvey Bouillon is a elementary-school aged boy in French-speaking Canada, in a time that seems a generation ago but may just be a quiet, very Catholic neighborhood. (He may be, in whole or in part, writer Herve Bouchard.) One winter day, while he's playing in the street with his younger brother Cantin and other local kids, his father Laurent has a heart attack and dies. Harvey takes place from the day of the death through the moment when the casket is closed, covering the time when the family and community gathers in the funeral parlor to pay their last respects to the dead man.

Harvey is old enough to know what death means, and young enough not to focus on it -- he's recently seen the movie The Incredible Shrinking Man, and is obsessed with its hero, Scott Carey, so he thinks about that almost as much as his dead father. And he has a boy's ideas of what counts and what doesn't, as when he wants to avoid one last look at his father as the lid is closed so that he can remember all of different ways the mourners described Laurent instead. The whole is allusive and contextual rather than direct; these are the thoughts of a boy who's just had a big shock, and doesn't know how to handle it.

The art is by Janice Nadeau, and it's classic children's-book illustration, similarly contingent and specific, with smudges and washes to reinforce the palette of mostly dull, deep-winter colors. I found it all well-done and touching without actually being moved as much as I thought I should be -- unlike Nicolas, which is more obviously a book told in retrospect, and has a greater punch.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 1/29

Every week, I get mail. And every week, I write about the part of that mail comprised of books here, bright and early on a Monday morning for your delight or edification. I haven't read any of these books yet -- I used to be a really fast reader, before kids and life and the Internet slowed me down, I keep insisting -- but I can tell you Certain Things about them, most of which should actually be true. It's an odd mix this week, so let me dive right into it:

The book that immediately confused me this week was Danielle Trussoni's Angelology, because I first thought of those oversized, heavily-constructed non-fiction books for older kids on various interesting subjects (Dragonology, Wizardology, Vampireology, and so on). Trussoni's Angelology has nothing to do with those; it's a post-Da Vinci Code thriller filled with nuns, secret history, and "the monstrously beautiful descendants of angels and humans, the Nephilim." [1] The New York Times Book Review named it a Notable Book of last year, which I think is a sign that it's somewhat more plausible and better-written than Da Vinci Code, closer to "smart" on the grand thriller axis that ranges all the way to "stoopid." Penguin's spiffy trade paperback edition of Angelology, complete with a reading group guide, hits stores on February 22nd, so you may want to grab it quickly before you start hearing about it from your Aunt Matilda and that overly-friendly cashier down at the Wal-Mart.

Then there's the new anthology from Gordon Van Gelder [2], Welcome to the Greenhouse, which has sixteen new SF stories about climate change. It's coming from the new, progressively-minded publishing house OR Books on February 21st, also as a trade paperback, with a cover by Eric Drooker. It has stories from a great line-up of names -- Brian W. Aldiss, Matthew Hughes, Gregory Benford, Paul Di Filippo, Bruce Sterling, Alan Dean Foster, and more -- which gives me the faintest of hopes that it's more than just a litany of woe and despair about the inevitable crapsack world our children will inherit. SF used to be positive most of the time, so I'm hoping this book is actually a signpost back to that -- it costs nothing to hope.

The cover for Neve Maslakovic's Regarding Ducks and Universes -- at least on the bound galley I have in front of me -- has one very large, and quite happy, bath-tub duck in front of the partially visible planet Earth, as seen from space. The cover online -- as seen to your immediate right -- is notably different, adding an adorable urchin and a bridge (presumably not for sale). I have an aversion to urchins, so I'm going to continue under the assumption that the cover I have will be the real one. Ducks and Universes will be published on February 22nd by AmazonEncore, a newish publishing arm of the gigantic webstore of the similar name, which means it's vanishingly unlikely that you'll ever see this book for sale in a physical bookstore anywhere. Ducks and Universes is, I believe, an existential comedy about a young San Francisco writer living in a world that has a double: he lives in Universe A, but there's a Universe B, where things are slightly different, easily accessible via tollbooth. (But no more universes than that, a specific event in early 1986 split the two, and presumably they were identical up to that point.) Our hero travels to Universe B, first to make sure his alter hasn't already written the novel he wants to write, but then sticks around for reasons that eventually form the plot of this book.

The Desert of Souls is the first novel from Black Gate editor and writer Howard Andrew Jones, a historical fantasy set in eighth century Baghdad and featuring his popular characters Dabir and Asim. St. Martin's Press is publishing it this month in hardcover.

And last -- and furthest from the realms of books I could give you anything like an educated opinion on -- is Extreme Perspective! For Artists by David Chelsea, the follow-up to his well-received 1997 book Perspective! For Comic Book Artists. It's a book for artists, particularly for comics artists, done as a comic -- a full 170-page graphic novel about drawing, space, and perspective. As in the previous book, a version of Chelsea himself explains the mysteries of perspective to his compatriot "Mugg," through lots of detailed Chelsea drawings. I personally wish that Chelsea would do graphic novels for a non-art-student audience -- he's got a neat, precisely-detailed style, and his old book David Chelsea in Love was a lot of fun -- but I have to admit that this book and its predecessor are probably more useful than all of the more artsy graphic novels published in the thirteen-year span between them. If you want to draw better, this looks like a great resource. Watson-Guptill are publishing it in trade paperback -- including a DVD of perspective grids -- in February.

[1] No, not those Nephilim. Those are the ones out in the fields. These are house Nephilim, I suppose.

[2] Who, in his day job, runs The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Book-A-Day 2010 # 361 (1/30) -- An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin

Novels can be about many things -- a time, a place, a moment, an idea. They're usually, though, at least secondarily about their characters -- who may be chess-pieces designed to illustrate that idea or walk through that time, but must have some sort of arc to their lives. And, even more importantly, the novelist has to remember which character is at the center of his novel, and make sure that the story of that character is told.

Steve Martin is no newcomer to the novel: Shopgirl was a little gem, and The Pleasure of My Company was even better, a close study of a realistically quirky, odd character. But his third novel, An Object of Beauty, loses track of what it wants to be about, drifting away first from its narrator, then from its subject, as it wanders through the devastatingly tasteful and well-appointed halls of the art world of the past twenty years.

Object of Beauty takes place mostly in the '90s, in the go-go years before the first millennial crash, 9/11, the bubble economy of the war years, and the second, definitive millennial crash. (All those elements come into the last third of the novel, but they do so as if imposing, as if Martin's story wanted to take place in a world without them, but he couldn't quite make it happen.) The story is told by Daniel Franks, who spends a long time working very slowly to become a writer about the art world, but he never quite becomes a character and never quite becomes transparent, either. Instead, he's a lightly tinted window through which we see the real subject of the novel: Lacey Yaeger, the latest woman on the make in a novel, in a long string stretching back at least as far as Becky Sharp.

Like Daniel, Lacey is a failed artist -- they met in school, and, apparently, both decided independently that the art world was for them, but not the actual hands-on making of art. Lacey got a job at Sotheby's, and Martin is good at portraying the scrambling for the tiniest of positions in such an in-demand field, how presentation and connections and self-possession and raw desire all have to come together just right to get even the slightest toehold on the ladder of success in the genteel knife-fight of the art world. Lacey does have the tools to survive in that world -- she's gorgeous, knows it, and is equally smart and savvy and willing to work hard.

But Martin's novel covers a huge span of time -- Daniel and Lacey hit New York in 1993, and the novel runs through the aftermath of the 2007 crash -- without either of them changing substantially at all, either individually or in their relationships with each other. During the long middle of the novel, corresponding to the long middle of the '90s, as the art market heated up and money was tossed around on all sides, the reader is left wondering how long any of this is taking, and what else Daniel and Lacey are doing with the rest of their time. There's very little sense of the texture of their lives changing, and only isolated mentions of changes in those lives -- Lacey's original cluster of downtown friends move away, marry, and settle down, without any of them getting a single line of dialogue in the novel -- as Martin focuses entirely on how Daniel looks at Lacey.

As a view of the go-go years of the art world from a writer who knew it pretty well, An Object of Beauty is interesting; the reader inevitably wonders how many of the little details Martin weaves in are true, or only slightly changed from true. But Lacey stays opaque to Daniel, and thus to us -- and Martin makes an unforgivable mistake at the very end of Object, thinking that this is Daniel's story. It isn't, not at all, and so the last line is about what might possibly be happening between two minor characters, while we don't know how this all really affected Lacey. (Perhaps it changed her utterly, or perhaps not at all, but we need to know.)

As interesting failures go, Object is compelling, casually authoritative, and deeply entertaining. But its central spine is out of joint, and so this object can never stretch itself into a figure of beauty itself. Somewhere deep inside itself, Object wanted to be a novel about a shorter period of time, about those go-go '90s, and more tightly focused on Daniel and Lacey -- that could have been a great novel. This one, though, is pleasant but ultimately forgettable.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Book-A-Day 2010 # 360 (1/29) -- Dominion by Michael Alan Nelson and Tim Hamilton

First of all, I don't want anyone thinking that I'm slamming the work of Tim Hamilton; Hamilton's pages for The Trouble With Girls are sparkling and glorious and he's had a long, successful career since then -- the man knows how to draw, and how to put a comics page together. But I have to say that reading Dominion is sometimes like peering down a coal scuttle to watch a fight going on in the basement. I mean, it's kinda dark.

(The story's kinda dark, too, but I'll get to that.)

Maybe I should back up a bit: Dominion is a high-concept comic -- so high a concept, and executed in so cinematic a way, that I'd be deeply surprised if several people involved with it didn't harbor the secret belief that it would inevitably become a movie and make them very rich. (And, who knows? It still may happen.) The concept is, as the back cover puts it, "An alien virus is spreading uncontrollable superpowers through the city of Chicago." That concept -- possibly expressed in more words and more details, but possibly not -- is credited to Ross Richie and Keith Giffen. (It took two people to think that up! One for "alien" and one for "Chicago," I guess.)

The resulting actual comic was written professionally -- though with one eye always on the big movie it might make, one day -- by Michael Alan Nelson, and drawn by the aforementioned Tim Hamilton. It was then colored by two people -- Fran Gamboa and Pablo Quiligotti -- which perhaps was the source of my problem; could it be, maybe, that they each colored Dominion, and the resulting files were put on top of each other? (Well, I seriously doubt it. But there must be some reason why a summer day in Chicago mostly looks like midnight at the coal-face.)

There is indeed an alien virus, and it indeed has hit Chicago, suddenly, turning a small but dangerous number of the random inhabitants of Chicagoland into death-dealing superpowered monsters (a woman burning at lava heat, a man eating everything as he grows to the size of a small office building, a kid whose voice is a sonic boom, a quick ripoff of The Absorbing Man, and so forth). Since this is a movie-style story, those folks neither dress up in brightly colored themed costumes to rob banks nor dress up in dark uniforms with lots of belts and pouches to brood about the nastiness of life and battle that crime. Instead, they all pretty much just go crazy and destroy as much of everything as they can.

Luckily, Chicagoland has two improbably talented professionals to save them: beat cop Dick Urbanski, who interrupts his day off to engineer a string of cunning and unlikely deaths for the monsters that he chases after, and Dr. Ai Tanaka, who sequences DNA practically by looking at it really hard and finds the inevitable off-switch in this engineered alien virus right in the nick of time. It's all so far over the top that I found myself gasping for breath in the exosphere.

As I said, the art is solid, but the pages are often very dark. And the title doesn't make much sense, except in a really ham-handed neo-Campbellian (John W.) way. And the story has a sequel-sized hole in its ending, presumably relying on Dominion becoming a super-successful medium-budget movie, and then making room for the Big Guns for Dominion II: Alien Boogaloo. (Though there's one element of the ending that J. Random Bigstar's people will definitely get changed before the script is greenlit.) It's entertaining, in that turn-your-brain-off, summer-movie style that people who are adept at turning their brains off always prefer. But I doubt any of us will respect ourselves in the morning after reading it.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

Friday, January 28, 2011

Book-A-Day 2010 # 359 (1/28) -- SideScrollers by Matthew Loux

Matthew Loux's comics have a spiky energy that gives them a remarkable forward momentum even when his characters are just sitting and playing videogames with each other. And when they're running -- as on the cover to the left -- you can't help but smile and lean a little closer.

I've previously seen (and reviewed) Loux's later three-book (to date) Salt Water Taffy series, for middle-graders and up, but his first solo graphic novel, SideScrollers -- the story of three slackers on one day soon after graduating high school -- is even more fun and even more appealing to people who, like me, are somewhat past their own high school years.

Brian, Brad, and Matt are enjoying their freedom: hanging out, talking about random nothings, playing lots of videogames, and working shifts at entry-level retail. (Mostly, in this case, a hamburger chain called MacGreggor's.) Matt's got a crush on Amber, the new girl in town, and is horrified to hear that she has a date that night with Richard, the obligatory jock-bully that tormented our three heroes throughout their school careers. Things get worse when the three overhear Richard declare that he's planning to seduce Amber on webcam, to destroy her reputation. So of course they need to save Amber -- and, more importantly, to humiliate Richard in any way possible.

SideScrollers is a amiable romp through one long slackers' day, with shopping and mischief, fast food and mayhem, chases through the mall and evil cats, all leading up to the big concert that night -- from a band that Brian's brother plays in, and which is too cool for Richard (and his beefy jock henchmen) to understand or like. It could all be a John Hughes movie -- and I say that as a pure product of the '80s myself. The dialogue crackles, the situations amuse, and Loux's drawing makes it all sail forward at high speed, even when nothing much is happening. It is totally awesome, dude.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

Quote of the Week: Deja Vu

"Experience is that marvelous thing that enables you to recognize a mistake when you make it again."
- Franklin P. Jones

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Zen Koan for People in Fabric-Covered Boxes

Jobs done for money never quite bring enough.

Jobs done for love are too often unlovable.

Satisfaction comes through finding another reason to keep going.

Book-A-Day 2010 # 358 (1/27) -- Polly and the Pirates, Vol. 1 by Ted Naifeh

Even though there are still real pirates in the world -- and news of their attacks turn up, every so often, focusing our attention briefly on the Horn of Africa or odd corners of Southeast Asia -- in stories, pirates have been almost entirely stripped of their terror and wonder, turned entirely into a catalog of funny looks (eyepatch, wooden leg, parrot, striped bandanna on the head, sashes and vests and puffy shirts and vaguely naval jackets) and an excuse for old-fashioned seafaring adventure. Pirates are old-fashioned, so they're safe -- from the movies (where Tim Powers's deeply unsafe novel On Stranger Tides is going to lend its name, and probably not much else, to the latest big action franchise) to graphic novels for pre-adult readers.

And that brings us to Polly and the Pirates, a collection of the six issues of Ted Naifeh's adventure story for readers of most ages. (The back cover has one of those age-band logos indicating that it's for people seven years and older, which doesn't strike me as wrong...or unreasonable.) Most of Naifeh's work has been for younger readers -- or, at least, not deliberately aimed away from them -- from Gloomcookie to Courtney Crumrin to his most recent gig illustrating the Good Neighbors graphic novels over Holly Black's writing. (See my reviews of the three Good Neighbors books.)

But Polly is more obviously for pre-adults; the heroine is living in a boarding school in a mildly alternate late-19th century San Francisco (some names are different; North America seems to be made up of more countries than we're used to; and, of course, there are pirates sailing in nearby waters, fought by very British-navy-looking types in gigantic ships), with the usual two friends, one prim and serious, the other wild and enthusiastic. And the dangers are never life-threatening -- Polly is more worried that her headmistress will find out the scandalous things she's getting up to, or that she'll lose honor.

But, as you might guess, young Polly -- her age is never precisely nailed down, but she seems to be around junior-high size -- gets caught up with a gang of pirates, and it has to do with her own family's past. So she races around after a lost treasure map (originally belonging to the fabled Pirate Queen, Meg Malloy), discovers that her stage-trained swordcraft works pretty well in real life, and figures out which pirates to trust and which to battle.

It's always great to see a girl get to be the swashbuckling one -- it's still not as common, or as unremarkable, as it should be, so each time it happens is a small joy -- and Naifeh has a deft hand at making Polly feminine but not girly and adventurous without being stereotypically tomboyish. She's her own person -- though she does have one of those occasional unsettlingly large and bulbous Naifeh heads. If I had a daughter, I'd want her to be just like Polly.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Book-A-Day 2010 # 357 (1/26) -- Zombies Calling by Faith Erin Hicks

New creators often make up for a looseness of purpose and control with vast reserves of enthusiasm and energy -- they might not know exactly what it is they want to do, or precisely how to do it, but they're going to do that, whatever it ends up being, as strongly as they can. It's endearing and often contagious, and one of the best reason to seek out new creators.

Zombies Calling wasn't Faith Erin Hicks's first comics story -- she'd worked on long-form webcomics before that -- but this was her first do-it-all-at-once, published-all-together story, where she could control all of the pieces and fix all of the pages before putting it out for the public to see. (And I doubt prose novelists realize what a luxury that is; Dickens didn't have it, most of the time, even though nearly all novelists have it now.)

Zombies has a heroine who is as energetic and enthusiastic as they come: Joss, a Canadian college student with massive loans, two semi-slacker roommates and an encyclopedic knowledge of zombie movies. And, of course, if a modern story references zombies, you know that they're going to appear. (This is precisely the opposite of the rule Joss cites -- Joss has codified all of the knowledge to be found in zombie movies into a series of rules, though Hicks missed the opportunity to beat the movie Zombieland to the punch and organize her story around those rules -- but it seems to me much more common these days. Every single zombie story starts out with people who deeply know zombie mythology, since those are the obvious audience-identification characters after forty-plus years of zombie movies.)

So the plot from there is pretty obvious: zombies attack -- well, shamble around, mostly, but they'll eat your brains if they can manage to get their hands on you -- and Joss leads her two friends to safety using the rules. Except, as I said, Hicks doesn't really organize the story around the rules, so Joss's knowledge is more theoretical than explored. And she doesn't really lead them to safety, either -- I won't give away the ending, but most of the things she says always happen in zombie movies (like the miraculously appearing cache of weapons) don't actually come true. That may have been Hicks's point, but it's so subtle as to be buried, and so it's difficult to say if she meant it.

But Zombies is tremendously enthusiastic and likable, just like Joss, and Hicks does a great version of the slightly grungy pseudo-Oni-house-style. It's a light, breezy zombie story, about some college kids who just want to live their lives without having their brains eaten. Sure, Hicks's metaphor is spelled out a bit too precisely near the end, but this is a book with a lot of heart and an infectious power. (Like zombies themselves, I suppose.)

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Book-A-Day 2010 # 356 (1/25) -- AX: Alternative Manga, Vol. One edited by Sean Michael Wilson

Someone else's avant-garde is a difficult thing to evaluate: without a close knowledge of their state-of-the-art, who can say even what direction the radical fringe is setting out in, let alone how successful they are? For that matter, it's not even certain that an outsider will be able to realize what makes a story avant-garde to begin with -- one could easily be left wondering what the point of the whole thing was.

So I'm treading lightly around AX: Alternative Manga, Vol. One, the first American collection of manga stories translated from the Japanese alternative manga anthology of the same name. (If I had to explain AX into North American terms, I suppose it's something like Mome -- though with a very different role in a very different market.) This fat book has thirty-three stories by thirty-three creators, all of them originally published in AX in Japan between 1998 and now. (Though, unfortunately, the book doesn't say exactly when any of these stories were first published -- there are decent capsule creator bios at the end to put each person in a larger artistic context, but nothing to specifically slot these stories into a coherent sequence.)

Some of the stories here are clearly "alternative" -- about sex and violence and bodily functions, transgressive in one way or another -- while others are small, carefully-formed stories about people, like literary
short stories the world over. But there's also a retelling of Aesop's "the Tortoise and the Hare," and a few other seemingly inoffensive stories -- for a change? or are they equally striking against the standard manga industry in some way that isn't clear to me? A really good review of AX would run through those stories one by one, but that's more strength or time than I have on day 356. What I can say is that the variety here is amazing -- particularly for a reader who has a narrow view of manga as "bug-eyed girls swooning over boys with long hair" or "go-getter ninjas battling for three hundred pages at a time," AX will show that Japan is a country with a huge ecosystem of comics, with room for vastly different kinds of expression.

I found a lot of the work here puerile for the sake of being puerile -- crude and nasty rather than interesting and thoughtful -- but these aren't the comics of my country, and they're not my taboos being flouted. Even so, there's a lot to impress in AX, from Yoshihiro Tatsumi's creepy "Love's Bride" near the beginning of the book to the equally creepy (and gorgeously drawn) closer, "Six Paths of Wealth" by Kazuichi Hanawa. When it comes to alternative comics, Japan -- or the creators of this anthology, at least -- are in a place something like the underground comics creators of the late '60s, in love with flourishing of their own talent and with their freedom to write and draw whatever they want. AX is an indispensable book for anyone interested in what else is going on in Japanese comics -- though I can still hope that the editors have a deeper well to draw from for future volumes than just shock and surprise.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

Monday, January 24, 2011

Book-A-Day 2010 # 355 (1/24) -- The Ring of Solomon by Jonathan Stroud

In the first half of the last decade, Jonathan Stroud wrote one of the great fantasy trilogies of our time -- and he did it under the "young readers" banner, so a lot of fantasy fans barely noticed. (The kids did; the first three "Bartimaeus Novels" were huge sellers and joyously received by both actual young readers and their teachers and librarians.) The original Bartimaeus trilogy starts off feeling like yet another response to Harry Potter -- with a young British hero learning how to use magic in a world that superficially resembles our own -- but Stroud had a much more ambitious plan than Rowling did; the Bartimaeus books blend serious philosophical and social issues with amazing action sequences, and tell their story in first two, then three distinctive, separate voices. Even more impressive, Stroud didn't go out of his way to make any of his main characters overly likable: that young British magician, Nathaniel, is cold and cruel, like all magicians in his world; the djinn he summons, the titular Bartimaeus, has a tremendously engaging first-person voice, but easily admits that he'd be happy to slaughter as many humans as he could and flee back to his own world; and the third voice has her own concerns, once she appears. Those three books -- The Amulet of Samarkand, The Golem's Eye, and Ptolemy's Gate -- were not just a good sequence of books for young readers, or a fine action trilogy, but one of the highlights of the modern fantasy scene, a fully-formed work worthy to be compared with Tim Powers or Gene Wolfe in its scope and power.

Six years later, Stroud returned to Bartimaeus and his world with a prequel, The Ring of Solomon, set about three thousand years earlier. Obviously, all of the human characters of the trilogy are absent, not having been born yet, but some of the supernatural folk are familiar, starting of course with Bartimaeus himself. And if Ring of Solomon isn't as impressive and strong as its predecessor, that's only to be expected from a prequel. While the original trilogy was about the essential limits of freedom and responsibility for both the summoned and the summoner, Ring of Solomon is a more conventional fantasy tale, with those nasty magicians on one side and the good guys (human and supernatural alike) on the other.

It's about 950 B.C., at the height of King Solomon's rule; Israel is the strongest power at the eastern end of the Mediterranean, and Jerusalem is the greatest city of the age. Like the trilogy, Ring is told primarily through two voices, and, as in the trilogy, one of them is Bartimaeus, whose first-person voice narrates about half of the book. The rest of the book is in third-person, with a scattering of chapters from various points of view (suitable just for that moment) and more than a third given over to the other major protagonist, Asmira. Bartimaeus is in service to Khaba, one of Solomon's seventeen master magicians, and causing trouble as always. Asmira is a young woman, one of the hereditary guards of Balkis, Queen of Sheba, and has been set on a mission to Solomon's capital, Jerusalem, after Balkis has refused demands for first her hand in marriage and then a massive tribute from Solomon's supernatural emissaries.

So Bartimaeus wants to be free -- and, twice in the course of this novel, he thinks he is free to return to the Other Place, whence djinn and their compatriots come from -- and Asmira wants to stop Solomon's impending attack on her country, which she expects to do by finding her way to Solomon and killing him. But neither of those things will be easy, particularly while Solomon wears the ring of the title -- one of the strongest magical artifacts ever known, which summons a legion of medium-rank spirits when touched and calls a uniquely powerful spirit when turned.

Ring's plot has a lot of complications and action, but it's essentially linear: Bartimaeus and Asmira must meet and then work together to get to Solomon. That doesn't work out the way either of them expects, of course -- and not just because Jerusalem is absolutely crawling with higher-order spirits -- and the enjoyment of Ring is in seeing how that happens. Ring doesn't aim as high as the original trilogy did, though it does have a interesting line in the question of freedom and slavery, but it's still more than just a romp -- Stroud is a writer with a serious undertone, no matter how frivolous and off-handed Bartimaeus may seem at any given moment.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 1/22

I've sometimes thought that, if I were really smart and organized, I could manage to only get in books for review that I really wanted to read, and at the same time get all of the books I wanted to read. That's an ideal that will never be met in the real world -- since there are publishers that don't consider Antick Musings to be one of the great media outlets of the world, on the one hand, and publishers that are enthusiastic enough to send me books that I haven't heard of, on the other. But, still, it lives as a dream: to get all of the books I want, effortlessly, in the mail.

This week came really close to that dream -- I can't say how many books that I would have loved didn't come to me, since it's always hard to prove a negative, or know what else is whizzing through the mail to luckier reviewers -- with three books arriving, two of them things I've been looking forward to for months now. (Though, as always, I need to point out here that I haven't read any of these books yet -- and there's still two library books ahead of them in the hopper -- so what I have to say below is based on prior knowledge and a quick glance.)

First is Jo Walton's new novel Among Others, a fantasy version of her own life, about a teenage SF-reading girl in Wales in 1979 and her struggles with finding a place for herself in the world and with her half-mad magic-dabbling mother. All early accounts are that it's absolutely brilliant, and Walton can certainly do brilliant -- she wrote both the exceptional alternate history Farthing and the World Fantasy-winning Victorian dragon-dramedy Tooth and Claw, among several other major books. It comes with impressive quotes from Cory Doctorow, Patrick Rothfuss, Suzy McKee Charnas, Robert Charles Wilson, Ellen Kushner, Harry Turtledove, and Steven Brust, and was heralded by a very rare please-look-at-this post by her editor, Patrick Nielsen Hayden. [1] Walton is one of the best and most incisive writers in the SFF field, so this is likely to be one of the best books of the year -- and you have most of the year to read it. Among Others was published in hardcover by Tor earlier this week.

Next I'd like to turn to the book I didn't know about ahead of time, because we have to make room for surprises in our lives. Col Buchanan's first novel is Farlander, the first in a fantasy series that looks to be more gritty-dark than epic-bright (with an assassin hero and a brewing war that doesn't seem to have a "bad guy"), and it's got a great cover with both a cool airship and a tough figure with notably darker skin than we usually see on fantasy covers. Farlander was also published by Tor this week, after a British edition from Tor UK a few months back.

And last for this week is the new Gene Wolfe novel, Home Fires. It's somewhat of a riff on The Forever War -- a young couple agree to be married, but one of them has to serve a tour of duty in the military, fighting aliens around some far-off star, before they can be together. Twenty years later, that soldier returns, still a young woman, while her husband is a rich, settled man in his forties. So of course they go on a Caribbean cruise, where, the flap copy says, they meet with "a complex of challenges, not the least of which are spies, aliens, and battles with pirates." Wolfe has been one of the must-read writers of the SFF field for thirty years now, with even his minor novels like An Evil Guest (my review) and The Sorcerer's House (my review) rewarding close attention, and his best works, like the multifarious New Sun/Long Sun/Short Sun sequence, are signposts of the best that SFF can achieve. So it's wonderful to have a new Wolfe around the house -- this one was also published by Tor, which is having a great week.

[1] Such things have to be very rare, or all authors start expecting them, for one thing.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Book-A-Day 2010 # 354 (1/23) -- Wanted by Millar and Jones

The Wife, unlike me, is not given to spending a lot of time thinking about her past entertainment choices -- like a normal person, she enjoys things while they're happening, and then goes on with her life. But there are a few works that have made stronger impressions on her, a very few stories that have stuck permanently in her head. And one of those few is the dementedly awesome movie Wanted, which makes very little sense but does so with such style and verve that she and I could only stare at it, look briefly at each other to laugh out loud, and then go back to the spectacle in front of us. We could accept the bullet-bending, the secret societies, the casual brutal violence, but what finally convinced us that Wanted was not to be taken at all seriously was the Loom. That secret society in Wanted, the viewer (along with wee, at-that-point-still-misty-eyed James McAvoy) is told, follows the infallible instructions for assassination that it is given by a centuries-old loom, via the imperfections in the resulting fabric. The Holy Loom! The Oracular Loom! Nothing either of us has seen in a movie since then has matched that random insanity, and it remains a fixed star of our movie constellation, a signpost of nuttiness beyond which nothing has yet passed.

And so when I realized that my local library system had a copy of the graphic novel of Wanted -- written by Mark Millar with art by J.G. Jones, the first issue of which, apparently, was the sole source of that movie -- I hoped it was equally nutty, and that perhaps I'd see The Loom brought to life on a comics page. But my life is a gauntlet of disappointment and dashed hopes, because the comic Wanted is far more generic an example of its type than the movie Wanted is. The movie Wanted is, in many ways, a by-the-numbers action thriller, populated by the requisite Everyman hero with daddy issues and the Hot Babe who drags him into the deep end -- but it has that streak of what-the-hell random insanity to spice up the proceedings.

The comic Wanted starts from the same premise -- though heaped with Millar's trademark condescension towards his assumed audience -- with a shlubby young nebbish burdened by those same daddy issues and about to meet his very own Hot Babe. But Jones draws Wesley Gibson like he's just been kicked out of the special emo chapter of Aryan Youth, and all of the details of Wesley's life are Millarishly tuned for maximum teeth-on-edge friction, so that the reader can't simply enjoy the story. And then that story is just yet another very familiar tale of superpowers and the adolescent fantasies thereof, without any of the bizarre changes on standard themes that the movie rang.

You see, in the very unsubtle backstory to the comics Wantedworld, the supervillans slaughtered all of the superheroes in 1986 [1] and took over the world, changing both history and everyone's memories to make it seem as if they and their foes had never been. They then faded into the background for no clearly explained reason -- but the reader will have to break himself of the habit of looking for explanations if he wants to continue reading Wanted. As in so many "revisionist" comics, Wanted will provide no explanations, only assertions -- once something has been said, the reader must nod and say "Ah, of course" and never attempt to make analogies or to build a mental model of this world, since the assertions will never line up to make a coherent whole. A catalog of the things that don't make sense in Wanted would be longer than Wanted itself; it's a list of tired tropes, palmed cards, bald assertions, and standard scenes rather than a coherent work in its own right. (One could even make the argument that Millar either lost track of, or couldn't be bothered to remember, what he'd written about this world from one issue to the next -- the question of costumes is just one such entirely muddled example.)

So, yes, the supervillains rule the world, but do so quietly (for no reason). And Wesley's "superpower" is that he's really, really good at killing -- this is hereditary, you see, and principally means that bullets go exactly where he wants them to. And the fact that superpowered types are generally quite difficult to kill is not a factor in Wanted, because this is Wesley's superpower. Get it? That's only the first of at least a dozen things the reader must shrug and accept if he's to make it through all of these pages and the oh-so-trendy violence they contain.

Anyway, Wesley is plucked out of the life that Millar clearly attributes to his audience and put through a scattershot training sequence to bring him into his full powers, meanwhile getting quite a lot of (entirely off-page [2]) nookie from that Hot Babe. Along the way, his unpleasant doormat personality is swapped for an even more unpleasant complete-ass personality, and one must assume that Millar intends this to be an improvement. And so on: there's the usual intrigues and battles among the supervillains, with a high body count by the end. (This trade paperback includes a "Dossier" issue, with profiles of all of the major characters, at the end, and I noticed as I read through it that practically every one of them was dead by that point.) Wesley does bad things...but Millar keeps the really horrible, unforgivable stuff in his narration, so he can have both the frisson of a utter anti-hero and keep the comics readers from deserting the story in droves. In the end, Wesley gets everything he ever could have wanted and vastly more, because that's the kind of story that this kind of comics likes to tell.

(Once again, I have to note that I'm apparently very unlike the typical long-underwear comics reader: when there's vast carnage and megadeath in a story, I think about what it would be like to have myself or my family in the middle of those horrors, while the Wednesday Crowd simply is sure they're special enough to always be the guy in the tights flying around and punching people. So I always have vastly less interest in those destructive set-pieces than the trufen do.)

Wanted isn't bad, by the standards of modern big dumb comics punchfests: it's not nearly as obnoxiously obvious as The Boys or as button-punchingly stupid as Kick-Ass. Come to think of it, the morality in it probably compares reasonably well with Cry for Justice. Jones's art is less flashy than many of the current favorites, but it's good at differentiating the vast army of nasty monsters Wanted calls a cast, and strong at the traditional panel-to-panel storytelling virtues. In fact, Wanted was more professional, and less interesting, than I'd hoped it would be -- there have been many revisionist superhero stories over the past three decades, and this is just another one, without all that much to distinguish it. I was hoping for something quintessentially corrupt, and all I found was yet another story saying that comics readers desperately love the Special People and will always believe themselves one lucky moment away from joining their ranks. I already knew that.

This is a book that needed more oracular looms in it, and less of the same dialogue and situations that every shorts-on-the-outside character has been pretend-facing for the last twenty years. If Wesley really is the kind of bastard who rapes and kills everyone who's ever been less than deferential to him, we need to see him doing that -- preferably with some style and verve, which he doesn't show much of in this book. (McAvoy was a great upgrade; the comics Wesley goes from being a mopey loser to being a mopey killer without ever becoming interesting.) Wanted, sadly, becomes just another object lesson of how superheroes continue to strangle everything that could be good about adventure comics and channel an entire universe of potential stories into revisions of and reactions against the same few tired tenets of a dull Comics Code ethos.

[1] The fact that most of the characters are obviously thinly veiled versions of DC properties only makes this less subtle, as if it could have been.

[2] Wanted is remarkably prim for a book about a super-assassin who talks about rape and dismemberment all the time; there's no nudity and even the violence is barely more notable than what you'd see in a Code-approved book from the same year. One might even begin to wonder if Millar wants to have it both ways: to seem thrillingly transgressive without actually having to depict real transgressions.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Book-A-Day 2010 # 353 (1/22) -- Odds & Ends by R. Crumb

Everybody has what the British call a lumber room, full of the junk that you don't want to throw out, but aren't going to use any time soon. For some of us, it's an attic. For others, a basement. Some manage to shove it all into the hall closet. Artists often have a wall-full of flat files. But we've all got that accumulation of stuff that doesn't really fit anywhere but still seems to be worth holding on to.

The good news is: if you get famous enough, you can publish it, and make some money out of the deal. R. Crumb knows that -- not only has he had folks lining up to publish (and a longer line of people lining up to buy, which is crucial) his sketchbooks since the late '70s, he also found a home, about a decade ago, for his Odds & Ends, which are a very miscellaneous and random assortment of artwork from 1960 through 1999, with a very few comics pages but mostly other things.

So Odds & Ends has illustrations from small newspapers, a surprising assortment of Christmas and baby-announcement cards that Crumb did for friends and acquaintances, many covers to comics by Crumb and others, samples from his work at American Greetings in the '60s, a clutch of artwork related to Edward Abbey's novel The Monkey Wrench Gang, some posters and other vaguely commercial art, and many other drawings that can only be called miscellaneous. It's all Crumbishly interesting, each in its own way, but it's inevitably an assortment of random stuff.

I still count myself as a new reader of Crumb, since I'm still trying to find my way to his central, essential work -- and that's not particularly easy. Crumb has been blessed with a long, fruitful career, a publisher (Fantagraphics) willing to put out a massively multi-volume collection of his entire oeuvre, and a late resurgence with books like last year's Genesis (my review) -- but that's all meant that there isn't an easily-findable Mr. Natural book, or a standalone Fritz the Cat volume. (If those actually are the most important, central Crumb works -- I think they are, but I could easily be wrong.) This is not really a book for me, or for anyone who isn't already a huge Crumb fan -- it's a book that works best if it elicits reactions like "Oh, this reminds me of X!" or "I never knew Crumb did Y!" But his line is wonderful to look at, and there are an awful lot of good pictures in Odds & Ends, so there is something even for confused newbies like me.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

Friday, January 21, 2011

Book-A-Day 2010 # 352 (1/21) -- The Five Fists of Science by Fraction & Sanders

First EC Comics brought us Two-Fisted Tales. Much later, the Church of the Subgenius upped the ante with the mostly prose Three-Fisted Tales of "Bob". (Not to mention One-Fisted Tales, one of the best, and funniest, of the smutty-comics boom of the mid-90s.)

As far as I can tell, there have been no four-fisted tales. But there are The Five Fists Of Science, a steampunk historical SFnal adventure from 2006, written by Matt Fraction (who has gotten a much higher profile since then) and illustrated by Steven Sanders (who is now drawing S.W.O.R.D. for Marvel, so he's doing just fine for himself, as well). The five fists in question belong to Nicola Tesla, Mark Twain, and Tesla's aide Tim Boone, who has a metal prosthetic hand -- sadly, the book doesn't quite answer the question as to which of Tim's hands counts, and why the other one doesn't. Perhaps it's just that one hand is required to hold on, which would be appropriate.

Five Fists starts with a wonderful back cover, all Victorian melodrama in multiple typefaces with a strong line in the ecstasy of Science! The story itself is set in 1889, with a sixtyish Mark Twain returning, slightly more embittered than before, from a failed European peace conference to meet fortyish Tesla and forge their own Science!-driven plot to bring peace to the great powers of the world [1] via the creation of a steam-powered giant mechanical man controlled by a single operator in the head. (Twain and Tesla, whose finances are both shaky, also hope to make quite a bit of money selling the machines -- which are so powerful that they, deliberately echoing what's still in the future of our world, will be too dangerous to use and so create what one might call a state of mutually assured destruction.) They enlist the aid of Baroness Bertha von Suttner, a friend of Twain's, a fellow agitator for peace, and (most importantly) a woman well-known to the leaders of the world, to help them make the case to the various crowned heads...but the demonstrations do not go well, and no orders are placed.

Meanwhile, a shadowy cabal -- made up of the fiendish scientist Thomas Edison, the callous businessman Andrew Carnegie, the technical genius Guglielmo Marconi, and led by the evil magician John Pierpont Morgan -- is planning something suitably fiendish, building an iron-framed tower in New York, gathering cryptozooical creatures from the corners of the Earth, and making sacrifices to dark gods. The Twain/Tesla backup plan -- to use the giant robot to battle monsters they fake up themselves, from more bits of Tesla genius -- brings them to the attention of said shadowy cabal, and the showdown begins.

Five Fists is breezy and just historically accurate enough to always feel plausible, and, above all, never forgets that it's both a comic book and a piece of popular entertainment. It's a bit rough around the edges -- especially Sanders's art, which is occasionally too dark to quite see what's happening or who someone is supposed to be. If you're looking for a steampunk comic -- or a story about a Tesla-Twain team-up -- you're not going to find a better one than The Five Fists of Science.

[1] Fraction slightly misrepresents Twain's views on war, and the tenor of the time, for effect here. Twain was more concerned with colonial abuses -- strong nations rampaging over poor -- than with the next big war.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index