Friday, January 31, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #31: Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant by Tony Cliff

I've written extensively about what I think of as the Flight school of modern cartooning: those creators, usually connected to animation themselves, who make gorgeous stories that are aggressively all-ages and sunny, often with life-lessons attached. [1] I don't dislike that school, exactly, but they tend to run together in their sunny can-do-ism and chirpy let's-have-an-adventure! tone.

Tony Cliff's first graphic novel, Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant, is firmly in that tradition: if I was feeling cruel, I might say that it aspires to the qualities of a '90s Don Bluth movie. No emotion can be greater -- in any definition of that word -- than true friendship, our heroes will fall off buildings at every turn without getting more than a few picturesque scratches, and their vaguely scoundrelish nature will always be harnessed into causes people in the early 21st century know to be true and right.

Delilah Dirk is the usual sort of wish-fulfillment heroine of a book like this: utterly anachronistic to begin with, not just in being a woman adventurer in the very early 19th century, but in the kind of adventurer she is, and accomplished in more things than even Doc Savage himself -- and possessing at least one gadget the Bronze One would covet, too. Her sidekick, that "Turkish Lieutenant," is Erdemoglu Selim, a Janissary for the Turkish sultan when they first meet cute, but soon on the run with Dirk and caught up in her plots. (Which don't add up to a whole lot, here: she breaks out of prison, steals from a pirate, and runs away.)

The main plot of this book is essentially the bromance -- seriously, that's the best word, since there's never a hint of sex in books like this -- between Dirk and Selim, so that the latter realizes he was a born sidekick and hitches his star to Dirk's forevermore. If either of them had a moment of emotion that wasn't designed to be a positive role model to under-8s, I might have liked this book better. As it is, I kept wishing I was reading another one of Chris Schweizer's "Crogan" books, which are also appropriate for younger readers but give a wider view of life.

Delilah Dirk looks gorgeous, moves at high speed, never fails to entertain, and can be given to your infant cousin or maiden aunt without any trouble. But it has the kind of smile that -- to my mind, at least -- never touches the eyes.

[1] For examples, see my reviews of Flights three, five, and seven, Flight Explorer, Explorer, and the collected works of Kazu Kibuishi.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Awards! Once Again!

More awards that I missed because I was busy not working in SF anymore!

The 2014 Prometheus Hall of Fame Finalists!

This is one of the more ideologically driven awards in the SFF world, as the notes from the organizers will show:
  • “As Easy as A.B.C.,” a short story by Rudyard Kipling published in London Magazine in 1912, presents an ambiguously utopian future that has reacted against mass society (which was beginning to emerge during Kipling’s day) in favor of privacy and freedom of movement.
  • “Sam Hall,” a short story by Poul Anderson published in Astounding Science Fiction in 1953, depicts a regimented future America obsessed with security and facing a libertarian revolution aided by cybernetic subversion.
  • “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman,” a short story by Harlan Ellison published in Galaxy in 1965, is a dystopian satire set in an authoritarian society dedicated to punctuality, in which a lone absurdist rebel attempts to disrupt everyone else’s schedules.
  • Falling Free, a novel by Lois McMaster Bujold published in 1988, explores free will and self-ownership by considering the legal and ethical implications of human genetic engineering. 
  • Courtship Rite, a novel by Donald M. Kingsbury published in 1982, portrays a harsh desert planet’s exotic human culture founded on applying the mathematical concept of optimization in biology, political organization, and ethics.
 May the most Randian candidate prevail!

(via SFWA)

The 2014 Philip K. Dick Award Finalists!

This is the award that goes to a book published as a paperback in the US, because that's how Phil did it. (Though I do wonder if there have been any discussions about e-only publishing, which is largely taking the place of the kind of rack-filler mass-markets that Dick was stuck in most of his career. It would be an interesting shift, certainly.)

  • A Calculated Life by Anne Charnock (47North)
  • The Mad Scientist’s Daughter by Cassandra Rose Clarke (Angry Robot)
  • Self-Reference Engine by Toh EnJoe, translated by Terry Gallagher (Haikasoru)
  • Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie (Orbit)
  • Life on the Preservation by Jack Skillingstead (Solaris)
  • Solaris Rising 2: The New Solaris Books of Science Fiction edited by Ian Whates (Solaris) 
  • Countdown City by Ben H. Winters (Quirk Books) 
(via SF Signal)

2014 Robert A. Heinlein Award!

No finalists or suspense here: it was recently announced that the award is going to Geoffrey A. Landis, who besides being a multi-award-winning SF writer is also a real live space scientist. And, since the Heinlein is specifically for promoting space exploration in fiction and fact -- because we need elbow room, son! we gots to get us out to them thar stars! -- that is incredibly appropriate.

The best thing about the Heinlein award is this description of the physical award itself.
The Robert A. Heinlein Award is a sterling silver medallion bearing the image of Robert A. Heinlein, as depicted by artist Arlin Robbins. The medallion is matched with a red-white-blue lanyard. In addition, the winner receives two lapel pins for use when a large medallion is impractical, and a plaque describing the award, suitable for home or office wall display.
It takes a moment, but then you realize: the awards semi-seriously expect the recipient to wear the medallion at all times, and only threw in the "two lapel pins" grumblingly for the few occasions when a giant picture of RAH around one's neck is "impractical."

(via SFWA)

As always, congratulations to all nominees, double congratulations to winners, and commiserations to the eventual losers.

Book-A-Day 2014 #30: Helter Skelter by Kyoko Okazaki

We might not need to be told that fashion is cruel and unforgiving, that the interest of the public is fickle and fleeting, and that beauty is contingent and ephemeral. We know all of those things. But it takes a superior artist to make us feel that cruelty and fickleness -- and that's what Kyoko Okazaki does in Helter Skelter.

Okazaki was a decade into a strong career -- the only other piece of which currently available in English is the excellent Bubble Economy allegory Pink -- in May of 1996. But, then, soon after  finishing the serialization of Helter Skelter, she was hit by a drunk driver and suffered life-changing injuries. It doesn't look like she's been able to create comics since then; it's not even clear if or when she was able to live a normal life after that crash.

There's a part of me that wants to spin that as irony: hot creator struck down horribly after exploring the toxicity of fame and riches! But there's no real comparison: Helter Skelter is about a young woman who knows exactly what she's doing, and exactly what it will all cost her in the end. She does it anyway, because she wants the fame more than anything -- she will give up anything to get and stay famous.

Liliko is that driven young woman; as Helter Skelter begins she's a couple of years into a brilliant career as a model that's transitioned into some acting and musical work. She's not all that good at any of it -- her greatest skill is in standing still and looking beautiful while people take pictures of her. And her dark secret is even that isn't real: her gorgeous body and beautiful face are the result of a SFnal level of plastic surgery, so that only a few parts -- eyeballs, ears, bones, organs, vagina, as one character puts it -- are original. And that new body requires regular maintenance -- expensive and ever-more painful and complex -- just to stay where she is. It can't last; it won't last.

So Liliko is another metaphor come to life: she's The It Model, with a self-destruct mechanism built into her. She's a monster of fame and appetite and ego, horribly demanding to her support staff as "Mama," the fan-club president who made her what she is and owns her, is horrible and demanding to her.

It can be hard to feel sympathy for Liliko at first -- at least for dumpy male middle-aged American me; your mileage may vary -- but her plight is very real as the story goes on and her inevitable decline and fall loom larger and larger. And Liliko is only the center of this story; not the whole of it -- Okzaki explores the whole toxic world of fame that Liliko fought so hard to dominate. It's not a pretty picture, but it is a compelling one -- and Okazaki fixes our attention on it with an unsparing eye and her light, airy line.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #29: Menage a 3, Vol. 1 by Lagace and Lumsdon

So, yesterday I think I managed to cobble together a half-decent review of a book I really liked, despite my Creeping Crud. And, for a while today, I thought I was enough better that I'd have plenty of energy tonight to continue in that vein, and not toss off something quick just to get it over with. (Note: foreshadowing!)

But the Creeping Crud is sneaky and mysterious; it can seem to be gone in early afternoon and then come roaring back by dinnertime. And so I'm now hunched under a blanket and a sweater, with a space heater pointed right at me, in my blogger's basement which isn't actually all that cold these days.

Menage a 3 is a free webcomic that's been running since mid-2008; it's co-written and drawn by Gisele Lagace and co-written by David Lumsdon and concerns a growing cast of mostly young people in Montreal and their amusing love and/or sex lives.

There have been five collections of the strip so far, all published and sold pretty much by the artists themselves, and I've got three of them so far. My plan was to read all three and do a single post on all of them, but that plan has failed first contact with the enemy.

So: this is the first book: collecting strips from May 17, 2008 through May 14, 2008. It starts off with our central character, 29-year-old nerdy virgin Gary, discovering that his two male roommates are gay and that they're moving out together. But they'll help him find new roommates, and, in best sex-comedy fashion, he's soon living with punkette Zii and buxom innocent DiDi.

Lagace and Lumsdon, though, are modern and polysexual enough -- the cast is full of gay, bi, and less hung-up-on-labels folks -- that it all seems fresh and exciting and just naughty enough. (Because a comic about sex has to be a bit naughty, or else what's the point?) It also, being primarily created by a woman, makes men and women equally sexy -- and many different characters sexy to each other in different ways.

It also doesn't hurt that Lagace's line was sumptuous and elegant from the beginning of this strip, and quickly settled into a very appropriate and appealing Dan DeCarlo-esque style -- by the end of this book, actually, Zii's eyes stopped doing that chibi thing quite so often.

If you're particularly sheltered, Menage a 3 may introduce you to some sexy things you didn't know about before -- tastefully, with no on-panel genital nudity but lots of tastefully composed scenes. Go read it -- and, if you like it, buy a few of the books.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #28: Bandette Presto! by Tobin and Coover

I come to today's Book-A-Day post logy from my current Creeping Crud -- it could be the flu that's laid out my older son for most of the last week, or perhaps an infection all of my very own -- so I will have to struggle to avoid doing the bare minimum and setting this thing to post. (I apologize in advance if I do.)

(Also, my typing gets even more unreliable as I get more tired and more under the influence of Creeping Crud, which could be something else to apologize for.)

Paul Tobin and Colleen Coover are a husband-and-wife cartoonist team -- he writes, she draws (and has also written, as well) -- who have done a lot of work separately and a smaller amount together. (I've read some Coover in the days before this blog -- I liked her all-women sex-positive smutty comic Small Favors -- and I read their somewhat artsy Gingerbread Girl in 2012.)

Bandette Vol. 1: Presto! collects the first five issues of the series published by the fine folks at Monkeybrain. (Who I knew, very very slightly, back in my SFnal days -- hello, Chris and Allison!) If I were still buying "floppy" comics, this would definitely be one of them: it's a bright, sunny, fun romp, set in Paris and with a strong flavor of bande dessinee, about the greatest thief in the world, who is a teenage girl more full of joie de vivre than you would credit.

I wonder if Tobin and Coover can keep the book so amazingly happy and sunny -- will Bandette always succeeding brilliantly and easily begin to pall one day? -- but this first volume is entirely lovely and wonderful, with a sophisticated, muted palette of colors, crackling dialogue that makes you want to read it out loud, and a story full of excitement and wonder: urchins! secret societies! gruff police detectives! scooters! mysterious women!

Bandette's rivalry with Monsieur -- the other person with a claim to be the best thief in the world -- is also pitch-perfect, with the two of them stealing things back and forth from each other and -- of course! -- setting out in a competition to steal the items that will take down the inevitable shadowy criminal organization.

If you don't like Bandette, there just may be no hope for you.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Monday, January 27, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #27: Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong by Shen and Hicks

This is a fun graphic novel, but the story of how it came to be is possibly more interesting than the book itself: Prudence Shen wrote a YA novel called Voted Most Likely, which she'd submitted to an arm of the Macmillan publishing octopus. Somehow -- I don't know if I've seen the details on that anywhere -- an editor thought Voted Most Likely had a good story, but wanted to turn it into a graphic novel instead. And so that editor brought in Faith Erin Hicks, since First Second (the graphic novel line at Macmillan) had recently published Hicks's Friends With Boys.

(This story could feed into the paranoid writer's idea that "they're going to steal my ideas," except that Shen had to approve the whole thing and was happy about it the whole way.)

Anyway, along the development path the title turned into Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong. And the entire graphic novel was posted for free on the Internet -- that link is to the first page, which also includes a long blog post from Hicks about how the collaboration came to be; Hicks has also written about that process a couple of other places. So you've got an unexpected collaboration, a freemium model for outreach, and a first-time novelist working with an established cartoonist, just to begin with. (And that's not even getting into the oddball take this book has on the great jocks-versus-nerds divide in high school.)

You can still read the whole book for free at that first link above, if you want, so it might be easier to just do that than to read what I have to say. But, if not: Go Wrong is the story of a school election that spirals out of control, driven by the competing financial desires of the robotics club (to go to a major competition) and the cheerleading squad (to get new uniforms).

So, immediately, the jocks are cheerleaders -- but no less scary because of it. And the central character is torn between the two groups: Charlie, captain of the basketball team, best friend of the head of the robotics club, and ex-boyfriend of the cheerleading captain. The story starts out as expected -- old friends competing for the presidency of the school and the budgetary control that goes with it, an escalating set of pranks against the other group -- but then begins a series of swerves, because Shen and Hicks aren't interested in telling a story you've seen a dozen times before.

The high concept here might be jocks vs. nerds, but it gets muddier than that on the very first page, and turns into a story about how we all have to live in a world with many different people -- some of them jerks, some of them scary, some of them blocking things we want -- and how we can all do that together. Charlie and his friends don't always make the right decisions -- do any of us, whatever our ages? -- but they do pretty well, and they work it out in the end. I'm hoping my own teenagers read Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong; I'm going to leave it out casually and see what happens....

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 1/25

There's a bunch of varied, interesting books this week, so I'll waste less time up front here. As always, these are things that arrived on my doorstep over the past week -- more often than not, covered with snow, because that's the kind of week it's been -- and I haven't read any of them yet. But I actually requested a couple of them, and was happily surprised to see another, so some of them should turn into reviews here eventually.

Until then, though, here's what I can tell you about the stack of book-shaped objects sitting to my left hand:

The Screaming Staircase is the first in a new series (I believe officially middle-grade rather than YA, for those who carefully track such things) called "Lockwood & Co." by the fine writer Jonathan Stroud. (See my review of his novel The Ring of Solomon, which is a decent follow-up to a great trilogy.) This one is set in a London where spirits and ghosts have suddenly started appearing -- worse, they're usually unpleasant and hostile. And the only ones who can see and get rid of them are teenagers -- which sounds slightly on-the-nose for the target audience to me, but I'll let it slide. I'm not clear if this is set in the present day or not, but I'll find out when I read it. The Screaming Staircase was published in hardcover back in September by the fine folks at Disney/Hyperion, and a second book, The Whispering Skull, is due to follow it this September.

Now I have a cluster of manga, and I'll start that off with BTOOOM!, Vol. 5, the latest in Junya Inoue's Battle Royale-with-bombs story. I reviewed the first volume last May, but haven't kept up with ti since: it looks like a decent shonen story, but I'm really not thrilled with massively iterated versions of "The Most Dangerous Game" these days. But, if you are, this one is out right now from Yen Press.

Also from Yen, and in a series I'm still hoping to take a run at, is Is This a Zombie?, Vol. 7, credited to Sacchi with character design by Kobuichi and Muririn and "original" by Shinichi Kimura. (That's because, like so many things Japanese that make it to our shores, this started as something else: a series of light novels, in this case.) As I understand it, this is a harem manga -- one generally goofy guy surrounded by a whole bunch of vastly smarter and more accomplished women, who end up naked and/or in compromising positions around him because that's the genre expectation. In this case, the goofy guy is a reanimated "zombie" -- which I think just means here that he was dead, and now is not -- and the women are necromancers and otherwise powerfully magic. This is also available right now, as are the first six volumes, for those interested.

The Flowers of Evil, Volume 8 is another manga series that I hope to read, even as the volumes keep piling up. This one is by Shuzo Oshimi, published by Vertical, and, as far as I can see, is just a series of comics stories, with no multi-media extensions or pretensions. (And I do appreciate that.) It's about a couple of odd Japanese teenagers and their unhealthy relationship -- I wonder if it's anything like the unsettling Sundome by Kazuto Okada, which I liked and was creeped out by almost equally when that was being translated and published in the US a few years ago. Anyway, this is manga towards the arty, literary end, which I appreciate and want to see more of.

Also from Vertical this month is Wolfsmund, Vol. 3by Mitsuhisa Kuji, which I don't think I've seen before. There's no explanation of the plot or characters on this volume -- the only descriptive copy, besides a couple of laudatory quotes, is "The bailiff sweats. The rebellion is on." -- but it seems to be set in medieval Europe, among professional soldiers. And I would not be surprised if werewolves figure into it somewhere.

I was happily surprised to see Terry Pratchett's new Discworld novel, Raising Steam, show up this week: I don't recall getting his books for review before, though it's possible Nation or Dodger came directly to me. (Who can remember perfectly clearly the provenance of every book he's read? Only the man who hasn't read enough books.) This is another Moist von Lipwig book -- I wonder if Pratchett still chuckles about that name quietly to himself, or if it's begun to pall even with him -- in which the man of the modern age gets a new responsibility in rapidly-industrializing Discworld, which I believe is that world's first steam railroad. (It's definitely a steam-powered something; that's clear.) The Moist books have been one of the better sub-series of Discworld -- perhaps not as cutting and strong as the Night Watch books, but very close behind -- so all indications are good for this one. It's a hardcover from Doubleday (on my side of the pond, at least) coming March 18th, with an announced first printing of 200,000.

Allen Steele's new novel is an alternate history, V-S Day, and yet another novel about how it would be totally awesome if the Conquest of Space happened earlier and more spectacularly than it actually did. (There's a particular large coterie of SF readers and particularly SF writers who find this catnip: the story of the strong-thewed WASPy American thrusting his silvery spaceship into the unknown and making it his own. Most of them are older than me, and I keep hoping the tide will eventually ebb, but it's taking a long time.) In this particular case, it's 1941 and there's a space race between Wernher von Braun for the Nazis and Robert Goddard on the side of good and right. Who! Will! Win! V-S Day is an Ace hardcover, on sale the 4th of February.

David Edison's first novel is The Waking Engine, a Tor hardcover arriving February 11. It's an afterlife fantasy that early quotes compare to China Mieville, set in a universe where the dead awake as versions of themselves on a million worlds, living and dying over again until they reach The City Unspoken, where a true death can be finally found. Or that's how it used to be: now that gateway is unreliable, and the Dying are clogging up that final city. And a newly dead man named Cooper, just awoken from our world after his first death, may be the one who can solve that problem.

Turning to more frivolous things, the latest collection of stories from the Simpsons comics is out from Harper as Simpsons Comics Shake-Up. Like all things Simpsons, it's credited on the cover just to Matt Groening, but it contains comics work by John Costanza, Mike DeCarlo, Ian Boothby, Dan Davis, Phil Ortiz, and many more. It officially hits stores on February 4th.

Also from Harper -- the Harper Design imprint, to be precise -- is Louis Bou's We Are Indie Toys!, a full-color look at the world of artisanal resin toys, hand-crafted in small batches and sold to hipsters everywhere. (Sorry: the h-word just slipped out. Must be that fellow on the cover.) The book covers both the big names in the current scene and details of how to get started designing and making your own resin toys. And it's available everywhere on February 25th.

Last for this week is a memoir in cartoons by longtime New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff, titled after his most famous cartoon: How About Never--Is Never Good for You? It's full of cartoons by Mankoff and his New Yorker compatriots, with Mankoff's story running around that in prose. How could I resist? It will be a hardcover from Henry Holt in March.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #26: The Revised Vault of Walt by Jim Korkis

If there's one thing we've learned from the Internet, it's that there's a cult of everything: there's no media property or kitschy idea or historical era or company so obscure or unpleasant that there aren't at least a dozen people who really love it. And the Internet let those dozen people who really love early Hapsburg Vienna or Gertie the Dinosaur or Soviet medals get together and share their love.

Many of those communities existed before the 'net, of course -- they were big enough to find each other through cruder, less laser-targeted media. And those larger, older communities have grown and flourished in the new era, drawing in people perhaps less fanatic or less connected to begin with. But those communities have also seen schisms and feuds -- particularly the ones that were shepherded and molded and guided by the thing they loved, as the 'net and other modern peer-to-peer channels let individuals speak nearly as loudly, and at least as clearly, as the big media conglomerate they idolized.

The Disney empire is the purest expression of that change that I know: the cult of the Disney company, and the intertwined cult of Walt Disney himself, were built wholesale by first Walt directly, in his press releases and TV appearances and carefully stage-managed interactions with the public, and then by the media conglomerate that kept growing after his death. In the early days, the communication was all one-way: the audience came out for Disney products, from Steamboat Willie to The Three Little Pigs to Snow White to Mickey Mouse Club to World of Color to Disneyland and the other movies and parks and merchandise. And what we knew about Walt Disney and his company were what that company told us, all doled out carefully to make us want to buy the latest Disney thing.

But the cult of Disney, and the interest in both Walt and the company he founded, has been large enough to drive secondary sources for generations now -- the earliest book I can find in a quick search is Robert Feild's The Art of Walt Disney from 1942, and there were likely ones before that -- and there have been several small presses over the years partially or entirely devoted to publishing stories about Disneyiana. There are also dozens of websites about Disney as well -- and tumblrs and blogs and podcasts and Facebook pages, too, not to mention half-dead listservs and BBSes and less likely media. Most of that massive effort is purely and unabashed appreciation; most people don't want to criticize something they love, but to talk entirely about the aspects they do love. But those schisms and feuds turn up as well -- any run through the comments on a Disney book will show an undertone of worry about "haters," people who are seldom seen and always worried about, those folks who do not love The Mouse with all their heart and soul and who deign to cast aspersions on the most perfect kind of happiness mankind has ever invented. (I exaggerate slightly, but only slightly: there really is a coterie of people who love Disney so much they can't stand to think that someone, somewhere, might be criticizing any of it.)

So the majority of books about Disney affect a tone of wonder and joy, striving to ape Disney's own polished corporate communications, though usually ending up rougher than their model. That's fine for most of the target audience, of course, but I am cranky and perfectionist and much more interested in failure than most people. So I'm often disappointed by the hagiographic tone in the standard Disney book, which takes as gospel that nothing Walt or his company ever did could be bad.

Jim Korkis's book The Revised Vault of Walt is solidly in that grand tradition, despite the scandalous-sounding subtitle "Includes FIVE NEW Unofficial, Unauthorized, Uncensored Disney Stories Never Told": Korkis is a former longtime Disney employee, for many years researching and presenting Disney history to various internal and external audiences, so he's exceptionally well-placed to tell unique Disney stories. I get the sense that the "former" part may not be entirely his choosing, but he's clearly still a huge Disney booster, and has known and interviewed scores of important and lesser-known people from Disney history. This particular book is a remixed version of the original 2010 Vault of Walt, with some material taken out (to be the core of an eventual second volume) and some new material added. But all of the pieces here were originally published separately as columns in various places, though there's no notice to say where and when. (And I can't blame Theme Park Press for that; a detailed list of original publication dates is very rare in any book these days. I've complained about it repeatedly here, in my Canute-like way.)

The origin of the chapters as individual articles is often glaringly obvious -- Korkis gives the same details multiple times throughout the book, such as the origin of a model-sized Granny's cabin from So Dear to My Heart, because they originally were needed for the separate pieces and he didn't undertake the really deep editing and re-writing that would be required to turn this into a single unified narrative. (Again, I'm not really complaining: my favorite living mystery writer, Lawrence Block, had exactly the same issue with his last "novel," Hit Me. This is very common; the world and its inhabitants disappoint me at every turn.)

Korkis clearly loves Disney, and loves digging out interesting facts -- in the great writing struggle between pellucid prose and information, he comes down solidly on the side of information, shoving in facts and very long quotes wherever he can. Those quotes, though, are often from his own research, so they're primary research material, making Revised Vault even more useful as a reference source for other Disney writers.

Vault's chapters -- again, it makes more sense to think of them as columns or blog posts, each a separate piece of writing here collected together, but not otherwise made into a single thing -- are loosely organized into a few sections, on Walt Disney's life, movies, the parks, and "other worlds" (which mostly could have fit into the other sections with some shoving, had Korkis wanted to). Within each section, there's no clear organizing principle, either -- but you don't expect that in a collection of columns. For example, the section on Walt moves from his love of miniatures to his polo-playing days, then jumps back to his favorite elementary-school teacher, onward to his relationship with religion, back again to his schoolboy days for a look at his newspaper-delivery work, up to his 30th wedding anniversary party just before the opening of Disneyland, and then ends with a look at his favorite food. All of those topics have some interest to the serious Disney fan, I suppose, but anyone would be hard-pressed to explain why they were placed in that order.

But if you dip into Vault rather than reading it straight through, that won't be an issue. And a book of parts like this is designed to be dipped into. I could wish that it was a bit more buttoned-up: the repetition of details edited out, a few typos eliminated, perhaps a tighter editorial hand to organize it all and tame some of the run-on enthusiasms of Korkis's prose. But the core audience will love this book, and will be eagerly waiting for more behind-the-scenes stories from Korkis, who seems to have plenty of them to deliver. So I'm left in a position I'm very familiar with: recognizing that something is exactly what the market wants, but wishing that the market was more demanding.

If you'd like to know what Chuck Jones did in his four-month stint at Disney, or more details on Walt's aborted collaboration with Salvador Dali on Destino, or the exploits of Zorro and Tom Sawyer in Disneyland, or the day Khrushchev didn't visit, or the connection of the FBI to the Mickey Mouse Club, The Revised Vault of Walt will be deeply fascinating. If you have less of an editor's ear for prose than I do -- and the vast majority of people do -- I can recommend it highly.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #25: Johhny Hiro: The Skills to Pay the Bills by Fred Chao

Every generation has its slackers, from the flappers to the hippies to the burn-outs of my high school years. We forget this as we get older, and the slackers that are our age either grow up and get real jobs, or stop being so photogenic in their aimless slackerness. But there's nothing special about the current generation: they're just young and new and pretty, and so they slot into the same cliched stories that were told about their grandparents and great-grandparents.

Johnny Hiro is not really a slacker; he's working hard at a job he likes, but he's young and poor and living in a cheap sublet in Brooklyn. Of course, maybe those are the real hallmarks of the "slacker" -- being young and not being burdened with the car and house and mortgage and kids that those ten and twenty years older have. In his first set of collected adventures, Half Asian, All Hero (originally published as a comics series in 2007-2008, collected by AdHouse in 2009 and re-issued in a new package by Tor in 2012, and reviewed by yours truly along the way), Johnny was more obviously a slacker, and more clearly in the mode of Scott Pilgrim, a diffident young man in a world filled with action and thrills and girls who were much smarter and more together than he thought he could ever be.

The second collection of Hiro's adventures came out this past fall: The Skills to Pay the Bills. And the stories here -- I can't see that they were serialized anywhere before this publication, though the first story was at least long-gestating, since it references the 2005 Peter Jackson King Kong movie as if it were timely -- find Hiro less diffident, more centered and together, and his world more detailed, with short character-focused stories in between the giant gorillas and epic chases over the finest fish for sushi. In fact, Hiro is called "John" more often than not in this book, a sure sign of growing seriousness.

But there's still room for frivolity: that giant ape on the cover is the main antagonist of the first story...though that story is really about John's feelings for his ex-girlfriend from college, and what that means for him and his live-in "sexy girlfriend," Mayumi. Pay the Bills continues in that seriocomic vein, mixing those short character stories with longer pieces that extend and deepen Hiro's world, explaining the epic sushi-chef feud between his books, Mr. Masago, and the sneaky Shinto Pete over the course of several stories. Coolio, I'm sad to say, makes no appearances here, and the ape is the only megafauna in sight: most of the stories here, even is exaggerated and slapstick and wacky, are about people with human motivations and dreams and wishes.

There's nothing wrong with that: we all grow up and change, even after we thought we were already adults. And John Hiro is still a great character having interesting adventures. I still hope that, next time out, Mayumi gets a little more to do than just being the smart, grounded "sexy girlfriend" that's been her lot for the first two books. But that's an entirely different issue: The Skills to Pay the Bills sees Johnny Hiro growing up, taking on more responsibility, and grappling with the purpose of his life. It's all good stuff, and with any luck we'll keep seeing more of Hiro for many years to come.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Friday, January 24, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #24: Tropic of the Sea by Satoshi Kon

There are probably a thousand people who would be better at talking about this book than I am -- more informed about the author's careers and his untimely death, better versed in the manga scene of 1990 that produced it, or just not as logy and uninspired as I feel tonight. But you don't have any of them: what you have is me, and my vow to review a book every day this year. So let's see what you get.

I covered Kyoko Okazaki's manga Pink a few days ago, and this is another story from that same era, showing a Japan at its bubbliest and most confident about itself. That bubble shows up in Satoshi Kon's Tropic of The Sea as a deep unease about the pace of capitalist development and a concern about the loss of the natural world, as the small fishing village of Ade deals with a huge tourist development that will massively transform it. (That, and the supernatural element, reminded me a bit of the Studio Ghibli movie Pom Poko, from just a few years later.)

Tropic of the Sea is also one of the few major manga works by Satoshi Kon, who soon after this became much more famous as the director and writer of animated movies such as Tokyo Godfathers and Perfect Blue. It's complete in this one volume, an entire story from beginning to end, which is rare to see in manga published in the US these days.

In that small town of Ade, perched on the edge of the sea, there's a shrine, and the hereditary priests of that shrine. The current priest is Yozo, a man in his middle years known as devoted to the advancement of his town; his son Yosuke is preparing for his college exams and his father is still around, an aged traditionalist. That shrine's purpose is to guard and take care of an artifact: a pearly "mermaid's egg" that, by tradition, is returned to the sea every sixty years to hatch into a baby mermaid and then replaced by a new egg.

Of course no one in the modern world believes that story -- though no one seems to have any other theory about what the egg is, and Tropic of the Sea never seriously entertains the possibility that the story isn't true. (The grandfather does believe, wholeheartedly, but we learn late in the book that's because he saw the last transfer, sixty years ago -- not a single person believes in the mermaid story without proof.) Still, Kon's drawing is precise and full of ominous moments, and his dialogue is natural and honest -- even if his characters do tend to fall into obvious types, like the evil capitalist behind the massive development.

Tropic of the Sea probably could have done with fewer words, a bit more mystery, and a little less melodrama. But it's a lovely, engrossing story with a strong ecological message -- only slightly mitigated by the fact that most places in the real world that want to resist massive development don't have a real mermaid to save them. It's a fine graphic novel, and a good manga choice for people who want to ease into that world.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

My Two Favorite Songs

Right at this very moment, I have not one but two favorite songs. (I know! Aren't you happy for me?)

And, through the magic of the Intertubes, I think I can share both of those songs with you right now, since (like everyone else) I assume that anything I like will be universally loved, since my tastes are perfect.

The two songs are very different -- I find that's key when you want to have two favorites at once, he said, not at all sarcastically -- with one being a rocker and the other the kind of moody depressive song I always gravitate towards. Both are by women, which I will use here as proof that I am not sexist rather admitting it was just a random fluke.

First up is "Shameless," the first single from the 2013 album Back to Forever by Lissie. Fair warning: I ended up buying her two records within a month of seeing this performance on Craig Ferguson's late-night show, so it may do the same for you:

And the other one is "Let Me Go," from Kate Tucker and the Sons of Sweden's new (kickstarted) record The Shape the Color the Feel, which went out to we proud backers a couple of weeks ago and will be generally available on February 11. There's no video at the moment, so I can't embed it, but you can listen to it at

No, no, there's no need to thank me. It's just my civic duty.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #23: Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh

You've seen Allie Brosh's work, since you're on the Internet. That little MS Paint "clean all the things" image came from the middle of her essay "This Is Why I'll Never Be an Adult." You know the one. A few other Brosh images have achieved escape velocity from her blog, Hyperbole and a Half, and propagated around the wider 'net. Mostly without attribution and without context, because that's what the Internet does: strips things of their context and source and purpose, just like Bruce Sterling warned us "the street" would do thirty years ago.

A few of her essays -- I'm calling them "essays" here, because that's a big, baggy word, and I think it covers Brosh's mash-ups of deliberately crude pseudo-comics images and narrative prose, but she might prefer to call them "blog posts" -- have jumped out, whole or nearly so: Adventures in Depression, for example, I remember seeing linked to a lot soon after she made it. She's honest about herself -- unrelentingly so, as a great artist must be -- and is good at mining her own odd life for farce and pathos. (She grew up in small towns in California and Idaho, and wanted to become a scientist before ADHD and clinical depression turned her into a recluse. But she tells that story much better than my sketch would indicate.)

So: here's an artist, doing something very well, in public, and getting a good audience doing it. A book inevitably follows, and so many of Brosh's best piece have been collected as Hyperbole and a Half. (Not all of them, of course -- you will not find any uses for a brick here, or details of the monster Alot. With any luck, this will only be the first of many books from Brosh.) The words seem to be basically the same, but Brosh has redrawn at least some of the pictures: "Never Be an Adult" seems to have been redrawn, but her most recent work -- the two essays here titled "Depression Part One" and "Depression Part Two," which apparently bookended a very dark time in her life -- seems to be identical from blog to book.

But Brosh isn't Neal Adams; you go to her for insights and stories from her life, not for precisely wrought pen-lines. (I'm sure there are people who can't stand Brosh's drawings of herself -- for all the world like a large fish upright in a shapeless pink dress, with spindly limbs and a yellow triangle stuck into her head -- and those people are missing the point. But I expect they do that a lot.)

This book collects a bunch of great stories from a great storyteller, in a format that lets you benefit her directly. I have to think that, if you've ever posted a "clean all the things" meme, you're pretty much required to buy it. You don't have to read it -- no one can force you to read -- but that's what you should do. Brosh might not be normal, but who is? And she at least has names to put on her non-normalness, defined coping mechanisms to keep herself going forward, and a great viewpoint to turn her experiences into art.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #22: Levels of Life by Julian Barnes

All grief is unique, as all lives are unique. The specific person lost, the one left behind feeling that pain -- others can sympathize, and feel their own grief, but it's never the same. So the husband grieving his wife won't feel the same as the brother who lost a sister, even if they're grieving the same person. And vice versa. We are all alone.

It may have been morbid of me to pick up Julian Barnes's Levels of Life -- a meditation of the death of his wife in 2008, mixed, as Barnes always will, with other matters -- the day after my own father-in-law died. But my grief was so different from Barnes's that I went ahead: I'd had this book planned to be next in the reading pile, so avoiding it would have meant something I didn't want it to. Is that strength or weakness? I don't know.

For a book on grief, Levels of Life spends an awful lot of its slim length on ballooning and two particular balloonists: the great actress Sarah Bernhardt and one of her many lovers, Captain Fred Burnaby of the Royal Horse Guards. It's divided into three sections -- The Sin of Height, On the Level, and The Loss of Depth, each about a third longer than the one before -- and the first two are entirely concerned with balloons and photography and the Burnhardt-Burnaby relationship, as doomed as it was and as fictional as it may be. Perhaps all relationships are doomed, Barnes is implying, because they all end eventually, in break-up or death.

Those first two sections are classic Barnes: witty, erudite, cosmopolitan, full of ideas and history and connections. They're related to his wife, the literary agent Pat Kavanagh, in ways that make sense to Barnes, so he makes them make sense to us. The two sections do have different tones and focus: Height is the most factual and historical, laying out the territory as if we are seeing it from our own balloon. Level tightens in to Bernhardt and Burnaby, and how, inevitably, he wanted something she could not provide.

And then we come to The Loss of Depth, as if Barnes has sufficiently limbered up his writing fingers to do what he came to do. He doesn't tell us much about Kavanagh; this is the story of his grief, not of her. The viewpoint is now, in the world without her. I am almost entirely sympathetic with Barnes's point of view on all of the important matters: the unpleasantness of euphemisms like "passed," the utter lack of supernatural support, the way no one can say anything to make it better.

Kavanagh was apparently an accomplished and interesting woman, but, again, that's not what Barnes is after here, so she appears only in memory or dream. The Loss of Depth is entirely about what happened to Barnes after she was gone: how he felt diminished, how other people reacted, what ways forward he found.

Barnes is an intensely literary, thoughtful writer, and he doesn't peddle any platitudes here. It would take a very specific sort of person to take much solace from Levels of Life after losing a spouse. But for other Barnes readers, the lucky majority of whom have not been widowed, it's another bracing dip into his mind, a suitable follow up to Nothing to Be Frightened Of. But I would not recommend it to a new reader: those interested in fiction and conceits should try Levels of Life, while those who want to see his non-fiction in more conventional form could try Letters from London.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #21: How to Fake a Moon Landing by Darryl Cunningham

I don't think there's a term for the set of books whose titles are facetious reversals of their true purpose -- the great category-definer being Darrell Huff's How to Lie With Statistics, which I reviewed a few days ago -- but ours is a cynical and ironic age, so they're not uncommon. Darryl Cunningham's How to Fake a Moon Landing is another in that line, explaining in eight comics chapters -- this is a graphic novel of non-fiction, or whatever convoluted term you may prefer -- the lies and half-truths and special pleading behind a passel of kinds of science denial, and (more importantly) the real science and facts and theories that those ideas are denying.

(There may also be a difference in cultures; the US edition has this title, but the prior UK edition had the much more sedate name Science Tales on the same material.)

My sympathies are entirely with Cunningham and the forces of real science against the deniers and conspiracy theorists and special pleaders and industry flacks -- if yours are not, you will not enjoy this book, though it could possibly help to open your mind a bit. Not all that much, though: the comics format does make Fake a Moon Landing breezy and fun, but it limits Cunningham to highlights, which could easily feed the nitpickery of the denialists -- their whole point is that if you can't prove something to 100% confidence, then it's not real. (But of course none of science is at 100% confidence; there's a minuscule chance even that the sun will not rise as usual tomorrow morning.)

So: Cunningham goes through the arguments for and against the NASA moon landings, homeopathy, chiropractic medicine, MMR vaccinations, evolution, the mining of oil and natural gas through hydraulic fracturing (fracking), and climate change. Not all of those are as clear-cut as others -- 97% of climate scientists believe the world is warming due to human activity, chiropractic has some uses for back pain, and fracking is an effective real-world mining technique with great benefits but potential flaws and side effects, to show the spectrum -- but, in every case, there's a group with a near-religious set of beliefs denying what is generally understood to be the truth by the educated and informed population. Cunningham doesn't get into one of the great frustrations of skepticism -- that you cannot reason a man out of an opinion he didn't reach by reason in the first place -- so he presents a possibly overly rosy picture of the possibilities and options. The people who believe these things often do so for emotional or religious reasons -- or because, in some fracking and climate-denial cases, because their lucrative employment depends on it -- and so no amount of books like Cunningham's, or any logical argument, will ever sway them.

Cunningham does cover denialism more generally in his last chapter, where he also sketches out how science actually does work -- incrementally and competitively -- and some of the dangers of ignoring science and facts. I worry that books like this will mostly be read by the already-converted and so have little effect, but Cunningham's accessible comics format may be a strong asset against that possibility: if non-skeptics, especially teens, see it and pick it up, they could actually learn something.

How to Fake a Moon Landing is a book I'd like to see in every middle-school classroom in the country for that reason. That will never happen, but it could have a similar effect on a smaller scale if given a chance. Good luck to it.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Monday, January 20, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #20: The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons by Lawrence Block

Time doesn't weigh as heavily on the heroes of humorous stories as it does on the rest of us: Bertie Wooster stayed a dull twenty-something for seven decades, and that most put-upon of criminals, John Dortmunder, was the same hang-dog middle-aged man from the late '60s through the mid-aughts. And so we're not surprised to see Mrs. Rhodenbarr's favorite son Bernie back again in The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons, still running the small old-fashioned shop Barnegat Books in Greenwich Village, still hanging out with his friend Carolyn Keiser, the lesbian dog groomer, and still breaking and entering to get valuables when finances or excitement require it. It may be thirty-plus years since Bernie first picked a lock in Burglars Can't Be Choosers, but he's still the same Bernie, and that's deeply satisfying.

Lawrence Block, once he found his voice and began publishing seriously under his own name, has always been a writer in love with dialogue, but the Rhodenbarr books give him even greater scope to indulge that than his other series and one-offs. (Matt Scudder may have long drinking night with Mick Balou, talking about this and that, but the plot always noses its way in -- the plots of Rhodenbarr books, being more frivolous, have no such entree.) So anyone looking for a sleek caper novel would be very much in the wrong series here: one of the primary joys of these books is Block's love of and facility for language, as characters -- most often Bernie and Carolyn, but always Bernie and someone -- bounce silly ideas off each other, riff on frivolous notions, and agreeably waste time.

That's all a way of saying that Counted the Spoons takes a long time to get to spoons at all, and also prepares the new reader for the experience: this is a great series of humorous mysteries, and Counts the Spoons is just as strong as the rest of them. But you don't read a Rhodenbarr book for the plot, but for Bernie's voice, and his relationship with Carolyn, and for the amusing things they all say and the fun lives they lead. And, of course, for the capers Bernie pulls, almost by the way, as the book goes on.

Counted the Spoons has most of the expected pieces of a Rhodenbarr book: new girlfriends for Bernie, new locks to pick and new buildings to sneak into and out of (carrying more out than in, of course), the rumpled Ray Kirschmann to represent the police, various valuable items and the people who want them, and at least one dead body, as usual placed dead center on a nice carpet. This time out, though, Ray doesn't try to pin that murder on Bernie -- which is nice, since Bernie was nowhere nearby, though his alibi isn't the strongest. Instead, Spoons has two plots that seem separate, as Bernie on the one hand pursues his larcenous line of work -- mostly for a fanatical collector of buttons and button-related material, whose checkbook is larger than his patience and morals -- and, on the other, consults for Ray on that dead body, which Ray and his cohorts on the force are ready to put down as natural causes.

But, as is inevitable in a mystery novel, those two plot strands are not separate, though the connection comes very late. So late, in fact, that the reader doesn't learn about it until the inevitable "you must be wondering why I've called you all here" scene that Bernie stage-manages in his store at the climax. If this was a series that hinged on the reader's ability to sift the clues and deduce the villain independently, this might be a problem -- but in this much funnier, more frivolous series, it's exactly what we should expect, and works brilliantly.

When I look back at the Rhodenbarr books, there's a clear pattern: four books published in quick succession, then a fifth another 3-5 years later, and then a decade-long hiatus. Since we've just been through another hiatus, I am going to assume -- perhaps "hope" is the better work -- that Counts the Spoons indicates another Rhodenbarr burst is upon us, and there will be more books over the next few years. I'll certainly be looking for them.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 1/18

For the last four weeks, I've only gotten one book a week to write about, which has been oddly convenient for this post. This week, it looked like the streak would extend -- but then a big box from Yen Press arrived late in the week, so I have a bunch of books to tell you about.

But I'll start with what looked like that one book for a few days, just because, and then work my way towards the land of manga via a light novel that Yen is publishing this month. As always, these books just arrived on my doorstep, so I haven't yet read any of them. I'll tell you what I can but -- especially if any of you know more about a book or series or author -- please feel free to speak up in the comments.

The single SFF novel this week is Rex Regis by the always dapper L.E. Modesitt, Jr.. It's the eighth novel in the "Imager Portfolio" series, which -- as far as I can tell -- blends the typical epic fantasy elements of big magic and sweeping historical events with a more Age of Enlightenment level of technology and a magical system based on raw imagination. Rex Regis is a Tor hardcover which officially hit stores earlier this month. And, if the description is anything to go on, it's full of people and countries and conflicts that you should have read at least the last few books -- I believe the eight-book series falls into two major parts -- to understand.

Everything else I have this week is published by Yen Press -- the manga arm of the multifarious Hachette Book Group and corporate sister to the SFF imprint Orbit -- and reaches stores during the month of January. You should be able to find all of it available now at your favorite retailer.

First up is a light novel, Book Girl and the Scribe Who Faced God, Part 2, latest and last in the series by Mizuki Nomura about a tiny high school literature club, made up of one boy who wants to be a novelist and a female supernatural creature disguise as a girl, who lives by eating stories. This is the big finish, and the back cover promises the usual emotional rollercoaster of Japanese popular culture -- a whole bunch of names who all really, really strongly want radically different things, and probably a pile of plot complications to make it even worse. The first book is Book Girl and the Suicidal Mime; start there if the premise sounds interesting.

From here on, as usual, I'll tackle the manga more or less by volume number, so I'll start with things closest to the beginning of a story and end with the most convoluted and least new-reader-accessible stuff. I should also note, as a consumer guide, that Yen seems to have had a price rise recently: most of the standard-size manga volumes are now $13, and some of the fatter ones have hit $25. (I expect this is because of an unpleasant feedback effect from Amazon; I've seen that a lot professionally.)

And so here's Nico Tanigawa's No Matter How I Look at It, It's You Guys' Fault I'm Not Popular!, Vol. 2, where the very Seussian lettering of the title is still confusing me. It's about a geeky highschool girl, Tomoko -- geeky in very specific Japanese-teen-girl ways, though, which is not at all what a random American would call "geeky" -- and her inevitably futile attempts to be more popular. (I haven't read this yet, but it's probably telling that she wants to "be popular," rather than to "have friends," or even just enjoy her life.)

Also a #2, and with its own odd title issues, is Shiro Amano's Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days, Vol. 2. (So...179 days, then?) It's set in the same world of the previous Kingdom Hearts games and manga, in which a force of transdimensional cops with Keyblades travel through the worlds of Disney movies to destroy bad guys, collect hearts, and (presumably) rack up high scores. In this series, young Keyblade-weilder Xion has lost her weapon, so she has to go on missions with compatriot Roxas until she can find it again. Look, I'm sure it makes sense in context.

Weird titles continue with Coco Fujiwara's Inu x Boku SS, Vol. 2, about a teenage girl going to a boarding school so elite that every student gets her own personal "secret service agent" -- and hers is, naturally, gorgeous and mysterious. Oh, and she's part demon because Japan.

Next up is the finale of a sub-story: Durarara!! Saika Arc, Vol. 3 is about the fifth book overall in the series about a large cast of odd-balls, low-lifes, ne'er-do-wells, and other hyphenated types in Tokyo's dangerous Ikebukuro district. This arc, from the back cover, is about a serial slasher whose mania is apparently infectious, which doesn't sound good for the un-slashed population of Tokyo. A major series character is apparently the final target of the slasher in this book, so expect high drama and flashing blades. Oh, and I should give you the credits: this comes from an anime, so it's art by Akiyo Satorigi, character design by Suzuhito Yasuda, and CREATOR Ryohgo Narita.

Yoshiki Tonogai's Survivor-meets-Battle Royale story continues in Judge, Vol. 3, in which the imprisoned young "sinners" continue to form alliances and back-stab as they decide which of them will die first to fulfill the whim of their mysterious captor. (I'm afraid I don't see the appeal at all of this, so I'm probably slandering it badly.)

The current major "magical girl" series continues in the multiply titled Puella Magi Kazumi Magica: The Innocent Malice, Vol. 4. Since this, too, came from other media, it's credited as original story by Magica Quartet, story by Masaki Hiramatsu, and art by Takashi Tensugi. (And I appreciate the irony of crediting an original story and a plain, ordinary story.) This one has more revelations about the nature of these magical girls, and if one of them needs to be eliminated for the good of them all -- man, it's tough being a teenaged girl in Japan, even if you do have superpowers.

Then there's Yuuki Kodama's Blood Lad, Vol. 4, in which young okatu duke of hell Spaz and his dead plot-token human girlfriend Fuyumi continue to wander around, meeting more of Spaz's relatives and getting involved in the expected schemes and plots.

And the Haruhi Suzumiya spin-off machine continues as well, with The Disappearance of Nagato Yuki-chan, Vol. 5, in which Yuki is no longer disappeared. This line extension credits art to Puyo, story to Nagaru Tanigawa, and characters to Noizi Ito.

I forget what Shouji Sato's series Triage X was about -- it's back for a fifth volume this month -- but I didn't think it was about idol singers, which seems to be the focus this time out. Digging into the Google, I see that this is the one about a secret team of crime-fighters -- mostly buxom young women, with the inevitable quiet boy at their center -- who operate out of a hospital and are mostly staff there. (Because doctors and nurses have so much free time that they need to fill up with vigilante activity.)

JinHo Ko's continuing story of massive supernatural violence for its own sake continues in Jack Frost, Vol. 9, in which Jack the Ripper -- or at least another guy with that name -- and other psychopaths posture and battle over geographically defined regions of the extradimensional city of Amityville and over the plot-token girl from the early volumes, known as the mirror image. Don't worry about any of that: it's just an excuse for the ultraviolence.

And the harem manga is alive and well, as Milan Matra's Omamori Himari, Vol. 11 arrives. I'm not sure who these people are, but Himari -- one of the many supernaturally-powered and well-endowed girls around our nebbishy hero -- is the one in trouble this time, because he drew too deeply on her demonic power, and that's never good.

The palace opera is also alive in Park SoHee's Goong, Vol. 14, in which the royal heir Shin -- yes, this is a mildly alternate history in which Korea still has a monarchy, because you can't have a princess without a prince, and you can't have a really high-drama palace opera without a princess -- begins to unravel the secrets of his divorce from the series heroine. (And if you don't think they'll get back together eventually, you have no idea how popular fiction works.)

Yana Toboso's Black Butler, Vol. 16 is here as well, with its particular take on Victorian England and its butlers and lords. This time out, the Earl has to win a cricket tournament to get an invitation to a secret banquet to talk to the head of secretive Weston College, of course.

We're getting into high numbers here, like Atsushi Ohkubo's Soul Eater, Vol. 18. This is still a story of a cadre of demon-fighters and their sentient shape-shifting weapons (or perhaps vice versa), and, even more so, about the school for those demon-fighters, because every shonen series must be about school by the iron law of Japan. And I doubt anyone would want to dive in with this volume.

Even better is Jun Mochizuki's Pandora Hearts, Vol. 20. I'll just quote the back-cover copy and leave it at that:
These...are the "cursed words" I deliver to you.

The pathetic farce that has unfolded in earnest is no more than an absurd yarn spun by the man who caused the Tragedy of Sablier by following his heart's desires. The players in his tale begin dancing with abandon, their emotions bottled up inside, as though they are marionettes manipulated by a master puppeteer...
Got it? That's what this book is about.

The last two books are both deep into two related series, but may be more approachable. First up is Higurashi When They Cry: Festival Accompanying Arc, Vol. 3, with story by Ryukishi07 and art by Karin Suzuragi. Hirgurashi is a series of murder-mystery computer games, all set in the same time and place, with different plots. As usual with a popular Japanese property, the original games metastasized into light novels, manga, TV series (animated and live-action) and several other permutations. But each "Arc" of the manga adapts one game, and so each one should basically stand alone. This is still the third volume, and 23rd overall, but it's only three of eight in "Festival Accompanying," which is better than it could be.

Last, there's Umineko When They Cry Episode 3: Banquet of the Golden Witch, Vol. 1, which adapts a different series of murder-mystery games -- which were also turned into manga, movies, chew-toys for dogs, support girdles, saltwater taffy, and other random products -- of which Banquet of the Golden Witch is the third. (That Golden Witch previously had a Legend and a Turn, and subsequently had an Alliance, an End, a Dawn, a Requiem, a Twilight, and one further adventure that Wikipedia only has in its Japanese name.) That witch apparently maneuvered the rich and far-flung Ushiromiya clan into having their reunion on a remote island, which reunion plays out somewhat differently -- though still full of murder and mayhem -- in each version of the game and manga. This huge brick -- it's over 600 pages of comics, seriously -- has story by Ryukishi07 and art by Kei Natsumi, and, like the rest of the above items, is available right now.