Saturday, April 30, 2011

Favorite Editions

I'm still mining the content I wrote for other places -- in my case, mostly Usenet and bulletin boards -- in the last decade or so, and dragging it over here so that Antick Musings will be the Grand Unified Depository of all thing Andrew Wheelerish. This little squib, which most people would consider a bit of string too small to save, was originally posted to rec.arts.sf.written 11/1/00, and was part of a longer discussion about the topic clearly stated in the title:

The big one for me was the late '70s Avon editions of Zelazny's books (especially the Amber series) with those mostly-black covers and the great small illustrations by Ron Walotsky. There was something that just said to me: this is what a Zelazny book looks like.

I actually imprinted so hard that, years later, when I was doing a one-volume edition of "The First Chronicles of Amber," I made my art director use Walotsky for the cover and replicate that same look as much as possible. Hey, it may not be the reason most people go into publishing, but...

Friday, April 29, 2011

Quote of the Week: Family

"Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city."
- George Burns

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Hey, You Know I'm Posting Several Times a Day Over at Editorial Explanations, Right?

Sure, it's usually about the twisted collision of American politics and cartooning, which is not necessarily everyone's cup of tea. (Note that I'm engaging in massive understatement once again.) But I find myself feeling guilty about the relative lack of content here -- not to mention the stack of books to be reviewed, which is now ten high -- and I keep telling myself that I am blogging over there (450 posts this month alone!)

Anyway, just in case you think I'm slacking off, it's not true: I'm just doing other things than Antick Musings. Funny things. Short things! (All my Twittering and Google shared-items-ing has finally gotten me to write short.) Sideways sarcastic complaints about current events! Things no one asked for!

Just in case you didn't get that link before: Editorial Explanations. Message: I care.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Are You Aware?

So yesterday I entirely intended to post about TMBG Awareness Day, but I didn't. But why should awareness be limited to a single day, I ask you? Be aware today, be aware tomorrow -- hell, you can even be aware a week from next Tuesday if you want!

(For myself, I've been a TMBG fan since I saw them on the dark early days of MTV, before their first record came out. I'm enough of a long-time fan to have scars from the transition to "full band" in the early '90s. I'm damn old, man.)

Anyway, be Aware. America needs more Wares. And there's some new TMBG music, for those who like such things, on Amazon and iTunes (and probably other places) as a teaser for a new record coming Real Soon Now.

And have this, the video for their first single, also from those lazy days of 1986:

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Titles That Were Not Used for Star Wars III

Back in 2002, Star Wars movie-watchers were in a state of shell-shock. We'd seen two very lousy movies recently, and were contemplating ways that the third movie of that trilogy could manage to be even worse. And so a thread arose on the Straight Dope Message Board, in which various people made up funny titles for then then still-forthcoming third movie. These were mine:

Star Wars (R): Episode III A Plague of Darths

Star Wars (R): Episode III Darth Darth Baby

Star Wars (R): Episode III Ewok Mania!

Star Wars (R): Episode III Why Should We care About These Annoying, Stuck-Up Jedi Knights, Anyway?

Star Wars (R): Episode III Eat the Happy Meal, Buy The Toy

Star Wars (R): Episode III Lots of Things Blow Up

Star Wars (R): Episode III Hi, My Name Is George Lucas, and You'll See Any Damn Thing I Put Out, No Matter How Stupid, Won't You?

Star Wars (R): Episode III Jar Jar -- Jedi!

Star Wars (R): Episode III Democracy Is Over-rated; Let's Let Some Robed Zen Idiots Rule the Universe

and, my personal hope:

Star Wars (R): Episode III Mace Windu, Funky Jedi

Monday, April 25, 2011

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 4/23

And a Happy Monday to you all; hope you all got through whatever holiday festivities that may have bedeviled you over the last few days. This is my usual Monday-morning post, listing all of the books that arrived the previous week in my mailbox. As always, I haven't read any of them yet, though I do hope and intend to read (and then review) several of them -- but we all know where pavement made from intentions leads.

This week, I'll begin with graphic novels and with urban fantasy -- though I'll loop back to non-graphic novel urban fantasy at the end, for that oh-so-chic circular literary structure that we critics adore -- to show off the nice cover for Blood Work. It's an original graphic novel set in the world of Kim Harrison's "The Hollows" series, written by Harrison and illustrated by Pedro Maia and Gemma Magno. As often happens with graphic extensions of series, this is a prequel, telling the story of the first meeting between Harrison's series heroine Rachel Morgan and the vampire Ivy Tamwood. Blood Work will be published by Del Rey in hardcover on July 11th.

Anya's Ghost is the first book by Russian-born cartoonist Vera Brosgol, and it comes with impressive advance quotes -- Neil Gaiman calls it "a masterpiece," and Scott McCloud wrote that "Brosgol is the kind of cartoonist I want to be when I grow up." Anya is a girl with enough problems -- she's self-conscious about her body, embarrassed by her Russian family, and having trouble fitting in at school -- when she accidentally falls down a well and makes an unexpected (and unshakable) new friend: the ghost of a girl who died a century before. Anya's Ghost will be published by First Second in June.

Also from First Second is Level Up, a graphic novel written by Gene Luen Yang and drawn by Thien Pham. It's another story about growing up Asian-American, with pushy immigrant parents demanding their son become a doctor -- in this case, Dennis Ouyang is supposed to become a gastroenterologist. Dennis, of course, would rather slack off and play video games. But perhaps he's destined to become a gastroenterologist, and perhaps there are forces that will make that happen, no matter what he wants. Level Up is also coming in June.

Peter S. Beagle has a new collection of stories, Sleight of Hand, published by Tachyon in March, and it's almost entirely stories originally published since his 2009 collection, We Never Talk About My Brother. If I need to tell you who Peter Beagle is (author of A Fine and Private Place and The Last Unicorn and "Lila the Werewolf," etc.), I think you're reading the wrong blog.

Tachyon has also just published a new anthology of horror stories edited by Joe R. Lansdale, Crucified Dreams. It contains nineteen reprint stories about nasty things -- some of them supernatural, but some of them not -- taking place in cities, from Harlan Ellison's "The Whimper of Whipped Dogs" to Lucius Shepard's "Beast of the Heartland," including work from Joe Haldeman, Jonathan Lethem, Michael Shea, Octavia E. Butler, Michael Bishop, Jeffrey Ford, and Lansdale himself.

I said I'd get back to urban fantasy, didn't I? And so I will, with Central Park Knight, the second in a new series by C.J. Henderson (after Brooklyn Knight) about Professor Piers Knight, the Brooklyn Museum's own Indiana Jones. (You know how it is -- first the Natural History Museum got an Indiana Jones, and then the Met had to get one, and now everyone down to the Museum of the Moving Image has a request on Bloomberg's desk.) This time out, all of the dragons have returned -- they were sleeping until unexpectedly woken in the first book -- and are both battling each other with nuclear weapons and (one of them, at least) bent on conquering the world, including humanity. Professor Knight, clearly, would prefer for that not to happen, and Tor will be happy to sell you the trade paperback of Central Park Knight, explaining how he saves the world, on May 10th.

Also in the urban fantasy vein is Kitty's Greatest Hits, a collection of stories by Carrie Vaughn, all set in the world of her popular series character Kitty Norville. (Not all of the stories, of course, are directly about Kitty, or in her voice -- that's why someone writes sidebar stories in the world of a first person series; to get to other pieces of that world and other perspectives that the series heroine can't reach.) I'm unabashedly a fan of this series, and I don't mind saying so...though I also have to admit that I've found myself three books behind due to Vaughn's admirable work ethic. Greatest Hits will be a trade paperback from Tor in August.

And last for this week is another book by Vaughn, though this one is completely unrelated to Kitty Norville. After the Golden Age is a superhero novel, about the forensic accountant daughter of the two greatest heroes of her world, who herself is utterly powerless and an often-nabbed hostage. Vaughn can write great stories, and she's been doing superheroes for a few years now via Wild Cards, so she knows the genre. And I have an interest in forensic accounting from my day job -- so I think I'll be reading this just-published Tor hardcover sooner rather than later.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

2011 Hugo Nominees

Hot off the presses, here are this year’s nominees, with my usual off-the-cuff comments (which are probably about to offend someone). I copied-and-pasted the list from John Scalzi, in an attempt to have someone to blame if I screwed up.

Best Novel

  • Blackout/All Clear by Connie Willis (Ballantine Spectra)
  • Cryoburn by Lois McMaster Bujold (Baen)
  • The Dervish House by Ian McDonald (Gollancz; Pyr)
  • Feed by Mira Grant (Orbit)
  • The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin (Orbit)

I have to admit that the two of those that I've read so far did not strike me as particularly Hugo-worthy; the Bujold is a nice minor late book in a well-loved series, and the Willis diptych is, frankly, a curate's egg at best.

Best Novella

  • “The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers beneath the Queen’s Window” by Rachel Swirsky (Subterranean Magazine, Summer 2010)
  • The Lifecycle of Software Objects by Ted Chiang (Subterranean)
  • “The Maiden Flight of McCauley’s Bellerophon” by Elizabeth Hand (Stories: All New Tales, William Morrow)
  • “The Sultan of the Clouds” by Geoffrey A. Landis (Asimov’s, September 2010)
  • “Troika” by Alastair Reynolds (Godlike Machines, Science Fiction Book Club)

The only one I've read is the Hand (which was good but didn't strike me as award-quality good), but my rootting impulses, even three years and a bad break-up later, are with Reynolds's story, for obvious reasons.

Best Novelette

  • “Eight Miles” by Sean McMullen (Analog, September 2010)
  • “The Emperor of Mars” by Allen M. Steele (Asimov’s, June 2010)
  • “The Jaguar House, in Shadow” by Aliette de Bodard (Asimov’s, July 2010)
  • “Plus or Minus” by James Patrick Kelly (Asimov’s, December 2010)
  • “That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made” by Eric James Stone (Analog, September 2010)

I have no coherent comment; I'm not reading enough short fiction these days to say anything.

Best Short Story

  • “Amaryllis” by Carrie Vaughn (Lightspeed, June 2010)
  • “For Want of a Nail” by Mary Robinette Kowal (Asimov’s, September 2010)
  • “Ponies” by Kij Johnson (, November 17, 2010)
  • “The Things” by Peter Watts (Clarkesworld, January 2010)

Those are strong writers, so I expect they're good stories -- but I haven't read them yet.

Best Related Work

  • Bearings: Reviews 1997-2001, by Gary K. Wolfe (Beccon)
  • The Business of Science Fiction: Two Insiders Discuss Writing and Publishing, by Mike Resnick and Barry N. Malzberg (McFarland)
  • Chicks Dig Time Lords: A Celebration of Doctor Who by the Women Who Love It, edited by Lynne M. Thomas and Tara O’Shea (Mad Norwegian)
  • Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century, Volume 1: (1907–1948): Learning Curve, by William H. Patterson, Jr. (Tor)
  • Writing Excuses, Season 4, by Brandon Sanderson, Jordan Sanderson, Howard Tayler, Dan Wells

I've read much of the Resnick-Malzberg book as it was originally published as essays in the SFWA's magazine -- and disagreed with a lot of it then; writers often are far less "insiders" into the publishing world than they think they are. (Not to say that people working in publishing are much better; it's a big, Balkanized world with hardly any "never"s or "impossible"s.) And I still have to read the Heinlein bio, about which I have heard mixed reports.

Best Graphic Story

  • Fables: Witches, written by Bill Willingham; illustrated by Mark Buckingham (Vertigo)
  • Girl Genius, Volume 10: Agatha Heterodyne and the Guardian Muse, written by Phil and Kaja Foglio; art by Phil Foglio; colors by Cheyenne Wright (Airship Entertainment)
  • Grandville Mon Amour, by Bryan Talbot (Dark Horse)
  • Schlock Mercenary: Massively Parallel, written and illustrated by Howard Tayler; colors by Howard Tayler and Travis Walton (Hypernode)
  • The Unwritten, Volume 2: Inside Man, written by Mike Carey; illustrated by Peter Gross (Vertigo)

I've read two of those -- Witches and Grandville -- both of which are solid but not, to my mind, award-quality. And I didn't love the first Unwritten book, so I'm tending to see this as a weak category.

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form

  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1, screenplay by Steve Kloves; directed by David Yates (Warner)
  • How to Train Your Dragon, screenplay by William Davies, Dean DeBlois & Chris Sanders; directed by Dean DeBlois & Chris Sanders (DreamWorks)
  • Inception, written and directed by Christopher Nolan (Warner)
  • Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, screenplay by Michael Bacall & Edgar Wright; directed by Edgar Wright (Universal)
  • Toy Story 3, screenplay by Michael Arndt; story by John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton & Lee Unkrich; directed by Lee Unkrich (Pixar/Disney)

I've seen all but the wand-battle, which I'm sure I'll get to soon. It doesn't strike me as strong a list as it should be, but it's certainly respectable.

Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form

  • Doctor Who: “A Christmas Carol,” written by Steven Moffat; directed by Toby Haynes (BBC Wales)
  • Doctor Who: “The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang,” written by Steven Moffat; directed by Toby Haynes (BBC Wales)
  • Doctor Who: “Vincent and the Doctor,” written by Richard Curtis; directed by Jonny Campbell (BBC Wales)
  • Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury, written by Rachel Bloom; directed by Paul Briganti
  • The Lost Thing, written by Shaun Tan; directed by Andrew Ruhemann and Shaun Tan (Passion Pictures)

I am so totally voting for Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury that you have no idea. I guess I need to watch The Lost Thing before I decide if No Award goes second or third, since I outgrew watching Doctor Who five or six regenerations ago. (No offense to you slathering hordes; I hardly watch any TV at all.)

Best Editor, Short Form
  • John Joseph Adams
  • Stanley Schmidt
  • Jonathan Strahan
  • Gordon Van Gelder
  • Sheila Williams
Good to see some newer names poking up here, and I'll have to think for a while before I have any clue how I'll vote here.

Best Editor, Long Form
  • Lou Anders
  • Ginjer Buchanan
  • Moshe Feder
  • Liz Gorinsky
  • Nick Mamatas
  • Beth Meacham
  • Juliet Ulman
A longer list than usual, and nearly all of them people I consider friends. This will be the toughest category to vote in, even if -- as I hope I will -- I can focus entirely on professional achievement in the year 2010.

Best Professional Artist
  • Daniel Dos Santos
  • Bob Eggleton
  • Stephan Martiniere
  • John Picacio
  • Shaun Tan
I love Shaun Tan -- I'm in the middle of looking at his omnibus Lost and Found right now -- but what art did he put out in 2010, other than The Lost Thing film? (This is always my complaint about this category; it never seems to have any specific tie to the year in question.)

Best Semiprozine

  • Clarkesworld, edited by Neil Clarke, Cheryl Morgan, Sean Wallace; podcast directed by Kate Baker
  • Interzone, edited by Andy Cox
  • Lightspeed, edited by John Joseph Adams
  • Locus, edited by Liza Groen Trombi and Kirsten Gong-Wong
  • Weird Tales, edited by Ann VanderMeer and Stephen H. Segal

Great work being done here, mostly in things I haven't had time to read regularly.

Best Fanzine

  • Banana Wings, edited by Claire Brialey and Mark Plummer
  • Challenger, edited by Guy H. Lillian III
  • The Drink Tank, edited by Christopher J Garcia and James Bacon
  • File 770, edited by Mike Glyer
  • StarShipSofa, edited by Tony C. Smith

I know nothing about the fanzine scene, and won't pretend to do so here.

Best Fan Writer
  • James Bacon
  • Claire Brialey
  • Christopher J Garcia
  • James Nicoll
  • Steven H Silver
A fine list.

Best Fan Artist
  • Brad W. Foster
  • Randall Munroe
  • Maurine Starkey
  • Steve Stiles
  • Taral Wayne
I'm sure the complaints about Munroe's deliberately simple drawings have already begun in the secret hallowed halls of SMOFs.

John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer
Award for the best new professional science fiction or fantasy writer of 2009 or 2010, sponsored by Dell Magazines (not a Hugo Award).
  • Saladin Ahmed
  • Lauren Beukes
  • Larry Correia
  • Lev Grossman
  • Dan Wells
Note: All finalists are in their 2nd year of eligibility.

I've met Lauren Beukes and read Lev Grossman, but I'll need to study more to have a clue in this category.

I'll do my half-baked and usually offensive "Handicapping" post somewhat later this year, after voting has closed. (And assuming I remember and have time; this summer is going to be a very busy one for me.)

The Hugo Award winners will be announced August 20, at Renovation, in lovely sunbaked Reno, Nevada. Voting is not quite open yet, but will be very quickly -- though, as always, one must be a member of the current Worldcon (Renovation; weren't you paying attention?) to vote. And that voting period will extend to some point that also is not yet specified. Congratulations to all of the nominees, but to the ones I personally know even more so, because that's the kind of guy I am.

Tiassa by Steven Brust

Steven Brust is the renegade literary son of Fritz Leiber and Gene Wolfe, taking from one a devil-may-care attitude, a casually brilliant cast-off-detail attitude towards worldbuilding, and a sensibility just a hair bloodier and more calculating than the reader expects, and from the other a sense that every detail has been precisely chosen, a reticence to ever give a fact twice, and a sense of humor even darker and more secretive than Leiber's. The Vlad Taltos novels are Brust's central work: a sequence of thirteen novels (so far), set in a world many dozens of millennia in the future and (probably) very far away in space, in which the main characters are men and a race remotely extracted from men, with creatures called gods and aliens with the powers of gods lurking around the edges of the narrative but never coming close enough to be entirely caught by the lens of story. Each book has been a separate, discrete novel, ostensibly completely understandable on its own and telling a distinct story -- and, yet, that reticence of detail and worldbuilding sense mean that Vlad's world only makes sense through the slow accretion of those details, and through a conscious effort to bring them all into focus together.

Tiassa, that thirteenth novel, is actually not a novel -- it's three novellas, told from different points of view, all involving Vlad to some degree and tracing his interactions with a divine artifact in the form of a silver tiassa. (A Tiassa is a winged large cat -- see the one on the cover? -- and it's the symbol of one of the seventeen great houses that the Dragearans -- that race created from men I mentioned before --- divide themselves into.)

The novel is also called Tiassa because the central character of Brust's other series set in the same world -- a deeply droll and charming series of books called the Khaavren Romances, deeply influenced by a wordy 19th century translator of Dumas that Brust imprinted on when young, deliberately modeled on Dumas's Musketeer books, and ostensibly written by a long-winded and occasionally dim Draegearan noble named Paarfi of Roundwood -- is Khaavren, who is of the house of the Tiassa as well as being the captain of the Empress's personal Phoenix Guards. And Khaavren -- as well as his wife, the Countess of Whitecrest -- are as important to this book as Vlad is.

Along with those three novellas (or perhaps novelettes; it's not a long book), there's a bit of linking material to make it all flow, but those are all quite short (and only really will make sense to devoted readers of the series). The first is in Vlad's voice, set during his days as a crimelord (between Jhereg and Teckla, I believe), in which that silver tiassa statue is used as part of a con Vlad runs and in which Khaavren's son is involved. The second is in omniscient third-person, is set a few years later, when Vlad is on the run, and has at its center Vlad's then-estranged wife Cawti and the Countess of Whitecrest during an apparent major threat to the Empire. And the third is in the voice (uncredited) of Paarfi, with Khaavren as the central character and Vlad as a crime victim whose circumstances he investigates.

It's a particularly arch and oblique entry in the series, of primary interest to the kind of readers who re-read an entire series in preparation for a new book. For those people, Tiassa will be, I expect, another treasure trove of new hints and clues to place carefully next to the hints and clues from previous books to build a slightly more complete picture of the still-mysterious parts of Vlad's life. For those of us who prefer books to stand on their own, Tiassa will be somewhat less satisfying, though it's slyly entertaining and darkly amusing in all of its parts. But I would never recommend a new Brust reader start with Tiassa; there's far too much history and nuance left unstated here.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Yet Another Braggy, Listy, Skiffy Meme

I got this meme from James Nicoll, and it's the usual thing -- a long list of books, which you set in bold if you've read them and set in italics if you own a copy. This particular list is from the UK publisher Gollancz, and is their self-declared fifty best science fiction and fantasy novels.

As usual, the real point is to do one of two things: either to show off how many books one has read, or to declare that these grapes are oh so very sour. I'll see how well I do before I decide which path I'll take.

  • A Case of Conscience by James Blish
  • Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan
  • Brasyl by Ian McDonald
  • The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin
  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
  • Dune by Frank Herbert
  • Fairyland by Paul McAuley
  • The Female Man by Joanna Russ
  • The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
  • Flood by Stephen Baxter
  • Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
  • Gateway by Frederik Pohl
  • Hyperion by Dan Simmons
  • Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon
  • More than Human by Theodore Sturgeon
  • Pavane by Keith Roberts
  • Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke
  • Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds
  • Ringworld by Larry Niven
  • Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner
  • Tau Zero by Poul Anderson
  • The Time Machine by H. G. Wells
  • The Separation by Christopher Priest
  • The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester
  • Yellow Blue Tibia by Adam Roberts
  • Beauty by Sheri S. Tepper
  • Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie
  • Book of the New Sun (Vol 1&2) (Vol 3&4) by Gene Wolfe
  • The Book of Skulls by Robert Silverberg
  • Conan Volume One by Robert E. Howard
  • Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris
  • Elric by Michael Moorcock
  • Eric by Terry Pratchett
  • Fevre Dream by George R. R. Martin
  • The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson
  • The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan
  • Graceling by Kristin Cashore
  • Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill
  • I Am Legend by Richard Matheson
  • The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch
  • Little, Big by John Crowley
  • Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees
  • Memoirs of a Master Forger by William Heaney
  • Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock
  • The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
  • The Runes of the Earth by Stephen Donaldson
  • Something Wicked this Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
  • Tales of the Dying Earth by Jack Vance
  • Viriconium by M. John Harrison
  • Wolfsangel by M. D. Lachlan
Some of those titles -- and I'm looking at Flood and Yellow Blue Tibia in particular -- are perhaps less essential than others, and they're also among a set of books I'd call "current authors Gollancz wants to flatter." I also greatly doubt that the essential Stephen Donaldson book is The Runes of the Earth. Still, given the requirements of the list -- these are all books that Gollancz publishes, and has available right now -- it's a pretty good list of the best of a certain British-focused view of SFF.

One of Our Thursdays Is Missing by Jasper Fforde

Out in the disreputable speculative end of fantasy, there's a little-read series of five books -- politely, no one mentions The Great Samuel Pepys Affair, which was expunged -- about a woman named Thursday Next, who is an agent for peace and harmony inside books. This is not the sixth book in that series. That series, though, is the setting for much of the action of One of Our Thursdays Is Missing, which takes the already heavily metafictional apparatus of the earlier books (as they exist in our world, under the same titles as they do in this book) and twists them another half-turn by making our heroine this time the fictional Thursday Next -- the woman who plays the part of Thursday in that series of books, each one by a different ghostwriter, as they were published in the world in which Thursday is a real person.

So, to recap: Thursday Next, in her first adventure, The Eyre Affair, learned that there was a way of jumping into fictional works, saved the plot of Jane Eyre, and was recruited by Jurisfiction, the policing outfit of the fictional end of the bookworld. That adventure, and four more, were written up and published in her world, without any reference to Jurisfiction and other highly secret elements of the bookworld, which do appear in the books as we read them in our world. (Whether there are other, even more secret, elements which have had to be suppressed from the books as we read them is a question that I obviously cannot answer here.) That series was not as popular in her world as it has been in ours, and now it languishes, little-read and barely in print, hanging onto an important piece of bookworldian real estate primarily because of the real Thursday's patronage and position.

The fictional Thursday -- whom I'll just call "Thursday" from now on, since she's our protagonist and doing otherwise would be tediously convoluted -- has an extra-textual love interest in Whitby Jett, traveling salesman for E-Z Read's Laborsaving Narrative Devices, though he doesn't become particularly important to the plot of Missing. She has a quiet life, playing the role of the real Thursday for the few dozen readers who find their way into her books now and then. And she has a small sideline as an occasional investigator for the Jurisfiction Accident Investigation Department (JAID), primarily to look into incidents where little-read novels break up and crash while being flown off to the bookworld's equivalent of Siberia, in which her real job is to inevitably decide that there were no problems with the system and the current crash was an inevitable accident.

But the bookworld itself -- recently Remade into a Dyson Sphere-esque internal globe speckled with islands corresponding to various genres and areas of activity -- is in turmoil, with a brewing border war between Racy Novel and its neighbors, Comedy and Women's Fiction, over very important resources of raw metaphor. The real Thursday was supposed to be one of the main negotiators in a series of imminent peace talks -- but she, as the title implies, now seems to be missing, though no one officially is saying so.

Then, as so often happens in a thriller, Thursday is pulled into a larger conspiracy and a wider sphere through what looks like a routine investigation of a vanity novel that broke up above Conspiracy, dropping most of a scene intact. Soon, she has an assistant, a clockwork butler named Sprocket, an understudy and rival named Scarlett, and what seem to be powerful enemies trying to stop her. Before Thursday uncovers the truth -- and saves the real Thursday Next -- she'll find herself taking a dangerous boat journey up the river of metaphor, dodging the fearsome Men in Plaid in a flying car, investigating the seamier side of Vanity Press, and even taking a quick trip to Thursday Next's real world and life. And, since this is fiction, that means that the good end happily and the bad unhappily.

Fforde is wry and amusing throughout, and only very rarely tries to punch the reader's ribs with obvious jokes. One of Our Thursdays Is Missing is very funny, but it's funny in essential conception rather than due to its decorations -- the humor is baked deep into the center of the novel. This time out, he's rebooted his fictional world pretty seriously, and also stepped back from the character of the real Thursday, who had been getting rapidly all-powerful in the last couple of books. That all suits the series well; what makes these books most enjoyable is the way they -- like similar books such as Who Framed Roger Rabbit? -- look behind the scenes and make up their own stories for what the characters of fiction get up to when they're not busy acting out their "day jobs." I have to admit that I was worried that Fforde was returning to Thursday, which I saw as a step backwards into jokey metafiction after the triumph of his last novel, Shades of Grey (see my review). But Missing -- while it doesn't have the essential depth and ambition of Shades -- is a strong step forward for the series, clearing away much of the extraneous clutter that had built up in previous books and introducing a new protagonist without the Superman problem that the real Thursday had. And there's plenty of scope for amusement for readers, from conversations in which the characters lose track of who's speaking to Fforde's half-buried musings on the places and relationships of the various genres to each other.

One of Our Thursdays Is Missing is also the best new-reader introduction to the series since The Eyre Affair; since it's essentially a reboot, I can enthusiastically recommend this to anyone who hasn't read Fforde before. He's smart without being annoying about it and funny without telegraphing his jokes, and tells a great story along the way. How much more do you want from a series at the disreputable end of Fantasy?

Friday, April 22, 2011

Quote of the Week: Professional Qualifications

"There are three kinds of economists. Those that can add, and those that can't."
- Hamish McCrae

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Republicans Are All Old White Men, Take Six

This could be spun either as truth or as evidence of media bias -- and I'll leave that to each of you to decide which -- but in the New York Times's story this morning about the current field of potential Republican presidential candidates for 2012, there are quotes from two people.

And those people are: first, "Floyd Petersen, a disabled contractor in Thompson Falls, Mont.," and, second, "John Pollard, a retired deputy sheriff of Tacoma, Wash."

So, based on this sample: Republicans are men, probably Caucasian based on their names, and dependent on other people for their entire income. One hopes that the Times interviewed people outside this segment, and that their quotes were just, somehow, left out of the final reporting.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Popeye, Vol. 4: "Plunder Island" by E.C. Segar

The fourth big slab of Elzie Crisler Segar's great comic strip Thimble Theatre -- better known, now but even in it's '30s heyday, by the name of its central character, Popeye -- came out from Fantagraphics about a year and a half ago, but it took me a while to work out how to physically read these gigantic, wonderful artifacts in the most satisfying way, so I didn't get to it until recently.

It's called Popeye, Vol. 4: "Plunder Island" -- after the six-months-long Sunday sequence of that name, in which Popeye, Wimpy, Olive, and others go in search of that legendary island, facing the horrible Sea Hag and her weird minion, Alice the Goon, along the way -- and it's just as good and thrilling a mixture of low humor, high adventure, running gags, populist sentiment, brawling action, expressive drawing, and unforgettable characters as ever. (See my reviews of the first three books -- "I Yam What I Yam!", "Well, Blow Me Down!", and "Let's You and Him Fight!" -- for more details.)

Everything I wrote about the earlier books -- well, except for the detail of which stories are in which volumes; this one has "Plunder Island" and some shorter continuities in the Sundays and a host of stories in the dailies, seeing Popeye back out West, back in Nazilia, hobnobbing with high society, in the "laziest town on earth," searching for the pool of youth, and, finally, building and filling an ark to found a men-only utopia that he'll rule -- is still true of Plunder Island, and I don't feel like repeating myself. The newspaper comic strip is one of the great American artforms, the second quarter of the 20th century was probably its greatest flowering, and Segar was one of the brightest lights of that Renaissance. This is great stuff, and it's just as funny and enthralling as it was in the mid-30s when Segar was spinning it out, day by day, in the funny papers. Someone who can read Popeye and doesn't has no advantages to speak of over the mule, who cannot read Popeye.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Among Others by Jo Walton

Among Others is a fantasy novel.

That's not a categorization; it's an assertion. The novel itself could be read as the diary of an emotionally disturbed young woman, who retreated to the fabulization of her own life to deal with a nearly unbearable trauma and whose voice the reader must mistrust from the ground up. But that's a false reading -- I insist that the faeries in Among Others are real, in all their numinousness and slipperiness, and that what Mori tells us is true, as far as she can tell it. I believe.

Among Others throws out another caltrop for the unwary reader: it's a fantasy novel that's in large part about science fiction, about the joy of reading SF books, discovering SF communities, and arguing in the ways that only SFnal people do. But its own story cannot be argued in those terms; its fairies cannot be proven or disproven by logic and close reading. This is a fantasy novel: one must accept Mori when she tells us about her life and her secret knowledge, and we must believe her. We must believe her. No one else could tell us these things.

Who is Mori? Morwenna Phelps is a plain teenage girl, with a leg and hip damaged by the same hurtling car that killed her twin sister Morganna. Mori is a girl who claims her mother is an evil witch scheming for magical power in nearly indescribable ways. Mori is a Welsh girl who sees fairies and does magic -- which doesn't work the way you think it would. Mori is a girl now in the care of her father, Daniel Markova -- separated from her mother for several years -- and on her way to the moderately posh girls' boarding school Arlinghurst, because that father has no idea what to do with her. Mori is a girl who loves science fiction books with a hunger that radiates off the page, the need of a smart young woman for stories that explain the secrets of this world and all of the others.

And she tells this story, in her own words, as she writes it down in a diary over the course of the 1979-1980 academic year. She views her fellow boarding-school students as if they were an alien race she has to comprehend, with their intra-house sports contests and elaborate points systems and not-quite-homoerotic close friendships. She casts a spell to find friends, and struggles with the idea of magic entirely -- because her mother is still out there, and still seeking to bend Mori to her will through her own magic. She finds her way into the local town, which has a tea shop (source of honey buns, sent to complicated nets of friends to mark  in-group status at Arlinghurst), and a bookshop, and a library -- and, most of all, eventually, some people Mori can talk to. But what Mori does most of all is read -- Le Guin and Delaney, Cherryh and Tiptree, Silverberg and Brunner (and some non-SF as well, in amongst the others) -- and think about what she read, and plan to go look for more books, and make lists of things she wants to read, and wonder what other books might be out there.

It's not a convoluted plot, or one with lots of action -- though Walton expertly works Mori's voice, telling the reader exactly what's important at any moment but never telling the whole story of anything at once. But plenty of things do happen -- and not just in Mori's head. (Though that's where all of the most interesting things are happening.)

In some other, equally as fictional or real 1979, a teenage boy in Cleveland is voraciously reading Chandler and Hammett, Ross Macdonald and Ian Fleming. And a girl in Perth is discovering Rosemary Sutcliff and Gillian Bradshaw. And a boy in Cape Town is excited by Edward Albee and Tom Stoppard. Among Others is the specific story of Mor and her life, of science fiction and its wonders and communities, but it's also the story of a million bookish young people, who latched onto SF or fantasy or gothics or historicals or sea stories or plays or even YA problem novels -- who latched onto books and the stories they tell as a gateway out of their individual lives and, eventually, used those books to light their way out into the worlds they really wanted to live in. It might be your story. It's my story in many ways. And Jo Walton tells that story superbly, magnificently, amazingly, through Mori Phelps, who is and isn't Jo Walton in the way that only fiction, only fantasy can manage.

I can't recommend this book highly enough to anyone who was ever that misfit kid, reading incessantly to get away from the world that didn't make sense into worlds that did. And I can't describe Among Others' virtues better than Steven Brust does on the back cover:
Amazing. The timing of revelation is perfect and the first-person narrative is flawless. As Mori shuttles between her family's magical intrigues and the transformative books she reads, her story becomes so real that it hurts. In a good way.
Among Others is a great fantasy novel, a great novel, a great love letter to the power of books and science fiction, and a great picture of a young person so many of us were like, in our own ways. And I believe in fairies because Mori tells us they're real.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Anatomy of a Tweet

It's yet another night when I'm tired and uninspired, yet still feel I should write something here. (Fred Pohl writes four or five pages of a novel every single day, and has for fifty years or so -- the least I can do is a crappy little blog post.) So this is something different: the long version of a tweet I made this afternoon when I learned that Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad had just won the Pulitzer Prize.

I tweeted:
So I guess I really do have to read VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD now, don't I?
A few years ago, before I was tweeting, that might have been a "real" blog post instead, going something like this:

It feels oddly echoing to be proven right, some of the time. I spend my days trying to get people to buy books, which means thinking about why people want books, how they come across those books, and how to get their useful attention. One thing I find myself telling authors a lot -- because it's a plausible explanation, and because it makes as much sense as anything else -- is that, a lot of the time, a potential buyer has to see a book several times before he [1] decides to buy it.  There are ways to short-circuit that, by making a product as ubiquitous as possible, so that you can get five impressions on one person in as many minutes -- and, in my space, I do recommend authors do things to increase those impressions, like going to and speaking at conferences, sending out useful messages to their professional contacts, and using social media effectively -- but that usually means that it happens over a longer period of time.

Consequently, a reader who picks up a new book -- new to that reader, I mean: completely new, and not the latest book by someone she's already reading -- generally won't remember that first impression, or even the second or third. I don't remember the first time I heard about Goon Squad, but it was probably last summer, around the time it was published. Maybe I read a review, maybe people I follow on Twitter talked about it, maybe a dozen maybes. But I didn't know Jennifer Egan, so the book -- a contemporary "mainstream" novel, as far as I can tell, primarily about two people in the music business but extending out through people they know -- got slotted into the "could be interesting, if you have time" category. (And there's never time for a book I don't have; there isn't time for 90% of the books I have on hand -- just from across the room, I can see The Corrections and Tigana and Up in the Old Hotel and Patriots and Liberators, all of which I've had for years and haven't come anywhere near next-book-to-read status.)

The same for the next few times I heard about it -- it sounded like a good novel, it sounded like fun, it sounded like the kind of thing I'd really like. But I've already got at least a thousand novels that I suspect I'll really like, from He Knew He Was Right to Mr. American to Silverlock, and I haven't managed to read them. So Goon Squad stayed in the back of my head, which kept wondering if the title was an Elvis Costello reference. (I hope it is.)

And then today it won the Pulitzer Prize. And that was the pebble, I suppose, that finally got that avalanche moving. I checked the library website from work, found that my local had it, and picked it up on the way home. It'll be the next thing I read, as soon as I finish Fuzzy Nation.

As a reader, I hope it's worth it. As a book marketer, I wonder how many other people like me had a similar reaction today, and how many copies of Goon Squad are popping off library and bookstore shelves today. (It's #4 on Amazon's Movers & Shakers right this moment, so that's probably "a lot.") And I wish I could figure out ways to make similar things happen to the books I'm responsible for -- that, as always, is the rub.

[1] I usually do say "he" here, since I'm mostly talking about books for CPAs and CFOs and other still-pretty-male-dominated financial jobs that start with "c".

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 4/16

Another week has come and gone, bringing us that much closer to our inevitable deaths. But why think about that when there are new books in the world!?

These are the new books that showed up in my mailbox over the course of the last week. I haven't yet read any of them, but, using my incredible blogging powers, there are some things that I can tell you about them:

Tor is reissuing two Christopher Pike novels for a new generation of teens -- if you're not aware, Pike has been a major writer for the Young Adult market (variously defined, and variously named, over his career) since I was a Young Adult, back in the misty dawn of time. First, and oldest, is The Season of Passage, which has a 1992 copyright date, but which a short note from Pike explains was written in the late '70s. It's about the second manned mission to Mars, which, in best Bradburyian fashion, is hoping to find out what happened to the first manned mission to Mars, which disappeared ten years ago. (Complicating the picture -- and this will mean little to The Kids These Days -- is the fact that the first mission was Russian and the second is American.) Season of Passage's back cover promises fantasy, horror, and suspense on top of the expected science fiction, so you'll definitely get your money's worth with this trade paperback, which went on sale at the end of March.

The other Pike reissue is Sati, a parable about a girl who claimed to be God that was originally published in 1990. Pike has a note in this one, to clue in the new kids about the technological deficiencies of that era, but I'm sure they can figure it out without much trouble. (My own ten-year-old son has been rampaging his way through "A Series of Unfortunate Events" recently, and there's no technology higher than an elevator in those books.) Sati also hit stores as a trade paperback at the end of March.

I saw The Cardinal's Blades -- a historical fantasy by French writer Pierre Pevel, set in a 1633 when Paris is menaced by dragons and Cardinal Richelieu must save it with the aid of his crack squad of adventurers -- a few months ago, though it looked like a lot of fun, and put it aside to read. Before I managed to get to it, the sequel has come along: The Alchemist in the Shadows, in which Richelieu finally gets a solid lead about the mastermind behind the secret Black Claw organization that has been trying to destroy France. Both books are from Pyr and have been translated by Tom Clegg; Alchemist hit stores last week, and Blades has been available for some time. If you're looking for swashbuckling, this looks like a great choice.

And last for this week is Alexey Pehov's Shadow Chaser, which I saw previously as an advance proof but has now become a real book. (Tor publishes it in hardcover this month.) It's the sequel to Shadow Prowler and the continuation of the Chronicles of Siala, which has been a massive hit in Pehov's native Russia and elsewhere. The series looks to be modern epic fantasy, of the small-band-of-tough-men subgenre, and I suspect that "Russian" is here meant to be a marker for "dark, bloody, and large-scale."