Thursday, March 31, 2011

Another Blast in My Futile War Against the Singular They

When you allow "they" to be a singular impersonal pronoun, you end up with sentences like this:
Somewhere in the male psyche is a little voice that tells them that if they see a female online, they obviously want to see their penis.
"Their penis"? Please, stop the madness. And "they obviously want to see their"? Shoot me now.

Let me fix that for you:
Somewhere in a man's psyche is a little voice that tells him that if he sees a female online, she obviously wants to see his penis.
See? Singular. Clear. Precise.

(Yes, I know it's futile -- see how I even put that word in the title? -- but I will always insist on retaining the right to complain.)

On the other hand, the comic is funny...and sadly true.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Movie Log: The Cannonball Run

As I mentioned in passing the other day, my sons and I watched The Cannonball Run last weekend, as part of their general film education. (You folks can show your kids whatever movies you want; I'm going to focus on the stuff I saw as a kid -- it clearly didn't hurt me, did it?)

We're right in the middle of the Hal Needham/Burt Reynolds cluster of car-chase comedies here, after two Smokey and the Bandit movies and Hooper, but before Stroker Ace and its own sequel. And we're also right at the point where the '70s turned into the '80s, with the gleeful anarchy of the National Lampoon years (Animal House, Meatballs, etc.) starting to turn into the crisp-and-slick sheen of the Reagan years. It's not a bad movie, but it's a silly little movie, and if it were a racehorse it would have been sired by It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World out of Smokey.

If you don't know the set-up -- in which case, I hope you're as young as my sons, or spent most of your life other than in North America -- it's pretty simple: there was a real, essentially "outlaw" cross-country race in the '70s, from the New York area to a Los Angeles suburb, and this movie is the officially-licensed comedy version of those races. A bunch of odd teams -- Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr. dressed up as priests in a Ferrari, Mel Tillis and Terry Bradshaw (and a half-ton of Budweiser) in a painted-over NASCAR vehicle, two guys on a motorcycle, Jamie Farr as a random Arab sheik, and so on -- compete for glory and a big check, by driving as quickly as possible across the country. Our hero is Burt, of course, and his sidekick is Dom DeLuise. They're driving an ambulance, so, for reasons never quite stated by obvious enough for a comedy like this, they need both a doctor and a patient. The former is Jack Elam, in one of his late bug-eyed comedy roles, and the latter is Farrah Fawcett, in a tight shirt and no bra.

A series of gags and car-chase scenes follow, though very little that could be described as a single, coherent plot. But who wanted that, anyway? Eventually, everyone makes it to California and the end of the race. Again, this is a silly comedy, very much of its time -- but that was a fun, easy-going, big-smile kind of time in America, and there's nothing at all wrong with that.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

How to Write a Novel

It was another long, tiring day, and none of the posts I'm "supposed" to write are inspiring me. So, instead, it's time for another dig into the ever-depleting archives to talk about something I have no personal experience of. My only excuse for the following advice to a wanna-be novelist -- given on the Straight Dope Message Board back in March of 2001 -- is that I was ten years younger and ten years more eager then. I still think it makes sense, of course, or I wouldn't resurrect it, but if I were a young writer, I wouldn't listen to me:

I came across an interesting quote the other day, I believe it was from E.L. Doctorow (and I'll have to paraphrase it, since I don't remember the exact wording) --
Thinking about a book is not writing. Researching is not writing. Talking about the book you're going to write is not writing. Sitting down and putting the words on paper is writing.
That's the main advice I'd give anyone who wants to write. Don't think about it, or plan it, or talk about what you want to write. Just sit down and write. Try to do it every day -- if you can for the same time every day. Try to make yourself write a certain amount each day, even if it's only one page. Don't get up until you've written something, even if you tear it up the next day.

The second lesson is not to think about publication until the story is finished (unless you're already published, or have a contract). Right now, your job is to write. When that job is done, it might be time for the "sell this story" job. It might not; many writers' "first novels" are actually the third or fourth they've completed. Your first work won't be your best; it might not be publishable. But don't put the cart before the horse; don't start dreaming about your book on the bestseller list while you're stuck with plot problems on page twenty-seven. Just write the thing first; then worry about the rest.

Oh and "reading books on writing" is another popular way of avoiding writing. Those books can be useful, but only read them in addition to writing, not instead of writing. Don't let them take away any writing time.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 3/26

Some weeks I blather on for a while up top here, before getting in the whole point of this exercise, but not today. I get books in the mail, and then I tell you about them. This week, there's just one. Here it is:

Lost & Found is an omnibus of three previously published picture books by Australian writer/illustrator/filmmaker/Oscar-winner/Hugo-winner/World-Fantasy-winner Shaun Tan, combining The Red Tree (which I mentioned briefly when I read it in April 2009), The Lost Thing, and The Rabbits (written by John Marsden) into one volume. Tan's big book, of course, is the wordless graphic novel The Arrival, one of the best books of any kind of 2007, which I reviewed for ComicMix back then. I've read all three of the books included in Lost & Found separately over the past few years, and I'm pretty sure there are copies of Lost Thing and Rabbits in the house somewhere. But Shaun Tan is a great visual artist, a pretty good writer, and Lost Thing is a thoughtful, interesting story that I'm glad to have an excuse to read again.

Arthur A. Levine Books, the piece of Scholastic that brought you J.K. Rowling among many other things, will publish Lost & Found in April, and I hope even those of you without children will take a moment to at least look at it. (Or at The Arrival, which is Tan's masterwork so far.)

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Diana Wynne Jones, 1934-2011

The great British fantasy writer Diana Wynne Jones -- whose books were usually published aimed at an audience of young teenagers, and were as good as that genre, or any other, ever got -- died on Friday night, after fighting cancer for several years. It wasn't unexpected -- she was too ill to travel to see the 2004 premiere of Howl's Moving Castle, the Hayao Miyazaki film based loosely on her 1986 novel of the same name -- but her continuing productivity had made us think that, just this once, the iron laws of the universe would stand aside.

I didn't know Jones personally, just through her work. And I somehow managed to miss reading her when I was young -- the first Jones book I read was either her excellent adult novel Deep Secret (loosely based on an actual British SF convention) or her indispensable satiric reference book The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, both of which I came across before they were published in the US in the late '90s. So I can't say anything direct about her effect on young readers. But her books were always smart in the best ways, with that questioning intelligence that the best writers for young readers always have, that sense that the world might not, at the bottom, exactly make sense, and that every supposed certainty and bit of received wisdom needs to be carefully examined.

In other words, she was exactly the kind of writer that smart kids, or any kind of kids, really needed: both a guide to the ways that worlds could be and a voice to say that all of those conceptions of the world were worth thinking and talking and writing about. And she will be gravely missed -- luckily for us, she left us behind a long shelf of books to remember her by.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Incoming Books: March 26, 2011

I had no idea how busy my Saturdays would get after kids -- not the slightest clue. (I spent my first ten years in the publishing business reading manuscripts all day Saturday -- The Wife was in retail and always worked that day, so it was a quiet, sit-around-the-house-and plow-through-work day.) Nowadays, I barely even get to look at my computer until 9 PM on a Saturday, and baseball season is only just starting.

(On the other hand, the boys are lots of fun: today we watched The Cannonball Run together and I got to see Thing 1 discover Farah Fawcett's nipples -- not unlike the way me and an entire generation of American boys discovered them, actually -- and lose the battle not to mention that out loud, while Thing 2 looked on in mystified silence and The Wife and I shared a "we're got a teenager now" look over their heads.)

That's all preamble: I always want to write a long, thoughtful review on a Saturday -- this time, the hope was either Among Others or Blackout/All Clear -- and I'm always foiled. So, instead, I'm going to tell you about the books I bought.

As you probably know, the major bookstore chain Borders is closing 200+ stores right now, and I hadn't managed to get to one of them before today. It's kind of a big deal in the book business, so I wanted to see it for myself -- and grab some bargains along the way, maybe. On top of that, Thing 2 whipped through The Bad Beginning (first of the splendidly awesome "Series of Unfortunate Events" series by Lemony Snicket) in one night earlier this week, and I realized I needed to seriously replenish my "read a novel, get a manga free" shelves. So I checked in with the boys, got a long list of manga to acquire, and set off.

(This particular Borders is in the biggest mall in my state -- which is pretty darn big in general -- sending me deep into unfamiliar territory; I don't spend much time in malls these days, seeing as how I'm not a teenager nor do I care deeply about clothes.)

Anyway, I came big with a huge haul -- eighteen manga for the boys to earn (various volumes of Shaman King, Yu-Gi-Oh: Duelist, and One Piece), plus a random Garfield book. Along the way, I also found a few books for me, since i always do:

The Infinities by John Banville -- Banville is probably the most "literary" writer that I read regularly; I'm in the habit of keeping up with his books, and they're definitely thorny and require effort but have also been worth all of that effort so far. I'd half-forgotten about this 2009 novel, since I was waiting for the paperback. I now have the paperback, so let's see if I can find time to read it.

The Final Solution by Michael Chabon -- I need to read more Chabon, and I'm not likely to dive into my big hardcover of Kavalier and Clay any time soon. So a short paperback might be just the thing to jump-start my interest in his work...I hope, at least.

The Collected Short Stories of Lydia Davis -- I do have a mental image of myself as a more serious, more literary-focused reader than I probably am, but a review of this in The New Yorker last year made me really want to read it, and I've picked up the hardcover several times in the library. Finding a paperback -- at 50% off -- made it impossible to resist. And I didn't notice until I was grabbing an image for this post that the rules on the cover -- that double box around the text -- is all hand-drawn, which is a great subtle little touch.

The Hammer by K.J. Parker -- I absolutely loved Parker's "Scavenger Trilogy," which I bought and glowingly blurbed at the SFBC. (Though they didn't sell all that well -- ungrateful wretches that club members are, as usual.) And I've felt guilty for not reading any other Parker books since then -- they're all tough and serious and grim and quite dark, much like a character named Parker written by a man called Stark, though I don't think that was a conscious echo -- so I've almost bought several of them. This one stands alone, it wasn't shelf-worn, and it was half-price. So I got it.

The Sex Lives of Cannibals by J. Maarten Troost -- This is another book I've picked up half-a-dozen times over the years -- this paperback edition is from 2004 -- and never quite bought; it's a humorous travel narrative about a then-young Dutch guy who ditched his regular life and went off to the South Seas, which turned out not to be the Gaughin-esque paradise he expected. Again, seeing it for a bout half price finally moved the needle.

And last for me was Bloom County: The Complete Library, Volume Two by Berkeley Breathed. I loved the Bloom County strip at the time, but I was young enough then, and Breathed's subsequent efforts have been so underwhelming, that I worried that the strip wouldn't stand up this many years later. But the reviews for this IDW series have been excellent, and I find myself drifting more and more towards the great American strip comics [1] recently, so I was happy to see this volume still available in the picked-over Borders store.

As to the store itself, it was a liquidation sale, and those are always a combination of grimness (half the store roped off, with fixtures taped together for sale; hand-printed signs; messy shelves with lots of face-outs) and joy (the thrill of the hunt through barely-organized shelves; the restless energy of the bargain shopper). As I understand it, it's not really "Borders" running those stores anymore, but a liquidator, so the efficiency and organization doesn't reflect on Borders' current management team. (Whoever that is this week.) Borders does have a chance to reorganize and come back as a strong, stable bookstore chain -- they're still the second-biggest chain in North America, even after all of those stores are closed. But they'll need to focus on selling books -- which are quirky, persnickety things, sold to quirky, persnickety people -- to do that, and they've been very lacking in book-focus for a long time now. I'm a natural pessimist, but I want to be optimistic about their chances -- so I'll just say that they're not out of anything yet.

[1] As a thousand other comics critics/reviewers/readers have before me; it's not a new tendency at all.

Friday, March 25, 2011

In Which the Sky Has Not Fallen

There's only two ways to get something done: you either do it yourself, or pay someone else to do it. Sometimes the price is too high, but sometimes what that price buys you is the time to do what you're better at, instead of doing everything.

For example, Amanda Hocking -- who's become moderately famous in Internet and publishing circles over the last few months for a meteoric increase in her sales as a self-publisher of e-books -- has just signed a deal with St. Martin's Press for a four-book series. The terms haven't been released, since they rarely are, but reports indicate that the price was over $2 million.

And, yes, Hocking could have made $2 million selling those books directly -- possibly even more quickly than she'll make it in the SMP deal. So why did she do it?
“I want to be a writer,” she said. “I do not want to spend 40 hours a week handling e-mails, formatting covers, finding editors, etc. Right now, being me is a full-time corporation.”
Publishing is a job -- no, more than that, it's about half-a-dozen jobs, with editing, marketing, production, sales, cover design, and so on. There are people who are good at all of those things, I'm sure. But are they equally good at all of them? Better than the people they could get to do those jobs?

The "Big Six" have spent the last few decades getting really good at one thing: getting lots of copies of books [1] in front of a wide audience. So, if you're someone who already has a wide audience, it might seem counter-intuitive to go that route -- you've already got those people, right? But those publishers have been changing name recognition into book sales since Henry Ford's Own Story; they've got a reach and scope that no single person can match.

Or, to put it a different way: the Internet did not magically erase the advances of the detailed division of labor; it's nearly always better to specialize. And what writers specialize in is writing.

[1] Replace "books" with "content" if you want to be trendy; a book is just a container for a variable quantity of "content."

Quote of the Week: The Long Ball

"[W]e are always kinder to "partial" achievements in the long run of history than we are in the lifetime of the artist, when we keep wanting more. We judge an artist in his lifetime by batting average; afterward, only by home runs."
 - Adam Gopnik,"The Man in the White Suit," about Mark Twain, in the 11/29/10 New Yorker

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Spy: The Funny Years

Magazine publishing is all about timing -- having whatever your audience wants, just a moment before they want it. The best magazines, of course, strive not to think about their audience -- to run off in the direction they've chosen and hope that they have enough followers to keep the lights on.

Spy was a great magazine in the late '80s, a fine magazine in the early '90s, and a shambling wreck of itself in the late '90s -- when it started, it was one of the earliest manifestation of the modern media self-fascination (and self-loathing, and endless self-reflexivity) and of the snarky, iconoclastic tone that later became the default mode of the Internet. And Spy: The Funny Years tells the story of that magazine, through those good years, interspersed with a lot of examples of what Spy did well.

Although, since Spy was so much of its time -- picking on Trump and Leona and Ovitz and the rest of the late-80s vintage crew of unpleasant New Yorkers -- reading it now is an exercise in quaintness and nostalgia, full of "remember that?!" moments that leech the honest bile of its original power. That's inevitable, of course -- last year's short-fingered vulgarian is this year's TV superstar -- but it does tend to make Spy seem cuter and less cutting than it really was.

This book is written by George Kalogerakis, one of the original Spy crew, with regular kibitzing and oversight by the original editorial duumvirate, Kurt Anderson and Graydon Carter. The balance between old and new is skewed towards the old -- Spy was so crowded with what we now call "content" that a snippet from those pages has as many words as a page or two of the coffee-table-book prose of the main narrative. And so Spy: The Funny Years has "pictures" with more words than the pages they sit on, and a number of full articles, all of which take longer to read than two or three chapters put together. It's good stuff, sure, but Spy: The Funny Years feels more like an anthology of the Best of Spy, with historical notes, than like a history of Spy with illustrations. But what can you expect when you let such word-struck folks have their heads?

If you were there at the time -- or soon afterward; I only graduated college and started working in New York in 1990, around or just after the peak of Spy -- then this will remind you of the things we were all disgusted by then, and how we found out about them. If not, it's an interesting snapshot of a time that seemed the height of bad taste and the self-indulgence of wealth then...only because we didn't realize how much worse things could get.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Three Utterly Different Graphic Novels

I read all three of these recently, and I'm not doing a review every day, so they pile up:

Naruto, Vol. 48 by Mashashi Kishimoto -- There is nothing whatsoever I can say at this point about Naruto that would make much sense to anyone who hasn't been keeping up with the series, but this is the closest thing to a regular comics fix that I have these days. (I haven't read any long-johns characters regularly in about a decade; the last was probably the various animated-Batman comics in the '90s, and the vaguely superheroish remnant of Vertigo around the same time.) It's full of all of the cliches of comics for Japanese boys: the hero who's hardworking and endlessly sunny, though just slightly too much to handle; the endless fights, shown in loving detail and at great length; the delight in minutia, especially related to the aforementioned fighting; and the ever-present focus on both the feelings and concerns of everyone related to the story. This is a solid volume, another brick in a huge wall of story -- and I like my walls of story to be concrete and constructed by the same architect from beginning to end, unlike the Western superhero equivalents. So I'll keep reading Naruto, as I remember to.

Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword by Barry Deutsch -- This is a weird little book -- it has a second subtitle (or "reading line," as we sometimes call it in the book biz) on the cover to say "Yet Another Troll-Fighting 11-Year-Old Orthodox Jewish Girl," and that's what it is. Mirka lives with her (large) family in a small town somewhere not very close to anything else or to more than a handful of goyim, sometime in the last few hundred years, and she wants to fight dragons. Her world is a mixture of very specific -- all of the details of Orthodox Jewish life are given a lot of space and attention -- and the very vague, such as what any of the adults in Hereville do. (They don't farm, and commerce seems very unlikely, given how cut off they are from everything else.) There's also a pronounced undercurrent of female repression: all the girls in Hereville can hope for is to grow up and become a wife and mother (to many, many children as quickly as possible) -- and, if she's lucky, not to die young (as seems to happen very often). Mirka's desire for adventure isn't in opposition to that repression, though; it's entirely unrelated to it, taking place on a different level of reality. (If Mirka questioned women's place in her society, she couldn't be the good Jewish girl she is.) There's a tension there that I'm not sure Deutsch intended -- this seems to be a book planned to be a fun adventure story set in a specific kind of community, but that community and the choice of a girl for hero resonate strongly in ways that shake the book's foundations. Apart from that unexamined tension, though, Hereville is a fun, girl-powerish adventure story with a heroine who's smart, resourceful, and endearingly bullheaded. 

The Search for Smilin' Ed by Kim Deitch -- Deitch's books are all pieces of a single large mythology, centered on his trickster character Waldo the Cat, and usually involving old and half-forgotten forms of American entertainment (vaudeville, old Hollywood, stage magicians), which a modern character -- often named "Kim Deitch," and with a lot of the identifiable characteristics of the author -- slowly unravels, without quite piercing the central mysteries, though the reader does see all of those details. Search for Smilin' Ed slots into that schema perfectly, as "Kim Deitch" tries to track down the host of an obscure '50s TV kids' show, but runs into Waldo along the way -- so that the story can bend off to follow Waldo from there on, and to learn the real secrets. (Which, typically, are kept from the Kim Deitch character in his own books.) Deitch is one of the great originals of comics: wordy and discursive, but always compelling, with a detailed pen-and-ink style that incorporates a thousand grotesques while remaining essentially sunny and full of wonders. This book also contains a massive two-page fold-out (and accompanying key) with nearly every character from the multifarious versions of Deitchland, which is nearly worth the price of admission all by itself. Simply put, it's lovely to be in a world that not only contains a Kim Deitch, but celebrates him and lets him continue to create stories like this; his continued career is almost enough to make me believe in his wilder flights of fancy.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Movie Log: Dinner for Schmucks

Dinner for Schmucks isn't really a good movie in any standard way -- though it does end up being reasonably funny in the last half-hour, to salvage the experience of watching it somewhat -- but it is an excellent object lesson in how to take a good movie and dumb it down in every way possible. Schmucks is a remake of the French film The Dinner Party, which was elegant, smart, pared-down, and absolutely hilarious.

Where Dinner Party had a morally ambiguous man at its center, Schmucks has Paul Rudd, playing Paul Rudd, the good-natured befuddled bright-faced boy-man he always is. Where Dinner Party dove right into its central situation -- privileged folks have a monthly party, to which each of them bring an "idiot" for their secret amusement -- Schmucks has to spend a prefatory half-hour carefully signposting every element of the plot and making sure Rudd's character is up to the Hollywood standard of likability. And in every way that Dinner Party was understated and smart, Schmucks is big and stupid.

So Schmucks spends nearly an hour -- a long, tedious, obvious hour, particularly to anyone who has seen Party -- setting its trite, cliched plot into careful place, and then finally starts running downhill, as much as it can. There is nothing at all that this movie does that Party doesn't do twice as well, and there is no reason to see this movie unless you have a very low opinion of your own standards, or a masochistic taste for bad American comedy.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal

Jane Austen famously described her novels -- in a description subsequently often quoted to denigrate her work and that of other female writers, either overtly or through a backhanded head-pat -- as "The little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush as produces little effect after much labour." Mary Robinette Kowal's first novel, Shades of Milk and Honey, is deeply in that Austenian tradition, and will certainly garner a few head-pats of its own, from the clueless and the sensation-addicted. But writing a novel this quiet, this domestic and constrained and pure, in the early 21st century -- not to mention doing it in a genre as entirely built on external action and what teenage boys call "adventure" as fantasy -- is surely one of the most radical things that any writer could hope to do, a perfectly shaped and wielded knitting needle thrust, with all the best taste and tact possible, right into the Achilles heel of the genre.

Milk and Honey is, in nearly all ways, a novel Jane Austen could have written. The ending does pull back somewhat more than Austen typically did, irising out to give a quick vision of the future after this story ends. And the world depicted in Milk and Honey is more fantastical than the one Austen knew -- the manipulation of glamour, folds of reality that can create illusions fooling many senses, has been added to the catalog of feminine, decorative virtues, and are even attempted by a few men engaged professionally in the work. Glamour is thus like cooking: if a man does it, it's impressive and entertaining. When a woman does it -- and she likely does it every day, if she does it at all -- it's only what's expected of her, and sufficient to show that she has the required virtues.

Milk and Honey is an alternate-world version of Sense and Sensibilty: sensible older sister Jane Ellsworth is the plain one, highly gifted in the manipulation of glamour and deeply intelligent, but outshined in beauty by her more frivolous decade-younger sister Melody. And, of course, their father has no sons, leaving his estate -- which is comfortable but not palatial -- entailed over to a distant relative on his death. Jane is our heroine and center, as she must be, and Milk and Honey follows her journey from the verge of spinster-dom to a much happier life. The novel takes place in that small, constrained, very Austenian world of rare balls, daily visits (or chances for visits) and walks across the countryside, with the same few people coming across each other again and again over the course of a few months. There's the mildly tedious local grande dame, her favored and dashing nephew, the local lord who may become someone's suitor and his younger, protected sister, who may become someone's friend. And then there's the great glamourist from London, down in the country as a tutor and to assemble a magnificent room-sized environment for the grande dame.

This is a novel in the Jane Austen manner, so Jane Ellsworth will be smart and cutting and thoughtful and lovable along the way, until her perfect life finally comes into view. Kowal allows herself somewhat more action in the last fifth of the novel than Austen would have -- though that action is all entirely period-appropriate. Shades of Milk and Honey is unabashedly painted with a tiny brush on two inches of ivory -- a style that has never been much in fashion, in any literary precincts, and is the diametric opposite of the usual expectations for a fantasy novel. So that it was done at all is impressive, and that it was done this well is a cause for joy -- since Milk and Honey is a lovely, quiet idyll of a world that never was, and one of the vanishingly rare fantasy novels that is entirely about the happiness of a small clutch of people, needing nothing more.

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 3/19

Well, that was a week, wasn't it? (Imagine that said in the same tone as "Well, that's a baby!", when faced with something that no one in their right mind would call cute or adorable or sweet or, even, possibly, human. Also imagine, because you'll have to, that there was any reason whatsoever for this pseudo-bonhomie, and that it wasn't a purely random blog-post-opening sentence chosen by a vast and cold machine intellect. [Not that this is the case, of course. {Ignore these brackets.}])

Anyway, I got books in the mail this week. I was more than usually frenzied, because of preparations for Lunacon, so I barely glanced at them until this very here's what I can tell you about them:

Deathless is a new novel by Catherynne M. Valente, a writer who's always doing something interesting and particular. This time it's a retelling of the Russian legend of Koschei the Deathless, told against the backdrop of the very Russian 20th century. I've wanted to read several of Valente's novels so far, but haven't managed to yet -- I hope I can break the streak with this one, which is being published by Tor in hardcover on March 29th.

Imagine Steven Erikson slapping down The Crippled God on some very resonant, booming table -- the shiny, gigantic slab of wood in some mental boardroom, perhaps -- with a satisfied smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye as he gestures at the crowd of epic fantasy writers who haven't finished their big series (no names, please; he's Canadian and thus preternaturally polite) and shrugs slightly. It was barely twelve years ago that Gardens of the Moon was published, and there were many people who wondered out loud if then-new writer Erikson could keep up the pace he'd set for himself and deliver nine further (and all substantially bigger) books in the "Malazan Book of the Fallen." (In fact, Yr. Humble Correspondent, now three books behind, wishes that Mr. Erikson had been slightly slower, so that I wouldn't feel quite so behind-the-times.) Crippled God is out now -- it was published by Tor earlier this month, and hit the New York Times bestseller list almost immediately -- and the Malazan series is now finished. If there's anyone out there who has been waiting to be sure the series would end before starting it, this is your official notice. And if any of you wonder if the Malazan books are for you, ask yourself this question: have you found, any time in the recent past, that you've been reading epic fantasy books that feel thin and second-hand, that it seems like you've seen all of the tricks of the genre and are tired by the whole enterprise? Congratulations -- you've just leveled up, and you're ready to read Erikson.

 Black Halo by Sam Sykes, which is the second in the "Aeons' Gate" series, after Tome of the Undergates. This is tough, gritty fantasy, along the lines of Joe Abercrombie, about a hard-bitten adventurer and a mission to keep the gates of hell closed. (Because who would want them open? I ask you.) Black Halo will be published as a big, fat trade paperback by your friends at Pyr on March 29th.

Speaking of second books in fantasy series -- and I just was, oddly enough -- here is Honeyed Words, continuing J.A. Pitts's so-far untitled urban fantasy series about modern-day blacksmith, movie-props manager, and medieval re-enactor Sarah Beauhall, after last year's Black Blade Blues. The fantasy elements in this series seem to start with dragons -- who live secretly among humanity, conveniently shapeshifted -- and continue on in a mostly Norse vein, with dwarves, fairies and giants. Tor is publishing this second book in both hardcover and trade paperback form, for greater variety of choice, this July.

Fiona Patton's The Shining City, on the other hand, is the third volume of her "Warriors of Estavia" series, about a god-touched, rich city protected from the depredations of the outside world by a giant, ancient magical barrier, and about the three youngsters who are Destined by Prophecy to Be Important in a Series of Books. DAW is publishing this on April 5th.

And last for this week is a big graphic novel, the latest in the quirky series -- all by different creators, with utterly different stories and formats -- co-published by the famous Louvre museum [1] and NBM Publishing, The Sky Over the Louvre. This one is written by screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere and drawn by Bernar Yslaire -- they're both French, as you'd expect from something about such a touchstone of French culture -- telling a story of the Revolution, of the time when the Louvre went from being a royal palace to a museum in the first place, and of the relationship between Robespierre, leader of the Terror, and the great painter David, hired to paint a new "Supreme Being" for the new France. This large volume -- it's close to eleven inches square -- will be available in hardcover this May, in comics stores and other fine purveyors of illustrated entertainments everywhere.

[1] You know, the one in Paris? That one.